It may be over a quarter of a century since Albania opened its borders, but mention you’re off for a weekend in the capital Tirana, and eyebrows will flex.
Under communism, Albania was an isolated state. It was the preserve of hardy travellers, with Americans, journalists and “men with long hair or a full beard” all barred from entering. Now its beaches are considered some of the best in Europe, and its alpine “Accursed Mountains” one of the continent’s most pristine landscapes.
As for Tirana, a compact centre belies a metropolis of 750,000 people, and around one in four of all Albanians lives there. There is a growing café culture, a clutch of international-standard hotels and a cuisine that shatters preconceptions. Tourism still feels like a work in progress, which, along with the fact it is fantastic value, all adds to the charm. March 14 is Spring Day in Albania and a party atmosphere takes over Tirana, with concerts in parks, street performers and open markets.
If you have a good head for heights, climb the 90 steps of the clock tower on the edge of the central Skanderbeg Square (4) for superb views over the city. An easier option is a drink on the first-floor terrace of the nearby International Hotel (5).