What did I learn: ALBANIA

National Museum of History, Tirana – Source

This month was a great introduction to a part of Europe I had very little knowledge about. Albania’s got so much history, but I mainly focused on 20th-21st century history – WWI, WWII, the Cold War with it’s bunkers and propaganda and Albania’s isolation even inside the Communist world, followed by the pyramid scheme-fuelled civil war in the 90s and the tensions with Albania’s neighbours even today, even as it looks to join the EU.

Albania’s architecture was also a theme that came up this month – from beautiful old mosques, to modern urban beautification, as well as the darker side of modernization. Similarly, the contrast between ancient traditions in remote regions and hypermodern pop culture in the urban cores (with great drill and trap beats) is interesting, and I’m glad I got a brief introduction to Albanian literature – Kadare being a natural starting point, but there are so many other good authors and poets.

The food was great too, there were some Mediterranean staples like byreks, qofte, and meze (I’m still really proud of that pic of the spread), plus some regional specialties like tavë kosi and boza…and I finally got to try Fanta Exotic!

I had no idea just how beautiful the beaches were in the south of the country, but if I got to go to Albania, it would definitely be for a hiking trip in the mountains – those are jaw-dropping.

ALBANIA: The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi

The Land Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi is a short novel, bleak but hopeful, following a young girl in 1970s Albania – it’s set in short vignettes that flit back and forth in time – family drama interweaves with living under the Hoxha regime at it’s most isolationist and controlling, with more lighthearted glimpses of school and childhood merged in. It feels semi-autobiographical (sometimes the girl is also called Ornela), and paints the awkwardness of puberty with sexual repression both on a personal level, and under the ideal Socialist State.

ALBANIA: The painted buildings of Tirana

Tirana is notable for its architecture, and in recent decades that has involved the brilliant repainting of old communist-era buildings in bold pop art colours to revitalize the city. Much of this is due to Edi Rama, a former artist who was mayor of Tirana at the time, and is now Prime Minister of Albania. During his mayoral tenure in the early 2000s, he hit on repainting old buildings as a cheap and cheerful way to boost city life.

Of course, this story is not all rosy – Rama’s critics have called it window dressing, and there is an ongoing debate in Albania about the future of older buildings – particularly with communist-era buildings being torn down with little consultation these days. Rama is now more focused on nudging Albania towards the EU, but the painted buildings are an amazing sight still.

Photos sourced from TEDBlog, AtlasObscura, and Blocal Travel.

ALBANIA: Et’hem Bey Mosque

The Et’hem Bey Mosque in Tirana is both an absolutely stunning and historically important place. The mosque itself is only from 1800 or so, but it is covered from floor to ceiling with stunning ornate hand-painted frescoes.


The mosque was shuttered during the communist era as part of officially-enforced state atheism, and as the government was crumbling in 1991, one of the prominent acts of defiance by the people against the state was re-opening the mosque and holding services there.

More footage of the interior of the mosque:

ALBANIA: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Albanian author Elvira Dones‘ personal story is sounds like a novel in its own right – she started her career with Albanian state television in the communist era, then used a filming trip to Switzerland in 1988 to defect. She was only reunited with her son after the fall of communism. She is both an author and a filmmaker, and she writes as much in Italian as Albanian.

Sworn Virgin is the story of Hana, a young woman who gives up her university studies in Tirana to return to her rural mountain town to take care of her dying uncle. She decides, both due to external and internal factors, to stay in the village and take the oath to become a sworn virgin. She lives as a man until a decade and a half later, where the slow decline of the village eventually pushes Hana to join her cousin who has emigrated to the US. She also decides at that point to return to living as a woman, and faces the uncertainty of her own feelings and identity.

Hana’s story is as much about the emigrants’ experience as it is about gender and identity, with Hana’s male existence deeply tied to her roots in the rural mountains, while her former and current female iterations are very much placed in Tirana and the States. Deep down, Hana navigates not just her family’s expectations, but her own expectations of herself.

As with my other post on sworn virgins, tagging it LGBTQ because of gender identity, but again noting that sworn virgins are women living as men, not trans men – it’s more transitioning your role in your community rather than yourself.

ALBANIA: Tavë Kosi

Tavë kosi has developed a reputation as an Albanian national dish, and it’s got the great combo of Mediterranean and Balkan ingredients that really typify Albanian cuisine. It’s a big hearty dish of lamb sauteed with garlic, rice, and oregano, topped with a roux to which you add yogurt, egg, and nutmeg, then bake. I’m using this recipe from Saveur, but most recipes seem pretty consistent.

I got in some giant garlic this week, so I’m guaranteeing this is going to be gloriously garlicky – I’m using the same number of cloves, just from the giant bulbs!

Looks beautiful out of the oven and it’s made my house smell amazing. The meat is falling-apart tender, and the yogurt and eggs have made a tangy, fluffy topping. The rice has kind of melted into the meat layer, but it adds thickness. I’m glad I used a heavy hand with the oregano and nutmeg as well as the garlic, I think I’ll make this again once it’s cold out.

ALBANIA: Sworn virgins

An brief look into Albania’s custom of sworn virgins – women who take an oath of celibacy and then live as a man, fully accepted into male spaces and male roles. These vows have often happened when there are no men left in the family, or by women to escape an arranged marriage, or sometimes purely voluntarily – in a very patriarchal system, it allows a woman to live much more freely.

The custom is tied into the same Kanun codes that blood feuds belong to, and set out larger interpersonal and societal relationships in northern regions of Albania. These traditions have been dying out, though there was a resurgence after the fall of communism as structure was needed to fill the gaps left by the state as it collapsed. While these oaths still occur occasionally, most sworn virgins are older – the decision happens less and less as traditional patriarchal gender roles erode and women exercise rights in their own capacity as women.

I’m tagging this with the LGBTQ tag, mainly as it deals with gender identity, but sworn virgins are not to be confused with trans men. Sworn virgins are women living as men, and doing so inside a very strict gender binary – this oath is often taken because of external factors, and most sworn virgins do not consider themselves transgender.