Southern Tour of Albania with Dad and Nancy

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.

Drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It's a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje

We drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It’s a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje, but you can only reach it by car (unless you’re my athletic sitemate Chuck and bike the entire thing)

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

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.

We were happy about the trail being marked

We were happy about the trail being marked

On the hike in Berat

On the hike in Berat

The view from the top

The view from the top

My dad is looking pretty majestic

My dad is looking pretty majestic

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.

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Appolonia

Apollonia

Statues at Appolonia

Statues at Apollonia

Inside the church

Inside the church

The outside of the church

The outside of the church

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

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.

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

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.

The ancient ruins of Butrint

The ancient ruins of Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

The beautiful couple

The beautiful couple

Stunning views

Stunning views

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

Living the life in Saranda

Living the life in Saranda

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.

Albania <3 USA

Albania

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Pretty gorgeous

Pretty gorgeous

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

The newlyweds room

The newlyweds room

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

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!

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The Traveler’s Guide to Albania

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.

Some of the volunteers at my first day of beer fest - so much fun!

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.

Home cooked Albanian meal after the hike.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

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.

The beautiful sunset. Everyday I am so thankful to live in such a beautiful country.

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.

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Back in the furgon! The problem was fixed!

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.

Happy independence day flags!

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.

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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.

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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.

And of course we found a bunker

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.

Check out all that smoke. What a crazy night. (Photo cred: Alayna)

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.

I bought a funny Spice Girls flag at the treg in Elbasan.

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.

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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.

Inside the castle

The amphitheater in the castle.

The corner of old town Gjirokaster near Tyler's apartment.

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.

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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.

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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.

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When it's warm, Kate and I can get coffee at the beach 15 minutes away by furgon

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.

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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.

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Sa bukurrrrr

Love the shepherds expression.

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.

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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.

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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.

doll

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.

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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.

Trekking the Accursed Alps

I am a native Coloradoan—born and raised. I spent my entire life before Peace Corps living and growing up in the beautiful state of Colorado, so naturally I have an affinity for all things regarding nature. Luckily, I am serving in Albania, which is an gorgeous country. Albania has it all. Down in the south there are beautiful beaches which contend against some of the well renowned beaches in Greece, Italy, and Croatia and up in the north there are the majestic Albanian alps—also know as the “accursed” mountains. I will always be a mountain girl at heart, so traveling up north to hike these mountains intrigued me. This summer I was finally able to plan a weekend off to make the long journey to some of the most northern villages in Albania to hike the infamous Valbona/Thethi pass. Several other Peace Corps volunteers, our Albanian friend, and I set out early morning on Friday from Vau Dejes to take the ferry from Fierzë to Komani on Komani Lake. We all piled onto the ferry and sat on the roof of the boat. Throughout the three hour trip we took in the amazing views, caught up on each others lives, and began contemplating where we all will be in a year after our Close of Service (COS) conference. The boat ride, along with a private car ride from Vau Dejes cost us 850 lek (around $8.50). We were able to get some nice deals during our trip because the volunteer living up north has integrated and met many local connections in the area.

Lake Vau Dejes the evening before our journey.

Lake Vau Dejes the evening before our journey.

Heading out to the ferry.

Heading out to the ferry.

The view from the ferry on Komani Lake.

The view from the ferry on Komani Lake.

Catching up with old friends.

Catching up with old friends.

Hanging around on the top of the ferry.

Hanging around on the top of the ferry.

After finishing the boat ride, we all headed up to Bajram Curri for a quick bite to eat and to pick up another volunteer that wanted to make the trek with us. Once we finished, the furgon took us and some other tourists into Valbona and dropped us off to begin the next part of our journey. It began raining pretty heavily after we got out of the vehicle, but luckily I came prepared with a rain jacket and umbrella. The beginning of the trail is not marked well, but several of the volunteers had made the trip before and knew where to go. After walking for about an hour we made it to our first stop at a families’ home at the base of the mountain in a small village just outside of Valbona. We stopped there and pitched our tents for the night. The family had renovated part of their land as an area for backpackers to camp for the same fee of 500 lek ($5) per tent. They also offered beverages and home-cooked Albanian traditional cuisine. We were all pretty chilly from the wet walk over and ordered çaj mali, which is a herbal mountain tea that is popular and sold all over Albania. This particular çaj was, hands down, the BEST tea I have ever tasted. The rest of the evening we spent playing card games, messing around with the children of the house, and cooking hotdogs over the fire. The family was extremely hospitable, as per usual, and the man of the house helped us build a fire and even chopped down some trees on his property for us to use on the spot. Another volunteer and I ended the evening reading each other ghost stories from Creepy Pasta.

