Here is a collection of some of my favorite photos that I have taken over the past two years in Albania.
My Peace Corps service and time in Albania is full of so many hilarious, crazy, sad, happy, exciting, and wonderful memories. My time spent here would not have been the same without some of the wonderful Albanians and Americans that I met along the way and I am thankful that we were able to create these memories together here. These people were my students, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. Some people were strangers who took me under their care without asking for anything in return. They helped me when I was down, worked with me to volunteer in the community, and supported me throughout this journey. Every day in Albania was an adventure and I honestly never knew where each day would take me (and that is part of what made everything so exciting and interesting). I cannot begin to explain all of the wonderful memories from this country, but these are a few of my favorite memories from my past two years as a Peace Corps volunteer:
Finding the right eyebrow tweezers.
During my first few months in Albania while I was living in the village of Pajove during pre-service training I went on a hunt for some eyebrow tweezers. I forgot to bring a pair from America, so I decided to check out some beauty shops to find some new ones. I came across a small beauty shop in Pajove while searching, but I still had broken Shqip skills, so playing charades was common. As I was miming what I wanted to buy, the lady realized what I wanted. She took out the best pair in the shop and started tweezing my eyebrows herself to prove that they were indeed high-quality tweezers. So, I bought them.
Hiking Valbona to Thethi.
I’m a Colorado girl at heart, so I love my mountains. It was really quite a special experience to hike this mountain with some of my favorite Peace Corps volunteers. Even though it was foggy when we reached the summit, trekking down into Thethi was magical. Thethi is like something out of a magazine.
Surprise visit from my neighbor.
While my mom was in Albania I truly realized the extent of Albanian hospitality. Everyone wanted to meet my mom and take us out to show their respect for her and for me and my service. My neighbor Luci was very excited to meet my mom and one day invited us over for coffee… or so I thought. Instead Luci invited herself over to my house for coffee and I didn’t even realize it. I was so embarrassed because my house was a disaster and I did not have any caramels or drinks to offer her. Luci was really sweet and helped me be a good hostess by giving me some homemade juice that I could serve her and my mom.
My first surprise birthday party ever.
If you haven’t realized already, I worked with the most amazing group of students. They were all hard-working, creative, and smart individuals. I was extremely lucky to have so many awesome students (and friends). For my 25th birthday they coordinated a small party for me and our youth group students at a restaurant. There was dancing, food, and a delicious cake. I was so touched and happy because I had never been thrown a surprise birthday party before. That will be something that I never forget.
I created bonds with many of the vegetable vendors in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to literally live a minute away from the market road which had at least twenty different vendors selling produce daily, sometimes more on Sundays when all the villagers came into town to sell their goods. The olive man was always very sweet to me; he would always tell me that I’m a vajza e mire (good girl). He would ask me about my family and about my brother Steven. Sometimes he would even throw a few extra olives in with my purchases or give them to me completely for free. There was another woman who was always very sweet with me and would always give me the best deals on her goods. Whenever she saw me she’d call out to me oooohh Amerikane” (oh American)! She would tell everyone else around her sweet and beautiful I am and she’d refer to me as a little kukulla (doll). She always got a kick out of me bringing my own plastic bags from home to reuse instead of taking new fresh bags.
Holding a baby goat for the first time.
There are so many cute farm animals roaming around in Albania and I always wanted to hold one. When I was on a bike ride to the beach with some of my students we happened to come across a shepherd with his flock. He was kind enough to let us all hold one of his baby goats and have a mini-photo shoot.
Meeting my host family for the first time.
I think one of the most awkward moments of my entire time was when I was dropped off at my host family’s house to meet them for the first time. I still barely spoke a word of Shqip and no one except my host-sister Merushe spoke any English (and Merushe did not speak a lot of English). When I arrived my family took me into the kitchen area and made me a Turkish coffee. I sat on one couch and they sat on the other trying to ask me questions about whatever I could understand. There was a lot of uncomfortable laughing during the encounter. We sat there for a few hours trying to communicate the best we could before I finally conjured up enough Shqip to ask if I could go unpack my room. Later on that evening after dinner I tried to plug in my Eurosurge and took out the electricity to the entire home. I didn’t know how to explain myself and felt very bad, so I stayed hidden in my room until the next morning.
Having the electricity come back just in time for the OA Go Green Show.
The morning of our Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green show was supposed to be time for our final rehearsals before the show. The students had not fully gone through the entire show rehearsal prior, so they were going to run through the entire thing last minute the day of the show. Sadly those plans were quickly ruined when the electricity went out to the auditorium. After waiting several hours, the lights came back on just in time to let in the hundreds of screaming students waiting outside to see the show. The students ended up doing a great job and raising a lot of money for OA, despite the mishap beforehand.
Having to “prove myself” planting grape trees.
When I first arrived here I never really had any idea what I was getting myself into. One afternoon I thought I was going to coffee in the village with my host-sister Merushe, but it turned out we were going to plant grape trees in the hills behind our house. Of course I was not dressed appropriately, did not bring any water, and was not expecting to spend my one day off from training working in the fields. The sun was beating down on us and I was already pretty tired from climbing up the hills, but Merushe handed me a shovel and told me to “prove myself.” Quickly, they realized that I would not be too much help in the fields because I did not use the shovel the correct way and because I was far to slow. Either way, it was funny.
Co-facilitating a GLOW session at Kampi Pa Emer.
Last summer I had the opportunity to work at a wonderful camp in Librazhd coordinated by a former Peace Corps volunteer Joey and his Albanian wife Alba. The purpose of the camp is to bridge the gap between Roma and Albanian youth. Alba and I decided to co-facilitate a GLOW: Girls Leading Our World session about self-esteem. During the lesson we did an activity where one girl would sit in the front of the room and the other girls would tell her things that they liked about the participant. It was really powerful because the girls were genuinely caring about each other despite their difference in age, economic status, and background. Everyone had the chance to give and receive compliments from the other girls in the room. Then they made self-esteem flowers and presented them to the group. Each petal of the flower represented one thing that each girl liked about herself.
