M - We can't recall exactly when we first thought that we wanted to go to Albania and why. We think it was either a Sunday Times magazine article or a Top Gear show. Regardless, when we looked at our potential routes from Greece north into Europe we were both excited at the chance of visiting a country that was pretty much cut off from Europe until communist rule ended in 1992.
Albania has a reputation for being a staging post for imigrants coming into western europe and as a chop-shop for high end stolen cars stolen in more affluent areas of europe. They certainly drive more mercedes benz per car on the road than I have ever seen!
By european standards Albania is very cheap (16 dollars for 2 courses with a bottle of wine in a top hotel restaurent in Berat). It has a pretty decent transport system via bus. We saw some great scenary and met many very, very friendly people. Certainly worth a quick visit.
The people are so glad to see you in their country. Very few speak english but regardless they all seem to
want to help you. We arrived off the ferry from Corfu at Salanda and within minutes our taxi driver was helping put us onto the right bus for Berat and liasing with our bus-conductor to make sure we changed buses at the correct town. The conductor was then at pains to ensure we knew where to change. He even got off the bus with us at Fier to ensure we got onto the correct mini-bus for Berat. At Berat a local on a bicycle guided us to accomodation in the form of a private suite built onto his house. Tomar was a great host.
Berat is a Unesco heritage sight and the views from the castle are stunning even if the rennovations haven't quite finished yet. Walking back through the small town inside the walls we poked our heads inside what we though might be a local cafe. It turned out to be the dominoes/drinking den for the local men. After checking that I didn't need to leave the wife tied up outside we stepped in and enjoyed a beer and a game of dominoes. We decided to pass on the home made Raki/moonshine on
this occassion. The lack of females sitting outside the cafes in the main town though was a little strange. I don't think we have seen it this segregated since India. Walking down the promenade by the river with cafe after cafe of young men drinking coffee and starring at you was a little off putting.
The capitalTirana, as you would expect, had much more of a cosmopolitan city feel about it. It has an open mediterranean feel with a sprinkling of communist block! Lots of coffee bars/bars and a more western mixing of the sexes. The main square has the ever present communist style workers/revolutionary memorial. In this instance in the form of a colourful mural on the side of the museum.
The highlight of our trip to Albania though was the Albanian Alps at Valbone and the river trip en-route. We took a 6am mini bus for 2 hours from Shkodra to Koman. A 3 1/2 hour ferry from Koman to Fizen. Then shared mini bus with a local group on a weekend getaway for 2 hours to Valbone (the latter should have been 2 buses via a local
town but our boat was late and we missed our connections). With waiting time a total journey of 10 hours. It was well worth it. See the pictures of the river trip. It was stunning. The scenary for hike out of the valley up the lower slopes of the snow covered Alps was equally breath taking. Better still we saw only a couple of other hikers and a few local farmers in the whole walk. This is a must do is you even you only vaguely like to hike and are in Albania. Check the weather though. We had two beautiful days but the night before we were leaving the heavens opened and the cloud covered dropped well below the mountain tops obscuring the views.
Albania, I think we may be back another time to expore the coastline a little. Scroll down for some of the best photos we have taken.
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