Albania

Albania

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  • Day74

    I slept terribly the night before due to my cold reaching its peak ferocity and the bed bugs infesting the hostel, forcing me to seek shelter on the outside couches, which meant I was less than prepared for my 6am minibus to the Lake Koman staging point. The lake Koman ferry was, for many years, the only real way to get in and out of Albania's accursed mountains. The roads have improved over the last few years, but the route remains popular for locals and, increasingly, for foreigners embarking on the Valbone-Theth hike. For no apparent reason, except that it fits perfectly with Albania's general illogical attitude to public transport schedules and life in general, there are two car ferries, plus a number of smaller passenger ferries, plying the route that all leave at exactly the same time and from the same point. This creates an uncomfortably early morning for everyone in order to get a connection from the closest town Shkoder by their 9am departure, but also an insane traffic jam and human stampede as everyone tries to find their ferry amongst the throng of passengers, goods and cars being embarked, disembarked and embarked again as they attempt to overload the ferries by playing a real life game of Tetris.

    My minibus almost didn't make it at all due to locals seemingly wishing to reinforce my theory that all Albanians hate each other with an unabiding passion. Driving along the narrow dirt mountain track along the valley toward the ferry, for no apparent reason an old Mercedes 3 cars ahead suddenly swerved and stopped blocking the entire road. The driver and two passengers got out and started banging on the car behind, who's occupants also got out starting and physical fight, which was then joined by the occupants of the car directly in front of us and our driver who got out and got involved for the hell of it. As more cars came to a halt coming from both directions, more people would get out and jump into the fray without any obvious cause, purpose or allegiance. After about 15 minutes it all suddenly came to a halt and, without explanation, everyone got back into their cars and went on their way. This meant that by the time we got to the ferry we were at the back of a traffic jam trying to get through the tunnel just before the pier, so with nothing else for it we all spilled out, grabbed our luggage and pushed and shoved onto the nearest ferry just in time for it to leave.

    After all the excitement, the ferry ride was everything I'd heard about and more. The ferry takes around 3 hours to make its way all the way along the gorge from Koman to Fiere, all the way surrounded by shear cliffs and awesome geological formations. I spent most of it talking to a Dutch couple who live in Breda learning how to say my surname correctly (still can't get it right) and being blown away by the jaw dropping surroundings.
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  • Day68

    Albania continues to surprise and is quickly becoming my second favourite Balkan country, after Bosnia. Tirana only reinforced this status, providing a fascinating insight into the country unique, tragic and fascinating history, its alien culture, traditions and mentality and some of the best and cheapest foods anywhere, largely thanks to its proximity to Italy (where else in the world can you get one of the best seafood risottos I've ever eaten for less than $5).

    The people fascinate me, while I have had nothing but friendly and pleasant interactions, there is no doubt that sexism is extremely alive and perverse and, as far as I can tell, they appear to HATE each other. From having people completely ignore females in social interactions, handing over change to me even though the money is for the female at the table, to my favourite story so far told to me by a couple who hired a scooter in Serende. He had forgotten to bring his license and the rental agency was refusing to accept her license, which after a long argument it was angrily accepted, but with the parting words that "fine, but HE'S driving". I'm also still getting used to the intense and public arguments that erupt at the most ridiculous occasions and locations. On the bus to Tirana, what started as a heated argument between two people people developed into a screaming match involving every Albanian on the bus, including the bus driver. I have no idea what the disagreement was about, or what the resolution involved, but it made for an uncomfortable, if humorous, rest of the ride. However, something that I was definitely not expecting in this part of the world is the religious tolerance and liberalism. Today over 50% of the country identifies as either agnostic or atheist, which could be explained away as a hangover of 45 years of communism, but that wouldn't account for Albania's achievement during WWII of so effectively shielding their Jewish population that they became the only country occupied by Nazi Germany where there were more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.

    I also had no idea how extreme their version of Communism was so severe that over the course of Enver Hoxha dictatorship they managed to progressively become completely isolated from the entire outside world, even eventually cutting off all ties with the Soviet Union, China and neighbouring Yugoslavia after declaring themselves the only true socialist state. This isolation and the countries geographical position led to a extreme paranoia of invasion from both the west and the east and explains the 200,000 bunkers that litter the countryside, one for every 11 residents at the time. The biggest of which is just outside Tirana, which was built to withstand a nuclear war and protect the government leadership, and is now open to visitors as Bunk'art as each of its 160 rooms. Much of it has been retained as it was, but many of the empty and abandoned rooms are progressively being transformed into art spaces dealing with various aspects of the communist regime. Another excellent insight into this period is the recently opened House of Leaves museum, which is housed in the former secret police's internal surveillance building and documents the security apparatuses tactics and methods for keeping tabs on the population, interrogation, torture and prosecution, including the widespread use of collective punishment and informants. Today the files have still not been unsealed due to the inevitable harm that would come from families and friends being torn apart.

