A work in progress seems like the best way to describe Albania and her people.
Albania is proud, generous, developing in confidence and character: a traditional woollen costume worn stoically, with cheeky frilly underwear and decorated Doc Marten boots underneath. Albania is bureks and homemade raiki, Albania is men on the streets sharing stories, coffees and smiles. Albania is working out that women are equally as important as men. Albania is a stolen flag but a fiercely patriotic sense of identity and community. Albania is poorly graded roads, almost peaceful super highways and perfectly paved Ottoman streets. Albania is a young independent country finding out what she wants in life and bravely striding toward it.
Time of Year: November, 2012
Duration of Tour: Five weeks
Temperature and Weather: 10-20 degrees celsius during the day, down to zero overnight. Rain 20-25% of days.
Roads, Routes, Drivers
Most bicycle tourers seem to be heading to/from Turkey on their way through Albania. This takes most people on the north-south route we took. You’ll find most tourists and tourist attractions along this route.
We found the drivers to be generally excellent. Most gave ample space for us on the road. Don’t worry about the honking of the horns – Albanians are not angry at you, they are just letting you know they are passing.
The road conditions are mixed. In the northern part of Albania the road surface was excellent. South of Durres and the rural roads can be bad, but are generally of an ok standard. Any of the main roads between tourist attractions are generally great. We found the traffic to be pretty light everywhere except Tirana. Traffic is hectic at times, but it’s generally slow moving enough to not be problematic. We found that you should be forceful around the streets, cars will often give way to bikes and especially bicycle tourers, even if that isn’t the rules.
Camping: There are few camping grounds in Albania, most people that we met that were camping found wild camping to be a non-issue. Note: it is still illegal, so be smart with how you do it. We do warn that land mines have been used here and could potentially be hidden off the beaten track. Be careful.
Hotels: We negotiate the price of almost every hotel we stayed in. The cheapest hotels we stayed in were 15€ (2000 lek) and we pay no more than 20€ (2800 lek) for the two of us. In order to get these prices we sometimes had to stay a couple of kilometres from the centre of town, only a few minutes on a bike. Hotels in the centre of some bigger cities were often 30-40€ per night and non-negotiable.
Hostels and Guest Houses: We paid roughly 10-12€ each to stay in this type of accommodation. We found them excellent for meeting people, but actually more expensive to stay than a fully equipped hotel. Guest houses may offer breakfast and other home cooked meals like we experienced in Berat, so keep an eye out. These are guaranteed to be amazing!
Italian foods are popular given the proximity to Italy. You’ll also find a mix of Greek and Turkish influence here. Traditional Albanian food is various meaty goodness, but is not all that common compared to ‘fast food’, Italian or Greek.
Fast food is pizza, crepes, burek, kebab, sufflage and similar. It is fresh, cheap and delicious. The supermarket is not necessarily the cheapest place to buy food. It is more expensive than surrounding countries on many, but not all products. The fruit and vegetables are organic by nature (not a lot of farmers can afford pesticides). The mandarins, oranges and tomatoes are just divine.
Prices: Expect to pay 300-700 lek (2-5€) for a pizza. Doner Kebabs are 140 lek (1€). Burek is 30-70 lek (25-50c). Pasta 200-500 lek (2-4€). Crepes are 150-250 lek (1-2€). Bread is 60-120 lek (50c-1€).
Drinks: Beer is commonly 150 lek (1€) per 330ml bottle and wine slightly more (depending on quality of course). Coffee is 70-150 lek (50c-1€) depending on whether you want an espresso, Turkish coffee or coffee with milk.
Rozafa Fortress watches her people protectively from her windy home atop a windy hill. Shkodra is a bit rough around the edges but one never feels unsafe with Rozafa and her people taking care of us: the natives and foreigners alike. Rozafa has inspired pride and patriotism in the polite Albanians here, so visit and get lost in the confusing crossroads of contemporary communist buildings, be charmed and confounded by the farm animals on the roads and in the paddock next to your hotel.
