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A journey to Albania – The Land of Bunkers, Mercedes Cars and Undiscovered Nature

A journey to Albania- With only 178,000 overnight stays in 2013, Albania is one of the least visited and least known countries in Europe. It’s really rare to hear anything…

A journey to Albania- With only 178,000 overnight stays in 2013, Albania is one of the least visited and least known countries in Europe. It’s really rare to hear anything about it on TV and the country is usually surrounded by mystery and prejudices.  It used to be isolated for very long periods of time which made it unique in comparison to many other European countries. However, Albania is waking up and it’s trying to attract more tourists with its interesting and specific tourist offer.

As I was always really curious about alternative destinations (just like my friend Luke from United Kingdom) we decided to give a chance to Albania. We bought bus tickets in Belgrade and took off to Prishtina where we arrived seven hours later.  A bus station in Prishtina is at the end of the Bill Clinton Boulevard where buses leave often to Tirana.

We decided to go  through Prishtina thanks to the new and modern highway which makes the journey faster than going through Macedonia. This highway looks seriously great and on the way to Tirana we passed through a six kilometer tunnel. The northern part of Albania was a real surprise as the nature here is beautiful.

traveling to Tirana

the northern Albanian landscape

traveling to Tirana 2

traveling to Tirana 3

traveling to Tirana 4

At some point a bus stopped for a toilet break, and although squat toilets are no more the norm you will find them in many places outside of Tirana. There’s no running water so you have to use a bucket full of water to flush 🙂  You’ll find them in many cafes and restaurants by the roads. Bring wet wipes so you can clean hands as many places don’t even have a soap.

Another thing you will notice when traveling around the country is that 80% of the cars are Mercedes-Benz. It really is an interesting phenomenon and Albania has the highest percentage of Mercedes per capita. I’ll point you to an interesting article made by the New York Times “In Poor Albania, Mercedes Rules Road“.

You will also notice the large numbers of bunkers that are spread throughout the country. Leaving Warsaw Pact, Albania constructed 700,000 bunkers as a form of defense against the enemy. You’ll spot the bunkers on the mountains, at the beaches, in the cities and well, almost everywhere. Most of them were built in the period from 1950 to 1985. They are extremely hard to destroy or move, so the only thing locals could do was decorate them in different colours.

Bunker in Tirana

Bunker in Tirana

We arrived to Tirana at the evening and immediately headed to our hostel. We stayed in Tirana Backpacker Hostel which has a great green garden. Hostel can accommodate 54 people but it was full when we arrived so we stayed in their newly built private cabins (28 EUR). You can search for accommodation in Tirana via HotelsCombined or Booking.

Tirana Backpacker Hostel

Tirana Backpacker Hostel

Tirana Backpacker Hostel

Garden of the hostel

Tirana Backpacker Hostel

Entrance to the garden

The evening ended with me trying to explore the gastronomic side of Tirana. Once in Albania you should try byrek which comes in many forms and can be filled with meat, spinach, cheese etc. Turkish kebab and meat balls are also very popular and you will find them everywhere.

Next morning we took off to discover the city and got familiar with Tirana’s crazy and noisy side- its traffic. You should be careful when walking at the night because some streets are full of holes and some are even missing manhole covers.

Tirana streets

Missing manhole cover

Tirana city center

Tirana International Hotel and Mercedes Benz of course 🙂

Tirana Opera

The National Opera

Tirana architecture

Architecture in Tirana is a mix of Italian, Ottoman and Communist styles.

Piramida Tirana

Pyramid of Tirana

One of the most famous landmarks in Tirana is its pyramid. It was a museum of Enver Hoxha in the past, while today it’s being used as a broadcasting center. It’s very popular among the locals (especially kids) who actually climb all the way to the top of the pyramid.

Pyramid of Tirana

Pyramid was also a venue of a disco club called The Mummy.

Pyramid of Tirana 2

Love Freedom.

Tirana park

Tirana neighborhood

Tirana neighborhood

After Tirana, our next destination was Shkodra which is the fourth largest city in the country. As Tirana doesn’t have a bus station you need to look for a place where furgons (mini buses) stop. This is of course a challenge, so I recommend getting a taxi to take you to the right departure point. The schedule is not always accurate, because the drivers sometimes wait until furgon gets full. In Albania everyone travels with furgon which can accommodate 9 to 12 passengers. It’s the quickest and the cheapest way to travel around the country. The one we got into was full and the ride was a total adventure. For instance, we got stopped by the police and afterwards a driver stopped a furgon so he could go buy a watermelon.

Once we got to Shkodra we tried to communicate with the driver and explain him that we’d like him to take us to the border with Montenegro which turned out to be a sign language conversation. Nobody in the furgon could speak English and the only thing we got was “Parlare Italiano“?. This is no surprise as in 1991 about 20,000 Albanians went to Brindisi from Vlore as refugees, but eventually they were given an opportunity to stay in Italy.

Shkodra is an interesting place. The surrounding area is beautiful as Prokletije mountains can be seen in the back and the largest lake in the Balkans is located here. Walk along the main pedestrian street  and definitely don’t miss seing Rozafa fortress. It’s one of the most beautiful landmarks in Albania and the views from the top are beautiful.

Unless you don’t plan a road trip I suggest going to Albania by plane. AirSerbia is starting flights to Tirana from September 23rd which will connect this city with other European cities through its hub in Belgrade.

Although there are many prejudices surrounding Albania, number one problem is safety on the roads. New York Times included Albania in their “Top 52 places to go in 2014”, and although the country needs investors in order to improve its touristic offer and infrastructure, it’s definitely a place to go if you are lover of alternative tourism and if you wanna visit this place before it gets exploited by mass tourism. Next time I’d definetely like to explore the Ionian coast.

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