Most people (us included) had never considered Albania as a destination of choice, but we are so happy we did! I am almost reluctant to let anyone else in on the secret of the Balkans, but Albania is a hidden gem in Southern Europe that is sure to surge in popularity in the coming years.
Located between Greece and Montenegro along the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea, Albania has astonishing access to the some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Most of the turquoise coastline remains untouched which is a huge draw for us, as it means we are away from the tourist “hot spots” and the prices are inconceivably low. If you are looking for a European getaway, without a European price tag, I would highly recommend a trip to beautiful Albania.
For half of the 20th Century, Albania was completely isolated from the rest of the world at the hands of a brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha. It wasn’t until very recently, in 1991, that Albania was free from communism. A reality so hard for me to imagine was all the Albanians knew for decades. Cars were not introduced in the country until 1991, the borders were closed to anyone entering or leaving the nation, and the communist party controlled all media, which at that time was primarily propaganda. If anyone tried to escape the country during this trying time, their remaining family members would be executed to send a message to others.
Albanian leaders seemed to have a very hard time maintaining political and economic relationships with the leaders of other nations. As other countries throughout Europe started to become more liberal in their political positions, the leader of Albania would cut ties completely to maintain his strong communist power. When he broke alliances with the most powerful communist countries at the time (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) Albania turned to China for support. The leader of Albania, Hoxha, was viewed as a hero in the eyes of the Chinese, which was reciprocated by Albania with admiration for the Chinese dictator, Mao.
But, as all relationships with Hoxha seemed to go, the once described “unbreakable” friendship between China and Albania came crashing down. Overnight the economic and military aid from China had ended and Albania was no longer considered China’s only European ally and “little brother”. So as you walk through the events of Albania’s very recent history, it is not hard to understand how they fell so far behind the rest of Europe.
The People, Culture, and Food
The New Generation
The Albanians growing up today have a very different life than their parents. A country now free of communism allows for travel, entrepreneurship and new ideas to flow freely. This has sparked a new generation of innovators who are motivated to turn the country’s sad history into a tourist destination for the rest of the world. With the 70,000+ bunkers dispersed through the country, there are plenty of opportunities for tourists to explore the not so distant past.
Art plays a huge part in the revitalization of Tirana and thus rewards the creative individuals who can contribute to the city landscape. Our Albanian guide mentioned that today’s workforce has overcome tremendous hardship and is eager to work hard to create a nation they can be proud of.
Besa – The Honor Code
Roughly translated, Besa means the “pledge of honor” which is an extremely important part of familial and social standing in Albania. The word dates back to before the Ottoman period and is still very much demonstrated today. Besa is among the highest and most important concept with a moral and ethnic connotation. The term contains the given word or keeping a promise or obligation and the guaranteed agreement among honorable men.
Most notably, Besa means taking care of those in need and being hospitable to every single person. A very clear example of Besa in Albanian culture was during the Holocaust, Albania took in thousands of Jews and instead of hiding them, they gave them Albanian names, dressed them in their clothes and treated them as their own family.
Today, besa can be seen in many instances and it is not hard to spot it on a daily basis. The younger generation always giving up their bus seats to the elderly, women, and disabled is one of the most common but obvious demonstrations of besa. It is not uncommon for Albanians to feed guests a huge feast to make them feel welcome, but then not have enough food for themselves the next day. While refugees around the world are being turned away at the borders, Albania welcomes them with open arms, often going into debt to make sure the refugees are fed, clothed, and feel a part of the family.
Despite all these heroic instances, Albania still remains unrecognized around the world for its great services offered to those in need. There is something that everyone can learn from Albania, and it is a shame that the people of Albania are showing such hospitality and the rest of the world does not even take a second glance. If more countries were as open and willing to help those in need as Albania, the world truly would be a better place.
Before the communists took power, it was reported that 70% of Albanians were Islamic and 30% Christian. However, during the communist rule, Enver Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state and attempted to remove all organized religion from the country. Most mosques, churches, cathedral, and monasteries were destroyed during this period. Many clergy and believers were tried, tortured and executed and all foreign Catholic priests, nuns, and monks were expelled from Albania.
Today, the most commonly practiced religion in Albania is Islam, interestingly it is one of the only European countries with a majority Muslim population. Christianity is the second most practiced religion, mainly Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant but there is a very large group of Albanians that are “irreligious”. Atheism, agnosticism, and irreligion arose after religion was stripped from the Albanians and still remains today, although the estimations of the size of the population vary greatly.
I can’t say from experience that we sampled a variety of Albanian food because we cannot seem to resist the ridiculously cheap and delicious souvlaki/gyro/donair! At around $1.50 for a huge, meat-filled souvlaki, it was pretty hard to justify spending the high prices of most other menu items.
I would most closely compare Albanian cuisine to Greek/Mediterranean with a lot of similar dishes. A notable similarity is the prevalence of savory pastries and pies. Byrek mi spinaq (spinach pie) and cheese pie are the most common and can be found freshly made at every bakery, often still warm from the oven. These are very similar to Greek spanakopita which is my absolute fave! So between the abundance of phyllo dough pastries, souvlaki, and fresh greek salad, we kept it simple but delicious while in Albania.
Tirana – The Capital City
Albania is a small country with only 3 million inhabitants, of which 1 million reside in the capital city of Tirana. There are actually more Albanian speaking emigrants in other parts of the world than in Albania itself. The main countries Albanians have settled are Turkey, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, USA, and Canada. It is also interesting to note that the Albanian language (Shqip) is unique in that it does not follow the same linguistic branch as any other language, so it is very difficult to learn. Albanian’s can most easily learn Italian as they share similar grammatical rules, but it is very hard for Italians to learn Shqip.
