The enigmatic Albania

Like most people, I haven’t been traveling at all during the course of the pandemic. I thought I’d reminisce about one of my past trips, and help whoever is planning their next adventure find a new place to explore once the pandemic is over.

I’ve held a deep fascination for Southern Europe for as long as I can remember. I’ve driven through the Balkans and various parts of Southern Europe that often get overlooked when planning travels within the continent. However, enterprising travelers have been shedding light on these wonderful places for the past few years, and that’s how Albania piqued my interest.

A cursory Google search for Albania will tell you that it is considered a developing country. Perhaps its lack of shiny new things is enough to put some off. However, reading about its rugged mountains, mysterious fortresses, gorgeous beaches, warm people, and delicious food was enough to stir the wanderlust in me. It had been closed off during communism, but is slowly turning into an attraction for those wanting to get off the beaten path.

Tirana, the capital, isn’t the crown jewel even though it is a charming, bustling city of about 400,000 people. Some parts feel very cosmopolitan, with bright cafes, swanky restaurants, and tree-lined boulevards. It reminded me of my hometown Dhaka in some ways (without the atrocious traffic though). We spent the first half of the first day just walking around the city, taking in its vibe and people-watching after a simple but delicious breakfast at the hotel. As we wanted to spend most of our time exploring the countryside, the plan had been to head out by mid-afternoon that day.

Lake Koman & Valbonë

The part I had been most looking forward to in the trip was a hike from Theth to Valbonë, across the Accursed Mountains. The plan was to get to Shkodër, hire a car to take us to Theth, do a full-day hike to Valbonë, and return to Shkodër by way of Lake Koman.

When we got to Shkodër, we found out that despite it being early spring, the mountain passes were snowed under, and there was no way we could get to Theth. A driver that the hotel connected us to offered to drive us up part of the way and suggested we walk the remaining 16km to the hostel, in what I imagined to be knee-deep snow. This did not sound very wise.

We called the hostel in Theth and they confirmed that they were closed and the hiking path from Theth to Valbonë was snowed under as well. There was no way to cross.

It has to be said — I am an incorrigible planner. I am ashamed to say this, but I am certainly not one of those people that shows up anywhere without a solid plan. Now with a weather-induced curve ball, we needed to decide what to do. After some discussion, we agreed to do the hike from the opposite direction (attempting to go as far as the snow would allow) and return the same way through Lake Koman, a reservoir on the Drin River as well as a spectacular body of emerald green waters surrounded by dense forested hills.

We woke up bright and early the next day, and accepted a huge packed lunch the hotel organized for us, and drove towards the departing point at Kaman, where we would board the ferry to Valbonë. The friendly receptionist at Hotel Kaduku in Shkodër had helped arrange a driver to pick us up at the other end of the ferry at Fierze, who would drive us to our hotel in Valbonë. We got to the ferry terminal, found a place to park our car, bundled into the ferry, and dug into our breakfast. Being early-April, it was bitterly cold and we had to really layer on to keep warm.

The ferry ride was steady and pleasant, with breathtaking views of the valley. We spent  the next few hours just taking in the scenes and relaxing on the deck of the ferry.

Once we arrived in Valbonë, we were able to quickly find our driver. He warmed up to us immensely when he realized we were from Germany: he had lived in Bonn, the city we were living in at the time, and worked for a number of years in a local restaurant. We chitchatted all through the drive, stopping shortly to pick up some snacks to eat along the way. He told us we’d have to pay in cash at the hotel, and we were a bit frazzled. We just didn’t have much cash on us. He reassured us that he’d lend us the money and we could pay him back when he picked us up on the return trip, and he’ll show us to an ATM. His breezy attitude and quick offer to lend us cash left us very grateful.

The beautiful hotel was nestled against the mountains, and we were immediately taken by the surrounding nature. After settling in, we went for a quick hike around the hotel, but returned soon enough to grab dinner. The whole day had been spent traveling, and we were exhausted and famished. Dinner was outdoors with a view of the mountains.

