November 2008: I visited Albania twice. The first trip was in 2008 and was part of a 2 weeklong backpacking trip across the Balkans, my friend Dan and traveled across Albania for three days. We started in the south, crossing the land border from Greece and we exited from the north into Montenegro. Albania was one of the countries I looked forward to visiting the most on my trip because of the bizarre history of ex-communist dictator Enver Hoxha, a ruthless dictator whose control and isolationist policies made North Korea appear pleasant. Hoxha was long gone but the legacy of his rule remained, and I wanted to see how it impacted modern day Albania, which is now open and democratic although still suffering from poverty and massive levels of government corruption and influence from the mafia. My 2nd trip was with my wife in September 2021 when Paula and I spent two days traveling to Tirana from the North Macedonia border.

 

 

My route across Albania

About Albania

Albania has a long ancient history that includes influence from the Romans, Ottoman Empire and various other armies and principalities over the years. More recently it was ruled by communist dictator Enver Hoxha for 4 decades until his death in the mid-80s. he ruled Albania with total control, and anyone even remotely considered to be a threat to his power even his most loyal friends would either be quickly executed or sent to languish in a prison. Hoxha is believed to be one of the most oppressive leaders of the 20th century. He ruled by convincing his people that he was God like and by isolating Albania from the rest of the world because he trusted no one and believed NATO and other communist countries were plotting to invade Albania. He believed Albania didn’t need assistance from the outside world and it was essentially the most isolated country in the world even more so than North Korea. One of Hoxha’s most visible legacies today is of the concrete bunkers that he ordered to be built to defend the country. Almost a million bunkers were built throughout the country to allow every citizen to take up arms and defend the country against invading armies. Hoxha ordered the architect of the bunker to even test one of them by sitting inside one when it was hot by an artillery shell. The bunkers were never used and are now so ubiquitous in Albania that a lot of Albanians will say that they lost their virginity in one. They are being removed slowly but the heavy cost of doing so has made them more easily recycled for other purposes like storage or cafes, restaurants or just to leave them abandoned. I saw them everywhere, in the mountains, beaches along the roads or in the back of people’s yards.

Now the communism has behind Albania, it suffers from poverty and mass government corruption that has allowed the mafia to gain inroads and Albania’s location as a crossroad between Europe and Asia has made the mafia very profitable there especially with the sales of military equipment stockpiled under the communist government.

 

 

Abandoned concrete bunker in the mountains

Abandoned concrete bunker in the mountains

Abandoned concrete bunker in Tirana

Streetside produce market in Tirana

Horse cart, a common sight during my visit

Elderly Albanian man

Crossing the Southern Border

Dan and I traveled from Corfu by ferry to Igoumenitsa where we took a taxi to the remote mountainous land border to Konispol. After exiting the European Union (E.U.) Greek immigration building we entered a kind of no man’s land in a muddy dirt road until we reached a very primitive Albanian border hut. Albania was not in the EU, so it had its own border formalities which were quick and easy. The road from the border crossing was muddy and under construction. There were only a few beat-up old Mercedes taxis available since so few people were crossing this border. From the border crossing we traveled to Saranda, which was adventurous on the rough road and very scenic as we passed several castles and we even had to take one car ferry via a raft across a river.

 

 

Our Mercedes taxi. Old Mercedes Benz cars seem to be the most common vehicle in Albania. 

Crossing Konispol Border

Crossing Konispol Border

Castles on the way to Saranda

Car ferry

Castles on the way to Saranda

Castles on the way to Saranda. This was a castle that dominated a small island that I wish I could live in.

Castles on the way to Saranda

Saranda

We spent one night in the swanky and gritty beach town that looked like ti was more of a spring break destination for Italian teenagers. It wasn’t very scenic, and it appeared overdeveloped. We booked a room in a guesthouse that was empty like all of Albania in November. Since we were the only guests, Dan and I drank plum brandy with the owner, an elderly Albanian man who shared his drink in the photo below with us at 6am in the morning.

 

 

Saranda

Sharing plum brandy with the owner of our guesthouse

Ionic Coast

I read that Albania had one of the last unsplit Mediterranean coastlines with lonely coves of pebble beach’s meeting turquoise green waters and that the drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach was one of the best coastlines in the country. There was limited public transport because the region was remote and spread out so we booked a taxi that we negotiated a price with to take us from Saranda to Tirana along this coastline with the agreement that we would stop and take photos whenever we wanted. This worked out but the weather didn’t and even though the scenery was spectacular the weather wasn’t.

 

 

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Drive along the Ionic coast between Vlores via LLogaraja Pass and Dhermi Beach

Tirana

Tirana was a nice city to spend a night and explore.it felt like a typical eastern European ex-communist city with its rundown apartment blocks, communist era murals and revolutionary monuments left derelict and decaying. We found a homestay in one of the apartment blocks that looked much worse from the outside than inside and we walked all over the city day and night freely with no fear of crime.

 

 

 

Communist era murals

Communist era carvings

Outside of our homestay 

There was a contrast in Tirana of new, modern, fashion and old, run down and austere drab communist looking. Lots of new cafes and restaurants were popping up and girls wore all of the latest fashions. Even though Albania is Islamic, years of communism and the ban of religion have made it secular. We visited a hotel that was once the only one where foreigners could stay in town under Hoxha, and every room was equipped with spy devices to closely monitor every movement of the foreigners. We also walked over to the old pyramid built as a museum to Enver Hoxha a few years after his death by his daughter. The building was believed to be the most expensive building ever built in Albania at that time and it was abandoned when Dan and I visited, and we walked up to the top scaling the steep sloped walls.

 

 

Abandoned museum dedicated to Hoxha

On our last day in Albania, we took a series of connecting public buses and shared vans to Montenegro and all the way to Koror passing this spectacular castle along the way.

 

 

Castle in Shkodër

2nd Time in Albania

September 2021: My 2nd trip to Albania was with my wife Paula when we crossed from North Macedonia by car via the lake Ohrid border. We stopped to have dinner at the summer residence of late dictator Enver Hoxha, one of his wealthy estates where he lived in opulence while the rest of Albania lived in squalor. Now the estate and house has been made a public place and it is a restaurant and park where the public can visit. Our Albanian taxi driver grew up here and he recounted how he was never allowed to leave Albania as a child or risk being shot even though North Macedonia was so close and was where he was born. He talked about how everyone in town new that Hoxha lived in town, but no one ever saw him except for one day when he was a kid riding his bike and he came across secret service on the street for Hoxha. They stopped him and immediately escorted him away from Hoxha, but Hoxha saw him and asked for him to be brought forth and Hoxha greeted him. At the time our driver as a small child being raised to believe this man was God like thought this was the most amazing this to ever happen to him but later in life, he realized that he instead had met the devil.

 

lake Ohrid

Enver Hoxha’s summer residence

Paula at Enver Hoxha’s summer residence

Paula and I stayed one night in Tirana at an upscale but affordable hotel. I was amazed by how much Tirana had changed and modernized from my last visit. The next day we continued our trip to Greece.

 

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