Albania has been my surprise destination of 2018. Despite not knowing a lot about the country before my trip, as soon as I started to read all the interesting facts about Albania I got excited.
This is one of the least visited countries in Europe and a gem waiting to be explored. It is affordable, it has good infrastructure and so many uniquely local places that cannot be found anywhere else.
Before you read this list of cool facts about Albania, let’s play a game. Take a moment to think about anything that you associate with the country.
Now let me tell you more.
Albania has lovely beaches along is Adriatic coast, in fact, the famous island of Corfu is very few kilometers away from it and can be seen on a clear day.
It is also a melting pot of cultures built over centuries, starting with the ancient civilization of Illyria and ending with the Greek, German and Italian occupation of the 20th century.
It has UNESCO Ottoman and Roman villages, deep blue water springs, mountains and lakes. It was also ruled by the most totalitarian and isolated regime Europe has seen, in power until close to the 21st century.
The country has seen it all and this means that it is also filled with the unexpected. It is intriguing and surprising at every turn.
I hope that this list of interesting Albanian facts will convince you it is a pretty unique place and maybe even make you want to visit.
- There are over 173,000 bunkers
- Albania was once the poorest country in Europe
- Albanians don’t call their country Albania
- Google maps is not to be trusted
- There were only 7,000 cars in 1991
- There is an enormous amount of Mercedes
- There are no McDonald’s in Albania
- Half as many Albanians live outside the country than within
- Poetic adventures by Lord Byron
- Albania was the first atheist state
- And today is one of the few European Muslim countries
- Frog legs are a local delicacy in the south
- Some of the least developed rivieras in Europe
- One of National Geographic’s 2018 destinations
- A hidden gem of affordability
- The country’s highest peak is shared with Macedonia
- The capital of street art
- Good roads, bad drivers
- Very cheesy!
- Albania produces only 1 million bottles of wine a year
There are over 173,000 bunkers
Perhaps the weirdest of Albania’s claim to fame are its bunkers.
Albania has between 173,000 and 750,000 bunkers, although I believe 173,000 is a better estimate and what the Bunk’Art Museum tells you.
These bunkers were built by the former dictator, Enver Hoxha as defensive structures in case of invasion by enemy governments which, at that time, were pretty much any other country.
They were designed to withstand atomic and chemical attacks and sometimes built underground. As you would expect, they were never used.
The bunkers come in various sizes and can host from one person to the entire Ministry of Interior.
They are spread all across the country and you will spot them everywhere if you pay a bit of attention. By the side of the road, up on a hill, near the sea. You can also find some in Tirana.
With the fall of the regime, the bunkers were abandoned, went into disuse and some of them, have been transformed into stores, shelters for animals, and even hotels.
Albania was once the poorest country in Europe
With the fall of Communism in 1991, the local regime also collapsed and Albania finally opened its doors to the rest of the world.
After its complete isolation for over 45 years, the country was backwards and had barely seen any development. As a result, it was the poorest in Europe with a low GDP per capita and a purchase parity standing at just over $2,000 per person.
Albania has since recovered dramatically and, while it still is one of the least developed countries in Europe, it has far outpaced any country that shared similar GDP at the time and today enjoys good infrastructure and perhaps a booming tourism industry.
Albanians don’t call their country Albania
Albanians do not call their country Albania, instead the name for the nation in the country’s mother tongue is Shqipëri which is often translated as The Land of Eagles. This is why you see eagles as a national, symbol even on the flag.
However, some scholars have argued that the original word for eagle is spelled differently and that we cannot ascertain for sure the word translates as such.
As for the word Albania, it was used historically by the locals and everyone else to refer to the country until at least Medieval times. Even as far back as 2nd century AD, Ptolemy referred to the peoples of the region as Abanoi.
It is unclear how the country’s name changed to Shqipëri but it is believed that this was the word used to refer to the language which eventually evolved to refer to the country too.
This double naming of a country also happens for Montenegro which is called by the locals (and the Garmin car navigator) Crna Gora but internationally known as Montenegro.
