Article first written for Business Magazine Albania, in September 2018.
Since July 23, 2018, Art Hostel & Apartments has welcomed travelers from all over the world: Netherlands, Poland, Germany, France, USA, Australia, China, South Korea, etc. What makes staying in a hostel a special and social experience, is how easily you can meet fellow travelers and make new friends. Unlike hotels where hospitality and service are very formal, in hostels you can easily make yourself at home.
During the first few months after opening, I’ve met a lot of travelers in solo journeys, or traveling with friends, their partner or family. For most of them, Albania is only one stop along their itinerary across the world. They have amazing stories to tell, that I might share with you another time… But all these travelers have something in common: They all love Albania!
After they’ve dropped off their backpacks and have settled in their rooms or dorms, they come and hang out in the common space that we like to call ‘The Chill Area’, where they can relax, drink something at the bar, or prepare a nice meal in our common kitchen. After chatting with them and listening to their awesome travel stories, I was curious to know why they chose to visit Albania. Some of them said they had heard about our beautiful nature, or their friends had told them how everyone is so friendly here and how amazing Albania is, so they had to see for themselves. Others said they were curious to visit a place not very well known yet. A French couple told me that their friends had thought they were crazy when they found out about their plans to visit Albania: “Why are you going there?! Haven’t you heard about the terrible things they say about Albanians? Why don’t you spend your money somewhere better in Europe?”
Naturally, after having heard their expectations, I’m curious to know their true impressions and what surprised them the most in our country. I don’t really need to ask them, because every evening after they return in the hostel, they have a lot of questions for me, eager to learn the answers. After a lot of interesting discussions, I decided to share with you some of the things that mostly impressed the travelers visiting Albania for the first time. Their questions made me see our country under a new light and I hope I can make you feel the same.
Since their first day in Albania, travelers realize that street names and numbers are practically useless and that using them to ask people for directions, is a dead end. They learned that the only way to get around Tirana, is to use bars, restaurants, and landmarks as points of reference, and that Google Maps is your best friend. A young Dutch girl then asked me how do we deal with mail. I told her that I usually have orders delivered in a business address that can be easily found, to avoid mix-ups. It’s also a good idea to befriend the local mailman so he can put extra care into your deliveries. She was really surprised and told me she couldn’t imagine something like this in her country: “In Netherlands, online shopping is the norm. Groceries, clothes and even appliances like a new fridge or washing machine, are ordered online and the next morning they’re on my front door.” I told her I couldn’t imagine something like this in my country either.
All travelers were really impressed on how friendly and helpful everyone is, towards them. An English guy told me how the driver of a van*, after dropping everyone off in the last stop of his usual route, had told him to stay on and had gone off route to drive him up to the entrance of Dajti Express, normally a 5-minute walk from the station. This gesture had really impressed him and asked me if Albanians are this friendly towards each other as well. The question really amused me and even though I could write a whole essay on the topic, I simply told him that it was very unlikely the driver would do this for an Albanian, with no extra charge.
*vans, or furgons, are minibuses covering certain routes, used as alternatives to public transportation in Albania.
An American man, traveling solo, told me one evening how astonishing it was for him to see families spending time together. Parents going on walks and playing with their kids in the local park, big families having lunch all together in restaurants… He confessed that in the US, these were rare sights: “There, it’s the norm to ‘park’ your kids at home with a nanny and go out without them. It’s frowned-upon to take your kids to a restaurant and you have to make sure the place is ‘kid-friendly’ first.” I told him the opposite happens in Albania: “Going out by yourself and leaving the kids at home with a nanny, is perceived as being a bad parent, unfit to raise their children.” Of course, this kind of judgement is fading with time and the stigma is not the same, but it’s partly the reason behind our very close relationships with our families and relatives.
A German couple, returning from their dinner in a nearby restaurant, told me they had felt a bit underdressed in their simple “tourist outfits”. They noticed that people everywhere are dressed real nicely and girls are always wearing make-up. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a working day or weekend, everyone is dressed up nicely,” they said. I told her that we just like to look nice and that they shouldn’t worry or feel judged, and can enjoy Tirana in full ‘tourist mode’ (even though I’m not entirely convinced I told them the truth…)
Two especially attentive Dutch girls, asked me this after their walk around Tirana. I told them that the head-to-toe, black outfits are a way of mourning the loss of a loved one, and that it’s a tradition that ladies keep until the end of their lives. Spontaneously, they asked: “How come men don’t respect the same tradition? We haven’t seen any man dressed in black, head-to-toe.” I replied honestly that I didn’t know the answer to this question and this realization really made a mark on me…
Everyone is especially impressed after their visit in “Bunk’art” museums in Tirana. It’s hard for them to grasp that Albania was under a communist regime up until 27 years ago and that our parents are a live testimony to it. They confessed that they were expecting to find greater repercussions of this era in our culture and they were impressed of how much we’ve evolved. A part of them told me they were certain we would continue to evolve quickly and they were happy to have visited Albania at this time, so when they return a few years from now, they will see a completely new and more developed country.
An Italian couple, after their dinner at one of our favorite restaurants that we always recommend, Artigiano, told me: “In Italy, food of this quality and taste, you can only find in high-end restaurants, where dining costs at least three times more than what we paid here!” Moreover, the young, budget travelers told me that their haven during long tiresome days of walking around Tirana, had been the little kiosks that make fresh byrek, our country’s beloved traditional cheese pastry dish.
Before I was asked this question, I had never really noticed this. The many policemen in our roads and intersections have become a common sight in Tirana. We’re used to seeing them everywhere. I then realized that during my travels abroad, policemen in the streets were a rare sight. I told them that with our traffic levels, it’s become the norm. An Australian girl, asked me: “Are there these many cops because of the high traffic levels, or is there so much traffic because of the numerous cops around?” I decided to simply answer that question with a smile…
Two Polish teens asked me this while they were having breakfast. They were shocked at the dolls and plush animals hanging in terraces or balconies. I tried to explain to them, as simply as I could, the concept of ‘the evil eye’: How some people purposely do this to “add something ugly” to their homes, in order to avert the evil eyes that may bring them misfortune due to envy. They found this concept really creepy and said they had never seen anything like this in their travels.
All the travelers came to one common conclusion: They loved Albania! After visiting beautiful cities such as Tirana, Berat, Gjirokastër, Saranda, etc., they said they were really astonished at the amazing sights our nature has to offer, and the kind, welcoming people everywhere. They confessed they hadn’t really known what to expect at first, but now they were definitely going to recommend Albania to all their friends, because it deserves to be among the most beautiful places in Europe.