Readers who are already familiar with our Small and Traditional tours to former Communist bloc countries won’t be surprised to read that we are always looking for new destinations, particularly those that fit our mould of a venture into the unusual, giving the opportunity to explore those places which are well off the beaten track and to learn about the local culture and social history whilst, at the same time, sampling their railways. It all started with Romania back in 2008 and has subsequently expanded to include Moldova, Bulgaria, Georgia and Uzbekistan. The details inevitably change from country to country but one theme is constant – we do, for the most part, aim to use locally owned accommodation, restaurants, transport and guides, thereby ensuring that our custom benefits the local community rather than lining the pockets of multi-nationals. By the way, did you know that, at the time of writing, there are no McDonalds or Starbucks in Albania? This seems a good reason to pay the country a visit! Albania certainly hasn’t yet been “globalised”.
Inevitably our research trip can be no more than a framework of the holiday which will eventually evolve. This first job is to plan a route, select and check the accommodation and get a feel for the places of interest that can be visited. It also tells us a lot about the feasibility of the proposed transport arrangements, how long it takes to get from A to B, whether it is possible to get refreshments on the proposed route and so on – the things that make our “Small and Traditional” tours what they are.
My colleague for this new adventure was, as always, Ramona. She has been the inspiration for all the Small and Traditional programme and her involvement ensures a uniformity of standard across the brand. Those who have travelled with her in Romania and elsewhere will know exactly what I mean.
Day 1 – The Adventure Begins
The first job was to meet up with Ramona and her husband, Dan, who would be our driver. They would be travelling from their home in Eastern Romania and we planned to do this in Skopje, Macedonia. I found a Wizzair flight from Luton and, as it was November, it was cheap! What’s more, it departed in mid evening so I could travel from home in Penrhyndeudraeth same day without a night at an airport hotel. There was a downside of course – it arrived in Skopje at 0100 next morning!
Day 2 – From Skopje to Tirana
It was a shortish night but the modest hotel near the airport was clean and comfortable. Next morning we were soon on our way in the trusty Ford Galaxy – well, we thought it was trusty at the time! We already knew most of the route to Tirana as we cover it in the “Pushing the Boundaries” holiday so we made good time to Lake Ohrid where we crossed the border between Macedonia and Albania with a minimum of fuss.
The border itself is at the top of a pass and, as we descended the other side, we were reminded that there are still a number of dictator Enver Hoxha’s strange concrete mushroom-shaped bunkers in the area. Once upon a time there were sufficient for every man, woman and child to hide out in the event of attack. Here they were supposed to defend their country. (For those interested in useless statistics, there were 173,371 of them, most now demolished, derelict or, occasionally, brightly painted as children’s play areas).
The first town in Albania was Prrenjas where we discovered the chief industry to be car washing. Every few metres there was an ugly hand written sign proclaiming “Lavazh” and a water hose lying on the ground and trickling away into a nearby gully or, more likely, straight down the road.
At Prrenjas the derelict railway, which once ran to Pogradec on the shore of Lake Ohrid, came in alongside the road. Nowadays it is only operational as far as Librazhd.
A little further along the road and at a delightful spot where the valley narrows we spotted two restaurants and it was well past lunchtime.
“No, we don’t take credit cards.”
This turned out to be a familiar response in Albania and we hadn’t yet had chance to find a bank or ATM to get some Albanian leke. Fearing imminent starvation we entered the second restaurant.
“No we don’t take credit cards but we do take euros.”
Problem solved and the lunch was excellent.
We arrived in Tirana in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel and had a meeting with our local ground handler who had thoughtfully provided a guide and interpreter for the duration of our trip. His name was Ervin and we would meet him next morning.
Day 3 – We head south
Now for some serious work! Ervin was determined that we would see everything in his beautiful country and reeled of a long list of places he wanted us to visit and accommodation he wanted us to check.
“Just a minute, we only have a week and we’d like to see Montenegro as well.”
Being more than slightly biased, he revised his suggestion to include six days in Albania and one in Montenegro. He felt this to be a good compromise! We decided that perhaps Montenegro should wait for another time.
