I didnâ€™t actually want to see Albania.
I had planned to be in Europe until the end of June, but Schengen visa requirements prevented that from happening. I could only spend 90 days in Greece or any other Schengen country within the European Union. I needed to get to Croatia for Yacht Week, and the best way to do so was to make my way up through the Balkan countries along the Adriatic Sea/Ionian Sea. Flying from Greece to Croatia was nearly as expensive as my flight to the UK.
This meant going through Albania. I lucked out and won a Bosnia tour with Med Experience, a fun backpacking bus tour group, and then their wonderfully helpful customer service folks secured me a route from Athens to Kotor, Montenegro. Most of this trip took place in Albania.
Iâ€™ve been in Kotor for a week. Every time I tell someone I got here via Albania, they raise their eyebrows at me. â€œReally?â€
REALLY. Stop believing media hype. Here. A few good reasons to go.
1. It is CHEAP AS HECK
My first night in Saranda, I had a platter of lamb chops (Iâ€™m still coming to terms with how much I love eating baby sheep), two beers, and a bottle of water for the equivalent of 10EUR. My mind was blown.
You could live like a queen (or king) for ages in Albania. And I didnâ€™t have a crappy meal the whole time I was there.
Plus the corner stores serve latte in a can. What more could you want?
2. The people are ridiculously wonderful
Iâ€™m not sure why Albania has a reputation for being harsh. People bent over backwards for me the whole time I was there. Always eager to please, always ready with a smile.
The country is relatively new in its freedom, and it just escaped the grip of communism in the early 90s. You can imagine the transitioning process is bit of a challenge.
3. Ruins galore, including the largest Roman ruins in the Balkans
From Saranda, Dennis took us to Butrint, the largest Roman ruins in the Balkans still with only 5% excavated. It served as a popular port city from Hellenistic to Ottoman times, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I thought I was all ruined out after being in Greece for three months, but these were lovely. Dennis pointed out the minor details that make a place so special, like the grooves in the marble around the well where the bucketsâ€™ ropes strained to pull up the water. The Byzantine baptistery has a floor of mosaic, although itâ€™s protected under canvas. And inside the entrance of the fortress walls are two sets of foot grooves from where the guards once stood.
My favourite part of this: Manumission, or the freedom of the slaves. For awhile women could free slaves, and if a womanâ€™s husband died she would profit from his land rather than the eldest son.
In Berat there is also Berat castle, where locals still live dating back from the 13th century. It used to contain over 40 Byzantine churches, as well as Ottoman mosques.
Youâ€™ll get a killer view of Berat city from the fortress tower. Berat is the prettiest city I’ve seen in Albania. The university and its modern dome is especially attractive.
4. Epic coastline and mountains
I loved Saranda and all its beach-town promises. It was quiet when I was visiting, but the place explodes in the summer. The boardwalk along the beach is littered with carnival rides and restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Young folks with shaven heads popped bicycle wheelies on the promenade while shopkeepers politely let us browse their wares without harassment. The Ionian Sea stretches across to Corfu Island, and from here you can opt for a day trip (or a full-on trip).
One of the most memorable stops on the road trip was through Logora Pass, in Logora National Park. I slept through much of the ride, happily, because the road to the top of the mountains was dizzying. Flag pines bent to the windâ€™s will can be found all along the hillside, and every now and then youâ€™ll see a war bunker left over from communist times. Apparently there are 70,000 around the country.
By the time we reached the peak of the pass, the clouds had wrapped themselves around us and wouldnâ€™t let go. It was kinda terrifying to be so close to them, but man, the view was worth it.