One of the questions I am often asked is where in the world is that place, usually in reference to a recent visit to an out of the way locale. That certainly was the case with Albania, a small, Adriatic country, located directly across from Italy.
The lack of familiarity comes from its previous years of isolation. The country was sandwiched between Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and the financial turmoil’s of Greece. It was always a poor dictatorship, claiming to be Communist. There was much genocide at the hands of its 40 year long ruler, Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. After the collapse of communism, in the early nineties, Albania became democratic. It is rapidly becoming a seaside playground, with a fantastic climate year round.
I flew into Dubrovnik and drove south to Albania, driving through the City of Berat to visit the famous White City. These structures, although they appear to be new, actually date back to the 15th century.
I continued my trek to the capital of Tirana. The city was surprisingly clean and quite picturesque. I really had no idea what to expect, and was pleasantly amazed. I quickly learned there was a major black market, and everything was paid in cash… at a substantial discount. This included entry fees into museums, parks, as well as purchasing souvenirs and meals.
Tirana is where old and new Albania meet. With a population of half a million, it is an extremely safe city. The small town atmosphere is intermixed with an exciting night life. Restaurants are plentiful and cuisine is quite appetizing.
There are numerous historic sights to visit. Among the top of the list are the Et'hem Bey Mosque and Clock Tower, located in the centre of Tirana, and a well-known meeting place. Both date back to the early 1800’s and are worth the visit. The main museum in Tirana, is in the centre of the city, easily recognizable because of a huge mosaic standing on top of its front facade. It contains numerous relics ranging from ancient times through Hoxha's regime. Repeated looting in the 1990’s has robbed the museum of many artifacts, but it remains the best place in Albania to learn its history. If art is your passion the National Gallery has pieces dating back to the 13th century, as well as much modern art.
No visit to Tirana is complete without a stop at Bush Street, named after GW’s visit in 2007. He actually gave an address in front of the Piramida, the centre for culture, and the most expensive building erected under Communist rule.
Driving south along the countryside, my next stop was the seaside town of Sarandë. The landscape has spectacular vistas, especially if you stick close to the water’s edge. Beware of cyclists, who travel down the winding slopes at incredible speeds.
Once you arrive in Sarandë, it is like being in another world. There are many ocean front hotels at extremely reasonable prices. I ended up on the top (sixth) floor of a modern hotel with all the amenities I could ask for, as well as a huge balcony overlooking the water. The cost was 30 Euros a night… in cash.
It did not take me long to realize that although Albania may be a poor country, the people are wealthy. There is no tax (income or otherwise), and everyone seems to trade their goods or services with tourists at reasonable prices.
A long boardwalk, directly across from my hotel, links restaurants and souvenir shops, and makes for pleasant strolls at sunset, or any time of day. From the shore you can see the Greek Island of Corfu, which is only 4 km away. Due to the low rates for tourism in Albania, many Greeks and Italians travel there for their vacation. This gets them away from their own countries, which are crowded with Western European tourists.
Sarandë has much to offer besides cafés and shops. There is the Blue Eye, a natural, bottomless spring with clear, vibrant blue water, common in most of Albania’s water bodies. The way in which the water bubbles up to the surface, helps create the illusion of an eye. Admission to the park was inexpensive and again only cash was accepted.
I drove the 45 minutes to the ancient city of Butrint to see the remnants from most major empires of the area, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins. Information about the city is presented in English brochures, which are distributed at the entrance. There are many signs with historical facts and dates in order to help visitors understand what they are seeing.
Twice I was stopped by the police who wanted to fine me for having a broken parking light. Both times a 10 Euro note did the trick. I never did get the light fixed.
The ruins in Butrint include the Greek amphitheatre (later remodeled by the Romans), the Baptistery, the cathedral, the Lion’s Gate, and the museum, which includes many interesting artifacts found in the area.
Butrint is one of several places in Albania which was kept off-limits to the general public during the Communist Era. The city was made into a tourist destination for foreigners to visit, but Albanian citizens were not allowed, due to fears they would try to escape by swimming the short distance to Greece.
Whether your pleasure is sightseeing, visiting historic ruins, frolicking on a beach or shopping and dining, Albania has it all, at very reasonable rates. Consider this not-so-well-known country for your next visit, albeit by car, bus or cruise ship.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com