Albania is Weird: An Intro to a Fascinating Country in Europe

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For any Albanians randomly stumbling across this post in 2020 or beyond, I would like you to note that this post was originally published in 2011. It's based on my personal travel experiences and what I learned in the country on a brief backpacking trip through the Balkans. I stand by this as MY EXPERIENCE in 2011. And, as someone who was “the weird kid” in middle school, I actually kind of love weird things. The term is meant to be endearing. Please keep that in mind before leaving any nasty comments.

When I mention to people that I passed briefly through Albania on my Europe trip this summer, many of them (after asking the compulsory “Where is that?” question) want to know what this small Balkan country is like.

When confronted with this question, I usually pause, make my “thinking” face, and then answer thus:

Albania is… weird.

Tirana, Albania
In Tirana, Albania

Weird Albania

There are more than 750,000 one-man concrete bunkers scattered across the countryside, dotting the landscape like giant mutated mushrooms. Stuffed animals (like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh) hang from half-completed homes and buildings to ward off evil spirits. A shake of the head means “yes,” while a nod means “no.” And former military bases now serve as seaside resorts.

See Mickey hanging from the roof? (Photo by my friend Monique)

Yes, this nation of 3 million is a bit quirky and difficult to describe. There are contradictions here upon contradictions, mostly thanks to the country's post-WWII history — a history that was characterized by communism, isolation, and an extremely paranoid leader.

In fact, most of Albania's current reality can be traced back to that paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha, who ruled with increasing suspicion of the wider world until his death in 1985. He is the one responsible for the plethora of bunkers around the country. And for the isolation and fear of the outside world that made them seem necessary at the time.

Pill Box Bunker
Photo by Joseph A Ferris III, on Flickr

Our Busabout guide – a young Croatian guy with a keen interest in politics and economics – told us that, during Hoxha's reign, Albania was even more insular and isolated that present-day North Korea. The country levied no taxes and incurred no debt. It exported no goods, and became entirely self-sufficient in order to avoid reliance on the outside world.

This, of course, meant that when Albania finally shook off its one-party system in the early 1990s, it found itself in a state of stagnation. Even today, Albania is regarded as one of the least-developed countries in Europe.

But you kind of have to give the country a break. Twenty years really isn't that long when it comes to history, and Albania certainly is trying.

Beautiful Albania - Vacation Destination!
Pops of color in Tirana. (Photo by Joseph A Ferris III, on Flickr)

These days, even though Hoxha's legacy lives on in Albania, the country is clearly trying to move on from his extreme form of leadership – and it's this fact that lends the country many of its interesting quirks.

Under Hoxha, self-sufficiency was name of the game. Which means that today, Albanians have one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Under Hoxha, atheism became the official state religion. But today, people in Albania enjoy incredible religious tolerance. In the capital of Tirana, you can find a church right next to a mosque, with a synagogue just a block away.

Tirana, Albania
Mosque next to a church.

Under Hoxha, the outside world was not to be trusted. But, today, Albania seeks to invite the outside world in, hoping to turn to tourism to boost its economy like neighboring Montenegro is doing.

Tourism in Albania

The country has done a lot to entice visitors in recent years. The formerly dull Tirana has been splashed with bright colors. New roads are being built to replace twisting, narrow, pitted ones. And coastal cities along the have been transformed into summer retreats.

Well, sort of.

Durres, Albania
Durres, Albania

As someone currently studying tourism, visiting one of Albania's developing touristic areas was fascinating. And also a bit depressing. It was spending a night in the town of Durres that really allowed me a glimpse into how tourism is developing in parts of Albania.

And let's just say that it's not particularly pretty.

Over-developed Durres. (Photo by xJason.Rogersx, on Flickr)

As Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe guide says:

Durres was once Albania's capital. Its 10km-long beach is a lesson in unplanned development; hundreds of hotels stand side by side, barely giving breathing space to the beach and contributing to the urban-waste problem that causes frequent outbreaks of skin infections in swimmers.

Not exactly a glowing recommendation, is it?

And, while Durres wasn't actually THAT bad, the beach WAS dirty, and the town felt a bit confused. On the one hand, we had a super nice pool and white tablecloths at our beachside resort. On the other, dumpsters overflowed in town and little kids pestered every foreigner they saw for money.

Durres, Albania
Our pool
Durres, Albania
The beach

This is NOT the way to develop tourism in a country. But it's likely a product of Albania's long isolation and its desire to catch up quickly.

The Future of Albania

To me, Albania is kind of like an awkward teenager still not quite sure how to handle its changing body. It's a little weird and not very cool, and yet is trying desperately to fit in. Perhaps a little too desperately, as places like Durres hint at.

I can understand Albania, though. As someone who was a weird teenager herself, I sympathize with the country and its struggles. It's trying to overcome its past and become prosperous, but it's not an easy road. Nothing is easy when you've spent the past 5 decades in utter isolation from the rest of the world. You'd be a little weird, too.

Durres, Albania

There's definitely hope for Albania, though. It DOES have things going for it, like its gorgeous countryside and hospitable locals. The whole Balkan region in general is an up-and-comer when it comes to international tourism. Nearby Greece has been a hot spot for years, and neighbor Montenegro is swiftly rising to become a must-visit destination in Europe.

