Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Albanian Riviera by Campervan

Exploring Albania by campervan was one of the highlights of this summer's European road trip adventure. I've always been fascinated by this Southern European country. As a kid I visited Corfu one summer with my family and as we sat at a restaurant for dinner one night we could see explosions across the water on the Albanian shore. I recall finding it bizarre that people could be fighting right there whilst we were just hanging out eating together as if everything was a-ok. As an adult my fascination with Albania never ceased and I knew that I needed to visit before the country changed too much. This very specific wanderlust was a driving force behind the road trip for sure.

We drove over the border from Igumenitsa in Northern Greece and it became immediately obvious that we were somewhere else. Gone were the whitewashed houses and manicured gardens of Greece and in their place were lived in but unfinished flat roofed homes (I read somewhere that if the building isn't finished the taxes you pay are different), pot holed roads, scrubby bush and litter. 


After driving for around 45 minutes from the Qafe Bote boarder crossing we reached the cable ferry we needed to take to get across the Vivari Channel to Vlorë County where one of Europe's newest archaeological sites, Butrint National Park, lies. The cable ferry was a fun adventure and it was surprisingly fast and easy given that we were initially a little scared to drive the van onto the rickety looking wooden planks to board and I definitely had a "That's it?" moment when we reached our destination.


Butrint was established in 2000 after being placed on a list of World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO because of looting and a lack of conservation. I loved exploring the site and I'm so pleased that it's now being looked after properly. There's an amazing Roman amphitheatre there alongside Bronze Age artefacts, Venetian castles and a Christian church - it's a real mish mash, but one of my favourite parts was this peaceful spot overlooking the channel. 


Our first overnight stop was near Ksamil where we stayed at the Ksamil Caravan Camping site which is just located in the garden of the owners home - if you pay attention you'll notice a pattern appearing as this post goes on! Albanians are renowned for their hospitality as we discovered at an Albanian run campsite in Macedonia where we were offered countless cups of coffee and shots of raki for breakfast; this offering of grapes was a little more welcome as neither of us drink caffeine and even the thought of hard liquor at breakfast makes me feel queasy. The grapes were grown in the campsite owners garden and they were suitably excited about them as they were from their first ever crop of grapes! I was so pleased to be able to share in their sweet excitement. One of the only downsides of travelling as a vegan is that you sometimes have to turn down people's hospitality and explaining why you won't try a campsite owner's baklava when there isn't much shared vocabulary is a less than fun challenge so when the gifts offered are accidentally vegan I'm always grateful and appreciative.


The beaches in this area aren't anything to write home about, the Albanian architects working on this part of the coast seem to have a fondness for using poured concrete to expand the areas in which they can squeeze an extra sun lounger or ten, but it was interesting to get a look into where local people and tourists from other parts of The Balkans and Russia holiday.


As we continued North we reached a spot that's up there with my favourite stretches of beach in all of Europe. This section of the Albanian Riviera is slowly changing but currently it's almost untouched by large developers and you'll find baby cows and wild pigs just hanging out by the side of the tracks leading down to the beaches.


Borsch beach was one of my favourite discoveries. I love that you can still just stop by the section of beach you want to sit on, park up, and hop into the ocean. Some people even took this a step further and just drove right on down to the shore!


Our campsite of choice for the next couple of nights was Camping Kranea by Livadhi beach. We set up camp on a fantastic pitch in the back corner of the site underneath a mature olive tree. Both the space and the beach opposite were fantastic places to while away a couple of days reading, listening to music and catching up on podcasts in the sun.



Whilst we relaxed we also made use of the self catering facilities in the van but when it was too hot to cook we snacked on some of Albania's best vegan eats. Lemon wafers, garlic Bake Rolls and Lay's Tzatziki flavoured crisps. Delicious.


Our drive north from Livadhi Beach towards the Dukat Valley and our pre-selected base for the night, Kamping pa Emer, was probably the most challenging of the trip. We had to drive up and over the Ceraunian Mountains crossing the infamous Llogara pass at 3,422 feet before descending though Llogora national park. The roads in this part of Albania (on the south side of the mountain at least) are incredibly well maintained and, I would guess, newly tarmaced, which was unexpected but pleasing for sure.


The picture above doesn't really do the intense nature of the road justice but as you can see Albanian's aren't big fans of a switchback, they favour long climbs that zig zag up and across the mountain. I was amazed at the sheer amount of cyclists attempting the hard slog to the top, a few of them did not look like they were having a whole lot of fun. Thankfully, unlike the few drivers we saw struggling along, our camper van, the 2009 Romahome Hylo which has since been replaced in the line with the Romahome R20 Lo, is small and fast and happily handled the corners and hills. It didn't really appreciate the bridge we discovered right at the end of our journey though but I doubt that most vehicles would. It was built at one of the more peculiar angles I've ever seen and it's definitely challenging not to scrape the underside of your bonnet coming off of the bridge!


