We didn’t know at all what to expect from Montenegro. But Albania is a different story. Although still relatively unknown, we already read many lyrical and praising comments about Albania online. Beautiful mountains, beautiful beaches and above all: cheap living and very reasonable restaurants. As you will read later in this post, Albania could not live up to all our expectations.
Albania is located north-south between Montenegro and Greece, it also borders Kosovo and North Macedonia. The country has 3 million inhabitants and is a democracy, after the fall of communism and dictator Enver Hoxha in 1991. You can of course read the rest yourself on Wikipedia ?.
On October 8 (yes, I’m getting a bit behind with my blogging…) we entered Albania from Montenegro. The border crossing was standard and slow. One tip: start playing on your mobile while you wait for the customs officer’s typing, whatever that may be: if they realise that you’re not in a hurry either, the fun is over for them too… Even more than in Montenegro, we immediately noticed that the wealth here is a lot less. Masses of rubbish on the roadsides, rickety cars, farmers with horse and cart, and a great absence of Western brands that are familiar to us.
First fix the internet and then a good meal…
Our first stop was Koplik, a small town where there is supposed to be a Vodafone store. We found this without any problems. We were parked a bit ‘shady’ so Nikki waited in Nigel while I went to fix the internet. Two young ladies were able to explain to me in English that we could buy a tourist card for 1700 LEK, roughly 15 €, 20 GB for 20 days, if I remember correctly. Only problem: paying by card was not possible. Strange… Then to the bank across the street. Whew, it would cost me 8 € to make a collection and I had no idea how much LEK we would need! Fortunately, there was a Moneygram next to the Vodafone store where I could exchange cash at a perfect exchange rate. I exchanged 30 € in LEK and bought a SIM card that the ladies had meanwhile activated with my ID. The SIM card went into the 4G router and bam, we were back in the air. Millennials as us we can’t go longer than 2 hours without internet, getting lost, hunger, thirst and total alienation are hiding behind the corner…
With the remaining 1700 LEK we decided to try out the local gastronomy. Google Maps is pretty useless in non-touristic area in Albania to find a restaurant or shop. Luckily we found something on park4night… Pro Tip: If a restaurant is on park4night, the owner probably knows this too!
There was little in stock and we also had to count because we only had 1700 LEK left… We both ordered ‘pork ribs’, fries and a liter of wine. The fact that the Albanian menu had different prices than the English one (300 LEK vs 500 LEK for the dish in the photo), we let pass, it was still very cheap. Although it didn’t look super appetizing, the meat was very tender and full of flavour. Communication was a little less smooth because both the owner and the waiter only spoke Albanian.
The bill was 2000 LEK but after some negotiation and sign language it was brought back to the correct 1600 LEK. Mistake… Can happen of course, our government sometimes misses too.
The first night
Although very tasty, our lunch could not completely convince us, we would try another restaurant later… But, it was time to find a place for the night. We drove to a small village ‘Rinia’, a bit north of Durrës.
Due to our millennial laziness, we hadn’t checked the location in park4night and drove a bit into the mountains first. We realised our mistake when we drove up a very steep part and Waze indicated 5 min ETA. We corrected the mistake but decided to continue following the road: we were already at the top. We drove past many Albanian mountain villages and that was well worth it. Of course a lot of surprised looks when they saw us passing by, many tourists probably don’t pass there.
We stopped to stretch our legs, briefly considered staying there. There was little to do outside of the beautiful view, so we drove on again a little later. Fortunately the road was in good and after an hour we came out the other side of the hills to the sea
After our short mountain trip we found a small shop where we bought a few Albanian beers, a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread for 5€. Yep, we found that most Albanian shops have no problem accepting Euros. Cash, bank card is exceptional.
Then we drove through the most bumpy dirt road ever through a forest to the beach. The day after we would discover there was a better way, but hey, a little adventure never hurts. Although it was still late summer, and the temperature was good, the beach looked a bit grey.
Judging by the many beach bars – most of them rather improvised – it is a good place to be in the summer. Unfortunately the season was already over and this beach gave us a very desolate feeling. There was not a soul to be seen and it was soon getting dark.
In any case, we slept very peacefully, only a few howls of dogs, or jackals, in the distance. In the morning an all-terrain vehicle and a fisherman on a bicycle passed by… We took a short walk along the beach: more closed beach bars, rubbish in the side and makeshift toilets. No, this beach was not going to be it, although we maintain that this would probably be a lot nicer in the summer.
Traffic in Albania
The road continued towards Fier via the SH4 highway, there was not much alternative. In the meantime we understood that traffic in Albania is really the wild west: Priority is given to the fastest or largest and speed limits are optional. You can pass on the left, but you don’t have to. On the side of the road we saw a lot of police checks, but they left us undisturbed. In any case, watch yourself in Albania and don’t count on the traffic rules. Also don’t forget that a car is a luxury that the Albanians have only known since 1992. In terms of fuel, we were surprised that it cost € 2.15 per liter of diesel! For a country that produces its own oil and where the average monthly wage is around € 300, this is quite remarkable.
