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Adventures in Albania

Discover all that Albania has to offer.

Outside the Capital: Gjirokaster

During my time here in Albania, Gjirokaster has captivated my imagination.  In my quest to get to know as much as possible about Albania before arriving, I read Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone which tells the history of Gjirokaster during the Italian and Greek occupation in WWI and WWII.  From the beginning, I was hooked and promised to visit The City of Stone as soon as possible.

Gjirokaster is divided into two parts, new and old.  The New City looks like any other Albanian city, dotted with high rise apartment buildings and modern brightly painted houses.  The Old City on the other hand feels like you are traveling back in history.

Once you turn into the Old City, you are swept up the hillside where you encounter narrow cobblestoned roads that are so steep it feels as if your car might slide right back down.  The heat radiates off of every surface, from the cobblestoned roads to the stone buildings and time seems to slow down.  It is simply breathtaking.

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The cobblestoned roads in the old bazaar.

The highlight of the city is of course the Gjirokaster Castle that towers above.  The climb up there is a workout within itself but it is well worth it.  The Castle has been used for various purposes throughout its history.  With each invading force, the castle was repurposed and expanded.  Today it is open as a museum and is the site of the Gjirokaster Folk Festival every five years.

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An old US Air Force ‘spy plane’ captured during Enver Hoxha’s reign over Albania. It was displayed here as an example of the Communists fight against Western powers.
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The stage is the site of the Gjirokaster Folk Festival. The next Festival will be in 2020.
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The clock tower.
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View of the city from the Castle windows.

Since Gjirokaster became a UNESCO protected site, there have been massive efforts to restore and protect the old city, where many houses have fallen into disrepair.  The work has been complicated by Albania’s transition to democracy and the lack of state funding available for restoration projects.  I highly suggest a visit to the Skenduli House to learn more about the history of Gjirokaster’s architecture as well as the struggle to protect that history.  The owner’s family has lived in the house for 8 generations and his pride as he shows the house is clear.  He speaks Albanian and French but his energy makes the language barrier a non-issue.  The house is located on the same street as Enver Hoxha’s house (which should be noted is not the original house Hoxha grew up in but a rebuilt and re-imagined version).

Another way to enjoy Gjirokaster’s history is to stay at one of the various B&Bs doting the Old City.  We stayed at Kotoni B&B and were impressed with the hospitality and knowledge of the owners.  They welcomed us with coffee/tea and biscuits and explained the history of the house and the city.  The place is run by an older married couple who clearly take great pride in continuing the Albanian tradition of hospitality towards guests.

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The entrance to our B&B, Kotoni B&B.

Gjirokaster is a three-four hour drive from Tirana depending on traffic and construction on the new highway.  I suggest combining a trip to Gjirokaster with a trip to Sarande as they are relatively close together.  If you are traveling by car, take the road out of Tirana towards Durres and continue South to Fier.  After Fier you will see an entrance to the new freeway that leads you directly to Gjirokaster.  If you prefer public transportation, there are daily bus connections that leave from the Southern Bus station in Tirana costing 1000 leke.

I’m sure that after just one trip to Gjirokaster, you will be hooked.  It isn’t difficult to see why tourism is expanding in the area and during our last visit we already saw tour buses making the trip up the hill to visit Gjirokaster.  If you want a taste of traditional Albanian life, I can’t imagine a better place to visit!

Outside the Capital: Syri i Kalter

Located only 30 minutes outside of Sarande, Syri i Kalter or the Blue Eye in English, is a must see for anyone visiting Southern Albania.  The highlight of the area is a natural water spring that is over 50 meters deep.  Due to the depth and the minerals in the water, the spring looks like a big blue eye (hence the name) when viewed from above.  There is a shroud of mystery around Syri i Kalter though.  Divers have been 50 meters down into the spring and they are still not sure where it begins.

To get to Syri i Kalter, take the road from Sarande going in the direction of Gjirokaster.  The road is windy and takes you into the nearby mountains, providing amazing views around every corner.  The turn off for Syri i Kalter is clearly marked and once you have exited the national road, you will take a windy dirt road down to the spring.  At the beginning of the dirt road, there is a one lane bridge where you have to pay a toll if you will be driving a car.  There is currently a project to expand the road leading to the spring, making it wider and eventually paving it.

Unfortunately, there are no direct public transportations option from Sarande.  Instead, take any van going between Sarande and Gjirokaster and request to get off at the turn off to Syri i Kalter.  Drivers are used to tourists taking this route so you don’t have to worry about them giving you any difficulties.  From there you’ll have to walk the rest of the road down to Syri i Kalter or find a friendly tourist to give you a lift the rest of the way.  If you are pressed for time or prefer the freedom of having your own transport, you can also take a taxi from Sarande.  Most drivers will charge around $30 to drive you there, wait two hours for you to explore and then drive you back.

