Albania - 2007

I had actually no intention to visit Albania during this year at least but as July was really cold in Finland I decided to head to the Mediterranean for one week. Having visited most of the Mediterranean countries already I thought that Albania might be worth checking out. I did not know what to expect - probably a country with very few tourists, interesting history and not so-developed developed economy.

I must say that I was surprised quite a few times during my trip - most of them being pleasant ones. Albania is a fascinating country with friendly people, good food, reasonable prices and many things that can be considered strange by European standards. After a couple of years it is probably a different country - the economy is booming and tourists are gradually discovering the country.

Places visited:

  • 1. Tirana
  • 2. Vlora
  • 3. Berat

Check out the photo gallery.

19.07.2007 Helsinki - Tirana:
I have just spent about a day at home after the trip to Iceland before leaving for the next one! As the weather forecast was still unseasonably cold for July I decided to book an ad hoc trip to Albania. I had a Malev flight via Budapest. There was a lengthy transfer in Budapest (about 6 hrs) but because of slow bus connections it did not make sense to explore the city as I had planned.

My first impressions of Tirana were the new but small airport and the immigration process that took ages (even though they just stamped my passport and collected the 10 visa fee). After customs I faced the usual hassle of taxi drivers and other touts. The travel agency that I used to book hotel for the first night promised to arrange transportation but I could not find anybody with my name... After some waiting I took a random taxi to the downtown area - 25 was really expensive as I later learned that there is an airport bus. I arrived in the hotel and the ladies seemed to be unaware of the reservation. Anyway they managed to arrange a room for me (even though the shower was not quite working...)

I was feeling tired as I had not sleeped too much the night before but I decided to do some sightseeing as it was not dark yet. The downtown area was confusing in many ways. There were several beautiful buildings from the early 20th century, lots of ugly concrete structures from the communist era and also lots of shiny new office towers that indicated that the economy was growing fast. Another thing that you will for sure notice in Albania is the huge number of luxury cars (Mercedes, BMW etc that are stolen from Central Europe). There are also many things that reminded me of South Eastern Asia rather than Europe like numerous street vendors and the chaotic traffic. And what is really surprising is that there are practically no foreigners to be seen!

It was really warm and not too pleasant for long walks. I visited the national museum of arts that had a fine collection of socialist realistic art. After some pointless wandering I visited a travel agency to find out how the local bus system works. I did not even know the location of the bus station but the friendly people at the travel agency told me where to go. And obviously it is impossible to buy tickets in advance. The final task before going to bed was to have a decent steak in a place called "London". The waitress was really friendly and did his best to translate the names of the dishes as the menu was completely in Albanian!

20.07.2007 Tirana - Vlora:
As I'll be returning to Tirana after a couple of days I decide to head to the Mediterranean. My objective is to find a pleasant place to stay from the coastal town of Vlora. The first task is to locate the bus station - to get there I'm relying on the spot drawn on my map by that guy from the travel agency yesterday. It is actually quite difficult to move from one location to another in Tirana as street signs are pretty much non-existent. After some sweaty walkin I realize I have taken the wrong street but after some unneeded detours I end up pretty close to the bus station even though I think that I'm completely lost. Fortunately a friendly lady points me to the right direction (even without asking!).

The bus station turns out to be some kind of wasteland packed with old buses that are equipped with signs that indicate their final destination. Fortunately the bus to Vlora is leaving in 20 minutes. Even though the distance is only 150km the journey turns out to be really painful and slow (it actually takes over 4 hours...) The bus is an old wreck and the roads are terrible even by South East Asian standards. Traffic is reckless and there are lots of stops and obstacles like horses & carriages around.

It is already late afternoon when I arrive in Vlora. The city looks quite lively but not really interesting. The hotels and beaches are somewhat outside the downtown area so I take a taxi to a hotel recommended in my guidebook. As there is no Lonely Planet for Albania I'm not quite sure about what to expect but the place turns out to be very good and an excellent value for money. For 20 I get a big room with airconditioning and a huge terrace (with awesome seaviews). There is a narrow stairway to the beach and of course I check out the beach as the first thing. The beach is quite densely populated with numerous sunbeds and a couple of beach bars.

