Albanian Adventures: Seaside and the City

‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana.

Something we learned very quickly in Albania is that you kind of have to take a leap of faith when it comes to travel. Public transit options are essentially buses, furgons (“minibuses”), and hitchhiking. All fine and good, but trying to find information for your route online is at best horribly frustrating and at worst outdated/outright wrong. Research your options ahead of time, but make sure you verify pickup locations, fares, timetables, etc. in person or with someone local. I found checking recent blog entries which detailed their route fairly helpful (check out here and here to get an idea). Even then, prepare to be flexible as arrival/departure times can be fairly loose and timetables can be outdated. I’ll elaborate a little more below when I speak about our adventure figuring out how to leave Tirana, but for now lets talk furgons.

Albanian Furgons (From Wikimedia Commons)
Albanian Furgons
(image from Wikimedia Commons).

Furgons are minibuses which are privately-owned and unlicensed. From what I have read and we observed, they seem to have stops in similar locations to larger buses. They are, however, looser in terms of their stops and scheduling. They may wait to leave until they are full (rather than having a specific departure time) and will drop you off where you need as long as you let the driver know. These are a really common and affordable means of travel, they just require a bit of patience and faith for someone unfamiliar. As someone who enjoys the security of firm scheduling and routes, it was all a bit overwhelming initially. But furgon travel gets you where you need to go (usually) and makes for some interesting experiences!

Sarande, a Seaside Escape

Sarande, Albania
Beach town Sarandë

Which brings me to our first furgon excursion… Luckily for us, the local furgon and bus stop in Gjirokastra was literally down the street from our hotel. It was pretty straightforward, we had wandered down to the area the day before to chat with some of the drivers and figured out a rough departure time. Early the next morning, off we went and quickly found a furgon with a cardboard sign for “Sarandë” in the window. After twenty minutes of waiting, we were off! Side note: falling asleep during car rides is a hidden talent of mine. I promptly fell asleep and completely missed what Nathanael to this day still calls one of the most terrifying bus rides of his life. Our driver, who fancied himself a race car driver, was winging around corners and fdoing his best to test the limits of a decades-old bus with questionable suspension. I should mention that there weren’t seat belts available in most of the seats. Seeing a police car on route prompted the driver to quickly tuck his “Sarandë” sign away until they were out of sight. Seemed legit. But we arrived in one piece, me feeling refreshed and Nat in need of a strong drink. It was a good thing we were arriving in a vacation destination!

Saranda, or Sarandë, is a sunny retreat and a popular destination on the Albanian Riviera. This city has a long history dating back into antiquity when it was known as Onchesmus or Onchesmos in ancient Greek. With beautiful Mediterranean weather and an abundance of beaches, this city is a popular vacation spot for tourists near and far. We found a comfortable Airbnb that was a short walk from the main seaside boardwalk and settled in for a relaxing couple of days. In between relaxing on different beaches, we wandered the boardwalk, visited the historical synagogue ruins, and indulged in local treats like lakror and kataif.

Tirana, Capital of Albania

Skanderberg statue in Tirana, Albania.

Tirana is the colourful and chaotic capital of Albania. Admittedly a little dated at this point (released in 2007), Michael Palin of Monty Python fame produced a travel series which has a fun episode highlighting the vibrant hum of Tirana, check it out if you can! Albania’s recent history is complex and I won’t go into it in too much detail here, though it’s a very interesting read. Radical changes over the past few decades has seen Tirana slowly blossom into the quirky, colourful capital it is today.

Former state building in Tirana, Albania
Former state building in Tirana, Albania with a monument to the victims of communism.

We stayed at another Airbnb in Tirana with a wonderful host. After sharing a delicious meal of Fërgesë she generously prepared for us we went out into the city. Greece had been a bit of a whirlwind so we wanted to take a more relaxed, organic approach to exploring Albania. The weather was beautiful and we were in a great location close to downtown. Skanderbeg Square is a great place to start exploring Tirana. Skanderbeg Square, named after the Albanian hero whose statue occupies a prominent place in the square, is ringed by beautiful, historic buildings. To name a few, be sure to see the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the clock tower, Palace of Culture, and the National Museum of History. We branched out a bit from the square before starting to wander down Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit. We had spotted several concrete bunkers dotting the landscape as we traveled between cities, remnants of the former communist governments “bunkerization” program which resulted in more than 170 000 bunkers being built throughout Albania. A few of these derelict bunkers have since been given makeovers to better align with modern Tirana’s whimsical aesthetic. The Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit featured a number of green spaces scattered with these redecorated concrete bunkers, painted in bright colours with fun designs. We continued wandering past the Pyramid of Tirana and ended up at the Mother Teresa Square. Feeling refreshed and casually enjoying a walk in the sun in an interesting city, we started getting ready for the next step.

Buses in Albania

I wanted to take a minute to chat a bit about finding an international bus in Tirana. In all likelihood things have changed since we visited in 2013, so take this with a grain of salt. At the time, however, it was a really difficult to find information about international buses and I wanted to share what worked for us. The best advice we can give is to ask Tourist Information and then confirm with the companies yourself. We were directed to an area a short walk from Skanderbeg Square where offices of various bus companies lined the sidewalk. We couldn’t find any centralized spot for information, online or in person, so we went to several companies to ask about their routes. Try not to be discouraged. The companies don’t necessarily know each others routes and we had a couple tell us, “No, no one goes to Macedonia,” only to find one that did after a bit of persistence. Be early for your bus, but don’t be surprised if you end up waiting anyway. Albania is a great place and it’s a rite of passage to struggle with the public transit 😉

Nathanael waiting at the bus station in Tirana, Albania
Nathanael waiting for our bus to Ohrid!

Finally securing our bus to Macedonia we bid a farewell to our relaxing interlude in Albania. Next stop, more relaxing in Ohrid!

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