Albania is a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America.
— Edward Gibbon
Let’s face it, Albania isn’t on most people’s list of must-see destinations.
Some people can’t even find it on a map.
And I certainly didn’t intend to spend so much time living in Saranda.
But when my friend Jay rented a sea-view apartment here and started sending me pictures, I decided it was a place I had to check out.
In case your geography’s a little foggy, Albania is sandwiched between Greece and Montenegro on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Ruled by the brutal dictator Enver Hoxha for four decades, the tiny country of 3 million only 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 heavy 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 where I don’t speak the language. 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 he 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.
When I offered them some of the euros in my pocket for their trouble, they only smiled and refused.
One last sip of raki and we parted ways.
That was almost three month ago, and what started as a quick detour through the Balkans has become a long-term experience.
I’m even picking up a little Albanian here and there, making some friends, and buying fresh produce like a local.
But why, of all places, have I decided to set my bags down (temporarily, of course) for such a long time?
You Can Live in Albania One Year Without a Visa
I’m a slow traveler. That means I take my time and stay in one place for a while before moving on.
Usually that’s limited by the length of a visa-free stay on my American passport.
Albania offers the unique advantage for Americans of 1 year visa-free.
For everyone else, including you cool kids with the EU passports, the normal limit of 90 days applies.
But Albania has a special relationship with America. Heck, love her or hate her there’s even a statue of Hillary Clinton in Saranda.
So finally, we Americans have an advantage somewhere in Europe.
If I decide to stay even longer, Albania sweetens the pot by granting immediate, 5 year residency visas to American citizens.
Everybody else has to apply for a 1 year residency visa and renew each year (Anita from New Zealand wrote a post on her blog about getting an Albanian visa).
Albania is so friendly to Americans when restaurant owners find out where I’m from they reappear with bottles of raki and drinks are on the house.
Three more reasons why I’m living in Saranda:
- Rent is cheap. I’m staying in a guesthouse with a private room, bathroom/shower, and sweeping views of the city. Including breakfast, I pay $150 a month. If you’re willing to make a commitment, a standard apartment is about $100-$250 a month, with plenty of options at the lower end of the range. Online prices are expensive. The best way to find a place is to arrive and ask around. Everyone knows someone with an apartment for rent.
- It’s a great place to work. After a busy summer I was looking for a place to unwind and do a lot of writing. Living in Saranda is perfect. It’s tranquil, affordable, and everything I need is within walking distance.
- It’s a genuinely interesting place. There’s a real history here. Stare out over the blue waters of the Ionian Sea and you’ll feel it.
Like all things, I’m sure my time living in Saranda will come to an end. I’m already feeling the urge to move on.
Albania, however, makes the short list of places to return.