Albanian Riviera – Revealing The Secrets of Europe’s Cheapest Beach Paradise
I haven’t been to Palestine, so this will probably come across as ignorant. Berat, the UNESCO listed ancient “City of a Thouand Windows” in Albania, reminded me of Palestine. I was sitting in a small Albanian communist-era apartment, standardised and cookie-cut just like so many other apartments in Albania. The building was decayed, run down, but lived in and homely. Chipped and broken concrete steps rose internally five levels (no elevator), most of the light-bulbs are either not working, or missing. I used the light of my phone to see. None of this bothered me. I knew some of what Albania has been through over the last several decades, and was about to get another personal insight into the madness this country has recently endured.
In the lounge room, ornate stitched lace covered many surfaces. On the old television screen, an Albanian 24 hour news channel was flickering away. Two older ladies were feeding me incredible amounts of home made spinach Burek – a hearty Balkans style pie – and fresh, thick, yoghurt. They were smiling, happy, serviant to the point of making me feel slightly awkward. The generosity was a little overwhelming. They offered to descend the steps I had just walked up, and head down to buy me beer at the store. I looked at my Albanian friend, sitting next to me on the couch, we both smiled. He had invited me into the home of his Mother and Aunt, the sweetest couple of ladies you could ever meet. I couldn’t possibly eat another slice of Burek, but they continued to offer me more. I didn’t want to offend, but I had to refuse. He understood, and sensed my awkwardness. “Nate, this is how all Albanians will treat their guests. This is normal. Just sit, relax, and treat this like it is your own home.”
I wanted to ask my friends mother so many questions. After spending some more time in the lounge-room, among the raft of lace doily’s doing dual duty of protection and decoration, the smell of home made Spinach Burek thick in the air, I looked at two pairs of beautiful, smiling, eyes. They seemed fixated on me, a strange but welcome guest in their home, and it seemed as though they were waiting for my questions. I decided it was time. I asked my friend, to ask his mother a question.
Albania’s recently tumultuous history had intrigued me, but all I had read was impersonal factual accounts of the disorder and chaos.
I wanted to know what Albania was really like, in 1997.
“Can you ask her, in 1997, when Albania broke down, if there were any shops open on the streets? Would you ask her what it was like, living here in Berat at that time?”
This was just 16 years ago in Albania, a European nation.
His mother would only leave the house in the morning, as the only things available for sale were bread, and some vegetables.
All of the “regular” shops had permanently closed.
She described shootings in the streets.
Indiscriminate murder, snipers from apartment blocks.
Gangs had taken over most of the Berat and the rest of Albania.
Society had crumbled.
And, it stayed in this torrid state this for several months.
There was no war in Albania at this time – it was pure, unadulterated, anarchic, angry, chaos.
In 1997, the Albanian government was toppled in the wake of a financial pyramid scheme that ended with the life savings of most Albanian citizens being stolen. Civil disorder ensued, and over two thousand people were murdered. Military bases were broken into, and looted of all weapons – including 3.5 million hand grenades, countless machine guns, and 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition.
Students were armed and organised by Mafia bosses. Weapons were distributed all over the country. It was estimated that every Albanian male over the age of ten years old had at least one firearm. All of Albania’s major population centers were effected. Eventually, due in large part to the UN force of 7000 soldiers that arrived, order was finally restored. Over three million guns were then smuggled from Albania to Kosovo, and provided to the ethnically Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, who then used the guns to fight with the Serbians during the Kosovo war, which was eventually stopped by NATO bombing downtown Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
Welcome to the Balkans, circa late 1990’s.
FYI – the Albanian episode of 1997, came after the multi-decade reign of one of the most brutal communist dictators of the 20th century – Enver Hoxha.
It was only in the early 1990’s that Albanians became free to leave their own nation. Free to purchase a private motor vehicle for the first time ever. Free to verbally lambast the surrealistically ridiculous concrete bunker building program that prioritised the resources of the nation into constructing hundreds of thousands of bunkers, to defend against an invasion that was never likely to happen.
