Long Story Short – Albania is The Biggest Secret in European Tourism
For the ever-growing Albanian diaspora, those millions of Albanians around the world who chose to leave the promised land, I understand. The economy in Albania, is terrible. Wages remain comparable to some third world nations – if you can find a job. I’ve seen people living at garbage dumps, and in slum-like shanty-towns. Unemployment is out of control. Corruption is rampant. After living through half a century with one of the world’s most brutal and isolationist dictators (think North Korea, in Europe), only to see society crumble into violent anarchy as recently as the late 1990’s, well, even though there are green-shoots of an optimistic future – I understand why so many Albanians have simply given up waiting for the tide to turn. But, the tourists aren’t going to wait much longer. They’ll come here in droves. Because, Albania is fucking amazing.
You couldn’t pay me to visit Albania. – American friend who has never visited Albania.
Preconceptions of one of Europe’s poorest and most unknown countries, run deep, are inaccurate, and never come from anyone who has actually visited. The truth about Albania? Well, it’s like Italy, with a few more cold showers and power black outs, and far more stolen Mercedes. It’s the French Riviera, at a tenth of the price, with nicer beaches and less attitude. Greece, with far (far) worse roads, but the mini-van’s have high-speed onboard wifi. Of course, Albania is Europe – but it’s Balkans style Europe with warm people, deliciously fresh food, a great flag, and a sense of laissez faire daily freedom that the rest of the continent can only dream about. I’ve been told, Albania has much in common with Spain – back in the 1970’s. And that’s a very good thing.
Sitting in the crystal clear water at Himarë, a small beach-side town on the incomparable Albanian Riviera, the sun shines well into the Spring-time. I looked back towards the land, at a backdrop of spectacular mountains, crumbling ancient hilltop villages, and just a small smattering of low-rise hotels. A man was walking his goat, and dragging some kind of farming tool. It’s absolutely, mind-bendingly, perfect. Up on the boardwalk, I knew I could walk into any restaurant and ask for “whatever is good” – the seafood, lamb, and salads will always be tasty, and accompanied by relentlessly beautiful views, smiles, and a glass of whatever tickles your fancy. Often, Albania just doesn’t seem real.
At a beach-side biker-bar along the Riviera, a German guy (after many friendly glasses of Raki) confusingly tried to convince me that “paintball is the skateboarding of the 1970’s”. After that many Raki’s, neither of us were making a lot of sense. But, we were both members of a small, but growing, band of tourists that made the ironically clever decision to independently vacation here in September. He’d been in Albania just a few hours, before his rent-a-car caught a flat tire on the notoriously shocking Albanian roads. I told him to consider it a rite-of-passage, and a small price to pay, in exchange for the experience of a life-time – being a part of the biggest secret in European tourism. The thing is, there’s not much time left, to see Albania in this “before” state.
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Compared to last year in Albania, tourist numbers seem to have picked up, slightly. At Butrint, an ancient Greek/Roman walled city on the very Southern tip of the nation, I tried to stay ahead of busloads of tourists exploring the ruins. Last year there were almost none, at the very same UNESCO listed abandoned city. Keep in mind, Butrint is built on a scenic peninsular lush with vegetation, complete with stone amphitheater, a dozen or more crumbling columned buildings including mosaic palaces (still being excavated), and is just a short drive from some of the best beaches in Europe.
Cruise ships are increasingly visiting the Riviera in Southern Albania, docking in nearby Sarande, largest city in these parts and reminiscent of a miniature Miami. With more unfinished apartment buildings. Things are changing. It’s just a matter of time before critical mass hits. When you have a billion potential tourists within relatively short flying distance, the time to have Albania to yourself is running out. For now, if you avoid July and August, it will still feel like you have the country to yourself.
Even Pope Francis rolled through Tirana. Maybe he’s heard that in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital city, a half a litre of decent wine at a nice restaurant costs around two Euro’s. These are non-tourist prices, served by wait-staff who are innocently unaware of their future life filled with jaded bitterness, once the inevitable tourist boom begins. There’s even a growing fine-dining scene here in Tirana, it’s not just 35 cent Bureks (spinach pies), and 60 cent Espresso’s. I visited one of the trendiest restaurants in Tirana, Il Gusto, to rub shoulders with corrupt politicians and attractively bored ex-pats being paid in foreign currencies, where a bottle of wine can be had for $380 US dollars. An extensive, multi-course meal worthy of being remembered, including a couple of bottles of decent wine and other more serious spirits, came to 30 Euro’s per person. Don’t expect to be wowed by a selection of international cuisines, do expect to be impressed with Albanian food, at almost every restaurant in the country. It’s incredible. These people know how to eat. And drink.