Google maps is not to be trusted
Driving in Albania is relatively easy. The roads are good, the infrastructure is new and new highways are popping up every year.
You do need a lot of courage and bravery though as the locals are not particularly good drivers and road signs seem more of a guideline than a rule to be followed so you do need to have your six senses tuned in.
What is certainly not easy is using Google Maps. Surprisingly, Google Maps is more often than not, wrong.
You follow its directions only to realise that the road, or the turn, or the street you are supposed to take next, no longer exists.
I found myself in that situation a lot, both in Tirana as well as in the lesser traveled parts of the country.
Albania is developing fast and this means that Google Maps cannot keep up. But this is the case in many other countries yet Albania does not seem to be updated often enough.
I submitted plenty of suggested edits and found lots of landmarks which were not on maps. But most importantly, I also wasted a lot of time trying to find my way back from incorrect Google Maps directions.
And as funny as this may sound, this also meant we found ourselves in the middle of very narrow and steep streets in the old towns of Gjirokaster realising half way that the car would not fit or that the street was only for pedestrians. Getting out of that situation was anything but fun.
There were only 7,000 cars in 1991
Much to the surprise of many, Albania only had between 3,000 and 7,000 cars for a population of three million prior to 1991.
Under communist rule, private car ownership was banned so only the highest ranking government officials and some businesses could own a car, the rest used horse drawn carriages and bicycles to get around.
When the regime fell, car ownership became the ultimate status symbol and a sign of capitalism. Today, everyone owns a car.
There is an enormous amount of Mercedes
Talking of cars.
There are a whole lot of Mercedes cars on the roads in Albania. This is obvious to anyone who visits. But I haven’t been able to find legitimate statistics around how many or data points to justify the reason.
There are a lot of anecdotes and stories that try to explain the phenomenon, many of which turn around carjacking and robbery.
A German friend of mine even told me that there is a saying in Germany that goes along the lines of “if you can’t find your Mercedes you should look for it in Albania”.
But how many is a lot of Mercedes?
I resorted to count them to find out.
We were on a road trip around Albania for a week and there were times when we had long drives, so we looked for ways to entertain ourselves.
After the “I spy with my little eye” became old, we started counting how many Mercedes cars we would come across on the other side of the road.
To account for wealthier vs. more humble regions and for any other biases, we counted to 100 twice each time seeing how many Mercedes vs. non-Mercedes we saw.
Around 35-40% of the cars in Albania were Mercedes.
And this is not a sudden phenomenon driven by the country’s economic development. Albania’s cars were 60% Mercedes in 1998, so the dominance of the brand has actually decreased a bit in recent time.
A lot of the Mercedes you see in Albania are old models like the E Class from the 90s even some from the 80s, which looked more like boats than cars, with their wide and often cream-colored chassis. But many of them are also new and expensive models.
The question begs. Why do Albanians like Mercedes so much?
A lot of digging did not reveal much about this, but a few theories mentioned that the car is a symbol of wealth and so preferred to other luxury car brands. However, this would not explain the amount of really old and battered Mercedes Benz you see.
Other more interesting explanations talk about the historically bad roads after the fall of the regime (remember there were about 7,000 cars only) which called for a reliable car.
For some reason, Mercedes became known as the indestructible car, perfectly suited for the terrible roads and favored by locals to “survive” the Albanian road.
But there are other more picturesque suggestions like the fact that Albanian migrants to Germany used to drive back to the country on a Mercedes they bought every time they were going home.
And, as my German friend indicated, because Albania does not check the plates of used cars driven into the country against the European database of stolen cars, if you ever lose your Mercedes, you should definitely look for it in the country.
There are no McDonald’s in Albania
After 45 years of complete isolation, Albania opened up to the rest of the world in 1991. Until then, McDonald’s was a completely unknown name and it continues to be so today, despite the company having outlets in 122 countries.
While there are some fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken or Domino’s Pizza, you will not find the burger giant in Albania. This makes the country one of the few countries in the world without one.
Other countries without a McDonald’s include other obvious places like the isolated hermit country of North Korea or neighbouring Montenegro where the local food is far better than the burger chain’s pervasive menu.
