Honestly the only reason I decided to visit Albania was because I saw how quick, easy, and cheap it was to reach it by ferry from the Greek island of Corfu. And I didn’t really know a lot about the place I would be visiting, because let’s face it guys- not a lot of people go there. For a while, all I could find online about the city of Sarandë, where I would be entering the country, was a scathing blog post written by a cruise ship passenger advising everyone to steer clear of the entire nation- because after their day in and around Sarandë they’d concluded it’s ‘full of scary people, rubbish, broken roads and goats.’ Lucky for me, I have learnt to use common sense when reading blog posts on the internet- and I could tell that whoever this moany old cruise passenger was, they definitely weren’t my kind of person.
Also, I really like goats.
So. If there were really copious amounts of roadside goats in Albania, that was not going to be a problem for me.
But one thing that I was concerned about, more so than whether or not I would like the place, was whether it’s actually safe to travel in Albania? And more specifically, is it safe for a woman to travel alone in Albania?
Several people ‘knew someone who knew someone’ who’d had a negative experience, and warned me off of visiting at all. (Although after a friend of my dad’s strongly advised against travelling to Albania, my dad got in touch with me again a few days later. ‘Ignore everything I said, it turns out my friend is massively xenophobic.’)
But then I stumbled across Anita Hendrieka’s blog. Not only is she an authority on travel in Albania- her words and pictures alone are enough to sell the idea of visiting- this New Zealand expat now lives in the city of Sarandë. I decided, if it was safe enough for a young foreign lass to live there, it was 100% safe enough for a young foreign lass to visit.
My personal experience of travelling in Albania
I LOVED every second of my time in Albania. Not only were the places I visited BEAUTIFUL, but in I’d go so far as to say that out of the many countries I’ve visited in the Western World, Albania is one of the places I felt the safest. In fact- I was genuinely surprised by just how much I enjoyed it, and would love to return one day and explore more of the country.
Anyone I had any contact with whilst there was warm, friendly, and most of the time attempted to have a conversation with me even if we clearly could not speak each others’ languages. I felt perfectly comfortable using public transport, or asking for help or directions if I needed to. In comparison to other countries like France, Italy and the UK, where I have often been catcalled or even followed, I didn’t experience anything like this in Albania. The owner of one of the hotels I stayed in gave me a lift down a hillside to save me from walking in the heat, a lady in a shop gave me an endless list of places to visit whilst I was in the city, and when I asked a waitress in a restaurant which Albanian dishes I should try, she brought me half portions of everything she could think of to recommend. All for the price of abut €5. What a gem! Not only are Albanians a generally friendly and helpful bunch of people, they are hugely proud of their culture and heritage and are keen to show this to visitors to the country.
This is also one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Europe, weirdly due largely to the fact that whilst Albania was still under communist rule, all religions were banned. Religious leaders were persecuted and temples of any kind were torn down. And now that Albania is out of those dark days, Muslims, Christians and other religions co-exist very peacefully, with religious discrimination being practically unheard of in the country. I never felt any pressure to dress in a more ‘conservative’ or covered-up way despite the fact that in other countries where Islam is the main religion, dress codes can be very strict. Albanians of whatever religion, tend to wear whatever they feel like, unless if you’re visiting a mosque or church where just like anywhere else in the world, you should cover up. It’s all pretty relaxed around these parts, pals.
So why on earth does Albania have a reputation for high levels of crime?
Honestly it’s probably due in part to Taken, the 2008 film in which Liam Neeson’s daughter gets kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers. Although I didn’t know anyone who had visited Albania themselves, I knew plenty of people who had watched the movie ‘Taken’ and concluded that Albania is full to the brim with human traffickers and mafia-style organised crime. As a blonde haired and very pale English lass, they informed me that I would naturally be a prime target for the Albanian mafia.
Sat in a cafe by the beach one day, I looked down at the packet containing a wet wipe which the waiter had given me with my coffee, and saw that the slogan on the front of it said- ‘Be Taken by Albania!’
‘Oh my.’ I thought. ‘They obviously don’t realise!’
Well. They obviously DO. The clever old souls.
Albania’s most recent advertising campaign, in an attempt to attract more tourists to the country, has very cleverly played on its reputation and the part that the movie ‘Taken’ has had to play in it, and attempted to turn it around. Good on you, Albania!
Amazing images of the incredible mountains, beaches and lakes, bustling cities and crumbling castles of this beautiful Balkan country are shown in the advert- all whilst informing Liam Neeson himself that they ‘have a bone to pick with him’ for making the world believe that Albania is always ‘on the lookout for daughters to kidnap.’ Controversial maybe, but personally I’m a fan of the campaign.
Corruption in Albania is high, and don’t get me wrong- organised crime does exist here. The ‘Albanian Mafia’ is a real thing. But in the exact same way that organised crime tends not to affect tourists in any other part of the world, it’s also almost certain that organised crime would not affect you at all as a tourist in Albania.
Violent crimes extremely rarely involve tourists, and even pickpocketing is rare here.
What safety precautions should you take when travelling in Albania?
The short answer is: the exact same precautions that you would take when travelling anywhere else.
I’m deadly serious when I say I never felt unsafe as a woman traveling in Albania, however that doesn’t mean I didn’t use common sense when I was getting around. I never took a shortcut down an unlit alleyway, I didn’t walk around in the street flashing wads of cash around, and I also didn’t get blind drunk and leave myself in a vulnerable state.
Related: The Art of Getting Lost
Yeah but, are there goats though?
Don’t worry pals, it turns out that that cruise passenger was right to a certain extent. Don’t get me wrong, the roads were sometimes broken, and sometimes littered. This is one of the poorer European countries, and you can tell.
Did I see any scary people? Nope. I’ve seen a fair few scary folk in my own hometown in England, but during my time in Albania I was lucky enough not to spot even one.
Most importantly, THERE REALLY WERE GOATS! Sauntering up mountains with bells around their necks, for all to hear.
If it’s not worth visiting for that alone, then I don’t know what is.