Traveling to Europe can have a been there, done that feel. Finding an off-the-beaten track destination on a continent filled with well-known places can be a bit challenging. Still, there are countries and cities many Americans haven’t seen or know much about. Thanks to the New York Times—which named it a must-see destination for 2014—and jetsetters in the know, Albania is finally on the travel radar.
Situated between Montenegro and Greece, Albania is Europe’s latest hotspot. Think Croatia circa 1990 or Greece without the crowds. Communism closed off the country from the rest of the world for many decades and much of the infrastructure reflects that: Roads can be a bit dicey—potholes and gravel galore—and much of the architecture in big cities such as Tirana and Shkodër has a utilitarian feel that isn’t very attractive. But don’t let that hinder you from traveling around this beautiful and varied land. The locals love Americans and are ready to help you in any way. Here are the highlights:
Tirana: Tirana is the capital city and can be a bit of a mess to get around. Traffic jams are de rigeur as are crazy drivers behind the wheels of souped up vintage Mercedes. They’re everywhere. Traversing the busy streets can be difficult so hire a driver to take you around, or better yet, walk. Tirana doesn’t have a subway and taking a bus around town could take hours. Eating and drinking is inexpensive with most meals setting you back only $10. Stay at The Rooms, a chic boutique hotel with Wifi (a rarity in this town) near many of the hotspots. Pepper Lounge is a hit with 20-somethings looking to mingle with pretty people but Radio Cafe has a much cooler vibe—think Greenpoint, Brooklyn—with cheap drinks and good music.
Shkodër: Tirana’s redheaded stepchild but it’s actually more attractive and easier to traverse. If you’re heading to the Albanian Alps or Kosovo, stop off here for a rest period between journeys (Traveling seemingly short distances in Albania can take hours). Hotel Tradita affords guests lovely rooms with original stone walls and woven textiles. Dine on grilled fish and beef at the cozy restaurant in the hotel. Shkodër’s beautiful stone streets weave around lovely gardens and cafes at which one can relax. If you’re heading to the Alps, take the minibus to Koman Lake and enjoy the views as you wind your way through the fjords over a 3 1/2 hour ride. The only jarring sight are the mountains of plastic bottles and trash littering the beautiful lake. Another minibus in Fierze will take you to Valbone, a picturesque Alpine village that time seems to have forgotten. Stay at one of the many guesthouses such as Burimi i Valbones. Hire a guide to lead you on a seven-hour hike to Theth, another Alpine village known for its amazing waterfalls. Travel back to Tirana via Kosovo and make sure the border agent stamps your passport! It’s Europe’s newest country after all.
Gjirokastra: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a Ottoman town trapped in time. Cobblestone streets, homes with flat-dressed stone roofs and beautifully preserved ruins make it a hotspot for Albanians in the summer. Situated four hours by bus from Tirana, it’s a world apart from that busy city. Artisans still craft their wares in small storefronts and locals hang out at the well preserved 16th century mosque, the only one in town that wasn’t destroyed by the communists. Gjirokastra Castle shouldn’t be missed as it affords beautiful views of the town and valley beyond. Check out the Ethnographic Museum for vintage textiles. Wander the streets and admire the old houses. Dine al fresco on authentic Albanian food at Kjutimi. Rest your head at the cute and comfortable Hotel Gjirokaster, which has easy access to the bazaar and the old part of town.
Dhermi: Albania’s Ionian coast boasts myriad beach towns with plenty of space to relax by the water. While Vlore gets most of the beachgoers in summer, further south on the winding, seaside road lies Dhermi, as hip as Vlore but with fewer crowds. Small and large pebbles dot the beach, which can make traversing the shore a bit of a challenge but the cerulean waters are worth the challenge. Many Albanians head here in July and early August but late summer offers much of the same weather but more tranquility. Stay at the Altea Beach Lodge, self-contained little homes on the beach. Check out Andrra Beach bar and have a drink with Vjosa, the bar owner. It’s a great way to end a trip.
Getting Around: Flights connect through many European gateways such as Munich, Vienna and Istanbul to Tirana. Traveling around Albania can be a challenge with no train service and roads needing repair, although the latter is changing. Minibuses can take travelers to most destinations but leave infrequently (think one 7 a.m. departure a day, especially in more isolated alpine regions). Don’t be surprised if the driver stops and picks up passengers along the way. You may find yourself squeezed into the very back of a minibus built for 10 but carrying more than 20 people.
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