When we made the plan to backpack around the Balkans there were a few countries we were admittedly a little apprehensive and wary about. The first was Serbia, and in many ways it lived up to its fearsome reputation, but in reality it was nothing like as scary as it had been made out to be. Next was Albania, a country we knew nothing about past the reputation that proceeded it in the media, namely from films such as “Taken”. But we often enjoy travelling to these sort of off the beaten track locations and having all expectations blow out of the water. We never listen to the media and never allow these things to cloud our judgement.
Having said that we were totally unsure on where to visit, we headed to the capital of Tirana not sure what to expect and with stories of how hard it is to get anywhere in the country. Part of us expected to spend a couple of days here and leave towards “civilisation”…we ended up staying in this amazing country for 11 days and absolutely falling in love with it!
Where we visited
We ended up taking a bit of a crazy route through Albania, heading to the capital, Tirana in the centre of the country before going south to the wonderful ottoman city of Berat where we hitchhiked to the wonderful Bogove Waterfall. Then we headed back through the length of the country to the far north and into the Albania alps. Staying in Skhoder and heading off into the mountains for a 3hours ferry ride that has to be up there with one of the best things we have ever done!
Here is the list of places in Albania we found ourselves in:
What we fell in love with:
Albania has this undiscovered feel to it, like how I imagine backpacking 10 or 15 years ago felt. There isn’t too much in the way of internet information available, most of the time you just have to figure it out on your feet. Get to or from somewhere by just doing it! No pre booking transport online, no hiking directions, just vague instructions in broken English that you have to blindly trust. But that is the magic of the place.
Albanian’s are honest and freindly people, they will go out of their way to help you and as a foreigner it is unlikely you will be able to go anywhere without at least 10 people asking your name and where you are from. They just love that you are there, and it is so refreshing. We were even invited one night some home cooked to eat in a families garden after a chance encounter on the winding streets of Berat! That same day we chatted to a few older guys playing chess in the park and our lovely guest house host dropped off our postcard at the local depot for us!
Even in the capital city there is a distinct lack of tourists or in fact anything set up for visitors, it certainly means you have to put that bit more effort in, but it also makes for a much more rewarding experience. The towns, cities and “sights” here are not off the beaten track…the whole country is! We only met a handful of other backpackers and kept bumping into the same group as we explored the length of the country! We also met others in the next few countries who admitted to skipping the country due to a combination of fear, rumours and lack of reliable information. All of which I feel was half of the reason we were so intrigued to visit!
But the truth of the matter is that Albania is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, wild, uncrowded and unspoilt. The mountains, waterfalls and lakes of this country would draw in tourists by the millions if they were shifted over the borders of places like Switzerland, Norway of France. Having the stunning and isolated Bogove waterfall to ourselves we felt like we were in the tropical jungle of a far off land.
Then chugging along for 3 hours down the Komani lake, sharing the boat with Raki sipping locals and a handful of other adventurous souls as it passed through the most amazing mountain scenery you could ever imagine. Many who have made this trip say it is only comparable to the fjords of Norway, seeing as though we have yet to head up that way we can’t say. But what we can confirm is that we have rarely seen anything so strikingly wild and beautiful before…in all of the 40 countries we have now visited!
The chaos of Albania!
But it still remained a somewhat uncharted and mysterious land. They speak a completely different language to the Slavic tones we had grown used to, they are mostly practicing Muslims and have a culture that has grown in isolation from the others that surround it for generations. Here you feel almost transported into an alternative dimension from from countries that border it. Organised transport doesn’t exist, timetable are not used and chaos begins whenever you want to get from A to B. But some how, once again, that is the appeal!
Travelling around Albania takes forever, buses have a tout outside shouting for business and once the seats are full you set off. Even the city buses are run in this way. When you want to travel further you must use what is called a “furgon”, basically an unlicensed minibus that takes the most ridiculous and winding routes to get from town to town, village to village. The drivers will pick people up from the most remote villages, or in fact, just a field in the middle of nowhere it seems. And then drop them off anywhere along the rough route, you just flag them down or shout to get off!
Old women jump on carrying nothing but a scythe and get off in the most random of places. The driver also often uses his route to run errands, it really is the most chaotic method of transport I have ever seen. But some how it just works! You eventually find the driver erratically waving at you and several smiling faces turning around at you throwing information in Albanian at you as you are ushered off at your stop! Dropped in the most remote of places with the only method left to get “home” being hitchhiking!
Over here hitchhiking is a big thing, like, a proper legitimate way to travel! We tried it a few times and had a high rate of success. It was rare that our driver could speak any English but we all made an effort and we ended up with some amazing memories whilst flying past the many remaining communist bunkers that litter this country still in recovery.
Living in a timewarp!
Heading into Albania it really is like stepping back in time. Even on the streets of Tirana, the capital city, people are selling fruit and veg off hand built stalls, televisions and all sorts of crazy electronics dating from the mid 90’s are on sale from ramshackle lock ups.
The streets are often full of other people flogging cigarettes, watches and any number of the most random items you could ever find; remote controls, tissue paper and cassettes, all from a battered suitcase! It really is hard to get your head around this happening in a capital city, just yards from the main square, on dirt tracks! This is the sort of thing that was dying out even when I was a kid in the 90’s in the cities and towns of England!
Then there is the fact that so many people still travel on foot or via horse and carts, for miles too. Carrying all their belongings on their back or even having a donkey in tow to do it for them. As you trundle through the rural parts of the country the time warp effect becomes even more apparent. Here it is the norm to till fields by hand, hours and hours of backbreaking work using basic tools, only to retire to a wooden shack with no internet, electricity or running water at the end of the day.
That this occurs in Europe is quite mind blowing and really does demonstrate the huge gap between the east and west of the continent. But life is simple here, people live uncomplicated and happy lives. Everyone smiles, waves and offers what little they have to passing visitors whether they are freinds, family or strangers. Who am I to think that this way of life is and less than my electronic, stressful and oversaturated western one?
Have you ever been to a place that took you by total surprise?
See more from this country:
See more from our backpacking adventures:
Or, maybe you want more off the beaten track stuff:
Off the beaten track yo!
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