It is we now realise a mistake, for very many reasons, to lump all of the Balkan countries together so forgive us for reflecting on these two very different countries in the same post. Until July Albania and Montenegro were mysterious to us, forming part of a mass of countries we thought of homogenously as Eastern Europe. We could not have even attempted to define their borders nor guess at their histories but we knew we wanted to get to know them. Both countries have been highlights for us, taking us outside the somewhat familiar countries of the Mediterranean and immersing ourselves in very different and much more recent histories and unfamiliar yet spectacular landscapes.
All that said our first impressions of Albania, arriving in the southern resort of Sarande, was of a bright, busy seaside resort, albeit a little stuck in the 1970s as my friend Jenny so accurately forewarned us. Beach umbrellas were squashed close together covering every inch of available beach in Montenegro too. We could have been anywhere in Spain or Greece.
Living as we do on the coast it soon became apparent that despite their topography not allowing for traditional beaches the people of Albania, Montenegro and their neighbouring countries will create a beach wherever possible. Despite the sheer mountains of both countries falling straight into the sea even the tiniest strip of available seafront will be filled with umbrellas and cafes and when there isn’t any seafront they will build a concrete platform and call it a beach. And it wasn’t just the resident populations that flocked to the coast. Albania was full of Kosovans and Montenegro full of Serbians.
Both Albania and Montenegro blew us away with their mountainous landscapes. We often have to travel inland to experience a countries high peaks but these two countries brought them to us right beside the water.
And perhaps it is because we spend so much time at sea level that we find it so refreshing to be at higher altitude. The air is always cooler and clear and the views wonderful.
Roads and transport
We did not explore Montenegro’s interior so did not get to know its roads quite as well as Albania’s but it would be seriously remiss not to comment on our experience of the latter’s roads and their users.
Just as Albania’s roads came in two categories – lovely smooth tarmacked and sometimes even dual carriageway or full of huge pot holes with no surface to speak of at all –
their users also came in two categories
horses, donkeys and cows
or a bizarre juxtaposition of either very flash high end cars (widely accepted to have been stolen to order from outside Albania) or ancient Mercedes. We asked our Shëngjin shipping agent, Ffrok, why nearly everyone drives old Mercedes in Albania. His answer was very practical – they are the best cars for driving on the terrible roads and parts are very easy to come by.
Albania and Montenegro share ancient histories. The Illyrian civilisation controlled their land and sea in the late Iron Age. The Romans settled in both countries.
Both countries experienced the tyranny of Ottoman rule for centuries
and proud and fierce struggles for independence which came first for Montenegro in 1878 and later in Albania in 1912.
But in no other countries we have visited have their recent histories been written so large. Both countries independence was relatively short lived and occupation came again during the World Wars
Everywhere were stories of the fearless yet ordinary people, the partisans who rose up in resistance to the Italians and Germans.
Particularly poignant for me were the stories of the (very) young women who joined the fight for freedom, many of whom didn’t live to see it.
Life under Communism
It was in Albania that we really started to understand what live might be like in a Communist State and, with its closed borders and tight controls on its population, Albania was perhaps the most extreme of examples.
It was in Tiranë at the House of Leaves that we really started to understand the extent of state control and the surveillance that people lived in fear of.
Enver Hoxha’s paranoia of foreign invasion is still visible everywhere. We gave up playing spot the bunker quite quickly. They are all over both the urban and rural landscape.
Evidence of life under Tito and the Communist government of Montenegro is more difficult to see but it is still there in the abandoned military vessels and buildings in the Bay of Kotor.
Art and architecture
Albania, and Tiranë in particular, introduced us to Socialist Realism and its idealised portrayals of the fight against fascism and Communist life
but it was the huge, monumental sculptures of the movement that spoke of the struggles for freedom and triumphal victories.
We also loved the bright and evocative street art of Albania’s capital city.
