Albania

I get to the Aegean Sea in Albania. I crossed the former communist country inland from north to south over the mountains and along the valleys.

About

Albania is a Balkan country in the Aegean Sea. The population of the country might be around 3 million which half lives in Tirana, the capital. The country has their own language, which is different from all the other Slavic countries and is written in Latin alphabet. Their currency is the Leva and in general terms it is a really cheap country.

The population is Muslim and Orthodox mainly. However, there are a good number of Christians and Jews. The population of Albania has a special connection with the Kosovars as they claim to have the same origins.

There has been one time a big country call Albania after the Byzantine empire that dominated most of the Balkans and is the proud of the nation. Albania also belonged to the Ottoman Empire and during the 19th century a strong communist dictatorship left his trace in Albanian history. After the death of their leader  Enver Hoxha, the country came peacefully to a democracy and to Capitalism.

Getting there

The bus from Struga to Skopje travels along the Ohrid like up to the mountains where is the border between the two countries. It took us a while in the boarder due to the different customs controls and a bit of traffic. In Albania, the mountainous landscape was impressive. The mountains and hills were all covered with brown, red, orange and yellow colours of fall season. There was also a bit of green, but was the warm tones of the leaves what made a big contrast with the blue sky. Not far from the border, from the top of a hill we get to Aegean Sea.

Anecdote

At the bus station of Struga there were other Backpackers waiting for the same bus I was waiting for. There was a French trio, two boys, one girl, and solo-traveller. There I didn’t feel like talking with anyone, but having my peaceful journey processing my last days in Macedonia.

However, it was anecdotic to me to see how the solo-traveller was trying so hard to get well with the trio. He tried again and again to communicate with them, but the girl and his boyfriend answered with short monosyllabic expressions, and the other guy never payed attention. It was easy to see from the outside that it was not about to work. I wonder if I would be wise enough to avoid been in the same situation myself. For sure that reaffirmed my idea that it was worthless talking to them.

Tirana

About

Tirana is the mayor city of Albania hosting half of the population of the country. Due to the communism, its urbanism combines old historic buildings with the new modern buildings that have been built with the democracy. It is not a touristic city, however, if you are visiting Albania, It is worth stop in the city one or two nights.

Experience

Thanks to my previews research about the city I get out from the bus before it gets to the main bus station. I stopped in the city centre while the other backpackers were wondering themselves what to do. Little by little I get to feel super confident of my decisions and indifferent to others judgment.

The hostel I was staying was cosy but had only two toilet-shower for all the guests. Hopefully, the hostel was almost empty as it was out of season. In my dormitory of 6 beds we were only two that night.

I hadn’t drop my backpack on my bed and I was already talking with my roommate, Christian. He was a Norwegian guy who had been travelling the previews 3 months from England across Europe by bike. No need to tell that we shared a long conversation about his and my journey. He explained my how he was doing his travel and how he prepared everything.

After dinner, I meet with Alyona. She is a girl from Couchsurfing that offer to host me but it didn’t happen because I changed my time to come to Tirana in order to stay longer in Ohrid. After getting lost in the “Block” the restaurant and bare square of the city, I get to the bar she was 30 min. late. I hate to be late, but sometimes is not easy when you have not the precise address. Sorry Alyona!

Breakfast at the hostel was included but it was almost inexistent. After grabbing some toast and a tea I catch the Free Walking tour at the city centre. I believe more and more, that the walking tours are a fast way to get to know the more important facts of the country, region and city you are visiting. They help me to understand the people and present culture.

We visited the main sightseeing of the city. They are not many and all are around the big central square. From the museum with the communist mosaic we passed by the clock tower, the Ottoman mosque, the old fortification of Tirana, the parliament, the Christian and the Orthodox church and the concrete pyramid. On the way, we passed some bunkers and other memorials of the communist times.

Bunkers in the city

St. Selfie

The old Bridge

It was here, at the walking tour when I heard about my possible destinations in Albania in my way to Greece.

Anecdotic was that the Albanians claim that Mother Theresa was Albanian. They recognise that she was born in Skopje. However, they claim that she was daughter of an Albanian family. Sometimes it seems to me so ridiculous how every city, region our country claims the impossible to be known worldwide. It looks like a country can’t be a good country without the biggest/largest/oldest whatever or without “superheroes”.

