By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Here’s my dilemma: A chance to see Albania by bike, a country that is steeped in mystery having been secluded behind an Iron Curtain for decades, but so mountainous, it may be too difficult to make the enormous climbs. Or, I could set aside pride and principle and use an e-bike – an electric bike that uses a battery to give an extra push to your pedaling.
I’m a purist and enjoy the physical challenge of biking. I had had an amazing time on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip in the Greek Isles the year before and know the pain (and accomplishment) of burning lungs that come with tackling the steepest, longest climbs of my life. But the BikeTours experts say that the Greek Isles was a Class 3 ride and Albania would be a Class 4 – with even steeper, longer climbs (and when I look over the day-by-day elevations, one day stands out at being the equivalent of a mile in total elevation gain). So if the Greek Isles was my physical limit, I’m not so sure I can do Albania.
But I also believe that the best way to engage, to discover a destination like Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways, or through villages and neighborhoods. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace to see things, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bells attached to goats, the cicadas; you can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through a forest. You can stop at a bend in the road to take in the breathtaking views or just get your breath. You can stop – even chat – with a shepherd edging his flock across the road. People wave and call out hello as we ride through a village and we wave and say a cheery “hello” as back. Most important of all, you can stop when you want (as I did most frequently) to take photos.
And, finally, I believe ardently in the quest for knowledge and understanding and ambassadorship that is the essence of travel and particularly, the style of travel of a bike tour, so if the only way to experience Albania is to use an e-bike, I will set aside my pride and principle.
And actually, the e-bike is part of the new experience and I discover a whole new dimension of possibility.
For one thing, I discover other advantages of using an ebike: I can stop for pictures and know I can catch up with the group; I don’t suffer or need to focus exclusively on the ride; I don’t lose sleep over the worry of whether I can manage the next day’s ride. What is more, I discover I can make the ride as challenging as I want (I simply don’t go into an easier setting), so I still get the workout I want and feel the satisfaction of conquering a climb. But most importantly, the priority of this trip is to experience a culture and explore a destination, not a physical work-out or just getting from point A to B.
And finally, what I realize is that the e-bike extends horizons and lifespan for adventure and exploration for many of us who have reached an age where we appreciate biking but are unsure of doing the distance or the hills.
And so I opt for the e-bike for the first time. It takes me about two minutes to figure it out and three minutes to get comfortable.
The e-bike is not like a scooter – you still have to pedal. But to me, it takes the hill out of the climb, making it like pedaling on flat surface (unless you want to retain the challenge, as I did, and keep it at an “Econ” setting, the lowest of three “speeds”, “Norm” and “Sport” being the others). In “Econ”, I find, it makes my hybrid bike, which with the added weight of the battery (about 12-15 pounds) feels like a mountain bike, ride like a road bike.
The e-bike that I ride is so responsive – it changes gears immediately, efficiently, at the push of a button (up arrow, down arrow) and I could change speeds if necessary, from “Econ” to “Norm” on a dime, smoothly, without any hesitation or resistance.
I find that on the big hills, by keeping the setting at Econ I still have that physical effort of climbing, but I don’t wind up with burning lungs. And of course, I can just zip up the hills by going to the Norm and for an even greater push, the Sport setting (I never use the Sport setting, and only use Norm a couple of times, when the climb seems never ending).
It makes me feel as if I have superpowers.
The cycling company that BikeTours.com has selected for our tour, Cycle Albania, is relatively new and may in fact be the only company offering bike tours in the country. We attracted attention as we zipped through villages because we were such an oddity.
I am really impressed with the quality of the bikes, manufactured by the Taiwan-based Giant company, which Cycle Albania purchased from the Netherlands. Each of the bikes – the regular hybrids and the e-bikes (probably the only ones in the entire country) – are the best quality, valued at thousands of dollars (in a country where the median income is $5000 a year). They have hydraulic brakes, suspension. (You can bring your own seat and pedals if you want, as does a couple from Oregon, used to climbing hills).
My pedals have screw heads that grip the soles of my sneakers for the extra push without toe clips.
And boy are we grateful for suspension and hydraulic brakes on the Day 6 ride, when we come down a road more like a mountain trail – broken gravel, rocks, potholes, gravel, steep with winding hairpin turns.
