© All Rights Reserved Patrick H.
A communist state for half a century until the early nineties, Albania's move away from Communism has been one charged with difficulty, as it continues to move forward. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean, on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Albania is fast becoming one of the world's most interesting getaways. Still relatively unspoiled by globalization, tourists will notice an inspiring mixture of civilizations and cultures - making this European country truly unique.
Nestled in between Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic from Italy, Albania boasts blue and turquoise seas, beautiful beaches, snow peaked mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests. As well as stunning nature, Albanians themselves are famous for their hospitality, and tourists are welcomed with heart-warming generosity.
Albanian history and culture is fascinating. Butrint, one of the world's archeological wonders - and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - in the south of Albania provides a glimpse of Mediterranean civilization from the Bronze Age through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods - all atop a cliff overlooking Corfu. It's not to be missed!
Home of both Mother Theresa and the great 15th century hero Skanderbeg, Albania today offers not only beach and mountain holidays, but also a vibrant city life, a relaxing outdoor cafe culture and you will see that it's quickly evolving in a myriad of directions.
The first recorded inhabitants in the territory of Albania were the Illyrians, an Indo-European people that inhabited the area corresponding to northern and central Albania. Beginning in the 8th century BC, Greek colonies were established on the Illyrian coast. The most important were Apollonia, Avlona (modern-day Vlorë), Epidamnos (modern-day Durrës), and Lissus (modern-day Lezhë). The rediscovered Greek city of Buthrotum (modern-day Butrint), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is probably more significant today than it was when Julius Caesar used it as a provisions depot for his troops during his campaigns in the 1st century BC.
When the Roman Empire was divided into East and West in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. Beginning in the first decades of Byzantine rule (until 461), the region suffered devastating raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the region was overrun by the Slavs. The territory of Albania would remain under Byzantine and Bulgarian rule until the 14th century, when the Ottoman Turks began to make incursions into the Empire.
The territorial nucleus of the Albanian state forms in the Middle Ages, as the Principality of Arbër and the Kingdom of Albania. The first records of the Albanian people as a distinct ethnicity also date to this period. The area was conquered in the 15th century by the Ottoman Empire and remained under Ottoman control as part of the Rumelia province until 1912, when the first independent Albanian state was declared. The formation of an Albanian national consciousness dates to the later 19th century and is part of the larger phenomenon of rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire. A short-lived monarchy (1914-1925) was succeeded by an even shorter-lived first Albanian Republic (1925-1928), to be replaced by another monarchy (1928-1939), which was conquered into Fascist Italy during World War II. After the collapse of the Axis powers, Albania became a communist state, the Socialist People's Republic of Albania, which for the most part of its duration was dominated by Enver Hoxha. Albania became an ally of the Soviet Union, but this came to an end in 1960 over the advent of de-Stalinization. A strong political alliance with China followed, leading to several billion dollars in aid, which was curtailed after 1974. China cut off aid in 1978 when Albania attacked its policies after the death of the Chinese ruler Mao Zedong. Enver Hoxha died on 11 April 1985. Eventually the new regime introduced some liberalization, and granting the freedom to travel abroad in 1990. The new government made efforts to improve ties with the outside world.
The communist regime collapsed in 1990, and the Republic of Albania was founded in 1991 and the former communist party was routed in elections March 1992, amid economic collapse and social unrest. Further crisis during the 1990s, peaking in the 1997 Lottery Uprising, led to mass emigration of Albanians, mostly to Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Germany and to North America during the 1990s. Albania became a full member of NATO in 2009. The country is applying to join the European Union.
Albania shares international borders with Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. In the east it borders the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. These seas are divided by the street of Otranto, named after the town in Italy which lies 72 kilometres from the coast of Albania. Albania has a total area of 28,748 square kilometers. It lies between latitudes 39° and 43° N, and mostly between longitudes 19° and 21° E (a small area lies east of 21°). Albania's coastline length is 476 kilometres and extends along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. The lowlands of the west face the Adriatic Sea. The 70% of the country that is mountainous is rugged and often inaccessible from the outside. The highest mountain is Korab situated in the district of Dibër, reaching up to 2,753 metres. The climate on the coast is typically Mediterranean with mild, wet winters and warm, sunny, and rather dry summers. Inland conditions vary depending on altitude, but the higher areas above 1,500 metresare rather cold and frequently snowy in winter; here cold conditions with snow may linger into spring. The three largest and deepest tectonic lakes of the Balkan Peninsula are partly located in Albania. Lake Shkodër in the country's northwest has a surface which can vary between 370 km2 and 530 km2, out of which one third belongs to Albania and rest to Montenegro. The Albanian shoreline of the lake is 57 kilometres. Ohrid Lake is situated in the country's southeast and is shared between Albania and Republic of Macedonia. It has a maximal depth of 289 metres and a variety of unique flora and fauna can be found there, including "living fossils" and many endemic species. There is also Butrinti Lake which is a small tectonic lake.
