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.

Albania
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.

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

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  1. Hey Amanda
    I enjoyed reading your blog about Albania as I have just been though and will be back in a week or so. I had to laugh reading it – have a look at the last picture on the slideshow on my blog at https://adventureswithaunty.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/amazing-albania-weeks-1-2-wow/
    and you will see why!! If you would like a copy of that picture to add to yours let me know and I can send it to you…think it would fit your theme rather well!! Albania seems to be growing out of it’s awkward teenage phase – I was certainly really impressed (as you will see!) but the mushrooms are still there and hopefully always will be as they are something pretty special. Some really clever company should offer a big prize for the best decorated/utilised bunker and make them a tourist attraction in their own right. No one else can compete with it!

    Thanks again for your post!

    I’ve been to albania before and i don’t think it a bad country everyone is really friendly and kind.

      I never said it was bad! Weird doesn’t always mean bad. 😉 I’ll definitely go back – so many people I know have been there recently and absolutely loved it!

    Hah 🙂 I like the description “weird teenager” I have lived in nyc most of my life and always had a hard time describing my country to me of course it’s beautiful in its own weird chaotic way. As far as the bunkers we have been invaded by pretty much everyone from Ancient Rome to modern Serbs ( Kosovo war 1999) on average there has been a war every 50 years so is it really that weird that we would be a little paranoid :). Ps : you have not seen anything it’s like me visiting nyc and going to orchard beach in the Bronx ( Google it) and writing about America and its beaches :).

    Well, I guess every country can be labeled weird. If we switch perspectives and let Albanians judge the U.S., I bet they can claim many things as weird. Therefore, we never know who the weird one really is.

      Sure, there are plenty of weird things about the US. But, for the purposes of THIS post and story, Albania is the weird one. 😉

        Yeah… and you are just an annoying american tourist. No one likes your presents anywhere.

    I have no idea where in the country you’ve been, but I’ll blame it on the guide and not on your poor way of describing the voucher try of Albania. I’ve visited Albania 3 years in a row during summer months and the south part, where you have both: Adraitic Sea, and Jonian sea just at the sme city Vlora, and more south it was just amazing. You
    At less for equal, or more that Italy or Greece offers you. Every eastern country( even though Albania is located in the south and has nothing to do with the East then just old politics) has his own history which will help every visitor understand more if it, and not just being a word teenager and asking for conform on that to this country. I wanted to again see a European country much as I remember them in the early 60s before everything became the same, with same shops and similar food, and that’s pretty much what we found. Albania is family-centred, safe, respectable and amazingly cheap; two people can eat with a drink for £5 and eat like royalty for £15. I don’t know where you’ve eaten, but obviously you didn’t have a great guide. We tried everything from fast food cafés to great restorants. The food so delicious Mediterranean and organic. The fish you eat by the restorants at the beach are just cought. It’s a young society with few fat people and is untouched by the Americans (we didn’t see a single McDonalds in the whole country). Maybe that’s why you didn’t liked it.

    So, if you can survive a run-down infrastructure and customer-blindness, you could try a holiday in Albania. It has wonderful scenery, beach resorts and important archaeology. Did you visit any sites? We went on a trip to the aloes of Valbona, beautiful falls into the mountains, just like swicerland. Do t make me started on the people. I’m a world traveler and never seen people. Ore friendly then albanias. The capital city of Albania is Tirana which is also Amazing with fantasic shops, bars and Resturants.
    My favourite resturant is called resturant Juvenilja its designed to look like a castle.
    Food and drinks every where in Albania is not only cheap but delicious.
    This country is fastly becoming more and more popular so visit Albania before it gets spoilt with too many tourists.
    I really feel sory for your experience. Too bad you had to waste it, and you’re giving people here a not True review. I don’t know the pulse of your trip, but strongly believe the travel agency who brought you there ripped you off and had these intentions.
    I can’t wait for the summer to go back to Dhermiu Beach, and Himmara Beach, where the young people enjoy themselfs with party on the beach and it’s not Wierred at All!
    Ps: you people here check more then just a trouble teenager before go down on vacation, thanks goodnes there are other ways of finding out that this.
    I have to give it yo Albania.
    See u there in the summer .

      Yup, I’m a fat American who doesn’t enjoy any country that doesn’t have a McDonalds. (Please note the sarcasm – clearly you haven’t read anything else on my blog.)

