A Backpacker’s Meeting with Albanian Culture

Yes Tirana is an ugly city which has been given a major and very dramatic makeover bordering on the psychotic, but while it might seem weird in the day that the buildings are hundreds of colours – by night it makes so much sense.

At the moment I’m in Ioannina, Greece, but before writing about my return to the European Union, I wish to dot down a few thoughts about Albania.

I already wrote a few stray thoughts about Shkodër, but now after having completed my Albanian experience for this time, I feel it is time to ravel in some of the many aspects of my meeting with Albania. Since I’m a simple backpacker with only a short week to spare, I haven’t had the chance to dig into the Albanian lifestyle and culture. Before my arrival my knowledge was limited to the börek being a perfect hangover remedy.

But here are my few thoughts on Albania and Albanian culture.

View of the mountains around Gjirokaster
View of the mountains around Gjirokaster
Language difficulties

From my year in Slovenia I thought I’d have some idea of Albanian, but I was more than severely lost at times. It seems to me that Albanian is a little bit of everything and still nothing like any other language I’ve ever heard.

Gjirokaster street
Gjirokaster street

They speak as if they are mumbling, using sounds from the upper mouth. I was surprised when listening to it and being reminded of everything from Spanish to Swedish to Serbian. And still having absolute no idea what was said.

Albanians also have the tendency – maybe because they don’t see that many tourists – to think that if they just speak slow enough I would understand. This has given me many both funny and confusing incidents.

Mosque in Gjirokaster
Mosque in Gjirokaster

At my hotel in Gjirokaster, the receptionist was talking to me in what I could only gather as a half laughing, half threatening tone. All I knew was that it had to do with the bill. I ended up immensely scared that I’d done something wrong and I was strongly contemplating running away. After half an hour she decided to drag me to an office, where a man behind the desk spoke English. I was so scared until that I’d wronged them until I realised that she had spent the last half an hour trying to explain a joke she made.

Gjirokaster street
Gjirokaster street

They also sometimes try to speak English, but seem to mix up words.

When I had to take a taxi I had looked up the fare beforehand and knew that the ride usually went for 200 leke. Imagine my frustration when the taxi driver demanded 3000 leke. I was laughing in discontent, irritated that he’d find me some stupid tourist who could easily be ripped off. And then I realised that he was mixing up the words and thousands meant hundreds. Go figure.

I’ve found that a good advice for going to Albania and if you are not ready to take on an introductory course to Albanian you will do perfectly fine with a basic knowledge of Italian. Wherever I went most people spoke some degree of Italian. Enough for a conversation.

View of the mountains around Gjirokaster
View of the mountains around Gjirokaster
Accommodation

Another thing that I have come to terms with during my stay. The accommodation can be dreadful. In Tirana I got a really comfortable room and they showed out to be very nice. Though I had no light in the room and it was pretty expensive, it still stands as my best accommodation in Albania. Such a statement should probably be followed by a few reasons as to why the other places I stayed never had a chance.

In Shkodër I stayed at Rozafa Hotel, which I believe is the only or at least the biggest hotel in Shkodër. I wrote about my arrival in my last post, but not about my uninvited guest later in the evening.

Five heroes of Vig statue at the main square in Shkodër
Five heroes of Vig statue at the main square in Shkodër

Watching the Sopranos on local television, I was enjoying a few biscuits and a bottle of water in my room. It had been a long day with crossing over from Montenegro. And there right in front of me a little mouse made its way across the floor. It seemed to be rather keen on my pack of biscuits. Even though I am well aware that mice do no harm to humans, I still fondly remember when Laura Ingalls’ father were woken up in the night by a mouse cutting off his hair to use it as a nest.

Being rather fond of my hair I went down to the reception where they quickly gave me another room for the night. The next morning I simply couldn’t get myself to pay 17€ for a room which I had to share. The man in the reception argued that I had changed room, so no harm had been done. But then I got really prissy and I threatened that I could close down this sad little hotel very easily with my knowledge. Even though that was a pretty empty thread it had the wished outcome and I got the price reduced to a merely 10€.

Thinking back on this, it is rather amazing that I – a young single traveller with a dead mobile – dared confront a receptionist in a strange city which does not have the best reputation in the world. I also feel a slight shame for taking away some of their income, but then I think of how that mouse might have woken me in the middle of the night and I find myself justified.

At the kiosk
At the kiosk in Tirana

In Gjirokaster however I was dreaming of the room with the mouse. Because while the receptionist might be friendly, my room had no air-con and the toilet in the hall was overflowing with water on the floor. Half through the day there was no more toilet paper at the still very watery toilets and I found myself lucky to have saved some from a visit to a café earlier. But the worst part was that I hardly managed to sleep that night because it was so hot and this gigantic poster of some political candidate which was hanging taking up a large part of the hotel facade was blowing wildly in the wind, banging against the window. It was like a damn construction crew.

All by myself

Before going a lot of friends and colleagues told me that I should take care in Albania, particularly in Shkodër. I should by all means avoid going out on my own. However, apart from the mouse in my hotel room I found Shkodër a really interesting and friendly city to visit. I had no problems with anything except from some staring and whistling from men on the street. People were really nice and I felt much more relaxed than I had expected, which had me decide to venture out for both coffee and dinner on my own. I met some Albanian locals, one of whom had lived most of his life in Bristol, England. It was great to meet Shkodër locals and to get rid of my nagging fear of the city.

Donkey bones on the streets of Shkodër
Donkey bones on the streets of Shkodër

In Tirana, on the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling on my toes constantly. Even though I mostly met nice people and particularly the men were really helpful, nearly stepping on each other to offer me help, I still felt the more liberal life of the capital to restrict my sense of security.

