Albania is the land of erroneous information. A lot of what’s out there on the web is outdated or just plain wrong. We live and work in Albania, and are travelling the country constantly, so decided to put together a comprehensive Albania travel guide to provide useful and up-to-date information on this beautiful but sometimes confusing country’s quirks and customs.

This guide is written from the point of view of an English expat, not a native Albanian. It is aimed at foreign tourists who are planning to visit, so we have a duty to flag up the negatives as well as positives of travel in Albania. The positives far outway the negatives, so we think there’s no harm being honest about some of the minor annoyances.

If you feel we’ve left anything vital out of this Albania travel guide, then please let us know by using the comments box at the bottom of the page, or your preferred social media channel.

First published 27 March 2021. 

“A” is for…

Architecture & The Built Environment

If you’re here for only a short time, and you have an interest in architecture, your trip-planning is simple. First, go to Korça. Then Gjirokastra. Then Berat.

Tirana is architecturally interesting, in inverted commas, but most of the Ottoman and Italian Art Deco buildings are gone. Sadly, since 1944 the general attitude towards old buildings has been: “Hulk Smash”. The Communists jumped on the wrecking ball for ideological reasons – to sever ties with the past in an attempt to create the ideal Socialist Man. The driving force behind the post-1991 destruction is a mixture of cold hard cash and bad taste.

Rural Albania has a better story to tell, due to benign neglect. You can find wonderful old buildings, but they can be hard to reach due to the lack of paved roads. For traditional villages, both restored and unrestored, try Old Qeparo and Vuno on the Riviera, and then make a bee-line for Mat and Dibër in northeast Albania, where there are magnificent stone kulla (tower) houses. Most are falling down, of course, but some now are being converted into guesthouses.

Finally, if you have eyes to see, at all costs avoid the coastal lowlands. The 40-odd kilometres from Tirana to Durrës, for instance, is an architectural horror show, a retina-searing, wrist-slitting descent into concrete-and-steel madness. Mirrored glass pyramids, inexplicably angled industrial units, a drive-thru “university” shaped like a book, Greco-Roman wedding palaces… And just when you think it can’t get any worse, you reach the outskirts of Durrës.

Autochthonous

“Autochthonous” is another way of saying “indigenous”. Albanians say it a lot – at every opportunity, in fact – which opens up a particularly troublesome can of Balkan worms. 

Unfashionable 19th-century scholars who travelled in the region and studied the Albanian language and local customs concluded that the Albanians are descendents of one or more of the ancient Illyrian tribes. The Illyrians were widely believed to be one of the indiginous peoples of the Balkan peninsula. So naturally, modern-day Albanians of a nationalist bent like to remind their neighbours that they were here first. 

The story behind the transformation of Illyrians into Albanians is lost in the mist of time. But apparently, by around the year 450AD the term “Illyrian” had many negative connotations and was widely associated with smuggling, piracy, brigandage and general criminality. The Illyrian elders called in a highly paid marketing consultant from Rome, who suggested they rebrand. After much discussion the name “Albanian” was chosen as it implied purity, and would also be convenient at any international sporting events where the various competing countries would be listed alphabetically. The plan was that in a few generations’ time the rest of the world would have forgotten all about the dodgy Illyrians and these new “Albanians” would be widely admired for their law-abiding nature, fiscal probity and all-round honesty. Perhaps one day, they dared to dream, an epic play would be written about a brave Albanian father who uses his very particular set of skills to rescue his daughter from a gang of Celtic slavers. 

Albania’s neighbours say this is all nonsense, and the Albanians have nothing at all to do with the Illyrians. As a foreigner working in the region it’s hard for me to take a stand, as it’s really none of my business. Like the 19th-century scholars, I suspect Albanians are descended from the Illyrians but if I were to take a definitive position I’d soon be drowning under angry emails assuring me that until recently Albania was inhabited by peace-loving Serbian and Greek famers and that in fact Albanians are an obscure tribe of Italians who arrived en masse in the 1990s, and what’s more there are photos of them disembarking at Durrës to prove it.

1991: Albanians arrive in Durrës after an arduous sea voyage from Italy

 

 

 

“B” is for…

Bathrooms

For Toilets, please go to “T”. 

A constant complaint from our clients is that when they try to take a shower they end up being swept out of the bathroom on a tsunami of soapy water. This is completely normal.

Understand that to the Albanian bathroom designer water is a mystical, capricious element, subject to no known natural laws; only a fool would seek to channel it. They know that water enters a bathroom, somehow, but don’t seem to have any understanding of how it might leave. So if your shower head is disgorging 20 cubic litres of water every minute, the plumber will have built a drainage system capable of handling about 10; with any excess being taken by the towels, the toilet roll, and the water jjin hiding behind the U-bend.  

This is completely normal. If you don’t think you can cope, then consider a holiday in Switzerland instead.

Also expect (even in a brand-new bathroom in a “five-star” hotel) exposed electrical wiring and, if you’re lucky, a 240-amp socket right by the soap tray in the shower.

The taps on the sink will also be loose and probably a bit leaky, and the internationally recognised blue = cold / red = hot signage is more of a guideline here. Blue could mean cold but equally it could mean scalding. Or something in-between. Or brown. You’ll figure it out.

Beaches

Southern Albania, from the Greek border up to Vlorë, where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic, has some wonderful beaches. Expect most of them to be jam-packed in July and August, and almost empty in June and September. 

Running north from Vlorë to Montenegro, the story’s not so good. Please ignore any guidebooks that sing the praises of Durrës – they are over-selling its charms, though there are some cute little beaches just north of town. A little further up the coast is Lalzit Bay, which is kind of shabby but good for families, and Cape Rodonit, which is lovely apart from the trash, which is becoming unbearable (we recommend you bring bin bags to clear up whichever little stretch of beach you want to enjoy). Then it’s nothingy again with the exception of the beaches north and south of the fishing town of Shengjin. After which you can forget about it till you reach the ethnic Albanian city of Ulqin in Montenegro. Velipoja, for instance, is strictly for locals, though the government is belatedly taking steps to control the worst of the development there. 

Prices at bars and restaurants remain attractive compared with the eurozone, but it’s perfectly possible to pay an arm and a leg for food and accommodation in high season on the Riviera, particularly at upscale spots such as Dhërmi. 

Beer

Beer is not central to Albanian drinking culture – it’s all about raki here, and to a lesser extent wine. In fact, the country has one of the lowest rates of beer consumption per capita in Europe (Germans put away about 100 litres of beer per person; Albanians a measly 30).

Draught beer (“kriko”) isn’t widely available. You can find it at any grill, but most bars and restaurants will only have bottles or cans. During summer, many local bars will start serving draught, and at a good price (my neighbourhood dive in Tirana sells half-litres at about 80 euro cents). Fastidious northern Europeans, please don’t expect an exact measure when ordering draught – it might be 40 per cent foam and there won’t be a little line on the glass to indicate a minimum amount of liquid. Just go with it.

Posh bars, or rather bars with ideas above their station, rarely serve Albanian or even Balkan beers. You’ll have to make do with an overpriced 330ml bottle of imported Heineken or suchlike.

If you enjoy drinking sludge, weissbier is widely available.

Dark beers can be found, and are usually very good, but you’ve little chance of encountering Guinness or stouts unless you’re in an Irish pub.

