Although the country has been known in Turkey for Enver Hoxha -- or more precisely, his reforms, this is beginning to change. Albania was the last territory in the Balkans the Ottomans lost. Ottoman rule here lasted 500 years, starting in 1417 and ending with the assassination of Hasan Rıza Paşa. Traces of these 500 years are still present.
Tirana, Berat, Shkodër, Durrës, Elbasan and Vlorë are some of Albania’s cities. Albanians call their country Shqiperia, “the Land of Eagles.” This country gave more than 30 sadrazams (grand vizier/prime minister), including Kara Davud, Gedik Ahmet Paşa and Kara Murat to the Ottoman palace. Hundreds of Turkish words have been borrowed. A visit to this country reveals the numerous fruits of years of coexistence with Albanians.
Over 70 percent of Albania’s population is Muslim, some 20 percent are Orthodox Christian and 10 percent are Catholic. Being a Turk here gives you some privileges. In every part of the country; people show us great respect when they learn that we come from Turkey. They do not show the same respect to other nationalities.
The lake in Tirana, the capital, is artificial, constructed at the time of Hoxha. This lake provides a good place for recreation as it is surrounded by greenery. Albanians do their morning sports here on Mondays. We hear the “mirëmengjes,” which means “good morning” in Albanian. Here, mornings are considerably busy as people wake up very early.
The Albanian population is 85 percent Albanian, 2 percent Greek and 2 percent other.
The capital city, although a small town once upon a time, is now the most crowded city, with over 750,000 inhabitants. Its Skanderbeg Square is the largest and most famous part of the city as well as home to the Et’hem Bey Mosque and a 35-meter-high clock tower, both of which add liveliness to the area.
On one side of Tirana is Mount Dajt, which serves as a natural barrier. Its other protector, Enver Hoxha, died in 1985 and statues of him were subsequently removed. His grave was moved from a military cemetery to a public one.
Enver Hoxha instated communist rule during his 40-year reign following World War II. Led by him, Albanian authorities outlawed religion altogether and named Albania the first official atheist state. Hundreds of mosques and churches were closed or destroyed, with the Et’hem Bey Mosque being one of the few that survived. This mosque served as a museum until 1991, when it was reopened as a mosque. Today, Albanians are free to enter all mosques in the country.
The city of Berat
Some 70 percent of Albania is mountainous. Our next stop was to the city of Berat, home to the Gorica Bridge over the River Osum. This river divides the Muslim and Christian quarters. Berat is famous for its houses; what Safranbolu is to Turkey, Berat is to Albania.
It is said that Berat’s history dates back 2,500 years. The streets are narrow, usually around two meters wide, and paved with rough cobblestones. Every street in the old city is like this.
Berat is truly an Ottoman city. There are many mosques, their minarets rising up to the sky and broadcasting the call to prayer five times a day. It is probably one of the most charming cities in all of Albania.
On top of Berat’s hill is a castle that is somewhat like an eagle’s aerie. It dates back to 1,600 years ago and was one of the castles conquered by the Ottomans. The view offered by the castle opens up to both the old and new parts of the city. The Ottomans tended to establish their cities on the slopes of hills or mountains and use the plains for agriculture. The new city established in the post-Ottoman era reverses this mentality. As in many Albanian cities, mosques and churches stand side by side in Berat, a popular destination for tourists.
The ride from Tirana to Shkodër takes some one-and-a-half hours and leaves you with some breathtaking views of the Albanian Alps. Shkodër has some 100,000 inhabitants and is situated on the coast of Lake Shkodër, the largest lake in the Balkans. However, this lake is divided between Albania and Montenegro. As the Ottomans retreated, several Albanian provinces and part of this lake were lost.
Shkodër is also home to a castle on top of a hill. Time has taken its toll on this place, and the castle’s Fatih Sultan Mehmet Mosque, formerly a church, lies in tatters.
The River Drin runs through this city and merges with the River Buna here and 40 kilometers later flows into the Adriatic Sea.
Mehmet the Conqueror took Shkodër from the Venetians on April 25, 1479. Ironically, the Ottomans lost it on April 25, 1913.
Our next stop was to the grave of Hasan Rıza Paşa, the last Ottoman paşa in Albania. The inscription on his tomb says “Albania and Albanians pay tribute to Hasan Rıza Paşa, the great commander of our armies and a great military hero of the time.” Hasan Rıza Paşa’s father was the governor of Baghdad, while he himself served as the governor of northern Albania.
The Ebu Bekir Mosque is one of Albania’s newly built mosques, constructed in 1995. Excluding the mosques in Turkey, it is the biggest mosque in the Balkans. Over 60 percent of Skhodër’s residents are Muslim. Shkodër also serves as the center of Catholic Albanians.
The city’s Catholic church, the largest in Albania, was built in the Ottoman era in 1850. At the time of Enver Hoxha, it was used as a sports hall. Catholics are concentrated in northern Albania, while the Orthodox tend to live in the south. Muslims are scattered throughout the country.
Leaving Shkodër behind, we next went to Vlorë, the ancient Aulon. This is a beautiful coastal city and one of the most important in Albania. With its port, Vlorë is likened to Turkey’s İzmir. Indeed, Vlorë and İzmir are sister cities.
Vlorë held a special place in Ottoman history as Mehmet the Conqueror departed from here with the intention of conquering Rome after passing through the Strait of Otranto. However, he fell ill and the campaign was canceled. The distance between Vlorë and Italy is just 74 miles, and locals can watch Italian TV stations. Perhaps it is because of this that everyone can speak Italian.
Two Ottoman-built mosques still stand here. The mosque in the city center was built by the famous Mimar Sinan after Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent visited the city.
Ismail Qemali declared Albania’s independence here in 1912.
In every part of Albania, Turks are welcomed and loved -- no doubt the result of a legacy of good administration by the Ottomans.
Albanians drink a lot of coffee, and cafes are often full. Tea is not as common, as it is only drunk when one is sick -- at which time sage tea is the only way to go.
We also visited a tomb of a Bektaşi dervish. Albania is known as the center of the world’s Bektaşi order.
Albania is also home to concrete bunkers, similar to domes, built during Enver Hoxha’s rule for defense. Estimates put the number of these bunkers at 750,000. Some say the cost of each bunker was so high that a luxury home could have been built instead. These bunkers have since been abandoned. Grass and weeds have begun to grow on them, but the money spent to build them cannot be recovered.
Visa: Albania does not require visas from Turkish citizens. This also applies to the citizens of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and the EU.
How to go: Turkish Airlines (THY) has regular daily flights to this country. Albanian Airlines also offers direct flights, but less often.
THY: 137 euros + taxes
Departure: 1:05 p.m.
Arrival: 1:50 p.m.
Albanian Airlines: 129 euros + taxes
Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
Departure: 12:30 p.m.
Arrival: 1 p.m.
Cuisine: Albanian cuisine is very similar to Turkish cuisine, but Albanians do have a few of their own special meals.
Accommodation: Accommodation will not be a problem. It is easy to find good and clean hotels.
When to go: Spring and fall are the ideal time for a trip to Albania.
Official language: Albanian
Government: Parliamentary republic
President: Bamir Topi
Prime Minister: Sali Berisha
Area: 28,748 square kilometers
Gross domestic product (PPP): $21.160 billion*
Main religions: Muslim (70 percent), Albanian Orthodox (20 percent), Roman Catholic (10 percent)