A Few Days in Tirana, Capital of Albania
We spent the first two nights at a spa hotel, exploring, relaxing and re-energizing after our tour of Turkey. Then we moved to a quaint hotel that our Albania tour company uses for tour guests. Two totally different hotels and areas of the city.
Loved the lake!
The floating dock!
The first thing we noticed and loved about Albania, was the people. Everyone is happy and it is so nice to see the entire faces of the beautiful women of Albania. The people are friendly and go out of their way to make sure tourists are enjoying their stay. As we walked through an alley one day, we heard ‘hello – come have a free coffee!’ (didn’t) but shared where we were from and heard the many connections this man had to people in ‘America’. (Canada is reconized as part of America, Vancouver, rarely so dropped that for now). Our first night at the quaint hotel, we asked the young woman at the front desk where the closest store was and she took us on a 5 minute walk through the winding back streets to the store, watched that our purchase was handled correctly and walked us back!
Lots of English is spoken in Albania. The food is great and is so very inexpensive. A typical meal for two of a salad, main and glass of wine is less than $20 CND. The portions are huge; a $3 salad is enough for 2-3 people. If you don’t eat everything on your plate, they genuinely seem hurt or concerned; or are we considered wasteful?
Albania Leke. 500 leke is about $5 Canadian. We feel rich!
Let’s talk about driving in Albania. OMG – they are crazy! They change lanes constantly, weaving and beeping all the way. And they are fast. Pedestrians have to fend for themselves – crosswalks mean absolutely nothing. All the things we learned in crosswalks in Western Europe were actually survival skills for Albania. You go when you can and float between lanes of moving traffic, cars whisking by you.
Tirana’s main square was large even before World War II, but the Communists made it absolutely massive; but destroyed important landmarks. Every city we toured had a main square and each evening the people walked for hours. Wish we had these! This building contains the Opera and the National Library.
The mosaic on the facade of the National History Museum represents the flow of Albanian history.
The ‘pyramid’ opened in 1988 as a museum dedicated to the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, was designed by his daughter and is the most expensive building ever erected in Albania. After the regime collapsed, it became a conference center and a club. Now semi-derelict, the government wants to replace with new parliament buildings, but that is up for debate.
In front of the pyramid is the ‘Peace Bell’, a memorial to peace made in 1999 by the children of Shkodra. The bell’s metal comes from thousands of bullet cartridges, fired off during the lawless 1990s.
Thursday, March 26 – Peja, Kosovo
We began our escorted tour with our guide, Migen. Quite the fascinating life story this man has; will touch on it through this post. Off we headed into Kosovo. Crossing the border from Albania into Kosovo is a little more intense than going from Canada to buy dairy in the US. After a passport check, the border guard came to our windows and asked us where we were going – and we weren’t sure! We just finished Turkey and had hardly looked at the next itenary! Luckily Joe remembered one city and muttered enough to assure the official that we were following the itenary of our guide.
Pics from the road – we liked it already!
Kosovo War memorial:
These donkey pulled carts are everywhere:
Lunch was a ‘meatball’ and the first time someone would come and ask us where we were from. So friendly..
Our first stop was The Visoki Dečani monastery located at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains in western Kosovo. The monastery is owned by the Serbian Orthodox Church and has been under the legal protection of Serbia since 1947. There were armed guards at the entrance and military hummers driving around the grounds.
I wanted so badly to take a picture here – while we waited to be granted entry into the monastery, I watched one of the elderly monks in the woods. He looked like Gadolf or Rasputin and as he stood reaching to caress the upper branches of a tree, the sun beamed down encircling him. I couldn’t take his picture without his permission or disturb him, so that image will be one in my private collection.
The Dečani’s twenty major cycles of fresco murals represent the largest preserved gallery of Serbian medieval art, featuring over 1000 compositions and several thousand portraits. It was stunning. I’m not even sure I was allowed to take pictures, but I did.
On 2 July 2004, the monastery was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO) and was cited as “an irreplaceable treasure, a place where traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world.” In 2006 the monastery, was also added to the UNESCO list of endangered World Heritage sites in 2006. An Italian unit of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) guards the monastery, which was attacked on several occasions.
