A Budget Travel Paradise
Albania is easily one of the most amazing places we’ve been to. We’re not sure if we should or shouldn’t be saying this, but Albania is going to be the next backpacker paradise in Europe. Seriously. To our knowledge it remains a relatively untraveled and obscure destination for pretty much anybody we’ve ever talked to. It hasn’t even been overrun by backpacking hippiecrites yet. It’s authentic, it’s unimaginably cheap, it’s got diverse and beautiful scenery (beaches, forests, mountains, you name it), incredibly helpful people, tons of hidden history, fresh and local Mediterranean food, and just about anything a traveler could want. Go now. It won’t stay this way forever. We can recommend:
- Tirana, the capital city and a bizarre yet awesome experience
- Berat- castle, town, gorge, and bridge
- Permet and nearby hot springs
- Gjirokastër castle
- Sarandë and the coast
- The ancient city of Butrint
- The road to Dhërmi by rental car
- Dhërmi and the beach
- Up to Llogara National Park
Our two-week trip around Albania was limited to the southern half of the country. Even though it’s geographically small, there is still plenty to see, plus distances seem magnified given the condition of the roads and speed of the buses.
When to go
NOW! It’s only a matter of time before the Albania we fell in love with changes as more tourists arrive.
That being said, there’s probably not a bad time of year to visit. We were there in March, which offered pleasant temperatures and fewer domestic vacationers. A light fleece or jacket and jeans was usually warm enough, and sometimes too hot. The warm Mediterranean sun was shining almost every day.
The next time we go we’ll head there in the summer so we can do some hiking in the Albanian Alps; there was still too much snow to access the trails in March.
Albania’s capital city, Tirana, offers a warm and easy welcome to the country. Taking the big pink Rina’s Express bus instead of a taxi from the airport will save you money while giving you your first glimpses of the country. The bus dropped us off in a different place than where it picked us up on our way home, so you just kind of have to go with the flow and try to ask locals where to go. English speakers are limited in Albania, but they’ll probably end up pointing you to the main square, and that’s a great place to start!
Do you speak Shqip?
If you don’t speak Albanian (Shqip), language can be a bit of a challenge when visiting Albania, and it was a challenge here more than any other travel destination we have been to. “Universal” sign language goes a long way, of course (put hand to mouth when hungry, put head on folded hands when sleepy, etc), but sometimes it’s nice or necessary to communicate a little bit more. English wasn’t a problem in Tirana, but things were a bit trickier outside of the capital.
The most useful language is Italian, but we don’t speak Italian. English works now and then. Lisa used Spanish words with some success. Sometimes Elliott’s beginner-level French was understood. German almost never worked.
Just remember, everybody understands a smile!
Once you’ve found a place to stay and drop your bags off at (multiple hostels have started popping up), wander down the grand communist boulevard to take in the imposing facades, the weird crumbling pyramid thing (you can climb it, but it’s slippery!), and suspiciously flashy cars. Albania has an abundance of three things: cheap coffee, fresh böreks(spinach/feta-filled flaky pastry), and thousands of bunkers left over from decades of xenophobic and isolationist communist rule. You’ll find your first taste of all of this in Tirana.
Elliott’s fondest memory of Tirana was at a pub/restaurant on a little street just off of the main square. It was filled with locals, so we sat down to join them. We ordered a platter of sizzling sausages, a basket of fresh bread, some sort of paprika-yogurt dish, and a beer for each of us… all for about $3.80 CAD. We could hardly finish it we were so stuffed, and this was just the tip of the iceberg for what awaited us in the rest of the country.
Spinach and espresso
Everywhere in Albania you’re almost literally never further than 10 metres from somebody selling delicious espresso coffee or freshly made spinach/feta-filled snacks called böreks. And best of call, it’s all incredibly cheap. We’re talking about $0.20 for an espresso and a little more for a börek. For prices like that, you basically have no option but to stuff your face and get wired on caffeine all day, every day.
If you wander in the right direction in Tirana, you’ll eventually find a bunch of buses and guys yelling out town names. We found these guys and hopped on a bus to our next destination, the historic Ottoman town of Berat. We stayed with Lorenzo and his mother in a big old Ottoman house that apparently served as a Ministry of Finance building for the Ottoman empire a couple of hundred years ago. The house offered a cool respite from the hot midday sun, and Lorenzo was an unforgettable host who sang to use while pouring homemade wine to go with the delicious meal his mother had just cooked us. Give him a call at 0035 569 633 7254 or try to email him.
Berat itself is full of historic houses, winding alleys, a gorgeous view of the mountains, and a castle looking out over the old town from a steep hill in the center. The castle still has families living in houses within its walls, and has a number of sights to wander around and see, including a Byzantine church with remarkable carved interior panels and a certain ambiance that can only be experienced.