After the walking tour, I went to eat to a local restaurant that the tour guide suggested. I ate Kifqui – which are rice balls with species and chess and a piece of oven lamb with a shot of homemade Raki. The lady of the restaurant, member of the owner family talked to me about Albania, the small regions and the production of Raki from grapes and how they mixed with some fruits to make it flavoured.

Back to the hostel I had a message on Couchsurfing of people to meet. First, I met Andi and then Bella. Incredible, but both speaks Spanish.

With Andi I spoke Spanish almost all the time. We met for a tea and then we went to meet Bella together, but he had to go. He liked to travel and most of all sex. Most of his speech happened to be about sex here, sex there and sex anywhere. Girls to fuck and how he had fuck a lot of girls from many countries. We also talked about Spain, as he loves the country and he visited it every year, and also sex in Spain.

Anecdote

Walking in the street speaking Spanish with Andi, we stopped as civilized people in a traffic light. In front of us there were three girls that start gossiping and softly smiling when they heard us talking Spanish. Andi, not shy at all, ask them in Spanish – Do you want to talk Spanish? – Two of them turn around and smiled to us. So he insisted – Don’t be shy, here my friend is Spanish, he can speak with you in Spanish.

After that, he explained to me that many people understand Spanish due to the Latin Telenovelas or Spanish TV programs.

Not one hundred meters ahead, pointing to a girl that was coming in the opposite way he asked me in Spanish. – Do you like that girl? She is pretty, isn’t she? Would you like to fuck her?

I was astonished.

Then he stopped the girl, introduced her to me and told me that she was a college of him from the Spanish philology university.

Later on, I meet Bella and her friend which name means flower. Bella happened to be a German Criminal investigator that loves to learn languages. Half German, half Albanian, she spends as much as she can in Albania. They taught me some words in Albanian, some music – mainly Albanian Hip-Hop – and places worth visiting.

Back to the hostel Christian had gone and I have two new roommates. This time was a British couple. He was from Wales and she from Scotland, and together they were as well traveling around Europe by bike.

Anecdote

Talking the previous night with Christian he told me about his possible future plans. He was on his way to Athens. From there he was thinking on crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt where continue his ride in winter across Africa. He was traveling alone most of the part. However, as it happened to me, sometime he met people with whom he shared part of the journey. In between them, he told me about a British guy he met that wanted to continue with him from Athens across Africa. The only doubt he had was that his Girlfriend didn’t want to go to Africa.

As you may already figure out, the once that were that night sleeping at the same bunkbed were the same ones he told me about.

Once more, we spoke for a couple of hours about travels, anecdotes, future ideas, and for sure I told them that I met Christian the previous night.

With them I also talked about how difficult happened to be to keep updated a blog when you are travelling. It happened that they are also writing their adventure to keep a record of it. Here I leave the link to their blog in case you want to follow them and learn from their experiences.

That night I was thinking on going to have a drink somewhere nearby, but I spent most of the night talking on the phone with friends and family.

Anecdote

At the hostel, there were two girls from Kosovo that invited the members of our room to come to their terrace to have a drink. We never came. As I was saying, I spent most of the night at the seating room on the phone. However, they passed by a couple of times. They went to the supermarket, a friend dress in a suit came to visit them, and at the end they went out for a drink. Every time they passed by they looked at me hanged on the phone.

I went to bed after hearing and meeting indirectly the life of all the guest of the hostel.

During the breakfast, I talked with the Kosovar girls. One of them was partially from the Netherlands. They asked me if I finally went out the previous night and I told them that I end up staying talking till late. They told me that they ended the night at a Karaoke place. Probably the only one in Tirana.

Anecdote to be continue…

Berati

About

Berati is a small village in the mountains of Albania. It is known by hikers because of the mountains around it, where there are really nice trails to the top of the mountains with amazing panoramas and because of his fortress protected by the UNESCO.

I originally planned to go to Vlora on the seaside, but several people told me that it is just a beach destination for summertime and there will be nothing there but empty beaches. Instead people told me to visit Berati, which has an old town, a fortress and hiking trails.

Getting there

There are several buses from Tirana to Berati along all the day. The bus station to get there is out of the city in the northwest, but there are many city buses that takes you there. Buses in Albania are not the cheapest in my road trip, but aren’t either expensive.

Experince

I get to Berati without an accommodation. I knew there were a couple of hostels and guesthouses in town and as it isn’t high season, I felt sure that I would found somewhere to stay. Once in the city, I stopped in a coffee shop and checked in internet possible accommodations. I end up booking one dorm in the best-known hostel of the village.

