It made sense to go to Albania between Greece and the rest of our Balkan trip. It was on the way, and the ferry from Corfu to the Albanian Riviera only took 30 minutes. We meant to work our way through the country fairly quickly, hitting the highlights and spending maybe a week. We ended up spending two weeks, falling completely in love with this beautiful and relatively unknown country. There are castles, beaches, mountains and a very cool capital city here, and I had literally no idea any of it was there until we went.
If you’re tired of the Europe tourist trail and you don’t want to see hundreds of other backpackers everywhere you go, GO TO ALBANIA. If you only want to spend 30 Euros a day on absolutely everything, without even trying, GO TO ALBANIA. If you crave a little bit of adventure trying to figure out a country, GO TO ALBANIA, where there are no bus schedules, English is not widely spoken, and almost nothing makes sense.
I think another reason that we fell so in love with Albania was the fact that we travelled it fully overland. There’s something about traversing the entire length of a country without flying that makes you feel like you’ve gotten to know its heart and soul. Obviously I am not an expert, since we were only there for two weeks, but I felt so at home after 2 weeks and I attribute that to the amount of land we got to see on our long bus rides, and all the ground we covered. We arrived by boat, which is a thrilling way to enter a new country (see Morocco) and we were off!
If I went back to Albania, I would absolutely stay on the beaches for longer. We had just been on a yacht for a week, however, and didn’t really need any more beach time. We stayed in Saranda for two nights, which is the most touristy and most built-up town on Albania’s coast. Speaking of Albania’s coast….wow. It makes so much sense that the beaches here are unreal, because they’re SO close to Greece, but I had never heard of them before – just like I had never heard of the mountains. If you have more time to explore, this blog post is great and I will use it as my guide next time.
In Saranda, we stayed at the Hairy Lemon Hostel for one night, and no I do not know why it’s called that. It was alright. We met cool people, and the views from the balconies are super cool, but they cram three packed dorms into what is literally a 2 bedroom apartment, up in a highrise. The next night we switched to a lovely Airbnb, which I can’t find, but there is always tons of selection since so many people have holiday homes here.
The best thing we did in Saranda was rent a car with some friends we met – including a super cool Australian woman in her 60’s who was backpacking with her kid – and drive around to the local beaches. The beach that’s actually in Saranda is alright, but it’s nothing exceptional. We drove to Mirror (Pasqyra) Beach, Monastery Beach, and White Chicken (Pule Bardha) Beach. This magical day took place on a traditionally magical holiday, Canada Day! The non-Canadians we were travelling with asked us how we usually celebrated, and we said we’d usually go to the beach and drink beer. So, we drank a few beers (per beach, that is) and constantly forced everyone to cheers to our beautiful home country.
When we were ready to leave after recovering from the annual Canada day hangover, we trekked to the random street corner a 25 minute walk away from our Airbnb where we had been told buses stopped. We walked around asking every person we saw how to get to Gjirokaster (definitely pronouncing it wrong in the process) and eventually someone threw our bags in a random minibus for us and we just trusted that when we came back in 3 hours for the very delayed departure, they would still be there. Yay, they were, and we were off!
Our next stop was a tiny little town inland, with the seemingly unpronouncable name of Gjirokaster. There’s not a lot to do here, but there IS an absolutely perfect hostel that is absolutely worth a night’s stop. Stone City Hostel is owned by a lovely Dutch man named Walter, and it is beautiful. The kitchen is like my dream home’s kitchen, unlike a lot of hostels which have a garbage dump with two plates as their ‘communal cooking area’. Also, there was a puppy named Tiger that they saved off the street, who was a tiny little ball of bliss. I walked by him in our first few hours there and thought he was a hamster, he was so tiny.
Gjirokaster itself has a stunning castle and just like all of Albania, very rich history. We wandered through, taking our time in the cool corridors and actually reading the interpretive signs for once. We also had a really lovely dinner at Taverna Kuka, which has an amazing patio overlooking the town. I definitely think one night here was long enough but it is certainly worth the stop.
