Trip report – Albania

Another trip report folks. As always many food pictures 🙂. If you’re not interested please ignore.

Monday, April 29
We had an early flight out of Assisi airport to Tirana, Albania. It was about 1.5 hours on WizzAir, another of those low cost airlines that fly in Europe. We met up with our travel companion, Jen.

The flight was fine. We landed in Tirana and made it through passport control. We noticed that our passports had been checked no less than three times! Once to check in, once at Italian passport control, and once on arrival in Albania. Albania is not in the EU nor Schengen and it uses the Leke for its currency. 

We retrieved our luggage and I bought a SIM card for my phone so we could navigate. It was very chaotic and I managed to misplace, lose, or be slick-fingered-robbed of 20,000 Leke that I had just gotten from the ATM. It was only about $20 so not the end of the world. We next rented our car from Europcar. A white fiat with plenty of room. It was a hot day and we slogged to a far parking lot to find the car. It really was quite the madhouse! Cars everywhere jostling to get in and out of the lot, blocking each other’s way. Part of the problem was that the road you had to exit onto was bumper to bumper too. Albanian drivers in Tirana turned out to be pretty aggressive.

Finally on the road out of the crazy traffic we were in on way to Berat. At first it was supremely ugly. Many half finished buildings and abandoned this or that. We got to the seacoast and got our first glimpse of the incredibly turquoise Adriatic. Durrës was the name of this city and it was big. Lots of hotels on the beach. Definitely not my type of beach town.

The taste of the Albanians definitely tends to the highly tacky. Overdone crenellations and white columns abound. Huge stone lions outside businesses, huge eagle-like birds topping rooftops. Seems nothing is too out there!

We were headed south towards some very tall snow-capped mountains. We passed through a large area that bristled with oil derricks. It smelled strongly of oil, similar to the smell of jet fuel. Ugh. We didn’t know they produced oil.

We passed some pretty houses among vineyards and other crops and saw an enticing looking restaurant, so we stopped. Kantina Edoni was perfect. We sat on a covered porch. The temperature was just right. We had salads and melty cheese, olives and then we each had a seafood dish. All, except for the grilled seafood which was over-cooked, good. Albanian food definitely tends to the Greek. A bottle of the local wine from this family owned cantina rounded out the meal. A great find for a first lunch. 

Baked “white cheese”. When you order they ask “white or yellow”. 🙂
Tomato salad(!) two whole and very large tomatoes. Most things are to share.
All the olives we had were delicious. I picked up one of the orange slices was surprised to find it was a lemon!! I never found out what it really was. Why it looked like an orange but was sour like a lemon.
Jen’s cod. She loved it.
Front of restaurant.

Next stop Berat. We arrived at Tradita e Beratit, our hotel for the night. It was up a narrow street of super uneven stones, very hard to walk on. It is family-owned and they were super nice and gave us a welcoming blueberry juice drink and a sweet. We also saw their “museum”. The house had been an inn for 350 years and was their ancestral home. We stowed our stuff in our rooms. Ours had a nice view and was pretty with lacy curtains and a comfy bed, but was super small, I was glad we were only there one night.

In the vaulted “museum” in the hotel.
From our window
Just across from the hotel. Cliff. The castle is on top. I liked the church halfway up.

The town kind of sprawls along the Seman River which is obviously glacial in origin from its color. The really big mountains we saw on our trip are nearby and the river originates there. Our part of town was the oldest. There are three bridges. Two are pedestrian. Since we were only here one night we went out for a walkabout right away. We walked down the river and crossed to the main part of town and saw the promenade along the river and with a lovely park and many restaurants. We visited an old church and a mosque where a kind man lent us scarves so we two women could go in. 

Orthodox church
Art in the church
Berat mosque.
Looking up river
Berat is known for it’s windows.
The oldest bridge.

We returned and decided to eat just below our hotel. They said it was affiliated with them. Dinner was OK. So far things are fresh but very basic. Prices are super low. A salad is $3.50, an entree is $8.00 – $10.00. But don’t expect fancy meals.
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Tuesday April 30
We got up early and had a really nice breakfast. Served on pretty olive wood platters. We had flat, pancake-like eggs, a sweet cake, olives, cucumbers, cheeses, tomatoes, fresh yogurt. Along with blueberry juice and a cappuccino.

