I have recently had the opportunity to cycle around Europe, from Italy to Greece – and on my way, I unexpectedly met what is certainly a forgotten gem like no other at the border of Europe: Albania. Before entering the country, we had been warned against the dangers we’d supposedly encountered, which simply happened to be clichés conveyed about an unknown nation. Yes, it may be difficult to get accustomed to Albanian narrow streets, confusing road rules and wild dogs, but if you want to experience something entirely new and get to discover a preserved place, believe an adventuress who has crossed it from North to South: you definitely need to go to Albania. And here are all the reasons why you should. Prepare yourself to fall in love!
Sköder (and the Sköder Lake)
It is simply impossible to miss the Sköder Lake, which is a must-see site for the landscape and its wildlife. It is difficult of access (except if you have a car, or if you’re cycling) but I have to say that it is absolutely astounding – especially as it is a (quite famous) spot to observe pelicans! Make sure to follow up with a visit of Sköder, and get ready to be surprised at every corner. Don’t miss the main square of the city where you’ll be able to experience the incredible religious mix (and tolerance) of Albania! Locals will tell you how much they are proud of it, and you'll notice very soon that it is very representative of the spirit of the country. If you find the time (and the energy), go to Rosafa Castle where an unbelievable story (and view) awaits for you. And on your way, don’t forget to try bureks, a delicious (and cheap) food speciality.
If you’re interested in Albanian History, Lezhë is the place to go! Have a walk around the city, which is quite small: you’ll be able to discover more about Skenderbeg, Albanian national hero… and the Albanian flag. Spot Lezhë Castle (or climb up to its entrance door if you feel like it) – but most of all, don’t miss Skenderbeg Memorial! If it’s not open when you get to it, here is a tip for you: on the other side of the square, you’ll find a tourist information point where ethnographers and historians work. Tell them you would like to know more about this historic site, and they’ll open it for you. Of course, if you want information on any other monuments you’ve encountered in Lezhë, here is a chance to ask all the questions you have!
Tiranë is the capital city of Albania, and… It’s nothing like any other capital cities you’ve seen before. You might want to walk along Tiranë’s river, the Lanë – or if the weather is not as bright as you expected it to be, I would recommend you to go and seat at the Kafe-Librari E Përshtatshme, where you can borrow a few books or have a nice chat around a cup of coffee/tea. Take the time to visit the Et’hem Bej mosque, which is one of the most amazing beauties of the country. Even if you are not familiar with Muslim customs, don’t hesitate to ask for help while in. Albanians are very open when it comes to religion, and they will always try to make you as comfortable as possible. If you’re into arts, history – or simply curious, you have to try the Bunk’art: there are two in the city, they are not very expensive and you will definitely spend a very special Albanian moment in there.
If you’re looking for hidden Albanian treasures, you will love Kavajë’s Ethnographic Museum. Inside this traditional Albanian house, you’re guaranteed a unique experience as you’ll not only be able to see but also touch handmade crockery, objects, fabrics and clothes that belong to Albanian History. The museum is not always open, therefore make sure it is when you plan to go. However, if you find the right people in town, someone will take the time to open it. Only for you. We personally created the opportunity for a few students to join for the first visit of their lives – and they still remember this place as “an important piece of their cultural heritage”. In Albania, never hesitate to ask!
Go have a look at Apollonia Archaeological Park, where you’ll find one of the oldest Greek vestiges on the Albanian soil. You’ll also have access to numerous ancient buildings nowadays used for Greek statue and pottery exhibitions. Don’t hesitate to go for a walk around the site, and don’t miss the astonishing number of bunkers located around it. If you’re brave enough, I would advise you to try enter in one and follow the path… I guarantee you a pure Albanian experience.
You can’t leave Albania without going to Gjirokastër, which is definitely my favourite city in the whole country. I have to admit that I fell in love with it right away, and it all has to do with the nature surrounding the city. Of course, Google can suggest you to pay a visit to the Blue Eye (a bubbly clear blue water spring close to Vlorë), but the locals will tell you: it’s for tourists. For a glance at a genuine Albanian landscape, don’t hesitate: go to Gjirokastër. The gigantic mountains are particularly impressive, and I would advise any traveller to go for a hike and get lost on their tiny-but-beautiful tracks. But if you do not know where to start, make sure to find the way to Gjirokastër fortress: the view at the top is unbelievable. You’ll be able to have a look at the clock tower, the stage of the National Folk Festival (the ideal would be to be present for the actual festival, which only happens every five years) – and trust me when I tell you that you'll be astonished by the very local and cosy architecture of the city.