I Was Taken by Albania: Now It’s Your Turn

The Albanian Ministry of Tourism recently launched a new campaign aimed at increasing the number of visitors to this very misunderstood, yet magical country. ❤️

DSC_4443
Theth, Albania

The campaign called, “Be Taken By Albania” intentionally pokes fun at the Hollywood film, Taken, staring Liam Nesson, which gives the impression that Albania is a nationwide mafia.

maxresdefault
courtesy of Google

As the campaign states, instead of being physically taken as a kidnapper here, you’re more likely to be taken by the country’s overwhelming natural beauty, the friendliness of the locals, and the richness of the traditional customs. As a female traveler who’s just finished backpacking this country solo, I could not agree more with this humorous message they’ve sent to Liam. Just take a look and see for yourself! 😂

As you can see, you have nothing to fear here. In Albania, the priorities are guest and God.🧡

IMG_1886
the grandma at my hostel who made fresh jam and rakija for everyone to enjoy

They welcome you into their home with rakija (plum brandy) and homemade meals, or give you local plants when your feeling ill. 💜

IMG_1736
the Albanian grandpa at my Airbnb who searched for local plants to brew me a tea when I was feeling sick
IMG_1739
mountain medicine

They pick you up on the side of the road when you can’t walk anymore in the heat, and they won’t just give you directions to a place, they’ll personally walk you there to make sure that you don’t get lost. 🚗

IMG_1762
hitchhiking with a family in Theth

During my time in Albania, I was taken by its majestic mountains, miles of endless coastline, and mythical medieval towns. 🏖️

IMG_1682
Theth National Park
DSC_4633
Saranda
DSC_4697
Berat a.k.a The Town of a Thousand Windows

I was taken by its hearty regional cuisine and heartbroken by its equally heavy history.

image
grilled eggplant with peppers, onions, garlic and rice 🍆🍅
DSC_4583
the old museum for communist leader Enver Hoxha

I was taken by each and every one of my encounters with locals that showed me true generosity and concern. 💙

IMG_2418
this guy drove me to the bus stop, so I didn’t have to walk in the heat

Simply put, unless you’re worried about getting beaten in a game of chess here, you really have nothing to fear. 😂♟️

SIDRE5719
Chess is serious business here.

In the end, I was taken by Albania: now it’s your turn. 😉

OMJDE1153During my time in Albania, I visited the following locations: Shkodra and neighboring Theth National Park, the capital of Tirana, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Berat and Gjirokaster, and the beach town of Saranda in the south. Here are the highlights, fun facts, good eats, traveling tips, and hiccups I encountered along the way! 😊

albania-map-855
map of Albania courtesy of Google images

Side note: Most cities in Albania have two names, one with and one without the letter ë. Albanian is also not Slavic. For example, to say hello here is ‘Përshëndetje’. I opted just to wave instead! Hah! To make things more confusing, Albanians actually call their country by a different name. It’s called Shqipërisë. You can even see it written on their currency.

Traveling tip: Most stores in Albania will accept Euro or Leke.

IMG-2168

Shkodra and Theth National Park

Shkodra or Shkodër was my intro to Albania and it couldn’t have left me with a better first impression!🦋

IMG_E1852IMG_E1868DSC_4485

IMG_E1835
kids playing on the carousel near the park

It’s the fourth largest city here, but it’s surrounded by rural countryside, so you’ll see lots of farmers and rustic traditions intertwined with the urban environment. Things like donkeys and goats in the streets, or street corn being sold out of a wheel barrel. 🌽

IMG_E1829

IMG_E1833

The streets are lively as well, with people selling everything from produce to instruments on the sidewalk. 🎸

IMG_E1830

This is a çifteli, a traditional string instrument.

IMG_1831

Side note: Some of my favorite moments in Albania were driving and listening to folk music. 🎵

 

The older generation is also very active here. Everyone dresses well, rides bicycles around the town, and can be found congregating at the local cafes for a smoke and a coffee. ☕

IMG_1775IMG_1614I loved walking the streets to notice local customs, like Turkish eyes to ward off evil spirits. 👹

IMG_E1641My hostel in Shkodra only added to the charm. Green Garden Hostel was located on the outskirts of town, but offered a very tranquil environment surrounded by fruit trees, farm cats and turtles. 🐢

IMG_1615
IMG_E1635IMG_E1636IMG_E1660IMG_E1623As a bonus, it was only 9 USD per night with breakfast included!

