Lifestyle & Culture

Jackie Harding: Albania is the No. 2 destination on my post-COVID travel wish list

(Editor’s note: Albani is the destination for Pt. 2 of travel writer/photographer Jackie Harding’s three-part series on post-pandemic travel destinations.)

The change we’ve experienced in our lives over the past 12 months is unbelievable. For an expat whose family lives in other countries and writes about travel, the change in my life has been huge! At the moment, travel remains something only to dream about, unfortunately. But we all need dreams at the moment, right?

So I am working on my travel wish list in order to give me a few goals for the future and to remind myself that some of the fun of travel is in the planning.

As the quote says, “Don’t dream … plan.”

My daughter visited Albania in 2019, and her enthusiasm has inspired me to research the country – and place it firmly on my Travel Wish List, ready for those halcyon “post-COVID” days. Many people ask about safety, but from everything I’ve read – and from my daughter’s experience – Albania is safe and the people incredibly friendly.

The southeastern European country of Albania is located on the Adriatic and Ionian seas, and is a candidate for European Union membership. It has a troubled history, particularly in the 20th century with invasion by Italy and a bizarre Communist dictator who kept Albania isolated even from other Communist countries. But since its independence in 1991, it has slowly and quietly been working its way forward.

With mountains and coastline and several large lakes, the country has something for everyone.

Tirana

The largest and capital city of Albania, Tirana, is placed firmly between the mountains and coastline so boasts of being one of the wettest and sunniest cities in Europe!

Culture: The city has a wide variety of architecture from the Ottoman to the Communist era to explore, from the city mosque, the Et’Hem Bey to the Pyramid, a building built to commemorate the late and unlamented dictator Enver Hoxha.

The National Historic Museum will help you get to grips with the country’s complicated history. Most of the archeological treasures are explained in English, but, unfortunately, the exhibitions about the country’s more recent history are not.

Preza Castle is a medieval castle ruins overlooking the city.

Bunk’Art is a communist nuclear bunker built to protect Hoxha and is now home to a contemporary art gallery and history exhibition and serves as a venue for concerts. The 100-plus rooms provide a glimpse into the dark times of Communism.

Activities: Tirana has a number of interesting destinations.

Mount Dajti National Park, (1,580 meters), just outside the city, provides a cable car that climbs 800 meters for a view of the city, skiing and hiking. If you are feeling really energetic, you can hike up!

• The Grand Park is 230 hectares of space for the city residents, complete with a large lake for fishing or swimming, the national palace and tombs for national heroes.

• Ish-Blloku was once where the Communist elite lived and is now one of the trendy areas of the city with fashionable bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

The Albanian Riviera

The beaches along the coast can apparently go toe-to-toe with Greek and Croatian beaches. The southern towns boast cobbled streets, tiny churches, clear turquoise water, and the crowds are much smaller than in Greece and Croatia. This coastline was rated No. 4 out of 52 places to visit in 2014 by The New York Times and is largely free of crowds (less so in high season), glitz and expensive restaurants.

Borsh Beach is a 7-kilometer-long pebbled beach backed by olive trees, a castle and an azure sea inviting you to dive in … sound good to you?

Ksamil, “the Ionian Pearl,” is one of the top destinations in Albania, so be prepared for crowds in August. The crystal clear water, several islands and idyllic white sand beaches make for a tranquil spot to soothe your post-COVID soul. It offers family-run hotels and is an easy transfer by ferry from Corfu airport.

Gujpe Beach. This hidden gem is a 30-minute hike from the road so you can expect it to be quiet.

Saranda, the unofficial capital of the Riviera, was once a small fishing village and is now a bustling city and where the ferry arrives from Corfu. The beaches in town are pebbly but offer places to swim. In the city there is the ruined castle of Lekures – hike up for great views or to sip a glass of wine whilst watching the sunset – ruins of an ancient synagogue
and great local restaurants.

Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Age ruins 14 kilometers from the city, the largest collection of ancient ruins in Albania.

• Syri Kalter, or the Blue Eye, is a naturally blue spring that is popular with
tourists.

My research on Albania has definitely persuaded me to place it on my Travel Wish List and maybe – for awhile anyway – I’ll close my eyes and pretend I am relaxing on those sandy beaches gazing out at the azure sea … aaahhh!

Editor’s note: Albanian is spoken in Albania, a mysterious language only vaguely connected to any known modern European language group.

About the author:

Photographer/Writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past ten years.

Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.

Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.

She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.

She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.

You can read more of Jackie’s work for Dispatches here.

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