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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Albania is an incredible destination which deserves more attention..It’s about time the rest of the world opens their eyes to the natural beauty which rivals that of neighbouring Greece, Montenegro and Croatia for half the price.

Borsh Beach Albania
Albania is an unknown destination for so many people but it needn’t be. It’s a beautiful country with a fascinating history and culture dating back thousands of years. It’s a safe and affordable destination and with more airlines planning to offer cheap flights it’s about to become much more accessible.
Kruja Mosque and Bazaar
People often ask me what I like about the country and it’s simple. It’s natural beauty, stunning landscapes, Mediterranean weather and welcoming people. Not to mention it’s dirt cheap compared to almost everywhere else in Europe. Even for city loving people like myself, Albania’s scenery will blow your mind. Massive mountain ranges, pristine lakes and springs and some of the best beaches in southeastern Europe, Albania is an incredible destination which deserves more attention.
Watching the sunset from a bunker in Saranda
If you don’t know much about this small Balkan nation, here are a few of the highlights I’ve experienced after spending 6 months in the country.

Albanian Riviera

If Albania is known for one thing it’s the riviera. Travellers from Italy, Greece and Albanian speaking countries (Kosovo and Macedonia) have been enjoying Albania’s beautiful beaches for decades. It’s about time the rest of the world opens their eyes to the natural beauty which rivals that of neighbouring Greece, Montenegro and Croatia for half the price.
Ksamil Beach
Ksamil, Himara, Borsh and Dhermi beaches are great getaway destinations, especially if you avoid the crowds in July and August. In September you can have the beach and surrounding sights almost to yourself and in my opinion it’s the best time to visit Albania.
Himara Albania

Llogara Pass

Driving in Albania can be a little challenging at times but the drive from Vlora through the Llogara Pass towards Saranda is one of the most spectacular drives I’ve ever experienced. The mountains, the valleys, the views over the sea, countless beaches and remarkable scenery, the entire coastline is outstanding. I can’t speak highly enough of this drive. The drive from Tirana to Saranda should have only taken 5 hours but it took us 9 as we couldn’t resist stopping to take photos. If you only do one thing in Albania, take this road trip through the pass down to the coast.
Llogara Pass
Llogara Pass Scenery

Berat

A city of a thousand windows is the tagline for Berat, its Ottoman stone houses with endless windows looking down over the rest of the city. It’s an ancient city with heritage listed buildings on both sides of the Osumi River as well as in the city’s citadel, Berat Castle.
Berat's Ottoman Old Town in Mangalem
Driving towards the city you can’t miss the formidable Mt Tomorr in the background, Berat’s 2,416 metre high mountain which dominates the skyline at every turn. You can drive up parts of the mountain at certain times of the year but from what I hear it’s not the safest road. I think it’s one mountain best admired from the safety of the city.
Mt Tomorr in Berat
Berat may be a little remote as it’s not on the way to anywhere but it’s worth visiting for its history, architecture and stunning scenery. Berat is definitely on my must see destinations in Albania even if only for a quick visit.

Butrint

Butrint National Park and UNESCO listing covers the white sandy beaches at Ksamil, the wetlands and its precious wildlife as well as the ancient ruins of the old Illyrian city. Mussels are farmed in the pristine waters and you’ll see some locals fishing but otherwise the park remains untouched. Even the low tech car crossing has little impact on the environment.
Butrint Car Crossing
Walking through the ancient city, it reminded me of Rome and parts of Athens which isn’t surprising as much of the Butrint you see today was built by the Romans and Greeks. The theatre provided entertainment for the residents who shopped in the market place and socialised at the great basilica. They were protected from invaders by massive city walls and an acropolis on the hill. Try to make it to Butrint in time to watch the sunset over the Greek island of Corfu.
Butrint Sunset

Gjirokastra

They grey slate roofs of Gjirokastra’s Ottoman houses give the city a muted look not seen in the rest of the country. It’s an historic UNESCO listed town surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain ranges. A visit to Gjirokastra Castle with its captured US spy plane and unrestricted views over the valley is a must as is wandering the winding back streets. Albania’s former dictator Enver Hoxha and acclaimed writer Ismail Kadare both left their mark on their hometown, one of the most interesting cities in the country. If you dare, take a side trip to the mafia controlled village of Lazarat.
Gjirokastra US Spy Plane
Ottoman City Gjirokastra

Blue Eye Spring

Hidden away deep in the forest, the Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter) is a natural spring where crystal clear water bubbles up from 50 metres below the surface. The frigid water gently passes over the white sand producing a stunning turquoise colour which turns into a pretty green as it travels around the mountains.
Blue Eye Spring near Gjirokastra
An unexpected oasis in the middle of nowhere, don’t miss the sign for the turnoff on the highway half way between Gjirokastra and Saranda.