      I’m just writing about MY personal experience. I haven’t been everywhere in Albania, it’s true. But the beach resort we went to in Durres was nothing to write home about (the beach was covered in trash and the food was terrible). I’m glad you’ve had better experiences – I’m sure I’ll go back to Albania one day to see if it’s changed at all.

        Don’t even bother going back. No one needs people like you there. Albania is an amazing country but from what i see you have purposely posted pictures of the worst things you could find there and try to sell your “experience” to others.
        Save it, people who have visited Albania know better than that. I feel sorry for the ones who haven’t though!
        They have missed out on an unique experience.

          I would love to return to Albania – and certainly plan to! This blog is 100% about my travel personal experiences; I don’t write about anyone else’s, only my own. Nowhere do I say I hate Albania or Albanians, so I’m honestly baffled as to why people continue to be so offended by this article after so many years.

            Well we get offended because Albania has a lot of touristic cities with a very old history for not to mention the beaches in the south of Albania that are stunning. But you only post pictures of bunkers and of Durres where the worst beach is. I can understand that maybe you couldn’t visit any other place but couldn’t you at least just google Albania and see what more was there before you throw dirt to a whole country?!!
            It’s like me coming to America and judging the whole country only by visiting New York.
            All the beautiful places in Albania have been there always, and certainly also in 2012, you just missed out on everything.
            FYI Albania as a country is not poor because it has enough of natural resources for to be a rich country but these resources are used from the government and they keep all the money for themselves. The government even steals money from the people there and don’t make any investments. They don’t care at all about the well being of Albania and they are destroying the country thats why Albania doesn’t prosper..
            With the politicians that we have, even if it we were 100 years free from communism Albania would be just the same or worse. That’s why we go to other countries to work because the economy can’t grow when the government steals all the money.
            But even though we go live and work in other countries, we love our country and we know it’s worth. You will understand what i’m talking about only when you visit everything there.

              I understand that you’re protective of your country and that you love it. But, I have to wonder if you actually READ this post, or if you’re just commenting based on the title and photos? I actually say fairly nice things about Albania, along with talk about how its tourism development has been affected by its history, and about how it’s catching up – AND about how I hope the rest of the country learns from Durres, which no one can tell me is a beautiful beach town. I would not call that “throwing dirt.” If you’d like to write about how great Albania is as a tourist destination, you’re welcome to start your own travel blog to spread the word!

    Really interesting, I hadn’t heard much about Albania until I visited Montenegro earlier this year. I guess they are all a little biased there but nobody exactly gave it a glowing review! Some of the pictures here look really nice!

      It’s definitely an interesting place – and I think it’s somewhere you’d really have to devote a decent amount of time to in order to really appreciate it.

    Hi, just a small correction – Although it’s true that mosques can be found next to churches in Albania, the mosque pictured is not next to a church. It’s the Et’hem Bey mosque in the central square of Tirana, and the tower next to it is not a church bell tower, but an ordinary clock tower, called Kulla e Sahatit (“The Clock Tower”).

    Hi there,
    I’m glad you visited my country and you are talking about it in your blog !
    Indeed Albania is a pretty particular country with its flaws and beauty. As you said, 20 years are not enough to rebuilt a state from the beginning but we are in constant development now !
    Please let me correct you – as per the picture showing the mosque, next to it there’s not a church , that what lies next to it , it’s the Tower Clock of Tirana, one of the symbols of our capital, Tirana . But yes, you are right , religion tolerance in Albania is one of our strengths. It’s not unusual to see churches, mosques really close to each other.
    Albania has many touristic spots other than ” Durres “, which unfortunately was destroyed aggressively by too many constructions.
    The southern coastline is considered our pride; we have beaches who do not envy the impressive ones of Greece. Quite ironic that this part of the territory has maintained its original beauty and wilderness. You will find sporadic constructions from Dhermi to Lukove, which are in between two main south cities , Vlore and Saranda.
    In the south, is to be visited also Butrint ( the ancient remains of an Illyrian city).
    For mountain lovers , our north it’s just worth having a stay for some refreshing climate and adventure ! Albanian alps are just amazing, the main touristic villages to fully enjoy are Theth and Valbone.
    I do not work for a travel agency nor I am a touristic guide ; but I really love my country and I want to share its beauty and fragility with everyone that I have the possibility to talk.
    Albania is a small country, so if you want to fully know and enjoy everything about it would be better to see it whole, not just the big cities ….

