If you aren’t familiar with the beautiful Balkan sites that Albania has to offer, you have access to an innovative guidebook: your wallet. The bills and coins of Albanian currency, the Lek, portray several of the country’s most notable and symbolic sites. By studying the backs of Albanian currency, you can take a week to visit national sites hand-picked over the years by the locals.
Rozafa Castle, Shkodër
A connecting flight from Tirana, the country’s capital, to the northern airport of Shkodër will put you a short bus ride away from the Rozafa Castle, pictured on the 1 Lek banknote. The 2,000-year-old castle is located high on a hill just outside the historic town of Shkodër. According to legend, the builders believed that a human sacrifice was necessary to keep the walls from collapsing. Rozafa, the wife of one of the original constructors of the castle, agreed to b
e entombed within the castle walls on the condition that half her body remain exposed so that she could care for her i-nfant child. Her story of dedication serves as a symbol of love and sacrifice to modern Albanians.
The castle has been inhabited by Illyrians (ancient Albanians), Romans, Ottomans, and Venetians throughout its long existence. When at the castle, be sure to view what these inhabitants saw as you gaze over the picturesque countryside and explore the winding tunnels and caves in the area.
A 90-minute bus ride from Shkodër will take you to Krujë Castle, which has been featured on two different bills in the country’s history. This edifice houses the Skanderbeg Museum, named for Lord George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who defended Albania from the Ottoman Empire’s military attacks for over 25 years and through three extended sieges. Since then, Skanderbeg and Krujë Castle have symbolized national strength and tenacity.
After touring Krujë Castle’s museum, investigate the bazaar on the castle grounds and visit the war surplus stores, rug merchants, and trinket sellers.
The road from Krujë to Berat is a two-and-a-half-hour trip with two possible routes. The first route takes you within minutes of the country’s two largest cities: Tirana and Elbasan. The second route takes you westward, along Albania’s coast, where you can stop and bask in the Caribbean-like feel of the white-sand Ksamil beach before you arrive in Berat.
The Berat Castle began as a collection of wooden buildings in the fourth century BC and has been renovated three times since then after wars, raids, and pollution. It is one of the cleaner, more modern ancient structures in Albania. In fact, it still houses tenants. Visitors can drop by churches and shops within the structure or chat with modern residents who spend every day within the castle’s historic walls. Guides are available at the entrance gate but aren’t necessary to explore this beautiful, modern setting.
Roman Amphitheater, Butrint
The last leg of this journey is a three-hour bus ride from Berat to the southern coastal tip of Albania. The ancient Roman remains in Butrint are perhaps the most famous ruins in Albania; they were named as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 1992. The most stunning feature is an ancient Roman amphitheater, but this age-old site also boasts a Byzantine basilica, a Roman temple with mosaic floors, and a carved, lion-headed gate. Treat yourself to soaking in the sun’s rays at the nearby dark-sand Mali i Robit beach or at the shale and pebble Saranda beach.
With the rest of the Lek found in your “guidebook,” buy a delicious Greek salad or a few Albanian pastries before your flight from Saranda back home after a charming week in Albania.