Taken with Albania: The Power of a Story.
After months of backpacking the Balkans it was all becoming a little same same; another bus, another hike, another lake, another exhibition, another bus.
I needed to shake things up a bit.
My primary association with Albanians was from the film ‘Taken’, if you remember, Albania is where the kidnappers hail from. What’s more, in Slovenia I had been told that the Albanian Mafia made the Italian Mafia look like teddy bears. In Montenegro, I was told that Albanian men were ready to fight any guy that looked sideways at their sister or girlfriend. Plus there is the somewhat ominous aesthetic of the red and black National flag of Albania.
These guys seemed to have a bad rep, and as a result, I had my reservations about visiting Albania as a solo female traveler.
But I had also been told that Albania is incredibly beautiful, and more importantly incredibly cheap. I had quit my soul-destroying job a little too abruptly so I didn’t have enough to travel exactly wherever I wanted. I needed a destination where I could fill in time (preferably by a beach) that was uber cheap. The Balkans, and particularly Albania ticked those boxes.
To prepare myself for travel there, I read up a little, finding out about such things as the lack of a regulated taxi industry in Albania; instead, there are just men in their personal cars, sans meter of course. I’d heard that when you get off the bus from Montenegro you have to walk across to the Albanian side of the border and take one of these anonymous cars that will take you god-knows-where. I read too that most of the roads in Albania were potholed and often impassable and that generally, the country was still largely unregulated, ungoverned and generally in turmoil even though communism fell in 1992.
After taking a bus from Montenegro all the way across the border, a service which does now exist, contrary to what I’d heard, and then another bus through the mountains, I was on the south coast: Drymades Beach. The beach itself is stunning; the Adriatic is an azure blue with Corfu visible on the horizon, and behind the beaches are rocky mountains from which you can paraglide (for fifty euros!). There is also a quieter, almost desolate beach, off the main beach, accessible through a rock archway.
Aesthetically, this Albanian southern coastline could be Greece or the French Riviera except that it’s far cheaper and less developed. When I say cheap I mean cheap, especially in comparison to the rest of Europe, hostels are around 10 euros a night, beer 1 euro, cocktails 5 euros, street food from as cheap as 50 euro cents and restaurant meals 10 euros or less for tons of delicious ottoman influenced food.
My campsite was close to the beach and well resourced but inexplicably quiet. There seemed to be a dozen or so local staff permanently on duty even though there were only a handful of guests; a few foreigners and Albanian male guests, but seemingly no women or children. Where were all the women I wondered?
After days of chilling alone at the campsite, swimming, reading and writing I was a few hours into my daily loiter around the common area, because of my weakness for wifi, when I was approached by a local.
‘You are alone here’ he said. This felt more like an accusation than a question.
How did he know? I made a vague and unconvincing denial of this assertion.
Said local was dark and very handsome but he wore a severe look. There seems to be a cultural aversion to smiling in Albania.
‘You were at Noli’s bar yesterday.’
I had been. Was he watching my movements?
‘You ordered a mojito.’ Evidently, he was.
I had entered the bar, unperturbed by the eight Albanian men hanging listfully at the bar frowning under their dark brows and beards. But aside from them, the bar had seemed mysteriously empty so I was perplexed as to where he had been spying on me from.
As it transpired, he owned the bar, and upon disclosing this information he said, ‘you come to the bar tonight and I make you a special cocktail.’
Is it called the ‘Taken’? I mused silently.
But it was issued as an instruction, not an invitation, so I went to the bar.
There, my handsome interrogator continued with what he did so well. By this stage I was coming to realise that this was Albanian for friendliness, I had just been thrown by the serious expression and the abrupt English. I later learned that many Albanians can speak basic English (though many young Albanians are fluent) but Albanians are also largely fluent in Italian and often Greek and/or Spanish too).
‘You like Albania?’
‘What is your impression of Albania?’
‘It’s a very interesting country, I think the most interesting country I’ve ever visited. The people are very friendly and it feels very safe which is not what I expected…’
‘Will you tell people this about Albania?’