There seems to be also some kind of outdoor club there - later in the evening I learn that they play the music really loud and that I can enjoy it on the hotel terrace until the early morning hours as well... The shoreline is lined with concrete slabs and the sea looks slightly rocky so I decide to skip swimming today. There are numerous restaurants with fine sea views and I decide to have some pizza for late lunch. I spend the rest of the day on the terrace just by chilling out and enjoying the beautiful sunset. And just before midnight when I'm going to sleep the local RnB night starts at the Summer Depo club down on the beach - luckily I have one of the most useful travel accessories (earplugs) with me...

21.07.2007 Vlora:
I spend the morning by visiting the downtown again. A local bus has its final stop near the hotel and after a 10-minute sweaty and bumpy bus ride I'm in the harbour area of Vlora. There is not really much to see but I think about visiting one of the museums mentioned in my guidebook. This turns out to be difficult as I cannot locate two and one seems to be closed (for good?). I walk to the other end of the main street and take some photos. I have a late breakfast at a small bar that serves good doner (Turkish food seems to be popular here as well). The heat is getting worse again so I return to the beach.

I rent a sunbed and do some swimming. This time they are playing some decent house music at the beach club so it is a perfect setting to spend the latter half of the day on the beach. As sun sets down I return to the hotel to enjoy a cold shower but I quickly return back down to the beach to have dinner. Still I cannot find a restaurant with English menus so I continue experimenting with surprise orders... I get a tasty salad with olives and some kind of stuffed squid. And once again the food is excellent.

I read a book for a couple of hours at the terrace and around midnight I decide to check out the Saturday night club experience that is starting at the beach club.  There seems to be an admission fee to the club that is already quite packed with locals. The DJ is playing funky house music and the party is gradually getting started. I don't really feel that much like clubbing so I spend some time on beach just by enjoying the music. The DJ is good both musically and techically and could as well do a gig in Ibiza (or maybe I'm getting too old to recognize what should be the house sound of 2007)...

22.07.2007 Vlora:
The do nothing - day. It's almost noon when I wake up. I head directly to the beach but I soon realize that it is really crowded - actually I cannot find any vacant sunbeds! So I have to return to the hotel terrace to enjoy the sunshine. In the parking lot I notice a couple of luxury vehicles and a crowd of dressed-up people - what's going on? The explanation is somebody's wedding party that takes place in the hotel garden. The bad thing is that they are playing quite loud music out there - some local hits that sound like the Turkish sounds that they play in the doner restaurants around the globe...

Anyway I spend the afternoon by reading a book on the terrace and play some mp3 mixes at full volume to protect my ears from the noise coming from the garden. Around five o'clock I return to the beach and now it is less crowded down there. It is still very hot - must be at least +35 degrees! As sun sets down I have some grilled fish for dinner and return to the hotel. The wedding party seems to be over. As it gets dark I watch some impressive forest fires that can be seen from the mountains.

23.07.2007 Vlora:
I was thinking about visiting Llogara Pass today - a national park with one of the highest mountains in Albania. I decide to skip this daytrip for several reasons: 1) I'm not quite sure about the transportation in that direction - there are some 30 km's there and the bus connections seem to be sporadic. 2) It seems to be once again a really hot day 3) I did not sleep too well since there were numerous mosquitoes in the room. So I resort to plan B that is basically lying on the beach (including some crossword puzzles, mp3's, yet another book and some swimming in the Mediterranean for the first time this year).

I also browse the Internet for the first time during this trip. Seems that there are no major news and the weather in Finland is still bad. As there are still several restaurants to choose from I try another one and the results are as expected: good food and no english menus. I buy some light coke from the beach bar (I'm a regular customer by now) and spend the rest of evening on terrace (surprise!). The forest fires seem to have died.

