“But if nobody goes there, how can we do so?” I said. “How does anyone ever do anything? Simply do it. Hire horses, get on them, and go.”
– Rose Wilder Lane (arguing with self-professed ‘Albaniac’ Frances Hardy), from The Peaks of Shala (1923)
The following is just our idea of what people might ask us about. Please feel free to write to us and ask us anything – though I apologize in advance for what will probably be a horribly long-winded response! We could also say: Nevermind what you read in tour guides (a lot of it is inaccurate, when not downright false, or tries to cram the wonderfully personal world of Albanian travel into normal Euro-American expectations, which doesn’t really work). Everything written here, in all its unusual (and probably unnecessary) specificities, is at least 100% true!
Picking a Route — Road vs. Boat:
By far the best way of arriving for the scenically, aesthetically – driven, is to take a minibus which uses one of the ferries that goes up Lake Koman. You’ll be glad to know that this trip has been called one of the “great boat journeys of the world,” akin to traveling the fjords of Norway. A minibus from Tirana or Durrës will take you on a beautiful and interesting route.
Details of the Journey via Komani: From the windows of the minibus, as you climb into the foothills of the mountains towards the ferry landing at Koman, you will be able to see Kruja and Skanderbeg’s tomb. The ferry part of the trip departs from Koman and leaves the boat at the town of Fierze. The ferry landing at Koman is actually a spit of rock projecting into the lake on the far side of a slightly claustrophobic tunnel blasted through the proceeding mountain. Koman, as labeled on maps is actually the hydroelectric station, and we’ve only ever heard of one party managing to stay there successfully. They stayed at the “Hotel Francez” which was actually locked up, but someone saw them hanging around, and called someone who called someone who came and unlocked the hotel and let them in. They said it was very nice, once they got it. They paid 20€ for two people, and said you can call “Zef” whose telephone number is 068 30 60 32 . . . . although now that I look at that, I think there’s a number missing. Hm. On the whole, it seems like you might just as well take the bus.
Minibuses from Tirana and Durrës tend to stop at least once, if not twice or more, to allow passengers to troop off, have a cigarette, get a coffee or have a meal at the frequent cafes along the route. After passing through the tunnel through the mountain, the bus arrives at the ferry landing. It’s here that your adventure will truly feel like it’s beginning. Once perched at the Koman landing, your bus will hang around for about an hour on average (while you’re waiting, get off and check out the shrine to the Virgin Mary in a chasm of rock to the left, and have coffee or beverage of your choice in the little wooden cafe perched on the rocky ferry landing). The ferry trip itself takes about two hours. Once you arrive, your bus will carry you on to Bajram Curri.
Yippee! You Made it to Bajram Curri! Bajram Curri is the main town of Tropoja District. Locals like to sneer at it, since it really is, at the end of the day, just a funny little dysfunctional town, but for tourists, it’s great! You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, but be a lot safer. From the distance it’s really beautiful, nestled at the foot of ridiculously dramatic mountains, with a scenic plain before it. Up close, it is small, comprised of about three parallel main streets, easily knowable, and a little wild-westy. Confident cows and dramatically maternal, ragged dogs wander the streets, clogging up the sparse car traffic, which doesn’t mind at all. The largely crumbling communist architecture is comprised mainly of extremely dodgy apartment buildings sporting a riot of satellite dishes, window boxes and crisply fluttering laundry, and there’s only running water at certain hours, but nonetheless Bajram Curri has a certain plucky charm, with many small market stalls, good groceries and a good hardware store, bustling cafes with wonderful coffee (or try ordering lemon tea with cognac), a handful of internet cafes and a pizza parlor.
Of course all of this is overshadowed and ennobled by the fact that here, now, you are in the Malësi, the Highlands, and the mountains rise all above and around you. The people too carry themselves as Malësorë, or Highlanders, should and are proud of both their toughness, and their ability to be generous. The ferry bus generally arrives and deposits you between noon and one pee-em. The minibus down the Valbona Valley generally leaves at about 2:30, so you have a little time to wander around. If you’re coming on your own, approaching any local and saying “VALBONA?” should garner you help in finding the connecting minibus. By now, you’ve arrived in the realm of the personal; everyone tends to know each other, and there is none of the anonymity of modern cities. If you ask for help, you’ll get it, as it’s still assumed that if you aren’t a friend yet, you soon will be.
Things to do in Bajram Curri:
Shopping: If there’s anything small but germane to your comfort that you’ve forgotten to bring with you (including things like bottled water, paper, pens, or a useful bit of rope (Catherine always tries to travel with one), the odd copy of Balzac in Shqip or a stash of chocolate biscuits, a flashlight . . . batteries . . . fruit . . . anything you can’t make for yourself) you should attempt to purchase it here, as there are isn’t a single shop anywhere in the Valbona valley — not that they won’t try to find you a good replacement from their personal belongings, if you want something, but you wouldn’t want to put them in that position, would you? Also bear in mind that this is the last place where modern things like vodaphone access will work.
