13 must-see places between the Albanian Riviera and the Dinaric Alps

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Between the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps, Albania is one of Europe’s lesser-known destinations. However, its natural richness and the fusion of cultural and artistic influences from the East and West make it very appealing.

The Romans called it Albania because of the whiteness of its snow-capped peaks, but its inhabitants prefer to call it Shqipëri, which means “eagle”, referring to the impregnability of its territory. Its flag features a double-headed eagle, a symbol inherited from Byzantium, which serves as a symbol of the balance between East and West.

Surrounded by the Balkans and the Dinaric Alps, and bathed by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, Albania guards the rich history of border territories. It was part of Illyria of Greek Epirus and resisted Roman conquest. After the division of the empire in 395, Albania aligned with Byzantium. During the Middle Ages, it faced the Ottomans, led by Skanderbeg, who resisted the onslaught for more than 25 years. Despite its defeat in the 15th century, Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries.

Historically closed, Albania is now open and accessible – direct flights from Barcelona and Madrid started just a year ago. It’s Europe, but not entirely. You need to change to lek, the local currency, and roaming doesn’t work. The best times to explore it are spring and autumn to enjoy its mountain routes and the beginning of summer to savor its beaches with the calm they deserve. Because, even though it’s still a little-known destination, Albania is gaining more and more enthusiasts for its landscapes and history. These are the must-see places in this fascinating country.

View from the Kruja Castle. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Skanderbeg Castle-Museum (Kruja)

In the city of Kruja, 13 km from Mother Teresa Airport, stands the Skanderbeg Castle-Museum, erected six centuries before the city was taken by Enver Hoxha, a communist dictator who saw in that hero the figure around which to build a national identity. The place where Skanderbeg resisted three sieges is now a bazaar of cobblestone streets and wooden eaves. “Europe is Christian because Skanderbeg stopped the Ottomans here”, Albanians say with militant faith. They regret that Europe forgets the role they have played in history.

Aerial drone view of Tirana, Albania. District with a church and mosque, multiple buildings, greenery. Photo courtesy: ISTOCK

Tirana, the heterogeneous capital of Albania

But Albania, despite everything, is Mediterranean. Despite its geopolitical connection with the Balkans, despite the fact that we portray it as Slavic in our imagination, despite the complexity of its language, Albania has a strong Mediterranean spirit. It is already noticeable in Tirana, the capital, 30 km from Kruja, which takes about an hour to reach, establishing the peculiar relationship in this country between space and time.

Tirana, which a century ago had not surpassed 10,000 inhabitants, is today an eclectic city with more than half a million of the nearly three million Albanians residing in the country. Ottoman mosques, Orthodox churches, buildings with Italian design, gray constructions from the socialist era, and facades painted with colorful murals coexist on the French-style boulevards that depart from Skanderbeg Square. Albanians love street life, long conversations after meals, and late-night walks on Ismail Qemali Avenue animated with beers named after cities or with that raki inherited from the Ottoman era that families distill at home.

View from inside the BunkArt museum. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The Mediterranean heritage is also perceived in its gastronomy or in the countless cafes that open on the streets of Blloku, the residential area of the Albanian political elite during the dictatorship, whose entrance was prohibited to the population until 1991. It is worth reviewing this part of history by entering BunkArt, a shelter now transformed into a museum of historical memory whose entrance is the gateway to a bunker like those that dot the entire country.

Although Albania achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, it was occupied by Greece until 1914; turned into an Italian protectorate and then into a monarchy until 1939; part of Italy until the fall of Mussolini in ’43, and a Nazi German stronghold until ’44. After World War II, Enver Hoxha, one of the resistance leaders, took control of the state and aligned with Russia. Nasta, my guide, talks about those years: “My mother looked out the window to see the flag waving in the castle, and when she saw the double-headed eagle, she sighed and said: well, one more day that we are Albanians”.

Despite reforms aimed at modernizing infrastructure, industrialization, agricultural development, education, and the arts, Albania turned to isolation. Its leader turned his back on the West and then, one by one, distanced himself from communist alliances: Khrushchev’s Russia, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Ceaușescu’s Romania, and finally, Mao’s China. His obsession with a possible international invasion isolated him from his surroundings, dotted fields and cities with bunkers – still visible – and provoked brutal political repression. He died in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the first elections were held. Democracy also turned out to be a fleeting dream, as after the Balkan Wars in 1997, the state neared disintegration and civil war.

