Last April, I had the amazing opportunity to travel with Black Hummus Diaries through Northern Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. It was my first time in the Balkans, and it certainly will not be the last.
When I think about the highlights from the whirlwind of a ten-day trip, Albania would certainly be high up on my list. Albania has been one of my travel priorities since I first moved to Europe four years ago. There is a mysterious quality to the country and the fact that it exists on no one else’s bucket list made me very intrigued. People do not know a lot about the country. The first thing that usually comes to people minds would be the mobsters from Taken or the sneaky, adorable child spy that stole nuclear plans from Homer in an early episode of The Simpsons. These being the highlights of Albanian culture in the West, it’s understandable why Albania doesn’t come up more in travel magazines. But it absolutely deserves it.
Albania has an extraordinarily old language and culture that has prevailed through centuries of control by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Serbs, and Ottomans. Basically everyone. But Albanians have a strong connection to their national identity, especially when national hero Gjergj Skanderbeg united Albania and kicked the Ottomans out in the mid-1400’s, subsequentially putting a thorn in the Ottoman Empires’ ability to conquer Europe. Even with this strong uprising, Albania did not officially gain independence until 1912, an independence which the nation has (more or less) held since. Italy did swing by in the second World War and set up a puppet state, and the Albanian retaliation came from the Communists within the country. Once communism was established in Albania, it did not fall until about 1990 with the eventual crumble of the regime. This was due mainly to the death of Albania’s dictator, Enver Hoxha, who had been in power for over four decades. Under Hoxha, Albania was one of the most reclusive, closed off states in the world. The scale of propaganda and corruption was nearly on the scale of North Korea, and is still something the nation is recovering from to this day.
I apologize for getting wordy, but the main takeaway is: Albania houses one of the most complex cultures and history’s in Europe. Because of this, traveling to Albania is a completely unique cultural experience. It is completely different in Greece, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, and Italy just across the Adriatic. Its language is like nothing else, and the locals are proud of that. Albania has some of the most serene mountain landscapes, some of the whitest beaches, and some of the best food available in all of Europe. So, much like my recent post on Northern Macedonia, I would like to give some recommendations and talk a bit about this country that should be higher up on more people’s lists. While I have not traveled extensively in Albania, here is what I have to say about several destinations. I hope to return soon, and I hope to see you there!
The capital of Albania was, by far, one of my favorite stops in the country. After having met some locals in Berat (a city in the south), who had told us Tirana was nothing more than a loud dirty city, we were a bit hesitant to even journey there. We figured, “Hey, let’s just stay the night and head up North at dawn.”
But I am so glad that we stayed, and I honestly could have stayed much longer.
This is the Mausoleum to Enver Hoxha. It’s a huge brutalist concrete pyramid, no longer housing the decomposing former dictator, but now serving as a popular spot with locals to show off their climbing abilities. Albanian’s are some of the friendliest people in Europe, rivaled only by the Greeks and Georgians (if you count Georgia as European, which I both do and don’t). If you want to impress them and make some friends, start climbing! It’s a bit steep, but if you bring decent enough shoes you can make your way up easily. Some locals will see you struggling and likely teach you how it is done through broken English. “Look, is easy! Come my friend!” they’ll say before sprinting up.
I was too much of a scaredy cat to make it up, but I had an awesome time sliding down. This is merely an example of why Tirana is so lovely: just in its weirdness. Since Albania was so closed off to the trends of the West, they had to create their own bizarre architecture. Because of this, walking around Tirana is a constant experience of stopping every few blocks just to stare at a building in confused awe, holding your chin and repeatedly muttering, “Why?”
But wandering through Tirana is perhaps the best thing to do. The city is wonderfully green, lined with trees and hundreds of thousands of cafes. Albanians are much like the Greeks, in the fact that they would rather be at a cafe smoking with friends than doing anything else. Because of this, there are seemingly millions of cafes, selling cheap and delicious tea and coffee. The amazing thing about it is, every coffee shop seems to be entirely filled. It’s the best way to relax and people watch and enjoy a nice cheap coffee.
Tirana is also an amazing city for the antique junkies of the world. My only goal was to buy a nice rug, and after much searching, I purchased exactly what I had in mind from a little back-alley shop for about $23. What was really excellent about it was the whole experience of the purchase. I had previously been in Morocco, also on a hunt for a rug. The experience is quite nice there as well, but very different. Moroccans, Turks, and I guess any rug dealer really, are fantastic salesmen. They sit you down, give you tea, and show you hundreds of the most beautiful rugs you have ever seen. They tell you the story, how these rugs were made in the mountains by blind nuns who only create rugs for this shop because the shops’ owners’ great-grandfather fought to protect the village from barbarian raiders 100 years ago. He’ll tell you how it is made of fine wool, from the same lineage of sheep as the flock originally shepherded by Abraham. You will no doubt be amazed and purchase the rug for whatever exorbitant amount it costs, and you will never know that it was actually made in a sweatshop in India for 1/1000th of what you paid for it (Note: I know I am being rather cynical, but I had too many heated arguments with salesmen telling me pure nonsense that I now have to be a bit cynical. I am aware that there are many gorgeous one-of-a-kind rugs, but I most certainly did not find any).