Directions to the pass.

Directions to the pass.

Pitching our tents.

Pitching our tents.

Starting the fire for our dinner night one.

Starting the fire for our dinner night one.

The first house we camped at.

The first house we camped at.

Fli is a traditional food in northern Albania.

Fli is a traditional food in northern Albania.

The next morning we got on the trail at 9:30am. It was a very misty morning outside of Valbona and we were unsure if we’d even be able to have much of a view during our hike at all. We continued for several hours in the mist and finally came upon a café on the side of the mountain with a nice fire ready to be enjoyed. Since we were wet, tired, and a bit out of shape, we took the opportunity to sit down and take a break with some more delicious çaj. At the café we talked with the owner, who spoke fluent English, and another man who was herding sheep nearby. We filled our water bottles at the stream next door and continued on our way up the mountain. We finally reached the top around 1:30pm, but sadly we unable to see the amazing views we had heard so much about because it was overcast and drizzling. At the summit it was particularly cold, so we continued back down the mountain to have lunch at a café on the other side of the pass. On the way down, the weather began to clear up and we saw some of the views that we missed on the other side of the peak. During our trip we took a lot of breaks and went at a slow pace. This hike is definitely not for the faint of heart. Towards the base of the mountain in Theth we found wild blackberries and ate them right off the bushes. They were absolutely delicious. I had not tasted a blackberry since leaving the states, so I was extra excited. It reminded me of picking raspberries in my Aunt’s neighbors’ backyard when I was a child. Once we reached Thethi, we went to a local home that has been renovated into a small guesthouse and café to pitch our tents for the evening. The family let us camp in their garden for free and made us a home-cooked meal. It was so nice to have a real meal after a strenuous day of hiking. The man of the house offered us all raki and the entire family was extremely hospitable and friendly—no surprise there. Albanians are some of the best people in the world. That evening I had a chat with the nice man before bed and he complimented me on my Shqip skills, which made me very happy because I am a bit rusty at the moment.

Outside our first stop on the way up the mountain.

Outside our first stop on the way up the mountain.

Warming up next to fire with some more caj mali.

Warming up next to fire with some more caj mali.

The sheep...

The sheep…

Are everywhere...

Are everywhere…

The group I hiked with.

The group I hiked with. And some more sheep…

About halfway up the mountain to the summit.

About halfway up the mountain to the summit.

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top!

It was such a majestic view... Mountains for miles...

It was such a majestic view… Mountains for miles…

One of the markers along the trail.

One of the markers along the trail.

Our lunch stop on the way down the mountain.

Our lunch stop on the way down the mountain.

Mmmmm, fresh blackberries.

Mmmmm, fresh blackberries.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

More delicious tea.

More delicious tea.

Home cooked Albanian meal after the hike.

Home cooked Albanian meal after the hike.

The next morning we went on another short 3-hour hike to the northern blue eye. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was shining, which was a nice contrast to the previous day. Once we reached the blue eye, we sat down for another çaj break in a tree house café. On our way back towards Thethi it began raining, but a nice local man drove us back into town for a reduced price. It pays to know the local language! After that the owner of the guesthouse drove us back to Shkoder and we all went our separate ways back to our sites. It was a great experience finally hiking the accursed mountains and it definitely brought out the Colorado girl in me again. Everyday there is some new treasure just waiting in my own backyard here. I am so grateful for this beautiful place.

Relaxing at the blue eye with one of the owners of the cafe.

Relaxing at the blue eye with one of the owners of the cafe.

Syri i Kalter - The Blue Eye Absolutely breathtaking.

Syri i Kalter – The Blue Eye
Absolutely breathtaking.

I would recommend the Thethi-Valbona hike for anyone with a sense of adventure. The trail and local roads have been improved over the past several years, from what I hear, and it is absolutely stunning. There are opportunities to go with a guide or if you don’t mind roughing it you can try it on your own. You may not meet a lot of locals that speak the language, but miming always seems to do the trick. Overall the trip is inexpensive, unless you are on a volunteer budget like me (aka pak leke). Go to the accursed Alps! Explore, drink raki and çaj, eat homemade meals with an Albanian family, and meet some of the friendliest people in the Balkans.