Traveling to Tirana for the first time with Mary.
Peace Corps always paired Mary and I up together. We were in the same village and they sent us to visit the same volunteer during volunteer visit. We were set to go up to Rreshen for our first time traveling around outside of our host village by ourselves. My host dad Buyar helped us get on this random furgon heading towards Durres and we were dropped off in the middle of the road near a market. Neither of us had any idea where we were going, but there was a random guy on the bus (who knew Buyar) who was going to help us a bit along the way. Then out of nowhere a random Tirana bus picked us up on the side of the road. Our random guardian got off the bus in Durres and then we were truly on our own. We ended up jumping off the bus in the middle of the street in Tirana because we had no idea where we were and when we should get off. We eventually found a city bus and just kept a look-out for the “pyramid” because that is where the volunteer told us to meet her. We kept our eyes peeled for this mysterious pyramid, but luckily the random city bus we got on dropped us off right in front. It was quite the adventure for our first time out by ourselves.
Finding an abandoned building full of street art and mountain tea.
While my dad and Nancy were in Albania we went on a tour of southern Albania. During our travels we found an abandoned building full of intricate street art and çaj mali (mountain tea). There isn’t much of a street art culture here, so we were surprised to find this random building in the middle of nowhere full of designs of bees and monsters. Also, it was strange to find a building full of tea. That was the most tea I have ever seen.
When my blog went viral.
During my first summer at site I had no idea what my blog would eventually turn into. It started out as a way to just let my family and friends back home know what I was up to. It ended up becoming so much more when Albanians from across the country and people across the world read my 50 Unique Observations About Albania post. Having my blog go viral really allowed me the opportunity to express myself to a big audience, which has helped me grow professionally and personally through this experience.
Drinking beers on the beach with Chuck.
Chuck was a pretty amazing sitemate and we were able to complete several projects together for the community of Kavaja. During our free time we’d go on bike rides together to the beach. Chuck had a “regular” beach that he’d visit every afternoon and sometimes I’d even come along for the ride. It was nice to beat the summer heat on the beach with a cold beer and a good friend.
Getting a ride into Tirana with Kate.
My sitemate Kate and I were trying to catch a bus to Tirana for our mid-service conference one afternoon, but we were not having much luck. It was annoying too because that day it was pouring rain. After waiting around for a while, a nice couple stopped and motioned for us to get in. Normally I don’t advocate for hitch hiking, but we were together and it was an older married couple so we felt like it’d be safe. The couple ended up being Albanians who live in Kosovo and they were in town visiting family and friends. They spoke some English and we were able to have an interesting cultural exchange on the hour and a half drive into the capital. They dropped us off right in front of our hotel so we wouldn’t have to walk in the rain anymore. It was really kind.
Attending my host sister’s engagement party.
My host-sister Merushe got engaged while I was living with the family. It was a surprise to me because she wasn’t even dating anyone as far as I knew, but a week after the announcement there was a giant party with half of the village in attendance. We spent the afternoon dancing valle, eating plates upon plates of meat, and drinking the endless supply of beers available. Every time my beer was finished it would be immediately replaced with a new cold beer. I have always wanted to go to an Albanian wedding (but sadly I did not have the opportunity), so I consider this party the next best thing.
Making dinner with Quinn.
Almost every weekend I was able to see my boyfriend Quinn, another volunteer who lives in a different city. We’d spend our weekends having coffee, working on youth center projects, and creating new dinners with our limited resources. We’ve had some really good meals during the past year from tacos, to sushi, to Asian chickpeas. We would often use the coveted ingredients sent to me from my family in the states. Quinn is a better cook than I am, so it was always nice to actually eat a good meal for a change.
Seeing the fountain complete in the center of Kavaje.
A year ago the city of Kavaje tore out our entire main street and bulldozed numerous buildings across the city in order to refurbish the town center. I was a bit skeptical at first because it seemed like there wasn’t much of a method to all the madness. They tore out streets and sidewalks leaving no place for people to walk except through all the rumble and the construction. I was told that the center would be finished after a year and at first I just laughed because I didn’t believe it would actually happen. But dealing with all the annoying construction eventually paid off because the center was basically finished by the time I left Kavaje. They redid the entire center and put in a beautiful boardwalk for people to xhiro in at night and a lovely fountain to sit next to. I was very impressed.
I love Albanian music. Since I arrived here I loved jamming out to music in furgons and at my host family’s house. My host sister loved to blast music at all hours of the day while she cleaned the house, so I became pretty familiar with Albanian music from the beginning. There are several different genres of Albanian music, but folk music and pop music are the most popular. Pop music has a lot of rap and electronic influences. Folk music is still extremely popular and it varies from northern to southern Albania. Clarinets are often used in songs, along with the drum box, saxophone, and electric bass. I cannot wait to listen to Albanian music driving around in my car on road trips in the states. Here are some of my favorite Albanian pop songs:
Valle Kosovare – Shpat Kasapi
This is a famous traditional valle song that you will here at every wedding, party, etc. The dance moves to valle kosovare are a bit more complicated than some of the other valle songs that you’ll hear. This song is technically the Kosovo valle tune, but it is played often here in Albania.
Syte e Blu – Sinan Hoxha
The woman with blue eyes is what this song is focused on. Blue eyes are rare in Albania and they are prized. This one goes out to all the girls with elusive blue eyes.
E Imja Dashuri – Anila Mimani ft. Rati
I also know all the lyrics to this song because me and my boyfriend Quinn like to sing it to each other. It is another cutesy love song.
Ngjyra e kuq – Adrian Gaxha ft Floriani
This song is about a woman who wears red perfectly. She makes all the men go crazy because of how beautiful she is in red. Even though everyone wants to have her, Adrian will give her his heart and will have her in the end.
Moj Kavaja Jone – Grupi i Kavajes
This is a song from the famous singing group in Kavaje that I have actually had the pleasure of meeting. They are singing about how wonderful Kavaje is.
