I was befriended by a local here in Durres, Albania, shortly after disembarking the overnight ferry across from Bari in Italy. It was an abnormally wet & overcast September day yesterday upon arrival but David, my new Albanian best friend, brightened up the mood by being a truly wonderful ambassador for his country – he navigated me through the streets of Durres, Albania’s second city, to my room at the Hotel Mediterranean down by the Durres waterfront. It was a nice introduction to the country.
It’s my first trip to Albania, my first time in this little ex-Communist corner of Southeastern Europe, and while it may only be a 7 hour slow-ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian east coast, it feels, and looks, wholly different. This area of the continent is still developing, still developing everything from its infrastructure to its tourism industry. It’s also still recovering from 50 years of Communism and, unfortunately, some parts of it are still recovering from recent (early 90s) Civil Wars.
I had few preconceptions about Albania before getting here. I’ve seen firsthand developing nations (mainly in Southeast Asia, Mongolia and India), the affects of years of Communism (China, Vietnam and, of course, Russia) and even parts of ex-Communist Eastern Europe itself (The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania) & Poland. Albania has mostly lived up to my preconceptions. It’s a strange sort of place, a country that has been classified as an emerging democracy since the 1990s, a classification it has received despite its troubled history of internal conflict and foreign rule, for the longest periods by the Romans and Turkish Ottomans, the latter responsible for the popularity of the Muslim religion in the country. But it wasn’t an easy path to get there. It was staunchly communist from 1946 until 1992, years in which it was the most backward corner of Europe having successfully managed to ossify itself from the rest of the world by dirtying its bid with its closest alleys – first Yugoslavia (in 1948), then the USSR (1961) and finally China (1978). With isolation assured, its oh-so paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha, then embarked on a nationwide bunker-building spree, building 700,000 reinforced defensive bunkers to protect from attack from so-called ‘hostile neighbours’ – these indestructible bunkers still litter the countryside today.
When Hoxha died in 1985 his successor realised how ossified the country was and began a liberalisation programme that broadened Albania’s ties with its neighbours and the international community. This led to the relative stability the country enjoys today, a stability that has helped to attract foreign companies and is helping Albania work toward NATO and, more importantly, EU membership.
I wasn’t really in Durres long enough to make observations, aside from the obvious communist-related ones, but here are a few tidbits anyway.
· The Call To Prayer
A surprise from Albania thus far has been the abundance of mosques, something I noticed from the get-go (and you would too coming from Christian Italy). 70% of the Albanian population are Muslim & seemingly religious tolerance is an important part of the Albanian psyche.
· The not so mighty greenback
There are not one but three accepted currencies here – the local lek (about 120 to the €), the Euro and the US dollar. For everyday transactions payment is normally required in lek but hotels and bus tickets are quoted and expected to be paid for in Euro. If all else fails they will change US$ for you but only to make payment in Euro (preferably) or lek.
· Tooth ache?
Have a tooth ache? If so you could be in worst places than Durres – every second or every third establishment seems to be a dental practice. Separating the dentists are hotels, legions of them. With so many hotels one can only assume this place is a busy place at other times of the year – it’s positively dead now.