Visit An Overlooked Balkan Gem
When I told my friends and family that I would be spending a month in Albania, the overwhelming response was “Why?” It turns out that most people don’t think of Albania when planning a European vacation.
This used to be for good reason, as Albania’s borders were closed to western tourists until the mid-‘90s and its history of conflict made many people wary. Although Albania has been politically stable and safe to travel for the past 10 years, it remains somewhat “undiscovered,” despite having just as much to offer as its neighbours, Greece, Italy and Croatia.
The thrill of touring a country most people will never go to was enough to get me to pack my bags, but I now have a lot more answers to the question “Why Albania?”
1. To escape the tourist traps
More than once, I’ve had the experience of flying into a city, seeing all the major tourist attractions and then leaving with the sense that I haven’t seen anything of the local culture. Very few places in Albania feel as if they are specifically geared to tourists and even in those areas, nothing feels particularly touristy or fake. You won’t need a guidebook to tell you how to have an authentic Albania experience. You can’t help but have an authentic Albanian experience.
The lack of tourists also tends to mean a lack of crowds. There’s nothing quite like wandering among the ruins of a 12th century castle or through a herd of goats along a mountain path with only one or two other visitors to break the illusion that you’ve actually traveled back in time.
2. To explore Albania’s rich history and culture
Having been conquered by many different peoples, Albania has a rich and multi-layered history.
his is evident in well-preserved historical sites from many different eras and empires. The oldest of these is the ruins at Butrint, an Ancient Greek colony, which the epic hero Aenead is said to have visited while fleeing from Troy.
Some of the most picturesque villages in Albania are the former Ottoman strongholds, Gjirokastra and Berat, which have maintained a lot of their traditional architecture. While both cities are situated under magnificent castles and dotted with Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques, I loved touring the old Ottoman manor houses with traditional furniture and hand-embroidered clothing on display.
Since Albanians take pride in preserving their unique history and traditions, there are still many places where you can find traditional Albanian handicrafts as well as festivals featuring Albanian dance and polyphonic singing. The largest of these is the Gjirokastra Folk Festival, which takes place every four years in May and attracts thousands of people from all over the Balkans.
If, like me, you have an interest in more recent history, all over Albania you can find and explore the old war bunkers built during the communist era. The National Historical Museum in Tirana also recently opened a new wing dedicated to Albania under communism.
3. To witness incredible natural beauty
Albania is home to an incredible array of natural beauty, from Mediterranean beaches, to breathtaking mountain ranges, lakes and waterfalls. The most popular beach is probably Ksamil, surrounded by a ring of tiny islands you can swim to and only a short bus ride away from the lively beach town of Saranda. Both Ksamil and Saranda can get pretty crowded in the summer so if you’re not necessarily looking for a party, Albanians will tell you to go to the comparatively isolated beaches of Himara and Dhermi.
Lake Koman, which you can cross by ferry, is another gorgeous natural attraction for its amazing view of the Albanian Alps. These mountains are also a paradise for hikers. Theth National Park and the even more remote Valbona National Park are full of vast and stunning mountain views and natural waterfalls. The daylong walk from Valbona to Theth is rightly famous for its beauty.
4. To eat Albanian food
One thing that surprised me about Albania is how much I loved Albanian food, which I found incredibly fresh, delicious and cheap. As Albanian food has a lot of Greek influence, most Albanian restaurants serve food many non-Albanians would think of as Greek, such as stuffed peppers, moussaka and lamb baked with yogurt.
The strictly Albanian food, such as qofte, Albanian meatballs, or byrek, filo pastry stuffed with meat, vegetables or cheese, to me were even better. My personal favorite has to be qifqi, an appetizer of fried rice balls held together with egg and herbs, which is native to southern Albania.
5. To have a great experience on a budget
Almost everywhere I went, I spent half as much as I expected to. While the benefits of cheap prices are pretty self-explanatory, the prices in Albania made a huge difference as to how long I could keep travelling. As a student, I can afford to stay for a few days in the major cities of Western Europe, but choosing Albania allowed me to travel much further and see so much more on the same budget.
6. To meet amazing people
Everyone I met was incredibly friendly and helpful. A couple gave me a room in their bed and breakfast at a discount even after I woke them at 3am. Some teenagers gave me a free tour of their city. Restaurant owners sat down at my table to ask me how my trip was going and if I needed any advice. I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t excited to talk to me, to applaud my use of basic Albanian phrases and help me get where I was going.
As it turns out, Albania has become a paradise for backpackers and anyone travelling in Eastern Europe should add it to their list.