Half as many Albanians live outside the country than within
Like many other countries where hardship and oppression led to lack of opportunities, Albanians left the country in search of a better life after the fall of the regime in 1991.
They went primarily to neighbouring Greece and Italy, but also fled to the US. In 2018 there were 1.4 Million Albanians living abroad, about half as many as those living in the country.
A positive effect of this migration is the remittance value that migrant workers send back home, which represented 18% in Albania between 1991 and 2000 and has settled at around 10% in the last few years.
This influx of money has helped the country grow and brings development and investment to otherwise farming communities.
Poetic adventures by Lord Byron
Albania may be an unexplored Adriatic paradise to many but it was discovered by Byron and his best friend in the early 19th century when they spent 10 days on horseback exploring the country north of Greece then under Ottoman rule as part of their Grand Tour of the Mediterranean.
In his trip which reached as far north as Tepelene, he even met fierce and vile Ali Pasha who it seems, fell in love with Byron.
No matter where you go in southern Albania, Lord Byron’s poems and letters about Albania make you realise the country was as fascinating then as it is now.
He sure was impressed by it, and this excitement can be felt in the letters he sent to his mother, which served as the basis for his famous Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage poem.
Albania was the first atheist state
Dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania an atheist country in 1967 making it the first country to lay claim to atheism.
The ruler was obsessed with his own very strict line of communism which he took to the extreme and radicalised with time, even breaking ties with other Communist superpowers of the time like the USSR, China or Yugoslavia in the 60s because he thought they were not communist enough.
As part of his move to take the country to the next level of communism he also abolished all religions and destroyed several religious buildings.
Only very few of the former mosques from the Ottoman times and Orthodox churches in Tirana survived because they were considered monuments.
And today is one of the few European Muslim countries
Before Albania was the first atheist country in the world, it was one of only three countries in Europe with a Muslim majority, and it still remains as such today.
The list includes Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina plus the transcontinental countries of Azerbaijan, often classified in Europe, other times in Asian, and Turkey, which is renowned for having its most famous city of Istanbul straddling the continents of Asia and Europe.
Islam arrived in Europe through both the eastern part by the hands of the Ottoman and Persian Empires at the end of the Middle Ages, and earlier between the 8th and 11th centuries through the southern parts of Spain, Italy and Malta with the Moors.
The Ottoman Empire arrived in Albania in the 14th century and brought Islam with them, spreading it to the country as well as other Caucasian countries like Azerbaijan where they left an important imprint.
Frog legs are a local delicacy in the south
Albanian food is great and while there is not a huge amount of variation, it is tasty, it is fresh, it is relatively simple and healthy.
One of the dishes which surprised me the most was frog’s legs which are a delicacy in the southern part, in particular in Gjirokaster where they are commonly found on menus.
The frogs eaten in Albania are wild.
Some of the least developed rivieras in Europe
If time in the sun is what you are after Albania has some stunning beaches along its riviera which extends from Ksamil in the south to Vlore in the north and covers several towns of various sizes and lots of coastal territory.
Unlike the French Riviera, which is not only expensive but also very glamorous, the Albanian Riviera is no-frills and very much do-it-yourself.
Umbrellas and sun loungers occupy the gravel and sandy beaches and the summer months see an avalanche of sun worshippers. Come September, the beaches empty and calm returns.
The city of Sarande and Vlore, at both ends of the Albanian Riviera, are perhaps the most developed with a decent tourism infrastructure and cozy sleeping beaches outside the peak summer months.
Despite the coast here being popular with locals and some tourists from neighbouring Balkan countries, the rest of the world has not yet heard the term Albanian Riviera.
One of National Geographic’s 2018 destinations
Albania’s popularity may soon change.
In their annual list of the places to go, National Geographic chose Albania for 2018. Although their focus was on diving (banned during Enver Hoxha’s regime), the country as a whole is one of my discoveries of the year.
According to the statistics office of Albania, over 5 million visitors arrived in Albania in 2017, that is almost 50% growth from 2012. Needless to say, the word is getting out.
