Reflecting on all of the things that we have discovered when visiting Albania…
Sadly when you tell people you plan to visit Albania the staple answer remains ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’, ‘is it safe?’ or ‘can you take your car/van and drive there?’
Albania had for too long remained an unknown for us and wanting to explore as much of the European continent in our camper van as we can it did not make sense to keep avoiding it. After some fairly fruitless research aiming to answer the questions above we decided to just go there and find out for ourselves.
We thought a summary of the main things we have discovered so far will be useful and perhaps persuade you to visit this intriguing and blossoming (or perhaps more accurately ‘budding’) country.
- Independent travel: We always prefer to drive ourselves yourself rather than rely on public transport and this we would certainly recommend is the case in Albania.
It is possible to drive your own car (from Britain) in Albania.
We were not able to arrange insurance cover and therefore a green card from the UK but one of the things we discovered was that it is straight forward to buy a green card at the border (€50 for minimum duration of two weeks at time of writing).
We found that our navigation system did not have any maps of Albania and we have discovered that not many GPS systems do and so you need to, as we did, rely on paper maps.
A lot of the main roads are new and absolutely fantastic, do take care though as some are not quite finished so you can find a two lane reduce to one lane and change direction with little, or no, warning. Roads through towns and villages can be a little rough and pot-holed in places but by no means dangerous so just take it easy you’ll want to time to enjoy the scenery anyway.
- What we discovered about the capital, Tiranë, is initially intimidating and confusing; multi- lane highways approach busy roundabouts with few meaningful signs to tell you which of the bustling narrow streets is the way you want to go.
Large communist era buildings dominate, some shabby and grey, others amazingly colourful (thanks to artists and Mayor Edi Rama apparently) but still with a more utilitarian and unkempt feel.
One of the things we discovered however was that, throughout Albania, when you approach a confusing junction or circle a roundabout there is often a helpful and friendly policeman or local to show you the way.We eventually found our way to breath-taking Skanderbeg Square…
When you wander the bustling streets of Tirana you discover a wonderful mix of communist and Ottoman architecture, a thriving cafe and restaurant culture.
- What we discovered about the people: Albanians seem to be strong, proud, friendly and welcoming. From 1968 until 1990 for the Albanian people practising of religion was an offence yet now you will see young and old, entering churches throughout the day to pray and you will hear the call to Muslim prayer from the mosques.
At one of our stop overs we met Tony who has been building his small hotel by Lake Ohrid for over 15 years, spending time in the USA to learn English and earn some money but he told us as he served plentiful dishes of delicious local specialities ‘I always wanted to come home, I love my country, it is a beautiful place for tourists and I want to make it better. Even if it is just my small part here.’
- What we discovered about the language in Albania:
We found English spoken particularly in the bigger towns and if not then (particularly on the coast) quite a few people speak Italian. We had a very odd conversation asking directions to a campsite, in a cafe over an espresso, near Vlorë. The owner spoke Italian and her advice was not to camp at all whilst her son spoke English and thought there may be one at Divjakë Lagoon (over an hour away), his friends seemed to be agreeing with him in Albanian.
Following their advice and that of two (non-English speaking) night security guards at a bar on the beach we discovered we could camp with our van on the beach of the lagoon – a beautiful place to stay!
The Albanian language doesn’t seem to have much similarity to others even so it’s always nice and welcomed if you try memorising a few important words as at least a few words….Please Ju Lutem, Thank you Faleminderit for instance.
- Things we discovered outside of Tiranë: the landscape is vast and diverse. In places it shows the scars of having worked very hard with crumbling tin processing plants amongst farmed fields and hillsides ravaged by quarries…
however it is overall quite stunning
and the eager and passionate people of Albania are now working hard to make improve this and to ensure their country is more appealing to visitors.
- One of the most enjoyable things we discovered when visiting Albania is that local produce and great food is easy to find.Our first experience was in the south of Albania during a slow and fascinating journey through lush and mountainous countryside when around one bend we found a small taverna perched on the hillside. At Taverna Muzina we enjoyed a huge plate of spit-roasted ‘meat’, keci – kid in fact, perfectly seasoned and cooked and absolutely delicious.
At the time we were unsure of the exchange rate but assumed around 100LEK to the british pound so 1600 LEK for our feast which greedily included an enormous Greek salad, rice AND two local beers seemed about right. Later we found the exchange rate was around 180LEK per £, it’s easy to see what amazing value this wonderful food was.In Tiranë we wandered off the main Skanderberg square to find highly recommended Sarajet restaurant housed in an Ottoman house hidden behind trees on a quiet back street. We enjoyed a local breakfast, a timbale or hot rice topped with grated cheese served with thick sour yoghurt, in the tranquil sun-dappled garden but inside we could imagine generations have huddled to discuss politics and business.
At Tony’s place on Lake Ohrid near Pogradec, we slept in our van in his garden looking out to Macedonia and feasted on the local Koran fish caught in the lake and his recommended local speciality Fergese – liver baked in a rich sauce and topped with cheese, sounds odd but is absolutely delicious. Grilled vegetables, potatoes, Bruschetta and of course just a few beers, enough for a family we thoroughly indulged just the two of us and including our camping (with use of his bathroom in the house) the bill was 5200Lek (around £30).
- Currency: talking of LEK, you will see that your pounds or dollars will go a long way in Albania. However take care as you cannot buy or exchange Lek outside of Albania. So either spend all that you exchange (which is easier said than done given the prices mentioned above) or exchange before you leave the country. We exchanged our Lek for Euros in a bank in Korçë.
- Historic sites: as well as simply enjoying the scenery, great food and hospitality in Albania there are some wonderful historic sites to visit and discover. Two quite different places that we enjoyed were;
the archeological site at Butrint whose ruins span over 2500 years
and approaching from the south you have the added experience of the wooden platformed cable ferry which glides across the Vivari channel towards the ancient city walls and…
Gjirokastër whose cobbled streets tumbling down the hill from the castle above feels at one moment like a living museum (the town is a UNESCO world heritage site)
and on the other hand, as you sip an Albanian Korça beer in a local bar, it feels like a very relaxed and charming town.
- One odd thing that we ‘discover’ or at least noticed and cannot explain is an amazing number of car washes by the side of the road in Albania. At Përrenjas on the way to Lake Ohrid, as we wound our way up the hill through the small town, we counted at least 15 hose pipes spurting water into the road with 1 or 2 men by each one sitting waiting or waving passing motorists in to hand wash their cars. It is evident that since the ban on privately owned cars was lifted in 1991 the car has become a necessity for many and a status symbol but we just couldn’t figure out the economics or reason for so many car washes! Does any one have any further insight?