Europe’s final frontier

WANT to know a secret? Albania is not the bleak and dangerous place many suppose it to be. In fact it may be Europe’s last great hidden destination.

Five years ago, it was one of the world’s most brutal and isolated states and a trip to the beach could get you shot; now it looks like it’s only a few years away from becoming a serious player on the European tourism market. The country’s attractions include magnificent mountain scenery, Roman and Greek remains and seemingly endless kilometers of deserted sandy coastline.

Of course, with a limited number of properly surfaced roads and no international rail links, Europe’s poorest state by far is unlikely to attract mass-market tour parties for some time yet. But for anyone with a sense of adventure, or an interest in seeing how a long-repressed society is rapidly transforming itself, a visit to Albania can be fun, easy, and cheap.

Tucked away on the Mediterranean coast between Greece and the former Yugoslavia Ð a short boat ride from Greece or accessible by air via major European destinations such as Istanbul, Zurich and Rome Ð Albania has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

The country’s long period of rigid isolation under hardline Communist leader Enver Hoxha means Albania is still viewed with suspicion. “Be careful,” I was told over and over again before visiting.

But there are few places that can have been so misrepresented abroad as present-day Albania. Although poor, it is not at all the primitive, almost savage place many imagine it to be. The country enjoys a pleasant climate, its food is good Ð at least much better than that of most other east European countries Ð and its people are friendly, courteous and helpful.

From being Europe’s last hardline Communist capital, Tirana seems to have now become one of its most ardently free-market ones, with shops full of imported goods, and street traders on every corner. The days of struggling to find even the occasional cabbage are decidedly over.

It is also buzzing with life. In the center, smartly dressed couples saunter down tree-lined boulevards, cafes have sprung up on almost every street, and shops and kiosks remain open well into the evening.

Though the country’s tourist facilities are not exactly developed, things are beginning to take off in the city’s hotel industry. Last spring saw the opening of the country’s first four-star hotel, the Italian-owned Tirana International (00355 42-34185; Turin office Ð 00391 1561-3488), and construction of the city’s first five-star hotel, the Intercontinental, will soon be completed.

I stayed at the 60-year-old Dajti (00355 42-33326), which, with its magnificent lobby and high ceilings, should appeal to visitors who are looking for more of a palm-court atmosphere. (If you want to sample its delights, you should get there soon as it is due to close for refurbishment.)

Idor Tours in Tel Aviv can assist in booking flights and hotels; contact Etty Golan on 03-5248232.

THE Albanian people are a proud and lively mix of Moslem, Catholic and Christian Orthodox. Their upbeat spirit and good nature Ð especially considering the communist repression they had to endure Ð is overwhelming.

Five years ago speaking to a foreigner was a crime; now locals are eager to meet tourists and a surprising number speak good English. In marked contrast to much of the rest of the post-communist world, hospitality and honesty abound, and people seem twice as friendly if you say you’re Jewish or Israeli (see box).

Every evening, thousands of couples and young people stroll past the myriad cafes down Tirana’s tree-lined streets and boulevards. You can see the sun set behind the beautiful mountains in the distance. Clubs such as DiscAlbania stay open long into the night.

Albanians seem to be both poor and rich simultaneously. Secondhand Mercedes sedans are parked outside ramshackle apartments. Apartments without regular running water have huge $300 satellite television dishes.

The official average weekly wage is just $9; but money is undoubtedly being made. The policies of the right-wing reformist government of President Sali Berisha have given Albania the fastest economic growth rate in the region, and considerable income is sent home by the estimated one quarter of the Albanian labor force working in Greece.

Nice-looking cars cruise past. Five years ago there were no private cars here, and the most common means of transport Ð bicycles apart Ð was the horse-and-cart. Now the streets are choc-a-bloc with them, almost all second-hand models of top German, Italian and Japanese makes.

This dramatic increase in traffic is not without its consequences. People drive, cycle and walk where they want, round potholes and unidentifiable objects left on the road, ignoring the few road signs and traffic lights. Whether you are crossing the road or walking on the pavement, you need to be vigilant. The rule is, if it moves faster than you, get out of the way.

To add to the sense of the surreal, few people use street names, and where houses have numbers, the ordering tends to be out of sequence. Buses all look alike and have no numbers or destinations on them Ð though amazingly locals seem to know where they are going.

Touring the countryside, which is a must, is best done with a driver, which can be organized locally through agents such as Skanderbeg Travel (355 42-23946) or American Express (355 42-27908). But it’s cheaper to negotiate directly with a taxi driver, as we did outside our hotel. Cheaper still, but less predictable, is to use the rail or bus network.

Road conditions are haphazard, and roads wind alarmingly, but the terrain is breathtaking. The historic sites, such as the museum towns of Gjirokastra and Berat, are outstanding, not least because you’ll generally have them to yourself.

Tirana is a good base to take day trips to cities like Berat, the so-called City of a Thousand Windows, where you can explore the beautiful winding backstreets; and Kruje, a medieval town perched on a mountain top, with castle ruins, a mosque and a museum.

For overnight trips, visit the stunning mountains in the north – some of Europe’s most isolated and poverty-stricken terrain, or head east to Lake Ohrid on the Macedonian border Ð worth the journey just for the mountain scenery en route.

The only things that mar the otherwise unspoilt and exceptionally green countryside are the 500,000 little round concrete bunkers that Enver Hoxha built so that each of his subjects could partake in his paranoid vision of the world. Most of these virtually indestructible, mushroom-like bunkers remain, dotting the fields and hillsides across the country.

If you want to go swimming, the area around the port of Durres is an easy drive from Tirana. Durres is a developed town, with fairly good roads. The best swimming is just to the south, on beaches such as Diviaka, near Lushnia. There you’ll find miles and miles of untouched sandy shoreline, warm, crystal-blue water, but almost no other people.

Good beaches are also found several hours further south, from Vlore down to Sarande, a one-hour ferry ride from Corfu. Again, there is truly magnificent scenery, along a road dubbed the “River of Flowers.” Once there, you should also visit the 1,200-year-old lakeside town of Butrinit, founded by the Trojans.

Albanian food is surprisingly good for a former communist country. Dining at most restaurants costs less than NISÊ10, and there’s a pleasant local white wine called Vere Riesling. There are also now some more expensive restaurants in Tirana, such as Chez Laurent (at Rr Konferenca E Pezes 17).

But the real reason to go there now is the atmosphere Ð as fascinating as Prague’s in the months after the Velvet Revolution. With a variety of new coastal resorts and hotels now planned, this may be the last chance to visit Europe’s final outpost before it vanishes under a welter of burger bars.

(box) A land with 20 Jews

ALTHOUGH Albania is Europe’s only state (besides Bosnia) with a nominally Moslem majority, its traditional tolerance and friendliness toward Jews continues to this day, and it enjoys increasingly warm relations with Israel.

Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in Albania during the early 16th century and established synagogues and communities in several towns and along trade routes.

Albanians are universally proud of their record in World War II, when not a single Albanian Jew was handed over to the Nazis (although 400 of the Yugoslav and German Jews who had sought refuge in the country were captured by the Germans and deported to Belsen).

During the communist period Albania was officially declared the world’s first “atheist state” and Jews, like others, were completely cut off from the outside world.

Upon the collapse of the Hoxha regime in 1991, nearly all Albania’s 350 Jews were airlifted to Israel. A synagogue still exists in Valona, although it is no longer in use. About 20 Jews remain in the country: a few elderly people, and two others Ð Robert Shvarc, one of Albania’s foremost writers and translators, and Maxim Cikuli, who is the country’s minister of health.


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