Today Albania marks 104 years of independence from the Ottoman Empire. We’ve decided to celebrate by recalling 15 things you probably didn’t know about the small country that boasts both an Ionian and Adriatic coastline (you can have that fact for free).
1. What’s Albania?
First and foremost, Albanians do not call home Albania, instead the name for the nation in its mother tongue is Shqipëri.
2. More Albanians live outside the country than within
The Albanian diaspora is vast, stretching from its neighbours such as Greece and Turkey to further afield nations such as the US and Canada – so much so that it is believed that the number of Albanians living outside Albania is greater than the country’s population of nearly 3 million. Hundreds of thousands emigrated following the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and ensuing economic crisis.
3. You can’t set your clock by Albanian buses
Albanian buses (called furgons) have no timetable, they depart when they are good and ready – or full.
4. It has just one Nobel Prize winner
Mother Teresa, though born in the then-Ottoman Empire and now-capital of Macedonia, Skopje, was Albanian. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work helping the poor in Calcutta, India.
Mother Teresa was Albanian-Indian
5. Smile and nod has different connotations in Albania
Albanians nod when they mean “no” and shake their head when they mean “yes”. Be careful answering questions with your head.
6. It is one of Europe’s most at-risk countrties
According to a 2015 World Risk Report compiled by the UN, Albania is one of the countries in Europe most at-risk from natural disasters. Alone in such a category – with the exception of neighbouring Serbia and Netherlands –Albania is deemed to be at risk from flooding. In 2010, the country was hit by major floods, forcing as many as 7,000 families to be evacuated.
7. It was a communist island
In the sense that no man is an island, Albania was an island. A communist state alone in a sea of communism. Behind the Iron Curtain, Albania was neither part of the Soviet Union – or one of its satellite states – nor Tito-led Yugoslavia, so was in a sense a stand-alone communist state in the second half of the 21st century. The People’s Republic of Albania became in 1976 the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. The country even fell out with most of the world’s communist powers. Leader (and dictator) Enver Hoxha broke ties with the USSR, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and ceased relations with the People’s Republic of China. He was also continually hostile to neighbouring Yugoslavia.
8. It is turning a military bunker island into a tourist attraction
Keen to entice more tourists to the country, Albania has set about transforming Sazan Island, a Cold War-era military island, complete with a bunker designed to withstand a nuclear attack, into a must-see attraction. The base is still technically operational, with two sailors remaining on the two-square-mile isle to offer shelter to navies patrolling Albanian waters. Plans are afoot to make the island more hospitable for visitors – however, a proposed Las Vegas-style casino has already been rejected.
9. It has yet more bunker-related facts
So we’ve had bunker mentality and bunker islands, but this is the real bunker cherry on the bunker cake. Albania is littered with bunkers. There are on average 5.7 for every square kilometre and more than 750,000 across the country. Built under the leadership of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who was fearful of attack by his enemies (just about everyone), the majority of the bunkers were never used and were mostly abandoned after the fall of communism, though a number are today being put to good use as homes, cafes or museums.
9. It knows a traffic light when it sees one
In 1995, drivers in Shkodër in northern Albania refused to pay a 2,000-lek (£13) tax traffic light tax because their city has no traffic lights. “It is absurd,” one driver told Reuters at the time.
10. It had a teflon king
Zog I is not the name of earth’s 2120 extra-terrestrial conqueror but instead the name of Albania’s king from 1928 to 1939. The dictatorial ruler was the subject of some 55 assassination attempts, including one in which Zog laid claim to the record of being the only modern leader to ever return fire at his would-be assassin.
11. Lord Byron was a fan
The eccentric romantic visited Albania in 1809 as part of his grand tour of the Mediterranean. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that Albanians have the most “magnificent” dresses in the world and told of his horse-riding in the country. “Land of Albania. Let me bend mine eyes on thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men,” he wrote in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” of the countrymen. You can follow in his footsteps, with Albania on horseback tours.
12. It has loads of flowers
Though small, Albania boasts more than 3,250 species of plants, which accounts for 30 per cent of all flora in Europe. The best places to see the country’s colourful stock is its national parks, of which there are 15: Llogara is best for vibrant flora and fauna, while Butrint, a Unesco World Heritage site, offers archaeological sites that date back to the Romans.
13. …but no medals
Albania has never won a medal at the Olympics. Its most popular events are weightlifting, shooting and wrestling.
14. It was once home to the “cannabis capital of Europe”
Lazarat, a small village in southern Albania, was once considered “the cannabis capital of Europe” and home to a hefty amount of mafia activity, producing some 900 tonnes of marijuana a year. In 2014, 800 police were deployed to the area to crackdown on the flagrant flouting of rules of not growing truck-loads of weed every day – authorities gained control of the village after a five-day shoot-out with heavily armed residents. The US State Department, however, says Albania remains a major source country for the drug.
15. …And one of Europe’s prettiest towns
The Albanian town of Berat, once a frontier town of the Byzantine Empire, boasts a Unesco-prescribed Old Town, and was rated as one of the most beautiful places in Europe, according to, bizarrely, a poll by the Japanese tourist board.