Bizarre, Chaotic, Charming Albania

One peaceful weekday afternoon in late August, we found ourselves lying in the sun on a beach in Borsh, a small maritime village in the so-called Albanian Riviera. It was a perfect 30°C (86°F) with a light breeze. The Adriatic waters were warm and clear. Half a kilometer up the shore, an outdoor bar was serving mixed drinks and snacks.

“Ah, it almost feels like we’re in Maui!” I told Daniel.

Then an old man with one arm walked by selling watermelons from the back of his donkey.

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Of the three months we spent touring Eastern Europe this summer, our week in Albania was almost certainly the most memorable. One of the least developed countries on the continent, it’s about as far off the beaten tourist track as you can get in Europe.

Much of modern Albania is the product of decades of post-World War II isolation. Under the 40-year Communist rule of Enver Hoxha, the country distanced itself not only from the market economies of the west, but also from the Soviet Union, China, and neighboring Yugoslavia. At the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, Albanians found themselves in one of the poorest and most dilapidated countries in all of Europe.

Tourist travel in Albania is challenging. In more modern countries like Hungary or Croatia, we were able to find schedules online easily and even buy e-tickets from some transit companies. In Albania, there is no train system, there are no central bus stations, and there are definitely no easily available transit schedules.

Most Albanians travel the country via privately operated minibuses called “furgons.” Though the government apparently banned this form of transportation a few years ago, we saw plenty of them. Based on our research, most furgons run without any set timetable (only leaving when full) and can be hard to find in smaller towns. With limited time before our departing flight to Athens, we were hesitant about trying to navigate such an uncertain transportation system.

The idea of driving in Albania also gave us pause. Until 1991, there were only six hundred privately owned vehicles in the entire country. Doing research before our arrival, I found warnings like “If you plan to drive around Albania, you are a brave soul” and “DO NOT DRIVE IN TIRANA.”

Naturally, we rented a car in Tirana and kept it for almost our entire stay.

Our VW Polo rental car south of Sarandë

Our VW Polo rental car south of Sarandë

Albanian driving is a unique experience. Road conditions vary greatly. Highway infrastructure is underdeveloped; at one point in our drive from Tirana to Gjirokaster, the main highway suddenly turned into a pothole-filled gravel road. Speed limits change constantly for no apparent reason. At times, we’d find ourselves going 100 km/h in a 30 km/h zone and still getting passed by locals.

Road surface lines are rarely observed, and just because you’re on a two-lane highway with oncoming traffic doesn’t mean you can’t pass – everyone just drives on the shoulder. Most amusingly (and irritatingly), Albanians driving in roundabouts yield to the cars entering the roundabout rather than the ones already in it. This creates complete gridlock with kilometers-long backups in every direction. Passing through one roundabout in the town of Fier took us 40 minutes; getting just three blocks through the town center of Sarandë took almost 30.

In the historic town of Gjirokaster, our first stop with the car, we couldn’t read some of the street signs and were worried about getting a parking ticket. By the end of the day, we had realized that you can leave your car pretty much anywhere (even right in the street!) and it will be fine.

In summary, driving in Albania is chaos, but it works out. If you’re not a timid driver and you have a good sense of humor, you’ll be fine.

We picked up our car in the capital city of Tirana and headed south to the quaint Ottoman old town of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO World Heritage Town. The town’s unique mix of Ottoman and Albanian architecture is the main attraction, and we also enjoyed a tasty lunch of moussaka and grilled vegetables.

While we sometimes pass on repetitive tourist attractions (really, how many different castles can you see?), Albanian pricing encouraged us to check out both the Gjirokaster Castle and an historic Ottoman home (each 200 leke, or ~$1.65 US).

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Backstreets of Gjirokaster

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View from Gjirokaster Castle

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A downed Cold War-era American Air Force plane, supposedly showcased as an example of western threats to Albania

We stayed two nights in the coastal town of Sarandë, where we were surprised by the active nightlife and packed waterfront promenade. There seemed to be a mix of tourists and locals, including tons of families enjoying the carnival-style food stands and sidewalk games.

Sarandë's active waterfront

Sarandë’s active waterfront

We checked out the beach in Ksamil at our host's recommendation, but it was overcrowded and not very appealing

We checked out the beach in Ksamil at our host’s recommendation, but it was overcrowded and not very appealing

We rented several apartments with this "the room is the shower" style bathroom

We rented several apartments with this “the room is the shower” style bathroom

Albanian traffic jam

Albanian traffic jam

At the southern end of Albania, just 5 kilometers north of the Greek border, was one of our favorite stops in the country: the ancient Greek and Roman city of Butrint (or Buthrotum). The excavated ruins included the remarkably well-preserved mosaic floor of the Byzantine-era Butrint Baptistery.