From Berat we took a day trip to visit the Osum Gorge by Çorovodë, where we thought there would be hiking opportunities. Although on the map it was only about 50 km away, it turned out the poor roads in combination with a laissez-faire attitude on the part of the bus driver resulted in a trip of about 3-4 hours.
We finally arrived at Çorovodë where a group of about 10 taxi drivers proceeded to loudly and competitively offer us a ride to the gorge. It appeared we had no way to proceed to the gorge without accepting the obviously inflated prices, so we chose our favourite taxi man and away we went!
Our taxi man, Petri, brought us to a scenic outlook overlooking the gorge. It was rather impressive! We then used the best hand signs we could muster to ask where we could go hiking, and after several minutes, it eventually became clear that, at least to Petri’s knowledge, you actually CAN’T go hiking there. Bummer! In the future we’d like to return to the same place with our own vehicle to go exploring the back roads a little bit more, but considering the bus ride there took about 6 times longer than we expected, it was time to start heading back anyways.
All was not lost, however. After Petri took us back to town, we went by foot to an old Ottoman bridge we had read about.
We know what you’re thinking, “what’s so special about a bridge,” but this bridge really was something special. Crossing it felt like stepping back into history itself, if not into some sort of magical elf kingdom. A local man fishing under the bridge also showed us a nearby spot with a natural spring bubbling out of the ground. It may just be a bridge, but it was a special moment.
This special moment was followed by the 4 hour return bus trip to Berat, of course. We finished the day off with a cheap and tasty pizza and beer.
A nod to intercultural communication
Traditionally in Albania people shake their head from side to side to indicate “yes” and they nod their head up and down to indicate “no.” This is obviously very opposite and confusing for most westerners.
To make things a little bit more confusing, it seems that a number of Albanians have now learned about this difference, and in attempting to help out poor lost tourists like us, they selectively switch to the western standard of side to side for “no” and up and down for “yes.”
To add to that, many Albanians will decide not to reply with words no matter what, but will only nod or shake in response to your questions.
The result is that you basically never have any idea if somebody is saying yes or no, or whether they understood you in the first place. Lol, this is what makes travel fun!
From Berat we followed Lorenzo’s instructions and got on a bus that he promised us would reach a town called Permet. We drove through the Albanian countryside for a while until the bus pulled over at a random spot on the road and instructed us to get out while the other passengers remained on the bus… sure I guess!
And so there we stood, confused and blinking in the morning sun, all alone in the middle of a beautiful and peaceful valley with the fresh morning breeze uplifting our bodies and souls. We had no idea how to get to Permet, but it sure was a beautiful spot.
Suddenly and out of nowhere, another bus coming from the opposite direction pulled up, honked its horn, we got in, and it took us all the way to Permet- just like magic!
Please avoid plastic
While the bus ride to Permet was undeniably beautiful, it was impossible not to notice the tons of plastic bottles and other waste lining the sides of the river. Unfortunately, this was the case everywhere else in the country as well, and locals even laughed at us when we put our garbage in our packets to throw away later.
The majority of this plastic waste is of course generated by Albanians themselves, but it can’t hurt to avoid adding to this problem and keeping beautiful Albania as pristine as you can. Buy the biggest water jugs you can and bring along a refillable water bottle, say no to plastic bags and plastic cutlery, and avoid buying things with excessive plastic packaging.
After asking around town a little bit we found a private little hotel room right on the main square for just $10 a night. Even if we were overpaying, we couldn’t complain.
We left our bags in the room and decided to walk along the river down a road to some hot springs we had read about. While the walk was beautiful, it was long. Very long. So long, in fact, that we didn’t end up making it.
The upside to the long, long walk is that we stumbled upon a massive boulder in the middle of the valley with extensive caves and tunnels that had been carved through it at some point or another. We had never read anything about this in our research on Albania, and it was an interesting find. We explored as far as we could until bats scared us off.
After exploring the cave and deciding it was time to head back, we easily hitchhiked back to Permet as the sun started to set and had a delicious meal and a good night’s rest.
Forget about the menu
Half of the time we walked into a restaurant for dinner the restaurant was completely empty except for the family that owned it. Nonetheless, they would seat us, ask us what we wanted to drink, and then tell us our food options, which were usually “bread, chicken, lamb, potato, salad.” Almost every evening, especially in the smaller towns, we would have some variation of this for dinner. While it doesn’t offer much variety, it was nice to know that most if not all of the food was produced fresh, seasonally, and locally. And yes, it was tasty.
The next day we were ready to try reaching the hot springs again. We had learned the day before that hitchhiking worked well, and we were easily able to get a ride all the way to the hot springs along the road we had walked the previous day. What awaited us was absolutely stunning.
