Beaches, mountains, old towns and low prices? Albania has it all

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“It was rare for journalists to come here,” says Elton Caushi, head of tour operator Albanian Trip, which I meet in the capital, Tirana. “When they came, they just wanted to talk about blood feuds and sworn virgins.”

The traditions that once dominated tribal politics in the mountains of Albania are interesting, but I’m here to explore a more recent view of the southeastern European country. Thanks to its beaches, UNESCO-marked cities and hiking routes, former communist Albania is being lauded as a “hot new” European travel destination beyond backpacking and dark tourism.

For decades, Albania had a reputation as a dangerous and forbidden country, largely due to its political isolation under dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. After Albania’s 1997 civil war and the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, more visitors gradually began to arrive in Albania, attracted in part by lower prices than in Greece and Italy. In 2009, 1.9 million tourists traveled to Albania; in 2019, the last complete pre-Covid year, the number was 6.4 million.

The food here can be a factor in this change. I’m with Caushi at an unnamed restaurant at 1001 Bardhok Biba, a street close to downtown. “Tourists haven’t found it – it’s mostly drivers who eat here,” he says. I have breakfast in the sumptuous tasqebap – a veal, garlic, onion and tomato sauce soup – before Caushi takes me out for 9am dessert at Mon Amour, a Parisian-style pastry shop. We paid 390 non-Parisian lek (£2.80) for coffee and baklava cakes with ice cream.

After breakfast, I drive to Dhërmi, a village that has seen countless hotels spring up along its coast in the last decade. I arrive at the start of Kala, one of the many small dance music festivals that have sprung up along the Riviera, with dance floors on the sand.

The 18th century Mesi Bridge.

The 18th century Mesi Bridge at Shkodër, built by an Ottoman pasha. Photography: Nick St Oegger/Alamy

Dhërmi’s main non-festive beach is clean, well covered in lounge chairs, and flanked by restaurants. It’s fine if you just want to lie back and explore your Kindle. The small beaches north of here, like Splendor Del Mar and Empire Beach Resort, look gloriously Balearic in comparison. Swimming in the clear, turquoise sea of ​​Splendor is peaceful. I haven’t had a better dive outside of Asia.

Later, on a walk to nearby Gjipe beach – sandy, beautiful, secluded, with zero hotel development – ​​I see a concrete bunker and look at this dome overlooking the sea: a gray sliver of cold war paranoia in a idyllic coast.

A church in the village of Thethi.

Theth national park. Photography: Alamy

I see another bunker. Then another, in the hills, when I return to Dhërmi. I start to count them, but soon realize that bunkers are as common here as lizards sunbathing. About 173,371 were built in Albania between 1975 and 1983 as Hoxha prepared for a possible attack.

Caushi warned me that the tourist towns of Durrës and Sarandë were already attracting enough tourists to make them unpleasantly crowded. Instead, I stop at Gjirokastër and Berat: two smaller towns of renowned beauty.

I prepare myself by reading Chronicle in Stone, the 1971 novel by Ismail Kadare – the famous Albanian author and resident of Gjirokastër. In the book, the novel of Gjirokastër’s steep, bumpy paths, winding around buildings like the Skenduli House and Zekate House – owned by elite families and now museums – shines through its history of the 1940s bombings.

‘When I was a kid in the 2000s, seeing a tourist was like seeing an alien’

Blero Topulli, guide

Your paint covers the city – my hotel is on Ismael Kadare Street. However, Gjirokastër was once as famous for cannabis as Kadare, according to Blero Topulli, who works at Gjirokastër’s castle. “It was considered one of the most dangerous spots in Europe – we had a village producing tons of cannabis,” he says. “When I was a kid in the 2000s, seeing a tourist was like seeing an alien.”

We meet in the castle overlooking the village of Lazarat, which was rife with illegal drug production until a police crackdown in the mid-2010s.

Tirana has a rich coffee culture.

Tirana has a rich coffee culture. Photography: Andfoto/Alamy

Thanks to its historic architecture, Gjirokastër became a UNESCO site in 2005, but Topulli says tourists didn’t arrive in significant numbers until the pot gangsters left. We walk through the streets of the bazaar, renovated five years ago for this tourism aspect, but it’s easy to escape this slightly Disneyified pocket of the city. Topulli takes me up the hill to watch the sunset, past mansions portrayed by Edward Lear in the mid-19th century.

“Listen: the wind in the trees looks like the sea,” says Topolli. He’s right: I listen as the castle lights come on, a calming drop after Kala beach parties.

Further north, in Berat, also a UNESCO-listed town, I walk up to the castle. Berat has similar historical wealth to Gjirokastër – and equally steep climbs – but feels more rugged.

The lack of health and safety concerns in Berat makes it all the more pleasant. In the ruins of the Red Mosque, I run through the eerily dark interior of the pitch-thin tower, throwing my head over it so that vertigo can overcome my growing claustrophobia.

Berat at night

Berat. Photography: Fani Kurti/Getty Images

“I came to Albania because you can do beaches, cities and hikes in a week”, tells me an American tourist. In fact, after a two-hour drive to Tirana, it’s a two-hour bus ride to Shkodër, the gateway to the Albanian Alps.

I do a classic hike: the 17km route between Valbona and Theth in Valbona Valley National Park. To get in the mood, I read Edith Durham’s High Albania, a British writer’s document on the region’s tribes, based on her 1908 journeys. the wild beauty of the area. But three hours later I reach the peak, and the forest-dotted views do their magic: it’s impressive on a Swiss level.

Related: UK tourists head to Albania for ‘sense of the exotic’ with no long-haul flight

In Theth, surrounded by mountains, my inn’s pancake breakfast is accompanied by the tense “click-click-click” of the diggers. The winding road to Shkodër was paved with asphalt for the first time last year.

Caushi says some fear Theth’s new highway could lead to over-tourism. “But I’m happy for my friends there: 15 years ago you saw a cow, a chicken, a cornfield. Now they can get to school, hospital faster… it’s good for the residents.”

Skenduli House, Gjirokastër.

Skenduli House, Gjirokastër. Photography: Aliaksandr Mazurkevich/Alamy

Good for me too, I think, as my bus to Shkodër glides over the asphalt.

I finish back in Tirana, staying at the Hotel Boutique Kotoni in the center of the city, then at the quieter hotel Morina, close to the Great Park of Tirana. Being the capital of a country with an anti-capitalist regime until 1992, Tirana didn’t get proper bars until the 1990s, according to Caushi. After a construction boom in the 2000s, the city now has a population of 560,000. Hoxha’s opulent former residence has a modern cafe directly opposite.

I’m briefly in Tirana, but visit Bunkart 1, Hoxha’s underground complex, which is now a museum and art space. Exhibitions depict decades of dictatorship, interspersed with art installations. Wrongly balanced, the mix of dark history and video art might seem unpleasantly hipster, but it’s captivatingly gripping.

Another reminder of how quickly a place can change.

Accommodation in Dhërmi was provided by Kala; Accommodation in Tirana provided by Hotel Boutique Kotoni (doubles from €100 B&B, in conjunction with Albanian Trip and Hotel Radisson Collection Morina (doubles from €80 room only

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