The Albanian adventure: Albania’s Jewish pride

It may be next door to Greece, Croatia and Montenegro but Albania has long been overlooked by tourists; who instead head in their droves to the country’s better-known neighbors. Just 22 miles by boat from Corfu — which by contrast sees around half a million British tourists visit each year — the south-eastern Balkan country has struggled with an image problem that was hard to shake off.

Under the rule of a communist dictatorship for decades, its lingering Eastern Bloc connotations have simply not appealed to carefree holidaymakers wanting to soak up the sun.

But since the end of the communist regime in the 90s, the country has been slowly opening up to tourism; with its untouched coastline, natural beauty and rich history tempting more intrepid travelers.

Post pandemic, the word is finally out: this untapped and stunning travel destination; easy to reach from the UK, is perfect for those who are itching to explore somewhere new again.

Bookings for Albania on the rise

Leading travel companies are reporting that bookings are on the rise; while a number of new flight routes by EasyJet and Wizz Air to the capital Tirana mean that the destination is becoming more accessible.

Emma Heywood, director of UK adventure travel company, Undiscovered Balkans, agrees.

“Since travel restrictions have ended, we’ve noticed a rise in customers asking us about Albania, compared to previous years. It’s quite possibly because it’s more talked about these days as a destination on the rise; and, of course, our clients are adventurous.

“It’s the next logical step after visiting Adriatic countries like Croatia and Montenegro. But the appeal is that it’s more under-explored.”

Describing it as a slice of “long-forgotten Europe”, Jonny Bealby of Wild Frontiers reports that enquiries for Albania are up; 30% in comparison to this time last year. He suggests that part of its growing appeal is being great value for money.

Albania, the long-forgotten Europe

“Pre-Covid, tourism to Albania was just taking off, as people began to discover this beautiful country,” he says. “Now the country has begun to truly establish itself as an adventure travel destination.

“What’s more, a little-known and well-guarded fact is that Albania has amazing cuisine. It’s a great foodie destination; with many dishes with the best of Greek, Italian and Turkish culture influences. Not to mention an increasingly impressive selection of home-grown wines on offer.”

And with a rise of more than 220% in both enquiries and bookings for Albanian holidays, compared to 10 years ago, Responsible Travel predicts that Albania won’t stay under the radar much longer. “Albania is still a bit of an enigma for most travelers. But that’s certainly starting to change,” says Tim Williamson, the company’s customer director.

“It really has everything you want for a great holiday — astonishing scenery, rich culture and great food. It’s a jewel of a country. With a fraction of the tourists that nearby Greece and Italy has, but well-deserving of the greater interest it’s beginning to command.”

Albania’s Jewish Pride

As well as a long history dating back to the 6th century BCE, there’s also some fascinating Jewish heritage to discover as you explore; along with the remarkable archaeological sites of Butrint, Bylis and Apollonia.

Between the mountains, rivers, forests and beautiful beaches of the Riviera, there are Roman temples to discover; built at a time when the first Jews arrived in the country; as well as the fortresses, citadels and mosques of the Ottomans, who ruled Albania for 400 years. By this point, there were Jewish communities in most major cities, with many settling here after leaving Spain.

During the Italian and German occupations of the WWII, Albania refused to provide the names of the Jewish citizens. Instead, they found protection, with Albania also providing a safe haven for the Jewish refugees.

By the end of the war, the Jewish community had increased from several hundred to over 2,000 people.

Solomon museum in Berat

The story is told at the Solomon Museum in Berat by Simon Vrusho, a local professor and Orthodox Christian, in 2018. Created to house his collection of hundreds of documents, photographs and artifacts retracing two millennia of Jewish history in Albania, it also recounts how Muslim and Christian Albanians sheltered hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.

Funded at first by small donations left at the door and Simon Vrusho’s own pension, French-Albanian businessman Gazmend Toska decided to continue financing the museum after his death, moved it to a larger site in 2019.

Arriving in Berat after the museum closed, following a phone call to the museum and some help from the hotel manager of the Jewish Chronicle staff, who knew the museum’s curator Angelina, widow of Simon Vrusho, they were given an after-hours look.

While she did not speak English herself, with the help of English descriptions next to the photographs; she managed to convey the story behind the photographs, documents and artifacts. They tell the stories of more than 60 Muslim and Christian families. They hid Jewish people in their homes and basements during the war.

It is a remarkable museum and a moving testament to the remarkable acts of bravery of the Albanian people, with 75 citizens recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Albania’s Jewish heritage

To find some of the earliest evident of Albania’s Jewish heritage, head to Saranda. This coastal city is still home to the remnants of a synagogue dating from the 5th or 6th century CE; originally discovered when Albania was under Communist rule, and partially excavated 20 years ago.

A joint excavation between Israel and Albania found two mosaic pavements, one featuring a seven-branched menorah flanked by an etrog and a shofar and another showing animals, trees and the facade of a structure resembling a temple — although all are away from public view under a protective tarpaulin.

Today, only a small number of Jews remain, mostly in the capital Tirana, with the majority being airlifted to Israel after the fall of Communism in 1991. But with its examples of tolerance, long Jewish heritage and its own fascinating history, it’s time to discover Albania for yourself.

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