1. Albania has a bad rep. Most people have a preconceived notion of Albanian gangsters. However, Albania was a lovely, safe country. We felt very safe and welcome almost the entire time we were there.
2. Albanians take their hospitality very seriously. Our guide in Berat explained that Albanians have a strict code for their guests. Guests are like gods. They are to be protected with one’s own life. We didn’t have to see anything that dramatic, thank goodness, but we did experience wonderful hospitality. Two of the hostels that we stayed at would qualify as having the most helpful and kind workers in our entire travel experience.
3. As our guide in Berat put it, “One thing that the world can learn from Albania” is the peaceful coexistence of religions. He explained how Albania has never been a location for conflict based on religious lines. He provided examples of how Albania sheltered Jews in WWII, and how religions worked together to rebuild after years of strict communism. It was beautiful.
4. Albania is another country that has had a tumultuous recent past – during our lifetimes. They left communism in the early 90s. Their communism was one of the strictest and most isolated in the world. They entered capitalism with gusto. Unfortunately, it went terribly wrong for them in 1997 when many pyramid schemes which the people had poured their entire lives into collapsed. The country was thrown into anarchy for several months. Gangs took over many different cities and it is only now that the government has been able to pull all of the parts back out of mob/gang control.
5. Albania is a cool mix of very developed and very undeveloped. It feels like Europe one moment and Central America the next. We traveled by crowded mini bus much like in Guatemala but enjoyed spectacular, ancient, Ottoman architecture. Some of the roads were disasters, taking people more than 2 hours to travel less that 50 km because of the broken, potholed roadway… while others are perfect.
6. The touristy world hasn’t completely discovered Albania which is wonderful. It is still possible to have sights practically to yourself and find prices very very affordable. However, Albania is making the list! It is time to go!
7. Because of the above point, Albania still hosts some hard core travelers. We felt pretty unadventurous in comparison. A large portion of the backpackers we met were traveling across Europe by bicycle, sleeping by the side of the road with no tent. We also met those trundling along in campervans way past their prime. Even someone who was hitchhiking all the way to India. Our trip felt positively cushy.
8. When we first arrived in Albania, we were shocked at the fact at what we thought must be a horrible gender imbalance in the country. There were guys everywhere! Men, young and old, strolled the streets, kicked back in cafes, and cheered soccer games in bars. Where were all the women? It turns out that Albania does still have pretty strictly defined roles for women that involved them being at home most of the time. This is not to say that no women were out working, because there were some. But after chatting with people, we did learn that it was traditional for women to be home keeping house while men were out spending the money. It was very rare to see groups of both men and women together. If girls were out, they were in groups of girls.
9. It seems like all Albanian men of an older generation are required to wear suits. Preferably suits that seem too big on them, with cute hats!
10. The food is yummy and affordable! We really enjoyed a neat, soft sheep cheese (a bit like feta but not so stinky), fig jam, stuffed peppers, creamy fergese, and all the grilled meat you could possibly want. Add in super tasty crumbly, savory pastry called Byrek and fast food pizza, and doners (kinda like gyros) and you could hardly want more!
11. We noticed the word “Shitet” on all sorts of things, apartments, cars, etc. Apparently it means “for sale.” We giggled a little bit each time!