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Ksamil, Sarande, Gjirokaster, and Tirana

Albania wasn’t really somewhere I had ever thought to travel, but Mike was interested and we were looking for ways to minimize our time in the Schengen Visa Zone.  We had signed up for a Housesitting website that matches sitters with people who need their pets looked after and we applied for a pet sit in Tirana.  Luckily, we were chosen so we spent Christmas and New Years in Albania looking after 4 cats, so their mom could go home to the Netherlands for the holidays.

We arrived in Albania 3 days before we needed to start our pet sit, so we rented a car and drove down to the Southern end of Albania to spend a few days in Ksamil and Sarande.  The drive down was amazing!  The infrastructure in Albania was much better than I had been expecting and the views were incredible.  We drove through farmland and epic mountain views to get to our destination.  Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, Ksamil and Sarande are very much summer hot spots for vacation.  This meant that almost everything was closed, the hotels, restaurants, and most shops.  For us this was actually a blessing because no one was there, and it was a nice quiet getaway.  We explored the promenade in Sarande where they had a local Christmas Market.  We went to the National Park of Butrint and explored the ruins of an ancient city.  There was hardly anyone there and you were able to actually walk through most of the ruins.  They have also renovated the castle on site to include a museum detailing the history of the settlement.

Since we had a vehicle, we also made a day trip to Gjirokaster to explore the cold war tunnel there.  On the way there we stopped to see the Blue Eye.  This is a natural mountain spring named for its vibrant colour.  It is a single hole more than 50m deep that pumps out clear blue water.  Arriving in Gjirokaster is like driving into a medieval village on the side of a mountain.  The architecture is insane, and they had a beautiful bazar that we wandered through after our tour.  The cold war tunnel in Gjirokaster is actual one of a few large bunkers in Albania along with over 750 000 small one-man bunkers.  Up until 1991 Albania was led by a Communist Dictator who was very paranoid that war was coming to Albania.  He had the bunkers built in preparation for a war that never came.  The one in Gjirokaster is open to the public for tours but is in its original state.  It was certainly an experience, and I can’t imagine having to live in one for any length of time.  There is also a castle in Gjirokaster, but it was closed the day that we were there.

On the drive back to Tirana for our pet sit we took the coastal road and…wow.  The views were phenomenal.  We drove along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, through a stunning forest and up the side of a mountain.  Along the way we passed a town called Vuno which was settled in 1628 by Greek settlers and is a picturesque town built on the side of a mountain.  I can’t get over how beautiful Albania is.

We spent the rest of our time in Tirana with these crazy felines.  Miley, Pippin, Potato, and Nugget in order from left to right.  It was fun to be able to spend some quality time with cats again.  We got lots of snuggles and were entertained daily by their antics.

While in Tirana we took the cable car up Djati mountain, it is a 15-minute trip up a 4.3 km cable.  Unfortunately, it was pretty hazy that day, so the views of the city weren’t all that great, but we had fun.  There are tons of hiking trails on the mountain, and you can camp their as well.  They also have an adventure park which is open during the summer and has a zipline and obstacle course. On Christmas Eve we went down to the Tirana Christmas Market which was more like a full blown carnival with rides and everything. New Year's is a bigger deal, but they go all out for their market.

There are 2 large bunkers located in Tirana and we were able to check out both of them.  These ones have been refreshed and turned into museums that detail the history of Albania.  Bunk’Art 1 is dedicated to daily life during the communist regime and the history of communism in Albania, while Bunk’Art 2 focuses on the Sigurimi the political police used by the communist regime.  They are very passionate here about their history and making sure that everyone understands and remembers what the country went through.  These bunkers were a fascinating way to explore Albania’s history.  Bunk’Art 1 was less busy as it is further out from the center, but it was also larger with 5 levels and definitely worth the trip. There is also a large structure downtown that resembles a pyramid it was codesigned by the former dictator’s daughter and was used as the Enver Hoxha Museum from 1988 to 1991.  After the fall of communism upon the death of Enver Hoxha the structure was repurposed as a conference center.  Currently it is being used as a Youth IT Center focusing on robotics, computer programs and start ups.

One of the biggest things to note through our stay in Albania was the firecrackers and the fireworks.  I’m sure it was partial due to the time of year although, we were told that they like to set off fireworks for birthdays here as well, but it was a lot.  On a daily basis there were kids setting off firecrackers in the street and there were fireworks almost every night.  They never lasted long but were a regular occurrence.  New Year's Eve blew us away.  At about 11:50 pm there were fireworks going off all over the city.  They did have a special event in the city square downtown with a slightly larger display, but it seemed like everyone was setting off their own across the city as well.  I have never seen such a large display of fireworks at once.

We had a great time in Albania, and we would definitely come back to explore more of the country given the opportunity.  Everyone was really friendly even though we were staying in an area where little English was spoken.  Tirana is in a valley and had poor air quality due to the high humidity and wood being burned for heat in several homes still.  In the more rural areas garbage and scrub brush is burned regularly as well. They do need a better system for handling garbage in the city, but they are working on it.  It is very dusty in Tirana, but there are car washes on every block. It's a very affordable location as well.  Accommodations, groceries, and dining out were all very reasonable by western standards.  Of course, it is important to remember that this is not reflected in wages for Albanians.  Overall, our experience was excellent, and we would highly recommend a visit to Albania. 


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1 Comment

Jan 03

Happy New Years fam jam!! I'm loving reading and seeing your adventures across the pond, fantastic pics and drone shots!! Love you two!

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