Hi all! It’s hard to believe that Phil and I left Greece three weeks ago! Man, time flies when you’re having fun. Although I greatly enjoyed the food tour of Athens we did and I wrote about here, we did a lot more in our five days there which Phil wrote about here, here, here, and also here.
Albania has been so fun! I say this even after having been out of commission for almost a week with what I am pretty sure was salmonella from some peanuts I ate during a day trip to Montenegro. Whatever it was is gone now, hallelujah, and I am so happy to be feeling back to normal. I’ll spare you the details on the food poisoning and jump right into the beauty and hospitality of Albania.
Why Albania? Where is Albania? I’ve been asked both of these questions more than once. Where? Albania is a Balkan country located on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, across from the boot of Italy. To it’s north lies Montenegro and Kosovo, to the east North Macedonia, and to the south, Greece.
Why? Well, in looking at our post-Spain, pre-return home summer travel options, we looked at several criteria. Summer is notoriously the busiest, touristy time to visit anywhere in Europe. This is why all of our previous trips have been in the spring or fall. We did not have the luxury of choosing the season this go-round, so we looked at places that aren’t necessarily the most popular destinations in hopes we’d find a few less tourists. We also looked at countries that sparked our interest but that if we were flying to Europe from the U.S. would not be easy to get to (therefore taking up valuable vacation days with travel time).
Phil and I visited Croatia and Slovenia in 2004 during our first trip to Europe together. We knew the Balkan countries were beautiful and have talked about visiting more countries in the area on multiple occasions. We also knew July anywhere in Europe was going to be HOT, so best to choose a country with plenty of options to get in the water and/or up into the mountains for a respite from the heat. We watched videos on Albania and not only was the country beautiful, we heard and read over and over again how friendly the people are. And so, it was decided. We would spend July exploring Albania.
We picked up our rental car in the capital city of Tirana after landing and were off to Shëngjin on the northwest coast of Albania, on the Adriatic Sea. Phil and I have now been on both sides of the Adriatic, most recently with my mother-in-law in Pescara, Italy. We took an unforgettable road trip up the Adriatic coast of Italy in the spring of 2019 (ah, sweet pre-pandemia). It definitely holds a special place in our hearts.
Shëngjin is a laidback beach town. Not all beach towns in Albania are so laid back, we would later discover. Shëngjin is mostly a tourist destination, with a long strip of sandy beach and beach bars (forever chiringuitos to me) on one side of the street and restaurants and more bars on the other side. Lining the beachfront are various beach chairs with umbrellas, usually with a small table. Each change in chair style or umbrella color denotes a change in ownership of the seating area. Once you identify a seating area/umbrella situation that suites your needs, one simply sits down at an open seat and shortly a fellow will be by to collect the small sum (less than $5 USD) to rent the chair(s) for the day. Oftentimes, these seats are affiliated with a beach bar. This offers both the comfort of lounging by the beach and the ease of procuring a beverage mere steps away.
Our first beach day in Shëngjin was spent a short five minute walk from our accommodations (let’s talk more about Albania accommodations later because they are worth mentioning). We set up in beach chairs equidistant from the sea and the beach bar. We had a large umbrella with a table around it to block the sun and hold our drinks. The beach was soft and sandy, the water blue and while not the clearest or most beautiful we’ve seen, it was warm and inviting. The water was so shallow near the shore, one could walk out nearly fifty yards and still touch the sea floor. We swam and lounged and drank the whole afternoon, grabbing a couple of pizzas on the way home for dinner.
A waiter at one of the beach bars had advised us to check out the Rana e Hedhun Beach (Thrown Sand Beach), a short drive north of Shëngjin as it was a nice place to watch the sunset. The next afternoon we did just that.
As laid back as the beach in Shëngjin had been, the Rana e Hedhun beach was even more so, with fewer people and larger stretches of beach between the beach bars and seating areas. The Italian fellow who owned the beach bar we settled at was very nice and even made us mojitos that he served us on the beach. The sunset, as advertised, did not disappoint.
The next day we said goodbye to Shëngjin and headed for the mountain village of Theth, set high in the Albanian Alps.
