When telling my friends that I was going to Albania, there were primarily two reasons that they knew the country. Firstly, when I was 18, before heading off to University, we embarked on a summer holiday to Corfu; from there we could see this other land across the sea which we found out was Albania, a strange place we knew little about but liked to call it ‘Albaniaaaaaaa’ after a few drinks.
The second reason people seem to know about the country is ‘Taken’, where Liam Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped by some Albanian men. Although after catching some of this film on TV just a couple of nights ago, I realised that it’s actually all set in France so you don’t see any of the country.
Apart from that, who really knows much about the place? I didn’t. Maybe that’s my ignorance of geography and history (which I will admit, both are awful). Never the less, this is where we decided to start our budget, backpacking, travelling adventure.
As you fly into the airport you are surrounded by mountains, something I have never really seen when landing in a country before. It was stunning, and my initial thought was that this country already seems underrated. When I think of mountains in Europe my head automatically goes to Austria (blame The Sound of Music), but it was fantastic.
Truth be told, apart from the capital of Tirana and a place called Berat which was meant to be beautiful, there was no other plan, not for Albania or the trip as a whole. The only thing we need to be back in England for is Mitch’s brother’s wedding in July, so we have five months, or until the money runs out – with the plan to work as we go to save money, being low season however the work is slim at the moment.
I have never used the website airbnb before but it was our first port of call for Tirana as we found somewhere with great location and great value, with a host called Lizzie who sounded lovely. And she was. Not only was the location and flat perfect but Lizzie herself was fun, interesting and gave us a brilliant route to head round Albania.
One of the first things we realised in Albania is that it is cheap. Food, drink, travel – all of it. We stayed in Albania two weeks and both spent under £200 each, including accommodation.
Albania’s Capital: Tirana
Our first few days in Tirana were brilliant, going to the museums and touristic places, including Mount Dajti, with stunning views down into the city and the mountains beyond. We had some lovely food and got to know the local beer (Korça), very well. Up until I went to Vietnam I never liked beer, but it got to the point out there where it was cheaper than having a coke, so I began to drink it and enjoy it.
After a few days, we headed down to Berat – famous for its houses from the Ottoman period and a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) site. It was stunning. You walk into the old part of town and are greeted by a river and snow-capped mountains. Walking around the ruins of the old castle is phenomenal, and you get some spectacular views of the city and the rolling mountains.
The only downside to Berat was the cold, not outside though (which we expected) but in our accommodation. The guesthouse was 400 years old with no heating, and it was about 2 degrees outside. Brrrrr is an understatement. For two nights we huddled together and wore three layers to bed, needless to say after that we rigorously searched accommodation for both value and heating in the low season after those nights.
Next, we headed down to Vlora – along the coast with a primarily pebble beach. Partly due to it being low season but I think also due to the nature of the town, it was a bit eerie and empty, until you walk up the main boulevard and are greeted with shops and many restaurants. If you are hungry, however, the only restaurants you will find are for pizza; pizza is EVERYWHERE. No local foods or vegetarian places… just pizza.
So we had pizza for lunch as there was no other option. Luckily we were staying at a lovely hotel called Villa Nika and it was also a restaurant so he cooked us a delicious non-pizza dinner. The stroll along the sea was nice enough and there were a few odd touristic things to do in the town, but overall Vlora wasn’t too exciting and we headed on the next day to Sarandra.
The coach journey was spectacular. Going through the snow-capped mountains, up and down the windy roads (which did make me feel a bit queasy), you come out on the other side back along the coast. In the summertime, Sarandra is the place to be, a lovely beach town with another local UNESCO site called Butrint. It just so happened that the day we visited Butrint there was glorious sunshine – something like 14 degrees, unheard of in January! We explored the wonderful old town, one of the highlights being an old amphitheatre (being two ex-drama students we really loved that). We returned to Sarandra to food, beer and watching the sunset over the beach.
The next day there was torrential rain. We had planned to go round the town and up to the old castle, but it would not stop pouring down with rain. However, we were staying in the great SR backpacker hostel – I say great because it’s run by Tomi, and for Tomi, nothing is too much trouble. He can help with everything (and cooks a lovely breakfast). In the morning, we told him our plans for heading up the castle. We stayed in until about 10.30am as it was still raining and he came back to see if we’d like to join him for the day as we couldn’t go out in the rain. His plan for the day was this: he had a friend who is an Elvis impersonator and he was performing at a local school as they were doing a project in American History. Tomi was going along to help him out with carrying equipment etc. On a rainy day what else were we to do? So we ended up in the school hall/café type place, where the teenagers did some kind of performance/speech about American History (which we didn’t understand any of as it was in Albanian), we got given free pork, wine and cake and watched this for the afternoon. When our Elvis impersonator came on at the end we danced.
So. That was an interesting day in Sarandra.
Our final stop in Albania was Gjirokasta. It was raining when we arrived and it’s safe to say that it rained the whole two days we were there. Not just rain though, also an epic thunderstorm which caused the whole town to have an almost 24 hour powercut. It felt quite biblical/revelation like on our first night as we attempted to venture outside and get food, instead we were greeted with flooded streets which felt like walking through a stream and clothes which we could ring out in the shower. That night we got some food from the supermarket and ate it in our room.
Gjirokastra is yet another UNESCO site (Albania is a UNESCO hotspot) – it’s an old town on a hill with a castle on top. Despite the end-of-the-world type weather, we did manage to look around the castle without getting too wet. made.
We were fortunate to have two meals while the electricity was still on, and it must be said that they were probably two of our best meals on the trip. The first was in a restaurant where the owner spoke no English but luckily someone else in the restaurant did and so ordered for us what he had – Excellent choice as we were brought vegetables with some kind of sweet mustard on, then some homemade meatball type things( known as Qofta), homemade chips and some rice with cheese. The owner made us a free desert too, during low season they appreciate your custom a lot more.
Our second great meal consisted of roasted feta cheese (Albanian’s LOVE Feta cheese, I think we had it almost everyday with a meal) and some rice/egg/cheese fried combination. It was delicious…even if the door was shaking from the thunder as we ate in the restaurant.
We headed back to Tirana and waved goodbye to the rain in Gjirokastra. We would stay in Tirana for one more night with Lizzie and then catch a night bus to Macedonia the next day. On our final day we climbed the pyramid, a structure built, funnily enough, like a pyramid. It was made but never used and so now it seems to be the hangout place for teenagers with lots of the graffiti on it, however, you can also climb to the top and get a pretty cool view of the city. If climbing buildings isn’t your thing, you can also go to the SkyBar – a high bar overlooking the whole city. Literally, the whole city as you sit at a table and if you stay for an hour you rotate 360 degrees very slowly and see the view. It’s pretty epic (except after a few beers when it gets a bit trippy).
That was Albania in a nutshell. It has an incredible history of fighting for independence and against communist rule, so many of the locals can still tell you their stories as it’s so recent. The locals themselves are friendly, welcoming and have a sense of honesty. I got ripped off in South East Asia by taxi drivers or people trying to sell you a pineapple for £5, there is none of that in Albania. Perhaps it’s because the tourist industry hasn’t quite kicked off yet, or perhaps these people are just honest, either way, whatever you are looking for: a city weekend break, some wonderful mountain views, sunny beach town – I would recommend the country to anybody.