A road trip through Albania – Part I

by Kathi Daniela

EIN ROADTRIP DURCH ALBANIEN: ABENTEUERLICH, ABER TRAUMHAFT

"Distance: 20 kilometers, duration: 38 minutes" - this is how many of our drives read on Google Maps on our road trip through Albania. Whether a road is a brand new highway or just a gravel road with knee-deep potholes remains a surprise every time.

A road trip through a so far almost unknown Balkan country, escaping the corona restrictions, postponing autumn for a few days - that was our plan when we left for Albania. Nothing but two hand luggages in the old VW Golf – not knowing what to expect!

Here's a #traveldiary about one of the most adventurous, least explored places in Europe...

roadtrip-albanien-tipps-shkodra-2

We had 13 days to explore Albania by car. A road trip is always my first choice - and especially on the Balkans, where public transportation is not always that reliable, it is certainly a good choice.

We decided on places we wanted to see beforehand, but still were spontaneous, booked our accommodations only one or two days in advance and we went home after 10 days in the end because we felt that we had seen enough of the country for this time. 

So if you want to follow our route you can easily do it in 10-12 days, depending on how much time you have.

a few facts first

  1. The basics first: About 2.8 million people live in Albania while the majority of Albanians (7-10 million) live outside their home country, mainly in other European countries

  2. When Albania was liberated from communism in 1991, there were only 3,000 cars in the country. Today Albanians love to drive Mercedes - and are among the worst drivers in the world

  3. The Albanians have a tradition called "Xhiro" (Jiro) - an early evening walk on which you catch up with neighbors and friends, stretch your legs and get some fresh air

  4. There are 750,000 bunkers all over the country. They were built by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha to protect Albania from invasions from outside and him and his supporters from protests inside the country

  5. When it comes to women's rights, Albania still has a very long way to go: it is the only country in Europe where gender-based abortions are performed because female children are not wanted. Women are still seen as the property of the man, cannot inherit or own land or real estate
Mann auf Fahrrad in Albanien
Villa Bekteshi

Day 1 A roadtrip through Albania

Hi, Shkodra...

We start our Albania road trip in the north of the country, only 45 minutes away from the Montenegrin border, in Shkodra. The city is 2,400 years old but nowadays suffers from its poor economic situation.

We arrive in the late afternoon and drive through desolate communist blocks towards the city center - only a few streets, but they almost have an Italian charm. Passing the Ebu Bekr mosque we take part in our first Xhiro, without even knowing about it. The streets are bustling with people, bicycles and scooters.

The next day we take our time to hike up to Rozafa fortress, a remain from the Illyrian times. As soon as we leave the city center we are overwhelmed by garbage, people digging in garbage cans and the corrugated iron huts that were built behind a supermarket.

I knew all along Albania was not a rich country but the living conditions are way worse then we expected and I feel shocked. The view from the castle is stunning though and lets us forget the poverty for a while. We stay in Shkodra for two days but in the end we agree: One day would probably have been enough.

Location tips

1. Restorant Sofra for cheap and good, traditional Albanian food. For only 6,50 Euro we had two main courses, one dessert and two glasses of wine (which I unfortunately cannot recommend, in general I didn't find the wine in Albania so amazing)

2. Vila Bekteshi – we had amazing Albanian food here, the prices were a bit higher (for Albanian standards, a dinner and 2 glasses of wine came to 10 EUR per person). The atmosphere was really nice and traditional

3. Bed Station this is actually a hostel, but it has a nice backyard bar where we went for a few drinks

4. The Wanderers Hostel is where we stayed and I can only recommend it! It was cheap, very clean, breakfast was included in the price and the owners were super nice

Albanias streets, Albanian drivers and Google Maps

A road trip through Albania will certainly not be boring - the road conditions, the Albanians themselves and also Google Maps ensure that.

More than once Google misled us because some roads that are listed do not exist and some roads that lead to sights or beaches are not shown on the app. So always double check the route Google Maps suggets – otherwise it may lead you to a gravel road in the middle of nowhere.

Speaking of gravel roads - the conditions of Albanian roads vary a lot. Between the bigger cities, the roads are quite good, but as soon as you leave the highways this can change very quickly. Suddenly you find yourself on gravel roads full of knee-deep potholes. Google Maps is a good indicator of the road conditions though - if a distance of 20 kilometers takes 40 minutes to drive, then you already know what to expect. 

And then I also want to talk about the Albanian drivers: There are no rules for them. Three lanes are quickly made into five and right of way is not a concept at all. I was surprised that we didn't see an accident in the whole ten days - the Albanians themselves seem to know how the system works and in the end they all take care of each other. But for a driver from Western Europe, this can be quite stressful and dangerous.

Day 2 A roadtrip through Albania

Let's go to Tirana…

On our third day we drive to the Albanian capital, Tirana. The metropolitan region is home to almost one million people, which makes the city very busy and lively. We fight our way through the crazy Albanian traffic to our hostel. 

