Our driver got us to Tirana where although we had directions from the hotel and he had a GPS, we still needed to stop a taxi and ask for help. He offered to guide us…for just €4. It was only three blocks! Oh, well…
Tirana is the ugliest city we have ever seen. Albania used to be a communist country until the 1990s and it has the architecture to show. Big boxy apartment buildings seem to be the only buildings in Tirana. I get it that communists wanted everyone to be the same but why the soul-crushing gray? Couldn’t they all be the same in a nice apricot shade? No wonder Albanians have a reputation for being gloomy; as kooky as this will seem, I found myself on the verge of tears just looking around.
Our hotel room didn’t help any: it was dark and had mold on the walls. What bothered me the most though was the lack of a shower curtain which meant everything in the bathroom got flooded when anyone took a shower. This seems to be normal in Albania, we stayed in three different places during our time here and none had a shower curtain. Our hotel wasn’t cheap either, at €60 in a country where a very nice sit-down Italian dinner for four adds up to less than €15, it’s very surprising. Considering Tirana has almost no tourism, it’s inexplicable.
We went out to walk the streets almost as soon as we got in. We didn’t know anything about Albania except that it was supposed to be a dangerous place so we were wary. We stood out a mile and people everywhere stared at us. However it didn’t feel dangerous at all, other than Albanians are crazy behind the wheel and crossing any street is a daredevil stunt.
I was still very depressed about the city but when the sun hid, it suffered an amazing transformation. Small cafés and restaurants opened up on the first floors of every building and just as suddenly they were filled with young people talking and laughing. The park fountains turned onpeddlers set their trinkets on the sidewalks, and older couples walked around hand in hand as if they were young lovers. It was an entirely different city!
We walked around Skanderberg Square and took a look at Et’hem Bey Mosqueand the huge mural depicting Albania’s history on the outside of the National History Museum.
What was striking was that we expected people to be morose but they were very friendly. In fact, they’ve been some of the friendliest people we have met. We stopped at a bakery to get an eclair (my weakness) and asked for directions. There was an old woman shopping there who paid tons of attention to what we were asking about. When three blocks later we stopped for ice cream, she also stopped, waited for us and then made sure we continued on the correct path. All we could say was “Falimenderit”: thank you.
We had told our hotel manager we wanted to go to Sarandë the next morning and he made sure we had a taxi waiting for us at 9am. The taxi took us to a “Furgon” station and deposited us with a driver friend of his. This is where the adventure began.
In case you’re wondering how we manage to talk with all these people, some of them understand a bit of Italian, so as long as we all speak slowly, we get around.
A Furgon is a minibus which leaves when it’s full. Turns out our driver, being friends with the taxi, cut in line and a dispute for us ensued between him and two other furgons. We just watched helplessly until Louie decided to take off although we weren’t full yet. He was the worst Albanian driver of them all and we wondered if we had made a mistake. We picked up and let out passengers everywhere. At one point the furgon was so full, we counted 17 people although it only had space for 11.We were surprised at how well we were treated though. An old woman wanted Alejandro to move over to squeeze more people in but Louie very forcefully said no. “Tourist” was all I understood, and as if that explained why my kids were entitled to a seat of their own when everyone else was riding two to a seat, everyone acquiesced. Road curves were atrocious and a little girl threw up. Louie stopped the furgon, threw her and her mom and sister out, yelled at the mom so bad she got a new dress she was carrying in a shopping bag and gave it to him to clean the floor with. Terrible! Half an hour later, Alejandro threw up. “We’re in for it”, I thought; but Louie simply stopped, got a water bottle out to wash it off, gave us time to change his clothes and then sat him in front where the air from the window could reach him (did I mention the nonexisting A/C?)No yelling, not even a grumble from the other passengers.
The trip to Sarandë is supposed to last 4 hours, it took us about 8. Louie stopped twice on the road where streams of water where flowing and everyone, including us, refilled their bottles from them. Water in Albania is not potable because it only flows for a few hours a day and thus it is stored in huge cisterns for later use; except for these few flowing streams. At these stops, people sell honey jars and a small black fruit which must be a cousin of the plum, it is juicy but firm, and sweet but tart at the same time, delicious.
At Lazarat, Louie handed us over to a different driver but not before making sure he told us in front of this new driver that we didn’t have to pay anymore since we had already paid Louie. Lazarat is Albania’s hub of hashish production. A fellow Greek passenger explained to us that even the government is in on it.
Remember how I fantasized about renting a car and driving thru the Balkans? Forget that idea. Roads in Albania are terrible and their drivers even worse. Roads are full of potholes and aren’t lined. At places there is no road at all, just dirt; the boys wondered how they knew which way to go. Albanians must have never heard of road signs since there aren’t any. There are also a myriad police roadblocks and our drivers were constantly handing money out the window to them. As bad as our ride to Sarandë was (the boys think it was worse than the Ecuador-Peru border crossing), we were glad we weren’t driving.
Our trip was made a bit more bearable because people tried hard to have conversations with us, like the old man who upon learning we were Mexican talked about Hugo Sanchez and told us his son plays for the Austrian National Team. He insisted that Fernando(son) had the body of a futbol(soccer) player and we were unable to convey that yes he does indeed play soccer. Or the woman who was intrigued by Alejandro’s teeth. Try to explain braces to an older woman who only speaks Albanian. We ended up sharing our fruit and water with her instead.
In Sarandë we headed to a “resort”. We had planned on this being our break from the hassles of traveling and although it was the best that Albania offers, it fell quite short in my view but please take what I say with a grain of salt since when it comes to beaches I declare myself a snob.
The guys didn’t listen when I told them to pack their watershoes and now regretted it since they couldn’t walk for even a few feet without getting hurt. Fernando managed to buy expensive pairs for him and Fernando(son) and Alejandro got to use mine. Sunblock was also horribly expensive and the man who sold it to us emphasized that it was “original” (must we worry about counterfeit sunblock?).
The water was nice though, calm and crystal clear all the way to the bottom, which was kind of creepy since it was so deep.The boys found (and got stung by) sea urchins and octopii.
We had been told by Croats with furrowed noses that Albanian beaches were dirty and not as nice as Croatian. We were told the same thing in by the Greek. In all honesty though, they are all (Croat, Albanian & Greek) just as pebbley and clean/dirty. The huge difference is in services. Although our hotel was allegedly a resort, the road leading up to it was dirt and all around were half-done abandoned buildings.
There was no pool and we even had a cow walk by our door in the afternoon!The kicker was when later that night, when we were getting back from having dinner in town, the cow was also on her way back, this time with a cow friend in tow.
We have found Albanians to be very friendly but it could have something to do with the fact that they are all obsessed with Mexican Telenovelas (soap operas). Most are elated at meeting “real” Mexicans and eager to practice the Spanish they’ve learned from TV. Since they’ve learned to say “Te Amo” (I Love You) and “Te Odio” (I Hate You) with all the drama from the soaps, it’s a bit unnerving and not at all conducive to regular conversations but we truly appreciate the effort, specially since it’s much more than we can say in Albanian.
Albania is still light–years away from being a tourism mecca although the Swedish guests at the resort seemed to think it was paradise. As many troubles as Albania has, we have no complaints on the Albanian people. Or their cows.