The craft beer movement is gaining a foothold, but thankfully a severe shortage of credulous hipsters is limiting its growth, for now. However, you might find bars in the larger cities that serve amateurishly brewed over-hoppy IPAs for comical money, just like back home, if that’s what steams up your monocle.

 

Breakfast

The traditional Balkan breakfast is an espresso, a raki and a cigarette. So lower your expectations. 

Village guesthouses and family owned hotels will always prepare something fresh and tasty using local ingredients, but many more commercial Albanian hotels struggle to understand breakfast as a concept. Some slightly stale bread (if you’re lucky, toasted), cheap olives, plastic cheese, a suspicious sausage of indeterminate origin, maybe a pat or two of butter in little plastic packs and the pièce de résistance – a greasy yellow splat, with the taste and texture of a flattened tennis ball, served on a cold plate. This is apparently an omelette. 

Expect excellent local mountain tea or Turkish coffee in guesthouses. In hotels, there will usually be undrinkable fake coffee in some sort of plastic thermos thingy, but most places will allow you one (that’s ONE, not two) complimentary espresso or macchiato made on the machine, assuming there’s a çuni there who knows how to operate it. If you’re there before 08.00, there probably won’t be. 

Bunkers

Yes, Albania is festooned with bunkers. You’ll read widely exaggerated figures about how many. Whatever the true number, there are a hell of a lot. Probably between 150,00-175,000 were built, though most have been blown up for their steel.

They were constructed on the orders of the late and lamented Enver Hoxha, starting in the late 1960s. People today hold them up as evidence of Hoxha’s Cold War paranoia, which isn’t entirely fair. Albania has always suffered from greedy neighbours. Tito had wanted to fold Albania into Yugoslavia since he came to power, and it’s easy to forget that hyper-nationalist Greece was ruled by a military junta from 1967 till 1974 (the bunker programme began after the coup in Greece). If either or both had sent in the tanks, Albania couldn’t have held out, so presumably Hoxha’s strategy was to make Albania a horrible proposition to invade. Did it work? We’ll never know. But Albania is still an independent state, so maybe.

The typical bunker is small and mushroom-shaped. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot them roadside. There are also larger concrete domes, built to house artillery. These tend to be found close to the borders, and today often double-up as barns for livestock. This is probably the best use for them – it’s hard to believe they could have survived a direct hit from a NATO or Yugoslav missile.

“C” is for…

Cafés & Coffee

Every vlogger who comes to Albania does some breathless segment about the ludicrous number of cafés you find here, particularly in Tirana. And it’s true, there are a lot. In fact every second retail space is a café, or so it seems. The pre-lockdown stats told us there were something like one bar for every 150 Albanians. If you’re a “digital nomad”, then you’re probably thinking great, you’ll be able to work remotely from a cute café.

Not so fast.

Let’s assume Tirana has 10,000 cafés. Of these, perhaps seven provide the kind of environment where you might want to open your laptop and work for an hour or two. The other 9,993 are completely indistinguishable from one another – characterless, cold (in winter), uncomfortable, plug-less, and the çunis will insist on subjecting their customers to a constant barrage of soul-destroying, obscenity-laden rap (please see “Music”). “Cosy” is not a word often employed in relation to Albanian cafés. If you’re looking for a relaxing vibe, you’d do better to grab your coffee as take-out and set up a desk in the local abattoir.

In rural areas, also manage your expectations, but for different reasons. Please don’t rock up at a village café and expect a skinny soy latte. These are your choices – espresso, macchiato, Turkish coffee. Possibly a teabag. That’s it. And a curious rule of Albanian village cafés – the closer you are to a cow, the more likely it is that your macchiato will be an espresso served with a plastic tub of UHT milk on the side.

Some general points that might be helpful…

1. It’s all about espresso in Albania. Macchiato is also acceptable, just, but any other way of consuming coffee is treated with suspicion. In cities you should be able to get something approaching a latté by asking for a “macchiato madhe” (large macchiato).

2. Hot chocolate is generally excellent – ask for “kakao”.

3. Tea is “çaj”, pronounced the same as in Turkey. In larger towns and cities, it’ll be some sort of herbal teabag, served in its wrapper like a cheap Chinese condom, alongside an espresso cup containing a thimbleful of lukewarm water. Mugs don’t exist outside of private homes and drinking tea English-style, with milk, is unheard of. If you’re a tea drinker, better to carry your own mug, teabags and Thermos of hot water, and offer to pay for corkage. In small towns and villages ask for local mountain tea, which is invariably superb (and makes a great gift to take home). 

4. In rural areas, it’s unusual to see women in cafés – the atmosphere is extremely masculine.

5. Leaving a small tip is mandatory. If the coffee is 80 leks, leave 100.

6. No Albanian café is complete without a huge flat-screen TV displaying images that are completely unrelated to the murderous noises coming from the sound system.

7. Very few cafés serve sandwiches or cakes, but no one bats an eyelid if you buy from a nearby bakery and bring it in to eat.

Camping

If you love wild camping, Albania is paradise. You can set your tent just about anywhere, within reason. If you prefer to camp in a designated camp site, there are some great ones – though facilities can be basic compared to Eurocamp.

Other stuff…

You can’t find quality camping kit here – be sure to bring your own.

Roads can be very bad, so it’ll be hard to get into a wilderness area without a 4×4.

If you want to camp on land that obviously belongs to someone, ask. They will almost always be delighted, and might well bring you cheese, milk, raki and so on. Try to leave a few hundred lek as a thank you, though they will probably refuse to accept it. Perhaps best to give it to the kids, if they have any (don’t worry, the parents will shake them down after you leave).

Yes, there are bears in the mountains. Use your common sense, and pack food in the car before turning in.

Communication

Some useful words:

Hello is “përshëndetje” – roughly persh-en-det-yay.
Thank You is “faleminderit” – roughly falla-min-derrit.
Goodbye is “mirupafshim” – roughly mirror-pav-shem.
Good is “mirë” – roughly me-er – and forms 50% of most conversations.
Problem is “problem” – roughly prob-lem – and forms the remaining 50% of most conversations. It was borrowed from English in the 1990s following the collapse of Communism, presumably because Albania didn’t have any problems before, and had never needed a word to describe them.

This is about as far as you’ll get with Albanian, but don’t worry – no one ever came to Albania for the conversation. Along with Basque, Finnish and Welsh, it is one of the world’s most incomprehensible languages. It has no connection at all to Greek or Serbo-Croat or indeed any other language on the planet (though many words are borrowed). Luckily Albanians are great linguists, and will usually be fluent in at least two other languages. Everyone, it seems, speaks perfect Italian, and in the bigger towns and cities the younger generation will probably have good English, too (but not in rural areas).

Don’t think this makes Albanians good communicators, though. They are set to transmit, not to receive. Albanians know for sure you’re very interested in what they have to say, but are completely disinterested in anyone else’s take on things. Two Albanian men can enjoy an animated half-hour conversation and come out the other end with no idea at all what the other one said. This causes all sorts of confusion, particularly if you’re trying to arrange something.

It’s worth mentioning too that a friendly chat between two Albanian men sounds like a blood-curdling shouting match, just a step or two below physical violence. Don’t be concerned; probably they’re just exchanging pleasantries or chatting about the latest Juventus match.

