A matter of considerable academic dispute, the origin of today’s Albanian people almost certainly lies somewhere in the time before Christ when the Illyrians settled the region. The first written references to a specific Albanian race date back to historical records from the 11th century. Contemporary Albanians run on the mixed blood of several races who’ve all in one way or another had considerable influence on the nation, the only thing truly uniting them being besa, the unique Albanian honour code that insists on the well-being of honoured guests no matter who they are. Besa, which famously left Nazi-occupied Albania with a larger Jewish population at the end of WWII than at the beginning, is reason enough to visit the country. Warm, friendly, funny and inquisitive, mixing with the Albanians is guaranteed to have a lasting and positive effect on everyone who visits the country.
As is pretty much the same throughout the Balkans, the local firewater of choice in Albania comes in the form of a fruit-based brandy known as raki (or rakia). Distilled using anything from grapes to plums and even mulberries, commercially produced raki contains around 40% alcohol, although you may well encounter illicit moonshine containing at least twice as much as this. Be careful! At the other end of the scale, Albania’s birra production is dominated by the two national brands Birra Tirana and Birra Korça, both are lager-type concoctions that are absolutely fine to drink. Alcoholism and drunkenness in the streets are minor problems compared to many other countries in Eastern Europe.
There are still plenty of communist-era relics to see in Tirana, by far the largest and most impressive being the gargantuan Socialist Realist mosaic adorning the façade of the National History Museum. Between 1944 and 1991 Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world, a violent and paranoid police state that used coercion, torture, false psychological imprisonment and religious persecution as ways of maintaining law and order. Although it’s now three decades since Albania threw off its Marxist-Leninist shackles, many of its citizens still carry around the various internal scars associated with a violent and dysfunctional recent past. It would be something of an exaggeration to claim that Albania is suffering from the effects of some kind of collective, post-traumatic stress syndrome, although there is at least an element of truth in this supposition. In the meantime, the younger generation of locals is now exploiting Albania’s former communist past with various museums, tours and themed bars.
Crime & Safety
Believed by many to be a lawless country populated by bandits and villains whose main goal in life is to separate tourists from their possessions by any means possible, Albania is in actual fact one of the safest and most relaxed countries in Europe. This isn’t to say that crime doesn’t exist of course, there’s plenty of it around, although most is to be found taking place behind closed doors in the shady underworld of business and politics. As with anywhere else in the world, there are a few people out there willing to spoil people’s holidays by stealing their luggage and helping themselves to wallets and mobile phones left in unattended jackets and bags. Be vigilant, don’t stroll around dark neighbourhoods drunk, and you’ll be fine. Gun ownership in Albania is common, although shootings are almost exclusively the result of internal squabbles and disputes.
EU citizens as well as those from most other European countries plus the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan can enter Albania without a visa. Other travellers need to get a visa from an Albanian embassy or consulate abroad before travelling. More information can be found on the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website at www.mfa.gov.al. Passports should be valid for a further three months after departing Albania. Citizens of the EU, Iceland, Norway, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have the option of entering Albania using an ID card, although we recommend still taking your passport anyway as airlines and officials are all too quickly confused.
Ambulance Tel. 127
Fire Tel. 128
Police Tel. 129
Although we’ve never had any problems with it, many people advise against drinking the tap water in Albania, especially in rural areas away from towns and cities. A stomach infection is the last thing anyone needs, so it’s worth considering sticking to bottled water, which is available in shops everywhere and extremely cheap. Medical and dental care in the country are of poor quality, and travelling with medical insurance is highly recommended. No vaccinations are needed when visiting Albania. Raw sewage is allegedly pumped into the sea at times, so be careful along the coast near cities and harbours.
