Albania

I went to Albania in 2017 from North Macedonia. I was on a business trip to North Macedonia to visit partners we have there. On this trip, I entered the country on two occasions. The first was a day trip with our friends from North Macedonia, and the second was a trip to the capital.

Our day started by meeting our friends who live in Struga, a North Macedonian city situated on Lake Ohrid, (one of Europe’s deepest lakes shared between Albania and North Macedonia). With them, we took a day trip driving around the lake. We started in the morning and first stopped in a small little border town. The first impression I got was that the area seemed to be inhabited mostly with ethnic Macedonians, a phenomenon I had encountered all over the Balkans, where the national boundaries did not seem to correlate with the ethnic distribution. We stopped in a small coffee shop in this border town and walked around an Orthodox church. The town was very small so we did not stay for long and headed off for lunch in the larger town of Pogradec. Pogradec felt like a nice town with a good energy about it, again it was quite small with what seemed to be a central street with bars, shops, and cafes. There was a large Orthodox church at the end of the main street in a small square that we checked out, then headed down to the central street to find some food. We found a small juice bar where we had some filling smoothies. After the main town, we went and took a look down by the lake and saw the areas that people use as a beach. There was a nice little park area there too. Our friend’s wife had been cooking for us back in Struga, so we had to finish the trip around the lake and head back to North Macedonia. My friend’s wife had spent most of the day cooking so had a real treat laid out for us. It makes a real difference when you have friends in a country, as not only do you get to see the reality of how people live, you bypass cultural differences and just enjoy each other’s personalities.

Our second trip to Albania was a few days later after our meetings. Two friends drove us from Struga to Tirana, which took a couple of hours. Passing our way through the Albanian countryside we passed a number of the famous military bunkers, so stopped to take a look at them. The bunkers were constructed during the communist period of Albania by president Enver Hoxha. Concerned about a potential attack on the country Hoxha had almost two hundred thousand constructed across the whole country, averaging around six bunkers for every square mile. The bunkers were never needed, cost the country a lot of money and now stand mostly derelict. Despite various suggestions for their use ranging from projection rooms for outdoor cinemas to beehives, it seems their main use over the years has been for young couples to use as a secluded spot to indulge in a little romantic activity. Thankfully this was not where my wife and I spent our romantic getaway, we were happily nestled in a cute little Airbnb in Tirana.

Skanderbeg Square

We eventually arrived in Tirana and went for lunch with our friends downtown, but first I needed to see the statue of Albania’s great hero Skanderbeg in Tirana’s central square. The square was huge and very impressive, just walking around the city we already got a feeling that this was a very modern and vibrant city. For me I still had all the negative stereotypes that I had been told over the years of Albania being a dangerous lawless state where we had to be very vigilant about our safety, the reality was far from this. Tirana has a great vibe about it; it feels like a young energetic city, super safe and fun.

We had rented a small Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city that was very cosy. Inside was quite small, but we had a lovely little courtyard that looks like something out of a movie with small trees in the yard and greenery all around. From our apartment, we were able to easily walk around the city and get from place to place.

I had checked in on FaceBook that I was in the city, because to my shame I like to add pins to my FB map ;), and by chance one Italian friend of ours who we know from Indonesia was now living and working in the city, she saw my post and was available to meet up. So bonus, not only were we in a lovely city, we got to catch up with a great friend who would show us around the city. We went to grab some dinner at a traditional Albanian place that with some direction was able to cater for vegan. After dinner we went around to see some of the bars in the city, then we decided to go to Sky Tower, one of Tirana’s highest buildings with a 360-degree view. Sky Tower has a very fancy revolving restaurant that is one of the most expensive in town; it also has a cheap bar above which also revolves, so we took the cheap option. After a few drinks, we went back to Skanderbeg square to hang out. This is a very vibrant square at night were lots of people hang about and pass through.

Sadly this was a passing visit and the next day we were heading to the airport to catch a plane to Greece. Though a short fleeting visit, Albania is definitely a place I would recommend for travellers, the beaches look amazing and I am only sad that we missed the coast this time. Tirana has a great vibe and is a great destination for a weekend break for sure. Not a country on many peoples list, but well worth adding.