Tirana today is a very vibrant city with a lot of restoration projects making it a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly center. Very recently the entire main plaza, Skanderbeg Square, has been transformed by removing all vehicle access, retiling the surface and adding attractions that would draw the locals in. We are lucky to be here during the FIFA World Cup because they transformed the entire plaza to a viewing party for the public to watch the matches.
A Brush with Royalty
During our walking tour, we stopped under a tree for some shade while our guide told stories about growing up under communist rule. As he was talking, a gate a few steps up from where we were standing opened and a bunch of people walked past shaking a mans hand on their way out. Someone walked by and said that was the Royal Family and we laughed, assuming they were joking. Our guide then said that it was, in fact, the Prince of Albania and before we knew it, we were getting invited inside to take a tour.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa as Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, the Crown Prince is the only child of the first Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. The Prince has worked for the Albanian government since 2007 and was appointed the political advisor for the President of Albania in 2012. He has since married a famous Albanian actress, Elia Zaharia, who he met in Paris.
It was a surreal experience, totally unexpected and really cool to hear from the Crown Prince himself. I was able to snap some pictures inside and of the Prince as well. The large painting in the photo is of his grandfather, Zog I,King of the Albanians wedding to his grandmother.
On our last day in Tirana, we decided to head out of the city center and visit BUNK’ART, a video museum exhibition situated inside the atomic bunker of the dictator Enver Hoxha. There are two BUNK’ART museums in Tirana, the first is the one we visited on the outskirts of the city and the second is right in the center of the city. The museum we visited was dedicated to the history of the Albanian communist army and to the daily lives of Albanians during the regime.
Thankfully, the bunker was never actually used for its intended purpose but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a creepy experience. 24 of the 106 rooms have been converted to the museum and art gallery in the 5-story underground web of hallways and rooms. At the very end of the bunker is a giant assembly hall that was built for Hoxha and his cabinet members to congregate in case of a nuclear attack.
We probably spent two hours inside the bunker, reading the sad history of the 45 years of communism, walking through rooms with original furniture, and trying to imagine how scared the Albanians must have been during this time. I can say by the time we were out in the bright sunlight, I sure was glad to take a full breath of fresh air. I couldn’t tell if it was the firm grip Hoxha had on his country or the enclosed space that was suffocating me, but I was happy to get out either way.
After a somber afternoon spent at BUNK’ART, we were ready for some fresh air and killer views. A must when in Tirana is a ride to the top of Dajti Mountain via the Dajti Ekspres. It is the longest cableway in the Balkans at 1100 m which takes about 15 minutes. Alternating between a flat ride and an extremely steep ride, the whole way up was breathtaking! You can see views of the entire city and the surrounding mountains in each direction, the perfect way to clear our head.
At the top of the cableway is a rotating restaurant, a 360-degree viewing tower, and a cafe which sits right in the mountains. The views from the tower were incredible and impossible to capture in a photo. To maximize our time at the top, we took a walk and enjoyed some much-needed coffees taking in every bit of the serene surroundings.
A Trip to the Coast
The Wild Ride
While Albania is transforming in certain aspects, the transportation system has much to be desired. Not only are Albanians collectively the worst drivers I have ever seen, they don’t quite have their public transit situation sorted out. We were heading from the capital city to the coastal city of Vlorë and thought it would be a simple, non-eventful experience but boy were we wrong.
The main bus terminal was not in the city center like every other city we have traveled to, but instead, we had to take a bus just to get there. As soon as we got off the bus we were approached by a very enthusiastic non-English speaker who offered to drive us in his personal car to Vlorë. We heard nightmares of the bus system so we went for it and little did we know, we would have to wait until he filled up his car before we took off.
After about 25 minutes off we went me, Devin, another young guy, and the driver all squeezed into his barely operational tiny car. It was a tight fit but we were happy to finally be out of rush-hour and on our way. However, as soon as we hit the highway, we picked up an old lady that was standing on the side of the road. So now there were 5 of us piled into this tiny car, and on our 2.5-hour drive, we ended up picking up/dropping off about 6 different people. It was the most hilarious system filled with hand signals, arguments in Albanian, and slamming on the breaks every few minutes to pick someone else up. Finally, we arrived, glad to be alive but it made for an unforgettable experience.
Return to the Routine
One of the things I miss when we’re always on the go is a sense of routine. This month spent in Vlorë was the perfect reset I desperately needed to get back into a healthy routine. Balancing work, the gym, and relaxing at the beach was my only concern over the 28 glorious days.
The apartment we stayed in was brand new and absolutely stunning, the only negative (if you can even call it that) was that it was at the top of a very steep hill. Since one of our goals over the month was to whip our butts back into shape we didn’t mind but dang, it was a leg burner. The views from atop the hill were breathtaking and we were right on top of a beautiful stretch of beach along the coast.
We joined a local gym for the month and took full advantage. A variety of weight lifting, HIIT, CrossFit, and cardio were all fair game and although we both couldn’t walk the first 5 days, we quickly got back into shape. We loved seeing the results of our hard work and it has motivated me to continue with my fitness at our next stop in Budapest.
Go Before it’s too Late
A lot of peoples reaction when I told them we were going to Albania, was a combination of confusion and uncertainty. That is exactly how I would have reacted a couple months ago, not having any knowledge of the country or its beauty. My suggestion to anyone looking for an inexpensive alternative to Europes Adriatic coastline is to check out Albania.
Even though we had no idea what the country looked like a few years ago, we could tell a lot of resources were being used to make the country more appealing to tourists. Now, this can be both positive and negative, on one hand, it does make it a lot easier to navigate a country that has tourists in mind, but the other side is that prices increase drastically. Along with the higher price tag, once tourists infiltrate a country, you lose a lot of the local culture that we seek out. So I recommend going soon and exploring the beauty of this unspoilt European gem.