For decades, Albania's been the isolated oddball of Europe. But times are changing, and this friendly little country is now taking its first steps towards establishing itself on the tourist trail
Albania is rapidly changing, with the death of long-time dictator Enver Hoxha paving the way for democracy in place of the pure communism that prevailed for decades. Where once beards were banned and you could be imprisoned for listening to the BBC, now British Airways has daily flights from London Gatwick to Tirana and there are growing business opportunities as the new Albania emerges from the shadows and the fledgling tourist industry takes shape.
We flew into Mother Teresa Airport (named after Albania’s most famous daughter), paid the £10 visa fee and were in. The half-hour taxi journey to the city centre costs £20, but we avoided the mass ranks of taxi touts by pre-booking transport with our hotel.
We stayed in the mid-range Villa Tafaj, which is small, quiet and clean, has ultra-friendly staff and is just a stone’s throw from Skanderbeg Square, the capital’s pulsating heart. The hotel served modest breakfast in a delightfully sunny courtyard, the only downside being the two caged raccoons, which I desperately wanted to free.
So what to do in Tirana? First stop: the National Museum of History, with a fabulous mosaic mural on its facade depicting heroic Albanian victories from Illyrian times up until the Second World War. I am not usually a museum person but this one shouldn’t be missed, if only to see the photographic and written evidence of the austere regime that was in place from 1945 until the 90s. The displays really put into context how far removed from freedom Albanians were, and the complete control and severe conditions they lived under.
After that, it's time for an espresso and the chance to recover your sensibilities - best done on the terrace of the five-star International Hotel, situated on King Zog Boulevard. There, you can take in the whole panorama of the square – the mosque (Albania is 70 per cent Muslim), the clock tower, the imposing statue of national hero Skanderbeg sat atop a rearing black stallion, the hideous opera house and the grand governmental buildings.
Tirana is small enough to do on foot and photographic opportunities are scarce - it is very much work in progress and will never rival other Central European capitals such as Prague or Budapest. What it lacks in grandeur, however, it makes up for in its relaxed mood and the welcoming smiles of the locals, who have been through so much. There are no beggars, and the only tout we saw was offering instamatic pictures standing next to his life-sized but decidedly threadbare toy tiger.
The fact that there are hardly any other tourists is another huge bonus, as is the surprisingly good vegetarian food (especially at Serenata on Mihal Duri) and the delicious Korca dark beer to wash it down.
Nightlife is picking up, too. We especially enjoyed Buda Bar, home to Tirana’s young, beautiful and trendy set. It has a giant buddha, atmospheric lighting and ambient music, of course, but also offers velvety local plum-red wine and the rare indoor opportunity to smoke a sheesha pipe. The smoky aromas of apple, strawberry, incense and rose were intoxicating enough on their own and, mixed with the bar’s other delights, assured us of a good night’s sleep.
Out of town
The capital is a great base for exploring northern and central Albania. The guidebooks made former capital Durres sound better than it was – it's more Torbay than Montego Bay - but it made a pleasant interlude, with a nice sunset and excellent bootleg CDs at 50p a go.
The main reason to go to Durres was to experience Albanian train travel – which is excruciatingly slow, with decrepit carriages and foul-smelling diesel locomotives. Absolutely wonderful! Where else can you experience such a travel throwback?
Going so slowly enables you to take in the countryside, including some excellent examples of the multitude of mushroom-shaped bunkers that adorn the landscape. Train travel is incredibly cheap and is the transport of choice for the older generation. By wearing my Norman Wisdom T-shirt (he's an absolute star in Albania), I was able to strike up a conversation with some elderly men. Nicolao was 80 and had just taken up French – I tested him using all my C-grade O-level prowess. He was happy to talk about the old days, when he had risked death for being an illegal radio ham.
We took some day trips by road (www.outdooralbania.com), too. The first one was to Kruja Castle, high up in the mountains, about an hour's drive away. We passed stunning scenery, not that we could see much on the ascent, as the September sunshine we left soon turned to torrentail rain. When we were dropped off, the rain was so hard that a muddy river had formed down Kruja’s main street.
We took refuge in a little cafe, and by the time we had finished our lemon tea, the sun had come out, the river had disappeared and the coats and waterproof trousers we had taken an age to put on came off in a jiffy.
The castle itself was well worth the climb, and the museum, dedicated to Skanderbeg (who had made Kruja the seat of his government and the castle his base to attack the Ottomans), was also a cut above most I have endured. We walked back down into Kruja town through Albania’s best bazaar, where you could buy anything from stamps and coins through to genuine pieces of armour from the 15th century (allegedly).
Berat was another excellent side trip. The ‘town of a thousand windows’ is famed for its Ottoman villas, which hug the hillside like limpets. It also has pleasant riverside walks, and is surrounded by hills bedecked with cherry and olive trees. For those who feel energetic, there is a strenuous romp through the whitewashed alleyways and the clusters of trees up to the hilltop fortifications. The fortifications are not that spectacular but the view of Berat and the surrounding countryside definitely is.
Albania is cheap, friendly, unhurried and relatively poor. It has had an extremely troubled past but is now definitely looking to the future, attracting investment and determined to get onto the tourist map. Go now and feel like a pioneer.