Destination Albania


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Theth 

Albania is an undiscovered gem, a vessel of potential, a shimmering diamond in the rough. This particular place that I’m about to describe is a gem that I’ve been meaning to discover for some time now.

I finally, this summer got to see what Theth was about, said to be guarding many untold secrets of Albania’s natural beauty. The type of visitors that Theth has attracted since Edith Durham wrote about the place in the early 20th century, have in most part been foreign tourists from around the world. Not many actual Albanians visit these isolated parts of the North. So upon hearing what type of people visit Theth and how they all love to hike and walk around being at ‘one with nature’, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.

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So we were packed and ready to go to Theth, finally. I didn’t have walking shoes, only my precious Jelly Shoes (for those that don’t know what those are you will see them in my photography). Not a great idea you may say, however this could have been the best mistake I have ever made! Those shoes saved me, they were soft on the rocks, they allowed me to play in every puddle, stream or waterfall, and the grip on them was astonishing (I highly recommend Jelly shoes on hikes). It was early September and the weather was perfect for hiking.

We began our journey in Shkodra. Transport was fairly easy to arrange, we managed to find a spot where vans and four by fours waited for passengers in Shkodra to take to Theth, however this website helps with all the nitty gritty details for Theth ; http://thethi-guide.com/how-to-go-in-theth-albania/

The road was fine, not very exciting until we got 14km to Theth, that’s when the adrenalin began to surge through my veins. The notorious death roads of Albania were laid out in front of us. This however didn’t faze our multi-tasking driver that was of course on a very important phone call whilst smoking, as one does and listening to traditional ‘Qifteli’ music on a tape player. An authentic experience to say the least, very exciting. I didn’t see much of the scenery around due to my full concentration on the rocky mountainous roads we were driving on, approaching Theth from above at a fast pace.

We arrived at a villa that we had arranged to stay in, ‘Villa Gjecaj’, an adorable rock house where a group of women were laying out white sheets to dry in the garden and an old man with a radio in his hand paced around the house listening to more Qifteli music. As though I had stepped through a time capsule and returned to the communist days of Albania. I still hadn’t seen anything, nothing extraordinary anyway.

Once we were settled we decided to make the most of it and set off walking immediately to look for the hidden gems. It was still early in the day so we had time to explore.

We first found the beautiful waterfall, which was like a scene from an exotic film, you know the ones where a native girl goes to bathe and a white traveller sees her… and you know the rest. However magnificent and awe striking this waterfall was, I couldn’t help but feel small and fragile, surrounded by all the raw nature, the towering mountains and the harsh rocks beneath my feet humbled me.

Once I caught my breath and cooled down in the waterfall mist I realised that I was at a high peak in a mountain, in a village in North Albania, looking at a tall waterfall, sitting on a boulder and couldn’t help but feel proud and full of heart. Partly because we had walked three hours and partly because of the scenery my heart felt literally as big as my head. Magnificent!

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The walk back was easier as I felt light and powerful. On the way back we saw an old man harvesting beans in a field close to his house, stopped to say hello out of respect and asked how his day was going. A few moments later found ourselves sitting in his garden eating his yogurt and drinking his home brewed Raki (which we bought a litre of) talking about wolves and bears in the forest and the hardship of his life. A 76 year old ex-miner living in this tough environment, struggling to cope with harsh winters and dry summers, yet so enthusiastic to meet tourists and eager to communicate. The only thing that was stopping him from inviting everyone in, was his inability to speak English.

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After the warm welcome on our first day and the emotional euphoria I was experiencing, I was comfortable and wanted to stay in Theth, saw myself there completely.

Unfortunately we only had three days and used each day to its fullest, hiking 7 hours a day and seeing all the main attractions around the village; the blue eye (one of many in Albania), the museum, the rivers which I made sure to walk through every time possible, and on the last day the Tower of Refuge or ‘Kulla e Ngujimit’ of which is mentioned in many books one of which is Durham’s High Albania.

This last visit was particularly special, as images show, however the history told by the tour guide (which is also the youngest generation of the family that has owned the Tower since its beginning around the late 16th century) was particularly important for me and my lack of knowledge around Albanian history.

