Exploring Albania

(Emily) Having no prior knowledge about Albania, and as usual lacking a guide book, we generally went by recommendations from other travellers or hostel owners. The town of Berat, to the south of Tirana, had been mentioned several times as a pretty place to visit so on Sunday 23rd we packed the essentials into one of our roll bags and walked across town to catch a bus down to the town (Lira and Claas had very kindly let us leave the bikes at their hostel, along with our bags and kit – it was quite the novelty to be travelling light sans bikes). Albania’s long distance bus service works remarkably well – destinations are clearly indicated by a sign in the window and they always seem to leave and arrive as timetabled. The ‘buses’ are invariably ancient Mercedes coaches – the one we got that day to Berat had certainly seen better days, and air-con was but a distant memory; we had blissful moments when the side door remained open for a while and we got gusts of air up our shorts but apart from that it was pretty sticky! The distance between Tirana and Berat is only about 60 miles but the journey took a good three hours due to the poor road surface, mountain passes and general incompetence of the vehicle. It was a good trip though, and gave us the chance to see some of Albania’s beautiful countryside and the innumerable bunkers that litter the landscape (another legacy from the Communist era – Hoxha ordered over 700,000 pill boxes and heavy artillery bunkers to be built such was his paranoia of invasion. The chief designer and engineer was required to prove that the bunkers were able withstand full on tank assault by standing in one of his prototypes while it was attacked by tanks! He emerged unscathed, though probably more than a little bit shell shocked! Albanians today have to live with them but try to hide them with plants or decorate them with bright paints. It said that today, though entirely redundant in a military sense, the bunkers are a common place for Albanians to lose their virginity!

Berat was indeed a very pretty town with white Ottoman houses climbing the hillside above a wide river. The Backpackers Hostel was in itself worth the trip – more like a boutique B&B than a hostel, it’s in a UNESCO building with shady terraces under the cherry trees and grape vines and beautiful mosaic tiled floors in each room. That evening we had a relaxed stroll down on the main boulevard, trying to blend in with the locals all dressed up in their finery for the giro. We clearly stuck out like a sore thumb – where were my heels and skinny jeans when I needed them?! – and had many friendly hellos from those we passed, clearly pleased that we were visiting their town of which they are very proud. One teenage boy stopped to chat with us in his excellent English, introducing his family and translating for them. Back at the hostel, we lucked out with some left-over soup from a lovely Danish family (mum, dad and three children under 14 – pretty cool taking your kids travelling round the Balkans for a holiday!) and went to bed feeling very chilled.

After climbing the steep cobbled streets up to the old castle and fortifications of Berat the next morning, we got to the bus station in good time and nabbed a front seat for the long ride down to Sarande. It was a decent journey, despite lack of leg room and an unscheduled stop when we came upon an accident on a hairpin between a van and a lorry (much debate ensued between the driver and the male passengers, including James, who had got off to judge the gap between the crashed vehicles – after 15 minutes he decided to go for it and we just squeezed through, slightly unnerving for those of us left on the bus!) Again, we were wide-eyed at the stunning views and constant stream of contradictions – a loaded up donkey passing a brand new villa-style house; ice clear rivers with garbage piled up along the banks; beautiful poppies surrounding indestructible concrete bunkers. Sarande itself was not up to much – a half-finished resort of high-rises which, in the darkness, revealed that only a fraction of the buildings were occupied – and we were somewhat bemused when our ‘hostel’ turned out to be on the 8th floor of a block of flats. It was rather lacking in atmosphere, with no real communal area, but we did have a nice chat with two retired couples from New Zealand who were taking a couple of months to travel in Europe, old school backpacker style – cool!