Mrekullia e 8 – Alban Skenderaj
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Albanian music without mentioning heart throb Alban Skenderaj. This is another music video set inside a mall. Gotta love it.
Gili Gili – Sinan Hoxha
I find this music video interesting because they are all dancing around inside the TEG near Tirana. The TEG is one of the only malls you can find in Albania.
Te Ka Lali Shpirt – Silvia Gunbardhi ft. Mandi ft. Dafi
This song was really popular when I first arrived in Albania and you could hear it playing pretty much everywhere. The title literally translates to “Lali has you (in the) spirit).
Kuq e Zi – Sinan Hoxha ft Selda
Kuq e zi translates to red and black. Red and black are the colors of the Albanian flag. This song talks about Shqiperia e madhe (big Albania), which refers to how Albania used to include parts of the surrounding balkan territories.
Ku Ma Ke – Adelina
Another interesting music video and love song. The two in this song are not getting along and the woman is wondering where the man went and what went wrong.
Inshalah – Ingrid Gjoni
Inshalah means ‘god-willing’ in Arabic. As you can see in the music video this song is referring to the husband returning back to his home if god wills.
Xhamadani Vija Vija (Proud to be Albanian)
Another Albanian nationalist song. Albanians are very proud and nationalistic. This song also refers to the idea of a bigger Albania.
Sa e Ke Numrin – Met
My favorite teeny bob pop song. The boy is asking the girl for her phone number and her name because he is fixated with her.
Fol Shqip – Artiola & Poni
This song is titled Fol Shqip which translates to speak Albanian. I like the chorus of this song because it says, “speak Shqip because you are Albanian.”
Tavolina – Ermal Fejzullahu, LumiB, and Ledri Vula
This song is a bit inappropriate. It is about a girl dancing on top of the table and partying.
Valle e Tropojes
Another popular valle song to circle dance to. This song is from the region of Tropoja in northern Albania (a beautiful, more isolated region of the country).
Nese m’don ti – Blunt & Real ft. Ledri Vula
Another party song from the one and only Blunt. To be honest I’m not totally sure what this song is discussing, but it has a catchy beat and I hear it often here.
Ti Se Din Se – Samanta ft. Onat
Another song about relationships. I really dig the outfits in this music video.
Kuq e Zi – Elvana Gjata ft. Flori
This song is extremely popular and nationalistic. It came out after the incident in Serbia during the soccer match last year. Quinn calls it the “football, riot, cheers” song.
Nje Moment – Blero ft. Maria
A popular love song you will hear out at the clubs at night.
Vallja e Tiranes
This is the valle and traditional dance of the region of Tirana. Kavaje is considered to be part of the region of Tirana. You can see the difference in traditional costume in the north vs. south if you check out the valle tropojes video above.
Kukulla – Sinan Hoxha ft. Seldi
This is another one I particularly enjoy. It’s about a girl who is being referred to as a doll, which is a term of endearment here.
Most Albanians I know are experts at cooking large meals and love entertaining guests in the privacy of their own home. Sometimes people will go out to eat for celebrations, but it is common for families to invite each other into their homes as well. Often times things are served “family style” at restaurants, so people will order a bit of everything and people can pick and choose. It is common to get wine, a salad to start, some side dishes, and a main entrée. This can also hold true for when Albanians are cooking at their homes, although they might cook several different foods and then arrange each plate in a fancy manner for each individual guest. Usually salad and bread are served family style at the home. Don’t forget to wish others ju befte mire (bon apetite) during your meals shared together.
I have always felt that a big part of experiencing and integrating into a culture comes from eating their food. Before Peace Corps I was a vegetarian for six years and I enjoyed being a vegetarian. I liked cooking with tofu and tempeh and eating a variety of fruits and veggies. I decided that in order to fully experience Albania that I would eat anything and everything that has been offered to me here. It has led to quite a few interested experiences for my mouth (and my stomach). Here are some dishes I’ve had in Albania.
Pilaf, also known as rice, is a popular dish in Albania. Many people, especially men, eat pilaf in the morning or afternoon at a Mengjezore. Albanians love to cook pilaf with heaps of butter and usually it is served with a thin meat gravy on top. People will often order pilaf with qofte. Qofte are a kind of sausage, but different than breakfast sausage you’d eat back in the states. Often time qofte is grilled and it definitely pairs well with rice for a mid-day snack.
Pulë me Garniturë
Since I wanted to experience all Albania had to offer, I put my vegetarian ways aside and tried all the meat. In Kavaje there is a small hole in the wall Mengjezore literally a minute walk away from my work and they serve THE BEST fried chicken ever. I usually order it with garniture (garnish), so it will come with a bit of salad and sauce kosi (yogurt sauce).
Fasule is hands down my favorite Albanian dish because it is super simple and it is vegetarian. Fasule literally means beans in Shqip, so you can only imagine what fasule is… You guessed right! It is made with beans. Fasule is a bean soup that often has a tomato and onion base. Sometimes when I have received homemade fasule from my student’s parents, they all know that I am obsessed with fasule, it has other vegetables such as carrots. Over the winter it was pretty cold, so I perfected my fasule recipe… still isn’t quite as good as the Albanian’s recipes though.
Fruta dhe perime
Fruits and vegetables are fresh and plentiful in Albania. I will definitely miss stepping outside of my house and literally not even walking a minute to buy produce that would put Whole Foods to shame. My region, central Albania, is full of fresh produce because we have land perfect for farming and many people in the surrounding villages and areas farm. My host family in the village of Pajove would grow most of their own produce in their own backyard. How’s that for sustainability!
Sheep head is a popular dish for special occasions. Luckily I had some pretty amazing language teachers during our 10-week pre-service training when I initially moved to Albania back in March 2013. Our language teachers cooked me and the other Peace Corps volunteers in my village sheep head for our end of training celebration. It is custom to eat the entire head – brains, eyes, tongue, EVERYTHING. We all had a pretty interesting time tasting all the different parts of the head. My favorite was definitely the tongue.
