Aside from Greece and perhaps Croatia, the southeastern region of Europe (or Balkan Peninsula) has for long been overlooked and underrated. However, as mainstream destinations like Italy, France, and Spain are featured in far too many guidebooks, travelers coming to Europe (and Europeans alike) are enticed to wonder what else is there in the old continent. Hence, as the search for off-the-beaten-track alternatives increases, places like Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo begin to spark the interest of foreigners, with their landscape diversity and rich cultural heritage earning their place in the sun.
Due to its singular history and Indo-European roots in a predominantly Slavic-speaking region, Albania is a particular case. This small but plentiful country offers something for every palate: from the clear water beaches of its Riviera, through ancient ruins and medieval castles, to the mythical Albanian Alps. Since north and south feature different landscapes and attractions – thus promoting distinct “styles” of traveling – we have chosen to focus on the southern region, mainly because it is accessible all year round. Here, we will assume that you arrive by plane via Tirana International Airport (Albania’s only airport), and have the capital as the starting point, taking you through Berat, Gjirokaster, and Saranda.
Despite being one of Europe’s least visited capitals, Tirana may very well exceed your expectations. The vestiges of a turbulent past are still evident – both in the architecture and, to some extent, in the people – but are being dealt with in a very progressive manner. The city boasts a brand new square that pays tribute to the nation’s hero, Skanderberg; a series of rundown soviet buildings have been revamped; streets are clean and the atmosphere is vibrant regardless the time of the day. The main attractions are the daily free walking tour – which takes you around important landmarks – and a visit to Bunkart 2, a nuclear bunker built in the Communist era that has been remodeled into an underground museum. Aside from sightseeing, Tirana is known for its immense variety of cafes and lively Bbloku neighborhood, where the nightlife happens. A couple of days should be enough to get a feel for the city and prepare to journey down south.
Although Berat doesn’t have as many touristic spots as its counterpart, Gjirokaster, it holds a very unique and romantic atmosphere – which is worth appreciating. As for what to do, the Berat Castle is a must, since unlike most buildings of the sort it isn’t a museum; people still live inside the walls. Another way to explore Berat is by getting lost in the alleyways of both sections of the city – Mangalem and Gorica – and simply observe daily life unfold. Finally, one of the most pleasant and revealing experiences is to sit at a cafe on the Republika boulevard in the evening to watch as locals dress up and walk up and down the street, in their traditional “xhiro”. Most attractions in Berat can be seen in one or two days, with the option of exploring the surrounding mountains and waterfalls.
The City of Stone, as it is often addressed, is Albania’s best-maintained example of Ottoman architecture – a trait that has granted it the title of World Heritage Site. There is no shortage of things to do in Gjirokaster but in order to explore the city to the fullest, one must enjoy (or at least not be bothered by) walking uphill. The city has been a vertex of great civilizations for millennia, and by meandering along its cobblestone streets you feel the presence of such cultural burden. A visit to the Gjirokaster Fortress is the perfect way of setting the context so to better understand the place and, consequently, the other landmarks you will come across. You can easily set aside three to four hours to explore the ancient fortress, especially since they have just put up new information signs that give you a comprehensive look at the country’s history as you walk along the citadel’s stone corridors. It is worth spending three to four days in Gjirokaster so to check out the Zekate and Skenduli Ottoman houses; get lost in the picturesque old bazaar area; go for hikes around the city – like the Ottoman bridge or the ancient ruins of Antigone.
As the gateway to the Albanian Riviera, Saranda is a cosmopolitan and lively coastal city and hub of tourism in the country. Although it does have its cultural facets, the city is best known for its beautiful beaches, a variety of restaurants, and bustling nightlife. Depending on your priorities and time-frame, a couple of days should be more than enough to grasp what Saranda is about. A pleasant and balanced alternative for a day out is to unwind at the Ksamil beach in the morning, indulge on some seafood for lunch, explore the ancient ruins of Buntrint in the afternoon, and come back just in time for a night out. From Saranda, you may choose to catch a ferry across to Corfu, Greece – where there are daily flights to Europe’s main airports – or return to Tirana by bus.