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The history of Albania and consequently Kosova, the traditions and beliefs majorly stem from the Law of Dukagjin Leka or ‘Kanun’ which to this day has influence on the Albanian people, and to feel this part of history in a Tower, to imagine hiding in a Tower where so many souls hid in fear for their lives is another incredibly humbling experience. To see more on the history of the Tower and why it is an important historical site visit: http://thethi-guide.com/sq/kulla-e-ngujimit/

Theth had a great effect on me physically and emotionally, opened up my heart to the beautiful people that inhabited those mountains, harsh faces, worn down hands but mostly hospitable and giving. It also opened up my lungs with the cool mountain air and fast paced hiking, clearing my mind.

There was still a constant sense of shielding, the land itself seemed to hold back not revealing all, almost as though it was mocking us, showing us what it thought suitable but never revealing it’s true dark self. This was the same with the people, poverty stricken for centuries, battling nature daily in tough conditions, although welcoming, I felt that they also held back, distanced themselves, not allowing the visitor take advantage as they have done for hundreds of years perhaps.

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Fast Forward to Summer in South Albania


The rugged coasts of Albania have a way of hypnotizing the stranger, with their immense heights, intense rough, rocky mountains followed by the sudden fall, down to the gentle turquoise waters below. I found myself asking where has this place been hiding until now?

The South coast of Albania begins to shine and sparkle from the city of Vlorë all the way down to Ksamil.

It appears that this diamond in the dust has finally begun to attract the friendly tourist. With its tourist numbers rising each year, now is the time to find out what the fuss is about.

Top places for the adventurous camper to visit are; Dhërmi, Gjipe and the more popular Jale.

Getting to the South of Albania may be easier than expected. There are many bus companies that travel to the less accessible Dhërmi or Jale. These are easier to get to from the capital city of Tirana. Traveling by bus is also the cheapest form of travel, costing approximately €13 from Tirana to Dhërmi.

On a larger scale, getting to Tirana, there are four means of traveling into the country; by bus, by airplane, by ferry or by car. By bus is again more obviously the cheapest form of travel yet the longest. If you’re up for an exciting journey and a view of the Balkans in its true glory, I do recommend this way of traveling. You can take a bus from Prishtina, Kosovo to Tirana. Belgrade, Serbia to Tirana or Skopje, Macedonia to Tirana. On the way you will see small ghetto villages as well as prospering towns and cities. You will meet hospitable people, people in the Balkans, you will find will cater to your every need and are very fond of the tourist; their hospitability is embedded in their tradition. Bus journey’s in the Balkans are usually bumpy, hot and long however since this is a once in a lifetime experience you must be open minded and bear in mind the hundreds of euros you are saving, also learning the culture’s mentality all on this beautiful journey.

Dhërmi

Beautiful clear waters in Dhermi – photo by Viola Ajdini

I begin my journey across the South coast of Albania from the first beach I encounter traveling north to south. Dhërmi has to be the most laid back, chilled beach in Europe. With bright white pebble beaches and turquoise waters there is no question as to why the people that come here become regular visitors, staying faithful to their virgin beaches of Dhërmi.

The village of Drymades also known as Dhërmi (due to the short distance between them almost unnoticeable where one ends and the other begins), is the hot spot for all the free spirited, traveling campers, due to it’s great facilities for camping and peaceful ambient. Before you reach Dhërmi, it is highly recommended that you exchange your money in the nearest city such as; Tirane, Durres even Vlorë. This is purely for the fact that these areas are more populated and the ratings appear more beneficial for the tourist rather than the ‘last minute’ exchange at your hotel for example, where I found that the rates are not so practical and seem to change according to the mood of the natives.

View of the beach from Dar Bar

Sunset romance from Dar Bar lounging area

For a cheap drink amongst the beaches coolest hipsters a must-see is the recently renovated Dar Bar.  The bars favourite and quite lethal drink, ‘Dormeo’ cocktail, costing 400 Lekë, equivalent to £2.30 will loosen you up in no time. Throughout your visit to Albania you will find that wherever you go the drinks will be cheaper than back home, however that seems to be the case with many places away from home… The staff at Dar Bar will be more than happy to cater to your every need, welcoming you to ‘their’ beach as though you were family. I can’t emphasise enough that if you really want to save money, bring your own drinks bought at the local market, or even be creative and make yourself a drink you will feel better for it, and no one will judge you.

