Albania. Not likely a country you could point out with confidence on a map, and I’ll admit I couldn’t have done it either before we booked our trip, but my goodness this is one country you should make it a mission to learn where it is and all about it. And then you should put it firmly on your ‘Places to Visit’ list and then go. Sooner than later.
I read somewhere that ‘Albania is a land to be loved‘ and I love it I do. This love started months ago when L and I were looking through some possibilities for tours with his favourite tour company, Cosmos Tours (UK site/ US site). We didn’t really have anything specific in mind and we stumbled upon a new tour for them called ‘Mystical Albania‘ that looked intriguing. We didn’t book it right away but it stuck with me, even when we talked about other possibilities I couldn’t get Albania out of my head. There just seemed to be something about it. And there still is.
I thought I was bad before our trip telling everyone I knew how excited I was to be going, despite questions like ‘Why would you go there?’ and ‘Aren’t you afraid of going there?’ Having returned over a week ago and I’m still gushing about how awesome our trip was to anyone that will listen. And now I’m going to gush all about it on here as I share our wonderful week. As we were saying our goodbyes to our guide he asked us to be ‘ambassadors for Albania’ and I couldn’t be happier than to do just that over the coming weeks here on my blog, and then for years and years to come with everyone I share my lifetime travel highlights with.
As I did for our trip to Canada, I’m going to kick this series of posts off with an overview of the day-to-day highlights and some photos. Then over the coming weeks I’ll go in to each day’s sights in more detail, share lots of photos to inspire you, review our accommodations and flights, and describe the new sights, sounds, and tastes we experienced. Albania may be a small country that is poor in economic wealth, but it is very rich in heritage, culture, and spirit. I can’t wait to show you around!
Day 1 & 2: May 9 and 10, 2015
After our overnight flight with Turkish Airlines (from Houston via Istanbul to Tirana), we arrived about 9:00 Saturday evening to our hotel in Kruja with L arriving on his flight at almost midnight. While we waited for L, the kiddo and I enjoyed the view from our balcony of the castle all lit up on the hill (the same castle that is in the big photo at the beginning of this post). Little did I know I’d be seeing that same view a mere six hours later when I was up with the roosters (literally) at 6:20 am! But the view was even better, because now instead of just the castle I could also see the mountains as the sun was rising. I can’t wait to show you more of those views and our balcony, because yes, I did get my camera out all sleepy-eyed and everything to take photos.
After going back to bed for a couple more hours of sleep it was time to get up and start our first day of the tour which included:
- A walk through the old Ottoman bazaar and up our first of many, many hills to see Kruja’s (pronounced like ‘crew-ya’) castle and the watch tower.
- A stroll around the town and some delicious gelato (you’ll find we had lots of treats on this trip)
- Met our guide and coach driver who had just arrived from the airport with the rest of the people on the tour with us. There were 15 people on this trip, all from the UK except the kiddo and me.
- A tour of the Ethnographic Museum which is a traditional style home that has been restored to give visitors a glimpse into what life was like many years ago in Northern Albania.
- A visit to Skanderbeg Museum which is inside the castle and tells the story of Albania’s greatest national hero.
- Dinner back at our hotel in the dining room that opened up to the view of the castle, where I took the opening photo of this post of the sun setting over Kruja.
Day 3: May 11, 2015
Today we traveled by coach from Kruja to the second largest port in Albania, called Vlorë. Along the way we made stops at:
- The Orthodox Monastery at Ardenica with an incredibly ornate pulpit, some preserved frescoes, and where I received a flower from another man. Another man? Oh there must be a story to that eh? Hmmm…you’ll have to wait. :-)
- A restaurant high up on a hill near Ardenica with a great view and delicious local cuisine.
- A tour led by our guide of the Greek ruins of Apollonia that was once visited by Julius Caesar, but on the day we were there was visited by the Prime Minister of Albania! I wonder if Caesar caused the same traffic jam trying to leave the site as the Prime Minister did.
- A little walking tour around the town of Vlorë to see the sights such as Independence Square and the Muradie Mosque.
Day 4: May 12, 2015
Driving through Albania was a feast for the eyes with endless spectacular scenery every day but I think this day was my favourite. Beaches, mountains, and forests. The day had it all.
- We started in the port city of Vlorë and made our way along the coast past many hotels that are gearing up for the summer season, or being built in anticipation of more visitors.
- Up, up, up into the forested winding mountain roads in the Llogara Pass National Park with a couple of quick stops with great views for lots of photos.
- Down, down, down the side of the mountain on the steep road with lots of hairpin turns. It was along this road that our coach driver decidedly earned my award for the “Best Coach Driver Ever”. Slow, steady, and firmly in control he navigated those roads so all we had to worry about was which window had the best view for our next photo.
- Lunch and skipping rocks on the beach at Himara.
- A visit to a castle built by Ali Pasha Tepelena in Porto Palermo, and then a coffee (well ice cream for us) break at a surprising little restaurant that had waterfalls coming from a spring!