I had an incident with a man who followed me for a while, getting to close, even grabbing my hand. I gave him the meanest look I cold muster and told him to fuck off, which he did considerably fast. In the furgon/minibus from Tirana to Gjirokaster I had a rather uncomfortable incident with the drivers son, who while believing I was asleep had the nerve to lie his fat hand on my leg. He also quickly regretted as I sent him a very alarming look and told him hell no. It didn’t take him long to have his father stop the car so that he could scamper out and join his father in the front passenger seat.

Gjirokaster street
Gjirokaster street

While I consider Albania safe to travel for a solo female traveller such as myself, I also know it is not the dream vacation for everyone. However, I feel very happy that I chose to visit Albania on my travel and that I did it alone, but next time I visit I will wish for company of a friend or two, since it is difficult to meet people on your own in a country where there are almost no other tourists.

Tirana

While this blog has mostly been about my meeting with Albania, I cannot end it before writing a bit about the unique city of Tirana. By no means is this a beautiful city and as a tourist you should not expect to gaze upon great cultural and historical buildings or promenade through romantic a Latin quarter. The post-WW2 Tirana is a city rebuilt to fit the Communist ideology of Hoxha.

Sheshi Skënderbej with City Hall
Sheshi Skënderbej with City Hall

Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1944 to 1985, destroyed almost everything with cultural value, since it went against his dream of an atheist society. The main square and most of the city is build by the ultimate communist principles and ideals, which would mean that it is often grey and sad.

Come to Marlboro Country Tirana
Come to Marlboro Country Tirana

However, with the end of Hoxha’s regime and the beginning of a democratisation process in Albania the major of Tirana has done all that he can to freshen up the city and make it look less sad. To this end all the buildings are painted in various colours and it seems as if you are meeting the rainbow on every street corner.

Colourful buildings in Tirana
Colourful buildings in Tirana

The streets are destroyed, the asphalt sometimes even making small hills or sink holes which pedestrians have to avoid. One street away from the centre square and modern pavement has never existed. Here donkeys roam free and mud covered streets and people are selling everything from biscuits and cigarettes to watches and mobiles.

Tirana residential complex
Tirana residential complex

Yes Tirana is an ugly city which has been given a major and very dramatic makeover bordering on the psychotic, but while it might seem weird in the day that the buildings are hundreds of colours – by night it makes so much sense. The city is a bit like Princess Fiona from Shrek. At night it turns into a beauty.

Et'hem Bej Mosque
Et’hem Bej Mosque

On my last night in Tirana, I stayed out a little longer to get a goodnight coffee and I was completely unravelled by the city. The main square is lighted up and the many colours of the buildings give an expression of rich wonders. The governmental buildings as well as the National Library, the Palace of Culture and the only remaining old mosque in town are all delicately lighted and you start wondering if communist designers had a fondness for the nightlife, because this is where it is truly grandiose.

Tirana by night
Tirana by night

Zofka

Shkodër: Finally the Only Tourist

Before I knew it, he said: welcome to Shkodër and pointed at a sign indicating that indeed we were nearing Shkodër.

I arrived rather early in the morning in Ulcinj, coming from Kotor. I had heard it should be easy to get a minivan to Shkodër from here. But the information I got in Ulcinj were confusing to say the least. One person told me it left at one o’clock, another at 14.30, then one said 11 and finally someone told me four o’clock. As I was running around pretty sweaty and tired, I believe I was noticed by more than one person, wherefore a guy in the end offered me a ride to Shkodër for 7 euros, which I felt was rather cheap considering the long way.

Colourful residential area in Shkodër
Colourful residential area in Shkodër

I went with him in his very hot car and I was almost baking on the back seat. We talked some, but mainly I just starred out the window at the very beautiful nature of Montenegro. It is truly magnificent with dramatic mountains in the horizon and small village dotted throughout the landscape in between lots and lots of trees.

I must admit that I was a little frightened of what I was doing. Getting in a car with a stranger, driving roads I could not at all be sure where led to. But my year in Slovenia must have truly changed me, since it at the same time felt very natural to simple catch a lift. Hitch-hiking seems a culture in the Balkans, a part of the public transportation system. that off course didn’t change the fundamental fact that I was a single girl travelling alone with some random dude who’d offered me a lit.

Xhamia Ebu-Bekr Mosque in Shkodër
Xhamia Ebu-Bekr Mosque in Shkodër

But as we crossed the border I became more relaxed. Though also more sick from driving in the hot blaze of a car. My driver was quick to introduce me to Albanian hospitality constantly offering me very long cigarettes and wrinkled his nose rather offended when I tried to deny them. In Albania you better accept the gifts of others.

As we drove towards Shkodër, I felt myself become more and more pale and sickly as I finished off the fifth long cigarette. Our waiting time at the Albanian had cost me to smoke two.

But before I knew it, he said “welcome to Shkodër” and pointed at a sign indicating that indeed we were nearing Shkodër.

Memorial on Sheshi 2 Prilli commemorating the communist massacre of 1991
Memorial on Sheshi 2 Prilli commemorating the communist massacre of 1991

He let me off at the Rozafa Hotel, where I gave him 10 euros, being so relieved that I had actually arrived.

Entering, I found myself in a mayor communist-styled hall, where several cleaning ladies were chit-chatting in a corner.

At the desk I got the choice between a room with bath or one without. The first one would be at the price of 17euros which I found pretty expensive, considering this outcast of a Northern Albanian city. Without shower it would cost me only 6,5euros, but after considering a bit, being able to smell myself rather badly I chose to pay extra for what showed out to be a terribly unclean shower. However, writing this I am very happy with my choice, because I get to return to my room for a nice and long shower and to do some sink-laundry.

Shkodër street
Shkodër street

The phone net can’t reach Albania, so mum I’m really okay. Don’t worry!

Zofka