Also visited another smaller monastery but no pictures allowed inside. Nice walk there!
Beautiful hotel with a view of the square:
Mother Teresa is from this area:
For dinner I had the regional speciality rolled veal – very good!
Friday, March 27 – Pristina, Kosovo
Before leaving Peja this morning we stopped at the Museum in Peja. It was very small and the Manager lead the 3 of us on the tour. Then we were escorted into a room with a passionate Archaeologist who talked about his dig and discovery and also what remains to be uncovered in the area. I thought he was going to breakdown. So much was destroyed during wars and communist rule too.
We arrived in Pristina around noon and it was raining so Migen suggested we drive to Mitrovica to see the ‘Ibarra Bridge’. This bridge separates 80,000 Kosovo Albanians in the south from half as many Serbs in the north. In June 2014 there was (another) protest at the south of the bridge revolving around Kosovo’s declared independence from Serbia and the road was blocked with flower pots as a ‘peace park’ after they removed the UN barricade. This is what it looks like now, through the rainy car window.
Traffic was crazy, Migen couldn’t find access to the bridge and seemed a bit uncomfortable being in a Serb neighborhood so we willingly said that was enough of this field trip and headed back to Pristina.
The wifi is on the floor to the left of the table and the ‘network’, outside our room. Guess the footware is for ‘rebooting’ the system LOL
Saturday, March 28 – Prizren, Kosovo
On the hike up to the fortress in Prizren, we stopped by the church that Migen (through World Vision) brought food to the Serbs during the Kosovo war and they thought it was poisoned; because he was Albanian.
Prizren Fortress is a medieval fortress that once served as the capital of the Serbian Empire. It was built on a hill above Prizrenska Bistrica (River) and from there, the modern city developed. The fort was erected by the Byzantines, and then came under the control of the Ottomans for four centuries, where it get its modern shape. As you can see, the river was running very muddy and it was so fast!
Later we drove through the village of Dragaš in the Šar Mountains and stumbled upon ‘The White House Restaurant’. Look on the building face for the USA seal! Perhaps it is US property? Looks a lot like THE White House to a couple of Canadians that have never seen it!
Beautiful drive, rain and all:
Sunday, March 29 – Kruja, Albania
Traffic was heavy returning to Albania today as there was a football match in Albania in the afternoon, with Armenia. If Albania doesn’t win, they will be disqualified. There was a lineup at the border crossing as carloads of screaming fans waited impatiently to clear the border and be on there way. I took this picture of some roadside flag sellers just after we left the crossing – red flags were everywhere! Made us miss the excitement of hockey finals.
Krujë is a mountain town in north central Albania, about 20 km from the our home base, Tirana. It is a gorgeous town and we enjoyed this view from our balcony.
There always seemed to be a mosque nearby; just in case the howling dogs didn’t wake us up at 5:00, the call to prayer would.
The bars and restaurants were packed with football fans and the roars that accompanied them. Albania won, so we waited it out as the jubilant crowd dispersed before going for dinner.
In the morning we stopped by The Skanderbeg museum of Krujë, much to Joe’s shugrin. (A little museumed out). Skanderbeg is the hero of Albania history and so Migen proudly toured is through the interesting exhibits.
Lunch followed at a picnic table overlooking the beautiful valley.
Kruje is a Bektashi town, the Bektashis being of the dervish orders in Islam. All I know is they have a connection with the Whirling Dervishes we just saw in Turkey. Their homes are painted either flouresent green or yellow. We visited a teqe (lodge).
Monday, March 30 – Gjirokastra, Albania
We drove through the town of Lushnje and stopped to meet Migen’s Mother and two of his brothers. Very nice to be welcomed into the home of an Albania family. After our visit we popped into the radion station where Migen airs a radio show.
This beach will be packed in the summer; and the garbage removed prior:
We had lunch outside of town at the coolest restaurant – the food was fantastic! We all had the local fish plus many appies and sides including BBQ eel.