Since winters can be just down right cold it is no surprise that soup is a popular and relatively cheap dish to make here. Albanians will often make some sort of gjellë with meat for lunch. All soup must be eaten with bread. It is a must. Albanians each bread with everything, which brings me to…
Albania would be the worst place for someone who is trying to live a gluten free lifestyle because bread is everywhere. And bread is delicious. And bread is ridiculously cheap. You can buy an amazing, fresh loaf of bread straight from the oven for less than 50 cents. What a bargain! I have found an amazing bread in Kavaje that is darker and made with sunflower seeds and other magical ingredients.
Spec te mbushura
This is another one of my favorite Albanian dishes, and it is usually vegetarian for all you veggie lovers out there. Stuffed peppers are a classic Albanian side dish. Usually the peppers are baked with tons of olive oil and stuffed with rice and other vegetables. Sometimes they are also stuffed with meat. At many Albanian restaurants they will only serve stuffed peppers if you pre-order them several hours ahead of time because they take a while to prepare.
Mmmmmmmm, I love byrek. And so do most other Americans that I know. I’ve mentioned this amazing gift of food before in my blog. Byrek is made all over the country and it is a flaky pastry made with phylo dough. It is usually made with different kinds of fillings such as spinach (especially during the winter months when it is fresh), tomatoes and onions, meat, or gjize (a crumbly Albanian cheese). Byrek is not only found in Albania, but can also be found in different forms throughout the Balkans.
Most people when they think Baklava may think of Turkey, which is a great with amazing Baklava, but Albanians also make a great deal of baklava. Baklava is usually made around New Years Eve and other big holidays. Most families will make baklava in their homes, but you can also find it at grocery stores and pastry shops. I love eating Albanian baklava, but be careful because it might give you a sugar rush. Most baklava I’ve had is covered with homemade sugar-water syrup.
It isn’t right for me to have an Albanian food blog without mentioning potatoes because Albanians eat a lot of potatoes. Potatoes can be found year-round at the markets and they are pretty cheap to buy. Usually potatoes are cooked as fries here and they are often doused with a bunch of olive oil. I had to have a conversation with my host family once about how much olive oil they use when cooking potatoes and cooking pretty much everything actually. We talked about how yes, olive oil is good for you, but only in moderation. If you use a cup of olive oil to cook your potatoes it kind of defeats the purpose.
Tave kosi is a dish that is served on special occasions when Albanians have important people over to their house for dinner. Luckily, I have some amazing students who invite me over to their place for dinner occasionally and her mom has made me this dish. Tave kosi is baked lamp in a special yogurt sauce. To be honest it is not my favorite Albanian dish, but it is widely popular and it is considered an honor to be served.
For some reason I thought pizza would be one of those food items that I would not be able to find in Albania, but alas pizza is abundant in the land of eagles. There is fast food pizza all over the place and some of them even deliver! I have never gotten a pizza delivered because it would literally only take me ten minutes to just walk to the pizza shop myself and order something. Plus we have an amazing pizza joint in Kavaje that I like to go to for the friendly atmosphere and banging vegetarian pizza.
Fruta deti translates directly to “sea fruits,” but it is the term used for ordering seafood. If you are near the sea having some fresh seafood is a must! You can find great calamari, cod, and mussels along the coast. The mussels are especially delectable in Saranda because they farm mussels in that region. When out for a nice seafood dinner in Albania I recommend going all out and ordering an arugula salad, white wine, mussels, calamari, a fish, and even seafood pasta. Since the prices are so cheap here you could have a nice meal for four ordering all that food for under sixty dollars.
Turshi is basically pickled cabbage and is super popular amongst Albanians. You will often see this dish during the winter months when cabbage is cheap and in season. You can also find other pickled vegetables that would fall under the category of turshi. This dish is often accompanied with bread, of course, and/or meat.
Greek salad is a very popular starter dish here because of the access to cheap and delicious produce. This especially holds true for the summer months when you can by a kilo of tomatoes or a kilo of cucumbers for less than fifty cents. Greek salad is usually full of cut up vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. Along with that there are usually fresh olives and cut up feta cheese. Sometimes you will even get a bit of green lettuce as well, but not always. Salad dressing isn’t really a thing here, so people usually top these salads with a bit of olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Wahlah, the perfect salad.
Most Albanians I talk to think of fast food when they think of America, but Albanians love fast food too (especially the younger generation). Many students grab fast food during their breaks between school or after school for lunch. Sufflaqe is like a gyro. It is served on pita bread with grilled lamb from a rotating skewer, like they serve at the chain gyro restaurant Renzios. Topping the sandwich is usually tomato, onion, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, and yogurt sauce.
Ice cream is big in Albania. I mean really big. I mean big enough that people literally eat ice cream for breakfast. It is always time for ice cream in Albania during the summer months. There are numerous ice cream parlors and sweet shops all across every city. Even some nicer coffee shops have ice cream for sale because people like ice cream that much. If you’re looking for some good gelato (maybe even better than some Italian gelato) head down to the Vogla beach boardwalk area in Durres and have some scoops at the shop across from the Wild West Restaurant. I can guarantee it will satisfy your taste buds. Sit-down pastry shops/coffee bars are trending in Albania and recently a new bar in Kavaje opened up at Myrizi. It has a bunch of delicious desserts and an atmosphere for the entire family to enjoy.
JU BEFTE MIRE!!!
Have a week to spend in Albania? I suggest you follow this amazing itinerary that I created for my Dad’s first trip outside of North America. My Dad and his partner Nancy recently came to visit me to celebrate the end of my Peace Corps service and to get a taste of the beautiful country I have been inhabiting for the past two years. I wish we could have spent more time together traveling the country (because there are SO MANY WONDERFUL PLACES to visit), but sadly I am extremely busy trying to finish everything up before I officially end my time as a Peace Corps volunteer on May 29th. Luckily, they were both able to take a week off work and we were able to see a good portion of southern Albania. Check out our trip below!
