“Albania is dangerous!” Unfortunately, we have heard this more often than we would have liked to. At the beginning of November 2018 we learned that Albania is not dangerous at all. For one week we hitchhiked through Albania towards Greece. Read here stories about our trips through the Albanian Alps and a wetland rich in birds and about encounters with a successful architect and a Mafia member.
On November 1st we started our journey with positive energy, full of anticipation and respect — Respect mainly because we saw during our bike tour through Albania either old bangers full to bursting or showy luxury cars. But as it turned out, our sense of foreboding was not justified.
We didn’t have to wait long for our first ride: a German couple who are on holiday in Ulcinj. On the way to Shkoder we talk about their daughters and their experiences in an African country.
From Shkoder city center we walk towards the end of the city, where we waited under a roof to protect ourselves from the rain. Two women, also Germans, stop for us. Their destination: the Albanian Alps. Great, that’s where we want to go! Together we drove through a long valley, passing a prison, always in the direction of the mountains in the sky. The last kilometers we are winding up the mountain. At a small café we get off. It rains, but we are allowed to stay at the café. Every 15 to 20 minutes a car drives by. Then one of us jumps up quickly and indicates with an outstretched thumb that we would like to be taken further uphill. No chance. After the third car we order ourselves a tea and already consider to ask how expensive a room is in the adjoining guesthouse.
Just when we have finished drinking the tea, our salvation comes: A Landrover stops. We are allowed to hop on! Quickly we stow the backpacks away and off we go. We sit on the back seat. The driver is a sympathetic Albanian around 40 named Fred. Next to him is sitting his pretty wife Rosa telling us in good German that we are lucky because the route to Theth was closed in some years already from November 1st onwards due to heavy snowfall. And we have even more luck: the two have a traditional guesthouse in Theth and an Eco Garden Guesthouse in Shkoder. They spontaneously invite us to spend the night in their already closed stone house. Of course we agreed. But the road is so bad that we can’t imagine that we will arrive alive. The single-lane gravel road is carved into the mountain and to our right there is a steep slope downhill — more than 300 height meters. Guardrails — no sign of them at all! How nice that opposing traffic also wants to pass by! The driving skills of Fred, however, are very good, and so we arrive well in our accommodation for tonight.
While we helped preparing an incredibly lavish dinner, we learned that Rosa grow up here and that we are allowed to stay overnight in the first tourist accommodation in Theth. Rosa even studied tourism and helped to build up the tourism industry and the network of hiking trails here. Detailed maps on the wooden walls bear witness to this. With well filled stomaches and with interesting stories we lie down in our cozy bed. What a German day! Nevertheless we are not homesick.
The next morning we have another proper mountain breakfast. Full of energy and without clouds in the sky we set off for the hiking trail from Theth to Valbona (crossing two of the 16 national parks in Albania). Great views and a beautiful nature awaited us.
The approx. 6-hour walk really inspired us! However, we could only enjoy this nature and the hiking, because Rosa and Fred took our heavy backpacks with them back to Shkoder. We are very grateful to them for this.
To hitchhike the route from Valbona to Shkoder was really not easy. We stayed one night in a hotel in Bajram Curri. As we didn’t get the ferry in Fierza early in the morning, we hitchhiked over an extremely quiet road. Probably the only car that drove here within a week over the very mountainous road took us for a few leks (Albanian currency). According to the opinion of the local people it would have been better to take 150 km detour and drive through Kosovo!
The night in Shkoder in Rosa and Fred’s Eco Garten Guest House is really good for us after the turbulent drive from Valbona! The once again opulent breakfast strengthens us for the rest of the way. Fred is even so nice and brings us to a good hitchhike position.
After just a few minutes of waiting, a nice pensioner takes us with him in his old banger. He speaks well English because he had been working as a carpenter in New York for many years. After a serious accident at work he is now handicapped, but lives as a happy early pensioner in his home country.