The fire starter was a hairdryer and a bottle of olive oil:
Gjirokastra was our final stop of the day. The old town of Gjirokastër is inscribed on the World Heritage List as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate.” The city is overlooked by the Gjirokastër Castle and is the birthplace of former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha.
Coolest domesticated (Chow) lion dog!
Our hotel was Ottoman style:
This is how the door locked; pull out the stick:
Tuesday, March 31 – Saranda
Sunshine plus blue skies makes a world of difference!!
The fantastic Gjirokastra castle:
The city has a small Museum in the home of Hoxha, another private tour.
We stopped at the beautiful Blue Eye Spring, a water spring and natural phenomenon.
A popular tourist attraction, the clear blue water of the river bubbles from a stunning, more than fifty-metre-deep pool. Divers have descended to fifty metres, but it is unknown what the actual depth of the hole is.
Can you see my look of fear here? I was standing on the one safe plank on the lookout over the spring:
We visited the ancient city of Butrint. The earliest archaeological evidence dates to between 10th and 8th centuries BC, although some claim that there is earlier evidence of habitation in the 12th century BC.
This was a people ferry !
Spent the night in Saranda, one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Albanian Riviera. It is situated on an open sea gulf of the Ionian Sea in the central Mediterranean, about 14 km east of the north end of the Greek island of Corfu. We could see Greece! We were right on the beach and it was beautiful!
There were 750,000 bunkers in Albania, most still in place. The story goes, if you spot one, you’ll see ten. We got used to seeing them and they made for interesting pictures:
Wednesday, April 1 – Vlora
We dropped by this incredible restaurant on our road trip; the water runs right underneath it:
Porto Palermo Castle is an early 19th century, well preserved castle on a little island. Lots of remains of communinists buildings as well:
Megin introduced us to the castle caretaker; an amazing elderly man that was a walking encyclopedia! He knew more about Canada then we did. He said Joe had ‘the face of a very intelligent man’ – I thought that was so cool!
They call me ‘Mr. Intelligent’:
This is a submarine bunker that was recently bought by Italy. They are going to turn it and the surrounding area into a tourist attraction or theme park.
Albania traffic jam:
Beach in Dhermi:
We drove through Llogara National Park and we lived to tell it! OMG. It was SO high with so many hairpin turns! And the cars pass each other constantly! We had total faith in Migen as a driver and thank God I was in the back seat so my view was blocked. Joe, however had a full screen view and found it more than a little uncomfortable. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. We had no idea that was our only way back to our home base. It is currently in the list of highest paved roads in Europe. I found someone’s youtube of the drive if you have a spare 10 minutes. Crazy!!
Thank goodness our stop for the night was another gorgeous beach city; Vlora. Vlorë is on the Bay of Vlorë, an inlet on the Adriatic Sea, almost surrounded by mountains. The port of Vlorë is close in proximity to Bari, Italy. Our hotel was right beside a heavily guarded military pier and it was intesting to watch the ships and boats come and go and the number of guards increase and decrease as they did. Another breathtaking view from our window:
Thursday, April 2 – Berat
Our first stop this morning was ‘Apollonia’, the ancient Greek city of Illyria. Our guide Migen arranged for his friend that is a Professor of Archeology here, to give us a private tour. Pretty sure he knew what he was talking about!
Only about 1% of the site has been excavated!
Some of the archeological discoveries are in the monastery. Sadly, after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, the archeological collection was plundered and the museum was temporarily closed. The ruins were also frequently dug up by plunderers for relics to be sold to collectors abroad. Archeology students from all over Europe continue work on the site when possible.
Back on the road again and passed fresh chicken for sale!
Different bunker styles:
Our lunch – we tried frogs legs and they were good! We wanted to have the ‘village chicken’ but it was going to take 40 minutes to prepare because he had to catch it first!
Wine Tour – today we had a Wine Tour! Berat’s Cobo winery has been producing Albanian wines since the early 1900s but when the communist government took power they put an end to most wine production in Albania. In the early 1990s Cobo was able to reopen their doors and they have once again started producing some of Albania’s best wines and raki. We enjoyed the tour and the wine!
