“Nice lady, think. You need to ask yourself, why do people not come to Albania?” I was sitting in a loud outdoor cafe with a lit American Spirit cigarette in hand, while looking directly into the eyes of my server. He had just set down a silver bowl of ice cream and a glass of vodka tonic down on the table, when he half jokingly asked me that question. This happened to of been my dinner, and not by choice. Apparently, many of the beautiful cafes that look like they serve full meals in Tirana, don’t.
I had sat down thinking that I could order a nice dinner of regional cuisine, and I was too shy to leave after I looked at the bar menu. That was when I settled on booze and two scoops of ice cream for dinner.
The young man was in his 20s- dark hair and eyes, handsome, inquisitive, you get the picture. He was also serving me ice cream and vodka, which is every over 40 woman’s dream. This was also the first full English conversation that I had in a couple of days and I was completely amused with the whole situation. So, I took advantage of what was happening and asked him the same question but toned differently, “Why do people NOT come to Albania? I think it’s very interesting!”
He looked at me again, this time more confused and asked the same question. I realized this conversation was circling back and I was in no mood to explain myself more. No matter how handsome this young man was, my need for a drink overpowered my need for an English conversation. I had just come back from a two hour bus ride, spending the day in Berat and I needed this moment. I poured my tonic into my vodka, and smiled at him.
Why did I come to Albania? Growing up as a teen in the 1980s, we heard stories of communist Albania and how for almost 40 years it was extremely isolated. That it was part of the communist world, there was no religion, people rode donkeys and no one drove. Guess what? It was all true!
That is why Albania fascinated me. I know that people in the country now drove and Albania was no longer communistic, but I have always been interested in seeing the changes of how living freely changes a society. Particularly Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic states, and this is why I find this part of the world intriguing. I could now enter this once isolated country and I wanted to see Albania.
When I had posted photos, videos and vlogs of me in Albania, it was like I threw a curve ball to my loved ones back in the States. They too asked me the same question of coming to Albania, but with a twist. “Why did you go to Albania by yourself? Weren’t you scared?” “Did you ride a donkey?” I can answer those questions simply- Not everyone has gone to Albania and it seemed fascinating and because no one else was interested in going – NO! – I wish.
So, I did it. While I was on a two month trip exploring the region, I took a bus from Skopje, North Macedonia into Tirana, Albania. It was more than an 8 hour long bus ride, through little towns and a mountainous landscape. It was tiring but enthralling at the same time. To be somewhere new, in the Balkans, that the majority of people would not even think of as a vacation. Then mixed in with being far from home, it felt so good to me. It was pure wanderlust.
Hours went by of looking out the bus window, crossing the border into Albania, while suppressing my hunger with snack food and bottled water. We did make the occasional bathroom break and to quickly grab a bite of food, which consisted of more bags of crisps or packages of cookies.
Although I was traveling solo, I was not lonely. I have been solo traveling for years and it is always a good thing for the soul and mind. Until you have tried it, you may not understand that desire.
As on many of my solo trips, I did meet someone to talk to on the bus who was another solo traveler, and from Norway. We had recognized each other right away when we boarded the bus in Skopje, simply because we were both on a free walking tour just days before. Later on while we were in Tirana, we were on another free waking together, where we met other solo travelers from around the world. Who like us, were fascinated with the ideals of coming to Albania.
This is the thing with solo traveling, you are never really alone. Although the words “solo traveling” can strike up ideas of fear, loneliness or someone who has no friends, that is so far from the truth! We travel by ourselves to places that are sometimes forgotten because we can. There is a strong drive within solo travelers, a sort of pull so to speak. I suppose a bit of rebelliousness and over self-confidence in the mix. I cannot describe why we do it, it is a feeling that has no words. It is just something that we are and something that we do. It is like breathing.
Travel buddies will come in the most interesting ways of introductions and you can spot them out, like they are from your tribe. When you are on a bus, a train, your accomodations, a free walking tour or a day trip; you can meet the most interesting people who are also solo travelers. You start gravitating towards and attracting people, who are just like you while on your journeys.
