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Albania...A wild yet welcoming nation

Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. One hundred years later, in November 2012, a fine sculpture of the Albanian national hero George Castrioti Skanderbeg (1405-1468) by the Albanian sculptor Kreshnik Xhiku was unveiled in Bayswater, London. The friendship between Albania and the UK has deep roots.

The Victorian ‘nonsense’ writer and watercolourist, Edward Lear, typifies Britons’ enduring fascination with Albania, as demonstrated in his description of Tirana (which was eventually to become the capital): ‘Wavy lines of olive – dark clumps of plane, and spirally cypresses marked the place of Tyrana’ (Journals of a Landscape Painter, 1851).  

And yet, modern British travellers seem remarkably unaware of Albania’s wild beauty and cultural heart. Which makes this a wonderful time to visit – before the country becomes well and truly on the cultural tourism map. The country is a natural beauty, from the pristine lakes and snow-flanked mountains of the northern ‘Alps’ to the deep azure coves of the ‘hymariot’ south, with its archaeological gem of Butrint. There is no more magical experience than sitting under the trees at Butrint, listening to the sound of frogs and looking out onto the lagoon or at the stunning Roman and Byzantine archaeological finds. Or listening to the sound of kites and buzzards wheeling overhead in the high mountain Vlach village of Voskopoja, breathing in the fresh mountain air and marvelling at the beautiful 18th-century frescoes, for which the town is famous. You should also pop across the border and visit Lake Ohrid in neighbouring Macedonia, a Unesco-listed lake (one of Europe’s deepest and oldest) overlooked by a stunning and unspoilt medieval city.

Albanian architecture is striking in both its beauty and variety, from the 18th-century Ottoman mosques and houses of Berat and Gjirokastër, to the brand new Orthodox churches in Tirana and Korca. The art of Albania is world-class, featuring 16th-century masterpieces of the iconographer Onufri as well as the fantastic new museum of icons in Korca – a stunning and diverse collection. For a significant period of the 20th century, Albania experienced a communist and totalitarian political system, latterly under Enver Hoxha. Though now receding from public memory in Albania’s predominantly young population, the period has left its mark on the built heritage of the country, somewhat fascinating in its scale and brutality, such as the Chinese-built factory from the Mao era near to the Ottoman city of Berat. The juxtaposition of styles – from classicism to brutalism – in close proximity is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this small country, so rich in different cultural traditions.

Albanian hospitality is heartfelt and spontaneous, readily found in both its food and its people. Local dishes, like the landscape, come in a rich variety. Within a small region, there are many different types of cheese, pastries and savoury dishes on offer, as well as a bewildering array of drinks including excellent wines and homemade rakija (not for the faint-hearted!). Enjoying Albania’s range and variety of cuisine is one of the delights of travelling in the country, from sampling tavë kosi, a deliciously tasty quiche-like dish featuring tender local lamb marinated in yogurt, to mint-flavoured grilled qofte meatballs. Microbrew fans shouldn’t miss Korca, the home of Albania’s best known beer; a delightful evening can be had in the brewery in Korca, sitting with Albanian friends and trying the many local delicacies washed down with Korca beer. Friendship with Albanians is enriching and straightforward, based on the concept of besa, or ‘honour’. If you give your word, your word is kept, and your word must be straightforward. This can be simultaneously enriching and challenging for those who come from less straightforward cultures. The besa of the Albanian people showed itself in the 20th century, when it gave shelter to Jewish refugees fleeing anti- Semitic persecution across Europe.

Coexistence and harmony have long been distinguishing characteristics of Albanian culture. Here, Christians (Orthodox and Catholic), Muslims (Sunni and Bektashi) and Jews comfortably coexist, and the country has never experienced religious persecution of one group against another. The world headquarters of the Bektashi movement (a Sufi order named after the 13th-century saint Alevi Wali Haji Bektash Veli) is based in Tirana and offers a behind-the-scenes insight into this fascinating culture. Just part of the deep-rooted yet warmly welcoming character found throughout Albania.

Dr William Taylor is a writer and broadcaster on the Orthodox churches and the Islamic world. He is the co-author, with Dr Ilir Parangoni, of The Creativity Behind the Wall (Tirana, 2018). Dr Taylor is an expert lecturer on several tours in Cox & Kings’ Arts & Culture series, including Albania.

Recommended C&K tours

Albania: Land of the Eagle 9 Days & 8 Nights from £1,195. Discover a rich variety of archaeological and historical sites, along with spectacular mountain scenery. Explore the architectural legacies of the Ottoman empire and communist era, tour the Roman sites of Butrint and Apollonia, and spend one night at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.

Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our Europe experts or complete our tailor-made request form and one of the team will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.