Changes

Things in Albania are constantly changing, whether it is new businesses popping up around town or shifting directors at the schools because of a recent switch in political power. Sometimes as a foreigner, who speaks the language at the level of a small child, it can be hard to keep up. It seems as though for many of these changes, I am often last to know. It’s like every Albanian magically knows that the furgon station in our city moved for no apparent reason or that this cafe is now just 100 ft below it’s old location. Here are some of the some of the most obvious changes I have noticed in Albania over the past year:

Businesses

  • Like I mentioned businesses are constantly coming and going in this country. My daily walk to the Directory of Public Health (DShP) is about 10-15 minutes depending on how fast I decide to xhiro that day. One day a business will be a consignment shop, the next day it will be a dentist, and overnight it will change again into some other random business. There is a very high turnover rate for new businesses in this country.
  • Recently the municipality in my town closed all the businesses that were operating without a permit. Instead of just closing these buildings the city literally demolished these establishments. 37 buildings were completely torn down. In my opinion this seemed a bit drastic. I was confused why they didn’t just seize the building and sell it out to another business through the proper channels, but hey, I guess it made a statement.

Transportation

  • I have mentioned the crackdown on illegal furgons and transportation before in several of my posts. Now the government and the police force are making an effort to keep these illegal vehicles off the streets. Not having random vans picking up passengers on the side of the road has made getting transportation more difficult. It often takes longer to hail down a bus and then there is still a good chance that you may be standing until someone else gets off. It’s good though to get these illegal drivers off the roads and to enforce the rules. Now if only speed limits and other basic traffic laws were enforced…

The Workplace

  • When the socialist party took over control of the government last fall many changes were implemented in workplaces across the country. Most Peace Corps Albania volunteers are placed in the high school, the directory of public health or a health center, or the town hall municipality. We have English education volunteers, health education volunteers, and community development volunteers. All three sectors experienced changes in the workplace. This definitely caused some chaos and uncertainty during my group’s first year of service because many of our coworkers were unsure if they’d have their jobs in a month. Almost all of the director positions were reappointed with someone from the socialist party and many people lost their jobs. Often times the workplace titles were just switched around a bit too. The old director of the high school went back to being a normal teacher and another one of the former teachers was promoted up. At my workplace we received a new director who previously lived abroad in Canada and seems very open-minded. I was pretty happy when this change occurred because I never talked with the old director much. Our new head honcho enjoys practicing English with me over the occasional coffee and refers to me as his “other daughter”. Very sweet. Albanians overwhelming are extremely kind and hospitable people. When the director changed, my main counterpart became the head of family medicine and now no longer works for the health promotion unit, but she is still located within the same office. In the fall we are still going to try to reapply for the cervical cancer project even though her position inside the directory has changed. Now another doctor has been assigned to my unit, but I hardly ever see her in the office. It is quite common for people in my office to show up for a few hours in the morning for a Turkish coffee with the coworkers, then they may head off to a school to do a health promotion lesson or just go and do household errands instead. I’ve been working with people in the office to be more accountable for their actions during the workday.
  • Another change in my personal work situation is that another volunteer was recently placed in the town hall municipality. He has spent the entire summer integrating into the community and making connections with all sorts of people. He is going to be an essential partner and contact for my secondary project this year. I would like to open the first youth center in my site for students, Peace Corps volunteers, and their Albanian counterparts to use for extra-curricular activities such as Outdoor Ambassadors, GLOW: Girls Leading Our World, yoga, book club, Model UN, American Culture Watch club, and more! Having a reliable place to hold meetings will make it easier to begin more successful youth development projects for my community and Peace Corps volunteers in the future. Plus, the new ministry of education is pushing for more after school activities, which are basically non-existent right now unless a Peace Corps volunteer is running some in the community. The problem is finding the motivated teachers to devote extra time after school when they are not getting paid. And honestly sometimes finding motivated students can also be difficult. Many of the schools do not have running water or working restrooms, heat or air conditioning, and sometimes even electricity. The students and staff are also not provided lunch. By the end of the school day everyone is exhausted and wants to get home for one reason or another. Hopefully the youth center will allow us to have more flexibility in meeting times and dates to find times that work better for everyone.