Butrint is one of the cultural highlights of Albania and on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is located in the south of the country and can be visited from Sarandë as a day trip. It used to be a city throughout Greek, Roman, bishopric and Byzantine periods and was abandoned during the Middle Ages perhaps due to the marsh surrounding and subsequently malaria epidemic. It had been inhabited since prehistoric times. The present archaeological site is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city’s development. Butrint can even be visited as a day trip from the Greek Island of Corfu, meaning extra crowds during the summer months.
Another UNESCO site, the Museum-City of Gjirokastër is located the Drinos River valley in southern Albania. It is a fine, but rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate. The 13th-century citadel is the main feature in the town with its typical tower houses, which have a tall basement, a first floor for use in the cold season, and a second floor for the warm season. The castle has an exhibit of Enver Hoxha's army's cannons and other features include the Ethnographic Museum, the Old Bazaar and the nearby old city of Antigonea.
Durrës is one of the oldest cities in Albania and is the major port city of the country. The city has been flooded three times and the current one is built on top of the previous two. There are some fantastic sites as well including the largest amphitheater in the Balkans. Although there are some beaches and new hotels are being built all the time, hoping to see some tourists mainly from Italy, it is not a dream destination to spend your holiday. That said, it is a nice and convenient place to travel on your way from Italy to the Balkan region and vice versa. Boats leave for Bari daily.
Parts of Albania, like other countries in the region, have a Mediterranean climate with generally warm and dry summers and mild, wet winters. Summer lasts from May until early October, with temperatures around 30 °C, sometimes close to 40 °C on the hottest days. Nights are around 20 °C at the coastline, but are cooler more inland and in the higher parts of the country. Winter is from December to March, with coastal areas seeing temperatures between 10 °C and 15 °C, but inland areas can be much colder and the higher areas can have some snow. Although summers are relatively dry, from November to May rainfall increases and Albania is wetter compared to many other countries in the Mediterranean region.
Tirana International Airport (also known as Rinas airport or Mother Teresa airport) is located 25 km north-west of Tirana. There are regular connections with Italy, Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, England, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. Albanian Airlines is the national carrier. Significant upgrades, including a new passenger terminal, were completed in March 2007 and the airport now describes itself as 'meeting international standards'. Taxis can take you to and from the airport for about 2500 Lek (roughly €20) each way. The journey is 30-45 minutes depending on traffic. Rinas Express operates an hourly bus service (6am-6pm) between the Airport and the National Museum in the centre of Tirana. The one-way fare is 250 Lek.
You can drive into Albania from Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia or Greece. You need all the proper documentation, insurance and possibly a visa though regulations have become better. Some companies won't cover insurance for Albania though, so check things properly or you will have problems when you are involved in an accident.
To Greece, there are border crossings between Korça and Florina at Kapshtica/Krystallopigi, between Ioannina and Gjirokastra at Kakavija/Kakavia, between Ioannina and Përmeti, and north of the Greek port of Igoumenitsa at Konispoli/Sagiada.
There are four border crossings with Macedonia, the two most used are south and north of Lake Ohrid (via Pogradec or directly east from Elbasan).
Montenegro has two border crossings, the direct one to Podgorica is not in a good condition, the one from Shkodra is.
Bus services link Tirana to Tetovo (Macedonia), Pristina (Kosovo), Athens (Greece), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Istanbul (Turkey). To Prishtina, there are three daily buses taking 10 hours. Sofia is about 17 hours away.
To Ohrid in Macedonia, you will have to cross on foot from Pogradec (after taking a taxi to the border) and get an onward bus to Ohrid (45 minutes), or alternatively take a daily bus to Struga, the first city on Macedonian side of the border, which has frequent shared taxi connections to Ohrid. There is a minibus between Shkodra and Ulcinj in Montenegro which departs Shkodra at 4pm from the main square. The cost is €5 (payable in euros only), or a taxi to the border will cost €10. A taxi all the way to Ulcinj is €20. Be prepared to wait at the border.
Albania's port cities of Durrës, Vlora, Shen Gjini and Saranda link the country to Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. Ionian Cruises has daily hydrofoils between Corfu and Saranda in Albania.
Ferry operators include Ventouris between Bari, Greece and Durres as well as Agoudimos Lines between Brindisi and Vlore.
There are no domestic flights in Albania.
Durres, Tirana, Shkodra, Fier, Ballsh, Vlora and Pogradec all have railway stations and most trains terminate or originate in Tirana. Still, services are infrequent and slow and carriages are downright dirty sometimes, with broken windows being the rule rather than the exception. Tirana to Durres is just about an hour and if you really want to do a train trip in Albania, make it this short one. Otherwise, buses are much faster.
Although until recently there were only a few good roads, the road network is being upgraded at a rapid pace. Secondary roads are still in a rather deteriorated shape though. Other roads are winding mountain roads, but generally don't require a 4wd. You can rent cars and relatively high prices from most international firms at the international airport or downtown in Tirana. Renting a taxi for a day or so sometimes is just as expensive and save you the hassle of driving. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence and international driving permit.
