Over the last five years tourism in Albania has increased exponentially; a trend that is set to continue for the near-future. Whether you’re exploring the magnificent beaches in the South or trekking in the Northern wilderness, there’s one statement that certainly describes Albania – there’s something for everyone!
Under the paranoid rule of dictator Enver Hoxha from 1945 to 1985 it was a country that hardly anyone entered and even fewer were allowed to leave. Probably due to its many years of isolation, even the well-travelled among us can struggle to point out Albania on a map. If you aren’t sure where it is, I can easily describe it as located east of Italy, north of Greece and south of Croatia i.e. easily accessible from many parts of Europe. So what can Albania offer a 21st Century traveller?
I started my journey in London, travelling from Gatwick Airport there’s a rather random direct British Airways flight to Tirana. At just over two and a half hours it doesn’t take very long, if you can cope with the screaming children on board! To make things easier on arrival, I pre-arranged a taxi; mostly to avoid being scammed, at €20 I thought it was a bargain, until I later found a return option that would have cost just €15. Oh well, next time.
With only one airport in the whole country, Albania is quite a difficult one to plan a journey to – especially when you want to see parts of both the north and the south. The way I planned this trip meant that I arrived in Tirana, staying just one night and then meandering up to Shkoder. Thankfully hiring a car made things easier and it meant I could visit sites along the way, this included a quick stop off at second largest city Durres.
Mostly famous as a major port, Durres really wasn’t the highlight of my trip, I found it to be quite crowded and slightly unfriendly. I did make a quick venture to the incredible Amphitheatre and the train station. It didn’t look like any trains had departed here in a long time, but thankfully I was able to freely walk along the platforms, take photos and walk out without needing a ticket. The place seemed abandoned until a ticket inspector appeared who thought I wanted to get on a train…time to make a swift exit!
Drive a little further north beyond Lethe and you’ll find Shengjin, which to me sounds more like a megalopolis Chinese city. Sadly instead you arrive in a rather dreary, closed and slightly unfriendly town (even in spring). I thankfully visited here only briefly so that I could see Rana e Hedhun a.k.a the largest sand dunes in the country. A rather random site that’s situated next to a very swanky new 4* hotel, it seemed clear to me that they are expecting tourism to take off here.
Be aware that if you decide to venture here there’s lots of work taking place building hotels, apartments and the situation isn’t helped by the crazy un-tarmacked road with pot holes the size of cows, you’ll ideally need a 4×4 if you are driving and a good smart phone app to tell you where you’re going. I visited off-season but I can only imagine how busy this place gets in the summer, it has huge potential but a lot of TLC is needed to make it a tourist hotspot.
Just before it got dark we arrived in our overnight stopover in Skhoder. An important strategic location, close to the ports and the border with Montenegro, this is your typical entry point if arriving from Northern Europe. Clearly I brought some of our typical British weather the day that I arrived as it absolutely bucketed down, thankfully our hotel were kind enough to lend me an umbrella and I headed out for dinner. Make sure you try Tradita, a restaurant housed in an old traditional house dating back to 1694.
When planning my trip to Albania there was one place that repeatedly kept popping up. That place was Theth.
As my adventure took place in early spring the tourist season hadn’t officially begun, sadly for me the weather wasn’t that kind to me as the night before we were due to drive to Theth lots of snow had fallen onto the road which meant it was blocked, even with a huge 4×4 truck you wouldn’t have been able to get past. Some how I managed to get past a certain point and subsequently abandoned the hire car then proceeded to walked the rest of the way to Theth. It seemed the most sensible option, although I did have to trudge through waist-height snow! Thankfully I just made it dark and was greeted to a traditional wood-burning over to warm my feet.
This is one truly off-the-beaten track destination, it’s one of the most remote places to try and access but is hugely worthwhile. The Road to Theth – unique, awe-inspiring but terrifying!
Albania’s Rivera, as it’s often described, is often overlooked by tourists opting for the more traditional resorts in other countries like Greece or Croatia. Something they have yet realised is just how cheap it is here, people can have the same holiday for almost half the price!
