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We returned to the Balkans just a few years after getting a taste for this beautiful, odd, diverse, goofy region that straggles along the northeastern part of the Mediterranean. We’d been wanting to do an Albanian road trip for years as it is one of the few places left in Europe with, by all accounts, impressive beaches and cool sights yet still not so many tourists. And Lake Ohrid, in North Macedonia, is considered one of the gems of the Balkans for the combination of its gorgeous lake and fascinating old city.
As for logistics, neither Albania nor North Macedonia are famously for having easy, efficient public transportation. So, following the logical train of thought – how to see the places we want to see in places that tend to be hard to get to without a car – road trip! There you go, a truly enlightening glimpse into the complex thought process behind so many of our travel planning decisions.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes things come up, circumstances change, weather rears its annoyingly unpredictable head and we need to adjust on the fly. In this case, we had planned to start our Albanian road trip adventure by heading north to the city of Shkoder, where we would embark on a 3-day, 2-night ferry/hike/bus adventure over the reputedly very scenic pass between Valbona and Theth. Alas, a strange combination of heavy rains and a low water level in Lake Komani (seems counterintuitive but, hey, that’s the Balkans for you) nixed those plans so we shifted to picking up our rental car and starting with a few nights in the Albanian beach town of Durres.
From there we would cross into North Macedonia to explore Lake Ohrid, then bust down across the Greek border to check out the world-famous rock-monolith-churches of Meteora before crossing back over and continuing our Albanian road trip itinerary with stops in ancient ruins of Butrint, the tiny beach town of Ksamil on the Albanian Riviera, the popular Blue Eye water springs, Syri I Kalter, finishing off with nights in the two most famous old towns in Albania, Gjirokaster and Berat, both of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites.
So that’s the general overview. However, I should probably also mention that basically every one of those places in Albania can be, and often are, spelled differently thanks to a difficult, confusing language which meshes with English about as well as the letter “ë”. When all was said and done, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we made virtually no headway learning to speak Albanian. Luckily, most people in the tourism industry spoke some English.
Ok ,sure, yes/no (po/jo) are easy enough, but never actually necessary as they are also pretty clear in English. Then there’s tualeti and birra, which are similar to Italian and basically just “toilet” and “beer” pronounced with an accent – both of which came in very handy.
Then there was “miredita” (good day), which seems ok but which I typically forgot to use, and “faleminderit” (thank you), which really did come in handy but which I probably pronounced correctly about 3 times out of a hundred. Shijshme is a fun one, pronounced shee-SHMEH (I think) and meaning “delicious”. So I used that a few times, always eliciting an amused smirk.
And there you have it – Routinely Nomadic’s Albanian Phrase Guide. Please use that wealth of knowledge responsibly.
What about the food, you ask? It was great, actually, thank you for asking. We had several traditional dishes that were excellent, although if you think I can remember what they were called or how they are pronounced, well, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Oh wait, I made some notes. Tave mishi was some kind of meat casserole. And I had some pretty good moussaka in a couple places, I remember that one.
Now, for the finer details on the day to day of our Albanian Road Trip+, courtesy of one of my personal favourite recurring Routinely Nomadic characters, who is rather dim but well-meaning, occasionally insightful but mostly shallow. But still gets the point across.
Albanian Road Trip Headlines
“Tourists Aren’t Allowed in the Best Part of the Castle”, Confirms Albanian Guard
UNESCO to Vote on Newest Balkan Heritage Site: “The Abandoned Gas Stations of Albania”
Guy in Brand New Range Rover Wearing Wrap-Around Sunglasses Kind of Drives Like a Dick
Historic Albania: Destinations Where Lord Byron Made it Clear He Really Wanted to Screw Albanian Women
Albanian Road Trip Map
Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)
My Albanian Road Trip
Our plane landed in Tirana just like they said it would, then the car rental guy who picked us up at the airport was really friendly but kind of awkward, not someone I’d want to share a pizza with or anything like that. But he took us to the rental office, which was cool.