Could Albania be next?

Maybe. But it needs to get over that adolescent weirdness first.

For more updated takes on Albania's tourism development, check out these posts from some of my travel blogger friends:

What do you think? Would you ever want to visit Albania?

*Note: I visited Albania as part of a discounted 9-day Classic Balkan Trek tour with Busabout. All opinions, however, are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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148 Comments on “Albania is Weird: An Intro to a Fascinating Country in Europe

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  1. I have read many of your other articles and I really enjoyed them. But I feel as if this one slightly missed the mark. If you asked any Albanian where you reccomended that they stayed, no one would EVER recommend Durres. Most of us go further south, where there are more breathtaking beaches. Further up north we have mountains and forests. We also have old cities such as Berat and Gjirokaster that are also very beautiful. I’m not trying to make assumptions, but from the article, it seemed as if you only visited Tirana and Durres, arguably the most ugly cities in my country, and you can’t judge a whole country based on that. I appreciate the good things you said about Albania, and I can understand the metaphor, and have often thought about it myself. Maybe I am just protective of my country because it is still relatively unknown. I would recommend going for a second trip, as it is relatively cheap and has changed a lot since 2011-2012. I would recommend going to more of the southern beaches or maybe in the northern mountains.

      Also I have literally never seen so many Albanians in one place on the internet…I’ve never seen a single other Albanian on the internet

      I agree with you about the original post missing the mark. And I too have also enjoyed and even benefited from some of Amanda’s other posts. Maybe this is why I was shocked and disappointed that someone would spend just a short time in two places–and on a guided tour no less–and then feel qualified to make pronouncements such as were made about the entire country. I have been fortunate to have experienced some of Albania including the very places you mentioned–and more. (I even liked Tirana and have great memories from there too!) Albania is a gem in many ways, and you are in the right to defend it and suggest a longer, more inclusive visit.

    The mountains are beautiful, the landscape is beautiful, the people are friendly unless you are talking money eg: cash only!
    But what absolutely disgusted us is the pollution, the litter is absolutely horrendous whether in the Mountains, Countryside or Cities it is everywhere, the whole of Albania is covered and to top it all we witnessed people throwing their litter in the streets right in front of us, and their believe apparently is it will go back to nature, so you tell me how plastic and tin will go back to nature along with the other rubbish, we did not travel anywhere in Albania that was litter free, we will never come back to this untidy rubbish strewn dirty Country, if the people loved their Country as much as they love their mobile phones, Mercedes and Porches then this Country would be a better place, being poor or wealthy does not excuse anyone from being reckless, uncaring or irresponsible for their waste and if people can not see this then they seriously have an eye problem!

      What year did you go to Albania? I spent two weeks there in 2017 and traveled the country from north to south and east to west. What you describe here bears no resemblance (except for the beautiful mountains and landscape and friendly people) to the country I saw (without any eye problems), experienced, and loved.

    Obviously you haven’t seen enough of Albania. There’s beautiful places from North to south, and Albanian people are the most generous you’d ever meet.

      I could not agree with you more. I am not Albanian but traveled there in 2017. It is a fascinating country in so many ways and full of beauty and, as you correctly say, the most wonderful, generous people. It is a pity that the original blog post we are responding to was based on such a short, superficial experience. Albania deserved much, much better.

    Hi Amanda! Your writing is different than most writings about the Albanian riviera, in a good way. Since 1993 and until now Durresi beach has become one of the least attractive beaches in Albania. As the country’s 2nd largest city, Durres became the number one place for illegal construction and land robberies, most of which took place in the 90s, and continue till today through corruption. After the fall of the communist regime, which regulated where people lived and worked, massive migration from all regions of Albania followed and people settled mainly in Durres and Tirana. Many migrant settlers occupied beach lands to build their new homes. This includes over 85% of the properties built along the shores of Durres till today. Many of the illegally built homes grew and expanded into shops, hotels, and restaurants. Conflict between owners and land grabbers to this day remains unsolved because of high corruption.
    Simply put it is Democracy that is a teenager in Albania. This due to the domino effect whose roots are tied to European issues of prior to and including WWII, followed by communism etc. It is through this immature democracy that non loyal politicians, court clerks, and even judges have become rich and richer for over three decades by using the unjust power of corruption in public offices. To this day the lawful owners remain stript from their legal right to their properties for over 75 year (45 in communism and 31 in democracy). This prevents the costal city from having a well planned and designed architecture as it normally would. Illegal construction has been semi-legalized and has become so bad that the future of this city could be underwater very soon due to massive land erosions along the coast. Erosions resulting form unregulated exploitation of rivers, and dumping of inert materials in river/sea deltas which change the water flow and have allowed water to move inland.
    It is sad to say that in the dark times of Hoxha, Durresi BEACH was probably a more attractive sandy beach than today by all means. Before the 90s, the sand surface was thicker, wider, and whiter with no illegal buildings just feet away from the water. There was no pollution, garbage, and no mushroom style illegal construction. One-story summer vacation homes in camp like locations were only available by reservation at that time.

