A slice of Asia in Europe, Albania is certainly as vibrant and chaotic as anything further east. After 50 years of hardline Stalinist rule, à la North Korea, it is no wonder the Albanians let it all out once they managed to throw of the yoke of the communist party in the nineties. After some initial start-up problems, think collapsed pyramid schemes leading to widespread chaos, the looting of a huge cache of arms, and the more or less disintegration of the government, they have now steered into calmer waters.
For the tourists Albania is interesting for many reasons. For one, simple curiousity. It was completely sealed off from the outside world for so long that it was a blank spot on the map for many. But that was perhaps the case in those heady first years of democratic transition. By now enough travellers have been there to give the casual visitor an idea of the country.
Albania is wild beauty, vibrant markets, ancient ruins, it is part Italian, part Balkan, part Asia, it is Muslim and Orthodox, it is crazy and sane, it is winding mountain roads, it is snowclad mountain peaks and crystalline rivers, it is Ottoman villages, and goat herders, it is communist apartment blocks painted in bright colours to liven things up, it is unspoilt Adriatic beaches, and it is crumbling bunkers as far as the eye can see spread over the entire country, courtesy of the paranoid dictatorship they left behind.
It is a country you don’t want to miss, if only to sniff up some Asian flavours in the often so rigid European continent.
Highlights from Albania
- The capital Tirana (aka Tiranë) is up and coming, with the drab communist concrete blocks looking all the brighter due to colourful paint jobs, a beautiful mosque, interesting museums, a population that seems to sense the future is theirs, and a vibrant nightlife
- Get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and sniff up some healthy mountain air in beautiful Berat, a World Heritage Village
- Visit historically important Krujë (aka Kruja), with its fortress
- Laze away on one of the many beaches along the Albanian ‘Riviera’
- Hike the Dinaric Alps up north on the border with Montenegro
- Wander amongst the ancient ruins of Butrint (aka Buthrotum), before resting on the beach outside Sarandë
- Spend the night in an Ottoman house in World Heritage Gjirokastër
- Get cultural in Shkodër
- Trek Lura National Park (aka Lurë National Park, Parku Kombetar i Lurës) with its glacial lakes
- Swim to one of the three islands in Ksamil (aka Ksamili)
Hints and Tips for Albania
- You can reach Albania by boat from Italy, by coach from anywhere, by car, by plane, but not by train (though there are internal lines).
- Don’t worry about a visa, you don’t need one.
- English is becoming more common, at least among the younger generation and in the cities. The older generation might speak Italian. For the interior an Albanian phrasebook might come in handy.