“Why are you going to Albania???” We heard this refrain over and over as we shared our travel plans for the week of fall break in October 2021. For some, Albania is unfortunately associated with crime and gangs, but this 1990’s stereotype didn’t hinder us from the positive things we had heard from more adventurous travel bloggers. Reading “It’s the next Croatia” was our draw, since we fell in love with Croatia’s diverse landscape of mountains and crystal blue sea a few years ago. We were keen to visit a more un-discovered, less touristed version. And, with less development comes cheaper prices. We found that confirmation as soon as we set foot inside our spacious, 2 bedroom ocean-front apartment that only cost $52 per night. More on that later.
The capital city of Tirana is nothing to write home about, but their airport is the primary entry into Albania. It only deserves one night, but we genuinely enjoyed our free walking tour with a local who offered us an insightful history lesson on Albania’s complicated Communist past. The context was helpful to understand why Albania is only just emerging into the modern global society. Our middle-aged guide had never owned or hardly even ridden in a car until he moved to America for college in the late 1990’s. Bananas were a luxury as a child, and Coca-Cola cans were displayed on families’ fireplace mantles like a prized trophy of wealth. It was eye-opening and gave us more understanding of their hardships and history as we navigated the country.
With only a week, we had to choose between going north or going south since Tirana is centrally located in the long and narrow country hugging the Adriatic Sea just south of Croatia and Montenegro. Originally, we had chosen to go north because I wanted to include a visit to Kotor, Montenegro into our itinerary, but sadly because of COVID the borders were closed, so we settled on going south to visit the beautiful beaches and historic hill towns.
There are many beach town options, but we chose larger Sarande to be close to good scuba diving and a wider variety of restaurants. Even still, visiting Sarande in the shoulder season of mid-October during an ongoing pandemic made for a coastal ghost town. Thankfully, our crazy cheap apartment had an enormous balcony overlooking the sea with a view of Corfu, Greece less than a mile away. We spent many hours lounging in the warm autumn sun and watching the sun set on the horizon. Plenty of restaurants were still open so we dined on fresh seafood and pasta (Italy is just on the other side of the Adriatic so it strongly influences the coastal menu).
We explored other small beaches along the drive south to Ksamil, making stops at Pasqyra (Mirror) beach and Monastery beach. A surprising highlight was the impressive Greek and Roman archaeological site tucked away in Butrint National Park, well worth a couple of hours and the inflated admission price.
We spent a day on the water scuba diving with Spiranca Diving Center to see the coolest WWII Italian shipwreck just off the coast of Sarande. Even with limited visibility due to windy conditions, we explored the nooks and crannies of the cargo ship and Luke was fascinated by the medicine bottles still sitting eerily on the cabin’s shelves.
The post-Communist architecture made Sarande less charming than the nearby Corfu landscape we had enjoyed a few months before. And, in true “emerging economy” form, once you ventured off the main roads of Sarande, you were met with less-appealing living quarters for locals, piles of garbage and too many stray dogs and cats to count. This, of course, is the juxtaposition of gorgeous natural surroundings in a developing country, and we said more than once, “this place will be much better in 10 years time.”
Evidence of continued development was just up the road on our way into the mountains. Travel bloggers had recommended a quick stop at the Blue Eye, a crystal clear watering hole found by hiking into the hills. We took the bait and parked our rental car just off the highway in a vacant plot of land next to some nomadic RVers. We walked the 30-minute path only to discover that heavy construction machinery was developing the trail into tourist roads and a parking lot for future visitors. All of the charm was lost in the noise and dirt, and we were disappointed when we reached the small, but beautifully blue-green, pool of water. By next summer, it will be a tourist trap.
Thankfully, our next stop in Gjirokaster met and even exceeded our expectations from the traveling community online. The high-end hostel called Stone City was a gem in the historic hill town. We are not hostel people, having had an unpleasant experience early on our trip around the world in New Zealand (you can read about that hilarity here!) But with a private family room and bathroom to ourselves, we discovered the secret sauce of the hostel environment…the other travelers.
Having been fairly isolated in Sarande, we welcomed the friendly interactions with the staff and Millennial backpackers, sharing stories of travel during COVID times, listening and offering recommendations of where we were headed and where we’d been. This hostel was cuter than many B&B’s we’d stayed in around the world, and the owners were eager to show us around Gjirokaster, pointing out their favorite restaurants and teaching us the quirky history of the hill town. We enjoyed meals at Mapo, Kujtim and Odaja and strolled the quaint streets of the bazaar purchasing colorful pottery and our essential souvenir: a Christmas ornament. The castle is worth a morning and, although incredibly steep, the walk to see the Ali Pasha bridge is stunning. We also enjoyed a tour by a family member of the Skenduli House, a well preserved Ottoman mansion and historic example of the city’s culture and family life.
After a few nights in lovely Gjirokaster, we made our way north to another hill town called Berat. We found it to be slightly less quaint, but enjoyed hiking to the castle ruins with its view overlooking the town and the winding river that divided the hillsides.
We stayed a few miles out of town in the lovely Alpeta agriturismo and winery, ending our trip with traditional food and dancing outdoors among the vineyards. It was the perfect way to end our trip and reminded me that getting to know the local people always endears me more to a new and unfamiliar place. We were glad to have explored the rougher-edged Albania, and I hope that when we return in several years, we find its charm is still present alongside its modernization.