Montenegro & Albania
My glorious home county, The People’s Republic of Leicestershire has 80,000 more people living in it than Montenegro’s 620,000. Sitting on the Adriatic coast and surrounded 4.5 countries, as with most of the Balkans it is difficult to explain as an outsider. The 0.5 country is Kosovo, a country independent from Serbia yet not quite so, even though it has a population of almost two million. While we are at it, Kosovo is an almost entirely Albanian population and Albania itself is a country of only 2.8 million. Therefore, Montenegro’s independence contrasted against Kosovo’s on-going political struggle eludes me and more reading is required into the former state of Yugoslavia that included all the aforementioned states and several more. But don’t be fooled by Montenegro for the country packs a big punch with mind blowing mountain scenery, forests, and gorgeous coastline. We spent just one night in the country, in Kotor, a town that could be easily mistaken for Dubrovnik if not for the imposing mountains encapsulating the bay. The old town is a fraction the size of Dubrovnik but otherwise identical in architecture with dangerously over polished paving stones and countless bars and restaurants serving over priced food to oversized cruise ship passengers. That’s right, unfortunately a cruise ship can navigate its way to the town’s main gate and for once it wasn’t just me complaining. After hiking up the hill to the fort that overlooks Kotor, I overheard a group of young backpackers discussing how bloody beautiful the view was except for the cruise ship that dominated every photo. Still, I would say that the more adventurous person who loves a hike may want to consider visiting Kotor before Dubrovnik, an altogether quieter and naturally more beautiful part of the Balkans.
We swiftly headed over the border to Albania, a country I was particularly excited to visit, but I don’t know why. In my head it’s huge (it’s not) and I think I get it mixed up with Romania! As soon as we crossed the border we bumped into a man waving a tick on a bicycle following two cows on the road which filled me with immense joy. Agriculture here is small with small tractors, small fields, but huge diversity and a countryside yet to be ravaged by capitalist agriculture. The country feels so familiar to me yet I know nothing about it other than Dua Lipa’s parents are Albanian, which is true, but they are from Kosovo, not Albania as I originally thought. The reason no one knows anything about Albania (egotistically, because I know nothing I assume no one else does!) is because it was cut off from the world for a good 40 years after the Second World War with citizens who tried to escape the country getting shot at the border and any foreigners entering being spied upon until they left. The country plunged into a communist state with a crackpot leader who not only wanted nothing to do with the West but neither the Soviet Union. There have been worse regimes and human atrocities in the world but thousands still lost their lives in prison camps, torture, disappearances and all the usual crap that goes on under such leadership. In 1991 a revolution ushered in a new era along the lines of democracy which has led to a country that must be seen. Albania is rich in history with ancient forts sitting on top of many mountains that command views for as far as the eye can see and are largely empty and devoid of tourists and gift shops. Rozafa castle was our first port of call with a cute little legend to go with it; basically named after a woman that was willingly sacrificed to stop the thing from falling down during its construction. The whole site was covered in nooks and crannies to explore with crumbling spiral staircases leading down into the cliff and random, un-guarded holes that you could easily fall 20 feet into should you not be paying attention. Another fort in the unique town of Berat sits above a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’ which is worth exploring itself, but we had a wonderful guided tour around the fort at the end of a scorching day. This fort wasn’t empty due to a small village residing within the walls, yet it was still unobtrusive and remarkably empty. We parked up for dinner in an empty family restaurant and received a three course meal and countless litres of homemade red wine that went down like Ribena while watching the sun set behind the mountains. By the time we left, the fortifications were lit up and revealing a whole new and altogether more spooky atmosphere.
The capital of Albania, Tirana, is unexpectedly excellent simply because I had images of grey skies, communist tower blocks, and taxis pulled by mules Borat style, all of which I assume would greatly piss off the locals, a little like when foreigners tell me they imagine English food to be rubbish. Under a scorching, blue sky Tirana was buzzing with stylish tower blocks springing up, electric cars a regular sight, excellent food, cold beer, informative museums and beautiful mosques. Indeed, Albania wasn’t allowed religion during its years of isolation but in fact the country is majority muslim with the call to prayer sounding out across towns and cities. Although I would guess they take religion as seriously as we do back in the UK with religion having very little influence over daily life. The older communist style buildings are present but they’ve been coloured in, literally, under orders from the current president who has also turned his office into some kind of art gallery. This is still the eastern fringe of Europe, and one must expect a slightly unique character in power, although if it is one who has a passion for art and insists on making the capital look more colourful through improving old buildings along modern construction, that can’t be a bad thing. There is also the small town of Kruje, less than an hours drive from the city. The town sits on the side of a mountain with its own castle and fortifications made famous by Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg who took well to defending the region against the Ottomans during the 15th century.
We only spent three nights in Albania which is a shame because although I failed to realise Dua Lipa is more likely to be visiting Kosovo than Albania, the country is full of beautiful ladies and strangely not so many handsome men (both my girlfriend’s opinion!), incredible mountain scenery, vast plains, and a rich history. The country is obviously pushing to be taken seriously and has been pending EU membership for over a decade, but achieving membership involves a degree of ‘cultural levelling up’ by the candidate. Albania is in a sweet spot where she is developing and attracting attention while maintaining the heart of Albanian culture, it would be sad to see this traded away for supposedly greater Western values. On arrival to Berat our taxi driver nearly ploughed into the back of a car that had suddenly stopped. After composing himself, he looked at us through the rearview mirror with a huge smile and said only one thing, ‘Albania’! The politics and history may confuse me but that ultimately gives me the perfect excuse to return to Albania and its northern neighbour Kosovo sooner rather than later.