I addressed myself to the hostel and there I meet Kate, the girl in charge of the Hostel. She is British and she came to Berati to work in the hostel with her boyfriend. However, the boyfriend was in Barcelona in an interview. The hostel is about to close during winter and they would move to Spain to work there during the winter season. Next summer they would be back to Berati as the ones in charge of the hostel.

Panorama of hostel side of Berati

Anecdote

….Anecdote Continues here

While I was accommodating my stuffs in the room came the second guest of the hostel. He was Ivan, a Lithuanian guy. After a fast introduction, he told me that he came from Tirana. After a while talking about what we have been doing and visiting in Tirana he told me that the last night he went to a karaoke and stayed there till late. No doubt I told him about the girls from my hostel that went to a karaoke the same night. Few words later I found out that he was the guy on the suit that came to hostel the previous night. He looked alike but I would never though that someone would have been backpacking with a suit. He explained me how he gets the suit in a second-hand store for a party with some friends.

I told him that I was the guy who spent all the night on the phone and he laughed. Understandable. He then told me that they three happened to talk about me and how I could spend so much time talking on the phone. He never gets to tell me what they were really saying, but it doesn’t matter.

As we were talking a Korean guy came to the hostel. After the appropriate introductions, which includes the proper description of everyone’s journey, we went together for a walk at the city. We walked to the fortress up on the hill.

The Fortress of Berati is an old defensive building that controlled the valley. It is protected by the UNESCO, but it is not preserved. However, there are hoses and commerce inside of the fortress and there is people leaving there. To access to the fortress, you have to pay 100 Lekes, but only if the guy who control the access is there. We had the luck to be the last of the day. After we payed he closed his “office” and everyone else who came after us was free of charge. We couldn’t but laugh of that.

Fortress of Berati

At the top of the destroyed minaret of the white mosque we watched the sunset over the mountains. We spent seated at the tower the time it takes a deep introduction into Buddhism. “Juan” the Korean guy told us about the religions in Korea and China. He considered himself atheist. However, he has a really deep knowledge of the religion of Buda and the three ramifications. Why? I forgot that part, but it is not the most important. He also told me about China and why I must go to China and what to do once I get there. I think than then I will text him to refresh the information.

After the religious knowledge masterclass and some topics of world politics and travel issues we went down to the old town. There we did as al the locals do. We walked up and down the boulevard along the river.

Ivan and I stopped to have dinner in a fast food place Kate recommend us. “Juan” preferred to cook something at the hostel as he was having a problem with the ATMs and couldn’t get cash.

Back to the hostel we brought a couple of bottles of wine and some nuts to share with “Juan” we end up drinking from them with Kate the owner of the hostel. We had a really chilli night talking at the terrace. We shared travel anecdotes of all kind. Including the fact that Ivan and I had meet the previous day. The hostel staffs shared with us anecdotes of the guest. It was the end of the season so they have plenty from the last year.

Drinking in the terrace

Also the owner, who was a British guy that moved to Berati to renovate a house and run the first hostel of the town, told me about his entrepreneurship adventure and many details of the restauration process and the construction stile in Albania.

Next morning, I woke up early for breakfast. I spent the morning talking with Kate about her future plans and her attraction for Berati. She insisted that I should go to Gjirokastra instead of going to Vlora or Saranda. She also recommended me a hostel there and how I could do it.

After such a nice chat with Kate I went to visit the mosques of the city. One was closed. But granted me with the funny image of four girls taking pictures to each other as if they were models, at the narrow street of the entrance. At the second mosque, I get to get in but 5 minutes later a guy was waiting for me at the entrance. After I took two pictures he called my attention and asked me to leave. He told me that there was no problem taking picture and informed me that the mosque was closed.

Mosque of Berati

Gjirokastra

About

It is the mayor city of the south region of Albania. It is located 30km. from the boarder with Greece in the slopes of a hill that controls a long valley. In the valley is where the noble families of the city used to have their farms and harvest lands. The city houses are most of them big seigniorial houses of the landlords. All the houses are organized so all of them have view to the valley. At the top of the hill there is a big citadel that has been the nightdream of all the armies that tried to conquer it along the history.

The city grew remarkably during the communism thanks to the industrialization. This expansion of the city creates a new city below the old city. As a tourist, the more interesting is the old town.

Getting there

To go from Berati to Gjirokastra I had to take the bus to Saranda. 5 hours later I was in Gjirokastra. The bus driver was a friendly guy but with a little of nerve. I also discover that in Albania people uses the buses as a post service. They just drop their packages to the driver and he take them to its destination. Not to say that you just need to shake your hand anywhere on the road and the bus will stop to catch you up. It even stopped in the middle of the highway.