Rather than get the whole story, I pulled the perfect rug out of a stack of dusty rugs and showed it to the antique dealer, asking about its story. He did not really even look me in the eye, but said: “It is uh, rug from working-class Tirana family.” No story, no Abraham wool, no price for friends or heated argument. He then went to talk to some local customers, looking at some old tea kettles and plates. It was rather difficult to get his attention, and I loved that. In Morocco, I am always heckled with “Buy, buy, buy! Good Price!” that whenever I have to work a bit I feel spoiled. I was ready to barter for this rug and got all confident and ready to argue over it. When I finally got his attention and asked, he sort of shrugged, this time looking me in the eyes, and said “$25”, to which I almost had to hold myself from shock.
“I’ll take two!”
We began talking to him, and he was so happy to have met us that he went down to $23 without any real bartering at all. He insisted we take a photo together on my phone, and we shook hands with a whole-hearted “Faleminderit” (thank you) before heading on our way.
It’s not as pretty as a blind nun rug, but I love the story and the two-headed eagles from the Albanian flag (and it’s huge).
More than the rug and antique shopping, Albania has some of the best produce available. Since they are not a member of the EU, they have no regulations on their agricultural practices. This means the tomato in the market probably came from a little farm out in the hills, rather than a huge farm in Spain or a double-decker greenhouse in the Netherlands. Because of this, the produce we ate in Albania was some of the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. I have this distinct memory of sitting on a bench in Tirana, eating the juiciest, most savory tomato and crunchiest cucumber I’ve ever tasted, thinking “this is the way a tomato should taste.” It tasted straight out of a garden, and I only spent a few cents for it at a little roadside vegetable stand. This was the case with every food product I ate in Albania. Almost every meal we had was a little picnic of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and goat cheese. Every bite of it was like looking up the taste of ‘olive’ or ‘feta’ in a flavor dictionary and enjoying the definition of how it should taste. I long for the Albanian picnic.
So if you have time on your trip, do certainly add Tirana for a few days of cafe hopping and architectural weirdness.
Albania, as I said early, is a country with a complex history. That history can be best enjoyed in a little town, like Berat. Located in the Central-South part of the country, the town is filled with traditional Albanian houses and an excellent Ethnographic museum detailing the cultural heritage of the area.
There are many affordable guesthouses and hostels, giving the opportunity to stay in one of these traditional old buildings. Our hostel was incredibly cheap and wonderful, and the owner would sit and chat with us about Albania over thick coffee in the mornings.
Nearby, a huge fortress sits atop a hill, looking out into the mountains and serving as a spot for local kids to have a football shoot-out.
I apologize because it was too cloudy, but the mountains are gigantic.
Walk around the fortress a while and admire the spectacle of Albanian nationalism, trying to preserve the sanctity of the country from high.
What is really amazing as well is how few tourists are walking around. Albania is a completely undiscovered paradise.
This is a city I wish I could say I liked. To be honest, it felt very fake. But! Shkodër has some excellent trekking possibilities up into the mountains or around nearby Lake Shkodër, and some very amazing hostels. We stayed at Green Garden Hostel, which was pretty far from the center but provided us with an extraordinarily relaxed atmosphere. The owner gave us a ride up to Montenegro the next day as well, which was perfect.
So, I’ve talked about the beauty of Albania. We did not even visit the beaches, which are fabled to be some of the best in Europe. Before going to Albania, it is also important to note that the country is changing quite a lot. This means a lot of people are being left behind. Albania is perhaps the poorest nation in Europe, rivaled only by Moldova. This is a kind of poverty seen nowhere else in Europe, and a kind of poverty one would see when traveling to countries in South America. Albania is a country to be enjoyed, from its food to its nature, but please be respectful towards its wonderful people. It would be horrible for this wonderful country to be heavily commercialized and lose its essence, so please do travel responsibly. The Albanian people have been through decades of hardship, and are now just opening up. I do not wish for their kindness and resources to be exploited to a level that hurts their beautiful culture, and I hope that you will feel the same.
Albania is a fantastic country, and it is certainly one I would like to explore and learn more from. It is the perfect stop on a Balkans road trip. It can also be added to any trip from Greece or added to a trip through Southern Italy with regular ferry passage from Bari. The country packs a lot into a small package, one that will take many trips to unravel fully. But from one trip, I can tell it is more than worth going back again.