Albania for fascinating history and vibrant culture
Albania's capital, Tirana, is the country's modern heart and has embraced consumerism without relinquishing the trappings of the past. Its squares teem with life and its streets are lined with brightly coloured buildings. The impressive boulevards retain many Soviet-era murals that vie for attention with Italian architecture and Ottoman minarets. And to see where Tirana's bright young things hang out, head to Ish-Blloku, an upmarket area that is awash with chic boutiques and bustling bars.
The old town of Gjirokastër is a wonderful example of Ottoman-period architecture. The Kala - the local castle - was built in the 13th century and imposes itself on the town from its lofty hilltop position. From the exalted heights of this fortress you'll have splendid views of the surrounding mountains and the Drino Valley. The Kala represents a fascinating melange of eras. The Armaments Museum contains German and Italian weapons from WWII. And then there is the incongruous sight of an American spy plane that was shot down in 1957, the height of the Cold War
The oldest of Albania's cities, Berat too boasts a castle that sits atop a hill. And clustered around the base of the hill are the Ottoman houses of the Mangalemi quarter whose many windows have given rise to the nickname, The City of a Thousand Windows. And while the Mangalemi quarter is the traditional Turkish part of the city, across the Lumi i Osumit river lies the Gorica neighbourhood, its Christian counterpart. Wander over the gorgeous seven-arched stone Bridge of Gorica for delightful views across the city.
A fascinating archaeological site lies within the hilly boundaries of Butrint National Park. Start at Lake Butrint and work your way up to the peak where you'll discover ruins that depict a rich tapestry of life from fourth century BC to the recent past. Relics of Roman, Greek, early Christian, Venetian and Ottoman civilisations can be discerned including baths, a theatre also dating back to the fourth century BC and a sixth-century basilica.
Eating, drinking and nightlife in Albania
For a modest outlay, why not try the friendly La Vita e Bella restaurant? This friendly eatery in Tirana has a tasty menu of seafood, fish and meat, and caters for vegetarian diners too.
Also in Tirana, Dtown has an American menu that includes burgers and grits, and also serves duck, chicken or fish steaks. The staff are attentive, the atmosphere is relaxed, the music is jazzy and it's an affordable eatery too.
For Albanian and Greek food, Vila Cofiel is the place to go. It's popular among the locals but the word is gradually getting out about this cosy and characterful place. And once you secure your table, there's every chance you'll be entertained by talented local musicians who'll soon have you tapping your feet.