24.07.2007 Vlora - Berat:
After four nights in one place it is the time to move on. That is the small town of Berat that is located in the middle of mountains. The main attractions are a fortress that is about thousand years old and some other historical sights. I wake up early around eight o'clock and check out from the hotel. It was really a good value for money! I take the local bus to downtown and try to locate the Berat bus from the bus station. There is one but it takes almost one hour before it finally leaves.

It is another bumpy journey of a couple of hours. The scenery consists of mountains, countless bunkers, trash and wrecked cars. I arrive in Berat around noon. It seems to be even hotter than during the previous days - later I hear that it was +42 degrees! I'll be staying in a place called Tomori that judging by the architecture is apparently from the 70s. Actually the rooms are in very good condition and seem to be recently renovated. I feel like taking a shower but unfortunately there is no water! "Problem" - says the guy at reception when I ask for a reason.

Despite the heat I decide to climb all the way up to the fortress. It feels even hotter up there. The place is not actually very impressive - If you have visited a historical old city anywhere in the Mediterranean then there is pretty much nothing new to be seen (except the fine views to the town below). So I return to the hotel after an hour. Fortunately the water is running again. I rest for a couple of hours (and wait for sunset) before doing another sightseeing tour. Berat is such a small place that you can easily see the main attractions during one day. I walk along a filthy-looking river with old bridges and people herding lambs. I spot an inviting nice restaurants by the river and order some surprise dishes from the Albanian menu. "Meze mix" turns out to be a good selection of grilled meat - I can hardly eat the whole portion. As it gets dark the locals gather on the streets - seems like a regular activity here.

25.07.2007 Berat - Tirana:
Back to square one - today it is the time to return to Tirana. The night was really hot as the hotel's airconditioning was not functioning properly in the heat. I somehow managed to sleep decently. I catch the 9 - o'clock bus to Tirana - this time the journey takes only 2,5 hours (there seems to be some kind of highway between Tirana and Durresi - last time the driver took an alternative "scenic route"). In Tirana I'll be staying in another hotel - the place hosted by an old man near the art museum seems to be ok (except for the frequent blackouts).

The plan for the afternoon is to take a cable car to mountain Dajti. Locating the station proves to be challenging as it is not on my map. The place is actually about 5 km from the downtown area but after some walking I finally find it. The system seems to be brand new and there are numerous small cabins going up and down. The scenery is impressive - especially the final section where the slope is at its steepest. In the upper station there is not that much to be seen - the place is a big construction yard as they are building a viewing tower there. After half an hour I return back down.

The way back is much easier as I learn that there are local buses going back to downtown. I do some shopping and buy an Albania t-shirt. I take a shower in the hotel and continue sightseeing in the eastern parts of the downtown area. There is lots of communist nostalgia and Italian architecture to be seen. Near the stadium there are lots of people and armed policemen - seems that a local football match is about to begin. I think about buying a ticket but as I'm feeling hungry I decide to head back downtown. I have dinner in a restaurant that is located in an old Ottoman house - food is good and it is really atmospheric to eat in candlelight as they are having yet another blackout... It is hard to get sleep at the hotel as the apparently deaf owner is having the TV on with maximum volume - fortunately the man turns it off at around midnight.

26.07.2007 Tirana - Helsinki:
The last morning in Albania so far... It is sunny and hot again. I reserved the morning to visit the National Museum. It is somewhat disappointing - I was mostly interested in the stuff from 20th century but selection was not that extensive or interesting. The lack of English descriptions was not a good thing either... I spend an hour at the central square before catching the airport bus. The flights back home are painful: the planes are full and Budapest airport is not the most pleasant place for spending a couple of hours.

In any case the trip was excellent. Albania is a fascinating country full of surprises. Here's list of some miscellaneous things that will remind me of this friendly country:

  • Traffic. It is crazy and following traffic lights seems not be obligatory
  • Cars ie. Mercedes Benz and BMW
  • Police - they are everywhere
  • Trash - there are dumps everywhere
  • Energy drinks with funny names (like Cocaine and Pimpjuice)
  • Street vendors selling really authentic looking war toys
  • Bus drivers that smoke inside the bus
  • Bunkers - they are everywhere
  • Blackouts
  • Roads that are probably the worst in Europe
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