I know what you’re probably thinking: Albania?! Who goes to Albania? Where IS Albania? I thought the same thing, up until I found myself actually IN Albania. It turns out that while it’s not yet a bustling hub of tourism, the European country is an up and coming travel destination that’s already impressed a fair few people—and I can now consider myself among them.
Albania, the small coastal country to the north of Greece, is unlike anywhere else in Europe. It’s a quirky mix of old and new world, a place where you can see a little old lady in traditional garb with a fruit basket sitting on a park bench next to a business man on a cell phone. It’s a country that surprised and mostly delighted me, while providing for ample adventures and hilarious stories. In no particular order, here were some of my observations from the week I spent making my way up the coast of Albania:
If you want to open a successful coffee shop, go to Albania. Locals live for their coffee and nearly every street is dotted with people sipping on tiny espresso cups. Because there is not a huge alcohol drinking culture, cafes are where the people socialize at all hours of the day and night. How they ever sleep with all that caffeine in their system is another question.
Hilariously undeveloped public transportation
Transportation brought us a serious wealth of adventures. There aren’t official bus stations in Albania; there are random street corners where unmarked vans wait and it’s up to you to figure out where the random corner is. When you find it, you walk around asking the drivers where they’re going, and then wait until your van is filled up with people wanting to go to the same place as you before you can depart. As for taxis, we once asked our hotel to call us a taxi and their friend came in his personal car to pick us up. We had some luck with public buses, although a woman once grabbed our friend’s face and started crying hysterically because he looked like her dead son. All in all, transportation is never dull in Albania.
Beautiful coastline, castles, and mountains
The scenery in Albania is unbelievably gorgeous. With picturesque castles tucked into dramatic mountains and a jaw-dropping craggy coast lined with sweeping beaches, I felt like I was constantly living in a postcard.
After WWII, Albania’s communist party took over the country and along with imposing strict laws against things like religion, closed its borders and isolated it from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until a revolution in the early 90s that the Democratic Party took power and finally opened up Albania to the international community. During its 40 years of communist rule the dictator Enver Hoxha commissioned over 750,000 bunkers to be built. In the capital of Tirana the largest bunker has now been turned into a museum that you can explore and see it with most of its original furnishings and propaganda from the Cold War.
There shouldn’t be a homeless problem in Albania, because I’m not exaggerating when I say almost half of the buildings you see are abandoned or unfinished. I’ve speculated on the reasons and whether it’s from an economic crash, habitual poor planning, or tax reasons, but either way there is a surplus of eerily half empty villages.
While I had a handful of tasty meals in Albania, the food was generally “meh”. The average restaurant serves things like pizza, pasta, risotto, and some meat but the recipes seemed uninspired. Towns along the coast are known for their seafood but we usually found it too overpriced to even try it. What we found really strange was the overall lack of restaurants! We once spent 30 minutes walking around a town (outside of a tourist area) trying to find a place that served something other than coffee. Where do the people eat?! Is there some secret underground bunker where the food is served? It’s a mystery we never solved, although the lack of food may explain how the women stay so slim.
Super friendly people who LOVE Americans!
The people of Albania were so friendly it made me suspicious at first. Were we being lured into a false sense of security so they could take us hostage or boil us for dinner?? But no, they were just genuinely kind and helpful people. After asking a man for directions, he walked us through town (to find the random corner for buses) and then offered us a bottle of his homemade wine that he was taking to sell (which was actually delicious!). Another time we asked a man for directions and he pulled out money and gave us the exact change needed for the bus and walked us to the bus stop. At a souvenir shop in a little village I admired a traditional piece of clothing and the shop owner encouraged me to wear it and take a picture in it with no pressure to buy it. And never have I experienced such enthusiasm when I said I was American; every time I said it the person would grin, give me thumbs up, or exclaim in broken English, “America! Very good!”
Cheapest in Europe
I haven’t been to the Balkans or some of the other cheap countries in Europe but I’m told Albania is the cheapest and it was certainly easier on the pocket book than Greece. Public transportation is reasonable (a 3-hour bus journey is around $5), food can be cheap (a decent meal about $7), and mid-range hotels are affordable (a studio apartment with kitchenette about $40).
Albania is a growing tourist destination and in 5-10 years it may be so overrun with tourism that it’s bound to lose some of its charm. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience the amazing people and scenery now and I would recommend getting there sooner than later!