Another week has flown by. We can hardly imagine we’ve already been on the road now for seven weeks. Somehow it feels much shorter. We spent the entire last week in Albania, where we soaked up some sun on the beaches of the Albanian Riviera, visited two Unesco World Heritage listed cities, saw an eerily blue spring, drove past a some very scenic bends in a river and had our car searched on leaving the country.
As mentioned in our last post we drove to the Albanian Riviera to find some cooler weather, as it was scorching hot in Albania’s interior, with temperatures rising to 40 degrees Celsius. We found what we were looking for, temperatures dropping all over Albania for a few days anyway. We stayed at an apartment in the small village of Qeparo with a hazy view of the Greek island of Corfu in the distance.
Qeparo’s narrow beach was only two minutes down some steep steps away, so the first day we just hung around this beach. Qeparo had not much else to offer; there was some kind of boulevard with just a few restaurants and that was it. Perfect. We saw a lot of potential for future development here, though, but for now investments seemed to be diverted to other beaches.
Preparing for mass tourism
Looking through posts on internet we saw Albania described as a country full of so-called ‘unspoiled’ beaches, with pictures to support this claim. While there are still some of these beaches around, we noticed that Albania is preparing for mass beach tourism, new projects and developments popping up everywhere. And not always in the most tasteful way. It’s the same old story in many countries, but who can blame them for wanting to want their share of the beach tourism pie.
Many of the pics we saw of the very beaches we visited had apparently been taken before some of these new additions to the beach scene had been built and before the beach umbrellas and sunbeds were put into place for the summer. And since only one type of beach umbrella seemed to be produced and many beaches are carpeted sea to wall with beach umbrellas and sun beds these days, they all looked a bit alike to us.
Still plenty of space
On the bright side: high season hadn’t started yet on Albania’s beaches so we had a lot of sun beds to choose from. And at 500 Leke (3,75 euro) for two sun beds and a beach umbrella we couldn’t complain about the price either. And when the sea is turquoise blue, the sun is brightly shining and you close your eyes, it doesn’t matter where you are. You just listen to some music, the waves crashing on the pebbly shore, the crickets and birds, your heartbeat, your breathing, your friends or family talking and relax, taking a somewhat chilly dip to cool off once in a while.
Blue Eye – small, cold and, yes, very blue
After three days at the beach and some amazing coastal driving, we moved on to see Ottoman architecture in the city of Gjirokastër. On the way to Gjirokastër we made a short stop a the Blue Eye, a 50 meter deep spring with emerald blue and icy cold waters. It was beautiful to see, but it was also very small.
We thought that because of Gjirokastër’s topography and the fact that we’d booked a guesthouse in the historic old city that it would be wise to park our car in the new town below and walk to our accommodation, just bringing what we needed. We shouldn’t have worried. A new asphalt road has made access to the old town very easy and the main road through the old town was much wider than anticipated. Google maps doesn’t show this though.
Gjirokastër is located in southern Albania and dates back to the fourteenth century. Its historic center is inscribed as Unesco World Heritage. We had our eyes set for the small picturesque bazaar. We’d seen some beautiful photos of it which drew us here, but to our dismay most of the bazaar’s streets were up in scaffolding and tarpaulin. From what we could see they’re renovating the authentic charm out of the place. Such a shame.
Walking around town – which required some going up and down – we saw some very nice Ottoman architecture though. We visited the two so-called tower houses that are open to visitors and the old fort with a strange collection of WWII armory and some great views of the surrounding area.
Scenic bends in the river
From Gjirokastër it was a short 1,5 hour drive to the small rural city of Përmet where we visited the surprisingly busy thermal baths at Bënjë in the Lengaricë Canyon (reeking a bit of rotting eggs afterwards) and drove a little bit further south along the Vjosë river. It was a short but incredibly scenic drive with no less than three picturesque bends in the river.
Few tourists in Berat
Our next stop Berat, like Gjirokastër, has its Ottoman old town inscribed as Unesco World Heritage. Berat is called ‘City of Thousand Windows’ because of the houses in the historic Mangalem quarter climbing up the hill to the city castle. With roots going back 2.500 years Berat is a city full of history with a great hilltop fortress that’s still inhabited.
We were surprised at how few other tourists we saw at both Gjirokastër and Berat, two of the major tourist draws of Albania. We know Albania is still a bit an off the beaten path destination, but we hadn’t expected it to be this untouristed. The house museums we visited told that they were receiving maybe 30-40 visitors per day, hundred visitors being a top day in high season. Remarkable. But you won’t hear us complain!
Car search at the border
Until now our border crossings went pretty smooth, but leaving Albania for Macedonia was not that easy. After scrutinizing our passports we were ordered by Albanian border officials to have our car inspected. We were directed into a garage with two scruffy officials who mostly communicated with brusque hand signals and short commands. Narcotics? Hashish? was barked at us. Do we look like drug users? We don’t even drink alcohol or smoke (which one of them was blowing into our faces).
We had to park our car into the back of the garage on a work bridge and were commandeered to take all our stuff out of the car. With all the (hardly used) camping stuff that we’d meticulously packed into the back we were afraid that we’d not be able to get it all neatly in again once everything was out.
A white license plate that comes with our car because it has a tow bar caused some suspicion and for some reason our fold out chairs and table raised some questions as well. While the official scrutinizing our car quickly got tired of the search, gesturing we could put everything back in again, his colleague kept rummaging without interest through our stuff.
An hour later we were finally across the border. All in all it was a bit of a weird experience, like we’d been caught in some 1980’s time warp. Why didn’t they use the drugs dog lying at the entrance to the garage when they were presumably searching for drugs? It was strange too because we found Albania great and its people very friendly. Getting into Macedonia was easier. Tourist? And we were just waved through…..