Albania, a Diamond in the Rough

Albania

When many people think of Albania the usual stereotypes spring to mind, corruption, people-trafficking, weapons-dealing and drug-smuggling. We rarely hear of the unexplored beauty and charm of this tiny country and the incredibly sad and turbulent past of one of Europe’s long lost sons. Albania is now beginning a journey which will lead to acceptance into the European Union and is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the tourism market with backpackers regarding it as an essential addition to any European itinerary.

Situated just below Montenegro and above Greece, Albania is home to a population of approximately 3.6 million people. Known as ‘Shqiperi’ to its people Albania is currently a transition economy as it emerges tentatively from a past littered with corruption, economic collapse and inflation. The fall of communism in 1992 left the country in a state of social unrest and the economy in tatters leading many of the inhabitants to immigrate to surrounding countries in search of work.  To this day half of all Albanians live outside the country’s borders whether by choosing to emigrate or finding themselves outside their country due to ancient border disputes  Albania suffered an  enormous setback in 1997 after government endorsed pyramid schemes robbed the country of a good portion of its wealth. Advertised as an irresistible get rich quick scheme, the companies took advantage of a naive people encouraging almost two-thirds of the population to hand over their meager savings with the promise of larger monetary rewards With the country undergoing a transition from a controlled economy to a liberalized one many of the people unaware of the sinister nature of these schemes sol d their homes, businesses and cars to invest. When the schemes eventually collapsed in January of I997the companies disappeared overnight and the people were left with nothing after handing over 1.2 billion dollars. Angry that the government had failed to protect them from  companies that were in fact fronts for money-laundering and weapons-dealing, the people took to the streets to vent their anger at a government many suspected  of profiting from the schemes.  Uncontrolled rioting ensued with army bases being ransacked for guns stowed away during the communist era and some 2000 people were killed in the anarchy. Order was eventually restored in April after United Nations sent in 7000 troops to quell the rioters and establish rule of law.

The scars of its tragic past are still visible in Albania as the country is still considered poor by Western standards. The breathtaking countryside is marred by stone bunkers built during the communist era by the ruling dictator Enver Hoxha. Ruling Albania under a strict communist regime and isolationist foreign policy Hoxha convinced the people they could take on the armies of America, Russia and other developed nations.  Using the threat of war to spread fear among the people and ensure total obedience he began to stockpile weapons in army bases around the country. Hoxha also denied his people freedom of expression, religion and the freedom to leave the country. With this eventful history and decades of suppression and firm control of its people, Albania is still a relatively undeveloped nation. The lack of government money is evident in the crumbling infrastructure in most of the country and by the low wages paid to workers. Despite this the country is beginning to show signs of regeneration. A visit to Durres on the central coastline of Albania shows just how much investors are beginning to capitalize on tourism.  Hundreds of hotels, bars and restaurants line the beach in various states of construction. Some 600,000 foreign tourists visit Durres each year and it is situated just 30 minutes by train from the capital Tirana.  Inside Tirana the future of the country is clearly evident. Elegantly constructed buildings are home to the national opera house, museum and municipalities. These huge structures surround square parkland which showcases a statue of Skanderbeg, their national hero who led the resistance against the Ottoman Empire in the  15th century. A visitor in Tirana is spoiled for choice by the wide selection of bars, restaurants and nightclubs on  offer and the warm hospitality of the people is immediately evident.  Contrary to popular belief Albania is not an intimidating country, the politeness and respect shown by the  majority of locals can be overwhelming.

The natural beauty of Albania is shown nowhere better than its southern coastline. Just two miles from the Greek island of Corfu are the majestic beaches of Saranda. As yet unspoiled  by overcrowding and commercialization this beautiful city is one of the most important tourist attractions in Albania. Few places in the Mediterranean are left with their original beauty intact and Saranda is really a hidden gem for beach lovers  With turquoise waters washing over its golden beaches it is easy for the visitor to believe they have been transported to the Caribbean. Until they are brought back to reality by just how inexpensive it is to visit Albania compared with other European destinations. The national currency is the Leke which currently stands at 100.9 Leke to US$1.00. The cost of public transport is incredibly cheap with a train journey from Tirana to Durres costing around 40 cent. Taxi fares are also  much lower here compared with the rest of Europe.

Hotel prices in the capital start at $30 a night and similar deals can be found along the coastline with the quality of the  rooms and surrounding areas generally very good. Albanian cuisine is a melting pot of Turkish, Greek and traditional foods with many restaurants and cafes easily located  around the cities  For the really brave the local drink is raki, a strong clear spirit made from grapes and is enjoyed throughout the whole day sometimes even with morning coffee. Albania is best experienced by public transport as the roads can be quite dangerous for the inexperienced driver and it is usually cheaper to hire a car.  For those who just want a small taste of what the country has to offer there are boats departing daily from Corfu to Saranda which take 30 to 60 minutes depending on speed. The capital of Tirana can be reached by bus from Turkey, Greece,  Macedonia and Serbia and offers an amazing view of the mountainous countryside. The main airport in Tirana is accessible from more than 30 European destinations and is currently undergoing expansion. Many of the people  speak  English and as tourism is still fairly new in Albania the locals are welcoming and usually curious about new visitors. However Albania is experienced it will leave a lasting impression unique to what is on offer from the popular package holidays. The country is steeped in history and remains one of the last unexplored tourism destinations in central Europe. With a colorful past, awe-inspiring  scenery and intriguing ancient cities, Albania offers a welcome change from the usual holiday experience and will keep you coming back year after year.

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