Gjirokastër & Sarandë
 

As far as European countries go, Albania is kind of like turning the difficulty meter up past medium. It's not exactly a challenging place to visit, but compared to the rest of the countries we've been to so far, it was definitely the most unique and unlike anything we'd really experienced before. 

Our trip started with a quest to find bus tickets that would take us from Athens to Sarandë, a Mediterranean resort town in southern Albania. We had an absurd amount of difficulty finding any information about tickets online (which would be a recurring theme throughout our week in Albania). The best info we could find basically said to head to an area near Larissa Station in Athens and walk down the road a bit until you see a bunch of Albanian ticket agencies. So that's exactly what we did. I'm going to write up a guide to exactly how to accomplish this, because as I said the information online is very dated and there are no timetables or prices listed anywhere, but suffice it to say there are tons of ticket agencies offering daily buses to various places in Albania (as well as other border countries), but you can’t book in advance and have to buy in person. 

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To be honest, we didn't look super hard - we walked into the first agency we saw and asked if they sold tickets to Sarandë. Turns out they didn't, but the agency next door was selling tickets for a night bus to our second choice, Gjirokastër, a border town and UNESCO World Heritage site. Since we just wanted to get on a bus to somewhere in Albania and tickets were €25, we figured that was good enough. After spending a last afternoon walking around Athens in search of lunch and frappes (PSA: a lot of Athenian restaurants are apparently closed on Mondays, but this isn't clear on Google/TripAdvisor, so just be aware), we made our way back to the bus station in time for our 8pm bus. 

This was our first taste of an Albanian bus and it set our expectations appropriately. We were the only English speaking tourists - everyone else seemed to a) be Albanian and b) know each other. The bus driver blasted traditional Albanian music literally the entire six-hour drive - which I might remind you was in the middle of the night. Between that and our bus driver’s authentic Albanian driving skills, neither of us slept very much.

We made it to Gjirokastër around 4am in the pitch black, with no clue how to get around or where our hotel was. As it turns out, since Albania isn't in the EU, our phone plans (we've been purchasing prepaid SIMs as we travel) were useless. This seems so obvious in hindsight but we just hasn't thought about it until we were literally crossing the border, at which point we shared a "duh" moment. We hadn't realized just how dependent we were on Google Maps until we couldn't access it. Still, one of the best things about Albanian people is their hospitality and friendliness, and one of the bus passengers was able to, with her limited English, find us a cab driver to take us to our hotel and negotiate the price for us. As it turns out, in Albania there are quite a lot of unmarked cabs, so we were really just trusting this man driving an old beater car to take us to our hotel and not, I dunno, steal our kidneys. It was one of those things where we just had to shrug our shoulders and say "well, when in Albania!" Like, if our parents saw us doing this they'd be horrified, but that's just the way things are done here. 

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Luckily, ten or so minutes later we arrived at our hotel with all of our organs intact. We checked into our (€40, 4-star) hotel and immediately passed out for a few precious hours. When we woke up and looked out the window we realized the beauty of our surroundings: Gjirokaster is tucked in a valley with mountains all around, and the old town is situated on a little hill with incredible panoramic views of the countryside. Sadly, we didn't have much time to enjoy the views - after getting some vague directions from the hotel staff to the bus station ("go down the hill"...okay), we set off on foot. We were doing it all by instinct because, again, no cell phone data. This is when we encountered the second thing that makes Albanian travel so....unique: minibuses. 

Minibuses, or furgons, are the most popular inter-town transit option in Albania. You can take a furgon between pretty much any two cities for the equivalent of a few bucks, but they're crazy adventures: the drivers, as I've mentioned before, are absolutely bonkers (no one follows road rules here). Plus the buses are usually kind of old, rarely have A/C, and are usually jam packed - although there might be a "schedule," furgons typically won't take off until they're completely full so the schedule is more of a guideline. And there are no real bus stations: they usually just park in a popular parking lot or near a landmark like a church or mosque, and you just kinda have to show up and look for the guy yelling the name of the town you want to go to. And unlike, say, a Flixbus, these furgons will just pickup and drop off people on the side of the road along the way. It took some getting used to for sure. 

