Albania is a place we knew we wanted to visit back when we were living in Spain; we had heard the beaches were beautiful, the mountains and lakes were sites to behold, and the people were some of the friendliest in Europe. Albania has a very interesting history, though it is usually overshadowed in America by stories of gangsters and human trafficking (there’s a famous movie about this that does not help). I did a lot of reading and found that none of that effects would-be visitors to the country, so Jesse and I decided we would visit for a whole month as places to stay are plentiful and can be quite reasonably priced (they also have one of the coolest flags in the world).
We wanted to see as much of the country as we could, and Albania does have a bus system; they are minibuses, that do not have necessarily strict schedules, and can take quite a while to get around. So, we decided to rent a car, as we had read that the roads are good, especially the main ones that connect the cities and towns. Albania is about the same size as the US state of Massachusetts, though it is more long than wide, with most of its border being the Adriatic Sea, across from Italy. To its northwest is Montenegro, northeast is Kosovo, east is North Macedonia, and Greece is to the South.
We made an ambitious plan to first visit the north, then the south, and finally returning to the Capital and largest city of Tirana before leaving to visit our friend in Germany. We landed in Tirana airport after a short flight from Athens; we picked up our rental car, which has some definite damage on the sides; the man who rented us the car told us that Albanians are the worst drivers in Europe; and that is what we had heard. In that case, we paid a few dollars more to have an automatic instead of manual, so I could drive instead of Jesse, as I grew up driving in Chicago. Many a people have referred to my driving “aggressive”. In LA I often thought I was the only person who used their horn, which was an hourly occurrence in Chicago.
So we have our orange (yes orange, car) and there aren’t many orange cars here. They do have a lot of Mercedes though, and I have already learned that when a Mercedes comes up quickly in Albania, best to get out of their way. Besides that, its drive aggressively, so right up my alley. As of this post though, I have not had to use my horn…yet.
Our first stop was the resort town of Shëngjin, northwest of Tirana. In a couple hours we were there, but not after some difficulty in finding the place. We had free Wifi at the airport, but did not want to make the same mistake that we did in Turkey and purchase overpriced SIM cards that we did not need. I had read that Vodaphone had a good tourist package for $20, so we knew we needed to find one of those stores.
After getting a bit lost in the town of Shëngjin, we were able to find the rental place, which was really cheap ($20 a night) and we parked the car. We met another family staying at the place, and although they did not speak English, the father gave us the WiFi password, and we were able to call the owner, who sent the smiling, plump, cleaning woman to let us in. She also did not speak English (and being in Albania only a half-day), we knew hello (Përshëndetje), thank you (Faleminderit), yes (po) and no (jo), but that was it. We talked in smiles and thumbs up, and she showed us the room, which was quite large, with four single beds, a table with chairs, a kitchen, fridge and bathroom. It was part of a four-unit rental house, which, while dated, was perfect for giving us space, as well as being just a three-minute walk from the beach.
Once settled, we took the car to the nearby town of Lezhë, which has a main street with all kinds of stores, and a lot of people walking and talking with friends and family. We found a grocery store, but first the Vodaphone store. They have an offer for a SIM for $20 for 35 GB for the month, so we secured the SIM card, went shopping at the grocery store, and returned to the place in Shëngjin to get a good night’s rest.
Shëngjin has a long beach, which is full of umbrellas and beach chairs, some older than others; but for 500 Lek (105 Lek = $1 USD), so about $4.50, we were able to procure a couple of chairs, and settled in for the day. It was a great beach day, as we were able to go in the water (it was not the clearest water, but was very refreshing on a really hot and super sunny day; we went swimming and then relaxed and read; rinse, repeat until sunset.
We had heard that Albanian pizza was good; and we were able to order two pizzas from a man standing behind a counter filled with empty pizza boxes, and behind him was the oven. We ordered a sliced meat and olive pizza and one margherita, and ate until our heart’s content.
I had been wanting to get a haircut and beard trim since our time in Turkey almost a week earlier; did not do it while in Athens the prior week, but now it was time. I found a barber and went straight away after breakfast. I arrived at Edi’s Barbershop where a twenty-something Albanian, who spoke excellent English, gave me a shorter, smart, Albanian haircut. I talked with him and another barber about life in the US, and what was their favorite place to visit in Albania. They said go south to Sarandë, they had the best beaches (and we will be there in a couple weeks).
Satisfied with my haircut, I went back to Lezhë to buy some more water, some tomatoes and some cheese to eat with the tomatoes. On our travels, white cheese with cherry tomatoes have become a new favorite of mine; I went to the deli counter and asked if either of the deli counter workers spoke English, and they said no, and then called over a man, who I assume spoke English. While we waited, I typed into the translator on my phone “I want to buy some cheese” and tried to say it in Albanian. They looked at me and began laughing, and by then the man who spoke English arrived. He asked me to tell him what I said, and he said, well of course you want to buy some cheese, you’re in front of the cheese counter, and I laughed too. After that I popped into a bakery to buy some filo dough pastries; the baker told me she had one with meat, one with cheese, and one with spinach. I said one of each, and returned to Jesse where we had an excellent lunch.
The day prior we had stopped at a beach-side restaurant for a pizza, beer, and Greek salad before our beach day, and our waiter told us to go visit Rana e Hedhun beach, north of Shëngjin, as that is a lovely place to watch the sunset with a lot less people. He was right, and we arrived at Rana e Hedhun beach, but not before passing a few really nice looking resort hotels; we parked at the very end of the road, and found a bar that had some chairs and umbrellas, we picked a pair right in front of the water, and enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere while we swam and sunned until sunset.
As the sun was setting we walked further north on the beach, where there were some people with their own umbrellas laying on their towels, or near their car that they parked on the beach; watching the sun set on another good day.
The next morning we packed up the car, gave the keys to smiling cleaning woman, and we are off to our next destination, the mountain town of Theth in north Albania.