The Espresso Trek: "All of Albania is under construction," says our tour guide for the week, Jimmy Lama. And it appears to be true. Albania is undergoing a construction boom with upscale hotels, restaurants, and businesses developing constantly.
We cross the border into Albania from Montenegro. Because the government never invested in a railroad system, tourists can enter by land only through several border crossings with a car. (Ferries run from Italy and Greece. Tirana also has an international airport.) But the border guards are lax, letting us pass with the stamp of our passports. (Albania has been part of NATO since 2008 and has applied for EU membership.)
Crossing the border, I immediately notice cornfields and Mercedes. Before 1992 Albanians weren't allowed to own private cars. When the Communist regime collapsed, they believed the only car trustworthy enough to weather their roads was the Mercedes. So, second-hand lots cropped up everywhere. The automobile's reputation persists -- today, three out of five cars in Albania is a Mercedes.
Jimmy drives us through the northern town of Shkodra where Mother Theresa's parents lived, and possibly Mother Theresa herself until the age of four (although this is debated). The Rozafa castle perches at the top of the city, but with only seven days to see the whole country, we push on, driving along the Ottoman built Mesi Bridge.
Jimmy takes us to Kruja where a citadel touts magnificent views as well as the Skanderbeg museum, dedicated to Albania's national hero who routed out the Ottomans from this region in the 15th century. Skanderbeg monuments dot the entire country, his legendary battles as well as his mythical fighters (such as Mamica Castrioti) the pride of many Albanians because he ruled the area independently and created peace with the local rulers.
On our second day in Albania, we tour Tirana's city center where Skanderbeg's equestrian statue is surrounded by heavy machinery. The square is being renovated to become pedestrian only with the opera house adjacent to it. Along this boulevard, the opulent Taiwan Center has slick restaurants and cafes. The complex was built after Albania broke ties with China in 1978 and Enver Hoxha threw the entire country into complete isolation until the fall of communism in 1992.
Next stop is the Skytower, a skyscraper that overlooks the entire city. From here the deep colors of the city shine. The Tirana governor, Edi Rama, initiated a beautification project in the city several years back, painting the socialist blocs ochre, red, azure, and green. But the small water tanks on the socialist roofs still tell the story of how before 1992, the city didn't have 24-hour running water.
Our stay in the capital is short because Jimmy Lama suggests we enjoy the heart of the Albanian Mediterranean life. He drives us 45 kilometers to Durres, which became the capital of Albania after the country declared independence in 1912 from the Ottomans. It was also once the ancient port town of the Illyrians starting in the 7th century BC. After the Romans conquered the region, the city became one of the two starting points of the Via Egnatia, the road that linked Rome with Byzantium.
The city during the summer months burgeons with endless rows of hotels and restaurants along the beach. We eat a seafood lunch of fresh caught fish and shrimp and then visit the Roman amphitheater with a preserved mosaic from the Byzantine era.
We then stop for the night in Vlora, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas split. We stay at the New York Hotel and from the terrace watch the setting sun.
We notice, above all, that the Albanians are generous. Although prices for Western pockets are at least fifty percent less (a 4 star hotel costs 40 Euro for a double room and meals for four people run at about 35 Euro), the Albanains never hesitate to give us more than we pay for and make doubly sure that our bill is exact. The country survives on a dual currency of both Euros and Lek. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels, but not encouraged due to the 3% surcharge that proprietors must pay. So, as a courtesy, we don't use our credit cards. For that, bank machines are everywhere.
Tomorrow -- it's on to the south.