Beyond the vague recollections of Albania’s communist past, only a few people know much about this country. I visited most of Europe’s 50 countries and I can say that Albania is probably the most unique country in the old continent. Albanian people are known as Europe’s original white Muslims. Their language sounds different than anything you ever heard before, despite being part of the Indo-European language family. Albanians also don’t have significant close ties to any other nations in Europe but their mentality is similar to other Balkan nations. I guess this has a lot to do with the fact that prior to 1991 and Enver Hoxha’s rule, Albania was the most isolated country in the world and at one point of time the only atheist nation in the world. Understandably, traveling to Albania during this era used to be a mission impossible.
Between 1968 and 1978, the country’s only ally was China, and after 1978 the country went into a full-isolation mode. Communist Albania effectively was North Korea before North Korea. All this contributed to a culture and traditions you won’t find anywhere else on the old continent…
Albanians: The original White Muslims of Europe
The best way to start talking about a country is by introducing the people that live there. Albania is the only country in Europe (except Kosovo) with a predominately Muslim population. 59% of Albanians are Muslim, 20% are Christian, and the rest are mostly atheists. During Hoxha’s socialist regime, the Government banned all religions and turned all mosques and monasteries into storage facilities.
Today, Albania is a secular country where religion doesn’t influence the government. You can rarely see women wearing hijab, especially in the southern part of the country. Albania is a relatively homogenous country with Albanians making up for 85% of the population. However, there are differences between Tosk Albanians and Gheg Albanians.
The Tosks live mostly in the southern part of the country, are mostly either Catholic or non-religious. The Ghegs live in the northern part of Albania and are predominately Muslim. The former group is often referred to as a more progressive one, and there are a lot more mixed marriages in Southern Albania than there are in the north.
Both Tosks and Ghegs speak the Albanian language, which is a real tongue-twister. It’s not related to any other language and most people don’t speak English but a lot of people speak Italian or Greek as their second language. Nevertheless, Albania is still a great country to visit because the people are very hospitable and guests have a special place in Albanian culture. But keep in mind that if you’re planning to visit commuting and communicating with the locals won’t be a walk in the park.
Traveling around Albania
Probably the most challenging part about traveling to Albania is commuting between cities. First of all, you can forget about train travel. There are not international rail connections to Albania and the national rail-lines are limited.
It’s certain that you won’t get anywhere by train but you will be lucky to get anywhere even by bus/furgon. Not only is the schedule really complicated but you also have to figure out where to catch the bus! I know this sounds crazy but cities in Albania don’t have central bus stations. Even if you find the schedule you will see departure points which are marked not as station_name but rather “opposite of the parking laot” or “after the roundabout on the main road”. As you probably figured out by now, patience is a necessity in Albania, not a virtue.
Additionally, note that most routes, especially in South Albania are suspended during the off-season because there aren’t enough passengers to fill the buses. During my last visit, the only shuttle leading to Tirana’s airport was suspended too because there weren’t enough people. By now, you might be considering rent-a car opportunities but…
Driving in Albania as a foreigner isn’t recommendable!
Previously I wrote about the chaotic, traffic-heavy streets of Delhi and Hanoi and even though Albanian cities might not have the traffic of the above-mentioned cities, they sure have some of the craziest drivers in the world. I visited Albania with a car once and I’ll never do it again. I saw people driving in opposite directions, people passing three cars in a row on windy mountain roads with a speed of 100 km/hour and don’t even get me started about the roads.
Even if you’re only a passenger, you shouldn’t look only left and right before crossing the street. You should look every way because a car might appear out of places you would least expect. Cars and even buses change directions without any warning and everyone is always rushing.
Maybe all of this is related to the fact that private cars in Albania were illegal during the socialist era. Believe it or not, there were only 600 cars in the whole country prior to 1991! The only people allowed to drive these were party officials.
