In June 1992, I stepped off a plane and made my way up the palm tree-lined walkway into Tirana International Airport in Albania. I was 18-years-old.
PAINS OF COMMUNISM
Three months before my arrival, Albanians elected their first Democratic leader since succumbing to Communism in 1946 under the rule of Enver Hoxha. The transition from dictatorship to democracy came with many challenges and I was there to witness the early impact it had on the daily lives of the people.
The two years leading up to this important election left the country’s economy in shambles. I arrived with a group of 80 people in a country that barely had adequate infrastructure to host us. We stayed in a dilapidated building that had been a school for the blind and deaf. Most of the window panes were missing, the stairs to our third floor sleeping quarters were crumbling, and the only way to dispose of our trash was to burn it each day. We only had running water twice a day the first month I was there. But as it got hotter in July, this dwindled to just once a day.
Food in the capital city of Tirana was in short supply. Rather than be a burden to the people we had come to help, we brought our own food: freeze dried meals and military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) left over from Desert Storm that we purchased in Turkey. We stored our MREs at a military depot on the outskirts of Tirana in exchange for cleaning the grounds and sorting clothing and household items that had been donated from nearby countries as humanitarian aid.
A NIGHT SKY EXPERIENCE
I spent two months in Albania that summer. Although my home base was in Tirana, each week I traveled to a different city. Since the country is only slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts, I was able to visit most of it twice.
After spending several days in Puka in the northern part of the country, we convinced our guide to let us spend the night outside on a hillside one night before returning to Tirana. He was afraid we would be harmed by gypsies, but there were so many of us that we convinced him we’d be okay.
I rolled out my thin, summer sleeping bag on the rocky hillside and did my best to get comfortable for the night. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was stunned by the number of stars I could see. Although I grew up in northern Idaho with fairly dark skies, I had never seen anything like this! I saw a shooting star. Then another, and another. That night’s meteor shower treated us with about 50 meteors per hour, and I could not go to sleep! That night seared itself into my mind.
I met a man in Tirana one day who said to me, “I want to go to America, the most beautiful country in the world.”
I said, “Albania is also a beautiful country!”
He said, “No, it is an ugly, ugly country.”
Although the Albanians were struggling to maintain their basic necessities when I was there in 1992, I was struck by the astonishing beauty of their country. Soaring mountain peaks, crystal clear rivers, beautiful turquoise lakes, refreshing beaches along the Adriatic Sea, and super dark, star-studded night skies.
SHARING PRISTINE NIGHT SKIES WITH THE WORLD
Today, Tirana shows its great transformation into a modern European city. It’s beaches and outdoor adventure are the best kept travel secret on the continent. Its journey from Communism to today has not been easy, but there is much hope for Albania’s bright future.
One Albanian has a passionate vision to make his country an astrotourism destination. Albert Kaleci is the CEO of AstroTourism Albania, an organization that specializes in activity and adventure holidays. They are the first agency in Albania to offer travel based on science and astronomy.
“Astrotourism Albania is a unique agency in the Balkans because our astronomical tours are an innovative product here,” says Kaleci.
Kaleci helped found the organization in December 2018.
“I am a Math and Physics teacher who has a passion for astrophysics. The place where I live has a spectacular view of the sky. Patience, desire, and a bit of madness has been needed to develop this project.”
Kaleci is clear about the goals of Astrotourism Albania. “We want to help people move away from their daily urban routine and enjoy a new experience. Our goal is to bring recognition to rural areas where astrotourism can be developed. It is important to us to offer sustainable and responsible tourism in our destinations.
“We also work to bring public awareness and commitment to light pollution and dark skies by taking measures to identify and protect areas with dark skies.”
Albania does not have any Dark Sky Places designated by the International Dark Sky Association. Yet.
“We have contacted the International Dark Sky Association,” says Kaleci, “about the procedures we need to follow to declare Shebenik-Jablanica National Park as a ‘Dark Sky Park’ and we are being given guidance.”
But dark sky advocates in Albania face challenges that will require persistent effort.
“Support from state institutions and donors is little,” Kaleci admits. “We lack specialists and equipment to tackle this project.”
Although Albania lacks official designation for any Dark Sky Places, it is not lacking in dark sky destinations. Astrotourists looking for a unique dark sky adventure in Europe should put Albania at the top of their list.
