Albania - The Potato Chick

Road trip from Sarande to Tirane, Albania

In a do not do justice to this part of the world.

Food we loved... another seafood feast to celebrate our ten year anniversary.

We were less than ten kilometres into our road trip when we had our first encounter with the local police. As Nick pulled over I panicked slightly, wondering how we would explain ourselves without knowing a word of Albanian. Nick wound down his window and said a tentative “hello”. The policeman leaned in, turned on the headlights and sent us on our way. We later found out that Albanian drivers must have their headlights on at all times – day and night! This was just the first of the many weird and wonderful quirks of Albania which we discovered.

A few interesting  things you should know about Albania before we continue –

  • Albanians are relatively “new” to driving, as very few of them were granted a permit to own their own motor vehicle during the Communist period (which ended in the early 1990s);
  • Almost all vehicles on the roads are late model Mercedes;
  • During the nearly forty-year leadership of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, over 700,000 bunkers were built in Albania– about one for every four inhabitants. Hoxha was slightly paranoid and envisaged Albania fighting a two-front war against an attack mounted by Yugoslavia, NATO or the Warsaw Pact and the bunkers were intended to establish defensive positions across the entire country. However, the rest of the world was much less interested in Albania than Hoxha had assumed and the bunkers were never used. They can still be spotted everywhere in Albania as they have proven to be virtually indestructible.

With the constabulary out of the way we made a detour inland to visit the town of Gjirokaster. Although it is described on Unesco’s World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate”, we were eager to move on and enjoy the coastline.

The drive between Sarande and Fier (the point at which we headed inland) was nothing short of spectacular. Picture the Great Ocean Road with clearer water, higher hairpin turns, soaring mountains behind and heaps more pot holes. Although the coastal towns were still very much in the depths of “off” season and the wet weather was not ideal, driving this road was well worth the trip to Albania. Along the way we spent a night in Himare and two nights in Berat (another Unesco town) and Nick was able to fulfil his dream of climbing into a bunker.





It is testament to the strength of our relationship that it survived our arrival into Tirane. Armed only with a few tiny maps from various backpacker hostels (accompanied by vague directions), we somehow thought we would be able to navigate through Albania’s capital city with ease. Not so. To add to our woes, it was pouring with rain. Thirty kilometres of circling later, we had finally identified some landmarks and found a bed for the night.

Luckily, things got better from there. The rain eased and we headed out for a fabulous dinner of traditional Albanian dishes with the owner of our hostel.

We spent the next day wandering the streets and managed to stumble across the “Pyramid”. As the name would suggest, it is a pyramid-shaped monstrosity originally built to house a museum honouring Hoxha’s “legacy”. It now sits derelict while the government decides what to do with it next. It is covered in graffiti and you can climb right to the top of it for city views. It provides an interesting illustration of the low esteem within which Hoxha now seems to be held by the Albanian people.

We spent our second night bar-hopping in the Block area. Prior to the fall of communism this area was reserved solely for government officials (and not commoners). Now, it is filled with bars and nightclubs and feels just like Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Tirane provided a colourful and cosmopolitan end to our Albanian adventures.

Next stop...Budva, Montenegro.




Sarande, Albania

In a undiscovered gem.

Food we loved...fresh cheap seafood.

“Your first time to Albania?” asked the Greek border official with an curious glint in his eye, “be very careful”. With that ominous warning ringing in our ears, we entered Albania.

Coming to Albania had been my idea and I had lobbied hard, hoping that it would pay dividends with its beautiful beaches and spectacular coastline. Like most normal people, Nick had never turned his mind to visiting Albania but he was quickly convinced that it was a good idea.

A welcome shot of homemade Baileys helped us to quickly recover from the nine hour bus trip from Athens (or should we say ordeal?) with Albania’s most maniacal bus driver and we set off in search of dinner. We found the port and were soon feasting on calamari that melted in your mouth and seafood spaghetti overloaded with mussels. This was hands-down the best meal we have had on our trip so far.

The following day we picked up our hire car (a battered purple Kia Picanto – what a beast!) and explored Sarande’s surrounding sights – the ancient ruins of Butrint, various stunning beaches and the Blue Eye Spring. At each location we almost had the place to ourselves.  Despite the chilly April weather we had been experiencing so far, the day was filled with sunshine and we both managed to have a lightning quick swim in the 4 degree water of the Blue Eye Spring.

After a big day of dodging potholes, pedestrians and crazy Albanian drivers driving old Mercedes, we returned to the restaurant we had eaten at the night before for another seafood feast. A fabulous start to our Albanian adventures.

Next stop...road trip from Sarande to Tirane.