When I visited Albania there were no direct flights available from the UK and no published guidebook that covered it (its still only covered by a chapter in a number of guidebooks). This is exactly what attracted me to travel in Albania – it seemed as far off the beaten track as you could get within Europe’s boundaries – and although things have changed a little now, including direct flights, its probably still Europe’s remotest corner. Few people speak English, tourist infrastructure is limited and traditional ways of life prevail. Experience it while you can!
Currency: Albanian Lek (ALL)
Go: May – September
Eat: Stuffed Aubergines & Peppers
Move: Local Bus or Mini-Bus (patience required!)
Pack: A Phrasebook – The Albanian language is unlike any other, making guesswork very hard. Adding to this is their very confusing sign language system (they shake their heads to signify ‘yes’ and nod to signify ‘no’!)
Read: Broken April by Ismail Kadare (1978). The author is probably Albania’s most famous export.
Stay: Locally Owned Guesthouses
Accommodation: Can be limited in rural areas of the country i.e. anywhere outside the capital or the coast. At the very least, however, you’ll always find someone with a few rooms to rent out or a place with guesthouse-looking sign over a door. The joys of this are, of course, the cheap prices – you probably won’t pay more than £10-15 for a room – and the fact that you easily get to interact with local people and support sustainable small-scale business. The downside, of sorts, is the unknowability. I recommend taking a guidebook with lists of accommodation or checking out a site like HostelBookers.com before you arrive somewhere.
Food: Like its geographical location, Albanian food is a mix between Mediterranean, Turkish and Slavic cuisine, although poverty and lack of resources has sadly halted experimentation with the wealth of fresh produce available. Expect simple meat dishes, like stews, and grilled fish on the coast. Vegetables and salads are also common, although vegetarians might struggle to make their eating habits understood. Markets are dirt cheap and a great place to stock up for a picnic lunch (especially on incredible cheeses), while cheap eateries are available throughout the country albeit without menus or choice – you normally just get served a plate of what they’ve cooked that day, which won’t set you back more than £3-4!
Sightseeing: There isn’t a lot in the way of organised tours so enjoy relaxing on the beaches, admiring the views or exploring the town and cities on foot for free. Your only attraction expenses might be visiting the Gjirokastra Ethnographic Museum or the archaeological site of Butrint National Park. Entrance prices are £2 and £4 respectively, giving you a good indication of the absolute budget travel destination Albania is!
Transport: Prices of bus travel depend, of course, on the distance being travelled, but generally won’t set you back more than £1-2 even for long travel. Taxis are a little more pricey, but sometimes they might be your only option in rural areas or late in the day. Expect to pay around £25 per hour for taxi travel. If you want to get across to Corfu, there are boats from Saranda that run for about £25 one-way.
The Top 5 Attractions
Explore the Historic Town of Gjirokastra: World Heritage Listed city that sits above a gorgeous valley. Exploring the castle and preserved buildings is like stepping back in time.
Laze on the Beaches near Saranda: All along the coastline of Southern Albania are some of the best beaches you can find anywhere in Europe, with accommodation and restaurants at a fraction of the price. The sea is crystal clear and warm right up until Oct/Nov. Spend a few days in the main city of Saranada and use it as a base point to explore the other quieter bays and villages around.
Marvel at the Setting of Lake Ohrid at Pogradec: Wander away time at the Albanian side of this gorgeous blue lake set in front of snow-capped mountains. You’ll get a real sense of how things are going to develop here, but in the meantime enjoy the peace and quiet of local working life alongside the obligatory game of dominoes in the park. You’ll also get to see a plethora of the infamous Albanian concrete bunkers, which were built during the communist regime.
Sip a Coffee at the Edge of Tirana’s Central Square: Known as Skanderbeg Square, this is the heart of the capital as well as Albania’s cultural and political life. A wonderful circus of cars, donkeys and street sellers, watch the action from one of the cafes that circumnavigate it whilst enjoying a typical Albanian beverage. Be sure to have a good look at the fascinating mosaic on the front of the National History Museum, which depicts some of country’s top historical events.
Visit Incredible Ruins at Butrint: Wander through history as you tour the archaeological site of Butrint National Park in Southern Albania. World Heritage Listed, but as yet under-developed and still in the process of being excavated, this is a fantastic opportunity to get up close to Ancient Greek and Roman ruins in a way you’d never be able to do in more developed countries.
The Money Savers
Always Carry Small Amounts of Cash: Few places outside of the cities will have ATMs or accept card payments and nobody, the country over, has change. Therefore, make sure you carry cash in order to be able to pay for things. Also make sure you carry small amounts so that you don’t end up spending more because the person you are paying can’t break the note.
Barter: Its common custom to haggle over prices for accommodation and taxis, so don’t’ be afraid!
Drink Coffee: As Albania’s national drink it’s going to be your cheapest beverage option and its best to develop a taste for it, as, in many areas, it will be your only choice. Coffee is served strong, black and normally as a simple shot with sugar (Turkish style), which will set you back about 30p! If you’re on a budget, stick to drinking coffee! Going to cafes is also cheap entertainment as they tend to form the central hub of Albanian social activity.
Drink Tap Water: It is safe to drink, so save your pennies and the environment and steer clear of buying bottled water.
Get Up and Move Early: Many of the local buses and mini-buses stop running by the afternoon in Albania, which means traveling later than this will normally result in you having to catch a taxi at a much greater price.
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