Why Albania? Good question.
I wanted some sunshine and I wanted to be near the coast. It had to be a country that I had never visited before and also had to be fairly affordable – I had not long since started at M&S so though it didn’t need to be mega-cheap, there certainly were some constraints – Caribbean destinations definitely weren’t on the cards.
Also I was going by myself. Which makes hotels and stuff much less affordable, given that I couldn’t share the cost. And I wanted something nice.
I considered Malta and Montenegro, before almost accidentally discovering that Albania had a coastline – and it was called the Albanian Riviera. My assumption was that I’d fly into Tirana, have a couple of nights there then head to the coast.
Durres was one place I looked at, but Ksamil in the far south of Albania stood out the most. Alas, my idea of flying into Tirana then getting the train south was scuppered when I discovered that there were no train lines within 100km of Ksamil. So there was a choice of a 6 hour bus journey from Tirana – or catch the ferry from Corfu.
I caught the ferry from Corfu.
I had a bit of a rude awakening when I arrived in the port of Saranda – several increasingly desperate people trying to sell me a taxi journey to my end destination, one of them looked especially wired on drugs.
They wouldn’t leave me alone as I walked along – I insisted that I was going to a bar for a beer and started looking for one to escape. What kind of fucking country was I visiting?
I saw a bus, then someone asked me where it went to. There was a board on the front saying Ksamil so myself and my very temporary American friend got on board – I didn’t have much other option, I had no taxi company numbers and was loathe to use my phone or data at international rates. I possibly could have planned this better. Oh and I had no Albanian currency yet was sat on a bus without a ticket.
Thankfully the world’s most attractive bus conductor appeared and let me pay in Euros. After I guess 30 minutes I arrived in Ksamil – to see a cow casually crossing the road into an abandoned building. There didn’t seem to be any official bus stops, so I took a guess at where to get off (I think it was the last stop in Ksamil as far as I worked out afterwards – would have ended up at Butrint had I stayed on…I think).
A 20 minute walk – and it was still around 28’C, I had a hangover too so it was a bit of a sweaty walk towards my hotel – going off a saved map from Google Maps and hoping that I was in the right direction – not helped by various hills or my small suitcase which has one wheel which seems to be square.
I arrived. At a hill which was a calf-tearing 45′ angle (maybe even 60′) to my hotel – Hotel Mira Mare. I arrived to the reception desk profusely sweaty – the receptionist asked if I wanted a bottle of water and gave me a minute to catch my breath. “You’ll get used to it”, she advised. I pointed at my belly.
Apart from the hill, the hotel was perfect. A gorgeous, simple apartment, cleaned every day – the kind of place I wish I could live in London, and only around £120 for 4 nights – though I was at the end of the season.
I think I booked it because of the swinging chair on the balcony – but I dared not sit on it fully, being rather obese.
I de-sweated and headed to the nearest beach bar for a £2 Albanian beer and to listen to the sea. And then decided that I should get some provisions – bottled water as advised, chocolate, fruit (which never ripened enough to eat) and beer. Then discovered that shops don’t take cards. I still had no Albanian money, and no idea where the ATM was.
Eventually I found one, got some provisions, walked back then up that insane hill. That hill would be illegal in the UK – you’d have to do like a winding slope, left then right, then left. Less rules in Albania.
During the evening I realised the pitfalls of coming at the beginning of October. I was supposed to go the week before, but there was a British Airways strike for my way home. I managed to change my hotel booking, my holiday time at work and then eventually my flights – before the strike was then called off. Grrr. Fucking socialists.
Anyway, before I step into politics, Ksamil was really quiet by the first week of October. Apparently in the middle of the summer the beaches can be really crowded – I was starting to see how everywhere was now closing for the winter, with my first choice of restaurant closed on my first night. And every day it got even quieter.
I ate at a place next to the sea called Guvat Bar Restaurant. I tried the Dorada as per the waiter’s recommendation – it was fresh and tasted nice, though not especially my kind of thing. I enjoyed the garlic butter which came with the slightly stale bread more.
That was enough for the day.
The next day I decided to do a tour of the beaches. I started off at a fairly desolate and unkempt beach just south of my hotel – out into the sticks.
There wasn’t much happening.
I then headed north to where there were buildings and stuff, to the next beach – by which point I realised that each cove or section of beach was run by the adjacent bar/restaurant. The next beach had a great view, cheap beer and run by someone who insisted that he was Scottish (he was Albanian) – though I didn’t fancy it enough to eat there.
I was too hungry to get to the next beach so I settled for Bar Luna – and had the octopus salad. The octopus itself was gorgeous – alas it was totally drowned in vinegar. The salad barely existed, and yes, was drowned in vinegar. The 5 slices of slightly stale bread with no dip was odd. I wasn’t exactly feeling Ksamil as a foodie destination at this point.
I spent a good hour in Restaurant Panorama in the afternoon, having a chilled out pint of Paulaner – the only place I remember selling a beer more interesting than the common Albanian beer.
Then I wandered around and eventually settled in Restaurant Apollonia for a view of the sunset – and a stunning view it was too.
Alas, I left then it got even better.
Just how gorgeous is that?
I was charmed enough to head back to Restorant Apollonia for dinner – where I again took the advice of the waiter and ordered the seafood stew kind of thing. Gorgeous prawns, nice fish – wasn’t keen on the squid or whatever it was. Bread too. There is a theme there – oh and weird apple juice. I went back to red wine after, which was much nicer.
