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|Introduction to Albania
This pint-sized, sunny slice of Adriatic coast has been ground down by years of poverty, blood vendettas and too many five year plans, but Albania still manages to pack a wild punch of traditional Mediterranean charm and Soviet-style inefficiency.
It's a giddy blend of religions, styles, cultures and landscapes, from Sunni Muslim to Albanian Orthodox, from idyllic beach and rocky mountain to cultivated field. Relics from one of the longest dictatorships in Eastern Europe rub shoulders with citrus orchards, olive groves and vineyards.
Decrepit, Chinese-built factories stand next to breathtaking mosques; ornately decorated Orthodox churches face off 'Soviet Brutal' palaces of culture.
Kicked around by the Balkan big boys for millennia and turned upside down by its very own Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Albania is now tentatively embracing democracy, the outside world and a few foreign travellers. Some things won't ever change, though: the spectacular forested mountains, the warm Mediterranean sun, and the heart-rendingly blue waters of the Adriatic all endure the country's ups and downs.
The security situation in Albania is improving, although visitors should continue to exercise care and maintain a high level of personal security awareness. The northeast of the country, which borders Kosovo, is the only region travellers should avoid. Unexploded ordnance is still scattered through some parts of this region.
Full country name: Republic of Albania
Area: 28,748 sq km
Population: 3.5 million
Capital City: Tirana
People: Albanians, with Greek, Vlach, Macedonian and Roma minorities
Language: Albanian, Italian, English, Greek
Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%)
Government: Emerging democracy
Head of State: President Alfred Moisiu
Head of Government: Prime Minister Fatos Nano
GDP: US$15.69 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,400
Major Industries: Cement, chemicals, food processing, hydropower, mining, oil, textiles and clothing, timber
Major Trading Partners: Italy, Greece, Germany, Belgium, USA, Bulgaria, Turkey, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Member of EU: No
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Visas: Visas are required for citizens of most countries and are issued on arrival.
Health risks: diarrhoea
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 355
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Public holidays include New Year's Day (1 January), Easter Monday (March/April), Independence and Liberation Day (28 November) and Christmas Day (25 December). Ramadan and Bajra, two important Muslim holidays, are also celebrated.
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|Best time to Visit
The best month to visit is September, when it's still warm, the days are long and the fruit and vegetables are in good supply. The sun shines longest from May to September, and July is the warmest month, but even April and October can be pleasant.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Albania Lekė
Prices in Tirana are considerably higher than in the rest of the country, so budget travellers should see the sights then head for the boondocks. If you are on a tight budget, you could get by in the country for US$30-40 a day, but you'll need closer to US$60-70 in Tirana. That will give you fairly basic accommodation and three square, if basic, meals a day. Paying for a few more comforts, staying in a better class of hotel and doing some guided trips would easily raise the budget to $80-90 a day. Even though Albania is cheap for the western traveller, you can spend a lot more that US$100 a day if you work at it and look only for the best hotels and eat in the top restaurants.
Every town has a free currency market that usually operates on the street in front of the post office or the state bank. Look for the fellows with pocket calculators, who will give you about the same rate as a bank without the 1% commission, although some banks will change US dollar travellers cheques into US dollars cash without a commission. Transactions on the street are legal, but you'd be wise to count your notes before you walk away. US dollars are the favourite foreign currency, and you should bring your bills in small denominations as they can be used to bargain. Cash is preferred everywhere, and credit cards are not always accepted.
Albania is a tip-conscious society, and you should leave a reasonable (say, 10%) tip in restaurants. Duty free alcohol can be an excellent gift for anyone who has been particularly helpful, but you should use your discretion when considering tipping in other situations. Tourists who hand out small gifts to children on the street are encouraging them to become a serious nuisance. Bargaining is fine in markets and bazaars, and for everything from hotel rooms to taxi rides to curios.
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Albania's capital since 1920, Tirana is compact and easy to explore. It lies almost exactly midway between Rome and Istanbul, and its architecture has been influenced by both, as well as by Russia. Most visitors to Tirana begin at Skėnderberg Square, a great open space in the heart of the city.
The National Museum of History is the largest and finest museum in Albania, and you'll find it next to the 15-storey Tirana International Hotel, the tallest building in the country. A huge mosaic mural entitled Albania covers the faēade of the building.
The ancient ruins of Butrint lie 18km (11mi) south of Saranda and are a real gem if you're into ancient world ruins. The poet Virgil claimed that the Trojans settled Butrint, but the site has been pored over by archaeologists and no evidence of this has yet been found.
Treasure hunters from Italy lifted many of the antiquities before the war, but most have since been returned and are on display at the National Museum of History in Tirana. Greeks settled Butrint during the 6th century BC, although the area had been settled long before by the Illyrians.
Within a century of the Greeks arriving, Butrint had become a fortified trading city with its own acropolis, the ruins of which you can still visit. Just below the acropolis in the forest is the 3rd century BC theatre, also used for performances when the Romans were there. Nearby are public baths with geometrical mosaics, and deeper into the forest is a wall with Greek inscriptions and a 6th-century baptistry decorated with colourful mosaics of animals and birds.
Overlooking the whole site is a triangular fortress, erected by warlord Ali Pasha Tepelena early in the 19th century. Butrint is accessibly by road from Saranda, which is linked to Tirana and Vlora by bus. The ruins are nearly on the country's southern border with Greece, 160km (99mi) south of Tirana.
Unlike Tirana, Durrės is an ancient city, founded in 627BC by the Greeks. It was for centuries the largest port on the Adriatic, and the start of the Via Egnatia to Constantinople. A good place to start exploring is the Archaeological Museum, which faces the waterfront promenade near the port.
Italian troops landed here in 1939 to meet brief but fierce resistance. Those killed defending it are now regarded as the first martyrs of the War of National Liberation. Albania's second largest city, Roman ruins and Byzantine fortifications embellish this major industrial city and commercial port.
Gjirokastra is a strikingly picturesque museum town perched on the side of a mountain above the Drino River. Above the Bazaar Mosque in the centre of town is the Mėmėdheu ABC Monument, commemorating the Renaissance of Albanian education around the turn of the 20th century.
The town was well established by the 13th century, but the arrival of the Turks in 1417 initiated a slow decline. By the 17th century, however, the town was thriving again, with a flourishing bazaar where embroidery, silk and the still famous white cheese were traded.
Shkodra (also Shkodėr and, in Italian, Scutari) is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the traditional centre of the Gheg cultural region. In 500BC an Illyrian fortress was already guarding the crossing west of the city where the Buna and Drin rivers meet. The road to Kosovo also begins here.
Shkodra's skyline is dominated by the new and impressive Sheik Zamil Abdullah Al-Zamil Mosque. Next to that you will find the Muzeo Popullor, which exhibits recent paintings and historic photos and has an impressive archaeological collection.
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