Berat breakfast
Hotel cat. She was happy on top of the drink machine and didn’t want to be bothered!

We checked out and drove up to visit the castle above the town. It was more than a castle. Almost a village up there. People selling things. A hotel. Places to eat etc. also a lot of churches and one mosque. Nice weather. My knee doesn’t like too much up and down so I walked up a steep incline and walked around the town but, I let my fellow travelers visit all the churches etc. while I walked slowly back down the uneven road to the car. I had fun and enjoyed the excursion. 

A bunch of kids arrived when we did. Field trip! Photo op!
The castle and wall.
Part of the village
Loved the pineapple topiary.
One of the churches in the castle complex.
Girl scritching stray bitch who was very pregnant. More strays-to-be on the way 😢

We headed north along the same route we took the day before. The traffic is pretty terrible; so many trucks clog all the roads. Very few are more than two lanes. There are hazards like bicycles and people walking, as well as the many stray dogs and cats. We passed right by the airport and continued north to a town called Kruje. It was way up in the granite mountains and was quite large. It also had a castle and we headed there. 

We found parking and walked up the road toward the castle. There were shops all along the way selling clothing, rugs, embroidered table cloths and runners, olive wood bowls and trays. We were hungry so we stopped in a roadside restaurant. It had amazing views across the valley. Another typical lunch. So far the food has not varied much. Starters are always salads, feta or other cheese either baked or not. Olives, etc. Mains are seafood near the coast or roasted meats. Lamb and goat are popular and also beef and chicken. The sides are grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes, French fries, etc. After lunch Luther and Jen went up to the castle. Turns out there were two museums and just the ruins of the old castle remained. Jen and I bought blouses on our way back.

Kruje Castle museum
The bazaar near the Kruje castle.
Odd pizza-like appetizer to share. The bread base is corn bread, a surprise but is common there.

Back in the car we wound our way back down the mountain, this time dodging loose cattle who seemed to be tended by a man but he couldn’t really keep them out of the road. The trip to Shkodër was about an hour and a half more. So many trucks! I amused myself snapping pictures of the amusing and strange architecture along the way. They build these places alone, often in a big dirt or gravel lot with little or no grass or shrubbery. These buildings look stark and alone. Many seem unused.

This one seems to have a missing second floor but they are using the first.
This was a wedding venue. It was in a very ugly area.

We arrived and found the hotel (Çoçja Boutique Hotel) with some amount of difficulty as usual. It is a lovely hotel with underground parking. Prices here being so low, Luther and I had gone for a suite and it was enormous. Very comfortable. Both hotels so far have had little bottles of the exact same shampoo, and tiny soap bars, also both the same. No other “condiments” as I call the amenities normally in a nice hotel like this one.

We met for a drink after a short time to refresh and then decided we were ready for dinner. The hotel recommended a restaurant which is affiliated with the hotel. It was about a five minute walk away. We walked down our street and crossed the big street. On the other side was a really nice pedestrian and bike zone. It went directly in front of the Great Mosque – Ebu Beker Mosque. And just past it the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity.

Great mosque

Dinner was delicious. Many dishes made a return appearance. Grilled “white” cheese, grilled vegetables, a Greek salad. Then three seafood dishes. A whole sea bass for Luther which looked delicious, and two shrimp dishes. Mine was shrimp in orange sauce with vegetables, and Jen got whole grilled shrimp. After dinner brandy and a walnut yogurt dessert for Jen. Very yummy.

Baked cheese.
My shrimp
Luther’s bass

Luther finally had his cigar outside. We have a very nice balcony in our room with table and two chairs. It even has a view of the Great Mosque. And I got to hear my first calls to prayer.
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Wednesday, May 1
A holiday all over Europe – Labor Day. We weren’t sure about Albania. But it was listed as one on the Internet. We had breakfast at ten. It was good and unusual.