Albania, had it bad. Really bad. For a really long time.
So, is there any wonder that tourists aren’t exactly thick on the ground in Albania?
But the thing is, that was then, and this is now.
Albania, has changed – dramatically changed.
Not so long ago, I asked a question. Where in Europe could I spend some time, around summer, where there’s nice beaches, warm weather, somewhere uncrowded, and inexpensive. I asked my friends, family, online buddies, and random blow-ins on twitter, the answer was the same. Nowhere. Nowhere in all of Europe, in summer, meets those conditions. It would be an impossible dream. I could go through all the possibilities I looked into, or just cut to the chase.
After spending a week in Berat, I spent several weeks on the Albanian Riviera – a mountainous section of the coastline in Southern Albania, leading down to the border with Greece. The Albanian Riviera during September, is incredible. In my opinion, the beaches are among the best I have ever seen. Albania is safe, warm, inexpensive, uncrowded, and open for tourism. The Riviera is so good, it’s borderline surreal.
The landscape is absolutely stunning. Beaches stretch for miles. Mountains abound. There are UNESCO listed towns, filled with Greek, Illyrian, Ottoman, and Albanian history. The photos here are just the beginning – I could do three more articles like this without any problem of running out of spectacular scenery. I won’t dwell on the positives, because at this point it should be obvious. Great beaches, great food, great people, great prices, great weather.
Now, for the negatives. This is what the tourist brochures won’t tell you. It’s as honest, complete, and unbiased as I can be.
Rubbish is a problem. However – despite advice to the contrary, I discovered many absolutely pristine beaches. Things are improving dramatically, but you will still see what is at times a shocking amount of rubbish in the most pristine of locations. The main reason for this, is that many communities don’t have an official rubbish collection service. They need to deal with all of the rubbish, themselves. But, there is also an education, an awareness, a culture, that is lacking. I hope this improves in Albania, it’ such an easy problem to solve.
Power blackouts were common outside of Tirana. In Himare, after a bad thunder and lightning storm the power went out for about 30 hours. I was told it also affected other towns on the Albanian Riviera. For the town of Himare, it was 100% no power. Cold showers, no internet, no lights, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe, but in a four star hotel. On the upside, the small town center was packed with people enjoying a coffee, Raki, glass of wine, or a meal, with friends and family. Many establishments had generators and candles, they were obviously prepared for this situation. This wasn’t a one-off – in the city of Berat there was at least three power blackouts in the space of a week. Each time, lasting several hours.
Albanian roads can be terrible. Really, laughably, terrible. Large holes. Safety barriers missing. Driving on the wrong side of the road happens regularly, out of necessity. In the rare case that lines are actually marked, they’re taken not as “rules” but “suggestions”. Roads, that could barely be described as roads. Even in town centers. However, improvement has been made here as well – many cities are now connected by decent roads for a good stretch of the journey. The road along the Albanian Riviera, twisting up and down mountains, in and out of one glorious bay after another, was not perfect – but was pretty good. You still need to be aware that there are serious problems, and driving does become a bit taxing. I’ll point out that unlike in Serbia and Romania, at no point did I get a flat tyre due to the roads. So that’s something.
What about independent travellers, getting around without private transport? As I had a car, I’m just going on what I’ve seen, and been told. There are vans and buses that go pretty much everywhere all over the country. However, they’re not always of the highest quality, and they don’t always run to a schedule. Just don’t be in a hurry, and talk to the locals – they will point you in the right direction, to find the right van or bus.
Dependent upon the time of year, you won’t have Albania to yourself – it’s not as off-the-beaten track as you might think. Especially the Riviera, which by all accounts is heaving during July and August. But, that’s it. If you want some quiet, but still want great weather, travel before or after the peak season. September was ideal.
