Tiranarama: Why Albania is the best place you’ve never been!
Chalkmarks: Ksamil, Albania, September 2023

WHY on earth do you want to go to Albania, they said. Haven’t you seen the news? Yes, that’s why we’re going! We saw the headlines. It sounds great. It’s not all drugs, smugglers and migrants. It’s “Little Italy” says the Financial Times. It’s “The Caribbean of Europe” writes the Daily Telegraph, “where luxury hotels cost less than £100”. And in Spain, El Pais says “Albania, a new travel hotspot”. So… we gotta go! Here’s our best pix of the trip!

The time has come!

What’s happening? Albania has been all over TikTok this summer and sliding into the travel sections of national newspapers and magazines. It’s all about their 280-miles of coastline spread across two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian. This area is already known as the Albanian Riviera – but it went viral when influencers posted stunning beach photos of Ksamil (above) and tagged it the “Maldives of Europe”. Instantly thousands flew over to see it for themselves.

More: There’s no shortage of sunshine. As autumn begins in Britain, summer goes on across Albania. Located opposite Italy and sitting north of Greece, with the rock of Corfu just across the water, temperatures remain in the high 20Cs until October. Plus, hotels and eating out are extremely cheap. Two scoops of gelato cost 100 lekë (pronounced lek), that’s 80p!

But first: It’s not called Albania. Hold the front page! This is Shqipëria (sounds like Ship-er-ia). That’s what they call it, that’s on the money, and that’s on Prime Minister Edi Rama’s, X page. Why is this the first time we’re hearing this? All we know is that once upon a time a group of people living in this part of the Balkans was called the Albanoi and so the country took their name and became Albania. But why don’t they use Shqipëria internationally? Dunno, it’s a mystery!

Welcome: Our guide starts with a whistle-stop tour of 3,000 years of history. This is the first time we’re hearing about Albania that’s not from a politician. Listen in…, he says: “We’ve only ever been conquered by others (Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman) and we’re considered the most peaceful place in the Balkans.” Fast forward to 2023, he adds: “There are three million Albanians in the country and nine million outside. We have more people outside our borders than inside. The biggest diaspora is in India. In Switzerland we play football, in the UK we run the car-washing industry, in Germany we steal cars, in Italy we argue with Italians, and in America we own the Italian pizza places.”

Tirana walkabout: Barbie would not be out of place here. Tirana is a full rainbow of colourful buildings – it’s not the drab, grey, ex-communist capital city you might expect. Back in 2004 then-mayor, now PM, and artist, Mr Rama won the first ever World Mayor Prize for his efforts to repaint the city and make everyone smile. Almost 20-years on and the official government buildings grab your attention, painted in bright pinks and oranges with others covered in murals and street art. There’s plenty to visit in the city including some of the country’s 173,000 bunkers – once a world record – built for a war that never happened. Then there’s the steps of the Pyramid of Tirana to climb, a part of the Berlin Wall to find, the main square, Skanderbeg, to wander and then take a long stroll through Blloku (Block) until you’re in the incredible Grand Park of Tirana. Take a picture (see below)!

Best beaches in Europe? Some 165-miles (270km) south of Tirana is the resort city of Sarandë (or Saranda) with its large bay and promenade filled with bars and restaurants. There are plenty of people flat out on the sunbeds in the early morning. This is the gateway to the “Maldives of Europe”. The village of Ksamil is another half-hour bus journey south. Once settled in Sarandë, it’s all here – boat trips, island hopping, snorkelling, hiking, cycling, paragliding, the Blue Eye spring water-reserve, national parks, Roman baths and an amphitheatre, vineyards, plus untold beaches, and hundreds of hotels and cafes. Also, further along the coast is Vlorë (also spelled Vlora and pronounced Flora) where Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. From spring 2024 Vlorë Airport opens with Ryanair already planning flights from Stansted and Manchester.

Taking notes: Albania is about the size of Wales and as well as sandy beaches, there’s layers of history to be discovered here. Its roots go way back in time to the ancient Illyrians with scholars still debating if they’re older than the Greeks. The language is even listed as one of the oldest in the world. And while Tirana is around 400 years old there are other cities which go back centuries. Durrës, in the north, has a 3,000-year-old history and makes the Unesco world heritage list, as does Butrint, in the south, which dates back 2,500 years. Albania is also a Muslim country with the call to prayer singing out during the day. And up until 1991 it was a closed-off communist country. Albanians tasted their first Coca-Cola just over 30 years ago.

A Mediterranean holiday but not as you know it!

