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. Albania is such a unique country, isn’t it? I went a couple of years ago and I found it so different than any other country I’ve been to. I didn’t get a chance to make it to Durres, but I did spend some time in Tirana and Saranda and driving around some UNESCO sites. It’s interesting to see how they’re history has affected their culture. I agree that it could be next in terms of big tourism, but I do think they have some way to go. It has great beaches but it’s still such a hidden gem. In time though, it could be what Montenegro is becoming. Great post.

    Hi! You should definitely take a spring tour in the northern Albania. The blue eye in Theth is fascinating and more fascinating is the road to go there. The view in every mountain top is spectacular. To top it all of the people are so friendly that will make you feel more like a guest than a traveler.

    The only thing that is weird to me is you article about Albania. I’m from Albania and trust me when i say, you know nothing about my country. You say you went to Durres, which has not a nice beach, as Albanians we all know that, but did you go to the south of Albania where there is a beach paradise? Did you go to Vlora, Saranda, Butrint, The blue eye, Himare, Dhermi, Ksamil?
    Did you go to Berat and Gjirokaster, 2 cities that are more than 2400 years old, protected by UNESCO for their heritage?
    Or maybe you went in the nord of Albania, where the breathtaking Alpes and lakes are? But you didn’t did you?
    And yet here you are making a whole article about a country you know nothing of.
    Learn about something first then talk about it!!! Albania used to be indeed an isolated country due to the dictatorship but reading such articles and comments i realize the narrow minds are even more isolated than our country used to be.

    Really interesting views and I like the metaphor of Albania being in its awkward teenage phase. I do agree with some things that you say, however, I’ve spent prolonged time in Durres and Tirana with a friend and her family and I’d call it less ‘weird’ and more just a very different culture. Albania is extremely different from the other European countries that surround it and in a different stage of development because of its isolation during communism. But the locals really love and are proud of their country, there is a really unique culture and some absolutely beautiful and super interesting places to visit. Like most countries, they need tourism for their economy and they’re just figuring out how to do this. I’d definitely give Albania another chance if I were you and really get to know it and its people!

      I definitely need to go back! I’ll also point out that this post was written quite a few years ago, and tourism there has obviously developed a lot more in Albania as a whole since I first visited (which was back in 2012!).

        Dear Amanda before talking about a whole nation and country you should have read some good books about it ,albanians have very ancient language,culture and traditions.I am sorry to say but the way you have written your article shows that you are uneducated and uncultured.

          This is a personal blog, and I write about my personal travel experiences exactly as I experienced them, backed up by having degrees in both journalism and tourism. Just because someone writes something you don’t like doesn’t mean they are uneducated and uncultured. Want to write something different about Albania? Feel free to start your own blog! I’d be happy to read it.

            Yes this is your personal blog but since it is public everyone has the right to comment and express their personal opinions regarding the article you have written. When someone says you are wrong on a certain matter you should accept that and try to watch the situation from a different perspective. That is how people progress.
            What you lack is openmindness. Only because a country has a different culture from yours, you cannot regard it as weird. I personally find your article shallow.

              I’m continually baffled by comments like this. Did you even bother to read this post beyond the title? I say many nice things about Albania! This post is also nearly 10 years old at the point; obviously things have changed in 10 years, but that doesn’t negate my experience there (which I also clearly state). If you’d prefer to write something different about Albania, by all means start your own travel blog and go for it.

        As of 2021 the construction company Emaar that built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which is the tallest building in the world is investing 3 billion dollars for a new touristic port and yacht marina in Durres. As well as luxury apartments and a skyscraper. It will be the largest port in the Adriatic and will take around 5 years to complete the whole project.

    wow. im seeing all the american people here and you all are so weirded out by the bunkers. lol i live next to one and its huge. its wide almost the size of a house. and i would recommend visiting the south of albania. also this post was made 6 years ago and i would say that tirana has changed so much since then. you should definitely visit it again.

    It never was more isolated than South Korea, and the beaches in Albania are fascinating, you just chose to visit the wrong ones. You shouldn’t have gone to Durres, there are way prettier ones in the South Albania. And it’s definitely not weird. If anything, Albanians are the most friendly and welcoming people ever. They love it when foreigners visit, and treat us the best way they can. There’s a lot of history so that’s also another reason why you should visit Albania. “Trying too hard”? What do you mean? I think they’re doing what every country would do after 45 years of isolation. The night life is amazing, and you can never really get bored in Albania because there’s always something to do. You definitely chose the wrong guide, my experience was amazing.

    Haha, “weird” is spot on. It still is 6 years after you wrote this post. I’d say it’s between Albania and Japan for the “weirdest” countries I’ve been to, but in completely different ways. When you were there did you experience the tradition in small towns where everyone goes down to the main street and walks up and down it in a big, long oval so they can pass by and greet one-another. That’s weird! And wonderful. I hope Albania, and every country, stays weird. We all should.

      I didn’t get to witness that tradition, but it sounds delightfully quirky! And you’re right – “weird” doesn’t have to be bad!

    Hello everyone who red this article about Albania and for the ones who commented to. I am a 20 years old girl from Albania and I was searching for information about a project who has to do with my beautiful country ALBANIA. I have to say that actually I was very very sad after reading this article(today is 28-29 November,Albanias indipendence days) because I do not know how you can expect to find a paradise in a place who until 2000 was fighting with Serbia for Kosovo, from a place who have been 500 years under Otoman perandory, a place who now is half because Montenegro, Macedonia,Serbia,Greece took 2/3 parts of it. Every Albanian knows that Albania is not perfect but to remind you all that it also took other countries a lot to be like they are today. But believe me that Albania will be an attractive destination soon. It is to soon to judge.

      This article is a bit of a rubbish.

