The mention of Albania evokes not-so-rosy images in the minds of many, and its slightly checkered history involving communist dictatorships has a lot to do with it. Never mind its status as one of Europe’s least privileged nations in terms of financial riches.
That, however, is a pigeonholed view that is quickly changing. And as much as it may not boast the financial clout of some of its neighbors, Albania’s riches are of a different kind: natural splendour. When it comes to this department, few can hold a candle against the flyspeck Balkan state.
Nestled across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, right above Greece, the mountainous state is speckled with some of the most breathtaking features you’ll come across: pristine lakes, rivers and dazzling mountain springs, lunar sun-bleached mountains and stony hiking trails, charming towns and bustling cities, and of course, the country’s greatest asset – the Adriatic coastline.
Christened the Albanian Riviera, the heavenly stretch of rocky coastline runs for miles on end along both the Ionian and Adriatic seas, flanked by spectacular beaches that its neighbours can only dream of.
Couple that with interesting vestiges of Ottoman, Greek and communist history, a genuinely friendly people eager to showcase their country, a sense of laissez-faire attitude, amazing food, and great prices compared to most of Europe and you have a dream destination for the savvy traveller.
Climate and When to Visit Albania
Considering its area, Albania has a plethora of climatic regions. Generally though, most days of the year tend to be sunny.
The climate throughout the coast is Mediterranean, experiencing mild winters but mostly tending towards heat waves. Average temperature during winter swings around the 8-degree Celsius mark, hitting 25 Celsius in summer. Almost 90 per cent of the rain falls in winter, with the north experiencing the highest levels.
Further inland, the climate is moderate continental. Summer temperatures average lower than in the coast, albeit daily fluctuations are greater, sometimes hitting a high of 40. Temperatures may drop below zero during the winter nights, although it rarely snows in the inland. And when it does, the ice or snow doesn’t last more than a day.
Snow is more common in the more mountainous highlands, falling from November through March. It’s a time you want to avoid mountain towns as they are extremely chilly at this time of year, and more so the north-east zone which is notorious for harsh winters and frequent snow. The terrain differences are behind the wide local variations.
The months of May, June and September are usually the best times to tour Albania.
What to do in Albania
Once only open to serious-minded learners of Stalinism, Albania has not-so-long ago opened its doors to tourists to tour its hitherto untouched attractions: from numerous archaeological riches to tranquil natural habitats and protected wildlife, this surely has to be one of Europe’s last hidden corners. A country that makes you feel alive.
Its capital, Tirana, features vibrantly-painted buildings and deserves an extended visit. Places to look out for include the National History Museum, the Skanderberg Place (top image) and the gorgeous little Et’hem Bey Mosque.
History buffs will love Albania, and especially tours around the towns of Durres, Berat, Gjirokaster and Butrint, the heart of antiquity.
If a relaxing holiday is what you’re looking for, the Albanian coast may be just the kind of setting you need. It has a fantastic Mediterranean climate, stunning beaches of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, not to mention some mouthwatering fresh catch.
For the more active traveller, there is a host of activities to partake in, including kayaking in the Albanian Riviera (an actual coastal region in the County of Vlore); rafting on the Vjosa, Black Drin and Osum rivers; paragliding; snowshoeing, trekking and cycling; as well as hiking in the peaks of the Balkans.
What to Eat and Drink
A largely predominant Muslim nation, lamb is often the meat of choice in Albania, with the spit-roasted kind a particular favourite in many cities.
In fact, one of the country’s most popular dishes is baked lamb’s stomach sitting atop a layer of olives and tomatoes, cooked in olive oil until tender.
As with every other place on earth, the coastal region has its own unique cuisine, mostly sea fare comprising fresh catch pulled right out of the water. The coastal towns offer a potpourri of fresh, local seafood you should make sure to sample. Try some mussels sourced from the neighbouring Lake Butrint – their amazingly sweet and delightfully salty flavour is certain to overwhelm you.
Vegetarians and vegans will be grateful for the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables that come from Albania’s farms, a majority of which is locally and organically produced. Greek salad is a common item on many menus, and the blend of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions, topped with homemade feta and olives is likely to catch your taste buds off guard. Every time.
Also, being close to Italy, it follows that pasta and pizza are a common entry in many restaurant offerings.
Wash down your dinner by knocking back some Raki, a local firewater whose chief ingredients include grapes mixed with herbs and honey.
For the beer lover, there are excellent choices to make your pick from, especially in Korca or Tirana, two brands named after cities. And with the northern parts offering an array of white wines, you have ample wriggle room when it comes to local drinking options.
Once only accessible via Italy and Austria, flights plying the Albanian sky have increased as the country looks to cash in on the increasing tourist numbers. Visitors coming in from within the European Union do not require a visa, neither are those from visa-exempt countries, all totalling 78 jurisdictions.
Other options include land and boat.
There are multiple options for getting around.
Considering Albania’s striking landscape, one of the best ways to experience it is by taking a train. They may not be in peak condition but are an extremely affordable mode and a wonderful way to inter-link any two towns while you enjoy the priceless views – no other mode guarantees the kind of million-dollar views you’ll be in for.
You can also opt to take a bus but careful not to embark on the ‘Rinas’ as these serve the route from and to the airport. You can always enquire from the locals if in doubt.
Other alternatives include the not-so-common hitching, car and motorcycle, as well as bicycle which can be great fun. Well, except on the highway where riders don’t seem to command much respect.
The national currency of Albania is the Lek, but the euro is widely accepted as well.
And as always, don’t forget to get yourself a few local souvenirs to carry the spirit of Albania with you!