Albania Road Trip All Alone

Albania: river view
Albania: River view


Albania Off-Season: A Woman’s Solo road trip

By Kate Macey

Coming from London, I arrived at Luton Airport to the unwelcome news that my seat on my already-8-hour-delayed flight had been given to Border Force to escort someone out of the country.

Happily, I was decently compensated and provided with a night at chez Luton and a seat on the first flight in the morning. Come morning, there were two flights to Tirana at different gates within the half hour. You can imagine the chaos.

guy on the horse

On the flight the ANGEL man next to me took my middle seat – I wish nothing but good things for this amazing gentleman. I pulled my beanie over my eyes and slept to the dulcet tones of a small human running up and down the aisle screaming.

The cheapest rental car I have ever hired

Arriving at Tirana airport, I finally found the correct rental car company. I had booked online about a month in advance via a price comparison website – €35 for five days! Naturally, the actual car company had 3 different names.

One big sign, one hastily printed on a A4 page stuck on the window, and one on the piece of paper I signed when handing over my deposit.

Having acquired the car, at the price I expected, no less, I drove south to Sarandë, wondering if I had in fact driven a right-hand-side-drive manual car before. On reflection, I think not. Hunger creeping in, I stopped at a roadside restaurant for a late lunch of pickled vegetables and sour cheese baked peppers. Not bad. Probably great for one’s gut flora.

A man sleeps in a closed restaurant in Sarandë

The hostel I had booked in Sarandë (Hostel Hasta la Vista, would recommend) was in the midst of renovations, so my room was sans light. However, the hostel was clean and friendly, which is way better than having electricity anyway. The lovely manager also welcomed me with some homemade bread made from pumpkin, oats, soy sauce, and spring onion, which was much tastier than it sounds. I had always wondered what happened to the miscellaneous food left in hostel kitchens.

A veggie feast in Gjirokaster, Albania.
A veggie feast in Gjirokaster, Albania.

In the evening before sunset, I went for a wander around town, stopping for dinner in a fish restaurant recommended to me by the hostel – Taverna Fish Filipi. People smoking inside the dining room was a little off-putting, but my Greek salad and beer were rather tasty (I am a vegetarian, with limited business being in a fish restaurant.

I will occasionally eat shellfish when travelling, but the mussels listed on the menu were unavailable). It being March, the town and seaside was beautiful but dead, giving very off-season vibes. I spied a lone man sleeping hunched over a table in a closed restaurant.

Butrint

The next day, I headed out to Butrint National Archaeological Park, a UNESCO archaeological site about half an hour’s drive away from Sarandë. The drive there reminded me of those drivers’ education videos. Hazards everywhere. Very liberal definitions of what constitutes a parking space.

Butrint (100 lek for an adult ticket, just shy of €10) was peaceful and beautiful. A saw a handful of other visitors at most. There were lots of lovely old stone things, and even better, turtles! I accidentally noticed the turtles by walking into the side of a little bridge. My clumsy exclamations scared one and he dove into the water, altering me to his cute turtlely presence.

Fellow hostel-pal making friends with a cat
Fellow hostel-pal making friends with a cat

I wandered around in the sun, trying to take in the historical significance of the dilapidated – but fairly well preserved – structures. Generally, my eyes glaze over at the mere mention of BC or AD, but I think a little knowledge managed its way into my grey matter.

Something something Romans, something mosaics, something about a god of medicine. Great if you’re into archaeology. Lots of pretty pictures if you’re not.

Ksamil and a spontaneous house party in the Albanian mountains

Having spent a good couple of hours brushing up on my history, I left for nearby Ksamil beach. I awkwardly drove up the wrong long narrow driveway twice, no doubt severely confusing the workmen fixing lights therein. I found Bora Bora beach, which had exceptionally pretty blue water and white sand.

Given the season, it was also windy and empty. Given the low cost of Albania, compared with nearby Greece, I’d be tempted to return in Summer to see what it’s like in the high season with other people about.

