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
This is what happens when you follow Google Maps
The quickest route back from Munich to the UK by road is quite possibly one of the dullest, scariest and most excruciating drives you would ever have the misfortune to experience in your life. Google maps suggests a route roughly taking in Stuttgart – Dortmund – Belgium – Calais – UK. Anyone insane enough to take the search engine’s advice will surely be forgiven for believing they must have died and gone to one of the innermost circles of hell.
Part one: Bavaria
There are two main drawbacks to driving here. First is the tractors. They travel at 25 kilometers and hour and are driven by ruddy cheeked, lederhosen-wearing sausage munchers who will do anything to get that pile of precariously topplable logs from one place to another. If you thought leather shorts and green hats with feathers in were only a fancy dress costume worn at Oktoberfest, you were wrong. They are the look of choice for any self respecting German farmer.
The German farmer’s wife, however, is perhaps an even worse creature to encounter on your voyage through hell. She takes her sartorial advice from old newsreels of Russian peasants and spends all day wearing a headscarf and sweeping the pavement with a broom. Not a sweeping brush, mind, but a traditional straw broom like in Harry Potter, but without the quidditch. If you have the audacity to drive through her street, you can expect a piercing glare at best, or for her to keel over and die from the shock of seeing an Auslander in a right hand drive vehicle at worst.
Part Two: The Autobahn
The Germans are proud, staunch supporters of the lack of speed limit on their autobahns. In the closeted Catholic world of South Germany, it is one of life’s few freedoms.
There are two ways to drive on the autobahn. The first is to drive in the slow lane at 60mph, sandwiched between enormous lorries (usually laden with the aforementioned precarious piles of topplable logs). The second option is to drive in the fast lane, for there are only two lanes. This lane is populated by maniacal, arrogant Audi and BMW drivers who think that two inches is a reasonable stopping distance at 150mph. Drive for more than ten minutes on any autobahn and you will see burned-out Citroens littering the hard shoulder who have had to push their car way beyond its mechanical limit to avoid the hooting and flashing of an impatient Mercedes owner.
Part Three: The Ruhrgebiet
The Danube and the Rhine were the information superhighways of the middle ages, with people, goods and ideas travelling by boat across Europe. Along the Rhine sprang up mighty cities, which in time industrialised and became the powerhouses of German industry. The northernmost edge of this region is called the Ruhrgebiet. To drive through the Ruhrgebiet is to experience the very depths of humanity. Faceless concrete, billowing industrial smog and lashing horizontal rain await the intrepid motorist as she crawls through endless snarls of choked-up motorways.
Part Four: Belgium
Belgium is perhaps the most geographically unlucky place on the planet. Trapped between the channel ports and the rest of Europe, it is a thoroughfare for every conceivable type of truck, lorry, articulated freight vehicle, refrigerated lorry and delivery van ever. And we all know how awful these drivers are. Is there anything worse than the self satisfied, overweight, dirty fingernailed long-distance haulage driver whose only joys in life are king size Mars Bars and onanism?
If there is anything worse, it’s the Belgian road system itself. The potholed and cracked roads buckle under the strain of being the gateway to Europe. And for some inexplicable reason, the slow lane on the motorway turns into the slip road at EVERY exit, meaning you have to dart into the fast lane at every junction, lest ye be whisked off to Liege.
Part Five: Calais
Calais was owned by the English until 1558 and, dear God, it shows. Go to any town in France – and I mean any town – and you can expect a relatively pleasant town square, pavement cafes with dismissive waiters, a pretty church. Not in Calais. 500 years under the English yoke has had such a detrimental effect on the Calais-dwellers’ psyche that they seem to be modelling their town on either post-war Coventry or the slums of Glasgow circa 1935. Listless would-be-asylum-seekers pace around the town centre, awaiting the great voyage to the UK in the deluded belief it’s somehow better there than France. Gangs of sullen youths loiter in the train station, waiting for a train to anywhere except here.
Part Six: England
So you’ve made it back to Dover in one piece. Back in good old Blighty, with its considerate drivers, friendly policemen and polite pedestrians. After spending so long on the continent, your chances of a) Getting in the correct lane, b) Not undertaking on the motorway, or c) Remembering which way round a roundabout goes are about zilch. Good luck with that.