Tirana is the capital of Albania but we didn’t know much about it except that it doesn’t have any beaches and way back in Communist times some guy with a bunch of x’s in his name built a lot of concrete bunkers. So there’s those, and a bunch of statues of guys we don’t know, lots of them with x’s in their names, too. Which didn’t sound so great to us so we just decided to go to the beach in Durres instead.
The first thing we noticed was that some Albanians drive really fast but a lot of them drive really slow, like, crazy slow, some of them even stopping dead when they’re merging, which didn’t seem to help at all. None of them used their signal lights, either, so a least that was one thing we didn’t have to think about.
We got to Albania just at the end of the summer season and it was raining, too, so the beach was really empty and kind of creepy, with boarded-up restaurants and eerie old carnival rides just sitting there, creaking in the wind. And even though the boardwalk had lots of rides for kids and classic games like Boxer and Psychic, they were never turned on so, you know, still cool but not AS cool.
Sometimes it felt like maybe the zombie apocalypse had happened and we just didn’t know because we had been on a plane and in the airport and stuff. But then we saw some old guy walking his dog and he seemed pretty chill so we figured maybe it wasn’t zombies, just crappy weather.
Our first night we could only find one restaurant open but they had souvlaki, so it was all good. I asked what kind of beer they had and the waiter said “Albanian beer”, so I said “large please”, and he brought it right away, so that part worked out really well.
What wasn’t as great was the power outage in our building. Then right about the time the power came back the water stopped working. Most people probably don’t realize it but it turns out we actually use water for a lot of things. We had to fill up a bucket from the ocean to flush the toilet, for example.
When we went to the Roman amphitheatre, the woman at the entrance said “free today” and waved us in with a friendly smile, which was really nice, but then we saw the theatre and thought maybe it should be free everyday.
We didn’t get to see the Venetian tower because it was under construction or something. Whatever they were doing to it, they had it hidden behind curtains painted with men in business suits using virtual reality while standing on an old wall. So I think maybe big things are on the horizon for the Durres tower.
When we got back to the apartment some old guy told us the water was back on, maybe because he gave the worker guys $100 or maybe because he threatened that he’d go back to the States if they didn’t fix it. It wasn’t really clear.
After a few days in Durres we drove all the way across Albania, which isn’t really that far, maybe like driving from Saskatoon to Regina, except without having to pass that crappy old gas station in Chamberlain.
We stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant in a cute little village called Lin that is on Lake Ohrid, a really big lake that is shared between Albania and North Macedonia. The food was pretty good and a woman sitting a couple tables over got hit in the head by a small rock thrown by some unruly teens. She didn’t seem too happy about it. She put some ice on it and stared at them a lot, then I think maybe she cried it a bit. It was a confusing time for all of us.
While I was up paying some guy asked Laynni if she could translate the Albanian texts he kept getting. She couldn’t.
After lunch we followed a tiny road to the border and crossed over into North Macedonia. The border guy phoned an insurance guy and that guy showed up right away to sell us some new insurance that cost €40 for “minimum 15 days!”. They repeated that part a lot. It makes me think that sometimes tourists want to pay less for less than 15 days. That would make sense but no doing, I guess.
After that, the border guy had a really heated argument with some old local guy while he was working on our documents. Luckily, it didn’t seem to affect his performance.
Ohrid, the town, and Ohrid, the lake, were big highlights of the trip. Not Sveti Naum Monastery so much. It was free to enter and the monastery itself was nice but it was really crowded. But they were selling loads of postcards and Cokes and keychains and stuff so I guess it all evened out for them.
The Bay of Bones was pretty cool, though, mostly the name, I guess, but also the cool old dirt shacks built on posts over the water just like they were in the old days. The real old days, they said, like way before the Romans and that, not just like the time before cell phones or back when guys carried combs everywhere they went.
We loved Ohrid. It’s beautiful and old and pretty chill. Plus, when we checked into our apartment in Ohrid the owner was very excited because the guy in the very next apartment was also named Dean Johnson. Which was pretty neat, except it would obviously have been better if his name also had a “t” in it, like mine, and then we found out he actually went by “Richard”, so in the end we didn’t have as much in common as we thought.
Ohrid Old Town was really cool with lots of steep, windy streets and old churches and a nice malecón. I found an Irish bar showing the Arsenal game and got a little bit drunk and real excited watching them beat Spurs. Then I got ice cream on my way home.
We checked out all the great viewpoints in Ohrid then took some beers down to the malecón to watch the sunset and there were lots of people walking up and down. When we sat down on some stairs by the water a big snake got scared and jumped into the lake. Which surprised us, to be honest.
In the morning we took a long walk along the lake and up into the hills and back down into town and then to a shop where Laynni bought some burek for lunch. She was pretty excited. We walked along Old Bazaar Street which is this nice, wide street with old stones and old buildings but some new buildings, too. Like, in this one part, there is a burek shop, then a casino, then a really old mosque, then a Victoria’s Secret. So it’s got everything you could want, really.
After a few days we left Ohrid, which made us a bit sad, but we left to go to Greece to see Meteora, so that made us feel better. The roads were pretty winding but the scenery was nice and they let us into Greece just like that, no problem at all, which was pretty nice of them.
There was a lot more good scenery on the way to Meteora, then we knew we were getting close when we could see these really tall rocks with churches on top, because that’s what Meteora is all about. Really tall rocks with churches on top. “Monolithic rocks”, they said, and I couldn’t think of any reason they’d lie about something like that.
Apparently there used to be dozens of churches, actually monasteries, or maybe monasteries with churches inside, but only 6 are left. Which is probably because of global warming, just like the glaciers in Switzerland, which is pretty sad but at least we could still enjoy these last few for now because Meteora was one of the coolest places we’ve ever seen.
I mean, we’ve seen quite a few churches, and a lot of rocks, but the way they combined them was pretty cool. Like, you’re looking for an old church and you’re thinking, hey, it’ll probably be right around the same height as us, like most churches, but then you look up and, wow, no way, it’s actually way higher.
There were so many awesome viewpoints, I think we liked those better than the churches themselves, although Great Meteoron and Varlaam monasteries were pretty neat, especially considering how old they are. Some of the monasteries still have live monks in them. We tried being really quiet and eventually we spotted one. He had a big beard and said “kalimera” just like everyone else but deep down I think he’s probably a pretty different cat with some pretty different ideas about life and stuff.
Because the monasteries are holy places, men aren’t allowed to go in wearing shorts and women have to wear a skirt or dress. But even though they made the women in pants buy skirts at the entrance you could look around and see lots of guys wearing shorts, which made Laynni pretty annoyed. I thought she’d be happy to look at all those dude legs, especially when it seemed like there wouldn’t be any at all, but when I said that she just seemed to get more annoyed.
Our first meal in Greece I had souvlaki and Laynni had a Greek salad and we both had a Mythos beer so overall I think we pretty much nailed it. Then we went up to a really cool viewpoint to watch the sunset. We brought more beer with us and watched with lots of other people and quite a few drones and the sunset was great and we got some amazing photos and then in the middle of the night Laynni woke me up to tell me there were bedbugs in our bed so we swore a bit and switched beds and moved out in the morning. But we’ll always have those photos.
First thing in the morning we went to St. Stephen’s monastery which was the furthest one, so we could beat the rush, and we got ahead of three tour buses but then we arrived and saw there were already around 15 buses there so we didn’t actually beat the crowds after all.
After that we went to Holy Trinity which people like because it was in an old James Bond movie. We had to go down a lot of stairs then back up even more stairs just to get to it and there weren’t nearly as many people at that one. It seems like maybe the bus people like the flat parts better.
After we left Meteora we had a long drive back to Albania, mostly through really long tunnels, the longest tunnels I’ve ever driven through I think. And every time you went inside one the speed limit went down by, like, 20 or 30 kilometres. But the Greek people, I don’t think they cared about those limits at all.
At the Albanian border everyone had to get out of the car and go to the same window whether you were going into Albania or going into Greece and the Greek border guy, he’d look at your passport, then ask “which way you go?”, I guess because he has two different stamps and didn’t want to mix them up.
On the Albanian side there was a bunch of construction and we got kind of lost and drove around some pylons and over new asphalt and were sort of just driving aimlessly until some guy sitting in a lawn chair smoking told us we can’t just drive into Albania like that and showed us where to go. And it turned out there were already lots of cars lined up there so either they figured out where to go better than us or lawn chair guy was having a busy afternoon.
To get to Butrint National Park we had drive onto a tiny wooden ferry that only had room for two cars and one guy running the pully and smoking. It worked out fine, probably because people around here are really good at doing things while they smoke. The Butrint Archaeological Park is a famous place with all kinds of ruins and walls and old stones and stuff. The entrance fee was 1,000 lek (€9) so I went in and Laynni napped in the car.
We spent the night in Ksamil, which is a hard name to say even though it is a cute beach town with nice water. The water is very nice but the hotels make it really hard to get to the next one, which made our beach pub crawl sort of confusing.
In Albanian this place is called Syri i Kalter but I like Blue Eye better because it is a deep spot in the river where the water is super clear and looks kind of like a blue eye. You could tell the Albanians have been putting a lot of money into the whole Blue Eye experience because there was a brand-new road with a sidewalk and even a bike lane even though everyone had to walk from the parking lot.
We waited in line to stand on a little platform where you could look down into the Blue Eye and maybe take a photo or say a few nice things about it. The platform even had a glass floor but it was kind of cracked and super-dirty so wasn’t really as fun as you’d think.
We tried to follow Google Maps to our hotel in Gjirokastër but ended up on some really steep streets that were so narrow we had to fold the mirrors in, then some construction guys got annoyed that they had to move their truck for us, then we couldn’t go any farther and Laynni ran ahead on foot to figure it out, then came back and said we probably should turn around. So we did, then got the hell out of there and just parked at the bottom of town and walked up. I think it was for the best.
The Gjirokastër Castle is huge and impressive and on top of a big hill which I guess is why they charge 400 lek (€3) to get in, which seemed like a fair amount. It was 800 lek for two people so I gave the lady a 1000 lek bill, you know, because that seemed like the right amount to use. She didn’t think so, though, and got a bit angry and asked why I didn’t have smaller money and tried to look in my wallet and implied I probably had some coins in my pockets. But I didn’t, and I didn’t think I wanted her looking around in my pockets, so I just said no, that’s all I have. So she gave us 200 lek back and went back to looking at stuff on her phone.
We walked around the Old Town for awhile then went up a hill to see this traditional home called Zekate House where rich people lived way back in the 1800’s or something. It was okay but they still had to sleep on weird couch/beds and the toilets were just holes in the floor and the fireplaces looked like a lot of work. Also, there weren’t any TVs or wifi or comfortable-looking chairs so I think it’s probably still better to be average these days than rich in those days. Although at least you would have had bunch of servants and stuff which is probably pretty entertaining, at least if Downton Abbey is anything to go by.
At Taverna Tradicionale I had really good moussaka and Laynni said her stuffed peppers were excellent. The owner/waiter guy had lots of energy and gave us free juice and water and dip and raki and dessert and recommendations and the wifi password, then said we might want to take some photos of our food and put them on TripAdvisor. It seemed like a pretty good idea so Laynni got right on it.
The next morning we walked to Ali Pasha Bridge, which some people said was actually used to move water at one time. All I know is in the photos of me walking across I looked tiny.
Berat is called the City of a Thousand Windows. I didn’t count them all but have a feeling there might even be more than that, especially if you count all the little ones and everything. The hotel we stayed in was called Hani I Xheblatit so I did my best to not say it out loud. Which worked out pretty well, all things considered.
It is a super-cute traditional hotel done up just like Albanian houses from the old days, with a whole bunch of funny little decorations and black and white photos and flowers in all sorts of weird places. Our room had a fireplace and bathroom, which made sense, but also an old metal baby carriage that was kind of confusing so we mostly steered clear.
Berat Castle is at the top of a very high hill and is maybe even bigger than the one in Gjirokastër except different because it is like a whole town inside the walls with lots of little alleys and houses and shops and art places and a museum. You don’t have to pay to go in but it seemed like the people might really like it when tourists buy stuff.
