13 things that surprised me about Albania

1. Albania has stunning beaches

The Riviera section of Albania is found in the middle to South of the country and runs from Vlore down to Saranda. At its closest point the Saranda area is 10km from Corfu. The sea is the most beautiful turquoise, green and blue colours. In the summer it must be fantastic to swim in. Beaches will be packed, but there will always be local beaches that are less crowded. The Riviera population at least triples in the peak June – July – August period.

2. Albania has stunning mountain passes

If you travel from Orikum to Dhermi along the beautiful coastline then you will travel on the SH8 highway on the Llogara Pass. This pass runs through the Ceraunian Mountains with spectacular views onto the Ioanian sea. The road provides one of the most spectacular drives in Europe. The road is fully paved and there are lovely view sites. Don’t be surprised if you see donkeys or sheep with their herders, or old ladies wearing shawls, collecting wood.

In the North there are also the amazing Accursed mountains and the famous hike from Theth to Valbona. The hike is not possible November – April because of all the snow.

3. Albania is coffee mad

Tiny espresso cups of coffee are drunk at all hours everywhere. I generally walked around with teabags in my pocket and ordered milky hot water. Adu drank coffee. We were amazed at how many people sat drinking coffee for hours. I think it shows something about Albanian life. It’s a chance to chat and relax. It also shows something about the importance of relationships and the slower pace of life. The photo below shows the size of the cup. Bottled water is also often drunk alongside the coffee as it is so strong.

4. Albania is very much a cash society

The LEK is the Albanian currency, (currently 1 EUR equals 122 LEK). You will quickly get used to carrying wads of LEK around in your pocket. Most places, including your accommodation will want to be paid in cash. Everything is rounded to the closest 100.

There are plenty of ATM’s to draw LEK from but be aware that many do not take Visa, only Mastercard. Also, many banks will charge a fee for drawing LEK. This can be 500 – 800 LEK depending on the bank, so it’s more sensible to draw a larger amount of cash in the beginning.

5. Albania has a very funky capital city Tirana

Tirana does not have a huge population compared to many other capitals. About 850 000 people live in Tirana including the surrounding metropolitan districts. Interestingly it is known as a primate city which means it is disproportionately larger than other cities in Albania. The street are café and restaurant lined and bustling with people drinking coffee. Low mountains surround it making it very pretty. It is clean and has a vibrant atmosphere. There is huge investment occuring with cranes and buildings everywhere especially in the centre. This work on infrastructure continues 7 days a week. For example, close to the university a huge Hyatt hotel and casino are being built.

6. Albania has over 750 000 bunkers!

Yes, you read that correctly 😊 The dictator president of Albania, Enver Hoxha ruled for a terrible period of fear for forty years. During his reign he banned religion, forbade travel and outlawed private property. Any resistance was met with exile, imprisonment or death. Thousands of people fled the country and over 6000 people were killed. The 1992 elections ended 47 years of Communist rule.

Hoxha believed an imminent nuclear threat existed and bunkers were built everywhere. They were concrete and pit bunkers. Bunkart2 is one of the biggest bunkers and exists linking the Ministry of Internal Affairs with a 24-room underground structure. Today it is an amazing museum that illustrates the rise and fall of the secret police before and during Enver Hoxha’s rule. Many of the bunkers country wide have now been painted bright colours and become artworks.

7. Albania has tons of fresh vegetables and fruit

The primary economic activity of Albania is agriculture. The land away from the big cities is often terraced to get the most out of its growing possibilities. There are market stalls and grocery shops everywhere with fresh produce. It is also a great country if you are Vegetarian. We ate out once a day and the meals were very fresh and delicious.

8. Albania seems to successfully incorporate its past into its future

Albania has a horrific past led by Enver Hoxha. Growth and change have occurred since 1992, but the past has not been obliterated, it’s been used as a gentle reminder. I was touched by this passage about what to do with Hoxha’s house from Edi Rama (current prime minister) in the Guardian:

If you erase everything completely it would not be good. It’s important to have his ghost inside. My point is that it should be Enver Hoxha’s house, but inside all the things the guy would hate should happen. This could include modern art classes and exhibitions, literature talks and foreign policy discussions, all things Hoxha would have despised.