After the somewhat ubiquitous architecture of the chora of the Greek islands it was refreshing to find completely different styles of architecture in Albania’s Gjirokastër and Berat. Even the familiar Venetian architecture of Kotor was good to see again.
But we also loved the more modern straight lines and curves of some of the more modern, Communist era buildings.
Even the castles of Ali Pasha, with their high vaulted ceilings and dinghy, damp dungeons caused a renaissance in Stefan’s interest in castles
which extended to the various forts of Montenegro.
Food and drink
If we left Greece yearning for something a bit different from Greek salad in terms of cuisine Albania and Montenegro left us culinarily disappointed.
Menus were full of familiar Mediterranean fayre – grilled meat and fish, trusty Greek salad by another name and Italian influenced pastas and pizzas. Eggs predominated for breakfast – in Albanian usually served as an omelette along with the trimmings of a Turkish breakfast but with the addition of the doughnut like petulla. In Gjirokastër we found local specialities including tasty rice and lentil patties which made this vegetarian very happy.
In Berat we tried the local okra stew and were inspired to try cooking with this tricky ingredient so readily available in the markets. Our attempts weren’t half bad and we won’t be scared of it again.
Desserts did not figure large on either countries menus but the ice cream was good and the cherry and poppy pie slices from the grumpy baker in Kotor excellent. In Montenegro we were never without an excellent cheese table. The choice of goats, sheep and smoked cheeses was too good to pass up.
The good news for provisioning was that both countries had excellent markets full of fresh, local produce. It might still have revolved mainly around tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and aubergines but there was also an abundance of fruit. Figs, plums and raspberries were in season and there was also delicious dried apricots, cherries and strawberries. In Montenegro we enjoyed flavourful dried mushrooms and all sorts of olives.
And to wash all that food down? Albania introduced us to mountain tea – a herbal brew with a faint yet distinct aftertaste of washing up liquid. Stefan stuck to coffee! I was also introduced to my new favourite soft drink – Italian lemon soda. Think Orangina but with lemons. I love it so much that we have stocked up at every opportunity when we see it in the supermarkets. Special mention too needs to go to the wines of Montenegro. After the young (and sometimes ropey) village wines of Greece and Albania it was good to find some really decent wine. There may not be many producers, in fact one, Plantaze, seems to predominate, but it was wine good enough for us to fill up the bilge with a few boxes before leaving.
But hands down our best foodie experience in Albania and Montenegro, or in fact any other country that we have been to, has to be the meal we shared with our vest wearing shipping agent, Ffrok, outside Shëngjin. The exquisitely fresh and very local produce that went into our meal at Mrizi I Zanave made it the best we’ve ever had.
And whilst we are on the subject of our vest wearing shipping agent, Ffrok, it would be remiss of us not to comment on our experiences of the people of these two countries.
Again perhaps because we spent more time travelling around Albania we had more opportunities to interact with people. Generally the people of both countries might at first appear unsmiling and aloof but we soon learnt that this would disappear and warmth appear instead. That said the grumpy baker in Kotor never cracked a smile even when I know he recognised me. Perhaps because its borders were closed to foreigners for so long until relatively recently and it still remains far from the tourist trail, in Albania we found people more curious about us and why we were there. This gave us the opportunity in turn to ask them about their lives. Our conversations with souvenir seller, Kavjol, in Gjirokastër and two older men in Mother Teresa Square in Tiranë taught us a lot about the different generations experiences of the political and social upheaval of the past 30 years.
Whilst Ffrok described life under the Communist regime as better – “we had free schools, free health care” – Kavjol described a very difficult life for his poor, farming grandparents in the countryside. Although the present, simple, rural life appeared idyllic to us, the reality was probably still very different.
Elsewhere, people in Albania and Montenegro seemed to share many of the traits of their Mediterranean cousins – different generations hanging out together in parks, men huddled over games in the streets and everyone enjoying the evening volta.
Mediterranean they definitely are but these are two countries we wholeheartedly recommend to experience a very different slice of Mediterranean life.