A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO…
- The Albanian language is quite different from the languages spoken in the other Balkan countries and if you learn a few phrases the locals will love you! “Thank you” is pronounced “fala-min-deer-eat”, “how are you?” is “cha-kee-me”, and “goodbye” is “mirror-bauf-shin”.
- We overheard two girls talking about how great it was to hitchhike around the Balkans and then as we were waiting patiently for a bus we watched as they were dropped off by one car and picked up by another in under a minute. So we gave it a try and got picked up by a super friendly couple in minutes. Don’t knock it till you try it!
- The only sandy beaches we found along the Albanian Riviera were in Ksamil – the others were beautiful but rocky which doesn’t make for the most ideal lounging situation.
- No one in Albania trusts the tap water – stick to bottled.
- Albanian currency is called the lek and the exchange is ~120 lek to $1 USD. The closer you get to Greece, the more they’ll ask for euros.
WHEN WE WENT…
May – June 2017
WHERE WE WENT…
I have wanted to visit Albania since my freshman year of college when the Albanian resident assistant who lived across the hall from me did a little jig and told me how much I would love it. And from the moment I arrived I did, indeed, fall in love. The Albanian language is quite different from the other countries we’d visited in the Balkans so we did our best to learn a few phrases during our first (cinnamon!) cappuccino stop at a most darling little restaurant, Picante Pizza, while waiting for our AirBnB host to meet us. Turns out that Albanians absolutely LOVE when foreigners try to speak their language. We tried to at least say “hello” and “goodbye” to everyone we interacted with and we could see their eyes get wide in surprise and a smile spread across their face.
We stayed at a lovely Airbnb apartment and actually didn’t do a whole lot in Tirana other than eat and drink and shop. We had read that the shopping in Tirana was superb and it certainly didn’t fail to disappoint. The area where we stayed, Ish-Blloku, was lined on each side with boutiques and coffee shops as far as the eye could see.
We took a trip out to see BunkArt which is a massive 5-story deep bunker-turned-art-installation and we learned quite a lot about Albania’s recent communist history under the rule of Enver Hoxha. Our taxi ride out to the bunker was on the meter and ended up being about 600 leke (about $5 USD) and when we arrived he asked if we wanted him to stay and give us a ride back. The bunker is kind of in the middle of nowhere so we sort of shrugged and said “eh, if you want.” When we arrived back in the city he tried to charge us 1500 leke “since he had to wait for us” while we were in the bunker. Bleh. We gave him an annoyed look and 1000 and vowed never to fall for that trick again. (Side note – this was the only time during our entire time in Albania that we felt like we got ripped off)
Himare is a darling little town on the coast that we found to be not nearly as touristy as we imagined! People seemed to just be going about their normal days, although what they could possibly be doing for work in that tiny town was beyond us. We stayed at the Beleri House (now closed) which had a superb balcony with breathtaking views of the sea. We spent our mornings sleeping in and then sipping coffee and social media-ing while soaking up the sunshine on our little private balcony. We spent our evenings walking along the beach in the town center sipping store-bought wine and enjoying the sunset.
The only real “nightlife” that we witnessed in the small town was one evening when a champions league soccer game was televised and every bar along the beach was filled with locals cheering for their favorite team. We figured that once the game ended there would be some kind of big party and we were excited to witness the madness. However, it seemed like everyone just quietly got up and went home so we followed suit.
On our first full day in Himare we decided to walk to Livadhi Beach which is only about 2 kilometers from the town. At the end of town near the delicious (but pricey) restaurant that we ended up dining at later that evening, Esperia, are stairs leading upwards toward a trail. We took a few wrong turns and passed two very vicious dogs along the occasionally marked rocky trail (tennis shoes highly recommended) before finally running into the beach.
It was an interesting beach to say the least – lined with several half-built resorts, one campground, and lots of garbage. We found an area with some beach chairs and umbrellas and for 500 leke (~$4 USD) we had the whole area all to ourselves. If you are looking for food and cocktails on the beach, we didn’t see a ton of amenities aside from a small bar near the campground where we purchased a few ice cold beers.
On our second full day in Himare we decided to visit Gjipe Beach which has been hailed as the best beach in the area. It is definitely too far to walk there so we caught a cab for 3,000 leke (~$25 USD) for a ride there and a promise to come back at 7pm to pick us up (don’t worry, he did). We got dropped off at a trail and started the 30 minute walk downhill to the beach. It was indeed a beautiful beach with crystal clear water surrounded by limestone cliff walls. Again, not really any amenities here so be sure to bring plenty of snacks and water. There may have been a bar in the far corner but we never made it that far to check it out.
