THE RANDOM RAMBLINGS OF A CONFIRMED ALBANIAC
Why you should visit Albania?
I love Albania and Kosovo. I especially love to go hiking in the mountains there. I am not Albanian. I live almost 20,000km away on the other side of the world, but after my first visit to Albania and Kosovo in 2015 I have returned at least once every year. Why? Well, there are two major reasons: the mountains and the people.
The mountains are blanketed in meters of snow in the winter. But from June to September, after the snow has melted, they are starkly beautiful. Hikers with good basic fitness and minimal alpine experience can follow trails that have been used for centuries.
Local English-speaking guides are readily available for hire and basic comfortable guest-houses abound. Vans and pack-horses are available to transport extra luggage (and people).
The fledgling tourist industries of these two relative newcomers to the travel scene can make travelers feel comfortable and confident, but at the same time, they feel as though they are having an organic and adventurous experience.
The people who inhabit the small villages and hamlets of Albania and Kosovo’s mountains are truly the salt of the earth. They are sophisticated and urbane, but they retain a rural lifestyle and still produce most of their own food while living in strong, multi-generational units.
They maintain strong links with their cultural identity and history, keeping folkloric music and dance traditions alive and maintaining the ancient notion of “besa”, which is an ingrained culture of kindness, hospitality, and responsibility towards visiting strangers.
So the mountains and the people of these two Balkan nations draw me back year after year. Usually, each trip starts with a few days in Tirana. It is a vibrant, bustling city and has a cosmopolitan Mediterranean vibe. Café culture is king here, especially in the city center and the trendy Blloku quarter.
For a large city, Tirana’s inhabitants are very friendly and helpful towards visitors. As a rule of thumb, most people under about forty years of age speak quite good English; older than that, if they do not speak English, they may have some Italian or Russian, or perhaps German. In any case, they will try to help you and find someone else who does speak English.
The first time that I was in Tirana by myself I could not find my hotel immediately. I asked a young man in the street and he tried to find it on his phone’s mapping app. Then he started phoning all his friends until one of them could provide directions.
On two different occasions in Tirana, I have gone into a shop to ask directions and both times the shop person has locked up their shop and walked me down the street to make sure I found what I needed, and then cheerily gone back to open up their shop again. They seem to genuinely enjoy helping strangers.
Planning to visit Albania and Kosovo?
If you have any idea that you may want to visit Albania and Kosovo, then my advice is “just do it”. And do it soon because these places are changing quickly and if you wait too long there will be a Starbucks on every corner in Tirana, and Pristina will be full of shopping malls.
Come while these two countries still have a distinctively Albanian vibe and before they become indistinguishable from other south European spots.
Chas Amon, Auckland, New Zealand
Chas has traveled extensively and has hiked many of the world’s iconic multi-day and one-day trails. In 2015 he visited Albania and Kosovo for the first time and immediately fell in love with the people and the paths of the Albanian Alps.
Now Chas returns every year to discover new tracks to hike and old ones to revisit. He would love to introduce others from his home region to this, perhaps the fastest-growing destination for international hikers.