Followers of Picnic at the Cathedral will recall that this fall my husband HOB and I spent two weeks in the country of Albania. If you haven’t had the chance to visit, allow me to highly recommend it. Albania has spectacular (surprisingly mountainous) geography, an interesting mix of classic Ottoman architecture and Communist era monuments, and a chill Mediterranean vibe. The food is simple and fresh and you can get around the country cheaply on public transportation. If your mom is worried, tell her Albania is really safe too; I didn’t see a single pickpocket and all the people I met were friendly and honest. (Women hold a seat on the bus by putting their purse on a chair, leaving to run errands, and coming back just as the bus is about to depart to claim their seat and purse—it’s that safe). Oh, and Albania is super affordable too: for like $20 you can sleep in a clean double room and grandma will serve you a giant breakfast with food grown in her own garden.
Here are some things I learned that will help you visit Albania as an independent tourist.
Public transportation is readily available in Albania and we were able to make our way all around the country without a hitch. There’s a workable system that’s complicated to understand if you’re accustomed to traveling on buses in trains with a set schedule. Throw out your ideas about how public transit should work and embrace the Albanian system and you’ll do great. In fact, you might find it fun.
Albanians use buses like a lot of countries do, but they don’t seem to have a set schedule (or perhaps they do, but we couldn’t understand what that schedule was). The main mode of transport, however, is the furgon—a mini-bus. Now HOB and I have had some experience with mini-buses from our time in the Republic of Georgia, where the mini-buses are called marshrutkas. A ride in a marshrutka will turn your hair gray from sheer terror and make you consider wearing an adult diaper. To my immense relief, a furgon ride is much more sedate experience—we had no crazy drivers and though not all of the roads in Albania are in good shape, we also weren’t dodging landslides on the edge of cliffs like we were in Georgia.
Here’s how to take a furgon: begin by asking around where you catch a furgon to a specific location. Ask at your guest house, and if you happen to locate a tourist information office (good lucking finding an open one) ask there too. The smallest towns have furgons that only depart at specific times, otherwise you just show up and find a furgon with the name of your destination posted in it’s window. You should try to leave in the morning since for some reason most public transportation in Albania shuts down in the afternoon. You’ll give your bag to the driver to store in the back and then take a seat. The furgon leaves when full. We never waited longer than a half hour, and that half hour was some of the best people watching of my life. At some point in trip the driver’s helper will laboriously hand write each rider a ticket and then you pay him and get a receipt. Prices are the equivalent of $3- 8, so what’s not to love? Okay so some of the furgons were a bit bouncy but hey, you get to bounce to the beat of unending Albania pop music. (When I posted this clip of our furgon trip through Southern Albania I got a message from youtube that said “We noticed your video is shakey” and all I can say is duh, youtube, don’t you know we were in a furgon?
The fresh, healthy, seasonal food of Albania is ideal for budget travelers. While we only ate at one restaurant in Albania (and that one was scrumptious) I never felt hungry or desperate for hot food like I have while traveling cheap in other countries. Mini-markets with regional produce are all over the place in Albania. We would pick up some tomatoes, cucumbers and fruit for dinner and for street snacks we munched on spinach and cheese byrek pastries (which are quite filling). Our guest houses served us yummy breakfasts with fig preserves and little puffy pancakes.
At the beginning of our trip we bought a bottle of regional (savory and grassy) olive oil from a specialty shop in Tirana and then lugged it around with us to dress salads and chunks of bread.
Albanian tea is made from pouring hot water over chamomile plants and we enjoyed the delicate flavor.
Just in case you were worried that all Albanians eat is healthy Mediterranean food, you should know there is a fast food hamburger chain in Tirana called Kolonat, a chain whose logo is oh, I don’t know, maybe a teeny weeny bit reminiscent of a certain American fast food chain.
Reinforced concrete bunkers, relics of the Communist dictatorship, have become a bit of a symbol of Albania. They are certainly sturdy little buggers—since they were built to withstand tanks they’re pretty hard to destroy.
Taking the furgon across Eastern Albania near the border of Macedonia, we saw dozens of bunkers. Multiple smaller bunkers radiate out from one larger bunker on hillsides.
Tirana has plenty of gift shops full of kitschy souvenirs like bunker-shaped ashtrays.
While communist nostalgia key rings hold no attraction for me, I was supremely tempted by the beautiful needlework and woven textiles. If you enjoy handicrafts, pick up an Albanian table cloth. (I couldn’t resist and bought one for my parents).
Albanian people are so chill, even the kids are quiet and well behaved. It’s relaxing to be around such low key people and although we were stared at quite a bit, it wasn’t an aggressive sort of staring, just curious.
Albanians seem to like Americans, though their modest behavior made me self-conscious of the stereotype of the loud, Nationalistic American (yet what American wouldn’t burst with patriotism standing under the street sign for George W. Bush?)
I tried to learn a bit of Albanian and though I probably sounded idiotic the people were patient with me, seeming un-jaded by tourists. A lot of people speak English and if you know Italian, that could help you communicate the Eastern cities, where a lot of older people speak a bit of Italian, learned back when they illegally intercepted Italian radio stations during the years of dictator-enforced isolation.
Of course you’re wondering, what’s the catch? How could a country be this wonderful but not jammed with tourists. In fact there weren’t many downsides to traveling in Albania—I mean, I wish that pubic restrooms had been easier to find, but then again all the bathrooms we did use were admirably clean. Other than the scarcity of bathrooms, the only other negative thing I could say is that I felt sorry for the dogs and the museums. The dogs? There were so many hungry strays digging through trash cans, breaking my heart with their sad eyes and prominent ribs. The museums? Well, just like the dogs they were in serious need of love and sustenance.
It’s not that Albanian museums don’t have superb collections, because they do. I strongly recommend you visit the following:
- The Museum of Medieval Art, Korce
- The Onufri Icon Museum, Berat
- The Marubi National Museum of Photography, Shkoder
- The National Historical Museum, Tirana
- The Historical Museum, Shkoder
These and other museums we visited in Albania contained many cultural treasures, none of which we were allowed to photograph. (Confidential to museum administrators in Albania: let people take pictures in your galleries. They will post those pictures on social media and on their blogs and hashtag the bejesus out of them and then the rest of the world would know how great your art is and you wouldn’t have such sad, empty museums.) Photography restrictions aside, many Albanian museums were suffering from obvious funding shortages, with poorly lit artifacts, dusty display cases, even water dripping next to 3000 year old statues. As someone whose career is working for museums, I felt sorry for the staff: one man said we were his only visitors that week! It was also sad to see museums without public programs like lectures or performances, though it appears to be common practice for the person running the museum to give visitors a tour, which we enjoyed a lot. Even the most glorious museum, Korce’s Museum of Medieval Art, a brand new architectural masterpiece with a medieval art lover’s fantasy collection, had signs listing incorrect opening hours and postcards that they couldn’t sell because the staff didn’t know what their prices were.
This is what it looks like inside the Archeological Museum of Tirana.
My advice: go to Albania. Bring a sense of humor, mosquito repellent and an emergency roll of toilet paper. Get lots of cash from the ATM since no place outside of Tirana accepts credit cards. Go to the museums and try to sneak a picture, if you are so bold. Stuff your face with home grown produce and fig jam. Take a furgon and bounce along to Albanian pop songs.
And don’t forget to stop for sheep.