While I am planning my upcoming summer trip, memories of my last holidays are coming back. It would have probably never crossed my mind to go to Albania one day, and I was still uncertain about my choice before getting into the plane. My relatives were also surprised, and my family somehow concerned. But it was a unique opportunity: a friend of mine was doing an internship in Tirana, the capital city, and invited me to visit. My friend kept on telling me to be mentally prepared for this trip. Following his advice, I loaded my backpack and was fully ready for this new adventure.
I was first impressed by the great history of this small country: although being part of the Ottoman Empire, then under Italian and Nazi protectorate, and a unique example of communism, the territory has a distinct identity in the European South-East region. Secondly, I was fascinated by the way religion is regulated and (un)practised. Declared the world’s first atheist country in 1967, the government introduced religious freedom since 1992. This resulted in a remarkable combination of Muslim, orthodox and catholic religions, each having their worship spaces. Located at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle-East, the country has faced waves of migrants arriving in the past years, thus creating urban ghettos. Even though this aspect may constitute an obstacle to tourism, many other features make it a perfect travel destination: good prices, local tourists, welcoming culture, wild and preserved nature, the Ionian See and its clear water.
I flew from Amsterdam to the Greek island of Corfu, where I met my friend. We explored the island for two days before taking a 1-hour boat shuttle to Saranda in the South of Albania.
Wandering around Roman ruins in the South
I was very amazed to discover a booming city, with many buildings under construction, and a lot of tourists – a situation very similar to what Spain experienced in the 50s-70s. Being the “The-place-to-be-seen” of the area, and offering an idyllic setting for summer parties, Saranda attracts the young generation from the Balkan region. However, visiting the diverse surroundings of the city is a must-do. Thanks to my friend’s relations, we stayed with locals and met an expat French girl working as a guide for a nearby archaeological and natural site, Butrint (inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List).
Although I had to take an early, crowded, and extremely hot bus to get to the site, the discovery of this well-preserved spot was worth the pain. Wandering around the national park, located close to the Greek border and surrounded by a lake and wetlands, I got to see ruins of the city bearing witness to Greek, Roman and Venetian influences from Prehistory to the Middle Ages. It was very interesting to attend archaeological excavations and getting explanations from experts. This visit left me astonished and optimistic to see such a peaceful and preserved site, while the nearby urban area is booming and chaotic. I felt like in a protected bubble for a few hours.
Swimming in idyllic natural spots
On the way back I stopped with a few Belgian-Albanian friends in Ksamil, a touristy village famous for its beach. The nature encircling the clear and azure blue water gives its true charm to the area. From the main beach, it is possible to swim from tiny islands to tiny islands. We stayed there until the end of the day to watch the sunset above the sea. I still remember the reddish-orange colour of the sun, like a huge fireball falling into the water.
For our last day in Saranda, we decided to go to the famous “Blue Eye” by bus. We drove through the gorgeous fortified village of Gjirokastra, and I was frustrated not to have time to stop by. I wanted to see as much as possible, make the most of my experience. The Blue Eye is a natural water spring, a true must-see in Albania. Because of the 50-meter depth, the colour of the water alternates between light and dark blue, so that if you look from above, it can look like an eye pupil. Many people were jumping where the water is darker, as it is the deepest. This is however quite challenging since the water is freezing. I opted for a swim – twice! It was tough but refreshing, which was much needed after the bus drive. We were quite lucky and managed to avoid having to walk all the way from the bus stop to the location. Two Swiss guys offered us a drive, and an Austrian family driving a van took us on the way back, without having to put much effort in hitchhiking. This is something I was nicely surprised of: it was natural for people – from Albania or abroad – to stop, chat and give some good tips.
Our last evening in Saranda was magical, as we went to Lekuresi Castle located up on a hill with our Belgian friends. The view over the city and the Ionian see was breathtaking, and we enjoyed delicious wine.
Discovering local life
The day after, we headed North to the capital city of Tirana, driving along the coast and mountains with a car. We crossed typical little villages and we could admire the natural beauty of the untouched landscape, far away from the urban chaos… This ride was truly reinvigorating. We were accompanied by an Albanian guide who immersed us completely into his culture, showed us the best viewpoints and landmarks. Upon his recommendation, we stopped at a local restaurant where we tasted suckling pig and were offered a tour of the restaurant’s brewery. All the locals were intrigued and interested in showing us what they were doing for a living. A young craftsman drove us to his atelier where he creates and displays his sculptures on wood. We could have spent the whole afternoon there, chatting and listening to stories, but we had to continue our trip.
Witnessing communist heritage in Tirana
We were welcomed in Tirana with a water and electricity shortage for two days – they say it happens quite often when the temperature is hot. But that was not enough to discourage me to wandering around the city, a mix between historical buildings – from the Italian domination and communist period– and developing trendy districts. Tirana, just like the whole country, features many memorials to the late Enver Hoxha, leader of “the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania” from 1944 to his death in 1985.
My friend and I randomly entered into a little mosque where a wedding was happening. To follow the religious traditions, I have been asked to watch the ceremony from the first-floor balcony with the other ladies, while my friend could stay downstairs. The bride was wearing an impressive buffed dress; the couple looked elegant and happy together. It was a moving moment.
On my long way back, I attempting to review the highlights of my trip. It was still too fresh, but I knew for sure that this experience would change my mindset.