However, if you enjoy driving on difficult terrain, Albania’s mountain roads are some of the most spectacular ones in Europe. My personal favorite was driving from Saranda to Gjirokastra, where you will find multiple treacherous passes without any safety precautions. And since I already mentioned mountains…
Albania’s Accursed Mountains are a Must
The remote National Park Valbona in the northern part of the country is often referred to as “one of the last great adventures in Europe”. The Accursed Mountains are one of the most majestic, wildest and least spoiled scenery in the whole continent. It’s really refreshing to see people who live in a world literally disconnected from the rest of Europe.
Idyllic mountain life has remained unchanged here despite years of political unrest and the increased number of tourists. In my opinion, Valbona is one of the top 10 places on the Balkan you must see before you die. However, mountains aren’t everything Albania has to offer. That leads me to my next point…
Albania has some amazing beaches
You probably didn’t think of Albania as a summer beach destination but there are a lot of underrated towns along the Albanian Riviera. Hidden towns like Ksamil, Saranda, and Valona have scenic sandy beaches with crystal clear, turquoise water and charming boardwalks. If Montenegro was the new Croatia, I don’t see a reason why Albania wouldn’t become the new Montenegro.
However, today asphalt roads connect almost every village alongside the Riviera and there are more hotels and restaurants. Construction activity along the Riviera increased dramatically in order to satisfy the needs of the increased number of tourists. Even though there are more tourists in recent years, most of them are locals and you still won’t find many foreigners visiting this region. That’s why…
Meeting foreigners is surprising for locals
“If you can go anywhere you want, why would you come here?” I heard this question plenty of times while traveling around the country.
No matter how hard I tried to explain that I enjoy the friendly people, the beautiful beaches, stunning mountains and amazing food, people would still ignore my arguments not believing that their country could be a tourist hotspot. One example that always comes on my mind is my short conversation with a hostel owner in Berat, Albania’s own UNESCO protected city, known as the city of a thousand windows.
“You’re lucky”, he said. “You can go wherever you want. We’re stuck in this town”. “But this is a beautiful town, so amazing that UNESCO proclaimed it as a protected site”, I argued. He put out his cigarette and gave me a smirky smile that seemed like he’s saying “Silly foreigner, you know nothing”…
Tips for first-time visitors
Sometimes Albanians add an extra zero to the end of numbers. They don’t do this on purpose but rather out of habit. Like most European Socialist countries, Albania experienced hyperinflation and older people often confuse the difference between new and old money. So, if someone charges you 1,000 instead of 100 Leks, calm down. Most of the time, it’s an honest mistake but be careful and always remember to ask whether the price is being quoted in new or old Leks.
Albanians shake their head for ‘yes’ and nod their head up and down for ‘no’.
There’s only one functional airport. More airports have been renovated in recent years but still, the only functional airport is the one in Tirana.
Albania has 750,000 concrete bunkers scattered around the country. In case you’re wondering, they were built during the rule of Enver Hoxha to protect Albania from the invasion that never happened.
Albania has serious problems with drug smugglers. There are even some places like Lazarat which are controlled by drug lords and where the police are not allowed. In 2005, the government even banned the use of speedboats to tackle drug and human trafficking.
What about the food? Similar to other Balkan cuisines, the Albanian traditional food features a lot of meat, including patties and sausages (minus pork), a lot of salads, stews, and amazing seafood.
Prices in Albania? The average salary is 45,539 Leks (330 Euros), which makes Albania one of the poorest countries in Europe. Obviously, this is great news for travelers because prices are really low! I rarely spent more than $5 USD on a meal, a beer costs around $1.50, and you can get a hotel room for as low as $20 USD.
Albania is off-the-beaten-track but it won’t stay that way for long
Albania probably won’t become a major tourist destination in the near future. However, I expect things to change as the country develops. Traveling around Albania is like a rollercoaster and this country hides all kinds of surprises ranging from pleasant to disappointing. That’s the real beauty of Albania! You never know what you’re going to get, and if you’re a modern-day explorer, this should be music for your ears.
Are you looking for more information about traveling to Albania? Check out this Albania travel guide.
Does Albania seem like an interesting country to visit? Let me know in the comments!