Pour yourself a glass of rakija, and let me tell you about Albania.

Cities: Shkoder & Tirana

Stayed at: The Wanderer’s Hostel & Trip’Inn

Best thing I ate:The breakfast at The Wanderer’s Hostel, partly because it was so tasty but also because of the lovely courtyard surroundings and the amazing staff who serve it up. You get a huge piece of cheese burek, a delicious chocolate croissant and a cucumber and tomato salad.

Transport: 2 x buses, 1 x bicycle

The lowdown on veggie/vegan/special diets: Fresh produce is cheap and widely available, and there are usually salads or veggie based options such as stuffed peppers or soups on restaurant menus. I didn’t see any veggie or special diet products in the shops; grocery stores tend to sell produce for making meals with rather than ready prepared foods, and the range is far smaller than elsewhere in the Balkans. There are also fewer imported goods.

A lot of hostels and guesthouses include food in the price of the room, so you should be able to enjoy some good local delicacies, or you could self-cater and take advantage of the very fresh fruit, veg and dairy products available. There are stalls everywhere selling products from local gardens or small holdings, such as huge bottles of pickled peppers, honey and home-brewed rakija (very strong alcohol).

What I read: I started ‘Moranthology’ by Caitlin Moran

Next stop: Macedonia

25 April 2018

A couple of days before I arrived in Albania, I had an interesting conversation with a Welshman on a bus. He and his wife told me about a Saga coach holiday they’d been on, to Albania. He explained that it was probably one of the friendliest places they’d ever been to, especially as they really hadn’t known what to expect. I’d also been unsure about it; it’s the kind of place the tabloid press and general public opinion seems to be fairly disparaging about: crime, poverty, blood feuds, migration to Western Europe – you can imagine the headlines.

The Welsh man’s advice? ‘Ignore everything Daily Mail readers might have told you about the place and see it for yourself.’

So I did.

I arrived into Shkoder late afternoon, and was immediately struck by a different vibe to the towns and cities I’d been to on the trip. The best way to describe it is charmingly chaotic. There are cars, mopeds, scooters, bicycles and stray dogs contesting for dominance on both the roads and sometimes the pavements, which are lined with street vendors selling everything from sunflower seeds to shoes, home-brewed alcohol to mobile phones. The shops themselves spill out onto the streets, and each store seemed to specialise in something particular (the sort of shops that have been replaced by rampant consumerism, and out of town shopping centres in the UK), such as butane gas canisters, tv repairs, refurbished washing machines and second-hand shoes. Nothing here is wasted or replaced, at least until it can no longer be passed on or repaired.

Below: Two of Shkoder’s quieter, pedestrianised streets. 

The city felt less economically developed than the Balkan countries I’d come from, and as a result the tourist infrastructure was poorer. Despite this, plenty of tourists are still drawn to visit this city, which I very quickly warmed to.

My hostel cemented my feelings. The entrance is through a shaded, green courtyard, with hammocks and lots of seating, a bar and a little reading library. The inside of the hostel is basic but well-cared for, and the staff were extremely welcoming. And very importantly, there were two three-week-old kittens, snoozing in a basket in the shade. The hostel has two cats, Sherbetti and Lokum (turkish delight), and during the off season Lokum had managed to get herself pregnant. I really had to drag myself out of the hostel to explore the city, as the combination of the chilled-out courtyard and the kittens was a major draw.

Below: The hostel, and the kittens!

I eventually prised myself away from the basket of adorableness, and headed to a restaurant called ‘Sofra’, which was recommended by the hostel for traditional Albanian cuisine. I ordered a veggie platter, which came with 2 savoury pastries and some vegetables in a light batter, and a side of sour cream, which was in fact enough sour cream to run a Mexican Restaurant for three weeks. Mixed with slices of cucumber, it was piped into a decorative display reminiscent of buttercream frosting, and whilst delicious I hardly made a dent in it. I also excitedly ordered something called ‘fried potatoes’, expecting a local delicacy. I imagine you can guess what arrived.

Continuing the recomendations of the hostel staff, I made my next stop the Marubi Museum of Photography. The facade is a traditional building, but once inside the museum is modern and really well designed; it was shortlisted for the 2017 European Museum of the Year Award, and it was clear why. The Marubi family were the first people to embrace the art of photography in Albania, and the collection of their works gives a unique insight into Albanian history, including images of folk costumes and important historical figures who were photographed at the studio. There are also displays about the equipment and methods used, and a clever recreation of the Marubi’s studio where you can pose and take a photo with your own camera or smartphone. Downstairs, the museum displays temporary exhibitions of contemporary photography, in this case a display by Moira Ricci. In the series on display Ricci had superimposed herself onto old photographs of her late mother, something which really resonated with me. The Marubi was without a doubt the best museum I’ve visited so far on this trip, and it’s a must if you visit Shkoder.

Had I been at home, today would have been my MA graduation, so decided to treat myself and blow the budget a bit. I went for a pedicure, which I’ve actually never done at home, but which my poor, tired feet very much appreciated. The beautician also did gel nails on my toenails, so hopefully they’ll stay looking nice for quite some time. Although it all felt a bit extravagant (I tend not to be one for pampering), it only cost £8.50, which I thought was quite a bargain.