Albanian women communicate more easily, mainly because they just say “mirë” to one another till they get bored. A typical conversation between two Albanian women goes like this:

Woman 1: “Mirëdita. Mirë?”
Woman 2: “Mirë. Po ti?”
Woman 1: “Mirë.”
Woman 2: (nodding kindly): “Mirë, mirë.”
Woman 1: “Miiiiiiiirë…”

And so on.

Crime

“I have, on more than one occasion found, when I have left England for some unknown and supposed dangerous country, that as I gradually neared it the reports and accounts of the perils of that land became less and less alarming… In the case of Albania, however, the nearer we approached it the worse was the reputation of its inhabitants for murder and robbery; the more earnestly we were warned against travelling in such a cut-throat region. This was not an encouraging sign.…”
E.F. Knight, 1880

One-hundred-and-forty years later, it’s still the same. We’ve had clients entering Albania from both Montenegro and North Macedonia who have been assured that, as soon as they cross the border, they’ll be dismembered and their choicest cuts DHL’d to unscrupulous surgeons in far-flung corners of the globe. 

Never has there been such a mismatch between reputation and reality. Albania is one of the safest countries you can visit. Street crime is practically unheard of. You can walk unaccompanied anywhere, at any time, without being worried. The theory is all the ambitious criminal elements have gone to Germany and London, and the Albanians who are left behind haven’t the energy or initiative to mug you. In six years of running tours, we’ve never had any incidents of theft, or of clients feeling unsafe.

If I’m working in a café and pop to the loo, I leave my laptop, phone and wallet on my table without a second thought. Occasionally on a big night out, I’ve left an item behind in a bar, up to and including my dog, Bubi. Each time they’ve been looked after by the çunis (see below), and are waiting for me when I turn up shame-faced to collect them.    

What’s most likely to happen, if you’re passing through, is a simple failure to deliver. Take the “deal” – the ancient basis of all commerce, where one party pays money in exchange for goods or services from the other party. Albanians only half understand the concept. Or more precisely, they understand only the half where you hand over your money. The other half, where they deliver the promised goods or services in exchange for your money, causes them a great deal of confusion. This is rarely due to criminal intent but rather over-confidence in their ability to actually get the job done. Keep that in mind when negotiating.  

Çunis

What is a çuni? Literally it translates as “boy”, but in reality it can refer to a boy, a teenager or even a man. Basically, it’s a catch-all word applicable to any male between the ages of eight and 30, at which point he’s considered to have graduated from çuniversity and becomes a xhaxhi (“judji”), unless he’s moisturised daily. 

If you go to a café, a çuni will take your order and bring you your coffee. If you break down and need a car part, a çuni will be despatched on a rickety bicycle to fetch it. If you are getting drunk in a village and run out of raki, a phone call will be made and an hour or so later an exhausted çuni will arrive from the next valley with a fresh bottle, and wolf bites on his heels. Çunis are the life-blood of Albania. If they ever go on strike, the whole place will fall apart. 

Your interaction with çunis is likely to be limited to cafés and restaurants. So what to expect? 

Çunis are almost invariably friendly – at least when you can distract them from their smart phones. Don’t expect them to smile on first contact (see below), but 99% will go the extra mile to help you out. Having said this, the service they provide can vary wildly, ranging from painfully slow to really, really, really, painfully slow. You just have to go with it, and accept that your order of one bottle of beer will have presented many almost insurmountable logistical problems and might take 15 or 20 minutes to arrive, warm.

To be fair to the çuni, you have to understand he didn’t envisage spending his life bringing picky western tourists beer, or serving fruit smoothies to ice-cold Albanian girls with lip-filler and stucco’d foreheads. When he has a moment of repose no doubt in his mind’s eye he’s striding manfully across the mountains of Miredita in traditional Albanian warrior garb, the severed head of a love rival swinging loosely at his side.   

The feminine of çuni, by the way, is “çunette”, or in Tirana dialect, where an “O” is appended to the end of every other word, “çunetto”. But outside Tirana or relatively liberal Korça, you are highly unlikely to encounter any female bar or restaurant staff as working in such a licentious environment would be an indelible stain on their reputation and completely blow their marriage chances.

To make your experiences at cafés, bars and restaurants smoother, here are a few tips gleaned from observing the çuni in his natural environment over many years (please note, these rules don’t apply in Tirana’s sophisticated Blloku district, where you’ll find the glittering stars of the çuniverse)… 

1. Don’t expect to be greeted with a smile on your first encounter with a çuni. Remember, you’re in the Balkans, not Ohio – smiling at strangers is the sure sign of a maniac or crook. You’ll have to put in a bit of effort to warm them up.     

2. Çunis have no concept of “drinks-to-table”. If you arrive at a restaurant thirsty, make a point of ordering drinks first and on no account order any food till the drinks have arrived. If you order food and drinks together, you have no hope – the drinks will NEVER arrive. NEVER

3. Ancient çuni code means that it’s a mark of shame for them to use a pad and pen while taking your order in a restaurant, however busy it is and however large your party. Instead he will memorise everything. Which is impressive in the moment, but less so when a succession of random lukewarm dishes you didn’t want or ask for arrive at the table. Please don’t make a scene for this is The Way Of The Çuni.   

4.  If you order a starter, the main course will arrive at the same time, or more likely in advance. Drip-feed your order to the çuni so he doesn’t get ahead of himself. Despite having spent his entire professional career working in restaurants, he won’t understand the concept enjoying a meal at a relaxed pace. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a bad çuni (“çuni keq”), he’ll just want to get you out the door as soon as çunily possible so he can spend more time with his Samsung.

5. It is not the çuni’s duty to decide if the dishes he’s serving you are fit for human consumption. That’s way above his pay grade. If Chef plates up a lightly sautéed kitten drizzled in a raw sewage foam, he’ll deliver it to your table, no questions asked. 

6. The one time a çuni can be depended upon to act with alacrity is when the fastest eater of your party finishes their last bite of food. Before they have time to even put down their fork, the çuni will have appeared from nowhere, like a ninja, and will start clearing plates even if everyone else at the table is very obviously still eating. 

7. When it comes time to pay it will be nearly impossible to get the bill. When it does finally arrive, the çuni will stand right by you, with his crotch about 7cm from your face, while you awkwardly count your leks or discuss who had what with your dining companions, assuming you’re splitting the bill. He will not give you any space whatsoever unless you shoo him off with the words, “Ets! Ets! Ets!” (“Go! Go! Go!”). 

“D” is for…

Driving

For Roads, please go to “R”; for Fuel please go to “F”.

Albanians are not proficient drivers. Behind the wheel they combine a surplus of confidence with a basic lack of aptitude. They are on the gas, on the brake, on Instagram or off their head on raki – often all four at once. In fact, they are widely (and correctly) regarded as the worst drivers in Europe – the esteemed World Health Organization says they are chasing the vodka-sozzled Russians for the most number of road traffic deaths per 100,000 of population.  

Driving in Albania is – often quite literally – like watching a slow car crash. To give you an idea, I was once at Morocco’s Todra Gorge, where insane French free-climbers were scaling the 400-metre cliffs without ropes. It was horrifying; I felt sick to the stomach. Watching an Albanian ride a tricycle along a perfectly flat, perfectly empty stretch of asphalt induces a similar sense of dread and impending catastrophe.

