Bunk’Art 2, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.

An Albanian’s house is the dwelling of God and the guest. Of God and the guest, you see. So before it is the house of its master, it is the house of one’s guest. The guest, in an Albanian’s life, represents the supreme ethical category, more important than blood relations. One may pardon the man who spills the blood of one’s father or of one’s son, but never the blood of a guest.

– Ismail Kadaré

November-December 2022

I have been hurrying through vast tracts of the Balkan interior in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to reach Lake Koman in Northern Albania by early November for the last ferry crossing. After an extended summer through Spain, Germany, France, Slovenia, and Croatia, finally the autumn leaves are falling!

From Kotor, Montenegro, I take a scenic three-hour bus ride along the spectacular coast to Shkoder, gateway to the Albanian Alps where most visitors head for the famous Valbona-Theth trail. Having broken my personal record of hiking over 600km this year in the Baleares Islands, Camino de Santiago, and GR20 in Corsica, I have hung up my boots for now, being perfectly content to admire the strangely familiar alpine landscape except for the jarring bunkers that seem to have come from outer space!

From Valbona, I make a long six-week detour through compelling Kosovo for a photo project on war and memory before resuming my travels in Albania. Tirana, Kruje, Durres, Berat, Gjirokaster, and Saranda, a classic itinerary through the bustling capital city, medieval villages, UNESCO World Heritage cities, and the Albanian Cote d’Azur. What a blissful month off season, enjoying legendary Albanian hospitality!

Visiting Albanian off season: The magnificent Valbona National Park. Valbona, Albania. 2022.
One-month itinerary in Albania. 2022.

Albanian’s Rugged Shangri-La

Shkoder is usually the first port of call in Northern Albania upon leaving Montenegro. Most travellers make a pit stop, sipping macchiato on a pedestrian street or the pleasant Molo Promenade by the river bank, enjoying a flavourful grilled trout dinner by Lake Shkoder. From the city center, it is about an easy hour-long stroll past the castle to reach the shore for a perfect sunset by the largest lake in the Balkans.

Shkoder, Albania. 2022.
City center. Shkoder, Albania. 2022.
Lake Shkoder, Albania. 2022.
Sunset by Lake Skhoder. Shkoder, Albania. 2022.

Six o’clock alarm to get ready for the furgon pickup for the exciting Lake Koman crossing. The air is crisp, the leaves have turned golden, and the locals are already up and running buying sweet fleshy mandarins in season (30cents/kg!). In early November, the ferry is still full. End-of-season adventurers are giddy with excitement for one of the greatest boat rides in Europe and to hit the trail in the famed Albanian Alps. On the other shore, no one is in any hurry and the furgon waits for another hour before snaking our way deep into Valbaona National Park, part of the Accursed Mountains and peaks of the Balkan. We are welcomed by Arben and Faria, Albanian returnees from Germany, who treat us to a sumptuous three-course dinner of home-made vegetable soup, spinach pie, and orange cake, followed by an invigorating breakfast with Turkish coffee, local sausage, egg, and cheese! So hard to leave this blessed place!

Lake Koman, Albania. 2022.
Valbona National Park, Albania. 2022.
One of the 750,000 bunkers built during the Communist era in case of a nuclear war. Valbona National Park, Albania. 2022.
Chez Arben and Faria. Valbona National Park, Albania. 2022.
Turkish coffee prepared by Faria. Chez Arben and Faria. Valbona National Park, Albania. 2022.
So hard to leave Valbona! With Faria, chez Arben and Faria. Valbona National Park, Albania. 2022.

Tirana under Construction

It’s December and bustling Tirana – in a permanent construction boom – explodes in noise and colour. The Skanderbeg Square has become an amusement park, in such jarring opposition to the surrounding national theatre, museum, mosque, and clock tower from the Ottoman and Soviet-era. The soft winter light casts delicate shadow on local residents milling around the Stalinist Opera House while street musicians sing Que sera seraWhatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera… I keep wondering what the communists would have made of all this, stirring in their graves!

National Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
National Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Et’hem Bey Mosque. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
The Clock Tower. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
The Tanners’ Bridge (18th century). Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Que sera sera. ..!Tirana, Albania. 2022.
A street trumpetist in Skanderbeg Square. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Tirana, Albania. 2022.
The hip Fortress of Justinian/Tirana Castle area in evening light. Tirana, Albania. 2022.

For nearly half a century, between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Communist regime with a secret police, large-scale surveillance, and widespread persecution. The former dictator, Enver Hoxha, the “iron fist of Albania,” was paranoid about an eventual nuclear attack and embarked on one of the grandiose follies of having a bunker for every Albanian citizen (over 700,000 were built instead of 2.5 million)! Thankfully, the country has turned the page and this brutal past belongs only to museums. Today, the Blloku district, once the exclusive residential neighbourhood of the Communist leaders, is a hip area filled with nightclubs while bunkers are filled with highly critical art to commemorate all the victims who perished under the dictatorship. In Bunk’Art1, a bunker-turned museum, right by the Dajti Mountain, one could pick up a receiver to “talk to” Enver Hoxha. What would you say to this megalomaniac who killed and jailed hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens? I learned chillingly that the bulkiest Sigurimi Secret Police file was on the most famous living Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, with no fewer than 1,280 pages in four volumes! The pen is mightier than the sword!

Literature is a natural adversary of totalitarianism. Tyrannical governments all view literature in the same way: as their enemy. I lived for a long time in a totalitarian state, and I know firsthand that horror… In one way or another, you are writing in the service of freedom. All writers know, understand, or dream that their work will be in the service of freedom.

– Ismail Kadare

The House of Leaves/Museum of Secret Surveillance. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
The controversial Piramida monument built to honor the national dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Residence of former dictator, Enver Hoxja. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Talking to the ghost of Enver Hoxha! Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
A classic interrogation room. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Made-in-China oxygen machine in case of a total nuclear fallout. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
A surreal-looking mask for a horse in case of a nuclear fallout. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Special windows with a complex airflow system for an eventual nuclear fallout. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
A clever art installation of adding an imaginary window in a bunker, destroying the entire concept of an airtight bunker! Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
The omnipresent ghost of Enver Hoxha. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
One of the 700,000 bunkers bulit in the event of a nuclear fallout. Bunk’Art 1, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.

I actually escaped the palace, and having repassed the bazaars, was at work on a drawing of the castle rock, one of the most imposing subjects, ere yet the sun has risen over the eastern hills. Above the town the view is still more majestic.

– Edward Leer, 1848

From Tirana, I take a day trip to Kruje in the mountains up North and Durres by the coast. The former capital of the first Albanian state in the middle ages, Kruje is a beautiful Byzantine town famous for being the home of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, who fought against the Ottoman Empire. A stroll through the exquisite old bazaar leads one to an ancient castle sitting majestically on top of craggy rocks with spectacular views of the entire region as far as the Adriatic coast. From Kruje, it’s an hour to Durres, a Roman city founded in the 8th century with an amphitheatre and fortress ruins even though today it has largely given way to casinos and beachfront development.

Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Kruje Castle. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Kruje Castle. Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Durres, Albania. 2022.
Durres, Albania. 2022.

Berat: Town of a Thousand Windows

Without doubt, the twin crown jewels in Albania are the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Berat and Gjirkoaster. On the Osum River in central Albania, Berat is known for her picturesque white Ottoman houses with a thousand windows. The hilltop Castle with its Byzantine churches, Christian icons, old mosques, and museums, overlooking the majestic town, is a wonder. What joy to roam around leisurely in a sunny December morning sans tourists!

Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.
View of Berat from the Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
View of Berat from the Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
View from the Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Clock Tower in the Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat Castle. Berat, Albania. 2022.
Berat, Albania. 2022.

Gjirokaster: the Stone City

In our city spring came from the sky, not from the soil, which was ruled by stone that recognizes no seasonal change. The change of the season could be glimpsed in the thinning of clouds, the appearance of the birds and the occasional rainbow.