Tirana

Tirana is unlike any European capital I’ve visited. The city is bustling at all times of the day and night, traffic is crazy and the architecture unique to say the least. Highlights of a visit to Tirana include climbing the abandoned concrete Pyramid (if you dare), admiring the massive Communist era mosaic on Skanderbeg Square and drinking up in Blloku. Tirana isn’t the prettiest of cities and there aren’t many sights so most visitors should be able to see all there is to see in a day or two.
Tirana's Pyramid
Mosaic in Skanderbeg Square

Getting There

Even tough there are talks of budget airlines opening routes to Albania this has yet to happen and flights to Tirana are still quite expensive. If flying from the UK, British Airways (at Gatwick) is the only airline with direct flights to Tirana.
There are regular ferry services to and from Italy (Bari and Ancona). Schedules change with the season so check before turning up to the port.
Crossing into Albania by road is usually painless although there can be long waits at the border in the summer months. If arriving from Montenegro cross the border via Ulcinj and not from Podgorica as the mountainous road on the Montenegrin side is mostly used by trucks and is not in good condition (last time I was there).

Getting Around

Albania’s famous furgons (mini-buses) have now been banned from operating in most parts of the country leaving official buses as the only public transport option. I suggest renting a car or taking your own. It’s more convenient although Albanian roads are notoriously bad. Watch out for potholes, missing manhole covers, stray dogs, donkeys and pedestrians on the roads, even on the ‘motorways’.

Albanian Cuisine

Albanian cuisine is a mixture of Balkan, Mediterranean, Greek, Turkish and Italian cuisines. There’s a lot of grilled meat, pizza, pasta, soups and salads plus fish in the coastal regions. The food is generally tasty but not particularly interesting and not at all inventive.

Accommodation

There is plenty of affordable accommodation in Albania. Decent budget hotels and holiday apartments can be found from as little as €20 per night, especially in the off season. Book one of my recommended hotels or go directly to the hotel and ask for a discount. The practice of charging more for foreigners is annoying but usually unavoidable (unless booking online). Many hotels close down in the off season but if you ask around someone will always help with finding somewhere to stay.

Questions or Comments

If you have any questions regarding travelling in Albania, follow the links in the top navigation bar or ask at ourforum.http://www.rearviewmirror.tv/albania/

LAZE AROUND THE ISOLATED BEACHES OF DHERMI, ALBANIA

...In a not-so popular and rather mysterious Albania, a line of coastline villages, also called the Albanian Riviera, possesses isolated sand and pebble beaches with pristine and crystal clear waters. Dhermi is a local fave and a must-see for travelers who’re looking for a valuable spot with an expensive-looking scenery.
Dhermi is located at the Himare municipality, Vlore. The place is convenient for it’s easy to get there by bus and a selection of affordable hotels and restaurants are all right there near the beach. Moreover, the distances aren’t that far so you can just simply go around the village by foot. There are walking trails available to other secluded beaches like the Drymades and Perivoli so if you’ve found one, you can have the beach all for yourself.
Nightlife options and water sports are limited so this place is perfect for the total beach bums.
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Photo via: My Dhermi

Photo via: Deviant Art

Photo via: Wikipedia

Photo via: Deviant Art

Photo by: lagja via Panoramio

Photo via: Mark and Jim

Photo via: Skyscrapercity

Photo via: Skyscrapercity

Photo via: ikub.al

Photo via: Paradise Beaches

Photo via: Rear View Mirror TV

Photo by: usrnm via Panoramio

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Albania – Europe’s last Bicycle Touring frontier

Albania – Europe’s last Bicycle Touring frontier

Albania – Europe’s last Bicycle Touring frontierDuring the last week of February, with spring fever at the door and visas soon to expire, we wrapped up our time at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia and made plans for a 4 day bicycle tour through southern Albania to the seaside town of Sarande. Slowly we began saying our farewells to the friends we’ve made in Ohrid, packing up, looking at maps, and researching routes.  After sitting in front of the computer, working on our upcoming book – “Slovenia – a Bicycle Travel Guide” for the past few months we were ecstatic about getting back in the saddle and seeing some new places.
Lake Ohrid Macedonia is a great starting point for bicycle touring into Albania
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. Our winter enclave.

Albania. Here we come.

Our planned route (GPX): South around Lake Ohrid to Korce then west over the mountains to Farma Sotira, just outside of Leskovik and then north to Gjirokaster and finally stopping at the seaside in Sarande for another extended stay and more writing.
Bicycle touring from Lake Ohrid Macedonia into Albania
Pedaling up from Lake Ohrid to the Albania border
We initially planned 4 days – not taking into account that we hadn’t been cycling regularly for the past few months, the weather (which was about to turn from sunny to blustery), the road quality, and, of course, the mountains between here and the Ionian Sea. Instead of our planned 4 day tour, the route took us 7 days.
Bicycle touring around Lake Ohrid
One last look back at Lake Ohrid from the Albanian side
Stopping the first night in Maliq, just outside of Korce, we stayed with Algent, aWarmshowers host. The town’s barber and local bike guru, Algent fed us at his family’s home then put us up for the night in a make shift bedroom at his church. But not before warning us that our planned timetable was too ambitious for the route ahead. His advice: “Albania’s roads are rougher than we are used to, the weather was going to turn even colder,  enjoy the scenery and plan on 6-7 days to reach Sarande.”  The next day we quickly discovered Algent knew what he was talking about.
Eating dinner with Warmshowers hosts in Maliq Albania
Dinner time Albanian style
Sore from the first day back on a loaded bike after a couple of months and battling increasingly cold weather and rough roads, we struggled on day 2.  Feeling tired and cold from the constant wind and drizzle, we stopped in Erseke, a mere 25km from Farma Sotira.  C suggested we get a hotel.  I didn’t take too much convincing.
Climbing is what bicycle touring Albania is all about
Bicycle Touring Albania? Get ready to climb

