BETA: Albania

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Due to it being closed to outsiders until the latter half of the 20th century, Albania has remained a quasi-enigma of Europe. But since its reopening to the rest of the world people have slowly started to realize that this small, stunning country has plenty to offer travelers of every type. With gorgeous mountain scenery, crumbling castles, a boisterous capital city and absolutely dreamy beaches, Albania is the perfect spot to combine outdoor adventure with cultural immersion. Below you will find all the necessary facts about the country, as well as some interesting stats and of course, all the best adventures to be had.


| Fast Facts


\\ The country is officially known as the Republic of Albania.


\\ It is located in Southeastern Europe, on the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea, which sit within the Mediterranean Sea. Albania shares land borders with Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, North Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south. It also has maritime borders with Greece, Montenegro and Italy to the west.


\\ The capital, and largest city, is Tirana - population: 557,422. Note: Tirana is among the wettest and sunniest cities in Europe, with 2,544 hours of sun per year.


\\ Albania has been inhabited by numerous civilizations throughout its history. These include the Illyrians, Thracians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. After the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars, the modern nation-state of Albania declared independence in 1912. But in the 20th century, the Kingdom of Albania was invaded by Italy. They helped form Greater Albania, which eventually became a protectorate of Nazi Germany.


\\ Dictator Enver Hoxha formed the People's Socialist Republic of Albania after World War II. His form of communism (see more below) became known as Hoxhaism. The Revolutions of 1991 concluded the fall of communism in Albania and eventually the establishment of the current Republic of Albania.


\\ The highest mountain in the country, Mount Korab, is not entirely Albanian. In fact, it is shared with neighboring North Macedonia (where it is also the country’s highest peak). Mount Korab sits at 2,764 meters high (or roughly 9,068 feet). Also, the country itself is 70% mountains.


All facts from here.

| Fun Facts


\\ There are over 173,000 bunkers scattered throughout the country (some say up to 750,000). These bunkers were built by the former dictator, Enver Hoxha, as defensive structures in case of invasion by enemy governments which, at that time, were pretty much any other country. They were designed to withstand atomic and chemical attacks and sometimes built underground. Though they were never used, today you can still spot them throughout the country (and even in the capital of Tirana).


\\ Albanians don’t call their country Albania. Instead, they use the name for the nation in their mother tongue: Shqiperi. This roughly translates to “The Land of Eagles” hence the eagle insignia on the flag.

\\ There were only 7,000 cars (for a population of 3 million) in 1991. This was during the time of communist rule, so private car ownership was banned. Therefore, only high-ranking government officials were allowed to own their own car. The rest of the population used bikes or horse-drawn carriages(!). Today almost everyone owns a car - with many of them being Mercedes.

\\ There are no McDonalds in the country. While you can find McDonald’s in almost every other country in the world, you will not see one in the entire country of Albania. But if you are worried about not finding any fast food in the country there is no need: while there are no McDonald’s, there are Domino’s Pizza and KFC. Note: nearby Montenegro is also one of the few countries without McDonald’s.


\\ Albania was the first country to be declared an atheist state in 1967 under the rule of Dictator Enver Hoxha. This was all due to Hoxha’s obsession with his own very strict line of communism which he took to the extreme and radicalized with time. Hoxha’s form was so strict that it even broke ties with other Communist superpowers, like the USSR, China and Yugoslavia (Hoxha thought they were not communist enough). As part of his move to take the country to the next level of communism, he abolished all religions and destroyed several religious buildings. Sadly, today very few historic religious buildings exist in the country.


\\ Albania has some of the least developed Riviera's on the entire European continent. The country has some truly stunning beaches along its coast, which extends from Ksamil in the south to Vlore in the north with various coastal towns in between. Unlike the French Riviera, which is not only expensive but also quite glamorous, the Albanian Riviera is definitely more no-frills (and adventurous :).


\\ In the evenings, the locals really like to go out for a walk. Known as xhiro, this activity is an official evening walk where every resident comes out to stretch their legs and catch up with their neighbors. In many towns, the roads actually close to cars for certain hours. Apartment blocks empty and everyone gathers at various places, walking and talking until nightfall.


\\ You are likely to notice a large number of scarecrows in various (sometimes odd) places throughout the country. This is due to the fact that Albanians believe that a scarecrow placed on a home or other building while it is under construction will ward off envy from the neighbors. Sometimes you’ll also see a teddy bear serving the same purpose. The oddest part though, is that the scarecrow or the teddy bear will be impaled on a rod or hung by a rope like a noose. Some say that these talismans will bring good luck.