At the end of the road is a large dirt parking lot.  On your left hand side you will find a bridge which marks the beginning of the path to Syri i Kalter.  The path takes you along the water and through the woods back to the pool where the spring is.  They have recently built a wooden fence around the pool for safety but you can still walk around it and put your feet in.  You will see some brave souls diving into the pool and swimming but be warned that the water is only around 10 °C.  Luckily, since the water is so cold, it cools the entire area near the water meaning you can cool off on a hot day without ever getting wet.  There is also a platform above Syri i Kalter where you can look down into the spring.

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The bridge at the beginning of the path.
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The view from the path.
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Looking down from the platform into Syri i Kalter.

After exploring the spring, I suggest returning towards the parking lot and stopping for a drink or lunch at the restaurant/cafe along the water.  While Syri i Kalter itself is beautiful, the water surrounding it is just as breathtaking.  You can sit here and examine the various colors in the water while listening to dragonflies buzz around the trees and enjoying the cooler temperatures.

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View from the restaurant/cafe.
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An old paddle boat tied up at the restaurant/cafe.

Syri i Kalter makes the perfect half day trip from Sarande or a great place to stop on the way to Gjirokaster.  As the road is expanding, tour buses are starting to make the trip as well so if you will be visiting it is best to do so in the morning or later in the afternoon.  But no matter what time you visit, Syri i Kalter is not to be missed.  It is a truly a natural beauty!

Tirana Sights: Preza Castle

Just a short drive outside of Tirana, sits Preza Castle.  The castle was constructed during the 15th century and belonged to the Topias, a local feudal family.  It acted as a strategic stronghold protecting the Tirana Plain.  It was built at the same elevation as the castles in Petrel and Kruje allowing for communication between the fortresses in case of invasion.

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The clock tower as seen from the inner courtyard.
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The sunset from inside the castle.

Although the feudal lords are long gone, Preza Castle has been preserved allowing visitors unprecedented views of the entire Tirana Plain.  The four towers still stand, including the imposing clock tower.  The courtyard has been kept free of cafes and it is common to find people enjoying a picnic there on the weekends.

If you do not want to pack a picnic, there is a restaurant and cafe built along the old fortress walls that provides excellent views as well as tasty traditional food.  You can enjoy your meal or coffee while watching planes take off and land at nearby Mother Teresa International Airport.  On a clear day it is possible to see across the valley to Kruje Castle as well.

There are no direct bus links from Tirana so you have to go by car.  To get there take the highway as if you are going to Durres.  In Vore take the exit towards Rinas, Kosovo and Shkoder.  After a kilometer or two you will see the road to Preza on your left hand side.  Take the road through Preza village and follow the signs leading to the castle parking lot.  The trip takes around 30 minutes one way.

A trip to Preza is a great way to escape the city and experience a piece of Albanian history.  It is not to be missed!

Outside the Capital: Butrint National Park

Sitting at the very Southern tip of Albania, Butrint National Park is one of the most breathtaking places that this country has to offer.  The park is home to the ruins of the ancient city of Butrint as well as a museum exploring the history of the area from the time of first settlement to modern day.  Adding to the experience, the park itself is surrounded by a lagoon and the ruins are surrounded by forrest, allowing visitors to enjoy both nature and history simultaneously.

In my opinion, the most remarkable aspect of Butrint is the variety of excavated sights that you can see in such a small area.  Highlights include a large Roman amphitheater dating back to the 4th century B.C., a baptistry and basilica from the 6th century A.D., as well as kilometers of the city walls which are still standing.  These ruins guide you through how Butrint evolved from a small fishing village to a Roman city.  The museum at the top of the hill further explains Butrint’s evolution and includes ample information in English.

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The baptistry.
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The city walls surrounded by the lagoon.
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The basilica walls.
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The lions gate, depicting a lion eating an ox.
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A fountain located outside of the basilica.

Be warned that during the Summer months, Butrint can get very crowded with tour groups coming from Corfu for the day.  It is best to try to visit the park in the morning before the pack of tour buses arrive.  Entrance is 300 leke for Albanian citizens and 500 leke for foreigners.  Right after you enter, you can find brochures with a map as well as some basic information in a variety of languages.

Exploring the ruins can take anywhere from one to four hours depending on your walking speed.  Be sure to bring water with you if it is a hot day as the only place to buy drinks is near the entrance next to the amphitheater.  If visiting during July, check and see if the annual Butrint International Theatre Festival is going on.  If so, you can enjoy watching acting troupes from around the Balkans performing in the Roman amphitheater.

To get to Butrint, take the Southern road out of Sarande which will lead you through Ksamil.  Outside of Ksamil you will see the sign welcoming you to Butrint National Park.  Continue down the road until you are driving along the lagoon.  At the end of the road you will see the entrance to the park across from the parking lot.

If going by bus from Sarande, there are buses to Ksamil and Butrint that leave every half hour.  You can catch them in the center or just stand along the road leading South and wave the bus down as it passes.

