Albania explored: one of Europe’s best kept secrets

Albania is an untouched and undiscovered piece of Europe’s complex puzzle. Filled with fairy-tale landscapes, eye-boggling views, rich culture and incredibly hospitable locals, Albania should be considered one of the top destinations to visit for an authentic travel experience. Travel writer Anita Hendrieka has set about to discover the countries finest experiences. Albania’s landscape is made up of over 70% mountainous territory, so if you’re into nature and love the outdoors, it should be right at the top of your list. Another thing that this country does not lack is character. Albanians have a great sense of humour and a relaxed attitude – the latter at times challenging eager travellers’ patience. Albanians hold their traditions dear, and the country is a bit of a time pocket, inspiring to live and travel in a simpler manner. Technology takes a back seat, and travelling here is a great occasion to practise living in the moment. Albania can be reached by flying into the country’s only airport located in the capital city, Tirana.

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The story of Albania

Birthplace of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha in Gjirokastër

The story of Albania is complex and the country’s still recovering from 47 years of communist rule that ended in 1992. Over 750,000 bunkers were constructed by orders from dictator Enver Hoxha, who was known to be paranoid about war. Luckily, Albania never got to use these bunkers and many have been either demolished or creatively turned into hotels, cafes and even tattoo studios.

This is, however, just a small piece of Albania’s 5000 years long history. Before this, the Ottoman Empire ruled for over 400 years where a large majority of the nation became Muslims. However, you will hardly see any evidence of headscarves, and many people still drink raki, the local alcohol, and eat pork.

Albania was also the first country to ban religion altogether when communism came into form.  Many churches and mosques were destroyed during this era, but slowly – over the last decade – they are rebuilding and religion is re-introduced into people’s lives.

Southern Albania: between natural and ancient wonders

Sarandë

Use Sarandë as a base to explore other beaches along the Albanian Riviera, or ... just stay put!

Venture to coastal city Sarandë for great seafood restaurants, an energetic nightlife and a joyful atmosphere. In the summer Sarandë is buzzing with young people and an extremely fun nightlife, which can easily leave you partying until the sun rises.

Sarandë is also a great base to explore other towns and beaches along the Riveria. You can also catch the ferry across to the island of Corfu, one of Greece’s greenest islands and quite the crowd-pleaser. Quite often visitors staying in Corfu take a daytrip here to check out its quieter and much cheaper neighbour, Albania.

Recommended hostel: Hairy Lemon Hostel (rates start at LEK 1185 [£8] per bed, per room)

Gasp! And once you’re done with that enjoy a refreshingly cold plunge in the Blue Eye

When you visit Sarandë, make sure to also visit the colourful spring, the Blue Eye, located just 20km away. The Blue Eye is over 50 metres deep, but there’s no exact measurement as divers have only been able to dive 50 metres down.

All year round the water’s on average about 10C – you can take a swim, just don’t expect to feel your feet afterwards. Set aside at least a couple of hours, and if you come during the summer there are a couple of restaurants you can relax in whilst enjoying the view.

Ksamil

Kicking back on a sunbed at the Albanian Riviera – not bad at all

Just 30 minutes south of Sarandë is Ksamil, a true Albanian paradise complete with white-sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise water. Ksamil is like the Caribbean of Europe, the perfect setting for kicking back, cocktail in hand. It is incredibly popular during the summer months, so if you can, visit at the start or end of the season, spanning from April till September. That should ensure a nice and relaxing experience.

Recommended hotel: Hotel Mariskel (rates start at LEK 3998 [£27] per room, per night)

Former Roman city and Greek colony, Butrint was the first in Albania to be Unesco listed

When you’re done lounging away in Ksamil, head to Butrint. It was the first site in Albania to be registered in the World Heritage list of Unesco. Butrint has been the place of a Roman city and a Greek colony so you will see both Roman and Greek features throughout this historic gem.

Himarё

Lounge around, enjoy fresh seafood, then lounge around some more at seaside town Himarë

Venture up the coast a bit and you’ll reach Himarё. By day it’s a sleepy seaside town with an abundance of seafood restaurants such as Tramonto and Ostria Taverna, by night its small, but buzzing nightlife comes alive, particularly during summer months. Himarё also has a wide-range of Greek tavernas thanks to its predominately Greek community.

If you’re looking for an incredible photo to Instagram, make sure you head towards the ruins of the castle which overlook the entire city. It’s located in the old village of Himarё, and from here you will be blessed with incredible scenic views of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.

