Not enough people visit Albania. In fact, I don’t think I know anybody that has visited Albania.
From the conversations I’ve had with travel-heavy friends, it seems that even the most eager of adventurers seem to skip over the southern European country for two reasons — its a little out of the way, but more significantly, just like its neighbours in the former Yugoslavia region, Albania suffers from a bit of a public relations problem.
And while I can’t shift Albania geographically closer to the heartland of continental Europe, I can help to dissect the public relations problem, which I generally found to be factually misrepresented and a little unfair.
Here’s a write-up of my 24 hours buzzing through northern Albania.
I arrived by road from Montenegro, in a rental car that I had picked up a week earlier in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This is a practical option for many, given the ease in which Croatia presents itself as a tourist outpost.
The route from Dubrovnik takes you through Montenegro, another wonderful, southern-european gem that deserves its own story.
I would advise this border-hopping option for a number of reasons. Firstly, unless you speak the native language, you’re going to have problems renting a car in Albania. And secondly, there isn’t really any sort of public transport throughout the major Albanian cities, let alone the countryside.
Crossing the road border from Montenegro was as unconventional highlight. Sitting in the queue to have our passports stamped, a rogue family of goats had entered the checkpoint, wandering past immigration and to the other side. Looking slightly baffled at what had taken place, the Albanian military police didn’t really know how to respond. After scratching their heads and debating the situation for a while, one of the officials chased after the family of goats and attempted, with amusing difficulty, to lead them back across the border to Montenegro.
Goat-gate announced the start of a compelling voyage into dusty Albania.
Sparse and empty
If Albania had its own postcard, I’m not exactly sure what would be on it. What’s their Eiffel Tower, or their Charles Bridge? I suppose if we drive long and far enough, we might find our own answer to this question.
My first impressions of the northern Albanian landscape was that it was wide, empty, and arid. Wild animals aside, there wasn’t a lot going on. If you’ve ever made the trip across the Australian Nullarbor Plain, I suspect it’s kind of like that, albeit on a smaller scale.
Every now and then the drive would take you past a local farmstay. A small house, an agricultural plot, and perhaps a few chickens. Occasionally a church would appear against the glare of the road, shimmering in the distance. Driving between the larger cities, it’s not unusual to travel for hours at a time without seeing any form of human civilisation — there are no supermarkets and churches outside the cities, and with little public infrastructure, you’re unlikely to pass a bus or train as you parade across the country.
It goes without saying that this sparseness is perhaps reflective of modern day Albania. With a tarnished economy, underdeveloped resources, and the majority of the population living in poorly-constructed slums, much of the country lives in hardship.
Admittedly, this was a landscape that was hardly making the case for for stopping the car and getting out. Although I will admit that watching a lone farmer, wandering through a seemingly abandoned desert landscape with his donkey in toe is just as romantic in real life as it may appear in literature.
But I wasn’t here to dordle through the countryside, I was here to experience something else. Pop into one of their bigger cities for lunch, and then, head up to the Accursed Mountains.
City life in Schköder
You’ve probably never heard of Schköder before, but that’s probably for good reason — it’s not exactly cosmopolitan.
The fourth-largest city in the country, Schköder has traditionally been a port of call for education and teaching, rather than tourism and culture.
It is however, about as authentic an experience as one can expect. There are no knick-knack tourists shops here— it’s real, genuine, and a whirlwind introduction to what life really looks like in Albania.
After parking the car, we were absorbed into a local farmer’s market. Men, women and cattle heaved from one cluttered tent to the next, inspecting the goods on display, and offering their own in exchange. Flies buzzed around the fish stands, and bright spices tickled our noses. The sense of locality was alive and well, with the local community out and about, preparing their wares for the week ahead.
The locals looked industrious and very much focused on their market expedition, but most had time to offer a smile. I felt like a foreigner, but that was nothing new. Thinking back to the rogue goats at the border, I got the feeling that in the eyes of the locals, we might also have been exotic cattle that had wandered across the border. But on second thoughts, we were probably less useful than the goats.
The architeture was slightly odd and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Roman influence? Greek materials? But German shapes? I’ll stop my analysis here because I’m quite clearly out of my depth and this description really isn’t going anywhere.
All roads lead to Theth
If Schköder was the tantalising entree, then the village of Theth at the valley of the Accursed Mountains were surely the main course.
We spun out of the city and headed towards the towering mountains that hovered across the landscape, absorbing the afternoon sun.
Our route would take us along the mountain, up the mountain, and then down into the valley to a small town called Theth. Most of the road was paved, but there were sections that really did require a 4WD, and not a beaten-up, Croation issue Fiat 500.
Once we reached the top and descended into the valley, the road began to wind and the headaches started. Although sections of the road were in good repair, the final 20 kilometres of road was well, not really a road, and perhaps the articulation of dirt track might even be a little generous.
As we spiralled up, and then down the mountain, we had a few moments where the car was forced to hug the outer side of the mountain path as we gave way to larger passing vehicles. Like all good adventure trips, there were a few moments where we looked at each other and thought, ‘Well, this could be it, mate’.
But there was to be no foreign repatriation mission required. After a three-hour drive, we had made it to Theth.
Positioned seductively at the base of the towering mountains, this village is so far away from the rest of the world. It is a needle to the earth’s haystack.
Theth is a charming little village. Set against the backdrop of the slate-grey mountains, the stretch of humble houses and their colourful rooftops bounce into sight. There’s not a great deal to do here, but to stop, look around, and simply spend a moment in awe of this unique pocket of the earth.
I think I found Albania’s postcard picture.
With less than a thousand residents, the population of Theth continues to dwindle due to its isolation from the rest of the country, and the harshness of its winter season. As it turns out, the road into Theth is closed between September and March due to the snow. The locals were impressed that we made it this far in August, specifically in a Fiat 500.
If we had more time in the valley, we would have explored some of the local hiking trails, or chased one of the nearby waterfalls. But this was a short whistle-stop tour, and with the sun beginning to set, we needed to get back to the winding roads before sun-fall.
I’ll leave you with a quote from traveller Edith Durham, captured during her visit to the Accursed Mountains in the early 20th century. She said, ‘I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world.’
Without giving this quote too much thought, I can’t help but feel she was just about right.
Until next time, Albania.