Introduction to Albania

The Republic of Albania is a small mountainous country situated along the Adriatic Sea on the Balkan Peninsula. It's been an independent country since 1912, when it gained its independence from the Ottoman Turk Empire.The official religion is Islam, due to the Turkish reign, but the government and people honor religious diversity. It's a really lax, easy-going Islamic culture. Along with mosques, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have been established all over the region for centuries and people of different faiths seem to get along well in Albania.I've been traveling around Albania just 10 short days, thus far, having entered from Montenegro's southern border near Lake Shkoder. In that time I've cycled the shores of massive Lake Shkoder, visited Razafa Castle ruins and Shkoder city, taken the stunning Lake Komani Ferry trip through rugged mountains (claimed as one of the most spectacular ferry rides in the world!). I've hiked in the magnificent Valbona Valley, taken a bus through Kosovo (neighboring country) to reach the Albanian capital city of Tirana, and admired the pretty historic district in downtown Tirana. I've eaten delicious (and cheap!) meals, breads, pastries, fruits and vegetables. I've met many warm, helpful Albanians and even had the - very surprising - luck of being served Italian dark roast esspresso in cafes here! Needless to say, I've been greatly enjoying my travels around Albania. For the moment, here's my introduction to Albania, based on research and talks with locals. The Balkan Peninsula is located just east of Italy. The long narrow Adriatic Sea separates Italy's long boot-shaped mainland from the Balkan coast. Directly across the sea from southeastern Italy is Albania, sandwich-ed between Greece (to its south) and Montenegro to the north. Most of the country is very mountainous, with the highest, most-rugged peaks located in the north at the borders of Montenegro and Kosovo. Also sharing the border with Montenegro is huge Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in the Balkans and one of the most important bird reserves in all of Europe. There's also a broad flat strip of land along some of the coast and the large central area around the capital city, Tirana.Albania has abundant water, including the long Adriatic Coast, many rivers and several lakes of varying sizes, both natural and artificially-created dammed river lakes. The Albanian government has taken great advantage of hydro-electric power, to its credit.Albania is bordered on the interior by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.Albania has a very different modern-day history from its neighboring Balkan countries. First off, Albania was never part of the communist state of Yugoslavia that was created out of WWII.In fact, Albania has been an independent country for much longer that either Yugoslavia or any of the small countries that were formed when Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991.As I noted above, the Republic of Albania was established in 1912, when it gained its independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire that had control of the region for 400-500 years (sources disagree on how long). The centuries-long Turkish control and influence also make the region somewhat different to other Balkan countries.It was the Turks who brought Islam to Albania, while most surrounding countries are not Islamic. There’s a strong Turkish influence in architecture as well, with several small historic towns, such as Berat and Gjirokaster, completely filled with handsome Ottoman architecture.From the outset in 1912, Albania was formed as a communist state, which also means it had this form of government for considerably longer than its neighboring countries, which fell under communism only with the formation of Yugoslavia in 1945. From to 1985, Albania was under the thumb of the strict, totalitarian dictator Hoxha, who ruled with complete social, political, militray & media control until his death in 1985.In the mid 1990s Albania underwent a bloody civil war as a result of the currency & economy collapsing from investment in a massive pyramid scheme. During that time hoardes of bankrupt & starving Albanians fled to Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Kosovo and even the USA and other western European countries.In more recent years, the fighting has ceased, the economy has stabilized and Albanians living abroad have returned, bringing with them cultural elements from other western countries, especially from Italy and Greece.