A small country in the southern Balkans bordering Greece
in the south and the former Yugoslav
republics of North Macedonia
as well as Kosovo
in the east and north. Formerly, it was the most secluded pocket in Europe – a total enigma for outsiders. You just knew that the country was staunchly old-school communist
and even fell out with other communist countries (esp. the USSR
and later China
) to remain in self-chosen, paranoid isolation for decades.
The country was ruled for over four decades by its very own ultra-Stalinist
autocrat: Enver Hoxha
. After his death in 1985 the country officially remained communist, but slowly introduced reforms, eventually even including freedom to travel – in the wake of the break-up of the Eastern Bloc
when its socialist regimes collapsed one after the other. Albania's communists hung in there a little longer, though increasingly more feebly, in a climate of unrest and chaos, until 1992. The remainder of the 1990s weren't too easy either, with lots of anarchic chaos, looting and organized crime taking over.
Since then Albania has become a parliamentary democracy, infrastructure and security have improved a lot, and the country is in the line for joining the EU. In 2009 it already became one of the most recent new members of NATO
(the fact that Albania had pursued an enthusiastically pro-American, pro-Bush stance at the beginning of the 21st century may have helped speeding things up a little).
Economically the country has "opened up", i.e. it's now capitalism that reigns, which brings riches to an elite of winners while the majority remain rather poor. But at least it is now no longer a problem visiting Albania as a tourist, and the local population is (in theory) also free to travel.
Still, the old enigma of this formerly almost white spot on the map of Europe continues to exert a certain weird and dark appeal (see also Tony Wheeler's "Bad Lands"
). In fact, Albania has recently featured in travel magazines and websites as a new up-and-coming tourism boom destination. And also in terms of dark tourism, lots of attractions have been added over the past decade or so.
One of the country's defining features of those bygone isolationist, Stalinist times can still be seen littering the landscape: hundreds and hundreds of little 'pillbox' bunkers
bulging like big grey mushrooms from the pastoral lands … Some have found new uses, e.g. as bars (sometimes in colour too!) but most are simply left to rot. Some larger government bunkers, in turn, have been commodified for tourism to great success in the capital Tirana, and one of the former political prisons and forced labour camps can be visited too.
Here are all the dark-tourism sites in Albania covered on this website so far:
Many also associate Albania with dark elements of very different sorts, namely the age-old blood-feud tradition that is still alive in (rural) Albania on the one hand, and the lawlessness and Mafia structures of more recent post-communist times on the other. Needless to say, though, neither are really something for tourism. An exception regarding the former may be the so-called “Reconciliation Tower
” in the Theth National Park
in the mountainous north of Albania. This was a place where offenders were basically locked in while the village elders discussed punishment or, if possible, reconciliation in a system of local traditional rule called “kanun” that reigned before the modern-era rule of law arrived in this remote corner. The stone tower is now a sort of private museum and for a small entrance fee you can go up the three levels inside and get a feel for this kind of “prison”. Location: [42.3857, 19.7825
Also difficult to access, but a definite dark attraction, are some old military submarine tunnels
on the coast, in particular that at Porto Palermo
(a few specialist tour operators offer visits) in the south of Albania. Location: between [40.0712, 19.7765
] and [40.0717, 19.7689
In the north, not far from the border with Montenegro in the former Yugoslavian Federation, is an ex-airbase
with underground tunnels inside a mountain similar to Željava
. Old Soviet and Chinese types of fighter jets are said to be still inside the disused tunnel complex. And I’ve seen it listed in at least one specialist tour operator’s itinerary, which suggests that some form of legal access must be possible here too. Photos from a probably not so legal exploration can be found on this urbex website
(not very well-written, but the photos are stunning – external link, opens in a new window). Location: between [41.876, 19.589
] and [41.8735, 19.5929
And when I had a transfer by car from Macedonia
we passed a gigantic metallurgical plant
just to the west of Elbasan
. Apparently this was the biggest industrial “Kombinat” during the Hoxha years, a personal pet project of his. These days only a small part is still in operation (run by foreign companies), while the rest has become a Mecca for urban exploration (see e.g. this report
– external link, opens in a new tab). I haven’t done this yet, but it will be high on my priority list next time I visit Albania.