No matter how you get there, Butrint National Park is not to be missed on any visit to Southern Albania.  It highlights the fascinating history of the area and also makes for a great break from the beaches of the Southern Riviera.

Outside the Capital: Drymades Beach

No visit to Albania is complete without a trip to check out the beautiful Albanian Riviera.  There is no shortage of beaches to chose from but Drymades is one of my favorites.

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View down the beach at sunrise.

Drymades Beach is one of the first beaches you pass after Llogara National Park.  It is a rocky beach that is located right next to Dhermi Beach.  The beach itself is very clean and the water is clear enough that you can see the rocky bottom even while swimming further out.

To me it is the perfect mix between a developed beach and a natural one.  When compared to Dhermi, Drymades is much more quiet and less developed.  You can find small hotels and campgrounds along the beach but you won’t find many clubs and bars keeping you up at night.  Yet since the two are so close together, you can take a quick car or boat ride over to Dhermi, enjoy the more lively atmosphere and return back to Drymades for a quiet night of sleep.

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Arch at the end of Drymades Beach.

Another unique feature of Drymades Beach is the rock arch at the far end of the beach.  Through the arch is another smaller beach in a hidden cove.  It can get crowded during the day so it is worth waking up a little earlier to claim a spot.

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The small beach through the arch.

To get to Drymades from Tirana, you should take the freeway towards Durres, continuing South towards Fier and Vlore.  After Vlore, you should continue along the coast and drive over the Llogara pass.  The road after Vlore is narrow and has a lot of sharp turns so it is best not to attempt the drive at night.

If you would like to go by bus, there are buses throughout the day leaving from the Southern Bus Station in Tirana.  You can take any bus going to Dhermi, Himara or Saranda (make sure it is taking the costal road) and ask to be dropped off at the road to Dhermi/Drymades.  From there, there are taxis that can take you down to the beach.

Drymades is a truly breathtaking beach that everyone traveling along the Southern Riviera should experience, just make sure to bring your sunscreen!

Tirana Sights: Orthodox Cathedral

Albania prides itself on being a religiously tolerant country.  When Pope Francis visited Tirana last year, he spoke about the religious tolerance found here and praised Albanians and their religious leaders for continuing this tradition in a world of increasing religious extremism.

This religious tolerance means that although around 60% of Albanians identify as Muslim, there is no shortage of beautiful houses of worship to visit across the country from all faiths.

The country’s largest Orthodox Cathedral is located in the center of Tirana.  The church itself is rather new, having only opened in 2011. The gold front doors immediately catch your eye and inside the ornate decorations continue.  Due to its young age, the style of this Cathedral is different from any other Orthodox churches I have seen before.

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Mural on the main dome seen from below.

The ceiling is decorated with a beautiful yet simplistic mural.  Below, hangs a huge chandelier that lights up the imposing space.  Around the cathedral are arches that frame smaller prayer areas.  A rope divides the cathedral into a smaller area for visitors and an area reserved for those coming to pray.

Below the cathedral is a large bookstore where you can buy icons, candles and of course books.  Visitors are welcome at any time except during services and religious holidays.

Maps: Tirana Bus Stations

Explore this map for information on where to find buses to other cities in Albania as well as some International locations.

Map: Albanian Beaches

Explore this map to find information on the various beaches in Albania.

Lalzit Bay

Like all city dwellers, people who live in Tirana take every opportunity to escape the city once the summer heat hits.  Lalzit Bay (Gjiri i Lalzit) holds the distinction of being the most popular place to do just that.

Lalzit is a short 45 minute drive from the city and unlike many of the beaches in Durres, the water is clean. This makes it one of the most popular beaches in Albania.  On most weekends Lalzit becomes so crowded that it seems as if all of Tirana has packed up and moved to the beach.  But on the weekdays, it makes for the perfect day trip from Tirana.

To get to Lalzit Bay, you take the highway out of Tirana towards Durres.  Take the exit to Maminas just past the sign signaling that you’ve crossed over into the Durres Municipality.  Continue down that road until you see the signs to the various hotels and restaurants along the beach.  Choose a place to turn off the main road, park the car and get ready to enjoy the sand and sun!

The beach itself is a wide sandy beach and since it is in a bay, the waves are relatively calm.  If you prefer a more secluded beach experience, I suggest walking down towards the right end of the beach.  The farther you go the more quiet it typically is.  All along the beach there are cafes and chaise lounges set up for rent so you don’t need to worry if you don’t have your own umbrella.

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If you do happen to go on a crowded day, you can still escape the commotion by renting a paddle boat.  The rate varies from 300-500 ALL an hour depending on the time of day.  The price is worth it seeing as if you paddle out just past the first sand bar, you will have the sea to yourself.  As an added bonus most of the paddle boats come with a slide on the back for you to enjoy.

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Lalzit Bay might be Tirana’s worst kept secret but it is definitely worth a visit for travelers who don’t have enough time in Albania to venture to the Southern Coast.

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