I use the e-bike feature of my Giant bike for the first time on the second day of cycling, when we are leaving Ohrid, in Macedonia, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, and are on the last third of a 35-mile ride. We have three progressively longer and harder hills to climb on our way back into Albania. I just whisk up the hills like nothing – and am only in the “Norm” setting – I didn’t even use the “Sport” setting which gives even more thrust to each pedal stroke.
But that’s what it is – it’s like taking the hill out of the ride. You feel like you are riding on flat. You still pedal each stroke, change the gears but each stroke is magnified. You hear a tiny whir of a motor but it isn’t like riding a scooter.
The e-bike is a superb alternative for anyone who has denied themselves the opportunity to discover a destination by bike – the best way in my opinion – because they were afraid they could not go the distance or manage hills. The e-bike is a godsend: destinations and experiences that seemed out of reach can now be conquered. If you felt you had aged out of managing 35 to 50 miles a day on anything but flat rail-trails, e-bikes open up a whole new world, and a whole new dimension.
(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip. (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 6th in the series.)
On this, the seventh day of our cycling through Albania (8th day of our trip), we have our longest distance ride, at 70 km, but it is mostly downhill: just 725 meter gain in elevation and a total of 1285 meters drop, and mostly along the coast, giving us our first spectacular views of the Ionian Sea, with the Greek island of Corfu in the distance.
But today’s attraction is an absolute highlight among the many fascinating places we have already visited in Albania: the National Park of Butrint is a 2000-year old Hellenic-Roman-Byzantine city, reclaimed from forest overgrowth and an earthen tomb by Italian archaeologists beginning in 1924, nearly 100 years ago. Indeed, Butrint is the most visited cultural tourist destination in Albania, and for good reason.
The setting is exquisite, the ruins most impressive, and for me, the connection to Asclepius (the Greek God of Healing or more accurately the father of Medicine), and to Anthony and Cleopatra (defeated in the battle Actium nearby by Augustus who is immortalized with busts created during his lifetime which can be seen in the museum), makes this place all the more profound.
But to get there, we have a fantastic ride.
After the past few days riding in the mountains (affording magnificent views), we reach the seacoast. Albania’s coastline extends over two seas: from the Adriatic Sea in the north to the Ionian Sea in the south, where we are.
We start with a 45 minute transfer in the van to Muzina Pass in the mountains that brings us to the seacoast. We start descending just before the turnoff to Saranda which is our ultimate destination today (we will double back to Saranda, a beach resort city, by the end of the day) and continue south toward the southernmost tip of Albania, near the Greek border.
We pass a fascinating triangle-shaped fort on our way to a small “improvised” ferry – a wooden raft pulled by cables that calls to mind Huckleberry Finn – to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of Albania’s most important archeological treasures.
Before visiting the site, though, we enjoy a terrific lunch just next door at the Livia Restaurant (named for Emperor Augustus’ wife, as I learn later in the museum at Butrint) – mussels, calamari, sea bass, dining outside under a canopy, across the road from the water.
After lunch, we stroll into the National Park.
Butrint’s history dates back to Greek times (in fact, this whole area was part of Greece), and was an important coastal city.
Roman writer Virgil said the legendary founder of the city was the seer Helenus, a son of the King Priam of Troy who moved West after the fall of Troy. Greek Historian Dionysius of Halicarnasseus, as well as Virgil, in his epic poem “Aeneid”, wrote that Aeneas visited Bouthroton after he escaped the destruction of Troy.
What is so fascinating is that there were five civilizations that occupied this town, and you can peel away the centuries and eras, one by one. The city was hidden underground until 1924 when Italian archaeologists began to excavate. Most of what we see is thanks to the Italian Archaeological Mission, headed by Luigi Maria Ugolini, who worked for a decade in Butrint (1928-1939). What has been uncovered shows the stamp of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilization, and the artifacts are presented in an astonishing museum.
According to notes, Butrint (also called Buthrotum or Bouthroton) was originally within the region of Epirus, and one of the main centers of the Greek tribe of Chaonians who had close contacts to the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (Corfu).
