Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat

Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat
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I don’t know if Albania’s flag contributes to its ominous reputation. At first glance, it is pretty terrifying. A demonic looking two-headed eagle silhouetted against a dark, blood red background. When talking to an Albanian friend, I confessed I found it a bit intimidating. He chuckled and said, that it wasn’t supposed to be scary at all. Apparently, the eagle has been the symbol of the area since the Byzantine Empire. Various stories surround the introduction of the two-headed eagle but they all seem to agree that the double-head represents unification: unification of North and South when the country had to fight the Ottoman empire, unification of church and government (which I find a little strange since at least now, Albania doesn’t have a strong religious identity and open-mindedly welcomes Muslims, Christians, etc.) and unification of the Albanian people. My friend summarized, “the two heads represent eagles helping each other, until out they become one.”

Albanian flag flying high over Berat (view from the castle)

Albanian flag flying high over Berat (view from the castle)

I found this selfless, helpfulness everywhere in Albania… more than any other country I’ve been to. Sure, the cab drivers tried to rip us off and charge us 5 euros for a two-minute ride. But for all the times that happened, three locals would literally stop what they were doing to deliver us to our destination and make sure we got the right bus. We received at least three offers of free ice cream, a free cab ride down the mountain and dozens of incredible conversations.

In addition to amazingly generous locals, the country itself is beautiful and still relatively untouched. It’s so refreshing to go to a country without any McDonalds, Starbucks or Burger King, where the closest thing you can come to American fast food is “AFC”: Albania Fried Chicken. It’s tempting to keep Albania as a “best-kept secret” but I think I owe it to all the Albanians who helped me to share my enthusiasm for this place. Albania may be a leap into the unknown for you as a traveler, but I guarantee it’ll be a rewarding and enjoyable experience!

Tirana at sunset

Tirana at sunset

Tirana: Albania’s Colorful Capital City
For more items to add to your Albanian itinerary, hopefully my last 24-hour blitz tour of the North will inspire you. After a ferry ride from Corfu and a 6-hour bus ride to Tirana, a friendly face and a good meal was exactly what I needed. Alban, a lawyer born and bred in various parts of Albania, wanted to show me around for the day (I was surprised he still wanted to meet me after the million question pre-departure questions I bugged him with).

We started at Oda’s, his friend’s mom’s restaurants, for an epic feast featuring traditional Albanian fare. In between bites of doma (stuffed grape leaves), byrek (flaky vegetable pie pastry often with spinach or feta cheese), eggplant stuffed with cheese, beans and an endless supply of other things, we looked at the random Albanian artifacts around the perimeter of the wall. The husband of the restaurant owner was a cinematographer who collected old photographs, which added to the museum-like atmosphere of this cozy and delicious dining establishment.

Dining like royalty in Albanian hats at Oda's restaurant, Tirana, Albania

Alban and I dining like royalty in Albanian hats at Oda’s restaurant, Tirana, Albania

We drove around the central Albanian square and he pointed out important ministries and churches, many of which were painted in a cheery yellow. In regards to Albania’s colorful capital, my Make The Most of Your Time of Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences (Thank you, Meghan Westlander- I love this book!) explains,

“Tirana’s torrid twentieth century was dominated by one color: a Communist red so deep that the country severed ties with the Soviet Union because brutal dictator Enver Hoxha believed the USSR had turned anti-Marxist since Stalin’s death. The capital’s skyline is still dominated by the concrete apartment buildings thrown up in the postwar period but, under wildly popular city mayor Edi Rama, these bleak structures have been daubed in all manner of murals, patterns and multicolored stripes. Formerly a painter himself, and armed with a lifelong passion for Picasso, legend has it that one of the first things Rama did when he took office in 200 was order in paint. Now after encouraging tenants and housing cooperatives to get involved in brightening up this most maligned of cities, Tirana has been transformed into a riot of purples, yellows, greens and yes, even a little red” –Rough Guides

After our resting off our food coma, Alban and I decided to drive about an hour and a half to Berat, another one of Albania’s UNESCO museum cities. The first part of the drive was relatively straightforward but the last 60 km or so revealed why people complain about Albanian roads. There were no streetlights and these mostly-unpaved roads contained car-sized potholes and random detours. Upon arrival in the city, we stopped at Green House, a restaurant/hotel owned by another one of Alban’s friends for a late night dinner and to catch the World Cup.

Berat: The “White City”
The next morning, we wound our way up to the 13th century Byzantine fortress that overlooks the “white city”, rightfully named for the traditional houses that pepper the hillside. Much more extensive than the Gjirokaster castle, this fortress contains a village where people live to this day. It was a wonderful place to wander, filled with wildflowers and panoramic views of the countryside and a river that divided a cosmopolitan downtown on the left from the traditional residences on the right. We also stopped at the Onufri Museum of Icons, which contains an elaborate altar from a 13th century church and a variety of religious paintings and artifacts. After perusing some lace, knit and metalwork handicrafts (Berat’s handicrafts are famous countrywide!), we left the castle area and the city.

Altar at 13th century Byzantine church at Onufri museum in Berat, Albania

Altar at 13th century Byzantine church at Onufri museum in Berat, Albania

Fortunately, the bumpiest roads of Albania on the route were the most scenic and listening to some of Albania’s best singers (singing propaganda from the communist era) made it extra interesting.  Lushnjë’s agricultural areas were incredibly peaceful, filled with fertile greens.  I watched herds of sheep nibbling at wildflowers at the perimeter of bunkers left over from the dictator’s communist regime.  If you look closely, these concrete domes dot the countryside, mostly in tact to this day.  Artifacts of an ultra-paranoid dictator who wanted to make sure that 1 out of every 4 citizens had a place to hid from “imperialists, fascists and counter-revolutionaries”, very few of these structures could be removed today.  The ones I witnessed blended into the landscape, half-heartedly hidden behind a few flowerpots, but recently people are trying to repurpose the structures into hotels, restaurants, stables and bathrooms on beaches.

Alban didn’t let me leave the country without another exquisite culinary experience- this time at a popular local dive, Vila Met Cela in Lushnjë, where he promised I could find the best byrek in Albania.  Apparently, this goldmine wasn’t much of a secret around town because businessman, groups of teens and families flowed into the doors.  Everyone sat with similar-looking plates of flaky pastry (either spinach or cheese) and a yogurt beverage, with euphoric enjoyment as they bit into the warm pies.  Talk about the perfect conclusion to an epic week!

Song of the Moment: Flori- Ta Boja Me Drita 
If YOU want to go to Berat: It’s approximately a one and half hour drive south of Tirana. There are buses that go (I’m not sure where they drop you in relation to the castle) from the major cities or you could rent a car. The roads are nice until about 50 kilometers outside of Berat (but that’s when you start driving through beautiful farms of olive trees and grape vines). If you decide to drive yourself, make sure you stop at Vila Met Cela in Lushnjë on your way back, for the the best byrek in Albania!  If you want to continue the good meals when you return to Tirana, stop by Oda’s for traditional Ottoman fare (open 11:00-23:00, Sun 13:00-23:00, address: Rr. Luigj Gurakuqi, Tirana, Albania).

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1 Comment

  1. Alban
    Jul 14, 2014

    I just read a story that i never lived . I can’t believe what a charm you gave to this brief introduction of your trip. I want to thank you so much for coming to Albania.
    Katie you are amazing.

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