(Photo by Pero Kvrzica)
Caption: The ancient ruins of Albania’s Apollonia are some of the finest in the world to see.
The Albania You Never Knew
I’ve touched upon some little-known yet wonderful European gems in previous blog posts, and Albania is another country I’m adding to that list. The Republic of Albania is located on some prime European real estate. Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro surround the tiny country of only 11,100 square miles, as do the Adriatic and Ionian seas along the west and southwest sides. Want to jump over to Italy for a day trip? No problem! Italy is only 45 miles across the Strait of Ontario. Albania dates back to the 4th century B.C., and today, it’s a member of the U.N. and NATO alongside many influential European members. Let’s explore Albania and discover a wonderful travel destination you never knew about!
If you have heard anything about Albania, you’ve most likely heard about its beautiful, beautiful, beautiful beaches. Why did I say “beautiful” three times? Because Albania’s coastline is just that. You’ll be hard-pressed to find bluer waters or more pristine beaches elsewhere, and this is why most people flock to the “Albania Riviera,” as it’s called. You should definitely visit the Riviera while in Albania, but I’m a firm believer that many places off the beaten path rival the popular sites in any country. This is true in Albania as well, and some of the more secluded areas offer the same level of grandeur that Albania’s beaches do. For example…
Head toward Albania’s middle to visit Berat, a UNESCO-designated historical center that rests on the River Osum. Much like other ancient cities, Berat was originally a castle fortress that rested atop a hill to protect it. The original castle and other 13th century architecture remain standing, including many Byzantine-period churches and Ottoman-period mosques – so many, in fact, that the city is considered the place to go if you want to learn about Albanian culture and history.
While in Albania’s middle, visit Apollonia as well. Here, you’ll find ancient ruins originally built to honor Apollo, the Greek god of light, sun, truth, prophecy, and a whole lot more! During its heyday, Apollonia was the most important city in ancient Greece. Among the remains are the city’s arch, a common structure in many ancient civilizations, and remnants of numerous other buildings. Visit the museum, funded by UNESCO, and enjoy seeing how this city has been, and continues to be, unearthed.
You’re seeing a UNESCO theme by now, and I’m just rolling with it because, well, UNESCO loves Albania, apparently, and with good reason! Gjirokastra is located in southern Albania, and it was added to UNESCO’s must-see World Heritage list because of its architecture. I’m always talking architecture, but I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Balkan architecture, which consists of castle-like structures constructed of stone. Visit Gjirokastra to check it out. Even some of the homes look like mini-castles!
Albania’s history is of a country in great unrest. Its past include ties to the Greeks, Romans, the Ottoman Empire, and the Communists. Located near the Skanderbeg Mountains is Krujë, a smaller town and historical battlefield area. Visit the Krujë Castle while there, along with the Skanderbeg Museum, an ethnographic museum named after Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. Here, you will learn about Albania’s fight for its freedoms over the years.
Shkodër is a city in northern Albania that presents a historical accounting of the country’s many battles as well, including its ties to the Romans. Within Shkodër are the Rozafa Castle ruins. Legend has it that every day, three brothers would build the castle, and every night, the walls would fall down. To prevent the walls from continuing to fall, they buried the youngest brother’s wife in the wall…. You know what? Come to think of it, this isn’t a very nice legend! Still, the castle and museum are definitely worth seeing.
These are just a few of the many wonders that make up Albania, a little off the beaten path. The country presents its visitors with a diverse culture, history, and geography that includes beaches, flatlands, and mountains. There are more than enough castles to visit, if that’s your cup of tea, and you’ll have plenty of museums in which to peruse Albanian art and history. UNESCO keeps nailing it every time it names an Albanian location as a World Heritage site. Hey, the only thing I’d argue with them is that the whole country should be named!