A Balkan Success Story
Sarande sits squarely astride the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, directly across from the Greek Island of Corfu, in an area known as the Albanian Riviera. Oh, you didn’t know Albania had a “Riviera”? Well, who can blame you? Until the 1990s this country was all but closed to western visitors. In fact, for much of its history, Albania has been out of step with the rest of the world.
In the 15th century, an Albanian warrior named Georgi Skanderbeg fought off the advances of the Ottoman Empire when Eastern Europe was knuckling under to Turkish rule. After World War I, Albania aligned itself with Italy instead of the other Balkan states in Yugoslavia. During World War II, when virtually all of Axis-occupied Europe was persecuting Jews, Albania provided safe harbor for them. When the post-war European communist governments began to move away from strict Marxist-Leninist doctrine toward peaceful coexistence, Glasnost and Perestroika, Albania aligned itself instead with hard line Chinese Communists and slammed shut its doors to the developed world. And in 2007, crowds in Tirana actually gave a warm welcome to George Bush, the first sitting U.S. President to visit the country.
Somehow, through all this zigging when everyone else was zagging, Albania has emerged from its isolation a stable, democratic, economically healthy member of the world community.
So, welcome to the Albanian Riviera.
The Dragon Of Albania
Georgi Kastrioti (Skanderbeg) actually began his military career fighting for the Ottoman Turks instead of against them. His father, John, was lord of Middle Albania and put up a fight against Turkish incursion. The Sultan, displeased, nabbed his three sons as hostages to ensure the lord’s loyalty. Georgi converted to Islam and attended military school in Turkey. His service for the Ottoman Empire was so impressive he was compared to Alexander the Great. In 1443, Skanderbeg defected with 300 troops to Albania, where he united the Albanian princes, built fortresses, trained an army, and used his country’s mountainous terrain to full advantage in waging a successful guerilla war against the Turks until his death in 1466.
Born Ahmet Zogolli to a Turkish ruling family, the future king was educated in Istanbul, saw service in Europe in World War I, and returned to politics in Albania in the 1920s. In 1928 he was crowned King Zog, an unfortunate name that sounds vaguely like a comic book hero. King Zog became something of a royal dandy having acquired several exotic habits during his European service including smoking up to 200 perfumed cigarettes a day. With no links to European royalty, Zog was never accepted as part of the ruling political elite. During his reign, he survived 55 assassination attempts, married the Hungarian-American Countess Geraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Apponyi, and produced a son and heir, Crown Prince Leka, who provides a beacon of hope to Albanian monarchists wherever they may be.
Albania has the distinction of being one of the first countries occupied by Axis powers at the outset of World War II. For five long years Albanian partisans resisted their occupiers, eventually becoming the only Eastern European nation to oust the Nazis without Soviet assistance.
As leader of the Communist Labor Party, Enver Hoxha became head of the new People’s Republic of Albania for the next four decades. He was the architect of Albania’s isolation from the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, as an admirer of Joseph Stalin, Hoxha adopted his hero’s most repressive measures. To his credit, though, he helped transform Albania from a semi-feudalized society into an industrialized 20th century nation and set the stage for his country’s “coming out” in the 90s.
Sarande offers an excellent base for exploring this still relatively unknown country. Among its features are the remains of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with evidence of human habitation dating back to the Stone Age. A synagogue from the 5th or 6th century AD was uncovered in 2003, the first of its kind discovered in the area. It offered a rich trove of mosaics depicting items associated with Jewish holidays. One of the more unusual offerings of the area is some of the 700,000 one-man concrete pillboxes commissioned during the Hoxha era. They were designed to be portable enough to set up as a defensive perimeter against whatever threats the government might discern at any given time. Local artists have transformed many into colorful modern icons.
Oh, if you happen to discover why the town was given a name that means “forty saints” do let the rest of us know.
Karyn L. Planett