I know. I had to look it up as well. I mean, I genuinely couldn’t have pin pointed it on a map a few months ago. Which, given it’s bordered by Montenegro and Greece, with Corfu just a half-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic, is actually pretty embarrassing. The thing is, nobody goes there.
In fact, 50 years of communist rule meant you couldn’t go there before the early ’90s and wouldn’t have wanted to until recently. But after discovering that Albania has the same crystal blue waters, Mediterranean-style cuisine and pumping nightlife as nearby Italy and Croatia, it’s on.
The country has now swung open the doors to its deserted beaches and increasingly cool cities making it perfect for some intrepid exploration. And take it from me, this one’s worth exploring.
The Natural Beauty
They call it Syri i kaltër – the blue eye. It’s laying nonchalantly just outside Albania’s southernmost city, Saranda, it’s at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a patch of lush rainforest and it’s the most mind-blowing beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
Fresh water bubbles up from this florescent blue natural spring at a chilling 10 degrees and shoots off down a crystal clear stream. Take a leap of faith from one of the natural platforms around the spring and let the shrieking ensue as you feel the power of the freezing water push you almost airborn as soon as you hit the glowing surface then just float into the forest.
It’s at least 50 metres deep. I say “at least” because no one actually knows how deep it is. They’ve never been down there. Welcome to untouched Albania.
Care for some seriously secluded beaches? Head north from Saranda along the coast, stop wherever you please and make your way through the lavender and sage bushes and pomegranate trees, and you’ll more than likely stumble across a deserted pebbled beach with water so warm and clear that it looks postcard perfect to the naked eye.
If you’re lucky there’ll be an abandoned sunbed for you to stretch out on. Oh, and you can swim right up to the coastal castle ruins and climb on the walls if you so please. No ticket booths here.
A change of scenery, perhaps? With your bather still damp, keep traveling north and you’ll wind up and up, past rocky outcrops and fields of wild flowers, until you hit the alpine region. The air turns colds, the trees become gargantuan and you start seeing wild boar, goats and rabbits. It’s the start of the Albanian Alps.
I could go on. Isolated waterfalls, valleys, lakes and mountains stretch throughout the entire country – often without another person in sight.
It’s not love a first site with Tirana. On the surface the city seems, well, a little run down. But look past the cracked pavement and telephone wires hanging at head height and you’ll discover the real delights of this cool and colourful capital.
The young generation of Albanians has inspired some investment in stylish bars, modern restaurants and great boutique shops. Also the previous mayor, a former painter, decorated the city buildings in all the colours of the rainbow and established some beautiful city parks making it a top place to wander.
To drink, hit up Tirana’s most interesting building – a run-down, half-abandoned glass pyramid originally constructed as a museum for the former communist dictator and now doubles as a trendy bar in a zombie apocalypse sort of setting.
For food, head to Oda and feast on Ottoman culinary delicacies served by an Albanian grandmother and her family in their small home. But mind your manners, Oda is one foreboding woman.
Half completely terrifying, half really awesome, the Albanian flag alone gives you the sense that this is a country with an interesting history. Like most of Europe, Albania has a bunch of UNESCO World Heritage Listed cities, towns and sites to keep the history buffs fascinated.
Gjirokastra, the “city of a thousand steps”, comprises hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses while Berat, the “town of a thousand windows” is similarly historic and picturesque.
But it’s actually the country’s modern history that makes it such a unique and eerily captivating place to travel in today. I mean, this is a country that was totally isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the 20th Century because of a communist dictator.
This makes for a few really interesting anomalies, not least the 700,000 igloo shaped concrete bunkers dotted through the pretty countryside that were built by the leader to protect the country from an invasion that never happened.
The only person more pleased to see you than an Albanian is your mum. I kid you not. The people of this warm and friendly country are just so gosh darn pleased to have you there.
I guess you’re partly a sign of a growing economy as well as it being just plain interesting for them to meet anyone outside of Albania, let alone outside of Europe, when the country was off limits for so many years.
You’ll get a lot of offers of delicious Albanian sweets and plenty of lessons in the near-impossible-to-pronounce language plus your new friends won’t hesitate to try to make your acquaintance official on Facebook. Feel like a rinse off in the hot climate? The locals will even propose a free lavazh or car wash – seemingly the national career in Albania – despite your clear lack of vehicle.
In Albania you can travel in comfort, eat a feast for every meal and even stay in a hotel with a pool and bar hovering over the deep blue sea for the price of a hostel in most other European countries.
Just make sure you get your head around the currency so you know if you’re being charged in their old money or their new – they’re both called Lek.
Getting off the beaten track is become harder and harder in Europe. It seems everywhere you go there’s thousands of other people there to ruin your one-on-one moment with the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum.
Not so in Albania, which presents a thrilling challenge. You need to know something about the people and about the culture if you want to get around. You have to actually engage with the locals, not just the ticket sellers.
And speaking of getting around, if you want to take the easy way (no shame it that, believe me) you can hire a taxi driver for next to nothing to drive you pretty much anywhere in the country. Otherwise there are local buses which leave – well…when they’re full, and go – well…wherever the loudest yelling passenger tells them to go.
There are no international rail connections to Albania and the national ones are incredibly limited but before you think about driving yourself remember, only 600 cars existed in Albania prior to 1991 and only party officials were allowed to drive them – so you can imagine what the state of the roads is like.
(All photos: Miranda Luby)
This post was originally published on January 12th, 2015 and has since been updated.