Why? Why is the question I hear the most. Our long weekend was upon us and my co-workers know that I’m going to go someplace, some unknown country in Europe. “Where?” Many would ask, and then their eyes glaze over at the answer, “Albania”, because it’s a place they do not understand, and doing a self-drive Albania road trip really didn’t compute. They politely tell me to have a good trip and they’re off. Some, the curious ones, usually stop, shake the glaze from their eyes to look at me real hard, and ask why. It was not the first time I’d heard these incredulous questions. Every time we head out to a lesser known area, like the Ukraine, Belarus, or even Armenia, folks look at us like we’re crazy.
Our Route – Albania Map
Have you been to Albania on a road trip? What was your impression?
Why Do They Always Ask If They Don’t Want To Hear the Answer?
When I said I was going to Albania, a couple people even went as far as to say, “It was nice knowing you. I hope you get back.” It was as if I was heading off into the wilds of Africa with only my hiking boots and a walking stick. Like I was going to a place so unknown, so far away, that it was just incomprehensible. “Why, oh why,” they would ask, “couldn’t I be like everyone else and be happy with Paris or with Prague?”
Despite the warnings of our friends and coworkers, off we went. Surprisingly there are just not that many people heading to Albania, so we could not find a direct flight and had to stop over in Vienna. I’d never been to Vienna’s airport before, but like their main rail station it was quite well put together. I liked it. It had the best lounging areas of any airport I’ve been in with free wifi, comfortable couches, and power receptacles galore.
It was late when we got in to Tirana, arriving around midnight. We’d booked an airport hotel which turned out to be a three minute walk from arrivals. Our plane landed and we waited in line at customs, but we were still in bed about 30 minutes later. You can’t beat that.
On the Road
Of course we were driving. We’d reserved a car and picked it up first thing to head out to Berat, our first stop. Now, mind you, I’d read that Albania was only as big as the state of Maryland, so small. Looking at the map, the places we wanted to go were not that far away and there were highways to them. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Leaving Tirana, we did follow the blue directional signs, but they petered out and we somehow got off the main road. To make matters worse, this kept happening. You’d think we’d learn, but it just seemed the intuitive way didn’t last and we’d find ourselves on a small path, somewhat paved, but with huge cracks and bumps and holes and all kinds of problems. Needless to say, driving times were much longer than we had anticipated. This really didn’t bother us too much, because the scenery was beautiful, green and hilly.
It took several hours to drive from the airport to Berat, even though it is only 100 km as the crow flies. We pulled in to this beautiful white city in the early afternoon. Luckily, we found our hotel, parked the car and were able to check in early. The room was spacious, comfortable and well appointed with an added bonus of a balcony that had an amazing view of the town. Despite the crazy heat, we were eager to see the town, so off we went to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hotel Rezidenca Desaret
Rruga Dr. Lluka, Berat, Albania
+355 32 237 593
A Roadside Restaurant Surprise
After the unexpectedly long drive to Berat we knew we had to adjust our driving plan. This time we resolved to stick to the highways as much as possible and to get an early start. We had a delicious breakfast of yogurt, bread, eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers, checked out and hit the road. This stretch seemed to be going much better so we decided we could try a side road that would be more direct and cut off a large loop to the north. It worked ok, though probably didn’t really save any time. Especially since we drove into one village that was completely closed off for the weekly market. No traffic into town at all. Of course, there were no detour signs so off we meandered up and down rocky, stream bed roads. Eventually we found our way back to the main road and then on to the highway.
Around noon we drove by a bustling, shaded rest area with an invitingly cool restaurant tucked up in a rocky crevice. Parking the car we noticed streams of water flowing, gushing, trickling across the roof and over the sides of the building. It seems natural springs on the mountainside above flow directly over and around the rest area. It was a very cool effect so we parked and went in to check out the lunch options. Grilled meat over an open wood fire? It was smoky as all get out down stairs in the entrance but upstairs with the spring fed waterfall cascading outside the open windows, it was perfect. To top it all off, the food was delicious!
