According to one of our guides in Bulgaria, once you get past 50 countries visited, you’re an “intermediate” traveler. On that same scale, respectively, 100 & 200 countries make you “advanced” and “expert”. Yeah, tough scale. Well, we’ve picked up the pace on our traveling these past few years and now, by that metric, we’re no longer “beginner” travelers…. arriving in Albania by bus, we both hit the 50 mark together. It was a nice milestone for both of us.
The bus from Pristina to Tirana was supposed to take about six hours. We actually caught the 0500 bus out of Pristina and snoozed a bit on the way. The bus kept a loop of Albanian pop music videos playing for the ride, a bit mind-numbing after a while. A note on the central bus station in Tirana: there isn’t one. The capital of Albania has no central bus station. That is why you won’t find schedules very easily online. The whole setup is very informal. However, when you’re actually on the ground, you should have little trouble getting between the bigger cities in Albania. There are some areas where there are a number of buses and minibuses picking up and dropping off and there are guys out on the sidewalks yelling the names of various cities. There you go! For a few bucks, you’ll be in a converted cargo-van with 18-20 others and on your way. Now, not having fully appreciated the informality of bus transit in Albania ahead of time, we assumed that the first drop-off in a small parking lot in the outskirts of Tirana was simply the first of a couple stops for the city. We were wrong. Shortly after, we were full speed on the highway heading to the coastal city of Durres. The other factor that threw us off was that we arrived in Tirana around 0900, a couple hours earlier than expected. The border crossing from Kosovo was basically nonexistent, without any immigration or customs formalities.
Anyhow, making lemons out of lemonade, so to speak, since we were there, we figured out what to do in Durres for a few hours. It’s a quaint little coastal resort town on the Adriatic Sea. The beaches are a little lacking, but there are some nice hotels and restaurants and something of a boardwalk alongside the beach. We visited the Roman Amphitheater that is located in town, which was very impressive in it’s informality. The ruins are definitely in need of professional restoration resources, similar to the ruins we saw in Macedonia. After spending some time sightseeing and grabbing an early lunch, we found a minibus that would take us back to Tirana. There were only 2 seats left on the twenty passenger bus and when I asked the price I was told (equivalent) <$2, after which another Albanian slapped the guy on the back of the head as he took my money. I’m pretty sure he missed a rich opportunity to jack the price up for a couple of foreigners.
As it turns out, the detour in Durres was mostly fortuitous, as we still managed to see everything we had planned in Tirana. Honestly, Tirana is not terribly interesting on it’s own. There are some interesting relics of the communist period, like the pyramid, but outside of that the city doesn’t stand out in any major ways. Albania has a much larger Islamic population than the neighbors we have visited so far on this trip, but that isn’t particularly obvious at a glance. On a related note, I found the presence of a George W Bush Street in a largely Muslim area somewhat interesting. It makes me a little sad how drastically politics have changed in so little time.
After a nice celebratory dinner and an overnight in Tirana, we moved north to Shkoder. The bus ride from Tirana to Shkoder was only a couple hours. Same deal: taxi took us to a corner grocer with a guy yelling “Shkoder” to passersby and took (equivalent) ~$3 from us for the ride in a packed minibus. Shkoder is a small town with a lot of history. There is a really picturesque castle dating as far back as the 13th century towering over the city. Mountains frame the city in all directions. Like all over Albania, orchards and vineyards are everywhere. We stayed at a guesthouse where they make wine, and dinner consists only of items from the family farm. The highlight of our time in Shkoder was a bike ride with just us two across the water to Shiroka. Just stunning views in all directions. Albania is a bit underdeveloped, a bit rough around the edges, but we had a great time. They have basic infrastructure to accommodate tourists, but there really aren’t that many here. Definitely worth a visit and it was a memorable stop for our first major milestone.