Albania – Europe’s undiscovered gem

Pristine and uncrowded beaches, historic cities, welcoming locals; Greece is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. However, bordering Greece to the north is Albania; a country that is often forgotten about in travelling circles yet has similar characteristics.

Albania is probably Europe’s biggest secret. Untouched coastal regions, locals who can’t wait to meet you, cascading mountains and vibrant cities, such as coastal Sarandë, Gjirokastër with its medieval castle and the colourful capital Tirana.

Shqipëri, as it is known to the population of just over 3 million, has not had an easy ride. Having been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and Communism, Albania was caught in the middle of the Balkan Conflict and lost Kosovo – but now it is free and resurgent. A new and young generation welcome you with smiles, and the country is making great strides to attract more visitors to her shores.

Albania has had some amazing coverage recently. The Lonely Planet named the country first in its top places to visit in 2011 while the New York Times rated the coastal region four out of 52 for places to see this year – although it is still much of an unknown quantity.

Albania’s problem is access; with only one airport based in Tirana and a relatively poor infrastructure, getting around is not easy. Flying there can be expensive with the country not having opened up to low cost airlines and the only direct route in is via British Airways from Gatwick – a costly option if not booked well in advance. The country hopes, however, more doors can be open to tourism while still maintaining its rural charm and authenticity.

Elton Caushi from specialist local tour operator, Albanian Trip, says: “Gossip indicates that some of the low-cost carriers will fly to Albania shortly. Soon, we will have Ryanair access via Podgorica in Montenegro, which is only half-an-hour drive from the Albanian border and this is a good first step. The problem we may have with the arrival of low-cost flights is that we may have more people that what we can handle with quality. I really believe that Albania shouldn’t become a massive tourist destination like Greece because our 440km of coastline is quite important to us, but has its own limits. I think, for now, the country should be a destination for very cultivated travellers.

“We don’t have as much chemical pollution as some other countries. I think Albania needs to avoid creating massive holiday resorts which attract thousands of visitors and don’t give Albanian families a chance to have a small guest house or bed and breakfast with a few rooms. This means we can give a really quality service without having people being moved around like sheep, which I have seen in neighbouring countries; that isn’t nice. It is good for the money but not for the future.”

One sixth of the entire country live around Tirana, the major gateway by air to Albania. Although it is relatively small and not as heralded as other major capitals, such as Athens and Rome – it has undertaken a major change over the last 20 years and has an array of attractions on offer.

Elton adds: “People will find the history of the last 100 years in Tirana. Tirana is quite a new town and celebrates 400 years of foundation this year. 1614 is the year which we consider that Tirana was founded as a town and became the capital in 1924 after WWI. What can be found there is King Zog’s heritage and I have been impressed with those who know about the King here in England. All the major Communist activities happened in Tirana and on my tours I tell people there’s two faces of Albania; the Tirana area and the rest of the country.

“The rest of the country is quite rural and regional, while Tirana is the modern face of the country. It has lots of galleries, the best restaurants and a young population. It has an area called Blloku (The Block) where only the Communist nomenclature used to live, but now it is the hub of business and nightlife which attracts huge crowds of young people in the evenings. Tirana is vibrant; it is a young town and is worth having a look at.”

For more on Albania and it’s culture, check out a video of Elton below.

For more information on Albanian Trip, click here.

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