Despite the ongoing modernisation of Tirana, the capital city remains authentically Albanian. Around the corner from Il Gusto, you could pick up a live chicken from a drunk road-side vendor for about 2 Euro’s, or a pint of local “Tirana” beer for about a buck. The contrasts of the country are represented in full in the microcosm of the city – inbetween the crumbling older houses and communist-era blocks, modern skyscrapers and apartment buildings are shooting up. It’s beginning to look like quite a cool city. There’s grit around every corner, yet the city parks are pristine, and litter – a severe problem for Albania, is starting to disappear. Tirana is evolving, and taking a tilt at being one of the Balkans most exciting cities.
There’s so many places to visit in Albania. Apart from the beaches (including Dhermi, Himare, and Ksamil – just check this link, Andrea has it covered better than anyone else), there’s a suite of UNESCO listed cities (Berat, Gjiorokastra), too many castles to count, mountainous villages where time stopped a long time ago, and always bustling Tirana. However, the problem is, getting around. And that, is a problem.
For the moment, your best bet is to rent a car, make sure the spare tyre is good, and know how to change it. Trains remain mythical, and rumors of official bus stations are spoken about in hushed tones. Buses, or the local mini-vans known as “Furgons”, work fine for hopping from one major town to the next, but you’re going to struggle getting to the hidden gems using public transport. Or any car that doesn’t have four-wheel-drive. You can travel independently in Albania, if you have time, patience, and a genuine sense of adventure.
This is not the Albania of a few years ago. It’s as safe as any European nation is. No longer can you shoot Kalashnikov’s with reckless abandon, pick up a cheap stolen Mercedes, or bribe your way into to a machine-gun factory or abandoned cold-war-era submarine base. Even Europe’s largest Marijuana plantation, in the southern village of Lazarat, has been burned to the ground. Not since Cypress Hill played Amsterdam, has such a green haze been witnessed. Fortunately, you still won’t find a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, or Pizza Hut, anywhere in Albania – a missing reminder that Albania remains a relatively untouched part of Europe.
Interacting with locals will also remind you, that Albania is not really like anywhere else. In a nation where Islam is officially the predominant religion, the Pope decided it was cool to roll through the capital city in an open-top car, at arms length to the crowd. Fittingly, the Pope-mobile was a customised Mercedes. Waiting for Papa Francesku, I saw a local dragging a large suitcase right through the “do not cross” barrier. The closest Policewoman, at the front line of Papal security – unarmed, with a uniform completed with lipstick and patent-leather high-heels – casually explained that this was indeed the road the Pope was about to drive down, and that perhaps walking onto the street, with a suitcase, was not such a great idea. This, is Albania.
Nobody here is fighting much over religious lines, because as one person tried to explain to me “Feja e Shqiptarit eshte Shqiptaria” – loosely translated as “the religion of Albanians is Albanianism.” This is a very ancient land, from a time well before organised religion. The Romans and Greeks were just a semi-modern footnote. Contemporary Albania is just one big family, Christians, Muslims, and Atheists, and people need to rely upon one another to survive – because, neither god nor the government is doing a very good job of looking after Albania. The great thing is, when you come to visit Albania, you’ll be taken in as a part of the family.
Back to tourism. Things are changing. Slowly, for now. The New York Times recently placed the Albanian Riviera as the fourth best place in the world to visit this year. Word of mouth spreading fast throughout the rest of Europe. Maybe it’s next summer, maybe the one after. But it is coming. The tsunami of tourists. And not just in July and August. The sublime weather lends Albania to a much more extended tourist season. It will happen.
I’m astonished it hasn’t happened already.
For now, Albania is the last continental-European beach paradise.
PS, this was my fifth visit to Albania in the last 18 months. All of my previous articles can be found by clicking this link. Currently, I’m in Pristina – capital city of Kosovo. I’m slowly making my way to Central Asia, to check out the mystical ‘stans. I hear it’s going to be a very cold winter.