It’s turned out on my trip so far that the countries I’ve heard so much about, the popular tourist destinations, have been my least favourite countries. The countries I know nothing about, the ones we planned the shortest amount of time in and basically just used as a path towards another country, have been my favourite [EDIT: I tried to tell her – Tyral].
Tyral is more drawn to places that have the worst reputations, add a travel warning onto them and his excitement doubles. He was never that interested in traveling around Europe simply because everyone else does, so countries like Belarus and Albania really attracted him. To be honest, I was hesitant at first at spending time in the smaller lesser known countries simply because I didn’t want to feel like I was ‘missing out’ on anything. I learnt my lesson quick smart when we entered Greece, a country I had always dreamed of visiting. Having to high expectations led me to many disappointments, and knowing so little about the smaller ‘in-between’ countries led me to some amazing surprises.
Albania, easily one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. Mountain ranges so high they were still snow capped in 25 degree June weather, so breath takingly beautiful, covered in greenery and rolling down right to the cliff of the ocean, the brightest shade of turquoise, the clearest water I have ever seen.
Maybe it was because I had no expectations, or maybe it was because we didn’t meet another tourist on our journey, or maybe it was the swam of kind hearted people we met along the way, but something about this country had me mesmerised.
One of The first people we met hitch hiking warned us of tales of dangerous mobs and gangs in Albania and that the portrayal in the move Taken was an accurate representation of some men in Albania. As he told us of stories of malfia kidnapping women to sell as sex slaves, Tyral and I sat wide eyed and a little shocked. Although we hard be warned off visiting some places by people in neibouring countries, this was the first someone was warning us of their own people. Still, we decided to continue hitch hiking our way around, and started to head back south on his recommendation.
Hitch hiking in Albania is the easiest we have ever experienced. We had scored a ride with the first car that drove past us numerous times, waited no longer than ten minuets, and the people who have taken us have been the kindest, most generous people we have met. On numerous occasions they have shouted us food, bottles of water and coffee, one shop owner waved us across the street to his supermarket to give us free traditional milk. They were all really excited to meet Australians, a first experience for most of them.
In the small town of Elbasan where we stopped and spent the night, when we tried to pay for our morning coffee the cafe owner insisted it was his shout and we wouldn’t pay a thing. People stopped and stared at us in the street, often huge smiles spread wide across their face and people would go out of their way, crossing the street to come and simply say hello.
They often guessed we were English or American, and when we would respond with ‘no, Australian!’ This would be greeted with a wide eyed, ‘oh’ as they slapped their hand on the top of their head in amazement.
After being recommended to visit south Albania, we decided we should probably do some research into this country. I read that the Llogara Pass through the Llogara national park is meant to be one of the best scenic drives in the world, and the coast line is the best part of Albania. We hitch hiked our way down south, every car we rode in tried to tell us it was safer to get the bus next stop, the Albanian people don’t have much faith in one another.
One time we tried the bus, having waited about ten minuets and not getting a lift, we jumped on the first bus that pulled up but only lasted on it for maybe half an hour up the hill. On a pit stop for a toilet break, as a joke I stuck my thumb out to a car driving past that pulled over with a screech and offered to take us the rest of the way to our final destination Himara. We pulled our bags out of the bus, tried to find the driver to pay, couldn’t, so jumped in the car and continued on our journey leaving the bus behind.
The drive through the national park was not a disappointment. The scarily winding rides took us on a tour up through the mountains, into the clouds and overlooking the bright blue ocean that gives the Amalfi Coast in Italy a serious run for its money. Minus the thousands of tourists. Small hill side villages scooted past us as we wound our way through this incredible landscape. This was one of the most beautiful parts of Europe I have seen, the nature is still so untouched and the water front hasn’t been taken over by sky high tourist resorts and hotels, yet.
Himara was just as beautiful as I had imagined, just a small little beach side village with white sand, beautiful clear water and mountains as its backyard. It’s clear tourism hasn’t kicked off here yet, there are a few hotel blocks over looking the ocean, and lots of small coffee shops filled with Albanian men sitting around drinking expressos, a typical sight in Albania. Walking around we felt out of place with our backpacks, a nice contrast coming from Greece and feeling like just another annoying backpacker prowling around.
They clearly are hoping for a rise in tourism, when we visited the whole foreshore was under construction and they were paving the footpath running along the waterfront. In fact most of Albania felt like it was going through a make over, the town of Pogradec over looking the most beautiful lake I have ever seen, Lake Ohrid, was mostly under construction as we drove through. Looking past this, I can only imagine how beautiful the towns will be when they are finished, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years Albania becomes one of the ‘must travel to’ spots of Europe. The lack of tourism and its authenticity was one of the great things about Albania, as well as its untouched, beautiful landscape.
The food is cheap and delicious, you can eat at a nice restaurant for as cheap as $4AUD, or street food offers mostly the same as Greece with kebabs as cheap as $1AUD. when we visited in June the peak season hadn’t taken off yet, so most hotels were offering discounted prices on their rooms. Ocean front rooms with private hot tubs where only about 20EURO a night.
For a more adventurous holiday, camping was easy. We hiked a little out of the town of Himara, to an old abandoned property overlooking a cliff face, where we set up our tent, watched an incredible sunset and spent the night.
Once again, I feel like I robbed this incredible country of the time it deserves. we spent too much time making our way through Greece in search for everything Albania has to offer. I just have to add this to my growing list of countries I desperately want to return to.