Below: The front of the Marubi Museum, and my fancy feet.

My feet looking and feeling far more pleasant, I strolled around the city in search of dinner. There’s a lovely terrace in front of the cinema, so I decided to order pizza. What I hadn’t noticed was that despite the terrace being busy, everyone apart from me was just drinking and no-one else had ordered food. In a scene straight from a comedy, the waiter arrived and made a great show of putting a damask tablecloth, napkin and flowers on my table. In typically British fashion I was utterly mortified at this attention, and couldn’t wait to get out of there and away from people’s bemused stares. At least the pizza was good.

26 April 2018

After a lazy morning in the hostel garden, I headed to the ‘Sight of Witness and Memory Museum’, with a fellow traveller I’d met the night before. The museum is on the site of a notorious prison, and tells the story of the prison’s use under Hoxha’s regime.

I had high hopes after the brilliant Marubi Museum, but unfortunately the museum was somewhat lacking. The architecture had been designed in a sort of ‘Liebskind-on-a-budget’ style, and the exhibits were sparse with no clear narrative or chronology. The most interesting part of the museum is the old prison itself; I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with such a heavy atmosphere, and I’ve been to a LOT of prison museums. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I had to come back down from the second floor of cells very quickly, as I felt so uncomfortable.

What the museum is doing is really important; one of the staff told us that Albanians still find it hard to connect with this period in their history, but I think more funding and curatorial and interpretative expertise is needed to really make sure the voices of those who suffered here are heard.

After lunch (again from Sofra, though I knew better than to order fried potatoes this time), I decided on a mid-afternoon siesta in a hammock in the hostel garden, before joining up with two fellow travellers to rent bikes and ride out of the city. The bikes were pretty basic and I hadn’t ridden for a while, but despite having no infrastructure for it Shkoder is truly a city of cyclists. You have to watch out for stray dogs and potholes but drivers are actually very respectful, and gave us plenty of room.

Below: riding out to the lake

The first stop on the ride was Lake Skadar, which straddles Albania and Montenegro. It’s huge, and we got a little lost at first and confused a river for the lake. We ended up in some quite run-down areas but it never felt unsafe; there were lots of locals running, walking and cycling and everyone we met was very helpful with directions.

Once we’d seen the lake we headed up to the Rozafa Fortress, making an obligatory ice cream stop on the way. The fortress is huge and has incredible views from the top, perfect for watching the sunset. Whilst up there we bumped into some other fellow travellers who joined us, and after ordering what must be the most unpleasant glass of wine I’ve ever tasted, we waited for the sunset. I have to say, being a highly impatient person I’d never seen the point in watching such things, but it was pretty spectacular even if it did mean riding back into the city in the dark.

Below: The Rozafa Fortress and the views from the top.

The evening ended with several rounds of rakija at the hostel, a potent spirit ubiquitous in the Balkans and usually sold in up-cycled coke or fanta bottles. Different fruits are used but it all has the same unmistakable burn to the throat; two shots are probably enough to disinfect an entire hospital, and certainly enough to keep me warm and toasty during a chilly night’s sleep.

27 April 2018

I changed my plans a bit today, and instead of heading back to the Montenegrin capital Podgorica and from there onto Skopje in Macedonia, I decided to head to Tirana. I’m glad I let myself deviate from my itinerary because Tirana is one of the most bizarre but interesting cities I’ve ever been to: like Berlin on acid.

I checked into the hostel and grabbed a quick burek for lunch, before heading to the Bunk’Art 2 museum, housed in an old bunker (of which there are thousands dotted around the country). The museum is about the history of the Albanian secret police, the sigurimi, and state oppression more generally. It’s really well presented with each room in the bunker covering a different topic, and some contemporary installations scattered about too. Two topics I found particularly interesting were the doctoring of photographs (for instance to remove traces of purged party members) and how any foreign visitors had to have their hair cut and beards shaved on arrival and wear suitably socialist attire: airports even had barbers and clothes shops to facilitate this. The original Bunk’Art museum is further out of the city, and I wish I’d had time to visit this one too

Below: The entrance to Bunk’Art 2

I finished my afternoon by wandering through the city’s unfinished main square, and onto the famous pyramid, a now decrepit reminder of Hoxha’s regime. Locals climb the steep sides, something which I failed miserably at, making it a few metres up before sliding down and getting chewing gum stuck to my skirt. Feeling defeated, I headed to the people’s park for a drink and a wander about, before strolling back to the hostel.

Below: The Central Square and the infamous pyramid.

Tirana has a great buzz about it in the evening, with families out for a stroll in the parks and squares, popcorn and snack vendors on the corners, children playing in the fountains and older people playing chess in the shade. It’s a colourful city, with lots of murals, street art and quirky sculptures adding to its personality. It definitely captured my heart, and I’d love to visit again.

Below: Tirana in the evening, buzzing with people enjoying themselves in the many parks and squares.

So, next time you read or hear something negative about Albania, take it with a pinch of salt. There are bad people and bad things in every country, but it’s not often you find as much warmth and friendliness as I was lucky to receive.

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