When you’re doing rapid travel planning because you’re trying to avoid going home but don’t want to get chucked out of Europe for voiding your visa, there’s a couple of things you can do. One – get creative. And two – call on your network.
Thanks to Facebook, I knew that Camilla, an old work colleague of mine, was wandering about Europe in a similar style to us with her partner Ben. And knowing they’d already been to some places we hadn’t, I hit her up for some advice for what was worth visiting without breaking our Schengen rules. Her enthusiastic answer was to look up Off Limits tours in Albania, and go wandering in the remote northern mountains. So that’s exactly what we did!
Albania was surprising, exciting, educational and a lot of fun. Here are some of the highlights from our unexpected detour through this remarkable country.
Tirana’s Interesting History
Our first night in Albania was a walking tour with Eri, our tour guide (and the owner of the touring company). He walked us around Tirana’s architectural highlights, giving us some background on the history of Albania’s capital. His experience and knowledge were pretty awesome, particularly as someone who lived through the end of Communism, two civil wars and a huge rebuild and restoration effort to bring Albania out of its troubled past. The combination of pre-war, post war, Communist and modern-day buildings, as well as sculptures and repurposed spaces makes it an interesting city to walk around. And having a beer at the revolving restaurant above it all certainly wasn’t a bad way to pass the time!
Detouring through Prizren, Kosovo
Driving to Valbone means heading out of Albania’s borders and detouring through Kosovo, which was a pleasant surprise, as we were hoping to go there anyway. So Eri took us down to the main street (after some deft detouring) and we had a wander along the riverbank, checking out the many grand mosques and hearing about Kosovo’s culture and lifestyle.
We stayed in Valbone for a couple of days, at a guest house that sat in the shadow of the Accursed mountain range (more on the name later). The people who hosted us were lovely, giving us a taste of the locally grown and sourced food and setting us up by the fire with a glass of Raki, Albania’s local (and immensely strong) liquor. Valbone is built along an underground river that emerges halfway down the valley from a scree riverbed of white stone, which we walked around. Full of new guest houses and old communist architecture which was unfinished or in disrepair, it’s an interesting and naturally beautiful part of the country. We hiked to a local waterfall, walking the slopes of the mountain while autumnal leaves carpeted the ground and fell placidly from the trees, stopping to have a cup of mountain tea at the local coffee shop (pictured below).
Driving to Theth
Driving to Theth is no small undertaking. Particularly not when you’re already a bit delayed and so it’s dark, and foggy, and the road is a 4WD track across an 1800m high mountain with no guard-rails and limited visibility. Luckily, neither Sarah or I was driving; instead, our guide Marko managed to get us up the mountain and down into Theth with characteristic good humour. We also had a bit of a sing-along in the car as it got dark – the benefits of travelling with enthusiastic musicians! When we drove out of Theth a few days later, we could see the road we’d travelled in the frosty, foggy dark, and were very glad we hadn’t been able to see it the first time!
The Blue Eye and Theth Waterfall
Theth is another slowly-developing tourist spot in northern Albania, on the other side of the Accursed mountains. As well as its incredible natural beauty, it has some interesting local attractions.
The Blue Eye is a stunningly vibrant waterfall pool about an hour’s hike into the mountains, that is breathtaking both as a journey and destination.
Theth’s culture includes this massive stone house, where blood feuds were settled in times past. According tot he kanun, a fifteenth-century set of rules about social justice, killing a male in another family meant that any male in your family could be killed as payback, so the entire extended family from a guilty family would live in this stone house until the feud was either resolved by forgiveness, or through an observed ‘sacrifice’ of a male family member. Albanians, apparently, don’t mess around when it comes to justice.
Theth also has this remarkable stone church, which isn’t open very often, but is a mainstay of local town life.
This lovely waterfall was a decent hike through town and up the mountains, but worth it for the crystal clear (and chilly) water, and stunning view. Hiking is a big pastime for Albania’s growing tourism industry, and we can see why. Marko told us that tour groups in summer hike from Valbone to Theth rather than driving around like we did.
On our last day, Eri rejoined us and we visited Tirana’s number one historical/art attraction, the Bunkart. It’s a huge bunker built by Enver Hoxha, Albania’s former dictator whose militarisation and isolationist policies created a perfect environment for projects that were at once massive in scale and shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. A perfect example of this is this bunker, built for Hoxha and his staff in the event of a land attack in Albania (which never came), and able to hold hundreds if not thousands of his staff and troops. Lined with Albania’s common rivet-shaped concrete tank-proof bunkers (of which Hoxha’s regime built more than 170,000 and scattered them around Albania), the Bunker is now both a historical museum of Albania’s 20th century political and social events, and an installation space for local artists. At times claustrophobic, enlightening, challenging and awe-inspiring, it stands out as one of the hallmarks of our trip. I don’t have photos because they request that you don’t use your camera.
This gets its own entry because, frankly, it earned it. Albanians, like other Balkans, favour a lot of grilled and roasted meat with fresh vegetables and local cheeses. Many of our meals had Shopska salad, which is cucumber, onion and tomato covered in grated feta-like cheese. Honey from hives behind the guest house, freshly made fig marmalade with juicy chunks of fresh fig, colourful and delicious dips of capsicum and honey drizzled yoghurt were just a few of the amazing things we ate with most meals. And the local delicacy of steak or chicken filled with spiced, melted cheese was hard to pass up! Add that to the Raki, which really woke your tastebuds up, and you’ve got a recipe for big smiles and VERY full stomachs.
I have to say a huge thanks to Eri Dervishi, the owner of Off Limits, for organising an awesome trip and giving us the benefit of his encyclopaedic knowledge about Albania’s customs, history and lifestyle. I also have to thank Marko, who drove wild roads fearlessly and sang a wicked a capella version of Bruno Mars while he did it!