A little bit later than planned, our post about week 6 of our travels. We’re at the half-way mark of our Balkan road trip. This week is about a stunning farewell to Montenegro (for now that is, we’ll return later this trip), yet again a new country (Albania), a strenuous hike, both travelers feeling a little bit sick, high temperatures and a visit to a communist-era atomic bunker.
After spending six nights in Petrovac the previous week we left Montenegro for Albania, visiting Skadar Lake along the way. Skadar Lake is the biggest lake of the Balkans and is shared by Montenegro (2/3rds) and Albania (1/3rd). The most scenic part is the northern tip on the Montenegro side, so that’s where we went.
It was the beginning of a very hot week. A relaxed two hour boat cruise on the lake and a half hour speed boat ride on the Rijeka Crnojevića, a tributary of Lake Skadar, could hardly cool us off when temperatures rose to 37 degrees Celsius.
A scenic bend in the river
Every time we got back into the car it was like stepping into an oven. I had some sweaty palms negotiating the winding one lane road from Virpazar (where we had our boat ride on the lake) to Rijeka Crnojevića, not only from the heat but also from never knowing if some local would take a corner as if there’d never be traffic coming from the other side. We had some narrow escapes but the views were breathtaking, including a very scenic bend in the river.
After a smooth border crossing, the drive to our first destination in Albania, Shkodër, was way more relaxing. Finally we had some straight, flat roads ahead of us. Shkodër too was a flat city. We saw a lot of locals cycling – a sight we had hardly seen in the past weeks. Being Dutch we immediately felt at home.
We used Shkodër as a base to visit the Albanian Alps in northern Albania. We’d found a hostel where we could park our car in a secured fenced-off area while we went off for a three day round trip to the Albanian Alps, also known as the ‘accursed mountains’.
Three day loop Albanian Alps
The first day involved a 1,5 hour taxi-van ride to Lake Koman, a three hour scenic ferry ride on the beautiful narrow lake that was formed in the 1970’s after the completion of a hydroelectric dam, and another 1,5 hour minivan ride to the village of Valbona in the Albanian Alps.
On day two we hiked from Valbona – which is like a cluster of lodging options – to the more traditional village of Theth on the other side of 1.759 meter high Valbona Pass, climbing over 700 meters on the way up and descending 1.000 meters on the way down. The climb was very steep on some sections, the descend slightly more gentle with some really steep parts.
It was hard work in the blazing sun – and Eugénie cursed me several times for making her do this hike – but we were rewarded by fantastic mountain views. It took us nine hours total (including many rest and photo stops) to get from our guesthouse in Valbona to our guesthouse in Teth.
On the third day we had a short look around Teth before we returned to Shkodër, by driving up (badly unpaved) and down (recently paved) some steep and hair-raising roads in a 30-year old Mercedes-Benz minibus.
Feeling a bit sick
After these hard but great days we both felt a little bit sick. Eugénie already started to feel ill on the ride back, I felt a little bit off the next two days as Eugénie started to feel better again. It was probably something wrong we ate or drank. Or maybe it was the heat, or the use of air-conditioning (which we both hate). Maybe a little travel fatigue? Or all of the above. Anyhow, it’s something that’s seemingly unavoidable when you’re traveling for an extended period of time.
From Shkodër we drove to Albania’s capital Tirana, visiting the Krujë fortress along the way. The castle was a bit of an over-renovated affair housing a museum dedicated to Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg (or Skënderbeu). Quirky, but not really memorable for us as foreigners. But maybe our judgement was clouded by us both not being fit and it being very hot again.
On the road between Shkodër and Tirana we saw the highest concentration of gas stations ever, we estimate at least one every 500 meters. We’ve also never seen so many people driving a Mercedes. If ever there was a status symbol in Albania, this is one.
Driving through Tirana was crazy, with cars switching lanes at high speed without signaling or just stopping in the middle of the road. We regretted not having our GoPro ready to film it. Although not feeling very well I liked this kind of driving better than the steep, narrow streets elsewhere in this road trip though.
Bunk’art in Tirana
With me still not feeling too well and the mercury in Tirana rising to almost 40 degrees Celsius, we limited ourselves to the things we had high on our priority list of things to see in the capital. One of those was Bunk’art 1, the bunker complex built in the 1970’s by Enver Hoxha, who was the communist leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985.
Hoxha was so paranoid about a possible war that he had 168.000 small bunkers built, many of which still can be found all over Albania today. On the outskirts of Tirana he had a special bunker complex constructed that could withstand a nuclear attack. Part of this five level structure can be visited. Some of the bunker cells are decorated with original furnishings, others are used for an exposition about the history of the Albanian communist army and the daily lives of Albanians during the communist regime.
Going to the beach
Because 40 degree temperatures were predicted again for the next day we decided to make the 4,5 hour drive from Tirana to the Albanian Riviera, in the southwest of the country, where it was only a ‘cool’ 35 degrees Celsius. We found a cheap apartment in the small village of Qeparo with a view of the Adriatic Sea (the stony beach is only two steep minutes away) and the Greek island of Corfu in the hazy distance. We’ll be staying here for three days to rest a bit before resuming our travel adventures.