Summer Holiday 2016: Albania
Okay, I just want to start off by saying that Albania was my favorite country this trip. It’s gorgeous and the people are lovely; I felt like I had the most authentic experience here.
So, we docked in Saranda- a wonderful seaside town- and I went to wander around looking for my hostel, Saranda Backpackers. I didn’t have to wander long when Tommy (the man in charge) found me on the street and took me into his hostel, where he fed me watermelon and had me relax on the balcony. He was so hospitable that I was taken aback; I don’t usually experience this kind of eagerness to make me feel comfortable. This first experience with Tommy is the epitome of my experience with the Albanian people.
I set my bags down and Tommy pointed me in the direction of Lekuresi Castle.
I spent about 2hours walking up this ginormous hill and eventually made it to this stunning view of the Saranda coast. It was hot and sticky and people kept staring at me but it was SO worth it.
What was also quite a different experience was that hitch hiking was so normal here; people would pull over in their cars and ask if I wanted a ride up the hill. Again, I was taken aback; it’s just unheard of in the US. I’ve been consistently warned of the dangers of getting in a strangers’ car by everyone I could think of- my parents, my friends’ parents, my teachers, random clerks in stores, anyone and everyone- throughout my entire life. And now I was in a place where it’s normal and safe to climb into a random car with a nice Albanian. Anyway, I wanted to walk up this hill for a bit of exercise so I declined the offers.
When I finally got to the top, it was definitely worth it. The view is just gorgeous. In the final kilometer or so, you’re walking up a hill with a view of countless farms confined to their square of land until the next set of hills begin.
And then when you get to the top of the hill, where the castle actually is, you have this wonderful view of the coast. You can see the coast of Saranda all the way to Butrint and then out to Corfu. I definitely recommend doing this; especially in the evening. I went a little bit before sunset and it was the most wonderful lighting. However, I heard it’s quite popular to have dinner at the castle to watch the sun set and then wait for the city to light up.
I made it back down the hill and relaxed at the hostel for a bit before going out to dinner with some new friends: Valeska from Germany, Sarah also from Germany, and Jay from Australia. We went to a typical touristy place along the beach but it was alright. After, we headed to a nice bar a bit further down. Jay and I ordered Mexican Bulldogs (a margarita with a Corona sticking out of it) and I had flashbacks to my 20th birthday at Marieta’s. Our next drink was called a Cum Shot. Although “shot” is in the name, it’s actually a really awesome, ice cream-y cocktail. A bit awkward to order (especially when you order 4 at a time), but definitely worth a bit of embarrassment. It was a great end to an eventful day.
The next day I headed to Butrint, an ancient city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site just 30mins outside of Saranda. It’s said that the son of the Trojan king founded Butrint after the fall of Troy, later to become a fairly autonomous Roman colony until, roughly, the 5th century A.D.. The city ruins themselves are quite remarkable. Some of the buildings that are currently excavated and visible were built over 2000 years ago, during Augustus’s reign of the Roman Empire.
The next day was my last in Saranda and I decided to spend it with my new friends at Syri i kaltër, otherwise known as Blue Eye. Blue Eye is a natural phenomenon, 10C water is pushed up from more than 50meters below and is carried along the river towards the Ionian Sea. Divers have tried to see how deep the spring is, but when they made it to 50meters with no end in sight, they had to resurface, so all we know is that it’s deeper than 50meters. Supposedly during the less busy months (read: not August), it’s a relatively empty and relaxing place to have a picnic and spend the day; however, this was the middle of August and it was jam- packed with selfie- stick toting tourists.
After a bit of photo taking and hanging out around the Blue Eye, we decided to jump into the freezingness. I slipped on my bikini and went up to the balcony type thing overlooking the spring. That’s where I realized that there’s probably 200 people standing around this spring who are just going to stare at me as I jump. Oh. But I did it. And I let out a bit of a scream halfway through my jump.
Oh, my God. It was freezing. It’s a sharp, icy cold that’s oddly refreshing and not as miserable as it sounds. Also, luckily, it was probably 35 degrees Celsius so it didn’t take too long to warm back up after climbing out.
Three of us jumped back in for a second time (specifically for Jay’s GoPro video) before heading out to hitch hike back to Saranda. We found most cars were full with families and had no more room for travellers so instead we took a cheap taxi into the center. There we decided to grab our things and meet back up there so we could 1) take a bus to Berat or 2) start hitch hiking together to Berat.
We decided to take the bus because it wasn’t too expensive and we had a lot of cumulative baggage. It was one of the strangest bus rides of my trip. We were crammed into the very back of the bus in seats that were shared by the luggage in the overflowing trunk. Every single seat had a butt in it but there was still more people who wanted to come; the solution was extra stools in the aisle that were used as seats. The Albanian microbus system is definitely efficient, albeit not comfortable. We settled in for the 6hour bus ride.
