While not as “off the beaten path” as it once was, Albania is certainly the least visited country in the Balkans. It seemed to be largely a mystery to everyone we spoke with in the region until we arrived in Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority; many locals we met had never been there before, but had heard it was beautiful. This is no doubt related to the extreme isolation produced by Enver Hoxha‘s paranoid Stalinist regime during the second half of the 20th century. The country was pretty much cut off from the outside world for decades and echoes of this isolation continue to this day. Skylar’s and my time was unexpectedly cut short, so we only got a glimmer of what this country has to offer visitors. However, what we did see made us pine for a time when we can return in the future.
From Prishtina, Kosovo we hopped on an early morning bus to Albania’s captial, Tirana. As I mentioned in our last post, the goal was to reach a small town called Berat in the center of the country. After five hours or so and some beautiful countryside we reached Tirana. There was just one problem: Tirana doesn’t have a central bus station. Instead, we were dropped off at the curb on a seemingly random street without the faintest idea of where to catch our next bus to Berat. Luckily, a security guard sipping some tea took pity on us and helped us into a taxi to the Berat “station” (A parking lot about 10 minutes away).
While just as beautiful as our first bus of the day, the three hour ride from Tirana to Berat introduced us to one of the Hoxha regime’s more curious legacies in Albania: bunkers. The extreme paranoia of the regime resulted in the construction of around 700,000 (No, really…) reinforced concrete bunkers capable of withstanding a direct hit from a tank in preparation for a massive war that never came. Needless to say, something that can withstand a tank attack isn’t going anywhere without some serious effort. Thus, you frequently see them strewn about the countryside, dotting hillsides in small groups. Their looming presence gives you a tiny window into what it must have been like to live under the regime, which sometimes seems like China’s Cultural Revolution stretched out for decades.
We arrived in Berat in the late afternoon and despite the heat we were immediately in love. Berat is famous for it’s well-preserved, whitewashed Ottoman era homes climbing up steeps hills along a pretty bend in a river leading to a hilltop castle. I can say without a doubt that if it were located in Croatia, the narrow cobblestone streets would be jam packed with day trippers from cruise ships. Instead, there were just a handful of visitors and nary a tour group in sight. We also had the opportunity to stay in one of the historic homes that has been converted into a B&B by a local family. Aside from marveling at the location there aren’t any specific blockbuster activities, so Skylar and I simply wandered around in the early mornings and evenings, while avoiding the midday heat at various cafes. We did manage to climb up to the castle to admire the view and ended up getting pretty tipsy due to some very generous pours of wine and complimentary rakia at a local restaurant. The walk back down the steep hill on slippery cobblestones was a bit more eventful than originally planned!
As luck would have it, we had also arrived in Berat during an annual cultural festival and every evening we got the chance to see live performances by musicians of national repute, usually followed by an EDM “performance” for the youth. The most notable performer by far and the performance we most enjoyed was Dren Abazi and Zig Zag Orchestra. I guess I can only describe it as the Klezmer equivalent of Psychobilly, minus the ’50s horror and sci-fi imagery. Apparently, Dren Abazi is something of a sex symbol in Albania, which accounted for the heavy female presence at the show. Personally, I don’t see it, but who am I to judge?
I should mention at this point that overnight I developed what seemed very much like a hernia. Much of what follows was heavily influenced by trying to figure out how to deal with it and navigating the uncertain waters of healthcare in a foreign country.
After three nights in Berat we headed back to Tirana where we would be spending a week while I volunteered at the National Film Archive (I’ll write more about this in another post). Unfortunately, we also had to take time to arrange for visits with doctors to assess my medical situation. Basically, I had to have a bunch of dudes feel me up and jam their fingers into my inguinal canal as we tried to communicate back and forth in order to learn that while I might have a hernia it’s very, very small and there’s nothing they can do at this point (The medical equivalent of a shoulder shrug). It also didn’t help that in Albania, shaking your head means, “Yes” and nodding your head means, “No.” After two days of appointments I was able to start working at the archive, but we had to make a decision about how to handle my situation during my off hours.
