Here we are, winding our way along a twisty mountain road in southern Albania, pristine views of the Ionian Sea to our right, soaring gray rock to our left. We are debating whether this is the loveliest, least spoiled spot on the entire Mediterranean coast and — wait, stop! Watch out for that donkey-drawn cart up ahead! Ohmigosh, we’re going to die!
If you’re like most North Americans, chances are you know little about Albania; it’s one of those hard-to-pinpoint-on-a-map countries that comedians like to reference for an easy laugh about backwards Eastern European cultures. (To wit: Tina Fey played “Blerta,” the would-be new Albanian roommate of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, in a Saturday Night Live parody of Girls.)
Yet despite its decidedly Old World aspects — in addition to those donkey carts, you’ll occasionally see cattle wandering down the main highways right beside speeding Renaults — Albania feels much more alive and inviting than many far more familiar European destinations.
Tirana, the capital, offers a fascinating contemporary history lesson, with sleek new skyscrapers bumping against crumbling communist-era apartment blocks. The southern coast, known as Riviera Shqiptare, or the Albanian Riviera, offers all the glorious pleasures of a Mediterranean beach vacation (swimmable, shimmering waters and impossibly fresh seafood, cheeses and olives) without any of the crowds.
While it isn’t necessarily cheap or easy to get there (round-trip airfare from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is about $1,600, and the trip takes about 20 hours each way), once you arrive you’ll discover that the American dollar affords you an experience that would cost four times as much anywhere else in Europe.
Located north of Greece, south of Kosovo and east of Italy, Albania was the last of the Balkan territories to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire, in 1912.
Since then, the country has experienced almost continuous political upheaval, commencing with World War I, when Italian, Serbian and Greek forces occupied various corners of the country. In the late 1920s, Albania became a monarchy under King Zog, only to be invaded by the Italian fascists in the lead-up to World War II.
After the war, Albania fell under the rule of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, a hard-line Stalinist who kept the country closed off from the rest of the world.
You’ll learn all about this at the National Historic Museum, a handsome limestone building fronted by a colorful mural honoring the leaders of the Albanian independence movement. Situated near Skanderbeg Square, the central plaza in Tirana, the museum is also an exercise in cognitive dissonance. The exhibits remain largely unchanged from 1981, when the museum first opened, and when the communist leadership was eager to put a positive spin on the country’s darkest chapters.
The only acknowledgment of the terror and violence that defined Hoxha’s rule, for example, is a small wing devoted to the victims of the late dictator’s purges; it opened in 1996. There’s nothing about the country’s descent into economic and social chaos in the 1990s after the collapse of the communist bloc.
What the museum lacks in historical context, it makes up for in fascinating artifacts, dating to the late Paleolithic era. If you’re after a more of-the-moment snapshot of this vibrant country, you need only spend a long afternoon wandering the bustling streets.
Some tree- and shop-lined blocks will remind you of the quainter parts of Boston or Brooklyn minus the ubiquitous American chain stores and exorbitantly priced restaurants. Walk a little farther, though, and you’ll see the Piramida, an imposing, pyramid-shaped edifice of concrete and steel built in the late 1980s as a museum honoring Hoxha and now empty. Turn another corner, and you’ll stumble upon an audacious new apartment complex designed by the famed architect Daniel Libeskind, whose building form was inspired by the traditional symbol of the Albanian eagle.
These same lively tensions — between new and old, forward-looking and backward-sliding — carry into the myriad cafes and restaurants of Tirana. The cappuccinos are delicious (and, at about $1, preposterously inexpensive), even if the Wi-Fi is often rather spotty.
The clientele is split evenly between ambitious young professionals and retirees playing cards and arguing about local politics. Indeed, more than anything, Tirana reminded of Berlin when I visited that city in the late 1990s, an unsteady but exhilarating work in progress, a place that seems to be morphing and coming into its own right in front of your eyes.
Two days in Tirana were enough to view the major sights and to sample the city’s surprisingly good restaurants, including Karlsberg, located on the rooftop terrace of the Xheko Imperial Hotel. But one of the main reasons to visit Albania is to take advantage of its coastal beauty, so we set off on a four-hour journey south along the coast. You’ll need to steel yourself: The winding drive from Tirana is frequently harrowing, and the confusing road signs make it very easy to get lost. But if ever a place was worth risking death for, it’s Dhërmi, a seaside town from which you’ll be able to see across to Corfu, the northernmost island of Greece.
We checked into the Greccia Hotel, where for $47 a night we had a spacious, third-floor room with a balcony overlooking the Ionian Sea. A five-minute stroll down a hill leads to the clear blue water. There you’ll find a number of small public beaches, with lounge chairs and umbrellas available for about $4 per day.
Indeed, if you’ve ever journeyed with high hopes to a Mediterranean beach, only to find it even more sardine-can-crowded than a Las Vegas hotel pool, Dhërmi is your antidote. We visited in early July, ostensibly the high season, but even then it was blissfully underpopulated. Plan your visit for spring or early fall, when it will still be warm enough to swim, and you’re likely to feel as if you own your own private beach.
As for the food, which can sometimes be spotty in Eastern European countries, the cuisine in this stretch of Albania is mostly Greek-influenced. All of the restaurants we sampled in Dhërmi were far above what you’d expect to encounter in a resort town (cuttlefish ink-infused risotto and grilled octopus, not hamburgers and fries).
On our second day in Dhërmi, we enjoyed an unforgettable lunch at the Hotel 2000 restaurant. At a table overlooking the Ionian Sea, our group of four enjoyed amply portioned Greek salads, an enormous platter of fresh grilled whole sea bass and sea bream, sides of fresh grilled potatoes and sour cream, and fresh fruit for dessert, along with a round of local beers. At $60, it was one of the best dining bargains we’ve encountered in years.
Will you occasionally struggle if you aren’t traveling with an Albanian speaker? Maybe, though less than you’d expect, especially in the hotels and restaurants, where English is commonly understood. Will you sometimes feel frustrated by the lack of creature comforts — the slow and hard-to-navigate public transportation system in Tirana, say, or the shops and restaurants that don’t take credit cards? Probably.
But if you’re after a mixture of both city and beach, kinetic and calm, undiscovered and familiar, Albania should be moved to the top of your destination list. Just watch out for those cute but potentially deadly donkey carts on the road.
Christopher Kelly is a New Jersey freelance writer.
When you go
Getting there: A number of European airlines fly to Tirana International Airport from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, including Alitalia, Lufthansa and KLM, though be prepared for two layovers. Round-trip airfare can usually be found for approximately $1,600. Car rentals are easily available at the airport and cost about $40 a day; make sure you have an international driver’s license.
Hotel Boutique Kotoni, Rruga Donika Kastrioti 4, Tirana; rooms from $110; hotelkotoni.com.
Greccia Hotel Dhërmi, Rruga e Kampit, Dhërmi; rooms from $47.
Karlsberg Restaurant, Xheko Imperial Hotel, Rruga Ibrahim Rugova, Tirana; xheko-imperial.com/en/.
Hotel 2000 Restaurant, Dhërmi Beach, Dhërmi.
Good to know: Many Albanian restaurants, cafes and hotels do not accept credit cards, but ATMs are readily available, even in the smaller towns. Hotels in the coastal towns don’t offer online booking, either — you book your room upon arrival — but plenty of rooms were available when we visited in July.