"How would you like to go to Albania?" Inge asked one evening in spring. "I'm game," I replied, trying desperately to remember where Albania actually was. "We could fly to Croatia first and then make our way south, flying back via Corfu..?"
We arrived in the northern city of Shkrodër via a bus trip from Montenegro. In the planning this had looked to be a bit tricky as there was little information linking Albania with other countries, and what there was seemed contradictory at times. But in the event the link was straightforward. The bus driver helped us find a taxi to take us to our hotel which was a short walk from the center and we were met by a very youthful manager, Mario who made us very welcome. The hotel was owned and run by three generations, including the grandmother who was head chef. All the food was fresh, including the chicken which, glancing out of the restaurant window, we saw being caught for us! Shkoder is a good setting off point for the Komani lake trip, allegedly the most impressive ferry trip in Europe.
We were a bit uneasy about hiring a car as we had read that the roads in Albania were full of potholes, and the drivers had their very unique ideas about road etiquette. Rail travel is not an option as the stock is decrepit and the lines overgrown in the most part. Apart from coaches linking the main cities, most travel is via minibuses who park up on the outskirts of town while the drivers shout out their destinations. Once they have enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile, they head off, usually picking up more passengers on the way, via mobile phone. We also had trips in private cars, operating the same system. It's both cheap and an affective way to get round.
We eventually overcame our unease and hired a car in the capital Tirana to continue our journey south to Saranda. There are two things to mention about driving in Albania. Firstly road conditions vary enormously, from very smooth, to non existent, along with truly massive potholes. Secondly the roads are occupied by every form of motorised vehicles, push bikes, and pedestrians - frequently all at the same time! Amazingly we never saw a single collision, and soon adopted the Albanian method of crossing a road which involves a severe glare at the car driver and an iron belief that they do not want to knock you down. Car horns are used with alacrity; not in anger, but warning.
Albania is littered with ancient monuments, castles, and citadels. It has been invaded by everyone from the Romans onwards and we even found a Norman Castle!
Highlights include the mountain town of Berati, with its castle perched high up on a promontory, and the Roman remains at Butrint, both of these sites are world heritage sites.
In the north the scenery is breathtaking and our trip on Lake Komani was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip. There were about twenty of us on the little boat which chugged its way along the channel. We could see scattered houses on the sides of the flooded valley. As time went on the surrounding mountains became higher and higher. Sometimes it looked like we were steaming towards a dead end only for the channel to do a sharp turn in front of shear cliffs several hundred feet high. Every time we thought the mountains couldn't get any higher, they did.
The water was a deep jade colour and the mountains part of the Dinaric Alps, the more distant ones reaching over 2,500 meters in height.
We left Albania at the southern city of Saranda, catching the daily ferry to Corfu, a journey of around two hours. We were left with memories of very genuine hospitality, and a very beautiful country, as yet undiscovered by large tourist groups.
Would we go again? You bet. The countryside is breathtaking and the people, without exception, were friendly and welcoming.
Most useful clothing item: my new Rohan trousers, very light and comfortable to wear and easily converted into shorts.
What I couldn't bring: My Golden Retriever, Rory
The not so good bit: The road surfaces could be a challenge!
The highlight: River trip on Lake Komani, simply breathtaking!Back to the Map