The English Hostel ist nur rund drei Minuten Fußweg von der Namazgjah Moschee entfernt, die einmal die größte Moschee auf dem Balkan werden soll – allerdings wird schon seit 2015 daran gebaut, viel zu sehen oder fotografieren gibt es über die Bauzäune hinweg noch nicht. Wir spazieren also weiter zum neuen Basar, Pazari i Ri – einer Markthalle in der frisches Obst und Gemüse verkauft wird. Hell und freundlich erscheint sie, im Vergleich zu den heruntergekommenen Gebäuden der Hauptstadt, die mit einem Chaos aus Stromkabeln vernetzt werden.

Unser nächster Stop ist der Skënderbej Platz, der ist natürlich ein Must See, aber interessanter ist wohl das Bunk’Art 2 Museum, das eine Menge über die Geschichte Albaniens, die Diktatur und die Sigurimi, die albanische Stasi, verrät. Die Stimmung ist danach etwas gedrückt, also wird es Zeit für einen kleinen Pick-Me-Up.

Want a shot to make you feel better? We move on to the Bar Komiteti, a recommendation from our host. This museum café specializes in raki, the liquor of the Balkans, and even offers a tasting of five different rakis. We only try the honey and chilli one though, after all we still have a reservation for dinner! 

We take another walk to the restaurant where we made our dinner reservation. It leads us past the Pyramid of Tirana (thought to be a mausoleum for the dictator Enver Hoxha, now empty and unused) and across the Mother Theresa Square, which is full of young people.

We end our day in Tirana with a nightcap at Blloku, the new "in" district of Tirana. Numerous bars and restaurants line the streets and no one is paying attention to the former dictator's villa –  only we try to catch a glimpse into the dark windows, while expensive Mercedes-Benz' drive past us, the windows down, the music loud. 

Around eleven, the streets slowly empty, the Tiranians are done presenting their cars and the sidewalk cafés close. We return to the hostel - tomorrow we will continue our trip to the sea!

The best Restaurants & Bars in Tirana

Blloku – the best area for going out in Tirana is Blloku, an old communist block that is now turned into a party distric. This is where the typical Balkan "see and be seen" takes place.

Komiteti the museum café is specialized in raki and even offers tastings. The communist interior with vintage pieces from that time adds to the atmosphere 

Ceren Ismet Shehu etwas außerhalb von Tirana, aber es ist die Fahrt so wert! Es gibt keine Karte, serviert werden typisch albanische Vorspeisen, gefolgt von entweder Kalb, Ziege oder Lamm als Fleischgang. Optionen für Vegetarier sind vorhanden

Kino – the bar we went to for our nightcap. Good cocktails and a nice garden. But there are many other nice bars around

Albanien Roadtrip: Pyramide von Tirana
Albanien Roadtrip: Straße in Tirana
Albanien Roadtrip: Pyramide von Tirana

A few words about Albania's garbage problem

During our trip, we have repeatedly seen Albanians who simply threw their garbage out of the car onto the street. And not only that, we also noticed immediately: There is garbage everywhere! And really everywhere.

On the beach, in less busy alleys in the city center or in the parks - Albanians have no environmental awareness whatsoever. This is not directly their fault though, it is due to several factors. One of them is certainly the lack of education. On the other hand, when the country opened up in 1991 after almost 50 years of isolation, it was flooded by garbage: plastics, disposable products, modern packagings... At the same time, Albania has a very rudimentary garbage disposal system - I have heard that many Albanians feel compelled to dispose of their household waste in some ditch because the infrastructure for waste recycling is not in place. 

It is a real pity that the country is really drowning in garbage – it makes a road trip in Albania a bit uncomfortable. It is to hope that the Albanians soon recognize the value of environmental protection and take on this problem!

Day 3 to 5 A roadtrip through Albania

Beautiful Vlora?

Vlora is the third largest city in Albania and has an eventful history. For a while it even was the capital of the country.

Nevertheless, we could not get ourselves to like Vlora. The city center, which consists of hardly more than two streets, was clean but the rest of the city was drowning in garbage! The beaches were dirty and not treated well. On our first day we saw people burning tires directly on the beach. Finding a private beach that was not full of trash proved difficult.

The promenade of the city is currently being modernised with the help of the EU and maybe Vlora will develop into a nice little coastal town in a few years - but for us it was not worth a visit!

The most beautiful beaches between Vlora and Saranda

Much more recommended than Vlora are the beaches along the coast between Vlora and Sarande – the famous Albanian riviera. We took a whole day to explore those – and that is where we finally found our sought after crystal clear water! Most of those beaches are clean and taken care of by restaurants and hotels. The drive itself is also impressive, leading through the mountains and offering some wonderful views of the sea.

1. Jala Beach – a beautiful and clean beach with crystal clear shallow water and some beach bars

2. Borsh Beach – an exclusive beach where you have to rent your sundeck and umbrella. But it's super clean and inviting

3. Kico Meniko Restaurant und Bucht – this is not really a beach but a restaurant. You can swim though while you wait for your lunch to be ready. The owners don't speak a word of English and we managed to order some of the best fish and shrimps I had in my life! The road to get there is quite bad so best park your car at the last house on the road and walk down the road for the last couple of 100 meters

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Ein Roadtrip durch Albanien – Part I: Tipps, Route und Eindrücke September 25, 2020 - 11:32 am

[…] Falls ihr ihn noch nicht gelesen habt: Hier geht’s zu Teil I […]

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