      What can you expect from an american woman who has nothing to do and travels around…. despite she has been like 7 years ago there and has been in the most terrible places, my albanian friends told me that Albanian welcomed 5 million tourists in 2017 and is waiting for 6 million tourists in 2018 and by 2020 country expected to have 10 million tourists. quite huge numbers.

      Also , Albanians have been part of the Ottoman Empire for 350 tears and not 500, and what is the most important, is that muslim Albanians were the strongest and the most represented ethnicity within the empire … there were like 44 Albanian Prime ministers and thousands of generals, governors and rulers of albanian blood… even the imperial guards was composed by Albanians and large parts of the ottoman armies…

      Normally the Albanian Muslim leaders did a very bad choice by continuing to have relations with the Ottomans even during the 2nd half of the 19th century…. ottoman empire went very backward and this also made Albania not developed as much as it should during that period.

      Also in 1913, when the land were divided, FYROM Macedonia did not exist….

    It is almost 5 years now… Are u coming back? 🙂

    Marlo you have no Idea! How can you compare Albanias history with Lybia and Iraq?vYou can compare it with ex comunist countrys but not with Iraq!!!!

    And you Amanda says, yes, yes, very good point. What Point Amanda???

    You are the weird one, Amanda. This is a compliment like yours to Albania.

    […] in 2012. She has a similar experience visiting the ancient city of Durres. In her blog post ‘Albania Is Weird‘, she wrote about the ‘unfinished buildings’: ‘There are more than 750,000 […]

    Very good description Amanda.It just reminds of Lybia’s Moamar kadafi, another paranoid psychotic who ruined the minds of 4 generations of Libyans. Same goes to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

    You’d think 3 million people country could easily be affluent or at least self sufficient. But it doesn’t, they all want to migrate to wealthy European countries, Canada and the US. More than half of them already migrated.

    Progress is no easy task for Albania because the problem lies in the archaically inherited dictator era mentality that is a die-hard and lingers on. It is the same mentality that has been putting Iraq, Syria and Libya on hold despite the west’s attempt to force a change.

      Very good point, Marlo! I know things ARE slowly changing in Albania, though, and the country is opening up more and more to tourism each year.

        What good point Amanda? You are from OHIO! Need i say more? Cleveland mistake on the lake??? Any state or city used for negativity on any movie is OHIO!! Weird no my dear you are the weird one and please oh please dont go back to Albania, the reason i even got my foot to this so called blog is because of your negativity!

          I will say this about Albanians: they have lots of national pride! But I honestly am a bit baffled anytime a comment like this comes through on this post. Calling something “weird” isn’t negative in my opinion; would you be less offended if I used the word “awkward?” But, regardless, I’m allowed to share my opinions about the places I visit – just as you’re allowed to share opinions on places you’ve never visited. (As an American, I am very much used to people from other countries telling me their opinions about my home!)

            You are entitled to your opinion no doubt about it but you are basing your opinion for the whole country in just 1 visit on the towns you picked. Imagine me talking bad about OH and certain cities i know that are terrible. I speak fluent 5 languages and my dear when you use the word “weird or awkward” in any language the translation is used in a low belittle form not with happy hearts and smiley emojis. I am not a born american and i had a rough 7-8 first years of me being here but i see the overall pic and america is beautiful and full of wonderful people and opportunities! Albania has been in the center of every war and our people are tired of corrupted politicians, do we have work to do of course but i don’t go to the crappy places and pick “weird” stuff and post about it. Its called CHOICE and u choose to speak this way! I would have not cared if you were from serbia or greece we are used by now some people try to stir trouble, i am very disappointed with you because you sound very intelligent and very smart and you should know better! Thats all..

              Every time I get angry comments on this post, I re-read it. I still don’t think it’s a negative post. I wrote about the realities of tourism development in Albania that I personally witnessed when I visited, but also pointed out all the positive things Albania has going for it. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since I was there, and I DO need to visit again. But this blog is written around my personal travel experiences, and not all of them are full of rainbows and unicorns!

    It does seem weird dangerous and undeveloped. I won’t be visiting this country anytime soon.

      Weird, yes. Dangerous? No, I wouldn’t call it dangerous! It’s actually kind of fascinating because of its weirdness.

      You don’t even know the beauties and the amazing culture!

    I’m albanian and you’re being far too nice. Albania is a complete shithole and even i can admit that. It’s basically like an average middle eastern country in terms of culture and atittudes of people. The infrastructure is atrocious and the people are criminals I do not advise anyone to go there, you’re going to have a terrible experience.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say people should never go there – I have quite a few travel blogging friends who have been there recently and really liked it! But I definitely appreciate your insider’s perspective. 🙂

      What rubbish!! If you think Albania is dangerous for the average visitor you need to get out more. You’d be in more danger in any city in the USA than you would in Albania. You’re not exactly helping your country financially by putting people off going there are you? I found it to be an absolutely wonderful country – full of kind and generous people, gorgeous scenery, fabulous hiking and fascinating history. And I have visited 103 countries on all 7 continents and lived in 7…so I have a fair idea what I am talking about. I had just spent 2 years in Latin America when I visited the Balkans and enjoyed my two months there way more.

        I’m sure that person “Death” is not Albanian at all and is just a liar.
        Serbians and Greeks hate Albania and way too often they comment in different blogs, posts or videos saying that they are Albanians and writting bad stuff about the country. Of course foreignors don’t know this but Albanians know this way too well. I just hope that person doesn’t end up like his name from the hate that he has for Albania.
        His poor heart can only take so much.

      You are not Albanian on earth talks like this,why are you so frustrated?
      Please find peace.

    […] where my cot was in the kitchen next to the fridge. Or the “resort” we stayed at in Albania where our rooms were in old converted army barracks. (Sorry, I didn’t actually take any […]

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