Undoubtedly, I am no expert on travel in Albania. However, having visited this beautiful country over the past seventeen years, I do have an enlightened view of what you can expect upon arrival to the 'Land of Eagles.'
First and foremost, after you get through the throng of other tourists in the 'Foreign Visitors' line at the passport checkpoint in Nënë Tereza Airport, you will quickly realize how kind and generous the Albanian people are. Albanians live and die by many mottos that they were brought up to believe, much like how you and I believe that Motown is an essential tool to cleaning the house.
Ingrained into every Albanian is the idea that the guest is the most important element to any home. There is a phrase which I have framed and proudly displayed on our living room wall, 'Before the house belongs to the Albanian, it belongs to God and the Guest.' This belief is derived from their ancient customary laws of Kanun dating back to pre-Islamic times. (If you don't know it yet, Albania was ruled by Muslim Turkey (AKA Ottoman Empire) from 1386-1912...more on that later.) The Kanun was a written guide of rules for Albanians to follow, which made it difficult and downright impossible for other cultures and religions to inundate the beautiful stubbornness of pure Albanian culture, even after thousands of years. An extension of this motto is that it is the homeowner's obligation to take in strangers, offer them food, shelter and physically protect them from harm, no matter what.
This idea was never more perfectly demonstrated when during WWII, the Albanians smuggled thousands of Jews past their borders and hid them inside private homes all throughout Albania, and when the German-Nazi military requested Albania to hand over the Jews, the Albanians hid them even further into their impenetrable mountains and refused the pressing Germans. Any Jew seeking refuge in Albania was accepted and welcomed like a guest, in some cases, for years. There are thousands of stories of Albanians risking their lives to protect their Jewish guests. This amazing feat resulted in Albania containing more Jews residing in its borders after the war than any other country in Europe. (This is one of my all-time favorite Albanian facts) Keep in mind that during this time, these were Muslim and Christian Albanians saving Jews. Beautiful, right?! Although you may be a foreigner in Albania, you are more than that to any Albanian. This is in no way an exaggeration. No matter what, an Albanian host will do everything in their power to make sure you are well taken care of.
I am currently at the beachside in Albania, where my husband's family runs a hotel and restaurant. Since Albania is just starting to see its influx of foreigners, we were able to speak to a few Polish travelers. Which if you can imagine, seventeen years ago, I was one of the only and rarely seen foreign visitors. These two Polish families were amazed at how kind and warm the Albanians were, stating that their experiences in other countries like Croatia and Romania were not so enjoyable. They were so happy with their experience and just blown away by the delicious food and beautiful hospitality. Surprised? Not really.
Read more about Albanian history here:
Read more about Jews in Albania here:
Lunchtime on Tezë's farm
Food, Food Glorious Food
The most beautiful part of any journey in a new country is to experience the cuisine. Albania has the whole 'farm to table' movement beat, they have been doing it non-stop for hundreds of years. Of course, in the big cities like Tirana, the capital, restaurants most likely are supplied by vendors, however, you can be sure that the bread, cheese, vegetables and fruit were all grown only a mile or two away. In the smaller cities and rural farmhouses, every good Albanian household and restaurant is proud to present the bounty from their own land.
A typical breakfast in Albania might consist of petulla, a fried dough that may be accompanied by farm cheese or honey. Or perhaps bukë me vezë, which is bread dipped in egg and pan-fried, like French toast. Of course tooth-achingly sweet Turkish coffee is necessary to start the day (wait for the grounds to settle at the bottom of the cup and stop sipping once you get the thick bottom layer of grounds) but most homes and restaurants offer espresso standard. However, with espresso, you don't have the opportunity to have the lady of the house read your fortune in the coffee grounds either. That is an experience in itself.
Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day, which is then followed by a gracious nap time. On every Albanian table, there will always be more than necessary to feed a big crowd. The women who prepare the meal will hardly sit down at the table, making sure the beers are cold, exchanging half-full bottles with brand-new cold bottles, and watching everything; making sure cups are full, and plates are an unending flow of meat, rice, potatoes, salad, bread etc. Fish will have been caught daily, by some brother of a neighbor or relative of some sort of connection. The meat will have been lovingly been tended to by Tezë (Aunt - technically the sister of your mother, and not the sister of your father) and butchered by another family member...always freshkit (fresh).
My most favorite Albanian foods are as follows:
Byrek, Qofte, and Gurabija
Byrek, (pronounced Buur-ek) consists of fresh dough, thinly rolled with many layers and stuffed with savory fillings. It is made in a large round pan, baked and crispy on the outside and moist and somewhat steamed on the inside, kind of like a noodle. It is great fast food, and a huge triangle slice can be purchased for around a dollar. My favorite filling is spinach with farm cheese or caramelized onion and meat. I have not yet attempted to make this in my kitchen. It involves a lot of rolling with a thin dowel, patience and purity of heart...all of which I don't possess.
Qofte, (pronounced Cho-f-tay) which I am proud to say that I am a master of, is much like the ubiquitous meatball found in almost all cultures. This elongated meat shaft (I know, poor choice of words, but they're funny.) looks like a breakfast sausage link. Each family, town, and province, has its own recipe for this meaty goodness. From north to south, I ask for it in every restaurant and home I have been privileged to enter.
To appreciate a really good qofte, (by my standards...Albanians, feel free to chime in on this...as I'm sure you will) they should be grilled over smoldering coals. They should contain a bit of fat to keep them moist and seasoning does help. I like a bit of pork in my qofte with some finely diced onions, and any herbs I may have growing in my garden (which is pretty much everything). I have also had a few stuffed with cheese, not my favorite. I've had a few fried in oil, which is fine too. The best qofte I have had in Albania was at a random roadside restaurant, in Fier, heading south to Sarande. The mini-Albanians were hungry and we needed to stretch our legs. It was grilled promptly and presented with bread drizzled with local olive oil and sprinkled with local dried herbs. Food memories are always most vivid for me.
The best qofte in Fier and My Albanian in his element
I am not one of those persons who claim that they don’t like sweets. I enjoy a good treat now and then, I just don’t like heavily sweetened items. Gurabija (pronounced Goor-Ah-Bee-Ya) are a cookie that hails from the communist era when sugar and butter were rationed and very limited. It is a soft sugar cookie, with just a little sugar, enough to make it enjoyable to kids and acceptable to adults. Its cake-like texture is due to the sunflower oil used instead of butter. They can be found in almost every store and perfectly packaged for sharing at the beach. I shy away from the ones made with a thin layer of red icing, that much red dye could induce ADHD in any healthy person. Parents of allergy kids should note: some are made with butter and packaged much like the ones made only with oil, so double-check the ingredient list.
I have so much more to write about Albania, is there something you would like to know more about?
Leave me a comment, I would love to hear from you.
Check out my other posts on SheMarriedAlbanian.com