The trouble is likely due to a lack of experience. Until the fall of Communism there were just a few hundred cars in the country, and most people couldn’t drive. Now there are about 430,000 vehicles, and most people still can’t drive. At the peak of every mountain pass you’ll find a car with a boiling engine; at the bottom of every valley a car with incinerated brakes; and as you negotiate the bends in-between your nostrils will be assualted by the smell of disintegrating clutch plates. 

Added to the lack of competence behind the wheel is a hazy understanding of widely accepted rules of the road. Take roundabouts, for instance. About 20 per cent of Albanian drivers have the firm conviction that traffic on the roundabout has right of way. Another 20 per cent believe traffic entering the roundabout has right of way. Then a good 30 per cent believe they have right of way, in any circumstance whatsoever. The remainder seem to be under the impression that a roundabout is some kind of strange circular car park, with an ornamental garden in the middle. 

There’s also the small issue of temperament. See that Albanian guy sitting in the café. Get chatting to him and likely as not he’ll do anything to help you as a foreign visitor. He’ll invite you home, introduce you to his family, feed you, give you a bed to sleep on, the shirt off his back. But put him behind the wheel of a late 1990s 1.1-litre Fiat Uno and he immediately transforms into a blood-crazed homicidal maniac who’ll run you down in a heartbeat, then stop and reverse back over you just to be sure. 

Accidents do happen. A lot. So please drive defensively, and pay attention to what’s going on around you. 

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F” is for…

Food & Restaurants

A separate guide to Albanian food is in order, so we’ll keep things brief. But one of the big surprises for visitors to Albania is the standard of its cooking. This is particularly true for people with experience of neighbouring Former Yugoslavia countries, where the only choices are meatballs, meatballs with cheese, or meatballs with cheese and ferociously hot peppers.

Albania seems to have retained the finer elements of Ottoman cusine, added a big dollop of Italian influence, and then put its own spin on things. It’s actually hard to eat a bad meal here – you really have to put in the effort to find a crappy restaurant. You can turn up unannounced in even the most remote and shabby-looking place and eat incredible fresh food, prepared with care and love. 

Tirana is becoming a regional hub for fine dining, with some serious chefs rapidly building an international reputation. The prices are great too – you can have a genuine Michelin-standard fine-dining experience for a third of the price you’d pay in a western capital. 

If you want the full local experience, seek out a gjelltore (which translates, more or less, as “eating with a spoon”). They generally open from about eight in the morning till early evening, and offer simple home-style cooking at a great price. Ask around for a recommendation, but keep in mind that they are mostly cheap-and-cheerful canteen-style places. If you become a regular you’ll end up being best friends with the owner and staff. 

Despite the many positives, sometimes our clients do get disappointed and even frustrated when dining out. Usually by the baffling service, but sometimes by other factors (for a run-down on service, please go to our section on “Çunis”). Here’s what we reckon you need to know… 

1. Meat quality can be poor in cheap city grills, so choose wisely – any local will know the best places. Don’t go on appearances – often more basic-looking dives serve up the best food. In rural areas and small towns meat quality is generally excellent.  

2. Albanians can’t grill vegetables (it seems it’s cheaper to employ an old lady to paint black stripes on a green pepper or aubergine than pay for the charcoal to grill it properly). 

3. Similarly, grilling cheese is too much to ask. Which is weird as grilled cheese – Kaçkavall Zgarë – is supposedly an Albanian speciality. When it’s done well, it’s delicious – slightly crispy on the outside, warm and goey on the inside. But generally the chef just lights a match in the vicinity of a slice of frigid cheese, and considers it grilled. (On the subject of cheese, if you’re in Kosovo seek out the cheese from the Sharr mountains near Prizren. It’s spectacular.)

4. Albanians can’t cook risotto (never order risotto unless you’re in a restaurant you know and trust or you’ll be bitterly disappointed). In fact rice in general is often very low grade, swept from the floor of a Wuhan warehouse. There are dark rumours that a lot of the rice sold in Albania is padded out with fake plastic grains, but this is (probably) just an urban myth – if plastic was cheaper to produce than food we’d all be eating it.  

5. Steak is usually thin veal, hammered with a blunt instrument, and then cooked to Donald Trump’s specifications. If you’re expecting a succulent cut cooked rare or medium-rare like in a London Gaucho, prepare for a truly miserable experience – you might even be reduced to tears. No cow deserves a fate like this.    

6. In cities, bread served as a side is sometimes a little stale. In villages and small towns it’s almost always wonderfully fresh, and often home-made. Warm toasted bread at breakfast a rarity (toast just doesn’t seem to be a “thing” here). 

7. Food is often served lukewarm rather than hot. No one seems to notice or care. Plates and bowls are never warmed. 

8. Perhaps more of a hygiene issue, but the salt and pepper shakers and any other condiment, sauce or oil bottle on the table were last cleaned sometime before the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

9. The “olive oil” on the table is rarely olive oil. Also don’t buy olive oil in supermarkets – find a trusted supplier from a village. 

10. Likewise honey. Unless you buy it direct from the bee yourself, assume it’s four-fifths sugar syrup. 

11. Not really a negative, but Albanians food is salty. If you’re still following 1950s US Health Department advice and feel that a sprinkle of salt will give you hypertension and a massive heart attack, then this might be an issue. If you have a sense of proportion and eat a generally healthy diet, and like your food to taste of something, it shouldn’t be. 

12. Anglos, at a fish place, if you order mixed seafood to start and seafood pasta as your main, the pasta comes first, Italian-style. So if you want to have a platter of mixed seafood as a starter, as God surely intended, order that first. Only order the pasta when you’ve finished the seafood. 

13. Americans – fish is served on the bone, covered in skin not breadcrumbs, and it will look at you accusingly. We realise this is going to be traumatic, but please do your best to cope.  

14. Typical Albanian restaurant lighting is unbearably harsh. If you need a workspace to dissect a frog, it’s perfect. For a romantic night out, less so. 

15. You know how your local Chinese restaurant has a soothing backlit wall-hanging of giant pandas frolicing by a waterfall, and your local Italian has black-and-white prints from classic 1950s movies shot in Rome, Milan or Tuscany? Well, every Albanian restaurant has a huge flat-screen TV displaying endless footage of villages devastated by earthquakes, filthy hospital wards filled with Covid victims, multi-car pile-ups on the Tirana-Durrës highway, the latest gangland killilng in Elbasan and so on. Just to create that authentic Albanian atmosphere.

16. The background music will almost certainly be unbearable – please go to our “Music” section.

Fuel

For Driving, please go to “D”; for Roads please go to “R”.

If you’re bringing your own vehicle into Albania, fill it to the brim just before crossing the border. The fuel here is outrageously low quality, and expensive too.

In 2018 the Albanian Centre For Quality Journalism (rival to the more successful Albanian Centre For Poor-Quality Journalism) ran tests on samples taken at random from Albanian filling stations, awarding them a score from 0-5 depending on quality (0 being awful, 5 being excellent). Their conclusion?