We crossed over another stone Ottoman bridge and found a perfectly still infinity-style hot spring pool built with rocks on the other side. The water was certainly warm, but not exactly “hot” for that early morning hour. Nonetheless, it was certainly warm enough to take a dip.
We spent at least a couple of hours enjoying the simple perfection of that hot spring and the surrounding scenery. A local eventually showed up for a swim too, but he was the only other person we saw for the entire day.
A couple of hours of sitting still means that Elliott will eventually get antsy though, especially when there are surrounding mountains to go explore! We made our way up above the hot springs on little goat trails, passed some sort of weird concrete cave-bunker, and eventually descended down into a tiny village built up in the hills.
The many uses of a travel scarf
The scarf – the most versatile garment of them all. Always, and we really mean always, bring a scarf with you when you travel. There is an infinite number of usages for the travel scarf:
- You’re cold? Wrap it around your head to prevent an earache, drape it around your shoulders to get warm, or wear it around your neck and keep that cold away.
- It’s hot or windy? Protect yourself from the heat by wearing your scarf on your head and pull it over your face to keep dust from bothering you.
- You got wet? Your scarf will make and excellent towel! Just tie it to the outside of your backpack after you’re done to air-dry it.
- You want to visit a religious sight but are not dressed modestly? Cover your head, shoulders, cleavage, or make a skirt out of your scarf!
- Need a basket? Use the center of your scarf to collect things! Somebody is injured? Bandage them up! Need some shade on the beach? Build a cover!
You’re not convinced yet? Well, bring a scarf anyways, or buy one once you’re there – you won’t regret it.
We don’t know the name of the little village we ended up finding ourselves in, but if it wasn’t for the power lines it would have seemed like stepping back into a time machine to a more simple past. All of the houses, churches, narrow lanes and walls were built with stone from the surrounding area, stone-shingled roofs included.
The only other creatures we saw were cats, cows, and chickens, although we are quite sure that some of the gates and doors were quietly closing as we walked past. It was a surreal experience, and we can’t help but feel a little rude for invading the privacy of this little village, while also wishing that we could have had the chance to engage with its residents.
Gjirokastër is definitely better known as a tourist destination in Albania, and this is where we started to see other western travelers on Albania’s own little tourist trail. While the city certainly has much to offer in the form of a well-preserved old town and castle, we found it a little underwhelming compared to the old town and castle in Berat.
Your fellow travelers on the tourist trail
While there is a bit of a typical “tourist trail” in Albania, there are so few western tourists (at least in the off season) that you can count them on one hand. Literally.
We westerners stick out like a sore thumb in Albania, and we regularly saw just the same five or six people in many of the places we visited. One German couple we met told us about a British tourist on a bicycle that they had spent some time with. After saying goodbye to the Germans, we encountered a man with a bike, asked him “are you the British guy?”, and indeed he was!
Since you’ll be seeing each other regularly, why don’t you try making friends with fellow travelers? Rental cars are already cheap in Albania, and they’re even cheaper if you’re sharing with other people!
Gjirokastër castle nonetheless deserves a visit. It is more extensive than the Berat castle and contains some of its own unique and interesting (mostly militaristic) quirks. For a nominal entrance fee, tourists have almost unlimited access to anywhere in the castle they can find an intact passageway or stairway to, and there are enough of these to spend several hours getting lost.
The castle includes a collection of artillery pieces, cavernous passageways, a mini tank, an American training jet that crashed and which the Albanians claimed was a spy plane, a historic clock tower (the clock doesn’t work), and countless enticing ruins in various states of disrepair ranging from pristine to completely back to nature.
For an extra nominal fee you can find the man with keys to an additional weapons museum, which is filled with scary statues and old firearms that try to make you believe the Albanians destroyed the Nazis and any other foe that dared test their military might over the past several decades.
Next up: the beach! From Gjirokastër we made our way down to Albania’s southwestern corner, just shy of the border with Greece, to the resort city of Sarandë.
In high season Sarandë is likely crawling with local vacationers from Tirana and Gjirokastër, but it was a pretty quiet seaside town when we arrived. After inquiring at an unmarked hostel we found online, the manager told us it was full, but then showed us to a seaside restaurant and we enjoyed a nice coffee while he called up all of his friends and went around on foot finding us a place to stay. We ended up with a private room right on the boardwalk for $10. Can’t complain!
After a night of exploring the town and having a delicious meal of “head stew” (Elliott has a habit of ordering the weirdest thing on the menu he can find), we set out the next morning for the UNESCO site of Butrint, an ancient Greek and Roman city surrounded by a national park.
When we head to a new country, one of the first things we do is check to see if there are any UNESCO sites. Every single one we have ever visited has been a great experience and well worth the visit.
