The Albanian Ministry of Tourism recently launched a new campaign aimed at increasing the number of visitors to this very misunderstood, yet magical country. ❤️
The campaign called, “Be Taken By Albania” intentionally pokes fun at the Hollywood film, Taken, staring Liam Nesson, which gives the impression that Albania is a nationwide mafia.
As the campaign states, instead of being physically taken as a kidnapper here, you’re more likely to be taken by the country’s overwhelming natural beauty, the friendliness of the locals, and the richness of the traditional customs. As a female traveler who’s just finished backpacking this country solo, I could not agree more with this humorous message they’ve sent to Liam. Just take a look and see for yourself! 😂
As you can see, you have nothing to fear here. In Albania, the priorities are guest and God.🧡
They welcome you into their home with rakija (plum brandy) and homemade meals, or give you local plants when your feeling ill. 💜
They pick you up on the side of the road when you can’t walk anymore in the heat, and they won’t just give you directions to a place, they’ll personally walk you there to make sure that you don’t get lost. 🚗
During my time in Albania, I was taken by its majestic mountains, miles of endless coastline, and mythical medieval towns. 🏖️
I was taken by its hearty regional cuisine and heartbroken by its equally heavy history.
I was taken by each and every one of my encounters with locals that showed me true generosity and concern. 💙
Simply put, unless you’re worried about getting beaten in a game of chess here, you really have nothing to fear. 😂♟️
In the end, I was taken by Albania: now it’s your turn. 😉
During my time in Albania, I visited the following locations: Shkodra and neighboring Theth National Park, the capital of Tirana, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Berat and Gjirokaster, and the beach town of Saranda in the south. Here are the highlights, fun facts, good eats, traveling tips, and hiccups I encountered along the way! 😊
Side note: Most cities in Albania have two names, one with and one without the letter ë. Albanian is also not Slavic. For example, to say hello here is ‘Përshëndetje’. I opted just to wave instead! Hah! To make things more confusing, Albanians actually call their country by a different name. It’s called Shqipërisë. You can even see it written on their currency.
Traveling tip: Most stores in Albania will accept Euro or Leke.
Shkodra and Theth National Park
Shkodra or Shkodër was my intro to Albania and it couldn’t have left me with a better first impression!🦋
It’s the fourth largest city here, but it’s surrounded by rural countryside, so you’ll see lots of farmers and rustic traditions intertwined with the urban environment. Things like donkeys and goats in the streets, or street corn being sold out of a wheel barrel. 🌽
The streets are lively as well, with people selling everything from produce to instruments on the sidewalk. 🎸
This is a çifteli, a traditional string instrument.
Side note: Some of my favorite moments in Albania were driving and listening to folk music. 🎵
The older generation is also very active here. Everyone dresses well, rides bicycles around the town, and can be found congregating at the local cafes for a smoke and a coffee. ☕
Fun fact/traveling tip: In Albania, citizens in cities with stoplights have to pay an extra tax, so places like Shkodra don’t even have a traffic system. They do have crosswalks, but it’s honestly like a game of Frogger, so just be patient as a pedestrian and aware of all the cars around you. 🚗
From Shkodra, I traveled to Theth National Park. To get there, I took a shuttle arranged from my hostel for 11 USD. The journey took 3 hours on a combination of paved and gravel roads with scenic views the whole way through. 😍
Although it was lovely guesthouse, the location was not ideal. It was about a 1.5-hour walk to the city center, so I’d definitely recommend something more centrally located. 😮
For a tourist town, I also found it quite unincorporated. Sure, there was a map of trails and a few restaurants, but the tourist office was abandoned and directions of where to go and what to see was practically non-existent. 🤷♀️
As such, in order to avoid the stress of getting lost or not knowing where to go, I’d recommend downloading Maps.me or Guru Maps before arrival. These offline maps will help you be better able to enjoy the beauty and wonder that is Theth. In this remote village, you’re surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, rushing rivers, cornfields, old stone farm houses, grazing sheep, and wild horses. This village is so isolated, that you really feel transported back to a different time. 🐎
Optional Extra: While in Theth, you can go on numerous hikes, including one which leads to this crystal spring called the Blue Eye. Alternatively, you can take a 9-hour hike to Valbona from Theth, and then take a ferry across Lake Komani. This hike actually used to be part of an old caravan route.
