Albania, recovering from historical repression, openly embraces visitors to its land. With rugged mountain landscapes, lowland plains along the Adriatic Coast, and beautiful beaches, Albania awaits with bated breath, for the rest of the world to catch on to its new role as a vibrant European travel destination.
Red Carpet Welcome
For a country that was, until only relatively recently, completely isolated from the outside world, Albania welcomes you as if a long-awaited friend.
We were hardly obscure, in our seven-metre gleaming white campervan. But when locals in horse and cart or those on foot, weighed down with sticks across their back, warmly waved as we passed by, we felt an immediate sense of ease and acceptance. This was the first surprise of many in our drive through Albania.
The initial idea of driving through Albania, we must admit, had us feeling a little anxious. We had to get special permission from our motor insurer and still, to the outside world, Albania was something of an unknown entity. Friends questioned our decision and worried about our safety. There really was no need.
‘Life on the Road’
We crossed the border from Montenegro and entered Albania without difficulty. Our camper van jarred and jerked along the rutted roads as we dodged potholes and pedestrians. We passed curbside peddlers, dotted along the streets, with their customers sifting through jumbled piles of clothes, old shoes and bric-à-brac. Boutique shopping as far removed from their everyday life as a visit to the Moon. Caged-chickens, piled in crates littered the pavements.
One of the first things you notice when driving through Albania is the lack of adherence to road rules. It is an organised type of chaos. Don’t be surprised if the traffic lights aren’t working, or even more interestingly, the locals ignore them.
Moreover, be ready to share the road with a variety of local livestock. We drove behind goats, sheep, cows and even turkeys gobbling their way down the highway.
As we neared the capital of Tirana, the traffic intensified. Here the roads bulged with buses and cars barging and pushing to get ahead. The road lanes became superfluous. Horns blared, colours blurred and local drivers seemed unperturbed as they scraped and nudged their way through. I’m still not sure how we got out without a scratch. The rest of the drive through Albania was much less hectic.
A Very Short Guide to Albania’s More Recent History
Albania has complex historical and cultural past, but to keep this short we’ll just deal with more recent events.
After the end of WWII, Albania became a communist state. It was ruled over, in the main, by an extreme communist, Enver Hoxha. At first, Hoxha made alliances with the Soviets and China but he found their communism too weak and finally cut off all ties, isolating Albania even more.
Life under Communist Rule
It’s difficult for us to imagine living a life so cut off from the rest of the world. The communist state controlled all aspects of Albanian’s lives. A local, Gazi, told us that travel abroad, car ownership and practising religion, were all forbidden. Everybody’s furniture was exactly the same, the buildings were all painted the same colour and if you had a television you all watched the same thing. Propaganda was broadcast for four hours a day, detailing how great Albania was, how its people were the happiest in the world and how lucky they were compared to all other countries.
A New Beginning… Nearly
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and by 1990 communism rule was coming to an end.
Gazi told us that in 1991, he was given his first pair of jeans and had his first taste of a fruit, so foreign to him – the humble banana.
However, the country was still embroiled with crime, fraud and widespread corruption. In 1997, Albania’s economy collapsed, resulting in widespread civil unrest and fighting. Many Albanians lost their life savings through schemes they had been encouraged to invest in by the government. UN peacekeeping troops were sent in to restore order.
Since then Albania has cleaned up its act. Although corruption still lingers in its halls and money continues to talk too loudly, Albania is gradually growing up. It was admitted into NATO in 2009 and once it satisfies the European Union criteria, it will be allowed out to play with the big boys.
Tirana, the Capital
Our first stop in Albania was in its capital, Tirana. We took a free two-hour walking tour, as we do in many capital cities. It’s a great way to get local knowledge and first-hand accounts of experiences of living in the city.
Skanderbeg Square is the centre plaza of Tirana. The name comes from the 15th-century national hero, ‘Skanderbeg’ who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire for Independence.
In 2017, the Skanderbeg Square was renovated to create a large pedestrian area. The paving used stone from across Albania. The area is slightly sloped around the edges allowing drainage of water from a central fountain. The fountain serves to wet the stones to show off their colour and also acts as a coolant in the summer months.
National History Museum
Just on the edge of Skanderbeg Square, you will find the National History Museum, the largest museum in the country. The museum documents Albania’s rise and fall through the ages, and includes pavilions dedicated to the communist terror and another to Mother Teresa, who was born in Albania.