Albania really is inexpensive, similar to other cheaper Balkans nations. In September, I’m not sure that we paid more than about 10 or 15 Euros’ per person for 3 star+ accommodation – such as Penthouse beachfront hotels with an enormous private terrace and panoramic views. Food and drink can be very cheap. There are options to spend more, should you feel like a great seafood meal in a stunning location. But in a word – Albania is cheap.
It’s true, the hospitality and welcoming of Albanians is legendary. Some examples include the guy who offered me his four star hotel for six months – “I’m going to Athens, if you just pay the electricity and water, you can stay for free”. I told him not to joke around, as I may take up the offer. He said he wasn’t joking. Across the road, a beautiful beach not 50 meters away. I still wonder what I’m doing here, in Tbilisi, instead of Himare, on the Albanian Riviera. I also have two bottles of 23 year old “Raki” – Albanian/Balkan spirits, given to me from a private stash of an 83 year old man. Both Phillipa and I had haircuts for free, as the people with us refused to allow us to pay. I’ve had more meals given to me than I can count. When you wave a friendly hello at a stranger on the streets, Albanian’s always smile and wave back. It’s not unexpected – it’s normal.
There is so much to see, there really is.
But, Albania is not for everyone.
It is however, for me.
Just like the last time I visited, I say again – I hope I will return to Albania.
And I have a feeling there will be a few more people joining me next time.
PS, Ok, that was the longest period between posts since Yomadic began. The thing is, I’ve been busy. Really, really, busy. I’m in the midst of the longest road trip so far. Those of you on the Yomadic Facebook Page, have some idea what is going on. For the rest of you, I’ll get Yomadic up to date really soon.
PPS, I spent about a month in Albania, and it’s all thanks to my new friends Andrea and Ferbent. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
68 thoughts on “Albanian Riviera – Revealing The Secrets of Europe’s Cheapest Beach Paradise”
Great post Nate. There’s some next level photography going on right here. Amazing.
Cheers Paul… I think it was the amazing locations that inspired me to take a little more time in capturing things as good as I could. It’s a different beast to the fast clicking of street photography, that’s for sure.
Palestine ceased to exist more than sixty years ago. The location on the map is now called Israel. The people living there transformed the landscape from a territory of Stone Age villages into a vibrant, productive, socially responsible country that produces most of the world’s new medical technology.
Cool story bro.
(best answer ever)
I have you too blame for our upcoming Serbia trip and now I have to start planning our Albania trip. Darn you…:)
Awesome job as always…
Thanks Nate…. sorry to complicate your travel plans ;)
Land Grabbing at it’s finest against the native people who have no means to defend themselves against the military hardware supplied by the allies. For a people of were supposedly so persecuted, I would have thought you show more compassion and less greed, but guess thats in your nature. Adolf was over ambitious and thats why he lost, if he stayed in Germany instead of land grabbing he might still have his own little country in Europe right now.
Loved the first photo, I am borrowing it with the link to my readers of course…again! You have done more for Albanian tourism than the whole Albanian Tourism Ministry…if such a thing exists ;-)
I love that photo as well… please, feel free to share it (as always), the ladies will be very happy. As for the Albanian Tourism Ministry, if they do exist, I haven’t seen any evidence of their work!
You’ve captured the spirit of Albania beautifully. I worked there in Elbasan for a year in 2001 – 02, not that long after the Kosovo crisis and the collapse.The most wonderful people I have ever met. Sorry to hear though that the power cuts and rubbish problem is still ongoing as it was a huge problem there a decade ago. We are going back in summer 2014 for a visit and looking forward to seeing more of the south.
Thank you Tonya. I agree with your comments – wonderful people indeed. The power cuts are one thing, but the rubbish is more frustrating – seemingly so simple to deal with. However, in many places, as I mentioned, it was close to spotless. Other places however, not so good. Have a great time in 2014, hopefully things will be even better by the time you get there.
Thank you so much indeed Tonia for your good words on Albanians. I’m very glad to hear you shall be back in summer.
Sunsets look amazing. Definitely wouldn’t think they’d be from Albania of all places
I’m usually not a big “sunset photographer”, but in Albania, I couldn’t help myself.