Not surprisingly for a former communist country still in transition to a fully functioning and transparent democracy, Albania’s infrastructure remains something of a mess. Expect to encounter (and get used to) anomalies including broken shower doors and bare wires even in some of the more expensive hotels. Beware of pavements with missing manhole covers, small lumps of metal sticking out of the ground and rubbish lying around in the suburbs. Although service in bars and restaurants is improving, it’s still got a long way to go, although Albanian waiters (waitresses still being something of a rarity) are almost universally gregarious. Disabled travellers thinking about visiting Albania, especially those who generally travel on a budget, should know right away they’re going to find it a difficult experience.
Sounding at times not unlike Turkish with the batteries running out, Albanian is an Indo-European language with its own isolated linguistic branch. Thought to have originated from the now long-extinct Illyrian (or possibly Thracian) language, Albanian consists of two distinct dialects, namely Gheg, spoken in the north as well as neighbouring Kosovo and the Albanian-speaking regions of Montenegro and Macedonia, and Tosk, which is generally confined to the south of the country. Featuring a Latin alphabet made up of 36 letters, peculiarities include a propensity to switch the definite and indefinite endings (thus both Tirana and Tiranë) depending on their function within a sentence, a habit we try to bypass by sticking to the definite ending to avoid confusion wherever possible. English is widely spoken in Tirana, especially among the younger generation. A lot of Albanians also speak Italian, French and, in the south of the country especially, Greek.
Same-gender sex has been legal in Albania since 1995, although general attitudes are exceedingly conservative with many Albanians still stuck in the 16th century. Although Tirana is yet to feature rainbow flags and openly gay bars, the city does at least have one or two gay-friendly places to eat and drink. Travelling to exotic locations such as Albania for the LGBT community has been revolutionised over the past few years with the help of the internet, and we strongly recommend locating and connecting with local LGBT groups and organisations. A law exists in Albania banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Albania is in the Central European Time (CET) zone at GMT+1hr. When it’s 12:00 in Tirana it’s 06:00 in New York, 11:00 in London and 19:00 in Tokyo. Central European Summer Time (CEST, GMT+2hrs) falls between the last Sundays of March and October respectively.
Money & Costs
The Albanian currency is the lek. Banknotes come in denominations of 5,000 lek, 2,000 lek, 1,000 lek, 500 lek and 200 lek, with coins available in denominations of 100 lek, 50 lek, 20 lek, 10 lek and 5 lek. The lek is a non-convertible currency and is useless abroad; change it back into your own currency before leaving Albania. ATMs are found all over Tirana and charge up to 700 lek per transactions; only Credins Bank ATMs charge no fee. Cash can be changed at exchange offices found all over the city and offer good rates. It’s also possible to change money in banks and many of the better hotels, although doing so in the latter should only be considered in an emergency as they always charge a whopping great commission. Card payments are becoming increasingly common, but if you’re doing anything outside the immediate city centre or are planning to travel to any remote locations, be sure to carry plenty of cash. With the exceptions of the city’s five-star hotels and luxury restaurants, the cost of living for people visiting from the West remains remarkably affordable.
Contrary to what many people think, Albania is far from being an exclusively Muslim country, with less than 60 percent of the population claiming to adhere to Islam, a faith imported during the Ottoman occupation that many people originally converted to for economic reasons. Constitutionally a secular country and for two decades during the Hoxha regime the only atheist country in the world, Albania’s other main faiths include Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. Almost none of the tiny remaining Jewish population of the country follow Judaism. All of the houses of worship in Tirana welcome visitors as both tourists and believers.
When to go
Boasting a Mediterranean climate featuring often stiflingly hot, dry summers and moderately cool winters during which temperatures tend to drop severely at higher altitudes, there’s never an especially bad time to visit Albania. Tirana itself is buzzing all year round, with bar and restaurant terraces pretty much never closing. Choosing exactly when to visit is a matter of personal preference, although we recommend the late spring, especially during the month of May when the spring flowers bloom and it’s possible to walk around in shirtsleeves without burning to death. If you choose to visit during the hot summer months and are travelling on a limited budget, make sure your hotel has air-conditioning.