One regular site you’ll see throughout Albania is concrete bunkers, all 750,000 of them! Most are now abandoned with the majority derelict due to being a symbol of the former communist government of Enver Hoxha. I was lucky enough to find several bunkers that are still nestled in the hills above Dhermi beach, sadly you can’t get into them due to rubbish and being overgrown but they are good for a few pix featuring a beautiful beach in front.
Some of the most famous towns along the coast are Vlore and Sarande, sadly as I discovered not all beaches are pristine white sandy ones, a bit of TLC is needed during the spring but there is huge potential to extend the tourist season here. I wanted to spend a bit of time by the beach and opted to stay in Vlore, this ended up not being the best decision as there isn’t much to do there and my hotel ended up being a nightmare. Had I planned things better I would have opted to skip the beach altogether and head for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Gjirokaster.
Gjirokaster is a historic place located in the southern part of the country and unfortunately has the association of being the birthplace of dictator Enver Hoxha. The main site to see here is the Fortress, also referred to as the Castle, I’m really surprised this place isn’t more famous because it’s incredibly beautiful and well worth visiting. The surprise addition for me was seeing a United States Air Force plane that is now housed here as a commemoration to the Communist regime’s struggle against Western powers. After paying only 200 Lek (approximately £1,30) it’s super cheap to check out.
Tirana is a huge contrast to what I was expecting, in all of the photographs that I saw whilst researching things seemed a bit old, dated and with little to see – this couldn’t have been further from the truth. With exciting parts of the city to check out including the city centre and Blloku, I was relieved to see that progress was being made updating Communist-style blocks, creating new squares and making the city more green urban environment.
Traffic in Tirana is a distinct thorn in its side, there’s far too many people and not enough infrastructure. Unfortunately the main train station was demolished in 2013 and a replacement has yet to see the light of day. I didn’t get chance to try any of the public buses but they looked pretty frequent and far-reaching.
I took some time out to see BunkArt2, situated in the heart of the city this place is a former anti-nuclear bunker used by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Built between 1981 – 1986 it is considered one of the last “great works” created by the communist regime, in fact both the Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu and Dictator Enver Hoxha who demanded the build, never ever saw it completed as they died before it was even constructed.
I think most hardcore travellers will know of or will have seen an image of the “Pyramid of Tirana”. Created by the son and daughter of Dictator Enver Hoxha, this building was initially constructed as a museum to the leader although as I discovered when communism fell in 1991 the public’s opinion swiftly changed and the museum closed. It has housed many projects and now part of the building is home to a radio station but clearly it’s an eye-sore, it looked to me like someone had tried to set it on fire. The funniest thing is at night it isn’t lit up, come on Tirana government, sort it out!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Albania, most people thought I was crazy as all they ever hear about Albanians is that they steal, murder or abduct you as depicted in various Hollywood movies. Thankfully this is not the experience I had, the people are warm, friendly and will welcome you to their country, even inviting you to have a coffee or raki with them. There isn’t many places that this will happen in the world, for me it made Albania stand out as one of my favourite countries that I’ve been to in Europe.
Since returning from my trip to Albania one of the main questions that pops up is what is the best time to visit? Well, I visited in very early spring, before the main tourist season opens but I was lucky with the weather because thankfully it was beautifully sunny and averaged about 24 degrees – enough to make this pasty Brit burn!
Believe me, in 10 years time this country will very much be established, opened up and any pre conceptions will have disappeared completely.
Travelling around Albania
How easy is it? Definitely far easier than I thought! Albania is a relatively pint-sized country, but the roads and transport infrastructure make things particularly difficult meaning some places take longer to get to than normal.
Trains are certainly decrepit, old and their windows are pretty much non-existent but they do surprisingly still run. Sadly I didn’t get chance to take one but I did venture to the station at Durres.
When I visited I travelled with my boyfriend and hired a car, this was easy to do whilst still in the UK, make sure that if you plan to go anywhere off the main roads that you hire a 4×4 or you may find it quite restricting. Some roads that you think are major roads turn out to be dirt tracks and main highways can have huge sections where the tarmac simply stops and you end up battling with pot holes that could seriously damage your car.
When in Albania be seriously prepared for anything – people do not have lane discipline, they will try to test your patience whilst driving but amazingly I didn’t see any road accidents. #organisedchaos
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