We headed out to visit the Site of Witness and Memory. It is the first museum dedicated to the victims of the horrific communist fascist regime here in Albania. Luther described it as the North Korea of Europe. They were isolated and alone with an evil dictator and regime. Hundreds of thousands died, many innocent of any real crime, many by horrific torture, imprisoned in notorious prisons. Cruelty was the name of the game. The regime stamped out any trace of religion. Most clerics died or were imprisoned. All mosques and churches were destroyed. Atheism was the only possible belief. The museum was very moving. The cells where the prisoners were held are preserved. The torture room is preserved. Some of the victims who lived in the cells were remembered with their pictures inside each one and their stories written down outside the doors. So sad. People can be so evil. I just don’t understand.

This woman refused sex with the commandant and he put her in a bag with a wild cat and beat the cat with crowbars. She was unrecognizable when released. This was a common torture.

We shook off the mood and did some wandering about town. Nice place with pretty parks and walking streets. We sat and had a beverage outside. The weather was perfect. We decided on a seafood restaurant and it turned out to be very good. We had a plate of bruschetta and a salad to share, and we each ordered a fish or fishes. Along with wine. Price was 7,700 Leke, or around €77.00 or $78.00. The prices are amazingly low.

Jen’s cod
One of the mosques
Street life
Talisman. I saw garlic hanging in front of a lot of houses.

Luther and I decided on a siesta in our room and Jen went a-wandering as is her wont. Later we met up for aperitivo in a bar nearby called ORO which had snacks. We had drinks and snacks and a great wide ranging conversation. When we emerged we found ourselves about midway between two mosques when the call to prayer began. It was quite amazing to hear the dueling …. what do you call it?  Singers, callers, Imams, the men who intone/sing the calls? It is such a melancholy, but in a way, calming sound. It had rained while we were in the bar. Our hotel courtyard was wet. We retired to our rooms.

Luther tried to smoke a cigar but got rained out about halfway through. I liked Shkodër but it wasn’t what I had expected.
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Thursday May 2
Next morning we grabbed another good breakfast and headed south from Shkodër. About an hour and a half later we arrived at the Tirana airport to drop off the rental car. We didn’t want to keep it because our flight the next day was at the ungodly hour of 6:20am so the rental agencies wouldn’t be open. We took a taxi into town to our hotel called the Capital Suites Center. It was on two floors of an old communist building. The owner, called Albi, was an entrepreneur who bought up the space and renovated it into hotel rooms. To be honest the rooms were not great but for one night it was OK. Albi and his friend, Henry, and Steve the evening clerk were all very friendly and helpful. Albi told us he made money also buying wrecked luxury cars in the U.S. and shipping them back twenty at a time, to be repaired and resold in Albania. We had noticed the Albanese really like their nice cars. They might not have much else but they spend their money on cars. I think there is a lavazh, or car wash, every fifty feet!

We had a fun lunch in a sort of Hard Rock Cafe place near the hotel called Restorant Tymi. Salads all around and baked feta, olives and corn bread in yogurt. 

Tymi

We went off to see what we could see in an afternoon. First up was the large Skanderbeg square. Sight of the uprisings against the Enver Hoxha regime in 1991. We wanted to visit one of the two bunkers left over from that time. The one we went to was where records were kept, tortures were carried out, interrogations were carried out and spies were trained. Everyday people were enlisted to spy on their neighbors and rat them out. No one could be trusted. People abused their power of course, accusing a neighbor of a crime to get back at them for some slight. I didn’t care for how they exhibited everything. Narrow hallways had posters on the walls with a chronological history from the 1950s until the end in 1991. Claustrophobic space with way too many people. 

Communist building on the square
Square
I love Tirana
Entry to the bunker

Out into the sunlight again. Whew. We went to see the Cloud, a sculpture by Sou Fujimoto, then walked towards a very inviting street lined with bars and lots of tall trees and gardens. Quite nice and we sat and people watched for a while with drinks. Fun! Tirana is quite pretty with lots of skyscrapers of maybe 50-60 floors. Many under construction. Interesting architecture. Many shops. Quite prosperous. A surprise to us all. We had expected a gritty city. The streets were wide and all was clean. 

