Albania; a country of contrasts

In recent years I have visited the Balkan region a few times. Since I enjoyed its variety with mountains, beaches and plenty of culture, I wanted to explore a bit more. Albania is a fine example that ticks all these boxes with the Albanian Alps offering beautiful hikes, beaches can be found on the southern coast and when you head to the interior, towns with traditional architecture can be found. The country has also been more or less closed to foreigners for a long time during communist times, so mass tourism hasn’t found its way there yet, hopefully. This October I checked it out…

I started my trip in the northern part of the country, the Albanian Alps. This region offers some beautiful hikes and even some ski touring in winter. Some traditional villages are even linked together making an independent hike relatively easy. After my trekking adventures I would explore Tirana, Albania’s capital city before moving further south. Berat is located a few hours southeast of Tirana and is known for its castle and beautiful Ottoman architecture. Finally I’d make my way to Sarandë, the largest city of the Albanian Riviera, from where I’d do day trips to Ksamil and Gjirokastër.

My early morning arrival in Tirana allowed me to travel directly towards Shkodër, one of the oldest and most important cities of the country, located in the north. For me, this city served as the starting point for my hiking adventures in the Albanian Alps. The hike from Theth to Valbona (or vice versa) is gaining in popularity due to the beauty of the scenery, reason for me to check it out before half of China will bravely follow a colored flag through the mountains…

local architecture of Theth

Shkodër has about 130 thousand inhabitants and seems to be a friendly city. Besides the Rozafa castle there isn’t much to see in the city. Outside the city one can check out lake Skadar but that’s about it. The lack of tourist sights allows you to observe local life perfectly though. Traffic in the center is quite chaotic with taxis, buses and regular cars ignoring traffic rules (if there are any…) and both people and stray dogs trying to find their way through it. Everywhere you go in Shkodër, people are either getting together for a coffee or making sure their online profile is top-notch by constantly taking selfies of very, very important things…

Men are dressed in black, wear a small handbag (not sure if that’s the way to go for a macho image they seem to pursue…) and have a trimmed beard and, as a result, are sadly enough a dime a dozen. They gather in the many bars and cafes for a coffee and to check their mobile phones while women are busy renovating themselves. Makeup, nail studios and botox clinics are apparently booming in this part of the world. After all, no matter where you go, you have to look good on Instagram. Even on a hike you’ll see women on high heels and dressed for the occasion, a different occasion in my world, but who am I…

traditional Albanian food, from left to right: stuffed peppers, stuffed eggplant and eggplant with cheese

Despite my observations in this regard, the people are very friendly and helpful to tourists. As a result, traveling in Albania is fairly easy. Naldo, the host of my apartment, is a perfect example. He was available for questions, arranged a ride to Theth and walked me to my bus when I headed to Tirana. There is of course an economical incentive here, so perhaps they act differently in their private lifes. The first evening I was attacked by four large stray dogs and Naldo’s response was that dogs are just like humans, they cannot be trusted. So who knows what Naldo’s real personality is…

Shkodër also offered me a nice opportunity to become familiar with the local food. During previous visits to the Balkans, I had been surprised by their vegetarian dishes. Whenever possible they seem to stuff numerous vegetables or add melted cheese on top of it. Albania turned out to be no different. Their speca të mbushur (stuffed pepper) and patëllxhanë të mbushur (stuffed eggplant) are among the most popular traditional dishes. Peja Grill in Shkodër had both dishes on the menu. Because this restaurant also offered nice homemade bread, had friendly waiters and offered the option to sit outdoor and do some people watching while enjoying your food, you won’t be surprised this restaurant soon became my favorite place to have dinner. Peja Grill is nothing fancy but simply very pleasant.

the church of Theth (left) and the Grunas waterfall

Sunday the 6th of October I left early morning to Theth, a charming village in the Albanian Alps. I was picked up by two locals and at seven in the morning I found myself in an old car with two heavily smoking men. The windows were closed of course. The fact that my destination was the fresh air of the local Alps couldn’t be more contradictory. One of the guys turned out to be the driver of the minibus we changed to. Once we had picked up some locals, we were good to go. A bumpy ride through a spectacular landscape took me to Theth in about three hours.

