Albania: bedazzled, not bunkered

By Finn McCarthy, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Tirana.

Overall rating:4.5 out of 5 (based on 2 votes)
Recommended for:
Beach, Cultural, Short Break, Budget

A week's budget travel by bus - with the occasional splurge - in Albania. Castles, ancient sites, historic towns and beaches create a heady mix of adventure

“The hotel is down the beach beyond the concrete bunkers,” pointed out the helpful bus driver, who had deposited us at the turn-off to Dhermi. But this was not the signal to reach for the camcorder and prepare for an appearance on “Holidays from Hell”. By now we were becoming attached to these gaudily painted concrete bunkers, relics of Albania’s paranoid past, which were stationed throughout the country.

Bunkers suggest a defensive attitude but instead, people everywhere gave us a dazzling welcome during our week’s trip around Albania.

Tirana, the capital, has a quirky, engaging quality – for instance an electric go-kart circuit operates in the middle of the main square – and is gradually consolidating its recovery, having broken free from a communist dictatorship in 1991. Rapid changes are underway; former government offices have been renovated and the commitment to tourism is underlined by the informative displays in the National Museum of History. Britain’s involvement in the Balkans is noted here but more poignantly commemorated in the tiny Commonwealth Graves cemetery sited in a corner of the main city park

Hotels suit all budgets although most taxi drivers assume you are staying at the Tirana International. We opted for Vila Tafaj, (double with breakfast 9000 lek; €1 = 135.8 lek)), which boasts an enchanting garden restaurant populated by tame rabbits and exotic birds, fortunately not considered local delicacies.

Spectacular views, whilst sipping cocktails, from the revolving Sky Tower, allow you glimpses of the fashionable area of the city and help you to appreciate how planners, with limited resources but using all their ingenuity, have brought colour to the surrounding grey facades of administrative buildings. Meals are rather pricey here so it is far better to eat at a traditional restaurant such as Oda (rr Luigj Gurakuqi; 249 541); delicious specialities, like goat’s cheese and peppers followed by baked lamb, with beer, will only cost for two, 2000 lek.

Using local transport, our aim was to focus mainly on exploring the culture and history, but we could always be seduced by the charms of a beach. Bypassing the busy resort of Durres we spent a few relaxing days by the clear blue Adriatic in Dhermi at Luciano’s (4800 lek a double with terrace and sea view).

A reliable and cheap bus system, complemented by an effective shared taxi service, gives easy access to the historic sites. Skanderberg, the mediaeval national hero, whose statue dominates the main square in Tirana, is celebrated in his fortress at Kruja. The castle perched on a hillside has wonderful views; informative museums; ethnographic displays; and the best souvenirs in Albania. On the climb to the castle it looks like you will have to run the gauntlet of the traders but the experience is hassle-free.

Further south, Saranda, opposite Corfu, is a thriving beach resort which has gone through astonishing changes in the last ten years. We stayed in the very comfortable Hotel Kaonia (5400 lek a double with a sea view and breakfast). Our waiter at the Paradise Restaurant confirmed the growth in prosperity but worried whether something might be lost. In the old days he said everyone was united against the government, but now he wondered whether this togetherness would remain.

Reflecting on that thought, we took the town bus 18kms to the Graeco-Roman site of Butrint. This is the jewel of Albania in an idyllic forested setting by a lake. Strolling around the deserted Greek theatre, it was easy to agree that this experience alone justified the trip to the country.

For the next few days we became castle groupies. In Gjirokastra we were welcomed at the stylish Kalemi Hotel where you can sleep in a room gazing up at an intricately carved wooden ceiling, which would not go amiss in a stately home, at the modest cost of 5400 lek for a double including breakfast. Outside, the forbidding castle broods over the nineteenth century houses and to drench yourself even more in the town’s atmosphere it is worth reading Broken April, Ismail Kadare’s novel, detailing the vendettas of the past.

Priceless sixteenth century icons were Berat’s attraction, an Ottoman town which has an attractive old quarter. We were staying at Hotel Mangalemni (5500 lek a double including breakfast), which had a deserved reputation for friendliness and good food. First though the castle had to be conquered.