Sending Letters: There is a post office in Bajrum Curri, from which you can mail things (and, as far as we’ve tested it, they do get to where they’re going). A letter to America costs about 125 lek (or 1 Euro) to send. You just go in and ask for help, pay them, and they take your letter (postcard, whatever). I’m not sure Albanians actually have stamps.
Making Phone Calls: Most Malesori rely on their cell phones, and therefore simply don’t make long distance calls. If you ask a Malesori in Bajram Curri how to call home, you will go on a lovely oddesey, which will involve buying a phone card, and then visiting this super-nice woman in a little cigarette kiosk who will dial for you, and just keep trying on her little plastic phone, until you get through. After this, you will be her firm friend, and every time you pass you’ll have to tell her how your mother is. Rumor has it (because Catherine read a guide book) that there’s a Albanian phone office in Bajram Curri, from which you can place calls and then be billed, but no one local uses it, so they probably won’t be able to tell you about it. We’ll write more when we find out.
Get Some Money: This is your last chance to pick up any cash. There’s a Raiffeisen bank in Bajram Curri, with two ATM (bancomat) machines which dispense money in Lek. Needless to say, there’s no bank or machines in Valbona, so get what you need here.
Relax and Be Local: In other words, forget all that, accept you’re at the end of the known world (actually, come to think of it, probably past that) and just go to a cafe and order coffee. The coffee (you probably want a makiato te madh) (large with milk, which will be a small delicious demi-tasse and will cost about 120 lek, or $1.20) is delicious. Albanian music will be piped all around. You could buy some bananas, or oranges, or chocolates which (besides being there for you) will make a nice gift for anyone you take a fancy to in the next couple of days.
Getting from Bajram Curri to Valbona: Unless you’re in touch with us directly, there’s only one way to do this, and that’s pick up the local minibus that leaves at around 2:30. Once again, there’s no normal official station, schedule or anything, but this is the normal routine that every Valbona inhabitant makes use of (so you don’t have to worry about it happening, you just have to worry about finding it!). The bus generally leaves from in front of the hardware store at the southernmost part of town, but if you wander around saying “Valbona! Alfred! Selimaj!” then anyone will help get you on the bus. Absolutely everyone on the bus knows each other and will help you. It costs 200 lek (or $2). You pay the driver (usually Artur in the evening) when you get off. If you forget, he’ll just collect from Alfred the next time he sees him. This is how it is there. What it lacks in official efficiency it more than makes up for in personal charm. Hang onto your seat for one of the most beautiful car trips in the world, as the minibus grumbles slowly and cheerfully over the rocky and unpaved road to Valbona. To your left, the road disappears down a precipice to the unbelievably blue Valbona River. To your right, a wall of mountain. Before you, the valley opens.
After passing the historic town of Dragobia (about 15 houses), and stopping at the odd farmstead along the way (depending who’s traveling with you and needs dropping), the bus will stop at Rilindja (Alfred’s hotel), and after that, it will stop at the Quku i Valbonës (‘Valbona Hollow’) farmhouses (Alfred’s family farms), and after that, it goes to Valbona village (about 10 houses) (Alfred’s friends). Don’t worry that you’ll get left somewhere weird. By now, the people on the bus are aware that you’ve come from far away, and they’ll look after you. If your Albanian isn’t up to much, just keep smiling and repeating your destination.
We cannot stress this enough: Once in Albania, when you journey away from major cities, you should absolutely rely on cash carried with you. A couple hundred Euro are enough to let you live as much like a king as you can, though, so this isn’t as weird as it seems.
Albanians will obviously accept payment in Lek (the Albanian currency, 141 lek to a euro or 98 lek to a dollar as of 17/4/2011). As far as we can tell, all bank machines in Albania only dispense lek (please tell us if you know different!). Be aware that very few places are set up to accept credit cards — you should absolutely plan on carrying cash. Euros or American Dollars are also absolutely regularly taken in lieu of lek, and are in fact even better (people like them, as they can be used in Kosovo, which is basically the economic center of Northern Albania, nevermind the borders) and everyone is used to doing lightening fast calculations to convert. In major cities like Tirana and Durrës, there are ATMs commonly available (known under the Italian name of a “Bancomat” if you need to ask for one) which will dispense money in Lek. There is a Raiffeisen bank with machines in Bajram Curri.
If you’re traveling on from Albania you should stash away some euros or dollars to pay for creature comforts to get you by once you leave, as of course no one else takes lek (not even the ferry crew who leave from Durrës, and there’s no ATM – or bancomat – on the boat). Accommodation is generally around 10 to 25 euro per night, with food included. Mountaineer guides, the largest indulgence you’ll experience, will expect something like 50 euros for a day or so for leading you around. A cup of coffee generally costs around 100 lek, and a pack of cigarettes is about 130 lek. A fat bag of groceries might cost you 1,200 lek (or 10 Euro). A shot of Raki (and trust you Catherine, 6 are enough to put you under the table, or at least have you embarrassingly dancing by yourself) is 50 lek. Most long-range trips on minibuses cost about 1,000 lek.