Recommended hostel: Himarё Hostel (rates start at LEK 3109 [£21] per night, per bed)

Berat and Gjirokastër – the historical twins

Berat, one of the most well-preserved cities in Albania

Further north towards the centre of Albania is beautiful Berat, listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Communism shaped most of the architecture around the country, but Berat is an exception, taking strong influence from the Ottoman Empire.

With over 2400 years of history, Berat is a pearl of Albania’s past. A castle is perched overlooking the city, and leading up to it is an assortment of Ottoman influenced white houses, giving Berat its nickname: the “town with a thousand windows”. Both the castle and its grounds still house a good portion of Berat’s inhabitants.

Recommended hotel: Hotel Muzaka (rates start at LEK 12880 [£87] per room, per night)

No wonder Gjirokastër is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, look at this!

Gjirokastёr is often referred to as the twin city of Berat, but don’t be mistaken to think you can visit one and not the other. Like Berat, Gjirokastёr also has white Ottoman-styled houses, but with flatter stone roofs, and they’re so unique and well-preserved the city has been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. Come see its cobbled streets, small fortresses and stone houses, and relish in its culinary art, too.

Berat and Gjirokastёr are not far from each other, and they’re well connected by busses.

Recommended hotel: Hotel Argjiro (rates start at LEK 5774 [£39] per room, per night)

Northern Albania: for culture and history buffs alike

Tirana (Tiranë)

Communism in colour in vibrant capital Tirana

Albania’s lively capital Tirana is a melting pot of culture and the beating heart of this fascinating country. After communism fell in 1992 Tirana was given a makeover, and this once restricted and dull city was flipped upside down – it was painted with bright colours, streets were lined with bars and restaurants, and public squares popped up all over the city.

A weekend in Tirana is best spent checking out the array of top-notch museums, admiring the murals that are scattered around the city and bar crawling. During winter it’s the centre of Albanian nightlife when locals return from their summer work elsewhere.

Recommended hostel: Trip’n’ Hostel (rates start at 1332 [£9] per bed, per night)

Durrёs

Dating all the way back to the seventh century, Durrës is the most ancient city in Albania

Head straight to the sea and you’ll reach port city Durrёs, the most ancient city in Albania, dating back to the seventh century BC. It’s renowned for its ancient ruins, including the largest Roman amphitheatre in the Balkans. Durrës is also an attractive city with sandy beaches and turquoise water, a welcome break from the buzzing life of Tirana.

Recommended hotel:  Adriatik Hotel (rates start at LEK 10807 [£73] per room, per night)

Shkodёr

View from Rozafa Castle in Shkodër and across Bojana River

Close towards the border of Montenegro is Shkodёr, also known as the gateway to the Albanian Alps. Many writers, artists, photographers and painters were born here, and it’s known to be a culturally rich city.

Make sure to also head west of the city to Lake Shkodёr, the largest lake in Southern Europe, which is a site to be seen.

Shkodër is a great stopover point if you want to break up your trip throughout Albania as it has reliable busses to the north towards Montenegro and Croatia, and also to the south towards Tirana.

Recommended hostel: Wanderers Hostel (rates start at LEK 2073 [£14] per bed, per night)

Making your way around

It’s easiest to travel around Albania by car, but you can also tour the country by bus. It’s nice and inexpensive, just come prepared that transport in Albania is not on any strict schedule or timeline. Also, bus times can change from summer to winter, so ask a local when the buses run – they’ll know best. There are rough bus stops, but bus drivers also pick up hitchhikers and anyone who sticks out their hand. To top things off: don’t be surprised if you also share your seat with tons of boxes, a refrigerator or a car motor.

Hire a car in Albania

Albanian food – fresh off the boat

How about a nice little pitstop for some fresh veggies?

The Albanian kitchen is influenced by Greece, Turkey and Italy, and it’s typically made with local produce and known to be mouth-wateringly flavoursome. Albanian dishes include tavё kosi (baked lamb with yoghurt) and byrek (a flaky pastry usually filled with cheese). You will also find an endless amount of quality pizzerias and lots of Greek-styled dishes around, and along the coast you can taste amazing and affordable seafood fresh off the boat. Also make sure to try the most popular drink in Albania, Raki – a strong drink made from fermented grapes and sometimes other fruits such as plums and apricots. Raki is used for medical purposes as well. Come try for yourself.

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