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Albania - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Albania: The Bradt Travel Guide
The Ottoman conquest
The Ottomans had first settled on European soil in 1354, much to the alarm of John VI Cantacuzenus, the Byzantine historian and – at the time – co-emperor. In 1371, Sultan Murad I’s troops routed the Serbian army at the river Maritsa; and in June 1389, a coalition of Serbs, Hungarians, Bosnians, Bulgarians and Albanians, under the leadership of the Serbian prince Lazar, met the Ottoman troops on the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovo Polje, in Serbian). The sultan was killed, but the coalition was routed and Prince Lazar executed. The few Serbian nobles who survived were obliged to swear a personal oath of allegiance to the new sultan, Murad’s son Bayezid.
Bayezid marched against Constantinople in 1394, and the city remained under siege for eight years, until the Mongol army under Tamurlane swept into Asia Minor and defeated the Ottomans in 1402. Bayezid was taken prisoner and died in captivity. His successor as sultan, Mehmed I, returned to Albania; in 1417, Ottoman forces captured Vlora and then Gjirokastra. But their grip on the country was weak and Albania had not yet given up.
(Photo: The equestrian statue of the national hero Skanderbeg in Tirana © ollirg, Shutterstock)
The early 1430s saw rebellions, put down in 1433. In 1443, the Ottoman army was defeated at the Serbian town of Niš, by a crusade under a multi-national leadership which included the Hungarian hero János Hunyadi. At this point Skanderbeg, an Albanian nobleman who had been trained as a soldier in the Ottoman army, raised a rebellion from his family seat at Kruja. Thanks to Skanderbeg’s ability to unify the Albanian clans against the enemy, they resisted the occupiers until 1479 – 26 years after the Ottomans had taken the Byzantine capital.
Under Islamic law, non-Muslims living under Muslim sovereignty are treated as ‘protected infidels’, a status quite different from that of non-Muslims under non-Muslim sovereignty, who can legitimately be killed or enslaved. The Christians in Albania (and elsewhere) were not obliged to convert to Islam, but they did have to pay a capitation tax. It was by virtue of this tax that their lives and property enjoyed legal protection.
Over a third of the territory of Albania – more than a million hectares – is forested, and the country is very rich in flora. More than 3,000 different species of plant grow in Albania and about 5% of those are either endemic or sub-endemic (meaning they also grow in neighbouring countries, but the centre of their distribution is in Albania). The natural vegetation in the coastal strip is maquis, the scrubby bushes found all around the Mediterranean; in the north, where the coastal plain is wider, it is almost entirely under cultivation, while in the south many of the hillsides have been terraced and planted with olive and citrus trees.
The rivers which flow into the low-lying Adriatic coast have created fertile alluvial plains and, at their mouths, exceptionally rich wetlands, which are home to many waterfowl and migratory birds.Even non-ornithologists will find many attractive birds to observe in these wetlands, including pelicans, cormorants, spoonbills, corncrakes and avocets. Among the rare ducks which winter in the Albanian wetlands are the ferruginous duck, or white-eyed pochard (Aythya nyroca), and the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), whose fully plumaged male is instantly recognisable from its extraordinary bright blue beak.
The Prespa Lakes have very important breeding populations of Dalmatian and white pelicans (Pelecanus crispus and P. onocrotalus) and pygmy cormorants (Phalacrocorax pygmeus); their breeding sites are on the Greek and Macedonian sides of the lake, but they can be seen foraging all around the shores. Black-necked grebes (Podiceps nigrocollis) and coots (Fulica atra) winter on the Greater Prespa Lake.
Some of the forests and wetlands which present particularly valuable ecosystems are designated as national parks or nature reserves, which is supposed to give them special protection. However, in Albania’s case, legal designation has failed to prevent illegal felling of trees, pasturing of goats and other animals, or hunting. Very few national parks in Albania have any practical protection at all; their main safeguard is their remoteness and lack of infrastructure.
Most people who live in Albania are ethnically Albanian. There are several minority groups in the country, but accurate figures for their numbers are not available. The largest minority is the Greek-speaking community, which is concentrated in southwestern Albania. The Roma and the Vlachs make up the second-largest ethnic groups, with 0.3% each at national level. As in most other countries, Roma are almost completely excluded from the political process and many live in extremely precarious conditions of great poverty.
The earliest documents written in Albanian were religious works produced by Catholic priests – a 16th-century missal and some doctrinal poetry survive. However, Albanian literature did not emerge until the 19th century, in a cultural phenomenon known as the National Renaissance (Rilindja Kombëtare), which was closely linked to the rise of Albanian nationalism. The 19th-century writers included essayists and dramatists, but the predominant literary form was lyric poetry, and its exponents came from all parts of the Albanian-speaking world.
The lyric tradition continued into the 20th century, represented by the Shkodran poets Migjeni (1911–38) and Martin Çamaj (1925–93), and was complemented with novels, plays and short stories.The next generation of Albanian writers includes Bardhyl Londo (b1948), Besnik Mustafaj (b1958), Preç Zogaj (b1957) and Visar Zhiti (b1952), whose first volume of poetry was deemed so subversive that it earned him ten years in communist labour camps.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Albania developed a thriving film industry. A film studio, Kinostudio, was opened in 1952 and Skanderbeg, a Soviet–Albanian coproduction, was released the following year. Initially, post-production was done in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia; the first feature film entirely produced in Albania was Tana, in 1958. By the 1970s, Kinostudio was making 14 films a year. There were 26 cinemas, in towns all over the country, and portable cinemas took films to the villages.
In the late 1990s, Albanian scriptwriters and directors began to produce films again and several have had international success. Directors to look out for include Kujtim Çashku (Colonel Bunker, 1996), Gjergj Xhuvani (Slogans, 2001; Dear Enemy, 2004; East West East, 2009) and Fatmir Koçi (Time of the Comet, 2008).
There are three distinct strands to Albanian folk music – the diatonic music of the north, the pentatonic tradition of the south and urban music (ahengu qytetar) in which chromatic melodies often prevail.
The music of northern Albania (and of Albanians in Montenegro and Kosova) is characterised by solo male singers, accompanied on long-necked stringed instruments called çiftelia and lahuta. The lahutë is a bowed instrument, making it suitable for accompanying diatonic melodies, while the çifteli has frets and is used to create a kind of drone effect, which is very atmospheric. A single-drone bagpipe called the gajde is also played in the north and sounds remarkably Celtic.
You may be lucky enough to encounter some traditional folk singers during your stay © Gerd 72, Wikimedia Commons
Albanian polyphonic music has a very wide geographic spread. It is found not only in southern Albania, but also across the modern borders in Greek Epirus and southwestern Macedonia, as far north as parts of Kosova, and in the Arbëresh settlements in southern Italy. In its core area of southwestern Albania, its basis is pentatonic and it is usually sung unaccompanied, by two or three or – in rare cases – four voices (in the musical sense of ‘voices’; there might well be more than three or four people singing). The most characteristic instrument of the south is the clarinet.
The chromatic intervals of Albanian urban folk music were inherited from Turkish musical traditions during the Ottoman period. This type of music is found mainly in the towns of central Albania, especially Elbasani, and also in Shkodra and Berati. It can be sung with an instrumental accompaniment, or played by a small orchestra. Musical instruments which are typical of this tradition are the accordion, the mandolin, the tambourine and a fretted instrument called the sharki. Urban folk music has heavily influenced the development of ‘popular music’, musika popullore, which is the only type of traditional music it is at all easy to hear live in Albania.