Albania (Part Two: Trip Details)

We really loved every one of our 23 days in Albania (which was a lot longer than we expected to spend), and we have talked a lot about going back. If you ever have a chance to go there, we highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend it!!

Korça (KOR-cha)

First impressions: Clean, safe, quaint, bright, walkable.

We stayed in a cute traditional home situated next to a French-immersion high school and a delicious Albanian restaurant with cherry trees providing cover over the wooden tables. This small town has a few churches, outdoor markets, and museums, so we walked around a lot, taking in first impressions and enjoying the beautiful weather and extremely blue skies. The highlight of our time here was a wonderful afternoon spent at the Korça Brewery, where we stayed for about five hours and paid just 70 leke (or about USD$0.70) per beer.

When the time came to depart Korça, we weren’t quite sure what to do regarding transportation. Looking online, I found several blog posts about furgons (for more, see “Albania, Part One,” here). Furgons don’t have a set schedule; when they’re full, they head off to their destination, as posted on a sign in the dashboard. They are extremely cheap and very safe. We paid about $2 each to go to our next destination, which was about 1.5 hours away.

Pogradec (po-GRAD-ETCH)

Porgradec is on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid (on the far side is Macedonia). It is one of the deepest lakes in Europe and home to more than 200 indigenous species. This is where many Albanians vacation. Be warned, though: From a distance, the lake looks beautiful, but up close there is a lot of trash along the shore (at least near Pogradec), which is unfortunate and ended up taking away from the natural beauty of the setting.

Pogradec2

Besides the lake, there wasn’t all that much to do here, so on the second afternoon we went to the nearby village of Tushemisht (pronounced pretty much like it looks). This tiny place has little natural spring waterways throughout that run into the lake. It was cute, but again kind of dirty, very much unlike Korça had been. We then walked back to Pogradec along the lakeshore, which was about 3 miles.

The next day, we took a furgon to Berat.

Berat (bur-AT)

We loved Berat! This small town has been named one of the most beautiful in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is often called the “City of One-Above-Another Windows” or “City of 1001 Windows” because of the many window-covered buildings in the Old Town that face the Osum River. On the hilltop above is Berat Castle, a citadel still inhabited to this day.

We stayed in an excellent hostel, which was really a very cute, clean, comfortable little boutique hotel that faced the river and the citadel beyond. Our wonderful host/proprietor, Miri (hi, Miri!) was friendly, funny, open, and extremely hospitable.

Berat with Miri and wine

We spent several hours chatting with him over the course of our stay, and we even added an extra day because we had such a great time. From him we learned a bit about Albania and its people. We also had fun when Miri escorted us to a local winery (pictured above), where we got a personal tour and sampled delicious local wines and foods. We bought three bottles that we shared with other guests back at the hostel.

We also met a number of other nice people during our stay, including a nice fellow from Belgium (Derrick) and an older couple from Holland, with whom we went to dinner one night. Also while we were in town, the Albanian Prime Minister (a huge man and former professional basketball player) stayed in a hotel just down the street while he attended a local event where he gave a speech. Cool!

And we also walked up (waaaay up) the hill to the citadel for some awesome panoramic views of the mountains all around. There are couple interesting museums there too, including an iconographic museum in the citadel (showing works that were recovered since religion was outlawed and churches destroyed during the communist years); and an ethnographic museum partway up the hill to the fort.

Gjirokastër (JEE-ro-KAS-tra)

Gjirokaster Castle View

This beautiful town is built into the side of a giant hill with a massive, ancient fortress on top, in which we spent an afternoon wandering. The views of the town below and the mountains all around were stunning! The views from Berat’s fortress had been pretty, but the ones from Gjirokastër Castle were sublime.

We stayed in a lovely little boutique hotel in the Old Town, very close to the Old Bazaar. While we were there, I (Connie) wanted to shorten the one and only dress I brought, so the hotel’s English-speaking host personally escorted me to the seamstress; after giving me a personal tour of the bazaar, she helped negotiate a friends-and-family deal of $4 for me, with same-day service.

Here, again, we ate mostly traditional Albanian food: grilled veggies, stuffed peppers, and grilled meats.

Ksamil ([k]sa-MEEL)

Ksamil has the most beautiful beaches and seaside we’ve ever seen! That is no exaggeration. We agreed that none we’ve seen elsewhere, even the astonishing shores of Greece, had ever impressed us quite the same way. This was a delightful surprise and a testament to the natural beauty of Albania.

In Ksamil, we stayed at a small, cute, very clean hotel run by a sweet couple, Dori (short for Fjodor, named for the famous Dostoevsky) and Irsa. They also run a travel agency in Tirana when they’re not in Ksamil for the summer months. Irsa and Dori offered us many local tips on what to see and do and were always up for a little chat or some snuggling with their 3-month-old baby girl: The very friendly pair had an adorable, sweet-natured little girl named Hana (or Hënë), which means “moon” in Albanian.

Ksamil Hene

Every day in Ksamil was sunny and warm, perfect weather for lounging by the beach. The food was great too! Mussels thrive in the area and are widely considered some of the very best in the world, so I ate heaps of them every day. Like all food in Albania, they were delicious and cheap, only about USD$4 to $7 for a huge portion.

