Long considered to be the poor man of Europe, Albania has come a fair distance from its pauper reputation since the collapse of Communism in 1991, yet it remains as a very affordable nation for the Euro backpacker stinging from uber high prices of West and (increasingly) Central Europe.
With soaring mountains, underpopulated beaches, and a bevy of castles and Bronze Age ruins that aren’t crawling with package tourists, Albania is the perfect tonic for those plagued by not just the financial costs of the road, but also the claustrophobic aspects of many tourism traps that abound across this popular continent.
Pulled together by salt of the earth residents that will leave an impression on you long after leaving, Albania is a country that should find a place on any backpacker’s itinerary.
Currency: Albanian Lek
What To Do
After arriving in the country and taking some time to take a look-see around the capital Tirana, head over to Shkodër, one of the oldest settled places in the entire country. This town contains the vaunted Rozafa Castle, which boasts killer views of the city that it overlooks, as well as the distant Albanian Alps. This stone sentry has served as defensive point for the surrounding area for well over 500 years, being involved in sieges thrust upon them by such invaders as the Ottomans in the 15th century, and the Montenegrins as recently as the early 20th century.
Another ancient fortification worth checking out in Albania is Berat Castle, situated close to the city that shares its name in South Central Albania. It has a very long history, with its first altercation being with the Romans around 200 BCE, which ended with it being razed to the ground.
With its last action occurring during World War II in 1943, when Albanian resistance members railed against the Fascists with their rifles, Berat Castle has definitely seen better days, though it still is quite the imposing sight, after all the sieges that it has been through over multiple millennia.
In addition to the castle walls and battlements, ruins of buildings where a community used to live exists, with the remains of up to 20 churches and a single mosque adding cultural flavour to Berat Castle’s contents. The national significance of this site is captured by its presence on the back of the 20 lek coin, making this place a must visit during your explorations of Albania.
Heading south, the next stop you’ll want make is to Butrint, which is an ancient city dating from the Bronze Age that has garnered UNESCO World Heritage Status due to its ruins that house archeological formations dating from Roman times. With a well-preserved Roman style theatre, Venetian castles, and natural features such as lakes, rare woodlands, and the like that pair well with the ancient ruins that exist here, Butrint is a great place that culture hunters and nature lovers alike can agree upon.
After skulking around castles and Roman era buildings for a while, you’ll likely start to crave the coast, which has many of the charms of their Greco neighbours to the south, without much of the crowds that characterize the former. The Albanian Riviera is famed for its cliffs that lie the coast of the Adriatic for a long distance in the County of Vlore in the southern portion of the country.
The secret that this corner of the Balkans held was blown wide open by the British television show Top Gear in 2011, as they used this stunning coastal and mountainside backdrop to film a car chase sequence that got critical acclaim from the many fans of this auto/lifestyle show. From a historical perspective, this region was the place where Julius Caesar made camp with his troops during their pursuit of Pompey in 48 BCE … while it was not known whether or not he took a liking to the area, he and his predecessors kept a great destination under wraps, as even to this day, only a few beach clubs, resorts and guesthouses can be found in the region, with the vast majority of the coast remaining unspoiled.
The best place in the Albanian Riviera to let your hair down presently is Dhërmi, as this is the place where government ministers and the youth of the nation come to party. Despite its growing domestic popularity, you’ll have all the room you’ll need to relax on its 3 kilometre long beach, and when the time comes to move on, be sure to pick up some olive oil, as its said some of the best in the country is produced right in Dhermi.
What To Eat
Being surrounded by the Balkans and Greece, and with Italy being located on the other side of the Adriatic, the culinary experiences that can be had in Albania are many. Start by seeking out some Tavë Kosi, which is considered to be the national dish of this country. This dish consists of lamb that has been cooked until browned in a saucepan, and then boiled/simmered with garlic and rice for about 20 minutes, after which is it baked in an oven for up to an hour while basting in a yoghurt sauce.
Those looking for something a little lighter will gravitate towards Tarator, a soup that is comprised of cucumber, garlic, walnuts, dill and other seasonings. It is served cold, making it a welcome appetizer in the summer, when temperatures soar across the country.
If you’re just looking for a quick snack, then Byrek is a great option to help chase those hunger pangs away. With the Albanian version of this common dish containing feta cheese and vegetables, it is a great choice for vegetarians looking for a taste of Albania, while avoiding the many meat-heavy dishes that predominate in this area. They sometimes can contain meat though, so be sure to check with the seller before tucking into it!