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This year's (2008) Balkan tour was Albania. Not an obvious holiday trip but plenty of interest for the military historian.

Historical Overview

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.

Travel

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 western Europe.

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 fought.

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 three rivers.

 

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 Balkan Wars.

 



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 the 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!

 

 

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