The trekking from Theth to Valbona is gaining popularity but luckily it was low season. There were some backpackers and regular tourists around but not too many. I had planned the trekking for the following day so in the afternoon I checked out the village itself and went on a ‘warm-up’ hike to see the Grunas waterfall. Theth has a traditional feel which was strengthened by the lack of tourists. It was so quiet that I simply went into a house to ask if they offered lunch. A few languages later, I had soup and some vegetables. During lunch I was joined by a few cats, always nice. From here it was another hour or so to the waterfall. Being a spoiled person having seen quite a few impressive waterfalls, this one wasn’t jaw-dropping. Nevertheless it was still beautiful and the walk was quite nice. On the way back I checked out some more local architecture before preparing for dinner…

the kittens enjoyed the local food as well…

My guest house was located slightly hidden in the mountains, a nice and quiet place. Together with the only two other guests of the night, a couple from New York, I enjoyed some local food. Dinner consisted of all the stuffed vegetables I mentioned before, some cheese, meat and bread. The dog behind the house luckily shut up, after he had been barking nonstop for hours, so daddy could get some sleep. The following morning the weather looked much better than expected. All the clouds from the forecast apparently had not arrived and temperatures were perfect for some hiking. Before I started the ascent, I watched the cats of the owner for a while. A superb mother cat never lost sight of her four kittens and after some playing time, breakfast had finally arrived for them as well!

Because the guest house was located a little bit uphill, I was already quite close to the start of the trail to Valbona. In fact, there was a shortcut through the backyard allowing me to reach the trail within ten minutes. The actual trail is 9,5 kilometers, or 12, or even more. Sounds weird, right? Well, it all depends of course where you define the finish in Valbona. The actual trail through the mountains is 9,5 kilometers but at the end there is another 2,5 kilometers on a more or less flat area. Once you have reached the end of that, you can extend the hike on the tarmac road to your guest house of choice. Since Valbona isn’t a particularly compact village, the few houses it has, are spread out over kilometers along one road so your hike can suddenly become close to 18 kilometers!

autumn is a great time to hike from Theth to Valbona!

The highest point of the trek is the Valbona pass at 1.759 meters but first things first. After following a few curly roads, I soon arrived in a beautiful forest. There were no other hikers around at this point, making the walk very peaceful. The terrain was quite steep, so besides being peaceful the exercise was quite intense at the same time. Being protected by the trees, the shade prevented me from transpiring even more than I already did. After an hour or so through the forest, things opened up. A beautiful view of the Albanian Alps presented itself. I enjoyed the variety of colors, nice weather and the lack of other people for a while before continuing the trek.

Roughly another hour later I arrived at the last small café on the Theth-side where a steep section led me through another forest. The total vertical to gain was around a 1.000 meters, so I was getting close. Soon the Valbona pass came into view. By now, there were a few more hikers on the trail. I had caught up a few of them but was also overtaken by some others. Also, I had met some people by now who were doing the trail in the opposite direction, from Valbona to Theth. When I finally reached the pass the weather was quite fierce. Despite the strong cold winds, I still managed to enjoy the views…

the view towards Valbona, not bad…

During the descent I suddenly met quite a few other people. Apparently the hike from Valbona is quite popular with a late start. As it turned out the hike from this side is much shorter with only 800 meters vertical to cover. Also, one can arrange a ride to the starting point of the actual trail, so skipping both the tarmac road and the flat part. The remaining climb can be done in under two hours making it a popular choice for many people. I can truly see this route becoming very popular in the years to come. Don’t wait too long if you’d like to enjoy a peaceful hike…

Being October, traffic wasn’t too bad of course. Yes, I met a few people every now and then but there were no large groups following flags, nor were there any people taking photos with an iPad yet. I slowly continued my descent, stopping every now and then to take in the views. The actual descent turned out to be quite spectacular, in terms of scenery, but the remaining flat part towards the tarmac road was a bit boring. The hike as a whole was a great little adventure and proved to be a nice exercise too. Valbona is simply a sleepy town spread out across a long tarmac road. I rented a bungalow for the night, enjoyed a delicious trout (shared bits of it with Mads, the local young cat…) before calling it a night. Finally a night without barking dogs, Allahu Akbars or annoying church bells ringing. Yes, this was a peaceful night, as it should be!

the trip with the ferry on Komani lake is a nice finish of any trip to the Albanian Alps

Since I had left most of my luggage in Shkodër, I had to go back there before moving on to Tirana. This turned out to be no punishment. In fact, the ferry on Komani lake, which is part of the trip, is rather pleasant. For about two hours you might think you’re in the Norwegian fjords, but this time you only paid a few euros for it. A few hours later I arrived back at my apartment where Naldo had kept my luggage (so far he turned out to be a reliable person…). A final dinner at Peja Grill and I was good to go. The next morning a comfortable bus journey would take me to the capital of Albania, Tirana.