As for the city itself, like Kosovo, it’s pretty funky. It is by no means a pretty city, but it does have a lot of energy with lots and lots of bustling cafes. The former mayor, now prime minister, was an artist and undertook a “beautification” program that saw many of the Soviet-style concrete housing blocks painted in bright, colorful designs. If you want to know what would happen if you blended the aesthetics of Brutalism and South Beach, then Tirana is the place for you! The main nightlife area is simply called The Block and it was nice to stroll along it’s streets in the evening. Apparently, it used to be the exclusive enclave of high ranking party officials, including Enver Hoxha, but was opened up after the end of communism. Hoxha’s mansion stills stands at a major intersection and I must say that it’s the least impressive I’ve ever seen for an all-powerful dictator; weirdly understated, but not in a good way. Most of Tirana’s tourist sites can be tackled in a day, so we mostly traveled from cafe to cafe. My favorite of the tourist sites, though, was the former Hoxha museum. It’s a giant concrete and glass pyramid that’s since been abandoned, covered in graffiti and taken over by squatters. I suppose it’s probably an eyesore for most of the people living in the city, but I thought it was kind of neat looking the way it is, especially with teenagers racing up and down its slopes.
I also forgot to mention that Albania has the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the world; They’re everywhere! It’s really incongruous and strange to see dozens of Mercedes sedans drive past on roads that haven’t been maintained in years. Outside of buses, I don’t think we traveled in another type of vehicle while we were in the country.
After LOTS of serious discussion and emails with family and friends, Skylar and I made the very hard decision to cut short our time in the Balkans in order to seek out medical care in Western Europe. It was heart wrenching to think that we wouldn’t be able to follow our planned path, but getting top notch medical care took precedence. That said, the cheapest flight from the Balkans to Berlin, the location of a hernia expert, was from Skopje, Macedonia. Only seeing the capital city of a new country on our original list wasn’t ideal, but at least we would get to see something!
Skopje is one of the weirdest cities in the world. Prishtina and Tirana are funky and have their quirks, but Skopje is just straight up bizarre. Rather than put money into improving basic infrastructure, the government has blown loads of cash on giant statues, elaborate fountains and enormous edifices (Sometimes all wrapped into one!). The highlight of them all is simply called Warrior on a Horse. It’s statue of an ancient Macedonian warrior (Think Alexander the Great) riding a rearing horse with his sword drawn for battle. The base of the statue is a dancing fountain that features a music and light show in the evenings. Did I mention yet that it’s 95 feet tall? Also, the city has a large fleet of London-style double decker buses, which just adds to the weirdness, especially when they go by the Arc de Triomphe style arch near the center of the city. One really gets the sense that Caesar’s Palace consulted on the city planning, but once outside of the center you only find old soviet style housing in need of a good scrub down and basic maintenance. Skylar and I spent much of our time simply walking around with mouths agape at the strangeness of it all.
After a couple days in Skopje, we hopped on an early morning flight to Berlin. While we never planned to visit Germany, or Western Europe for that matter, neither of us had actually been there before, so we had a small silver lining. At this point I need to thank US Ambassador John Emerson, his wife Kimberly, their assistant Marion and Rob Lichtman. All four helped me get to the proper medical specialist and gave us tons of advice on navigating Berlin life. To be honest, Skylar and I went around the city in kind of a bad mood for the first couple of days. We, frankly, didn’t want to be there and the prospect of surgery didn’t help much. However, our mood was much improved following my visit with the doctor because he declared me hernia-free, which meant that I wouldn’t need surgery and could continue on our trip without hesitation. His best guess from my symptoms was that I had an infected lymph node, which would clear itself up over time (And it has!). He didn’t completely rule out a hernia, but again said it would be way too small to do anything about it and wasn’t showing up on an ultrasound anyhow. Suffice to say, Skylar and I left his office practically skipping! We spent the rest of the day doing some sightseeing, including the Brandenburg Gate, and I felt physically better just knowing that my situation was minor and didn’t require any surgery.
Before arriving in Berlin, Skylar and I discussed the various scenarios that might occur based upon the German doctor’s opinion. If I needed surgery, then the decision was made for us since we’d be stuck in Berlin until I was able to start moving again. If everything was a-okay, we thought we’d fly to the Greek Island of Corfu and take a ferry to the Southern Albanian coastline before making our way overland to Istanbul. However, during lunch we decided on a whim to move on from the Balkans entirely and head to one of our dream destinations, Eastern Anatolia in Turkey. I’ll do a full post dedicated to Turkey, but after a nice evening of beer and traditional German fare we purchased plane tickets to the remote city of Kars near the border with Armenia. With our final day in Berlin, we completed small errands and picked up a few items while we had the chance to do so in Western Europe.
We’ve now begun the second leg of our journey in Central Asia and are having a wonderful time. However, our access to the Internet has taken a serious nose dive and our posts will likely become more infrequent from here on out. That said, expect posts about my volunteer experience in Albania and our time in Eastern Anatolia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and possibly Kyrgyzstan.