Dear Albania Reloaded

In October 2018 I spent a week in Albania and Kosovo. I did 2 hours of research, all on Albania, by watching The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan and Dear Albania by Eliza Dushku. The former was very useful as it recommended a Raki bar with a frighteningly varied selection. The latter was less useful for a group of three Englishmen and a Scotsman, as we neither toured the country meeting alleged relatives nor stopped for bikini clad photoshoots on Albania’s beaches.

Fortunately, one of our group had so thoroughly researched the trip that we had selections of Tirana’s best offal restaurants to choose from, and when we needed a break from driving, we were swiftly directed to the museum of a local historic warlord. Stealing largely from his research, here is the Southern Oatcake guide to visiting Albania. And also Kosovo.

A Fun Fact about Albania

There are 5.7 concrete bunkers per square kilometer in Albania in preparation for “the people’s war”. The project consumed three times more concrete than the construction of the Maginot line and caused up to 100 deaths per year. The war never materialised.

On Hospitality

In our experience, Airbnb in Albania and Kosovo contains some false advertising. We had booked 4 room houses in 3 cities and received: 4 rooms, but one contained an old man, 3 rooms (and only 3 beds), and best of all, one room with 4 single beds pushed together. If travelling, make sure some of your friends enjoy sleeping on the floor.

Nevertheless, our 4 rooms in one deal by Castle Krujë remains the best place I have stayed. And here is the main reason why:

The view from the window…
… and from the restaurant. That’s right, we were a 2 minute walk from the Skanderbeg Museum!

It is difficult to see in the photo, since it was burning season in the nearby farms, but the castle is located more than 600m above sea level, providing excellent views all the way to the coast. This does make for a testing drive on the way there. Watch out for descending donkey carts late afternoon. They swerve for no one.

In the end the donkeys were no match for our Skoda Yeti (which turned out to be some kind of Suzuki lacking in both size and communist heritage), although some level of danger persisted once we got to our hotel.

A great place for a wet shave.

It was a difficult place to leave, but if you do so alive, be sure to pop in to nearby Fushë-Krujë to pick up a meaty dish from the world’s most surprising bakery:

Remembering the first visit of a US president to Albania. With munch.

On National Culture

Krujë is close to Tirana, a must for any visitor, partly because it contains the country’s only international airport. It suits fans of secret police museums and oversized communist-style squares. The biggest attraction, literally, is the Pyramid of Tirana. Rated 3 starts on Trip Advisor. Perhaps you can see why?

I imagine there are some big views at the top. Unlike my more athletic (their words), better shod friends, I failed to scale the slippy façade and had to mooch about at the bottom.

Then there is everyone’s favourite warlord and nation founder, Skanderbeg. After an unsuccessful stint in the Ottoman army, he deserted mid battle and used a forged letter from the Sultan to walk in to the castle at Krujë with 300 men. He declared himself Lord the very same day. Sultan Mehmed I failed in his vengeful assault on the castle. Sultan Mehmed II concluded that it could not be taken by force of arms, high praise from the man who conquered Constantinople aged 21.

A man on a bench, potentially in awe of the mighty Skanderbeg beside him.

On the Road

Thanks to EU and US funding, rural Albania boasts some of the greatest roads anywhere in Europe. These don’t stretch in to Tirana, where traffic jams are common. We were held up by this lunch delivery, which in turn was held up by a high density of fruit, veg and washing machine stalls spilling in to the road. OK that was a joke, I have no evidence that the goats were to be eaten that day.
A drive-by picture of a lake nestled in the Albanian Alps. They are much like the French Alps, but with fewer skiiers and cyclists, and thus better conversation. Best enjoyed with a refreshing can of Golden Eagle energy drink. If there is one thing you believe in all of my blogs believe this- I have tried many energy drinks, and none compare to what I tasted that day. What a day.

On Kosovo

First, a quick fun fact. Along with Bosnia, it is one of the few places I have enjoyed hearing the call to prayer while enjoying a kebab and a beer. And the only place I have enjoyed hearing the call to prayer while enjoying grilled lung and a beer.

The purpose of our road trip was to visit Kosovo. Much like the UK, I recognise its independence from Serbia. This brings Southern Oatcake in to line with 98 members of the UN (big up Costa Rica, first to recogise, 17th Feb 2008 yo). However there are some countries close to home, including Spain, who have not followed in the footsteps of El Salvador, Saint Lucia or brave Timor-Leste, who are too worried about their domestic image to allow the Kosovan people the right to self-determination.

Now another political point for your Balkans trip. If you want to visit Kosovo and Serbia, you must enter Kosovo from Serbia. If you go the other way the Serbs deem you to have entered Serbia illegally by entering Kosovo, and will not let you in to the smaller region that 98 members of the UN, but not Serbia, recognise to be Serbia. And if that doesn’t make sense, it’s not really my fault.

Enough of that: you are in Kosovo and you only have time for three things. What should you do?

Number 1: visit Prizren.

The view from our Prizren balcony. Most people take a picture of the famous bridge over the river in the centre of town. It looks like I didn’t bother, so here are some mountains instead.

For the real adventurer, divert from here to Brod. Brod is the subject of the greatest wiki travel post ever created. It is much better than my blog. Really you should divert there from my blog, now. But before you leave the metropolis of Prizren for this authentic experience, make sure to check out the total carnage of the local traveller market. The things that can be bought… are again for other people to blog about as we cravenly drove around it.

Number 2: visit the Adem Jashari memorial and museum. If you thought your last Trump rally didn’t focus enough on America, or if you have become disillusioned by the watering down of the British National Party, then this is the nationalist experience for you. See the AK-47 of Legendary Commander Adem Jashari! And everything else he owned labelled “The X of Legendary Commander Adem Jashari”. As a Stoke boy, The Finest China of Legendary Commander Adem Jashari left a little to be desired but hey, this is blog number 9 and I need to get on brand.

Adem Jashari was the leader of the Kosovan Liberation army, which fought against the Serbs (who are referred to ubiquitously unfavourably in the museum) and Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s. He liked beards, bullets and brothers who look like Barry Chuckle, as shown on the museum’s welcome sign:

Number 3: sample the local cuisine. A must-eat is lamb under the bell. We split 1kg between four, with potatoes and bread on the side, naturally.

For an adventurous chaser, ask the waiter to bring over some after dinner shots. The other diners seemed to have a great laugh at our expense as round after round flowed from the bar. I don’t know what we drank, but we had a great time, I think. Whatever- this is why you need to eat minimum 1kg between 4.

One word of warning. If you go to a kebab restaurant that’s less than 4 euros per head, watch out for ducks.

The End

I find it difficult to write seriously about any topic, hence this shambles of a travel blog which, looking back, appears to have had a bit of fun at the expense of our Balkan friends. In reality, I can not recommend strongly enough that you visit Albania or Kosovo. It is a crazy experience that I have rarely known elsewhere. It won’t be a relaxing trip but it will create great memories that you will continue to look back on.

Thank you for reading, if anyone still is.

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