Locked between dramatic mountain faces and azure blue seas; it’s nothing short of a miracle that Albania hasn’t made it onto the mainstream tourist trail yet. “Shqipëria” to the locals, it’s known to its natives as the land of the eagles, a moniker adopted from folklore tales passed down from generation to generation. They tell of how a young Albanian saved an eaglet from certain death at the fangs of a venomous snake. And it’s that willingness to do things for others that sum up the spirit of the country.
Albanians are known for their hospitality, kindness, and affinity for knocking back glasses of homemade raki. The days of communist dictatorship are a distant memory for all but a few. Albania is looking ahead to a brighter future. There is no better time to visit than now.
Tucked between the Tomorr mountain (which locals claim to be the resting body of a fallen giant) and the Osum river, Berat is the jewel in the crown of Albania. Home to 60,000 people, many of whom tell tales of being forced to work in the munitions tunnels carved by the Communist government into nearby hills. It’s a town of two halves – the winding medieval white-washed streets cut a course on the right bank of the river, while an altogether more modern settlement is the hub of the town on the left bank.
High above the town lies its castle – a fortress built to protect the town and her inhabitants from Byzantine raiders. Once it was a front line of wars between powerful empires vying for control. Now a slippery marble paved road keeps all but the most determined flip-flop clad tourists from reaching the top.
Consecutive invasions of Berat have left the town with a mixture of architecture. The Turks brought their influence, as did the Communists. An interesting mishmash of styles pleasing to the eye, and the camera.
Where to stay: Ex-pat Scotti has been running ‘Berat Backpackers’ since 2009. It’s the stuff of backpacker dreams; Cuni the rather aloof cat, a legend in the hostel world helps to secure that. The 250 year old home offers more than comfortable lodging, and excellent social vibes. Comfy corner sofas, incredible views across the town, good home cooking, and cheap beers are all part of the charm.
Doubles and dorms are available from £8 (€10, US$11) a night. Worth the furgon ride! Book here
Valbona National Park
Misty mountains and alpine streams dominate in this untouched corner of europe’s unexplored country. The traditional way of life is slowly changing in the steep-sided valleys. Farmers are turning their hand to hosting trekkers looking for adventure.
The region borders Kosovo, territory fiercely claimed by both Serbs and ethnic Albanians. It’s home to wild dog, wolves, and some say bears. But don’t let this put you off. The mountains offer fantastic trekking, climbing and camping.
The day-long trek from Valbona to Theth is not to be missed. Sitting more than 2,000 metres above sea level means weather fronts blow in and leave in a matter of hours. It’s not uncommon for there to be mysterious mist lingering in the morning then crystal clear skies in the afternoon
Albania is becoming a stoic pinpoint on the map for travellers from around the globe. New roads are being built, hotels are under construction, and the country is planning to build a second airport, at Kukës – development which’ll make getting to northern Albania much easier, and visiting a more attractive prospect.
Where to stay: Traditional but comfortable lodging is available at home stays throughout the valley. Albania’s reputation for good hospitality earns its name in Valbona. But by far the most popular place to kip is Quku i Valbonës. Halfway up the valley the family run business has great food, the most comfortable beds, or a place to camp if that’s your thing. The showers are great too!
Beds start from £20 (€25, US$28) a night. Book here
The “not to be missed” Lake Koman ferry
A ride along Lake Koman is only comparable to a trip on the Norwegian fjords. Bottle green trees meet the waters edge along the breathtaking route. The landlocked lake through the ‘accursed mountains’ is actually a hydro-electric damn, but also forms part of an ancient route from Kosovo to Albania. The rickety ferry stutters into life several times a day, passing which scenery has to be seen to be believed.
A photographers dream, the landscape could have been plucked from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mountains tower above the lake as it weaves its way to Fierza. It’s a route used by tourists and locals alike – meaning it’s a great chance to practice pigeon Albanian (or sit back, have a beer and take in the views).
Lake Koman is the most scenic route to travel to the Valbona National Park from Shkodër. It has been described as “one of the world’s great boat trips”.
This sleepy fishing village on facing out toward the Ionian Sea remains relatively untouched by Aussie backpackers flaunting flip-flops and tales of far-flung lands. Seafood restaurants line the seafront enjoying unspoilt views over the town’s beach.
Less than half an hour’s stroll away from the Xhiro is ‘Albania’s Ibiza’ – Jala. Toned men and bikini-clad women descend on the beach to drink at its bars, swim in crystal clear waters and ‘be seen’ during the summer month. It’s a world away from the serenity of the surrounding villages.
Reminders of Albania’s communist dictatorship past are ever present. On a clear day the Greek island of Corfu is visible – too visible for those once in Tirana’s corridors of power awaiting an imminent invasion which never came. The now defunct fortifications line the roads leading between the coastal towns and villages.
For a truly undiscovered experience take the coastal route between Vlora and Himarë. Google Maps directs tourists away from the twisting mountain roads as they descend down from Mount Çika, but the hairpins bends are a thrill for any driver (but maybe not so much for passengers!)
The original hermit kingdom was not always as open and welcoming as it is today. As recently as the 1980’s tourists required a chaperone to visit, were prevent from mingling with locals, and were only allowed to see what the government wanted them to see. Nowadays the fortifications are used as bars, storehouses, or have fallen into disrepair.
Tirana – the capital city
Probably Europe’s weirdest capital city. At first glance Tirana doesn’t have a huge amount to offer a wondering soul, but its quirkiness makes it worth at least a day stop-off. The International Center of Culture (or the Pyramid of Tirana) tops the Albania’s list of the weird and wonderful. Opened in October 1988 was intended to be a museum to Enver Hoxha – the leader of Albania’s communist cult. The pyramid new sits empty and derelict. It’s an ad hoc climbing frame for plucky locals and tourists hoping to get that “perfect selfie”.
Tirana of the centre of Albanian life. Smartly dressed men and women weave their way between the chaotic traffic like in any other European capital. It’s the home of the country’s nightlife, especially the Blokku area, a section of town formerly reserved for the country’s elite.
Where to stay: Unlike most places in Albania, there is a good choice of places to sleep. Backpackers flock to Trip’n’Hostel – only a stone’s throw from the central Skanderbeg Square. Good showers, tasty breakfast, and a relaxing garden make this a great place to exchange backpacking stories with other travellers.
Beds start from £8 (€10, US$11) a night. Book here
Albania is a fast-changing country, its mystique and wonder could be all but gone in a few years. What are you waiting for?