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Closed to outsiders for much of the 20th century, Albania has long been Mediterranean Europe’s enigma. Until fairly recently its rumpled mountains, fortress towns and sparkling beaches were merely a rumour on most travel maps. But, with the end of a particularly brutal strain of communism in 1991, Albania tentatively swung open its gates. The first curious tourists to arrive discovered a land where ancient codes of conduct still held sway and where the wind whistled through the shattered remnants of half-forgotten ancient Greek and Roman sites. A quarter of a century after throwing off the shackles of communism, Albania’s stunning mountain scenery, crumbling castles, boisterous capital and dreamy beaches rivalling any in the Mediterranean continue to enchant. But hurry here, because as word gets out about what Albania is hiding, the still-tiny trickle of tourists threatens to become a flood.
Lively, colourful Tirana is where this tiny nation’s hopes and dreams coalesce into a vibrant whirl of traffic, brash consumerism and unfettered fun. Having undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions since awaking from its communist slumber in the early 1990s, Tirana’s centre is now unrecognisable from those grey days, with buildings painted in primary colours, and public squares and pedestrianised streets that are a pleasure to wander.
Berat weaves its own very special magic, and is easily a highlight of visiting Albania. Its most striking feature is the collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill to its castle, earning it the title of ‘town of a thousand windows’ and helping it join Gjirokastra on the list of Unesco World Heritage sites, in 2008. Its rugged mountain setting is particularly evocative when the clouds swirl around the tops of the minarets, or break up to show the icy peak of Mt Tomorri. Despite now being a big centre for tourism in Albania, Berat has managed to retain its easy-going charm and friendly atmosphere.
The Albanian Riviera was a revelation a decade or so ago, when backpackers discovered the last virgin stretch of the Mediterranean coast in Europe, flocking here in droves, setting up ad hoc campsites and exploring scores of little-known beaches. Since then, things have become significantly less pristine, with overdevelopment blighting many of the once-charming coastal villages. But worry not; while some beaches may be well-and-truly swarming in summer, with a little persistence there are still spots to kick back and enjoy the empty beaches the region was once so famous for.
Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is a magical hillside town described beautifully by Albania’s most famous author, Ismail Kadare (b 1936), in Chronicle in Stone. There has been a settlement here for 2500 years, though these days it’s the 600 ‘monumental’ Ottoman-era houses in town that attract visitors. For Albanians, the town is also synonymous with former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was born here and ensured the town was relatively well preserved under his rule, though he is not memorialised in any way here today.