So....where do travel writers spend their vacations?
Tom, and I are headed off to Albania next week for 10 days before crossing the Adriatic by ferry to spend some time in Southern Italy.
The first question almost everyone asks is "Why Albania?''
Well, for starters, it looks like we might be able to get there. The air space into Rome and on to Tirana, the capital, is clear of the ash from the volcano in Iceland...so far at least. Who knows what will happen in then next few days, but we're keeping our fingers crossed that we'll have a smooth flight into Mother Teresa Airport. That's right, the airport is named after Mother Teresa. Luck is on our side!
Albania is mostly a Muslim country - another reason to make a visit there, interesting. Albanians are "European'' Muslims, liberal and Westernized, who converted out of necessity when Albania, like the rest of the Balkans, came under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, Catholic and born in Macedonia, is Albania's "favorite daughter.''
Lonely Planet describes Tirana as a cross between Istanbul, Naples and Minsk. The language calls for many words, especially names, to end in "i'' - such as Genti for Gent and Presidenti for president. The Italian food is said to be as good as any in Italy. Why Albania? Why not?
With a beautiful coastline, Ottoman and Italian architecture and quirky post-communist cultural oddities, Albania is one of Europe's last frontiers. By that I mean, relatively undiscovered, friendly, interesting and cheap.
Many people speak Italian (Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and many learned the language).
Greci, the town in Southern Italy where my Grandpa Pucci was born, was settled by Albanian soldiers in the 1400s, a reward for helping Skanderbeg, the famous Albanian military leader who fought the Ottoman Turks, win a war against the French for King Ferdinand I of Naples. When the Ottomans finally conquered Albania, some Albanian Christians fled to neighboring Italy, settling in communities such as Greci where they still speak an Albanian/Italian dilalect.
Tourism is developing...slowly. Consider that Albania was like the North Korea of Europe, isolated until the early 1990s from Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha who ruled for 40 years after World War II.
Albanians are curious and anxious to meet outsiders, especially Americans. President George Bush, a supporter of independence for Albanian Kosovo, even got a warm greeting.
Many Europeans take tourists for granted, looking for ways to extract as many euros or dollars as possible. The Albanians I've met so far seem just the opposite. How many places can you go where no one asks for a deposit when you book a room?
"You are welcomed,'' is how the owner of the Hotel Mangalemi in the town of Berat responded to my e-mail inquiring about a room. The price: 25 euros including breakfast. In Durres, a port town where we'll get the ferry to Bari, in Italy, our host at the the bed and breakfast Tedeschini (15 euros per person in the former Austrian-Hungarian consulate), e-mailed that she'd recently been in Seattle visiting cousins.
In Gjirokaster we plan to meet up with a young couple in the Peace Corps whom I met on Couchsurfing.com.