During our time in Albania we have stayed in what are referred to as guesthouses, very similar to rural casas in Spain. They typically consist of a building or house that has been divided into several guest rooms, with indoor and or outdoor common areas. Breakfast is often included and the guesthouse is usually operated by a couple or family. Some rooms are spacious and feel like studio apartments whereas others feel more like dated hotel rooms. We haven’t had a bad stay in a guesthouse yet. Albanians are known for their hospitality and the guesthouse owners genuinely want to ensure their guests are taken care of. The gueshouses are also extremely affordable. The one we stayed at in Shëngjin was the equivilant to $20 a night for a large room with queen bed and two twin beds (we often ended up with triple or quadruple rooms or the “family suite” where we stayed because we wanted a private bathroom), a kitchen table with four chairs, and a kitchette complete with full-sized refriderator. The room wasn’t fancy and it looked like it was straight out of the 1970’s but it was clean and had airconditioning so suited us just fine.
The road to Theth winds high through the Albanian Alps (aka the Accursed Mountains-for real, that’s the name). The road, known as SH-21, is impassible from November-May due to the heavy snow and ice accumulation. In fact, prior to September of 2021, one needed a four-wheel drive and an extreme thirst for adventure to drive the road at all as it was unpaved and guardrails were sparse. I found this video of someone driving the road before it was paved and it was no joke.
Phil is driving during our time in Albania. We thought the extra money to rent an automatic would be well worth it as we’d read that Albanians are very aggressive drivers. In fact, the fellow at the rental office (who himself is Albanian) said Albanians don’t like to follow the rules of the road and are the worst drivers in Europe. Phil is from Chicago, home of the aggressive driver. Offensive driving he calls it. O-ffensive driving I call it. After driving all over the U.S. and having lived in LA where there are up to six lanes on each side, Chicago is still one city I prefer not to drive in if I don’t have to. Anyway, we felt Phil had a unique set of skills that lent themselves well to driving in Albania.
Luckily, we didn’t encounter anyone driving too crazy on the way to Theth because although the road is paved, it is still windy, mountain driving with narrow roads and switchbacks. As is also true with most mountain driving, we had glorious views of the beautiful country.
At the end of SH-21 lies Theth. It’s a cute little village on the Shala river whose icy waters flow down from the mountains. The village is composed mostly of Guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and a couple of small convenience stores. Theth National park also lies in the Shala River Valley and the surrounding mountains. A relatively short but narrow road led to our guesthouse, Bujtina (the Albanian term for guesthouses, literally translated as Inn) Dreni.
We arrived in the evening after being greeted by young Aron, the teenage son of the owner, who showed us to our room. It was our simplest accommodation; a bed, nightstand, and small bathroom but it met our needs just fine. The main guesthouse had a restaurant and dining room on the first floor, with guestrooms on the upper floors. There was also another, smaller house next to the mainhouse that was a bit like a hostel, offering shared accommodations and bathrooms with no private rooms.
The guesthouse had a very laid back, wandering traveler kind of vibe to it; a couple of fellows were hanging out on the front porch drinking beer and playing cards, a solo young woman emerged from the shared accommodations and headed toward the river to take a dip, and a few other pairs of backpackers made their way down the road presumably returning from a day’s trekking in the area.
The mother of the family running the guesthouse, Anna, told Phil the two must-sees in Theth were the Blue Eye of Theth (a natrual blue pool in the mountains-which we had already planned to visit) and a nearby waterfall. She told him the waterfall was only about a 20 minute walk from the guesthouse. We decided it was still early enough in the evening for us to check it out, so off we went. We walked along the river, following red signs pointing the way to the falls. We eventually saw the waterfall in the distance but were confused as to how to reach it. Soon the trail curved upward and we knew how we would reach it, by climbing up the damn mountain (escalar, escalar). We had already been walking for well over 20 minutes but figured we’d made it this far so might as well keep going.
Up we went, climbing and sweating. Before too long, we felt the temperature drop as we neared the mountain falls. They were lovely and well worth the climb. As we were there not long before sunset, there were only a few other folks and pretty soon, it was just the two of us. It was a great way to spend our first few hours in Theth, getting out into nature and breathing in the fresh air (respira al aire). The green hills and rustic stone walls of the area reminded me of our beloved Asturias.