“The tests showed that of the five fuel samples obtained in Albania, one of them appeared to have a quality level of 4, one at 2, another at 1, and two samples appeared to have a quality level of 0…

In the opinion of the technician who did the testing, “two of the diesel samples obtained in Albania were unusable.”

One of the samples that scored a round zero contained high levels of mazut waste oil and was effectively two different liquids: “It contains two parts as if divided with a knife, it has no refining consistency,” said the technician. 

So don’t be too concerned if your engine starts sounding a little rough, particularly if it’s a diesel. It’ll likely just be the fuel. A good tip is not to let your tank get even close to empty, as the pump will start sucking up the noxious sludge that collects at the bottom of the tank.  

Read the full story here.

Other stuff…

When you fill up, make sure to do so in the cities not at rural gas stations, or you’ll pay the price in economy, performance and engine wear. 

Watch out also for the fake BP (“Berti’s Petrol”, if memory serves) and Shell (“Shall”) and Esso (“Eso”) stations you’ll see in border areas. These are designed to catch out newcomers, with branding that’s almost indistinguishable from the originals. You’ll realise your mistake when they refuse to accept your card and insist on cold hard cash.

And on that subject…  

Do not expect your card to be accepted at any fuel station, anywhere in the country, even at the stations by the airport. Frankly, we’re bored of telling our clients that they can’t pay for fuel with bank cards, then getting stressed-out calls from fuel stations in the arse-end of Albania. It’s not complicated. Cash. Every time. 

H” is for…

Hospitality

One of things you’ll soon realise as you travel through Albania is that Albanians are extremely hospitable. Crazily so. If you stop at a village café, don’t be surprised if one of the locals quietly pays for your coffees. Getting invited for lunch by a total stranger is completely normal. Go with it – the offer will be genuine. It’s hard to think of anywhere, certainly in Europe, where you can be assured of such a warm welcome. 

This stems from traditional Balkan hospitality, and perhaps also from the fact that Albania was isolated for 45 years during the Communist era (and for 500-odd years before that under the Ottomans). Albanians love hosting foreigners. And be assured – foreigners stand out from the crowd. As a 6’3” Englishman, I’m never more than a tranquilliser dart away from waking up in the zoo. Don’t think that you’re going to be mistaken for a local.

The level of hospitality can be embarrassing – you might unexpectedly find yourself eating a huge and delicious lunch in a village home, and your hosts clearly haven’t two pennies to rub together. The politics is a bit tricky – if you offer any money, they will undoubtedly be offended and refuse. Your best tactic is to surreptitiously slip some money under a plate, and hope that no one discovers it before you leave.

Hotels

Please understand that the hotel sector is relatively new. Under the Ottomans there were hans (kind of like rough-and-ready coaching inns), which were famed across the empire for the size and uncompromising ferocity of their fleas. Between the First and Second World Wars the Italians, who were the de facto occupying power, opened up hotels in most towns and cities, but these died a death in 1944. And from 1945 to the early 1990s the Communist dictatorship operated a state monopoly on hotels, with exactly the results you’d expect from socialised hospitality. Private hotels did open in the 1990s, but a decade of anarchy combined with a complete lack of experience didn’t exactly create the ideal conditions for the sector to thrive or for any professionalism to develop.

In the past eight or so years, tourism in Albania has exploded, and hotels are now springing up all over the place. But however beautiful the building, or tasteful the decor, please don’t expect Swiss levels of service. Having an English-speaker on reception is by no means a given. In fact the only criteria to get a job in an Albanian hotel is: “Does your father / uncle / cousin / brother-in-law own the hotel?” If the answer’s yes, consider yourself hired.

Case in point, one of favourite hotels in rural Albania has as its receptionist the owner’s son-in-law. He’s a great guy, and we’ve enjoyed many a late-night raki with him. But the first impression he makes is not entirely comforting. If for some obscure reason we were tasked with putting together a team to storm a well-fortified machine-gun post armed only with blunt butter knives, he’d be one of the first people we’d call. To meet-and-greet a coach load of geriatric American tourists, or to lovingly place a chocolate mint on a guest’s pillow… Well, perhaps we’d consider other options.

The result is that you can expect some bizarre and even downright bewildering hotel experiences as you travel through Albania. Even if you’ve booked a year in advance, email a few weeks before to make sure they remember you’re coming, and again the day before you’re due to arrive, with a rough ETA if you want anyone to be there to greet you. Always ask to see another room, as generally the receptionist will put you in the smallest available. Don’t complain about the exposed wiring in the bathroom, the plumbing, the diaphanous curtains, the lack of electrical sockets or the Technicolor paint scheme.   

Do expect every hotel to be vigorously clean, though. Cleaner by far than hotels in Former Yugoslavia. Cleaner probably than hospitals in Former Yugoslavia, come to think of it. 

Hygiene

Ignore the trash in public spaces – Albanian homes, restaurants and hotels are kept vigorously clean. Aspiring TikTok influencers are free to lick any any surface, safe in the knowledge it would have been Dettol’d just a few minutes earlier. And for this we can thank the silent army of Old Ladies With Mops, who have made it their life’s mission to spray, soap and scrub everything they can lay their rubber gloves on.     

In fact, as you travel through Albania you’ll discover that Old Ladies With Mops are inescapable. Go to the opera and just as José stabs Carmen an Old Lady With A Mop will shuffle in stage left to soak up the blood; scale the giddy heights of Mount Korabi in springtime and you’ll find an old lady mopping up the last of the winter snow; open your eyes after an earth-quaking session of love-making with your precious other and there’ll be an old lady standing patiently by the bed with a mop and a squeedgy.

This attention to cleanliness is admirable, but sometimes borders on mania. The women of Dibër and Korça are particularly notorious for their uncompromising approach to hygiene. As a grubby Anglo or north European, be aware that in these regions you occupy that ambiguous grey area between honoured guest and potential biohazard. 

L” is for…

Language

Please see “Communication” under “C”. 

M” is for…

Money

For Tipping, please go to “T”. 

Albania uses the Albanian lek, which certainly qualifies as one of Europe’s more obscure (and unwelcome, outside Albania) currencies. We live in a time of uncertainty so please check the exchange rate yourself, but as I write in February 2021 xe.com tells me –

€1 = 124 lek
£1 = 142 lek
$1 = 102 lek

The lek has increased in value over the past five years, but Albania still represents great value compared with most European destinations. 

So what do you get for your money? Well, an espresso is usually going to be 60-90 lek (40-70 euro cents), depending on where you drink it. A bottled beer outside Tirana anywhere from 150 to 300 lek (€1.20-2.40). You can eat well at a simple restaurant for 600 or so lek (€5, and even less if you know where to go). Even a relatively fancy Tirana place is unlikely to cost more than 1,200 lek per person (€10) for a couple of courses, excluding booze.

Credit and debit cards are mostly useless for making payments outside the centre of Tirana, even at petrol stations. In fact, especially at petrol stations – please don’t try to pay with your card as it’s extremely tiresome for everyone involved. Albania is a cash economy so make sure you’re well-stocked with notes (if you’re worried about security, go to “Crime” under “C”).

Notes come in denominations of 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500 and 200. Coins, in ones (useless), fives (unwelcome), 10s (useful), 20s (very useful), 50s (extremely useful) and 100s (perfect).

