Well how can I even start a post about Albania? Go there! It’s a great place with lots of under visited sights, plenty of solo travellers and lovely locals. Actually ignore that, don’t go there, I want to keep it all to myself.This post is going to be very detailed and I will provide some advice about travel to Albania too, so friends and family, bear with me.
My summary of the last 100 or so years of Albanian history: in 1912 independence was proclaimed, subsequently Albania was occupied in WWI by nearly everyone and in the 20s it became a monarchy after the interior minister over threw the government. Mussolini invaded in 1939 and two years later the Albanian Communist Party was formed. They fought the Italians and then the Germans before alining with the USSR. In 1960 they decided the USSR wasn’t communist enough and re-orientated itself with China. When Mao Zedong died Albania went all North Korea and isolated itself after deciding China too was too liberal. The borders were closed and movement was restricted. With the changes in Europe in the early 90s, Albania was encouraged to end communist rule. People were allowed to drive (this explains some of the bad driving and road conditions) and the country became more open. With religion again allowed, Islam reappeared as the main religion, but in a more relaxed way, however I was still woken most mornings at sunrise by the call to prayer.
I took a ferry across to Saranda in the south of the country from Corfu. My first impression of the country was that it’s a relatively poor place, but with lovely people and plenty of flash cars. (Aside: here’s a joke about the Albanian’s and their cars: A German, an Italian and an Albanian meet at the pearly gates. When asked how they ended up there, the German responds, “I bought a Porsche and while driving too fast I had an accident”, the Italian agrees and says “I bought a Ferrari and crashed it at high speed too”. When the Albanian is asked why he’s there, he responds “I bought a Mercedes and couldn’t afford to eat”).There is also a large expat population living in Detroit, USA and working in the automotive industry.
After a day in Saranda with the nicest hostel owner ever, I headed up to Berat. The journey was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had on this trip, or maybe ever. I paid my €8 for a 6 hour journey and got on board a small bus/mini van. The roads were very windy and the bus was overloaded at some points by up to 8 people. Additionally it was hot, the van didn’t have AC, so the ticket man spent most of the trip hanging out the open door. Three people threw up but we made it there safe and sound.
Buses in Albania run sporadically and often leave from various different places around the city. Getting from one city to another isn’t too hard however, as long as you do it before 3pm when everything tends to wind down and people go for a siesta.
Berat’s claim to fame is a hill of ottoman era houses (1000 windows) and a castle. The first day was spent drinking Rakija (a clear spirit made from grapes, usually bootlegged with the person serving it to you having made it, so alcohol content can be around 50/60% or higher). It’s seen as rude to decline a shot (or two or three…) In the evening I went out for dinner with people from the hostel and some American peace corp members who are living in Albania.
Early morning climb up to the castle to beat the heat was very rewarding (paid for it the next day with sore legs). People still live within the castle walls making the most of the excellent views over the region.
Next I was off to Tirana and the heat had really set in! Up to 37 degrees carrying my giant pack. Some of us from the hostel hitched rides to the bus station which was a little out of town. Hitch hiking is quite easy and safe in Albania since the locals like to connect with outsiders (as I explained, they were shut off to the outside world for so long). They won’t pick other Albanians up, just foreigners.
I arrived in Tirana which has no main bus station and immediately had to navigate the public transport without a map all in nearing 40 degree heat. That night I went out with some others from the hostel with some Albanians to watch the Denmark vs Albania football game. We watched it in a big square outside the prime ministers office with all the locals, there were celebrations afterwards despite it being a 0-0 draw. I’m pretty sure I featured on Albania TV. The Albanians took us to a couple of bars where some more Rakija was drunk and it became very obvious that it was going to be hard to blow the budget here (€35 for a couple of rounds of drinks for 6 people and some more Rakija).
Day two in Tirana started with a walking tour of the city and learning all about the communist past from our guide Gazi. He was asked about the Albanian mafia which he thought was becoming less of a problem. Although, it’s thought that most of the drugs in Europe come from or are trafficked by Albanians. After lunch, making friends with a Portuguese guy on the street and a nap it was time to eat far too much food and try various different “flavours” of Rakija, although all I could taste was alcohol. I taught friends from the hostel some drinking games and then we headed out to the Skybar and got chatting to a group of ladies on a hens night. Things are still very traditional in Albania when it comes to meeting people (even friends), and they couldn’t understand that we had met the day before and called each other friends.
I was sad to leave Tirana, but I was heading north to Shkodra and a day trip on a lake. I had heard lots of great things about this boat trip on a lake that was created in 1978 by damming a river. The lake Koman ferry is mainly used by locals to get to their houses along the banks/hills next to the lake. For most of them the ferry is the only way in and out. They scramble up rocky cliffs in some places with necessities they have bought from town (or as one man did, a case of beer). The scenery was also stunning. While on the boat a local family and I shared snacks despite not being able to communicate verbally. It’s was a nice moment.
After heading back to Shkodra, I started my journey north through Montenegro and Croatia to Budapest. I’ll write about my last week of travel next time.