- A guided city walk around Saranda which took us along the boardwalk and in to the town to see some ruins.
Day 5: May 13, 2015
Today we took a little day trip from Saranda for stops at:
- The archaeological site of Butrint National Park which was my favourite site on the trip. And it is a UNESCO site! But I swear that’s not what made it my favourite. I think you’ll see why I loved it so much when I write a little more about it later.
- Lunch and a swim (for those that were brave enough to go in the cold water…the kiddo did!) at Ksamil. L and I enjoyed a long leisurely lunch and the breezes off the sea, while we watched the kiddo shiver in the water. :-)
- Back to Saranda for an afternoon at leisure that we spent taking a little nap and then playing cards. The kiddo won this game.
- Dinner at an old fortress high above the city of Saranda that offered a great view for sunset, a delicious meal, and a little entertainment when a folk dancing/singing group arrived to perform for the other tour group that was dining there that evening.
Read More: UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint
Day 6: May 14, 2015
Today was another day filled with great sights and scenery…OK granted all the days were, but this one had something special about it…
- The Blue Eye! This wasn’t actually on the itinerary but we had read about it before the trip so L talked to our guide to see if it would be possible to stop as it didn’t look too far off our route for the day. Our guide talked to the driver, and although neither of them realized it, they made an already great birthday in Albania even better for L by taking us there. And let me tell you…it is stunning. I think my photos turned out pretty well but they still don’t do it justice.
- Then it was on to the city of Gjirokastra (another UNESCO site!) where it was hills, hills, and more hills again. Our guide gave us a tour of the castle and then we headed back down the little cobblestone streets in to the town for some lunch.
- Did some shopping for a few souvenirs in one of the colourful shops and then a visit to another Ethnographic Museum that is famous for being the birthplace of Enver Hoxha (the dictator that ruled for four decades that I’ll tell you more about in a later post).
- After checking in to our very quaint and charming hotel we took a little walk back in to the town before dinner, which just worked up our appetite as it was another walk back uphill to get ready for dinner.
- At dinner it was time for another surprise from our guide, well a surprise to the kiddo anyway, as for dessert we were treated to birthday cake for the kiddo’s birthday! It was sooooo good. And yep, you read that right…today was both my favourite guys birthday.
A big Faleminderit to Ilia for both surprises today! Such a wonderful day.
Day 7: May 15, 2015
Today we were off to the city of Berat, which is another UNESCO site (yes there are three UNESCO sites in Albania!) where we spent a good part of the day visiting inside the walls of the castle for:
- A visit to the Onufri Icon Museum which is in the 18th century Orthodox St. Mary’s Church and features the art of a 16th century Albanian icon, Onufri.
- Lunch at a traditional little family run restaurant where we were treated to dish after dish of delicious food by a very lively man who made a new best friend with one of the guys in our group who could speak Greek with him. He even convinced him to try the local firewater called raki. One look at our fellow travelers face as he took a sip and the rest of us knew it must be strong stuff indeed!
- Toured the rest of the castle grounds with our guide teaching us all about the history of the castle itself, as well as the rest of the city of Berat.
Accommodations: Hotel Bleart in Durres for one night.
Read More: Kalaja: The Fortress of Berat
Day 8 and 9: May 16 and 17, 2015
Sadly our last day in Albania. :-( But it was a busy one as we:
- Took a walking tour around the old town of Durres that included stops at the Roman Amphitheatre and baths.
- Visited the archaeological museum where a local guide gave us a full tour and lots of history of the artifacts and surrounding area.
- Walked by the old Venetian tower and took a quick trip up a very unlikely building for gelato (of course!) and a 360° view of the city of Durres.
- Stopped in our final city, the capital of Albania, called Tirana for a visit to the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the National History Museum, and a walking tour around the city to view the colourful architecture and some remnants from the Communist era.
- Our tour ended with another lovely dinner at great restaurant along a park full of local people out enjoying a beautiful evening in Tirana.
Accommodations: Hotel Doro City in Tirana for one night.
John Buchan once wrote, “It struck me that Albania was the kind of place that might keep a man from yawning“, and he was so right. With so much to see and do there are plenty of reasons to visit this wonderful little country. Even on the coach, when you think you might be bored just driving along, oh no, not at all. Our guide was an excellent teacher and gave us so much information about the people, culture, history, and even memories from his own life growing up in Albania. I found it fascinating learning about what Albania was like, not so long ago, under Communist rule and to compare it to the Albania of today.
As it was a new tour for Cosmos we weren’t really sure what to expect. Would there be glitches, issues, or things overlooked? Very happily we can say that everything about this tour went smoothly and we were well taken care of. Like I said earlier, our coach driver deserved an award for navigating the roads like he did, especially as we were in such a big coach. And our guide, Ilia. We could not have asked for a nicer, more patient, friendly, fun, or more knowledgeable guide to show us around his home country. His love of his country was very evident when he spoke, and that, that made me love Albania even more.