Updated: Sep 20, 2018
All up we spent over two and a half weeks driving down the Albanian coast and then back up through the center to Lake Ohrid, on the northeastern border with Macedonia. Our favourite country on the trip for its raw beauty, less tourists (for now) and friendly people.
While one couldn't help think of the bad reputation Albania received from the movie "Taken", wipe that prejudice from your mind as the country is safe and simply fantastic.
After we crossed the Montenegro border we touched base in Shkodër town to get some local currency out (Albanian lek: €1 is approx 125lek), and then stock up on groceries, fuel and sim-cards (T-Mobile has a tourist deal of €10 for 10GB, which lasts 14 days and has simply outstanding 4G coverage throughout the country). We then headed directly to Lake Shkodër where we were staying at a brilliant camp ground Lake Shkodër Resort (which was also cash only, like every single campground we stayed at in Albania - although most took € as well as the local lek).
These guys had the campground layout nailed. A great green expanse of grass next to the lake with beach chairs, volleyball net (we used it as a paddle bat net), kayaks, paddle boards and a rickety plank for swimming out in the lake. All of which we used several times during our time there. Watching the sunset over the glass-like surface of the lake was stunning. The weeds growing in the lake reached up to the surface and reminded us of the great lake out of harry potter... we were half expecting grindylows to appear. There were no grindylows but thank god Bidi wasn't yet aware of the water snakes that were abundant in the lake!!
They also had an amazing cheap restaurant that introduced us to Albanian food and raki (our waitress would stand over us until we shotted our complementary Raki).
After a few days relaxing we went for a 30km bike ride towards the mountains and through local villages. Half way we stopped for an ice-cold beer at a restaurant in the middle of a beautiful valley and full of locals. On the route home Bidi was constantly pulling over to pick figs, pomegranates and green apples. We had a fruit bowl full on our return. :)
When planning to head to the coast, we had been told through a friend of a friend that the northern coast of Albania had large brown sand beaches while the south had smaller stony beaches but beautiful blue waters. As we were after the turquoise beaches we started our journey south to Durres and stayed at a unique campground called Kamping Pa Emer in Karpen.
We chose this spot as they had created a pizza island... sounds appealing huh! A restaurant built on a man made island reached by a bridge from the campsite. Also we found a great spot for Gary among the trees and right next to the water.
After a long day of driving we headed straight into the water. Although murky, it was refreshing for about 30 seconds until Bidi started getting bitten by 'man eating fish' and quickly sprinted out. Not a great first introduction to Albania's coast and more of an incentive to head south asap.
We enjoyed an evening of yummy pizza and wine on the beautiful island. Bidi received the worst presented dessert she has ever had in her life... but she can confirm it at least tasted good ;). We kept our toes out of the water for the rest of the evening and hit the road the next morning to Vlore.
We stayed about half way between Vlorë and Orikum at Camping Vlorë. We were next to the water but it was essentially just a parking area for campers next to the beach with a few amenities. The beach however was much better, with the water was getting bluer and no more bity fish to be felt. Bidi's tootsies were very pleased.
Throughout the days the beaches were packed with locals but the area was completely dead at night. We stayed two nights and enjoyed the local family restaurants and having a beach at our doorstep. It's an area not too developed and still cheap and cheerful. A good spot to stop to break up the drive along the Albanian coast.
Mount Cika (Maja e Çikës)
Our next move was a drive over Mount Cika. We were a little concerned how Gary would take this journey. A journey not for the fainthearted it seemed. We past five broken down cars and two cars pulled over with arguing partners inside.
Looks like the snail (aka turtle) won the race as we made it over painfully slow using only first and second gears. This drive turned out to be beautiful with completely different landscapes on either side. On the way up we were presented with lush deep green forests filled with badgers, foxes, squirrels etc according to the signs. Then from the top of the hill and downward, we had spectacular views of the Dhermi coast line. The landscape was quite barren and there was a large launch site where paragliders were taking off. Dan wishes he had his hangglider with him.
Drymades & Dhërmi
Turns out we had made it to our type of paradise: small friendly family owned camp grounds that are rugged and basic. After popping into the handful of camping options, we chose Camp Paradise. We were greeted by Leo the 10 year old son of the parents who owned the campground. We literally just squeezed in by a few inches as there were only six small parks available for small vans.
It then turns out Leo's father was in the kitchen cooking up the morning catch. This families' food was incredibly yummy and super cheap, so we filled ourselves up on massive calamari (€5.50), stuffed peppers (€2.50), and mussels (€3).
The beach was a two minute walk through a resort that was currently under construction. We saw a few cases of resorts who have completed the bottom floor restaurant and pool before starting on the remainder of the building. This gives a bizarre juxtaposition of brand new glamour against a construction zone, situated on beautiful beaches. This theme seemed to repeat itself along the coast with half-finished infrastructure dotted everywhere. A reminder that in 10 years time Albania tourism wont be cheap and cheerful but built up (including the prices) like Croatia (Montenegro is already on its way too).
