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Albania has a wide array of unique attractions, just not the natural beauty, but a lot of golden beaches and coves that enhance the beauty of the country. Albania, also known as a Mediterranean country that is situated just north of mainland Greece with an incredible history. Setting impressively against a wild and rugged landscape, the country looks amazingly beautiful. With the stunning mountain scenery, forgotten archaeological sites and villages, it has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans.
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Compare Albania to most of Europe and the country is a unique experience. Merely stepping foot inside Albanian territory comes with an inimitable feeling. Spending enough time in the country to unpick the idiosyncrasies is another highlight. Even the main destinations remain off the beaten track, and they are just the start of what this small Balkan country has up its sleeve.
Once unsightly war bunkers cover Albania, hiding places for a war that never came. Estimates vary as to how many there are, but whether you believe 175,000 or 750,000 it’s always a staggering number. Some of these bunkers have received a new lease on life. They have been converted into something more appealing than a reminder of a paranoid dictator. Hamburger stalls, cocktail bars, boutique hotels, Christian shrines, tattoo parlors. After all, why destroy an eyesore when it’s so structurally sound? The most famous of the conversions can be found in Tirana, two art galleries housed in what used to be dictator Hoxha’s atomic bunkers.
Each of Albania’s castles tells a different story, emerging from a contrasting time with a new set of heroes and villains. Petrela Castle is an easy morning trip from Tirana, and the uphill walk to its summit is almost like a scene from the latest Star Wars movie. Rozafa is a captivating stop on the road north to Montenegro, while Berat and Gjirokastra are dominated by their fortresses. For a real immersion in Albanian history and folklore make a stop in Krujë where Skanderbeg Castle brings tales of resistance and revolution. Like all the others, it’s not just the thick stone that impresses, but also the panoramas that flow from your elevated vantage point.
The Ruins of Butrint
Butrint is a poignant example of Albania standing amid the great civilizations of human history. A Greek acropolis waits, fortified by both walls and forest. Standing in the theatre you can almost feel the atmosphere from 2,300 years ago; certainly, imagine it at the Cyclopean wall and ornate Greek inscriptions. There are also odes to the Roman period as well as geometric mosaics, basilicas, and evidence of the city’s Byzantine history. It was all abandoned for over a millennia but has been neatly restored, giving a strong sense of past glory.
Fulfilling many impressions of a tropical island fantasy, the Ksamil Islands are just one of the attractions on the Ionian Coast. Relax on rocky-forested islands fringed by slithers of golden sand, while gazing out across evocative sea colors. To give an impression of the location, the easiest way to get here is to fly to Greek Corfu then take the ferry to Ksamil. While they are developing into popular destinations (understandable if you take one glimpse at a Ksamil Islands photo) there’s a still a sense that you’ve found a piece of Europe’s coast that very few others know about.
Albanian villages cling to their old customs and traditions. Locals dress in their traditional garments and tend to the fields, while life moves on slowly until the call to prayer rings out and there are brief few moments of activity. Then it’s back to the sedate pace of yesteryear. Isolated villages are found all across the country, and they are a great way to understand the day-to-day life of a nation that’s proud of its past and traditions. While Tirana has become a thriving and trending metropolis, it is in the villages where you really connect with the locals.
The best time to visit Albania is now. It’s the sweet spot between limited tourism but just enough amenities to make a stay calm and comfortable. With ascension into the EU on the cards and the recent exponential increase in visitors, Albania may not provide the same experience a decade from now. As for the time of year, like the rest of the Balkans, Albania is best from April to October. The mountains are accessible, and it’s warm enough for the beaches. Plus the days are long, and you can get to know the country before dusk falls and already quiet towns shut down for the day. May and June are ideal, with warm days and not many other tourists around. As per the rest of Europe, peak season is in July and August, although you won’t experience the same dramatic surge as in nearby countries like Croatia. This is a time when the Albanians go on vacation; so do not expect the beaches to be empty. You will, however, have an opportunity to strike up a conversation with local people visiting the coast. September is another excellent time to visit; good weather, hardly any tourists, the opportunity to explore far and wide. November to March is the slow season, and you can go days without seeing another tourist during these months. The weather is not unpleasant, but it is far from the sunbathing climate. Mountains and lakes can become inaccessible due to snowfall and the ferry services shuts down as well. Plus, with the shorter days, it’s harder to go on a good hiking adventure.