Tourists can visit pristine beaches, castles, ancient ruins, and hiking trails by day and view a star-studded sky by night.
TOP ALBANIAN DARK SKY LOCATIONS
Merita Kraya Idrizay lived in Albania until she moved to the United States in 1990. She owns a restaurant in Fountain Hills, Arizona called Euro Pizza Cafe. The first time I visited her restaurant, I noticed an Albanian flag on the wall. She is very proud of her Albanian heritage and still owns homes in her home country. Her daughter, who was raised in America, has moved to Albania where she is a professional sportscaster and model.
Fountain Hills, where Merita lives now, is an International Dark Sky Community. She recommends the village of Markat Saranda for those who want an experience under the night sky in Albania. Her great-grandparents’ home is still standing there today.
When I asked Merita about the night sky in Albania, she said, “Albania is still pristine and the hospitality is unique.”
SHEBENIK-JABLANICA NATIONAL PARK
Located 87 km east of Tirana along the border of North Macedonia, this national park remains relatively unknown. Its obscurity is due to the park being strictly forbidden during the years of Communism. However, this has been a benefit to the park. It’s expansive 84,000 acres are covered by untouched forests, meadows, and blooming flowers.
Fortunately, this beautiful park is now open to all and offers remarkably pristine night skies. Tourism experts have created paths to make this expansive area easy to explore.
For more information, visit https://www.intoalbania.com/attraction/shebenik-jablanica-national-park/
THETH NATIONAL PARK
Theth National Park is nestled in the Albanian Alps, 170 km north of Tirana. It combines the beauty of mountains with majestic rivers, stunning waterfalls and lagoons as blue as you could imagine. It’s a paradise for the true outdoor enthusiast! You can get there by car, but the real way to have an authentic Theth experience is to hike in on foot.
Visit the guesthouses of families who live in the region. Eat roast lamb, warm homemade bread, cheese, homegrown fruits and vegetables and experience hospitality you will never forget.
Theth has some of the darkest skies you will find in Europe.
For more information, visit https://www.intoalbania.com/attraction/theth-national-park/
KORAB-KORITNIK NATURE PARK
As part of the European Green Belt, this nature park serves as a retreat for endangered animal and plant species. It is home to Albania’s highest peak, Mount Korab. It is a 175 km drive from Tirana near the borders of Kosovo and North Macedonia in an area with some of Europe’s darkest night skies. Filled with alpine lakes, pine forests, mountain villages, and crisp, clean air, this is a haven for outdoor recreationalists.
For more information, visit https://www.intoalbania.com/attraction/mount-korab-the-highest-peak-in-the-country/
PERMET: BENJA THERMAL POOLS
For a truly relaxing experience by day, visit the city of Permet, 243 km southeast of Tirana. The mountains, hills, rivers and forests offer outdoor adventure for everyone, but the Benja Thermal Pools are the recommended destination in this area. The waters are about 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and are recommended by doctors for rheumatism and skin and kidney ailments. Many visitors enjoy covering their skin with the black muddy deposits of the pools for skin rejuvenation.
At night, take in the sight of a beautiful dark sky.
For more information, visit https://www.intoalbania.com/attraction/benja-thermal-pools-in-permet/
LLOGORA NATIONAL PARK
From the beaches of the Ionian Sea to Llogora Pass at an elevation of 3,336 feet, visitors to Albania’s most-visited nature park will enjoy all manner of outdoor recreation, explore the delicious local cuisine, and get a glimpse of the Ionian Sea from 3,280 feet above sea level. These elevations also reward the night sky enthusiast with beautifully dark skies. Llogora National Park is located 192 km south of Tirana.
For more information, visit https://www.intoalbania.com/attraction/llogara-national-park/
RESOURCES FOR ASTROTOURISM IN ALBANIA
- If you’re going to plan an astrotourism adventure to Albania, visit Astrotourism Albania to plan your trip.
- To understand the important need for Albania to earn a Dark Sky designation from the International Dark Sky Association, visit https://invest-in-albania.org/why-albania-needs-a-designated-dark-sky-park/
- Take a journey across Albania’s darkest skies in this amazing article: https://invest-in-albania.org/story-time-with-milky-way-chasers-in-albania/