So far I had mostly enjoyed the outdoors in the Albanian Alps with its beautiful scenery and great hospitality. But, Albania has quite some history and perhaps I could get a taste of that in the capital city. Albania used to be part of the Ottoman Empire for ages until the country, which now has a population of just over three million (of which one sixth lives in Tirana), declared independence in 1912. A rough period followed where several countries tried to take over the country before it became a Satellite state of the Soviet Union in 1944. After a long period of communism, democracy took over in 1992. More recently Albania has implemented numerous reforms focused on modernizing the country that is still one of the poorest in Europe. Unemployment has been steadily reduced and gender equality has been at the center of the agenda resulting in almost 50% of the ministers being female. Well, enough background for now but have I noticed any of this history and recent developments during my trip?

not everything is pretty in Albania…

Reminders of the Ottoman Empire can easily be found in the form of the many mosques. I have been woken up several times by the prayer calls in Shkodër for example. Since believes faces harsh punishments in the past, practice is generally lax nowadays. Interesting to see in Albania is that several religions exist together in piece. In both Tirana and Shkodër churches and mosques are located within meters and people seem to be fine with it. Another remnant of the Ottomans is the architecture, of which perfect examples can still be found in both Berat and Gjirokastër (more about that later).

While walking around in Tirana, I guess more recent times are visible. The center is quite lively with many shops, bars and restaurants. Clearly capitalism made its appearance here. When you venture off the main streets however, large old flat buildings, will be found almost immediately. These flats are clearly leftovers from the communist era and they are not particularly beautiful. Nevertheless, I found this contrast within the city quite fascinating. Other than that, the city doesn’t have much to offer in my humble opinion. It simply lacks any form of beauty…

a typical gathering of old men in the center of Berat, these guys have experienced both communism and capitalism

As mentioned before, progressive politics reduced unemployment and enhanced gender equality. However, climate activists do not exist in this part of the world. I wouldn’t consider myself to be one, but the amount of plastic on the streets is simply shocking. People don’t even look for dustbins, they throw everything on the street. Do you wonder what to do with garbage when in a car in Albania? Simply open the window, et voilà, throw it outside! Yes, little Greta has work to do here…

Since Tirana wasn’t my favorite city, I soon left and headed towards Berat. Berat is located a few hours from the capital city and was recommended to me by a Spanish couple I had met in Theth. The city is rather small with only 60 thousand inhabitants and is concentrated around the Osum river with the Mangalem neighborhood located on the Eastern side while Gorica can be found on the other side of the water. The city is famous, within the Albanian borders, for the Ottoman architecture. The city also reflects the vernacular housing tradition (architecture characterized by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects) of the Balkans. These attributes, together with an old town, a few museums and, of course, a castle make Berat one of those typical tourist destinations. For me, the best way to spend time here, is by simply losing yourself while wandering around the narrow streets and alleys…

a typical street in the historic center of Berat

Where the Albanian Alps are seeing quite a few backpackers and hikers, this part of Albania is clearly gaining popularity by regular tourists. Historic towns generally attracts tourists and the fact it’s not too far away from Tirana helps too. The wine tasting Berat is also known for, might also draw the attention of a traveler or two. Tourism is developing in general in Albania but is still not the most important sector of its economy. Half the working population of around one million is active in agriculture whereas the majority of the remaining half is involved in some sort of industry. The country produces significant amounts of fruits and vegetables and the underdeveloped fishing industry has great potential. Albania also has the largest oil reserves in Europe.

As mentioned before, Berat is a lovely town to wander around. During my time there, I noticed quite a contrast between generations. Young people, let’s say under 30, are all busy with their appearance and the way they look. The older people meet in parks to play games and talk. It’s great to see sometimes more than ten men concentrated around a game of domino. They also seem to enjoy to read a newspaper (yes, the traditional paper version) and to discuss the daily events. Comparing the young and the old in Berat is almost like you’re comparing two different worlds!

“Ishujt e Ksamilit” (the islands of Ksamil) offer a tropical paradise

The next stop on this trip was the Albanian Riviera. The southern Albanian coast has several beautiful spots with the Karaburun peninsula, Himarë and Dhërmi to name a few. Since these places don’t have frequent bus connections I chose to visit Sarandë and Ksamil in the far south of the country. From there I could also visit the beautiful town of Gjirokastër. I went directly to Ksamil where I had found a nice bungalow at the Mussel House. It was located a 20 minutes walk outside the center, so more vicious dogs were on the lookout when walking to and back from town…

When one survives the dogs, deserted beaches can be found this time of year. Because the temperatures were very high for October with 27 degrees Celsius being 5 degrees higher than usual, I really enjoyed the empty beaches and the warm water. Ksamil has a popular area where ‘see and be seen’ seems to be the motto with expensive cars and loud music but when you walk for a few minutes, you’ll find some tranquility with small families, locals, backpackers and some mavericks. Not sure what it’s like in the middle of summer but ‘Paradise beach’ seemed an appropriate name when I was there!

fresh fish tastes wonderful in the Albanian Riviera; a grilled gilt-head bream at Czimi & Gjergji restaurant in Ksamil (left) and shrimps at Haxhi in Sarandë

Being at the coast I was not only looking forward to swim. Fresh seafood was also top of mind. Many restaurants were already closed for the season but after a while I found a nice low-key place, Czimi & Gjergji. The waiter convincingly recommended a grilled gilt-head bream so I gave it a try. Before I knew, I had a big audience of several cats who all smelled the fresh fish. Together with some fries, salad and garlic bread, the fish was an absolute pleasure to eat. It was so good, I went back the next day to have another one!

