You’re on a white, sandy beach, lying on a sun bed under a straw shade. The breeze is so light it’s almost nonexistent, and you can hear the waves gently lap against the shore. A waiter dressed in white hands you an icy orange cocktail with a tiny umbrella sticking out. You sit up and take a refreshing sip as you look over the expanse of water. A speed boat bounces past in the distance and you watch as its trails dissolve into the waves.
“That’ll be two euros please,” the waiter says, interrupting your thoughts. Two euros for an Aperol Spritz on a private beach on the riviera? You must be in Albania.
Albania: The Up-And-Coming Travel Destination
For many, Albania is only just emerging as a potential holiday destination. The country shares its borders with Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro and, like many countries in the Balkans, has seen its fair share of war in the last century. (The film Taken hasn’t helped Albania’s reputation either.) After 40 years of a strict communist regime, it’s only since in 1990 that the country has been able to enter the free market and rebuild its economy.
I’ve visited Albania twice as an adult and had two very different experiences. The first trip was in 2014. I was traveling from Croatia down the Adriatic coast to Greece. A friend had insisted I stop in Albania. “Tirana is amazing!” she said, “Nothing costs more than a euro and have you seen what the beaches look like?”
A month later I was on a bus from Montenegro to a country I knew nothing about. I’ll admit, when we crossed the border into Albania I did momentarily question my decision. The landscape was wild and dry with questionable-looking shacks scattered along the roadside. A man walked along leading a depressed looking donkey and a few miles later I saw a woman trying to put out a small fire with a wet rag.
So far, so odd. But when I reached Tirana, I knew instantly we were going to get along. With its old communist buildings, palm tree-lined streets and brightly colored bars and cafes, the city has a Berlin-meets-the-Mediterranean vibe. The place teemed with life. Street vendors sold fruit and veggies, music floated in the air from various bars, and young people soaked up the sun in outside cafes.
The Jewel Of The Balkans
We stayed in a gorgeous bungalow with a courtyard full of orange and lemon trees. Just a short walk away was the hip area of Blokku (locals call it Blokk), where we spent an evening eating fresh seafood and enjoying cheap drinks in vibrant bars. Even then Albania surpassed my expectations — and that was five years ago.
Albi Kusuri opened Garden B&B in Tirana in 2016 with his family. “The country has changed a lot,” he tells me. “Ten years ago the Albanian economy relied on immigrant money, especially in the rural areas, but now tourism has transformed the country.”
As I mentioned above, it’s easy to compare Tirana and Berlin and that’s for a good reason — there are many parallels. Both were affected by communism until 1990 and both have since experienced a dramatic resurgence of creativity driven by a determination to recover from a dark past.
“What happened in Berlin is happening in Tirana. The music scene is focussed on techno and reggae and ex-communist facilities are being turned into clubs, bars and co-working spaces,” Albi explains. “Like Ofiçina, a co-working space that used to be the car repair workshop for companies within the communist regime.”
Ofiçina is a perfect exemplar of the new Albania. The company aims to invest in and develop the tech industry by promoting entrepreneurship, supporting early stage start-ups and bringing the latest technologies to local markets. They also run an annual program to encourage and inform young Albanians to develop their professional skills. “Tirana isn’t Paris or London,” Albi laughs, “but it’s growing and it definitely has its own character.”
Visiting Albania Today
My second trip to Albania was to cover a music festival called Kala. It was the first year of the festival and the country’s first international festival — a big deal for everyone involved. Alongside a killer line-up of international acts, one of the key selling points of Kala was the outrageously beautiful scenery and the equally outrageous prices.
Food, drink and accommodation in Albania cost a fraction of the price of most other European countries. And while Tirana provides the culture, Dhërmi, Saranda and Borsch provide the coastline. That beautiful clear water you enjoy in Croatia and Greece? That’s Albania’s water, too.
This trip was also more focussed on food — I couldn’t get enough it. Every menu had seafood so fresh the fish still tasted of ocean salt even after it was grilled. “Albania has a wide range of cuisine because we’re highly influenced by Italian, Turkish and Greek culture,” Albi says. “We have lots of small, traditional restaurants. One of the most popular is called Mullixhiu. It serves high-end traditional Albanian food. It’s very popular amongst tourists and locals.”
The country has a long way to go before it catches up with its neighbor Croatia. Infrastructure, for example, is problematic. To reach the seaside town of Dhërmi I had to catch a ferry from Corfu as the Tirana airport is too far away. Roads were built specifically for Kala festival to accommodate the number of guests that would be arriving on site and the country still struggles with crime and corruption.
But there’s a true feeling of optimism in Albania these days — something I didn’t sense when I first visited. Now the country can see a future where people don’t arrive with low expectations. Instead, they visit fully aware of the beauty of the country and everything it has to offer.
And it seems like the world is beginning to cotton on. “In 2007 I would guide five or 10 tourist groups a year,” Albi says “Now I guide double that amount per month.”
For my final question, I ask Albi how he feels about the film Taken. He pauses, sighs and says “I hate that movie.”