Albania is one of the most interesting countries I’ve come across in a long time. To say it is unique is not enough and is the place to go if you are looking for a real European adventure.
The seven days that I spent there were full of all kinds of surprises ranging from pleasant to disappointing but combined were ultimately what made it such an exciting country to visit. More than “off the path”, Albania is over the hill and sitting in a mountainous valley of its own. You really never know what you are going to get which should be like music to any modern-day explorers’ ears and why I suggest everyone interested in traveling to less touristed parts of Europe put it at the very top of their list.
1. There are more Albanians outside of Albania than within
If you are doing some traveling through the Balkans, you will probably meet a few Albanians (and see Albanian flags and qeleshes) before you even arrive in Albania. Estimates of the number of Albanians residing abroad are anywhere from 7-10 million, mostly in other Balkan countries (Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece), but there are also a significant amount in Turkey, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the United States. The number of Albanians actually living inside Albania? Around 3 million.
2. Albania has an interesting history
In keeping with the aforementioned information, Albania has a pretty interesting history and you would be doing yourself a disservice by not reading up on a bit of it before you go. If not to understand that you are headed to a country that was totally isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the 20th Century because of a paranoid android Communist dictator, then to know what people are talking about when they say “Great Albania” because odds are, you are going to hear it mentioned at some point.
3. You are not going to get there by train and you will be lucky if you get there by bus/furgon
Transportation in and around the country was my biggest complaint with Albania. Everything about it was difficult and is the main reason I ended up staying in Tirana the entire time.
First of all, there are no international rail connections to Albania and the national ones are incredibly limited to say the least. Tirana’s train station is an attraction in itself mostly because it’s so hard to believe it actually functions. Does it even function? I still don’t know even after going to have a look for myself.
Buses or furgons (mini buses) are your best bet if you are lucky enough to 1) figure out their schedule and/or 2) find out where to catch them from. The country’s capital doesn’t even have a proper bus station, stops are scattered everywhere, so I was not surprised in the slightest finding a fairly up-to-date bus/furgon schedule that gives departure points like “In front of Bumper Cars” or “Fork in main road to the north” in other cities. Patience is not a virtue in Albania, it is a necessity.
Also be warned that many routes, especially in the south, are suspended during the off-season or when buses aren’t full. I had originally planned on taking a bus from Ohrid, Macedonia to Gjirokastra then making my way up to Tirana but found out only after I had arrived that it would be impossible in November. So it became Tirana or bust.
4. Just because there is a schedule, doesn’t mean there is a schedule
I wish I was joking above when I said you might find some scheduled bus routes suspended simply because the buses weren’t full but it’s true and I found out the hard way.
Suspending a route between say Ohrid and Gjirokastra during the winter? Understandable. Suspending the only bus route from the center of Tirana to the airport because there weren’t enough people an hour and half before my flight? NOT COOL. In fact, grounds for giving even the most relaxed traveler a panic attack.
If money isn’t an object then this won’t be an issue because you can always find a taxi; however, if you are on a tight budget and relying on public transportation to get around, this could be problematic. Catastrophic, even. Thankfully an English-speaking Albanian in shiny high tops saved my day by pulling me into a taxi with the 3 other stranded passengers and we made it just in time at a slightly higher price.
5. If you plan to drive around Albania, you are a brave soul
Not that this necessarily affects anything, but you should be aware that only 600 cars existed in Albania prior to 1991 and only Party officials were allowed to drive them. There are definitely countries with worse driving records, but in Albania it’s not only bad drivers that you have to worry about, it’s the actual roads themselves. Even though I heard improvements were being made, many of the ones I saw were in seriously bad condition and not anything you should be going over 40 mph on or navigating after dark.
6. There are some 750,000 concrete bunkers scattered around Albania
Driving through Albania you are probably going to notice quite a few concrete bunkers like the one pictured below. There were over 700,000 of them built during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to protect the country from an invasion that never happened so needless to say, many Albanians view them as unpleasant and annoying reminders of the 50 or so years of isolation.
Then there are others who view them as cultural artifacts, business opportunities, blank canvases, and/or resources for steel. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to tour any of the creatively converted bunkers on my first visit like I had wanted. Will just have to save that for the next time…rent one out for a party maybe?
7. The Albanian language is an anomaly
Then again I don’t speak Thracian or Illyrian (what are said to be the most closely related), but who does these days? Albanian is an Indo-European language but I could not discern one similarity to anything I’ve heard anywhere else in the world minus a few numbers, “Tuesday” and “Wednesday”.
This was bad news for me because picking up some words and phrases in Albanian would have been very useful considering it was the country where I felt I struggled the most only knowing English, Russian and Swedish. If any other language can get you around here, it’s Italian. In line with language (of the body variation), Albanians nod their head “yes” when they mean “no”, and vice versa, though I never had any misunderstandings. Or noticed, for that matter. Still good to know.