Here is the assembly line for corking the champagne:
Berat has a lot of beautiful buildings of high architectural and historical interest.
The pine forests above the city, on the slopes of the towering Tomorr mountains, provide a backdrop of beauty.
These kids were hanging over so high!
Berat is known to Albanians as the city of the City of a Thousand Windows or The City of Two Thousand Steps.
We think we climbed about 250 of them to get to our hotel room this night. This was the patio off our room and the breakfast room:
It was historic and the view was beautiful but we were exhausted at this point and found it odd that the shower head was between the sink and the toilet. No glass walls. No nothing. The floor drained somewhat but still required flip flops.
Friday, April 3 – Return to Tirana
Our final tourist attraction was a stop in Durres to see the amphitheater- still uncovering so much history!
We are now back in Tirana, the capital of Albania for 3 exquisite nights and 3 alarm clock free mornings. Doing some catch up with the blog, finances, laundry and future travel planning. Monday we depart for Belgrade, Serbia but until then, we are basking in our own space. Our two back to back escorted tours were incredible but we need a few days to ready ourselves for what comes next.
Reflection of our tour of Kosovo and Albania:
The life stories our guide, Megin shared with us for 10 days reshaped our first impressions of Albania. I knew pretty much nothing, Joe had a background on recent history through the news. Megin is one of 11 children, was beaten by communist officials for wearing jeans and again for making a joke in school. During that time, you could not even speak negatively about communism to your own family or they would report you. At 18 Megin was sent to the front line in Kosovo. Later he worked with World Vision, missionaries and church groups to support the children in crisis. His wife left him three years ago and he is still in denial. But he is one of the happiest people we have ever met and always had an ear to ear smile on his face.
Through Megin we heard how the Albania’s have been kicked while they were down, over and over again. They feel they cannot rely on any political party to take care of them so they look after each other. We felt safer around these people then anywhere in Europe. War after war, communism, another war….yet they picked themselves up and tried again.
There’s garbage everywhere in Albania: it was shocking. It’s on the streets and riverbanks; it washes up along ocean shores. And it is not just the locals dumping their waste – municipalities dump the waste of 100’s of thousands of residents in fields close to where pigs and goats dig through the piles of garbage looking for something edible. Rainfall washes pollutants into streams and rivers, which eventually end up in the ocean. Albania’s garbage isn’t just their own. According to the Albanian Department of the Environment, 300,000 tons of scrap metal and 20,000 tons of plastic were imported in 2011 for processing, with much of it coming from Italy. Part of the problem is consumerism has exploded in Albania since the end of communism and they just can’t keep up. They are producing a lot more garbage than they can dispose of. But they are working on it!
The Air pollution is the other problem in Albania; owning a car was banned until the early 1990s so over the last 25 years, the number of cars has increased to over 300,000, most of which are 1990s and early 2000s diesel cars. (With the surprising exception of many Mercedes and Land/Range Rovers.) On top of that, the fuel used in Albania contains larger amounts of sulfur and lead than in the European Union. Sometimes we found the diesel smell nauseating. In Tirana, the Big Park at the Tirana Artificial Lake is helping to absorbing CO2 emissions, and over 2,000 trees have been planted around sidewalks. They are learning!
In the initial few days in Albania we were shocked by those two things. At first we couldn’t see past them because in our world, they are totally unacceptable and we know that. Here, they are not aware of the damage they are causing – especially in the very rural areas. But once we understood the people and the history and saw the beautiful country they have, we tried not to focus on these issues. Our pictures try and reflect the natural beauty!
Since the end of communism in 1991, it took Albania two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe. Now that it has started to, Albania offers incredible unique attractions: stunning mountain ranges, forgotten archaeological sites and timeless villages with sheppards and their herds on every hillside. The beaches are comparable to any in the Mediterranean. Albania has come a long way! We came because we had to…but we are glad that we did.
Today marks the seventh month anniversary of our travel adventure. Time is going so fast now! Can’t wait to see our kids in Croatia in May! Hope you have a Happy Easter.
Lots of love,
Paula and Joe