I knew very little about Albania until my visit in September. My knowledge was limited to a bunch of preconceptions built from sporadic research each time this destination made it back into my to do next list. Finally I was going to visit.
Not yet part of the EU, one of the biggest exporters of cannabis in Europe and yet one of the poorest countries in the region. Albania was closed and ruled by a dictator for many years, and of course I didn’t even know his name before I got there.
Arriving into the capital, Tirana, or Tirona to the locals, was somewhat confusing. Expecting to find remnants of communist blocks, instead there were boulevards, pastel coloured towers, Italian architecture and along one road: a cathedral, a church, a mosque and a casino. The unfinished skyscrapers indicates more is expected to emerge, hopefully retaining the few Ottoman-era remains.
We arrived into the city just before midnight, so venturing outside our hotel in the Blloku area wasn’t going to happen until the morning, but we learnt later that this was a restricted area during the communist era. A quadrant of streets, only the party elite could enter until 1991, when it was opened to the public. Now a very fashionable area of the city, full of bars and restaurants; and just a short walk to the centre.The city originally grew from just a mosque, bakery and a hamman, to what it is today. The mosque remains the centre of town and it a popular place to visit when sussing out the lie of the land here when you first arrive.
The rest of the city offers many insights into what occurred in Albania in the last sixty years. As the country had few political allies towards the end of its communist era, it was less progressive than the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The dictator, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Ho-dja), enforced totalitarian values on the people for many years. Every museum and art gallery we visited reiterated this until I could imagine nothing more than permanent lock down. It explains why there are now significantly more Albanians outside the country than in it.
Bunkers and rubbish can be found everywhere but there’s much more to see once you get past this. Beautiful beaches, vast scenery and open roads. If you venture beyond the tourist areas around Saranda in the south there’s many areas worthy of a visit including a number of UNESCO sites.As we travelled south from Tirana, it was evident that the influence of communism, has left behind many scars and significantly delayed the progression of modernisation. With this, the infrastructure and tourism is still in the early stages of development and much of this seems to be improving as a result of overseas funding.
The food was immediately surprising, with so much choice. The variations of similar dishes as we travelled further, just got better and better. After a day cooking with a family in the village of Saraqinisht, not far from Gijrokaster, I’m without doubt that Albania is by far the best of the Balkans, for me, when it comes to food.For me, the experience of local life in Albania was by far the highlight. From the coffee culture, and laid back attitude, to evenings sipping home made Raki.
Visit before everyone else does and you will not be disappointed.As for recommending whether you visit, it’s one of the most welcoming countries in the world and definitely the cheapest in the area. We are now in Croatia, still along the Adriatic, and reminiscing of the twisting mountain roads with beautiful ocean views. Here it’s much the same but Albania is somewhat untouched and unmanicured by comparison.