25.08.2013. It was raining, quite unusual in the Balkans at this time of the year, and the streets in the old quarters began to lit up, though no match for the sheer darkness that had begun to envelop the city. The furgon ride from Berat was long and almost arduous, but the inspiring views of the beautiful country had more than made up for the lack of road comfort.
I found myself a quiet corner in the Sofia restaurant, strangely empty at 8 o’clock, forming a stark contrast to the string of bustling cafes just across the street. Men on stools were chatting and arguing and ultimately laughing away, accompanied by ubiquitous cups of espresso, unperturbed by the seeping rainwater. It was the perfect place to observe life, my favourite thing to do. As the waiter approached, the lights in the restaurant went out. With a smile and a shrug, he returned with a candle and a light stick before taking my orders. Well, what can we do?
This is Albania, a country that seemed lacking in so many regards, but for that very fact, became so endearing for me. I had found great tolerance in this country.
I was in Gjirokastër, the city which had produced two famous sons- Enver Hoxha, the tyrant dictator who had ruled the country for many years; and Ismail Kadare, Albania’s world famous writer. This fact encapsulates the country rather well. To the foreigners, the unfamiliarity may be abrasive, but once that friction wears off, there is something almost poetic about it.
Gjirokastër is another ancient Ottoman city not too dissimilar from Berat, and was another place I looked forward to visiting. Unlike Berat however, whose splendour laid out open even for the laziest of viewers; Gjirokastër requires a little bit more patience, tempting visitors to turn one more corner, or climb just another cobbled slope for wanting of its most secret and inspired views. The sight of white washed Ottoman houses perched uncharacteristically on the rolling hills is truly breathtaking. It was impossible for me to pick a favourite.
When I head south to Sarandë and surrendered myself to the beautiful Ionian beaches in Ksamil village, the mysterious ancient ruins of Butrint, or even casting my eyes on the enchanting blue waters of the Syri i Kalter, I knew that the magic of Albania had seeped away as surely as mass tourism had encroached.
And it was time to move on.