Albania: Go Now! (9/2018) Perfect blue water, amazing beaches, mountains, food and great people.

Have you heard much about Albania?  Ever?  Likely the answer is no.  I’m about to tell you the reasons you should make plans to get to know more about Albania and soon!

My summer road trip through France and Italy was amazing but it felt like I was 100% “On the beaten path”. I found a couple of hidden gems but also visited a lot of the tried and true spots which were jam packed with people.  I decided I needed something different.  I typed into the Google machine something like “Best place in Europe that no tourists go” and – voila – Albania.

accursed-mountains
You can see why they might call this “The Accursed Mountains”. Here in Northern Albania near Theth

In case you aren’t aware Albania is North of Greece on the Adriatic sea.  It is blessed with a gorgeous coastline with perfect beaches, amazingly clear turquoise water and mountains which climb dramatically up from the sea.    The Northern part of Albania has a dramatic mountain range known as “The Accursed Mountains” (The Albanian Alps) which form the natural border with Montenegro and Kosovo.

empty-beach
There are many empty beaches like this in Albania. It seems like most people like the touristic ones that have services and there are plenty of those but it’s also not hard to find this type if you have a car. (near Porto Polermo)

The more I read the more interested and excited I got.   I read about very friendly people (over and over), excellent food, interesting history, gorgeous mountains and hikes, amazing beaches, super low cost and incredibly uncrowded – all of it

Sold!  I booked my flight from Spain for 3 weeks before I even started making any other plans.

Did I find what was “advertised”?   Almost all of it except for the last piece (“incredibly uncrowded”) which is why I recommend you try to get to this amazing country sooner, not later.

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Another gorgeous beach. The water is amazingly clear.

Let me explain that without question, Albania and all of the amazing things it has to offer is still relatively uncrowded but without question there are crowds in the most beautiful parts.  Specifically, places which I read about in blogs less than a year old where the blogger wrote something like “Almost no one was at this amazing place and it was summer” were jam packed with people and tour buses.   Things are changing quickly in Albania.

blue-eye-2.jog
The “Blue Eye” is gorgeous. Less than a year ago you could supposedly visit with a handful of people. Today there are hundreds.

To understand why such an amazing place isn’t on the tourist track all you need is a brief explanation of the history from last century.  After WWII a communist dictator named Enver Hoxa gained control of Albania and isolated it from the world.  He was paranoid and didn’t trust Russia any more than he trusted Europe.  No one could leave or come in. It was a lot like North Korea is today until he died in 1992.    So crazy that he built bomb shelter bunkers all around the country – over 100,000 of them – as his main project in the 80’s.  I think it’s the only place in the world where the museum is within a full nuclear bomb shelter made to support a command center.  A must visit  should you go.

Bunkart-museum
The entrance to a huge underground bomb proof bunker that in now a history museum in Tirana. The area underground goes below all of the buildings you see and further and it’s all a museum now

After he died the country embraced capitalism but it wasn’t without growing pains and until around 2010 the problems outweighed the good in terms of attracting tourists.

Fast forward 2018 and the problems are gone  The roads are getting better by the day and all forms of guest houses, agencies, tours, hotels, restaurants and all of it are 100% there.

Tirana
The funky painted buildings of Tirana

And now, quickly, the great news and the greatness of Albania!   After 50 countries I offer that Albania has the most genuinely friendly population toward tourists of anywhere I have visited.  There is a genuine interest in making sure that you as a tourist feels welcome and it’s more than anywhere I have ever been.

My best story – in the capital I took a public bus filled with locals going to work. I was headed to a museum that was about 1km past the last actual bus stop.  I had planned to walk of course the rest.  The bus driver spoke English and knew where I was headed when I got on the bus.   At the last stop he told me not to exit but just to wait.  He drove the city bus with me on it off route and dropped me at the door of the museum.   First ever in all of my travels!

His action was easy to explain and sort of jaw dropping as a story but his sentiment was everywhere.  Every restaurant they really wanted to know how I liked the food, totally sincerely.  They just want to know I enjoyed it.  Every meal.  Owners of guest houses bent over backwards to help and make sure that I had everything.  People I met on the street wanted to find out about me, where I was from and if I liked Albania.

20180905_202444
Cafe culture in Tirana, everyone is out dining, every night! Outdoor eating and pride and care in the craft.

Oh, it is incredibly safe.   Statistically it’s one of the safest countries in Europe.  The irony is that apparently a good number of those who fled in the 90’s got involved with crime overseas.   This is a quote from WorldNomads Insurance – “Albania’s Bad Reputation. Albania has an unfortunate reputation in Europe as a crime-ridden nation. Something to do with the large number of migrants who left Albania in the 1990s and led a life of crime overseas…. putations are hard things to shake, because ironically it’s very safe to travel inAlbania.”

Towards the cost of things it’s incredibly affordable.  I stayed in beautiful modern guesthouses and apartments and never paid more than $35 Euros a night for four star quality.

As usual I am getting long winded so I will give a quick boots-on-the ground what you will see and then load it up with photos.

Tirana is the capital city and the place to find about the history of the country.   As sad as the history is I feel like it’s important to view into what can happen with a crazed dictator.  To visit a country like this the museums with give you a better appreciation of what is around.   Aside from that the cafe and restaurant culture is mind blowing.  People eat out all of the time and modern restaurants serving traditional food and the food is excellent.  It’s a hybrid of great Italian and serious Slavic grilling and because of the proximity to the coast, fresh fish is abundant and excellent.  BTW – this is regarding the entire country.  The food is cheap, fresh, unique and delicious! Meal with salad, soda and octopus below?  $1020180911_145912

I think that the biggest surprise to me was that Albania doesn’t seem to be like a “developing” country.   In the cities everything is modern and clean and in many ways it feels like other European countries until you get out on the road and realize that it is still very rugged, in many places extremely poor and broken down but then 20 km later it’s back to feeling like Europe again.

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Does it look wonderful and peaceful? It is 🙂 On another nearly deserted beach but with a beautiful restaurant,

I need to cut myself short but I want to wrap up with a speed burst of great reasons to go to Albania which will sort of coincide with the photos gallery below.  Here goes!

Reasonably easy driving in cheap rentals will allow you to reach magical medieval cities built below and at the sides of castles on hilltops and beachfronts as well as stunning mountain ranges both north and south with water so clear it is hard to imagine.  There are two “blue holes” in the country – massive fresh water springs which dump out crystal clear water by the thousands of liters all day long.  The beaches seem to last forever – take your pick of Riviera style hangouts with cabana service or hike a little to a more secluded spot.  Don’t skip out on hiking in breathtaking mountains with tiny villages that still have all of the local charm you can possibly imagine and more of that unbelievably blue fresh water found in other parts of the country.

Last little bit, there is so much in this small-ish country to do that I could stay for three weeks but I decided to take a drive to Montenegro to the North for one week of my three and didn’t regret it.  More on that later but you can fit the two experiences together if you get the chance and it’s pretty easy.

I’ll stop, I can’t say enough good about this amazing country.  Go now!!!!   Watch this lovely drone moment I captured as Ksamil beach –

 

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