2016 – Travelling in Albania

Last modified: 15 October 2016

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Who travels to Albania has to plan carefully. From the Netherlands it turned out, there were no direct airplanes to Tirana, Albania. I had a variety of choices, the best one of it was to book my flights via Austrian Airlines and fly via Vienna, Austria. It turned out not to be necessary, but I took an early plane to Vienna, and had to wait more than three hours at the airport of Vienna. Time enough to have a look around at the airport, to eat and drink something and surf around on the internet. With the next plane from Amsterdam I would have had about 45 minutes time to change planes, and the next plane to Tirana would have arrived in the night, which I didn’t want, especially because I didn’t know the country yet. The weather, which had been quite OK the day before, got worse on my arrival day, and in Vienna it was rainy and just about 7 C when I arrived at 9am. Luckily the weather in Albania was supposed to be better.

Just before the airplane reached the coast of Albania the clouds disappeared so I had a good look at the country. Sea, mountains (such a joy when you come from a flat country), small houses … and then finally at 2.20pm the airport. Not to be compared to any big European airport. It is rather small and when arriving I did even spot a flock of sheep walking near the runway, as well as some very tiny planes from Albanian companies. I got out of the airplane and then I was on Albanian soil. Airport busses took the travellers from the airstrip to the building itself, then it was time to show passports. Finally through the control I immediately saw my bag on the belt, which is a nice thing at such small airports, your luggage is there almost earlier than yourself. And in the hall a British friend from the royal weekends in Ticehurst was waiting for me with a Dutch friend of his living in Albania. So no waiting for taxis or busses, I could go straight into the car. Lucky me! We dropped my British friend of in the centre of Tirana – my first views of the city – and then headed to the outskirts of Tirana to the lovely Albanian style house (at least from the outside) of my new Dutch acquaintance, with fruit trees and chickens in the garden. When we drove back into town some time later I saw cows walking on the side of the streets, very normal in Albania it seems at the end of a day.

Anyway, we picked up my British friend again and went to see the Royal Mausoleum where King Zog, Queen Geraldine, King Leka and Queen Susan have been buried. The original mausoleum was designed by architect Qemal Butka and was inaugurated in 1935. The first to be buried there was Sadijé, the mother of King Zog, who had died in 1934. Unfortunately the building was destroyed by communist troops in November 1944. Finally several years ago it was reconstructed. And on 17 November 2012 the remains of King Zog were brought back from Paris and buried here. Also his wife, son and daughter-in-law who had died in the meantime in Albania were buried here. The remains of Sadijé were never found back but have to be somewhere on this small plot of land. The mausoleum is usually not open to the public. Nowadays there are restaurants next door and we had dinner at the restaurant called Mbreteresha (Queen).

Then I finally was taken back to Tirana and checked in at my hotel. You could go for one of the more expensive hotels in the area, which are rather cheap compared to similar hotels elsewhere in the world, but I had chosen a rather simple but sufficient hotel. Just the internet wasn’t of very good quality, but I did find a good place with quick internet already on Friday. My British friend showed me Tirana by night (lovely), including the royal residence where Prince Leka and Elia live, and we had a drink before I finally got to see my bed.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The temperature in Albania was rather nice, just over 20 C I think, but the Friday started off badly. After breakfast I took off to a nearby hotel where I was to meet a Belgian friend of mine who had also come to see the wedding. I had a quick look around and noticed all kind of small streetshops, but no time to go shopping yet. It had been raining at night, but as soon as I reached our meeting place it started raining again. We picked up our press accreditation for the next day and had a nice chat with the Swedish media organisator, Roger Lundgren, whom we both have known already for years. Then we got outside and had a look at the international bookshop around the corner, where I bought a nice photobook about the Albanian Royal Family, published in 2015 both in Albanian and English. Nothing else about the royal family in English or German unfortunately, apart from a rather expensive book about King Zog. But there were books in Albanian about Queen Geraldine and Prince Wilhelm zu Wied, the first royal ruler in Albania. We brought the book to the hotel quickly, but then it started raining heavily again, so I even had to buy an umbrella. No need to change Leks (the national currency) upon arrival. In Albania I noticed they happily accept Euros in many places, and often you can even choose whether you wish to have Leks or Euros in return. Just be careful, as especially the people selling their stuff in the streets are often asking more than you actually have to pay. We walked on but soon the rain was so bad that we entered a café to have coffee and tea.

Luckily in the early afternoon it started to clear up and we went outside again to visit the royal residence once again. My Belgian friend hadn’t been there yet and since the night before I at least knew where it was. You can’t fully walk around, but you can see a bit of it from two sides. Photographs are allowed to be taken from the outside, but not of the area within the fences itself. There is some security around the building. Behind one of the windows I spotted a tall shadow behind the curtains. Someone was watching me and I thought I’d just wave. Some minutes later all of the sudden a security man approached us – tourists? – if we would come with him. Not knowing what to expect we followed and were taken into the grounds of the house, into an elevator and into the building. We just looked at each other and had a quick look around as we saw some lovely royal portraits. Just when someone else wondered what we were doing inside, it turned out to be OK! We were taken into a reception room where Crown Prince Leka II actually waited for us. It turned out he had recognised me as we had had a short chat on Facebook about a week earlier. We shook hands, were invited to sit down on the sofa for a few minutes and Crown Prince Leka told us that he very much appreciated it that we had come to his country to report about the wedding. Of course he was very busy, but we were flabbergasted that he still took some time for us. He even posed with us and then he had to leave and we were escorted out of the house again.

