I don’t know anybody that has been to Albania except for my crazy Italian friend. I mean, nobody.
Enver Hoxha took care of all of our dreams of traveling to Albania in the early days. By the time Albania became open to tourism in the 1990’s, the Hoxha regime, a pseudo-Stalinist dictatorship, had decimated the entire country. For 50 years after World War II, this place had been closed off to all tourism. Nobody could leave, nobody could enter, there was no free press, state TV, lots of “disappearing factions” and it was pretty much the most frightening place inside of Europe that you can imagine. It made Franco’s Spain look like Club Med!
Imagine this, from the Albanian coast to the beautiful island of Corfu took only 30 minutes on a ferry. Except the ferries did not go. What this guy left was no infrastructure for tourism or anything – no roads, no nothing – and a completely beautiful coast line was so underdeveloped that it makes you want to cry. Imagine what the journey from Montenegro along the coast to Albania could have been. You have to take the inland road to get to the border crossing because there simply was no other way, then hang out for an hour and a half to two hours to exit out of Montenegro and enter into Albania. Both Montenegro and Albania are in the queue for application to the EU. Shame on you England for opting out.
In that moment, when you cross into Albania, you are in another world. We drove to a fairly large town called Shkoder. It was a mix of rundown buildings with satellite dishes hanging off of the edge of balconies. Not the sort of place you would want to hang out in and that is precisely why we carried on.
We followed the main highway heading towards Tirana with a view to test out the coastal road to see if there were any resorts worth reporting back on. The highway was nothing but gas station after gas station interspersed with tacky, palatial casinos and nothing else. We stopped at a highway restaurant and everybody was smoking inside and outside in spite of the ‘No Smoking’ signs. It had this feeling of mafia pasted all over it. The gas station scene was ridiculous. It had to be a front for something else. We headed to the “coastal resort” of Durres. No surprises here. There are several shoddy resorts and the sea did not look safe to dive into. This place needed a serious overhaul and probably some of the money that had gone into the gas stations should have gone into the development of the coastal community here. Alas, the thought of buying a villa on the Albanian coastline quickly subsided in my mind. This place needed time which was a great pity because it has the same beautiful climate as Greece and southern Italy.
Tirana, the capital, came at us very fast. It had been built up quickly after the collapse of the old regime. Our hotel was super glitzy, Las Vegas-style, and it overlooked this very Soviet-style square called Skanderbeg Square named after Albania’s national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, who was later renamed by the Ottomans, Skanderbeg. He unified the country, defeated the Ottomans, and died in the 15th century, but still they love him! Around these parts, believe me, you cling onto anything after what these guys have been through. In the square there is a beautiful mosque, an orthodox church, and a huge mural dedicated to the Soviet-style revolution. The square reminded me of Red Square or Tiananmen; vast, open, and stark.
I thought that maybe I should come back here in 20 years but for now I just needed a great fish restaurant in the center of town. I found one on TripAdvisor called Il Gusto. It had fabulous food, brilliant service, and frankly it was just about the greatest thing I discovered in Albania. See you in 20 years.