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After being isolated from the rest of the world for almost half a century under Communist dictatorship, Albania has finally stepped into the limelight as Europe’s next tourism hotspot. And it’s easy to see why. Mother Nature has been very generous to this southeastern European country, where turquoise waters lap golden beaches, and jagged mountains hug quaint villages in lush valleys. Add to this a rich heritage, affordable prices, a warm climate and some of the warmest hospitality you’ll find on the whole continent. There’s only one question remaining: when are you going?
Pristine and wild, messy and unpredictable, plucky and genial: Albania is many things, but dull is definitely not one of them. And although its glories are hardly a well-kept secret these days, much of the country remains barely touched by mass tourism. Explore far-flung villages where time seems to have stood still, take a drip in crystal-clear (and often freezing cold) mountain rivers and lakes, conquer soaring summits and discover secret beaches. Or why not satisfy your taste for the past? Climb up to hilltop fortresses and look down on centuries-old Ottoman houses, visit ancient Roman ruins without the crowds, and pay homage to Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, who stopped the invading Ottomans in the 15th century. Oh, and just a random word of advice: remember that in the land of eagles, nodding your head means ‘no’, while shaking it means ‘yes’.
Albania’s star attraction is its rugged coastline, where pristine beaches are washed by the Ionian and Adriatic seas, and backed by olive-covered hillsides. Ranging from long stretches of golden sand to small bays embraced by rocky cliffs, they are easily among the best in the Med. For starters, there’s Ksamil, 17 kilometres south of Saranda by the Greek border. It’s one of those seemingly unreal Instagram spots that’s just as amazing in real life: three tiny islands floating in a turquoise bay, with Corfu stretching out in the background. Or head a bit further north to Dhërmi and Drymades, both boasting several kilometres of white pebble beach, plus loads of little coves to hide away from other sunseekers. While there, make sure to take a boat to Gjipe, one of the most secluded beaches in the country, encircled by cliffs at the mouth of a steep canyon.
The northern part of the country is home to a paradise of another sort. True to their name, the Accursed Mountains, aka the Albanian Alps, have an enchanted feel, where emerald green valleys and dense forests contrast with craggy clusters of pinnacles and steep limestone gorges. Kick off your exploration with the popular three-hour ferry ride on Lake Koman, overlooked by towering mountains on both sides. Then take the minibus (furgon) from Fierzë to picture-postcard Valbona, surrounded by peaks that rise well above 2,000 metres. Spend at least one night here before embarking on the amazing one-day trek to Theth, Albania’s most idyllic mountain village. Step back in time in this remote place where old traditions still prevail, and experience a taste of close-to-nature rural living, largely lost elsewhere in Europe. Short on time or energy? Opt for the rewarding half-day hike from Theth to the Blue Eye, a turquoise natural pool fed by an ice-cold waterfall. If you’re brave enough, jump in! Looking for a different kind of challenge? Attempt the 192-kilometre Peaks of the Balkans hiking trail, which zigzags through the Accursed Mountains between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, taking in crystal-clear mountain lakes, rumbling waterfalls and 2000-plus-metre summits.
Linguistically and culturally different from its neighbours, Albania (Shqipëria) is something of an odd-one-out in the Balkans. To begin with, the small country, with its roots going back to the ancient Illyrians, has managed to preserve its one-of-a-kind language over two millennia, despite Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic and Ottoman influxes. Today, reminders of the country’s long chequered history are aplenty, scattered around the land. For Greek and Roman heritage, visit the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Butrint, located in a stunning natural setting close to Saranda on the Albanian Riviera. Alternatively, hop on a bus from Tirana to Durrës to admire the historic port town’s 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre, bath house and superb archaeological museum. If you’re intrigued by the country’s Ottoman legacy, make sure to take a day trip to Berat or Gjirokastra. Set aside a few hours to roam their narrow cobblestoned streets lined with whitewashed Ottoman houses, and make sure to climb up to their medieval castles. Want to learn more about Albania’s Communist history? No matter where you go, you’ll come across the country’s concrete bunkers, built between the 1960s and 1980s by Hoxha’s paranoid Communist regime. If you’re on a city break in Tirana, don’t miss Bunk’Art and Bunk’Art 2, its excellent bunkers-turned-museums, walking you through this painful chapter in Albanian history.