We debated quite a bit as to whether or not to stay a 4th night in Himare. We loved sleeping in until 9am and then lazily munching on the hot burek and the American-style coffee (in an actual coffee pot!) that our guesthouse hosts had waiting for us every morning. Finally we decided that we should move on to the next amazing beach town or we may just end up there forever.
From Himare we caught a minibus to Sarande by waiting near the cave (and the market) in town (the last one of the day leaves at 12:30pm so don’t miss it!). From the spot the minibus drops you off in Sarande it’s just a 2 block walk to where the bus to Ksamil picks up. When the bus showed up it was so full we weren’t sure we’d be able to fit our bodies and our luggage on so we opted to wait for the next one. We were under the impression that the bus comes every 30 minutes but turns out it only comes every HOUR so we had a long wait to soak in the culture of the block. One man in a very fancy-looking SUV pulled up and offered us a ride for 5 euro which we (foolishly) declined. Turns out a taxi to Ksamil is 10 euro and hitchhiking is really no big deal in the Balkans so we had the next hour to regret our decision.
When we finally made it to Ksamil it was just a short walk to our hotel, the Villa Oden where we dropped off our bags and then headed to the beach for some food. There are loads of bars and restaurants on the beach but we found that they all basically served the exact same food – some salads, some seafood mixed with pasta, seafood mixed with tomato sauce, and risotto. It was good but a little bland.
It wasn’t until our second night that we discovered Brother’s Taverna and the most endearing Albanian couple on the planet. They don’t really speak English and the service is a tad slow but they are super friendly and attentive and the food is some of the best we had in all of Albania! We ate there on two separate occasions since as we couldn’t get enough of their homemade tzatziki or how adorable they were with each other after 40 years of marriage (or 4… or 14… we can’t say for sure).
After lounging in a beach chair for a few hours on our first full day in Ksamil (you pretty much have to rent a beach chair because the entire beach is full of restaurants but we found that if you eat lunch there they throw in the chairs for free) we decided to walk to Butrint National Park about 4 kilometers outside of town.
We paid 50 leke each for our entrance fee and then spent an hour or so exploring the ruins. They were surprisingly large and very well preserved and there were a few wild pigs running around which added to our entertainment. A nice man near sitting near the entrance informed us that there were no more buses for the day (we left the park around 7pm) so he called us a taxi that cost 5 euro to take us back to the town.
We had read about Blue Eye which is a crystal clear swimming hole (or so we thought) about 23 kilometers outside of Sarande. We were continuing to have trouble navigating the bus schedule so after waiting for 30 minutes or so a nice man drove by and offered us a ride to Sarande. He dropped us off at the same minibus area from a few days before where we caught a bus toward Muzine for 200 leke per person (~1.50 USD). We had several taxis offer us rides for anywhere from 30 euros to 40 euros which included an hour at the Blue Eye. Not only did that price seem outrageous but we also figured that of course we’d want more than an hour there right?
The weather was beautiful and we had a bag full of swimwear and snacks. So the minibus dropped us off on the side of the road and then we walked the remainder of the way there – probably about 2 kilometers along a dusty road in the blazing sun. And when we arrived it was… meh. The water was lovely but there was a sign that said “no swimming” so there were probably 15 or so tourists standing around the outside of the fence taking photos of the 20′ x 20′ (non) swimming hole.
We figured there MUST be a nice place to jump in further upstream or downstream so we had a walk about and 100 feet downstream we found a spot that wasn’t surrounded by tourists. We had heard many people say that the water was too cold to swim in, but, we’re from Oregon so we should know cold better than anyone. So I hopped in without a second thought and it was unbelievably frigid. So cold in fact that rather than my body adjusting to the temperature, my hands went numb. I stayed in for all of 3 minutes. So we took a few photos, had a coffee at the restaurant, and were ready to head back after all of 30 minutes.
When we got back to town we opted for one more meal at Brother’s Taverna and had one more epic sunset and then sadly packed our bags to head to Greece.
Albania is everything you are looking for when you vacation – it’s safe, inexpensive, the people are lovely, the beaches beautiful, the food delicious, you can shop until your hearts content – what more could you ask for?