I made my way back to Sarandë, I as had planned with the hostel manager to drive up to the mountains with some other guests to visit a friend of his for dinner. We were on Albanian time, so I had half a pizza at 6pm in preparation. We finally left at 8:30pm.

In the middle of the drive, we stopped at a tiny village en route, and the manager explained that each village has a tree in the middle of it. Someone hit this particular tree with a car, so they patched it up with some concrete and it kept growing. My houseplants could learn a thing or two.

A few hairpin turns and some 45mins later we arrive at the American pianist’s ‘house’ – a disused pizza restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Piqeras. A Dutch girl cooked dinner. An Albanian DJ’d. As sober driver, I drank my 0.0 and befriended the resident animals.

Solo beauty spots

On the way out of Sarandë the next day I stopped at the castle – Kalaja e Lëkurësit – for amazing panoramic views. Aside from a couple canoodling in a car (I didn’t venture too close), it was just me, some cows, and a view of Corfu in the distance.

tiranaIt being vaguely in the right direction of my next destination, I decided to swing by the Blue Eye, a natural water spring, which is somewhat in the middle of nowhere – reachable via windy roads. I was a bit ho-hum about this attraction. It was stunningly blue and good for photos, but not sure I’d bother again if visiting solo. It was quite a long walk from the car park and probably more fun with pals. Worryingly, the car starts a bizarre intermittent groaning noise.

Gjirokastër – an ancient beauty – hopefully now updated on Google Maps

Next stop, Gjirokastër. I got very lost trying to find my guesthouse. In a show of amazing hospitality, the guesthouse man came and fetched me. He even took over driving when we got to the tiny narrow cobbled streets, which I am sure was as much a relief for him as it was for me.

He then got his friend to come listen to the weird noise my rental car was now making. Naturally, it stopped when in the presence of someone mechanical, but he reassured me I’d probably survive the rest of the trip.

I headed out to a charming hillside restaurant, Taverna Tradicionale Kardhashi, at 5pm as I had not eaten since some leftover cold pizza for breakfast. My waiter was lovely and at one point ran off to help an old woman with her wheelbarrow. Stuffed aubergine was the highlight, as was the free cake and a sweet little welcome drink made with cloves. The raki was dreadful, as is raki everywhere.

I headed up to the castle for some beautiful views. Old shingle houses clinging to hillsides, and gorgeous mountains in the distance. Gjirokastër is worth the visit.

Second dinner (yes) was at one of the many restaurants tucked in the cobbled streets of the old town – some sort of cabbage pie thing. Very good. The cat next to me thought so also. I ate a baklava type dessert and added some beer for balance. I then returned to the guesthouse and binged Netflix in bed, because sometimes, that’s solo travelling.

The next morning began with breakfast on the sunny balcony. The actual food was a mix of things – cheese, a boiled egg, olives, a couple of pieces of cucumber, some bread, and a very sweet thick coffee. Oh, and an orange. Great oranges here! The adorable elderly couple serving, the fabulous view, and the sunshine made it a 10/10 (thank you Guesthouse Celo).

Locals enjoying the Friday evening sunshine at Grand Park, Tirana.
Locals enjoying the Friday evening sunshine at Grand Park, Tirana.

Company in Tirana

After a hot shower (I was stunned to work out at age 34 that those metal covers that go over toilet paper are to keep it dry in wet rooms! I always thought they were a way to ration paper – tell me I’m not alone here!!??)

I headed off to Tirana. I do like a capital city as a solo traveler. Lots to do. More chances to meet others. Not much to report about the long drive there in the sun. Lots of shepherds with long sticks supervising their goats’ roadside lunch.

One of Albania's thousands of small bunkers harkening back to the 1990s.
One of Albania’s thousands of small bunkers harkening back to the 1990s.

Driving in Tirana itself was quite the cortisol-raiser. I found paid parking nearby the hostel and sent a voice note of the weird car noise to the multi-named car rental guys. They suggested it was the back wipers. The cheek.

