An often overlooked destination, the Balkan region has so much to offer a travel seeker. If you’re considering a trip to Italy, Greece or Croatia you might want to add Albania to your itinerary. I was fortunate to live and work in the capital, Tirana from August 2018 – July 2019. After a year of exploring the region, I am astounded how little this country is represented in mainstream tourism, cultural arts, and the history books.
Take Berat for instance. The city’s life began in the 6th-5th century B.C. as an Illyrian settlement. Intact fresco paintings still adorn Greek Orthodox churches built in the 13th and 16th century. The whole city is in fact a museum and became protected by Unesco in 2005. Then there’s Butrint, which was an ancient Greek and later Roman city. The site has evidence dating back to 50,000 BC., but the integrity of the city’s ruins make it easy for you to imagine when Julius Caesar walked the grounds. The country’s landscape is made up of rugged picturesque mountainous ranges, deep sprawling underdeveloped valleys, and beautiful beaches bordered by the clear blue Adriatic and Ionian sea.
The people and economy have the after effects that come with an ever changing border and nearly 50 years under communism rule by the dictator Enver Hoxha, but they hold on with pride to their own language and culture. Majestic castles sit on hills with all the bedtime stories of heroism and defeat. If you’re lucky, a local will share his homemade raki while telling you passed down knowledge of how the Odyssey truly took place in Albania and not Greece. Or a woman will grab your hand to join in a circle dance that is simple, but somehow so endearing and joyful you can’t help but smile and kick your feet to the clarinet playing.
The fresh seafood combined with the locally farmed produce and livestock are generously drizzled with Albanian olive oil and kosher salt, which is sure to delight any foodie. And it won’t break the bank. Feeding 4-6 people a traditional zgara meal can cost between $20-$50 US dollars with beer and wine included. Tirana nightlife can go into four or five in the morning if you want it to. But coffee shops are in abundance and a late night sufllaqe or morning byrek is something everyone should experience.
The year spent in Albania with my two kids and husband is a moment in time I will never forget. I observed incredible beauty in the people and the surroundings. We were welcomed as foreigners under what they call besa. It’s a place with rich historical traditions still woven into daily life. A bit like going back in time. We visited pristine landscapes untouched by commercialism. Farm to table isn’t a trend, but a way of life. I embraced the simplicity of living as a community. Connected not digitally, but physically and honoring the value of face-to-face time. I was truly charmed by the relaxed pace or “avash avash” lifestyle.
The whole experience inspired me to write and publish my first book, sidetracked. It’s an intimate view into 100 days of journaling as I hit the reset button in search of a more meaningful connection with myself, my family, and the world. Picking up and leaving our friends and family wasn’t easy, but it was a decision that changed us forever. We worked to live, scaled down our material belongings, embraced spontaneity, and traveled curiously as a way of life. If you’re interested in our travel log from our 1 year adventure, please read on.
By Amanda Mailey
Published Author (sidetracked) and Travel Enthusiast