Last year our family arrived in Zagreb, Croatia at the start of a long trip. We travelled down Croatia to Dubrovnik with the intention of getting to Greece. After reading about Montenegro & Albania we decided to take the ferry across from Dubrovnik to Bari, Italy, then back over to Greece. Mistake. We should have taken the coastline down. Next trip!
I hate to say this Chris – but I’ve been along that whole coast line, and Montenegro and Southern Albania were my favourite parts! At least you have a reason to come back ;)
Armenia sounds amazing, now on my radar, thanks to you! Have enjoyed following your adventures on the Facebook page <3
Hi Maria… glad you got some enjoyment out of it, the whole journey has been one of the most memorable I have ever undertaken. Full post coming soon.
haha Maria this is Albania, not Armenia. I am sure Armenia is wonderful as well :)
Great photos, great story, great memories. I almost miss Albania! ;)
You do miss Albania, Andrea! (as do I) so… winter, ey?
First, i concur you have upped your shooting quality, big time. Still with the Fuji xpro? Or is it the x100? Can’t remember. But my god, that is september? I am there! Truly there!
So many new discoveries, we are going to have to create the Nate & Phillipa post communist travel agency of unknown places. Tours when you feel like it, copious spirits, real and imagined. No Eastern Bloc to Old, No Beaches Untold.
Hey Laurence! Still the XPro… waiting to check out the new 23/1.4 lens before making a decision as to switching or not. Love that 35mm length.
I heard from someone yesterday, who is currently at the Albanian Riviera, it’s now November, and he said he was swimming! It’s a bit of a dream-land down there. You just may see me in September next year as well ;)
“It’s a bit a dream-land down there”…thank you very much Nate for loving and promoting my country. I really enjoyed your story and am very happy you have become a fan of Albania. The Ministry of Tourism exist but it is still far from reaching the promotion you guys are doing for Albania. Hopefully this wil change soon.
You’re welcome Kliton – it’s an amazing country, and I know I will return one day.
Great photos mate! I agree – in a strange way parts of Albania reminded me of Palestine as well. You should visit!
Thanks Ahab, hopefully I will visit Palestine soon – it’s right near the top of my list. And thanks for the compliments, really appreciate it.
Your photography skills are impressive, I love reading your posts and daydreaming by looking at the pics. I’d love to visit Albania one day, thanks for sharing!
So impressive! I have plenty of Albanian friends and they always told me how beautiful their country is. Now I know what they meant ;)
Excellent post. Loving the photography as well. One of my old homecountries, and I have had the possibility to visit there for a while. This gave home-sick feeling. Definately need to start planning a trip for next year to Albania. The country has gone forward so much. I believe in the future tourists will flock there. :)
Nate this is a lovely blog bud.
I read this blog just on time; i’m looking forward to visit Albania in summer with my wife and kids.
On a one to ten scale i would give the Albanian Riviera an eight (due to the rubbish), but give the Albanian Highlands a solid twelve. It is as beautiful as the day that god decided to create this land. Especially the area that Albanians call The Alps. A definite must if you plan a visit to the country.
Hmmmmm Nate, so you can count yourself as being one of the few…..very few… that know alb riviera, Himara, Dhermi, Saranda, Vlora etc…. there is more…..oh yes, but no, I simply cannot tell. These places have the greatest climate in Mediterranean, and probably one of the best anywhere. The combination of mountains, sea, and sun coverage, with the known mediterranean terroir makes for a very unique all four season combination. The locals are super friendly indeed, as noted, almost to a fault. The garbage collection is at tmes a problem, especially in September, the end of the season, but I also hate to see these places crowded, and know it will not be long before these areas will become invaded with residences for wealthy northern retirees……and no, am not sure those places will manage to retain their wild beauty if they start putting concrete everywhere……. as in Durres. They have been saved so far from this “developed” form of urbanisation due to the mess with property laws and registries ….. not for long though.