We took the other exit this time, on the side where the stairs were that were to be used by the bridal couple and their guests the next day, and had a look at the statues of Lenin and Stalin that are hidden there behind a museum, as nobody actually really knows what to do with these remains of Communist times. Then we walked further down the street, passing the late President Enver Hoxha’s pyramid, with almost in front of it since March 2016 a bust of Pope Francis, who visited Albania in September 2014. At the end of the street is the university of Tirana, as well as a building, which seems to be a presidential palace. We noticed some guards in front of the door, and my friend said, hey they weren’t there yet before. Some people left the building, got into some waiting cars and drove off. One of the cars had an Albanian flag on the front and blinded windows in the back. Not sure whether it was the president of Albania or some other important person, but at least we did see something. We later heard this person must have been on its way to lunch with Crown Prince Leka and some guests that had already arrived in the country.

We walked around a bit and decided to ask for the way to the Royal Mausoleum at a nearby hotel. For the third time in within probably one hour we had an interesting meeting, as it turned out to be one of the guest hotels. In the lobby we met with Princess Lea of Belgium who had just checked in. Anyway we left as soon as we knew how to walk – eight kilometres probably according to the receptionist, but we didn’t think it was that far. We were right and maybe half an hour to 45 minutes later we arrived at the mausoleum. Walking around we met a bride who wanted her picture taken with us. Clearly they’re still not used to tourists in Albania yet. Then we headed back into town, therefore having missed the press conference (sorry Roger!).

I did slip on the surprisingly short way back and my coat and trousers were totally wet and muddy. We met a few royalty watchers, a journalist and a photographer when walking back to the hotel where I really had to change clothes. Luckily I had taken a blazer with me too and the weather wasn’t too bad. We had a drink outside and then searched for a place to eat. Luckily we picked something next door as soon it started raining again, and not only that. There was also thunder and lightning. Beautiful view when you’re outside but we were glad we weren’t there. The dinner was great (and cheap) and then we finally headed back to our hotels. The staff decided they could wash my coat in their washing machine. I got it back on Sunday morning, fully dry and clean. Happy, as the weather was a bit colder by then.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Saturday 8 October it was all about the wedding of course, but on Sunday, when my Belgian friend travelled on the Durrës I went sightseeing with a Ukrainian colleague who is as crazy about the royals as I am. We bought ourselves some magazines – including two with the royal couple – and a few wedding newspapers. And of course also she needed to have a look at the royal residence from the side she hadn’t seen yet the day before. When we had a look at the side with the stairs too we once again saw Crown Prince Leka who was saying goodbye to some guests. I had heard there was a reception on Sunday too, but couldn’t remember the place anymore. But we found out soon: the Prime Minister’s Office, which was rather close to the residence. We spent some time watching guests come and go and were able to take some more pictures and even speak to some royals.

We looked around in the area again and had some lunch/dinner and then headed for the bus. A nice young man then brought us from the busstop almost all the way to the Dajti Express. A more than four kilometres long cable car then took us almost to the top of the mountain. Not sure how high, but when the weather is clear I am sure the views are even more phantastic than what we saw. We were there only in the late afternoon, and it had become more cloudy and colder. We had some tea, went back into town by taxi and just managed to be about the last visitors of the day at the National History Museum. We simply asked for the room with royal history and were taken there. Think they thought it was a bit funny we went there, but that was all we had time for. However on our way out we also did see something about Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero from the 15th century. George Kastrioti (1405-1468), an Albanian who had become a Bey in Turkey, abandoned the Ottoman army in 1443 and started organizing a league of Albanian princes. He successfully repulsed Ottoman invasions. But soon after his death Albania again became part of the Ottoman Empire. His statue proudly stands in the heart of Tirana, at Skanderbeg Square. We had enough of walking around, found ourselves a place to have a drink, and had a look – despite of the darkness – at the statue of King Zog.

Monday, 10 October 2016

If I had been on my own I would have walked around Tirana once again on Monday 10 October. My airplane was to leave at 3pm only. My new Dutch friend in Albania however had offered to drive me around. And I thought a visit to Kruja would be a good idea. In the morning I packed my suitcase, had some breakfast, and then we drove off. Because of the traffic it took us quite a while to reach Kruja, but it was more than worth it. The weather wasn’t that beautiful, but good enough. Another Skanderbeg statue in this city, which was the center of Skanderbeg’s battle against the Ottomans. The castle houses the National Skanderbeg Museum, which is rather interesting. The lovely historic citadel was attacked by the Ottomans several times, but they failed to take control during Skanderbeg times. Inside you can among others see a replica of Skanderbeg’s famous goat head-topped helmet and his sword. We had a drink, bought some souvenirs. And then unfortunately it was time to go to the airport.

I met up with Roger Lundgren, a Dutch photographer and more than a handful of royals who all were in the same plane. In Vienna the photographer and I quickly waved goodbye before heading to our airplane to Amsterdam. Hardly time to change, but we managed despite of having to go all the way through the passport and luggage control again (Albania is not EU). Finally around 7.15pm we were back in the Netherlands. I had to wait a bit for my train back home and finally arrived home around 10.40pm with lots of great memories of a very special trip to a special country.

Not used to tourists a lot yet, Albania is an interesting country. Some very poor people, some quite rich, traditional elderly people and more modern younger people. Some new buildings, some from Zog’s times, some almost collapsed … Lots of dogs living in the streets, who don’t seem to have a home. They scared me a bit. Hardly any trains and you really have to take care that if you want to explore the country the busses might not drive very regularly. You can hire a car, but the traffic is rather chaotic, despite of pretty strict traffic rules. Anyway I truly found the country, the landscape and its really friendly people very interesting and it would be lovely to return back in a few more years. Probably with a direct flight then, as I heard the Dutch airline company Transavia plans to fly straight to Albania from 2017.

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