Albania’s cultural heritage

Exploring Albania in the company of a local guide is the best way to learn about the county’s cultural heritage. The people guiding our small group and tailor made tours are just so passionate about their country and they truly don’t want anyone to leave without knowing that they’ve had an absolutely amazing time. Guides really go to town when explaining the intricacies of the country’s history and will take travellers to out of the way places that tourists never get to see.

In rural areas, Albanians still favour more traditional clothing and you’ll see flashes of felt white hats and embroidered linen that’s simply worn for work rather than tourist photographs. City sightseeing tours are a great way to learn about Albania’s cultural heritage, too. Tirana and Krujë have excellent ethnographic museums, and the cobbled streets of Gjirokastër are awhirl with traditional folklore and cultural pride.

Albanians cling to their culture – and quite rightly so. No one’s been able to see their true national identity for so long, and they’re not about to change it any time soon just to cater for tourists. From old world wine production to Iso-polyphony folk music and traditional Albanian clothing, if you’re looking to discover aspects of Albania’s cultural heritage for yourself, read on as all will be revealed.
Olly Pemberton, from our supplier Exodus:
“During the communist era Albania was the only country in Europe that was entirely self sustained; they were shut off from the world so they were forced to be. But they’ve kept that culture alive. They obviously import and export now, but when you’re in the mountains you see a more traditional way of life amongst the older people; they keep themselves to themselves and they are growing their own crops and eating their own food."

Old world wine producers

Albania has a long history of wine making that trails back through time like a knotted and gnarled grape vine twisting and stretching across the sun-kissed mountain slopes of the Mediterranean. Mild winters and hot summers combined with fertile soil have created excellent conditions for grape growing and seeds have been found in the region that date back to the Ice and Bronze ages. Viticulture can be traced to the indigenous Illyrian tribes that inhabited the area around 3,000 years ago, around the same time as their more illustrious neighbours: the ancient Greeks.

Following the all-consuming influence of the Roman Empire, wine production in Albania increased; but the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century halted wine production considerably, and grape growing was almost wiped out following a nasty aphid infestation around the time that Albania declared independence in 1912.

However, after WWII and throughout the communist era, viticulture emerged as one of Albania’s most important agricultural industries – with Germany being a large consumer of exports – and has continued to flourish since the advent of democracy in the early 1990s to present day.
Where to experience Albanian wine
High-altitude vineyards in the Albanian Alps, low-lying coastal plains around Durrës and the hillsides surrounding the UNESCO city of Berat, in central Albania, are all well known wine growing regions.

Picking up a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Riesling is thoroughly recommended as not only will you experience an authentic taste of Albania’s cultural heritage but the wine’s not bad either and goes very well with the typical Albanian diet of red meat dishes, soups and seasonal veg.

Iso-polyphony folk music

This form of folk singing is such a part of Albania’s cultural heritage that it’s been placed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. This means it’s been recognised for its creative and deeply significant impact on the people of Albania and deserves to be preserved and shared with the world.

The term ‘polyphony’ literally translates from the Greek for ‘multi voice’ and ‘iso’ relates to ison which is a slow sounding drone note used in chant music played in Byzantine churches.

Where to hear Iso-polyphony folk music
Iso-polyphony folk music is a very important part of keeping Albanian folklore alive. Epic ballads telling of brave warriors and frontier battles against the Ottomans are performed, mainly by men, at folk and harvest festivals, religious events and seasonal celebrations across the country.

The Gjirokastër National Folklore Festival, in particular, is a firm favourite on the Albanian cultural heritage calendar although it only takes place every five years – the next one is in May 2023.

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Traditional Albanian clothing

Albania’s traditional national costume varies depending on which region you’re visiting. Rich colours and embroidered patterns can both be found in various guises with the influence of the indigenous Illyrians present in the pagan symbolism associated with sun, stars and snake designs, for example.

Although costumes might only be worn for special celebrations, such as weddings and seasonal festivities, Albanians living in rural areas still favour the practicality of natural fabrics, such as leather, linen, hemp and wool, as opposed to the synthetic alternatives favoured by those on the Riviera.

Older Albanians often still wear quite formal conservative clothing whereas the younger generation are much more up-to-date in what they wear with western influence in evidence across the country.

Traditional clothing for men features a fustanella (white pleated skirt/kilt), brez (belt), tirq (slightly wrinkled trouser/tights), a long sleeved xhamadan (jacket) and a qeleshe (felt hat). Women often wear much brighter clothing, including elaborately embroidered long flowing skirts and long-sleeved jackets as well as a jewel adorned headdress known as a kapica.

Traditional Albanian shoes are called opinga and are worn by both men and women.
Where to see traditional Albanian clothing
There might well be one or two traditional Albanian costumes worn in and around the more popular tourist hot spots on the Riviera, but head inland to the hillside hamlets and mountain villages and you’ll find a much more authentic example of how Albanians dress away from the tourists.

Just treat local people wearing traditional clothing how you’d expect to be treated yourself. Ask before taking photographs and try to strike up a conversation rather than snapping and moving on. Travelling with a guide is the best way to understand what you’re seeing and how to approach a local Albanian in the most respectful way possible. Also, if you’re thinking of purchasing an authentic item of Albanian clothing try to ensure it’s from an ethical and responsible source. The quality will be much better and also your purchase will place your Albanian leks where they’re needed most, into the pockets of the Albanian people.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Karelj] [Intro: Elsa.Cengu] [Old world wine producers: Adam Jones] [Iso-polyphony folk music : Gerd 72] [Traditional Albanian clothing: Haxhi]
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