These ten things will surprise you even more than the fact I just wrote my first ever clickbait title.
1. Albania is Muslim, but not really
In a recent census, over 60% of Albanians declared themselves Muslim – and 90% of them claimed they had never been to a mosque.
Indeed, while the majority of the population might be Muslim, religion does not play a big role in society. Even constitutionally, Albania is a secular country, meaning that it doesn’t have one official religion. This might be due to the country’s history: during the communist regime, practicing any religion was illegal, and when the communist republic of Albania fell in the 90s, many were already used to their non-religious life style.
Albania is also home to a non-strict sect of Islam called Bektashism, that my tour guide in Tirana jokingly described as ‘Islam, but you don’t have to do anything for it!’
2. Everyone wears jeans
When I participated in the free walking tour in Tirana, it was easy to find the group at the meeting point by the National Gallery: I just needed to look for peole who were wearing shorts.
No matter the heat, people of Tirana go about their daily lives in trousers and jeans. Having just learned about the Muslim majority, I asked the Albanian girl working my hostel if it was a question of modesty.
She shrugged kind of funny. ‘It’s nothing like that. I guess that’s just the fashion, everyone just does that. Although,’ she added a tiny bit begrudgingly, ‘you should also see the kind of skirts some girls wear. They barely cover the ass!’
Luckily, the worship of jeans seemed to only prevail in the bigger cities and not in beach towns. Even if you decide to ditch the denim in favour of short shorts, no worries, no one is going to look at you funny because of that. They’ll look at you funny anyway.
3. Albanians love foreigners
From the moment I arrived, I noticed people staring at me. It ranged from amusing to uncomfortable, from time to time being both like the time I got proposed to via Google Translate. But most of the time when I was approached, it was not with romantic intent: locals simply seemed to enjoy talking to foreigners.
Many young Albanians speak excellent English but practicing it with travellers is still rare since Albanian tourism is only starting to take off, and relatively low income and a weak passport make it difficult for Albanians to travel abroad themselves. There is a lot of curiosity surrounding these few travellers that dare travel their wonderful country.
But instead the usual, Why on EARTH would you travel here? kind of reaction, I found most were curious about my impressions on their country. How did I like Albania? Where did I go? Many have even messaged me directly on Instagram as I’ve been posting along my trip, eager to know what I thought.
4. Albania is off the beaten path, but not really
By now, the Balkans must be Europe’s worst kept secret. I started my trip on the Balkans believing it to be that Wild East that I had heard so many stories about from my friend. Well, I forgot that he travelled there in 2010, and as the world gets smaller and travellers reach even the furthest corners of the world, Albania is a very different place that it was eight years ago.
While still one of the most underdeveloped destinations on the Balkans, Albania has become a new backpacker favourite, and every city of interest has at least a few hostels. (Just a few years ago, there was only one hostel in the entire country.)
Now might be the perfect time to visit, though. Backpackers might have already found Albania, but it is still far from the mass tourism that places like Croatia and even Montenegro are experiencing. (Except for the popular coastal towns, Saranda being the tourist favourite.) Even then, many tourists are locals.
5. Travelling Albania is really, really cheap
Albania is one of the cheapest travel destinations in Europe, which means that your travel budget will go a long way here. On average, you might pay 10 euros a night for a bed in a modern, comfortable dorm with breakfast included; 70 cents for a coffee; and 1 euro for a piece of cake.
And while the official currency is Albanian lek, many restaurants, hostels and other businesses will also accept euros.
Unfortunately, being a cheap country for visitors usually means a lower standard of living for locals. Albania is the fourth poorest country in Europe, and while its economy is improving rapidly with the standard of living, the average monthly salary is small and many work multiple jobs to be able to afford to provide for themselves and their family.
6. The food is SO GOOD
Out of all the things I was expecting of Albania, I really did not expect their food to be so delicious. After weeks of the meat-heavy diet that the Balkans are known for, it was elating to find good vegetarian options while dining out.
Try stuffed peppers or, my favourite, oven baked eggplant stuffed with onions and tomatoes and served with a sour cream sauce. It is also easy to find delicious Italian food in most cities.
7. The language is shqip (but don’t skip learning it)
Albania is a bit of an odd one out among all the other Balkan nations. It was never a part of Yugoslavia, and has its own distinctive culture and a language that’s completely different from other Balkan languages. (Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are pretty much the same language, and even Macedonian and Slovenian are so similar that they can be understood.)
The language is called shqip (pronounced as shkip) and is spoken by approximately 7 million people, but due to the wide spread emigration of Albanians after the fall of the communist regime, most of its speakers reside outside of the country; the population of Albania is only 3 million.
While I was surprised to find that many young Albanians living in cities speak excellent English, many don’t understand a word of it. So make an effort to learn at least a few phrases. The most important, thank you, is faleminderit. You could also try communicating in Italian; since many Albanians have Italian heritage or family living there, many know at least the basics.
8. Hitchhiking is confusing
Speaking of communicating with locals… One of the best ways to meet locals is hitchhiking. Out of all Balkan countries I visited, Albania seemed to be the most popular among hitchhikers. However, attitudes towards hitchhiking seemed to vary in two ways:
- Hitchhiking is extremely easy. Albanians are very friendly and hospitable towards foreigners, and if they pick you up, they might stop by a mini market or a roadside restaurant to buy you a coffee or a soda. Many drivers told me that hitchhiking is very common in the country and used to be a normal way of getting around in the communist times when public transportation was unreliable and many didn’t own cars.
- Hitchhiking is a concept people have never heard of. Quite often someone would pull up to offer me a ride in exchange for money, or to give me directions to the bus station. I got used to smiling and explaining in my confusing mixture of languages, ‘autobus no, just autostop, no money, just autostop.’
9. There’s no nostalgia for the ‘good old times’
Travelling through the old Yugoslavian countries, you will be sure to notice a certain longing for the time of communism. Everyone had jobs and enough to eat, and the Yugoslavian passport was one of the strongest in the world. (Of course the huge shortcomings of living in a communist society are very much downplayed.) In Albania, things were completely different.
Albanian socialism meant severe restrictions and ultimately completely isolation from the rest of the world. Attempting to form ties first with the Soviet Union and afterwards with the People’s Republic of China, the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha ended up claiming that neither were ‘true socialist nations’ and declared Albania as the only real socialist country in the world.
However, the country’s aspiration to be completely self-reliant backfired badly since Albania didn’t possess enough resources of its own to provide for its citizens, which caused shortages on most everything. Secret police maintained by Hoxha’s regime spied on suspected ‘enemies of the state’. In 1967, Albania was declared as the first atheist country in the world, which in turn meant prohibition to practice any religion and extensive destruction of religious monuments and buildings. Socialist Albania was one of the hardest countries in the world to travel to and from.
The communist regime fell in 1992. And while the older generation in ex-Yugoslavian countries might still feel nostalgic for the ’good old times’, Albanians don’t: for them that was never a ‘good’ time.
10. Albanians love life
Perhaps it is a product of a nation liberated from the prongs of a strict regime: Albanians’ lust for life is infectious. Many people that I talked to acknowledge the existing problems in their society – poverty, corruption, environmental issues – but love their country anyway. Albania is a nation that knows that you can’t take happiness for granted, and while it lasts, they are determined to make the most of it.
Albania is located in Southeastern Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. It is well connected with the neighbouring countries, and most international flights arrive in Tirana, the capital. Albania is not a member of the European Union nor Schengen but anyone with a valid visa or residency in a Schengen nation can travel to Albania visa-free for 90 days.
Have you been in Albania or are you planning to visit? Did you know anything about Albania before this?