Fire and moonlit oceans – photo by Viola Ajdini

Although Drymades lacks choice when it comes to bars and restaurants, the reason I visit this location is definitely not to laze around bars. As even the people at ‘Dar Bar’ would suggest, ‘build a fire, get a guitar and relax on the beach’, they will also add that you should not use the umbrellas for fire wood, an amusing gesture I have witnessed many times.

Once you’re settled by a fire you will find that crowds of people will join. I must say the cheapest, most entertaining nights will be spent by a fire drinking, singing and dancing like the free spirit you truly are.

There are a few accommodation options in Dhërmi that satisfy every type of traveller; the more luxurious hotel, the camping site, or the cheaper larger group apartment accommodation.

The Drymades Inn View from the restaurant and swimming pool

The luxurious hotel would have to be the ‘Drymades Inn’; located ON the beach of Drymades. This hotel has it all, swimming pools, conference rooms, large restaurant, perfect views and quality service. Prices in the peak time of summer are usually €100 per night, per room. You can book online in advance at their WEBSITE;

The whole virgin beach experience would not be complete if I were to spend my time in Albania cooped up in ‘so-so’ hotels, playing cards!!! When I could experience the location to its fullest.

The atmosphere of Sea Turtle tent areas at night

Turtle Camp entrance

Choose ‘The Sea Turtle Camp’, 3 minutes (if youwalk slowly) away from the beach, this funky camping site offers the camper all the essential utilities that a camper could need, including a constant feed of music, organised events bringing DJ’s from around the world right to your tent. However if you are in the mood for something quieter, there are plenty of camping sites around ‘The Sea Turtle’, which are open for exploring, although these are strictly first come first serve facilities. The price to stay at the Sea Turtle, per person, per day is; €7.17, which includes accommodation and two meals (breakfast and dinner). For more information on the camp facilities and the organised events at the camp visit their ‘facebook’ page.

Gjipe

Gjipe beach from a distance

Gjipe… this is a miracle on Earth, this beach truly makes your dreams of being stranded on an Island, with nothing but you, sun and sea, a reality. If that is your dream… Gjipe was once in function, there are small details left behind showing that the beach had purpose, like an abandoned run down building in the corner of the beach. This place was once tame and has now become  impossible to reach and wild. All the better for the explorer. I recommend the easier way of reaching Gjipe, also safest, which is by boat from Jale, instead of the horrific also painful in flip-flops, method of climbing down which takes 30 minutes, worse climbing back up.This is the perfect location for a camper to truly test their camping endurance, where you can set up camp and stay for as long as your mind can handle. This is a highly recommended challenge, highly rewarding in the end. Beware there are no shops, hotels, restaurants or bars, not even houses on or near this beach. Proper preparation is recommended; we don’t want to really be stranded now do we?

Make sure you have a number of someone local with access to a boat willing to pick you up when you want to escape, or that your car/vehicle is not too far. It’s never clever to be completely alone and not to inform others of your location, this applies to anywhere you go.

Jale

This magnificent location for campers has been a camper’s top location in Albania for much longer than the other two places that’s for sure. Jale has one of the oldest camp sites in Albania, where thousands of campers gather throughout the summer. The atmosphere at these sites is irreplaceable, as though all the great people traveling through Europe decided to meet in Jale, you will find them all here. However due to the hustle and bustle and the busy camp sites you must keep your more valuable belongings safe at all times, very rarely does it occur that things are stolen but it’s always good to not lose anything.

Jal Camp, the ‘dining area’ – photo by Viola Ajdini

There are frequent festivals organised in Jale where the whole village participates. For example there was a Reggae festival organised by South Vibes, bringing musicians from Italy, Jamaica, Germany and the UK, as well as visitors from all over the world, all camping at Jale, soaking up the sun, laying around the beach, perfect.

A recommended camping site would have to be; ‘Jale Camping’, founded in 1999, therefore you can expect great facilities and experienced campers here. The camp also organises activities like more intimate concerts, movie nights and recreational sports, making the more busy bodies as happy as they can be. The camp charges €10 per day per person; this includes tent, breakfast, dinner and activities. For booking find out more on their WEBSITE.

This is South Albania, the cheapest form of holiday for the young spirited, adventurous being.

Peace and love Albania until next time.

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