The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates between 10th and 8th centuries BC. The occupied original settlement likely sold food to Corfu and had a fort and sanctuary. It occupied a strategic position due to its access to the Straits of Corfu. The geographer Hecataeus of Miletus described Buthrotum as an important port and trading center on the main Adriatic waterway.
Around 380 BC the ancient settlement was surrounded with defensive walls, fortified with a new 870 meters long wall, with five gates, enclosing an area of four hectares.
By the 4th century BC it had grown in importance as a cult center, and included a sanctuary to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, on the southern slope of the Acropolis hill, an agora and a theater – there is even an inscription from the 4th century BC on one of the seas of the theater that credits donations of religionists that supported construction.
In 228 BC, Buthrotum (Bouthroton) became a Roman protectorate and later, in the 1st century BC, a part of the Roman province of Macedonia. In 44 BC, Caesar designated Buthrotum as a colony to reward soldiers who had fought with him against Pompey, naming in Colonia Julia Buthrotum. In what sounds like it could be ripped from the headlines of today, the local landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus objected to his correspondent Cicero who lobbied against the plan in the Roman Senate. As a result, Buthrotum received only a small number of colonists.
In 31 B C, Emperor Augustus, fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium mere meters away from here, renewed the plan to turn Buthrotum into a veterans’ colony.
Under Emperor Augustus, the city, now known as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum, experienced its greatest development, doubling the size of the town – temples, fountains, baths (thermae), villas (private residences), a forum complex, and nyphaeum ( a monument consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs, typically natural grottoes, which were believed to be where local nymphs lived), a new water supply and a bridge linking the two banks of the Vivari canal. (We see these ruins clearly, and even the nyphaeum the mere thought of which had piqued our curiosity.)
In the 3rd century AD, an earthquake destroyed a large part of the town. By the 6th century, it became the seat of a bishop and new construction included a large baptistery, one of the largest Paleochristian buildings of its type, and a basilica. We see some of the gorgeous mosaic floor of the baptistery, laid out in 8 rings with columns, which, we are told, is a rare treat and a bit of luck because the mosaic usually cannot be seen, kept under protective sand. But because they were in the process of changing out the sand, we get to see half of the floor exposed. So far, eight other churches have been uncovered, the most important of which is in Vrina plain on the other side of the Vivari canal.
Butrint followed the historical pattern seen in other Balkan cities, with the 6th to 7th centuries being a period of transformation of the Roman world into the Early Middle Ages.
By the beginning of the 9th century, Butrint had become a small fishing settlement. Around 1807, in the outfall of the Vivari canal, Ali Pasha built a fortress to guard against French attacks coming from Corfu. After his death, Butrint fell under Ottoman Rule, until the Declaration of Independence in 1912.
What is so impressive about Butrint is that it is at once a place of these extraordinary historical monuments that clearly depict these époques of civilization, but also the natural setting and landscape and the scale.
Pathway Through Time
Our visit begins at a Venetian tower built in the 15th and 16th century and a chapel of the 4th century BC dedicated to the god of Asclepius.
Junid, our Biketours.com guide on this two-week cycling trip through Albania, leads us on a path through the woods to the 300-seat theater where plays were performed and there was public discussion (they still hold festivals here).
Buthrotum was as much a healing place (or in modern terms, a spa retreat) as a religious center, dedicated to Asclepius, god of heating because in those days, the earliest form of medicine involved spiritual healing.
I am particularly fascinated with Asclepius, who I first encountered on the island of Epidaurus in Greece on a previous Biketours.com tour. Asclepius is regarded as the God of Healing, by virtue of being the son of Apollo and the human princess Coronis, but who incited the wrath of Zeus (who would have been Asclepius’ grandfather). Zeus struck Asclepius dead with a thunderbolt because Asclepius had the audacity of cheating death – Asclepius used his powers of healing to restore people to life, usurping Zeus’ power. To me, though, Asclepius is the first doctor, the first to use the scientific method – testing what worked and what did not; he kept notes and refined his technique. (The medical symbol still used today is the staff of Asclepius.)