    Being so isolated for so long has presented numerous and serious challenges for the country transitioning to a capitalist multiparty democracy, coming to a head most spectacularly during the pyramid scheme scandals of the mid 1990's. This led to huge economic loses for ordinary people and anarchy and rebellion that necessitated an Italian led UN peacekeeping force to bring under control in 1997.

    Today Tirana is a microcosm of this history and more, preserving many elements of its communist past, whilst desperately trying to transform itself into a modern european city. The previously off limits neighbourhood of the party elite, where they enjoyed all the western luxuries that were apparently so evil and corrupting for the masses has been turned into the most expensive capitalist area, complete with the only western fast food restaurant in Albania, KFC, which is a symbol of pride and development. The centre of the city is undergoing a massive reconstruction in dubious taste, but withstanding the excesses shown in Skopje, while other communist buildings, including the infamous Tirana Pyramid, lie abandoned and crumbling. Today the pyramid serves no purpose other than a reminder of the past and a very hairy, steep and slippery climb to watch the sunset over the city, something we did on my second night.

    Tirana also offered an opportunity to escape the worst of the heat by heading up the 15 minute cable car to the mountains outside of town and some pretty and wild forests to walk through.
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  • Day68

    I spent the last 24 hours in the UNESCO listed town of Berat. It was a beautiful place and the hostel was excellent, but I didn't spend any longer as there is no end in sight to the current heatwave and I'm already getting desperate to get back to the coast or mountains to try and escape the heat. Luckily the town is very small and I was able to brave the afternoon heat to walk around the old towns and up the gruelling path to the castle.

    Berat is a well preserved Ottoman town built on the banks of the river underneath a massive fortification that dates back to the 4th century BC. In many ways it reminded me strongly of Amasya, which I visited right back at the beginning of this trip, sharing the same architecture, positioning, whitewashed walls and dark wooden windows that give the town its nickname. The undeniable jewel in the crown though is the Berat castle, which towers over the town, is massive in scale and, best of all, has been continually occupied since it was first built. A definite highlight was hiking up to the castle on the limestone cobblestones worn glassy smooth and slippery from constant use (any car that is unlucky enough to have to stop half way up, has to reverse all the way back down in order to regain enough traction to try again - it was a common sight) and walking through the still imposing double fortifications to find a thriving community going about their lives. There are a handful of restaurants and bars, but a lot of houses had set up plastic chairs and tables outside to sell you water, beer and fruit from their gardens, very low key and charming. I spent a couple of hours exploring the narrow maze like streets, enjoying the shade they provided, the relative coolness and complete lack of traffic. Sharing it with only a handful of others brave/stupid enough to be walking around in the early afternoon on another 40+ degree day.

    My hostel was located in the middle of one of the old neighbourhoods in an old Ottoman building with an extensive backyard full of fig trees and overhung with grape vines laden with ripe fruit, which after walking around all afternoon was a perfect place to try and recover and relax. However, the lack of air conditioning meant that it was a forlorn hope to try and sleep, so it ended up being a very long late night as we all waited for the temperature to drop, broken up by an excellent dinner at a restaurant close by overlooking the river and opposite bank. The food has notably improved as I have got closer to the Mediterranean, which has been a welcome relief from the monotony of the Balkan cuisine further north and inland.
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  • Day73

    After the disappointment of Montenegro it was a relief and pleasure being back in Albania. Shkoder was the logistical starting point for getting into the Albanian accursed mountains for the Valbone-Theth hike, which necessitated an overnight stay to organise transport and in order to get to the Lake Koman Ferry staging point. As a result I didn't really know anything about the place, but it was a nice town on the shores of a large lake and with, another, imposing castle overlooking the town.