    Thank You 🙂

      It’s always refreshing when someone is really proud of their country, and yet can admit that it is not perfect! Thanks so much for offering up all those tips!

    I was born and raised in the city of Durres and unfortunately your comments about my hometown are on point. I still remember the CLEANER days when the city was populated by it’s own people (durrsak as we call ourselves). Now it has been occupied by villagers and small town people from the northern parts of the country. It is one of the oldest cities in Albania, and though the infrastructure modest by your american standards, it used to be quite lovely and the beaches were beautiful. I will not get into the comparison to North Korea, but I will only say that I had a pretty great childhood, bunkers and all.
    I would recommend Pogradec to anyone who wants to vacation in Albania. It is near Korca (bordering with Macedonia). It lies along Ohrid lake, the people are super friendly, the air clean and it has some spectacular landscape.

      I can imagine what Durres must have been like when you were growing up, before all the “resorts” and tourists came in. It’s a pity that it isn’t like that anymore!

    I think that Albania is simply amazing and something different from the rest of Europe.Maybe Tirana and Durres are a shock (I liked Durres a lot by the way) so I suggest that next time, you visit places like Butrint or Gjirokaster… and them tell me that you simply don’t love that country.

    Happy travels.

    Hello, your blog is interesting. i’ve went in Albania 4 weeks with an Abanian friend of me.
    I think Albania is not weird at all.. It’s true that the bunkers are not very agreable, and some places are quite ‘isolated’.
    But my opinion is that albania is so much more than that, You should ever go again to Albania and visit: Dhermi (perfect place), Himare, Shengjin,Korca.. (South of Albania). It is much nicer, and ” better-looking”. ( Check it out on internet if you want 🙂 ) You should’nt judge a country so quickly,if you haven’t see whole albania yet. It’s true that Tirana and Durres are not agreable…but there is so much more
    I will definitely go back to Albania. You should do the same.. but this time in “South Albania” 🙂

    Typical american superficial , limonate , mechanic way of perceiving and reflecting things around them. The need to simplify in order to be able to categorize and feet in that boring, obsolete, arrogant so called mind. You haven’t made any vital comment , which would describe the essence of that archaic country. You can find more common sense and collective social spirit and interaction in the remote Alps of Albania , than in any Ohio Starbucks or Bar, where the fixed zombie eyes, selfish , individualistic trashy people are gathered “apart” to study , to create, in front of everybody without talking , but bending their spine toward any technological device..The inability to interact without the happy pill. You can call that weird , not the”joie de vivre” which you will never understand it, since you are a arrogant , a pseudo- polyglot, and less accurate than a volcano when you presume to understand “il spirito di un alto paese. Ai mee. For a person that the only books that she had spend time are the one of Tolkien’s, really can think that she can able to embrace the Mediterranean world… Pfff. and write about that in the steps of Schiller and Maupassant.

      Sorry if that’s how you see it, but this is MY site, and these are MY perceptions of the world. If you don’t like them, please stop reading. Most commenters on this post (Albanians included) have appreciated and even agreed with what I’ve said here.

      And, for someone who apparently thinks themselves above me and the people of Ohio (and who assumes the “only books” I read are Tolkien’s), I would say YOU are the one with the “superficial, limonate, mechanic way of perceiving and reflecting things around them,” with a “need to simplify in order to be able to categorize.” And you’re calling ME arrogant? Please.

    I like the way you compared Albania to a weird teenager, it’s probably a fitting comparison. I haven’t been there but from what I hear, it’s as if you describe it.

      I’ve talked to others who have traveled there recently, and they all seem to agree. I’m glad you liked the comparison!

    I hope you did enjoy then, there is still much more to see I assure you. 🙂

    Oh no, it’s not as weird I agree. Hopefully you will get to enjoy more than the concrete jungle of Bucharest. Brasov, Sibiu, Bran Castle, Peles Castle in Sinaia, Aventura Park in Poiana Brasov, see Iasi, go to the seaside, anywhere, especially Mamaia, Salina Turda, Cluj, Timisoara, Transfagarasan Road, Busteni, the list goes on. Hunedoara Castle

      I did indeed enjoy more than just Bucharest! I was in the Maramures region for a bit, visited Viscri, and also went to Sighisoara and Brasov.

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