Reflecting on the Balkans & Albania.

The past 7 months has been an amazing journey. I kicked it off in October with a European trip spending 2 weeks with my amazing mother in Greece before saying goodbye to her and crossing the border into Albania, then Montenegro, and lastly Croatia before flying out of Zagreb and back to Phuket, Thailand for another season.

The beauty that is the Balkan’s is something I find hard to write about, which is why I haven’t touched the subject since the trip. I figured it was about time I tried to find a few words for you. Albania had to have been my favorite country. Littered with history from Communist Rule, to real life castles, the friendliest locals, and doner kebabs for days.

Albania is an interesting country because of it’s 6 million people only 3 million of them still live in the country, the rest have moved to Turkey or Greece or another part of Europe and assimilated raising families of their own. Because of their long history under Communist rule, no one was allowed to drive a car except for Communist leaders until 1991. Which basically means that everyone in the country has limited experience with actually driving a vehicle, which can lead to some really interesting bus journeys. The buses don’t have schedules and mostly wait to leave until they are full. As a traveler you must find out where the local bus waiting area is, walk down, and proceed to move down the line of little minivans (fogons) until you find someone yelling out your destination. Albanian’s don’t speak the best English overall, because they don’t have a steady influx of travelers yet. But they are probably some of the nicest people I’ve met, and they will try to help you in any way they can, even if it leads to a lot of confusion and nothing but smiles.

Because they aren’t so used to travelers, the average Albanian, even if somehow involved in the small tourist industry, isn’t trying to rip you off or gain anything from you. They haven’t yet tipped towards the way of trying to make money off of travelers, which is comforting to know when the language barrier can be quite complex. More than anything they are more likely to look at you and say, “Why would you want to come here?” with a quite confused look on their face. They are proud to be Albanian but are mostly unsure as to what interests you about their country or culture. I had the cutest conversations with people on the bus, their genuine interest in me, my blonde dreadlocks, the necklace I’m wearing… it would become a huge conversation where the one person on the bus that spoke decent English would try their best to translate everyone’s various questions to me as we made our way toward the next city on a bumpy “road” which doesn’t even appear to be any kind of road at all. On one bus between Berat and Tirana a teenager girl called her mother or grandma and had me speak into the phone, explaining how she was talking to a white, blonde, American girl.

Saranda, right across the border from Corfu, Greece is the southern-most beach town in Albania. I kicked off my trip here with a very confusing mini bus ride to The Blue Eye! Check it out, it’s stunning and well worth the trip! Although you’re in for a shock if you decide to plunge into the turquoise icy waters.

From Saranda I caught a 6 hour bus ride to Berat where I got stuck for 3 days amongst castles, spending my evenings watching the locals promenade up and down the riverside boardwalk, eating pizza and drinking the local beer amongst windy cobblestone streets.

The capital city of Tirana is where you’re going to experience the most “westernized” area of Albania. It’s here that you can stroll through hipster looking neighborhoods and classy uptown while at the same time walking past old Communist buildings and bunkers that have long since been deserted but still stand, covered in graffiti, as a haunting reminder of the almost recent past.

Heading further north is Skodra which is the gateway to the Albanian Alps. From there I took a small boat up the river to Valbone, a small rugged mountain town where I began to walk trekking over the Alps and into a town called Thessi. It was absolute heaven. The hike was an adventure in itself but had some of the most stunning untouched nature I’ve ever seen. After taking a few wrong turns I ended up at a homestay with my Tasmanian friend, Ashley. The family that gave us a place to sleep for the night (after trekking the last 4 hours in the pitch dark with no moon) didn’t speak a word of English (surprise!) but gave us a great homecooked meal and shelter from the rain. We couldn’t ask for more at that point. In the morning we managed to find our way into town and found a jeep to take us back to Valbone on the craziest mountain driving ride of our life, for only 10 euro.

In almost 2 weeks in Albania I spent just over 200 USD including transportation, hostels, food and fun. It’s so cheap there it’s absurd, which makes a cruise through this country well worth the time! And get there before it starts to get touristy and they catch on to the well known ways of squeezing another penny out of confused tourists and backpackers. No matter how you decide to do this trip, it’s a country not to be missed, but be prepared for a little adventure and a lot of compromise because this isn’t a fast paced country and you’ll definitely need an open mind to get the most out of everything it has to offer. The only airport is in the capital city of Tirana, so most of your transportation will be by land or sea. On my next trip to the Balkans I definitely plan on going back to Albania, you should too!

The Blue Eye- a crystal clear 10 degree celcius hole that plunges to 48 meters. stunning, eh? As the locals call it, Syri I Kalter.

Cruising through the ancient castle in Berat up on top of the city landscape.

Breathtaking Albanian Alps in the northern part of the country. Definitely worth a visit! 

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