Long skirted women catch rides on the back of their husbands pushbikes in the rain. Farmers use scythes and wear suits to work. Everyone waves at everyone and people don’t lock their doors. You can’t buy a Big Mac, a Whopper or a skinny frap’ at Starbucks but you can buy hard liquor at a petrol station.
Thanks to prolonged and vicious bout of communism that finished only relatively recently, most of Albania feels like the rest of the world probably felt in the 50s, but the vintage vibe is no bad thing. There are dozens, but here are eight excellent reasons to get yourself to Albania ASAP.
Small but perfectly formed, the Albanian landscape has it all, and is bound to make you wonder, often and loudly, why there aren’t a million other people there exploring it with you. Nevermind, the lack of camera flashes and fanny packs en masse makes the lakes, springs, beaches and mountain passes all the more serene. Catch a boat trip around untouched Lake Koman, it’s a guaranteed gasp-at-every-turn type situation, firstly because of its incredible beauty, and secondly because there’s a goat farmer waving at you from an perilously located clifftop cottage. How did he get there? What does he eat other than goats? It’s all part of the mystery. Theth, with its silence, grazing horses and mountain villages is storybook perfection. Prefer the beach? Head south along the Albanian rivièra and park up at one of the dozens of rustic (read: slightly abandoned) beach towns. Find the right spot and you might only be jostling for sand space with some friendly stray dogs or the occasional cow. The water is so clear you can see the flicker of a gill from 10 metres. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
If you’ve been served by one too many French waiters, you’ll know the value of feeling truly wanted in the country you’re in. When the Albanians say ‘welcome’ they really, honestly mean it. Cops pull you over just to shake your hand and tell you to have a nice time. Farmers invite you in for coffee if they find you camping in their paddock. From cities and towns to the most remote locations, the warmth and generosity of Albanians is such a constant you might find yourself questioning whether there’s a catch, there isn’t. Sit down with a glass or seven of raki (grape whisky that tastes like fire), hit the hardwood d-floor to some Albanian folk music and get to know some of the most memorable characters you’re likely to encounter in your travels.
Albania is outrageously cheap. Tourism is still a developing industry, which means shiny new hostels in the cities will only set you back about €6-7 a night, and guesthouses in the regions will be even less. A fancy, several dish dinner with drinks? €6-8 per person. Entrance to most museums and historical sites peaks at an outrageous 200 lek (€1.50). We hired a car from Shkodra for €11 a day, and the guy from the company dropped it off for free (told you they were nice).
Albania is one of those rare and delightful countries where free camping appears to be either completely legal, or at the very least people simply don’t care whether you do it or not. Pitch up at the beach, in the mountains or on the shore of a lake, you might even get some curious young visitors and their goat herd thrown in as a bonus. The hospitality of Albanians can’t be overstated, so if you’re wandering around looking lost, expect to be invited to camp on someone’s driveway or stay at their house.
The phrase ‘cut off from the world for 50 years’ isn’t one that usually gets your tastebuds tingling, but trust me, the food in Albania is delicious. It’s a country of farmers, so expect plenty of protein. You might struggle to find a two inch thick rib-eye, but what Albanian meat lacks in quality is made up for in quantity, marinade and a shitload of charcoal. Albanian cuisine is also greatly influenced by Greek and Italian food, which means you’ll be able to enjoy delicious souvlaki or a moon-sized pizza for a fraction of the usual price. Love coffee? Prepare for the inevitable but worth it onset of insomnia while you sip your 5th €1 cappuccino in the sun.
If like me, you love a crumbly building or two, Berat and Gjirokaster are the spots for you. Wind in and out of antique shops in the old town of Berat, and marvel at the driving skills of Gjirokaster locals as they manoeuvre up cobbled hills so narrow an overweight donkey would struggle to get through. You can watch a 360 degree sunset over Shkoder from Rozafa castle, or bike to the city outskirts to check out the Mes bridge. It’s just a bridge, but the ride takes you through a bit of countryside, and the myriad cheerful greetings yelled from the roadside or passing cars makes for a guaranteed 24 hour smile on your dial. If you’re after some not so ancient history you can head to the compact but excellent Site of Witness and Memory Museum in Shkodra to learn about the brutalities of communist Albania, or Bunk’art in Tirana – one of the thousands of underground bunkers built by paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, which has been turned into a gallery/museum.
While much of Albania’s charm lies in the fact that it’s a bit of a time portal, you’ll still be able to get your cosmopolitan on in the big (ish) cities. Like a lop-sided muffin or one of those weird hairless dogs, the capital Tirana has an ugly but endearing charm. In an effort to make the admittedly hideous Communist apartment blocks look more appealing, Tirana’s former mayor set about painting them in more cheerful colours. The paint has faded a bit in some spots, meaning you can pass peeling pastels as you stroll from The Pyramid (the graffitied hangout spot for Tirana’s teens) to the flashy ‘New Market’ square. There are guys with twirly moustaches there, so you know it’s the real deal. The second biggest town of Shkoder also boasts a pretty cobbled pedestrian street where all the cool young things go to eat and drink.
For the greedy traveller, the best part of all of this is that you’ll barely have to share Albania with any other tourists. The rare lots of visitors won’t come in gigantic tour buses meaning the all-important photo album won’t be full of hats with neck-flaps. The lack of tourist dollars, of course, is not that great for the economy, and the Albanian government is putting a lot of effort into getting the numbers up. Metallic beachside resorts are starting to pop up in the south, and the fact many young Albanians speak excellent English will surely be a drawcard for those terrified of four syllable greetings.
Albania has transformed itself in just the last few decades, and it’s bound to change even more, so you’d better get there before everyone else gets the same idea.