Posted by: Ian | December 1, 2012

Albania

This post is a guest piece by Mircea describing a trip through Albania. Enjoy…

Albania feels like a really nice place to go to. Attached there is a map of the route we took. Generally the roads were very smooth, with very few terrible sections. There was almost no heavy traffic and generally I felt quite comfortable driving around.
I guess that one of the reasons why it feels so nice is because there is a huge disconnect between what one would expect and what you get. I was quite a bit worried about safety, but that was absolutely no problem. Heaps of police everywhere, but when they saw the car number they just waived us through. Also later on we picked up a Dutch hitchhiker (he was in Macedonia by then) and he said he had spent 2 weeks in Albania and confirmed he felt very safe. The only “problem” with (what I suspect was) corruption was at the border. My partner is Malaysian and they said: “Go back, she does not have a visa and she needs one.” Luckily we checked on the internet before and she did not need a visa. So I said: “Nope! We don’t need a visa. We go forward.” After about 5-10 minutes of me: “We go forward” and them: “Go back”, they looked at me, smiled and said: Ok, go forward. I suspect (and other Albanians agree) that they just wanted some 5-10 euros for letting us through. Heh.
The regular people seemed very nice and friendly and although many do not speak English, they do all they can to make you feel welcomed. If you speak Italian tho, you will have quite a nice time chatting to everyone.
What I should mention from the beginning is that going through Albania was a relatively on-the-spot decision and there was NOTHING planned from my part. Eastern Europe is good like that: you don’t need to plan anything because prices for accommodation are always the same (and real cheap) and the motels/hotels are plentiful. Also cities are close enough to each other that it is not a problem finding something.
We spent the first night in Albania in Gjirokaster. It is quite beautiful, in a valley between two mountain ranges. The mountains are quite tall and very bare, almost no trees. It’s a bit eerie!
I was not planning to sleep in Gjirokaster, just went to visit the turkish fortress however happened to meet an american guy that invited us for a party at his place, so we went. Next to his place there was a “ping-pong room”, and as the party started later than advertised, I ended up playing ping pong with some Albanian kids. They knew no English, but they were very friendly and we had a great time.
The hotel (that the American also recommended) was pretty awesome and the fee was (regularly) 30 euro but they gave us a 5 euro discount, just cause it was end of season.
After Gjirokaster, we went to Sarande which is a pretty busy sea-side resort. The beaches are full of pebbles (no nice sand) but the views are pretty good, as you can see some greek islands including Corfu.
The road from Sarande towards north was pretty awesome. Relatively tall mountains (over 1000m I think) coming out straight from the sea, and the road is going up. Going up the first mountain, with the sea and the islands on one side and the mountain on the other was awesome. The funny thing about the road is that the S-bends (mountain is pretty steep) curves are about 1 or 2 km apart, so you pretty much have a long straight stretch of uphill/downhill followed by a hairpin curve. There are no trees tho so you can see really well all that happens.
Going down on the other side was pretty cool – trees, shorter stretches between s-bends and really steep. Generally, I felt the roads were steeper than in Greece and by the bottom my brake discs were burned and fizzing if you threw water on them. Nice!
After that, the road keeps going up and down and it is a pleasure going on it. Perfect asphalt on this section, almost no traffic, the only thing to watch about is the occasional pile of rocks that fell on the road or some other hazard. The stray/shepherd/whatever dogs are pretty well behaved and they will not jump at the bike (unlike Romania, where they are idiotic and sometimes almost get you killed)
As my diet is quite restrictive, I ended up eating in some of the “posh-est” Albanian restaurants. In one of them, the only other table was pretty packed with what seemed to be “gangstas” or something. However, all they did was look at us for just a tad longer, quite amused that we were there (or so it seemed). I feel this is pretty typical for Albania: you may see characters that seem unsavory but they are quite friendly to strangers, or indifferent in the worst case. This was in Vlore.
At the end of this day I found a motel in a petrol station and for 15 euro they had a room for us. The motel was pretty new. It was located near Elbasan.
The city of Elbasan is not so nice. It is a bustling city and it seems everyone wants to make a buck, so there is heaps of commerce there. The whole city seems like a market! As a consequence, people are a little rougher and I was not too happy about it. However, very nice people here still and we bought some fresh grind coffee for peanuts. I am pretty sure you may not like the city per se, however it will be a really interesting experience.
From there we went towards Macedonia. The road from Elbasan to Macedonia is still good, but quite busy. The lake near Macedonia is really pretty and you have to descend quite a bit to the lake. There are a couple of restaurants that will serve fish and we had a beautiful lunch by the lake. It was really gorgeous.
All in all, I honestly think it is worth going to Albania. It is beautiful, cheap, friendly, comfortable and relatively untouched by tourists – a pretty cool experience. As it becomes more of a tourist place, I suspect it will lose a lot of its charm.

gjirokaster 2first section of roadentry to Albaniasomewhere after the crossingsecond section of roadroad after sarande-the mountainguy riding atv w sports rims near earthquake damaged buildingthe ferry crossingGjirokasterusual road qualityview before sarandetop of some mountain

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