After an arduous climb, you are rewarded by treasures in the form of small churches and museums within its grounds. The curator, full of enthusiasm, explained the finer points of iconographic art. Back in the town we were fortunate to find open an ornate prayer hall created by a Dervish sect, which left us marvelling at the level of craftsmanship, as well as sensing that the town contained many other hidden gems.

As the sun sets an ideal place for a meal and the perfect panorama is Ajka Restaurant, run by an Armenian family, which overlooks the river and the old town.

Albania is the new Europe but a left field tourist destination where you can retain the excitement of exploration. Everywhere there was a friendly welcome, good value accommodation was readily available and an intriguing culture proved a real delight.

Behind the bunkers there are treasures waiting to be discovered.

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Finn McCarthy
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
Average: 4.5 (2 votes)
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First uploaded:
19 November 2009
Last updated:
5 years 43 weeks 3 days 22 hours 5 min 21 sec ago
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Community comments (7)

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

An interesting guide which tempts us to set foot in Albania. It was not many years ago that we were advised to sail at least three miles off shore en route to Corfu to avoid being shot at! Things have obviously changed significantly and Finn's account suggests that there is much to enjoy and all at a reasonable price. Well written and informative - thanks Finn.

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1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

An informative guide and interesting addition to Simonseeks, thanks Finn. The lovely photographs really add value to the guide too; we hope to see many more guides from you.
On an editorial note, be careful with hotel spellings - I had to correct two to be able to hyperlink them properly (which will help the money making potential of your guide). We'd also love to see contact details with your restaurant recommendations. Your choice of dish at Oda whetted my appetite, but I don't know where it is. Where you can, please offer address, telephone number and website address of all recommendations.

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Dear Jeanette,

Thank you for your comments. I have an address and telephone number for Oda Restaurant.

rr Luigi Gurakuqi Tel. 249 541.There does not appear to be a web site.

On the simonseeks links there appears to be only space for hotel recommendations and even then there is no space for telephone numbers.Perhaps you can clarify the best way to add restaurant recommendations.

Best wishes,

Hello Finn
Thanks for that. The best way to recommend restaurants is to simply insert the contact details into the main body of the text. This is the ideal format: .....dine at the Example Restaurant (123 Example Street; 01234 457 789;
Thank you

I understand the desire expressed above, to have a maximum of tel #, practical figures of all sorts. But I can find them in my guide books like Le Routard which we use extensively in France. What we don't find in such guides though, and that we find in Finn's article, is a personal and justified opinion from persons that seem to share the same values and attractions . We rate so highly this article because it gave us a real interest in visiting Albania, a country that we would never have thought of visiting.
Thank you Finn, and Simonseeks. Alain.

Thanks Alain, your feedback is really useful. Ideally, Simonseeks is looking to combine impassioned and inspiring travel writing with the practicalities of visiting and enjoying a destination, which you'd normally find in a guidebook. While a place like Oda might feature in your book, what if it doesn't? What if a quick internet search is fruitless? What a frustrating exercise. If Finn could tell us in just a few words where we might find this delightful-sounding restaurant, well, wouldn't we all be a lot happier?

"Spectacular views, whilst sipping cocktails, from the revolving Sky Tower, allow you glimpses of the fashionable area of the city and help you to appreciate how planners, have brought colour...." WOW - when I stumbled on this review, I wasn't sure of the location - wonderfully descriptive as it is - Albania, I must admit, did not come to mind. When I checked the photos, I came to appreciate the sentiments - vibrantly colourful against a hue of greys. Look again at the photos of chess in Tirana - what a contrast - playing an ancient game of strategy asgainst the backdrop of buidlings which themselves reminded me of a tattered old chessboard and I bet "every tatter in its mortal dress" represents a rich tapestry of bygone and difficult days and yet paradoxically holds out hope for travellers from our world seeking a grounded reality to todays life and with it potential for Albaia to to shake off its past, hold onto its present and embrace the future.

Albania first then Byzantium. Thank you Finn - keep travelling and reporting.