I’ve always been a fan of the former Eastern Block, and I’ve made extensive trips there.
In recent times, I’ve visited a lot of the former Yugoslavia. I’d heard some dark things about it, but I’m not one to be put off by rumours.
The attractiveness of the place is that its brand new. Like Macedonia where I also had a fab time, its practically impossible to get a guide book (even my beloved DK Eyewitness Guides have yet to surface) so the only one I could get was a Bradt.
As I was planning it, there were real problems getting a direct flight at a reasonable price. As I continued to study the guidebook, articles, pictures and maps, something was starting to bug me, and I couldn’t work out what it was.
Then I realised. That Island on the bottom left of the map of Albania is Corfu. Easyjet fly there from Manchester, and there are several boat trips from Corfu to Saranda each day.
With a plan in place, its booked. We spend the night before at the hotel in Manchester airport (I love doing that, in the evening, we had dinner, then wandered around the airport stopping off for drinks, a really great start to an adventure holiday).
Up early, shower and breakfast, then were on the plane.
A few episodes of Game of thrones and a few chapters of Wilbur Smith’s Desert God and we arrive in Corfu.
I’m not a big fan of “classic” holiday destinations, but this place really was beautifull, and the weather was fantastic.
It was so nice in fact, that instead of getting a taxi, we walked to our destination, stopping off occasionally on the way (Nikki has one of those infernal pull along things which I hate (and I was pulling it)), so several drinks were needed).
On the way we pass the Old Fortress.
To avoid any problems with delayed planes -> boats or delayed boats -> planes, we’d arranged to spend the first and last night of our trip in Corfu (and I’m glad we did, it was lovely).
Our hotel, had spectacular views of the ocean from our room and for relaxing in the evening, an amazing atmospheric rooftop bar.
When we got there, this is what it actually looked like. The bar broken, no chairs, nobody there.
I shouldn’t be mean, the hotel was superb, the room very comfortable, the wifi fast and the breakfast tasty.
Once set up, we wander out to buy our boat tickets
There seems to be some confusion about whether we buy the tickets from the port, or from a shop in the high street. We walk to the port which is miles away (but its a nice day) and then have to walk all the way back to the shop.
We find out the fast boat doesn’t start until high season so we’ll only be able to get that one, on our journey home. On our way out, were booked on some sort of fishing boat !.
We wander around exploring in the afternoon, then head back to get showered and changed and then head out for the evening.
I had a traditional Greek Stifado stew, which was really nice. Later we sat out and had a few glasses of wine.
But this is an adventure trip, not an episode of Jeeves and Wooster.
In the morning, were up early and out on the trail, ready to join our boot.
* I’d like to mention that the photo above, is the boat we came back on, which takes about 30 minutes.
Our actual boat looked like something fishermen use of the coast of the Shetland islands. It took 1hr and 45 mins.
This is the map showing the route we “sailed”.
Our boat arrives in the port of Saranda. They were really friendly and we got through customs and immigration pretty quickly.
We’d decided to base our trip out of 3 main destinations in Albania and since we were only there for 5 nights, it made sense to rent a car.
Strangely, there is no car rental place in Saranda, so the chap who gave is the keys and paper work, had driven all the way from Tirana, and had to get a lift back.
One concern we had was changing money. We shouldn’t have worried, as there were loads of places exchanging Euros for Albanian Lek.
We popped into a café to get coffee. The owner didn’t have change for the large denominations we try to pay with. With a smile, he just says pay me the next time your passing.
Up to now, I’ve had eyes everywhere, thinking of the horror story’s I’ve heard about pickpockets, organised crime and waking up to find one of your organs missing.
But these people are charming and friendly. Still not completely convinced, but my minds opened (just as it should be).
An ancient city called Butrint is our first destination (and its absolutely massive).
Driving carefully, we go straight there, and spend the next few hours exploring.
You could set up a whole website just devoted to that place, so I’ve only put 1 picture up.
If you really want to see it, go there yourself, you won’t be disappointed.
In the afternoon, we head back Kasamil and the coast, intending to book into our hotel.
Problem is, the whole area has undergone massive development, and there are dozens of streets and roads that just aren’t on our sat nav.
Disappointed, we stop for a drink by the beautiful ocean to formulate a plan.
The owner speaks perfect English and explains her husband (who doesn’t) will help us, just give them a shout when were ready to leave.
20 mins later, we finish our drinks expecting him to draw us a map. He gets up from the table with his son, they get into a truck, and tell us to follow them.
20 minutes after that, were at our hotel. As we arrive, I thank them sincerely, and politely offer a bit of money, “get himself a drink”
I gesture with my hand, as thought tipping a pint: an international language, understood by all men from eskimo kayakers to wall street stock brokers.
He looks embarrassed, declines and explains to the hotel owner, that it was a pleasure to help, and off he goes.