\\ The heroine of Albania is Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa. Born in Skopje, which is now a part of Macedonia, Mother Teresa is one of the most beloved religious figures of the 20th century. She is also the only Albanian to win a Nobel Prize.


Fun facts from here and here.



| Adventures


Although Albania is a relatively small country, its location is top-notch. Nestled on the shores of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas; Albania is crossed by several different mountain ranges, such as the Albanian Alps, the Pindus Mountains, and the Skanderbeg Mountains. Additionally, you’ll also find extraordinary lakes, wild rivers, expansive wetlands, and forested valleys - all just waiting to be explored.


National Parks

There are 15 national parks spread throughout the country, each offering its own adventures. Below are a couple of the best ones:


\\ Shebenik-Jabblanicë National Park: because of its remote location and diverse biomes, this park is a must-visit for wildlife photographers. Here you can still find many large mammals, including brown bears, Balkan lynx, gray wolves, and European otters.


\\ Divjakë-Karavasta National Park: home to the largest wetland in the entire country, and one of the largest in the whole Mediterranean region, this park is a great one for birdwatching. You can also explore various other unique biomes like salt marshes, floodplains, estuaries, sand dunes, and coastal meadows - each with their own unique plants and animals.


\\ Fir Of Hotovë-Dangelli National Park: the largest national park in Albania, Fir of Hotove-Dangelli is named after the hotova fir - which you will find throughout the park. This is a great national park to hike around, and especially to backpack through. Another popular activity is rafting through Langarica Canyon.


\\ Butrint National Park: arguably the most popular park in the entire Albania national park system, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to one of the greatest archaeological sites in the Balkan region - the historic city of Butrint. The park contains ruins, structures, and artifacts from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, including a Roman theater, an ancient baptistery, a large basilica, city walls, and two separate castles. Additionally, this ancient city lies in a wooded environment that contains waterways and lakes of enormous ecological importance.


Read about the other national parks in Albania here.


Hike the Peaks of the Balkans Trail

The most famous, and perhaps the most beautiful hiking trail in Albania takes you from the city of Valbona to the city of Theth, right through the Accursed Mountains. This is a great way to experience and admire one of the most stunning landscapes in the entire Balkan Peninsula: the Albanian Alps. The hike is so named because it also crosses over into the neighboring countries of Kosovo and Montenegro while following an old mule track. In total, the hike is almost 20 kilometers long and can be completed in one day (on average it takes about 5-8 hours).


In fact, if you are looking for more outdoor adventures consider basing yourself in the town of Theth. From here you can also hike to the Blue Eye of Theth (a stunning natural pool) and Grunas Canyon.


Peshkopi

Another great spot to base yourself for a bit is Peshkopi, a town located near the border of Macedonia. While the town is so-so, the reason to seek it out is the high abundance of hiking paths located right near town. If you want to head into the mountains and get away from people - go here. But when hiking, be prepared to walk for kilometers without seeing a single human being. Another huge plus, besides the stunning natural beauty, are the hot springs located around the area.


Beaches

As mentioned previously, Albania has some truly stunning beaches. A great spot to start is in the town of Sarandë. A couple of the best beaches to visit in that area are Bora Bora and Lori beach, both near the small town of Karande (just south of Sarandë) as well as Pasqyrave or Mirror Beach. Bora Bora and Lori Beach do get popular in the summer, so consider visiting more in the shoulder seasons (June and September). Pasqyrave is way less touristy and a bit more of an adventure to reach: start by going up a small, steep gravel road up a hill side (there aren't signs) and then on the other side of the hill you will find the beach.


Other beaches worth exploring are Borsch Beach, the longest beach in the whole country at 7 kilometers, Porto Palermo, which is just a bit further north of Borsch and has a medieval castle, and Gjipe Beach, which is even further north of Porto Palermo and requires either a boat hire or a 30-minute hike down. Learn about more Albanian beaches here.


Similarly, while you are down along the coast, consider exploring Llogara Pass, the most famous pass in the country. To get there, head out to Llogara National Park (where you can also find lots of hiking trails), which is located just under an hour north of the town of Himare or just over 45 minutes from Gjipe Beach.


Find more information found here.

| More Information


History and culture of Albania: https://www.britannica.com/place/Albania

More information on things to do and see in Albania: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/albania

First-hand account of traveling in Albania: https://www.adventurouskate.com/whats-it-like-to-travel-in-albania/