Albania

Once we finished our amazing visit to Greece in April and May (read our blog here), we decided to take a land route to France via Albania.

Taking it easy

After more than 5,500 km of driving and 6 weeks of wild camping, we were all tired, Janice had a sinus infection, and the motorhome was flashing an oil change light. We were a bit unsure of entering Albania but decided to go ahead. For our first night, we picked a campsite just across the border where we hoped we could have long hot showers and plan the rest of our route – perhaps we would drive quickly through Albania!? We had seen some pretty pictures but had also heard horror stories about the rough roads and driving and we weren’t sure how much we would enjoy Albania in a 7.4m motorhome.

camping_gjirokaster

After a border crossing and an easy drive, we arrived at Camping Gjirokastër . It is a small family-run campsite which cost €12pn for the three of us. We were immediately welcomed into the restaurant garden by the friendly owner and offered free glasses of chilled white wine, along with a plate of cheese and olives. We relaxed in the shady garden for the rest of the day, eating fresh fruit sprinkled with cinnamon offered to us by restaurant and catching up on some work and homeschooling. In the evening, Amelia played with the owner’s daughters and the children of other campers. After a delicious dinner (huge mezze platters with enough leftovers for lunch), we decided to stay another day.

The next morning, the owner helped us arrange an oil change for the motorhome. We had the oil, so the local mechanic billed us just €5 for labour! The labour for our last oil change in Norway cost €150 so we were happy to pay this and give a tip. We also picked up an Albanian SIM card because our roaming data did not cover Albania. Some Albanian SIMs have good roaming in the Western Balkans so if you also going to Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina it is worth checking the roaming policy when you purchase. While our campsite did not have a pool, there was a pool at a restaurant/bar within walking distance – unfortunately, it was closed when we visited but it looked nice.

Gjirokastër Castle

We also paid a brief visit to the town of Gjirokastër. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was filled with souvenir shops and tour groups. However, when we arrived at the castle around 9am no tour groups had arrived yet so we had it almost to ourselves. We walked down a dim passageway lined with cannons and then began to explore various rooms, including a pitch-black prison cell (amazingly creepy). We also explored the top of the castle which had beautiful views of the town.

The coast

After a couple of days, Janice’s sinus infection had cleared up and we were all feeling refreshed. We had arranged to meet with another traveling family that we connected with on the Worldschooling Facebook group; Hayley and family were staying in Sarandë but invited us to meet them on the beach at Ksamil (touristy but very pretty). We passed many sheep and goats in the road as we headed to our next campsite, Ksamil Caravan Camping . It had a gorgeous shaded communal area where campers gathered to cook, eat, and chat and the owner greeted us with tall cups of frothy ice coffee and a cold chocolate for Amelia. Albania is one of the only countries where we link to our Park4Night sites – they were all really special and welcoming! Amelia had a wonderful time playing with a baby in the campsite and then meeting with our new Worldschooling friends. She and Hayley’s daughter were immediately inseparable, so we decided to meet again the next day in Sarandë, where we parked in a hotel’s parking lot for a small fee. Tourist season had not yet started so the waterfront promenade was not busy, and we enjoyed a dip in the hotel pool to cool off when we got home.

Flat tyre

Next, we decided to drive up the coastline and over the stunning Llogara Pass. Because of the threat of severe weather, we completed this drive faster than planned (no overnight stops) and we decided to push on to Tirana where we planned to meet another Worldschooling family. We ended up on a narrow side road which was pretty but we were glad to re-join the main highway. However after only a few minutes we heard a noise and pulled over to discover that we had a puncture – the first time this had happened in our motorhome. We stopped to change our tyre as quickly as possible due to approaching rain, but we couldn’t get the vehicle jacked up high enough. A car stopped to tell us that there was a tyre shop just down the road and then offered Gary a ride there because our tyre was too flat to drive. The shop was closed on Sunday, so they phoned the owner and arranged for him to come to us to change our tyre. This proved difficult as we had been supplied with the wrong spare rim when we purchased the motorhome but he still charged us only €20 to switch the rim on our tyres and get us on the road again! In the meantime, more strangers stopped by to check that we were OK and even offered to buy us sodas in a nearby restaurant or help with anything else we needed!

Tirana

After an hour or so of delay, we arrived on the outskirts of Tirana to meet with Rina and family. They gave us some recommendations in the city to add to the recommendations we had gathered from Hayley and family and from the Roadschool Europe Facebook group. We stayed in a city paid parking lot which was noisy but made a good base to explore Tirana. There was a Chinese restaurant just around the corner which had been recommended by Rina and the next day we visited the Bunk’Art 2 museum (interesting but too intense for young kids – we skipped some parts) and walked around the city, including Skanderbeg Square, a large playground, and a bookstore with a fantastic selection of English activity books. Hayley had recommended Dajti Adventure Park but as it was closed and as we had recently visited another adventure park, we went to Altitude Trampoline Park instead which Amelia absolutely loved.

bella_vita

Next, we went to the Lagoon of Patok and stayed at the Bella Vita restaurant with private cabanas for meals over the lagoon. Parking is free if you have a meal. We had seafood, vegetables, and extremely delicious cornbread which is a specialty of the region. This meal was €20 for the three of us.