Still, you can't come to Albania without taking a furgon, and our first one was a doozy. We found a guy in a parking lot who saw that we were tourists and started shouting "Sarandë!" at us. Lucky find. Again, putting our faith in the "when in Albania" mentality, we handed over our big packs and climbed into a van that looked like it was far older than us. What ensued was a hair-raising ride through some wild mountain passes with few guard rails, high speeds, and lots of absolutely maniacal driving. We held on for dear life (the dude next to me was doing a pretty good job hiding his carsickness, but when you're that close to someone you can tell, trust me) and two bumpy and nausea-inducing hours later, we made it to our original destination, Sarandë. 

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Sarandë is a really interesting town. It's way more Western than we'd expected, far more than the other towns we'd visit in Albania, most likely due to the fact that it's a wildly popular beach destination. And for good reason: it's on the coast of the Mediterranean and has all the tourist infrastructure and beautiful beaches without the high prices of Greek islands or Italy or anything like that. Even at our $9/night hostel, we had a stunning view of the ocean and of Corfu, which is just off the coast. It felt like any old European beach town, but with markedly higher risk of being hit by a car.

The absolute highlight of our (too short) time in Sarandë was the day we rented a boat/driver with four of our hostel-mates and explored some of the more remote beaches and sites along the coast. This was the point when we realized just how crazy beautiful Albania is. We snorkeled through a huge cave that's apparently a hotspot for sea turtles during hatching season (and probably a hotspot for Horcruxes in other seasons, I didn't go into the dark part of the cave because I know how that shit goes down in the books). We also visited not one but two different shipwrecks including a WWII wreck just off the main coast of Sarandë, collected rocks below a massive cliff face where a piece of mountain had sort of just collapsed into the sea, and finally made it out to a beautiful, remote beach with hardly anyone on it except a few other boaters.

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As soon as we disembarked, a toothless beer-bellied Albanian man greeted us with "welcome to paradise!" and served us icy cold beers. It was crazy, after how crowded Sarandë's beach was, to have this remote little slice of paradise pretty much to ourselves. I was baffled by the color of the water: the brightest, most electric blue I've ever seen. And the landscape didn't look like Albania at all. With lush green cliffs jutting up from nowhere, it looked more like Thailand than anything. Our boat driver (captain?) kept calling it "the edge of the world" and it felt so appropriate because it almost seemed like we'd been transported out of Albania. It was such a beautiful, pristine, picturesque place it almost didn’t feel real. 

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After our long and strenuous (ha) day on the boat, we were too pooped to take advantage of Sarandë's supposedly amazing nightlife, but we mustered up enough energy to nosy on some truly delicious Albanian cuisine. It's kind of like Greek food, but there are more vegetables and more yogurt, if you can believe that. My personal favorite was tavë, which is a baked yogurt casserole with veal or lamb. It sounds weird, I know, but you kind of have to try it to appreciated it. And we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Albania has some pretty delicious beers: Tirana lager was our personal fave, but there are quite a few homegrown brews to choose from and they're very affordable (as in, we got a beer tower for the equivalent of $6 USD).

Although we only spent two nights in Sarandë, we really loved our time there. It’s accessible and Western enough that it didn’t feel like a total culture shock, but at the same time it’s incredibly different from any of the other European cities we’ve visited on this trip, and prepared us for the rest of the country. Albania is definitely a unique place and I’m glad we went toward the tail end of our Europe trip just because it is a bit more challenging than anywhere we’ve been so far. Things are done differently here and that does take some getting used to, and for that reason I wouldn't recommend it to a first-time international traveler. But it’s worth it, and it’s exciting to finally be stepping out of our travel comfort zone a bit. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for. 

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