Anecdote

In the old town, most of the roads are in the slope of the hill and some of them are quite steep. All the roads in this area of the city are built with local stones, what made them not only inaccessible to girls with high hills, but also made the street so slippery. However, as this is a rainy area of the country, local builders combined three different type of stones. The black ones, are the ones you should steep in when the street is wet as they are the non-slippery ones. Every local would tell you that.

I get to Gjirokastra little before sunset. Without any reservation, I walked to the hostel Kate suggested me. I had already checked that it was the cheapest accommodation on the Internet. The prices at the hostel, as expected, were the same I saw on the web. At the entrance, Maria, a local girl welcomed me, showed me the hostel and explained me what I could visit in the city. Keeping a big distance from me she took note of my personal details and checked me in. Little later, Walter, the owner of the hostel introduced himself and welcome me to the hostel. I had a really comfortable bed in a spacious six-bunkbed room with only one roommate. My roommate was Chinese middle-aged man who didn’t speak a fluent English.

After a shower and cleaning my clothing I went to dinner to the nearest restaurant Maria suggested me. Great local food for a really cheap price. The service was really slow though, but I was in no hurry so I entertained myself hearing the conversation next-table. They were a tour group of retired people of the United States. They talked about Trump, the differences between countries and asked their guide about Albanian political facts. They guide even also talked to them about the hostel I was staying at. It seemed that it is well known there. Later on, I would find out that it is due to the fact that Gjirokastra is a little city of those where everyone knows everyone.

It just took me to get back to the hostel to find it out. There, after some few distractions I ended up again talking till late with the Dutch owner of the hostel. Walter use to be a traveller that two years ago decided to move to Gjirokastra, restore a house according to the traditional ways of construction and transform it into a hostel. His travel experiences made him think about every little detail a hostel should have. I seriously congratulate him for such a nice hostel.

He not only told me about his entrepreneur adventure, but also about lots of details of the restoration of the house. With him I found that the roofs of the cities where heavier than a regular house. That is due to how they are made with tones of tiles of local rocks over a wood structure. The weight of the roof itself force the walls to be thick ones made of stone. Albania is located in a regular seismic area. In Byzantine times constructors solved this issue introducing in the walls lines of flexible wood every half or one meter and some limestones between the grey stones.

The breakfast at the hostel was awesome. The best was the jam that Walter get from the guy who installed the Air Conditioning. As we were few in the hostel it was like having breakfast with a bunch of friends.

During the breakfast, I met the friends of Walter that were at the hostel visiting him and all the other guest. But I will talk off them as they happened to be part of my story. After breakfast, I ended up talking with a German couple who’s names I feel afraid I forgot. As they were also thinking to go visiting the fortress we arranged to do it together after they organise her future plans. Meanwhile I went for a general walk around town and watched the peculiar housing architecture.

Walking Gjirokastra

The Fortress or Citadel of Gjirokastra is far away from a building restored, but as I remarked, they have been 3D-scanning the building. Most probably an intervention is about to come. Inside of the fortress, 200 lekes the entrance, there are three museums for another 200 lekes. In the museums, you can learn about the history and folklore of Gjirokastra, a collection of weapons of the las century wars that took place in the area and during the communism, and the prison that was installed in the fortress.

The rest of the fortress is the fortress itself which is huge and impressive and have such a nice view over all the valley landscape and the mountains on the other side of it.

Fortress of Gjirokastra

After the Fortress, we had something to eat together in a terrace that Maria suggested us. Again food was nice, but better was our talk. As we had already spoken about travels and Albanian issues, during lunch we talked about future plans, volunteering, workaway and the current world situation.

From lunch we went to visit one of the Houses of the Landlords. The one in front of the Ethnographic Museum is the only one that has a guide in English included in the price. The inside is even more surprising than the outside. It is a functional house that express perfectly how was the Albanian culture in the past.

House of Gjirokastra

The lower level of the house is built with thick solid walls of stone with only thin apertures, enough to control the streets nearby as a castle. That was due to the differences between neighbours. It happened that the different families hate each other so much that there was a little war all across the city. In this lower floor they even had a bunker to protect themselves not only from other families, but also from the war bombings

The upper floor host the bedrooms and the kitchen. In every bedroom used to slept a family unit of the big family. Also, here they had a visitors room. In order to keep the women always separated from the male there where passages and double door wardrobes. This flor has already some windows, but not big ones.