Wednesday was my second-last day there, and I decided to catch up with some e-mails and stuff in the morning. Alas, the electricity went out around 11am and there was no sign of it returning, so I hastened my plan of going to Butrint National Park.
As a Unesco World Heritage site, this place is flooded with history – and not many tourists – at least not in early October. It is a microcosm of European history, from Romans through Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. I’m not going to shame myself with my poor history knowledge here – this was just a glorious way to spend time admiring ancient ruins with a spectacular view. There is a thing called the internet if you want to find out about the history of Butrint.
I thought I’d left myself enough time for a beer at the summit, alas I seemed to have time-travelled inside and had arranged to meet my Albanian taxi driver at a certain time, so I left.
I waited in the hot sunshine with minimal water before eventually relenting and calling my ever-helpful hotel reception at almost a higher rate for a two minute call than a return taxi. “Oh you want to come home early?”.
Somehow my phone had gone forward in time around 45 minutes. I regret not having longer there, or confidence in my Albanian taxi driver to pick me up on time.
In the evening I set off for the place that I was most looking forward to eating in. It was closed. As were two of the restaurants that I had been to previously.
I settled for Rilindja Beach and Restaurant – I was only the second customer in there, and the only place where I saw people in traditional Muslim dress – for Albania is a Muslim country – the first majority Muslim country that I’ve visited…I think. Though Albania is also a fiercely pro-Western country.
I even found some vegetables, though I wasn’t massively keen on them, and had a sizeable steak – though I forgot that eastern Europe tend to cook meat one way, and that is medium-well – there is no such thing as rare meat. My waiter was superb and the steak was fine – but I’d had many better.
Yes there was bread too.
Then the thunderstorm. If you know me, you’ll know that I love thunderstorms. However, some of the weather models that I use were suggesting up to 500mm of rain was possible, including the Met Office who had the most extreme projections.
That’s half a metre of rain. In Albania. And I had a ferry home to catch the day after. I was slightly concerned about the idea of getting stuck in Albania.
Then again, other weather models had the rain at around 50mm – plenty but kind of normal for a thunderstorm – and this was closer to the case.
The thunder, however, was immense. I did briefly manage to get to sleep before the bright white emergency lights came on after an almighty bang – it sounded like a bomb had gone off nearby. I wondered what I should do – did I need to get out?
After a few minutes, the light went out – and I went back to sleep against the backdrop of thunder and lightning, which faded for a while before coming back – with a bang. And with the hotel’s emergency lights back on – bright white light that was impossible to close your eyes to.
I looked outside and saw that the whole town’s power was off. I wondered whether I was the only person still staying in the hotel, on a hill, on the outside of this increasingly-desolated town in Albania – thunder booming, lightning flashing, rain pouring down, wind howling. At 3am. I was tired. Oh and no electricity meant that there was no wi-fi. Aaaarrgggh!
After an hour or so, the electric came back on in the town. The thunderstorm continued on and off all night. I got some sleep on and off – not that it mattered, I was on holiday and becoming well-rested.
The thundery rain unexpectedly kind of cleared by midday so I ventured out for a beer. I even found another holiday-maker – the town was rather deserted by this point.
More thundery showers seemed on the cards, so I made it back to my hotel just in time (no I didn’t get used to the steep hill). Pondering my options, I took a risk in the evening and headed to an Italian restaurant which had been full the last few nights – and was empty by time I arrived.
The guy didn’t speak much English and he didn’t understand my very limited Italian either, though he claimed to be from Italy.
I ordered what appeared “meat with green pepper sauce”, which I hoped would be steak with peppercorn sauce.
First came a starter of bruschetta.
The the main, which was, I think, veal. With a salad leaf and bread. Yes – no vegetables, no potatoes, no proper salad – but bread.
With a side of bread.
I cannot remember the name of the restaurant and Google Maps doesn’t seem to have spied on me either that evening – the peppercorn sauce was fantastic though.
Ksamil certainly wasn’t a foodie destination – or if it was, then it wasn’t in the first week of October. I was under the impression that Albanian cuisine was impressive, so maybe I need to go to Tirana instead.
I was craving vegetables by the end of my holiday. And what was this obsession with bread?
Good fish throughout, as you’d expect, and everywhere seemed to offer pizza – yet when you were seated tell you that there was no pizza.
Ksamil itself was quite quaint and basic, some of the roads were just potholed tarmac, it was rustic in places and had a fair scattering of broken dreams – the building next to my hotel was started without planning permission, and destroyed by the council, so I was advised.
The people were lovely and welcoming throughout. You know when you go to popular tourist places like Barcelona and you get that occasional push-back, like “get out my city” – Albanian people all actively wanted more tourists, at least from what I met.
Not everyone spoke good English, but many did, and those that didn’t spoke enough to get by. By the end of my holiday I even managed to work out how to say thank you – “falemenderit”. I praise all those who can speak foreign languages!
Albania was cheap – perhaps not quite as ridiculously cheap as I’d hoped, but it was way cheaper than western Europe. Maybe I paid around £2 for a beer, or between £8 and £15 for a meal with wine. I cannot say that I was really counting.
Downsides? Too many wasps – but where doesn’t at that time of year. A few mosquito bites but again, same for any European place in the summer. Some places selling craft beer, even if it was expensively imported would have been nice – only so much local lager I can handle, and that wasn’t much.
I left Albania fully charmed. I hope I make it back to the country one day – but I have so many other places to see. Maybe you might consider it next time?