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Fam Trip Report: Discovering the Delights of Albania

Albania is a truly captivating destination, with its warm-hearted locals, fascinating history, and breathtaking landscapes. Following our recent Fam Trip with Elite Travel Group, Calvin, our Head of Representation, recounts his standout experiences in this incredible country.



What you will find today is an incredibly welcoming country with friendly people who are delighted to meet and chat with visitors. The younger generations speak fluent English, but it felt great to elicit a few smiles when attempting to speak a few words of Albanian.


Albania is a country unlike any other in Europe and during our time here, this destination was quickly awarded the apt tagline by the group: “Nothing is the same!”


A warm welcome!

Arriving at Tirana Airport in perfect sunshine was a great start to the trip, and my first big surprise was the calmness of the airport. I was expecting rows of taxi touts trying to get you into their cabs, but it was very relaxed. We immediately headed for lunch at a local Agriturismo. These are rural farms that have added their own restaurant and serve locally grown delicious dishes in beautiful settings. You can tour the gardens to see how the food is grown and many are famous for excellent wine production and tastings!




Amazing food

My second big surprise about Albania was the food! I’d read that Albanian food was excellent but I was taken aback by how tasty it truly was. Everything is grown locally and organically and as a consequence the flavours of the vegetables were superb, the feta was the best I’d ever had (don’t tell the Greeks!).  After sampling some excellent Albanian wine, we headed into Tirana.


Quirky Tirana

We arrived at our modern 4 star hotel, decamped and then set off to explore the city which has a vibrant buzz in the air. We crossed Sandeburg square, a focal point for the city, where we glimpsed one of the only religious buildings left by the communists, a tiny but beautiful mosque. The square is surrounded by an eclectic mix of architecture, dotted with Italianate grandeur government buildings, the modernist opera house and large tower blocks, the signs of new wealth in the city. 


We continued, passing the “castle”, the walls now forming part of an attractive alfresco eating area. The imposing grand new mosque, recently built with the personal money of Turkish Erdogan, is now the biggest Mosque in the Balkans. Finally we passed the Pyramid to get good views of the city and some interesting cube-shaped bars and artisan shops!



In the evening we headed for drinks at Komitetti, a great little bar that also doubles as a communist museum. It is also famous for its huge choice of different flavoured Raki. A local favourite, some were nice, some not so and some were complete throat burners!!


A mountain with city views!

The next morning we had a short drive to the bottom of the Dajti Express. Here we boarded a cable car for a scenic 15-minute ascent up the Djati mountain, with breathtaking views of Tirana below. This is a popular summer retreat for locals, and at the top we discovered a variety of attractions, including restaurants, an adventure park, and numerous outdoor activities to enjoy. 


Our trek to the mountain peak at 1,500m began with a steep climb through serene birch forests, leading us along a ridge offering panoramic views of the higher mountains to the north. After our descent, we enjoyed yet another delightful lunch of locally sourced ingredients crafted into delectable dishes while taking in the stunning panorama.



Bunker Art

Still buzzing from the euphoria of climbing the mountain, we made our way to the Bunker Art museum, ready to learn about some of the history under communist rule. Throughout Albania, these bunkers stand as enduring symbols of the former dictator's relentless paranoia.  While most resemble small brick igloos, Enver Hoxha's personal bunker, also used by other members of the communist party, stands apart. 


The bunker itself is huge and full of small rooms, similar to those of a prison cell, some of which remain empty, whereas others have been transformed to tell the story of Albania’s independence, from its journey through war to communism and back again. Poignant and shocking, the sheer size of the place (it even had its own theatre) offers visitors a visceral glimpse into Albania's past.



Ziplining

From the serious to the fun, we then headed to take the Balkans longest zipline, which definitely tested our nerves as we egged each other on and took the plunge over the edge. The speed reached was close to 100kmh, and the cross winds made things a little more (nail-bitingly) interesting, but we all survived!


Elbassan

With our feet back on solid ground, we set off for Elbassan, an untouched walled city with cobbled roads that soon became one of my favourite places on the trip. We stayed in a lovely hotel inside the walls and met up with a local couple who told us of their life through communism and the transition into modern times. The encounter was fascinating, especially considering that one of the couple was Muslim the other Orthodox, yet their religious differences didn't pose any obstacles. We were informed that hospitality in Albanian homes typically involves offering guests juice, coffee, sweets, and a generous supply of Raki. This well-educated couple provided insightful perspectives on Elbasan as a centre of learning, delving into discussions about the contrasts between communism and contemporary society. It was a truly unique, authentic experience and was fascinating to hear things from a local perspective.


