Prior to visiting Albania, we knew very little about this Balkan country in Eastern Europe. We knew Albania was a country that was under communist rule for a very long time, and we knew it was a bit of an off-the-beaten track country with a fledgling tourism industry. In short, we had few expectations for this country, and, as a result, the reality of our experience travelling through Albania exceeded any expectations we had about this amazing country.
Our plans for travelling to Albania were originally met with skepticism — mainly concerns around safety and fear of the unknown. This well-meaning advice all came from people who had never travelled to this country themselves. Understandably, Albania has not been well-portrayed in Hollywood. Funny enough, the week before our arrival to Albania, we watched a cheesy old movie on TV — Taken (2008) — where the bad guys in the show were kidnappers from Albania.
Based on what little we knew about Albania prior to our visit, we expected that post-communist Albania would be an old and run down country. Not true! The capital city of Tirana was super colourful and lively with street art, modern restaurants, brightly coloured building, wide pedestrian walkways and tons of cafes and restaurants. It was also an extremely affordable country to travel through. I felt a bit crazy trying to explain to my friends and family back home exactly why we enjoyed our travels through Albania so much. It usually came in the form of multi-message texts, blabbering on about the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of the people.
It’s taken me a couple of weeks to coherently gather my thoughts on exactly why we enjoyed travelling through Albania so much — here’s the best I could do to explain our top five reasons why we loved travelling through Albania.
Albania’s Amazing Landscapes
In the North of Albania, we hiked between two mountain villages: from Valbone to Thethi. The snow-capped mountain ranges and fields of wildflowers we encountered were absolutely stunning, and to hike through them was an unforgettable experience and the best introduction we could ask for to Albania’s beautiful scenery. As we continued our travels through the country and made our way South, we experienced the beaches of Albania in Vlores, Himare, and Sarandë — seaside towns that share the same body of water as Greece. In fact, Albania is only a short boat ride away from the Grecian island of Corfu — but everything is a fraction of the price of its neighbouring country.
The Kindness and Honesty of the Albanian People
In Albania, there’s a ‘small town mentality’ where the locals are extremely honest and helpful with each other. We, as tourists in Albania, didn’t feel like we were walking dollar signs. Because tourism is still developing in Albania, travellers are still a novelty in Albania.
In Albania, we hitchhiked for the first time. We were picked up by two grandfatherly-like friends who didn’t speak a word of English, yet drove us 15 minutes back to town without expecting anything in return. In Albania, we also felt comfortable enough to show up to a new town without booking accommodations and relied on the kindness of the locals to show us a place to stay, without taking advantage of us or ripping us off.
We also noticed that Albania was the only country we have travelled to, where local service providers round down if you don’t have exact change. From shuttle drivers, to store keepers, if they couldn’t break a large bill, they just rounded down.
Lastly, at all the restaurants we went to, there were no tourist prices or tourist menus. We ate alongside locals….and the local food was really, really good.
The Food in Albania is Really Good
Based on our experience thus far in Eastern Europe, we expected only to eat meat heavy dishes in Albania. But surprisingly, it was the fresh veggies and salads in Albania we enjoyed the most! Because of its communist history, Albania was a closed off society for many years so they had to be self sufficient in growing their own produce. Meaning, to this day, Albania’s fruits and veggies are extremely fresh and almost always local. Not bananas though. Those are imported. We learned that Albanians who grew up during communist rule had never seen a banana before. Which brings me to my next point…
Albania’s Fascinating History
In ancient history, Albania was ruled by the Roman Empire, then the Ottoman Empire, then occupired after WWI by neighbouring European countries including the Greeks, and Serbians, and then finally under communist rule for 50 years. After the fall of communism, the country went through a civil war in the early 90’s. To this day, there are still thousands of cement bunkers scattered throughout the country, which are structural remains from a time where fear and paranoia from being attacked by another country was widespread throughout Albania.
My impression of Albania is that it’s the little country who never really had the opportunity to stand on its own and operate under a successful democracy…until now (sort of). I know as an outsider looking in, it would be impossible for me to understand exactly what a country and its citizens went through. But, from a tourism perspective, there’s a lot to learn about this country’s history, and it seems like they are really making an effort to welcome tourists and showcase the beauty and attractions of Albania.
Similar to other cities and countries who have struggled for peace and stability (like Medellin, for example) we can’t help but continue to cheer on for Albania’s success.
We Made Friends in Albania
In Albania, we met so many other travellers who shared a similar mindset to us. Unlike other countries where you have a diverse range of travellers (ie. students, families, partiers, vacationers, backpackers, luxury travellers, honeymooners) we felt like all the travellers we encountered in Albania were open-minded and well-travelled. It just felt like we — crossing paths in a hidden gem of a country like Albania — immediately had something in common. We were all adventurers looking for new cultural experiences with lots of stories to exchange, as opposed to vacationers looking to relax in familiarity.