Albania is really fun, you guys. They don’t quite have their sh$t together yet, tourism industry wise, and they’re generally pretty surprised you’re even there at all, but I suggest going now anyway. It’s fun, it’s cheap, you get to fly by the seat of your pants and not worry about things booking up, and the chaos of getting around is just a hilarious story to talk about over cheap beers.
First of course, the low cost of almost everything gives you lots of freedom to do whatever you want. For 200 Albanian Lek, you could get 2 coffees and a bottle of water, or 2 beers on a nice terrace, or a museum ticket, or a 2 hour bus ride through the countryside. 200 Lek is just over $2 Canadian. We got to live like the “fancy tourists” for 4 days: eating in restaurants, stopping in any random cafe or bar without checking the price list first, even having drinks at a fancy rotating rooftop bar at sunset. A rotating rooftop bar! That we could afford! It was quite delightful.
Second, the country is really fascinating and beautiful. I love me a good post-Communist country, and this one has a bunch of unique history on display, like beautiful sections of cities that used to be completely reserved for state officials, the new car culture Will talked about, hundreds of bunkers “in case of invasion” all over the country, and bizarre “modernization” tactics like painting houses with colourful geometric patterns or making a 3 meter ditch down a central boulevard to create a “river” for the city. Most of the towns are surrounded by mountains in at least 2 directions, and the countryside between them is hilly, rugged and beautiful.
On the other side of it, Albania is not yet a tourism friendly country. There are no bus stations or info centres, and absolutely all of the research we did before hand on where/when to catch buses or accommodations to check out was totally thrown out the window. Getting from Tirana (the capital city) to Shkoder, we had a street name and the sentence “the bus drops off in front of the train station.” So off we went to that street, walked up it for 15 minutes into the middle of nowhere, and… Nothing. Walked back down towards civilization, and saw a sign for the train station! …Which was empty, falling apart, not near any trains, and literally full of garbage. But undeterred, we thought we’d just wait in front of it, like our big carrot of information told us. After 25 minutes, it was very apparent that no buses were coming, so Will asked a shop owner who pointed down the street. “800 metres”. And 800 metres or so down the street was a big yellow bus! …which was not going to Shkoder. That bus driver pointed to a corner even further down the street (we are now at least 2 km from that original street listed online). We go there, and are immediately accosted by men yelling “shkodra, shkodra!” Good, right? …Wrong. These are “mini buses”, a nice way of saying large private cabs that can charge whatever they want. Around every corner there were more of them! We were about to give in and take one when a shop owner told a woman near us that the big buses were …. you guessed it, further down. So past all the drivers yelling, around the bend, there it was! A big bright bus with air conditioning. Tickets for 300 Lek. Dropped us off right in the city centre in Shkoder. Nothing sketchy at all.
So you see what I mean? Thats our Worst Albania Story, and it’s really not that bad. Sure, you might need an extra hour to wander around town looking for your bus out of the city, but when you catch it it costs $3, drives you through beautiful countryside for 3 hours without incident, and drops you in a beautiful town where you can grab a beer on a terrace for $1.50. So anyway, I guess what I’m saying is go to Albania and have a hilarious time. With the attitude and expectations of a backpacker, you can roll with the punches and live like a high-end tourist.