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We got lucky; apparently due to risk of deterioration, the mosaics are uncovered only “for a limited period every few years”

From Butrint, we drove north along the SH8 coastal highway, enjoying stunning Adriatic views along the way. When driving through Albania, you can’t help but notice the number of concrete bunkers scattered across the countryside. Under the paranoid rule of Hoxha, over 173,000 bunkers were built – one for every eleven citizens. Albania never came under attack, and today they stand as relics of a bizarre part of the country’s history.

You also can’t help but notice the endless half-built concrete structures everywhere (most of which haven’t been touched since the 2008 financial crisis) and the amount of trash. Every highway is lined with garbage, a sad sight in what is otherwise a beautiful place.

Driving north along the Albanian coast

Driving north along the Albanian coast

The beach in Borsh, probably the nicest beach we found on the Adriatic

The beach in Borsh, probably the nicest beach we found on the Adriatic

Our next stop was Berat, known for its old town of hillside buildings. Places like Berat still have an undiscovered feel, with very few tourists wandering the streets or visiting the city’s hilltop fortification.

Even the locals are sometimes surprised that tourists would have an interest in their country. When we told our Airbnb host in Tirana that we had just spent a night in Berat, she couldn’t help but ask, “Berat? Why?”

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A man fishing on the River Osum at dusk

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Berat, as seen from the fortress

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“The City of a Thousand Windows”

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Exploring the streets of Berat’s old town

We finished our Albanian adventures in Tirana, the capital city. Tirana is surprisingly modern. In one neighborhood, which was previously the exclusive residence of the government elite, the tree-lined streets of bustling restaurants and hip bars made the place feel more like Brooklyn than Albania.

Other parts don’t feel so modern. Albania ranks as the most homophobic country in Europe, and any discussion of the topic is taboo. Based on what we gathered from internet sources, if they have the means, many LGBTQ Albanians leave the country for more accepting destinations. We kept a low profile, as we often do while traveling internationally.

We also ventured outside Tirana’s city center to BUNK’ART, a recently opened museum in a bunker designed to house Hoxha and other government officials. The colossal concrete structure still holds many of the original furnishings, including Hoxha’s emergency offices and bedroom.

Like the rest of Albania, Tirana was extremely affordable. We both went to the barber (300 leke, ~$2.50 US each) and also enjoyed the exhibits at the National Historical Museum (200 leke,~$1.65 US).

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The mostly abandoned Pyramid of Tirana, formerly a museum dedicated to the legacy of Enver Hoxha

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Entrance to BUNK’ART

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Hoxha’s office in BUNK’ART

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Skanderbeg Monument, commemorating the 15th century Albanian hero for resisting the Ottomans

Beautiful, complex, and still largely undiscovered, Albania is a unique place with a fascinating history. We’re glad we made time to visit.

12 Comments

  1. Amazing pictures as always Matt! Rookie question but how do you navigate driving around? Use your phone’s GPS? Maps?

    • Yep, we’re mostly reliant on Google Maps on our phones. We use the Offline Maps feature to download areas beforehand, so navigation and mapping still work without data or wifi. We still take the directions with a healthy dose of skepticism, though, especially in developing countries where the roads aren’t always up to date (the very first navigation of our trip, for example, didn’t have a major new Turkish highway. “Turn left!” “Turn right!” “In 200 meters, turn…” “Recalculating”)

  2. Fantastic pictures!

    It looks like you had a great time in Albania. I never really thought about it as a travel destination, but I might have to now. 🙂

    Ah, yes, “the room is a shower” bathrooms – intimately familiar with those! That, as well as “there is no toilet paper, just a cup in a bucket of water next to the toilet.”

    • Thanks, Felicity! I’m sure there will be many more cultural surprises in store for us when we travel to SE Asia and Central America. We keep an open mind and usually find them pretty entertaining!

  3. Lovely travel update Matt, I really enjoy reading your posts. The pics are cool roo! 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing your pictures on this great journey. It looks like you had an awesome time. I also like your emphasis on explaining the history of the places you visit; it adds a nice dimension. I’m already looking forward to your next update!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jeff! Learning about the history is a fundamental part of why we travel, so I’m doing my best to share little pieces of it. There are already a million resources for “ten things to do in Albania,” after all.

  5. Wow. Just…wow. When I see photos of old stone homes on old stone streets, I look out my window at my 1940s neighborhood and ache. I sometimes wonder what these homes will look like in 100 years, but I cannot imagine it. Anyway, those ruins are incredible and I’m so glad you got to see them. I marvel at the care and artistry that was once put into structures. The whole trip looks amazing. I love that you made it happen.

    • Yeah, some architecture has lasted and held its artistic value for centuries. Then I see new buildings go up that I already think look awful; I can’t even imagine how atrocious they’ll be in decades! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. Julie @ Millennial Boss

    October 14, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    I’ve always wanted to visit Albania after hearing of the immigration issues in Italy, etc. Glad you had a chance to check it out. Seems like a beautiful place despite the challenges you mentioned. Keep posting trip reports! It’s been fun to follow along!

    • Glad you enjoyed! It felt like half the cars on the road in Albania had Italian plates; they’ve definitely discovered it as an affordable getaway.

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