Restaurant Kroi i Fshatit
E853, Tepelenë District, Albania
The Blue Eye
I don’t remember where I came across the reference to the blue eye, but I’m glad I did. There’s not much to it really, and since it didn’t sound like much, we almost didn’t go. An underground river comes out of the mountain at this point in a small blue pool. However, this was a magical experience for us. We parked the car and walked along the path to the pool. Along the way we were surrounded by thousands of deep blue dragonflies. They would land on our fingers, poise prettily on gently moving leaves in the cool breeze, and follow in thin clouds as we walked along the path.
It’s not a long path so were soon at the Blue Eye. The water comes out of the mountain after being filtered through miles of rock. It pushes up from the depths of a crystal blue pool in a pulsing swell. It was so hot, What I wouldn’t have given for a bathing suit! As it was there was a few people there including a small British family enjoying the cool, clean water. According to the five year old boy, the water was “cool and oh, so refreshing”!
Butrint and KSamil
Leaving the Blue Eye behind we pressed on for the coast. We followed the blue, blue water of that river for several miles as we came out of the mountains. Even though we didn’t spend much time at the Blue Eye, we were pushing well into the afternoon. We managed to reach KSamil, however, to pull into the parking lot of the Butrint Archaeological park before sunset. Checking the opening times, we discovered we had a couple of hours, so went in.
This was a good decision, as it turns out, since it was more than difficult to find our guest house. After a few phone calls and being led through the town by a stooped old man with a walking stick, we finally found our house and went of for a sunset dinner and a sun-downer on the nearby beach.
Driving out of Ksamil we were heading north towards Fier. We had a choice for the route here, we could backtrack past the Blue Eye and over the mountains to the international highway that runs north and south (roughly) through the country or make our way along the coastal highway. However, after experiencing the “highways” of interior Albania, we didn’t think we had the time for coast. We opted for the interior highway and made the trip in only a few hours with no problems. We stopped for lunch at another roadside rest-stop restaurant and ate a delicious lunch on their terrace. This restaurant was so popular that cars on the other side of the highway would park on the shoulder and the driver and passengers would then run across for lunch, risking their lives in the process.
Our trusty smart phone led us almost directly to our next stop outside of Fier with only minimal sign searching. We enjoyed the couple of hours we had at Apollonia, a quiet, park like area with a variety of Roman and Byzantine ruins. The small museum there has an excellent collection. But the only restaurant on site was filled with a small party so it was a good thing we ate at our highway rest stop.
We continued heading north along the highway to Durres and were amazed at how good the road was. We did run into one spot of difficulty at the Durres-Tirana junction with more missing signage, but nothing we couldn’t handle. On towards Tirana and then north again towards Krujes. We were flying out at around noon the next day and had decided to spend the night in the old castle ruins.
There’s not much of the castle remaining, but Krujes is a charming, old fashioned, mountain town with sweeping vistas looking out over what seems like all of Albania. We had some difficulty finding our guest house, Rooms Emiliano, with one enterprising parking lot owner insisting we had to park in his lot and walk up into the castle. Another phone call, and Emiliano himself (or his son, we were never really clear about that) ran down and then guided us up the cobble stone path into the castle grounds.
The guest house was at the top of the hill nestled right up next to the ruins. This is a small family run place where we were met with a small glass of the local brandy. Mom cooked a scrumptious dinner for us and we sipped a beer as the sun set over the country below us. We couldn’t have asked for a better spot for our last night in this beautiful country!
- As with most developing countries, don’t drive at night. You really need to be able to see the pits, potholes, rocks, animals, and pedestrians in the road.
- Unless you have all the time in the world, stick to the main highway as much as possible. Even then, be aware of detours that will take you off into the wilderness with no signs to return you to the main road.
- We never had any problems with other drivers on the road. Even trucks and buses were courteous and patient.
- There aren’t many (if any) gas stations outside of the cities so be sure and fill up when you see one.
- We never came across any tolls or traffic cameras, but that could always change.