Buses and minibuses (called 'furgons') ply most routes in the country and there are frequent services to the main cities and towns, including Tirana, Durres, Sarande, Shkodra, Vlora, Fier and Pogradec. They are reliable, cheap and comfortable modes of transport and often the best way to get around from point A to point B the fastest.
The only domestic ferry journey is the Komani to Fierza boat.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Albania without a visa: Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania *, Luxemburg *, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Ukraine.
States, which citizens may enter without visas due to their visa liberalization with Schengen area: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Brunei, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mauritius, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis, Uruguay, Venezuela, Macao (China). For staying more than 90 days within the period of six months, they need to get visa type D.
There is a €1 road tax for the first 60 days of your stay. For every additional day it is €1 per day. Be sure to receive a receipt and keep it with you, as guards may request it upon exiting the country as proof of payment. The former €10 entrance fee per person has been abolished. The Albania guards are very nice and do their best to help out and will, on occasion, allow fees to be paid in dollars or will forget to charge you. It's worth making sure you've got the Euros on you as the customs officers at Mother Teresa airport don't give change.
See also: Money Matters
The currency of Albania is the Albanian Lek (ISO code: ALL) (plural Lekë). Albanian banknotes are in denominations of 100, 200, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 lekë, while coins come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 lekë.
Albanians have a very unique language, taking up its own branch of the Indo-European language family. It doesn't compare easily to any other language and as a result, it is very hard to understand for an outsider. There are two main spoken dialects of Albanian, southern Tosk and northern Gheg, and they are mutually intelligible.
Italian is probably the most useful other language to know as a traveller, as many Albanians have learned to speak it by working in Italy or through Italian broadcasts on television. Many Albanians are multilingual, often able to speak 3 or 4 languages with varying levels of fluency. Consequently, it is possible to get by in English, Greek or French. Russian is understood to some degree by some of the older generation, as they were taught it in school when they were younger.
Though not specifically language related, it is well worth pointing out an interesting difference in Albanian custom. Nodding means 'no' in Albania and shaking your head means 'yes'. Considering you often have to resort to waving your arms around and using physical communications due to language barriers, this can become exceedingly confusing.
Restaurants are very easy to find. Albania, like the Balkans in general, has a primarily Turkish influence in its cuisine. This influence stems from over 400 years of Ottoman rule in the region. Recent influences after the fall of communism in the early 1990s have been from Italy and Western Europe in general. Most of what is available in neighbouring countries such as Greece and Italy will be available in Albania, particularly in the larger cities.
A must try when visiting Albania is the Koran fish in the city of Pogradec near the city of Korca.
Other dishes include:
Inside the cities, hotels are abundant and prices per night start as low as €15. Hotels are usually clean and their staff in major cities generally speak English and/or Italian. Outside the big cities, hotels are less common, but in places like Gjirokastra can be excellent value. If, for any reason, you find nowhere to sleep, the Albanian people have always been known for their hospitality, and will treat you like royalty as you stay with them.
The preferred alcoholic hard drink is raki that is locally produced in small towns as well as in many homes in the countryside; in some instances you may run across men washing down breakfast with a few shots. Try the mulberry rakia - Albanians are the only people in the world that produce this drink with mulberry and plum, and its very delicious, especially around Gjirokaster. The number of homemade beers, wines and raki is as varied as the population itself; the quality of these drinks is as varied as the quantity available. Non-alcoholic drinks range from the well-known international and regional soft drink brands to the locally produced ones. You can find any type of soft drink in Albania, as well as natural mineral water, energy drinks, etc. Qafshtama water is considered the best water and found in much of the country. Boza, a popular sweet drink made from maize (corn) and wheat is a traditional Albanian drink, and Albanians have been known as the best boza makers in the world.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Albania. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Albania) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Albania. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against typhoid as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Take the usual precautions. Foreigners are generally not targeted by the local crime scene, though pickpocketings do occur.
Almost every city or town in Albania has public internet access, usually available at an Internet cafe. Some hotels, especially in Tirana, have broadband connections in the guest rooms; a few have Wi-Fi.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Albania is: 355. To make an international call from Albania, the code is: 00.
Coverage of cell phones is good, except in the most remote, mountainous areas.
Post Ashqiptare is the national postal service of Albania and services have been getting more reliable and faster over the years. Opening times of post offices are mostly between 8:00am and 5:00pm Monday to Friday and on Saturday mornings, although the bigger ones might keep slightly longer hours, while in small towns there might be shorter hours or a lunch break. For sending things other than postcards and letters or anything of value, you might consider using a private company like UPS, TNT, FedEx or DHL.
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By the time or writing I have lived for two years in Albania, spending one almost exclusively traveling, another four month during winter as the first foreigners in history in the cut-off mountain village Theth.
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