We rented a car from Albania's capital city Tirana and took a seven day road trip up to the north and then down south until we reached Sarande which would become our base for a long stay. This road trip covers some major inland towns of historic importance as well as the coastal towns along the Albanian Riviera. As you can see on the map below, we almost drove the full length of the country.
Driving in a new country is always challenging especially if you have to drive on the "wrong side" and are not familiar with local driving culture. Well, driving in Albania is a typical example of the above. We've written a separate detailed post about it.
Now from the first timer perspective looking at Albania, we were happy to have done this road trip as it really gave us an opportunity to have a genuine local experience and closeup observation of people, food, culture and way of life in this country. We learned a lot during the seven days - funnily enough it felt longer than that!
We've been pushed out of our comfort zones, learned to lower our expectations, received warm hospitality and random kindness, felt frustrated with certain realities and saddened by some observations.
From a pure tourist point of view, we really enjoyed the inland historic town of Berat. We loved it being a real town with real friendly locals living there. It is a pretty town with an expansive castle perched above overlooking the whole town and with white Ottoman buildings on both sides of the river. We wish that we stayed longer to sample more of their delicious food.
The other town that we enjoyed as a tourist was Himare. We liked the beaches and mountains around Himare and enjoyed a beautiful coastal hike. We also liked our visit to the old town of Himare up on the mountain with a haunting castle ruin and commanding views. However, some people in Himare seemed less friendly than in the other towns that we visited, and the tap water there tasted awful. Nonetheless, we believe it would make a great summer holiday destination as you could have the same beautiful water and beaches as in Greece or Croatia without their price tags.
We didn't enjoy Shkoder and Gjirokaster as much. Shkoder was cold and busy, and Gjirokaster felt less interesting compared to Berat and more touristy as the whole old town was designated to tourists.
Since we'll be staying in Sarande for a month at least, we'll write detailed reviews about it and its surroundings.
We saw a lot of stray dogs in Shkoder and Gjirokaster. Most of them had a tag on their ears, so we assumed they got checked and registered by some local organisation. The dogs were not aggressive at all, in fact, one of them befriended us in Gjirokaster while we were wandering the old town and walked with us the whole way. We've heard Albania has been culling stray dogs and guessed that's probably the reason we didn't see many in Tirana. But in smaller places, stray dogs are still quite common.
We noticed a lot of rubbish everywhere during the whole trip. It was sad to see such beautiful natural landscape as Albania boasts were littered by plastic bottles, plastic bags, beer bottles, clothing, building materials... They were ubiquitous on the sides of highways, in lakes, rivers, beaches, mountains. We understand it's probably a phase every country has to experience - eventually the value of the environment will prevail. If all Albanian citizens were motivated to collect rubbish for one hour once a week the country would look 100 times cleaner and better!
We noticed there are way too many cars, especially luxury cars compared to Albania's GDP per capita (USD$5269 in 2018). We saw a large number of petrol stations and car wash places along the highways. In smaller cities, we probably saw more cars than people! Parking consequently can be a challenge everywhere, big cities or small towns.
Drivers don't like to give way to pedestrians. On a pedestrian crossing, it's always a bit of battle of who will be more persistent between drivers and pedestrians. We actually fell victims from both sides as sometimes pedestrians just pushed their way across a red light, forcing you to stop and risking being bumped by the car behind you; and we also had to fight our way to cross streets when the green man was on and drivers kept pushing forward.
We enjoyed "call to prayer" from mosques in different cities and towns. It's said 61% of Albanian population is muslim. We've learned that different religions in Albania exist peacefully and respect each other.
Bakeries are everywhere, especially those "byrektores" which sell byreks - phyllo pastry filled with spinach, cheese, meat etc. We almost had byreks for lunch every day as they are tasty and cheap (average costs USD$0.5), and are a"fast food"when you are on the go. Locals eat byreks for breakfast or lunch or snack in between. They are a great staple and very popular local food for sure. We can never get tired of those hot crispy byreks!
We felt like we couldn't escape from the cigarette smoke smell. All the accommodation we stayed at had different degrees of cigarette smell although they were advertised as non-smoking. Our rental car also had that awful smell. In supermarkets, smokers would just walk in and stick some money in front of the cashier asking for a pack of cigarette, totally ignoring if the cashier was in the middle of serving another customer or there was a queue of customers in the check-out line. Smokers seem to think they have a VIP license to be served as soon as they materialise themselves.
Although it's now winter and the coastal towns are quiet, it's not hard to imaging how vibrant these towns must be in summer. Each coastal town we visited had lovely beaches and a plethora of restaurants, bars and cafes lining the waters edge providing endless opportunities to laze away a hot summer day. The one thing that we don't like with some of these towns is that large sections of the waterfront is private and belongs to hotels or restaurants. As such you don't have the ability to do a nice walk along the whole length of a town's waterfront.
We didn't feel unsafe anywhere we went. The majority of the people we met were friendly. If we couldn't communicate in language, we used signs and smile. We came across some people who volunteered to point out a tourist site that we already knew and then asked for money. Some other people would come up to us on streets or supermarkets talking strangely. There were a number of beggars who approached us for money.
We've noticed it's either hard to provide an accurate address or Google map has difficulty finding a place. As such, hosts of our accommodations often provided a local landmark nearby and met us there so that they could guide us to the accommodation personally. We've heard similar stories of putting a landmark on a mailing address as no exact address is available for certain places. Apparently Albania frequently updates addresses, which has caused a huge chaos in mailing and Google maps etc.
In terms of Covid, we noticed only about 25% of people wear their masks properly when indoors. Workers in shops either had their mask under the chin or had no mask at all. Maybe 10% people wore a mask outdoors. Social distancing doesn't exist. People like to be up and close to each other and to strangers.
There were a lot of bunkers, in city centers, parks, out in the wildness and even people's front yards. Apparently 173,000 bunkers were built during the rule of Communist Dictator Enver Hoxha, with an average of 5.7 bunkers per square kilometre.
This road trip has really given us a window of opportunity to understand a country up and close for the first time. We couldn't have learned so much in such a short time in any other way.