    If you ever get another chance to visit Albania, I recommend you visit the south. South Albania has been and continues to be one of the pearls of our planet. Even though similar issues to Durres exist in the south too, it is in a smaller scale and the beauty of nature is so immense that it distracts visitors and locals alike from weird things of modern Albania.

    I am always interested in reading about Albania as I have a very close friend who was born in Tirana, Albania and intend visiting there in the near future. So each bit of information I read always faciniates me. I have learnt they are a very proud people. Poor but proud. They also have a great “family first” culture which I admire.

    Hi Amanda, Just stumbled across your blog after all these years and wanted to comment. (After all this time, now that’s weird!) I spent a wonderful couple of weeks (too little time) traveling around Albania in 2017. I sure hope you make it back, as you have said is your hope, once this pandemic is over. If you do, you’ll find, in my opinion, how shortsighted and, yes, unfair your post from 2011 was. I don’t fault you entirely as you were on a bus tour, and how unfortunate it was you were on the one you were with the guide you had. There is so much more to Albania to Tirana, which I very much liked, BTW, and Durres. I realize you were limited by time and the tour your chose, but is it fair to base a review of an entire country, even labeling it as “weird,” based on such a cursory experience?

    In a previous post you wondered if maybe you should have used the word “awkward” rather than “weird.” I think so. If you had a child that was trying to find its way and had trouble “fitting in,” would you want others to call your child “weird”? “Awkward” may hurt a bit, but it would be kinder and more patient sounding. No wonder some people took exception to your choice of language.

    I can understand that it seemed like certain aspects of Albania were in an awkward stage to you. But the country will still probably be feeling the effects of the Hoxha regime long after both you and I are gone. Studying the history before you went may have changed, if not your impression, your appreciation for the strength and resilience of the people and the challenges they were left with.

    Others over the years have shared suggestions of great places to go to on your return trip. My amens to those suggestions with special encouragement that you go to Berat, Gjirokaster, Korça/Voskopoje, Shkoder, Valbone and Theth. The scenery, the warmth of the people, the culture, and the fascinating though painful history that have shaped Albania and the Albanians make this country one of my favorites of the 70+ I have visited. I am sorry you missed out and have high hopes for your Round 2!

    Happy travels!

    I think the author really missed the mark here;

    From what I gather this is the tourism blog so I guess any exclamation weird has to do with American comparisons– but if you would do just a smidge more research you would find that although Albania is a recent country that’s like saying Israelis are recent because they just got land after World War II.

    Albania is a Culture. They were taken over by the Ottoman Empire (which split Albanians in between Albanian Catholics and Albanian Muslims) many others in-between and then the USSR for a long clip.

    To compare Albania as a country to a fledging young teenager might not go over so well since Albanians are also a culture. The land that is Albania was given to albanians because most of the albanians to survive lived in the mountains; and a lot of that mountainous area was given to be Albania the country.

    Albania is a great country, is the only contry in the world who has 2 different sea . Albania have beautiful mountains, and beach.
    You have a lot of places to see overthere, very friendly contry and its not expensive.
    I think is one of the best and interesting place to travel .

    I’m sorry but I’m Albanian and most of the facts are wrong. And a mosque next to a church is normal because there are many religions that people follow in Albania. If you really see Albania then you see there are far more benefits from going there. The culture is BEAUTIFUL! Also some people say that Hoxha was a benefit because with Albania under a dictatorship then a lot of people got into place and a lot more people focused on their education. The only downside was that if you complained about how the government was, they would have you killed or sent to prison.The bunkers are there because Albania was a very big country that helped the Jews during WW2. And if you ask the town people or any Albanian, we aren’t desperate to catch up because we have been isolated, we were fine just the way we were. “It exported no goods, and became entirely self-sufficient in order to avoid reliance on the outside world.” This was because we needed no help all the fruits and food we needed we already had! Our produce was the cleanest there was! “Albania is regarded as one of the poorest, least-developed countries in Europe.” We are considered poor to a lot of other people, but if you actually live there you see that if you finished your education ( a lot of people before Hoxha only finished 8th grade) you could get a really great job. “Under Hoxha, atheism became the official state religion. But today, people in Albania enjoy incredible religious tolerance. In the capital of Tirana, you can find a church right next to a mosque, with a synagogue just a block away.” Everybody was atheist under Hoxha’s rule because he said that everybody had to be equal. Ever since we left Hoxha’s rule everything became about political things and the crime rate went up since people didn’t have jobs. And if you check history you can see that Albanians were Illyrians and we had almost all of the Balkans. We even controlled a lot of Celtic land way back then. The point of what I’m saying is that what you think is ugly is actually very beautiful and you didn’t even include the thoughts of the people in Albania.

      I am also Albanian and I agree with most of your points. It kind off annoys me how people get so many things wrong about Albania.

        Just wanted to thank you for commenting on this. I am not Albanian but have spent some time there. The (now old) original post also annoyed me. Albania and its people will always hold a special place in my heart.

    It’s not really weird though is it. Just different to what you know. Dont assume their desire is to one day bloom into America.

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