I have met people from around the world that were my buddies for the day; exploring a city, having a meal, sharing conversation in a bus or train, and then saying good bye. Although, I have met other travelers who I still remain friends with on social media or have visited with them through the years. See, you are never alone, but you can choose to be alone when you want to be.
Once our bus had arrived in Tirana, I took a taxi to the apartment building where I was renting a flat for a few days. Although I situated myself in the center of the city and in a popular area, my driver could not find the address, of course. He decided to drop me off around the corner, and while motioning with his finger he said “It is there. Somewhere.” Somewhere?
This was definatley not the first time to have an instance like this happen. I have found myself repeatedly wandering around foreign streets with my luggage, trying to locate my flat or hotel, more than I care to recall. So, I grabbed my luggage, paid my fare and like magic, my travel wits kicked in.
I turned the corner and was on a small street lined with older apartment buildings and a few neighborhood stores. I assessed where I was and noticed a restaurant on the corner where I was standing. So instead of wandering down this unknown street, I dipped into a restaurant and handed one of the ladies a print out of my flat, along with a phone number. She obviously could see that I was tired and lost, even though she did not know that I just traveled over eight hours by bus from another country. She was extremely helpful and called the number to get instructions.
After hearing her on the phone getting instructions in Albanian, she translated that I should walk down the street until I saw the pharmacy. Then look to the right and up, from there I should see a woman holding up a baby from a window, and she will wave to me. I shit you not. I suppose holding up her baby was meant for me not to get her mixed up with another lady who would be waving me down from an open window?
So I did exactly what she said. I walked down the street, looked for the pharmacy, noticed a market and took mental note of it, found the pharmacy and halted. I looked to the right and there she was. A young dark haired lady, holding a toddler in one arm and waving me down with the other, from the window of an old crayon pink apartment building.
It could be that I am an American, but for some reason seeing a lady from an open window, holding a toddler and waving me down, was amusing. It felt very old country and something I would have seen in an old black and white independent foreign film. I remember quietly mumbling to myself, “Welcome to Albania!”
I will be honest, I was more than elated and very relived to see this young mother and her child motioning me across the street. Although, I worriedly looked at what floor she was on while rolling my 24″ luggage and carrying a duffle on one shoulder, along with my cross-over bag on the other side of my body. I thought to myself, “Dear baby Jesus, let there be a lift!”. I silently wished this because I knew damn well there would not be one. In many European countries, if you are staying at an older hotel or an apartment building, it is common not to have a lift. I was right, there was no lift.
By the time I made it up several flights of stairs to the lady holding the baby, I was done for but I knew that I had to get back out there. After I checked in, paid for my flat, exchanged currency, got the Wi-Fi information and saw my flat- I took a long breath. That was when I realized that the Wi-Fi was extremely weak, it was non existent in fact. My bedroom had no AC, nor a fan, but just my bed underneath an open unscreened window. I did have a kitchen though and the flat was nicely decorated, so there was that.
The interesting thing about traveling now-a-days is that you can always check in with your loved ones via social media, with just a single post. Not like decades before where your existence was questionable, unless you got a long distance land line phone call or a post card in the mail.
With that said, I needed to do a social media vlog check in and needed Wi-Fi, so I found myself at a cute hip café. It was an extremely hot day and I felt like I was walking into to the sun, eventhough I was only walking a block. It felt good to sit in the shade while drinking a cold blended drink and stealing their wifi. Whatever it takes.
The cafe was Mulliri, which became a favorite of mine, and I came by every morning. For the important two reasons of sustenance and Wi-Fi. It was on the same block as my flat, which made it all the more convenient, and gave me a comforting feeling that I was still connected to the world. Most people do not mind disengaging from the world, and I am also one who likes to disengage as well. Although, in this case I needed to tell people that I made it into Albania and I was still alive. Plus, I did not want a load of DM’s asking me a myriad of safety questions that I could not answer unless I was at Mulliri.
Understanding Albania before 1992 is vital when visiting this country or the surrounding region. The best way to truly understand is to take a walking tour with a guide. There are various types of tours, but I chose the free walking tour with a local guide who was a child during Albania’s communism era.