You’ll find ATMs in all towns and cities, but forget about them in rural areas. In larger cities you can find euro ATMs, if needed. But you’re better bringing a suitcase of used notes and changing to lek at the numerous small exchange offices. They don’t charge commission and the rate is much better than the banks. Be sure not to walk away with 5,000 lek notes, though – if you try to pay for anything under 1,000 leks with one you’ll send the shop into meltdown. Even paying for a 160 lek item with a 200 lek note can cause issues. Although Albania is a cash economy the thought that any customer might require more than 20 leks in change won’t have occurred to the shop owner. 

Finally, zeros. Albanians have the disconcerting habit of adding a zero to your bill. So 150 leks becomes 1,500. This is not due to dishonesty but because most Albanians still do their calculations in “old lek” not “new lek”. This will continue until people become comfortable dealing in new leks. 

New leks replaced old leks in 1968. 

Music

If you want to discover traditional Albanian music, there is lots. But to find it takes work and planning. In comparision, bad music is everywhere. You’ll even have difficulty blocking it out.

Why? Well, it seems that God, never having had much market penetration in Albania, came to a friendly arrangement with the Devil over the country’s music. The Devil got control of 99 out of every 100 stereos, through his minions, the çunis. In return, God got Radio Maria.

This means that as you travel through Albania your ears will be assaulted by a Satanic cocktail of Ed Sheeran and obscene, aggressive rap.

Now, like any reasonable person, you no doubt believe that the artistic possibilities of rap were exhausted back in 1980 by Debbie Harry, with the release of Blondie’s “Rapture”. Albanians beg to differ. Rap – and its slightly more socially acceptable cousin hiphop – are ubiqitous. Albanians seem to be completely unaware that other forms of music exist and that they don’t have to listen to this crap.  

It’s perfectly normal to watch an extended family sit down to dine in a restaurant – mothers, grandmothers, babes-in-arms – while over the sound system some crooner from Detroit trills to his sweetheart about how he’s going to “f**k her like a f**king wh*re”.

Mixed up in the obscene moronic drivel imported from the States is homegrown Albanian and Kosovar rap and hip-hop. An improvement? Maybe not. There is a song currently doing the rounds with the lyrics –

“Vroom, vroom, AMG, shumë respekt” (which translates, if you hadn’t figured it out, as “Vroom, vroom, I’d appreciate some respect, if you wouldn’t mind, as I happen to drive an extremely expensive AMG Mercedes-Benz with spinners, leather seats, and extra cup-holders”. 

Another kiddies’ favourite has the lyrics, “It’s the Albanian way”, followed by a gun cocking and shots being fired. 

Really there is only one Albanian rap / hip-hop song, which has been re-worked thousands of times, but the fanbase is too star-struck to notice. In the one-size-fits-all video, a reprehensible village idiot with a beard and a tracksuit boasting an IQ higher than its wearer throws shapes that mean nothing to anyone who wasn’t raised in Downtown LA or Peshkopi, burbles about “bitches” and his Mercedes, while an octopus with Parkinson’s manipulates the autotune machine. To young Albanians it’s aural catnip; to the untutored Western ear it sounds like nothing more than a phone vibrating on a bidet.

Museums

Most regional cities will have a historical museum, which you can safely avoid unless you like to look at clumsily drawn sketches of men with impressive moustaches. The older cities will likely have also have an ethnographic musuem, which can be fascinating if you’re interested in ladies’ undergarments from the mid-nineteenth century.

Then there are few outliers, like the fascinating Marubi Photographic Museum in Shkodër, and the unmissable Museum of Medieval Arts in Korça.

Tirana of course has more choice – the National Museum of History is definitely worth some time, and also be sure to visit The House of Leaves, which explores the role of the feared Sigurimi secret police under the Communist dictatorship, and Bunk’art 1 on the outskirts of town.

P” is for…

Pets

Something very strange happens when you tell an Albanian that you’re a dog owner. They inevitably reply by saying something along the lines of, “We Albanians love dogs.”

When you recover from your shock and say, “No! No you don’t!” they get genuinely offended. Then you have to backtrack and say that your personal experience, as a dog owner in Albania, is that some Albanians, perhaps, if you catch them on the wrong day, when Saturn is in the shadow of Mars, or if there’s been a death in the immediate family, can be slightly short-tempered towards dogs. But no doubt that’s the dog’s fault, he probably barked or farted or something.

Here’s the truth.

The concept of keeping an animal for any purpose apart from harvesting its eggs, milk, skin or internal organs is alien to most Albanians. Cats are tolerated, if not exactly loved, but dogs are widely hated and feared. Until a generation or so ago, no Albanian man could sleep soundly at night knowing that there was an unbeaten dog within a three-kilometre radius. Attitudes have softened, somewhat, but it’s still not good news. 

The Albanian aversion to dogs is quite extraordinary. Grown men wimper in terror if so much as a Labradoodle puppy ambles past. I once watched a strapping lad sprint 200 yards down an alley so he wouldn’t have to cross paths with my own small dog, Bubi. Some of this could be religious – I heard a guy in Gjakova tell his friend that the “angels wouldn’t take him to heaven” if he’d been touched by a dog. But the cynophobia seems to cut across faith. Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox together are united as one against dogs, however cute and fluffy they may be. To an Albanian, a miniature daschund with tail wagging on overdrive presents the same perceived threat level as a slavering dire-wolf.  

So if you’re travelling with a dog, expect a mixture of bewilderment and hostility from the locals. Honestly, you’d get a warmer welcome dragging around a six-metre Australian salt-water crocodile on a piece of string. Sad, but that’s the way it is. 

Police

We’ve had interactions with the police across the Balkans. The Albanian police are by far the best to deal with. I’d rather deal with them than the authoritarian paramilitaries masquerading as police back home in my native Britain, even. Expect them to be polite, courteous and helpful – though unlikely to speak English. 

You’re most likely to encounter them after an accident or driving offence. You will get stopped and fined if you speed, overtake on a solid white line, or drive without lights or if you or your front passenger aren’t wearing seatbelts. You’ll be given a ticket, which you can pay at any post office, and at many money exchanges. 

If you’re unlucky enough to have a crash involving another vehicle, even a minor collision, stop immediately and on no account move the car till the police arrive. This mad rule applies in most Balkan countries, and causes huge traffic jams. Whoever came up with it has clearly never smashed into another car on a remote mountain road with no mobile coverage, in sub-zero temperatures.   

In the unlikely event that you need to report a theft, do expect a degree of confusion in rural areas. Particularly in a sleepy place like Përmet where the police won’t have had to file a crime report since 1997 when, if memory serves correct, a roll of chicken wire went missing. 

R” is for…

Raki

This is possibly the most important section of this guide. Raki is what keeps Albania and Kosovo moving. It’s an intrinsic part of Balkan life – along with an espresso and a cigarette it forms one third of the “Balkan Breakfast” – and is used to kill brain cells from cradle to grave. 

First things first. The raki we’re talking about here is not Turkish raki, so forget about aniseed flavours. Raki in the western Balkans is made from fruit, usually grapes, so the closest equivalent is the vastly inferior Italian grappa (made from the grape residue, not the whole grape).