However, this is still a small amount when compared to other countries in Europe, especially when the numbers are looked at in detail and you realise that 60-70% of the arrivals are from neighbouring countries.
Tourism is exploding in Albania no doubt. Despite the country still being largely unknown outside of the Balkan region, development is palpable. But prices are still remarkably affordable and premium options inexistent. You will not even find any luxury hotel outside of Tirana.
There are a couple of higher end hotels in Tirana but that is all.
The former Sheraton, managed by MAK Hotel Group since the beginning of 2018 is a decent 4.5 business hotel.
The Plaza Tirana, opened in 2016, is a luxury hotel bang in the middle of the city located in an interesting beehive-looking tower with views over Skanderbeg Square and sleek interiors.
Padam Hotel is a great small boutique hotel with the only fine dining restaurant in the country and the place to see and be seen.
International chains are returning to the country. Hilton opened its first hotel in Albania in the capital in 2018, albeit under the affordable Hilton Garden Inn brand and not their higher end options.
But leave the confines of Tirana and save for perhaps an option or two for a 4* resort in the nearby coastal city of Durres, you will not find a single 5* hotel.
Shared mountains seems to be the way to go when drawing borders between two countries. This is the case for Mount Everest, shared between Nepal and Tibet, or Kanchenjunga shared between Nepal and India.
This is also the case for Mount Korab, on the border between Macedonia and Albania and the highest peak for both countries.
The mountain is 2,764m high but it does not come out of nowhere. Albania’s mountains cover 70% of the country and as you drive towards the south, you will do so across mountain passes and valleys.
The capital of street art
Tirana is full of street art installations and public art. While this is not uncommon of many cities today, it does contrast with the city’s grey concrete communist past.
Art is everywhere.
Sometimes it shows in the form of an internationally renowned art installation, others as a wall mural, even painted as part of festivals.
Larger art expressions painted entire buildings or even streets, aided by the efforts carried out by the Mayor of Tirana to revitalise the city at a low cost (you can hear more about it at his TEDx talk).
Splashes of colors also cover the electricity boxes with funky cartoon characters.
This disproportionate amount of color and painting in public spaces feels like it is trying to compensate for the years of artistic ban.
Since the 60s, Enver Hoxha banned all forms of art, even at university, students would not see any more art pieces or paintings from the second half of the 19th century onwards. That means they could read about it, hear about it, but not see it.
After the fall of the regime, it seems that the country has concentrated decades of artistic expression all at once.
Good roads, bad drivers
The roads in Albania are pretty good but the drivers are not.
Roundabouts seem to be for guidance and are rarely respected. Instead, as you go into a roundabout you will notice that traffic from the right will get in regardless of whether you are already there, forcing you to slow down.
This happens 100% of the time so it made me wonder what Albanians are told at driving school.
Driving in Albania does require a lot of patience and to be super concentrated to make sure you do not crash. People cut without signaling, traffic lights seem to be only a reference, which feels like the law of the jungle.
I can’t blame them. There were so few cars in 1991 that most driving is relatively new in Albania and it developed well after the fall of the regime.
Albanians love their cheese, in particular a type of cheese very similar to feta which will be referred to as such, although the word feta can only be used to refer to the cheese produced in a specific region as it is a controlled appellation protected by EU rules.
As opposed to other places in Europe like France or Spain where cheese is sometimes served as a dessert, in Albania cheese is mostly a starter eaten sliced with some olives and rarely as dessert.
It is also eaten cooked, baked, mixed with other ingredients like peppers or tomatoes, cheese is pretty much the star of any dish in Albania.
Albania produces only 1 million bottles of wine a year
Did you know that Albania produces wine?
Wine production is not mainstream and it comes in small amounts. For a country of over 3 million people, only about 1 million bottles are produced which is less than a bottle per Albanian in drinking age.
You may wonder if Albanians drink less wine and the answer is no, although the distilled wine brandy called rakia and beer are quite popular too. They simply make up for the rest with imports from Italy or Kosovo.