This comes close on the heels of the universal epidemic of “New year new me”.
After a hiatus of almost six months, my new and reinvigorated blog piece is a result of me being the guilty of the aforementioned phenomenon.
Out of all the exotic eastern European countries I ventured into in the latter half of 2017, Albania holds a special place. This quaint country lying on the far southeastern part of the continent is grossly underestimated and underrated for what it has to offer. Constantly being unfairly overshadowed by its lustrous and popular southern neighbor Greece, Albania has a character which is relatable to most of us (great but underrated).
For the uninitiated, Tirana is the capital of this small country and also was my gateway into Albania. My Tirana itinerary consisted of the capital city and then moving north to Sarande for the famous Blue Eye while enjoying the Albanian riviera.
I reached Albania by bus from Skopje. The bus journey lasts for approximate 7 hours covering a distance of a little over 370kms and the tickets can be purchased directly from the bus station in Skopje starting from 20 EUR.
The international bus station is somewhat centrally situated and is approx. 2 kms from the main Skenderbeg Square. All roads lead to Skenderbeg square which is undoubtedly the heart of the city, as it houses most of the main attractions of Tirana including the Et’hem Bey mosque, National History Museum and Clock Tower.
Et’hem Bey mosque is an 18th century mosque which boasts of frescoes depicting bridges, waterfalls and trees; which are quite uncommon architecture in Islam, thus making it an interesting monument. The place of worship looks specially exquisite under the moonlight.
Beside the mosque, is the famous Clock tower of Tirana. Interestingly enough, both Et’hem Bey Mosque and Clock tower were built by the same artist. You can climb to the top of the clock tower and its free!!!
The National History Museum of Albania is the largest museum in the country, rightly so, as it sprawls across 27000 square metres. The mural mosaic above the entrance is considerably eye catching. It is captioned “The Albanians” and showcases the supposed ancient to modern figures from the history of Albania. This museum is the perfect place to get acquainted with Albania and its complicated past.
BUNK’ART MUSEUM: Talking about troubled past, my next stop in Tirana was arguably the most interesting ones and definitely a first for me.
As you walk past the clock tower, after a short walk you will find the Bunk’art museum. This 1970s bunker converted into museum was informative and creepy at the same time. This museum is country’s brave and honest effort to confront its past. The museum covers the horrors of the fascist Italian regime from 1939 till the final ouster of communism.
As you stroll down the structure, its hard to not miss the atrocities of Hoxha Stalin’s regime. Some rooms display interviews of war veterans and others who tell stories of their brutal past. In one of the galleries there was a list on the wall stating the method of torture used by the fascist regime against freedom fighters, few of which reminded me of the same methods used by the soldiers of the erstwhile British empire in India. Some attractions are the big Assembly Hall and rooms of other senior officials. While the place undoubtedly sheds light on Albanian history, it left me slightly creeped out and with a feeling of sadness.
The museum is open to public in the summers and the entry fee is between 3-4 Euros.
Next for me was to take a leisurely stroll in Rruga Murat Toptani street. This is a tranquil pedestrian street lined with colorful buildings.
Tirana is a colourful and vibrant city which has a buzz of its own. Don’t forget to take a sip of the café culture and soak in the atmosphere.
I hired a car from Tirana for more flexibility and planned to drive to the far south city of Sarande to witness the Albanian Riviera. The drive is around 280 kms long and it takes approx. 5-6 hours. Hiring a car from Tirana is not that expensive however it is totally worth it for the flexibility and the beautiful scenes. The road to Sarande is full of mild curves but is suitably wide and paved.
On the way to Sarande, my first stop was Vlore, which is the third largest city in Albania and is about 2 hours or 153 kms away from Tirana. I had a delicious lunch of mussels and pasta at one of the sea side restaurants in Vlore. On the northern shore, Vlore boasts of a coastline comprising of Ioanian sea, Mediterranean sea and Adriatic Sea which then form of Bay of Vlore and is 30 percent of the entire coast of Albania.
Ahead were meandering but magnificent roads leading to Sarande. The views along the drive were simply breathtaking.
I reached Sarande well in time to catch the sunsetting in the amazing Albanian Riviera.
The next day was my much awaited trip to the out of the world Blue eye or Syri kalter. It takes around 25-30 minutes to reach Blue eye from Sarande. In the last 5 minutes of the drive, the road turns muddy but it doesn’t last long. Make sure to have some money for the small parking fees.
Syri i Kaltër: Blue eye was undoubtedly the highpoint of my Albania trip.
It is a natural spring wherein water keep constantly bubbling from more than 50 metres deep. This formation is aptly called Blue Eye coz of the dark blue water hole surrounded by a rim of electric blue water, like iris of an eye.
The naturally colored water is astounding and hypnotic. The water in Blue eye is chilling and its advisable to bring a swim suit and towel in case you feel like taking a dip. Although Blue Eye constantly pops up as one of the must see places when you research about Albania, it is still relatively untouched by throngs of tourists.
Next day on my way back to Tirana, I made a quick stop at Ksamil which is only 15 minute drive away.
In Albania, I gorged on sea food and got high on raki.
When you plan your trip to Albania, rest assured to hear skeptical and discouraging voices and the often asked question, “Who goes to Albania?”. I was asked the same question and my reply was to explore a country which doesn’t appear highly on tourism charts. I ended up enjoying beautiful beaches and mouth watering food at a fraction of the “must visit beach destinations”.
To everyone who asks, “Why Albania?”, just answer, “why not?” 😉
PS – This post was written on my overnight layover at Frankfurt airport. Next article on some place from another continent 😀