How things work: Currently you fly into Tirana (3 hours from the UK), and then, there are only buses or taxis to move around. You will not be whisked away to a beach resort. You’ll need to know where you’re going and how to get there. Google maps is often no help. There are no trains in Albania… or many bus stations, or bus stops either. It’s chaotic. To head to Sarandë or Vlorë you have to visit a huge gravel car park in Tirana filled with dozens of mini vans and coaches, and men calling out different destinations. There’s one man in a cubicle near the entrance selling tickets and pointing in the general direction you might find your bus. There’s no waiting area, signs or toilets. But there is a food stand where you can buy bottles of water and snacks. It’s then a very long five-hour bus journey to reach the “Maldives”. In other cities it’s much the same, with no indication where the bus stop is – but if you’re lucky there will be a queue of people waiting by the side of the road or a cluster of minibuses blocking the road. Alternatively, you could fly to Corfu and take the ferry across to Sarandë and bypass Tirana altogether.

How money works: It’s a cash country. They don’t like credit or debit cards. Seriously? Yep! They didn’t mention this on TikTok? No! You might book a hotel via booking.com (other websites are available) but read the small print, they want you to pay at the property in cash – either in lekë or euros. We were caught out. Our cash flashed before our eyes. It meant a trek to an ATM, pulling out loads of notes, and getting charged commission. Why don’t they take cards? It’s another mystery. Perhaps it’s a crease they’re still ironing out after communism. It’s a similar story in bars and restaurants. It’s a win for Albanian banks and businesses but a surcharge for travellers. If you’re on a package holiday and you’ve paid upfront with the agent, you’ll still need a wad of cash to buy food, drinks and snacks from the supermarket. Lekë is best because you never know, when you come to pay the bill, if they accept euros… cos’ it’s not yet in the EU.

How showers work: Many bathrooms don’t have shower curtains. Take a shower and everything gets wet. Why don’t they have shower curtains? Dunno! But there tends to be a mop nearby. It’s not the case in hotels but you’ll find a lack of curtains or shower doors in B&Bs, Airbnbs and the like.

The good life: Albanians love to drink coffee, espresso mainly. Cafes are everywhere and they stay open late. In the north, they’ll serve coffee with a shot rakia at breakfast. A top tip from our guide: “Please don’t chug rakia it burns like hell.” More to come on that…

TikTok tourism: While Sarandë and Vlorë have long been popular with Italians, never has the country seen such large numbers of tourists arriving from the rest of the world. The Tirana Times has reported an “unprecedented tourism boom” earlier this year with an increase of more than 50 per cent of visitors in April – ahead of the peak summer season. Albania has been caught off guard by this increase. Our Tirana tour guide says it started on TikTok when influencers were posting photos of Ksamil and getting millions of views. It wasn’t the first time it’d been called the “Maldives of Europe” but this year it went crazy. Since then, he says, his daily tours have been packed. Even on the hottest days in July when temperatures hit 40C, 200 tourists turned out to learn the history of the city. He says it’s so busy the government is investing in public toilets as they have no facilities. And they are panic building hotels, many around the central square in Tirana.

The greatest Albanians: Dua Lipa! The singer is currently the most famous Albanian on our charts – and in 2022 she held a free concert in Tirana ending her Future Nostalgia world tour. It broke records attracting the biggest crowd in the main square, which saw Skanderbeg become a dancefloor, with 200,000 fans. There’s also Mother Theresa, whom Albanians claim as their own even though she was born in North Macedonia. Her parents were Albanian, and named their Nobel Peace Prize-winning daughter Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She changed it aged 18 when she joined the Irish Sisters of Loreto in 1929.

Chalkmarks paid our own way. We flew from Stansted to Tirana and stayed in a mix of hotels and BnBs. 

Chalkmarks: Vlore, Albania, September 2023
Come on in… the water’s warm: The beach in Vlorë
Chalkmarks: Sarande, Albania, September 2023
Every trip has its treasure: The main beach in Sarandë
Chalkmarks: Vlore Old Town, Albania, September 2023
Not so old: The Old Town in Vlorë built to look like America!
Chalkmarks: Tirana bus station, Albania, September 2023
Tirana bus station: Which one to the “Maldives”?
Chalkmarks: Rakia, Vlore, Albania, September 2023
Don’t chug: A sweet Rakia cocktail in Vlorë
Green scene: The Grand Park of Tirana, Tirana, Albania
Green scene: The Grand Park of Tirana
Credit: Google Maps
Google Maps: Sarande and Vlore are just across the water from Italy

Not scary at all!