“Albania? Won’t that be dangerous?”
Those were the words out of my mouth when my friend first proposed the idea of that part of our wander through the Balkans, and most people who heard we were going there felt the same. They think Albania is insanely dangerous place to go. Full of the despicable people that would make you think of dark alleys in broad daylight. Essentially our friends thought we were being a little crazier than usual with this part of the trip.
So to say I felt a bit nervous when we crossed the board in the July 2015 is understandable. Fine in Montenegro but once across the nerves hit again after all, all of us are blessed with imagination it’s just keeping it under control that can be the problem. So border crossed, we head to the Albanian equivalent of a Bus Station (a car park) in Pogradec and found the minibus going to Korce. So far the situation did not fill me with hope at all. The odd looks from some of the locals, the buildings that looked half derelict and I was here for nearly a week or so. Korce did not aid the situation when we arrived as to me it looked like how I imagined Beirut might look, with just as much heat.
However to say that my expectations of horror and deprivation over the next week or so were never met is an understatement. During my time in Korce, Himare, Tirana, Shkoder and Valbona the people of Albania surprised me again and again. Their kind, welcoming, think you are kind of crazy for being there and insanely proud of their country and what it has to offer the visitor.
- Three young lads at a beer festival we were sitting with us buying us food because we’d bought them a drink. They became our hosts for the evening and did a grand job of it.
- A hotel owner discovering we were leaving before they served breakfast ensuring we had food and water for the journey ahead.
- Some gentlemen at a cafe bar buying us a carafe of wine when they realised we were foreigners, we of course returned the favour.
- That we got a lift from these nice people in Valbona when we strayed a bit too far afield, and we didn’t even have our thumbs out.
- A receptionist calling the bus driver to the Lake Koman ferry to ask them to pick us up rather than us have to walk to bus stop to get it.
- Asking for directions and getting swamped by ten people who all wanted to help us, that none of them spoke english did not stop them trying.
Small things like this made my first stay in Albania something I wanted to do again. So I did last year. Starting my solo wander in Tirana at the hostel I stayed in before just to get my courage up before heading further afield. I will tell you about the welcome when I write about Tirana sometime. However while Albania may be the 4th poorest nation in Europe, however it’s so rich in spirit and passion that to go there will always be an experience I will never regret.
As a country Albania has everything. Good weather, mountains, gorgeous beaches on the Adriatic so there is always something for everyone. What it doesn’t have is a public transportation network, all buses anywhere are privately owned, and not like National Express or Greyhound in America. It’s individuals who own a bus or minibus and the time of departure can be slightly dodgy to say the least.
There are only two train lines, both of which will be apparently an adventure to use, I’m going to try them this year. You can catch ferries to Italy from Durres and their only airport is in Tirana. Another fact to remember is there is no central tourist board for Albania. If you meet someone running a tourist office the likelihood is their local and know the area intimately but may not know much about elsewhere.
Do not expect there to find any major chains you will recognise bar a Kentucky Fried Chicken which only opened recently. In fact when I went last year it was the first time I’d heard of it and I loved how the Albanians were so proud of this fact. After forty or so years of dictatorship and isolation from the rest of the world, with another twenty years of getting themselves back on their feet. Finally they are beginning to get somewhere and for them the KFC signifies this and every traveller/tourist/wanderer shows that the stigma their country has been under is breaking.
So yes Albania has a special place in my heart. So much so that I’m starting my next trip there before heading on to different places. The people of Albania proud of their country and rightly so. They have worked hard to get where they are now and they are beginning to see the results of their work. Where they go from here is something I hope to see in the years to come as I will always visit Albania again.