Albania has had a turbulent past .It was under communist rule for nearly four decades and then a civil war only 20 years ago. The government has had trouble reclaiming the guns seized by individuals at the time. However, since then it has been calm.
Albanians are bored of constant struggle – and the country’s breathtaking and unspoilt scenery is opening it up to tourism. Entrepreneurs are exploiting the potential. For the traveller it’s a rare opportunity to discover true wilderness at the heart of Europe. Here are our Top Ten sites:
1.Tirana: Albania’s capital city.
It’s top sites include:
A monument in the shape of a pyramid that commemorates the former communist leader (1945-54) who formed part of the government until his death in 1985. This rundown brutalist symbol of Tirana’s communist legacy has been transformed into a fun multi multispace venue that’s a symbol of a resurgent modern Albania.
Ironically just outside the pyramid hangs an 1100-pound Bell of Peace. The bell was cast from an estimated 20,000 shell casings collected by Albanian children during the 1997 civil war. Zoe meets one of the school children.
The Blloku district was once the district of the communist polit-bureau, now the “hip” bar-district of Tirana.
Just outside Tirana is Skanderbeg’s castle at Kruja, once the centre of resistance to the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century led by the national hero Skanderberg. Here, the buildings and museums within the castle walls, combined with the attractively restored bazaar area just outside them provide an excellent introduction to Albanian history and traditions.
3.Cold War Bunkers:
Dispersed all over Albania are an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers in the shape of little mushroom domes. Built between 1950-85 to withstand a possible invasion and to resist full tank assault- the engineer even lived through a test tank bombardment. Today they serve no purpose – although many Albanians admit to having lost their virginity in one… they are often decorated with pot plants and paint.
Hike through the beautiful Valbona Valley – much of it in the footsteps of Edith Durham, a famous British explorer who wrote passionately about the need to redraw the borders of the Balkans according to ethnicity not European rulers.
Bears, lynx, wildcats, wolves, chamois & birds of prey including the griffon vulture can be seen in the region…
The peak that gives way to beautiful views over Albania and Montenegro… and nearly, in the distance, to Kosovo.
Once the capital of the Illyrian state (until the Roman conquest in 168 BC) Shkodra has played an important part throughout Albania’s history and this is reflected in its buildings. Check out the old buildings from the Ottoman Period, built in an attractive Venetian style. Shkodra has some nice restaurants where you can listen to the local folk music
Rozafa Castle, a fortress strategically overlooking the confluence of three rivers, has an elaborate tunnel and defensive system from the city’s Ottoman and Christian past.
The top of the citadel gives view to Albania’s spectacular mountainous countryside.
6. Albanian Riviera, Saranda and the ancient town of Butrint:
Saranda it is set in a lovely horseshoe bay, being a holiday resort since communist times. Mentioned by Cicero, it acquired its current name in honor to forty (Saranda in Greek) Christian legionnaires who were put to death in 320AD. Nearby, following a panoramic road along the lagoon are the remains of the ancient Butrint.
Butrint is undeniably a beautiful place. It is today close to modern civilization yet with remains dating from many different periods over the last two and a half thousand years. Set in a marshy landscape surrounded by thick woodland besides the busy straits separating Corfu from Albania, it is best known for its Roman ruins but also contains monuments from other periods . It is also an environmental haven rich in bird life.
7. Gjirokaster – the City of Stone:
Gjirokastër is one of the most beautiful Albanian historic towns, with a citadel dating from the 13’th century. From the walls of the castle, one can admire the view of its districts and the large valley of the River Drinos. Walk along the stone paved streets and discover charming Albanian traditional architecture. It was in these grey colored streets that Enver Hoxha , the notorious dictator, and the writer Ismail Kadare ,grew up. Visit the Castle, the Museum of Weapons and the Ethnographic Museum.
8.Berat, the city of a thousand windows:
Berat is the best preserved historic town in Albania. It features Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Socialist buildings erected over a period spanning 2400 years.
Visit the Ethnographic museum, hike up to the citadel district with its splendid orthodox churches and the Onufri Icons museum – named after the famous 16th century master painter of icons and murals.
9. Lake Komani:
This is one of the world’s classic boat trips. Take a daily ferry from Bregluma across the narrow and twisting lake (created by damming the river Drini in the 80s) that offers magnificent views of sheer cliffs dropping into the water, complete with waterfalls and tiny terraces where locals herd their goats. The Dinaric Alps glisten in the distance. You can continue along the Valbona River, famous for its dramatic gorges and plunging waterfalls.
Thethi is a small village town that has been beautifully conserved because it was a holiday resort during the communist era. Although there hasn’t been much tourism since the population is extremely hospitable. Nearby a watermill runs to a waterfall and a cave with underground lakes& galleries of stalagmites and stalagtites.You can also make an excursion to a kulla nearby, passing through a canyon where the walls are so near you can touch both sides.
Destination – Albania