Until relatively recently well below the radar of most international tourists, Albania is now making a strong showing on the world travel stage. This small country in the western Balkans is turning heads for a number of reasons: the unspoiled Albanian Alps in the north, the white gravel beaches and picturesque villages along the southern coast and a rich cultural heritage that has gained UNESCO recognition at three different sites. Albania was even recently rated number one in Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 countries for 2011”!
True, Albania might not come to mind as a destination for amazing ruins and cultural heritage, especially in the shadow of an archaeological giant like Greece, its neighbour to the south. Yet ancient civilisations have left their fascinating marks throughout the Balkan peninsula, including Albania. In fact, all of Albania’s three UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites exhibit grand-scale traits to rival any of their Balkan neighbours. And the tale of the Cyclops from Homer’s epic Odyssey is understood to have been set in Albania.
Berat, City of a Thousand Windows
The historic centre of Berat, also known as “the city of a thousand windows,” made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008. Walking next to the river and wandering through Berat’s narrow alleys, takes you back in time and reveals the rich history of a settlement dating from 2600-1800 BCE, making it one of the oldest towns in Albania. The interesting architecture shows Islamic influences from the Ottoman period, but also of Christian Orthodox traditions. On top of the hill is a beautiful medieval citadel with a lively village, beautiful churches and a mosque inside the fortress walls.
Are there really a thousand windows, as stipulated by the city’s epithet? An official count hasn’t surfaced yet, but looking out onto the layers of whitewashed buildings that make up the face of Berat, you do indeed get the impression of thousands of eyes (the rows and rows of windows) gazing back.
Gjirokastra, City of Two Thousand Steps
Located in the beautiful Drinos River valley in Southern Albania you’ll find Gjirokastra, a city with a tumultuous past. It has served as a feudal stronghold, Ottoman jewel, Italian colony and territory occupied by the Greek army during the first Balkan war.
Gjirokastra is hometown to two of the most notorious Albanians: Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and writer Ismail Kadare. The city retains an impressive fortress, a bazaar, an 18th-century mosque and several churches. It was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005.
Gjirokastra’s unique architecture, developed in the 17th century by the Ottomans when building on steep hills, features distinctive stone roofs, wooden balconies, whitewashed stone walls and many stepped passageways. This is why Gjirokastra carries the nickname “city of two thousand steps.” Again, an official count has yet to be made, but wandering up and down the steep alleyways of Gjirokastra, you will have little doubt that the city has certainly earned its nickname.
Butrint, Preserved for Visitors in the Thousands
Situated on a small peninsula surrounded by a picturesque lagoon in southern Albania, Butrint is arguably the most interesting archaeological site of the Adriatic Sea region. Inhabited since prehistoric times, this site has been home to Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians who built their monuments in glades in the forest. Butrint is both an archaeological site and also a beautiful natural habitat with diverse plant and bird life.
Butrint was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1992. Five years later, during the period of civil unrest in Albania in 1997, Butrint was removed to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. As a result, huge investments were made to protect the archaeological site and to extend the protected area to include the surrounding landscapes. That led to declaring the 29 square kilometres around it a national park in 2000 and the park has since been extended to 86 square kilometres. The site was removed from the ‘in danger’ list and its status now helps curb encroaching construction. Butrint attracted around 20,000 visitors in 1996 and the number grows each year, confirming its importance to Albanian heritage and tourism. Its doubly-protected status as UNESCO site and a national park helps ensure that tourism pressure is regulated and tourism dollars keep the site preserved.