Albania has been an independent country for 104 years. During that time, it’s become an increasingly popular tourist destination. It attracts beachcombers, foodies interested in unique traditional cuisine, and history buffs looking for a rich cultural heritage. If you’re planning to visit, and I highly recommend it, here are 15 interesting facts about this historically isolated country.
1. In the evenings, the locals like to walk. But it’s not just a walk. Known as xhiro, it’s an official evening walk where every resident comes out to stretch their legs and catch up with their neighbours. In many towns, the roads close to cars for certain hours! Apartment blocks empty and everyone gathers at various places, walking and talking until nightfall.
2. When an Albanian is agreeing with you, he or she will shake their head, and when they are disagreeing with you they will nod. Be warned and avoid confusion. Yes means no and no means yes.
3. The majority of Albanians are Muslim. About 70% at last count. A 2011 census shows that about 60% of Muslims are practicing Sunni and Bektashi Shia, making it the largest religion in the country. About 17% are Christian, which makes it the second largest religion, and another 17% are either undeclared or atheist.
4. You’re likely to notice a large number of scarecrows in odd places. Albanians believe that a scarecrow placed on a home or other building while it’s under construction will ward off envy from the neighbours. Sometimes you’ll see a teddy bear serving the same purpose. The odd part is that the scarecrow or the teddy bear will be impaled on a rod or hung by a rope like a noose. Some also say that these talismans bring good luck.
5. When the communist era ended in 1991, there were roughly three million people in the country but only 3000 cars. Communism isolated the country and for a long time, only Party officers were permitted to use cars. In the years since, many more cars have come into the country, and the national preference appears to be Mercedes. Blame it on the late start in getting behind the wheel, or just cultural proclivity, but be warned: Albanians have a reputation for being some of the worst drivers on the planet. Not only are the roads in less than ideal condition, and not only are the cars barely drivable (think no headlights), but the drivers themselves seem to be following individualized rules of the road. Look both ways before crossing the road!
6. The heroine of Albania is Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu. Better known to the rest of the world as Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje, which is now a part of Macedonia, and is one of the most beloved religious figures of the 20th century. She is the only Albanian to win a Nobel prize.
7. In 1995 a law was passed requiring citizens to pay taxes on traffic-lights in their home towns. The residents of Shkodra were taxed, just like all cities, but staged a protest. Their reason? Shkodra has no traffic lights. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe and the fifth largest in Albania. With a wonderful Old Town worth visiting, history buffs will love the restoration that’s happening. Also, the Rozafa Fortress offers incredible views over the lake.
8. The Albanian government has seen a lot of change. The government declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Then, in 1939, the country was successfully invaded by Italy. Shortly after that, in 1944, Communist loyalist took control. For the next several decades, Albania aligned itself first with Russia (until 1960) and then China (until 1978). Finally, in 1991, the people were able to end 46 years of strife when they once again declared independence and established a multi-party democracy. Not surprisingly, the new government has faced some pretty incredible challenges like high unemployment, corruption, and a crippled infrastructure. They’ve come a long way thanks to the indomitable Albanian spirit.
9. The highest point in Albania is Maje e Korabit, or Golem Korab. At over 2,700 metres, this peak sits directly on the border with Macedonia – making the highest point for both countries. Golem Korab attracts many tourists, particularly outdoor adventurers. From June to September, hikers and climbers make their way to this great peak for the challenge and the natural surrounding beauty.
10. Tirana, the capital of Albania has a lot of things in common with other European capitals – except one. It’s one of the only capitals without a McDonalds (another is Vatican City). Tirana is the heart of the country with a vibrant and youthful atmosphere. Post-Communist transformation is most apparent here. It’s practically unrecognizable from its old self. Primary colours decorate the buildings, more public squares and pedestrian streets, as well as new business and shopping. Check out Blloku where there are great bars, as well as the grand boulevard with interesting relics from the Ottoman Empire. If you’re in Tirana and find yourself craving an American style hamburger, check out Kolonat, an Albania fast food chain that has a logo suspiciously similar to McDonald’s.
11. Currently, there are more Albanians living outside the country than living inside it. As you travel around the Balkans, you’ll see tons of qeleshes – the brimless felt hats that are a part of traditional Albanian dress. The estimates range from seven to ten million Albanians living throughout Europe, primarily in Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Greece. Only three million Albanians actually live within its borders.
12. Albania has over 750,000 bunkers spread out across the land. They are hard to miss and can be a nice car game (Be the first to spot the bunker!). They were all built during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha in order to protect the country from an invasion. An invasion which never actually happened. Most are a bit of an eyesore and many Albanians dislike them because they are a reminder of 50+ years of isolation. But a few have been repurposed into cultural museums, artistic canvases, and business ventures.
13. Tirana, the capital is surprisingly sheik. For a country that’s had some stark years, the truly Albanian spirit can be seen in modern Tirana. You might expect it to be dominated by grey concrete (like other Post-Communist European cities), but there’s a ton of green space, and, of course, lots of colour. The inspiration behind the reinvention of the city is Edi Rama. A painter and a politician, Rama was mayor of the city for 11 years (2000-2011). Though some have criticized him for not paying more attention to infrastructure issues, most agree that the effects of having a lively city go a long way towards motivating people and inspiring even more change.
14. Raki is the national drink, but be warned! Raki made out in the villages is equal to about three normal drinks. If you’ve travelled in the Balkans, you’ve probably come across rakija or rakia. But the Albanian versus is quite unique. It’s an old school moonshine made from grapes that is incredibly strong. You’ll find it in most bars but be sure to pay attention to its source. If it comes out of a repurposed plastic bottle or plain glass jug, you’re liking getting a home-brew likely to put hair on your chest (as the saying goes!).
15. The traditional dress of Albania uses wool, cotton, and silk, with embroidered patterns and symbols like the silver and gold Albanian eagle. Other symbols are pagan in origin and include moons, stars, suns, and snakes. Each region has its own traditions and would be happy to explain the subtle differences. If you’re looking for a good gift to take home, try buying a pair of Opinga – the traditional shoe worn by both men and women.