Our guide confirmed all the stories we heard about Albania when it was isolated, and included important personal stories of his life during that time. The country was one of the most isolated during the last century and kept cutting off their ties with other communist countries, who started mingling with the free world. I suppose you could say that they were similar to today’s most isolated country, North Korea.
In Albania, there was no creative art, popular music, televisions shows, movies, media or New York Bestseller books. Not unless it was run by the state, everything that we have come to love in art, literature and culture was not a part of former Albanian life. When it came to art, literature and music, it was all communist propaganda.
People wore similar clothing, went hungry, rode donkeys and carts, but they were all educated. It was important that every Albanian was educated and it was mandatory that all children went to classes, no matter how far they lived from a school. There was also no religion, of course and people lost their back culture. Although the older generation secretly held onto bits and pieces of their religion and old traditions, much of the younger generation embraced the new.
In 1992, Communism collapsed in Albania. It followed a string of communist government collapsion throughout Russia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. There was a lot of rebuilding that needed to be done in this part of the world from government, economic growth, cultural lifestyle, religion or no religion, agriculture and education.
The fall of communisim not only gave Albania the freedom from world isolation, it gave the country the freedom for creating and exploring their belief systems. I find that the most intriguing and endearing.
Today, the streets of Tirana are full of colorful and creative art, trending cafes selling blended coffee drinks and cheesecake, and you can walk around wearing whatever, with whatever hairstyle you want. Cars with eratic drivers filled the streets with loud modern music pumping through the speakers. In fact, one of the nights I was in Tirana there was a pop concert happening until the late night in one of the park squares. I know this because my flat was across the way and my window was wide open!
So to my young and handsome waiter, who served me a dinner of vodka tonic and two scoops of ice cream, as well as to my loved ones who question my travel ways- this is why I came to Albania.
To step into a once isolated country, if only for a few days. To be part of a vibrant city, who once could not enjoy the simplicities of free thinking and basic freedoms that we take for granted. To see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, what happens when a region is allowed to explore who they are as individual human beings- their faith, whether or not they want to do something, the freedom of art and media, as well as just getting their own car and taking a road trip. It is just the basics that many of have taken for granted since birth.
Tirana was intriguing and I am wanting to return again to see more of the country. Beyond getting that passport stamp, Albania was a great study of an evolution of a society when it comes to freedom of expression. It is well worth the visit if going to a country, to see how far it has gone from where it was, then Albania is a great place to visit.
My trip to Berat, Albania and food blog are linked at the end of this post – Enjoy!
Places of interest in Tirana – A mix of the past and its present
Tirana’s Vibrant and Colorful Buildings
Et’hem Bey Mosque
City Art Exhibitions
Communist Statues of the Past
Namazgâh of Tirana – New Mosque
Reserction of Christ Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Former Residence of Enver Hoxha – Communist Ruler
Regional Food Blog
No lies, I was very confused with Albanian food and where to eat. I was recommended a couple of very nice restaurants in Tirana but I never made it. I was in Albania for a couple of busy days, those restaurants were not close to my flat and I ran out of time- it happens.
Many Albanians cook and eat at home, I am assuming that is why it was difficult to find a casual restaurant. I thought I could find food in cafés that looked like restaurants but many of them only served drinks. I was talking to other travelers about this and they were just as confused. Luckily I had purchased groceries for my flat but other than that, I was eating non-eventful Albanian food. It was more of snack or tourist food. I figured that mishap will make me be a better Albanian traveler, the next time and focus more on the cuisine.
This food journal covers three Balkan countries: Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo and unlike Part One, this food journal has more common foods. I find it interesting none the less because of what foods were available to me at the time.
My Day Trip to Berat – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Berat information and my experience – Berat – A UNESCO World Heritage Site | Discovering Albania
Solo travel not only pushes you out of your comfort zone, it also pushes you out of the zone of other’s expectations…– Suzy Strutner
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📸 All photos are taken by me and are my intellectual property – Trixie Navarre