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.