*searches for flights to Albania in September*
Seriously, this sounds absolutely wonderful. Where were the sandy beaches that you have photos of – Himare, Saronde? It looks perfect, and those sunset photos are gorgeous. Also, I had NO idea that Corfu was that close to Albania?! I assumed it was located around Crete, Rhodes, and the other more well-known of the Greek islands!
Stunning photos – you have captured Albania’s coast far better than I did! I agree that September is a great time to go – it was still very hot but so quiet, we really did have the beaches to ourselves. The German ‘off season’ caretaker of the campground where we stayed (with just two other guests), said that the summer season just completely dies on September 1st, he’s never seen anything like it in any other European country.
Amazing pictures, great article. Your kind words about Albania and Albanians warmed my heart. Its hard to make people see in Albania what I see… but through your articles its going to be much easier from now on.
Me and my wife had a great wonderful time in Alb. Riviera. I was astonished in a beautiful beach down there…it weas called, if I’m not wrong “Folia Marina” great place to be, great parties on the beach and great beautiful people.
Sure we go back again there!!! I’m looking forward!
Côme back to albania,because our moutains and lakes are fantastic too!
Well done for this amazing pictures, it is very true Albania has the best beaches, best sea (Jon and Adriatic), bast mountains and best lakes. I guarantee everyone that they will enjoy the stay and less money. Only thing that needs to be done is develop all these Gods nature and turn them in to money revenue, but the Government is doing nothing.
Hey Blerim, yes, many people told me the government is doing nothing. But that’s not necessarily bad – I have found that often private citizens know what they are doing more than the government does ;) Either way, let’s hope for the best for such a great country.
I WANT TO!!!
Looks just Awesome/Thanx Nate :-)
Nate, thanks for your blog! Loved it and got teary-eyed. Born there and left in 1998, and now I am as homesick as it gets! I’m actually glad the land is so “virgin”, that’s the beauty of it. I always feel like Albania is like one of those undiscovered gems, and I’d love it if it stays that way.
P.S. Next time you should visit Kruja, where a large part of Albania’s “glory days” are displayed.
Wow! Photos look incredible, I’m sold.
I love these pictures ! I´m albanian myself, but from Kosovo. I´m glad people are starting to see Albania, and it´s positive sides, and not only the negative sides ( wich ofcourse are there, and should become better eventually ). I wish albanians from Albania would use their land more.
They do have opportunities to make and sell fruits, etj, cause they can make it themselves, but they are not that good, with bringing up their country, and using all the advantage of their own country, because of all the corruption. But I do have hope. Back in the days Illyria used to be so big, and beautiful. It still is, but it´s covered up, and hidden by corruption, rubbish, and people who doesn´t know how to pick themselves up, after everything that´s happend. It is sad, and alot of them are not to blame, but I just wished the progress happened faster.
I was told a story when Albanians had no right to do anything. They could not work, go outside the city or community they belonged too, or do anything. I think this is the main reason, albanians find it hard to move forward, and do more !!
You guys should also visit Kosovo sometime, it does not have the beautiful beaches, but it still is worth seeing. Kosovo is one of the countries that build themselves up fastest after a war, but there is still alot of poor familys living outside the cities, and there is alot of history there. I do think its amazing how fast they got up on their feet, and it´s really something to see. I´m sure you can find someone who will show you and teach you about both, kosovo and albania and how they see it, if you go.
I´m happy to get an e-mail if you are interested.
I also agree with the way you describe albanian people. They are very open, warm and generous – however some albanians can be very close-minded, but they´re getting there.
Kind Regards, from an albanian girl, living in Oslo, Norway.
Hi Lily, thanks for your comments, I know exactly what you’re saying with regards to the people of Albania – I’ve heard a similar story and opinion countless times. I really hope to get to Kosovo soon – if you would be so kind to send me an email contact (you will see a “contact” link below), I’ll be sure to follow it up before I get to Kosovo. I *always* like meeting the locals.