Day One: Arrival in Tirana, Night in Kavaje
My parents arrived at the Tirana International Airport in the afternoon after a long trip from Colorado and they were pretty tired. We rented a car because public transportation can be unreliable and often tacks on several hours of travel time. We also wanted the freedom to travel in the evening and see things on our own time. I’d definitely recommend renting a car if you can afford it. It is only about thirty euro per day to rent a car here, so it’s pretty cheap.
Our first day we spent exploring the city of Kavaje. This is the city I have been living in for the past two years, so it was a must that my family experience a night in my town and a night living in my apartment. I think they both got a kick out of the layout of my apartment and it was definitely an experience for them using a Turkish toilet for the first time. We went to my favorite seafood place in town with my sitemate before they fell asleep from exhaustion. Kavaje is not a tourist city in Albania, but it could become one in the future because the local government is redoing the entire city center and making everything a lot more bukur (beautiful).
If you’re traveling to Albania I would recommend spending your first (or last) couple of nights in the capital city of Tirana rather than in Kavaje. There is a lot to do there and you can find many delicious restaurants and bars in the block area.
Day Two: Kavaje to Berat
The second day we traveled down to meet my boyfriend Quinn and visit the UNESCO heritage site of Berat. Berat is a must-see city for tourists because it is full of history, hiking, and beautiful scenery. While in Berat we went on the herbatorium hike up the mountain on the other side of Osum river. To get to the top of the mountain it took about an hour. I was surprised because the trail was actually marked well in the beginning (although towards the end it wasn’t quite as easy to follow). After the hike my parents went up to the castle and then we all had dinner at Mangalemi. My parents also stayed at the Mangalemi hotel and it was very impressive. Mangalemi was the most expensive hotel during the trip, but it also had some of the nicest amenities and all of the rooms have been renovated.
Day Three: Berat to Himare, Excursion to Apollonia
We went from Berat to Fier and took a small side-trip to the ancient site of Apollonia. Apollonia was a beautiful place to stop and see some ancient architecture and statues. I am not sure what the normal price is to enter Apollonia because no one actually charged us to enter the sites or the museum. You never know whether you’ll luck out while visiting Albanian castles and historical sites because sometimes you have to pay and sometimes you don’t.
After Apollonia we stopped for pizza in Fier. Peace Corps volunteers love to have pizza in Fier because they have barbeque chicken pizza, which is extremely rare here. It’s always nice to have a taste of home right in our own backyard. Once we filled up on pizza, we continued our way down south to the small beach town of Himare. Himare is on the southern coast in between Vlore and Saranda. It takes a while to travel down to Himare, but the view along the way is beautiful. Most of the drive is along the coast, with a short portion in between the southern mountains. In Himare we stayed at an Airbnb apartment that another volunteer recommended to me. It was absolutely wonderful and had a beautiful panoramic view of the coast and town with breakfast included. We went to dinner at a seafood restaurant in town and had coffee the next morning in the center near the beach. I went for a brief swim, but the water was still pretty cold. I hear it begins to warm up a bit more in late-June and remains that way throughout the summer. Beware though because there are a lot of tourists in July and especially August.
Day Four: Himare to Ksamil
On our fourth day we continued driving down the coast to Ksamil which is one of the most southern cities in Albania. On our way down we came across a castle that was built on a small island in the sea. We thought it looked neat and it was only accessible by private vehicle (or by walking from the highway), so we decided to check it out. Before we headed up to the castle I noticed an abandoned building that was decorated with colorful street art. The paintings masked a portion of the cracking exterior of the concrete block structure, so of course that was very intriguing. Me being me, I decided to check out what was inside and was in shock at what I found. Not only was there more street art, but there was also gigantic piles of çaj mali (Albanian mountain tea) everywhere. I was so surprised to find enough tea to supply an entire village for the whole winter. It was so unexpected and I definitely think it was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in Albania. Then we went to the castle, which was also pretty neat, especially for those historian buffs.
As we continued our way down the winding road I was curious if we’d ever make it to Saranda. Even though Albania is a small country, about the size of Maryland, it sure does take a long time to travel across. We also took the scenic coastal road, which added on several hours of winding roads. After we finally made it to Saranda we had lunch near the port with the volunteer who lives there and she gave us some suggestions on things to do in the area. We made it down to Ksmail in the mid-afternoon and went for a swim and a xhiro around town. The water was crystal clear and pretty warm once you got used to it.
Day Five: Excursion to Butrint
We stayed an extra night at Hotel Castle in Ksamil so that we could go on a mini day-trip to the best-preserved UNESCO heritage site in Albania. It is another must-see if you are in southern Albania. We spent hours walking around the various sites in Butrint and one could honestly spend an entire day exploring and reading about all the history from that region. My dad even met a new friend, a random sleeping dog, off one of the main roads while we were hiking around Butrint. In the afternoon we went for another swim and then had the best seafood dinners I’ve had in Saranda at Demi Restaurant. One plus to having tons of delicious fresh seafood is pairing it with the tasty, yet cheap, white wine.
Day Six: Ksamil, the Blue Eye, and Gjirokaster
The next day we continued our journey back up north to Gjirokaster. Along the way we stopped at the southern blue eye, which was on my Albanian bucket list. Thanks dad! At the blue eye we were able to relax right next to the water and have an afternoon coffee to keep us going for the rest of our drive north.
In Gjirokaster we stayed at an adorable, traditional bed and breakfast. Kotoni BnB was a great deal because it was inexpensive and the hosts were great! Both of them spoke fluent English, gave us tips on things to do in Gjirokaster, and provided a pretty nice breakfast complete with Turkish coffee and mountain tea. Both rooms we had gave us a lovely view of the castle and old town Gjirokaster. Definitely a place that I would recommend staying at!
We toured some traditional houses in the city and also went up to the castle. The city was preparing for the traditional Albanian folk dance festival, so tourist season was just about to begin. If only we had planned their vacation a week later we could have experienced some traditional valle dances from different regions all over the country. Of course we tried lots of traditional Albanian food all throughout our trip and we couldn’t leave Gjirokaster without trying qifqi, rice balls made with egg and seasoning, a dish known in the Gjirokaster region.
