Having started my Balkan road trip in Croatia, crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina, before journeying down the coast of Montenegro, Albania was my last port of call.
Getting into Albania was an experience in itself. An early morning bus from Budva to Ulcinj dropped me within touching distance, at which point the tourist information office explained I had to stay in Ulcinj as all the buses to Shkodra – on the Albanian side of the border – were done for the day.
Literally a minute later a dodgy-looking geezer asked if I was looking to get to Albania, I replied in the affirmative and a few minutes later I was riding in a Mercedes-Benz headed for the border for €20.
The Merc veered its way along a mixture of small country roads and brand new tarmac surfaces as we sped towards the border, where we were stopped for a few minutes as the police took a cursory glance at our passports, and slapped a black double-headed eagle stamp on them before we crossed into Albania proper.
Having arrived at Shkodra the next unique Albanian experience was the furgon aka minibus. Essentially, this is how I travelled for the rest of my time in the country: the cab pulls up, you jump out and the taxi driver finds you a minibus to get you to your destination. These tend to cost between €5 and €12 for long journeys across the country: bargains.
Tirana was my first destination and the capital proved to be a wonderful and fascinating city.
The country was under communist rule from 1946 until 1992, and the remnants of that troubled past, led mostly under Enver Hoxha, is in evidence throughout the city in terms of much of its architecture and also its poverty. But that is not to say that the city is not forging a newly independent manner and style.
Since the country’s welcoming of democracy, the denizens of Tirana were encouraged by a former mayor to paint the town in any colour paint that lay to hand as this was the best means to add vibrancy to the urban area’s grey communist remnants. The result is a multi-coloured city that grabs one’s interest immediately.
I installed myself at the Firenze Hotel (firenzehoteltirana.com) right in the heart of the city and set out to explore, loving what I saw.
The centre of the town has so much to see and admire. Skanderberg Square is a good starting point, where a giant statue of the war hero who defended the country from Ottoman invasion sits proudly.
From there a short walk takes in the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the Statue of the Unkown Partisan, the Museum of Culture, the National Museum of History, the National Art Gallery, the 19th Tanners Bridge, the former Prime Minister’s Residence, the Congress Building, Hoxha’s former residence and Tirana University.
The pyramid-building erected in the centre of the town, originally intended for use as a museum to commemorate Hoxha’s rule, is also worth clapping your eyes on; however, it has fallen into disuse and is now a rundown eyesore on the city’s main thoroughfare.
The only use the pyramid gets is by kids climbing up to the top to hang out, and young couples clambering up to get a romantic vantage point over the city.
Another great point to get a view of the city is the nearby rotating Panoramic Bar and Restaurant. It’s the highest building in the city and soars up from the very centre of the town.
Grabbing a beer or a bite up here gives you a pretty awesome view, and the rotating nature of the structure is reminiscent of the bar in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so if you fancy attempting to channel your inner Hunter S Thompson in Tirana, then this is the place to do it.
I toured the city at night and found it to be a very safe, well-lit walk, which shows off the city’s architecture to its maximum.
A walk around the sights leaves you slap-bang in the centre of the town’s party area called Blloku (pronounced block) where you can grab Albanian-Italian food at Era before heading round the corner to Albanian hipster spot Radio Café Tirana to drink local beer and cheap mojitos until the early hours.
From Tirana the rest of the country is easily accessible by furgon. Simply get in a cab, tell the driver where you want to go and he will bring you to a disused car park where he will also locate the right furgon to take you to your destination.
I headed straight for the southern coastal town of Saranda, eight hours by bus from Tirana. It’s a beast of a journey, and most of it is spent bumping up and down in your seat as you travel some of the worst roads I have ever been on.
En route we stopped at a roadside diner that had no menu and where nobody spoke English. As a result, the entire restaurant’s customers proceeded to have a conversation about what I should eat. Eventually, three generations of mafia-type fellows decided that it was meat soup and rice with bread for me.
Saranda has a plethora of accommodation and dining options all at a fraction of the cost of western Europe. I went for the Grand Hotel www.grandhotelsaranda.com, which offers a swimming pool, wi-fi and all the other mod-cons, with a location right in the centre of town.
Saranda is extremely developed and has bars and restaurants a plenty. Recommendations for eateries from your hotel’s staff is a good way to find a spot to eat. Failing that, Pupi comes highly recommended.
In the town, the Castle of Lekursi is the main attraction. But the real jewels of the area are located south of Saranda in Ksamil and Butrint. Buses run to both towns daily and take less than an hour.
Ksamil boasts a stunning coastal location with three islands within swimming distance. Sections of the town have been destroyed by illegal development of resorts, which have since been half torn down by the Albanian government, leaving concrete graveyards along the coast.
