DANCING PANDAS

Journaling The Journey

The Best of Northern Albania

Isolated and shut off from the world for so long, Albania emerged from communist rule in 1991 and has been slowly trying to catch up to modernity…very slowly. Traveling through most of northern Albania was like traveling back in time and back to the grey, drab colors of the Soviet era.

Durres - Families Strolling after Dinner
Durres – Families Strolling after Dinner

At this point you may be thinking, “Albania sounds too lackluster to visit – why should I even bother reading this post?” Well, you should because Albania has many surprises, starting from it’s breathtaking mountain ranges, glittering lakes, interesting historical sites, very warm and welcoming people…And then there is Tirana, vibrant and very colorful, Tirana.

Tirana

Tirana is filled with life and light – a truly cosmopolitan city loaded with museums, bookshops, cozy garden cafes and pedestrian boulevards. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was still in Albania.

Residential street lined with large trees and a fruit stand.
Tirana

It seems that all roads in Tirana lead to Skanderbeg Square. Once you’ve been there, you’ll understand why as this main square, named after an Albanian national hero, is the heart of the city. A statue of Skanderbeg sits proudly in the middle of the square. It’s an iconic place, which has recently been renewed, and is a must-see for everyone who visits Albania. With an opera house, the National History Museum, the Et’Hem Bey Mosque surrounding this huge square – there is plenty to see, stroll and experience.

Toptani Street lined with cafes, shops and art galleries.
Tirana – Toptani Street

In a city dominated by cars, this tree-lined pedestrian street is like a breath of fresh air. With no cars and lots of cute cafes, interesting shops and art, Toptani Street is perfect for a stroll and a coffee with plenty of people watching.

Tirana’s Tree Lined Streets

Blloku is my favorite neighborhood of Tirana. It is full of cafes filled with pretty gardens, fancy restaurants (which are really inexpensive) and upscale bars. Blloku feels like central Europe at a fraction of the price.

As background, about 40 years ago, Blloku was strictly restricted to the political elite of Albania. Ordinary people were barred from this area. When communism fell in 1991, Blloku began its transformation into a neighborhood for all – and that it is!

Tirana's open air market filled with fresh fruit and vegetables and tons of color.
TiranaPazari i Ri

Nature and hiking lovers like us will want to feast their eyes and stretch their legs on Mount Dajti, a 1,613-meter peak just east of Tirana. The best way to reach this mountain-turned-national-park is either by 20-minute cable car ride, a drive of more than an hour or a fabulous trek (budget 4 hours one way). Once you get to the top, you’ll understand why the journey is worth it: the panoramic views of the city from the top of the mountain are breathtaking. There you’ll also find a hotel and a few restaurants. We caught a couple of yearlings playing above the clouds on top of Mount Dajti:

Mount Dajti – Yearlings playing above the clouds
Mount Dajti View of Tirana from the Top

I have to say that I fell in love with Tirana. Such a livable cosmopolitan city filled with welcoming people very happy to share their nation’s capital.

Durres

Durres Sunset

Durres is a port town on the Adriatic coast just 30km west of Tirana and is the second most populous city in Albania. With the biggest and most popular beach in the country, I find it difficult to understand how anyone can dip a toe in that dirty water let alone go in for a swim. Most travel blogs call Durres the perfect beach town – but I need to be square with you guys – the beach is covered with gravel (not unlike many other European beaches) and with garbage while the water is brown and dirty. Perhaps we were there at the wrong time (May) perhaps I am too spoiled by beautiful beaches, but this to me was not swim-able.

Durres

Durres is worth a visit, though. Known in the ancient times as Dyrrachion, an important Roman settlement, Durres is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic shore. It is home to the largest amphitheater of the Balkans, and several archaeological exhibits are spread throughout the entire town as well as in the Archaeological Museum.

Durres – Forum and Roman Baths

Durres has a very charming town feel with many cute cafes on the boardwalk and within the small town, high end restaurants and interesting squares to walk and explore. For a great meal (including vegan options) we would highly recommend Gusto Di Mare located right on the boardwalk. The meal was absolutely delicious. We both left very satiated after eating a grilled octopus, a shrimp risotto and a lot of wine and raki (Rob). I had grilled vegetables and a huge salad with tea. The meal with a generous tip came to $30. Yes, that is quite a bit for Albania but well worth it.

Durrës is also known to be one of the liveliest towns of Albania. The nightlife is vibrant, with restaurants, bars, nightclubs open quite late. Many beach clubs located on the coast host DJs from Albania and other Balkan countries throughout the summer months, from June to September. 

Shkoder

Shkoder – View from Rozafa Castle

After reading many recommendations to visit Shkoder we were surprised to see yet another Soviet era gray town. Perhaps it was the relentless rain, perhaps it was the intermittent power/water/wifi supply: We had to switch Airbnb’s due to the first one being connected to the University power grid which lost power for the unforeseeable future, knocking out the internet and causing the municipal water pumps to stop working as well. The new Airbnb was on a different grid and for the most part we had power for our visit.

First thing you need to know is that there isn’t an overwhelming amount to see in the town itself. Its title of “Cultural Capital of Albania” comes more from its rich cultural history rather than what it has to offer in the way of sights. It’s a town known for its music, literature, and ancient relics, but a town that’s also changed quite a bit in appearance through the centuries due to floods, wars, and Communist dictators, so most of what you see is fairly modern.

Still, Shkoder is not only one of the oldest towns in Albania, but one of the oldest in Europe as it was founded by the Illyrians in the 3rd Century BC. Its unique geographical location made it perfectly positioned to become an important trading town in the past and its tradition of religious (and ethnic) tolerance is still visibly apparent in the center with mosques, a Catholic Church, and an Orthodox Cathedral all within a stone’s throw.

Shkoder – Rruga Kolë Idromeno

Strolling down Rruga Kolë Idromeno, the main pedestrian area, felt like we could be in any of Europe’s cultural capitals for a short spell – the area is quite small.

Shkodra – Views from Rozafa Castle

Shkodra’s main attraction is it’s 4th century (the oldest wall still standing) Rozafa Castle located about 3 kms from Old Town. We walked the 35 minutes up to the castle, paid the 200 lek/each (about $1.80 USD) and were amazed by the beautiful vistas before us.

Rozafa Castle

With spectacular views over the city and Lake Shkodra, the Rozafa Fortress is the most impressive sight in town. Founded by the Illyrians in antiquity and rebuilt much later by the Venetians and then the Turks, the fortress takes its name from a woman who was allegedly walled into the ramparts as an offering to the gods so that the construction would stand – I care not retell the horrid legend – for those interested read here.

Rozafa Castle

There is a cute cafe within the walls of the castle where we took refuge as a thunderstorm enveloped the castle and surrounding areas. We tried to wait out the rain, but ended up walking back under a sheet of it – which I must admit was warm and fun.

Looking back, I remember Albania very fondly – mostly because of Tirana, but also due to the spectacular nature that we observed – the mountain ranges, parks and lakes were truly stunning. Above all it is the people that define the nation and the people of Albania are very friendly and welcoming. That warmth will stay with me as the eternal memory of this lovely country.

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