    After getting to my hostel and arranging my transport for the next day there was enough time to jump on a free bike tour of the lake and town which was just heading out. We rode out of town to a spot looking over the lake toward the beautiful and imposing mountains I'd be heading into the next day for a swim, before heading back toward town via an intriguing abandoned and half built lake side mansion, which we'd seen on the way past. It turned out the reason for this was very appropriate for Albania's recent history. It was the project of a corrupt businessman/politician who, after getting into parliament in the mid 90's 'claimed' the prime piece of realestate for himself and started building a large and ostentatious bond villain hideout despite the strenuous objections of the local residents and rightful land owners. Unsurprising to no one he was assassinated in a professional hit in the midst of the anarchy that surrounded the 1997 pyramid scheme crisis and subsequent social unrest leaving a half finished mansion and no one willing to finish it or pay for its demolition, so it has remain as is ever since, proving a local hangout for youths to drink and graffiti and an atmospherically photogenic folly for passing backpackers.
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  • Day75

    One of the few things that I was determined to do on this trip was the Valbone-Theth hike in the Albanian accursed mountains. I can't remember how I first heard about it, but the idea of taking a ferry way up into the mountains and then hiking between two otherwise unconnected villages in a region of the world that until very recently was cut off from the outside world and still observes its own laws and customs, including blood feuds immediately grabbed me. However, I was also completely unsure if my foot would physically allow it and, after almost crippling myself in the first couple of weeks of the trip, I had almost given up on it. As I had travelled through Albania I had met more and more people who had done the hike, without exception talking about it in reverence and awe, so despite my concerns I became more determined than ever. Little did I know at the time that I would end up walk the track twice in two days.

    My plan to head to Kosovo was proving to be incredibly tricky. My first planned route through Montenegro proved to be a dead end and, back in Northern Albania I quickly realised that I'd backed myself into another corner. My naive thought of getting a direct bus from Shkoder to Kosovo at the end of the hike proved to be a hopeless dream, meaning that it was going to take me at least 3 days to get from Theth to Kosovo via Shkoder, with most of the travel frustratingly being in completely the wrong direction. Ironically Valbone is almost on the Kosovo border, which gave me the idea of walking from Theth to Valbone, but this would have required me to miss out on the Lake Koman Ferry (something I was not willing to do) and carry my big pack with me (I only found out later that you could hire a horse for this exact purpose). So in the end the best option turned out to be backtracking from Theth to Valbone and heading onto Kosovo from there.

    We were met at the Ferry by another mini bus that took us on the 2 hour drive up into the mountains to Valbone. The drive was fantastic as we followed aqua blue streams raging down the centre of dramatic mountain valleys, but what was most amazing was the clarity of the air. Throughout the entire mountains, the air must be incredibly clear as the mountains look unreal in the truest sense taking on the appearance of set backdrops or CGI. It was like looking at a landscape in 4K Ultra High Definition. Unfortunately photos don't do it justice, but it was truely surreal.

    Valbone is still a sleepy little village, literally at the end of the road. However, there is currently quite the construction boom occurring as the hike makes more and more a name for itself and in preparation for the hike being published in this years edition of the lonely planet, which means, no doubt, that the best of it is already over. Checking into the guesthouse it suddenly dawned on me as I was searching for my passport that, in my sleep deprived state that morning I had neglected to collect my passport from reception at checkout and they had neglected to hand it over, which meant my entire plan was in tatters unless I could somehow get the hostel to get the passport to Valbone within the next 48 hours. To make matters worse the wifi was down which meant that I had to rely on a three way translated conversation between the owner of the guesthouse who rang the hostel and hope that the nodding heads and smiles were confirmation that my request had been received, understood and I was going to not have walked all the way back to Valbone in two days time for nothing.

    The hike from Valbone to Theth is 20km, the first 10 or so km are fairly flat as it follows the asphalt road to its end at the end of the village and then follows a very wide and dry river bed at the base of the valley, this is all fairly easy apart from the ankle twisting rocks. At the start of the ascent there's a sign that says the next 9km will take 6 hours, which we sniggered at. However, it proved to be pretty accurate as you tackle the Valbone pass, ascending and descending over 1.2km in the process. It was pretty gruelling, but luckily I was in the company of a gay couple from New York, who were entertaining and diverting and the most incredible views I have ever seen in my life. Even better the views weren't static, but were constantly changing. Around every bend the vegetation and landscape dramatically altered meaning that you were always surprised and engaged and distracted from the insane gradient we were climbing. An added bonus of hiking at this time of year was the berries that were all in abundant fruit and constantly changing, from the blackberries at the start of the ascent to the wild strawberries about half way up and eventually wild raspberries, all incredibly sweet and delicious.

    Eventually we reached the pass, which opened up spectacularly clear views down both valleys and after a last scramble up a close by peak a perfect lunch spot to rest, eat and prepare fro the descent. The descent to Theth is less steep than to Valbone and was completely different again as the path snaked through lush forests and grassy meadows. Eventually we arrived in Theth exhausted, but happy and I left my companions who had smartly booked a guest house near the trail head and walked the last 2.5 km to the village and my guest house.