Aesthetics

  • Things are changing. Roads are being re-paved and re-painted with traffic lines and parking spaces. I was beyond excited for the first paved parking lot with proper spaces that was made in our city over the summer. Why? Not totally sure. But it’s progress, and progress (no matter how insignificant it may seem) is a step forward in the right direction. Guard rails on the highway are being put in to help make the roadways more safe. And finally the entire center of my city (and many other cities in Albania) is being completely remodeled. The whole center of my city has been torn apart. First the trees were removed, then the sidewalks, then the roads and all the buildings. The city has a beautiful plan to make a nice xhiro area with a fountain in the center. The project is projected to be down within the next year or two. I really hope that it will be close to finished before my Close of Service (COS).
  • Several of the cafes that women frequent have also been recently upgraded in my city. This is nice for us ladies who like to go out and get a coffee with our other female friends!

I appreciate all the changes that have come with the new government in power. I hope that with these changes Albania is better equipped to begin combating corruption and the post-communism mentality that leaves many people feeling hopeless for the future. Change is beginning to happen all around us and if we begin to make little changes in our own behavior and our own lives, then things will slower begin to develop under the surface. Changing the exterior is nice, but working towards a better interior is what is really going to help push this country in the right direction.

The entire center of my town has been demolished.

The entire center of my town has been demolished. Also, I was reppin’ Colorado State University the night of the Rocky Mountain Showdown vs Colorado University, which we won! Probably because I was wearing my CSU gear in Albania. 🙂

The first phase of tearing apart the road.

The first phase of tearing apart the road.

Not exactly the safest area to be walking around in.

Not exactly the safest area to be walking around in.

My neighbors decided to only paint a portion of our apartment complex to give that "new home" atmosphere.

My neighbors decided to only paint a portion of our apartment complex to give it that “new home” atmosphere.

The ALS #IceBucketChallenge in Albania

As many of you know by now, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has become a viral trend, especially across various social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Actors, models, TV news anchors, the average Joe, and even former United States presidents have taken the challenge to pour a freezing bucket of ice water over their heads to promote ALS, which is short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The ALS Association explains the disease as,

“a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.”

There has been a lot of controversy regarding this challenge. Many people are refusing to donate because they believe the ALS Association is using embryonic stem cell research in their studies. Using embryonic stem cells is often thought of my pro-life activists as taking away one life to help save another. Other arguments towards the challenge include the waste of clean drinking water (although let me just be clear the water used in my ice bucket challenge was not potable), the waste of water in general because many people across the world do not have consistent access to water, and the idea of “slacktivism” which allows people to feel like they are helping a cause without actually having to do anything.

While there is a lot of controversy and some negative opinions surrounding these techniques, in reality this marketing campaign has been a huge success. Over 50 million dollars have been raised to help further research to help find a cure for this debilitating disease and awareness about Lou Gehrig’s Disease has obviously increased tremendously. Whether or not all the Ice Bucket Challenge participants actually donate money is not the point, although it is awesome when people participate in the challenge AND donate money. The point is that people are getting excited about the idea of philanthropy and being a part of something bigger to help the overall quality of mankind. I am in complete support of this cause and even though everyone is not doing the challenge for the right reasons, it’s imperative to remember that there are still many people who are learning and donating because of this. Plus it’s entertaining to watch everyone pour a bucket of water over their heads.

Now the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has made it all the way to Albania. Not only is the a viral phenomenon in the States, but it is making it’s way across the globe. It’s definitely not a surprise to me that this sensation hit Albania because, like I mentioned before, Albanians LOVE social media and Facebook. Several of my Outdoor Ambassadors youth group students nominated me for the challenge, so I definitely had to accept. I was very impressed that my students were involved in a campaign to help spread awareness and raise money for a disease that many people were probably unaware of before the challenge. As many of the haters would probably say, there are better ways to go about raising money and awareness for today’s problems, but in my opinion this is a great start to making philanthropy fun for the younger generations who are less likely to donate to charities.

So go ahead, take the challenge, and donate to the ALS Association to help find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Plus it honestly felt pretty good to escape the Albanian summer heat with a nice bucket of ice water over my head. Check out my video below and click here to donate. And while you’re at it, look up some other organizations that would be worth donating your time or money to. Let’s continue the culture of volunteerism and philanthropy! There are so many wonderful organizations and causes to get involved with!

Click here to watch my Ice Bucket Challenge video.

Click here to watch my Ice Bucket Challenge video.

Peace Corps “Blog It Home” Competition

This year marks the 2nd annual Peace Corps “Blog It Home” competition. More than 350 Peace Corps volunteers from 60 countries across the world submitted their blogs and now the competition has been narrowed down to 20 finalists. The finalists are Peace Corps volunteers from Albania (me!), Cameroon, China, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Madagascar, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand, The Gambia, Tonga, Uganda, and Zambia. I am the only finalist representing the Balkans and Europe!

