The Balkans, Part 1 - Albania and Montenegro

Albania Travel Blog

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"The Albanians" Mosaic on National Historical Museum - Tirana

We recently returned  from a trip of almost 2 weeks to the Balkan countries which lie along the magnificent, deep blue Adriatic Sea -- Albania, Montenegro, a bit of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. Since there were other destinations which ranked higher on my wish list, I'm not quite sure why we decided to do this particular trip. However, after reflecting on our experiences and observations while in the Balkans and having the most fantastic guide, Edo Poljarevic, I can say enthusiastically that I'm extremely glad we chose this Balkan trip and the experience far exceeded our expectations! Group tours often have draw backs, but we experienced very few.

Taken as a whole, the trip was terrific, and exhausting, educational and fun --- the culture and customs, the geography, the history, sights and activities were varied and interesting.

Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza
And, it was particularly interesting to visit these countries when they are still fledglings in the respect that most have declared their independence relatively recently or are in the process of emerging from a long-term dictatorship.

Flying with Austrian Airlines from the east coast of the US, we had a few hours layover in Vienna before continuing on to Tirana, Albania, but not enough time to leave the airport.  From Vienna, our flight our flight to Tirana was only 1 1/2 hrs. We touched down at Rinas International Airport, now referred to as Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza (Mother Theresa). The airport was well organized, and passing through customs and passport control went smoothly and quickly.

Pyramid of Tirana also known as the Hoxha Mausoleum
Edo, our guide, was waiting for us.

During the trip, we crossed no fewer than 5 official, gated country borders traveling from Albania to Slovenia -- an experience which required patience and sometimes a small, non-monetary bribe. Road travel is often exciting and this trip was no exception. It’s not an overstatement to say that our tour route so closely followed the twists and turns of the Adriatic coast for nearly the whole trip that we rarely traveled a straight road! We visited a variety of landscapes including the the higher regions of Albania, the lush green mountains of Montenegro, the mesmerizing turquoise pools and waterfalls of Plitivice Lakes in Croatia, the incredible Postojna Caves and the mirror-like Bled and Bohinj Lakes in Slovenia -- all of it scenic and always interesting.

A tiny version of a Hoxha bunker or bombshelter in Tirana.
This was an active trip and we averaged walking 3 miles or more nearly every day, and there was a great deal of uphill climbing and an innumerable amount of steps, and staircases to surmount.

Following our overnight flight and arrival in Tirana, on Day 2 we checked in at the Rogner Hotel, a beautiful hotel located on Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard in the heart of the city. Our room overlooked the Mediterranean Garden and the lovely pool. The meals we had here were excellent and the staff was very accommodating though not extremely friendly. While exploring our hotel, we discovered a small version of a "Hoxha bunker" or bombshelter, one of many hundreds of thousands which were built at the direction of the late Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha.

An abandoned hotel in unfinished Tirana.
I had read about their existence prior to leaving for our trip, and had hoped to see at least one bunker because of the part of Albanian history it represented. We did see several on our trip, and found it odd that they were often positioned in very unpopulated places. On Day 3 we had a guided, walking tour of the capital city ranging from Mother Theresa Square to Skanderbeg Square. During the walk it was interesting to see parts of the city which remain from regimes of the 20th century, while also seeing the changes which are taking place including several new high-rise buildings.  

Tirana is certainly a city with a lot of bustle, both human and machine.  Streets are crowded and the traffic here operates with little adherence to rules or regulations.

Et'hem Bey Mosque - Tirana
We found it odd to see so many men hanging about the streets in the middle of what would normally be a work day, and we later learned that though the official unemployment rate of Albania is approximately 16%, some would say it is significantly higher than that in reality. Walking the streets of Tirna, we entered the interestingly painted interior of the Et'hem Bey Mosque, viewed the compelling mosaic entitled "The Albanians," as well as the Palace of Culture, and the National Historical Museum. Tirana seems to be an 'unfinished city' in that aside from some of the later building accomplishments, repairs need to be made everywhere. Moments after entering the history museum the lights went out (perhaps due to construction work on Skanderbeg Square), and we had to view the exhibits in shadow or by the light of someone's smart/iPhone; even though in rooms blinds/shades could have been opened, no one from the museum attempted to do that.
Now unpopular sculptures of Communistic leaders Lenin and Stalin.
Our local guide took it in stride. I did not find the museum particularly interesting in light or dark, except: 1) the portion dedicated to the atrocities which took place in Albania during Hoxha's regime, and 2) the very small section devoted to the life of (Saint) Mother Theresa of Calcutta who was born in Skopje, Albania (now the capital of the Macedonia).

Just after taking photos of sculptures of Stalin and Lenin which were expunged from the streets of Tirana in late 1990, and which now occupy a position of degradation behind the National Art Gallery, I tripped on some uneven pavement and so severely bruised my left arm and knee that I was in considerable pain for the next few days; but worse than that, I broke my new camera!! Luckily, I didn’t break any bones (whether I chipped my elbow or not is still in question) but it would have taken more than that to keep me from completing this trip! Unfortunately, during the trip having the availability of a working camera (3 hand-held cameras, 1 iPhone) came down to relying on my husband's iPhone.

Scene from Krujë Old Bazaar
So I will give him credit for stepping in to take some great photos for me on his iPhone.