Take care in Olso, it’s not quite the same as Albania is it ;)
Quick question, where is the first picture taken (2 women sitting on the ledge)?
Thanks Mike. That photo was taken somewhere along the Riviera, not far from Sarande. I couldn’t pin point it exactly – it was just one of those random stops that happen during a road trip.
Proud Albanian here :)…It’s called Llogora, and it is located between Vlora and Himara.
Albania-my target for the next summer.
Great idea. I’m going back again, in just a few weeks from now.
It is real joy to read your post, Nate, and I love your wonderful photos. Albania is wonderful country with loving people and undiscovered natural beauties. For sure it came on my wish list for a vacation trip in a future, with my kids, of course.
I haven’t been to Palestine, so this will probably come across as ignorant. Berat, the UNESCO listed ancient “City of a Thousand Windows” in Albania, reminded me of Palestine.
don’t know about Palestine but you are wrong about Berat being the “City of 1000 Windows” alb. “1 mij 1 Dritare” ,in realty it is actually in alb.”1 mbi 1 dritare” which in English would translate as “one on top of the other windows”.But don’t worry as many Albanians do the same mistake as it sounds almost the same when you say it in alb. language.
It is called “1 mbi 1 dritare” because when you look at the city from a far you see windows above windows ,since they are build on the side of a hill the houses climb up the mountain and look like their in top of each-other with the windows being almost the same and so many they hit the eye like they stand one over the other.
p.s.I bet you have tried to count them and for sure they were not 1000 windows in Berat.
Thanks Erjon.. that’s really informative and helpful. And no, I didn’t count the windows in Berat :)
Nate, it’s wonderful what you did with these articles. You are not only sharing pictures and stories, but also little pieces of this country. Unfortunately, most of the people either never heard about Albania, or have this wild and hostile image in their mind. The truth is quite different; it is a beautiful country, friendly people and yeah….. can’t deny the wild touch sometimes, but that just makes it more genuine. Thank you!
“But, there is also an education, an awareness, a culture, that is lacking”
urm….no! people are aware, but after a decade of slowly decaying infrastructure and the insertion of “goods” mainly in the form of plastic for which there was no system to deal with in the first place, people become desensitized. you would too. Don’t go insulting my peoples! Don’t make assumptions about things. that’s all. Other than that, fantastic post!
I witnessed people throwing rubbish out of cars. I witnessed staff at a serviced beach standing around doing nothing, instead of cleaning up the beach (I cleaned the beach myself on that day – none of the staff cared, or even seemed aware that it needed cleaning). I would call that, exactly, precisely, an education, an awareness, a culture, that is lacking. And I do agree – it’s resulted in a desensitisation.
BUT – it’s not an insult to *every* Albanian, it’s an insult to the *many* Albanians who don’t care about the problem.
AND – it’s much better this year than last year, so things are getting better (importantly).
Thanks for your compliment.
Hello Nate, I am planning to visit Albania this January, what say you ? is Riviera is a good choice during winter ? is there something I can do there, its really hard for me to plan what to do there (generally Albania, spesifically Riviera) in this season
Lovely article. Would you or your friends there know of a event planner in Albania? Looking for a wedding venue and it’s seems so perfect.
Ha! Googling for tips for my trip to Butrint tomorrow, and of course your blog comes up! Great stuff per usual. =)
Best post I’ve ever seen regarding Albania. Mind if I share it on my blog?
Thanks, and please feel free to share.
Hi! Nice blog. I’m planning on going to Albania next May. Can you maybe tell me where the first picture is taken, the viewing point looks awesome! Thanks
Hey Eline – two things : first, I’ve just made that picture bigger. Second, I’m sure that exact spot doesn’t exist anymore – it was a building under construction. However, the place was just before you go down-hill towards the town of Dhermi. If you get down that way, you’ll recognise the scenery for sure. Have fun!
Well done and intresting for me to compare with my own visits during 1975-1995.
Thanks, I would have loved to visit during that time, certainly a whole different Albania back then.