In this period of time, though, “medicine” or “healing” was all wrapped up with spiritualism (faith). So, just like at the temple at Epidaurus, Butrint has a great amphitheater because Greeks believed in the connection between spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health (theater as well as athletics were part of religious experience).
The sick usually had to spend one or more nights in Asclepius’ sanctuary so that remedy for their ailment could be revealed in their dreams. Priests and physicians would perform rituals to interpret their dreams so an appropriate cure or treatment could be devised (or surmised).
We come to the remains of a really magnificent Roman Forum – it is astonishing to learn that it was only unearthed as recently as 2005.
We go by a structure that is thought to be a gymnasium (a high school, still the word that is used in Albania today for high school).
We come to the Baptistry and Junid, points out the mosaic floor (partially exposed). The use of mosaics, he says, meant that it was a place of importance. It was designed in a series of eight circles (we see the columns). Junid notes that the mosaic is usually covered with sand and the only reason we are fortunate enough to see even part of the art is because workers are changing the sand.
We walk further through the forest path and come to the Basilica, constructed in 6th century, which Junid notes has an altar facing east.
The historic markers (in English), are really well done.
We come to the Lake Gate, a beautiful setting on the water, then walk through the woods again, along the outer fortress wall, until we come to Lion’s Gate – where there is a big stone with a relief of a lion devouring a bull’s head. Junid notes the odd position and how the boulder stands out from the rest – an indication that the stone may have been taken from a temple (but that doesn’t answer why it was positioned too low for a door frame).
Remarkably, only half of Butrint has been excavated so far. “They want to leave something for next generation of archeologists,” Junid tells us.
Finally we come to the Butrint Museum, situated in the Acropolis castle (and what a setting this affords, with a view out to the water).
The museum was established in the 1950s to house the finds from Italian archeologists who first excavated 1928-40. In 1988, the museum was enlarged, and in 2005, it was completely renovated, updated and reopened under the aegis of the Albania Institute of Archeology, Butrint Foundation, AG Coventis Foundation, Packard Humanities Institute and Butrint National Park.
The museum is absolutely astonishing – it presents a chronological overview of the history of Butrint starting from the Bronze Age to the Late Middle Ages, and displays artifacts that have been uncovered from the archaeological digs.
In 1992, the ancient city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Butrint is also a national park comprising 9400 hectares and since 2003 has also been designated a wetland area of international importance (RAMSAR area). There are some 800 kinds of plants among them 16 which are considered endangered and 12 as rare; 246 species of birds; 105 species of fish and 39 species of mammals.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
Day 4 of our cycling (day 5 of “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” tour) proves to be one of the most demanding rides of the trip, and a culture shock as well, as we leave the relative sophistication of the city of Korca, “the Paris of Albania” (and our luxury boutique modern hotel!) and head into the mountains.
We start with an hour-long transfer in the van out of Korca (mainly because the roads out of the city are being completely rebuilt and would be unbikeable). We travel 14 km south of the city to Gramoz Mountain, where Bato, our trusty van driver, deposits us on top of a mountain pass. We have a long downhill ride through the countryside to our coffee stop in a delightful wooden cabin/guesthouse, Sofra Kolon Jare, that looks like a Swiss chalet, with a playground for chickens, bird houses, and stuffed bears. Then we have a long uphill, followed by a roller coaster of ups and downs and tight turns. The roads here are rough, potholed and rocky, which makes me grateful for the hydraulic brakes and suspension on our hybrid bikes, and also makes me think, “Now I know how a pinball feels” after riding down the corkscrew road.
After lunch in a small town of Erseka, we have two more climbs in a national forest, where we feel the cool, moist breeze as we ride, and fill our bottles from fountains funneling mountain streams, before we reach Farma Sotira in a tranquil valley at about 3 pm in the afternoon, after a 50 km (30 mile) ride that involved four major climbs for a total of 800 meters in elevation, and 970 meters drop.
Coming upon Farma Sotira is like an oasis in the wilderness. Farma Sotira is absolutely charming – a guesthouse consisting of small two-bedroom cabins, on a working farm raising their own vegetables and produce and (apparently) animals that are slaughtered for meat, and they have a trout farm (which supplies the trout we have for dinner).
