Balkans Interlude

Albania, the land of the two eagles. Despite these special eagles, the lovely wild flowers and small mushroom looking bunkers scattered throughout the countryside, it is the people of Albania that made me smile most. They are very friendly, probably too friendly for their own good. Although it has been a few decades since independence, local authentic levels are mostly still in tact. In general, the most relevant energy fact that I gathered here, was that almost 100% of the electricity generated in this country comes from hydro power. Yes, they are using almost 100% renewable energy!

Flying into Nënë Tereza Airport, just outside Tirana, is a very affordable experience on Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul – S. Gokcen Airport. Local currency is available from ATM’s inside the luggage claim area or close to the check in counters inside the main airport hall. The busses to Tirana are available outside the airport; as you go through customs, take a left exit and you will see busses in a small parking area. Minutes into this short bus ride to Tirana you become aware of dense 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; an old bunker converted into an art gallery of sorts and 500 LEK will get you inside. 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. This 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. 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 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 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 in the summer, with holiday makers from Russia or neighbouring countries. 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 less people and cleaner water. This was very possible. Even if it is harder to get to those beaches the loungers and umbrella are still 10 euro a day. The one nice small and cute beach was on the Island Hawaii. It was also easy enough to find boats from all over Budva to connect there. 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 at Sveti Stefan.

Some more interesting info, locals reckon that Montenegro is kind of an ecological state. Besides growing some vegetables locally. They have no highways, allow no franchises and only have 600 000 people living in the country. Not bad for the sustainable living standards. Keeping things local.

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 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, it seems rather relaxed, even a few cows could crossed the border by foot. That was so hilarious. The other interesting thing was that there was a VIP lane. I saw two cars entering this, no clue how you qualify for this prestige’s ‘club’. In general it seems like VIP status is a thing in the Balkans.

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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