Albania packs a lot into its modest borders. Suffering until recently from political isolation, crippling corruption and the stigma of a rough Balkan neighborhood, it’s unsurprising that more tourists haven’t come to this country, which sits between Greece and the “heel” of Italy to the west. And that’s a shame, because they should be lining up at the borders. The locals are big-hearted and welcoming. The coastline, ruggedly beautiful. The landscape, a patchwork of Greek ruins, medieval castles and minarets. And the food? Sublime. Familiar enough to feel comfortable, different enough to be interesting, Albania should be on every traveler’s radar.
Byzantine era church, Apollonia
If you’re flying into the country your first stop will be the capital, Tirana. Getting to a hotel in the city center is a relatively simple affair, with a string of NYC-inspired yellow taxis outside the terminal building. While all cabs have meters, you may wish to avoid any friendly detours and negotiate a price up front. Five euro ($44) will get you anywhere in the city; anything more and you’re officially contributing to someone else’s early retirement.
Mountain view, outskirts of Tirana
Like most old-world capitals, Tirana is best explored on foot. Traversing the tree-lined boulevards south of Rinia Park—the city’s central park—reveals a trove of coffee shops, bars and restaurants. By day it’s where the working class catch up over cheap, non-hipster espressos, smoke pungent cigarettes and gesticulate in exaggerated fashion over games of dominos. At night young couples, university students and office workers take over, trading coffee for beer and wine, of which there are many excellent local varieties.
4th Century tiled mosaic, National History Museum
The National History Museum (Skanderbeg Square, Tirana) is a brilliant, albeit haphazardly assembled, collection of cultural relics. From its Bronze Age Illyrian roots, to Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences all the way up through the Ottomans and the founding of the Albanian nation state in 1912 and the communist period that persisted until 1992, the museum reveals a paradoxical insight into the country as a whole. It is on one hand an amalgam of influences—layers of eastern and western culture, religion and customs ebbing and flowing into one another. And yet those influences, given centuries and millennia to mix and mingle, add up to something distinct, singular and fantastic.
You need look no further than the food to see this cultural alchemy at work. The excellent Sofra e Ariut restaurant (Elbasan St., Tirana 1019, (+355) 4-230-3030) in Tirana’s tree-lined suburbs serves up unapologetically rustic dishes typical of the mountainous, inland region. We began our meal with stuffed vine leaves and savory cheese pastries that felt Greek or Turkish in inspiration. Our next set of dishes looked like straight-up old-school Italian grandmother cooking: wilted spinach and fresh cheese; baked peppers stuffed with homemade ricotta; roasted, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant; a slow-cooked liver ragout and a hearty stew of beans, olives and feta. This moveable feast was all a prequel to a main course of roast lamb with wild oregano, succulent pork and a local take on mashed potatoes. It was unpretentious, hearty food that kept finding its way onto our plates from town to town.
Hire a car to move south along the Adriatic coast, from Berat to Vlore and down to Sarandë (the “Monaco of Albania”). Here the menus shift to reflect the bounty of the crystalline coastal waters. A seaside lunch is the highest note in a symphony of great meals, a testament to the power of fresh ingredients simply prepared. We eat at the Piratet café in Dhermi, which has since moved to Tirana. We dine on mains of sea bass baked in salt and aromatic herbs—moist, delicate and almost sweet when drizzled with estate-grown olive oil. Accompanying home-made linguine with freshly caught lobster and clams sets an impossibly high bar. And with the most decadent of multi-course meals topping out at $150 per person, including drinks and dessert, failure to indulge daily is widely regarded as a capital offense.
Lobster and clam linguine in Dharme
Nature and Man
But if the food and café culture aren’t reason enough to go (and they should be), there’s no shortage of historical and natural attractions in Albania. The recently excavated Roman-era gladiatorial arena and amphitheater in the coastal city of Durrës sits serene, if surreally, in the midst of the modern residential neighborhood that has sprung up around it.
Pre-wedding photoshoot, Apollonia
The 2,500 year old Greek ruins at Apollonia and the dramatic hilltop castle town of Berat, the latter still an active residence to dozens of families, are just a handful of rich historical veins that run across the landscape.
Two boys by a 13th century hilltop castle, Berat
As for jaw-dropping natural beauty, it doesn’t get any better than the coastal drive along the Adriatic. The waters are pristine, the sun intense, the mountains dramatic. But should sporting a speedo on the Adriatic not be your thing, there are plenty of fully clothed scenic tour options. Most noteworthy is the Blue Eye, some 15km from Sarandë in the south of the country. Nestled in a lush mountain ravine, the Blue Eye is a natural mountain pool reflecting surreal shades of turquoise and azure, whose waters are said to cure all manner of aches and pains. If nothing else, it’s an idyllic spot for a day trip or picnic. Try and avoid weekends, when it’s more popular with locals.
The "Blue Eye," Sarandë
Need to Know…
The Albanian currency is the lek, but the euro is widely accepted. Albania offers visa-free access to a wide range of countries, including Hong Kong, EU and US passport-holders. Turkish Airlines flies regularly to Tirana.