As I mentioned in my complete guide to Eastern Europe, there were 4 countries we hadn’t been to – Albania, Macedonia, Moldova and Belarus… and Kosovo (although the UN doesn’t recognize it as a country).
Before things started really moving at our new company, we planned a trip with a friend to travel around Albania and Macedonia.
As you may know we posted live videos to Instagram Stories, and I’ll be loading those onto the TravelisFree Youtube daily (see the Youtube Albania series playlist here) and Facebook. But I wanted to do a recap of our trip, and talk about some of the highlights and experiences of Albania and Macedonia.
I’ll first show some highlights, and then show specifics for each place we went.
- Albania: Tirana, Shkoder, Theth, Sarande, Ksamil, Gjirokaster, Berat, Elbasan
- Macedonia: Ohrid, Skopje
- Kosovo: Prizren
Breaking down costs
I’ll do a follow up post in a couple days on the exact breakdown of all our costs. How much our flights cost, hotels, car rental, gas, food, etc…
We hiked in Theth National Park in the north, and swam in the very south at Ksamil. We saw a lot of Albania, and yet there’s still more I wish I saw.
The “Blue Eye” in Theth
… and I highly recommend watching the video of us discovering it. Watch here.
Saranda / Ksamil
Now for the details.
Albania has a super interesting and odd history that explains a lot of its travel oddities… and why there are so few tourists.
I’ll go into details with each location, but I’m absolutely struck by how few tourists there were outside of a few select spots, mainly Ksamil and Sarande. And even in Sarande there were beaches completely empty, overlooks completely empty, etc…
The weird part, as always in these countries, is the empty buildings.
We flew into Tirana and had to wait a day for our friend Wade, and we flew out of there when the trip was done as well. This means we spent way more time than I would’ve planned otherwise.
The highest praise I can give for a destination is that it was odd. It’s a little bit smaller than most capital cities.
Not sure what else to say, it was fine.
For us this was the gateway city to Theth.
It’s a lake town, but its downtown / old town is not at all centered around the lake. The fort is on a hill, and you can see the mountains and look over both the town and lake.
The town has lots of local character, even outside the old town, so I could see enjoying time there. However, for me, 1 night was enough.
We spent 2 nights and nearly 3 full days here. I feel like we did it right, but there is another way to do it.
Oh, and first, I should mention that we rented a 4×4 car in Shkoder for 2 days. I’ll give more details in the expenses post.
I was going to recommend taking your regular car, as I saw multiple compact cars in Theth… But… I also saw one that had entirely ripped off the front bumper. You would just have to go seriously slow, and even with our big truck, the drive was 3+ hours.
But that’s the appeal! It’s hard to get to, not that many people do it, and you have to hike a lot.
A lot of locals have created guest houses, which are more hostel-like with dorms and some private rooms. Which isn’t uncommon in these places, for example, when we hiked the Grand Canyon we stayed in dorm-like cabins. However, I was able to contact a place with a private room with a double bed and reserve it for the same price, $18 each.
Hike to Valbona
Many people drive to Valbona and hike to Theth for a day or two and then hike back, or vice versa. Also, it’s super easy to get minibuses between Shkoder and Theth every morning ($8 – $10 pp, I think).
Theth and Valbona are very similar, and seperated by a mountain pass you can hike over. We chose to stay in Theth and hike to the pass and then hike back down to Theth.
We should’ve spent more time at the top but the wind was biting, and we weren’t prepared for such cold, since the entire hike was otherwise pleasant. The entire hike to Volbona would’ve been 16km, and we walked half way and turned around… so I’d say that’s about how much we walked.
Despite being a little long, it was a clear path with two cafes along the way. The cafes alone are pretty interesting, because it’s usually on someone’s property, with homemade everything. Log benches, twig fences, with wood everything, and a guy who likely carried up all the drinks on a horse/donkey.
Blue Eye in Theth
Again, this is one of my favorite moments for a few reasons.
