I have been in Albania for four short months, most of which has been spent exploring Tirana and trying to stay warm. But as the start of Spring approaches and the temperatures (hopefully) begin to climb, I am starting to think about places I want to discover and explore. These are the top 5 places on my list so far.
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the hard work of Auron Tare, the General Director for the Albanian National Coastal Agency. Through his championing of cultural preservation and his unwavering dedication to protecting the City during the mid-90’s he was instrumental in putting the ancient city of Butrint on the map. He is one of the founders of Butrint National Park as well as Our Own Expeditions– a geo-tourism company that promotes sustainable tourism in the country by connecting isolated mountain communities with opportunities to attract trekking, cultural, and other forms of low-impact tourism.
The city has been inhabited since prehistoric times and has also been home to Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian settlers. Located around 20km from Saranda, it is a truly unique combination of architecture, monuments, and nature and is a truly unique cultural landscape that showcases the diverse patchwork of Albanian history. Today the Butrint National Park covers an area of 29 sq/km and comprises of spectacular ruins such as a 3rd-century Greek theatre and acropolis, public baths complete with mosaics, an imposing castle on top of a hill, and a stunning 6th-century basilica.
Located in the south of Albania, Gjirokaster nestles between the Gjere mountains and the Drino which rises 300 metres above sea level. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is described as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town”. Overlooked by the Gjirokaster Fortress, the town is the birthplace of the former communist leader Enver Hoxha, as well as a renowned writer, Ismail Kadare (who I will be writing about at some point).
The city makes its first appearance in historical records in 1336, where it goes by the Greek name Argyrokastro and it was a part of the Byzantine Empire. It was later the location of a dispute between the Despotate of Epirus and the Albanian clan, John Zenevisi, before falling to Ottoman rule in 1417. Today, the city is home to a substantial Greek community and even houses a consulate of Greece.
The city has wall which were built in the 3rd-century and many houses built in the typical southern-Albanian style, many of which have been restored since the city received UNESCO status. The fortress that sits overlooking the city is open to visitors and features a military museum with many artefacts from the Communist regime. Visitors can also see additions made during the time of King Zog I of Albania, including a prison for political prisoners. Other sights that I want to check out include the Ottoman bazzar, the Gjirokaster Mosque, and the 500 homes that are preserved as “cultural monuments”.
The Albanian Riviera
When I first thought of Albania, I must admit that beaches were not the first thing that sprung to mind, but after hearing locals and expats wax lyrical about their beauty and vastness, I decided to do a bit of research. The Albanian Riviera comprises of rugged coastline, traditional villages, golden beaches, and hidden bays that are all just begging to be enjoyed. With turquoise waters complimented by white sand and the mountains beyond, it is said that the beaches of Albania offer some of the most unspoilt seaside destinations in Europe.
Palasa has made my list for the picture-perfect journey through the Llogaraja Pass, only to arrive at a secluded bay with a couple of restaurants dotted along the shore. Dhermi is another great location which combines a more up-beat atmosphere with lots of coves and smaller bays further along the beach. Last but not least, I am looking forward to spending some long, hot, summer days on Ksamil, the unnoficial capital of the Riviera, just outside of Saranda and within spitting distance of the Greek border. With three small islands dotted in the bay, and stunning views of Corfu in the distance, I can think of worse places to spend my summer.
The town of Kurja is located around 20km northeast of Tirana in the Skanderberg mountains, flanked by Mount Kruje and the Ishem Rver. Kruje holds a special importance for Albanian people due to Kruja castle and its historical link with Skanderberg.
In the early 15the century, the town was oppressed by Ottoman rule when Skanderberg, the leader of the League of Lezhe lead a revolt which saw him capture Petrela, Preze, Guri I Bardhe, and Svetigrad castles before raising a red flag with a double headed black eagle on it, above the bastions of Kruje Castle. Kruje suffered repeated attacks from the Ottoman forces, yet Skanderberg and his men were able to fend them off, thus cementing his name in history as a symbol of independence, strength, and heroism that still resonates today.
Kruje today offers a wealth of museums and historical sites, all chronicling the past of the area, as well as offering beautiful natural attractions such as Lake Bovilla and the Shtame Pass National Park.
Lake Ohrid sits on the border between southwest Macedonia and eastern Albania and it is one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes. It is home to a completely unique aquatic ecosystem and with over 200 endemic species, it is a site of immense worldwide importance. Also, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has a lake on Titan (the planet Saturn’s largest moon) named after it which I think is pretty damn cool. There are several towns dotted around it- Pogradec in Albania and Ohrid and Struga in Macedonia and it is known as one of the most breathtakingly beautiful destinations in both countries.
Over the last few years, Lake Ohrid has become an important tourism destination and apart from its beautiful scenery and the countryside that surrounds it, it is also home to quaint fishing villages, and sites of historical interest. The Church of St John Kaneo is one, as well as St Naum Monastery that sits in the shadow of the imposing Galicica Mountain.
Where else should I put on my list?