Winding road to the Llogara Pass high in the green wooded mountains. View from the highlands. Cloudy summer landscape. Albania. Photo courtesy: ISTOCK

Vlorë, the beginning of the Albanian Riviera

The tranquility that is now felt on the coast belies the violence of that recent history. In Vlorë, 150 km south of Tirana, stands one of the country’s first commercial ports and there, just 80 km from Italian Brindisi, the Adriatic begins to turn into the Ionian Sea.

It is the starting point of the famous route along the Albanian Riviera, a journey that follows the SH8 road along more than a hundred kilometers of coastline between cliffs, mountains, and panoramic views filled with sun.

We cross the Llogara National Park and ascend to 2000 meters in altitude on a road that runs between black pines, charming hotels with gabled roofs, and mountain trails, to then descend to Dhërmi, on the coast, in a beautiful zigzag. Multicolored paragliders accompany our journey, swaying in the sky.

Gjipe Beach, famous beach in Albania. Photo courtesy: ISTOCK

Dhërmi and the most beautiful beaches of the Albanian Riviera

Dhërmi, one of the favorite recreational places of the local population, surprises us with a dreamy cove. Drymades Beach, sheltered by a cliff, with white sand and transparent waters, sets the orographic tone of the area. A little further south is Gjipe Beach, a secluded and wild cove, accessible only after more than half an hour on foot. In it, a couple of rundown beach bars offer cold beer and hot food, and some tourists camp in search of solitude, Instagram sunsets, and clean, deep, calm waters.

Aerial view from castle of Ali Pasha, Porto Palermo. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Himarë and Porto Palermo Bay

Himarë, one of the most populous localities on the coast, is a true exponent of Albanian development. The old town is located on the hillside, as a reminder of a time when pirates were a constant threat; its ruined castle still serves as a perfect vantage point to watch the sunset. The new city, on the other hand, hosts a lively promenade full of hotels and restaurants. A few minutes away, Porto Palermo Bay offers two small gems: the castle of Ali Pasha, built in the 18th century on a tiny peninsula; and a tunnel that functioned as a bunker for Soviet submarines.

View from Ksamil Beach in southern Albania. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Borsh and Ksamil, emblems of the Albanian Riviera

Further south appears Borsh, a wild beach about 7 km long with white sand dotted with beach bars and bars that rise on the sand against a bucolic backdrop of olive groves and orchards. Saranda, the most touristy city in the south, has grown disorderly and chaotic, but has preserved its best beaches outside the urban core: Pulëbardha and Manastiri.

In the last stretch of the Albanian coast, opposite the Greek island of Corfu, almost reachable by swimming, is the mythical Ksamil. Bustling and cheerful, it has a Caribbean touch that belies its location. It is also the most crowded, especially in July and August, when there is no free space on the impeccable sand of its private beaches.

Amphitheater- Remains of the ancient Baptistery from the 6th century at Butrint, Albania. This Archeological site is World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Photo courtesy: ISTOCK

The archaeological site of Butrint

Shortly after leaving the town of Ksamil, enveloped in eucalyptus aroma, is the Butrint National Park, a natural area that encompasses 2,500 hectares of lagoons and includes the important archaeological site of Butrint. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1992, it was first excavated around 1920 by an Italian mission trying to recover the myth of Magna Roma. Legend has it that it was founded by the exiles of Troy in 48 BC. Julius Caesar himself wanted to found a colony of veterans in this idyllic passage, on the banks of the Vivari channel that connects an inland lake with the sea. But it would be Augustus who would turn it into a space reserved for the surviving legionaries of the Battle of Actium. In Butrint, it is still easy to dream of lost treasures and immerse yourself in history admiring its temple in honor of the god Asclepius, its Greek theater, or one of the largest Byzantine baptisteries.

View from the city of Gjirokastër. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The fascinating city of Gjirokastër

We leave the coast and start our journey back north along a winding road for a few kilometers until we reach the wide valley of the Drina River. The Greek influence in the area is perceived in the architecture and in the signs written in both languages. An essential stage is the city of Gjirokastër, which boasts a history of 2500 years. In addition to its Argyrokastro fortress (Gjirokastër Castle), it preserves more than 600 kule (houses from the Ottoman era) that confirmed it as a World Heritage Site in 2005.

The house of Enver Hoxha, that of writer Ismail Kadare, and the Skënduli House, belonging to an Ottoman aristocratic family, are open to the public and constitute authentic ethnographic museums. The castle, built between the 3rd and 15th centuries, is worth a visit if only for the incredible views it offers. The bustling bazaar, presided over by the only mosque still standing, bathes the sunset in a timeless air.