We headed back the way we had arrived through Elbasan, Librazhd and Prrenjas where the hosepipes were still patiently awaiting customers. Just before we reached the Macedonain border where we had been the previous day, we turned right and dropped down to the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. The day was beautiful with not a cloud in the sky and the calm blue lake and red tiled roofs of the fishing village below made a photo stop impossible to resist.
After a brief pause in Pogradec, formerly a mining community (hence the now-derelict railway) but now a holiday resort complete with lakeside promenade, we continued to Korçe for lunch.
Korçe is situated on a plateau about 2,700 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains. It is dominated by a rather fine cathedral from which a wide traffic-free boulevard runs down to the Ottoman bazaar. Many of the side streets have also been repaved in recent years and the whole town comes as a welcome surprise for such an isolated place.
Ervin was now keen to show us the village of Voskopoje, high up in the mountains and where, he said, we would be delighted to spend the night. He was right. The Vila Falo was a most welcoming guest house just off the main square and which had been in the same family for several generations. Downstairs was a cosy bar and restaurant whilst upstairs were a handful of nicely appointed bedrooms – all en-suite, of course.
As it was still daylight, we wandered up the street to the small Orthodox church where Ervin knew the priest and Ramona was delighted to discover that he spoke Romanian. Apparently, Romanian people settled in this area many hundreds of years ago and a version of the language with its own local dialect has survived.
Day 4 – Rural life in Albania
Ramona and I were up early and out in search of photos by 7am. It comes light and goes dark early in Albania in November and so, even at this early hour, the sun was high in the sky and it promised to be another bright day. Ramona headed up the hillside out of the village whilst I went back to the church and beyond. A young farmer was taking his two cows to pasture whilst a horse was standing under a tree nearby awaiting his next call of duty. Young children were already making their way to the village schoolroom which, we later found, doubles up as a draper’s shop out of hours.
Breakfast was the usual choice of fresh local produce – cheeses, eggs, bread, butter, jams and much more – to which we have become accustomed on our “Small and Traditional” holidays – simple but very tasty and there was plenty of it.
We had a long drive today and so were on the road by 9 am. We had to return to Korçe before turning south into another range of mountains. At first the road was good but this was deceptive. The new road construction soon gave way to the original and we twisted and turned our way upwards with the views becoming ever more remarkable at every turn. On the right side, at one point, a young girl was sitting sidesaddle on her donkey leading two other donkeys across a field.
We paused at the small town of Erseke to visit the post office and buy some bottled water. How on earth do the population make a living here? Men and women were wandering the streets or standing chatting and we wondered if many of them had ever left the town – it was a few hours’ drive to the next one!
At one point we were surprised to come across a small guest house at the side of the road. An enterprising individual had developed a tourism business here and there was a sign (in English) advertising camping. This was the ideal coffee stop, though we didn’t escape before being forcibly shown all the rooms in the house – he did b&b as well as camping and he sensed a catch. To be truthful it was a lovely spot but not what we wanted and we drove on.
By early afternoon a blue and white flag announced that we had reached the Greek border and, not wanting to go there just now, we turned west to the small town of Permët. As in Korçe, there is work ongoing to improve the central area and a local resident very proudly told us that, when it is finished, Permët will have a fountain!
We checked an incongruously modern hotel here, situated in the town centre but with a lovely view over the river valley. This fact was celebrated by having one of those glass lifts that goes up the outside of the building. Was this really Albania?!!
It was almost dark when we reached our ultimate destination of Gjirokastër. Here the modern part of the town is on the main road along the valley floor but, far more interesting is the old Ottoman quarter up the hill. This is dominated by a fortress.
Here also was our hotel, a modest but comfortable establishment called, appropriately, Hotel Gjirokastra. The man who received us apologised that evening meal would not be available that night as his mother was away for the day but this didn’t matter as Ervin had already decided that we would eat at a traditional restaurant belonging to a friend of his. This was a good recommendation and we had a pleasant evening together.
Day 5 – Albania’s southern coast
We had already been told that the southern part of the Albanian coast was largely unspoiled and so that’s where we headed next. Sure enough, small bays fringed the coast and each contained a fishing village. The view across the sea was to nearby Corfu and I recalled once going there on holiday years ago, looking across the water to Albania and saying, “Well that’s one place I’ll never go.” I’m so glad I was wrong.