Hike up the cobblestones to Rozafa Fortress and get a sense of what real Albania is really like – smell the city (farm fresh), see the city (communism meets ottoman), taste the city (fast food that isn’t fried but fresh or flakey), hear the city (Islamic prayer song – the most beautiful Albania-wide) and feel the city (like a fine layer of silt that glints in the light when it lands on your skin), it is in this mixed mash of countryside meets cityside setting that you’ll get a good feel for what to expect in the rest of Albaina.
On a bike this 600m vertical ascent seemed never-ending but for most visitors, the drive up is a chance to revere in the stark beauty of the Albanian countryside. The city begins haphazardly, houses and gated buildings here and there and then suddenly you’re right on the Main Street of Krujë. The Castle sits majestically to the South of the city, red flags flapping in the wind. Throughout the city streets you’ll be accompanied by what looks like all of the men of the town, perusing each other and the day’s events, you’ll be navigating tight hairpins and roads thick with Mercedes. Mild temperatures and mild manners are a part of this lofty city as much as the merchandise and merchants with their wears bared on the Ottoman street market places. Drive right to the summit (and the hidden mosque up there) and take in Albania as far as the eye can see. Visit the centuries old Bazaar Mosque and Arabic bathhouse. Walk the steep streets and get lost in the stories of Skandabeg, Krujë is a perfect backdrop for learning Albania’s long history.
The busiest city of Albania, the capital, the most ‘normal’ place in the country. If you ignore the multicoloured buildings, the monkeys in petshops, the rotating goat heads in fast food shops, the massive communistic buildings, architecture and monuments, the confusing mixture of perfectly paved roads and collection if gaping holes pretending to be a street, the people spilling onto every street from every angle at every time of day and night who are ready to offer you the shirt off their backs and still smile at you, well, you could be in Western Europe. But, seeing as it is impossible to ignore these typically Albanian elements of Tirana, it is definitely a city of its own making. You’ll still feel like you’re in a city not a town, but it’s like no city you’ll ever visit again. Don’t miss it
This is where sea side resorts have gone a little rogue. Every man and his dog has tried to build a hotel on the shorefront so initially the city seems over-settled, touristic and drafty. But don’t let these first impressions disturb your explorations of this little city. The centre holds an incredible amphitheatre (which, in a typically Albanian fashion, has a house in it, yes people live in ruins which date back before Jesus was a lad) and the city walls are worth wandering along. The best Italian style restaurant is down near the seaside called ‘Badriklo’ They really know their food and wine and unbelievably don’t charge more than an average dinner out. The beach is utterly, nauseatingly disgusting along the main beach front walk, but continue a few hundred metres in either direction and you won’t believe the ocean that greets you is part of the same body of water.
Such a pretty city, those Ottomans sure had aesthetics firmly in their command no matter where they settled. The first ‘half’ of the city is the newer part where a lot of Beratians live and drive, but continue round the corner and the rest of the city – including the old centre ‘The Museum City’ – will pop out at you. There is accommodation everywhere but it’s not hugely obvious so you do have to ask. There are lots of men on the streets, which by now you’ll have learned is the norm in Albania, and there are hundreds of interesting streets packed with real life, concrete and cobblestones to investigate. There is an entire caste and occupied Ottoman quarter on top of the hill and leading up to it, even if it takes a while to walk up the ridiculously steep marble road, take the journey and marvel at the beauty you’ll find (It’ll cost 100 Leke per person to enter). Dine on the best crepes in Albania and possibly the world at Shptemi One (near the University opposite the soccer ground) they’ll knock your socks off, but don’t stress, the staff have already reattached them to your feet on account of being so welcoming.