Similarly a pyramid was built just after Hoxha’s death in Tirana by his daughter to commemorate his life. In the years that followed, the pyramid fell into disrepair and became an eyesore.  It was going to be demolished but is currently being restored as a programming centre for young gifted IT coders.

9. Albania has the biggest square in the Balkans

The Skanderbeg square is the main plaza in the centre of Tirana. The total area is about 40 000 square metres. The Skanderbeg monument (the military hero of Albania) dominates the square.

The square is made up of multi-coloured paving that has been made with stones from all over the country. State funding for the square came from Kuwait with three aims: Firstly they wanted to make it a huge pedestrianised area. Secondly they wanted to highlight the value of cultural buildings around the square. Lastly the presence of vegetation in the square was to be substantially increased to bring nature back into the city centre. Before construction began in 2015 an ambitious process of public consultation occurred to ensure buy-in to the idea. The square purposefully has a 2,5% slope. A fountain at the centre lets water trickle down the sides, cooling the area in the hot summer months and bringing out the colour of the mosaics.

10. Albania has impressive religious tolerance

Hoxha banned religion in 1967 and declared Albania as the first world’s atheist state. Churches and mosques were seized by the military and destroyed or occupied. Today it is normal to hear the peal of bells and the call to mosque in the same area as both churches and mosques exist, sometimes next to each other on the same street. In his 2014 visit, Pope France praised Albania for its religious tolerance, saying it should serve as an example for the world. The picture below shows the biggest mosque in Tirana next to the Catholic church.

11. Albania has some amazing ancient cities

Kruja is very close to Tirana and is a source of inspiration to Albanians. Their military hero Skandenbeg held off three attempts by the Ottomans to take Kruja castle in 1450, 1466 and 1467 usually with garrisons no larger than 2000-3000 men. The defence of the castle was only broken 10 years after Skandenbeg’s death in 1478.

The city of Berat lies about 2 hours drive South of Tirana. It was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008 as it is a rare example of a well preserved Ottoman city. It is known as the city of a 1000 windows as all the buildings have small windows of a similar size and look. The Berat castle is 2500 years old and it was first conquered by the Romans in 200 BC. There are actually over 200 families living within the castle walls still today.

12. Albanians speak good english

The Albanian language is very difficult to learn so it is fantastic that many people, especially youngsters speak English. We found people helpful, often wanting to have conversations. ‘Besa’ will keep you safe in Albania, this is an honour code that Albanians live by, vowing to help those who need it.

13. Albania can provide a VERY reasonably priced holiday.

We would definitely recommend all the accommodation that we stayed at. We choose comfortable accommodation with a bit of living space. Not hostels or dormitories, but not high end luxury either. Albania offers GREAT value for money.

We stayed in a very colourful and comfortable Airbnb in Tirana for our first 5 nights at 24 EUR per night. We arrived at 11pm and were very grateful that our host Helga organised a taxi pickup from the airport to the city centre (30 minutes).

We ate out once a day and had no lack of choice for restaurants. A very nice bacon and cheese hamburger, a plate of chicken wings, two glasses of wine and two beers cost 2300 LEK which is just under 19 EUR.

Tirana Helga Deluxe 2 Apartment

In Kruje, Orikum and Berat we used Booking.com and booked places with breakfast included. We paid between 22 and 30 EUR a night.

In Kruje we stayed at Rooms Emiliano which has the most stunning view and is inside the Kruja castle. For 9 EUR each we had a supper of soup and this amazing platter to share. We could have had a more expensive 15 EUR one also. It’s a family run hotel and they are wonderful.

Kruja –  Rooms Emiliano

On the Albanian Riviera we stayed in Orikum. Shpendi and his wife Mira are delightful. Their English was limited, but we just made use of google translate. We were the only guests in the hotel. They are very much preparing for the peak June – August months, and hoping things are better after the pandemic influenced number of guests last year. Shpendi caught fresh fish which we ate the one night.

Orikum – Hotel Alba Gert

In Berat we stayed at Guesthouse Arben Elezi. The host provides a wonderful breakfast on the terrace overlooking the ancient city of Berat. There are the amazing views of the city.

BeratGuesthouse Arben Elezi

We LOVED our time in Albania and will definitely be back!

Feel free to ask any questions or to comment below.

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