Stranded in Berat
We made it to Berat! Somehow managed to find our hostel and a pretty authentic, cheap restaurant within the first hour. We had a mellow night and went to sleep pretty early so that we could wake up early and start exploring! Berat is known as the “City of a Thousand Windows”, due to the Ottoman style of houses with numerous big windows staring at you as you walk across the bridge.
We hiked our way up this incredibly steep hill to the castle to see the wonderful views of the city. This hill was so gnarly that 1) I chose to walk along the wall and do a lot of step- ups rather than walk on the incline in my flip flops and 2) on our way back down, we saw multiple cars actually have to be pushed up the hill after they had stopped for whatever reason. But it was definitely worth it. The views from the castle remnants were absolutely gorgeous. In fact, we spent at least an hour having a photo shoot up there. (Cool fact: it was here that Jay and Valeska taught me how to use my camera on manual mode!).
(P.S. More photos will be added at a later date).
When we were finished with our photoshoot, we headed back to our hostel to grab our luggage and head to the bus station. We were going to Tirana, the capitol of Albania! However, as it turns out, we missed the last bus by 10 mins (!!) and eventually decided to stay another night. Since we toured the whole city already, we spent the rest of the evening relaxing and getting ready for an early day.
Hitch-hiking to Tirana
So, earlier in this post I mentioned that hitch- hiking was quite common in Albania (actually, in the Balkans in general) but somehow I still hadn’t done it on this trip. That was all about to change.
We woke up early- ish, ate our breakfast and headed on our way. I think we were on the side of the road (right next to the bus station, not the smartest location) by 10.00.
We got some laughs and some people pointing us towards the bus station (oops) but within 5mins (really, only 5 mins) we were climbing into the car of a very nice, fun- loving, only Albanian- speaking man. He was a very kind person. We climbed in and immediately he offered us some of his huge, gross looking sandwich (which we said no thank you to) and some plums (which we said yesss please). I won’t go into all the details of this drive right now, but if you’d like to hear about it, feel free to ask!
Mostly, we just hung around staring out the window or writing in our journals or playing with our cameras. Some of us (ahem the Albanian man who picked us up) relaxed in the passenger seat while Valeska drove us into Tirana!
He ended up driving us directly to our hostel (HOW NICE), and we were able to take a selfie together before parting ways.
After a very interesting welcome to our hostel (haha), we dropped off our things and went for some foods and drinks before meeting up with other tourists for a free walking tour. Tirana is a really interesting, beautiful city. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our tour guide had grown up in Albania while it was still under communist rule, and he brought a lot of that perspective and those experiences into his tour which was so wonderful. I found the whole city and the history of Albania as a whole (most of that history is shown in the capitol) so fascinating. It’s a country that underwent decades of brutal communist rule and isolationism and is only just starting to come back into the international realm, yet the people are so warm and welcoming.
After the tour, a bunch of us were so hungry and decided to travel up to the very top of the Sky Hotel for a (cheap) fancy dinner followed by cocktails in the revolving bar. The view was marvelous! But we were all a bit confused on whether the bar was actually rotating or not… It really didn’t look like it! We soon figured out that it was just moving SO slowly that we couldn’t notice (I guess that’s the point of these bars but).
The three of us left the group and stayed up drinking more beers and enjoying our last night together. Unfortunately, we stayed up too late to wake up early the next day (oops!), so we slept in a bad a slow morning before heading out to tour the Bunk’ART, the nuclear bunker at the edge of town.
The bunker itself was quite remarkable: it was huge and consisted of different informational rooms that discusses various perspectives of Albanian history. There was one art exhibit that I particularly enjoyed. The anonymous artist had a projection of a window with bullet holes up on the wall with a description:
“Every bunker has a necessary characteristic: To have only entrance doors but no windows. One window, in fact, repeals all the fortification significance, weakening it in front of the strongest threat a bunker can face: Sunlight”.
There are, of course, multiple ways to interpret this but I thought it was comparing the nuclear bunker to the restrictions set forth by the communist government, with sunlight, or hope, having the potential to undermine the whole institution. But, to each their own.
Next up, we headed up the mountain in a tram. It took about 10mins or so to get to the top and the view was just gorgeous.
After another wonderfully cheap and fancy meal, we took some more photos and headed back down to see if I would make my bus to Kotor, Montenegro.
Miraculously (seriously I have NO idea how this worked out), I made it to my bus in perfect time. The bus driver even helped me out by rushing me to the ticket shop and getting me all settled.
So, just like that, I was on my way to Kotor, Montenegro. Unfortunately, I only spent about 8 hours there, as my bus to Dubrovnik left at 08.00 and I HAD to be there on that day to meet my family! Although, I will definitely have to go back and hike up the mountain for a gorgeous view of the bay.