Balkans Interlude

Albania, the land of the two eagles. Despite these special eagles, all the lovely wild flowers and small mushroom looking bunkers scattered throughout the countryside, it is the people who made me smile here. They are very friendly, probably too friendly for their own good. Although it has been a few decades since independence, the authenticity level is mostly still intact, for now. While writing my master thesis while exploring new countries. The most relevant academic fact currently would be that almost 100% of the electricity generated in this country comes from hydro power. Yes, they are using almost 100% renewable energy.

Flying into Tirana – Nënë Tereza Airport is a very affordable experience on Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul – S. Gokcen Airport. ATM’s are available for local currency inside the luggage claim area and close to the check in counters inside the main airport hall. The busses to Tirana are available just outside the airport, as you go through customs, take a left exit and you will see busses in a small parking area. This is a short bus ride away from Tirana, short in distance but long in time. Minutes into this bus ride you become aware of loads of traffic, even in the middle of the day. At the time of writing this blog, this bus ride cost 250 LEK.

Tirana is a lovely small city with around 1 million inhabitants. In the summer time it is customary for people to huddle around the main square of Sheshi Skëderbej, especially around sunset and way into the night-time you will see this square buzzing with young and old. The square is also around the corner from the Bunk’Art 2 museum. This is an old bunker converted into an art gallery of sorts. 500 LEK will get you into this bunker. If you walk from the bunker towards the River Lana, you will pass by the Teatri Kombetar area and across the road, on the edge of Park Rinia, you will see the ‘I heart Tirana’ sign on the right. Across from this sign you will see a public art installation called REJA. The Cloud Pavilion was designed by Sou Fujimoto, for the promotion of art in Albania. If you continue further towards the River Lana, you will spot the Pyramid of Tirana just after the bridge on the left. This building was built-in the previous regime and is currently kind of falling apart. You can find interesting graffiti pieces around the building, but mostly it smells like bat piss and are generally not in good shape. The history around this is fairly interesting. Tirana has amazing small bars and restaurants. It is especially worth exploring the Blloku area. A day or two in this city will be enough if you are on a tight time schedule.

From Tirana the two obvious routes will be either South towards the Albanian Rivera or North to the Albanian Alps. If you decide on the Alps, a good stopover will be Shkodër. Busses leaves daily on the hour from Tirana to Shkodër. This ride will cost you 260 LEK and takes longer than it should. Traffic is really a massive problem in the summer time and leaves most routes very congested. Hostel Legjenda just outside of Shkodër is a fantastic place to relax around their lovely pool and to enjoy meals at their lovely restaurant. They also offer camping or hotel rooms. This is walking distance from the Rozafa Castle or the Rivers Drin and Bojana. On these river banks you can find some more bars and restaurants. If you want to make your way to Theth valley, the friendly staff from Legjenda will order you a shared 4×4 taxi ride for 10 euro.

Yet again, Theth valley seems close but takes almost three hours to drive. This time round, the traffic is less of a staller, but the winding road up and down the mountains. It could also be pretty scary to pass the cars on this very narrow mountain road. The drivers are crazy in my opinion, but I did find it very amusing afterwards. In the Theth valley you could stay in the village with all other tourist or you could go off the beaten track and join the lovely family of Kullat E Sadri Lakes. Nënë Maria (as I called her) and her family sure do know how to spoil you properly. It is a lovely homestead. The building is made from thick stone walls and very old timber finishes, surrounded with green fields providing food to the horses, cows, chickens, pigs and sheep. They serve lovely breakfasts and dinners and could make you lunch. They have a small bar, stocking the basics, coke and local beer.

This is a short beautiful hike from the village Theth, where you will find a few more bars and restaurants. Hiking towards the village takes around 45 minutes. The village of Theth is stretched out within this narrow valley. From the one side to the other side could also take another 30minutes.

Just after the village you could explore the Grunas waterfall or Grunas canyon. On the village side of the waterfall and canyon on top of a hill, you could also find the most pleasant homestead, where you could enjoy a cold beer or soft drink overlooking both sides of the valley. They also offer free camping here.

About three hours hiking from the Theth bridge you will find the famous Blue Eye. This is not a very difficult hike there and back, but it is a long hike. It is advisable to download the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ App. This will give you a better idea when you do lose your way. There are bars and restaurants at the Blue Eye and you could use the small changing room to change into your bathing costume. The water of the Blue Eye is a fresh 7 degrees Celsius and you instantly lose your breath as you jump in. On your hike to the Blue Eye you also pass by a hydro power station, this particular station was a gift from China a few decades ago. It is considered a small plant, seeing that just in the next valley you will see four of the country’s biggest plants on the River Drin.

To find your way from Theth to the closes beach, it would be in Montenegro. This journey starts by taking a 4×4 taxi back to Shkodër. Let them drop you in front of the Rozafa Hotel in Shkodër city centre. All international busses depart from here. Take care that in the summer you might have to sit on the floor of a full bus, even if you bought a ticket beforehand. A ticket directly between Shkodër and Budva is 13 euro and could also be purchased on the bus. You can even pay with LEK and the ride takes a few hours. My bus departed at 13:20 and arrived in Budva around 17:00.

Budva is a lovely place. The only downside is that it is extremely busy with holiday makers from Russia or neighbouring countries in the summer. Hence the preferred language used by locals is not English. This is okay, just take note that some detailed questions might be more of a mission to get an answer for.

The Budva tunnel, that runs under the well-known Dukley Gardens Hotel, came in handy to connect areas, but also lovely cool and shady in the heat. My personal mission was to find small tiny beaches with not loads of people and with cleaner water. This was very possible. It does not mean when it is harder to get to that the loungers and umbrella will not cost 10 euro. The one nice small and cute beach was on the Island Hawaii. It was also easy enough to find boats from all over Budva. They all cost 3 euro return. I used the small boat that departed from the edge of the Moët beach lounge. Or right next to Panama Bar. Taxis are pretty pricey, everything is 5 euro and could be more at night. The bus service is however super-efficient and reliable. Between Budva Centre and Benito, where I lived, the price was 1 euro and 2 euro to get to Sveti Stefan beach. This takes around 20min from the Becici beach aqua park. Not too bad and absolutely worth it. The water is so clear.

Some more academic related info, locals reckon that Montenegro is kind of ecological state. They have no high ways, allow no franchises and only have 600 000 people living in the country.

The connections in the popular spots in the Balkans are fairly regular in the summer months. If you have time, it is also super affordable too. Between Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo it seems like Shkodër is the centre of all connections. Information is not really available online and the best thing is to ask the locals or the locals to where you are heading to.

For instance, I had to connect between Budva in Montenegro and Prishtina in Kosovo. There are busses leaving Budva to Uncinj a few times a day for 7 euro. And Uncinj is little Albania. I could find three busses connecting directly to Prishtina daily: 15:30, 16:00 and 18:00. This connection cost 12 euro in summer and does take around 6-6.5h with going through two border crossings. Talking of which, crossing these remain a mystery to me. We crossed both without anyone looking at our passports. Maybe they only do spot checks seeing that thousands travel this route daily. No idea what happened there?!  However, we had a few cows that crossed the border by foot. That was so hilarious. The other interesting things was that there was a VIP lane. I saw two cars entering this, no clue how you qualify for this prestige’s ‘club’.

Kosovo, have mostly Albanians living here. The capitol, Preština, is a small city with nice bars and restaurants. You can see the influence of the USA here and mother Theresa surely am a hero still. I am also a big fan of her. I enjoyed the temperament of the Albanian people. They are super friendly and hospitable. Hope to come visit real soon again!

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