The Shala River

ledi's_place

We then headed to what became our favorite place to stay in Albania: Ledi’s Place Restaurant . There is no charge to stay if you buy a meal and it is run by a wonderful family. There is a beautiful shady garden/restaurant where you can sit all day. Amelia loved playing with their baby bunny, and they also had dogs, kittens, geese, and a free-roaming pony. They even give you a free breakfast of pancakes and coffee. We stayed two nights at Ledi’s Place while we visited the Shala River.

We found the website of a Shala River tour company and contacted the owner who said he had been in Tirana, but he would run a tour the next day for us and arrange to pick us up from Ledi’s Place in his car because the road was rough for our motorhome. He even stopped by that night to meet us and buy us a drink. Later, he sent us a WhatsApp saying that just in case he personally couldn’t collect us, he would send us a picture of the vehicle. We went to stand by the road the next morning at 7:30am, and soon enough the vehicle in his picture arrived. It was quite full of other people – all very well dressed! We were surprised they were going on a river tour. Then a bunch of children climbed on and as we started to drop off the passengers at many stops, including at school, we realized that we were on the public minibus. Still, we were quite happy with this arrangement. We then arrived at the lake where the company owner said that because water levels were low, we would not be able to go all the way up the Shala River, but we would have a good view of it and could have lunch at a restaurant and swim.

shala_river

However, we were disappointed when we arrived at the restaurant, that although it was a peaceful family-run bed and breakfast, it was not on the famously beautiful shallow clear river that we had seen in photos. We arrived around 10am and didn’t want to spend all day there without seeing the higher part of the river. So, we talked to the owner of the bed and breakfast and after a delicious early lunch she arranged for a small skiff to take us upriver. We thought about asking for a discount from the original company but decided in the end that the price for transport to the bed and breakfast was reasonable so we didn’t really mind (we did point out that he should include the small boat in his tour when water levels are low as the shallower areas of the river are the most beautiful).

Albanian Alps

narrow-roads

Next, we decided to head to the Albanian alps, where we hoped to go hiking and meet up with a family that we met in the campsite where we stayed on our first night in Albania. We stayed at Boga Alpine Resort (there was a slightly tight turn into a gate but we made it and it saved us from driving the steep and winding road up to Theth). The campsite is pretty – already in the mountains with good views and pleasantly cool temperatures – and can arrange for transport to Theth for hiking (we didn’t find that we wanted to spend time in Theth, which is more like a collection of guest houses than a town).

blue_eye_of_theth

The cost of round-trip transport from the campsite to Theth in a local taxi was €50, including an hour’s drive up the mountain and the driver stopping wherever requested and waiting all day) or €80 to get as close as possible to the Blue Eye of Theth in a 4WD vehicle (this makes it easier and more pleasant to hike to the Blue Eye of Theth – which, rather than being a spring like the Blue Eye near Gjirokastër, is a blue pool at the base of a waterfall). While the transport/tour was more expensive than most things we paid for in Albania, the driver was a nice man who lived next to the campsite and we were out all day (9am-5pm) with lots of stops. Some were suggested by our driver and Amelia had many ideas from watching a video by the Five World Explorers – a Worldschooling family that she loves following. In some cases in Albania, particularly for tours, we knew we were paying more than the “local” rate but we were happy to pay what was asked. Otherwise, a smaller vehicle could easily drive all the way to Theth – the road was paved this year and we could even have made it in our 7.4 m motorhome but with difficulty!

Shkodër

Finally we went to  Shkodër and met with a third Worldschooling family – Irene and Andy and their daughter. As a welcome surprise, Hayley and family were also in town! We all met for lunch at a restaurant recommended by one of the owners of Ledi’s Place, the girls bonded over the Math Tango app, and Andy taught the kids some acrobatics in a park. We also discovered that Andy’s mother wrote the brilliant math curriculum that we use with Amelia – RightStart Math. Hayley’s family had to prepare for an early start (taking a boat across Lake Komani to Valbone National Park – another route to visit mountains and clear streams of the Albanian Alps) but we had for dinner with Irene’s family and decided to meet for breakfast the next day!

rolls_royce

We had found overnight parking in a paid lot next to an abandoned mansion but we were parked in an extremely tight space with a Rolls Royce just inches away. When it was time for us to leave, we gratefully accepted Andy’s offer to help us reverse out of the parking lot without hitting anything next to us or behind us!

We could have easily stayed longer in Albania and heard good things about hotprings, river rafting, and Lake Ohrid, because we had weddings to attend later in the summer we reluctantly left Albania and moved on to Montenegro.