The Cloud
People watching on the pretty street
The guys across from us were looking at all the girls as they passed. Very amusing. But this old woman asked for money and happily they all gave her some.
Boys looking cool never change the world over!
Interesting architecture. Those protruding squares held up balconies 😳
I called this the building block building
Loved this color

We walked back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at a seafood place recommended by Albi. It was delish and the most expensive place we have eaten yet. Pretty space named Gusto. Owned by an Italian. All seafood and fresh fish from the Ionian Sea every day. A big array of fish of all kinds on ice as you walk in. Luther and I had whole sea bass. Mine was grilled and his was in a salt crust. Jen got shrimp risotto. We also had a Greek starter to share – shrimp in a red sauce. Very nice. 

We went to a bar for a nightcap and Luther had a cigar he bought in the restaurant. The bar was short on variety of drinks. No brandy, cognac, amaro, but the music was fun. Oldies.
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Friday May 3
Up at 4:15. Ugh! Taxi had been ordered for 4:45 but we were ready at 4:30 and he was there when we went out. 25 minutes to airport and into the fray to get checked-in and through security and passport control. We were very glad to have US passports because there were scanners and our passports were readable. The poor Albanese were stuck in a very long line. A quick macchiato for us and we went to our gate.

There was a big storm with lightening and thunder and rain passing through. Oddly they let everyone get checked and make everyone wait outside. We finally ran through the rain to go up the steps to board. Just after we boarded a very belligerent Albanian man got into an altercation with the crew for some reason. Loud shouting and many hand gestures. The cops were called. The captain said he wanted him off the plane. A friend pleaded leniency. But the captain was really angry that his cabin crew had been abused by this idiot. So off he went with the cops who confiscated his passport. He wasn’t getting to Perugia today. 

So what did I think of Albania 🇦🇱? The people are very friendly. The country has been through a lot. It is still healing. It is extremely cheap. It has mountains, flatlands, and Alps. The beaches are beautiful there, primarily in southern Albania near Greece. Smaller fishing type villages. But locals told us the huge influx of tourists in the last two years have made doing anything in the beach areas in July and August nearly impossible. There are hiking areas in the Albanian Alps which are formidable! Most other tourism is minimal. Probably the only reason I would return would be to spend a week on the beach in May or September. Off season. Just to relax and eat amazing seafood.
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Best and worst.
Best hotel – Çoçja Boutique Hotel in Shkodër
Worst hotel – Capital Suites in Tirana
Best lunch – Fish in Shkodër – amazing and cheap!
Best dinner – Gusto, Tirana
Best breakfast – Berat
Best outdoor sight – castle in Berat
Best indoor sight – Site of Witness and Memory – Shkodër
Best city – Tirana
Best town – Berat

12 thoughts on “Trip report – Albania

  1. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Maggie, it was, in its own unique way. One always learns from travel!

  2. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Hi Cynthia. It was eye opening, that’s what travel is all about, right? I felt really sorry because the Hoxha regime was incredibly cruel and after 30 years they still have not recovered. The cities and towns are pretty. It is the “in-between” that are not nice. The beaches have become very popular with tourists like Dutch, Germans, etc. The new (and cheap) Croatia. It really was incredibly cheap.

  3. Cynthia M

    Nice report, Nancy. Sounds like it was quite the adventure!

    I don’t know where my friend’s family lives in Albania, but I do hope to visit Tirana at least. She left on her own at the age of 17 and moved to New York city; I think the timing coincided with the uprisings. I’m interested to tour her country with her and hear about her life there.

  4. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Hi Liz, right, exploring is good. This was Luther’s choice, not mine…he seems to want to go to all weird places! It was close and easy to do so I said, why not?

  5. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Tu Steve, I like to keep a record ford myself. Glad you enjoyed it

  6. liz

    Well, it is good to explore. I was interested in hearing about your trip. Probably not a place I would go. Thanks for sharing and it is always good to get away and experience something new, especially when you ALREADY live in the perfect country.

  7. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Hi Phil, I wouldn’t be surprised but it seems the beaches are super clean. The water turquoise.

  8. Phil

    Very good trip report. I have read that Albania has problems with waste disposal causing pollution in rivers and beaches.

  9. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Ronee, the big draw is the beaches which are among the cleanest and most beautiful in the world. And the prices. Hard to find a hotel for more than €60/$61 a night. Great seafood dinner for €20.

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