Black menacing clouds were gathering across the sea as we climbed away from the coast into a forested area which is actually a National Park. Right on cue as we entered the darkest part of the forest, the heavens opened and there was a monster of a storm of Greek mythology proportions.
Ervin knew of a nice hotel in the forest where we could have lunch. We checked some bedrooms but decided it wasn’t for us – what on earth would you do in the evening if the weather was like this?!!
Back down on the coast we passed through Vlorë but I can’t think of anything to write about here!
The railway from Vlorë to Durrës was closed at the time of our visit – perhaps permanently though one never knows in Albania from one month to the next. We continued to Fier and made a short detour to visit the archaeological remains of Apolonia, a city founded by the Corinthians in the 7th Century BC.
From Fier to Durrës is almost entirely motorway and Dan became unhappy with vibrations coming from the Galaxy. The cause wasn’t obvious and we pressed on, arriving in Albania’s second city and major seaport around 6pm.
Ervin guided us expertly to our hotel, once again a family run place where the owner made us most welcome. We were just around the corner from one of the main streets with restaurants though, having eaten well at that hotel in the forest, we weren’t particularly hungry. We settled for a table on the pavement (yes, in November!) at a pizza restaurant and shared a quatro staggione.
Day 6 – The northern Alps
Ervin had been right. There is a lot to see in Albania and we were running out of time. We had seen half of the country but the other half was still to do. There is a rail line northwards from Durrës to Shkodër but, with one train per day departing at 1300, we reluctantly decided that we hadn’t got time to hang around and wait. We had ridden the Albanian trains before and knew exactly what to expect – a Czech built diesel loco and two coaches of either East German or Italian origin. It would have been nice to ride the train but not totally necessary for the purpose of a research trip. It would have to wait until the tour proper. I had also seen on a previous trip what Durrës had to offer – principally a Roman amphitheatre and other archaeological remains.
So Dan pointed the Galaxy in the general direction of north and we were on the road again by 9am.
After a couple of hours and shortly before Shkodër, we turned right and headed for the mountains once more. This time they were even higher and more dramatic than before. The road was narrower too, the bends sharper and the gradients steeper. Surely nobody actually lives up here! Ervin insisted that they do and, sure enough, after an hour or so we passed through the village of Puka. This was bigger than we expected and it wasn’t at all clear what the inhabitants do for a living. Some were scurrying around with shopping baskets but most were standing talking - men and women of all ages in little groups, all talking. An old battered minibus was parked in the village square, proudly displaying in the front window that it was going to Durrës – eventually and perhaps!
We pressed on. The views from that road were amazing but, as morning turned to afternoon, we began to wonder if was just a bit too long, too steep and too twisty even for Ffestiniog’s intrepid travellers.
“Isn’t there a quicker way to where we are going?” we asked Ervin.
“Oh yes, we could have gone via Kosovo.”
Sometime in the early afternoon we reached Fushë-Arrëz, another small village in the middle of nowhere. It had a shop and two bars. These Albanians know where their priorities lie. Importantly, as we were now beginning to feel the hunger pains, one of the bars served food and this saved us from starvation – for a few hours at least.
The road now climbed higher. Dan commented that, as all roads in Albania seem to go on top of the mountains rather than through the valleys between them, there must have once been a strategic reason but we never proved the validity of this theory.
Quite suddenly we came across a hotel – yes and quite a nice place too. Ervin explained that walkers and others in search of the great outdoors venture up here in the summer. They weren’t doing much business in November but welcomed us and showed us their rooms in the hope that, next time, we would bring a group and stay for a few days.
We liked the place until, that is, we made our way back to the car and spotted two bears locked in a cage – obviously part of their tourist “attraction”. We decided that this wasn’t either for us or for Ffestiniog customers and drove on.
A large lake appeared on our right side and, as we dropped down towards it, we saw that it was, in fact a reservoir which had flooded the valley and, at the end of which was a huge dam and hydro electric power station. We zig-zagged down to the bottom of the dam before continuing alongside another lake at a lower level.
The next village was Bajram Curri, named after an Albanian national hero who fought against the Ottomans. Ervin explained that we were now very close to the Kosovan border – the nearest town would be Dečani, whose monastery we visit on our Pushing the Boundaries holiday. Suddenly the Geography was beginning to make sense.