But getting back to the main thing here: I can’t stress to you enough about how beautiful the beaches are… I mean gorgeous. Ksamil lies just a short distance from Corfu, Greece, so if you’ve ever been to any beautiful Greek islands, then try to imagine an even more beach. Got it? Now make it better, and the water just a bit more clear, crystalline blue. Okay, that’s Ksamil.

Ksamil paddleboat

There are also three little islands just offshore, between Ksamil and Corfu, so we rented a paddle boat for $5 and paddled around the islands, stopping on two of them to look around and have a swim. You can see straight to the bottom. It was so amazing!!!

Besides lounging on the beach, we did see a large UNESCO World Heritage site called Butrint. It’s at the very bottom edge of Albania, almost into Greece. Inhabited since prehistoric times, it has been the site of a Greek colony, a Roman city, and a bishopric. Following a period of prosperity under the Byzantine Empire, then a brief occupation by the Venetians, the city was abandoned in the late Middle Ages after marshes formed in the area. (Some parts of the island city are still swampy, with walls and foundations sunk into the mire. It’s just beautiful.) The present archaeological site is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city’s development. The outer walls are massive, surrounded by blue waters and mountains. Again, the views are amazing.

Not wanting to leave Albania, but needing to move on from Ksamil, we got a (very generous!) ride from Dori and Irsa to the nearest big town, Sarandë (suh-RON-da). There we hopped on a bus to Tirana after having one last coffee and meal by the Ionian Sea.

Tirana (tee-RON-ah)

Tirana is the capital of Albania and the largest city in the country. Our first day there, we went on a free walking tour, which was very informative and gave us a great overview of the history of the place and its tumultuous political and religious past. (For more about the country’s history, see Scott’s prior post, Albania, Part One.)

The tour ended in front of a museum called the House of Leaves, which we also entered. It provided a very sobering and detailed historical account of the surveillance of the secret police during the communist era. Its contents were straight out of the TV show The Americans. Everyone was spying on everyone, it seemed. Totally horrible, but extremely interesting. This era was dominated by extreme paranoia, so much so that at current estimate, one in every three people in Albania either worked for or were interrogated by the secret police during this time. Insane.

Scott worked the next day, so I went to another communist-era museum called “Bunk’Art 2,” which was actually built in an old bunker below the heart of the city. It was originally constructed for the Minister of the Interior and the Minster of Defense, as well as for the use of the dictator Enver Hoxha. Today, the exhibit covers historical events of the various different police units (secret, camps, fire, traffic, etc.) and examines their protection and persecution of the citizens of Albanian throughout the four decades of communism.

(For pics from these exhibits, see Albania, Part One.)

The Bunkart exhibit, like the House of Leaves the day before, was extremely sad. Some of the events described were akin to the Nazi persecution of Jews (though perhaps not on as large a scale). Albania had concentration camps, internment camps, labor camps, and prisons, all with the express purpose of controlling, punishing, and uncovering anti-communist sentiments. Luckily this horror is in the past, but the country is still trying to figure out its government post-democracy. The scars of communist oppression are well hidden, perhaps, but still there to see.

To lighten the mood that night, we went to see Deadpool 2. We were the only ones in the theater, and there were Albanian subtitles. I also got in trouble for putting my feet on the seat in front of me. Scott laughingly called me a “typical American.” 😊

Shkodër (SHKO-du-ra)

The northernmost city of Albania, Shkodër was adorable. Our Airbnb hostess, Stesi, once again, was very sweet, friendly, and hospitable. We went on a free walking tour led by an American woman, Harriet, and a young French tourism intern, Louise. Harriet was married to an Albanian; about 1.5 hours into the tour, she casually mentioned that she had had a baby the prior week! No big deal. The couple started a tour company called Kiri Adventures to bolster the local economy.

After the tour, we met up with Harriet’s husband, Erjon, at their juice/drink bar (which is also where they operate Kiri Adventures). He recommended that we hire a car and drive the northern part of Albania to see the mountains, rivers, gorges, and waterfalls.

The next day, we followed Erjon’s advice and we were absolutely blown away by the natural beauty that is the Albanian Alps. (If you look at no other pictures here, please look at those! They are spectacular!) This area, known locally as the Accursed Mountains, is barely inhabited, with only a few very small villages along the 3-hour stretch of very nice, new road. (During communism, Hoxha wouldn’t allow people to travel outside the country or even to live close to the borders because he was paranoid that they’d flee. He forced villagers to relocate inward toward the country’s center, and most haven’t returned.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Along our drive, we stopped several times to take in the view. Amazingly, each time we did, we met Albanians who either were living or had lived in North America: Chattanooga, TN; Clearwater, FL; New York, NY; and Toronto, Ontario, Canada (where Scott’s daughter Aidan lives — hi, Aidan!). In total, we later learned, there are about eight million Albanians in the world, yet Albania’s population is only about three million since so many fled after communism fell. You probably have Albanians in your neighborhood or city and you don’t even know it!

The last night in Shkodër , we joined Erjon for a walking tour of the Rozafa Fortress, to which we biked. What an experience biking through the city, with all its crazy drivers! Erjon was an amateur historian and shared a wealth of information about Albania’s past.

The Beauty That Is Albania

After this unforgettable experience, we finally, regretfully, and almost tearfully said goodbye to the wonderful country of Albania. It captivated us, completely by surprise. We are now in love with it, and we definitely plan to return.

But next up is Montenegro, which will be our next post.

Connie & Scott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s