This year's (2008) Balkan tour was Albania. Not an obvious holiday trip but
plenty of interest for the military historian.
In ancient times starting from the Illyrians and their wars with the Romans, of
which there are several well preserved sites, as well as Greek colonies. The
Byzantine influence is strong particularly in the fortifications and their wars
with the Normans, Venetians and the Serbian Empire.
Albania like the rest of the Balkans was overrun by the Ottomans but not before
the national hero Skanderbeg put up a fierce resistance. Albania accommodated
the Ottoman's better than most of the Balkans with many Albanians converting to
Islam. There was always a degree of autonomy probably best illustrated by the
rule of Ali Pasha.
Finally a growing sense of national identity took hold in the 19th Century that
eventually led to independence after the Balkan Wars and WW1. After a short rule
by the German Prince Wilhelm of Wied came the wonderfully named King Zog. The
Italians annexed Albania in 1939 and fought a disastrous war against Greece
before the Germans bailed them out. After the war the communist partisans took
over led by Enver Hoxha who ruled Albania until his death in 1985. Albania
returned to democracy in 1990.
Many people are put off travelling to Albania, mostly by those in Montenegro and
particularly Greece who will tell tourists it not safe. It is of course true
that Albania has its challenges. Not least are the generally poor roads and many
Albanian drivers who have no concept of a highway code and drive like lunatics.
Public transport is OK but would be difficult to do a tour like this in a
reasonable time. Facilities for tourists are limited, particularly opening times
of attractions, translations, guidebooks etc.
On the other hand the Albanians are very friendly and are only to willing to
help obviously lost foreigners. There are good hotels, the food is typical
Mediterranean fare and car hire was straightforward. As long as you take the
usual precautions Albania is no more risky a place to travel than anywhere in
I flew direct from London Gatwick to Tirana, British Airways managed to lose my
bag in Gatwick but you can hardly blame that on the Albanians! Having decided on
my itinerary for the week Regent
Holidays booked the flights, car hire and the hotels. Their local
representative was very helpful.
Albania is essentially a coastal plain surrounded by high mountains. This is
essential to any understanding of the military history of the country as it is
travelling. The coastal plain is generally reasonably quick to get around (allow
extra time for the state of the roads) but any trip to or through the mountains
is very slow.
I went in May when the climate is reasonable. It gets very hot in high summer,
even in the mountains. If your less than enthusiastic partner isn't convinced by
this trip, there are stunning beaches particularly in the south whilst you visit
the sights. It is also good value for money when you get there.
There is a good Bradt Travel Guide on Albania by Gillian Gloyer that is an
essential resource as is a good map. I recommend the Freytag & Berndt as the
Cartographia one has a number of errors.
The Tour - Northern Albania
My first full day was spent mostly in Kruja the centre of Albanian resistance
to the Ottomans and the site of one of Skanderbeg's greatest victories in 1467.
It is about an hour's drive from Tirana and you can get a car up to the old
town. Spend some time in the covered bazaar where you can pick up your souvenirs
because it is probably the only place in Albania that really does tourism. The
obligatory Skanderbeg bust, flags, caps and a DVD of the great man's life.
The castle is everything you would expect perched on a rocky outcrop.
It includes a good historical museum that everyone justifiably calls the
Skanderbeg museum. The Ethnographic museum is worth a quick look if only to see
how Albanian houses were built for defence.
After Kruja I headed for the port of Durres (Greek and Roman Epidamnus and later
Dyrrachium). There are several Roman remains including a large amphitheatre,
baths and a modest archaeological museum (one floor open). Plus the remains of
the Byzantine and Venetian city walls.
Difficult to picture either Caesar's inconclusive battle against Pompey or the
later (1081) Norman victory against the
Byzantines amongst the modern beach hotels in the bay where these battles were
Day 2 involved a two hour drive north to Shkodra (former Scutari) near the
Montenegro border. Only one not to be missed site here, Rozafa Castle. It
dominates the approach to the city from the south on a hill at the confluence of
First fortified by the Illyrians the castle has Byzantine, Venetian and
Ottoman influences. It is well preserved and includes a small museum and a good
restaurant. In later times the castle was the Ottoman command post in the
various sieges of the town by the Montenegrins during the
On the way back I stopped at Lezha that has another impressive castle site. This
was another part of a chain of castles that lit beacons to warn Skanderbeg and
his forces of Ottoman attack. There is a very poor road part the way up and I
abandoned the car. However, after a long walk, on a hot day, I arrived to find
the castle closes at 3pm! but still you can get a good idea from the walls.
Lezha also has Skanderbeg's tomb in the ruins of the Cathedral. Closed again
at 4pm despite the entrance sign saying it opened till 7pm, but again you can
see most of it from outside. They don't do the great man justice in Lezha!
Day 3 started with a walking tour of Tirana. The National Historical Museum
is well worth a few hours. The displays take you
through Albanian history chronologically. There are helpful translations on many
exhibits and the maps are good. As no photies are allowed a guidebook would have
been helpful. A small shop sells some English language publications and some
more are available in the bookshop over the road in the Palace of Culture.
Not surprisingly the museum is strongest on the late 19th and 20th centuries
including a particularly good collection of artillery and small arms. One of the
joys of Balkan museums is the historical spin each country adopts. There is a
diagram of the Battle of Kosovo 1389 that shows
the Albanians on the right flank of the allied army (generally accepted) and
another unit in the centre. The Albanian right wing routing the Ottomans, whilst
Serbian's are defeated. Contrast this with a similar diagram in the Serbian
army museum in Belgrade that makes no reference at
all to the Albanians!
Skanderbeg square is the heart of the city and has a huge statute of the man.
If you continue down the main boulevard to the park you can visit the British
Memorial Cemetery that commemorates the 40 British and Commonwealth troops who
died in Albania during WW2.
A short journey outside Tirana on the Elbasani road takes you to another of
Skanderbeg's castles, Petrela. Perched high above the road this is an impressive
sight and is accessible by a good road (for a change!) up to the village. It is
then a shortish climb to the remains that have been taken over as a restaurant
by an enterprising local. On a hot day this was very welcome!
Next Southern Albania