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Top Destinations for 2017: Albania

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With March halfway gone already (when did that happen?) it’s time to start planning those quick summer breaks, inspirational escapes and indulging vacations. I bet most of your friends have already started talking, if not even booked, some of the most popular destinations in Europe - Ibiza, Venice, Tenerife, Salzburg, Amsterdam… the list goes on and on.

But what if you’re looking for a destination from the “Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning ” type? A place yet not-so-explored, an alternative holiday where you can step off the beaten track, try suspicious food and make your friends wander whether you’re just coming up with fictional names about all those sites you visited? A country where travelling from the mountain resorts to the sea riviera only takes less than five hours?

Well, seek no more, because one such place might be hiding closer than you think, and you don’t even need to leave Europe in search for it. Cosily hidden between Greece and Montenegro, a small Balkan country is famous for its hospitality, breath-taking views and affordable lifestyle: Albania.

Where to go

It goes without saying that the start of every journey to a new land is most convenient with its capital. For Albania, this is Tirana. The beating heart of this small Balkan country has clubs, cafes and restaurants to suit any taste, and the food is usually made with freshly sourced local products.

Once finished with Tirana, make your way to the UNESCO protected city of Berat. The city started its life as a Illyrian settlement, then turned into a castle city that thrived and expanded with the time. Inside the castle there were churches and even a calligraphy school. Unique for today’s times, people still live inside the castle walls.

And while we are still talking about UNESCO protected cities - Albania has more than one!

Gjirokastra: the city of stone, with houses made of cut stones and paved streets. And if you think all roads lead to Rome, well not in Albania. In Gjirokastra all streets lead to Bazaar, one of its oldest neighbourhoods. The city is home to the Museum of Weapons, located in what is the biggest castle of Albania. The National Folk Festival also takes place here each year.

Once you’re done with the history tourism it is time for some leisure time and napping under the sun. And you have a good chance of that, with Albania enjoying 300 days of sun each year - second only to Spain!

Let the sun kiss your skin and draw swimsuit patterns on your skin at the Albanian Riviera. With beaches to rival those of its famous French and Italian sisters, Albania is like the shy youngest sibling - give it a chance and you’ll see it might be the coolest of them all.

What to do

Uncover the history of the nation’s capital

Skanderbeg Statue, Tirana

During the day visit Tirana’s most famous landmarks - the Et’Hem Bey Mosque (built between 1798 and 1812), which is described by locals as “small but simply beautiful,” or the 35m high Kulla e Sahatit (the Clock Tower), built in 1822. From there locals advise to try and get a good view and maybe a picture of the Skanderbeg Statue, as the Skanderbeg Square is currently under reconstruction until the summer of 2017.

Also don’t forget to ask about the history and symbolism of the statue. It’s not just a simple statue of a local hero. As we hear there are a lot of hidden meanings to be discovered about the pose and the direction Skanderbeg is facing.

Just across the street is the National History Museum, where one can learn about Albania’s troublesome history under Ottoman slavery and then the 50-year Communist oppression. It is a worthy introduction before visiting my personal favourite - The Peace Bell.

It was made from the castings of bullets and its ring symbolically calls for peace. Although the park and the area where the monument is located might seem a bit abandoned it is definitely worth a visit.

In the end of the day don’t forget to end your walk around Tirana with a slice of Shëndetli - this honey-walnut cake soaked overnight in sugar-and-cloves syrup is a traditional option that you simply must try.

Delve deeper into Albanian history in Berat

The old city of Berat comprises three major neighbourhoods - Gorica, Kala and Mangalemi. Head down to Mangalemi to enjoy the famous view of the “City of the Floating Windows”- with the facades of houses, whose windows seemingly stand above each other.  Then cross the arched bridge of Gorica, connecting the two neighbourhoods just at sunset - and look above to the sunlight reflected by thousands of pieces of glass.

Oh, and while still in Mangalemi, don’t forget to visit the praised Mangalemi restaurant and try Byrek Mangalemi - a savoury pie special which is a mixture of pumpkin, potato, cottage cheese and a hint of lemon.

Kayak Berat’s Osum River

Feeling adventurous? Kayaking on Osum River is a must, according to locals. The river canyon stretches for as much as 17 kilometres. You can do that while visiting Berat, as the river flows through the city.

Soak up some sun on the Albanian Riviera

Ksamil beach

Choose from beaches such as Dhermi, which is a nightlife destination for the Albanian youth with its wooden villa complexes and modern beach clubs. Or Porto Palermo Beach, the most panoramic beach of the Riviera. There is a castle of the same name and a submarine base nearby

Jal village, actually four beaches, is connected to make this touristy area. Kampingu Jal is the oldest camp site in Albania, if you fancy a night or two of campfires and local beer.

Ksamil beach is an extremely affordable and quiet area with “crystal water and homemade wine”. Not the most famous destination, but you’ll get the Instagram pictures your friends will be jelly of.

Take advantage of the local music scene

There is also the yearly Reggae Festival, Albanian South Vibes. Or dance the night off at Folie Marine, which is one of the trendiest beach clubs in the Riviera. Make sure you listen to Era Istrefi on the way there. The rising Albanian star is said to enjoy extreme popularity around the local clubs and people will be pleasantly surprised if you recognise her hits.

Climb, paraglide and cave in the Alps... yes, you read that right

If you’re not a beach person but you’d rather hike and trek and enjoy nature at its truest form, don’t worry. Albania has you covered - as we said, there is the Albanian Riviera… but there is also the Albanian Alps.

Take a day to climb Albaia’s highest peak Mount Korab, which towers 2,751 m above sea level. The cliffs of Llogara, which divide the Adriatic from the Ionian Coast, are a famous place for paragliding.

For the cave explorers there is no shortage of hidden passages and underground wonders. there are at least 35 caves near Shkodra.  A suitable for a newbie spelunkers cave is Pëllumbas Cave near Tirana, and it’s also Albania’s second largest.

To keep exploring the Albanian Alps, ask around for local tours and book for the next day. If you’re lucky enough you might even find yourself taken for a hike by a local - they are famous for their hospitality and you’ll be “off to the races” in no time.

Eat with locals in the Valbona River Valley

Don’t miss the The Valbona River Valley, a National park where the Valbona River creates a stunning canyon, surrounded by small villages, where you can explore traditional food and culture. The best advice is to try and stay with locals and definitely try specialties such as mazja, flija (a many layered pancake-like dish cooked outdoors over open coals and steamed, often served with honey), and pitja.

Visit Rrogam, a remote village, where you can find marble trout, a rare fish found in the waters of the Valbona, which is said to have a unique flavour.

Take stock on your return to Tirana

Once you’ve taken your dose of forgotten history, virgin views and potential sunburn, return to Tirana and have a coffee, while watching the people pass by in the streets around the main square.

Don’t forget to say falënderoj (thank you) and lamtumirë (goodbye) and promise to bring your friends with you next time you visit. Albania’s growing tourism industry is one of the major sources of income for the locals.

Feeling inspired? Check out more of our Top 20 Destinations for 2017 HERE

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