Stereotypes and Reality

Our first two days in Albania were pretty much as we had expected.  The natural scenery was stunning. Abandoned gun bunkers of the former communist regime littered the countryside like concrete mushrooms. Roads were beyond rough, although largely absent of cars.  Smiling kids came out in droves to slap “high-fives” and shout, “where are you from?” Snarling Shepard dogs chased us, and the outskirts of small towns were awash with piles of garbage and broken buildings.
Bicycle touring Albania you will see gun bunkers at every turn
Like concrete mushrooms, more than 750,000 bunkers dot the Albanian landscape
In most small towns we passed through, unemployed men lined the streets.  Standing around. Chatting, without much else to do.  It was obvious we were the topic of conversation among the loitering crowd.  When we did engage the locals, we were always assured, “its safe here, your bikes are safe, you are safe…”  Albania’s reputation as a lawless backwater is well known among locals, as well as visitors.  Although it didn’t prove to be true, at least in our experience. In fact, in almost every interaction we had with locals, we were welcomed with smiling faces.
Bicycle Touring Albania. Buying Oranges on the roadside from friendly locals
Buying Oranges along the roadside.
The next morning we made the short ride under (finally) sunny skies to Farma Sotira, an organic tourist farm and campground.  This was one of our ‘must-stop’ point along this route.  Relaxing with a home cooked meal and a warm cabin for the night was sublime.  Again, when we proclaimed our stated goal of covering the remaining 120km to Gjirokaster, our host cautioned us to plan on a shorter day.  Terrain and road quality being the main obstacles.  She was right.
Bicycle touring Albania. Having coffee at Farma Sotira
Warming up with Turkish Coffee at Farma Sotira.

A mostly mountainous nation.

Starting day 4 with an unrelenting climb to Leskovik, a tiny mountaintop town, complete with the same collection of crumbling buildings, packs of stray dogs and groups of seemingly unoccupied residents standing around town, we pedalled slowly until noon.  The descent from Leskovik into the Lumi Vjosa River valley was some of the roughest road we’ve ridden anywhere.  The formerly tarmacked, but now pothole riddled, part dirt, part rock “State Highway” followed a steep ravine down from Leskovik to the wide open valley below.
Bicycle Touring Albania. Rough Roads and beautiful scenes from Leskovik to the Lumi Vjosa River
Descending “State Highway 75″ from Leskovik to the Lumi Vjosa River valley
The surface was rough enough to snap one of the supports on my rear rack and slow our downhill progress to a crawl. 15 km of descending took us over an hour, but it was not without some stunning natural beauty all around us.  The narrow ravine we followed had been carved by a rushing torrent of a river, creating breathtaking twists and turns, as it tumbled downhill.  As the enormous valley below began to reveal itself, with snow capped mountains hovering overhead, we turned north along the verdant fields, and herds of grazing sheep to Përmet.
Bicycle Touring Albania. Lumi Vjosa River surrounded by mountains
The Lumi Vjosa River valley
The next morning we continued north, cutting westward through a gap in the mountains and covering the remaining 65 km to Gjirokaster in no time.  The unpleasant sights of garbage piles and broken buildings of the mountain towns began to fade a bit.  The sun was shining, and the roads were smoother and flatter than the previous day’s.
Bicycle Touring Albania. Sunny skies from Lumi Vjosa v to Gjirokaser
Sunny skies and smooth roads.
If the valley roads were pleasantly flat, the streets of Gjirokaster made up for it. Steep cobbled lanes leading uphill from the edge of the city to the Old Town had us pushing our loaded bikes for the last 1km. Finally reaching the top, we checked in to Hotel Kalemi for the night.  Big, regal rooms, decorated in the style of Albania’s former Pasha ruling class in an old Ottman house, complete with breakfast for 10€.  Yes, please.
Bicycle Touring Albania. Pushing up the steep cobblestone streets of Gjirokaster
Steep cobblestone streets in Gjirokaster

Just one more climb

Turning westward over the final climb before Sarande, we hoisted ourselves up the 700m pass over the coastal mountains in short order.  A long winding decent down into the coastal plain went by in a flash. Zipping past small settlements, scattered farms, roadside fruit vendors and more gun bunkers that appeared as we neared the Greek border, we were soon pedalling through the rough outskirts of Sarande.  A quick pass through town and we stopped for the night at a seaside hotel. The next day we pedaled south to camp at Ksamil and enjoy some village life before starting our search for an apartment, but that’s another story… ( Part 2, coming soon)

Wonderful Përmet 2014