Not only the cars show that there are great contrasts between the rich and poor in Albania. During our bicycle trip in August I already expressed the wish that I would like to get to know a member of the Mafia. To also meet some ‘rich’ people. This wish also came true when a black Audi S8 stopped beside us. The “Mafia man” with the golden necklace was super sympathetic. He didn’t use the bullets in the box on the back seat against us. Officially, he works in an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam. But I didn’t know that until I asked him the third time. Before that, he simply ignored the question about his profession. We have to smile a bit at the incomprehensible story of his car “purchase”. He tells us that he bought the car from a UK family in Romania who had to fly back to England very quickly. So he could make a fabulous bargain. In new the S8 costs more than 80,000 Euro — he got it for 3,000 Euro.
Small part of the Divjaka-Karavasta National Park
A few days later and more interesting hitchhike stories we arrived in the Divjaka-Karavasta National Park. Here Enea has agreed to host us for 2 nights via couchsurfing.com. What a coincidence that he works for the national park and agrees that we can accompany him on his work. That’s the amazing video about national park.
Back on the road we encounter our favorite hitchhike driver: a curious and enthusiastic sign language expert. It all started with waiting:
Boring. Really boring. Steffen stands with a cardboard sign in his hands, on which the word “Fier” is written, at the roadside. Every second a car with the license plate AA passes by. AA stands for Albania (that is regulated recently so that the corrupt policemen don’t only stop the rich Tirana people). It is a pleasant 18° degrees and the sun is shining. I try to do something useful and briefly note down our last hitchhike experience in our diary:
We are already waiting for 30 minutes next to a gas station. Suddenly everything happens very fast. A silver Mercedes E-Class stops. Steffen opens the door and asks where he is going. “Fier” is the answer. Perfect! So we put our heavy and bulky backpacks into the trunk, get in and off we go. I sit in the front. After just one sentence it’s clear: Our nice driver doesn’t know any word of English. And no German either. Actually only Albanian. But he just laughs and tells us that it’s not so important.
Only 15 minutes later we already know the following: Our driver is 63 years old, is called Syrja, lives in Tirana and has a construction company with 30 employees. They build apartment blocks in the tourist destination Vlora directly at the sea. He has three children: one son, 22, who lives in Istanbul and two daughters, one 30 and living in Vienna, the other 30 and in Tirana. Syrja calls this daughter so that I can talk to her on the phone. She speaks very well English and seems to be very charismatic like her father. The daughter translates a few sentences about our world travel history for him, and as he finds them exciting, he spontaneously decides to invite us for a cup of coffee. We have never understood anybody so well with hands and feet before!
On the further way we stopped again at one of the best Burek-Bistros far and wide and get 6 huge vegetarian spinach-Burek and 2 drinks to take away. We say goodbye to our new friend with many “Faleminderit” (Albanian for “thank you”) and a warm hug.
We liked Gjirokastra very much from an urban point of view. The stone town in the south of Albania deserves the UNESCO World Heritage designation. The stone buildings blend magically into the surrounding mountains of Mali i Gjerë.
The bell tower on the castle hill overlooks the town.
The castle is home to a weapons museum, which houses many cannons and other war weapons from the 1st and 2nd World Wars. The view from here is worth the steep climb.
Hidden chamber in the castle ruin…
Bats and falcons feel at home in the castle ruins like this picturesque flower.
View from the castle to the stone roofs of the old town in Gjirokastra.
Skilfully stacked, the roofs are more like an art object.
The old town of Gjirokastra in the evening — souvenir shops with carpets, caps and embroidery invite you for a stroll.
Once again to remember: Albania and dangerous? Not at all! Albania is not more dangerous for tourists than e.g. Germany or other European countries. Hitchhiking is well possible here, despite some crammed or arrogant luxury cars. The national parks invite you to marvel at them. Albania is a beautiful country with great and helpful people. And maybe Albania will be an EU country in the near future. We would be happy about it!