We drove to the beginning of the hike, and it starts with a pool of clear water. Cool enough. But it’s coming from waterfalls carved out of weird rock formations. Despite being a small area, it was an incredibly odd formation, something you only see in Utah, but these actually had waterfalls still flowing.
And that was the beginning of the trail.
The hike is only 30 – 40 minutes one way, and then you get to the big waterfalls leading into a “blue eye”. This is what you hiked for. It’s beautiful.
However, the most Albanian thing ever was above it.
We walked up this ladder and what I thought were treehouse overlooks were actually tables for a cafe. Someone lived back there and was willing to cook and serve food. And someone also built tree houses above this blue hole thing… and out of twigs.
Totally handmade and with branches bunched together, and they seriously walked around the woods for 10 minutes to get the materials for one of these treehouses. No Lowes involved… although I’m hoping they invested in screws.
I know, you normally pay a premium for these things… but each dish was like 200 – 300 Albanian LEK… like $1.80 to $2.70 in USD.
My guess is that they probably served 10 people that day.
Theth the village
Our first afternoon we did a small hike to a waterfall near our guesthouse, only 20 – 30 minutes walk from the guesthouse itself.
But it’s interesting enough just being in the village. It’s a different isolated way of life. It actually reminds me a lot of the Amish (Carrie has family who are Amish).
We drove to Vlore, spent the night, and then drove to Sarande. That drive was incredible.
The remarkable part is actually how empty all the beautiful beaches were. There are only so many tourists in Albania, and why wouldn’t they go to Ksamil? There’s just not enough tourists to fill the beaches.
We stopped at one beach, it had restaurants, tourist shops, shop owners waiting to serve tourists, beach chairs, a beach with beautiful clear water…
The only thing missing were tourists. It was a little after noon and the entire beach had one couple. I imagine the service was good.
Sarande is what I imagined as the most touristy and populated area, which is partly true. But the number of empty buildings outside the main strip was striking. We stayed in an airbnb on the top floor of an apartment complex, and I think there was someone else in a room a few floors down.
However, the city center is kicking.
If you can spend a sunset up at the fort/castle, do it. I didn’t actually eat up there, but the view was great.
The beach outside of our apartment was rocks, and this is often true. Ksamil has sandy beaches, and it also has tiny little islands.
Above is a view from our Restaurant (Guvat (try the mussels appetizer!)), and we’re looking at clear water, tiny islands are around us, and the Greek island Corfu is in the background.
But at the southern tip of Ksamil is the ancient Roman city, now Butrint. Ksamil is a must see, and if you’re in the area, Butrint is a must see.
Overall, Ksamil is photogenic, beautiful, cheap, etc… However, the areas that actually look like that are pretty small. In other words, it’s not just miles and miles of beautiful beaches. It’s more like a mile, if that, of these views.
Is it worth driving all the way there on windy roads to enjoy a beach? Well, it’s not Zakynthos where you do have seemingly endless number of places to explore. So I’d say it’s worth it on a road trip to see Ksamil, Sarande, Butrint, Gjirokaster, and other things on the way.
This place is unique in many ways. We only spent an afternoon there, but we should’ve traded one of our nights in Berat for one in Gjirokaster.
The stone roofs, the view from the castle, and the quaint town were all classic. But there was an element of importance and yet a large element of struggle. The Gjirokaster wiki page tells you a lot about Albania actually.
The south had a brief independence for example, and it was the start of the Albanian Civil War of 1997. (Basically the Gov’t convinced the people to invest in a giant ponzi scheme.
But also, it’s where we saw the most abandoned buildings and the most bunkers (Albanian Bunkers is another interesting wiki page).
Very scenic, but also very unique.
Another traditional old town that is classic Albania. Like Gjirokaster, it’s a little small. But a night helps break up the drive. I enjoyed it just as much as Gjirokaster.
This town is much bigger than the first two, but I will say that the old town has been high-jacked by Orlando inspired hotels and restaurants.
Outside of old town isn’t exactly pretty but is authentic. We got lunch here and it was cheap, and the people were friendly.
