ALBANIA (Republika e Shqipërisë)
One of the more interesting of Europe's countries in regards to recent history. Like North Korea, it was something of a hermit kingdom following the rise of Enver Hoxha after the end of World War II. Hoxha, being paranoid about invasion, had 10s of thousands of pillbox's constructed all over the country. A large portion of the country's budget went on military defence. Hoxha also identified the country as the world's first atheist state, one of his better ideas. The country was left poor as the wall came down on Communism in the late 1980s, horse and carts were a common site. In recent years Albania is doing well, and it's economy is growing.
For the visitor, there are numerous attractions, from various UNESCO cities like Barat (see pic below) and Gjirokastër. Also the Roman ruins of Butrint lie in the southern most tip of the country. A number of mountain ranges litter the country, in-particular the Ceraunian Mountains and Dinaric Alps in the South West of the country provide some beautiful landscapes to drive through.
Currency: Lek (ALL) 100 qindarka
Visa: Not required for most western nations.
Plug: European two round prongs 230v
GMT: GMT +1
GDP Ranking (IMF): #104 £2,500 (similar to Paraguay and Tonga)
Communications: Country code is +355
Health: There are no vaccinations needed for Albania.
When to Visit: Albania has Northern Hemisphere seasons, with heavy rain common between December and February. Summers can be hot. As such, Spring and Autumn are recommended for those averse to the heat.
Personal Safety: Albania is mostly safe, with the usual precautions in cities, particularly at night. Mafia activity as well as terrorism (car bombs) have occurred in recent years, these will rarely affect foreigners. Be aware that ATMs may be tampered with, so check they look reputable. F&CO advice here.
Getting Around: Buses, or more likely Furgons are the main form of intercity transport. A Furgon is transit van filled with seats, I travelled between Skhodra and Tirana in one, and it was fine. Prices are negotiated, the wealthier you look, the more you will likely pay. They usually leave when full, and pick up/drop off on route.Railways are very limited, mainly between Tirana and Durres, Shkodra, Fier, Ballsh, Vlorë, Pogradec. The train between Tirana and Durres is the most common, running 8 times a day. I rode it, and it's quite an experience. Most of the windows were smashed, and while passing through the suburbs of Tirana as well as outlying villages, stones come flying through the windows! Trains are rarely used by locals. Personally, I found hiring a car a great way to see the highlights and out of the way places in a short space of time.
What to see/do: Tirana has a few spots of interest, museums, and communist legacies, as well as a wider choice of restaurants. UNESCO cities of Barat and Gjirokastër provide appealing historical interest. Equally the Roman city of Butrint in the extreme south, a popular excursion for those holidaying in Corfu (ferries run to Sarande from Kerkira/Corfu Town). George Skanderbeg is the National Hero, and his castle exists as a museum in Kruje. For those with a car, the Albanian Rivera is stunning, driving through mountain passes and small villages between Sarande and Vlore.
Food & Drink: Albanian food has a Turkish influence, due to being once under the rule of the Ottoman empire. This is also mixed with years of austerity under Communist rule. So stews are a fixture in most Albanian homes, also restaurants. Byrek is a type of savoury pie that is particular to Albania. The main spirit drink is Raki in Albania, not to be confused with the new age gobbledegook that is Reiki. Korça produce two great beers in Alabania, Korça Pils e Zezë (dark beer) and Korça Blonde Pils (light beer). Birra Tirana Kuqalashe is another recommended beer.