We continued up the Valbonë Valley, at the end of which were the highest of the Albanian Alps, now covered in the first winter snow. This area is a national park and deservedly so. The pure white limestone was the whitest I have ever seen and the sheer rock faces of the surrounding mountains would do justice to any in Switzerland and Austria but there were no tourists – not many anyway and those that were here had bagged the best table in the hotel restaurant, next to the roaring log fire. It was getting dark as we arrived and we promised ourselves that, next morning, we would be out and about for photos.
It was decidedly chilly at this altitude and there was no repeat of the al fresco eating. Ervin explained that the best way back to civilisation would be by ferry. Was there no end to the surprises this country would bring?
It seemed that very close to the big dam and power station we had seen, was the start of another huge reservoir, Lake Koman. A ferry service operated once per day in each direction along the lake and took two and a half hours for the single journey. Using the ferry would cut out several hours on the mountain road we had used to get here. It seemed like a very good idea and, as the ferry didn’t leave until 1pm and we were only about 90 minutes drive from the ferry terminal, we would have plenty of time for those photos.
Day 7 – A most amazing ferry trip
We should have known better than rely on the weather in the Alps. The morning dawned wet and with very low cloud obscuring most of the mountain view. We did take a few photos but, truthfully, they were hardly good enough for home viewing and certainly not for a brochure or web site.
We had a leisurely breakfast, paid the hotel bill and set off around 10am. Before reaching Bagram Curri, disaster struck. Approaching a short stretch of uphill road, Dan gave the Galaxy a short burst when it became quite clear that the gearbox was no longer connected to the rest of the car. The Galaxy wasn’t going anywhere except downhill and we were in the bottom of a valley.
It’s difficult to describe what goes through the mind at times like this. We were many miles and certainly several hours from the nearest town, there was a plane to catch from Belgrade to Luton in two days time and, more immediately, a ferry at 1pm – the only one of the day. Would we eventually have to abandon the rest of Albania and return via Kosovo? My first reaction was to feel sorry for Dan. It was still raining and, somehow, he had to find a way out of the mess we were in. Fortunately we had Ervin who spoke Albanian and Dan remembered that he had seen scrap yard a little way back along the road, Maybe they would have a spare part for a Galaxy but it was Sunday and there might not be anybody there. Still, it was the only chance so Dan and Ervin set off in the rain the way we had come. Ramona and I stayed behind and raided Ervin’s bag of biscuits. It was a useless and selfish gesture but what else was there to do and we only took one each!
After about half an hour Dan and Ervin returned in a car with two Albanian men. They too decided that our Galaxy was well and truly broken but, not to worry, they knew somebody who would fix it. Then something quite extraordinary happened. A large shiny black 4 x 4 drew up alongside driven by a young boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 years of age. Sitting by the driver was a girl, aged about 11. There was nobody else in the car. They were going shopping and wanted to know if they could help. There wasn’t anything they could do of course but we thought it was very kind of them to stop and ask.
Before too long, a rope was attached to the front of our car and we were on our way to Bagram Curri where we turned onto a patch of waste ground at the end of which was an old workshop. We were greeted by the owner who helped us push our vehicle over the inspection pit. The whole building wasn’t much bigger than the average household garage and most of the floor space was taken up by various tools, old tin cans and, importantly for us, the welding apparatus. A Ford approved service station it was not but we were glad of that. If it had been, it would either have been closed on a Sunday or we would have been told to book it in and come back next week.
Ten minutes later the man in the pit had done his thing and the gearbox was once more connected to everything else. None of those present would accept any money apart from the cost of materials used – 3000 leke (about £20). The generosity and kindness of all the Albanians we met on this trip had to be experienced to be believed.
It was 12.40 and there wasn’t much chance of catching the ferry but we had to try. The alternatives were Kosovo or the mountain road, part of which we would have had to negotiate in the darkness.
We arrived at the “ferry terminal” at 1.10 and, what luck, the ferry was still there. We think somebody had told them we were coming. The “terminal” was nothing more than a gravel ramp entering the water but a young boy was on hand to collect the “harbour dues”. We are not sure whether this was a scam but we didn’t stop to argue and paid up.
