In the summer of 2016, BikeTours.com president and founder Jim Johnson returned to Albania on for Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges for one week of bicycling followed by three days of paddling along the coast. He explains why this rarely visited destination is so special to him.
1. It’s Europe’s best-kept—and maybe last—secret
Few foreigners have visited this mysterious country due to decades of Communist rule, dictatorship, and isolationism. But since the country opened its borders in 1991, visitors have been awestruck by its untouched nature and rich culture, and the overall uniqueness of this truly special place.
Albania still remains undiscovered by mass tourism, setting it apart from other European destinations. In Rome, you’ll throng elbow to elbow with tourists vying for views of ancient ruins. In Albania, you’ll often have them all to yourself. In Butrint National Park, for example, our small group roamed nearly alone among acres of ruins dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval times. Even just to the north in Croatia, tourists clog the beaches. In Albania, we could dip our toes into turquoise waters along the pristine coastline with not another person in sight.
2. The coast and mountains
The Albanian coast stretches nearly 300 miles from Montenegro to Greece, touching the Adriatic Sea on the north and Ionian Sea on the south. Along the way, crystal-clear turquoise waters lap at pristine beaches and rocky outcroppings.
Visitors will often hear the coast referred to as the “Albanian Riviera,” but, unlike its French cousin, this Riviera is nearly devoid of development, which makes it ideal for outdoor activities. And because it’s also nearly devoid of people, it’s also a wonderful retreat.
An added bonus: Travelers can still encounter the region’s rich history in the form of castles, ancient ruins, and centuries-old fishing villages.
To the east, mountains create an almost constant backdrop. From the Dinaric Alps in the north to the Pindus Mountains to the south, mountains form the “spine of Albania,” formed by volcanoes and carved dramatically by glaciers, which left behind their share of alpine lakes.
Steep peaks (Smolikas reaches 2637m/8651ft) and deep canyons characterize the two ranges. Despite the often foreboding terrain, villages dot the mountains, and winding roads, often dirt, curve their way from sea to mountains and back.
3. The Albanian “Code” of Hospitality
Albanian hospitality is both genuine and governed by an ancient code, “The Kanun.” This extensive set of traditional Albanian laws was first written down in the 15th century but has oral traditions dating back thousands of years. Guests are shown the highest respect and are treated like family—or even royalty.
When a group I was with stopped at a small mountaintop hamlet, the elders of the village came out into the square and treated us to a unique style of folk music: Albanian polyphonic singing. Soon, others were drawn to us and brought trays of local nuts, fruits, and cheese. No one had brought a nutcracker, so one of the local nonagenarians grabbed a small hammer, so we could enjoy the walnuts.
4. Albania’s rescue role during the Holocaust
During the first decades of the 20th Century, many of my family members fled Eastern Europe to escape the Russians and later the Nazis. This made it especially meaningful for me to learn that Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country that ended World War II with more Jews living in it than before the war.
Each one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen. Indeed, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were “hidden in plain sight,” made part of families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.
The assistance afforded to the Jews was grounded in Besa, part of the code of honor that emphasizes compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others. According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor. More about Besa.
5. The food!
Thanks to Albania’s location along the coast, fresh seafood—fish, mussels, shrimp, and squid, in particular—is at the top of most menus. The abundant farms make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork—fruit and veggies the norm. All organic, of course.
Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian, and Turkish influences. Traditionally, the main meal is lunch, typically a lamb stew with vegetables served with fresh salad. Lighter fare may include fish, feta cheese, and rice.
Specialties include gjize, salted curd cheese; byrek, pastries filled with meat, spinach or cheese; fërgesë , casseroles made with vegetables, egg, and curd cheese; qofte fërguara , fried meatballs made with meat, herbs, cheese, and bread; and “flija,” a giant pancake with layers of crepes and melted cream cheese—which is almost as fun to watch during its preparation as it is to eat.
Soups are also quite popular. My favorite was tarator, which uses a yogurt base. Mediterranean herbs are used frequently but subtly, and garlic and chili peppers often make themselves known.
Be sure to save room for dessert, typically a rich pudding or baklava. For a healthier finish, you can usually opt for fresh fruits, often in ample supply.
Albania’s wines are of surprisingly high quality, but it’s the raki you’ll remember: a powerful brandy made from grapes and often from plums, mulberries, and walnuts. You’ll remember it not just for its taste and strength but also for the pride with which local raki is served.
6. UNESCO wonders
Medieval castles, ancient ruins, Byzantine and Ottoman treasures, Iron Age discoveries…this compact country barely the size of Maryland is an archaeologist’s and historian’s dream come true.
Two favorites: Butrint has signs of Paleolithic occupation but is better known as an ancient Greek city, a Roman outpost and an early medieval town. It is set in a national park as beautiful for its natural setting as for its ruins. The Roman amphitheater in Durrës, built in the second century BC, once held an estimated 20,000 people.
7. Unique history
The remnants of Communism are admittedly ugly but important to encounter: blocky architecture, staid monuments, and, most interestingly, more than 700,000 concrete bunkers erected at the direction of former dictator Enver Hoxha.
Fearful of invasion, the paranoid Hoxsa built them as Albania’s first line of defense against invaders. These one- and two-person “concrete mushrooms” are everywhere: along the coast, set into hillsides, in the middle of city blocks, in the front years of private homes. And they’re practically indestructible.
Jim Johnson is the president and founder of BikeTours.com.