The bungalows were fully booked for the days to come so I went to Sarandë. To be honest, even if there was one available I would have probably left the place anyway due to a lack of atmosphere. In Sarandë I had booked an apartment from a friendly lady. The apartment was located a little bit uphill which was a pain in the a** when walking there with my luggage but all was forgiven once I saw the view from the balcony. Being a bit higher in town, the view over the city and the ocean was simple phenomenal!

watching the sun go down from my balcony was a daily treat

Sarandë is the largest place of the Albanian Riviera. It has plenty of large buildings, some resorts and an inevitable boulevard. I’m sure I would not like to be here when the huge crowds are present in the middle of summer but this time of year it was actually rather pleasant with only the odd local taking a dive. During my few days here I went back to Ksamil for a day and visited Gjirokastër. Of course, here too, I had to try some fish. Haxhi restaurant is highly recommended both for the quality of the food as well as for the atmosphere. And those shrimps certainly didn’t disappoint!

Gjirokastër is only one hour away from Sarandë by minibus so I figured this would be a nice day trip. Looking back, I should have spent a night there to do the town more justice. This town is mostly known for its castle but also has some stunning architecture. Their tower houses (heavily fortified buildings with small windows and shooting holes to offer security in a fighting situation) are characteristic of the Balkans region. Remarkable examples of such houses, which date back from the 17th century, can still be found.

Gjirokastër (as well as Berat) bears witness to a way of life which has been influenced over a long period by the traditions of Islam during the Ottoman period, while at the same time incorporating more ancient influences. This way of life has respected Orthodox Christian traditions which have thus been able to continue their spiritual and cultural development. Gjirokastër is a citadel town built on a steep slope by notable landowners. Thank you very much notables, walking to the castle is now a serious hike of about an hour from the bus stop. But, it was definitely worth it. During the ascent I noticed many fine examples of the beautiful architecture and the curling streets added to the feeling of going back in time…

Gjirokastër Castle as seen from the top of town

The castle is situated at an elevation of 336 meters and, as a result, overlooks the strategically important route along the river valley. Today it possesses five towers, a clock tower, a church, a cistern and a prison to name a few. The prison housed political prisoners during the communist regime. Besides all the history, the castle also provided a great panoramic view. Gjirokastër clearly has a lot to offer and deserves to be visited at least a full day and probably even more to get a feel of the town. I sadly had to return after a few hours back to Sarandë. After all, my sunset view from the balcony was waiting…

After nearly two weeks in Albania, my time there had come to an end. I took a boat to Corfu (yeah I know, life is tough…) to both relax and reflect on my trip to Albania. Traveling in this part of the Balkans, I noticed quite a few contrasts. The climate has a lot of variety with low temperatures in the mountains in the north (it even froze during the night) and between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius in the south, from Berat to Sarandë. Their cuisine also surprised me with a lot of options from plenty vegetarian dishes to the more standard plates with meat and from the many Italian main courses to fresh fish along the coast.

As mentioned before, I found the difference between generations quite fascinating. Everybody is very welcoming to tourists, or at least to me, but young and old almost seem to live in a different world. One world is all about the outside while the other is 100% about the inside, if you know what I mean. Together with the type of architecture and the current state of the buildings, you might feel you’ve traveled back in time, let’s say about 30 to 50 years. But, that’s when you’re mainly surrounded by older people. In case you’re surrounded by youngsters, the experience is rather weird. Did they have mobile phones and botox in 1970?

And then there are the mix of religions and systems of government that most likely underlie at least some of the perceived contrasts. Influences of ancient times and the Ottoman Empire might explain the peaceful coexistence of several religions in the country while communism and capitalism might be related to the difference between generations. Probably not as black and white but there might be some relation. After all, the older generation grew up during communist times while the younger generation is only familiar with competitive markets where profit-making is the main objective.

It’s impossible to fully understand a country in a period of two weeks but Albania is clearly a fascinating country because of its history and current situation. And let’s be honest, the price level also helps to have a good time. Albania probably offers one of the biggest culture shocks (after Georgia) you can experience within Europe, well when you’re from western Europe of course. Did I like everything about Albania? No, not everything. Think about the vicious stray dogs, the people smoking everywhere (also in restaurants for example) and the way they deal with garbage. But, in general, I highly recommend to visit Albania. Don’t wait too long though, the herds will arrive soon…

Click here to see more pictures from my trip to Albania!

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