A couple of short bus rides later, we reached Butrint. Butrint was one of the best and most beautiful ancient Greek/Roman sites we’ve ever visited. It was strategically very important in ancient times, but eventually declined into relative obscurity. One can still navigate its streets and imagine what it would have been like centuries ago, and wonder what life would have been like over the centuries as the once-important city declined in wealth and status.
Across the river from the Butrint site we also noticed an imposing triangle-shaped fort. There just so happened to be a local ferry made out of some wood and an old boat motor, so we paid them to take us across.
The gate to the triangle fort was locked, so we just lifted the gate off its hinges- easy!
We also took a walk up to an old church on a hill on that side of the river, and from the bizarre looks we got from people in the town it seemed pretty obvious that tourists don’t frequent that side of the river very often.
On our way back to Sarandë we thought we would try going for a swim at one of the many beautiful beaches that look out on the Greek island of Corfu, but the water was still just a bit too cold at that time of year for swimming. So instead we drank Elliott’s 10th coffee of the day, grabbed a börek, and just enjoyed the nice sea breeze as we waited for the next old bus to rumble down the road towards us and back to town and eventually on to our next destination.
The road to Dhërmi
In Sarandë we bumped into a German couple that we had been seeing often on the Albanian tourist trail, and they were kind enough to offer to take us along in their rental car from Sarandë up to our next stop, Dhërmi. It was the first time we didn’t take a bus, and to be honest, having our “own” car afforded a lot of flexibility and allowed us to see things we wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
Renting a car in Albania
Albania is scattered with tiny villages and old monasteries up in the hills, and with a car you can actually go and visit them. It turns out that renting a car can also be fairly cheap, and even for the budget-conscious traveler. We heard claims of $200 or so for an entire week or longer. If you’re with a group of people or meet travelers along the way who are willing to chip in, this can be a great option for your trip to Albania. Just remember to take general precautions necessary when renting a vehicle.
The downside is that you’ll meet fewer locals and miss out on hilarious bus experiences. It’s your decision!
The drive was quite beautiful, and some highlights included an empty, creepy monastery with a bountiful orange tree, a little town with a big tree and fantastic lookout, a visit to the beach, and passing by an abandoned secret submarine hangar.
There was also a dark and confusing castle right across the road from where we stopped for lunch, which we hadn’t found mentioned anywhere before but which was certainly worth a visit.
The German couple dropped us off along the highway in Dhërmi, and we walked down the road to the beach. Despite being an obvious resort town in the summer, it was absolutely empty. When walking the streets we didn’t see a single person, tourist or local alike, in over an hour at least, until we eventually found the single guest house that was still open. We ended up staying for a couple of nights and spent our days relaxing on the beach, making friends (and enemies) with local dogs, and enjoying a bit of seafood which the restaurant/guest house owner INSISTED we personally come into the kitchen to inspect.
We also were asked to leave our passports with the guest house manager (not uncommon), who then tucked them safely into the small fanny pack he was always wearing. When we saw him going out on the rough sea in a small boat to catch the fish for the day, we were a little apprehensive whether we would ever see our passports again. Luckily they were returned without incident.
How to deal with aggressive dogs
In many of the countries we travel to there are often a fair number of street dogs. Sometimes they’re totally feral, and sometimes they’re half tame. For some reason they seem to be emboldened at night and when there are fewer locals around. The vast majority of the time they simply like to bark at us and pretend like they’re tough, but sometimes they get a little more aggressive.
On the beach at Dhërmi one super friendly dog was tagging along with us all day, but at one point he made two other dogs angry and then hid behind us to protect himself from the mean dogs. Usually when things get dicey a local will show up and yell at the dogs and they usually seem to listen. In this case we were all alone, and the best we could do was to try to stay away from our friendly dog friend while picking up rocks to throw at the attacking dogs.
Usually simply having a rock in your hand is enough to keep clever street dogs away, and we’ve never had to throw one. If we feel threatened we make sure to have a rock or two in our pockets and in hand. Lisa also sometimes carries pepper spray with her, which she has luckily never had to use.
We also took a hike up to the main town of Dhërmi and went up into the hills to a monastery we saw from down on the beach. It was filled with absolutely creepy paintings on all of the walls. Weird stuff.
Up the pass to Llogara National Park
On our last night in Dhërmi we met a couple of Canadians who also agreed to take us along in their rental car the next day, and we headed up the windy mountain switchbacks to the top of a pass leading to Llogara National Park.
Unfortunately we were all running out of time and didn’t have the chance to check the park out, but we would love to go back one day with a tent and do some hiking and camping through its hills (if that’s even allowed).
This was unfortunately our last stop in Albania before heading back to Tirana to fly away from one of the most beautiful, diverse, under-traveled, and probably the cheapest country we’ve ever been to.