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