Albania: From frogs' legs to sworn virgins

2017-06-23 15:15


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Tirana - Albania, which holds parliamentary elections on Sunday, is often described as the last mysterious country in Europe.

Here are some facts about the Balkan state:

Tourism potential

With its Adriatic coastline, legendary Accursed Mountains and winding rivers, Albania is rich in natural beauty for visitors, who can also enjoy ancient archaeological sites, Ottoman history and communist bunkers turned into beach cafes.

Culinary highlights include frogs' legs, game and seafood, including date mussels that are harvested with dynamite or hammers, and in theory banned from dinner plates.

But Albania's tourism potential is under-exploited owing to limited accommodation options, poor infrastructure and an insufficient road network in mountainous regions.

The country of 2.9 million people attracted 4.6 million visitors in 2016, according to the tourism ministry. The World Bank supports tourism projects, notably in the south, considered the region with most potential.

Mercedes, EU fans 

Whether shining new or worn out, the Mercedes is unquestionably Albania's national vehicle, accounting for 40% of the country's cars, according to transport officials.

Another striking image is the tangle of overhead wires, transporting diverted electricity to residents who want to avoid bills. They now risk strict penalties if found out.

Two flags are omnipresent throughout the country: The national red and black flag of a double-headed eagle, and that of the European Union.

Isolated from the rest of the world during the communist period, "Albanians are obsessed with Europe. Europe is for them a pathological love, but also a real model," said the country's most famous writer, Ismail Kadare.

Wave of emigrants 

According to the local Monitor newspaper, Albania has the highest emigration levels in the world, with a diaspora of around 1.2 million people.

They are propelled to leave by some of the lowest living standards in Europe, an average gross salary of around €340 a month and unemployment affecting almost one in three young people, according to the national Institute of Statistics (INSTAT).

In the early 1990s, Albania was the youngest country in Europe with an average age of 28. It is now 37, INSTAT says.

Along with the huge number of emigrants, a decreasing fertility rate has contributed to the change.

Religious tolerance

Officially an atheist state during the 1945-1991 communist era, 56% of Albania's population today is Muslim while around 25% is Christian, including both Catholic and Orthodox.

Islam in Albania is often very liberal, in line with the Sufi brotherhood of the Bektashis, whose followers consume alcohol.

In September 2014, Pope Francis chose Albania for his first trip in Europe, wanting to promoting a model of tolerance between religions.

That peaceful coexistence has not been dented by the departure of about a hundred Albanian jihadists to Syria and Iraq.

Fading customs 

Albania is home to the fading tradition of "blood feuds", trapping families in the country's north in a cycle of vengeance regulated by a medieval code of honour, the "Kanun" of Lek Dukagjini, a 15th-century nobleman.

The code lays down rules on all aspects of daily life, with an emphasis on hospitality. Although it vanished during the communist era, the code resurfaced in the early 1990s as the country began a transition to democracy.

More than tradition, Albania's ombudsman blames "a weak judicial system that pushes people to settle accounts among themselves".

According to his latest report, 157 people, including 44 children, are in hiding in Albania for fear of becoming victims of a vendetta, but the figure is decreasing.

Another vanishing tradition is that of "sworn virgins". These are women who, either because their were only children or refused to marry, chose to live like men and are treated as such in a very patriarchal society.

Only a handful of them remain today.

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