Balkans Road Trip: Albania

15:06 Alyson Tart 1 Comments

Since baby Tart has finally arrived, I figure it's about time that I get around to talking about our "babymoon" in preparation for her arrival. I know a lot of people take a relaxing week vacation at the beach, but I decided I finally wanted to go on my Balkans roadtrip which had been topping my travel bucket list for the last two years.

Paul wasn't so sure at first, but after our 2 hour car ride with three kids during a recent trip to the Alps (which included 1 nursing session, 1 crying session and 1 baby puking), he came around to see what I was saying when I said a car trip wouldn't be nearly so easy with a little one in tow.

Besides the point of the ease of a roadtrip sans baby, I was set on the Balkans roadtrip so we can continue my streak of "independent" travel and make our own schedule of stops for food, pictures or whatever else hit our fancy as it came across our path. And while the Balkans are popular (especially Croatia), they still seem less visited than other typical Europe destinations. So, for a couple of years, I'd been jotting down the names of interesting places and sites, put together an itinerary, mapped it out (a few times) and was just itching to go. So I cashed in the baby chip, and we visited last May - 5.5 months pregnant.

Our first stop was Albania.  I'd thought about Albania for a while, although I can't remember why it started in the first place. As I was telling a random person I met about this dream road trip, and as it turned out, he was Albanian. He confirmed I must visit and recommended we try out Durres for the beach.

I had read up on Albania and it seemed the beaches to the south were probably more along the lines of what I was looking for, but we only had 2 days in Albania and at 3-3.5 hrs from the airport we flew into, I decided to take his advice try out Durres instead.

We landed late on Friday, checked into our lovely hotel and had dinner at the restaurant in the hotel - I was exhausted by that point and didn't want to expend the energy to walk 5 minutes down the beach for a meal. So we ate quickly and went to bed to rest up for the day ahead of us.

On Saturday, we got up to explore the beach and started to wonder about the destination I had chosen.  While it was certainly the sandiest of the beaches we would visit over the next week and a half, it was also the dirtiest.  Rotted out boats lay strewn about on the beach as if they washed up and were forgotten. Hotels and buildings built side by side with perhaps an alley between, and looking as if they were built in the 70's and never touched since. I found upon our departure that I'd been biten by sand fleas (a thing I didn't realise existed until this trip).

As we continued further, waiting to stumble upon the nice tourist beach, we walked past miles of empty beach chairs as we had beat the crowds of locals that flock here in the summer to escape Tirana. The more we walked, the more we became certain that this was it - the beaches that we were told about.

And while the setting wasn't gorgeous, you had to give it to them for a lively atmosphere. Plenty of children playing on the beach, games of football right up next to the water. There were so many vendors, their carts full of everything from floaties to wading pools, pushing their carts along the beach (or if they are lucky, driving their motorbike cart).  We even saw a man walking his bear down the beach for tourists to pose with.

Still, after one day, we decided we needed to get out and explore what else Albania had to offer, hoping it would be more than Durres. We had heard about Berat, thinking originally we would skip for the beach, but it was now sounding a bit more intriguing given our findings in Durres.

Called the Town of a Thousand Windows, Berat is famous for the old Ottoman style buildings built into the hillside during the 15th century (and are what gave the city UNESCO status in 2008). While the Turks left hundreds of years ago, these little houses have remained, although with a castle.  The town was cute and quaint, so we spent some time wandering the streets below looking for lunch, then wandering the walls of the castle for fantastic views of the city below.  While it didn't hold a candle to a lot of other old towns we had seen, it certainly was above and away from Durres.

The 1.5 hour drive to Berat had been uneventful and as fast as you could be in a sad little Volkswagen that was past its prime with a barely functioning air conditioning (dream conditions for a pregnant lady).  On the way back, we decided to take the second route offered by Google Maps. It was only supposed to be 10 minutes longer and we figured we could get some different scenery.  It would give us about 2 hours in Tirana before we needed to pick up the other Tarts joining us on the babymoon (James and Ariel).

About 30 minutes in, we got to a fork in the road. Right, was a highway that wasn't quite going where we needed to. Left was what looked like a dirt road. Trusting Google Maps, we followed the little blue dot expecting to see the highway appear.  About 2 hours later, and probably only 12 miles, we did finally get to the highway, but only after miles and miles of this:

We rejoiced when we hit the highway and could speed along to the airport, with little time left to get there, much less sightsee.  A few miles further, we rounded a corner and came upon a police stop point.  A few cars were flagged through, yet, surprisingly, as they came to us, we were pulled over.  The officers grasp on English was almost non-existant, so we handed over everything the rental car place had given us to accompany our dilapadated VW and hoped for the best.  We got a few questions from the officer ("Texas?") then were handed a slip. Paul tried his best to play the tourist card, but to no avail. He had gotten a ticket in Albania. The best part? It wasn't for speeding, but for driving without his lights on at 2 pm in the afternoon. We decided it best to just pay the $10 ticket rather than argue any further with the silly logic behind this rule (which happens to be a law throughout the Balkans as we found out later).

On the last day in Durres, we stopped to visit the amphitheater there.  Thinking we would have to pay, we weren't sure if it was worth it, but once we appeared, they just waved us in without a care and went back to their tea and gossip.  The theatre was interesting, but no Ephesus or Pammukkale (yes, I acknowledge this sounds terribly snooty). We wandered the streets for a bit, grabbed some ice cream, but ultimately decided we had seen all Durres had to offer and hit the road.

The first two days in Durres, Paul and I had spotted little concrete bunkers all over the hillside. We investigated and found out that over 700,000 of these exist in Albania, remnants of the Communist rule of Hoxha. He was quite a paranoid ruler, constantly worried about people invading, so built these to help protect and mobilise if necessary during an attack, which never occurred. They turned out to be so solidly built that they are nearly impossible to remove, so they've just been left there, some re-purposed into rooms or shops, but many simply abandoned where they stand.

We were so excited to show these to James and Ariel and share the story, but in our drive, just hadn't seen one. As we approached Montenegro, Paul and I worried that they'd just have to hear the story when we finally spotted one! We pulled the car to the side of the narrow barely two lane "highway", tossed on the hazard lights and got out for some pictures. It turned out to be just in time as we were just around the bend from crossing into our next destination: Montenegro.

I know I've ragged a bit on Albania here, but if you're in the area, I'd skip Durres. There probably are better places to visit in the South for beaches, or even Tirana to understand the history of Albania. So if you're still interested in visiting, look around to see what other gems there may be to find!

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