Albania: A Test for Adventurous Tourists
“Land of Albania! . . . thou rugged nurse of savage men,” wrote Lord Byron, perhaps Albania’s most famous literary tourist.
Albanians have changed since he visited in the early 18th Century, but touring Europe’s most isolated country still is an adventure.
Whether arriving at Tirana’s bumpy airport, touring the picturesque countryside or lounging on one of the marvelous beaches, a traveler seems constantly surrounded by the same faces: Albania’s ever-present secret police, the Sigurimi, keep an eye on all foreigners.
Traffic on the winding, narrow roads is almost nonexistent, with only the occasional truck or horse-drawn cart bumping along in the dust.
That’s probably why Albanian drivers have an unnerving tendency not to worry so much about sharp curves, to the horror of their foreign passengers.
“But what if we run into Albania’s other bus?” a foreigner on a tour bus joked. The remark elicited a sour glance from the Albanian driver.
The wild and jagged mountains of Albania’s interior offer breathtaking views of forests and streams in deep precipices, while the few and scattered villages are surrounded by carefully tended terraced fields.
In the countryside, only women are seen tilling the communal fields and the small plots each family has been allotted in an apparent attempt to increase food supplies.
The sandy beaches and a lack of crowds make Albania’s Adriatic seaside resorts a far cry from Europe’s summer retreats, although one is apt to run into the ever-present men in dark suits and sunglasses among the bathers.
Since World War II, Albania has been sealed off by the harshest Communist regime in Europe.
The isolationism and fear of the outside world is exemplified by the thousands of empty military bunkers in the countryside and on the beaches.
The gun ports in the bunkers are mostly bricked over now that Albania has decided it does not have to be on the alert against invasion.
Moonlight dips in the sea are strictly forbidden, and police patrol the beaches, apparently to discourage any swimming off to the nearby Greek island of Corfu or to one of the foreign ships riding at anchor.
Visitors are often lodged in hotels built by the Italians when they ruled Albania, before or during World War II. Most of the furniture and fittings in the Adriatic Hotel in Durres appear to be left over from that period.
Lodging comes moderately expensive for foreigners--280 lekas ($40) a day for the room only.
Albania closed its borders with Greece and Yugoslavia in the 1940s, and ordinary Albanians are forbidden to travel abroad. The 10,000 foreign visitors who come here annually are restricted to group tours.
No Americans are allowed, however, since the United States is still considered Albania’s foremost enemy. Most of the tourists are from Italy, West Germany and Britain.
There is very little to do in the evenings, since night life as it is known in the West is nonexistent. The primary entertainment for Albanians is to watch television programs from Yugoslavia, Italy and Greece.
Albanians used to hide TV antennas under the rooftops of their homes. After the Communist leader Enver Hoxha died in 1985, after a 41-year rule, they gradually became bolder and put them outside for better reception.
Forests of antennas now sprout from the decrepit concrete apartments where most Albanians live.
Few women are seen on the streets, and there are fewer cars and no pets. Food is not plentiful enough in Albania to be wasted on dogs and cats.