Roadtrip with the ‘rents: Albania

After five days of hiking in the Albanian mountains and staying on sheep farms, we all enjoyed hot showers and the return to civilization in Podgorica. My parents both fell ill with a mysterious gastrointestinal bug on our return to Montenegro, and we endured our worst housing glitch of the entire trip with a last-minute Airbnb cancellation and a nonresponsive Agoda host, but (silly us) we were confident things would soon look upward, and had booked a rental car for the next eight days for a leisurely drive to visit the highlights of Albania.

Albania mapWe connected capitals on the first day of our roadtrip, stopping only once on the three-hour drive from Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro) to Tirana (the capital of Albania) to view an amazing Ottoman bridge outside Shkoder:

IMG_4550I had corresponded over the previous several months with the parents of a coworker of mine who worked at the American embassy in Tirana and were generous enough to send lots of advice on hiking and biking in the area as well as meeting us in person when we came to town. We spent a pleasant afternoon with Carl, visiting the giant nuclear bunker complex built by the dictator Enver Hoxha and then walking downtown to see the Pyramid, originally built as the Enver Hoxha museum by his daughter and son-in-law but now abandoned and graffiti’ed and used as a climbing gym.

IMG_4557It was our first introduction to the turbulent history of Albania: the most Muslim country in Europe, occupied by Ottomans for hundreds of years until declaring independence in 1912, Albania was then occupied briefly by Italy before WWII and regained independence at the end of the war only to be ruled under the iron fist of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who originally allied with China and Russia but then completely shut off Albania from the rest of the world after China and Russia got too soft (as evidenced by Nixon’s visit to China and Khrushchev’s Thaw). Fearful of invasion, Hoxha spent the period from 1967 to 1985 building 200,000 concrete bunkers throughout Albania, many of which still survive today. Imports and exports were nonexistent, and every Albanian home looked largely identical because all the furniture was made in the same factories, with only a choice of three sizes and colors.

When Communism collapsed in 1991, kids would take turns trying out the same piece of chewing gum, and people used the colorful Coke cans to spruce up their living room decor. (Our guide asserted that Albanians’ poor driving grew from their isolation from the modern world!) Unfortunately for Albanians, the end of Communism wasn’t the end of their suffering: a government-endorsed pyramid scheme collapsed in 1997, causing some 70% of the population to lose their life savings and sending the country into complete anarchy and chaos. Italy intervened and things stabilized, with a tremendous amount of development occurring over the last 20 years. Blogs we’d read about driving in Albania only a few years ago were completely outdated, and several times we found ourselves on new multilane highways that didn’t exist on Google Maps at all. (We also found Google Maps telling us to turn the wrong way down a number of one-way streets, presumably because merely observing traffic patterns was insufficient to tell Google about the streets’ directionality, given low rates of adherence to traffic laws.)

Thus introduced to Albanian history, we left Tirana the following morning for the UNESCO world heritage town of Berat, the Ottoman “city of a thousand windows.” Matching white houses with brown roofs climbed uphill to a castle perched above the river, with an entire village within the castle walls! It was picturesque and fairly quiet, with cats wandering the cobbled streets, and made for a good midday stop before we continued on to the coast at Vlore.

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We had a quiet night in Vlore as my parents continued to recover from stomach bugs, then headed down the coast. The drive was absolutely gorgeous, with crystal clear turquoise water, tremendous views from a mountain pass, and a three-pointed Ali Pasha fortress to explore as we made our way down the coast.

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We spent two nights in Sarande, in the far southern coast of Albania, in a luxurious 3 bedroom apartment with fabulous views of the city and beach. It was the perfect place to have built extra time into the schedule, as Michael and I soon fell victim to aforementioned stomach bug, and the four of us had little energy for much exploration, though we did make a day trip to the (you guessed it, UNESCO) ruins at Butrint.

The view from our apartment in Sarande
The view from our apartment in Sarande

From Sarande we headed inland to Gjirokaster, a sister city to Berat and jointly named as a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s better known but I found it less enchanting, perhaps because I was unable to find the ruins of the Ali Pasha aqueduct and because our dinner restaurant was out of all but three dishes. Nonetheless, we had a pleasant afternoon wandering the castle and the cobbled streets and admiring the unique Ottoman architecture.

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On our last day in Albania, we stopped first at another Ali Pasha viaduct and then at the Greek ruins of Apollonia, founded in 588 BC (!) and prosperous until the third century AD, when its harbor began to silt up. It made for a good lunch spot before we headed back to Tirana for the night, where we’d stored the bike suitcases after mailing them from Poland a few weeks ago.

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From Tirana we drove back into Montenegro, but not before stopping at Shkoder’s imposing castle for lunch. Legend has it that when three brothers set about building the castle, they agreed that a human sacrifice was necessary and decided that (a) whoever’s wife brought them lunch the next day would be the chosen one and (b) none of them would tell their wives, as they all took turns bringing lunch in an irregular pattern. Of course the two older brothers secretly told their wives, and the youngest brother’s wife, Rozafa, was chosen to be buried within the walls of the castle. Hence its name Rozafa Castle. Lovely, eh? But it did make for a beautiful lunch spot, and we stopped at a few towns along the coast in the afternoon as we made our way north.

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The old town of Budva, where fortress abuts beach
The old town of Budva, where fortress abuts beach

P1110119Our last day of the roadtrip was spent in Kotor, a beautiful – and much more visited – town on the Montenegro coast. A former Venetian stronghold, it boasts a well-preserved old town and a stunning fortress built into the mountains above town with a series of walls and staircases. We climbed up the old walls in the morning, returning to old town just as it started to rain and hiding in a tavern for lunch before starting the serpentine drive up two dozen tight switchbacks on a barely-two-lane road up into Crna Gora, the namesake of Montenegro. The views – both from our walk and from the drive – were absolutely jaw-dropping.

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And so our roadtrip ended on September 28, as we drove back into Podgorica and back to the Airbnb where our adventures with my parents had begun. Luckily, we all felt largely recovered from our stomach bug as we drove into Podgorica. Feeling better was somewhat mandatory, as the next morning we embarked on our next adventure: biking through the hills of the Montenegro coast!

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