The country where reputation definitely doesn’t reflect reality
“When someone from the Albanian Mafia is choosing a new car, uppermost in his mind will be this: ‘Can I get a dead body in the boot?’”
Having set the scene, Jeremy Clarkson and his two Top Gear co-presenters struggled to lift a stout Albanian man they had just ‘murdered’ into the back of a Rolls-Royce Ghost.
Hiding bodies in luxury cars was just one of the culturally sensitive challenges tackled in the car show’s 2011 ‘Albanian Road Trip’.
The six and a half million who tuned in to BBC2 that evening also learned which Mercedes they should buy to outrun Albanian police. After robbing a local bank at gunpoint, naturally.
Western Europeans have never flocked to Albania’s Mediterranean beaches; only 400,000 visited the country in 2019. Underdeveloped tourist infrastructure and lack of direct flights are often assumed to be reasons for this.
But what about Albania’s reputation as a crime hub, so delicately alluded to by Top Gear nearly a decade ago?
“Why are you going there? Isn’t it dangerous?” was the reaction I got from more than a couple of friends, familiar with the press around Albanian gangs in the UK.
What do people really think about Albania?
Most of the widely quoted studies and ranking lists of countries by reputation don’t even mention poor old Albania. So I tried googling some choice terms to see what opinion I could unearth.
The first page of results for ‘Albania reputation’ is not pretty. Just as depressing is Google’s predictive autocomplete following ‘Is Albania…’. Options include “safe?”, “dangerous?”, “communist?” and “a country?”.
But my favourite finding came courtesy of the country’s Ministry of Tourism and the Environment. You might remember the 2008 film “Taken”, where Albanian human traffickers kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter. Officials have boldly decided to use this film as the inspiration for their latest campaign slogan: “Be taken by Albania”.
So the criminal stereotype appears to be alive and kicking. But should crime really be a concern? What is Albania actually like to visit?
Albanians are playing the game on hard mode
Albania is still a bit rough around the edges. Tirana, the capital, is not the prettiest or most developed place in the world, by any stretch. Saranda, a coastal resort popular with Balkan tourists, is not among the most picturesque beach towns in Europe.
But Albania is doing okay for a country that was under the yoke of tyrannical leader Enver Hoxha for much of the twentieth century.
Hoxha presided over a 43-year communist regime so brutal that even Khrushchev and Mao thought he should ease up a little. When he died in 1985, Albania was officially the third poorest country in the world.
To add insult to injury, Albania became engulfed in a civil war in 1997, after several government-run pyramid schemes collapsed. Over 2000 people were killed and international mediators had to be called in.
So we can forgive Albania for not providing the deluxe travel experience. Over 40 years of Stalinism isn’t going to give you the Côte d’Azur.
Having said that, if you venture slightly beyond Saranda, you’ll find that the rugged coastline of the Albanian Riviera is dotted with some pleasant villages and very nice sandy beaches.
There’s also no lack of things to see as you move inland. In the south, you will find old Ottoman towns like Berat and Gjirokaster – both UNESCO protected – and ancient Greek and Roman ruins at Butrint. The north is most famous for the Albanian Alps, which offer some of the best hiking in the Balkans.
You could easily spend a couple of weeks enjoying the highlights. Albanian prices would make your trip dirt cheap to boot. But for me, Albania’s biggest selling point is without question its hospitality.
The Albanian oath of honour
It’s sad that some people think of Albania as a dodgy destination, full of crime and thuggery. Because Albanians are incredibly friendly towards outsiders, whom they treat with the utmost respect.
Cars will stop and ask you where you want to go. Locals are eager to chat with you about their country. You might even be invited to an Albanian’s home for tea.
This happened to me in Berat, when a waiter recognised me from the bus we’d both taken from Tirana and wanted to introduce me to his family.
In Saranda, my hostel owner cooked up seafood linguine for anyone who happened to be around at lunchtime, without asking if we had eaten. And he practically chaperoned each departing guest to the ferry port.
In Tirana, the hostel receptionist offered to sleep on an old sofa so that there would be a bed free for a tired traveller who arrived late at night. The next morning he was up bright and early to cook everyone free breakfast.
There are a fair few stories like this.
I’d not really experienced this sort of treatment before in Europe, and assumed it had something to do with the repressive conditions in which Albanians lived throughout much of the 20th century. Perhaps banding together and lending favours was an ingrained survival tactic.
But excellent hospitality apparently has its roots in ‘Besa’ (‘faith’), an Albanian honour code, dictating that friends in need should be helped. It’s according to Besa that Albania was the only country that flat out refused to turn over Jewish refugees to occupying forces during World War 2.
Albanian hospitality also gets a shout out in some unexpected places.
The UK government’s travel advice website is usually just scary lists of risks that make some of the safest countries appear hostile. Even if – for example – you’re going somewhere with no history of terrorism, you will be told that “attacks cannot be ruled out”. Best not let my guard down then.
So it’s pleasantly surprising that gov.uk mentions Albanian hospitality directly in its advice for visitors. If ever you needed more proof that I’m not making this all up, that’s it right there. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
A far cry from a Greek holiday, but for how long?
I must admit I felt a little sad when I left Albania. I think it deserves more western visitors, if for no other reason than its proximity to Corfu, which is a 30-minute ferry away.
It’s difficult to believe that you can go from free lifts and one-dollar dinners to 25-euro taxis and a well-oiled tourist machine in as little as half an hour. But I’m not sure how long that will last.
I wouldn’t bet against Albania becoming a major tourist draw for western Europeans in a few years’ time, just like its Ionian neighbour. It has strong ambitions to join the EU and its economy is steadily growing. I just hope that if more tourists come, its distinctive hospitality isn’t lost.
Valbona Valley National Park. Not a mafioso in sight.