Coastal Road Vlore – Sarandë
Before we’d even left Australian shores we had decided we were going to ride this road – it begins in a similar fashion to that which you’d find along the Croatian coast: it flows with the coastline contours with ocean vistas to entertain you if the drivers and pedestrians along the way don’t entirely suffice. Then the Llogora Pass. It is famed for its beauty and breathtaking – yes, it took our breath away for some time on account of huffing and puffing so much – the North side ambles its way up; sometimes steeply sometimes shallowly, through little towns, farms and forests. If you’re driving, get out of the car along the way! The top has the cleanest water in Albania and perhaps the Mediterranean and is the perfect place to stop for lunch or even to spend the night. The South side is switchbacks through the clouds and you’ll feel like the boys from Top Gear no matter what vehicle you’re managing. You’ll descend to Pala?e and then Dhermi, hill top and sea side versions of the same mountain side, both worth their while. From here the road is confused: no longer does it make Geographical sense, but it wanders about along the coast and slightly inland making you work to get from town to town. Stop at one or two of these, (try the lovely Lukove for its people and coffee). Sarandë is your eventual destination, built into the side of another mountain stretching itself languidly down to the docklands. Lots of touristic attractions and places to attract the locals, Sarandë is a tame tapestry of steep roads and simple reality.
Butrint National Park
The first sign to the National Park is set a little early perhaps because unless I’m much mistaken, graziers shouldn’t be gnawing their way through protected plants. Once you pay the 500Leke (per person for a group of foreigners) you’ll see why this place of strange-but-good feelings is somewhere you can’t miss. Most of it was only uncovered un 2005 and it is flabbergasting. Just walking around in the lush national parklands, getting amongst the uncovered ruins: you’ll gasp occasionally with the realisation of just how old this place is (the Greeks began it in 6th Century BC, that’s right 600 years Before Christ) But also how real it all seems, it’s so easy to picture the place being alive. It’s a strange feeling when you look at the 2300+ year old Amphitheatre, town hoses and Acropolis: it’s a marvellous feeling, negotiating what seems impossible. While you’re here seeing and believing, stay in (k)sweet Ksamil – everyone will know where you’re staying as soon as you arrive. Truly a place of strange-but-good feelings.
Blue Eye Spring
A sneaky little turn off on the road from Sarandë to Gjirocaster – blink and you’ll miss it. Bump and roll your way along this mostly unsealed winding road, dismiss the feelings of apprehension that come with the countless numbers of dogs – guard and stray – because once you arrive in this tiny innocuous place and stare into the magnificent blue ‘eye’ you’ll not be able to think of anything else. The ‘Blue Eye’ is a 50+ metre deep underwater cave, visible from a small viewing platform above. Shockingly fresh water heaves endlessly forth from its eye-like opening, it and its tears are mesmerising and beautiful. The place is relatively undeveloped, stay in one of the two hotels, they’re perfectly placed for a private eye-lock with the peaceful cyclops.
Where horror fiction authors and idealistic (but oppressive) communist leaders spent their early days, Gjirocaster is a place that smacks of looming doom but on closer inspection is simply a quiet little hillside village. It is waiting for your to explore its backstreets, frontstreets, sidestreets and belowstreets. The castle dominates the skyline and although it may seem scary and ominous before you visit but the folk festival stage from 2008 and the kind staff members inside lighten the prospect significantly. The backdrop you’re faced with daily is simply breathtaking because Gjirocaster is completely surrounded by mountains. There are many places to stay and you will be welcomed no matter where you choose to lay your head. Enjoy street food at its finest – a quick burek in the cobbled streets nestled near the top. Eat at the penthouse-level restaurant atop the Cajupi – the prices are surprisingly still easily affordable although the service and taste and presentation is multi-star quality. The views end up being a bonus.
Albanian to English – spelled phonetically!
Good Day: Per-shen-detia
Thank You: Fa-le-min-dair-it
Sorry/excuse me: Mif-al-neh
Good Evening: Mir M’brama
Good Night: Nartem-e-mir
Do you speak English? Ah-flet-Anglisht?
How much? So-kush-ton?
I would like: Un-berl-chey
This and this: Kyeyol-thyeh-kyeyol
Where is? Ku ershteh?
How are you? Si-yenne?
I am good: Un-ya-mir
We made a few videos during our stay in Albania:
Check our Flickr page for all of our Albanian pictures.