On the same evening of Day 3 we enjoyed a lovely side trip to the ancient town of Krüje, about 30 miles north of Tirana. We explored  the wonderful Ethnographic Museum there which is a several hundred year-old traditional house owned by a well-off family who lived there several hundred years ago. This well-done museum allowed us a fascinating peek into Albanian history and the way of life from hundreds of years ago. Just nearby we wove our way through the quaint old bazaar where I found some unique gifts to bring home to family and friends. The town of Krüje sits at an elevation of about 2,000 ft. at the foot of Mt. Krüje. Soon we were watching the sun set over the valley as the sky changed from pale blue to soft pinks and lavenders; the waning sunlight still bathed the ruins of Krüje Castle, locals filled the town square -- some playing music -- and we watched them from the terrace where we were having dinner at the Panorama Hotel while enoying our first taste of ethnic Albanian foods.

Skanderbeg Museum in Krujë
It was also here where I began to realize that owning canaries in Krüje must be a special tradition as I saw that shops and even our restaurant had cages filled with the songbirds.  

On Day 4, we departed sunny, hot Tirana for our journey to northwestern Albania. Passing by Rozafa Castle, we stopped for lunch in the busy, major town of Shködra (aka, Skada) known by some as the "Cultural Capital of Albania." Originally settled by the Illyrians, the town fell under Roman rule in 168 A.D. though ultimately it was the Ottomans who prevailed. We strolled the pedestrian-only street of "Rruga Kole Idromeno" known for its many small shops and restaurants before choosing the "Sofra Restaurant" for a tasty lunch of a huge salad for two, a bowl each of Mish Pule, and a basket of hardy bread all for 7 Euros each -- very good food and great service from our waiter who spoke some English.

Perast, Montenegro
As we walked back toward the main thorofare and toward the mosque at its corner, we became aware of the fact that Shködra is home to a Roma gypsy community. We had seen women begging, babes in arms, but at first it didn't strike us that they were Roma.  I found it sad when a deeply tanned, blond baby of 1 - 2 years old ran out to us with his tiny, open hand upraised -- had his mother just sent him to beg?

Montenegro, described as the “Jewel of the Mediterranean,” is a country of geographical contrasts --- from soaring mountains and idyllic valleys, to impossibly deep river canyons and golden beaches --- Montenegro encapsulates it all. We spent the nights of Days 4 and 5 in the winter resort town of Kolašin which is nestled in the thick pine forests of the Bjelasica Mountains in central Montenegro.

Sveti Stephan Island, Montenegro
Our rustic hotel, the Bianca Resort, looked like what it is, a ski resort, and the aroma of wood smoke from the lobby's open fireplace pervaded the hotel and gave us the feeling of winter. On the way to Kolašin we drove along the incredibly deep and beautiful Tara River canyon, and visited the historic and richly painted Moraca Monastery where we could easily have spent another hour admiring the fresco paintings both inside and out of the churches there. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in all areas. We spent the next full day visiting Durmitor National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Biogradsko Gora National Park (a potential UNESCO site) and enjoying the stillness and natural beauty there.

On the coast we passed through sun-kissed, beach town of Budva, gazed at the exclusive island of Sveti Stephan, had a lunch-time visit to Kotor (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) where we had far too little time to explore, then had an unscheduled but delightful visit to Perast where we took a boat to the man-made island of the legendary church known as Our Lady of the Rocks. Both the island and the church have interesting stories attached to them, and are well worth a visit if you have the chance. Not only did we have a gloriously sunny day to visit the island, but an excellent guided tour of the church was included with admission.  The church was rich in artwork, visual architectural detail, artifacts, history and of course, the location couldn't be more beautiful.

This blog covers only the first half of our trip. Most of these individual places will be covered more thoroughly in forthcoming journal entries. Also, please see, "The Balkans, Part 2 - Croatia and Slovenia" which is now complete but which is being updated.

starship1 says:
Seeing these countries was even more interesting than I hoped like almost all of our trips seem to be -- but this definitely was a great trip.
Posted on: Aug 17, 2017
joseph98 says:
The Balkans certainly are an interesting place to visit, with their recent troubled history. Would love to see more of them myself - sounds like you had a great trip here :-)
Posted on: Aug 17, 2017
starship1 says:
Many thanks, Paul! Thanks for visiting that pages too!
Posted on: Jul 13, 2017
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The Albanians Mosaic on National…
"The Albanians" Mosaic on Nationa…
Tirana International Airport Nën…
Tirana International Airport Nën…
Pyramid of Tirana also known as th…
Pyramid of Tirana also known as t…
A tiny version of a Hoxha bunker o…
A tiny version of a Hoxha bunker …
An abandoned hotel in unfinished T…
An abandoned hotel in unfinished …
Ethem Bey Mosque - Tirana
Et'hem Bey Mosque - Tirana
Now unpopular sculptures of Commun…
Now unpopular sculptures of Commu…
Scene from Krujë Old Bazaar
Scene from Krujë Old Bazaar
Skanderbeg Museum in Krujë
Skanderbeg Museum in Krujë
Perast, Montenegro
Perast, Montenegro
Sveti Stephan Island, Montenegro
Sveti Stephan Island, Montenegro