You can order raki almost anywhere, apart from mid-range bars. Cheap bars and expensive bars pride themselves on their raki; the owners of mid-range bars know it’s served in cheap places but have never been to an expensive place so have no idea how much money they could make on the mark-up if they had a selection of obscure village rakis presented in fancy bottles.

I’m sure there are many online guides telling you about how raki is made, its many different varients (grape, plum, quince, blueberry etc etc etc). That’s all fine, but what is important to you as a visitor passing through, is how to drink it.

Raki Rules, OK?

1. Try to avoid it in larger cities. It’ll likely be factory produced, and will give you a God-awful hangover. It’s a drink for smaller Albanian towns and, ideally, the villages, where you can suckle it direct from the nipple of the old man who produced it. 

2. The first glass of raki is your enemy. The second your friend. The third, potentially, is your lover. (You’ll have to drink at least three glasses of raki to understand this.) But be aware, raki is the kind of lover who takes your wallet, mobile phone and car keys before leaving, and might even cut out a kidney or two for good measure. 

3. If you’re in for the long haul, be sure to order some cheese and bread, or olives, or anything, to balance out the raki.

4. Never, on any account, drink red wine after having a few rakis, even if it seems like a really, really good idea at the time (which it will). You will regret it for the next 36 hours. You have been warned. 

For a typical village raki-drinking experience, you can watch this useful video

Religion & Spirituality

Geographically, you’ll find Albania just east of Italy, sandwiched between Greece and Montenegro. Spiritually it’s sunk about 40 fathoms beneath the surface of the Atlantic, about midway between Burkina Faso and Mexico’s Sinaloa Province.

Religion is just not a thing here. The Communists get the blame for this – they declared Albania the world’s first athiest state in 1967 and persecuted the religious who, coincidentally, also happened to be the the bulwarks of civil society. But Albania’s ambigious relationship with religion goes deeper. At the late, great Robert Elsie’s Albanian history website you can find an illuminating letter, written by Lady Wortley Montugu in 1717, which sums things up nicely –

“These people, living between Christians and Mahometans, and not being skilled in controversy, declare that they are utterly unable to judge which religion is best; but, to be certain of not entirely rejecting the truth, they very prudently follow both, and go to the mosques on Fridays and the church on Sundays, saying for their excuse, that at the day of judgment they are sure of protection from the true prophet; but which that is, they are not able to determine in this world.”

The English spy E.F. Knight, who passed through 160ish years later in the late 1870s made a similar observation: 

“Indeed though one half the Albanians call themselves Christians, and the other half profess to be Mohammedans, there is really little distinction between them. The Mohammedans worship the Virgin Mary; the Christians make pilgrimages to the sepulchres of Mussulman saints, and mingle all sorts of grotesque alien superstitions with their Christianity, which the priesthood in vain strive to eradicate…”

According to ever-reliable Wikipedia, 56 per cent of Albanians are Muslim, 10.3 per cent Catholic, 6.75 Orthodox and the remaining 26.5 per cent worship Mercedes-Benz. These figures are presumably census tick-boxes; actually believing anything, or having any knowledge of religion, is considered strictly de classé. A good proportion of Albania’s Muslim population belong to the Bektashi sect, who drink (lots of) alcohol and have generally liberal attitudes. So liberal that strict Sunni Muslims, probably quite correctly, don’t consider Bektashis to belong to the Islamic faith at all.

Those middlebrow hangovers from the mid-2000s who are still clinging to their Dawkins and athiesm might think this is wonderful, but a Godless society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Live in Albania for a year or more and you’ll end up rooting for the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Muslim Brotherhood or whoever’s currently got the funds to do a good door-knocking. If the kids start to have faith in something, anything, that can’t be calculated in cold hard cash it can only be a good thing.

Roads

Open up Google Maps. You’ll see that Albania has a pretty good road network, with nice big yellow-coloured highways connecting the main towns and cities. So all you need to do is hire a compact hatchback, and crack on.

Good luck to you. 

Although Albania’s infrastructure has improved massively over the past decade, please do not expect all the main roads to be asphalt. One of the great joys of running a 4×4 tour business in Albania is watching tourists try to drag a Fiat Punto up a dirt track that you know is going to get progressively worse till it reaches a point that’s completely inpassable for a road car. We do try to tell them to turn back, of course. But people just won’t be told and insist on finding out for themselves…

The message is, once you’re away from the coastal lowlands, you can pretty much assume deep potholes at best, and a complete absence of any road surface at worst. An example: to drive from Dibër to Librazhd direct is a little under 90km, but to do it on asphalt roads means crossing into North Macedonia and looping around via Struga (about 130km with two border crossings) or via Tirana (250km)*. If you do try the direct 90km route in a road car, allow at least five hours (that’s an average of 18km per hour). More if there’s been a storm.    

Google is helpful but cannot be relied upon. For instance, if you’re in Gjirokastra and want to visit the nearby village of Nivica it’ll send you on a route that’s so bad we don’t even like to take our 4x4s on it (though we made an exception for YouTuber Eva zu Beck).

Even the asphalt roads can throw up surprises. Albania’s main arteries are often woefully neglected. The main north-south run from Shkodër to Tirana is notorious for its bottlenecks, and in summer you can easily find yourself sitting in diesel fumes for hours alongside angry German families on their way to or from Greece (in August 2019 it took us three hours to cover about 10km heading south to Lezhë).

Heavy rains usually mean floods, collapsed bridges and the rear ends of aquaplaned Mercedes sticking out of roadside cafés. Remember, Albanians can’t drive in perfect weather conditions, so don’t expect them to handle more than a light drizzle without disaster. 

* The impressive new Rruga Arberit road project should reduce the journey time to Tirana, at least. And in December 2020 the government promised to finally put asphalt down on the Dibër-Librazhd road. 

S” is for…

Service

Please see “Çunis” under “C”. 

Shopping

No, Albania is not a great shopping destination. You’ll pay at least 30 per cent more for the familiar fashion brands, and run the risk of buying convincing forgeries.

If you’re looking for locally made fabrics and suchlike, you’ll have a better time of it. The bazaar at Kruja, about an hour north of Tirana, is the obvious place to head (particularly for traditional kilim rugs and the iconic felt qeleshe hat), but you can pick up throws, table cloths and embroidered girly stuff in most cities frequented by tourists. Also, in any market you’ll find old ladies knitting woollen slippers – these make great gifts, so grab some if you see them.

Cooler, more contemporary locally produced stuff is harder to find – but it is out there and someone with more energy than me must have written a more professional and comprehensive Albania travel guide, so ask Google.

Smoking

The bad news is every male over the age of 12 smokes. The good news, remarkably, is that there is a smoking ban and, what’s more, people respect it. Until about midnight, that is, when apparently the police turn a blind eye to smoking inside and the ashtrays appear. 

As you’d expect of a country addicted to tobacco, there’s a lot of coughing and spitting. Albanian men are able to manipulate their airways from the tip of their nose to the top of their lungs in order to expel the cancerous residue. Hacking up great gobbets of mucus and spitting them onto the pavement is par for the course and barely raises an eyebrow. In summer it’s tolerable, but in wintertime it quickly freezes and presents a serious health-and-safety issue – the frail are advised not to leave their homes in case they inadvertently step on some snotty nugget and slip to their doom.

