Albania was closed to tourists until the late 1980s and, as a result, is almost untouched by globalisation. Only 3 hours' flight from London it’s a country where you can be alone on a white sandy beach, where ancient scores are still regularly settled through blood feuds, where you will be welcomed into the homes of village people, and… where you can’t buy a McDonalds!
Albania lies at the heart of the Mediterranean region, less than 45 miles from Italy, on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. The former communist regime did not allow tourism to become established here, so it was only in the 1980s that the first groups of Western tourists were allowed to visit. For travellers wanting to get off the beaten track, Albania is now one of Europe's most exciting destinations.
The country has an amazingly diverse landscape from a 362km coastline rich with stunning white sandy beaches, to breathtaking mountains in the north, dense woodlands that are home to wolves and bears, and huge lakes that abundant with living fossils. It also has an amazing mix of civilisations and cultures - a real meeting of East and West.
Not-to-be-missed is the village of Thethi - a former holiday resort from the communist era which has since been beautifully preserved. Although there hasn’t been much tourism since then, the local people are extremely hospitable. The scenery is also amazingly beautiful - see fairytale-like houses with beech wood tile roofs, and enjoy fantastic views of the Accursed Mountains as the village is nestles right at the foot of towering Mount Arapit.
When to go: April to October are the best months to visit Northern Albania as it can snow heavily in winter, villages become inaccessible and it gets difficult to find a place to stay as local guesthouses close down when their owners move to the city for the winter months.
Getting there: Nėnė Teresa Airport/Rinas Airport, is an international airport 26km from Tirana. Be aware that you will need to pay a 10 USD tax on arrival at the airport. Northern Albania is also easily reached by road from Montenegro and Kosovo. Train lines you see on maps will be for goods, not passengers. You can also take the ferry to Durres from Italy (Ancona, Trieste and Bari) or from Corfu to Southern Albania (Saranda).
Getting around: While the rest of Albania is well served by buses, public transport in Northern Albania is not readily available. There are minibuses from Shkodra to the Lake Komani Ferry and to other cities. However, to get around in the mountains you will need to have your own car, 4x4, or bike. Adventure travel companies such as Outdoor Albania can also provide transport and guides in the region.
Traveller Zoe Palmer begins her journey at the border crossing from Montenegro at Hani-i-Hotet. She then travels by taxi to Shkodra, via Keq’s Tattoo Parlour which can be seen on the roadside, where she visits the Tradita Restaurant.
Next, Zoe takes a minibus from Shkodra to the ferry on Lake Komani and from there a 2nd ferry to Fierze.
From Fierze she travels by jeep to Bajram Curri, and then cycles on to Valbona, then travels by pony to the village of Rrogam.
From Rrogam Zoe hikes to the Valbona Pass where she camps overnight, hiking down to the village of Thethi the next day.
She continues her journey from Theti by climbing up to the Peja Pass where she pitches her tent, ready to scale the peak of Mount Arapit the next morning.
Don't forget to pack:
- Good topographical map
- Walking boots
- Albanian phrase book (village people may not speak English)
- Sun cream
- Warm clothing (temperatures drop at night)
- Warm sleeping bag
Although some of the more international, Italian-influenced cuisine (such as pasta and pizza) does make it into Northern Albania from the rest of the country, once you get into the mountain villages the food is locally produced and simple. You can expect lots of dairy: cheese, yoghurt and milk. Lamb and goat-meat is common and -if you're lucky - you might get to delicious stuffed lamb, cooked on a spit. Meats also include veal, wild boar and local pork.
Every house you visit will offer you coffee, cooked much like Turkish or Greek coffee, and a glass of home-made raki - the local clear spirit usually made from plums or grapes.
If you're looking for local crafts and souvenirs, head to the local markets - but... don’t get caught out by mass produced products, watch out for genuine local goods. You can find anything from bark soaked in rum (reputed to be a great aphrodisiac), to African influenced paintings and masks, to beautiful wraps - perfect for the beach. Be sure to talk to the stall keepers about their products, you may learn a thing or 2!
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