Day Seven: Back to Tirana
My parents trip came to an end and we traveled back up to Tirana so that they would be ready for their early morning flight at 5am the next day. If you have some time in the Tirana area before you go other places I would recommend checking out are Kruje and Mt Dajlti. There is a cable car that runs up Mt Dajti and there is a traditional market and castle in Kruje (plus there is also a statue of US President George W. Bush).
If you’re staying longer than a week in Albania, I would recommend spending an extra day down south and going to the Benji hot springs near Permet. Northern Albania is also especially beautiful because it is full of mountains and friendly people. Shkoder is a beautiful city with a great evening xhiro and a beautiful lake (plus another castle). And if you like hiking you should check out the hike from Valbona to Thethi in the summer months!
I am so happy that I was able to share a bit of wonderful Albania with my dad, Nancy, and my mom back in March. Now I feel like my family a better understanding of where I have been living these past two years. Goal three of Peace Corps is to share Albanian culture with people back in the states and there was no better way for me to show them with Shqiperia has to offer than by giving them a complete tour. This trip was also very special for me because I am used to living the lifestyle of a volunteer and it was interesting for me to experience Albania as a “tourist.” The country is really making great strides in the tourism industry and I know that in five to ten years Albania will be one of the top spots to visit in the Balkans because of the stunning nature and hospitable locals. Just FYI, Albania was voted #4 of the top 52 places to visit by the New York Times in 2014. So this is me telling you that you should visit Albania while it’s still cheap and undiscovered!
Since September 2014, my site-mate Chuck and I have been working together with a group of nine high school students for Model United Nations. I have mentioned our work before in a previous blog post. For those of you who are not familiar with Model UN, it is “an educational simulation in which students learn about diplomacy, international relations, and the United Nations. MUN involves and teaches research, public speaking, debating, and writing skills in additional to critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership abilities.” I created this video for the opening ceremony for the conference.
The team from Kavaje represented the country of India in three different committees during the conference. The ECOSOC committee debated coordinated action against human trafficking: the costs of human trafficking to development, protecting refugees and marginalized groups, the rule of law in the fight against transnational organized crime and human trafficking; the Security Council debated conflict prevention and mitigation: measures to combat terrorism and trading in illicit markets, preventing regional escalation of internal conflicts in MENA countries, preventing and reducing conflicts over natural resources; and the General Assembly debated achieving sustainable development: prioritization and implementation of the sustainable development goals, enhancing global partnerships through tri-sector development, preconditions of sustainable development.
Each team of students was required to do a community project in their towns. Our team donated over 500 books to the Kavaje Young Adults Center (KYAC). We were able to work together with a Peace Corps volunteer in Tirana to obtain the books from a generous organization called Books Abroad Scotland. Each of the students raised money to help pay for the shipping of the books and now all of them are available to check out from our youth center. We created this video to explain the project.
Throughout the duration of the program, my team met twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays for one hour. The students had to research their topics ahead of time and come prepared to each meeting. They learned about United Nations rules and procedures, current events, and how to represent India in the most accurate way. They also visited the UN House and heard members from different sectors of the United Nations speak about their work. They also had the opportunity to visit and tour the US Embassy. It was really quite an interesting (and educational) program for the students involved.
The Model UN conference was definitely a highlight of my Peace Corps service. It was great to watch my students’ debate with other bright young adults from across the country. I could really tell that all their hard work paid off. The final conference was full of debate and fun activities during the downtime including a picture scavenger hunt, dinner mafia, a talent show, and a student dance.
To celebrate the end of a long six months of Model UN, I took some of the students to Tirana for a fun day out. We went to go see the Fast and the Furious movie and after that we went bowling. It was the first time that everyone had been bowling, so it was nice sharing a part of my culture with them (Peace Corps goal 2 everybody)!
After living in Albania for the past two years during my Peace Corps service I have compiled a list of the thirty best things for travelers to do while visiting Shqiperi.
1. Eat Byrek-fast.
I’ve mentioned byrek in my blog before, and for good reason. Byrek is one of my favorite Albanian foods and it is incredibly cheap. Usually Albanians eat this in the morning for breakfast or a light snack at work or school. Byrek is a flaky pastry made with layers of thin dough stuffed with different fillings such as beans, potatoes, gjize (a sort of Albanian cheese), spinach, tomato, onion, and meat. My personal favorite is byrek me qepe e domate (with tomato and onion). My favorite byrek is on the served on the main boulevard in Elbasan directly next to Skampa Theater and the Vodaphone. You can find versions of byrek all over the Balkans.
2. Dance the night away at Beer Fest in Korca.
Every summer the city of Korca holds a beer festival, usually sometime in August. This is a great opportunity to see famous Albanian performers and dancers. The festival is free of charge and beer is incredibly cheap (usually under a dollar for a cup). Several breweries from across the country come to serve their beer. I’d recommend trying Korca e zeze, the dark beer from Korca. This beer is hard to find outside of the Korca region, but it is definitely a nice addition to the available drinks in country.
3. Hike from Valbona to Thethi.
Northern Albania is breathtaking. If you have a few weeks in Albania I’d recommend making your way up north to take in the beauty that this region has to offer. You can hike the pass in a day, but camping is available along the way. There are also guesthouses in Valbona and Thethi if you’re not interested in camping. The accursed Albanian Alps are definitely worth the journey. Most of the guesthouses in Theth are actually rooms that Albanians rent out in their homes. It would be a tremendous opportunity to stay with a local family and have them cook you up a delicious, traditional meal after the long hike.
4. Soak up the sun in Ksamil.
Ksamil is a small town just south of Saranda. The beach in Ksamil is absolutely gorgeous and the water is as clear as glass. Beaches in southern Albania are on par with famous beaches in Greece and Italy, but for a fraction of the price. Many Albanians take their vacation during the month of August, so I’d suggest to hit up the beaches in June or July before they become crowded.