One tricky thing to be aware of, if you’ve been studying your Albanian, is that Albanians generally talk about money one degree of magnitude larger than is necessary. ie: If something costs 100 lek, you will be told “nje mije lek” or “one thousand lek” then, when you hand over 1,000 lek, the seller will look embarrassed and fish around in your palm for a 100 lek coin. Kookie, right? The deal is that in 1972 the currency was revalued, and a zero was dropped, but, um, people still haven’t gotten used to it (forty years and one generation, nevermind whole extreme changes of government, later) and still quote prices in “old lek.” It’s weird, confusing, and not infrequently embarrassing, but the good news is we’ve never heard of an Albanian actually taking advantage of this to rook you.
While you certainly won’t starve to death or be thrown out into the night if you don’t have cash – these people pride themselves on their hospitality, which is an ages old sacred trust, and whether you can pay or not, they’ll take you in – you will embarrass both yourself and your host if you can’t pay up. Once you get to Valbona, accommodation aside, you’ll be hard pressed to spend $100. Catherine recommends traveling with $300 cash, which is more than enough. If you’re caught short, a promise to pay will be taken in place, but who wants the bother?
Recommended Hotels in Other Places:
In Tirana, if you’re not into paying top dollar for the usual places, we recommend:
Tirana Backpacker’s Hostel
Rruga Elbasanit 85
Rruga: Bardhok Biba
tel: (00 355) 4 226 6077
cel: (068) 203 5261
Backpacking hostel accommodation available, but also private rooms, and everything overseen by Freddy and his uncles, who will look after you extremely well.
In Durrës, we recommend:
The Hotel Kristal
tel: (00 355) 522 9994
cel: (00 355) 68 241 7291
With clean rooms whose balconies overlook the seafront, and a waterside cafe downstairs, this place is a gem. Say you were sent by the American friend of Kujtim Demiri. Your room should cost no more than 25 euro per night.
What to Bring
Temperatures in Valbona are generally 10-20 degrees cooler than they are in the lowlands (mercifully, in summer!). In summer, you can expect warm days (shorts and tank tops) and cool evenings (a sweater and track pants). Sose and Rugova seem to be doing laundry constantly, and won’t object do doing yours. Be aware that we have never seen a drying machine in Albania – all laundry will be hung out on a line, so bring both a change, and nothing too embarrassing to wave in public.
There are no cultural landmines to avoid. You can wear whatever, although Catherine did get sent back to the house by Alfred, when she was running around in an oversized sweater which hung down to her knees and obscured her shorts, making her look, admittedly, a little dishabille, if not downright apparently scandalous.
Unless you’re cheerful about being soaked, you might want to bring rain gear. In any case, no matter how hot it is in the lowlands, bring something warm to wear. You’ll be glad.
You will be fed more than you can imagine eating in Valbona, and it will all be wonderful, so you don’t need to worry about food. If you’re secret midnight snacker, though, bring supplies, as you will otherwise be chewing on the bark of the “ah” trees.
We already talked about
You should bring anything with you that you think you might need. We reiterate: There are no shops, stores, or other things like that in the valley. Whatever you bring in will be what you have. If you run out of something obvious (toothpaste?) people will share with you what they have, but it will be from personal stores, not bought. Plan accordingly.
Getting To Albania(I just moved this down to the bottom since you can probably figure this part out for yourself, but just in case . . . . )
The obvious way of arriving in Albania is by air, flying into Tirana (the capital) (the airport is also called “Rinas” or, very occasionally by its proper name, “Nene Theresa,” after Mother Theresa, who, wouldn’t you know it, was Albanian) where you can easily pick up a taxi to drive you into Tirana proper, which takes about fifteen minutes (see our recommendation about where to stay, below). In January of 2010, this taxi ride cost 20 Euro without haggling. This is sort of crazy when you consider that travelling 7 hours across Albania by minibus only costs about 10 Euro, but I guess it’s the privilege of those poised to grab the tourists on entry, and anyhow the Albanian economy can use the money(?). We’ll let you know as soon as we find out a cheaper way of doing this.
If you have time, or are traveling from Italy or Greece, you might also consider arriving by boat. Ferries land daily in the friendly, beautiful ancient port city of Durrës, which is about a 40 minute drive from Tirana. Durrës boasts beautiful, if already rather overdeveloped, beaches and the evening promenade along the waterfront of seemingly the entire population is worth hanging out for. A ferry from Bari, Italy, is overnight, takes 8 hours and costs about 80 euro. Dolphins leap along next to the boat, and the moon shines down. It’s really magical, if you can stay awake. These are car ferries, which is obviously useful for people driving around. If you want to do this, and then get to Tirana, we recommend calling Kujtim Demiri (see below for his telephone number).