Beyond vague recollections of its Communist past, few travellers know much about Albania. Its rippling mountains and pristine beaches, lands littered with historical Roman ruins and pretty Ottoman towns remain largely undiscovered. Most never see the alluring azure lakes or the picturesque valleys occupied by immensely hospitable locals, and instead bypass the country for its far more popular neighbours. Following decades of isolationist rule, this rugged land still doesn’t seem to fit into the grand continental jigsaw, with distinctly exotic notes emanating from its language, customs and cuisine. But it’s those idiosyncrasies that make it such an intriguing and rewarding corner of Europe begging to be explored.
Most travellers make a beeline for the capital, Tirana, a buzzing city with a mishmash of garishly painted buildings, traditional restaurants and trendy bars. However, those seeking to take Albania’s true pulse should head to the mountainous hinterlands, particularly sleepy hillside towns of Berat and Gjirokastra – both essentially open-air museums of life in Ottoman times. Keen hikers will want to explore the valley of Valbona, where karst limestone mountains harbour astonishing biodiversity, and as the snowcapped peaks of the interior drop down to the ocean, the immaculate beaches along the Ionian coastline are among the Mediterranean’s least developed sands.
Cross into Albania by land or sea, and you’ll soon notice clutches of grey, dome-like structures dotting the countryside. Under Hoxha’s rule, these bunkers were scattered around the country in tremendous numbers – estimates run as high as 750,000, which would have meant that there was more than one for every four Albanians. These were no family shelters, as might be expected, but strategic positions to which every able-bodied man was expected to head, weapon in hand, at the onset of war. Though Western spies did indeed make attempts to infiltrate the country, the bunkers were never really put to the test. Almost impossible to shift, they’re now a semi-permanent part of Albanian life; young, privacy-seeking couples occasionally put them to interesting use, while in 2011 a festival "Bunker Fest" was launched in celebration of them.
Top image: The Skanderbeg Museum in Kruje, Albania © Mitzo/Shutterstock
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