In the last few weeks we’ve made quite a bit of noise about how much we loved Albania. And we did. We both agree its one of our favourite countries we’ve ever visited.
From the beaches of Ksamil, the old ottoman town of Berat or the world-class hiking in Valbona – it all played a part in making our visit an amazing few weeks. Forget your preconceived notions of a former communist country, shrouded in grey. Albania is a country full of colour, beaches, history, amazing people, tasty food and so much more.
But there is no denying it’s a country still finding its feet after decades of communist rule. It’s had a hard life, and while things are ever improving, there are a few important issues Albania needs to sort out if its serious about wanting to grow it’s tourist dollar. Not to mention how these issues must be impacting the everyday life of Albanians.
So we thought we’d take you behind the scenes and sum up some of the things we loved, didn’t love and found down-right fascinating from our time in Albania.
Albanians are so friendly.
I know I’m repeating myself here, but the locals we came into contact with are some of the friendliest people we’ve ever meet on our travels. No question or request seemed too hard and everyone went out of their way to help. It was so nice to be in a country where the people are genuinely happy you’re there. Say thank you in Albanian (faleminderit) and you’ll knock them off their feet and receive a huge smile in return.
Male culture and male friendship is a big part of life here and this extends to showing affection for your friends in public. It’s common to see men walking hand in hand down the street, or with their arms over each other’s shoulders. Men also double (or was it triple?) kiss and hug when they meet, always looking so happy to see each other. It was so nice to see men being openingly affectionate and it’s something men of the western world could learn from.
Transport in Albania.
Furgon travel in Albania has mixed reviews – but we loved it. We found the furgons (minibuses) a cheap and easy way to get around the country. We had no issues on any of the buses, prices were fair and drivers were happy to point us in the right direction for any connections. There is never a set schedule, so they’re not the best if you have somewhere to be. But most of the time we never had to wait too long for our next ride.
We did also take the official buses when we had some longer trips, as we wanted the guarantee of air-conditioning, which is never a given in a furgon.
Honour and honesty.
It’s just part of travelling that you need to stay on your guard against scams. When a stranger approaches you on the street the first thing that goes through your mind is ‘what do they want to sell me’. The first thing you learn in a new city is the price of basics so you can make sure you’re not overcharged (too much), and you’d never get into a taxi without agreeing a price beforehand. It’s just how it works.
But in Albania things were different, and it took us a few days to put our finger on it, but we realised we’d completely let down our guards. It was such a nice feeling. We didn’t get ripped off or taken advantage of once while in Albania. Albanians take hosting people in their homes very seriously and to us it felt like this attitude also extends to visitors of their country.
(As an aside to this story – because we’d dropped our guard in Albanina, the first taxi ride we took after leaving the country we were ripped off. We stupidly got into the taxi first before agreeing a price. Rule 101 of travel).
Albanian cafe culture.
Albania runs on caffeine. Everywhere you go, at all times of the day, you’ll see men sitting in the cafes drinking their espressos. Morning, noon and night.
An evening stroll.
As the afternoon turns to dusk, the streets come to life. What was an empty town in the heat of the day is transformed into a mass of people in their Sunday best, promenading up and down the main street of town. This night-time ritual is called xhiro in Albanian. It’s is not a special event, or a weekend night out, it happens every night. Our tip is to join in. It’s a great way to see Albanian culture up close. (We talked about the history of promenading in our Berat post).
For the love of smoking.
Albanian’s love to smoke and it was so strange being back in a country that has no smoking laws, meaning you can smoke anywhere you like. Including in shops, restaurants and bars. The first time I smelt cigarette smoke in an indoor bar, I was taken back in time to the smoky London bars of my 20s. And I realized how much I haven’t missed it!
Albania’s rubbish problem.
As we mentioned when we took the Koman Ferry, the stretch of water you cruise down could be one of the most beautiful boat trips in Europe – if it wasn’t for the constant rubbish along the waterways. And it’s not just one or two bottles. In parts there was rubbish everywhere. And that’s just the rubbish we could see.
Sadly rubbish is a big problem in Albania. Some towns have no rubbish removal system or even official rubbish dumps. This means areas of the town, such as unused paddocks or riverbanks are used as the unofficial town rubbish dump. Hopefully this is something they’ll sort out sooner rather than later but it sounds like bureaucracy is holding this back at the moment – with local and national councils at a standstill over who is responsible. It was so bad in places you wonder how they’ll ever be able to clean it all up. I hope they sort it out soon before it’s too late.
We loved our furgon trips in Albania, but the roads we travelled on – less so. Expect bumpy and busy stretches of open road, which makes the trip slow going. If your furgon has poor suspension, your ride will feel like you’re sitting on one of those old wooden roller coasters. The worst road we experienced on our trip was the road leading into Berat, one of the key tourist towns in Albania. The road was so bad, our furgon was driving along the dirt strip on the side of the road as it was an improvement over driving on the actual road.
I’m not sure of the politics behind all this but it seems like there is a serious lack of money being spent on infrastructure in the country.
Where are the women?
We saw and met a lot more men than women in Albania when we were outside of the bigger cities. During the day the streets were full of men going about their business, drinking their espressos in cafes or sitting on the park benches having a chat. The male dominance in some of the cafes was so strong, we didn’t know if it was okay for us to go there if it wasn’t the done thing, when Kristen would have been the only female.
In the evening and early afternoons, we’d see a lot more women appear as they joined the men in the parks and on the promenades.
Times they are a changin’.
While things aren’t perfect, now is the time to visit Albania. Tourist numbers are low and travellers for the most part are still a novelty.
The secret of Albania is already out and as tourism increases, who knows how much things will change. Here’s hoping that some of Albania’s problems can get sorted out in the near future, and that the people can retain their openness and friendliness towards visitors to their country as numbers increase.
We’ll leave you with the most interesting tradition or custom we’ve come across in our years of travel.
Hanging soft toys in Albania.
The first time we saw a soft toy hanging from a building, we thought it was a siblings way of upsetting a younger brother or sister.
As we started to see a few more hanging outside houses, we thought it might represent a new baby in the household.
But as we passed through the country, the sight of soft toys swinging from pillar to post become more frequent and we thought there is no way all these places have new babies in the household! But it turns out there is a perfectly reasonable explanation…
They are put there to ward off evil eye. Albanians believe that to keep a property safe from the ‘evil eye’, you follow the tradition of the dordolec – a scarecrow or doll that looks over your property and distracts the evil eye.
Since the fall of communism, as more and more people are owning their own properties and so wanting to protect their possessions, this superstition has risen in popularity in recent years. So you’ll see Daffy Duck and friends hanging around all over the place as you travel through the country.
It’s seems to be similar to the evil eye superstition in Turkey and Greece, where they hang the nazar amulet outside their property. It’s so interesting this has evolved in Albania into the use of a soft toy.
It’s officially one of the strangest traditions we’ve come across in our years of travel. Can you beat it? We’d love to hear of other traditions like this.