People say the trail is easy to navigate by following these painted markers on the trees, but I get lost inside a paper bag, so I opted out. 😂
Tirana is the colorful capital of Albania with the central hub being Skanderbeg Square.
Here’s the National Museum with almost 5,000 historical artifacts dating back to ancient times. The mural was actually created during the communist era, which gives the illusion of gender equality.
Now, to learn more about this recent history of rigid communist rule, I took a free walking tour.
Our guide explained how Albania was ruled for four decades by a dictator, Enver Hoxha, (pronounced ‘Ho-ja’) whose iron fist made him one of the strictest leaders in European history. People were banned from practicing religion, owning private property, or traveling outside the country. Simple things like growing a beard or listening to foreign music could land you and your entire family in jail. There was no escape.
This tyrant even declared Stalin, Tito, and Mao’s regime not communist enough, and isolated his entire country off from the rest of the world! 😲 At one point, the country was trying to grow all their own food, and people were starving to death.
His ego even led him to erect a museum in his honor in which citizens were obligated to visit at least once each year.
And because he shunned every other country in the world, he was constantly paranoid of an attack. During his reign he built almost 200,000 bunkers across the country using forced labor, including a five-story bunker as his own personal hideout!😲 Finally, after his death in 1985 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in the 90s, Albania was slowly able to achieve independence. Here’s just one of the bunkers and a segment of the Berlin Wall, which is displayed as a symbol of their freedom.
Anyway, it’s only been 27 years since the end of communism here, but suffice it to say, things have come a long way. Our guide told us how people hadn’t even had simple imports like Coca Cola or bananas until recently. It was so exciting to them that they would put the empty coke can on the shelf like a status symbol, and during my visit, I found bananas everywhere! 🍌
Now, one of the most interesting things I noticed when visiting Tirana was how cheerful the capital now appears. Apparently, the recent prime minister decided to paint the city in vibrant Caribbean colors to liven up everyone’s spirits after so many years of oppression. 🎨
One of the most quirky things were these electrical boxes painted with silly cartoons and symbols of pop culture.
What’s ironic though is what now stands in front of this communist leader’s home- a KFC! The ultimate symbol of capitalism. Hah! 🍗
Berat and Gjirokaster
Berat and Gjirokaster are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which showcase well-preserved Ottoman architecture, but they also have many differences.
Gjirokastra or Gjirokastër is known as “The City of Stone.” It showcases medieval architecture dating back to Ottoman times and a castle that has been fought over for centuries.
Walking through the streets and in the central bazaar, you’ll find lots of local handicrafts, like pottery, qeleshe (a brimless white cap), lace, woodwork, and local treats, like honey, jam and spices.
Berat is known as “The City of a Thousand Windows.” It also showcases traditional Ottoman architecture and a medieval castle, but geographically is located near the stunning Tomorr Mountains and along the Osumi River.
In this rural mountain village, you’ll see men hauling donkeys down the streets or fishing in the stream. 🎣
While in Berat, I stayed at Hostel Managalem, which is a renovated historic home full of character and charm. There’s a stone fireplace, wooden decorative accents covered in lace doilies, and the host even showed me how to make authentic Turkish coffee. 💟
Saranda or Sarandë is a resort town along the Albanian Riviera, only a short ferry ride from Corfu, Greece.
The town is laid out on a horseshoe-shaped bay lined with beaches along the Ionian Sea.
To get to Saranda, I took an 8-hour bus from bus station in Tirana. I use the word bus station loosely here, as it’s usually just a designated parking lot or street. 😂
They also make pit stops along the way to pick up snacks and stretch your legs, which makes the ride much more enjoyable.🥤
Now, the Albanian Riviera has many different beach towns, depending on the vibe you’re after. If you want beaches that are a bit more secluded, I’d suggest Himara or Vlora. Saranda on the other hand is much more crowded, but the atmosphere is less party and more family-oriented. You can find nice hotels and lots of condos to rent during your stay.
While in Saranda, I stayed at Hakuna Matata Hostel, which is actually a condo converted into a hostel. It had an epic coastal view for only 8 USD per night.
We even had a family movie night with their 5-year-old daughter and son. So fun!
Just perfect! 🌅
Anyway, up next I will cross the border from Albania to Macedonia. Stay tuned to hear all about it! Until then! 😊