My hostel was super boujee and the reception and guests very friendly. Really recommend Vanilla Sky Hostel, (inexplicably named like the Tom Cruise film) if you’re ever in Tirana. More expensive than other hostels, but worth it.

I was again starving so took recommendations and walked to the nearby Restaurant Piceri Era “Blloku”, where I had a pepper, tomato, and cheese dish which may or may not have been fergesë but in any case, was delicious. I then walked to the Grand Park of Tirana and watched people sitting by the lake enjoying their Friday evenings.

For second dinner – a recurring theme here – I went to a traditional Albanian restaurant, Oda (quite busy, book if you are a group) where I ate an entire plate of fried lima beans. These were delicious, particularly if you ignore the fact they look like tiny little veiny kidneys.

channel

Walking tours and some facts

The next day, me (and about half of the hostel, it transpires) went on the Tirana Free [Walking] Tour. The guide was fantastic – both educational and funny. I learned the following interesting things:

1) Albania had a terribly oppressive communist regime from 1945-1991, where the people were basically trapped in the country;

2) Albania was allied with, and then fell out with – in turn – Yugoslavia, the Soviets, and China; and

3) Post-Communism, around two-thirds of the adult population, presumably having attained limited financial literacy under socialism, lost their money investing in pyramid schemes, sparking an uprising against the government and great civil unrest.

Dark Tourism. And More Facts. But good Ones.

I had lunch back at Oda with a couple of women from the hostel, going on to visit the House of Falling Leaves Museum, which focusses on state surveillance under the communist regime. My companions went to the National Museum but ya’girl only has the attention span for limited museums, and she likes the ones about horrible depressing things.

This was a fairly interesting museum, although a lot of the content was covered in BunkArt2, which (spoiler), I went to next. I enjoyed the little bugging devices used by the intelligence services, and seeing how easily they could be hidden in everyday objects.

BunkArt2, the more centrally located sister of the bigger, further-out Bunk’Art, is based an old underground bunker – there are around 750,000 of these old concrete bunkers across Albania, of varying sizes. BunkArt2 details the history of Albania, particularly the communist regime.

Butrint National Park
Butrint National Park

Here I learned the following Interesting Things:

1) At the end of the regime, the government used giant ‘pastry makers’ to destroy incriminating documents. With the addition of water – these could make 800kg of documents per hour into ‘dough’, which was then buried or poured into rivers;

2) In 1985 an Albanian family sought asylum in the Italian embassy in Tirana, and ended up living there for five years before escaping via plane to Rome. While in the embassy, they were spied upon by a maid with a recording device hidden in the handle of a broom;

3) During the regime, visitors generally weren’t allowed into Albania, but those who were needed to have government-approved haircuts, facial hair, and outfits. At the airport any “men with long hair like women” or “exaggerated sideburns” would be subject to a cut and/or shave, before they could enter the country.

Goodbye Tirana, and cheap noisy car

After dinner with some hostel friends, I finished my time in Tirana with a couple of delicious rather-strong cocktails at the eclectically furnished Radio Bar in the chic neighborhood of Bloc, where the hostel is also located. Nice (relatively) cheap cocktails, cool decor. An abundance of tartan. Very hip.

My final morning, dusty of head, I returned my little car to its people. My vocal imitation of the weird noise did not shed any light on its mechanical issues, but at least they could see I had not left the back wipers on for days straight (although that would have been a better tale).

I would recommend Albania. Cheap, beautiful, helpful people. I hope to return in Summer someday. Maybe I’ll splash €40 on a rental car.

Kate Macey

 

Kate Macey is a Kiwi based permanently in London and loves nothing more than a) humor; and b) getting outside her comfort zone via the medium of travel. She has just started writing about her travels and hopes to share more stories combining the two.

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2 thoughts on “Albania Road Trip All Alone

  1. Great travel blog Kate!

    “… a late lunch of pickled vegetables and sour cheese baked peppers. Not bad. Probably great for one’s gut flora.” 😂😂😂

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