ALBANIA | Europe’s latest tourist sensation
We at Michelangelo Travel are always trying to add new destinations to our group tour programme and our latest search took us beyond Italy to the small country of Albania.
While still a place only a few know and talk about, Albania is the next break-out destination in the Mediterranean. Situated on the Balkan Peninsula in south-eastern Europe, its fascinating culture and stunning landscapes which range from beautiful beaches and snow capped mountains are the perfect combination for an unforgettable group tour.
More than twenty-five years after the fall of the communist regime, Albania’s tourism sector continues to grow, and its infrastructure is constantly improving, thus making it an increasingly attractive tour option from visitors from around the world.
In her travel report our Product Developer Veronica, who recently travelled to Albania, tells us why it is fast becoming one of Europe’s most interesting getaways.
Our tour started in Tirana, Albania’s capital since 1920. The city is an intriguing mix of architectural styles that blend to form a perfect balance between austerity and liveliness. After a short stroll we reached Skanderbeg Square, the city’s main palza which was named after the national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, Albanian leader and patriot who for decades blocked the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Europe. Passing through Rruga Abdi Toptani, Bunk’Art 2, an underground labyrinth and replica of a nuclear bunker from the Communist era, is well worth a visit. The museum gives a fascinating insight into Albania’s history during the Communist regime. The Communist influence can still be felt throughought the city and comes to life impressingly in the shape of Lenin, Stalin and Enver Hoxha whose statues stand behind Tirana’s National Gallery of Art as a reminder of that era of repression and difficulty. In the afternoon we left for Durrësi, a seaside town west of Tirana. Fine sandy beaches and a beautiful promenade await tourists who choose to spend their holidays here. In the evening we were greeted by a folkloristic show organized by the Albanian Star Hotel. Welcome to Albania!
Our journey begins with a visit to the archaeological excavations of Apollonia. This city of Greek origin is a multi-layered site, 90% of which remains undiscovered. The first excavations took place between 1924 and 1938 lead by French archaeologist Léon Rey, who knows what riches still remain hidden by the sands of time? In the afternoon we took part in a tasting of locally produced wines at the Çobo Winery. The Çobo family has a long tradition of wine production dating back to the early 1900s. We had the opportunity to taste different wines of local grape varieties such as “Shesh i Zi” and “Kashmer”, both red wines of different consistencies, as well as two white varieties and a liqueur, all accompanied by local delicacies. Our day ended in Berat, a UNESCO listed city, which is known as the city of a thousand windows due to the many windows, one above the other which give the impression that a thousand eyes are watching you.
Today’s long journey led us to the discovery of Vlora, the city where Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and where the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas meet. After a quick ice cream refreshment we continued on to the Llogara Pass, which in the local language is called “Qafa e Llogarasë”. This spectacular, winding road leads up some 30 miles climbing over 1000m affording stunning views of the entire Ionian coastline. In the late afternoon we arrived in Saranda, a town in the southwest of Albania, popular with holidaymakers. The city directly overlooks the Corfu canal, and the popular Greek holiday island can be admired comfortably from the centre.
After yesterday’s exertions, today was a quieter day with only one scheduled visit , namely to the Butrint archaeological excavations. The city of Butrint, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the most visited archaeological site in Albania. Its history spans over two millennia, from the first inhabitants, through the reign of Ali Pasha, the Lion of Yannina, up to the 19th century. Excavations only started in 1928 when the Italian archaeologist Luigi Maria Ugolini began to unearth the hidden treasures of the city, and the archaeological research has continued unabated to this day.
This day began with the visit to the Blue Eye, or Syri i Kaltër in Albanian. This magnificent spring, located in the small village of Mullina, is a magical and enchanting place that hypnotises you with its colours ranging from dark blue to aquamarine. Looking at it from above, it has the appearance of a human eye, giving rise to its name. We continued on to the town of Gjirokastër, whose historic centre is also included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city of stone, known for its fortifications, was the birthplace of Enver Hoxha and many members of the Albanian Communist party. On the upper part of the city, the Museum of Weapons displays cannons from the Second World War and details the legend of Princess Argjiro who, in order not to fall into the hands of the Ottomans, is said to have thrown herself off the fortress walls. Lunch was based on Qifqi, a local dish of rice balls with eggs and mint, before we made our way up the Chechova Pass towards the town of Korca. This long mountain pass, full of hairpin bends and steep gradients, may not be for the faint-hearted but offers breathtaking views of the valleys below. The road leads to Korca, which is widely known as the cleanest city in Albania, and indeed the place was spotless! We had the opportunity to visit the Iljaz Mirahori Mosque dating back to 1494 and to take a walk in the historic centre before leaving for Pogradec, a town located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, close to the border with neighbouring Macedonia.
A visit to the city of Elbasan was on today’s itinerary. The influences of the Ottoman Empire was gloriously clear for all to see through its King’s Mosque, or Xhamia Mbret that we were able to visit before prayer time. The fortress of Elbasan has been standing proud since 1466 and contains a city within a city comprised of typical little restaurants and cafes. Here I had the opportunity to taste the famous Tavë Kosi, a typical dish of the city, composed of lamb, yoghurt and eggs. We ended the day in the nearby Albanian capital, Tirana.
Our penultimate day was spent in the north of Albania in the cities of Kruja and Shkoder. Kruja is a small town created specifically for tourists. It was easy and fun to go through the bazaar and buy all kinds of souvenir. Although restored in the mid-1960s, you still get a strong sense of its Ottoman roots. Further north is the city of Shkoder, which was part of the Republic of Venice between 1396 and 1797, and the Venetian influence is evident in the style of the buildings in the town centre. The town is characterised by a “Triangle of the Faiths” depicted by the triangular formation of mosque, an Orthodox church and a Catholic cathedral. During Communist rule these three buildings were converted to atheist places, but were then restored to their original beauty at the end of these dark years. Lunch was at Sofra, one of the best places in the city where you can taste Albanian delicacies, as well as modern dishes and pizza. Our last port of call before returning to Tirana was to Lake Shkoder, the largest lake on the Balkan peninsula, which is shared by Albania and Montenegro.
We have come to the end of our wonderful journey of discovery of this magnificent country. I never imagined how open it was to tourism and that I would like it so much. This is definitely an up-and-coming destination which should be top of any traveller’s TO DO list!
Curious? Do you want to get more information about Albania and possible group tour options?