It is the top flor the one that has the largest panoramic windows looking to the valley. In this floor is a big main central room with a balcony that connect the different rooms. In one side the last matrimony room. An independent room for the last married member of the family. In the other side is the feast hall that was designed to host the marriages of the family members. Here the room get separated by areas in order of importance and gender. Visiting this house, I get to learn a lot about the Albanian traditions.

That night I went to eat to the third restaurant of the city that Maria suggested me. There were eating Walter and his Dutch friends who invited me to join them at their table. There they told me about their lives. Walter friends’ area couple that are expecting a kid. He loves running marathons and has really good marks. He trains every day. Even here, on holydays, he goes every morning for a run. Among the conversation, I liked to talk about the Netherlands and Spanish past, mainly about those crazy times that both countries were part of the same great empire.

The following day, we went for the tour, Walter, who was driving, his two friends, Pedro, Maria and me.

Pemet

Pemet is a city built mainly during the communism, all in concrete, with no interest itself. To have a look at the city we climbed one big rock there is on one side of the city.

Panorama from the rock

Then we went to a little forest behind the city where after 30 minutes’ walk we get to a Byzantine church in the middle of nowhere. Walter knew what he was doing and went to get the key in one of the houses in the “village” nearby. Visiting such an old church where nothing has been yet restored and is preserve with the defects of time was such an experience.

 

Back to the car we had lunch in a restaurant on the road to some hot springs in the area. To get to the hot springs we had to cross a Byzantine bridge perfectly preserved. The water springs where not as warm as they normally are according to Walter. One way or another we all jumped on the water and chilled out for a while there.

Water Springs and Old Bridge

Thanks to having a 4×4 car Walter took us to a remote village on top of the hill. You could see the village from the water springs, but there is not a proper road that takes you there. The village is all made of stone with one Orthodox Church. It’s one of this country village doomed to get desert in ten, twenty years.

There, some locals invited us to seat in their terrace and shared with us the products of their environment. We tasted the honey they produce and the fruits that grow nearby. As the locals told Maria and Walter, there used to be another smaller village a little higher on the mountain. It got abandon only ten years ago. This happens because young people goes to the mayor towns or cities and the old people just dye.

In this sentence, I just want to remark how grateful I felt towards the hospitality of Albanians.

Back to Gjirokastra I went to dinner to the closest restaurant. It was good and even if they took their time to served me, I felt comfortable.

That night in the hostel was an special date that I get to enjoy when I get back to it. Akiko, a Japanese girl that came to the Hostel four weeks ago and liked everything so much that stayed there all the four weeks, was leaving next day. Actually, she, Pedro and me were leaving together. But no doubt, that night was hers. We spent the night talking most of the hostel together at the seating room until there only us three and Lee remained. We spoke about Japan, Malaysia and China, about Akiko experiences at the hostel and we laughed a lot when Lee didn’t know how to say “life” in his mother language.

 

Getting out

Lee left early in the morning to Athens and with him what remained of the Jam. I will never forgive you! After breakfast, and the long farewell of Akiko, we walked to the bus station. The original plan was to catch a bus to the boarder then there a bus to Ioannina and there another to Kalabaka, but nothing turn as it should.

When we get to the bus station of Gjirokastra the next bus was in one hour and a half. We didn’t want to wait all that long so went to try to hitchhike. We stopped on the highway that crossed the new town and in 5 minutes, there was a particular offering us a ride in exchange for money. In Albania, there are a lot of particulars that do the service as taxis in order to get some money. We offer him all the Lekes that we had as we won’t need them anymore. Our price was much inferior than his original offer, but he accepted and for less than the price of the bus he took us to the border.

We easily walked across the Albanian border. Five hundred meters on No-man’s land and we were at the gates of Greece.

 

Useful information

Most of the population speaks proper English, for sure the youth and a lot of them even Spanish.

The currency in Albania is the Leke which no one will change you back in any other country. In almost everywhere in the country you can pay as well with Euros.

The bus is the best way to travel inside the country. It takes time, but it’s always on time.

Driving is a bit of a chaos. Even to cross the street you better check twice both directions to avoid an accident. They almost kill me twice while crossing under the green traffic light.

Albania is the bigger producer of Marihuana in Europe and there are fields of Marihuana on the mountains. It is suggested to ask where is safe to hike before getting in troubles with the people who watch them.

 

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