Our main reason for coming down south was to see the ancient ruins of Butrint (a UNESCO site), a short bus ride from Berat. Seeing as we weren’t going to be going to into Greece, we hoped to get our fix of ancient history here. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed strolling round the extensive excavations… admittedly they were not quite as spectacular as anticipated but then we had recently visited Rome so were probably a bit spoilt in that respect! Later on, we hopped on another bus bound for Syri i kaltër or ‘Blue Eye’ – a recommended spot of natural beauty. (Trying to ascertain quite which bus to get on was trickier than usual; it wasn’t written in the window as it wasn’t a final destination. Cue five locals all trying to help us via an exchange of English, Italian and Albania!) After being dropped off in pretty much the middle of nowhere, it was then a 3km trek to reach the pool but it was well worth it – the ‘Blue Eye’ refers to the pool formed by the underwater spring source of a crystal clear river; resembling the iris of an blue eye with green edges. Quite stunning, and even more beautiful as we were able to enjoy it in complete solitude, with just one other group arriving as we left (comedy Greek guy who stopped to chat with us in his loud booming voice, extolling the virtues of the UK!) Bit stuck for getting back to Sarande so stood by the side of the road hoping for a bus to pass… our inadvertent hitchhiking soon came up trumps and a mini-van of middle-aged Norwegian women stopped to offer us a lift (well, their taxi driver did – don’t think they had any say in it!)

On Wednesday, we got up early(ish), planning to catch the 9.30 am back to Tirana but pancakes for breakfast and chatting with fellow hostellers, Thomas and Anne from Munich, put us back a bit… such is the luxury of being flexible! It was a long journey but this time we actually had air-con that worked, and we managed to get the seat with the most leg room – bonus! More fantastic scenery on all sides, though we were the only ones enjoying it; everyone else had their curtains drawn to block out the sun. Unfortunately, perhaps due to their lack of experience with motorised vehicles in the past, Albanians don’t equate not seeing the horizon with travel sickness. Cue most of our fellow passengers spewing up at least once along the way, nice!!! (At least they were well prepared with plastic bags and newspapers at the ready – reminded me of school trips!)

8 Responses to “Exploring Albania”

  1. Julian/Dad says:

    More excellent blog and brilliant pix. Thank you.
    Love from dad XX

  2. Mamma/Kate says:

    With every blog I’m left more and more speechless with admiration.
    I salute you guys. Total respect!Love you, miss you. xxxxxxx

  3. Thomas and Anne says:

    Hi, great blog! I have seen on the pictures, that you made it to Kruje and to the ethnographic museum instead of heading to Macedonia ;-) Hope you liked it there.
    The time together with you was really nice. We are looking forward to staying in touch with you.
    Have a safe trip!
    Greetings from the rainy and cold Munich,
    Thomas and Anne

  4. Kathryn and Florjan says:

    Thanks for the photos! Glad you made it safely to your next destination. Your website is great and me and Flo will keep track of your travels. x

  5. Ben, Jo and Dan says:

    Albania sounds incredible. The hostel with the lemon and cherry trees sounds idyllic, as does the serene setting of the ‘blue eye’. Loving all the photos!

  6. Jess says:

    Hi guys,
    I look forwrad to your blog so much – it’s such a good read! What a great time you’re having. I love the photos and the captions. ‘Looks like a good read’ – Ha!!
    Stay safe you legends xxxxx

  7. Thomas and Anne says:

    Hi, we saw on your pictures that you made it to Kruje. We hope you liked it, especially you, James ;-) Thanks for the great time we had together in Albania. Hope, we stay in touch and you have a safe trip. Greetings from cold and rainy Munich, Thomas and Anne

  8. Joanna says:

    I can’t wait to read your blogs – it’s as though you’ve taken us all with you. Bagsy first up for the book and DVD. Glad you’re having a wonderful time – you seem to have met some amazing people. One thing Em – you seem to be vying with James as to who can write the most – never thought you’d win that one but keep trying! We had a girlie night on Friday – all are well and send their love – Joolz is blooming nicely and looking fantastic (it wasn’t the same without you though). Just to fill you in on the goss – Jo’s last day on Friday – baby due on 11 June – will keep you posted.
    Love and hugs to you both xx

    PS Should have had Nicky and I on the coach – puking no problem!

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