“meJournalists would rarely come here,” says Elton Caushi, head of tour operator Albanian Trip, whom I meet in the capital, Tirana. “When they came, they just wanted to talk about bloodshed and sworn virgins.”
The traditions that once governed tribal politics in the mountains of Albania are interesting, but I’m here to explore a more recent view of the southeastern European country. Thanks to its beaches, Unesco-stamped cities and hiking trails, ex-communist Albania is being hailed as the “hot new” European travel destination outside of backpacking and dark tourism.
For years, Albania had a reputation as a dangerous country to visit, thanks in large part to its political isolation under the dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. After the 1997 Albanian civil war and the end of war of Kosovo in 1999, more visitors came. gradually began to arrive in Albania, attracted in part by lower prices than in Greece and Italy. In 2009, 1.9 million tourists traveled to Albania; in 2019, the last full year pre-Covid, the figure was 6.4 million.
The food here may be a factor in this change. I am with Caushi in an unnamed restaurant at 1001 Bardhok Biba, a street close to the city centre. “The tourists haven’t got it – it’s mainly drivers who eat here,” he says. In a sumptuous breakfast taskqbap – a soup mix of veal, garlic, onions and tomato sauce – before Caushi takes me for a 9am dessert at Mon Amour, a Parisian-style patisserie. We pay a non-Parisian lek 390 (£2.80) for coffee and baklava pastries with ice cream.
After breakfast I drive to Dhërmi, a village where many hotels have appeared on its coast in the last ten years. I arrive at the start of Kala, one of many small dance music festivals that have sprung up along the Riviera, with a dance floor on the sand.
Dhërmi’s main non-festival beach is clean, neatly covered in sunbeds and flanked by restaurants. All right if you just want to lie back and plow through your Kindle. The smaller beaches to the north here, such as Splendor Del Mar and Empire Beach Resort, feel gloriously Balearic in comparison. Swimming in the clear turquoise sea off Splendor is quiet and slow. I haven’t had a better swim outside of Asia.
Later, on a walk to nearby Gjipe beach – sandy, beautiful, secluded, with no hotel development – I see a concrete bunker and look at this sea-view dome: a gray lump of cold war paranoia on a less-than-idyllic coast.
I see another bunker. Then another one, in the hills when I drive back to Dhërmi. I start to count them, but I soon realize that bunkers are as common here as suntanned skins. It was reported that around 173,371 were taken in Albania between 1975 and 1983, and Hoxha prepared for the possible attack.
Caushi warned me that the tourist cities of Durres and Sarandë were already attracting enough tourists to make them uncomfortably crowded. I stop instead in Gjirokastër and Berat: two smaller, more famous cities.
I prepare by reading Chronicle in Stone, a 1971 novel by Ismail Kadare – a famous Albanian author and resident of Gjirokastër. In the book, the romance of the steep, bumpy paths of Gjirokastër, winding around buildings such as Skenduli House and Zekate House – owned by elite families and now museums – is evident in the story of the bombing of the 1940s.
Its ink covers the city – my hotel is on Ismael Kadare Street. However, Gjirokastër was once as famous for cannabis as Kadare, according to Blero Topulli, who works at Gjirokastër castle. “It was considered one of the most dangerous points in Europe – we had a village that produced tons of cannabis,” he says. “When I was a kid in the 2000s, it was like a tourist seeing a foreigner.”
We meet in the castle above the village of Lazarat, which was full of illegal drug production until a police crackdown in the mid-2010s.
Thanks to its historic architecture, Gjirokastër became a Unesco site in 2005, but Topulli says significant numbers of tourists didn’t come out until the cannabis gangsters left. We are walking the bazaar streets, renovated five years ago for the tourist tilt, but it is easy to escape from the small Disneyfied pocket of the city. Topulli takes me up the hill to watch the sunset, passing the mansions depicted by Edward Lear in the mid-19th century.
“Listen: the wind in the trees is like the sea,” says Topolli. He’s right: it fills my ears as the castle lights flicker, a relaxing respite from Kala’s beach parties.
Further north in Beirut, also a Unesco-listed city, I walk up to the castle. Historical richness is similar to Berat and Gjirokastër – and in the same way a steep climb – but feels rougher.
Berat’s lack of health and safety concerns makes it all the more enjoyable. At the ruins of the Red Mosque, I scramble up the black interior of the thin tower very quickly, cramming my head over the top so vertigo can overcome my rising claustrophobia.
“I came to Albania because you can do beach, cities and hiking in one week,” a US tourist tells me. In fact, after a two-hour drive to Tirana it’s a two-hour bus ride to Shkodër, gateway to the Albanian Alps.
I do a classic ride: the 17km route between Valbona and Theth in the Valbona Valley national park. To calm myself down, I read Edith Durham’s Ard Alban, the British writer’s document of the tribes of the region, based on her 1908. Because of the difficulty of the climb, and the horse-dotted woods giving way to rocky half-paths, there is danger there the wild beauty of the area will be surpassed. But three hours in I reach the peak, and the views sprinkled from the forest work their magic: it’s a Swiss-level stunner.
In mountain-cradled Theth, my guest house pancake breakfast is soundtracked by the weather “click-click-click” of diggers. The snaking road to Shkodër was surfaced with asphalt for the first time last year.
Caushi says some fear the new Theth highway could lead to over-tourism. “But I am happy for my friends there: 15 years ago you would see a cow, a chicken, a corn field. Now they can go to school faster, to the hospital … it’s good for the local people.”
Good for me too, I think, because my bus to Shkodër is going over asphalt.
I end up back in Tirana, staying in Hotel Boutique Kotoni in the city center, then in the quieter Morina hotel, near the Grand Park of Tirana. Being the capital of a country that had an anti-capitalist regime until 1992, Tirana didn’t get proper crops until well into the 1990s, according to Caushi. After a building boom in the 2000s, the city now has a population of 560,000. There is a trendy cafe right in front of Hoxha’s opulent former residence.
I’m in Tirana soon, but visit Bunkart 1, Hoxha’s underground complex, now a museum and art space. Exhibitions outline the years of dictatorship, interspersed with art installations. Balanced incorrectly, the mix of dark history and visual art could come across as hipster-ish, but it’s incredibly exciting.
Another reminder of how quickly a place can change.
Kala provided accommodation in Dërmi; Tirana accommodation provided by Hotel Boutique Kotoni (doubles from €100 B&B, hotelkotoni.com) in association with Albanian Trip and Hotel Morina Radisson Collection (doubles from €80 one room