5. Try raki with a macchiato.
The most common coffee drinks to order at a coffee shop in Albania are kafe express or a macchiato. A macchiato is an express coffee with a bit of steamed milk. I prefer having a macchiato when I am out at coffee, and if you’re visiting Albania it is essential that you have coffee – every single day. It’s a must. While you’re out at coffee you should try raki, Albanian moonshine. It is a very strong drink and after a couple you’ll likely be drunk, so be careful. If you’re a woman traveler you might get strange looks ordering a raki, but it is definitely something you should experience here.
6. Eat at a Mengjesore.
A Mengjesore is usually some hole in the wall restaurant mostly serving men in the community. These places are great places to drop by for some cheap, traditional food. Don’t expect a menu at most of these places, but if you can get past the language barrier usually they are worth it. My favorite things to order are rice pilaf, fasule (a tomato and white bean soup), Greek salad, and spec te mbushura (stuffed peppers). You can find different traditional foods at these restaurants based on the region. Pilaf is usually a safe bet, but if you’re vegetarian be sure to request it pa lenge mish (without meat sauce). If you happen to be in Berat you should check out Angelos.
7. Travel with public transportation.
The fastest way to travel around Albania on vacation would be to rent a car, which is a great option if you’re planning on spending some time traveling all over the country. Public transportation can sometimes be unreliable, but it is always an adventure. Riding around in furgons (small vans) and buses can be a great way to meet local people. It can also be quite entertaining because half the time the driver will be blasting Albanian and American music throughout the entire journey.
8. Celebrate Albanian Independence Day.
If you’re in Albania in the winter, specifically on November 28th, you should celebrate Independence Day with the locals. Albanians go all out for Independence Day and you’ll see Albanian flags lining the streets. People will decorate their cars, shops, and themselves with the double-headed eagle. There are usually big celebrations in Tirana and Vlore, but you could find festivities in almost every city. Be sure to buy an Albanian flag t-shirt to really get in the fun.
9. Participate in the pilgrimage to Kulmak.
Every year during the last week of August the Bektashi sect of Islam go on a four-day pilgrimage to Kulmak, located on the south side of Mount Tomori in between Berat and Corovode. During the pilgrimage lambs and sheep are sacrificed. After a lamb is sacrified everyone involved gets a thumbprint of blood on his or her forehead. You can hike up the mountain for the festivities or try to hitchhike with the locals. Us volunteers call this festival blood fest… you can only imagine why.
10. Buy fresh produce on market day.
In Kavaje, and many other cities around Albania, the freshest produce is available to buy at the market on Sunday. Many of the villagers from outside the city come in on Sundays to sell their fruits and vegetables. The produce in Albania is extremely delicious and fresh when it is in season. If you’re around in late-Spring I’d suggest buying a kilo of cherries. Also, the best time to buy produce is in the morning, so the earlier you go – the better.
11. Play chess with an old man.
Everyday you will likely see many old men on the streets playing chess, cards, and other games on make shift tables in parks and on the streets. These men will sit around for hours with their buddies playing games in the morning and before dinnertime. Challenge an old man to chess if you dare. I bet he’ll give you a run for your money.
12. Climb the pyramid in Tirana.
The pyramid in Tirana used to be an old museum that was once known as the Enver Hoxha museum. Now it is a bizarre looking structure covered with all kinds of graffiti. You can find young boys and teenagers hanging out on the sides of the pyramid during all hours. If you want to climb to the top be sure to wear appropriate footwear because it isn’t exactly the safest of climbs.
13. Take a selfie with a bunker.
I have never met anyone that likes to take as many selfies as some of my Albanian students. Selfies are an integral part of Albanian youth culture – selfies in class, selfies here, selfies there, selfies everywhere. There are thousands of bunkers around Albania that were built during the communist Enver Hoxha regime. You can spot these bunkers on beaches, mountains, and roadsides. Take a selfie with a piece of this history.
14. Explore the streets of Old Town Berat.
Old Town Berat is another one of the cities in Albania that is protected by UNESCO. Explore the city of 1001 windows and see what all the hype is about. The mountainside is full of quaint white houses and the windows of these houses are lit up at night and look absolutely gorgeous from the bridge. The center of the bridge is a great spot to take those much-needed vacation photographs. Stop by the castle on the top of the mountain for only 100 lek (a little less than one dollar).
15. Spend midnight on News Years in Skanderbeg square
New Years is a big holiday for Albanians and many celebrate by giving each other gifts and having a giant family dinner the night of. If you happen to be in Tirana on New Years, I suggest you go to the center of town and spend midnight in the chaos of Skanderbeg Square. The city puts on a decent firework show and many Albanians set off their own fireworks as well. Be careful to not get stuck in the center of the DIY fireworks because there is no age restriction on who can buy fireworks. Often times you will see young boys and teenagers lighting fireworks in a frenzied manner.
16. Experience rafting in Corovode.
There is a rafting company that takes people on rafting trips down through the Osumi Canyon. I have heard that this is not the most exhilarating rafting trips because there are not a lot of higher class rapids, but if you’re interested in a calmer river float then this might be just right for you.
17. Shop second-hand clothes at the treg or bazaar.
Many cities will have a weekly or daily bazaar. At the bazaar you can find plenty of good-quality used clothing that has been imported in from other countries in Europe. I have found some really nice brand-name clothing for less than one US dollar at the bazaar. The only downside is sifting through piles of used clothing, but if you have the patience and the time you might find something worth keeping.
18. Go clubbing at Matrix.
Matrix is the best club that I’ve been to in Tirana. You can find famous local musicians or DJs mixing on the weekends. The club has LED lighting on the walls, as well as a pretty sweet laser light show. The night I went clubbing at Matrix reminded me of the fun times that I would spend going clubbing back home. Definitely worth the stop if you’re into partying. Make sure to reserve a table ahead of time.
19. Swim in Ohrid lake near Pogradec.
Ohrid lake is the perfect place to cool off during the hot summer months. The lake is crystal clear and absolutely refreshing after sweating all day. Did I mention that it gets pretty hot during the summer? Especially in July and August. You can take a paddleboat out into the middle of the lake to see the underwater vines that have grown hundreds of feet from the bottom near the surface of the water.