White water rafting

We awoke the next morning to the gentle call to prayer, before setting off for our white water rafting trip through the Osumi Canyon. It was quite a lengthy drive, however a coffee stop in scenic Belsh, a lakeside town reminiscent of Tuscany, refreshed us. As we approached Berat, the landscape shifted to rugged beauty, hinting at the adventure ahead on one of Europe's untouched waterways.


Navigating the Osumi canyons, a tributary of the Vjosa, was an incredible experience.  The water was fast enough to generate excitement, and the shapes and formations of the canyons took your breath away.



Berat - town of 100 windows

Afterward, we returned to Berat, known as the town of 100 windows and a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its Ottoman architecture. We stopped for a visit at a local historic house and met with a local guide, whose father owned the house. It was interesting to hear how his father is still a staunch communist whilst he was very much a capitalist. Our day concluded with a memorable dinner within the ancient castle walls, capping off another day of exploration and cultural immersion.


Karavasta Lagoon

The next day, our coastal journey led us to Vlore.  A captivating detour to Karavasta Lagoon revealed Dalmatian Pelicans which are found exclusively here. During a tour of the visitor centre we learnt about the lagoon's diverse species and how it is a slice of heaven for birdwatchers. Ascending the viewing tower treated us to panoramic views, followed by a serene stroll through the pine trees. Surprisingly, we encountered a Pelican near the visitor centre, a real treat considering boat trips are typically required for sightings. The lagoon's tranquil ambiance contrasted beautifully with our lively lunch at a local restaurant, the whole experience elevated by a live band and the locals dancing, offering an authentic taste of the region.



Apollonia

We then continued to Apollonia, an ancient Greek settlement with a rich history spanning Roman and Byzantine periods. It features a magnificent Greek Agora and a picturesque Byzantine chapel amidst breathtaking views. Moving onward to Vlore, Albania's third-largest city, we regretfully missed exploring the old town but had a nice seafront hotel for the night. While the new town may be overshadowed by hotels, strolling along the waterfront and enjoying a beer by the sea offered a pleasant respite. Vlore holds significant historical importance in Albania's history.  It was the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed.



Durres & Kruje

On our final day, we worked our way back up the coastline. Our first stop was in Durres, Albania's second-largest city, renowned for its rich tapestry of modern and ancient history. We explored the remarkable Roman Amphitheatre, the largest in the Balkans, discovered only forty years ago and still not fully excavated. The old town exuded a captivating atmosphere, leaving many of us longing for more time to immerse ourselves in its intriguing architecture.


Continuing our journey, we arrived in Kruje, a picturesque town nestled at the base of Mount Kruje, celebrated as the birthplace of Skanderbeg, Albania's national hero, and the epicentre of the resistance against the Ottoman Empire. Today, it stands as a cultural hub, drawing Albanians seeking to connect with their heritage through its vibrant artisanal scene and the Skanderbeg museum. Here we had arguably the best lunch of the trip, a high accolade, of succulent slow cooked lamb! In the afternoon, we visited a traditional hat and shoe workshop which was a highlight. This authentic local experience offered insight into the craft behind Albania's distinctive egg-shaped hats, which are steeped in spiritual symbolism. These hats are made solely with wool and soap and there are very few artisans left making them today.



Then we had a tour of the Skanderbeg museum, learning about the fascinating story of the national hero who managed to trick an Ottoman legion. In the evening we were treated to a private Albanian folk dance performance, where our attempts at joining in elicited laughter and camaraderie. Our farewell dinner capped off a week of memorable experiences.



Reflecting on our time in Albania, I was astounded by the country's beauty, history, and hospitality. Beyond its scenic landscapes and architectural treasures, meeting with Albania's warm and friendly people left a lasting impression, challenging preconceptions and enriching our journey. A heartfelt thanks to Elite Travel and Albania for an unforgettable adventure – you've gained a devoted fan. Faleminderit!


For an introduction to our local DMC partner, Elite Travel Group, please contact calvin@theadventureconnection.com and to find out more, click here.

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