Albania is the country I knew next to nothing about prior to my visit there (ok, maybe my knowledge of Moldova is even worse). But after hearing about so many people being impressed with the place I knew I have to visit it as soon as possible, before the mass tourism gets there (it’s a matter of time, trust me). And so when the opportunity appeared and I was about to plan my autumn trip to the Balkans I knew I have to include Albania in the itinerary, even if just for two days. And it was the best decision ever! From the very first moment I opened my eyes in the bus somewhere in the middle of Albania I knew I’m going to enjoy it. It looked messy, chaotic and so beautiful! Unfortunately I haven’t seen all that much, didn’t really have the chance to get to know the country properly but sometimes what you see and think at first is the most important. So here are my first impressions of Albania!
Incredibly nice people in Albania
I’ve visited some countries where locals were extremely hospitable, helpful and well, just good and nice. But now Albania joined the club and ranks pretty high in my personal list of the countries with best people. For all the time everyone around tried to do their best to help us, make us feel as good as possible in their country. In (almost) all the cases there was a language barrier but it didn’t stop people from trying to communicate with us, one way or another. During our long and adventurous bus journey from Thessaloniki, Greece to Berat, Albania fellow passengers took really good care of us and we didn’t need to worry about getting to our final destinations, even if in the meantime it turned out we need to change the bus two times. I don’t think we’d have found our accommodation so easily if it wasn’t for people who helped us out on the streets and walked with us to our place (and then greeted us afterwards when we passed them by during our walks around the city). When we wanted to buy some burek in a small bakery the owner so badly wanted to get to know more about us that he took inside a random teenager who was passing by and who then, in his broken English, was a translator. When it turned out we are from Poland the owner showed us all his football memorabilia, including posters of Polish players from 1970s. The accumulation of such a random and nice stories was really high for these two days, much bigger than anywhere else! It could have been our luck but we didn’t meet anyone unfriendly in Albania!
Breathtaking views of Albania
Again, I’ve seen only a very small part of the country (and for pretty much of the travel time I was just napping – I hate you motion sickness) but the landscape I could admire was incredible! Dramatic mountains, deep valleys and picturesque towns – that’s what I’ve seen in Albania! And I was really impressed! I knew Albania is supposed to be beautiful but I didn’t expect this kind of gorgeous views!! Apparently what I haven’t seen is even more spectacular: twisting roads high up to the mountains, the capital city – Tirana – so weird that it is actually interesting and the turquoise clear sea. Just take a look at Andrea’s beautiful pictures from Albania – is that how you imagined this country?
It’s no surprise Balkans have exceptionally big cafe culture. But I had a feeling this went to a completely new level in Albania! I did a double take when I saw people sipping coffee in a small cafes along the road, at 5.30a.m., on Sunday morning! And no, it wasn’t a dream! Cafes were literally everywhere! On the main pedestrian street in Berat, Bulevardi Republika, there were at least 10 of them, next to each other. And all of them were full of people, but the majority were of course men. The coffee was strong, extra sweet and super thick but still really good! I’ve seen places with a big cafe culture but the number of small random cafes in Albania was definitely outstanding.
Albania is the country of bunkers! While I haven’t seem there anywhere else (or they weren’t so visible) in Albania they are on every step – literally as on average there are 24 bunkers per square kilometer! Over 700.000 of them were built between 1972 and 1984, back in the times when Enver Hoxha ruled the country. He was kind of paranoid that his land will be invaded therefore he has decided every Albanian should be protected as best as possible. When you think that Albania has just a little bit over 3 millions inhabitants it’s easy to do the math and see the real enormity of this issue. These days bunkers are one of the biggest tourist attractions of the country and its symbol, their miniatures are sold as souvenirs, there’re restaurants or cafes located inside them too. Many have been destroyed anyway but still it’s easy to spot them just about everywhere: in the backyards, at the beach, high in the mountains, at the graveyards or in the middle of nowhere! When traveling around we were playing who will spot more bunkers and this never got boring!
People go for a walk a lot in Albania
One of the things that always impress me in the developing countries is the number of people that spend time outside, going for a walk or sitting in the park (men almost always play chess). We don’t see much of that in Poland anymore. Once I read an article that it’s due to the poverty and the lack of any available activities and attractions and I actually think this might be true. Albania, or at least stunning Berat, was the same. From our accommodation we had a perfect view on the main pedestrian boulevard – it was always crowded, at 8am, at noon, at 10pm… People were constantly walking up and down and it looked like the most popular pastime activity there. We also walked the boulevard few times!
The most delicious vegetables
I always find the Balkans a food heaven for me! Not only there is burek easily available everywhere (and there’s no such thing as eating too many bureks!) but the vegetables are just the tastiest ever! I could live only on cucumbers and tomatoes there and I’m the happiest person ever! It was like that in the Caucasus, it was like that in Bulgaria and it was exactly the same in Albania! They all were like I remember from my childhood, the taste that is long gone in Poland now…
Albanian language is one of the weirdest in Europe
While in most countries you understand some basics of what’s happening around you there’s no way to figure it out in Albania. The language is really one of a kind, it is not related to any popular languages and it reminds you of nothing. It is just a mix of letters put together but the meaning cannot be simply guessed (and try to read these words – it’s not easy at all!). I could have stared at it for minutes but my mind was blank. It was a little bit like being in Hungary, Finland or Estonia (but those last two I figured out a little bit after spending 5 months in the middle of nowhere in Finland). However the crazy language makes the whole adventure so much funnier and travelling there is even more challenging!
Unknown country that has so much to offer
Every time I heard the name „Albania” I thought of the list of 25 proofs that this country doesn’t exist. And no matter how funny they are the longer you think about them, the more you realize you really know nothing about this place. It’s been locked for years, making it almost impossible to learn more about it but fortunately it’s slowly opening to the world. The tourism is growing, Albania is discovered by more people and I’m sure in few years’ time it will be a really big thing! So make sure to get there before everyone else will! I know after these 2 days I want to discover so much more of it. It was like a trailer for me and now I’m impatiently waiting for the whole movie!
Are you planning a trip to the Balkans? Do you like that region as much as I do? I’ve created a Facebook group where you can look for advise or inspiration and share your travel stories and pictures from the Balkans and beyond. Join now!
If you think of visiting Albania or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it! You might be also interested in other destinations I’ve covered on the blog. If you’re looking for articles about any place in particular this map with posts might be useful for you.
If you enjoyed that post why don't you share it with your friends? That would mean so much to me! Also be sure to join 17.000+ fellow travelers and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, G+ or Instagram for travel updates and even more pictures! If you don't want to miss any news from me sign up to my monthly newsletter!24 Lut '15 Albania