Now I’m starting to think.
I believe that most British people are helpful and kind (and we are).
But if I was sat in the Lock Keeper relaxing, would I get up from my table, leave the pub and spend 40 minutes off my time on a round trip to help an inconvenienced tourist stranger ?
As will be confirmed many times on the trip, the Albanians we met, couldn’t be more charming and would go out of their way to help. Not at all what I’d been told to expect.
In the evening, we go to a local Pizza place and have a few drinks around the beach.
In the morning I realise I’d left my favourite Rohan jumper in one of the bars. When I ask its returned right away.
In the morning, its breakfast by the beach. Its going to be a beautiful day.
We’re heading for our next base, Gjirokaster, and on route, were going to stop somewhere called the Blue Eye.
Its a naturally occurring blah blah blah. If you really want to read about it, click here.
For me, I just thought it was fantastic countryside with forests and rivers (in communist times, the old party members used to come here to hunt and it was a restricted area).
We continue exploring and have lunch at this café/bar right next to the rapids.
We arrive in Gjirokaster.
Its an amazing place, but just like Chester, ideal to explore on foot, and an absolute pig to get around in a vehicle.
Matters aren’t helped when we arrive at our accommodation and they don’t have our booking.
It’s the usual story that some hoteliers do. They will overbook a hotel, then meet you there and take you to an alternative.
That all works fine so long as A, the hotelier actually remembers to turn up and B, if he doesn’t, the staff at the hotel, know what the hells going on.
A frustrating start, but then were taken to a brand new hotel which I thought was amazing. So, all’s well that ends well.
Bellow is the rooftop bar above our room. You can see the views were spectacular.
There was some sort of folk music festival going on (for some strange reason they called a folklore festival, so at first I was looking for lune’s dressed as witches and vampires and stuff).
I don’t really like folk music, to the point where I almost feel embarrassed watching them sing.
I feel like I’m watching someone abuse themselves, and I need to get away.
Some folk musicians arrived in our bar, and decided to start practising over a few drinks. I politely left.
The castle at Gjirokaster.
It’s absolutely massive, and virtually impossible to capture in 1 photograph.
This is the closest I could get.
Exploring around the castle.
It had an American plane that had been shot down (there wasn’t much of it left).
Loads of old military ordnance (like the mortar in the photo above).
A military museum and a fascinating museum of local history, which lots of stuff about communist times and telling of the towns connection with Ali Pasha, Lord Byron, Edward Lear and Enver Hoxha.
One section talked about mass production of things during the communist era.
It was said that spoons were made from a single sheet of metal, with dozens and dozens of spoons being pressed from it.
It mentioned that resources were so scarce, that sometimes people would use the leftover sheet for garden fences.
In the afternoon, we went around exploring, and what do you know, I found a garden with this “spoon” fence.
In the evening we had drinks in a few bars, then dinner at Kujtimi restaurant.
In the middle of the evening was a blackout.
It didn’t cause any sort of problem, as they cooked the excellent food using gas, but it did make the evening that bit more exciting.
The following day, we leave for Himare (the Albanian Riviera).
On the way, we stop to visit an ancient site called Phoneke.
We see a lone motorbike parked there. The owner, sitting in the shade, asks us for about 50p for the entrance fee (we were the only people there apart from him).
Some ancient ruins, and a simple amphitheatre.
In my opinion, far more interesting, were the old bomb shelters on the hill top.
I was even able to explore underground.
Leaving Phoneke, we continue.
On the road through the mountains we stop at a place called Borsh and see this fairly looking roadside hotel/restaurant/bar.
Presuming it sells cold drinks, we step inside.
And that’s when it happens…
I get the 2 cokes, and walk onto the back patio.
There’s an amazing outdoor terrace with waterfalls and stairways, that goes up the hillside.
It was quite spectacular to see, and the photo above only partially captures it.
It was called the Ujvara Veranda, if you visit Albania (As you should) make a point to visit it.
Arriving in Himare, we check in, and head for the beach.
I walk along it, Nikki goes for a swim.
We head back to our hotel.
We stay in hotel Rondos.
Were the only guests, but it was early in the season, and you could tell, the hotel had lots of work done to it, in advance of the high season.
The owner was charming, served drinks, gave local advise and cooked our breakfast (on the morning we went home, got up 2 hours early (5am) to make sure we had something to eat, before we set off for Saranda).
In the evening, we head out and have Seabass by the ocean (and break the cardinal rule by having red wine with it).
A few drinks around the town, it was surprising to see so many people smoking.
The next day, we head up to Llogara into the mountains to do some walking.
A mix of forests and stony paths.
We even found an unfinished hotel which we were able to explore.
Overall, a fantastic trip.
I couldn’t recommend Albania more highly, and if money is tight, it offers one of the best adventure/beach/culture holidays you can get, for the money.
The search for adventure continues…