Let’s face it, Albania isn’t on most people’s list of must-see travel destinations.
Some people can’t even find it on a map.
And I certainly didn’t expect to find myself living in Saranda.
But when my friend Jay rented a sea-view apartment back in September and started sending me pictures, I decided it was time for a visit.
In case your geography’s a little foggy, Albania is sandwiched between Greece and Montenegro with a long coastline on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Ruled by the brutal dictator Enver Hoxha for four decades, the tiny country of 3 million emerged from its own brand of isolationist communism in the early 1990’s.
My first impression was bleak.
I’d flown from Naples to Thessaloniki and decided to take a bus five hours to the Albanian border, where I’d have to find a minibus or hitchhike the 45 kilometers into Saranda.
I’ve crossed a lot of borders, and I’m rarely on edge when entering a new country, but as I left Greece on foot and walked the half kilometer or so to the Albanian border checkpoint, I was genuinely nervous.
Perhaps it was the rainy day.
Or maybe it was the old communist buildings, thick blocks of gray concrete and long fences topped with razor wire.
Either way, as I approached the border and saw the Albanian flag flying overhead, something in my stomach told me to turn back.
But it was too late. I presented my passport to the officer.
And just like that I’d crossed another imaginary line on a map.
“Excuse me,” said an older gentleman in a black Mercedes sedan. “Where are you going?”
His accent was thick but I understood him well enough to say I was going to Saranda.
He motioned for me to get in.
I’m always wary of rides from strangers, particularly when I’m in a new country. But I was tired of standing in the rain, so I crawled into the backseat behind a woman who I would later learn was his wife.
A few minutes into the drive he asked me where I’m from.
“America,” I said.
“Ah, America!” His eyes lit up as he pounded his chest with a closed fist. “America and Albania are strong friends.”
“Friends,” I said.
It was better than enemies.
He negotiated the big black car over impossibly narrow mountain roads, the occasional cow or goat blocking the way, and at some point produced a plastic water bottle filled with clear fluid.
“Raki!” he said. “You drink!”
I took a sip.
It was like fire, homemade moonshine made from fermented fruits and boasting an alcohol content somewhere above 50%.
Then he took a sip.
This was going to get interesting.
By the time we descended the steep hills of Saranda my spirits were improving.
And my new friends insisted on taking me all the way to Jay’s apartment.
That was six months ago, and what started as a quick detour through the Balkans has become a long-term experience.
I’m even picking up a few words of Albanian, making friends with colorful characters, and buying fresh produce like a local.
But why am I still here?
You Can Live in Albania One Year Without a Residency Visa
I like traveling slowly, with plenty of time to explore a place before moving on. Usually, that’s limited by the length of a visa-free stay on my American passport.
But Albania allows Americans to live and work for one year without a residency visa.
If you decide to stay even longer, Albania sweetens the pot by granting immediate, 5 year residency visas to American citizens (all you need is a passport and a one-page visa application).
For everyone else, including you cool kids with the EU passports, the normal limit of 90 days applies.
So finally, we Americans have an advantage somewhere in Europe.
Renting an Apartment in Albania Is Cheap (Really Cheap)
Jay’s modern, Italian-style apartment is $300 a month and has a balcony overlooking the beach.
Keep in mind those are Airbnb prices, including Internet and all utilities.
If you rent locally, you should expect to pay between $100-$250 a month for an apartment in the city center.
I’ve moved into a guesthouse with a private room, bathroom, and a balcony with sweeping views of the Ionian Sea. Including daily breakfast, I pay just $150 a month.
Online prices are overinflated. The best way to find a place is to arrive and ask around. It seems like everyone in Saranda knows someone with an apartment for rent.
In peak season (July through August) prices quadruple, so if you’re planning to stay for a while it’s best to arrive in the off-season and secure a lease while places are sitting empty.
Albania Is a Great Place for Digital Nomads to Live and Work
If you’re coming in search of a traditional job, the pickings are slim outside the capitol city of Tirana.
Average salaries for Albanians are about $300 a month, and there’s not much work to go around (which is why Albanians continue to leave the country in search of better opportunities).
But if you’re a digital nomad, creative, or have some kind of location independent income, living in Saranda makes for a great place to hunker down and do some work.
I pass most days with a leisurely coffee in the morning, a stroll along the seafront in the afternoon sun, and plenty of time to write in the evenings.
There is one caveat, and that’s the Internet.
It’s certainly not awful, but if you’re teaching English online or doing something that requires a robust and reliable connection, look north to Bulgaria, Romania, or Ukraine for blazing fast Internet speeds.
Power, water, and Internet outages are a fact of life in newly-developing countries like Albania.
For my purposes it’s just fine, and most outages don’t last much longer than it takes to prepare a fresh cup of coffee.
Albanians Are Incredibly Friendly
Albanians are warm, and because tourism is still new, they’re eager to welcome foreigners. I’m constantly meeting locals on the beach, in the billiard halls, and even at the grocery store.
Last week, I learned the traditional Albanian folk dance at a birthday party. A week before that, I was preparing Italian pasta for friends in their apartment.
And of course there’s always raki, the ever-present moonshine that can never be refused (I’m also never asked to pay).
Living in Albania Will Surprise You
It’s a crossroads of east meets west, where European democratic values mix with remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Come with an open mind, and Albania will definitely surprise you.
Like all things, I’m sure my time living in Saranda will end.
Albania, however, makes the short list of places to return.