The Situation on the Ground
For decades, Albania was among southeastern Europe’s least visited and least accessible countries. A virtual fortress under the isolationist tactics of communist dictator Enver Hoxha (who spent four decades building over 700,000 needless, and largely useless, defensive bunkers across the country), Albania collapsed into chaos after Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the subsequent fall of the U.S.S.R.
Today, however, Albania is no less safe than its more well-trodden Adriatic counterparts. A burgeoning tourist industry—centered around its meticulously preserved UNESCO-listed Ottoman towns, including Berat and Gjirokastra, and the stretch of land now known somewhat archly as the Albanian Riviera—now brings in almost 3.5 million tourists a year.
Why Go Now
While Adriatic beaches in nearby Italy and Croatia have largely been transformed into crowded, hypermodern resort complexes, Albania’s coastal beaches, dotted with ruined Greco-Roman amphitheaters and whitewashed, icon-filled Orthodox churches, are among the few in Europe where it’s possible to stretch out on the shoreline, even during high season. South of Vlorë, the somewhat concrete-feeling coastal hub, ethnically Greek villages like Dhërmi, Vuno, and Himarë—with terrace cafés, waterside squid-hawking fishmongers, and narrow pedestrianized pathways—are inundated with family-run B&Bs that go for as little as $25 a night. Travelers from outside the Balkans are still rare but vigorously welcomed. Don’t be surprised if your B&B host insists on taking you on a dizzying motorcycle tour along the coastline or challenges you to a staggering rakia-drinking competition.
Albania’s relative lack of development has been a boon to its UNESCO World Heritage sites, among them the gargantuan, sprawling complex of Butrint, one of the most expansive, best preserved Greco-Roman cities in Europe. A 20-minute bus ride from the coastal city of Sarandë, near Albania’s Greek border, Butrint feels like Ephesus via Indiana Jones: a virtually deserted, largely uncordoned collection of amphitheaters and colonnades, early Christian baptisteries, Byzantine basilicas, and Roman mosaics. Halfway between Sarandë and Butrint, stop at the beach hut-style restaurant of Albiori in Ksamil village, where a local family dishes up garlicky shrimp by the bucketful, the perfect stopover for a scenic lunch.
Despite an ostensibly comprehensive bus system, almost nothing in Albania runs when the online schedule says it will. Forego printed schedules by the major bus companies and embrace the anarchic, sweaty culture of the furgon–or shared minibus, especially south of Vlorë. These white vans, which travel with vague regularity along a fixed route, picking up and dropping off passengers at will along the way, may not run to time, but there’s almost always one heading near where you want to go. In the meantime, sit at one of the country’s ubiquitous station-side cafés for a staggeringly strong Albanian coffee (don’t call it “Turkish” unless you’re prepared for vociferous debate) and learn to interpret the world-weary shrug that means “it’ll get here sooner or later.”
By Tara Isabella Burton, National Geographic