The ferry was little bigger than those that ply across the Rhine at various points. There was only one other vehicle on the car deck, a private minibus which was useful because it proved to us that we would be able to take aboard a16 seater bus of the kind we use on our Small and Traditional tours.
One deck up was a small lounge with a few rows of seats and a TV screen which was showing a film. Upstairs again was an open deck and, as it had now stopped raining, that’s where we went.
No sooner were we aboard than we cast off. We were told that we were in luck because this was the last week of the season. From next week there would only be the small ferry with no room for cars. We saw it moored alongside. It was an old bus body attached to an even older looking hull.
The next two and a half hours were the most magical I have ever experienced on a ferry. Even in the indifferent weather, it was obvious that the scenery was out of this world. The high mountains either side dropped steeply into the water and, in places, the channel was so narrow that you could throw a stone from one bank to the other. There was very little habitation – we did see a small village at one point – and were told that the small ferry (the old bus that is) calls there once a day.
It had become very windy, so much so that it was almost impossible to stand up on the top deck. Clearly the mythological gods were at work again and towards end of the journey we were forced downstairs.
As you would expect from a reservoir, the water finished at another huge dam and a power station. There was another very makeshift terminal, the exit from which was in a long road tunnel at the side of the dam itself. Yet again there was another reservoir on the lower level and we drove alongside this for about an hour on a gravel road before rejoining the road on which we had gone out to Valbonë yesterday. By now it was dark but it was a relatively easy journey to Shkodër where we found the Hotel Tradita awaiting us. We mused that perhaps the tour itself should use the ferry in both directions. The mountain road had been interesting but a bit over the top – almost literally!
The hotel was an interesting place – it was a themed hotel which doubled up as a museum and antiques shop. The food was excellent and well appreciated and deserved, especially by Dan.
As this was our last evening in Albania, we said our goodbyes to Ervin for his considerable help and guidance.
During the night there was a huge thunderstorm. The gods still hadn’t finished with us. Surely they couldn’t be that cross over a couple of little biscuits. Maybe a sacrifice would help – we left them a couple of bread rolls at breakfast next morning and that seemed to do the trick.
Day 8 – A brief visit to Montenegro
The road to the Montenegro border was straightforward. We planned to get as far as we could towards Belgrade as my flight next day involved a 3.45pm check-in.
The formalities at the border were very thorough. Apparently a favourite route for drugs into Europe is via Albania and the officials took no chances with our car. Even so, they were very good natured and we were on our way after about 30 minutes.
We skirted around the capital, Podgorica, and then followed that very famous stretch of rail line from there to the Serbian border. We were in a gorge at river level and the rail line was high up on the mountain side – we caught glimpses as it passed over viaducts and into tunnels. This line is already featured in our Balkans Revisited tour and would make an excellent finale to any tour in this area.
Having already discarded the idea of combining Albania with Montenegro in one holiday, we were now beginning to think about what could be included in a stand-alone Montenegro “Small and Traditional” holiday and, to this end, Ramona had already contacted a potential ground handler in Bijelo Polje, near the Serbian border. We arranged a meeting at a café at a filling station and, by the time we had finished a cappuccino, had already discussed the framework of a research trip which we would need to undertake at some future date.
The border formalities on reaching Serbia were straightforward and we were making good progress. Maybe we could go as far as Zlatibor today. Ffestiniog Travel already has a favourite hotel there.
We did indeed reach Zlatibor just as it was getting dark when Dan suggested that he would feel happier continuing to Belgrade. Although this would take another three to four hours, it would enable Ramona and he to drive home from there in just one day instead of the two originally planned.
So that’s what we did and we were still in time for a pleasant evening meal in a traditional restaurant near the hotel.
Day 9 – Home from Belgrade
Dan and Ramona set off for home straight after breakfast and, within two hours, I had a text to say they had safely crossed the border into Romania. Meanwhile I had time for a brief meeting with the hotel’s sales manager concerning rates for 2018 and then to reacquaint myself with Belgrade before catching the airport bus and the flight home.
Following this thorough research trip Ffestiniog Travel created the escorted tour Albanian Odyssey Tour