Thankfully it's entirely worth doing a little damage to your vehicle as when we arrived at the campsite we were greeted by this view. Albania is seriously stunning, what an amazing place to wake up.



When I wasn't just staring at the view from the van I was walking on the beach, it wasn't warm enough for swimming the day we were there due to the wind but the sky was beautifully clear. I enjoyed spotting this beach bar set up - it reminded me of Thailand's island beaches and their ramshackle bars - and checking out the bunkers, a relic of Hoxha's time controlling the country with something of an iron fist, lying abandoned. You can find these all over the country on hillsides and beaches, some are intact, some, not so much.



After driving from our campsite at Kavaja past the somewhat ugly port town of Durrës we deviated from our coastal route to dip into Tirana for a day of sightseeing and to eat something we didn't have to cook ourselves at one of Albania's few vegan friendly Happy Cow listings, Bohemian Burgers



We stayed at Camping Tirana which was one of our favourite camping spots of the whole trip. Located around 14km outside the city centre down around a kilometre of rocky dirt track we found two of the kindest hosts and one of the quirkiest campsites we'd stumbled upon. Located, of course, in the back garden of the owner's home we were surrounded chickens and electricity pylons and had a view down to a lake. To get into Tirana we took the local bus to City Park which was an adventure in itself, when one woman missed the bus she called the driver who reversed back down the road to collect her, and then from there we took the free shuttle bus into the city centre. On the way home we'd have been too late for the local bus so after some texting we picked up the keys and one of the owners cars and drove that back from City Park. I'm still unsure how the car got to be there as the person handing us the keys had their own vehicle and the person whose car it was was at the campsite when we arrived. It's a mystery! The whole adventure was a strange and memorable in the best kind of way. Logistics aside I enjoyed Tirana itself, it's a super walkable city and I enjoyed exploring the Blloku district. It has a very young vibe with lots of under 25's hanging out enjoying coffee in street side cafe's and I could definitely have spent more time there if the road hadn't been calling our name.

Driving in Albania is definitely interesting, bikes cycle the wrong way down newly built dual carriageway and people cross over wherever they want leaving bridges unused in favour of makeshift wooden ladders or piles of bricks placed at their preferred route. Mercedes Benz, both old and new, share space on bumpy backroads with horse and carts which, in the rain, are ridden by men balanced on the front of the cart sheltered underneath black umbrellas giving their appearance a touch of the macabre. Markets spring up on roundabouts selling the most amazing fruit and veg - I ate the best tomatoes of my life here - at the cheapest prices.


On our last day Nick and I were desperately trying to spend £4 worth of Albanian Lek and four stops and four bags of shopping including bread, snacks, fruit and vegetables later we were only halfway there. Albania, specifically the Albanian Riviera, is a truly fascinating place to explore and I would highly recommend road tripping there. It's a wonderful way to see the country and I definitely see myself finding the time to go back and explore more of this beautiful country in the future.

10 comments:

  1. Ooooh, Tzatziki chips!! OMG!!! Also, Albania looks lovely!!

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  2. It looks beautiful! Did you get the impression it was easy to visit using public transport, or not?

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    1. Good question! I wouldn't say that it looked easy but I'm under the impression that it's totally doable by bus from friends who've visited.

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  3. Wow, it sounds like such a fascinating trip to visit! What an interesting story about your trip to Corfu when you were younger and seeing the explosions - that is pretty crazy!

    Those tzatziki crisps. yum!

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    1. Super crazy right! Such a weird memory to come flooding back.

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  4. Tzatziki, Lays and vegan!! I'm sure if they had that flavor in Canada, they'd make sure to add some dairy.

    My aunt just came back from Bulgaria with a water bottle filled with raki. I wouldn't drink that for breakfast either!

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    1. Same in the UK, I kinda checked them as a joke which is something I do pretty regularly in new countries and I love it when I hit the jackpot!

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  5. wow, what an enticing post this is. We didn't venture into Albania when we were in that part of the world... now I wish we had. Then again, who knows what it was like 10 years ago. The guidebooks made it sound like a terrible place back then! I know what you mean about awkwardly declining people's hospitality as a vegan, it's possibly the only thing that I dislike about being a committed vegan.

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    1. Me too! It's hard. A lot of times it's a great opportunity to open someone's eyes to your lifestyle and ethics by sharing food but in situations where there's a language barrier and you really can't communicate it's the worst.

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