National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery has plenty of Albanian political art but also hosts exhibitions from around the world. While we were there, Austrian artist, Deborah Sengl’s 44 installations of 200 stuffed white dwarfed hamsters were gracing the Art Gallery. This peculiar display named, ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, seemed particularly eery given Albania’s history.
Outside, behind the National Art Gallery, we found some old communist statues which we thought were part of the Gallery. However, while we were taking photos security moved us on stating that we were in a restricted area.
The Pyramid of Tirana
The Pyramid of Tirana was designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter and her husband, as a museum in honour of her father. It originally opened in 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death. However, when communism ended, so did the life of the museum. It has occasionally been used as a venue for events, but its main drawcard for tourists and locals is to climb to the top and then practice their agility on the steep descent. One of us accomplished this feat …
It now lays abandoned, strewn with graffiti as a stark grey reminder of what once was.
In front of this unattractive scar of a city still healing, sits a monument with a contrasting message. One of peace. The ‘Peace Bell’, was made by the children of Shkodra from thousands of spent gun shells collected during the 1997 civil unrest.
What was originally a top-secret nuclear bunker is a now a museum in the centre of Tirana. The bunker was originally built in the early 1980’s to shelter élite police and interior ministry staff in the event of a nuclear attack. In fact, hundreds were built around the country in the case of attack. The Bunkart2 museum highlights the political persecution of about 100,000 Albanians from the years 1945 until 1991.
Just near to Blloku, the once off-limits residential area for the élite communist leaders, is the PostBlloku Memorial. The installation consists of three separate parts: a piece of the Berlin Wall, a mushroom-shaped bunker and concrete pillars taken from Spac MIne, a forced labour camp for communist dissidents.
Leaving the craziness and historical monuments of Tirana, we headed out into rural Albania towards Berat, and then followed the coast South to the Greek border. We hadn’t planned to spend too long driving through Albania, as our plans were to spend more time in Greece. Therefore the remainder of our road trip consisted of driving the endless bumpy roads, admiring the surprising landscape, spotting old bunkers, waving at locals and waiting patiently for the many animals and their herders to move off to the side of the road.
One thing you will most definitely see on your drive through Albania, in fact, will see numerous times, are concrete mushrooms sprouting up from the landscape. Enver Hoxha had them built during his dictatorship because he was paranoid about being attacked. It’s difficult to know the precise number of bunkers but estimates range from around 173,000 to 750,000. Regardless, there are thousands and thousands laying abandoned across Albania. Presumably, in time they will decay along with the memories and atrocities caused by Hoxha himself.
Bunkers weren’t our only companions on our brief three-day drive through Albania. We encountered these, and many other animals on the roads. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera at the ready when we came across all the turkeys so you’ll have to trust me – it was an extremely amusing sight.
Life’s a Beach
Albania is a country of surprises and has to be one of the most interesting we have visited. We were no less surprised by its beaches. Long stretches of azure water, just waiting to impress. I wonder how long it will be before summer tourists adorn the beaches, and Albania becomes as popular and tourist-laden as its next-door neighbour, Greece.
On the last night of our drive through Albania, we watched the sun set on this beachside bunker. Quite a fitting rendition for our final night in a country, breaking free from its captivity.
Lonely Planet has named Albania as one of the top ten best value places to visit in 2019. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Albania measures up and whether it can transform itself from a country that was for a long time in isolation, to one that captures our admiration.
On a visit to Albania in 2014, Pope Francis said,
The eagle, depicted on your nation’s flag, does not forget its nest, but flies into the heights. All of you, fly into the heights!
Will Albania fly into the heights? Maybe its worth a visit before it flies too high 😉
Good to Know
Motorhome Parking on our drive through Albania:
Tirana– Sheraton Hotel Parking overnight – 10 euro for 24 hours with security. – Coordinates 41.315988, 19.824131
Berat: Berat Caravan Camping
Quiet site. Good facilities and hot water showers. Strong wifi. Owner speaks English and very welcoming. Washing machine €5 per load. 8/10
Himare: Camping Kranea
Nice and quiet spot right by the beach. Good facilities. Owner speaks English. You can order dinner in the morning for that evening. 8/10
If you have any questions about our drive through Albania, please ask us!
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After finishing my Law Degree I decided to become a teacher. I am passionate about teaching, learning and most of all, about inspiring others. Now, as a writer and blogger, I love sharing our travels and our musings on life’s journey. I hope, through these, we can play a part in inspiring you to do whatever ‘satisfies your soul’.