1. Have the beach to yourself
Think of Albania and you probably don’t think of the beach – but you should. The country has around 476km of coastline lapped by the warm Mediterranean sea. There are lively resort towns like Durrës in the north and Saranda in the south, but it’s the almost-untouched parts that will impress the most.
Hire a car and drive the coastal road from Durrës to Saranda stopping off in any of the remote fishing villages and towns along the way – the likelihood is, you’ll find a stretch of sand all to yourself somewhere.
Image by Journey Jeff's Pix on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
2. Eat superb seafood
Albanian food takes its flavours from a variety influences: the Ottomans, the Greeks, the Italians… But it’s the ocean that gives the country some of its best dishes. All along that gorgeous coastline you’ll find fish and seafood fresh off the boat.
For a perfect antidote to the meaty cuisine further inland, try a shellfish pasta or risotto, or have the catch of the day grilled with the ubiquitous white cheese dip Albania does so well.
© Lottie Gross
3. Hike through alpine countryside
In the far north, only accessible by boat across Lake Koman or via the motorway that runs through neighbouring Kosovo, the valley of Valbona is a picture-perfect wilderness. Thanks to its remote location, tourist numbers here are pretty low, but those that do come are greatly rewarded with panoramic views of the looming mountains and superb hiking in one of the most biodiverse places in the country.
There are hikes of varying lengths for all abilities, but they’ve all got one thing in common: each offers an insight into the seriously rural lifestyle of the locals in Valbona. You’ll walk through orchards, forests and farmsteads that defy gravity on the steep slopes of the Dinaric Alps, and can stop off in one of the valley’s stans (shepherd’s huts) for lunch with a local family.
There’s ample camping and a few excellent lodges along the one road through the valley, but most of the activity centres around Hotel Rilindja, where Alfred and his American wife Catherine have been marking up trails and making their own maps for visitors for years.
© Lottie Gross
4. Explore underground nuclear bunkers
Albania is often defined by its relatively recent affair with communism: specifically the reign of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. From 1944–85 he ruled the country with a heavy hand and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of politicians, academics and civilians who were persecuted as “enemies of the people” due to their political beliefs.
While Albania is very much moving on from some of its hardest times, small concrete bunkers all over the country serve as a reminder of that dark past, and a few larger structures remain.
Bunk’Art, in the capital Tirana, is a 106-room nuclear bunker turned museum and art gallery. Built by the military to house the dictator and his highest ranking officials in the event of an attack, today there’s a permanent exhibition on the Communist period, plus changing art exhibitions and a theatre showing films.
A similar but far more eerie bunker lies beneath the picturesque city of Gjirokastra – untouched for decades, it’s now just a damp warren of rooms suitable only for the brave.
© Lottie Gross