Albania’s tourist infrastructure has only just emerged from its infancy stage and this should be noted when you plan a visit. There is not a huge choice of five-star hotels and levels of luxury are not on the same level as other countries in Europe. Most upmarket establishments are newly built, leaning on the recent upsurge in visitors, although a few quirky refurbishments can be found in painted communist blocks. Small-scale tourism is reflected in the small size of the hotels. Albania is not where you will find large resort-style accommodation and it seems fitting to use the word boutique, especially at the family-run establishments in rural parts of the country. Tirana has a number of good hotel options while the towns of Berat and Gjirokaster provide cute accommodation in period buildings; these destinations are the mainstay on most guided itineraries. The lack of large-scale accommodation is part of the appeal on the Ionian Coast; do not expect fast WiFi or opulent facilities, this is a rustic part of Europe and almost all visitors prefer it this way. There are some excellent home-stays in other parts of Albania, along with accommodation that provides a welcoming, homely feel. While Albania has not typically been a family destination, it’s becoming a hit as part of multi-trip journeys through the Balkan region. You may prefer sticking to the route through Tirana and Berat, but more adventurous families can enjoy good cultural experiences in villages and off the beaten track destinations. For something unique but not necessarily glamorous, consider a night in one of the reconverted bunkers, including those built straight onto the sand.
The best part visiting Albania is that Albania has opened its doors for almost all nationalities. This means that any nationality can enjoy a visa-free stay here, with U.S. nationals allowed to stay for a full year. It’s 90 days for everyone else, including EU nationals. If you need and have obtained a visa for travel in the Schengen Area, the U.K. or the USA, you will also be allowed to enter Albania without any need for a specific Albanian visa. This is very much a country that has opened to the world and is seeking to fast-track its ascension into the European Union.
You will find Albanians to be amongst the friendliest and hospitable people on the continent, especially in the capital city itself. Both the U.K. and U.S. foreign offices declare that crime specifically targeted towards tourists is very rare. Tirana can be a little daunting to the first-time visitor. It certainly runs in its own rhythm, and you should remember all the basic travel precautions, such as not overtly advertising your wealth. It’s a lively city after dark, and you should feel safe walking around or taking a taxi. Your guide can provide more localized information based on where you are staying. It’s not recommended to hire a car in Albania as the road system is far below European standards, from potholes and poorly paved roads to the lack of streetlights and confusing traffic lights. It’s wise to take some basic health precautions, as the standard of facilities won’t be up to what you are used to at home. Guides will accompany you to hospitals and clinics, as it’s unlikely that the doctors who see you will speak English. The tap water is not considered safe to drink even though it is consumed by locals. Bottled water, however, is readily available throughout the country.
Albania makes a mockery of the religious challenges facing many nations around the world. The peace in which Islam and Christianity come together does not make international news, but it should. There is a harmony of religions and beliefs, a general feeling of acceptance that’s diametrically opposed to the narratives of fear that have seeped into a wider Western culture. Undoubtedly the country’s history has something to do with this, a long and brutal communist isolation now replaced by a freedom that has many connotations. You will feel at ease here, and that’s always a good way to start a vacation. Few countries are so easy-going regarding customs and etiquette. Attitudes towards Western countries are overwhelmingly positive everywhere you travel here. In some places, English-speaking locals will be eager to take their chance to converse with foreigners. There’s a sense that the country wants to learn from those that visit, so do not be afraid to share stories; after all, cultural dialogue thrives on this. The challenge is finding a common language. More Albanians speak Italian than they do English, and senior generations are unlikely to know anything beyond a hello or how are you. More and more people are learning English and it is now a part of their school curriculum. Younger generations, particularly in Tirana, are increasing in their confidence and use of English. Albania is a developing country, and you should be aware of how to access your money. Visa and Mastercard accepting ATMs are bountiful in Tirana, but this financial infrastructure is not widespread across the country. Forex offices are more common – both U.S. dollars and Euros are readily exchangeable – so it’s worth carrying some cash which you at all times.
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