Idyllic beaches, warm weather, rich history, spectacular mountain scenery and bargain prices. It sounds like an impossible wish-list for a European destination; yet Albania fulfils all and more of these.
Albania was so backward when it emerged, blinking into the bright light of freedom that it took nearly two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe. Today, Albania offers a remarkable array of unique attractions, not least due to this very isolation; ancient behaviour codes, forgotten archaeological sites and villages where time seems to have stood still.
With its stunning mountain scenery, a thriving capital in Tirana and beaches to rival any elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Albania has become the super-hit of the Balkans.
Declared independent on 28 November, 1912, Albania is out to celebrate its 103rd Independence Day this year.
Some of the places where you could get lost in time include:
Shkodra: Once an important trading town due to its favorable geographical position at the meeting point of two rivers and very close to the Adriatic Sea, Shkodra, located to the north of Tirana, is considered the country’s cultural capital thanks to its music and literary traditions. Shkodra is a home to the impressive Rozafa Fortress, the oldest in the country. A walk around Shkodra’s recently renovated Old Townis a place not to be missed.
Kruja: Head south from Albania’s cultural capital to its historical capital, Kruja, where 15th Century national hero, George Kastrioti Skanderbeg staved off repeated attacks by troops of the Ottoman Empire. The town is almost a religious site for Albanians, where the prominent Kruja Castle looms as witness to the city’s efforts to thwart the advances of the Ottomans.
Inside the castle is the Skanderberg Museum, a building dedicated to the national hero, as well as the National Ethnographic Museum and a restored Ottoman-era bazaar. With its isolated hilltop location, the castle is a charming place to hang around and go for an early morningwalk or to stroll through its traditional bazaar before the tour buses start rolling in.
Berat: There are a few better places to be in Albania than standing on the river bridge in the charming, easy-going town of Berat. Best known as the ‘town of thousand windows’, you will be surrounded by huddles of Ottoman houses, their dark, rectangular windows staring from whitewashed walls like a thousand eyes. On the south bank of the river is the sleepy Gorica district, kept in shadow for much of the day by a muscular backdrop of rock; to the north is the relatively sun-drenched Mangalemi district, from which steep, cobblestoned paths lead up to the hill-top Kalasa, an old citadel whose wonderful interior is up there with the best old towns in the Balkans.
Unlike other such places in Albania this is still a functioning part of town and home to hundreds, yet almost nothing dilutes its centuries-old vibe; visit at night and you are in for a wonderfully eerie treat.And finally for an amazing dinner with a view, head across the bridge to Antigoni or to the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Tomori, nothing could prove better.
Gjirokastra: The final stop on this north-to-south cultural tour of Albania has to be Gjirokastra. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008 as another important Ottoman town, Gjirokastra, sits proudly above the sparsely inhabited Drinos valley. One of Albania’s most attractive towns, Gjirokastrais also home to some of its friendliest people. Its days as an Ottoman trading hub have bequeathed it with a wealth of sparkling Ottoman houses, which line a grey-white-pink tricolour of steep, cobbled streets.
Ascending into the centre of Gjirokastra you will be struck by the magic of the limestone-paved Old Town, which also happens to be the birthplace of Albania’s most famous author, Ismail Kadare. Hike or drive further up to the imposing Gjirokastra Castle, perhaps the finest in the country, for sweeping valley views. You could get your history fixed with a visit to the Artillery Gallery, Army Museum, and the new, informative Gjirokastra Museum.
Bektashi Tekke, a center of the Bektashi Sufi sect of Albania, lies on the cusp of the town. An 18th century structure it remains, despite its recent renovation and extension, a major attraction for those exploring religious mysticisms.
In true Albanian fashion, within the castle walls you will also find the skeleton of a US Air Force plane mysteriously forced down near Tirana in 1957. Stay for a night at the 300-year-old Gjirokastra Hotel and get your fill of traditional local fare before heading back north or onwards to the Albanian Riviera.
There are plenty of options for car hire in Tirana and driving on some of Albania’s perilous roads is an experience in itself.Albania’s reputation for atrocious road conditions is sadly not an exaggeration, but big improvements have been made over the past years.There are plenty of shiny petrol stations around to keep you fuelled up and caffeinated, all you need is to keep a sharp eye out for the ferocious furgon, Albania’s ubiquitous minibuses, the courageous pedestrians or therogue cow.