    Like Valbone, Theth is located at the base of a dramatic valley with a beautifully clear mountain stream running through it. Unlike Valbone, Theth has one of the few remaining blood feud towers remaining in Albania. After the towers I saw in Georgia, Theth's single 3 story tower looked decidedly dinky and cute, but it was well worth the effort to go see it and it provided a nice backdrop as I had a beer and put my feet up. My guest house in Theth was really good, run by a mother who spoke no english and her two teenage daughters who did, they gave me a comfortable bed, fantastic home cooked meals and fruit and copious amounts of tea that got foisted on me every time I coughed (which was a lot).

    With no one to join me on the way out the next morning and not new scenery to see, I was worried I wouldn't have any distractions from my aches and pains and the seemingly endless trail ahead. However, I lucked out and was met at the trail head by a dog I had seen on the hike yesterday accompanying another group of hikers, and toady it was my turn. I found out later that White Walker (as he was called for the day) lives in Theth, but walks with a group of hikers one way one day and then back with another group the next. I couldn't have asked for a better companion for the day to keep my spirits up and all he asked in return was the occasional pat and for me to share some of my lunch with him, which seemed like a good deal to me. Sure enough, as soon as I hit the river bad on the Valbone side, White Walker made it very clear that that is as far as he would escort me and after a final and emotional farewell he watched me from his vantage point until I was out of view and went off to do whatever it is he does until he could find another hiker feel special and happy the next day.

    I arrived back to the Valbone guesthouse and much to my relief was reunited with my passport that had just arrived less than an hour beforehand meaning that after an early night I was free to cross into Kosovo the next day.

    You are going to have to excuse the multiple posts and photo spam, but I took over 500 photos on the hike and can't whittle it down any further. If any Find Penguin developers are listening - GET RID of the artificial limitation on photos per post!
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  • Day76

    Absurdly foreign, strangely familiar and endearingly weird, Albania has become my second favourite Balkan country (Bosnia is still number 1). It has its problems, but it has character and is definable different to anywhere else I've been, which counts for a lot in today's globalised world. It provides a microcosm of what happens when you completely isolate a country for 50 years from the end of the largest war the world has ever seen, let it concentrate its culture in an environment of extreme deprivation, fear and poverty and then unleash it back into the modern world.

    So many of the idiosyncrasies of the place are explained by this, I couldn't understand why Albania has such an insane trash problem until it was explained to me that 20 years ago there was no trash. Not as in, there was no rubbish in the street, but as in, nothing was ever thrown out. This meant of course that, 1. Culturally they have no concept of rubbish bins and tips, and 2. There was zero infrastructure in place to handle rubbish. Similarly, I couldn't work out why I kept seeing the same people in groups dozens of times walking the streets while having dinner until it was explained to me that it's a hangover from when there was literally nothing to do in the evening and there was no money to do anything with, which has led to the rise of the national past time of dressing up in the evenings and parading backwards and forwards from one end of any main town square to the other, for not obvious intent or purpose.

    I've also never met a more masculine culture in my entire life. From the invisible women and the extreme sexism to the bizarre ritual of eagerly starting public arguments and fights and joining in on any that may be happening, even if you just happen to be passing, is something so alien my western Anglo sensibilities as to be simultaneously startling and endlessly amusing.

    It's funny, I'm currently sitting in a town just across the border in Kosovo, a region populated by the same people and a region that many on both sides of the border would like to become part of Albania, but it's unrecognisable. For one thing, the streets are clean, I have been here for a couple of hours and have not seen or heard and fight or argument and, instead of being full of men playing chess or watching soccer, I'm surrounded by women and mixed groups who actually seem to enjoy each other's company. I could be pretty much anywhere in the Balkans, but I am definitely not in Albania.
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  • Day66

    Everything about Vuno was objectively terrible. The hostel had foam mattresses, there was no wifi or AC, the showers and toilets are outside and incredibly basic, there was no water on my first day and no power on the second, there was nothing to do in the village and the beach was a tough hour and a half walk away. Yet for those same reasons and many more, everything about Vuno was subjectively awesome.

    Schkola Vuno is opened as a hostel during the summer as a not for profit enterprise with the aim of providing money for the school and the village. Managed this season by Paul, a guy from LA who has been teaching english in Albania for over 2 years and bears the bullet scar on his chest after being shot by one of his students as a result. He's done an amazing job making the most basic hostel imaginable an incredible place to stay. Best of all though is the type of traveller a place like this attracts, with only 16 beds, it's small, but incredibly chilled and with no distractions from WIFI or local nightlife it's a great place to disconnect and checkout.