IMG_1633IMG_1881
IMG_1652Side note: The cuisine is also much more vegetarian friendly in Albania. They serve lots of grilled or stuffed vegetables with rice and yogurt.

BTAZ0629
stuffed squash, eggplant, and pepper with a dill yogurt

Fun fact/traveling tip: In Albania, citizens in cities with stoplights have to pay an extra tax, so places like Shkodra don’t even have a traffic system. They do have crosswalks, but it’s honestly like a game of Frogger, so just be patient as a pedestrian and aware of all the cars around you. 🚗

IMG_2412From Shkodra, I traveled to Theth National Park. To get there, I took a shuttle arranged from my hostel for 11 USD. The journey took 3 hours on a combination of paved and gravel roads with scenic views the whole way through. 😍

DSC_4369DSC_4371DSC_4378And some hilarious views too! 😂

DSC_4358While in Theth, I stayed in a quaint mountain home owned by this retired Albanian couple. 😍

DSC_4391DSC_4397DSC_4431I found it on Airbnb for about 15 USD per night including breakfast. It had lots of traditional decor and rustic charm.

DSC_4396DSC_4395IMG_1727IMG_1728IMG_1726HIWE6498IMG_1733

DSC_4482
warding off evil with these catchers

Although it was lovely guesthouse, the location was not ideal. It was about a 1.5-hour walk to the city center, so I’d definitely recommend something more centrally located. 😮

DSC_4458DSC_4473Although the walk was long, I did find a hidden waterfall on the way and some moo moos to keep me company.🐄

IMG_1698DSC_4461DSC_4469DSC_4453As an alternative option, I’d suggest something like Shpella Guesthouse.

DSC_4424They had good food, spoke decent English, and they were well-located near the old church. ⛪

DSC_4441For a tourist town, I also found it quite unincorporated. Sure, there was a map of trails and a few restaurants, but the tourist office was abandoned and directions of where to go and what to see was practically non-existent. 🤷‍♀️

DSC_4404DSC_4423DSC_4447

DSC_4446
modern, yet abandoned visitor center

As such, in order to avoid the stress of getting lost or not knowing where to go, I’d recommend downloading Maps.me or Guru Maps before arrival. These offline maps will help you be better able to enjoy the beauty and wonder that is Theth. In this remote village, you’re surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, rushing rivers, cornfields, old stone farm houses, grazing sheep, and wild horses. This village is so isolated, that you really feel transported back to a different time. 🐎

DSC_4422DSC_4408DSC_4421DSC_4426DSC_4433DSC_4436DSC_4440DSC_4445DSC_4443DSC_4437

Optional Extra: While in Theth, you can go on numerous hikes, including one which leads to this crystal spring called the Blue Eye. Alternatively, you can take a 9-hour hike to Valbona from Theth, and then take a ferry across Lake Komani. This hike actually used to be part of an old caravan route.

DSC_4398
the trail extending up the mountainside

People say the trail is easy to navigate by following these painted markers on the trees, but I get lost inside a paper bag, so I opted out. 😂

DSC_4463As another option, if you just want to see Lake Komani, you can also take a bus from Shkodra. Round-trip bus and ferry tickets are about 25 USD.

P1390159-8
Lake Komani courtesy of Google images

Tirana

Tirana is the colorful capital of Albania with the central hub being Skanderbeg Square.

DSC_4572
Skanderbeg, as seen on horseback, rebelled against the Ottoman invasion

DSC_4542

Here’s the National Museum with almost 5,000 historical artifacts dating back to ancient times. The mural was actually created during the communist era, which gives the illusion of gender equality.

DSC_4541

Now, to learn more about this recent history of rigid communist rule, I took a free walking tour.

IMG_1979

Our guide explained how Albania was ruled for four decades by a dictator, Enver Hoxha, (pronounced ‘Ho-ja’) whose iron fist made him one of the strictest leaders in European history. People were banned from practicing religion, owning private property, or traveling outside the country. Simple things like growing a beard or listening to foreign music could land you and your entire family in jail. There was no escape.

