Albania, the ultimate European “terra Incognita”

By | Category: Travel destinations
the Albanian Riviera

the Albanian Riviera

Who knows the real name of “the Land of Eagles”?

If you take a hundred of western European citizens, how many will know where Albania is and how many will be able to locate accurately Albania on a map?

It’s so easy! Albania is set on the Mediterranean Sea on the northern boundary of Greece surrounded eastwards by the Macedonian Republic and Kosovo, and northwards by Montenegro. Westwards the coasts of Albania are quite equally shared between two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian. The Italian coast is less than fifty miles away.

Albania is a small country with a long historical past. Despite many invasions that the Albanians have always fiercely fought before being often outnumbered by invaders, the Albanian people have kept their language and traditions that are the cement of their nation. But Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Turks have all have left behind them traces of their own occupations. These influences are still visible nowadays, from antique ruins of temples and cities, to Middle Age churches, houses, mosques, castles and fortresses. Even the cuisine shows this mix of influences.

In more recent history, the country at the end of WW II, fell under the power of Enver Hoxha, the leader of the communist party who fought the Nazi armies. He acted as a dictator with the establishment of a totalitarian regime. Soon he closed his country to any foreign influence and, for about forty-five years, Albania became a secret country isolated away from the outside word. In1991, the socialist republic was cancelled and replaced by a budding parliamentary democracy. Now Albania is member of the NATO alliance and is involved in a series of processesedand reforms aiming at an economic growth for which incoming tourism occupies an important place.

Albanian preserved nature

the beach near Vlora

the beach near Vlora

Albania despite its small size offers a variety of attractions for holidaymakers. A largely virgin landscape, a long cultural history and a great sense of hospitality greet the visitor and help provide opportunities to find the type of vacations one could search for. From the pure white snow of the mountains and the red fields of spring poppies to the white ribbon of sand contrasting with the blue of the sea-water, the Albanian landscape is ever changing with the seasons, offering visitors a warm summer beach holiday, a challenging mountain trek during Autumn, or a flowery cultural trip among the antique ruins in spring.

Albania presents an amazing range of natural environments including twelve national parks. There are spectacular mountains, river valleys, large canyons, forests rich with flora and fauna, large and small lakes. Among these lakes, Lake Ohrid, an UNESCO’s Cultural and Natural Heritage site, is home to a very famous fish species, the Koran, renowned for its delicate taste.

This rich nature creates a lot of opportunities for outdoor activities such  as hiking, trekking, climbing, biking in the mountains, as well as rafting, kayaking and canoeing on the numerous rivers and canyons. A special mention must be made of the beautiful Osumi Canyon with its rapids of Class II that can be navigated even by beginners to rafting!

The Albanian coastline stretches for about 400 km along the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea. It’s easy to tell the two seas apart, thanks to their different characteristics. The Adriatic beaches tend to be sandy with shallow waters, making them suitable for family holidays. The bay of Vlora with its pristine islands is one of the most attractive places. Besides the beaches, the Adriatic coast has a few lagoons and natural ecosystems providing wonderful opportunities for those passionate about bird watching. For example the Karavasta Lagoon is home to a great and unique colony of Dalmatian Pelicans (also named Curly Pelicans).

The Ionian coastal line in the southern part of the country, is known for having fascinating beaches with deep and very clean waters. Younger crowds tend to visit the Ionian beaches as the area offers all sorts of activities for those interested in water sports like diving, sailing, water skiing, boating and jet skiing. This part of the coast is called the “Albanian Riviera” and is famous for its 300 days of sun.

Cultural visits

With such a rich history, Albania provides all sorts of historical monuments and charming villages unchanged for generations. There are also three sites included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Butrint, Berat and Gjirokastra.

Burint was a Greek colony, then a Roman one, before being ruled by Byzantines and Venetians before being abandoned in late medieval times. The site shows beautiful traces of all these periods.

Berat is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman city with a great number of old mosques. But the city is protected by an old thirteenth century castle and many Byzantine churches, most of them decorated with unique orthodox wall paintings and precious icons.

As for Gjirokastra, called the “City of Stone”, it is a small ancient mountain village almost hidden by the largest fortress of Albania. The village has many tall stone-built old houses which resemble a small castle and  these houses line charming, sloping cobblestone streets that serve to give the city it’s second nickname of the “City of Thousand Stairs”.

But apart from these three major sites, Albania has many hidden features including ruins of large antique cities like Butrinti and Apollonia, to little chapels lost in the countryside and numerous castles and fortresses.

Accommodation in Albania

a mountainside village church

a mountainside village church

Due to the long isolationist period, you will not find big beach resorts or brand chain hotels. The seaside has few top-end hotels but there are mainly mid-range hotels and family run hotels. And inside the country, there are many smaller units and lot of guesthouses with budget prices. Visitors will discover that hospitality is an old and strong Albanian tradition; “the house is always open for guests” is a practised mantra. In this tradition of hospitality, foreigners are always treated with special respect.

Local restaurants offer a great choice of meals for inexpensive prices and provide fresh, simple and healthy food prepared with the traditional recipes that belong to each part of the country. Albanian cuisine offers a truly unique blend of Mediterranean flavours where East meets West and reflects a great variety of influences, Italian, Greek and Turkish. The mild climate of Albania is favourable for many agricultural products, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and a large range of legumes that are often prepared with fish or mixed with meat.  Spices, lemon and yoghurt are some of the ingredients used everyday to give a true tasty character to Albanian cuisine.

How to get there

From UK, there are direct flights from London to Tirana, the capital of Albania. British Airways has 4 flights a week, and it’s only a 3 hours flight. If you travel in Europe by car, Albania is linked to Italy and Greece by daily ferries. And for those staying in Corfu, don’t miss the opportunity to make a day-trip to Albania, the harbour of Saranda being only a 25minute ferry trip away.  Butrinti is just at 18 kilometres from the city and Gjirokastra, 58.

For  ore information, click here.

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