‘Yes! I will. To be honest I was a little worried before I came here. Have you seen the film ‘Taken’’?’ I laughed nervously.
‘That fucking film!’ The default serious expression had turned to anger. ‘One film! One fucking film has destroyed the reputation of an entire country! Forever.’
I laughed, ‘But don’t you like it? It’s such a great film!’
‘I hate this film.’
‘But it’s not just the film I’ve also heard things about the Mafia here.’
‘There is mafia in Italy and it doesn’t stop everyone going there. There are many TV shows and films about the Mafia in Italy still this doesn’t stop people. But this one film, one fucking film, is destroying Albania’s tourism industry.’
He may have had a point.
After we got past ‘Taken’ we found we had a lot of common ground. It also turned out that my friendly interrogator is kind of a big deal in Albania. As well as owning and running the bar over the summer he is an exhibited photographer specialising in artistic nudes. He recently drew headlines for having the largest collection of vintage cameras in Albania. He collects typewriters, radios, and gramophones and has three Mercedes (Albanians are obsessed with Mercedes-Benz).
After speaking to him I explored Albania a little more, and as it turns out, Tirana, the capital of Albania, is a hipster’s paradise. During the communist era people had to pay a fortune and wait years for a Television. If they were lucky enough to get their hands on one it was modified by the government to ensure that it could only receive Albanian propaganda channels. With no new goods coming into the country for decades little was thrown away. As a result Tirana is littered with second-hand shops selling vintage scooters, bikes, TVs, radios, cameras and gramophones (apparently). You can pick up vintage clothes for next to nothing from roadside stalls or from the sizeable vintage bazaars.
There are also a ton of cool bars in Tirana including ‘Radio’ bar, a funky retro bar predictably full of vintage radios, the ‘Colonial Café’ which serves creative cocktails (including a lot of floral flavoured cocktails) in unique, individual glasses and ‘Sky Bar’, a revolving bar/restaurant with great views of the city. One night I even went to see an Albanian girl punk band at a bar/tattoo study called ‘Iron Brush,’ a hipster mecca, but without the western hipster price tag.
Over the next few days I made many Albanian friends, and many from Kosovo too (generally they consider themselves the same people and would like to be one country). It’s incredibly easy to make friends in Albania because Albanians are super friendly. Tourists are still a novelty here. I even managed to get some of them to smile! It turns out that it is entirely possible it just doesn’t seem to be a common resting face there.
I discovered much about Albania’s Ottoman past, Albania during World War I and II but most fascinating is its communist past, which led to Albania severing ties with the rest of the world until 1992. The communist dictator built a series of bunkers, including one for the population to retreat into in the event of an attack. One of these bunkers includes residences for the parliament and military as well as a cinema and parliamentary chamber. It now houses a historical exhibition called ‘Bunk Art’. This isolation from the world does a lot to explain our lack of knowledge about the Albania, save for the kidnappers of Taken.
I also learnt that Albania is a member of NATO and currently has troops in Afghanistan. I also learnt that the economy is doing relatively well and unemployment is lower than many countries in Europe.
There is a really positive feeling in Albania. People are very happy and proud that Albania is back on the world stage and that the country is going places. Of course there are still challenges; transport infrastructure is limited (there is no train system) and the holes in the roads and footpaths have long been neglected. Corruption too is an issue (as it is in many parts of the world) but altogether my impression was that Albania seems to have really got itself together and is going places fast.
Provided you don’t mind long bus rides on ‘interesting’ roads, I highly recommend Albania, including for solo females travellers. It has a fascinating history, an amazing coastline, glorious mountains (visit Valbona), beautiful lakes (Lake Ohrid and the ‘Blue Eye’) as well as traditional Ottoman villages (Berat) and a trendy capital city (Tirana).
On leaving Albania I reflected on what I now thought of the country compared to when I arrived. I thought about the role Taken had played in my original thoughts and my friendly interrogator’s comments.
Oh the power of a story, I thought.
And so I decided to write this.