On our way back to the guesthouse, we stopped at a little beer garden; an area with small tables that had a couple of coolers of cold beverages and a few snack offerings. We drank water and enjoyed a beer while we cooled off from our impromptu mountain hike.
The next morning after a tasty breakfast outside, gazing at the mountains, we walked into the village where we found a little festival that was taking place. A stage had been erected outside of a large indoor/outdoor restaurant and two fellows were speaking and laughing as the audience listened. We saw some other folks in traditional looking garb preparing for some kind of performance and decided to carry on with our walk (the village is not that big) and circle back afterward to see what was going on.
After a quick stop at the tourist information center and the general store, we headed back toward the festival. We found out from the gal working the tourist information that the festival was celebrating the opening of the tourist season. The town essentially closes in the winter and all but a few families return to wherever they live full-time. Anna, Aron, and their family who ran our guesthouse live in the capital city of Tirana for most of the year.
After watching a bit of the performances and grabbing a beer, Phil and I decided to make our way back to the guesthouse as the sky was getting dark and rain looked to be moving in. They’d even started taking the stage down from the festivities. On the way we saw the Kisha e Thethit, the small Cahtolic church in town. It was in the direction of our guesthouse so we decided to take a different route that would take us home, passing in front of the church.
The church was completely encircled by a gate, though one area had steps that let up and over the gate and down again. The door to the church was open and there was a white horse hanging out in the grassy area near the door. We’re pretty sure he was the guard horse as some young men approached the church as we were standing there, and the horse walked toward the door and seemed to block it. The sprinkle of rain that had started as we neared the church had turned into a full blown rain, so we put some pep in our step and headed for the guesthouse with haste.
The wind picked up and the rain drops grew fatter and our umbrella turned inside out! As we rounded the corner toward the guesthouse, a friendly barkeep who must have seen us coming, stepped outside and opened his door, ushering us in. We thanked him and sat down, ordered a couple of beers, and tried to dry out a little. The nice fellow brought us a small plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese to have with our drinks. About 20 minutes later, the rain began to let up a bit and we decided we should make a run for it before the road to the guesthouse was one big mud puddle.
The next day, we made the trip to the Blue Eye of Theth. One can take a small bus to the trail head that leads to the Blue Eye for only €6 and hike the remaining 45 minutes or one can take a 4 hour hike to the Blue Eye. We like hiking but an hour and a half round trip is much more our speed than eight hours round trip. We boarded the bus along with some other folks from the guesthouse around 10:30 am and were off. After a bumpy half hour ride we arrived. A small bridge over the river and lovely blue swimming hole led the way, past a couple of small stores and restaurants. A couple from Dublin who were staying at the guesthouse with their two teenage girls invited us to join them and their private guide for the hike to the Blue Eye. We happily accepted, chatting as we went.
The relatively flat, gravel trail led to an uphill rocky one. At one point we stopped for a breather and one of the teen girls asked the guide if we were almost there to which he replied we were not quite half way. She audibly groaned and said she was just going to stay seated in that spot and wait for them to return. She wasn’t so lucky and on we went, up the mountain. As we got closer we passed through a little shack on the trail selling cold beverages and a covered spot to drink them. I figured if we stopped at that point, I might make an offer much like the teen girl did so we refrained and carried on.
We arrived at what we thought must be the Blue Eye, a large blue swimming hole with a bridge atop it and another man selling ice cold beverages in a huge metal trough cooled by the mountain water. I asked the man if we were at the Blue Eye and he said, “Blue eye up” and pointed. Damn.
At that moment, we saw a group of hikers coming down from the direction of the fellow had pointed and we asked them how close we were. “Three minutes” he said. That sounded doable so we walked up and then back down to the Blue Eye. It was beautiful and blue and clear and freezing cold. Some folks lounged near the edge of the water in their bathing suits but only a very few braved the icy waters. After sitting along the water’s edge, taking a few photos, and refilling our water bottles with the cold, fresh, mountain water, we headed back down to meet back up with the bus.
That evening, after dinner, we sat outside and played cards and drank raki, the traditional, potent, distilled spirit made from grapes. It was a lovely way to end our time in Theth. The next morning we were off again, back down (and up and down and up and down) the mountain road. This time we were headed for Lake Shkodër. Stay tuned for more on our time there.