We drove past Tirana, the capital of Albania. Worth a visit according to many, but we are more interested in nature. At that time specifically nature by the sea, since the temperatures were still perfectly fine. So we keep Tirana for next time. We drove smoothly past Fier and found a nice beach called “Darzez Beach”. There was quite a bit more enthusiasm here. A few foreign campers, many local tourists and fishermen presents and at least two beach bars were open.
After parking we met a very sweet street dog with a lame back leg. Some kind of hunting dog. According to my expert a Coonhound, or something that has been next to it. He was immediately very affectionate and Moya got on well with him.
We decided to give Albanian gastronomy another try. A customer did a little translating for us in English and we ordered ‘Mixed Fish Plate’ with fries and salad and two Salitos, the only beer that they had. We liked it and we enjoyed the sun a bit, on a terrace where not a single chair was the same and where old car tires were used creatively: they can serve as a flower pot, to make a wall, as a foundation for the chicken coop, etc. The bill this time amounted to € 30, so the Mixed Fish Plate was per ‘plate’. We felt a bit cheated again, in Spain or Italy you eat much better for less. Our German camper neighbors said scornfully that the price in Albania automatically goes up by two or even three when they notice that you are a foreigner. Had we walked into a tourist trap twice in a row?
Our new friend…
We didn’t let it get to our hearts and enjoyed the rest of the day in the sun and swam in the sea. When it got dark three ‘pimped’ off-road vehicles, type older Jeep Cherokee, came racing on the beach. Would be unthinkable with us, and the high diesel prices apparently didn’t bother them. Well, they were far enough away to find it funny. We slept very peacefully again…
The dog – who had been following us all day – slept all night on the mat we gave him. The next day we decided to leave because we started to get too attached to this sweet boy, especially Nikki. We gave him and his friends some more kibble and drove on. Our friend ran a long way behind Nigel when we drove off and we both had a very hard time, that’s where the tears came! We would have loved to take him with us, but with two cats and a dog we really don’t have room for that anymore (at least that was my opinion). We hope that it goes well, or that another traveler adopts him. Stray dogs don’t have it easy in Albania, but many tourists visit this place and we saw some fishermen give some leftovers to the dogs. Before you start thinking that we should have dropped him off at a shelter: the shelters in Albania and Greece are often already overcrowded and the living conditions are anything but better than on the street.
Down-hearted, we drove on to the next sight: Gjirokaster. This old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a well-preserved Ottoman village. It is also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha and has a castle that overlooks the town. Here you get to see a touristic Albania: beautiful walking streets with souvenir shops and restaurants and perfectly maintained hiking trails and roads. We climbed to the castle and strolled through the old part. What was striking is that this atmosphere disappears just as quickly once you walk out of the old part, then it is poverty again.
Unfortunately I completely forgot to take pictures in Gjirokaster, but there is footage and I will quickly make a Youtube video about Albania…
After visiting Gjirokaster, we looked for a supermarket, which we found close to SH4 at the foot of the town’s hill. Although this was one of the larger supermarkets that we had already found, the offer was again limited and payment by card was not possible. Our cash euros started to run out and we started to miss the convenience of larger supermarkets (yes, Lidl, it’s about time you started sponsoring us). We also hoped that the diesel in Greece was more affordable (it turned out to be a vain hope) and we decided to drive an hour and a half to Loannina across the Greek border.
The border crossing was a bit different this time, every suitcase and cargo space was checked. When they saw our packed ‘garage’ they asked how long we had been in Albania. I replied “a few days” and that was enough for the customs officer to let us through. Other cars with Greek and Albanian license plates were checked much more thoroughly. Afterwards we found out why: On the SH4, before Gjirokaster, is Lazarat, a village notorious for its cannabis production and in 2014 an ‘open war’ broke out between locals and the police, the latter being attacked with rocket launchers and mortars! Hallucinatory. So there was serious smuggling across this border and tackling the drug trade is one of the action points for Albania if they want to join the EU.
Four days in Albania were not enough to convince us. We have to add that we have only seen a part of the country and it undoubtedly has much more to offer. However, the minor inconveniences do not make it the ideal motorhome destination for us. The poor road infrastructure makes it long and uncomfortable on the road, although the SH4 road is quite okay. The absence of larger supermarkets and payment terminals is also annoying.
Maybe we are just spoiled brats: It can be quite a fun adventure: bakeries, vegetable sellers and small supermarkets can be found everywhere and the people are super friendly and helpful. You can spend the night anywhere. The beaches are also much more camper-friendly, especially compared to Croatia and its expensive campsites right next to the E65. Make sure you have enough metal and paper euros with you to quench your hunger and thirst. Some assertiveness to negotiate the price is also included.