However, the beaches themselves are beautiful with the clear blue Ionian Sea highly inviting. If you want to stay a couple of days there – and I highly recommend you do – then a good spot to lay your head is Castle Albert Sula firstname.lastname@example.org.
The building itself is a rather garish faux castle, but its location is unbeatable: it’s right on a small beach in a quiet part of town and has its own bar/restaurant which serves up good lamb ribs and grilled vegetables, plus you can grab a peddle boat out to the islands and lounge out there for a while with a beer bought from the on-island restaurant.
It’d be easy to while away your entire visit to Ksamil living the beach-bum lifestyle, but not visiting Butrint while in the area would be a mistake.
Located a kilometre down the road it’s the sight of a hugely impressive ancient ruins located in a national park. The Greeks and the Romans both made settlements here, and the excavations – which are continuing all the time – have already revealed a theatre, public baths, a baptistery and basilica in addition to several dwellings.
The other sight local to Saranda is the Blue Eye Spring, it’s a 30-minute furgon journey out of town and well worth the visit.
A furgon drops you off at the main road at which point you hike for a couple of kilometres before reaching Blue Eye.
The spring itself is the source for the Bistrica River and produces the effect of a light blue eye sitting deep in the water looking up into the world.
A quick dip, followed by a beer in the bar looking out over the water is a fine way to while away an afternoon, before hiking back to get a bus into town.
From Saranda you could travel east to the interior and make your way back to Tirana, but I decided to take the journey west up along the Ionian coast to Vlora, where the Ionian meets the Adriatic. Furgons leave all morning from Saranda, and they stop at all the towns along the coast; it takes about six hours to complete the full journey.
The furgons wind their way along the coast, with the sight of the Ionian Sea lapping against the shore inevitably drawing your eye towards the scenic body of water – it’s a really special journey and one of the most visually dramatic you are likely to undertake in Europe.
There are about ten stops along the way, so there is plenty of choice about where to jump off and stay for a night or two.
If you want to get away from it all, I’d recommend Dhermi. It’s super-chilled with no wi-fi, no ATMs, and only a handful of bars and restaurants along the beach.
The beaches are the town’s main draw and they are truly beautiful.
None of the businesses in the town accept credit cards though, so bring Albanian leke with you, or you’ll have to jump back on a bus to a bigger town to an ATM, or sleep under the stars so you have enough money to get a bus in the morning.
Back on the furgon and heading towards Vlora, the next sight is the Llogaraja mountain pass. At 1,027m the mountain soars up from the coast as if from nowhere and within a half an hour you are in a literally in the clouds.
The view south from the top is one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.
If you want to stay up there there are several options all located at the roadside and with nearby access to the national park.
Personally, I’d decided to hitchhike, and the exotic substances the driver was smoking, as we climbed the mountain and he waved his hands frantically while telling me about his life, had me on edge.
Add to that the holes in the guardrail on the side of the road, and the huge potholes, and it was no wonder that I decided to head straight to Vlora, as I clung on to the car seat with white-knuckles.
And Vlora proved to be a great place to reacclimatise to city life. After Saranda, Ksamil, Butrint and Dhermi, I was craving wi-fi, ATMs, busy shopping streets and urban choice.
For only €50 the five-star Hotel Vlora International (http://www.vlora-international.com/) has all the mod-cons one could ask for after a period backpacking and is located on the coast with Vlora town right beside you.
The city is built on a bay, which has bars and restaurants galore running for several kilometres along a white-sand beach.
The town also has as a unique collection of sights - the Independence Monument and Independence Museum, as well as the 16th century Muradi Mosque are worth visiting.
But the highlight is the Shine of Kuzum Baba. The shrine itself is pretty, as are the gardens, and the views out over the city are sensational. Just watch out for snakes as you make your way up the hill on the climb to the shrine.
From Vlora, Tirana is only a couple of hours away by furgon, and for me that meant Mother Theresa International Airport and then home to Dublin.
I did have one more night in Tirana though, which was time enough to walk around the party area of Blloku once more, and have a second look at former dictator Hoxha’s residence.
The whole of Blloku was sectioned off from regular Albanian citizens during the communist era, and reserved for Hoxha and his selected cronies, but now it’s the epicentre of the city.
Hoxha’s house still remains, unused for anything, simply sitting empty and dormant. Not even a plaque indicates what it is – or was.
And that is much the way all across Albania, any signs or nods to the country’s communist past are eradicated, as the country tries to forget that era and forge something new and better for its 3.2m population.
The country may have some way to go in terms of standard of living compared to the west, but its generous people, fascinating sights, and unique mix of order and chaos, make it a country that should be a must on any traveller’s hit list.