The hundreds of churches and mosques that were abandoned to their fate during communism in Albania now become the epicenter of the "Route of the Faith", a tourist itinerary with which the Government wants to recover the cultural wealth of this country.
The majority are churches of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine era in the south of the country, which treasure a rich artistic heritage created by the best builders and masters of frescoes, altarpieces and icons of their respective eras.
Currently, the rehabilitation of 19 temples and another 15 -9 churches and 6 mosques-are under construction, out of a total of 235 that need to be renovated according to the Ministry of Culture and the Institute of Monuments of Culture.
The conservation of these sacred places as part of the government program "The routes of faith" has a budget of three million euros and is intended not only to make its use as a place of worship but its transformation into tourist destinations.
In Albania 60% of the 2.8 million inhabitants are Muslims, and 17% Christians, both Catholics and Orthodox.
To promote this cultural richness, two other programs are being developed in parallel: "Memory routes" -carceles, forced labor camps, etc. of communism- and the rehabilitation of urban historical centers, explains to Efe, Kozeta Angjeliu, director of the National Culture Program.
The churches – Angjeliu points out – that are located in distant remote areas are more deteriorated, while the mosques are better preserved, since they are less ancient constructions and are located in populated centers.
One of the oldest and most damaged churches is Santa Maria, near the Peshkepi village, bordering Greece, surrounded by cypresses and built in the 11th century on a hill overlooking the fertile valley of the Drinos River.
In July the restoration of this temple full of cracks began and trees have grown on its roof.
It is a church full of frescoes representing the communion of the Apostles, the dying of the Virgin, the Christ on the throne or the Virgin with the child Jesus.
According to scholars, the episcopal chair located in the apse and the construction technique of the amphora-based roof to make it lighter make this church unique.
"The church has many phases of construction just like its paintings, the one I'm restoring now dates back to 1510, but there are other fragments with earlier dates," says Edlira Caushi, restorer and professor of conservation and cultural heritage.
With an ever-increasing number of tourists, who reached 6 million this year, Albania is on the list of the top 10 world destinations of the travel book publisher "Lonely Planet."
A few kilometers to the south the newly rehabilitated Orthodox church of the village Labova e Kryqit dedicated to the Virgin Mary has already become a pilgrimage center for lovers of cultural and religious tourism.
"This divine temple of extraordinary values is the pride not only of our village and area, but of the whole of Albania," says Stefan Miha, an 82-year-old retired teacher.
Miha explains that it is one of the first 40 churches built by Emperor Justinian I the Great for his wife Theodora.
The old man remembers with sorrow the theft of the cross in 1989, a relic sent by Justinian that contained 150 grams of wood from the Holy Cross, and the looting of 18 icons of 200 years old.
Both churches remained closed during the communist regime, which destroyed many sanctuaries after banning the faith in 1967 and declaring Albania by law the first atheist country in the world.
Those that remained were turned into a circus, like the mosque of the New Bazaar in Gjirokastra; in military barracks such as the teke bektashi (a Sufi order) of Melan on Mount Lunxheria, and others in sports centers such as the Great Catholic Church of Shkodra.
After the fall of communism in 1991 and the return of the faith, many temples that survived the fierce communist dictatorship were plundered by art dealers and antiquarians.