    After a long hot trip from Ohrid, all I wanted was a swim, but was not so keen on tackling the 3 hour walk for one, but luckily Paul was willing to pack 8 of us into the hostel's tiny Fiat to another beach nearby called the Aquarium due to it's clarity. Being from Australia, I've learnt to be extremely dubious of any claims overseas of 'beaches', but minus the pebbles and lack of surf, this beach was pretty special and just what I was craving. After a fish dinner at a close by restaurant it was back to the hostel for cards and an early night.

    There was one shop in the village of Vuno, which had a single scooter for rent, so I headed straight there the next morning before anyone else could steal it and headed out to explore the Albanian coast. South Eastern Europe is currently in the grips of an incredibly hot heatwave, so Albanians have definitely escaped to the coast in droves, but, outside of a couple of centres, the southern Albanian coast is remarkably undeveloped and is spectacular. I already knew this from the day before as we crossed the coastal pass between Vlora and Vuno, which was incredibly dramatic and hairy, but the road further south just as good, weaving through mountain passes and countless bays and beaches. I headed south to Porto Pilara where a 18th century fortress dominates the isolated bay and is so well preserved it looks like they moved out yesterday.

    Over a cold drink I debated whether to head to either the Blue Eye Spring or the vast archeological sight of Butrint, one of the greatest classical cities on the Mediterranean, being occupied by the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, before being abandoned due to a malaria epidemic in the Middle Ages. As amazing as Butrint sounded, the heat was so extreme, I couldn't face walking around ancient ruins and so the spring won out so I headed down the coast and then inland following a crystal clear river until I eventually reached its source, the blue eye spring. The spring is well named, a small, but seemingly bottomless rich blue pool out of which water rushes, forming a sizeable stream. The water was freezing, but perfect for the weather and so I hung around for a while enjoying the water and lush vegetation before heading back toward Vuno to tackle Gjipe canyon to reach what is reputedly the best beach in Albania.

    After dropping off the scooter, I headed off from the hostel with a couple of others as late as we dared in the afternoon to try and beat the heat, but not get stuck out after dark as the path isn't very well marked. The hike was hot as hades, but was undoubtedly spectacular as the path followed the edge of the canyon before eventually opening up to views of the beach and a steep descent on the coastal cliffs past concrete pillboxes standing in silent memorial to Albania's past obsession with bunkers both big and small. Being the 'best' beach in Albania of course means that, even with the difficulty of access, it was covered in sun lounges, a couple of bars and day trippers who'd either hiked down or taken a boat from further along the coast. It was very pretty though, especially with the canyon behind providing a very dramatic backdrop. I stayed as long as I dared before heading back up the cliffs and canyon for another night in the best/worst hostel I've ever been.
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  • Day19

    Von wegen......Morgen heißt es wieder aus der Bucht herauszukommen. Wir werden alles geben. Der Weg hat es in sich! Sollte etwas nicht klappen, dann könnt Ihr das im Magazin "Explorer" lesen. Warum? Ganz einfach weil der Verleger und Chefredakteur dieses Magazins als einziger mit seinem Wagen mit uns hier in de Bucht steht. Auf jeden Fall hat er in uns neue Abonnenten gewonnen!😀 Er hat Albanien auch ganz ordentlich durchquert und sein Bericht wird in der Maiausgabe 2018 erscheinen. Ich bin gespannt!Read more

You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Albania, Albanien, Albania, Albanië, Albenia, አልባኒያ, ألبانيا, ܐܠܒܢܝܐ, Albaniya, Албанія, Албания, Alibani, আলব্যানিয়া, ཨལ་བཱ་ནི་ཡ།, Albanija, Albània, ᎠᎵᏇᏂᏯ, Albánie, Albania nutome, Αλβανία, Albanujo, Albaania, آلبانیا, Albanii, Albanie, Albaanje, An Albáin, Albàinia, અલ્બેનિયા, אלבניה, अल्बेनिया, Albanska, Albani, Albánia, Ալբանիա, Albanía, アルバニア共和国, ალბანეთი, អាល់បានី, ಅಲ್ಬೇನಿಯಾ, 알바니아, ئەڵبانیا, Alibaniya, ແອລເບເນຍ, Alubani, Albānija, Албанија, അൽബേനിയ, अल्बानिया, Arbainiya, Albuanii, ଆଲବାନିଆ, Albaani, Albanìa, البانیه, Albânia, Shkiperiya, Alubaniya, Albanïi, ඇල්බේනියාව, Albánsko, Albaaniya, Shqipëria, அல்பேனியா, అల్బేనియా, ประเทศแอลเบเนีย, Albanya, ʻAlipania, Arnavutluk Cumhuriyeti, ئالبانىيە, البانیہ, An-ba-ni (Albania), Lalbanän, Orílẹ́ède Àlùbàníánì, 阿尔巴尼亚, i-Albania

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