I made this trip with a rental car which I picked up in Skopje, North Macedonia, as part of a bigger road trip through the south-eastern Balkans. Driving is easy in Albania as the traffic is thin. Prices are fairly low; food and accommodation can be arranged spontaneously. It is a safe country though it is wise to lock your room in private homes and to keep your possessions safe.
Crossing the border from North Macedonia into Albania at Pogradec on Lake Ochrid, in the north-east of the country; a lively town with a city beach and apartment blocks. On to Korca, then on a gruesome dirt road into the mountains and to Voskopojë. In medieval times, this mountain village was home to 50,000 people. Today it is a quiet place of barely 1,000 souls. The church St Nichola dates back to 1726. We have to find the priest to unlock the door. The wonderful frescoes on the outside are damaged by scratchings, the priest mutters something about ‘Barbari’ who ravaged here during the war. A few more churches in beautiful scenery in the vicinity. B&B in the village, excellent food. Tirana beer is the local favourite, a pint goes for around 80 EUR cents.
A five hour drive over bumpy roads through the lonesome eastern Albanian mountains, past Permet and on to Gjirokaster. Some palatial homes in Ottoman-Arabic architecture gained the town UNESCO world heritage status. The old town sits on a very steep mountain slope, ancient cobblestones, a bazaar and citadel, wide views over the valley.
The sheer number of old bunkers which you can find almost anywhere in the country is well documented. The regime of Enver Hoxha must have lived in a constant state of paranoia. Between 1972 and 1984, he ordered the building of about 170,000 bunkers, most are still standing and quite an eyesore.
In the furthest south of Albania lies Sarande, in a bay surrounded by hills. A large tent settlement of Roma people on the edge of town, hundreds of hotels alongside the bay and a lot more in all development stages. Across the Adriatic Sea in the visible distance lies the Greek island of Corfu. There is regular ferry traffic with day tourists as well.
A bit further south just short of the Greek border lies Butrint (UNESCO site), a Greek-Roman city on a peninsula. Theatre, forum, baptistery, basilica, and further buildings are well preserved. From a later period the Venetian rulers left a castle and fortifications.
Following the coastal route north: steep degrees, lots of serpentine turns high up in the mighty mountains, mostly not direct on the coastline. Splendid views over the sea and islands. Some towns are already completely built up with hotels, others remain fairly unspoilt.
In Puerto Palermo on a small peninsula is the castle of Ali Pasha. Across the 2027 metre-high Llogara Pass, almost in the clouds with forests of mighty flag pines.
Appolonia near the small town of Fier is the second most important archaeological site of the country. Only about 5% of the ruins have so far been excavated. Phantastic location of the Acropolis with sweeping views across the surrounding plains. Another 40 kilometres east on a hill high above the surrounding valleys lies the biggest Illyrian settlement Bylis. The walls here are all that is left of the fortifications.
Since 2012 Albania is an official EU candidate. I hear people repeatedly telling me that ‘now comes the money’. The political relationship with Greece seems tense. The country is regarded as financially unstable. Which is no wonder really. Also, much incomprehension about Germany’s actions: How can they give so much money to Greece? Mercedes-Benz has an important market here: Every second private vehicle is a Merc, amongst them a lot of brand new ones. In general, the Balkans seem to be a large secondary market for used cars from western Europe. Lack of maintenance and regular servicing seems a bit of an issue here, and pollution and exhaust fumes are a problem in urbanised areas.
Challenging roads lead to Berat, the ‘city of a thousand windows’. On the banks of the Osum river, flanked by high rock walls, the old town enjoys is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Narrow winding alleys full of ancient plaster. High above the valley is a massive fort, with the remains of a dozen churches and the citadel. Restored with EU funds. Workers are also clearing some old structures and some slopes have turned into garbage dumps. An impressive royal mosque dating back to 1492, skilfully painted inside. Opposite are the caravanserai and the House of Dervishes with wonderful ceiling paintings.
While staying overnight in a private house some of my stuff gets stolen. I only realised this when I had already left the town.
Tirana (about 800 000 inhabitants); hardly any sights here, earthquake-prone place though set against an impressive mountain panorama. High levels of air pollution. The people here do not seem particular friendly, I see many hard lines engraved in faces. The EU has financed some projects such as the restoration of old monuments in the centre. But, apart from an old stone bridge dating from the 18th century, there are hardly any. The remains of the citadel consist only of a piece of wall. But at least the 200 year-old Ethem Bey mosque on the central Skanderbeg square has beautiful frescoes.
Further north lies Kruje: a settlement high on a mountain slope with a citadel and an old Turkish bazaar. Handwoven fabrics can be found. Skhoder near the northern border with Montenegro, with a massive old citadel, three inner courtyards, very spread out. 360 degree view from the top. Lots of rain for the next three days. The city itself not very inviting. Next morning drive to Ura Mesi, a Turkish stone bridge from the 15th century with eleven arches. Like in so many places in Albania, rubbish and garbage are everywhere.