20. Visit the Gjirokaster castle.
The castle in Gjirokaster is preserved far better than the other castles around Albania. Inside you will find old school artillery, the remnants of an old American plane, the prison, and the festival stage. Every four years there is an Albanian Folk Festival held on that stage to showcase folklore from across the country. While you’re in Gjirokaster also spend some time walking around Old Town.
21. Take an evening xhiro.
In the evenings, especially during the summer, Albanians take to the streets in the evening before sunset to go on a stroll with their friends and family. During the xhiro you will see people dressed up to perfection walking slowly with their loved ones. If you go on a xhiro make sure to walk slowly and take things avash avash. Some of the best xhiros can be found in Durres, Shkoder, Vlore, and Berat. If you happen to xhiro in Durres you should stop by the ancient amphitheater beforehand and grab gelato on the Volga near the beach afterwards.
22. Learn the history of Butrint.
Butrint is another UNESCO heritage site just south of Ksamil at the southern tip of the country. Butrint has been around since prehistoric times and has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. You will be able to explore several different archeological sites at Butrint. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the south.
23. Soak in the hot springs of Benja.
The hot springs of Benja are located near the small city of Permet. Benja is a village on the hill near the city and can be reached hiking by foot. The hot springs are known for their therapeutic effects.
24. Take out a paddleboat in Durres.
If you’re in Durres it would be worthwhile rent and paddle boat and get away from the crowded seaside. If you’re looking to swim, I’d suggest General’s Beach near Kavaje (which you need a private vehicle to access) or some of the beaches further south. I would not recommend swimming in some of the waters near Durres, especially during the month of August when the beaches are packed full of tourists from Kosovo.
25. Jump into the blue eye.
There are two blue eyes in Albania. One up north near Theth and the other down south in between Gjirokaster and Saranda. If you’re up for it, you should take the plunge into the blue eye’s pristine water. Just beware that the temperature is extremely cold, but there are definitely worse ways to cool off in the summer though.
26. Eat seafood at Gazi restaurant in Kavaje.
I am lucky to live in a city with some of the best restaurants in Albania, in my opinion. Gazi is a great locally owned seafood restaurant. The fish is caught fresh daily and Gazi, the owner, is sure to stop by your table to see how everything is tasting. The restaurant does not have menus, but I’d recommend ordering whatever is fresh. Whenever I eat there I like to have the mussels and makaron me fruta deti (mixed seafood pasta). My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
27. Visit Kruje.
Kruje is your one stop shop for traditional Albanian goods and touristy objects. The city has a castle, several museums, and a bazaar. You can also check out the shrine to Skanderbeg, a national Albanian hero. Also, head to nearby city Fushe-Kruje to see the George W. Bush statue.
28. Walk down George W. Bush Street.
Speaking of George W. Bush, there is also a street named after the former USA president in the capital city of Tirana. George W. Bush was the first, and only, USA president to visit Albania. After his visit, the Albanians commemorated his time here with a street and statue. As you can see, Albanians love Americans.
29. Hold a lamb or baby goat.
There are sheep and goats everywhere in Albania. You can see shepherds and their sheep walking down the streets in the center of town or grazing on the grass in the city park or in the villages just outside the city. I’d recommend taking some time to go on a walk to some of the smaller villages near the cities you’re visiting. If you happen to walk by a shepherd ask if you can hold one of the babies. It’s guaranteed that he will oblige.
30. Circle dance at an Albanian party.
There are always reason to valle aka circle dance in Albania, whether it be teacher’s day, someone’s birthday, or just a night out at dinner. If you are out celebrating with Albanians suggest circle dancing. It is likely you won’t even need to suggest it when you’re out with Albanians because valle basically happens at every single party. The basic step is quite simple, but some of the more difficult dances, like Valle Kosovare, might take a little longer to master.
31. Eat sheep head.
Sheep head is a delicacy in Albania and people will often serve this in their home on special occasions or holidays. This dish is often cooked with yogurt and lots of butter. I have only had this dish once, but I tried all the different parts including the brain, eye, and tongue. For those who have a curious palette, this might be a good choice of cuisine for you.
32. Try to spot the Dordelec.
Many Albanians hang dolls or stuffed animals from their homes to protect against the evil eye. Test how observant you are and try to spot some of these relicts hanging from balconies, roofs, etc. You might also see dolls on half-built homes. The idea behind this is to hang something ugly outside the home to keep the emotions of envious onlookers at bay.
33. Check out the block in Tirana.
When you’re in Tirana be sure to check out the blloku where you can find plenty of bars and upscale restaurants to suit your fancy. Head up to the top of Sky Tower bar to get a 360 rotating view of the entire city. Mon Cherie is a coffee shop that caters to those looking for a foreign coffee feel. They specialize in making frilly drinks, much like those in the states. Radio Bar is my favorite bar. It is decorated with old school radios, records, and photographs. Don’t expect a cheap night out on the blloku though because many of these bars and restaurants have prices comparable to the states and other parts of Europe.
34. Go swimming at the lake in Vau Dejes.
Vau Dejes is a small village near Shkoder in northern Albania. The village itself is quite small, but it is home to a beautiful and quaint lake. Take a furgon from Shkoder to Vau Dejes for the day to check out this lake. In the summer many of the kids from the village head up to the lake to keep cool from the heat. You can also find a great coffee shop nearby to quench your thirst.
35. Speak with the locals.
Get to know Albanians while you’re traveling around this gorgeous country. They are some of the friendliest people in the world. Even if they can’t speak your language they will likely try to help you in any way possible. Say hello to people on the street and learn some basic Albanian greetings to impress them with your impeccable language skills. Even if you only know a few words in Albanian, people will likely applaud your effort and your amazing language skills. Some might even say that you’re fluent already. So kick back, relax, and enjoy everything Albania has to offer. It is one of those gems that has yet to be taken over by tourism, so you’ll get the true experience of a Balkans adventure.