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Malcolm & John’s Albanian Adventure 

"Perhaps as a place so ‘forbidden’ it piqued my interest to see behind its veil, and now that the country has fully opened up, I was more than ready to visit."
By Malcolm Davies

Why Albania? 

Albania was under a harsh communist dictatorship for decades with its borders firmly closed to foreign tourists. I remember years ago being close to its northern border on a beach in neighbouring Montenegro and being warned not to swim too close as the Albanian border guards were apt to fire warning shots at swimmers!  Perhaps as a place so ‘forbidden’ it piqued my interest to see behind its veil, and now that the country has fully opened up, I was more than ready to visit. But despite the easy flight links, Albania is still very much undiscovered by mainstream travellers, but if like me you choose to visit, you’ll find a wealth of natural beauty, historic cities, friendly, welcoming locals, and a land that’s easy to travel round with a little planning. 

 Best Time to Visit 

I’d recommend April to October as the ideal time, but try to avoid the late July and August peak period when expat Albanians return for their summer holidays filling most of the available hotel space. 

How long to visit? 

My 10-day visit was ample for an itinerary taking in the capital Tirana and the highlights of Southern Albania. 14 days would allow you to cover the mountainous Northern region too, or for a short break Tirana can be easily combined with the coastal city of Durres for some days by the sea. 

 How to get around 

I’d recommend hiring a car at Tirana. It’s inexpensive and the roads are good in general although there are some rougher tracks in the mountain areas. Look out for the old bunkers from the Cold War era that pockmark the landscape. 

 

My Albania Highlights 

Tirana 

Fast metamorphosing from a communist concrete jungle to a colourful bustling metropolis, Tirana makes a convenient first stop for most. Right from the start I was impressed by the expanse of Skanderbeg Square right in the heart of the city, and for a great view I climbed up to the small clock tower’s balcony at the corner. On the opposite side of the square is the National History Museum with a striking communist-era mural on its facade, and just a short walk away I found the first of the city’s two art galleries housed in former military bunkers. Known as Bunk’Art 1&2, these massive Cold War era underground structures were built for Albania’s political elite, but now showcase exhibitions of contemporary art but also tell the story of the country’s modern history. 

Berat 

Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and I’d read that the best place to see a perfectly preserved Ottoman town is at Berat, 97km south of Tirana. Known as the ‘City of a Thousand Windows’ for its hundreds of white Ottoman style houses with their many windows, this is a great place to wander its historic lanes that wind up to a 14th century castle overlooking the town and the river below. 

 Gjirokastra 

Still further to the south, the mountain town of Gjirokastra is another fine example of Ottoman architecture, and boasts even more castles, mosques and grand Ottoman mansions to discover. It’s a rewarding walk up to the dominating castle for the views of the town and also the valley floor. 

 Saranda 

I wanted to include a seaside stay as a stop on my Albanian travels, and made the right choice with the small coastal town of Saranda on its southern coast. There are plenty of sandy beaches to choose from as well as a good choice of small restaurants and a traditional promenade for a stroll. Just nearby are the natural crystal-clear water springs of the Blue Eye as well as the ancient Greek/Roman ruins of Butrint – both making ideal day trips out from Saranda. 

 The Albanian Riviera 

The coastline between Saranda and Vlore has been dubbed the ‘Albanian Riviera’, but despite the touristy name this rugged coastline is really worth exploring. Driving along its winding coastal road I discovered traditional villages along the way perched high above golden beaches, and at its northern end traversed the high zigzag Llogaraja Pass. Looking more daunting driving than it actually is, you’ll have fantastic views of the Ionian Sea along the way. 

If you would love to experience Malcolm and John’s Albania or book a different trip please contact Charitable Travel on 020 3092 1288 

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