DSC_4496

This tyrant even declared Stalin, Tito, and Mao’s regime not communist enough, and isolated his entire country off from the rest of the world! 😲 At one point, the country was trying to grow all their own food, and people were starving to death. 

DSC_4577
Here are statues in Tirana of the communist leaders, including Hoxha. The statues weren’t destroyed, but they are behind a building next to a dumpster. Seems about right.

His ego even led him to erect a museum in his honor in which citizens were obligated to visit at least once each year.

DSC_4504Although the place looks like total garbage now, it will hopefully become a youth center in the future. 👍

DSC_4583
Fun fact: Bush was one of the only presidents to visit during these dark times, so Albania loves America. They even named a street after him. 🇺🇸

DSC_4579
And because he shunned every other country in the world, he was constantly paranoid of an attack. During his reign he built almost 200,000 bunkers across the country using forced labor, including a five-story bunker as his own personal hideout!😲 Finally, after his death in 1985 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism in the 90s, Albania was slowly able to achieve independence. Here’s just one of the bunkers and a segment of the Berlin Wall, which is displayed as a symbol of their freedom.

DSC_4501

Anyway, it’s only been 27 years since the end of communism here, but suffice it to say, things have come a long way. Our guide told us how people hadn’t even had simple imports like Coca Cola or bananas until recently. It was so exciting to them that they would put the empty coke can on the shelf like a status symbol, and during my visit, I found bananas everywhere! 🍌

IMG-2409
another symbol of freedom

Now, one of the most interesting things I noticed when visiting Tirana was how cheerful the capital now appears. Apparently, the recent prime minister decided to paint the city in vibrant Caribbean colors to liven up everyone’s spirits after so many years of oppression. 🎨

IMG_1984DSC_4553
DSC_4514DSC_4519DSC_4510DSC_4511DSC_4529DSC_4548

One of the most quirky things were these electrical boxes painted with silly cartoons and symbols of pop culture.

DSC_4544DSC_4555DSC_4557DSC_4563DSC_4564DSC_4565DSC_4567They also have some art installations in town like this metal cloud made by a Japanese artist and this sidewalk, whose concrete circles are supposed to look like a series of musical notes.☁️

DSC_4574IMG_1981They’ve also turned two of the old bunkers into an art gallery, which educates the public about their grim history. On record, 2,000 people were killed and almost 50,000 were sent to prison.

DSC_4525DSC_4524IMG_1929This educational center and memorial is helpful considering the wise words of the writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi.

IMG_1927Anyway, despite the country’s violent communist rule, they’ve always been tolerant of religion. Mother Teresa is actually part Albanian. ✝️

DSC_4582As well, Enver Hoxha’s house still remains in Tirana. It has not yet be turned into a museum. Maybe the wounds are still too fresh.

DSC_4585
Hoxha’s house is in Blloku, an area which was once restricted to only the government elite

What’s ironic though is what now stands in front of this communist leader’s home- a KFC! The ultimate symbol of capitalism. Hah! 🍗

DSC_4586

Berat and Gjirokaster

Berat and Gjirokaster are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which showcase well-preserved Ottoman architecture, but they also have many differences.

DSC_4718
Berat

Gjirokastra or Gjirokastër is known as “The City of Stone.” It showcases medieval architecture dating back to Ottoman times and a castle that has been fought over for centuries.

DSC_4662DSC_4667DSC_4653Beneath the castle is even a tunnel that was built as a hideout during the Cold War.

DSC_4652Walking through the streets and in the central bazaar, you’ll find lots of local handicrafts, like pottery, qeleshe (a brimless white cap), lace, woodwork, and local treats, like honey, jam and spices.

DSC_4657
DSC_4655IMG-2257IMG-2255They also have preserved homes, which showcase life back in 17th century Albania.

DSC_4663DSC_4673DSC_4671DSC_4680More stuffed animals for protection!

DSC_4684While in Gjirokaster, I stayed in a local’s home for only 9 USD per night. I had my own room and the family even brought me cantaloupe and coffee in the evening to enjoy on their patio.

