It’s late evening when I land in Albania’s capital city Tirana, with the flight consisting of just 2 hours and 55 minutes. Yes, you heard right. Similar to the nearby sought-after destination Croatia, the flight time is under 3 hours. Not as far as you thought right?
Having lookied after Croatia for the best part of a year, I have created a solid foundation of knowledge about the country from consistent travelling and studying.
Albania on the other hand, I knew nothing about. But I did have a vague and hazy recollection of Communist rule resulting in mass isolation and segregation.
This had to be such a strain on the country, which is why after Communism ended, it took around 20 years for the country to bounce back and catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe.
As soon as communist restraints were loosened, the people of Albania got, well, a little over excited, and started throwing up buildings left right and centre without much thought, which is why you can see large, block type soviet buildings, which in some towns have remained unfinished.
However, the positive aspect of this isolated situation are the areas of where time has stood still; forgotten archaeological sites, villages, beaches and mountains that would rival the rest of The Balkans! (Honestly!)
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Albania's changing attitude to tourism
The tourism industry prefer not to have an influx of tourists all visiting at the same time - Why? Well because they are being careful.
They have witnessed first hand their neighbouring countries like Croatia whose cities like Dubrovnik have become very demanding.
Lonely Planet perfectly quotes "Albania has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans. But hurry here, as word is well and truly out”.
The Ministry of Tourism are putting measures in place, which should support future tourism but even now, there are things happening. You can feel it.
Albanian cheese and wine
After being greeted by the bright airport lights and shiny huge Mercedes parked out front (not for me though. Sigh), I was ready to dive head first into my hotel pillow from the long day of working at the office and journey to airport.
Instead, I was driven to a waterfront restaurant in Durres for a late dinner. I still can’t get used to how late the Europeans eat since us British like eating before 9pm (at the very latest), but I had to admit I was starved.
Sleep temporarily forgotten, I started to crave cheese and wine - the two main things I told myself I wasn’t going to give in to on this trip (I usually have too much of it when I’m away).
Even through the darkness I could hear and feel the waves bashing against the beach, along with a warm evening breeze refreshing me. I found the positive and friendly vibe from Albania’s first impression palpable, and it was reflected not just in this restaurant but also in every restaurant and hotel that I had to the chance to visit on the trip.
I was thinking if this is what Albania felt like in the dark, then I couldn’t wait to react to it in daylight. The start was promising (the cheese and wine also!)
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A huge country
When planning this trip my contact in Albania asked me what I wanted to see. I said, “Well, all of it.”
I was determined to see as much as I could with my aim being to introduce and put together an exciting, engaging and of course affordable tour of Albania for our Saga customers.
Spanning 28,748 square kilometres the country is huge
Not fazed by my determined attitude, we planned to visit Tirana, Durres, Fier, Vlore, Himare, Sarande, Butrint, Gjirokaster, Berat, Elbasan, Pogradec and Ohrid (Macedonia), all in just five days. Easy right?
Albania's dark history
By day two of the trip and I was immensely excited and proceeded to digest as much information about the history of Albania, which is predominately and most recently known for its strain under the teacher turned dictator Enver Hoxha, who was especially concentrated and oppressive.
Extremely paranoid, he ordered the construction of more than 750,000 dome-shaped bunkers to aid his deep-seated fear of invasion (An invasion that never came).
Hoxha reigned over Albania for more than 40 years until his death in 1985.
However, what is great to see is how the citizens of Albania have cast a new light on a dark history by converting the bunkers into symbolist art and museums with the intent to create a purpose reminder of what they have endured and survived.
Carlo Bollino the curator of Bunk’Art explained why he decided to transform these cold, ugly domes of concrete into a legacy.
“We hope to help Albanians to reconcile with their own history and their own past. There cannot be awareness of your own present and confidence in the future without knowing the soil in which your own roots are planted.” Pretty amazing right?
Is Albania safe to visit?
Some of us would have seen and therefore remember the struggles on the news and would think, is this country safe to visit?
Well according to the www.gov.uk website, “Public security is generally good, particularly in Tirana, and Albanians are very hospitable to visitors.
Crime and violence does occur in some areas, but reports of crime specifically targeting foreigners are rare" and "Tension between religious groups and expression of extremist views is very rare, and attitudes to western countries are overwhelmingly positive."
I felt this too. I didn’t feel unsafe and acted as sensibly as I would in the UK. What surprised me was the religion factor.
Religion isn't generally 'felt' in Albania which actually became the first official atheist country in 1967, when Hoxha ordered all churches and mosques to be demolished, and until communism collapsed, all public expressions of faith were banned.
Highlights of Albania
As my trip continued over the next few days, my head was full of information and stories but all I wanted to do was know more and see more.
I found the unspoilt extremely well kept UNESCO archaeological site in Butrint fascinating, as well as Gjirokaster castle and the city of windows Berat whose UNESCO protected architecture and attractions portray history and beauty.
I was in constant awe and surprised by the clear blue sea lining the pristine beaches of Durres and Sarande.
I drank raki during the day (it was so strong) and Turkish coffee in an Albanian family home. I even managed to squeeze in a trip to Macedonia (FYROM) visiting the Monastery of Saint Naum situated perfected on the stunning Ohrid Lakes.
Want to know the best part of it all? It was so quiet! It was mid September with blue skies and comfortable temperatures and the lack of people and queues made it even better. Question is will it always be like this? My guess is not for long.
Albanian cuisine for everyone
I’ve become accustomed to the fact that not everyone caters very well for vegetarians (its slowly getting better) but I always manage to find something to eat usually consisting of a plate of grilled vegetables (which after the 3rd day in a row becomes uneventful).
But Albanian food was good. And I mean really good!
Heavily influenced by the Greeks bordered next door, Albanian food was very affordable (Albania don’t have the Euro) and catered well for me as well as my meat loving companions.
I ate copious amounts of pasta, rice balls, tzatziki sauces, cheese (lots of it), stuffed peppers (yes with of course cheese) and many spinach-filled pies. Every time I went for dinner, I still tasted my lunch but it didn’t stop me refusing food!
Without a doubt the best food experience of my trip was on the last night at Gourmet Restaurant Marchesi in Tirana where I had the chance to meet the owner Gëzim Musliaka. MasterChef judge, slow food extraordinaire, painter and all round nice guy.
The gourmet style food was not only home-grown and organic but also filling and very satisfying (and also vegetarian!)
Albania - the Mediterraneans best kept secret
When I reluctantly left for the airport on the morning of day 5, I found myself staring out the window up at the brightly coloured and in some cases polka dot buildings of Tirana, with a sense of calm but also excitement, because I found what I was looking for.
Now all I have to do is tell people about it.