– Ismail Kadare

There is no question that winter is upon us. I awake to Gjirokaster shrouded in a cold December fog, giving the gorgeous Ottoman city a near mystical appeal. From Old Town, I twist and turn until I reach the famed Fortress, once the prison for many of Albania’s elite who perished under Enver Hoxha, now a museum. The top offers a million dollar view over the entire plain with the stone city spread before your very eyes. Gjirokaster is also the birthplace of both the former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha and writer Ismail Kadare whose beautiful houses have been turned into museums. This is a city with much history and character, one that invites the visitor to linger…

A wintry morning in the old stone city. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
View of the city from the castle. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster Castle. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster Castle. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Cockpit view of Gjirokaster from the Castle! Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Gjirokaster Castle. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Old Town. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Old Town. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Old Town. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Old Town. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Fico House. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Ismail Kadare House. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
A Ismael Kadare character set in Gjirokaster! Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Ethnographic Museum, built on the site of the former house of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Saranda: the Albanian Riviera

My adventurous 2022 draws to a close in the last port city of Saranda in Southern Albania before crossing over to Greece. I check in a house overlooking the Straits of Corfu, put down my bags, and begin my year-end ritual of doing nothing. But before that, two last excursions to the incredible Blue Eye National Park and the archaeological complex in Butrint. I spend Christmas eve in the joyous company of Mitsuki and Ken, two fellow long-distance wanderers hailing from Japan, enjoying the natural wonder in the Blue Eye before they hitch an onward ride to Gjirokaster. What a Christmas present!

Saranda: my new idyllic home till early 2023! Saranda, Albania. 2022.
A pastoral scene right by the Blue Eye National Park. Blue Eye, Albania. 2022.
Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.
Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.
Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.
With Mitsuki & Ken at the incredible Blue Eye on Christmas eve, having a blast! Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.
Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.
Blue Eye National Park, Albania. 2022.

Twenty kilometres south of Saranda lies the most impressive archaeological site in Albania. A Greek colony, Roman city, Byzantine town, and Venetian enclave, Butrint reveals layers of rich historical development with a spectacular amphitheater, baptistery, mosaics, basilica, clock tower, fortress, merchant houses and palaces, all set within a scenic marsh and valley of mandarin farms. On my return, I make a pit stop in the tranquil coastal town of Ksamil for one more Ionian sunset. What a year-end bonus!

Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Ancient hieroglyphics. Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Butrint National Park. Butrint, Albania. 2022.
Ksamil, Albania. 2022.

Albania, what a massively underrated destination! Between the mountains and the sea, medieval towns and Ottoman cities, a bustling capital city and plenty of coastal retreats, there is plenty to please every kind of travellers. As usual, it’s the people you remember. This is a nation that has fought and endured much, and yet never lost its generous spirit. For a month, I have been nourished by its pristine nature, rich history, and culture as well as a tantalizing culinary tradition. Faleminderit!

May we not assume that in the Albanian’s life of danger and want, that to be a guest if only for four hours or twenty-four hours, is a kind of respite, a moment of oblivion, a true, a reprieve, and – why not? – an escape from everyday life into some divine reality?

– Ismail Kadare, Broken April

A photo of a photo! Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Street art. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Street art. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Bunk’Art 2, an Albanian history museum inside a Communist-era nuclear pit bunker. Tirana, Albania. 2022.
Here’s to your sweet 2023! New year baklava prepared by my host family. Gjirokaster, Albania. 2022.
Cheers to another adventurous year ahead! Berat, Albania. 2022.
Corfu beckoning me! Saranda, Albania. 2022.
Kruje, Albania. 2022.
Saying goodbye to the Balkans and 2022! Tirana, Albania. 2022.

This concludes the six-part series on my three-month journey revisiting the Balkans in 2022. See you in 2023!

Sweet Little Slovenia

La Dolce Vita: Croatia

Traversing the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Traversing the Balkans: Kosovo

Traversing the Balkans: North Macedonia

Next: Greece!

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan