For A Few Days I Was In Albania And It Was Cool

Riding to Albania

Waiting by the side of the road

A Robert de Niro look-alike sat to my left, and an older man with hardly any teeth sat next to me on my right. Toothless was talking to me in rapid-fire Albanian and Robert de Niro laughed at something he said. The other occupants of the van I was taking from Prizren, Kosovo to Kukës, Albania chuckled.

“You don’t get many Americans round these parts, do you?” I asked.

At least they understood the part about America–I’m pretty sure Toothless said something like “No sir, we sure don’t get many Americans round here.”

Thus I passed the spectacular ride from Kosovo to Albania, admiring the deep river gorge we skirted and the snow-capped mountains that rose up above us.

After an hour in Kukës the next van I got in was bound for Shkoder, the big city in the north. I’ve grown accustomed to getting ripped off the first time I enter a country where I don’t speak the language–I think of it as my obligatory tribute as a foreigner–and when the driver stopped by a gas station in the middle of an otherwise desolate plain and asked for double the cost we had haggled over before leaving, we parted ways by mutual consent, 10 Euro tucked safely away in his wallet, my pride somewhat dented. I would be hitching the rest of the way–50 km or so–to Shkoder, taxis be damned.

Waiting by the side of the road

2 Albanian students who let me hitch their taxi ride

Turkey wrangling isn't for me

A squall had passed through not long before I found myself by the side of the road, and I stuck my thumb out amidst the puddles, hoping that I would find a ride before the rain came down again. The first few cars that pulled over were taxis, and I waved them on impatiently. Finally a car with two pimply-faced boys in the back stopped. One of them rolled down the window.

“Are you going to Shkoder?” I asked.

They were, and they insisted on giving me a lift. It turned out that this was also a taxi; they were returning from a football match and had already agreed on a set price with the driver, so it wouldn’t cost them any extra to take me. Not long after they picked me up, they told the driver to stop again.

“Since this is your first time in Albania you need to see this,” one of them exclaimed.

We pulled onto the shoulder and exited the car. Two children holding long bamboo poles kept watch over a flock of restless turkeys, and not far from them an older man was busy plucking the feathers from a freshly-killed bird. His hands were red from blood, which I noticed was still oozing slightly from the place where the turkey’s head used to be. The wings twitched slightly.

Our driver took a photo of the three of us smiling in front of the frazzled flock, and about half an hour later the boys dropped me off in front of my hostel in the city center, where I would be staying for the next four days.

Super delicious sour cream

Classy old folk singer

Canadians in headlights

After a quiet first night in, the next day two Canadians, Ben and Keelen, arrived. That night the hostel manager, a young guy named Drini, took us to a smoke-filled cafe where a middle-aged man missing many teeth–a commonplace deficiency, it would seem–sang traditional Albanian love songs with backup from a keyboard, sax, and drums. I ended up swaying to the music, moreso from the beer and lighter-fluid quality rakija than because it was particularly good.

The Street Vendor

Trudging through the garden

Classy as always

The next day Drini took us on a bike tour of the city. When Albania was still communist, privately-owned cars were banned; a far cry from the vehicle congestion that clogs the streets of Shkoder today. We skirted around cars parked precariously in narrow alleyways, stayed in a tight single file along the main boulevard, and navigated a few hair-raising roundabouts.

Dudes in a moto repair shop

Socialist Realism Architecture, Shkoder

Leaving Shkoder

Classy transportation

We drank coffee in the Turkish manner: black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love, in an anonymous square of the city, the clear winter sun warming us as much as our little black cups of coffee. Bright hanging laundry accentuated bleak communist-era apartment buildings. On a busy street corner we noticed a trio of men, legs spread wide in wrestling stances, trying to trap a pair of runaway ducks destined for a fate on someone’s dinner table. A woman with her gray hair pulled into a bun and a blue apron covering her stout figure tended a small cart that emanated mouth-watering smells of cooked meat. Drini took us to an old Ottoman villa with a small stand of orange trees and a well in the yard, and we admired its elegant wooden interior.

The view from Enver Hoxha's Balcony

In the mountains

On the shady side of the mountains

The village

Water and power lines

Lunch

The next day Drini took a German couple and me into the mountains near the northern border with Montenegro. It was here that Enver Hoxha, the Socialist dictator who ruled the country from the liberation of Albania from Italian fascist rule in 1944 until his death in 1985, built a “balcony” overlooking a breathtaking gorge that straddles the border between Albania and Montenegro, then part of the rival socialist state Yugoslavia. If the wind blew in the right direction, Hoxha could spit from the balcony and it would be carried onto Yugoslavian soil–or so Drini said.

After the obligatory photos we descended down the steep switchback road to a village situated alongside a river with startlingly clear green water. A multitude of power lines criss-crossed the river; I wondered until how long ago this isolated outpost had no electricity. We sat down for lunch at a tavern overlooking the flowing water and were served plates of potatoes, cheese, and fried trout caught straight out of the river. After stuffing ourselves and downing a few shots’ worth of rakija, the sun began setting behind the mountains and the temperature dropped swiftly–a little too cold for my sweater to handle. We piled back into the car, taking care not to wear our seat-belts–Drini insisted this was simply not acceptable behavior in Albania–and drove back to Shkoder.

Welcome to Montenegro

Christmas was around the corner and I wanted to spend some time in Montenegro, so the next day I bade farewell to my Canadian friends, Drini, and the Germans. After once again being scammed by an Albania taxi driver, I was was dropped off at the Montenegrin border and crossed on foot. There were no buses onwards into the country, so I stood out in the sun, my pack lying on the ground, and waited for a sympathetic driver to take me somewhere in new.

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11 thoughts on “For A Few Days I Was In Albania And It Was Cool

  1. The picture of you, the bamboo stick, and the flock of turkeys is one of the best I’ve seen in awhile; this entire post is wonderful.

    I feel like there’s got to be a story behind that sweater you’re wearing…

    1. Hey Nadine! My apologies in advance for what will be a long slog through the multitude of blog posts you just published.

      Anyways, in response to your comment here:

      I was going to pose by myself in front of the turkeys and then one of the guys who I was with told the older of the two children carrying sticks to give me his! The whole scene is a bit absurd and I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      As for the sweater, I bought it in early December while I was in Novi Sad, Northern Serbia, just before heading to Belgrade for a week. I didn’t do anything special in Novi Sad so I never posted anything about it, but I suppose if there was one thing that was special about the place was this sweater, which I paid $4 for in a second-hand clothing shop. Knowing that I would be spending the winter in the Balkans I realized I needed some extra warm clothing and the moment I saw this piece I was reminded of all the crazy 90s era colors and patterns of clothes. And for just four bucks I couldn’t say no!

      1. That sweater definitely looks early 90’s… and it’s definitely special. (also pretty great) 🙂

        And I don’t know what happened with all those blog posts of mine… it’s either older stuff I wrote when I was in France (that I moved over from another blog), or it’s Camino stuff that was already published. That’s what I get for messing around and trying to make changes to my blog… (so, sorry for the bombardment of notifications!)

      2. Well I’m glad the sweater has your endorsement! This ain’t really a travel couture blog but I try to look my best 🙂

        Now that I’ve been bombarded with notifications I think the only thing to do is see what the buzz is all about.

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