Starting yesterday (August 4th), Peace Corps posted a photo, blog description, and link to all the finalists blogs on the Peace Corps’ Facebook page. The public is now invited to vote aka “like” the blogs that they would like to see win the competition. Voting will run from August 4th -August 10th. The Peace Corps office will use all the votes/”likes” to decide which volunteers should win a trip to Washington D.C from September 14th – September 20th. Six winners will be chosen from the 20 finalists. In D.C, the winners will attend a conference regarding Peace Corps goal 3 and give a presentation about their host country to schools back in America.

Please help me win this competition by voting for me on the Facebook page and sharing the photo with your friends on different social media networks. I would love to have the opportunity to share my love of Albania with people in my home country. It’s time to spread some knowledge about Shqiperia – the land of the eagle!

PeaceCorpsAlbania

Click this photo and “like” this photo on the Peace Corps Facebook page to vote for me!!!

Pershendetje Miq. Disa prej jush mund ta dine se kohet e fundit jam perzgjedhur si nje prej finalisteve e “Beni nje Blog/shkrim ne Shtepi”, dhe kam mundesine qe te shkoj ne Washington DC te jap nje prezantim per Shqiperine e te ndjek nje Konference per Qellimin e Korpusit te Paqes 3. Ju lutem me ndihmoni ta fitoj kete konkurs duke visituar faqen e Peace Corps ne facebook dhe ta pelqeni kete foto! BENI “LIKE” DUKE KLIKUAR. Sa me shume pelqime/like merr kjo foto aq me shume mundesi ka qe Vullnetari te fitoje. Ju lutem me ndihmoni duke i bere like/pelqim dhe share/shperndarje kesaj fotoje ne menyre qe te mar sa me shume vota qe te jete e mundur. Ju falenderoj shume per te gjithe mbeshtetjen. 

Practicing Patience

When I chose to join the Peace Corps I knew my life would be completely different from my life in suburban Colorado working a 9-5 job, but I wasn’t really quite sure how. In Albania we have many of the same amenities that one would have in the states such as running water, electricity, grocery stores, and apartments. What is so different here is the lifestyle in general. There is a different mentality and a much slower pace of life. These changes can often be of the most difficult to adapt to because of the ideals instilled in me from such a young age. Things here (or anywhere for that matter) don’t always work the way they are expected to or they only work some of the time. Each day is different and stability is difficult to come by.

There are many situations in Albania that test my patience, but today I realized how much my tolerance for uncomfortable, annoying situations has increased. One of the most erratic things in Albania is transportation. Volunteers here are lucky because we live in a relatively small country and there is transportation available, but even though transportation is usually available it isn’t always reliable. Bus schedules are non-existent or just plain wrong. Since volunteers are not allowed to have private vehicles, we travel as the locals do – in public transportation. It’s always an adventure getting around here.

While traveling back to site today, I arrived at the bus station (bus stations are only found in larger cities here, usually you just find transportation on the side of the road) to find that there are no more buses, even though the “schedule” indicated that the last bus left at 4:30pm. When I arrived at 3:45pm, alas – no buses were to be found. Luckily after waiting on the side of the road for a bit a furgon (small van) came tumbling down the road heading in the direction that I needed to get back home. During the ride home the furgon continually stopped on the side of the road trying to pick up each and every person melting in the summer heat. We made at least twenty stops within the first hour of the trip. No big deal though, this is the norm for traveling around here. After a few more stops, the tire on our vehicle popped leaving me and fifteen other Albanians stranded on the side of the road in the middle of no where while a couple of the men tried to figure out the situation. Once the men all messed around with different things under the car they finally propped it up enough the change the tire. Of course the driver had a friend nearby who pulled up in a fast Mercedes with another tire to save the day. Yay, thanks random çun!

The reason why this story is substantial is because it allowed me to step back and take a moment to reflect. Throughout the whole situation I was not upset or annoyed. I knew that eventually the tire would get fixed and that I would eventually end up back in the comfort of my home. If that took a few more hours than I originally anticipated, then so be it. Ska problem. There are always situations in life that test our patience and sometimes it is the simple little things that can be the most annoying to deal with. My time here just continues to help me grow as a young woman. I appreciate all the opportunities that I have to practice patience and compassion.

Trying to fix the tire with rocks.

Trying to fix the tire with rocks.

Back in the furgon! The problem was fixed!

Back in the furgon! The problem was fixed!