What if I told you there is a county where medieval castles stand perched on mountaintops overlooking the red-tiled rooftops of villages below; where iridescent turquoise waves lap onto sugar-sand beaches; where picturesque rows and rows of juicy grapes are producing some of the region’s finest wines; where the gastronomy is so fresh and delicious yet startlingly inexpensive? It’s a place where hiking in the northern region, in the rugged mountains, and around the stunning lakes will take your breath away. Throw in a rich and troubled history, traditional culture, ancient ruins, natural phenomena, the coolest flag and the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet for good measure.
What if I told you that country was Albania?
Yes, in Albania, expect the unexpected.
The Republic of Albania is located on the Balkan Peninsula with a coastline shared by the Adriatic and Ionic sea. Following the chaos after World War II, in 1944 a socialist republic was established in the country under the leadership of Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour. Albania experienced typical social and political transformations during the following years, as well as isolation from much of the international community. In 1991, the Socialist Republic was dissolved and the Republic of Albania was established. While not widely reported, Albania’s transition from a socialist economy to free-market capitalism has been largely successful. It is emerging as a tourist destination and foreign investments are increasing.
I traveled throughout the country with JayWay Travel. Here are eight not-to-be-missed places to visit in Albania.
1. Ksamil, Albania
In the southern Albanian Riviera and across the channel from the Greek island of Corfu, the beaches of Ksamil are nothing short of magical. The calm, brilliant aqua water can rival any of the beaches of the South Pacific, Caribbean, or Asia. The crystal clear sea is surprisingly crisp and very refreshing during the hot Albanian summer. From the beach, you can see four craggy islands that are an easy swim, paddleboard or boat ride away.
We discovered utopia at a Korali restaurant and beach club, where we had use of beach chairs and umbrellas, and ate the most succulent and diverse variety of locally-caught fresh seafood you could imagine… octopus, mussels, shrimp, grilled fish, with cheeses, dips, and salads for appetizers, tasty vegetable side dishes, and baklava. Add in two bottles of wine, and our dinner for seven people cost…wait for it…. $78 total! At Ksamil, I did something I have never yet done while traveling – I ate every lunch and dinner there. THAT’s how scrumptious it was.
The beach can get a bit crowded with locals on weekends, but during the week you’ll have it mostly to yourself.
2. Butrint, Albania
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important archaeological and unique archeological sites in the region. Some of the structures date from at least the 9th century B.C., but legends hint to occupation by Trojan exiles.
Contained within the grounds are historically significant archaeological ruins, the most impressive of which is the theater, which dates from the fourth century, B.C. and seats approximately 1,500. There’s also a baptistery with intricate mosaics, ancient walls, the great basilica, Venetian castles and the remains of Roman courtyard houses. The site is surrounded by woodlands and a lagoon. It is this combination of historic monuments and natural environment that makes Butrint such a unique place.
3. The Blue Eye, Albania
Arguably the most mystical of the Albania tourist attractions, gazing into the Blue Eye, or “Syri i kaltër” as it is called in Albanian, is a truly hypnotic experience. The eye is part of a deep, continuously pumping aqua spring and natural phenomenon enclosed in a wooded nature reserve. Surrounded by bright green water, the eye itself is an intense electric blue outer ring with a dark blue middle like a pupil, which gives the illusion of a gorgeous blue eye when viewed from above. Divers have descended to 164 feet (50 meters), but the actual depth of the hole is unknown. It’s possible to swim in the spring or even jump from a platform that cantilevered over the eye, but with a water temperature of 50° F/10° C, not many take advantage, even on a hot day.
There are two enjoyable restaurants near the Blue Eye. One is very close and overlooks a breezy waterfall. The other is on a floating covered dock on the river just outside the entrance path to the Eye.
4. Gjirokastër, Albania
Gjirokastër is a UNESCO Heritage Site, the highlight of which is the castle at the top of the hill, the second largest in all the Balkans. The castle still has World War II prison cells which were used by the government for political prisoners during the Communist regime. The castle’s museum contains a collection of mostly post-War era weapons, photographs, artwork, and a WWII American airplane. The real treasure is the view of the city below from the roof of the dominating fortress.
In Old Town, the old bazaar is still the social and commercial center. There are also several examples of historic Ottoman houses at various levels of restoration which are open to the public.
5. Vlorë Beach, Albania
Briefly the capital of Albania, Vlorë is situated on the Bay of Vlorë on the rugged coastline of the Albanian Riviera and is considered the frontier between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. It’s mostly known for its picturesque turquoise beach on Vlora’s bay which is closed in by the craggy peninsula of Karaburun, the largest peninsula in Albania. Nearby Albania tourist attractions include the Castle of Vlora, Castle of Porto Palermo, and the Theatre of Orikum.
