Albania is tiny – but its landscapes are diverse enough to delight mountain bikers, fans of flat roads and those who like to combine cycling with culture. Pedal in from Montenegro or Macedonia, or stay in Albania. Relax on the flat, paved roads around Lake Skadar, as you ride alongside horses and carts – or take on the mountains outside Tirana, staying with local families and crossing high passes.
You may have visions of bland, Communist stodge, but Albanian cuisine is more than a pleasant surprise. The varied climate, coastline, pastures and Greek-Turkish-Balkan influence result in a mouthwatering mix of succulent lamb, bean stews, fresh kebabs, fried sardines and stuffed peppers – with rosemary, basil, oregano, garlic and olive oil the dominant Mediterranean flavours.
Snow shoeing is a sneaky way to immerse yourself in alpine life; in rural, northern Albania, snow shoeing is used by farmers simply to get around their land; Accompanied by a farmer, you’ll learn about life in this traditional and still rather isolated region, once characterised by blood feuds and fortresses – but now a peaceful winter wonderland of beech and pine forests and incredible rural hospitality.
Albania would fit into the UK over eight times. This means you are never far from an international border – with Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro all top countries for combining with Albania. Cross over from Montenegro via the beautiful Lake Skadar, which straddles the border, cycle across from Macedonia, cross the mountains into Kosovo – or go for a full Balkans tour from Croatia to Greece.
Walking vacations in Albania are no cosy, inn-to-inn experience. The landscapes here are wild and isolated; this is bear and wolf territory – inhabited by hardy shepherds and wood cutters. Luggage can be transported by horse, you can wild camp, stay with local families or in little guesthouses. Take in Alps, lakes and forests, fuelled by hearty, home cooked meals and Albanian hospitality.
There are around 700,000 of these unsightly, domes squatting around the country – on beaches, in the middle of the street, in graveyards… The former dictator ordered their construction to save Albania from an invasion which never took place, and they are seen as a symbol of his hatred of the outside world. Today, their purpose has flipped – rumour has it that they are used as covert meeting points for young lovers…
Ottoman, Greek and Roman Empires have all played their part in Albania’s history – and present day archaeology fans will marvel at astonishing ruins, as fabulous as anything that exists in Greece – but with a fraction of the tourists. Explore the UNESCO-listed Ottoman town of Gjirokaster, and beautifully restored bazaars, or explore more recent history in Tirana – with its crumbling, communist murals.
Storytellers no doubt look to the Albanian Alps for inspiration – but the scary names and brutal topography belie their gentler side. You’ll barely believe you’re still in Europe as you pass traditionally attired villagers, deep blue rivers and farmers leading donkeys through this astounding, wild landscape. Multi-day hiking or cycling tours explore deeper – or snowshoe here in winter.
Normally we’re big fans of public transport. It’s one of the best ways to travel like a local, meeting people as you go, reducing your carbon footprint AND your costs. But Albania’s buses are so unreliable that only the strongest willed should attempt this as a way to get around. The exception is the public ferry which serves the length of Komani Lake – three hours of astonishing scenery as it stops at remote villages.
It’s not quite Benidorm, but you get the picture. This former fishing village has transformed beyond all recognition in the past few decades, with whitewashed, high rise blocks overlooking this strip of beach – the gateway to the Albanian Riviera. Don’t expect to see the sand in summer, as it’s hidden beneath the towels of Tirana, as the city decamps here to make the most of the sea breezes and raucous nightlife.
The locals may be able to handle their home brewed, grape-based moonshine, but rude as it may seem to decline their hospitality, if you’re offered raki from an unmarked bottle, declining a shot is probably still better than the undignified alterative. Opt for a glass or two of Albanian wine instead, made from indigenous grapes.
Albania’s sudden openness to the outside world along with its proximity to Corfu have made it the hottest new stop on Mediterranean cruises. Saranda is the port in chief, meaning that in summer the town, the surrounding beaches and archaeological sites are overwhelmed by passengers. Visit outside peak season, or explore before and after the ships leave port.