These days it is fairly easy to travel to Albania. Visa requirements have been lifted for most Western nationals (and a few Eastern ones). Entry and exit fees are finally a thing of the past as well.
You can fly into Tirana
's international airport, or come by ferry from Italy
or Corfu – there are a few connections to port cities such as Durrës, Vlorë and Sarandë.
Going overland means by road, as there are no train connections of Albania's decrepit rail network leading out of or into the country. Buses go to a few hubs in neighbouring countries, but connections are not always straightforward (as I found out when planning my journey from Tirana
). Sometimes hiring a taxi for overland transfers is the simplest solution – and, given the small size of the country, not even all that expensive.
Driving a car yourself has in theory become more of an option, as roads have been much improved and new dual-carriageway highways built – but venturing into Albanian traffic, especially in conurbations, and in particular in Tirana, is still a major challenge. During the communist era, only a few hundred cars existed in the entire country as only some selected top-brass party functionaries were allowed to have them. Since the fall of communism, cars, especially the German make with the iconic star, have flooded into the country and clog up the roads. A certain "anarchy" in driving styles persists to this day. Accordingly, and unsurprisingly, accident statistics are appalling. If you want to risk taking part, at least try to drive as defensively as possible.
Food & drink
in Albania bear the stamp of centuries of Turkish influence in the Balkans – and in these modern times that of the power of international fast food chains. But there are a few less ubiquitous national specialities too – if you can find them. Much more common than Albanian traditions, are, apart from fast food, mainly Italian restaurants (also some Greek ones). Outside those restaurants that are geared up for foreigners, the language barrier makes dealing with menus a challenge, though.
Albania used to have as much of an ancient wine culture as other Balkan countries but the long period of Stalinist rule followed by post-communist economic chaos and hardship left very little of it intact. Meanwhile, however, wine-making has been revived and there are some very tasty local varieties to be discovered. The national tipples, however, are coffee, beer (the typical industrial lager type – the craft beer revolution has not yet reached Albania) and that typical south-Balkan spirit Rakia. Being predominantly Muslim, however, many Albanians do not drink any alcohol. But they don’t mind if others do. There are no restrictions as you find in Arab countries.
Linguistically, Albanian is an Indo-European language, but of a distinct branch, so it looks and sounds quite exotic (even the country's name is totally different in Albanian: Shqipëria). Greek and Romance influences are noticeable, and sometimes what you hear bears a confusing quasi-resemblance to Italian or Romanian – but never really quite (which is intriguing). But mostly everything will by cryptic to the outsider. On the plus side, the writing system is Latin, so at least deciphering street names etc. isn't as much of a problem as it is for those unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in parts of the rest of the Balkans (in Serbia
, North Macedonia
I’ve been to Albania twice so far, first in 2011 and most recently in April 2022. A lot has changed in the interim. The country seems much more welcoming to tourists, English is more widely spoken, and infrastructure has been much improved, not just the roads.
One significant and (for me) welcome change concerns smoking. After my 2011 visit I wrote this: "Smoking is an annoyance in Albania, which even tops all other Balkan countries in this respect (and that is saying a lot!). Not only do all Albanians appear to smoke everywhere all the time, the type of cigarettes which they seem to be almost surgically attached to are of a particularly stinking sort." Meanwhile, however, a smoking ban has been imposed for all restaurants and public indoor spaces, and these days this is being observed too (I already found a couple of restaurants in 2011 that featured no-smoking sections, but that was regularly ignored by Albanians). In outdoor seating areas – and in the streets – people still puff away, but at least there is now a way of escaping this … by going inside.
- Albania 1 - fortress
- Albania 2 - mountains
- Albania 3 - rock and rolling hills
- Albania 5 - giant metallurgy combine plant
- Albania 6 - the two main means of transport
- Albania 7 - left-over soc real monument
- Albania 8 - a stairway in heaven
- Albania 9a - very agreeable wine
- Albania 9b - aspiring to join the EU