6. Krujë Castle, Albania
The small medieval town of Krujë is built on the slopes of Sari –Salltiku Mountain with the namesake Krujë Castle nestled in at 1,827 ft. elevation. The elliptical castle, built in the fourth century, was the center of Skanderbeg‘s battle against the Ottoman Empire and contains the National Museum Scanderbeg which is one of the most visited in Albania. Within the walls of the citadel is a restored house from the Ottoman era that is now the Ethnographic Museum. 90 percent of the objects in this museum are original and 100% functional. The castle grounds also contain the remains of the Fatih Sultan Mehmed mosque with its minaret and a Turkish bath.
A cobblestone path leads to and from the castle, with both sides lined with the wooden stalls of the Bazaar of Derexhi. The traditional bazaar has been operating since the fifteenth century. Authentic handcraft souvenirs can be bargained and purchased here, such as antiques, silver, jewelry, carpets, embroidery, and copper.
7. Uka Vineyard, Albania
The sprawling mountain-view vineyards of the Uka winery are the passion of a new generation in winemaking. The charismatic and charming Flori Uka, at just 30 years of age, is running the business founded and passed down by his father. In addition to grapes, the sustainable, biodynamic farm also produces tomatoes, beans, apples, pomegranates, and artichokes. A variety of cheeses and breads, grilled vegetables and tasty meats are paired with their merlot and ceruja wine and served on red-and-white tablecloths in the open-air restaurant overlooking the vineyards.
8. Tirana, Albania
Tirana is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Albania. It’s not a large city, so with a daytime walking tour and a venture out at night, you can see most of the sights within the city proper. In the center is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who led the resistance of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century – you can’t miss it, there’s a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback in a grassy island with all manner of traffic zooming chaotically around it. Close by is Piramida, the concrete pyramid originally dedicated to dictator Enver Hoxha, but is now stripped of the decorative tiles and covered with graffiti. More daring visitors climb the slippery slopes to the top for a bird’s eye view of the square. The city’s attractions also include the Et’hem Bey Mosque, considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Albania; Reja – a combination of sculpture and architecture by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto that is Tirana’s newest tourist attraction; and Bunk’Art – a 40-room underground nuclear bunker from the 1970’s that is now a historical museum open to the public.
Do try the rakija, a local plum brandy that is a household Albanian staple. It was a bit too strong for me – I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol – but my companions loved the stuff. Also highly recommended is tave dheu – a scrumptious Albania national dish made with liver, peppers, tomatoes, and chili and backed with cheeses in a clay pot.
Not to be missed is the Dajti Ekspres, a 15-minute cable car transit that soars above the clouds to the top of Dajti Mountain. The gondola ride, which is the longest cableway in the Balkans, ends in Dajti Mountain National Park for a spectacular panoramic view of Tirana.
For nightlife, head to the trendy and elegant Ish-Blloku, a.k.a. “The Block” for Tirana’s best cafés, shops, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.
Note: the transportation in Albania still needs improvement, so it is advisable to use a tour company specializing in Balkan tourism, such as JayWay Travel. JayWay has local guides who live in each town/city and drivers who are familiar with navigating the terrain and (lack of) signage. In addition, they customize each tour, including accommodations that range from über modern in Tirana, to charming historic fireplace rooms in Gjirokastër, to beach apartments in Ksamil.
One of the first things people ask me is about is the religion in Albania. I will admit, it was difficult to observe much about it while there. Albania has a mix of religions, with 59% Islam, 17% Christian and 24% non-religious or undeclared, but according to a 2010 survey, religion plays an important role in the lives of only 39% of Albanians, and Albania is ranked among the least religious countries in the world.
I did notice that there were not a lot of blonde women walking around in Albania; in fact, except for perhaps a handful in Tirana, I was pretty much alone in that category. While that made me somewhat of a curiosity, I never once felt uncomfortable. Quite the opposite…
“Ukraine?” I was often asked by heavily-accented shop owners.
“No, America.” I’d reply, and without fail, I was instantly met by ear-to-ear grins. One elderly woman even hugged me, eyes watery, obviously having seen much change in her lifetime.
“Ah! America! The great country!” I’d hear, and then, “You like my Albania?”
“Yes, I love your Albania.” I’d reply.
“You tell!” they’d say.
Never, not in any of the 50+ countries and islands I’ve traveled to, have I experienced such a warm, enthusiastic welcome. Not many Americans travel here, so each one is treasured – the excitement of the locals is palpable, their hospitality and warmth felt long after you leave their presence.
So, I am telling you….Albania is worthy of your consideration.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Albania, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.