Next up was Berat. We were planning to hitchhike, as it’s a weird bus route, but we ended up eavesdropping on a British couple at the breakfast table in Stone City and overhearing that they were planning to drive up in their rental car. Like super normal people, we immediately asked if they would drive us. In the real world, this would be super creepy. In travel world, they were thrilled to take us and we had a lovely time!
Berat is one of the only places I had actually heard of in Albania. I read one blog post about it years ago, and the striking image of houses cascading down a mountain, all covered in windows, apparently stuck with me. This is another town that doesn’t necessarily have a ton of attractions or activities, but it is even more worth visiting than Gjirokaster. Our hostel here, Berat Backpackers, was also amazing, particularly because of the staff. It also had a dog again (YAY!).
Everyone was so friendly from the moment we arrived, inviting us to activities, asking about our travels, and including us in groups. It’s in a gorgeous old building, rambling down staircases and across courtyards. We booked onto a winery tour with the hostel, and it was absolutely worth the hangover the next day. We drove in a minibus to a winery that I do not know the name of, got a tour and then sat at a gorgeous pavilion overlooking the hillsides to imbibe in far too much wine and far too much raki. Again with the raki – we would never learn. The pictures of this winery and vineyard speak for themselves: we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and the happiness on our faces really shines through here. Everything was perfect.
Once we had recovered the next day, we dragged ourselves out of bed for some more unreal views. We hiked up to another ancient castle, watching the sunset and talking about how we couldn’t wait to see the rest of the Balkan region.
I don’t really have a lot to say about Tirana, because we didn’t technically do a lot. We stayed at Trip’n Hostel, which was walking distance away from everything we wanted to see. The best thing we did in the city was take a free walking tour, where we learned a ton about Albanian history. There’s so much recent turmoil here, and the fall of communism was only a few years before I was born, in 1990. That explains so much about the way the country is now, and I definitely recommend taking this tour. We also just hung out a lot at our super cool hostel, meeting locals and other travelers and relaxing in the courtyard.
We also went to a mall on the outskirts of the city to get some clothes to refresh our backpacks. This was WAY harder than it should have been: we knew which city park we had to catch a bus at, but we couldn’t figure out which side of the park, which bus or how to pay. We did eventually, but it took probably an hour. It was strange to be in such a modern mall, but such are the contrasts of Albania.
A coffee shop near our hostel became our favourite morning stop, and the lovely girl who always seemed to be working memorized our iced coffee order. Eastern Europe is not the most iced-coffee friendly place, and so anywhere we found that would serve us something that wasn’t basically just ice cream became heaven. We had also heard that Tirana was home to a knockoff McDonalds, and Haley and I have somewhat of a tradition of eating at McDonalds everywhere we go (don’t judge us). We spent forever trying to find the place, only to find it closed – so we ate pizza yet again.
Finally, we also went for a fancy drink on what was purported to be a fancy rooftop bar. In any other country this would have been very expensive and super ritzy, but we could barely find the entrance within the ‘skyscraper’ it was in, and once we got up there the whole view was surrounded by chain link fencing. It was still nice though, and as it was probably the first time we had worn makeup in several weeks we felt very fancy and indulgent.
All in all, we were struck by what a cool city Tirana was. It reminded me of a grittier Rome, with many fewer tourists. The restaurants have terraces that spill out onto sprawling sidewalks, with dozens of hip young people and precious families enjoying the night air. People stay out late and enjoy their lives in public, part of what I love so much about Europe. It’s just a liiittle bit harder to navigate and communicate than most major European cities, and that’s maybe why I liked it a little more.
I wrote an entire post about our experience in the Albanian Alps, because it was without a doubt a highlight of the trip. Here is a photo preview:
Two weeks later, we were catching our next bus into Montenegro for a long day of confusing bus connections and weird taxi drivers. I left Albania in love with travel again. India was a challenge and Greece was pure indulgence, so this perfect amalgamation of hiking, new friends, culture, history and beauty was exactly what I needed to get back in my groove for the last couple months of my trip.