If you go expecting an old town, you’ll be disappointed. If you go looking for a gritty authentic Albania, you’ll find it.
Towards the end of the trip, we reserved a few days for Macedonia. It felt less “off-the-beaten-path” than Albania, but had some highlights we enjoyed.
People rave about this place, and you can see why. It’s beautiful with fresh mountain air, the old town, and a clean city.
Personally, all old towns (and churches, castles, forts and main squares) all start to look the same after awhile. But this is a tourist-friendly, clean eastern European old town on a lake. We spent three nights there and it was relaxing.
One of the best views was driving up to Galicaca National Park.
I don’t know. It was nice, but it felt touristy. If it was my first country in Eastern Europe, I think I would’ve asked about a month lease. But again, I’ve seen a thousand old towns.
Oddly enough, this town is super unique for its new town that looks old.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many extravagent statues in such a small radius.
I turned to Wade and Carrie and said, “I feel like I’m looking at some great Soviet town square that’s now abandoned, but back in time to the day it was built”.
Too many of the buildings were unused, and my concern is that expensive buildings are also expensive to maintain. Where these towns get eerie is when they run out of money to maintain these opulent buildings… Which is a compounding effect, because you now need more money to rebuild, but the area value goes down.
Opulent spending in a poor eastern European country… it feels odd.
That being said, the World Bank ranked Macedonia 4 on their recovery list. So it’s apparently on the incline. Let’s hope it’s real (unlike the Albanian Gov’t ponzi investment scam).
30 minutes away is Matka Canyon. It’s a short bus ride or drive, and since we had two days, it seemed obvious.
In short, it’s a nice, short hike and a nice way to get out of the city. But it’s no Theth, it’s no Ohrid. It’s fine. Go out and enjoy the view at the restaurant or take a boat ride. The hike leads to nowhere, it’s just more of the same.
Wasn’t a highlight for me, but I was in the mood for hiking.
I was super impressed by the Sharr mountains on the Kosovo side, and it really continued into the Albanian side on the drive back to Tirana.
It was alp-like at the top, but I’m not sure what hikes and waterfalls it has to offer… it was an accidental finding.
We stopped in Prizren to spend the afternoon and eat lunch, mainly to break up the drive. Was not expecting to love Kosovo so much. It’s quaint, it’s super Eastern European, and the surrounding area is beautiful. The towns are beautiful. Actually, a little bit like Ohrid’s old town but more mountainous. But then the area around it is more gritty.
For me personally, I enjoyed my time in Albania more than Macedonia. If I would do it again, I would skip Macedonia and either do Kosovo or go down to Korce, Albania. There’s just a lot to see in Albania.
The uniqueness of Albania is perhaps its history of struggle and isolation. There aren’t a ton of tourists, and it has a lot of room for growth in terms of development.
Unfortunately Theth was a large time investment and it’s the direct opposite way of everything else. So if I were to recommend a shorter route, I’d probably say it depends on your desire to see mountains.
For the south, like I said, the beaches are great but limited. So if your sole goal was a beach vacation, you should go somewhere like Zakynthos.
You should be going because it’s interesting, in terms of stage of development and history.
Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine are still my favorites of Eastern Europe (although, I haven’t spent time in Translyvania). But Albania is very similar, in that it’s more of a recent destination.
In fact, it’s very similar in appeal as Bosnia and Bulgaria- it’s gritty and full of natural beauty.
To me, it doesn’t have the “happening” city life of Kiev (which is an amazing city in Summer), and even Sofia. The culture is more rural, and perhaps there’s less money.
I think rural is the right word. It’s the deep south of Europe.
Also, I now realize that the entire country is mountainous. Theth is an extreme, but driving everywhere involves crossing a mountain.
Favorites were definitely Theth, the Ksamil / Butrint area, and Gjirokaster.
In short, Albania is mountainous, historically isolated, rural, less developed, and therefore one of the more unique places in Europe. Also, in terms of the Balkans, it probably has the best food, perhaps due to its Italian influence.