Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel

September 15, 2015
albania, albania things to do
Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel

Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel

Ready to travel Albania? Here are the sites, restaurants and accommodations that Barbara Weibel recommends for your trip.

Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not traveling the world? Where do you live? What made you decide to go to your most recent destination?

I am a travel writer and photographer who travels full-time, with no home base. I wander the world in search of stories to feature on my blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. To date, I’ve visited 65 countries on six continents (since I suffer from seasickness, I’m not sure that Antarctica is in the cards for me). Over the past three years I’ve been deeply immersed in Eastern Europe and this summer I’ve been concentrating on the Balkans.

Currently, I’m in Albania, which everyone insisted was a dangerous destination. However, I discovered that it is an extremely safe country, filled with people who are anxious for tourists to have a positive experience in their country.

How long did you go for? How did you spend your time?

I spent a week in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Again, people advised me not to visit Tirana, as it is a young city with no history and uninteresting concrete architecture. Both are certainly true, but the city has become a magnet for the young people of Albania, who are just now emerging from years under a brutal Communist dictator who so severely controlled citizens that they had no idea that the Internet existed until after 1985. As a result, they are eager to embrace new technology and ideas, and I found the capital suffused with a fascinating energy.

What were your most memorable experiences? What were the biggest disappointments?

I traveled to Albania by van from Ohrid, Macedonia, which took me through the highest mountains in the Balkans. The scenery was stunning. I was a bit disappointed in the lack of things to see in Tirana, but once I discovered the coffee house culture, things changed. Each day, I hung out in coffee shops, where people meet friends and linger over drinks for hours, discussing politics and the future. By the end of the week, I had made friends and was no longer sitting alone!

Tirana also proved to be a good base for visiting some of the more historic cities on day trips. I opted for a private tour with the Albanian Tourism Center, which took me to the mountain town of Kruja, with its castle and the National Skanderberg Museum, as well as Durresi, an historic seafront town on the Adriatic. I could easily have spent another two weeks in the area visiting castles and trekking around the mountains.

Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel
Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel
National Skanderbeg Museum in the Kruje Castle

What do you wish you knew before you went?

I travel without any itinerary and only a vague idea of the countries I want to visit. I also do no research prior to my arrival in a new place, as I want to be surprised–it is better for my writing not to have expectations. As you might imagine, this can sometimes result in unpleasant surprises, and Albania was a good example of this.

From past experience, I knew that no one takes the train in Eastern Europe; trains are all decrepit, slow, and arrive at their final destinations in the middle of the night. However, unlike other East European countries, Albania does not have a well-developed bus system, either. There are no bus stations in the capital. Buses congregate at points near major markets and are not marked on maps; tourists just have to snoop around until they find them.

Alternatively, there are passenger vans called “furgons” which are illegal, but everyone uses them. They operate only within the country and leave when they are full, so good luck trying to keep to a schedule.

Even worse, there is tension between Montenegro and Albania, thus there is no bus between the two capital cities, which are just 2-3 hours apart, nor is there bus service between Albania and the popular coastal cities in Montenegro.

In fact, Albania pretty much defines the saying, “You can’t get there from here.” I did finally find a way to get to Montenegro with the help of the Albanian Tourism Center, which hooked me up with Drita Travel, the only company in town that operates a circuit between Tirana and all the major Montenegrin cities.

Any favorite restaurants/hotels/hostels/sites you’d like to recommend? Tell us what made them great!

I stayed at the Comfort Hotel II. It was a bit of a walk to the center (about 15 minutes), but it was located in a local neighborhood that allowed me to experience real Albanian life and meet many local residents. Eating was sometimes a challenge, as there are few restaurants in the area, but the hotel is in the process of building its own restaurant, which will ultimately solve that problem, and I can’t say enough about the staff and the facilities, which were very nice for $27 per night.

In addition to Skanderberg Square, the must-sees in Tirana are the Et’Hem Bey Mosque, the Clock Tower, and the National Museum.

As for food, Tirana offered some of the best restaurants in the Balkans. My favorite was Oda, which is the only restaurant in Tirana serving typical Albanian food – and it was delicious! Also, one meal on the second floor terrace of the Tirana International Hostel is a must. The food was quite good, but go for the view over Skanderberg Square, which is the heart and soul of the city.

Finally, Melogramo Restaurant was highly recommended to me, though I did not personally eat there. The lovely woman at the front desk of Hotel Comfort II said, “It’s not food; it’s a miracle.” She gave me great recommendations for everything else, so I’m sure she’s spot on for this one as well.

Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel

Is there anything that women specifically should know before they travel to your destination?

Albania is a male-dominated society, so be prepared for men not to make way when you are walking down the sidewalk or to barge into a conversation and expect to be waited on before you. Traffic in Tirana is horrible and Albanians are some of the worst drivers I’ve ever seen. They have absolutely no idea what a crosswalk is for and refuse to stop for pedestrians. The only way to cross a busy street is to step out into traffic and force the cars to stop.

The country is 85% Muslim, but most Albanians Muslims are non-practicing and, unlike elsewhere in the Balkans, they don’t categorize people by their religion. Still, you should not enter a mosque with bare arms, an uncovered head, or shorts.

Travel Albania: The Real Deal with Barbara Weibel

About Real Deal

Real DealOn the Real Deal, women share the highlights and challenges from their recent trip–and what they wish they knew before going.

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