Even with a scattering of half-finished concrete skeletons, Drymades beach was beautiful! We had a day behaving like the locals on holiday and hired ourselves some beach chairs and umbrella for the day (€4) and drunk cocktails (€4 and the first we had had on the trip). A few days later we discovered our favourite and more isolated micro-beaches just past the southern end of Drymades beach over the jagged looking rocks. So isolated we walked past a couple in the middle of ... doing stuff. ;). Overall after wandering most of the coast in this area, it was these beaches slightly off the beaten track that we enjoyed the most.
We also explored Dhermi beach by foot, which again was beautiful but more built up and busy. Then we came to a halt with Dan getting an ear infection (his first ever). Something that sounds trivial but far from it. In incredible pain we went to the closet (and only) pharmacy just up the hill in Dhermi. With a shopping list of ear drops, pain killers and antibiotics we managed to get barely adequate medication that was available. Always made harder when you and the pharmacist share no common language. Unfortunately his condition got worse so we packed up and headed to Himarë to visit the small local Hospital.
We were skeptical when entering but were immediately seen by a doctor. Thankfully the doctor spoke good English and after looking in Dan's ear (not much to see when its completely swollen shut), she prescribed three days of antibiotics via injections and an initial inflammatory injection. Dan hates injections so a total of seven was not ideal. Both the doctor and Dan didn't seem keen to take up Bidi's generous offer of administrating them... So we were stuck in Himarë for three days.
Turns out it's not a bad spot to be stranded at all. What surprised us the most was that the hospital was free! Here we are thinking we will be claiming travel insurance! We just had to buy our own disposable needles and antibiotics from the much more well equipped pharmacy next door (about €70 total for six antibiotic injections with needles, ear-drops and a five day course of antibiotic pills). Overall, a far different experience from other traveler stories (e.g. where they have security guards stay in the patient's room until they can show travel insurance documentation...).
We parked up at Kamping Himara at Prinos beach just south of the town. A great spot next to some amazing restaurants, right near the beach and walk-able distance from the hospital. Our days consisted of hospital visits 8am and 8pm each day and recovering on the beach throughout the day. We also noticed that in this particular area locals just left their beach umbrellas on the beach indefinitely, essentially reserving that part of the beach throughout summer! We also ate a lot of yummy food. Bidi made some awesome French toast, and we ate at a few times at the highly popular local restaurant Taverna Stoli across the road (checkout the 500g of fresh squid Dan order below - it was so fresh and amazing). Bidi had a few more cocktails and bottles of wine on the beach also. Needless to say we kept ourselves entertained until it was time to move on.
Once the injections were finished, we hit the road and headed south along the incredibly beautiful coast. We had to pass some great places we would have loved to stop if we had more time (Porto Palermo Castle and Qazim Pali beach) and then passed through the built up Sarandes on route to Ksamil. The further south the went the busier it got.
We chose Ksamil for its beautiful islands that you can swim to from the shore. However when we arrived it was PACKED around the whole area. It therefore lost a bit of its charm with all of the tourists squished on the beaches. This place brought a whole new meaning to "packed in like sardines". So we chose to only stay one night.
We did find a very cool camping spot called Ksamil caravan camping, where we were welcomed warmly with iced coffees and updated that they currently had the whole common wealth staying (UK, Canada, Australia and now New Zealanders). The place also had a unique tent area on the roof!
Ksamil also officially marked the turning point in our road trip... this was our most southern point and it was here we started heading north on our very scenic route back to the Netherlands.
The Blue Eye:
The next morning we headed to this natural spring first thing... hoping to avoid the masses of tourists. The blue eye is a water spring and natural phenomenon found in Vlore country. The clear blue water of the river bubbles forth from a depth of more than fifty-meters. Divers have descended to fifty meters, but it is still unclear what the actual depth of the karst hole is (thanks Wiki).
It was pretty epic to see and well worth the stop on our route to Berat. But I'm not sure it would be worth the day trip from Sarandë that the local tourist companies are offering.
Berat is a UNESCO site based in central Albania known for its white ottoman houses and Berat Castle, a 13th century fortress up on the hill. The old town alongside the Osum river is filled with the famous houses with their over abundance of windows
We felt half a day was easily enough to explore the town. The castle was unique in the fact it still has inhabitants living within the walls. It's a steep climb well worth the panoramic views, and there's plenty to explore inside, including the aqueducts, a roman head and various other ruins.
We then headed back to the main town, had a quick Pizza and stocked Gary up with groceries to use up the remainder of our Albanian currency up before hitting the road again, on our way to Lake Ohrid and our 9th country of our road trip: Macedonia.
Bidi & Dan