The less I hear about a country, the more it makes me want to go there. And Albania - at least when it comes to Europe - is definitely a hot candidate for that approach. I always wanted to go there, but I only managed to do so eventually in 2005 - and this trip was just another trip to the Balkans to understand more about this troubled region. The tour to Albania was well worth the effort - for me, Albania turned out to be a fascinating place with very kind people.
EU citizens and many other nationalities do not require a visa any longer. However, almost everyone needs to pay some sort of immigration tax at the border, which is € 10 for many nationalities, but some nationalities have to pay a substantially higher price. Please note that this is no bribe - although it's not clear whether the money really reaches the place it is supposed to reach (border officials may tell you they run out of receipts etc). Keep in mind that border officials might not have appropriate change, so it's better to have small change before crossing the border. When leaving the country, another € 10 are due, but only if you use your own car - else there's no fee. As with all other countries, the passport should be valid for at least another 6 months.
The Albanian currency is called Lek (Plural: Lekë), but on bills it's written as "Leke" only. The Lek is quite stable for a couple of years already - the inflation seems to be rather low now.
|New Albanian 100 Leke bill|
The average exchange rate is around € 1 = 120 Leke. Coins come as 5, 10, 20 and 50 Leke, whereas bills come as 100, 200, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 Leke denominations. At least the 1,000 Leke bill comes in two versions - one from around 1995 (very large bill, doesn't fit in any wallet) and a new, smaller and more sophisticated version. The older version is gradually being replaced, so by the time you read this the old money might already have been gone. According to Albanian law, it is forbidden to import or export Albanian money, which means that it's virtually impossible to exchange Albanian money somewhere outside the country (as of 2005 - this restriction might become obsolete within the next years).
There are ATM's accepting all major credit cards as well as Cirrus and Maestro cash cards - however, these ATM's are rather hard to find outside the capital. Since Albania doesn't see many tourists, there aren't many exchange bureaus either. In provincial towns, banks can either be non-existent or simply not open, so it's wise to keep a certain amount of cash with you when outside the capital. In some cases, hotels can help changing money.
Prices in Albania are often very cheap - however, there aren't many travellers around and so there's a lack of certain facilities or - if there are any - a lack of competition. And so it can be difficult to find a place to sleep in a small town below € 30 per person - but easy to find a hostel or hotel for € 5 in the capital. Eating out usually costs between € 1 to € 3, but there are some upmarket restaurants, too. A good espresso usually costs around 40 Leke (and good Espresso is available even in very small town - it's like a modern version of the Italian occupation). When it comes to transportation, the fare very much depends on the means of transport. tren (trains) are the cheapest way to get around, but options are very limited. Next is the autobus, covering almost every area. Other options include minibusses, shared taxis and taxis. To give an example: a ride on the minibus from the capital to Shkoder in the North costs around 300 Leke.
It's not very difficult to get around with € 20 or so per day in Albania - unless you find yourself in the province with very limited and therefore expensive accommodation.
By bus, plane or boat. There are some direct flights from Germany, Austria and a few other countries, but due to a lack of demand, flight connections are - compared to other European countries - very limited. When coming from Europe, one cheap alternative in summer is a flight to Kerkyra (Korfu) in Greece. From there, it's only a short hop to Albania - ferries run from Kerkyra to Albania. Additionally, there are ferries from Durrës near the capital Tirana to Italy - for example to Bari and Ancona.
There are long-distance busses from Germany, Austria and Switzerland to Albania, but although this might be the cheapest option, this is definitely the option with the highest stress level. Note that Albania is not connected to the international railroad network. As a matter of fact, there is a train connection between Podgorica in Montenegro to →Shkodër, but this railroad is only used for cargo. Additionally, there are direct bus connections from and to Greece, →Kosovo (for example from →Prizren to →Tirana, three busses a day, bus fare € 15, departure at 7 am, 8 am and 9 pm from Prizren), →Macedonia, →Montenegro and even microbusses from and to →Dubrovnik in Croatia.
As of 2005, there were two border crossings to →Montenegro: The larger one is called Han i Hotit between →Shkodër and Podgorica North of Lake Scutari, the smaller is at Muriqan between Shkodër and →Ulcinj.
There are also two border crossings to →Kosovo in the Northeast, with the border crossing at Morine between →Prizren and →Kukës as the more convinient - not only because it's near larger towns, but also because of the better condition of the roads around there. Additional border crossings might open in the near future.
Albania has three border crossings to →Macedonia. Two can be found at Lake Ohrid. The most convenient one is the crossing between Pogradec and →Sveti Naum near Ohrid. Regular busses run between Ohrid and the crossing, and there seem to be microbusses from the crossing to Pogradec on the Albanian side.
There are also at least three crossings to the Southern neighbour Greece. This number might increase in the near future as well.
Food and drinks
Albanian food is no big surprise for someone who has been around in the Balkans before: Lots of grilled meat. Which can be mutton and lamb quite often. Mish qengji ne furre for example is oven-stewed lamb and definitely worth a try. The Ottoman influence on the Albanian cuisine is obvious: dishes like shish qe bab (Shish Kebab, Shashlik) or Qofte (also: Köfte, fried meat balls) are omnipresent. One of the most popular side dish seems to be bukë (bread), followed by potatoes (for example as french fries) and/or beans. Vegetarians might need to resort to pasta - often prepared with butter only and topped with a little bit of cheese. The latter is a very simple though tasty alternative. Italian eateries seem to become increasingly popular - there is no need to do without pizza & Co. - at least not in the capital.
No matter how depressive and dread the place might look like - chances are high that you'll get authentic espresso there. From highly modern espresso machines. Albania produces its own beer, too - the most common brand is known as Birra Tirana, which is sold on tap and bottled. The former cannot be recommended at all, but maybe I just had bad luck (pipes hadn't been cleaned for ages, barrel was old or whatsoever).
The local firewater is omnipresent and referred to as Raki - in Turkey, this famous drink is made of aniseed - in Albania it can be made from almost everything. An Albanian speciality is the Raki Mani, made of mulberries. Only people familiar with strong alcoholic drinks should give it a try - there are several brands, but some of them have around 80% (at least the one I tried in a restaurant once). Of course there's no lack of regular soft drinks such as Cola, Lemonade, Mineral water etc.