Albania is a place that just a few short weeks ago, we really knew nothing about. We arrived to the nation’s capital of Tirana at night – after a 10 hour bus ride from Skopje, Macedonia. That first evening we really didn’t get to explore much, but the excitement of arriving in a new country was rushing through us and we were looking forward to beginning our epic 10 day road trip around the country.
In almost every major Balkan town there is a free walking tour that takes visitors around to historical sites and gives them a taste of history and the day-to-day life of the local people in the region.
We’ve been joining these tours wherever we can and we believe that they’re the best way to immediately immerse ourselves in each culture and learn about what makes the people tick. So far we had been on free tours in Plovdiv and Sofia, both in Bulgaria.
Tirana’s walking tour was unique because the guide had very personal accounts of his life growing up during Albania’s communist regime.
Instead of simply pointing out sites and rattling off scripted dialog about dates, architecture and wars, our guide, Gazi, brought the tour to life with tales of him and his brothers dealing with global isolation, living with daily rations and fighting for simple freedoms that we in Canada took for granted growing up.
His tour set us up with a better understanding of the wild country of Albania. Without Gazi’s emotional stories and descriptive memoirs, we may not have been able to grasp why Albania is the way it is. Even with his anecdotes, we still have much to learn about the country.
After the tour we bid farewell to our guide and set out on our road tripping adventure!
The first confirmation of Gazi’s words came when we picked up our rental car and started driving out of Tirana.
The driving was insane.
Pedestrians crissed and crossed back and forth across the busy streets. Cars swerved left to right, with 4 lanes created where there should have been two. Motorbikes weaved their way through impossibly tight traffic, and people honked at every light and round-about.
Gazi had told us that during the communist regime, the road was only for professional drivers and very few people had the privilege of driving. So today, the most experienced motorist may only have only been behind the wheel since the start of the 90’s.
On top of that, the entire driving infrastructure of the country is very embryonic, with hardly any full-sized highways and only small, bumpy roads connecting most towns. This is to say that driving in Albania was an adventure – one that was fun most of the time, but incredibly frustrating and dangerous the rest.
We finally made our way out of the chaos of Tirana, only to get lost in the forgotten farmlands of Albania’s countryside. We had GPS in our car, but the GPS in Albania is a navigational estimate at best.
At one point, the annoying automated voice instructed us to turn left – directly into a castle wall, while another time, had we followed the directions, we would have ended up in a landfill canyon!
By the time we made it to our second stop, Berat, we were exhausted (even though it was only 3 hours from Tirana). But again, the excitement of being in a new place charged us to go out and explore.
Berat is a beautiful town. Hundreds of ottoman era homes climb up a steep hill that flanks a deep gorge. The canyon is cut out of the jagged rock landscape by a rushing river. The stream itself was lovely… from afar.
Upon closer inspection we realized that there were ghosts in all of the trees along the riverbed. A sort of haunting site that looked like some kind of Halloween production.
Plastic bags, bottles, discarded clothing and cardboard were draped over every branch of every tree. The river was a dumping ground for refuse and over the years, so much of the trash had built up that the bank of the river looked like a haunted house.
Before passing judgement, we remembered our friendly guide Gazi’s words:
“During the communist regime, nobody had anything to throw out because we had nothing to spare.”
Today, the excess of plastic packaging has nowhere to go because the country’s waste system is so primitive. Nobody has been properly educated on what to do with garbage because just 25 years ago, there wasn’t any. Everything came in rations and all of the packaging was reused, burned or recycled.
Nothing went to waste because everything was in scarce supply.
Away from the river, garbage men and street sweepers ensured that the Unesco Listed town of Berat appeared to be in tip-top shape. Cobblestone streets snaked their way between Byzantine churches and Ottoman-style homes until they finally reached an enormous stone wall at the summit of the hill.
At the top of the mountain, a 4th century castle commanded the horizon, its ancient stones glowing a golden hue in the afternoon sky. The incredible thing about Berat’s castle is that people still live in it.
