Albania (called Shqipëria by Albanians), is a land of disarmingly delicious food (on par with anywhere in Europe), three-hour coffee breaks, beautiful coastline, and epic, towering mountains; a land of few fences, rough, winding mountain roads; and big, smooth new highways. Where making a wrong turn is more likely to result in a new friend or something unexpectedly amazing than anything potentially dangerous or regrettable. And if you feel like drinking Raki (a potent traditional alcoholic drink made from grapes or other fruit) at noon, nobody cares a bit as long as you behave yourself.
This beautiful country has an ancient and diverse history, apparent almost everywhere, but especially in towns like Krujë or Gjirokastër or Berat, to name a few. More evidence of Albania’s notable past is obvious in such fascinating archaeological sites as Apollonia, Butrint, Phoenice and others.
Something interesting to note is that although Albanian (Shqip, a lovely-sounding but rather a difficult-to-learn language with two distinct dialects: Tosk, spoken in the south, and Gheg, spoken in the north ), is of Indo-European origin, it’s completely unique to the region. Albanians generally speak more than one language though, and in many cases, many languages. You can get by quite easily if you know some Italian!
❝Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.❞Rita Mae Brown
Food is certainly a vital aspect of the culture in Albania and is not only amazing but almost impossible to avoid, as in many places there are so many restaurants that a person could trip out the door of one and be halfway to the next one. And they all have people in them all the time. A major bonus is the ability to have a fantastic meal for, under €10, drinks included.
Here are some of the best traditional Albanian dishes to try:
- Byrek – a salty stuffed pie made from filo pasty; sometimes filled with spinach, meat or cheese.
- Ćevapi or Ćevapčići – delicious little handshaped, caseless, minced meat, grilled sausage fingers.
- Speça me gjize – baked yellow, orange, red or green stuffed peppers with rice & cottage cheese.
- Fried Kaçkavall – delicious, salty, fried yellow cheese, made from cow and/or sheep milk.
- Tavë Kosi – tasty quiche-like dish made with lamb and rice in a yogurt & egg roux.
- Perime në zgarë – grilled seasonal vegetables, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes & onions.
Another important fact of note is that this little nation is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in Europe and boasts many excellent local wines, so numerous I won’t list them here. Who knew? Probably everyone within 500 kilometres I’m sure, but I learn something new and interesting about Albania every week. Not overly surprising I suppose, considering that humans have inhabited the area for millennia.
If at this point you’re beginning to think I like Albania, you’re almost right. But not quite. I love Albania. And I haven’t even got to the best part yet. All of the above-mentioned stuff is indeed wonderful, but similar sorts of things can be found in many places around the world. What makes Albania my favourite country on earth thus far, is: the people. Yeah, yeah you might think, many people flog that old cliché the world over, from east to west, north to south, warm climes and cold, and in countries both new and old. And it’s true. But have they yet been to The Land of the Eagles?
Of course, experiences and opinions are relative, like everything, but in my experience and opinion, I’ve never encountered better humans. Open and honest, warm and social, helpful, and very friendly for the most part. And even when people aren’t overtly “friendly” in Albania I’ve yet to be treated rudely. My dear wife and I spent nearly three months there at the end of 2020 and felt genuinely welcome and cared for everywhere we went. Strangers will go out of their way to help if they notice you’re in need, not a common trait in people these days. There seems to be a level of courtesy there that doesn’t exist in other places.
Another unique/interesting/exciting/terrifying aspect of daily life in Albania is driving. The act of operating motor vehicles on public byways. Regular citizens have only had cars in Albania since the nineties, during communist rule almost nobody drove. At a first intimidating glance, traffic seems completely chaotic and insane and isn’t encouraged for the faint of heart, but there is an order to things.
Once you understand that there is indeed a code of conduct, and it somehow works, it helps to lower the heart rate and level of perspiration. And outright fear. Eventually. There are plenty of dented fenders in Albania (most of the city streets are narrow), but I didn’t see any accidents and I covered a fair amount of distance behind the wheel. You can see more about our Albania Road Trip here.
Of course, nowhere is perfect, and even this lovely country has room for improvement, but there are signs of issues being rectified in almost every town. Albania isn’t yet a rich country as far as material wealth is concerned, but by all indications, progress is being made. But, be aware that a lot of the country is rough around the edges and could initially be a cause for concern if arriving from somewhere more polished.
I’m from Victoria BC, Canada, which is quite manicured and tidy (other than the ever-growing homeless communities that spring up in new locations every year (drugs are bad, m’kay kids!), and it took me a little bit to see the awesomeness behind the weathered bits.
I admit that I had initial… not exactly misgivings, but a slight sense of apprehension when first arriving in Tirana (Albania’s Capital City), as there was messy, major construction between the airport and the city, and the outlying neighbourhoods are a bit ghetto-y. As we got into the centre of town and closer to our apartment I couldn’t help thinking that our time in Albania would likely be brief.
I soon came to realize that although the city was indeed a bit scuffed up, at first sight, she had plenty of charm and we had nothing to worry about as far as safety and convenience were concerned. It only took about a week to get comfortable in Tirana, and after three weeks it was home. We ended up living near Pazari Ri for two months, which is covered in detail in a separate post dedicated entirely to Tirana.
In retrospect, my misgivings upon arrival in Albania were almost certainly coloured by a trip to South America in 2019/2020. The last rough-looking place I was in for any length of time before going to Albania was Colombia (which is also covered in its own section), and no matter what a person may read online about that country, it’s dangerous. And dirty. And that most likely contributed to my initial sense of unease about Albania. A feeling which quickly dissipated. It is nothing like Colombia.
Although I do love it very much, one negative thing that I feel must be addressed is the garbage, which is strewn about everywhere that’s near any type of community, and on most of the thoroughfares connecting them. I found this rather confusing because the interior of almost every building I entered in the whole country was immaculate. Not just the: wipe up the obvious grime and sweep the dirt under the carpets, couches and beds type of clean, but impeccable. No matter the condition of the building itself.
Sadly, the outdoors are used as a national garbage dump. A huge cleanup campaign would not be a misguided endeavour in this amazing country, it needs it. To clarify though, not every town suffers equally from this and not every wild place does either, just enough of them to be a serious concern.
But this obvious issue, and others, aren’t insurmountable by any means, and in many cases, and many places, seem to be getting some attention, there was major construction in almost every town we visited. And considering that after WWII Albania was locked to the outside world by a communist dictatorship, which fell apart in 1990, and then experienced a violent and unstable period until 1997, it seems to have made some impressive gains. Which speaks to the character of Albania as a nation, and Albanians as a people.
I don’t speak more than fifty words of Albanian and spent not quite three months in the country, so I have no idea what real hurdles need to be overcome, but no imperfection I noticed overshadows the many wonderful things about this lovely Balkan gem. I plan on returning as many times as they’ll have me!