Most of the buildings were kind of trashed, except for a couple churches and huge water cistern that still has lots of water in it but kind of smells like wet fur. Plus, there is a huge sculpture of some guy’s head.
Berat also has a nice river and a couple cool bridges and right before we left a huge crowd of people were organizing a bike race on the main walking street for dozens of little girls. They all had pink bikes and one of them was wearing a helmet.
We didn’t really go to Tirana because Google said it would be slower so we went back through Durres again. We got takeaway gyros and ate them on the way. The tzatziki wasn’t too strong so it was good for me. While we were driving through Durres we talked about the time we had stayed there, saying things like “remember when we walked there?” and “do you think the water is still screwed up?”, things like that. Then we dropped off the car at the rental place and our Albanian road trip was over, just like that.
Albanian Road Trip Practicalities
The trickiest part of this particular Albanian Road Trip itinerary is finding a rental car company that will let you take the car across international borders. We got a great deal through Discover Cars and under the “rental conditions” in the results you can see if they allow cross-border travel and to which countries.
We went with Ace Rent a Car and had to pay €48 per additional country (so €96 total to add North Macedonia and Greece).
Event though their rental conditions say drivers from outside the EU (i.e. me) have to have both a valid driver’s license AND an International Driver’s Permit, nobody asked for the IDP (even though I went to all the trouble to get one this summer…)
Then at the North Macedonian border we had to pay €40 for insurance (minimum 15 days!) because our Albanian insurance wasn’t applicable there. We did not have to buy any new insurance when we crossed into Greece, which we assumed was because the Albanian insurance was valid there (although I didn’t want to complicate the issue so I never asked).
Where to Stay: Albanian Road Trip Hotels
Durres is full of well-equipped beach apartments and Seashell Beach Rooms offer great value in a perfect location.
Villa Ain in Ohrid was amazing. We had a gorgeous top-floor apartment with a view looking down over the Old Town and out over Lake Ohrid.
The place we stayed near Meteora (in the village of Kastraki) was nice and had great views of the rocks and churches and the people were very nice. However, we can’t really recommend them after the whole bedbug issue (although they were already fumigating the entire place before we left town).
Our second choice would have been Guesthouse Vavitsas, a beautiful, traditional place on the road to the monasteries with views of the rocks and its own restaurant.
In Ksamil, Hotel Lula Ksamil is a friendly little hotel close to one of the best beaches. It was good value and the breakfast was outstanding.
Hotel Gjirokastra is located just below the famous castle and is just steps away from some great viewpoints over the Old Town.
In Berat, Hani I Xheblatit is super-traditional, right in the middle of the oldest streets in town but close to the river and restaurants as well. The breakfast was outstanding, bordering on absurd (from a volume standpoint).
Albanian Road Trip Summary
Even though this trip started and finished in Albania, included mostly Albanian stops and has been arbitrarily named “Albanian Road Trip” by yours truly, I have to say, the big highlights of our 10 days were Ohrid (North Macedonia) and Meteora (Greece).
Ohrid is a beautiful little city with a terrific old town, gorgeous harbour and viewpoints everywhere you look. Plus it will always hold a special place in my heart as yet another world destination where I’ve been able to enjoy watching Arsenal down the hated Spurs in the North London Derby (with many more to come, presumably).
Meteora, on the other hand, is simply one of the most spectacular places you’ll find in Europe. A rare combination of natural beauty (dramatic rock monoliths), magnificent man-made extravagance (ancient rock-top monasteries) and modern tourism (tour buses everywhere), Meteora is truly a one-of-a-kind destination.
As for Albania, it was more about the vibe, atmosphere, food and people than major bucket list sights. It still feels fairly off the beaten path, especially compared to flourishing Balkan tourist hotspots like Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.
Tourism is clearly still in the early stages in Albania, which means that most of the time things aren’t perfect, or even moderately efficient, but the beauty is still there and you can see that their tourism sector is making progress which, for people who love the rawness of a new destination, may be a bad thing (they should probably get there soon).
Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Albania, found the driving simple and enjoyable and the history, people and food were all terrific. Now if only they could do something about all those x’s…
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