IMG-2253The local specialty is definitely not cantaloupe though! Hah! Instead, they serve this dish called qifqi, which is rice, egg and dried mint that is often dipped in ajvar, a red pepper sauce.

BKozoepCYAElq9N
courtesy of Google

Berat is known as “The City of a Thousand Windows.” It also showcases traditional Ottoman architecture and a medieval castle, but geographically is located near the stunning Tomorr Mountains and along the Osumi River.

67634434_10109636007615377_5583162343237353472_oDSC_4706DSC_4697

In this rural mountain village, you’ll see men hauling donkeys down the streets or fishing in the stream. 🎣

DSC_4701DSC_4722While in Berat, I stayed at Hostel Managalem, which is a renovated historic home full of character and charm. There’s a stone fireplace, wooden decorative accents covered in lace doilies, and the host even showed me how to make authentic Turkish coffee. 💟

DSC_4690DSC_4691DSC_4692In the end, I enjoyed Berat a bit more. I like the natural beauty surrounding the city, plus there were lots of modern shops and homes nearby. It was a nice mix of old and new.

DSC_4726DSC_4727DSC_4729DSC_4732DSC_4730DSC_4734DSC_4762Plus, the views from the castle at sunset were outstanding!

DSC_4750

Saranda

Saranda or Sarandë is a resort town along the Albanian Riviera, only a short ferry ride from Corfu, Greece.

DSC_4609

The town is laid out on a horseshoe-shaped bay lined with beaches along the Ionian Sea.

DSC_4611

To get to Saranda, I took an 8-hour bus from bus station in Tirana. I use the word bus station loosely here, as it’s usually just a designated parking lot or street. 😂

IMG_1996Prices and times are rarely listed (or accurate), so your best bet is to just show up and inquire on arrival. 😕

IMG_1995The road to get there was full of curves, but the views of the coast were absolutely breathtaking! 📷

DSC_4588DSC_4593Wow! 😍

IMG_2001I also spotted some more bunkers along the way! Can you see the one in the distance?

IMG_2025

They also make pit stops along the way to pick up snacks and stretch your legs, which makes the ride much more enjoyable.🥤

IMG_2237IMG_2354IMG_2240

Now, the Albanian Riviera has many different beach towns, depending on the vibe you’re after. If you want beaches that are a bit more secluded, I’d suggest Himara or Vlora. Saranda on the other hand is much more crowded, but the atmosphere is less party and more family-oriented. You can find nice hotels and lots of condos to rent during your stay.

IMG_2073 IMG_2078As well, the local population is still strong here. The men and ladies are still out and about, dressed to impress, and chatting in the streets.

IMG_2246IMG_2064 Also, more stuffed animals to ward off evil!

IMG_2114IMG-2170

IMG_2062
street art of the Albanian flag

While in Saranda, I stayed at Hakuna Matata Hostel, which is actually a condo converted into a hostel. It had an epic coastal view for only 8 USD per night.

DSC_4596DSC_4598They also offered breakfast and the family living there really liked to interact with the guests.

IMG_E2148
petulla- a fried dough with jam and yogurt

We even had a family movie night with their 5-year-old daughter and son. So fun!

IMG_E2138Now, the best thing to do here is to enjoy the water any way possible. 🌊

IMG_2111You can rent water equipment or just chill under a parasol all day long. ☂️

DSC_4610 LRDIE8966My hostel even had an agreement with Cocktail Dreams Beach Club, where we got complimentary lounge chairs with umbrellas.🍹

IMG_2102 IMG_2101IMG_2100For food, you can find fresh seafood, like prawns and octopus, and plenty of Greek salads!TUGZ9756
VACQ9443
And when the sun starts to set, I’d highly recommend heading to the castle! 🏰

DSC_4624DSC_4621DSC_4633It was about an hour walk or 10-minute drive from the city center, but they have a nice on-site restaurant for dinner or drinks, plus ambient music.

DSC_4634DSC_4646DSC_4647DSC_4629DSC_4628

Just perfect! 🌅


DSC_4638

Anyway, up next I will cross the border from Albania to Macedonia. Stay tuned to hear all about it! Until then! 😊

15 thoughts on “I Was Taken by Albania: Now It’s Your Turn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.