8. Sometimes Albanians add an extra zero to the end of numbers
Albanians do this sometimes not to be shady but rather out of habit since that is the difference between the “old lek” and “new lek”. For instance, someone might say you owe 1000 lek when they really mean you owe 100 lek.
I found that for the most part that people corrected themselves before they even noticed the shocked expression on my face which is what tells me they don’t do this to try to take advantage of foreigners. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to ask if a price is being quoted in new or old lek if it seems outrageous because getting conned is a possibility in any country.
9. Mother Teresa was Albanian
Though she was born in Skopje, spent a great deal of her life in India, and was a citizen of the world, Mama T (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) was Albanian by blood.
If that doesn’t impress you enough, then maybe you will appreciate some of these other famous peeps of Albanian descent…
10. Tirana is a cool and colorful capital city
I really wasn’t expecting much from Tirana but that’s mostly because I had never really heard much about Tirana. I thought it was going to be concrete and grey like Bucharest, but it’s actually quite green and shockingly colorful. I also found it to be more expensive than Skopje and Pristina, but still cheap compared to western European capitals.
The green and colorful-ness of the city can be attributed mostly to Edi Rama, the painter turned politician who was mayor of Tirana from 2000-2011. He has been heavily criticized for focusing too much on the appearance of the city rather than its functionality (for example, putting tons of money into painting buildings all colors of the rainbow when electricity and water shortages continue to be a problem), but I think what he did was more beneficial than some people realize. Water and electricity are important, of course, but so are the psychological effects of color and nature.
11. Shopping in Tirana is pretty good
Ok, it’s not Paris or London, but Tirana was definitely the city where I found the best shopping in the region. There are a few big malls (Citypark, QTU, Tirana East Gate) outside of the center, some of which you can catch free shuttles to from just beside the big mosque near Skanderberg Square.
There is also some pretty solid thrift shopping if you are up for that kind of hunt. Rruga e Elbasanit, not far from George W. Bush Street (seriously), or near the “train station” you can find some gypsy markets or makeshift shops selling some legit second-hand items such as handbags, shoes, clothes.
12. Don’t look both ways before crossing the street in Tirana, look every way
I don’t know what things are like in other Albanian cities, but in Tirana the streets were not a place for the faint of heart. They were like a free for all where cars and buses fly from every direction and would not stop for Mother Teresa herself if she were crossing the street. Eastern Europe and the Balkans are not very pedestrian friendly in general, but Tirana is in a league of its own so keep that in mind and more importantly, BE CAREFUL.
13. It’s difficult to exchange Macedonian denar there, but not impossible
If you are coming from Macedonia beforehand, I’d recommend spending or exchanging as much of your denars as possible before you get to Albania, or at least Tirana. Could be easier in towns closer to the border.
I was told on multiple occasions that no one would exchange the denars that I had but I finally found one place. It’s sort of opposite the new Orthodox church near Skanderberg Square in the direction of the National History Museum. It’s on the second floor and looks shadier than the other exchange offices.
Also, most places only accept cash.
14. One “village” raki equals about three normal ones
Raki, Albania’s national spirit, is like any other rakia/rakija that you may have tasted before if you’ve been in the Balkans or Turkey. It’s essentially moonshine made from grapes and is STRONG.
You can order it in most bars and restaurants, just make sure you pay attention to what kind of bottle it’s being poured from if you want to properly monitor how much you are consuming. If it is coming out of anything other than a bottle that has a printed raki label on it (for example, a plastic water bottle, a suspicious glass jug, or Greek wine bottle), it’s most likely a home-brew that is seriously potent, like three times the strength of one that came from an actual distillery. Learned this one the hard way as well but no photos of that…
15. Albanian sweets are addictive
I really don’t have much else to point out about this except that these “amareta me arra” walnut cookies pictured below are perhaps the most addictive of all. Like DRUGS. And speaking of drugs….
*BONUS* Albania is one of the largest exporters of cannabis in Europe
I heard about the village of Lazarat before I even got to Albania. Its reputation as the “cannabis capital of Albania” proceeds itself and happens to be found not far from Gjirokastra, where I was originally headed to in the southern part of the country.
I don’t know how things stand right now, I’ve read all kinds of reports and heard a mix of things, but Lazarat has been for years a lawless place controlled by drug lords and insurmountable by the Albanian police. It’s definitely not the only spot in the country, just the most publicized, and the reason I think it is something you should know is because drug trafficking is one of the major problems Albania has to work harder on combating if it wants to join the EU. Banning all Albanians from using speedboats in the Adriatic is clearly not enough.
As far as purchasing this crop on the streets for recreational use, I can’t speak from personal experience, but can say I got the sense that it is widely available and pretty popular amongst the younger generation. Stoners, rejoice.
UPDATE: Sorry, stoners…but it appears Lazarat has been burned to the ground. Or has it?
Given that I had only spent a week in Albania and was only in Tirana at the time this was written, it’s hardly comprehensive, but I hope at least a good introduction. If you’ve been to Albania or happen to live there, feel free to make any additions or corrections to this list that you would like in the comment section below.