Here’s a country at the sweet spot between hairy-intrepid-travellers-have-been-there-and-laid-a-path and oh-no-everyone’s-coming.
Albania is a bargain, it’s got lovely beaches and it contains some fascinatingly weird sights. If you’re coming, word of the wise is, make it soon.
It is home to some of the best beaches in Europe
And when we’re talking best, we mean beaches that are seriously under-visited, tucked away and pleasing to the eye. Tour the coast of this little Mediterranean country and you’ll find plenty of turnoffs to nosy down, leading to hidden bays with gentle waters lapping little curls of golden sand.
Borsh beach gives you unspoilt beach beauty by the yard – or, more specifically, 7km of it. It’s remarkable that the only development this gorgeous stretch of sand has attracted so far is a few bars and basic restaurants – but it clearly is a question of ‘so far’. Ksamil Beach, where the sea takes on a turquoise hue, Corfu is visible in the distance and the ancient settlement of Butrint is nearby, is another exquisite spot.
As any fule kno, just avoid high summer if you’re coming to Albania for its beaches.
If Albania isn’t quite the undiscovered, scruffy but beautiful backwater of even 10 years ago, it’s still cheap enough to engender feelings of righteous indignation at how extravagant the rest of the Mediterranean can be.
The difference is especially stark outside the capital, Tirana, where the cost of travel necessities – food and drink, accommodation, transport – seem to belong to another era: one where you could bum around Europe’s less modern parts for months, feeling blissfully disconnected from reality.
You can, as a guide, get by in Albania on a daily budget of £50 – a basic hotel room costs around £25, a bottle of wine £5 and a budget meal £3.
It is still relatively unexplored
While, if you go in peak season, it will be clear that Albania’s charms have been discovered, in the backcountry you’ll still find rustic, medieval scenes by the bucket-load like something from a Bruegel painting .
In the country’s alps – yes, Albania has alps – you stroll through mountain meadows sprayed with pink and purple wildflowers, leading to valley villages with wooden houses where headscarved women harvest the surrounding fields by hand.
If that sounds a bit like a fairytale, it can be of the Grimmer variety. In many of these villages, ‘lock-in towers’ still stand; here, men would hole up for months to escape bloody clan vendettas that some say break out even now.
Amazing food and wine
Tirana (ramshackle, gaudy, popular with muscled, sunglass-wearing types driving flashy SUVs – in general, worth visiting) is one of the world’s most unsung destinations for Italian food. You’ll get a spaghetti marinara in Tirana that’s as delicious but only a fraction of the cost of one from the country’s more famed culinary neighbour a boat ride away over the Adriatic Sea.
Outside Tirana, Albanian fare tends to the hearty and meaty. Succulent spit-roasted lamb is a traditional favourite; also keep an eye out, near freshwater sources, for trout, ideally killed and cooked in front of you.
Wine is reliably good, especially red; the Rilindja label goes down nicely.
Albania’s many recent trials and tribulations – an oddball Stalinist dictatorship followed by post-Communist corruption and widespread poverty – seem to have done little to hamper its people’s talent for hospitality.
Especially in the countryside, don’t be surprised by offers from strangers of food and more kindliness in their home. Others will likely spontaneously show you the way.
Such habits have a name, ‘besa’, meaning ‘honour’ – a tradition, for example, that led to Albanians saving 2,000 Jews from the Nazis.
Lots of hidden gems
Albania has among the world’s quirkier sights. Throughout the country – on beaches, in farmers’ fields, in the middle of a wood – you’ll find distinctive, mushroom-shaped concrete fortifications, big enough to cram in two or three bored soldiers. Crumbling now, they were erected in their thousands by the country’s Communist leader, Enver Hoxha, for fear of invasion and clearly weren’t meant to be easy to remove.
In southern Albania, a lesser-known oddity that should rake in the Instagram likes is Fier’s Ship House. Who cares that this seven-story dwelling complete with portholes, thrusting white bow and deck is miles from the sea? All that’s called for now – and perhaps what its builder was waiting for – is a Biblical-style flood.
Jaw dropping walking opportunities
Rumours of the extraordinary hiking on offer are partly what drew the first adventurous travellers to this country largely closed off to outsiders for much of the 20th century. Venture into the Albanian alps, to the north, and you’ll find the most strikingly located hamlets, still accessible only after a day’s trek from the nearest settlement.
The country has, too, some superb national parks. One of the most secluded is Shebenik Jabllanice, with superb trails and beautifully situated swimming spots. The park hosts one of Europe’s most endangered species, the Balkan lynx; likewise, wolves and brown bear (both species mostly shy of humans) roam the country’s most isolated mountains and forests.
There are plenty of UNESCO World Heritage sites
The ancient city of Butrint is the biggie among Albania’s eight sites either on the UNESCO list or being considered for inclusion. Founded by a son of Troy, said scribes of old, it’s been Greek, Roman and Byzantine and its ruins – prominent among them a well-preserved theatre – tell a fascinating tale of the country’s history.
On the ‘maybe’ list is Bashtova Castle. Built by the Venetians and with chunky stone walls and crenellated round turrets, it looks satisfyingly the way you imagine a medieval castle should.