Welcome back! If you haven't read the first two posts yet, go ahead and check them out here:
Out third country was Albania. While we had a rough idea of what to expect in Croatia and Montenegro, Albania was a total unknown. I knew the country had been under a communist dictatorship for almost 50 years and that it struggled with unrest in its transition to a democracy in the '90s. But modern Albania? I had no idea.
The roads in the countryside were about the same as we'd seen in Montenegro, but as we narrowed in on the capital, Tirana, things got crazy. Traffic felt chaotic. Lane markings came and went, as did guardrails. The buildings began to rise around us as we pushed toward the city centre and with each roundabout, I became more and more grateful for our driver.
After making it to our hotel, we met up with a local guide. He advised us that crossing the street requires pedestrians to be much more assertive than we were used to, then we took off on a tour of the capital. Along the way, we stopped at an ancient mosque, the brand-new central square, soaring skyscrapers and construction projects left half-finished, out of money.
Abania is a majority Muslim country, though very few people practice regularly. Despite this, the capital is still host to a massive church and Orthodox cathedral with a towering mosque under construction. For a country that cracked down on religion as strictly as Albania had in the '60s, these massive places of worship were a sharp contrast. After the tour, we decided to make a quick visit to a nearby museum, the House of Leaves.
The House of Leaves was built as a medical facility but under the communist regime, it played host to the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the Albanian secret police. Inside, the building was largely original besides the striking exhibits throughout its halls. Reels of taped conversations lined the walls upstairs, while a room full of camera equipment and recording devices stood as physical evidence of the surveillance the Albanian people were under.
Feeling more attuned to the history of the country we were in, we met the group back at Tirana’s main square and headed to dinner. That evening, we grabbed some drinks at a rotating bar.
The next day we had an early wake-up and a long bus ride to Sarandë. Along the way, we stopped in Gjirokastër, a city whose old town is one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture. The city’s castle holds trophies of war (mostly foreign canons, as well as a captured US T-33 jet) and gives visitors a great view of the surrounding valley. After a quick lunch, we continued on the winding mountain roads to the Blue Eye.
From 50 metres underground, 10-degree water comes surging to the surface and becomes the source of the Bistricë river. The frigid, foot-numbing water was a relief after baking in the sun all afternoon. After a quick swim, we hopped back on the bus and continued to Sarandë.
Sarandë sits on the coast of Albania; from the shore, you can see Corfu on the horizon. We settled in at our hotel, just a shot walk from the beach, then ate at a restaurant right on the water. After the sun set, we spent the evening people-watching along the shore.
The next day, we took a bus to the Butrint Roman Ruins. We arrived early and it felt like we had accidentally stumbled on the ruins on a hike – a stark contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder experience expected in bigger centres. Of course, the seven tour buses that pulled up as we left told a different story, but it was still surreal to be almost alone with such an interesting piece of history.
That afternoon, we took refuge from the heat back at the hotel before boarding our ferry to Corfu.
That does it for part 3. Check back early next week for the final installment!