The next day, we packed some lunch and headed for our hike. The plan was to climb as far as we could, and then return the same way. The first couple of hours was fine, but further up, the snow had started to melt, and we’d often find ourselves stepping into melting snow that was covering dense tree roots, and find our feet getting stuck. I was worried we’d twist an ankle or two. Even further up, the weather turned treacherous.

The tracks were completely covered in thick snow and there was no way to know where to step, aside from a vague sense of going up. At one point, it started to snow and the wind was strong enough to nearly sweep us away. We took cover behind a huge mound of rock, ate some lunch, and then decided to turn around.

We came back down the same way – the whole hike took 7 hours, and it ended up being pretty demanding due to the lack of visibility and unsure footing. But the views, as much as we were able to see, where stunning, and we resolved to come back another time during the summer.

Vlorë & the Albanian Riviera

I am not a beach person. I prefer the mountains and lakes. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to pass up on the chance to see the ocean, and the Albanian Riviera is well  known for its gorgeous coastline and azure waters. We made a pitstop at Vlorë, a coastal city that can be used as a base to explore surrounding beaches. Our time here was short, but anyone that has an affinity for the ocean can spend several days exploring the various nooks and crannies of the coastline. The small coastal villages around the popular beaches are worth exploring.

Berat

After the Albanian Riviera, our next stop was Berat. Berat is a charming little town, most notable for its Ottoman era houses in a town center that is both well-preserved and a joy to discover. We had no grand plans, but just soaking in the atmosphere. Our hotel was a restored building in the old town center, and simply sitting on its rooftop, enjoying the view across the town was wonderful.

We hiked up to the Berat Castle, which also provides a vantage point over the whole city and the river crossing through its midst. After a great deal of walking, we were ready for dinner.

We picked the top restaurant in Berat. Calling it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch though. It is essentially the courtyard of a local home, and the place is run by a friendly, loquacious man by the name of Lili and his wife. We showed up a bit earlier than the opening time of 6pm. But Lili was already sitting outside the gates of his home, waiting for his first guests, and excitedly ushered us in when we asked him if he had opened yet.

Eating at Lili’s is an experience. He will commit your name to memory, and call you by your name every time he comes to check on you, which is frequent. The food came out of his kitchen, where his wife and his daughter were busy preparing it. It was the best meal we had had in in the whole trip. It exuded the warmth of simple, home-cooked meals, where a lot of affection went into its preparation. We topped off the evening with homemade raki, which Lili insisted was on the house, and he drank a shot with us so as to not be left out of the festivities.

The other 3 tables in the courtyard were full the whole time we were there. You sit in close proximity with other diners – which inevitably leads to inter-table chitchatting – and we were glad to have arrived early! When we left, we poked our heads into the kitchen and thanked his wife for the delicious food. Eating at Lili’s is an experience not just because of the delicious food, but because he is sincerely glad you are there. It’s like eating at your favorite aunt and uncle’s place – they will insist you take second and third helpings, and will be genuinely delighted when you take pleasure in the food they’ve prepared for you.

After Berat, we headed to Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia, which I’ll save for another post.

I left Albania feeling unfulfilled. Not because I hadn’t enjoyed myself, but because I was hungry to see more. I felt like this little jewel of a country, off the radar of many travelers, had so much to offer, and I had only just scratched the surface. I will certainly be back.

The logistics

There aren’t as many direct flights going into Tirana from Germany, so we flew through Vienna on Austrian Airlines. We spent a total of 8 days in Albania. For convenience, we rented a car to get around quicker, but you can also use public transportation. The country is fairly compact, and the traffic is reasonable.

When we visited in 2019, renting a car for 12 days (including 3 days in North Macedonia) cost us 70 EUR, and accommodation ranged from EUR 20 to EUR 45 for a double room. Return flights from Cologne to Tirana cost about EUR 210 per person.

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