A pampering and cheap trip to the Balkan pearl! Wild nature, picturesque villages, ancient traditions and cordial hospitality!

A pampering and cheap trip to the Balkan pearl! Wild nature, picturesque villages, ancient traditions and cordial hospitality!

Article by Eran Haklai, at Lifestyle Magazine/The writer is a tour guide and lecturer at Ayala Geographics
In the spring of 2010 I set out to guide a trip to Montenegro. At two in the morning we discovered that two hikers were confused by the days, and did not reach the field. We had to fly them to the destination via Albania, and they landed in Tirana. The hair-raising stories with which they reached the border, a dark, shabby country with rickety roads and horse carts changing the cars, made us understand that this was exactly what we were looking for a good and interesting trip. A few months later I was sent with a friend to tour the country and build hiking trails for Ayala Geographic.
Albania had already enchanted us with landing. The special language, the hospitable people, the enormous road traveled by the small country in the 20th century, together with the story of saving the Jews during World War II - all connected us to Albania in a deep and emotional way. Since then we have been telling her about anyone who wants to hear, and we encourage everyone who is looking for a good, close and inexpensive destination to visit. This summer, charter flights were launched directly to Albania at a reasonable price and during a short and convenient flight, and this is a golden opportunity.
The land of the eagle
Albania is one and a half times the size of Israel. For a walk it takes at least a week, and it is best to spend even ten days to reach all its diverse attractions. This is a country with one-third of its territory plains, but two-thirds are mountains that are more than 1,000 meters high - it is not for nothing that the Albanians call their country "the land of the eagle," and it is also on their flag. The trip to Albania combines a unique Balkan culture with breathtaking mountain views.
The trip to Albania can be divided into three parts: the northern mountains, the cities of the center, and the beaches and towns of the south. As soon as we arrive in Tirana, the carnival begins - literally. Until about 20 years ago Tirana looked like slums. Sewage flowed through the streets, garbage was thrown everywhere, the roads were rickety and with the fall of Communism there were only 2,000 cars in the whole country. In the early 2000s, a new mayor, Eddie Rama, came to Tirana, where he had studied art in Paris.
 In addition to improving the city's economic situation, he knew what he had to do to improve his sad and communist appearance: he painted the houses of the residents in vivid colors at the expense of the municipality and turned the Albanian capital into one of the colorful cities in Europe. There are those who will raise an eyebrow on the combination of colors, but the exhibition of colorful houses attracts a lot of European tourists every year.
Nature returned to life
One of the highlights of Albania is the trip to the north, which provides an unforgettable experience of powerful mountains, spectacular vegetation, living and stimulating lakes in 50 shades of deep blue. It is strange to think that until a few years ago the northern region was barren, and the mountains brown and dry - the result of adjustment to modernization.
"The Damned Mountains"
The northern mountains of Albania are part of the dinosaur Alps. These are the high mountains in the Balkans, and they reach a height of 2,700 meters. A lot of snow falls on them in the winter, and much of it melts in the summer and fills the limestone with karstic systems that result from the infinity of blue springs called the blue eye. When they do they are: a bright blue eye against the rich green surrounding. The water flows from the Earth's surface in huge quantities of thousands of liters per second, creating countless points for observation or for a cold dip. Everything a good family trip needs.
In recent years, the state, together with the European Union, has invested in tourist infrastructure and has made the mountain area a unique attraction. Crowds of European tourists come to see the enchanting combination of the "damned mountains" and ancient agriculture. The nickname "the damned mountains" is given to the region because of the terrible tradition of vengeance that has dominated them for centuries.
Weavers in the town are called
Tradition originated in the isolation life of the villagers, whose only law was the local law of the mountain society. The "handling" of crimes also included payment in human life, and to this day there are terrible testimonies in the mountains, such as towers that served as hiding places for the victims until the accounts are closed between the rival families.
Using jeeps, you can cross the ridges in more or less challenging routes, pass through the valleys of the villages of Tat and Walbone, take the Lormosh route, visit the picturesque villages and get to know the famous hospitality of the Albanians. For us, Israelis, and for European tourists, prices in Albania are still very attractive. Night at the hotel costs between 30 and 50 euros per room, and includes rich meals.
Albanian food is essentially Mediterranean, but rich in flavors and originals. The Albanians specialize in dough and cheese dishes, and also in yaprak (stuffed vine leaves) as delicious as only my grandmother knew how to prepare. A good meal in the restaurant will cost you 5-10 euros per person.
The story of saving the Jews
To move from the intense north to the calm south, we stop for a moment in Kruja, which overlooks the valley of Tirana. It is an ancient village that has become a town, and it serves as a pleasant and comfortable lodging site outside the noise of the big city. On the hilltop where the remains of the village are located, you will find a fascinating museum that presents the story of the local Bar Kochba, the national hero George Castriotti, known as the Skanderbeg - the first leader who in 1443 established the first independent Albanian kingdom.
The first stop, a two-hour drive from Tirana, is the town of Berat or the "Thousand Window Towns" - after the narrow windows at the front of the houses. Berat sits on the banks of the Somme River, and the bridges of turquoise water emphasize the beauty of the ancient stone houses. Berat's uniqueness lies not only in architecture and nature, but also in the special place reserved for her in the history of the Jewish people: In the cellars of the town, its members hid about 250 Jews, who were brought to the country from all over the Balkans during the Second World War.
The Albanian people, to whom the hospitality was most important, recognized the plight of the Jews and made sure to smuggle them into hiding places. It was an extraordinary cross-religious organization that included rare cooperation: Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholic Christians-all of them joined forces against the Nazi oppressor.
Specializing in dough and cheese dishes
From Berat it is worth continuing south toward the towns and Vlora and Saranda. The picturesque road runs along a mountain range that touches the sea, and 500 meters below it the waves collide with the rocks. Saranda is a southern coastal town. Everything is new and tidy, the promenade is vibrant and the Adriatic beaches are clean and white.
Many hotels have been built in the town in recent years, and prices accordingly. After a day or two of rest  in  Saranda, you could start moving northeast to the town of Gyrocastra. The beautiful fortress that dominates the town has been turned into a museum, documenting the terrible hell that the inhabitants of Albania experienced during the reign of dictator Enwar Hoxha, who ruled the country until 1985.
The old houses of Gyrokastra are well maintained and offer local accommodation and homely accommodation. On the main streets there are several restaurants and cafes, and in the evening you should listen to the choir of boys and girls singing from the belly. The special poetry - polyphonic poetry - was once a sacred tradition in the southern towns and was completely ignored during the Communist period. In recent years, the town's residents have been busy renewing tradition and providing performances for tourists. From Girokastra they drive up the southern hills on a journey that takes a few hours back to Tirana.
This is a pinch of magical and special Albania. A state that rose up with enormous forces out of the darkness, and the smells filled year after year with green and blue light and the spark of a local smile. As we have said, we Israelis owe a huge debt to the Albanian people. A debt we may not be able to pay, but we can certainly return with great pride when we take a trip to one of the special countries in Europe.Note: “Non-official translation”

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