View from the city of Berat. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Berat, the city of a thousand windows

The next stage is the city of Berat, to the north and accessible in about two and a half hours by car. Nestled on both banks of the Osum and connected by two charming bridges, the “City of a Thousand Windows” still preserves its medieval layout. Mangalem, the Muslim quarter, and Kula, the sector around the castle, look from the other bank at the Orthodox neighborhood of Gorica.

The fusion of Byzantine and Ottoman remnants has earned Berat recognition as a World Heritage Site in 2008. It is worth visiting the National Iconographic Museum Onufri, whose original collection of icons survived the persecution of religious symbols that followed the cultural revolution of 1967, in which Albania was the first state in the world to declare itself atheist.

View from the Vjosa river. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Mount Tomorr and the Switzerland of 200 years ago

In the surroundings of Berat rises Mount Tomorr, a peak 2400 meters high that means more than just a hiking proposal. Albanians call it the Sacred Mountain. “It comes from the Illyrians,” explains Alma Spathara, the guide of the Albania Rafting Group that leads me to the summit on a quiet walk. “Albanians belong to different religions, and even for a while, we were forbidden to believe in any God…” she says. “Mount Tomorr is something that is above everyone. Father Tomorr, we call him. It is a sign of identity.”

Walking at a leisurely pace is one thing, but venturing to descend canyons or whitewater is another. Rafting on the Vjosa River or canyoning on the Osum are some of the experiences that can be done in the area, a sign that international tourism is beginning to come in search of the country’s natural offer. “Albania is Switzerland 200 years ago,” explains Alma, one of the few professionals who offer these activities. “People like the feeling that there are things left to discover.” And there are, undoubtedly.

View from Saint Mary’s Monastery in Apollonia. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The Archaeological Park of Apollonia

Back on the coast, north of Vlora, the Archaeological Park of Apollonia is a treasure trove for any treasure hunter. Everything seems about to emerge from the earth and come to life. It was an important Roman river port until an earthquake in the 5th century diverted the course of the river and condemned it to oblivion. “Here Augustus studied when he learned of the assassination of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar,” Nasta tells us. History surprises us again by providing a prominence that we did not know of little Albania.

The Roman era has another interesting enclave in Durres, the heir of Dyrrhachium, an important square on the Via Egnatia that once joined the two parts of the empire, Rome, and Constantinople. The amphitheater, with its tunnels converted into chapels, and its museum, with spectacular pieces, confirm it. However, the exhibition stops in Roman times; the Byzantine era and the Ottoman period are under construction. Recent history is so tumultuous that perhaps it is necessary to take refuge in the epic of the past.

View from the Albanian Alps. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The Accursed Mountains of northern Albania

Returning to Tirana to catch the return flight would complete an interesting circular route. However, if you have between three and four more days, you must go north, to the true pristine nature of Albania. On the mountainous border with Kosovo and Montenegro are the so-called Accursed Mountains. This spectacular mountain range is crossed by Peaks of Balkans, a 192 km hiking route designed for intrepid spirits.

In this world of solitude, of fortified towers, of majestic peaks, and harsh winters, the Kanun (set of laws of Islamic origin approved by consensus in the 15th century) remains unofficially active and still fosters vendettas between families that bear grudges for generations.

This is a poorly developed area. Or it was, because a little over fifteen years ago, the German Cooperation Agency granted credits to visionary villagers who decided to refurbish rooms to accommodate guests in their homes. This way of supplementing meager incomes has begun to modify economic activity in the Accursed Mountains, increasingly frequented by those seeking authentic landscapes and who find here mountains without cables and paths that connect national parks and cross borders.

Hiking in the Landscapes of the Valbona Alps around the village of Theth, Albania. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The path between Valbona and Theth

The best-known hiking route connects the towns of Valbona and Theth on a 12 km journey that seems like a journey into the past. It requires good physical shape and mountain experience to navigate and overcome a thousand meters of altitude in about seven hours of walking. Getting to Theth by rental car is complicated, and you have to plan that the panoramic route will be round trip. Starting in Valbona is not easy either: from Shkodër, a border town with Montenegro located on the shores of the eponymous lake, you take transportation to Lake Koman, cross the waters of this reservoir for about two hours by line boat until you reach Fierzë and, from there, you get on another vehicle to reach the town of Valbona.

Only then can the trek begin through a territory of high mountains, forests, and waterfalls. An inhospitable and dual beauty that leads locals to fantasize about leaving here and foreigners, on the other hand, to stay forever… despite winter isolation, loneliness, the presence of bears, and the feeling of being frozen in a remote time. Or perhaps, precisely because of all that.

 

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