Springtime brings the welcome thaw, which is widely celebrated. The first Saturday of March sees Korça’s famous “Melting of the Phlegm Festival”, in which the final strands of that winter’s tar-stained mucus are swept into the river by the town’s most beautiful virgins, both of whom are hand-picked for the honour by the mayor himself, while local school children dance and sing traditional songs. This moving ceremony has happened every year since the arrival of tobacco in the late 16th century, but in 2021 was held on Zoom due to the lockdown crisis caused by the Covid-19 virus. 

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T” is for…

Tipping

Please, please, please always leave a tip at cafés and restaurants. Not a massive one, but something. If your coffee is 80 lek, leave 100. At restaurants, even 10 per cent is appreciated; 20 per cent will put a big smile on your çuni’s face. We have clients who come from non-tipping cultures (yes, we’re looking at you, Holland and New Zealand) who seem to make it a point of pride to travel through Albania without leaving so much as a five-lek piece behind. Please don’t be like that – it’s extremely disrespectful and frankly outrageous in a country with an average monthly salary of €400. If you’re travelling with a guide, you can be sure he’ll be dipping into his own pocket to pay the tip you should have left. 

And also, forget any rules you might have about not tipping iffy service. You’re in Albania; the service might well be strange by normal Western standards – really strange. Tip anyway. 

Toilets

Albania travel guide toilets image

Albanian toilets can sometimes be challenging

For Lavatories, please go to 1956 – that battle was lost long ago.

Albanians put as much effort into their visits to the toilet as they do their book-keeping: they don’t commit much to paper, but what they do is left scattered over the floor in haphazard fashion and shouldn’t be scrutinised too closely.

We’ve already learned that in Albania you are usually never more than half a metre away from an Old Lady With A Mop (see “Hygiene” under “H”), but toilets somehow escape their attention. From this you might conclude that Albanians have no biological functions and are all smooth and furry down below, like teddy bears. But, no, this isn’t the case at all. If you’re out and about and have a serious piece of business to attend to, you’ll discover that in fact Albanians do go to the toilet. Frequently. Not with any great skill but certainly with enthusiasm. Wild abandon, even.

The general rule seems to be:

Venue Capacity 1-50 – one unisex cubicle with no toilet but a cracked bidet and a sign saying “Coffees Only – No Cakes”.
Venue Capacity 51-100 – one unisex toilet, Turkish-style.
Venue Capacity 101-200 – one unisex toilet, Turkish-style, with a water supply.
Venue Capacity 201-999 – one unisex toilet, Western-style, with a water supply and the disconcertingly hairy remains of a bar of rock-hard off-green Palmolive soap circa 1992.
Venue Capacity 1,000+ – two toilets, and an Old Lady With A Mop.

Words of advice:

Never assume there will be toilet paper. Carry your own.
Never assume there will be soap. Carry your own.
Never assume there will be water. Carry your own.
Never assume there will be a Western-style sit-down toilet. Carry your own.

Do assume that every fitting and fixture in an Albanian toilet is the cheapest Chinese crap available, and will break under the slightest pressure from your fat and clumsy Western fingers – leaving you in a potentially very embarrassing situation. If you’re lucky enough to be greeted with a sit-down toilet, assume that it’s not attached to anything – if you insist on a perching strategy, focus on maintaining perfect balance, or you’ll be brought back down to earth in humiliating fashion. 

Trash

Until recently, trash was a verb not a noun for Albanians, who had two priorities –

1. Protecting their reputation from being trashed by malicious friends and relatives.

2. Trashing the reputation of friends and relatives in the most creative and imaginative ways possible.

The arrival of real, physical trash has complicated things considerably. Not for Albanians, who are completely oblivious to the fact that their beautiful country is now about 40 per cent wet wipe. But for you, a visitor from abroad, who is quite likely to be traumatised by the experience of hiking to the top of a mountain to find its elavation has been increased by five metres due to a hillock of discarded beer cans.

To understand how bad it is, take a moment to consider this: each year tiny little Albania contributes around 10,000 tons of plastic to the Mediterranean Sea, putting it behind only much larger Algeria, Turkey, Italy and Egypt. The Ishem river is reputedly the most polluted in Europe, discharging 733,000kg of plastic annually, give-or-take a nappy or two.

Yes, much of Albania’s trash problem can be attributed to poor waste management by the national and local authorities. But what you’re going to notice are the plastic bags of trash thrown from moving cars, or the plastic plates and picnic detritus left behind at every beauty spot and beach. That’s not the government’s fault. Sadly, no one here gives a damn – perhaps the only thing that truly unites Albanians is the national mission of covering the country in plastic as part of the ongoing Albanian War on Nature. May it bring them much glory.

In short, the trash situation in Albania is completely soul destroying. Just bite your lip and pretend not to notice.

W” is for…

Water

Albania has a lot of water. A lot. So much so that pretty much every stream, river, gorge, canyon and area of outstanding natural beauty with a puddle is being destroyed by the construction of “green” micro hydropower plants. They produce sweet FA in terms of electricity but the powerful seer Greta Thunberg tells us that if we carbon sinners don’t make sacrifices to the Atmosphere God, the sea levels will rise 40 metres overnight and we’re talking Atlantis all over again. Just don’t think too hard about the devastating impact on local villages, flora, fauna and of course the scenery.

But as a visitor this isn’t your concern. You want to know if you can drink from the tap. Probably not. We wouldn’t.

As for water shortages, they can happen in certain areas in a particularly dry summer but this is unusual. What can happen, anywhere and at any time, is the water supply can be cut off. In some parts of Tirana, water doesn’t run 24 hours – but by the time you visit the municipality might have finally resolved this. Elsewhere, the supply can stop at random, generally just as you’ve lathered yourself with soap in the shower. Don’t blame the hotel. Just sit tight and wait for it to return. Which will probably happen within an hour or two.

As you drive through Albanian you’ll pass countless springs. These are perfectly safe to drink from – the water is usually from deep underground and will be ice-cold even in high summer. Locals will insist that their spring produces THE BEST WATER IN ALL OF ALBANIA, but you’ll be hard-pushed to tell the difference from one spring to another.

Wine

Another good news story. Albanian and Kosova wine is (mostly) cheap and usually very drinkable. In the past decade as investment and knowledge from the Albanian diaspora has returned, some quality wines have been produced. It’d be unfair to single out any particular kantinas (wineries), so probably I’ll be forced to write a separate post with more in-depth recommendations sometime in the future.

If you’re in a simple village restaurant you can expect simple village wine, usually from a cousin’s farm. If you’ve travelled much in rural Greece, you’ll know what to expect – a recycled plastic water bottle filled with dark red ooze. Prices will be around 150 to 200 lek a glass. 

Bottles will be a bit bewildering, so just experiment. Albania’s poshest wine regions are between Lezhë and Shkodër to the north, and the area around Berat, in the centre of the country. Depending on the restaurant, you might part with 800 lek for something “ordinary” or up to 2,000 for a bottle of the serious stuff. 

Yes, you can find imported wine, usually from North Macedonia and Montenegro. Both produce great wine (in Tito’s day, Macedonia produced Yugoslavia’s finest wines). In more upmarket / show-offy venues you can expect Italian and French wine, and not a lot else. Be sure to annoy the çuni by asking why they don’t serve Albanian wine.   

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