Junid, our guide (pronounced Yunid), explains that the owners, when they were 28 years old, wanted to live in the area. They camped out for a year, raising cows and sheep while living in a tent. They kept reinvesting to buy more. After the first year, a wolf almost ate their tent. So they built a new structure and later built cabins for guests. Today, they have 150 cows (each cow worth $2000, he says) and 20 hens, and fields, as well as a trout farm.
Guests are invited to help with the farm and make Raki, a local liquor.
Our cabins are beside a babbling brook which is the dominant sound. It is utterly peaceful here, especially with the pure, moist air.
Dinner is served al fresco on a covered pavilion – the fresh, grilled trout (which we saw swimming only minutes before). Dessert is a honey-soaked cake (revani).
The Farma Sotira guesthouse has really been pleasant – and despite being on a farm, ironically, we aren’t awakened by roosters crowing (as just about every other place so far). It has been really pleasant and peaceful.
For breakfast, our sunny side up comes from duck eggs.
Our ride today begins with a steep uphill -100 meters elevation in first 2 km. The ride today will take us up 687 meters, but dropping 1352 meters for the last 14 km.
We cycle along the border between Albania and Greece before descending continuously down from 1100 meters to 300 meters to Carshove, and then on to Peetran.
There are gorgeous views of mountains, the frenetic sound of cicadas, smell of evergreen trees, cool moist air as we ride through the forest, the wind rushing by. We fill our water bottles from spring water that flows from fountains.
Even though it is hot (this is one of the last tours before there is a month-long summer break), it is not humid, so not uncomfortable, especially with the wind we make as we ride.
It’s 18 miles to the coffee stop, where we meet a young fellow who speaks English quite well, and says he goes to school in Greece only 8 km away, whereas the nearest Albanian school would be further away.
We have another 20 miles before we get to our destination, the Coli Guest House.
Apostol Tose (Coli is his nickname) opened his guesthouse in 1993 – shortly after the fall of Communism which was accompanied by an opening for Albanians to enjoy such travel experiences. It was renovated in 2000.
Coli is a master of meat dishes – lamb, goat and Kukurec are his specialties. It’s only around 1 pm when we arrive – time for lunch – and we are served a delectable soup with lamb, lemon, rice, wild spinach, “rice soup” and Byrek (spinach pie) among other delicious selections and salads, sitting around a table on the pleasant stone porch.
After lunch, Junid drives us in the van to the thermal springs of Benje (instead of us biking the 4 km there), then we walk upriver along the Langarica Canyon – one of the most impressive in Albania – to another thermal spring. Criss-crossing the river over the slippery rocks proves difficult.
Back at the guesthouse, dinner, served again on a beautiful stone porch with a flowing fountain, features a traditional Albanian vegetable dish, Turli Perimesh – diced onions, zucchini, squash, potato, tomatoes, and fresh parsley, prepared in a huge skillet with oil – which Junid says is commonly served once or twice a week in Albanian homes.
Each evening, Junid gives us an orientation about what to expect the next day.
Tomorrow’s ride will bring us to Gjirokaster,a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city has preserved the style and traditions from the days of the Ottoman empire – cobblestone streets, stone roofs. The Old City is virtually unchanged, he tells us, because it was the birthplace of the former dictator, Enver Halil Hoxha, the Communist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985.
“He turned it into a heritage town,” he says. “It is the only city where nothing changes.” Well, perhaps with the exception of the fact that the city once had more than a dozen mosques and Hoxha banned religion, even burning down mosques and churches; today there is only one mosque.
Gjirokaster also was home town of Albania’s most internationally renowned writer, Ismail Kadare, nominated five times for Nobel Prize in literature, and most famous for his novel, “Chronicle in Stone” (1971), which is set in Gjirokaster.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com
You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).
You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.
You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.
The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.
Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.
But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.
Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world, under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.
To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.
I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.
“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ – made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”
“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”
Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains. According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”
That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.
The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.
The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.
The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.
The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).
Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).
But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).
Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.
Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)
In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda, when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.
I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).
You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)
Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.
Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.
Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)
More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table. With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.
And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.
Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.
Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)
Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans, and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.
Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).
And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.
Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.
Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.
This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.
These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).
BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.
The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.
The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.
This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges ,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.