Last time we wrote a blog we were just leaving Montenegro with slightly mixed emotions. We’d been away a week or so and found Dubrovnik a beautiful tourist trap, Kotor absolutely stunning and Budva a little disappointing once you left its tiny old town. We were also a little nervous about heading to Albania, a country with a somewhat sketchy reputation. Spoiler alert: that reputation is entirely undeserved – we have absolutely loved it here.
From Budva we headed to Shkodër. Or Shkodra. Or Skadar. Or Scodra. Or Scutari. Basically, translating Albanian into English is more art than science. From now on I’ll stick with the first one because that’s what Wikipedia goes with on its title page. Shkodër is a decent size town of about 130,000, sitting in the shadow of the Accursed Mountains, which – no arguments – have the best name of anywhere we have visited thus far.* The mountains were why we were here – we had a hike planned. Shkodër would be our city base for a trek in the Theth National Park.
Our original plan was to to do what is now quite a well-established route from Valbona to Theth. However, getting to Valbona involved a few hours on a boat as well as a few hours on some twisty-ass roads, which would possibly have resulted in Sadie’s demise. So we decided to go straight to Theth and just do a hike from there – we’d still see the best scenery and we’d be able to take a bit more stuff with us (didn’t fancy leaving the laptop behind in the hostel anyway, to be honest), so it worked out nicely. Our only downfall – literally – was not having hiking boots or poles with us. To be honest, neither of us wanted to lug hiking boots around for a month and a half to use them on one day, so we thought we’d be fine in trainers and be done with it. Wrong. Much to our chagrin, the path up to the pass was in places steep enough to feel vertical and covered in extremely slippery scree. Accursed indeed. Our city trainers were not cut out for this kind of thing and both of us ended up on our respective arses. Sadie still has the bruises for her troubles. I’d love to post the pictures but it’s a bit NSFW for this blog, and I think she’d divorce me faster than you can say “bruises like a peach.”**
Anyway, enough bitching. The views were absolutely mind-blowing – completely worth the bruised bottoms/pride. We took a million photos but none of them do it justice at all. It shot up both our lists as one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been to, and we maybe had to share the entire national park with 50 other people. I’d advise going there now, because when they get their road network fixed it is going to absolutely explode. We’d also suggest doing the traditional route if you want to see the lake, which did look beautiful, but if you want a base Theth is fantastic.
From Theth we went back to Shkodër and on to Berat, home to distinctive Ottoman-style architecture and one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. It is also a UNESCO protected site, which is fully justified, even if UNESCO do seem to be giving it away these days, the sluts.
It was beautiful, quaint, quiet on the tourist front and had some of the best, cheapest grub we’ve had on all our travels.
We are currently in Gjirokaster, another beautifully unspoiled Ottoman-style UNESCO city (SEE?!) and Mark just walked in the door, with fried chicken and a free beer from the takeaway owner who speaks 5 languages fluently. It says it all really.
In summary, get your arses here before this country gets the attention it justly deserves, but don’t tell too many people yeah?
* Although I have just remembered Deadman’s Cay in the Bahamas. Call it a tie.
**Sadie: In a way I kind of want to share it too, to justify my whining at the time, but frankly it isn’t my best angle.
It appears we spoke a bit too soon. Albania, up until writing this blog had been flawless. Alas, on our last night in the country, the bed bug curse struck again – this time with an absolute vengeance. For those of you keeping track, this is the FOURTH time this has happened to Sadie. She has been absolutely, utterly and totally savaged by the little bastards – we counted about 200 bites before we gave up. It is important to point out however that this isn’t a “dirty old Albania” thing. Last time it happened was in arguably our poshest digs of the entire trip, in Kuala Lumpur, and they are frighteningly common in the USA. Essentially it can happen anywhere – it was just a shame that they had to spoil our final day in a wonderful country! We still hope to return for a trip to Albania’s gorgeous coast one day. Until then though, we’ll be checking the mattresses a bit more carefully…