Albania lies in the south west of the Balkan Peninsula, bordered by Greece, the former Yugoslav Republics of Macedonia and Montenegro as well as the province of Kosovo. It is separated from Italy by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, which divide at the Bay of Vlora, about 170Km up the Albanian coast: at the Straits of Otranto, the two countries are just 72km apart.

The region occupied by Albania has been inhabited for over 8 millennia, but its first identifiable people are the Illyrians whose culture had many distinctive features even if their origins and their boundaries with their neighbouring Hellenes (Greeks) or Epirotes are uncertain. They built large fortified cities and were sea farers which brought them into conflict with Rome, fast emerging as the dominant on the nearby Italian Peninsula.

From the 2nd century BC, Roman control brought some peace and prosperity to Albania, with the building of the Via Egnatia from the coast to Thessalonica. The Emperor Augustus studied in Apollonia and many Romans bought estates along the Albanian coast.

With the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Albania, with interruptions from Visigoth and Ostrogoth invasions, came under the influence of Byzantium. The Bulgarians, Normans and Venetians, among others, all invaded at some point but Albania finally fell to the Ottomans. There was fierce resistance from the fleetingly united Albanian clans under the legendary Skanderbeg , such that the Ottoman conquest was delayed until 1479, some 26 years after the fall of Constantinople.

Christianity and other religions were tolerated under Muslim rule, on payment of additional taxes. However, many Albanians converted to Islam, convenience or financial gain. This has left a considerable Muslim legacy in the region. Ironically it was the Ottoman civil servants, many of whom had risen to the highest ranks, who provided the intellectual framework for the Albanian nationalist movement, which began to emerge in the late 19th century at the Ottoman Empire itself began to decline. The Albanian language was an important tool for the nationalists, although the obstacle of each religious faith using a different alphabet had to be overcome by the adoption of the Roman form used today.

However, nationalist aspirations, with Albania’s independence recognised with the “Great Powers” in 1913, did not spare the county from the ravages of World War I as the country descended into anarchy in the face of many other nations with designs on its territory. Out of this chaos emerged the enigmatic character of Ahmet Zogu, a clan chief from northern Albania who became president and, under fascist Italian influence, crowned himself king Zog I, King of the Albanians, in 1928.

In the inter-war years, Albania was entirely dominated by Italy and the country was finally annexed in 1939. The king fled and Albania again collapsed into anarchy. Occupied by Italian, Greek and finally German armies, the Albanians resisted with the aid of the British Special Operations Executive. However there were rival factions of nationalist and partisans, so that, with the end of World War II, an impoverished and devastated fell under the control of the communist Enver Hoxha. Brigades of peasants were organised to repair roads and rebuild houses, while industry, banking and transport were nationalised. The property of those who has fled the country was confiscated and the state took control of all surplus agricultural land.

At this stage the relationship between Albania and Yugoslavia was good, however the British and Americans were suspicious of the new regime and eventually diplomatic relations were broken off in 1947. When Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform, Albania sided with the Soviet Union, but, later, when Sino-Soviet relations cooled, Albania took China’s side. The country became more and more isolated. It withdrew from the Warsaw pact in 1968 and it banned all religion, becoming the world’s first atheist state.

After Mao’s death in 1976 China lost interest in Albania, and with no great ally, it started to improve relations with its neighbours. Yet, there was no significant liberalisation until the fall of the Berlin wall, when many Albanians tried to flee the country. In February 1991 a march of striking students developed into early democracy. There were bouts of unrest but, gradually, Albania has pieced itself together and the country has now started to welcome foreign visitors.

With its deep isolation and turbulent history, it is not surprising that Albania is so little known. during the Communist period, only carefully escorted organised tours were allowed a limited view of Albania and the country remained off the tourists radar during the 1990s. Today, however, travellers are starting to discover Albania’s beauty, its hidden medieval churches and impressive castles, its magnificent archaeological sites, with remains dating back more than 2 millennia, not to mention its Mediterranean climate, cuisine and friendly welcoming people.

Albania’s rich cultural and architectural heritage offers a wealth of attractions for visitors from the magnificent UNESCO listed archaeological site of Butrint, the unique  buildings of the “museum cities” of Berati and Gjirokastra or the imposing castles of Shkodra and Kruga. The country offers coast and country side for the nature lover while the capital, Tirana boasts a vibrant cafe culture and several interesting museums.


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