European travellers are increasingly flocking to the Balkans as a cheap, sunny, relaxing holiday destination. While I rave about Lake Ohrid in Macedonia and the cultural scene in Belgrade, my friends have been returning from Croatia with stories of wild beach parties and 3-day Techno festivals. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Albania. I always imagine it as a land of impassable misty mountains where marauding bandits roam around on horses with AK-47s, capturing women for a lifetime of servitude either in the sex industry or – worse – the Albanian homestead.
So I asked my good friend, ace short story author and former inhabitant of Tirana, Karen Murdarasi to shed some light on this enigmatic Balkan state and perhaps explode some of these deeply entrenched prejudices. A quick look at the pictures below tells an all-together more positive story of Albania. It kind of looks like an inexpensive version of Greece: Clear blue waters, tasty food and sunshine by the bucketload. So, without further ado, here are Karen Murdarasi’s top five awesome things to do in Albania.
5 Awesome Things To Do In Albania by Karen Murdarasi
I’m not being sarcastic. There are (more than) five good things about Albania, and I’m not including an episode of Top Gear being filmed there. Albania gets a bad press. The menfolk are always the bad guys on TV dramas and films. (Never watch Taken. Never, never, never watch Taken 2.) The women, although beautiful, are assumed to be dim and usually involved in some way in the sex industry. And there’s a scurrilous rumour that Albanians as a whole are very fond of Norman Wisdom films. None of this is true. So, to set the record a little straighter, here are five things that are in fact good about “The Land of the Eagle”.
5) Eat Fast Food With A Twist
Albanian fast food is cheap and delicious. There’s byrek, which is flaky pastry filled with sharp-tasting cheese or meat, and sufllaqe, which is like a kebab, but if kebabs were gorgeous. The drinks available are also gorgeous – peach juice, apricot and orange, natural lemonade. And Coke, of course; Albania is still a place in the world.
It does not, however, have a McDonalds (yet). Instead it has Kolonat (The Collonade) in the capital, which serves burgers and stuff, along with pizza and chicken. The reason I mention it is that the big K above Kolonat is printed in a distinctive curvy way, so that it could easily be mistaken for some other letter…
4) Discover The Controversial History
I’m into history, having studied Ancient History at university, so I realised where Albania was for the first time when I found out it was ancient Illyria / Illyricum. In fact, despite various wars, migrations and occupations, the Albanians are still pretty much directly descended from the ancient Illyrians, and their language seems to come from Illyrian too.
The history of the Albanians hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs over the last three thousand years, but it’s certainly interesting. The people they’ve been defeated, occupied or invaded by make up a Who’s Who of history, from the Greeks and Romans through the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler. Much of this history is also what’s known as ‘contested’. It could keep a history department in professorships for decades.
3) Enjoy The Fantastic Weather
This is less of a niche interest, I imagine. Albania is on the Mediterranean (as long as you’re not being too pedantic, and allow offshoots of the Med like the Ionian Sea). Therefore is has fabulous weather for most of the year. From March to October, it ranges from warm to very hot and from bright to glorious. Cafes have most of their tables outside and sandals are the only footgear required.
All that sunshine makes you want to go to the beach, of course, which brings me on to number two…
2) Experience The Varied Landscape
Long, sandy beaches. Rugged, picturesque mountains. Pellucid lakes, dark forests and magisterial gorges. Wide, shallow rivers meandering over pure white stones. And also the one large, flat bit where most people live and all the crops are grown. Albania has all the scenery you could want in really quite a small country (the size of Wales), and most of it is breathtaking.
Albania is part of the Balkan Peninsula, like Greece, so naturally it looks quite similar. It’s also blessed with lots of natural springs, like Greece, so you can buy very nice local mineral water very cheaply. My favourite is Tepelena Water which is superior to all the others on account of being, as it proclaims on the label, “suffled how it gush.” You can’t argue with that.
1) Lose Track Of Time
Of all the wonderful things about Albania, the overall winner for me has to be the pace of life. This is what I miss most when I come back to the UK. There is UK time and there is Albanian time, and the two are very different.
It’s not just about being late for everything (although that’s certainly part of it), it’s about valuing certain things above punctuality – things like having time for your friends, enjoying the journey, eating and dressing properly, and not overheating in the glorious sunshine. Once you manage to overcome your western obsession with timekeeping, this attitude is amazingly relaxing and liberating: Whatever it is, it can wait; enjoy now.
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Find out more about Karen the guest blog author here