After slowing down in in Kotor, we headed off to a new country: Albania. We had read that Albania would be a little bit more rustic to travel through, but would also offer up plenty of amazing sights.
Getting to Tirana from Kotor
We intended for our first stop in Albania to be the capital city of Tirana. It isn’t that far from Kotor, but is surprisingly hard to get to. Two hostels in Kotor offer private shuttles direct to Tirana, but they didn’t have enough people going on the day we wanted to head out, so we decided just to use public transit.
Our plan followed a trip report laid out by another backpacker: a bus from Kotor to Ulcinj in Montenegro, then a bus across the border to Shkodra, then a bus from Shkodra to Tirana. We made sure to confirm the time for the Kotor to Ulcinj bus a day in advance and were feeling pretty confident.
The first leg went smoothly, and we enjoyed watching the scenery of the Montenegro coast as we made our way to Ulcinj. But, when we got to Ulcinj the station seemed a little too quiet. Immediately when we got off the bus, a taxi driver tried to tell us in broken English that there were no buses running to Shkodra this day. We didn’t trust him, so we went into the terminal and the lady at the counter said the same thing – she explained it was due to a Muslim holiday of some kind. Of course, he was offering to drive us for 40 euros. We didn’t know of any place to stay in Ulcinj so we just decided to do it (although we did get him to agree to 35). He seemed to say thank you to the lady at the counter as he walked out, so we aren’t sure if she was in on something sneaky.
One other guy got in the cab to Shkodra, but he also didn’t speak English well so we didn’t communicate much. We crossed over the border without issues and made it to Shkodra. The taxi driver let the other guy out on the outskirts of town… and didn’t make him pay! So we were stuck with the full fare ourselves. He dropped us off at a random street corner that he said was a place where minibuses to Tirana would come by (there are no official bus stations in most of Albania). He indicated with hand gestures that one might not be coming for a long time, then drove away.
There was a driver of a minibus headed somewhere else who communicated to us that he didn’t know when the next one was coming, but he could figure out how to get us there for 40 euro. That seemed way too high, so we declined. We waited for a little while and nothing came by, so then we just decided to forget getting to Tirana and stay the night in Shkodra. We walked down the street, getting plenty of stares with our big bags.
Then, all of the sudden we saw a minibus with “Tirana” written in the window. So they were running after all! Then Eric remembered that he had read that one corner was a place where minibuses might come, and we walked there. Sure enough, there was one that was Tirana-bound that we hopped right on. We only had to pay four euro a person, so a much better deal. The ride wasn’t very comfortable – think more like the collectivos of Guatemala – but we made it to Tirana in good time.
The last hitch in the plan was that the minibus dropped us off on the outskirts of town. We didn’t have directions to our hostel from this location, but using Google Maps we were able to navigate our way there. It was a long, frustrating day of travel, but we were glad we ultimately made it!
Where We Stayed
Tirana has a surprising number of highly-rated hostels. We chose the Tirana Backpacker Hostel and were happy with our choice. We stayed in a dorm room but ended up not having to share it with anyone. We enjoyed hanging out in the bar in the backyard garden.
What We Did
National History Museum – We spent a few hours in this large museum housed in an impressive Communist-era building on Skanderbeg Square. Albania has quite a rich history which they attempted to cover through many different rooms. Some of the more interesting exhibits were:
- The Illyrians – Present-day Albanian was inhabited by these people during the classical era. The Albanian people say they are the descendants of these people.
- Roman Empire – Albania was incorporated into the Roman Empire as part of its expansion. When the empire split into two halves, Albania remained in the eastern Byzantine half. The current Albanian flag uses the double-headed eagle that was a symbol of the Byzantine Empire.
- Ottoman Empire – After a variety of different kingdoms occupied the area, it eventually passed to Ottoman rule. However, this didn’t happen without a fight: a famous general named Skanderbeg fought and won a large number of battle against the Ottomans. He remains a national hero to this day, and statues of him can be found all over the globe wherever an Albanian population can be found. The Ottoman influence explains why the largest religion in Albania is Islam (although the majority of the country is still non-religious, since the Communist government banned religions).
- The First Albanian Nation – Albania had always been a land ruled over by other people, but in 1912 an independence movement finally suceeded in creating a new nation. Unfortunately, World War I caused the young nation to collapse. They tried again after the war, but then the nation fell apart again when invaded by Italy during World War II.
We wanted to learn more about the post-World War II communist era, but that section of the museum (along with a few other sections) was closed for renovation, which we were pretty bummed about.
Tirana Free Walking Tour – We were excited when we discovered that Tirana had a free walking tour like so many of the other cities we have visited. Our guide Gazi showed us around all of the major sites within Tirana’s very walkable downtown core. He also did a good job describing the communist era, which we appreciated since the museum was missing that section!
The tour started in Skanderbeg Square, named after the famous leader who fought the Ottomans. Just getting to the square is an experience in itself: it is surrounded by 4 lanes of traffic on all sides, and there are no traffic signals to help pedestrians. We decided to walk and go with a group of locals once they were ready. The Square does have a number of interesting features besides the traffic. There is the aforementioned National History Museum, an Opera House, a mosque, a clock tower and some Italian influenced government buildings from the 1920s.
We walked to some other interesting sights, including the Parliament, a street named after George W Bush (they love him in Albania because he was the first US President to ever visit) and a Catholic cathedral with a statue of Mother Teresa out front (her parents were Albanian).
But the most interesting part of the tour was definitely hearing the stories about and seeing the relics from the Communist Era. Similar to the other Eastern European countries, the resistance to the Axis powers was lead by a communist group. After the war, this group quickly took over the country. In Albania, the leader was Enver Hoxha, and he remained in power until his death in 1985. In some of the other ex-Communist countries we have visited, it is said that some people miss communism, but Gazi told us that in Albania no one does: Hoxha’s reign was that brutal. His policies to strike down dissenters were extremely severe, and the country became more and more isolated. Albania even broke off relations with the other Communist countries: first with Yugoslavia, then with the USSR and finally with China. Gazi told us some interesting personal stories about what it was like to live during these times. One that stuck with us was that his mother was so excited to finally get to try a banana for the first time in her life once the isolation had ended.
Albania’s transition to capitalism has had some severe bumps though. People began investing in pyramid schemes, and the government did nothing to ban them, and in 1997 this all collapsed. This led to what sounds like a crazy period of anarchy in which rival gangs were in control of large parts of the country. Things eventually stabilized though, and the Albanian economy has actually been growing at a good rate for many years now.
Our tour ended at an Albanian Orthodox church – the third different type of church we had seen on the tour, highlighting Albania’s religious diversity and atmosphere of tolerance. In fact, we were preceded in Tirana by Pope Francis by only a few weeks. One of the main points he emphasized during his visit was how Albania can be a model of religious harmony.
Watched NFL Football – We were in Tirana on a Sunday night, so we decided to try and find a place that would be showing the Cowboys game. Based on a TripAdvisor review, we thought that Duff Bar might have NFL games. We went and indeed they were showing American football! Unfortunately their feed didn’t have the Cowboys game, but we did buy a beer and watch a quarter of another game.
Where We Ate
Once we got into Albania, we were happy to discover that local food was plentiful and cheap. Our hostel recommended two restaurants, which turned out to be the same two recommended by Lonely Planet: Oda and Era. We went to both and got large meals with a variety of traditional foods for about $20 each time!
Our day getting to Tirana was quite the adventure, but once we arrived we enjoyed getting to learn a lot about a country we didn’t know much about beforehand. Tirana does have its quirks, and we didn’t fall in love with it, but we definitely enjoyed the two days we spent in the city!