Once you walk up the steep hill to reach the fortress walls, you can enter through an enormous stone archway and suddenly, you’re in a castle and an ancient town.
Shops sell snacks, coffee and clothing, while people sweep their patios, feed their dogs and go about their day-to-day lives, seemingly unaware that they are living in a fairytale castle at the top of a mountain.
After a few days of exploring Berat and eating delicious traditional Albanian food at our Hotel’s in-house restaurant, we hopped in the car again, prepared to get lost on our way to Gjirokaster.
This time, the GPS seemed to know the way and the computerized robot voice brought us through beautiful scenery into another one of Albania’s famous old towns. We didn’t stay long in Gjirokaster, only an hour in fact, but just long enough to check out the town’s castle, walk around the old town and get back into the car.
From there we headed to the Adriatic coast where we rented an apartment in Saranda. We checked in to our place and we couldn’t believe the view over the sea. We were on the 7th floor and our 1 bedroom apartment had the best deck for working – although the views were distracting.
When we headed out to explore the ocean front promenade in Saranda, more of Gazi’s words made sense of our surroundings.
We saw Italian restaurants, cafes and wine bars. There was Italian music and Italian television playing in the bars. Gazi had told us that the Italians were one of Albania’s closest allies over the past few decades and their influence along the mediterranean was very noticeable.
He told us of a time when TV was censored and nobody could watch anything but government propaganda. Some people stole satellite signals from Italy at the risk of being executed if caught.
It was on one of these channels that Gazi first saw a banana, but it wasn’t until 10 years later when he was able to finally hold and taste one.
When we walked by a market selling bananas on the side of the road in Saranda, we thought of Gazi again. The yellow fruit was a normal sight for us, and surely now a regular sight for the people of Albania, but remembering Gazi’s words brought new meaning to an otherwise mundane market scene.
“When I tried my first banana, I loved it. I couldn’t believe what I had missed for so many years. But my mom wouldn’t eat them at first. For a decade after communism, she didn’t trust bananas.”
Of course, Saranda had many more luxuries besides bananas. There were beautiful seaside restaurants, a nice pedestrian walkway, delicious seafood, lovely beaches, some unfortunate overdevelopment and a very Mediterranean feel. But it was the words of our walking tour guide that really brought us through Saranda and the entire country of Albania.
To think that just 25 years ago, the country was locked in the harshest communist regime in history is hard to believe. Today, people live in excess. Drinking wine with lunch, driving Mercedes-Benz cars and buying property on the oceanfront – even if they cannot afford to.
There’s actually a joke about Albanians and their nice cars, which we heard while in country:
Three men are in heaven, a German, an Italian and an Albanian. They ask each other how they died. The German says, I was driving my Porsche too fast and I crashed and died. The Italian says, I was driving my Ferrari too fast and I crashed and died. The Albanian says, I spent all my money on my Mercedes-Benz and had no money to eat, so I starved to death.
Our final drive in Albania was the most beautiful one of the trip, and possibly the most scenic drive we’ve ever taken in our lives. We took the coastal road from Saranda to Tirana, which meandered along the coastline, up over a high mountain pass, and back down to sea level.
While winding our way along the Adriatic Sea, with the windows down and the warm breeze blowing in, we were able to reflect on our time in the country.
It’s hard to fathom how recent life has changed for Albanians, and while anyone over the age of 25 has lived through a very different time, everyone seems to be looking towards the future with hope and excitement.
The people in Albania treated us like friends and honoured guests during our travels and we found it incredibly interesting to hear each of their stories along the way. Gazi certainly had the most descriptive accounts of growing up in Albania, but with each new place we went, the picture of life in the country was painted more vividly.
We hope that we can one day return to learn more, because aside from a tumultuous recent history, Albania has everything a traveller could ask for – great food, friendly people and stunning scenery. 10 days just wasn’t enough!
Have a look at our 10 day road trip video – with drone shots of course 🙂
A huge thank you to Economy Bookings for hooking us up with our rental! Getting around would have been a challenge without it – and we may have even missed our best drive yet!
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