So we crossed into our first Balkans country – little Albania which has a pretty interesting history, a strong national identity and plenty of good scenery to lap up.
This small country of just over 3m people was one of the few Balkan countries that wasn’t part of former Yugoslavia.
In antiquity it was populated by the Illyrians and then later was split into parts between several Roman provinces. The Ottoman Empire conquered Albania in the 15th century and there it remained for the best part of 500 years. After the Balkans war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Albania declared Independence on the 28th November 1912; the day remains an important national holiday.
After the Italians and then the Germans invaded during WW2 the country turned to a communist ‘People’s Republic’ under the leadership of the infamous Enver Hoxha who is widely regarded as a paranoid, unhinged dictator. Consequently, Albania remained closed off from most of the world until the early 1990s.
Hoxha was a strong support of Mao rather than Stalin and interestingly Albania was the only ally that Communist China had after the 1960s. In the book Wild Swans the Chinese protagonist recalls that her only glimpses of western culture in her youth were via Albanian films. Hoxha built his republic on the China model where ‘class struggle’ was strictly applied. Religious freedom was curtailed and state assets were nationalised and redistributed through cooperatives.
Throughout the Cold War period Hoxha became increasingly paranoid that a military attack from the west was imminent; and with no budget to upkeep a decent army he ordered the building of 700,000 concrete bunkers instead. Almost impossible to move, these concrete domes litter the countryside to this day – they are literally everywhere. Most are now used for storage or animal pens but some even form quirky extensions to new houses.
Another unusual policy of Hoxha’s was the strict control of motor vehicles. The majority of the country still used horse and cart right up to the collapse of the communist state – even high-level government officials needed special authorisation to own a car. As a result the road system is still playing catch-up and a lot of the smaller road routes in Albania really aren’t necessarily built with two way traffic in mind. We have climbed some the of the steepest roads of the whole trip here!
That leads me nicely into the next big thing of note about Albania – it’s mountains – and there is a lot of them! The ranges generally spanning the length of the country from north to south.
Albania has the same feel to Armenia and Georgia and not just because of the shared ex-communist history, mountainous terrain and brutal concrete architecture. It feels like a country which is still opening up and very much in development. A lot of the towns still feel rundown, some of the roads are in bad condition and you see quite a bit of poverty in the countryside. However we have also cycled through towns and villages that are in the midst of a complete makeover, with huge state sponsored development taking place. Big infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams are being supported via private foreign investment and these, as well as smaller projects funded through American and EU aid, are helping to slowly transform the country.
Albania is a really beautiful, we particularly enjoyed cycling across the rural middle section of the country but the coast was also very nice. The amount of rubbish which litters the country is the only downside – it’s even worse than Greece where dumping is also a big problem…
The Albanian hospitality is renowned for being some of the best in the Balkans. Perhaps this has something to do with its Muslim roots; also, Albanian culture is steeped in what is generally known as the kanun of Leke Dukagjini; a set of cultural rules which emphasise the importance of hospitality and family allegiance. As a result, people still take hospitality and community spirit very seriously. This means we are constantly met with beeps from car horns, shouting and frantic waving.
Travellers are still fairly ‘rare’ especially in the more rural areas here so we often experience a lot of gapping and staring from people before they suddenly remember to smile and return our badly pronounced Albanian greetings.
Lots of Albanians particularly the younger generation have decided to immigrate to neighbouring countries or even go further afield. Lack of jobs and prospects is the main reason but Albania once owned territory in what is now Macedonia, Kosovo and Greece and so large, longstanding diaspora communities still exist there too.
So there’s a general intro to Albania. A roundup of where we actually visited in the next one!