The Albanian Riviera, the Albanian Alps, medieval castles, Ottoman mosques, Orthodox churches, Mediterranean villages, ancient Roman cities. Want more? How about beach resorts, mountain ski slopes, cities with vibrant nightlife and a captivating history? Albania has all these and at a fraction of the cost you find elsewhere in Europe, it is one of the most underrated places you can travel to.
Not many tourists go to Albania. The country’s relative anonymity as a travel destination is due to its socialist past. Albania opened up to the rest of the world only recently after decades of isolation by the communist regime that ran the country for almost half a century.
I arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania without much expectation. It was the last leg of my trip through the Balkans, and I thought there would be little of interest to see here. How wrong I was.
Tirana is a bustling, lively city of contrasts, displaying aspects of the country’s socialist and Ottoman past. You can find drab, grey utilitarian buildings side-by-side with patriotic murals loudly proclaiming Albanian identity and independence. There are bustling roadside open-air markets, crumbling buildings and green open spaces. The centre of the city is Skanderbeg Square, a large boulevard in the shape of a roundabout named after the 15th century Albanian national hero who fought against the Ottoman invasion. A statue of him astride a horse is found in the middle of the square, alongside the red double-headed eagle flag of Albania.
In the southern part of Tirana, just across the river, is more evidence of its communist past. A pyramid had been built in the city centre, originally as a museum to Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania who ruled for 44 years. He famously declared Albania the world’s first atheist state. After the downfall of communism, the pyramid was abandoned and today is a graffiti-laden disused landmark.
Beyond the pyramid, there is an upmarket section of the city known as Blloku. Formerly this was the residential district of the elite of the communist regime, including Enver Hoxha. Until the fall of the regime in 1991, the public was not allowed entry to this area. Today however, it is a colourful section of town with trendy cafes, restaurants and shopping boutiques. I wandered around this area with two friends I met, and we had coffee in the Sky Tower Bar, a rotating restaurant on the 17th floor which allowed for panoramic 360-degree views of Tirana. Considering it was one of the fancier places to go to in town, the prices were very reasonable.
But Albania is not just the chaos and bustle of Tirana. To the north of the capital lie the Albanian Alps, part of the mountain range that runs through the Balkans. This is where one could go hiking and skiing. However, I decided to go south instead, heading for the three UNESCO listed sites in Albania. First stop, Berat.
Berat is known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows”. And it was easy to see why. As soon as my bus arrived in town, I was greeted by multi-windowed Ottoman-era houses that were piled up against the slope of a hill. For over 400 years, Albania came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and today, there are many Ottoman houses built in the local style dotting the Albanian countryside. However, only here in Berat were they arranged in such a visually arresting manner.
A medieval citadel caps the hilltop. What is amazing is that within the medieval citadel is a fully lived-in neighbourhood. Behind crumbling, white-washed fortress walls, there are homes fronted by cars in garages and children playing kick-ball. There are also mosques and churches, including one Orthodox church that has been converted into a museum of Christian iconography.
Along with Berat, Gjirokastër is the other major Ottoman-influenced draw in central Albania. If Berat was the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’, then Gjirokastër is the ‘City of Stone’. The old town of Gjirokastër is located high up halfway along the slopes of a plateau. Climbing up to the town involves following steep cobblestoned pathways until you reach the stone houses of Gjirokastër. These multi-storeyed houses are constructed out of stone, and their most defining feature are the shale roofs that cover every single house, giving rise to the town’s nickname.
From the top of Gjirokastër Castle, I could see down below to the stone roofs that panned out as far as the eye can see. The castle, itself located on the plateau, is a museum with remains of WWII cannons, tanks and even a plane. Within the castle, I wandered around the ramparts, abandoned rooms and marvelled at the still intact clock tower. Every five years, Gjirokastër Castle hosts the Albanian Folklore Festival, where traditional Albanian folk singing and dancing takes place. The next festival is scheduled for 2014.
The city of Sarandë sits on the southern coastline of Albania, known as the Albanian Riviera. With a mediterranean climate, numerous beaches and cheap seafood, it is definitely a place to relax on a beach holiday.
The highlight of Sarandë for me however is the nearby ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Butrint. Situated on an island linked to the mainland by a peninsula, the ruins of Butrint comprise all the structures normally found in a Roman city: a Roman theatre, an agora, a basilica, Roman baths and residential homes. Additionally, there were also later structures like Venetian defence towers, built to defend against Ottoman incursions. All these were within the Butrint National Park, a protected wetlands area. It was surreal walking around the ruins by myself. In the trees around me I could hear wild birds. I would walk along a path through the forest, and when the trees parted before me there would be more ruins. To me, it was like walking through the wetlands in Pulau Ubin’s Chek Jawa and suddenly seeing old Roman buildings.
I only managed six days in Albania, which is not enough to see everything the country has to offer. With so many things to see and do, tourists are slowly beginning to discover this underrated gem of a country. It is only a matter of time until Albania loses its ‘under the radar’ status, opening its doors to independent travellers and holidaymakers alike.
Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, and British Airways offer flights (with one stopover) from Singapore to Tirana. By land, there are buses from neighbouring Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece. By sea, ferries from the Greek island of Corfu go to Sarandë.
■ Albania is visa free for Singaporeans for up to 90 days. If travelling in the region, it is a good idea to include nearby Kosovo and Macedonia in your itinerary. Both countries have significant ethnic Albanian populations and would allow you to better understand the culture and history of the region.
■ The currency is the Albanian lekë. Outside the country it is difficult to exchange your lekë so spend your remaining money before you leave.
■ Visit Ksamil village, located between Sarandë and Butrint for clear blue beaches and chance to swim from island to island.