Unexpected Culture Shock in Albania: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
There isn’t a word that exists to accurately describe Albania. Certain words that come to mind include chaotic, unorganized, unique, beautiful, and crazy. Albania is “different”. In fact, it’s definitely the most different European country I have ever visited. I can admit fully that Albania gave me the biggest culture shock I’d ever experienced before in Europe. That is something I certainly was not expecting. Albania is the Egypt of Europe, there I said it.
Why I chose to visit Albania?
My best friend recently moved to Durres, Albania. I must admit, I had to look on a map to figure out where exactly Albania was. Albania is located in Southeast Europe and lies along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. When I realized it shared the same seas with Croatia, Italy, and Greece, my 3 favourite countries, I was more than eager to visit this lesser known Balkan country.
Hot to get to Albania?
After extensive research, I found that the easiest way to get to the Albanian Riviera was to fly into Corfu, Greece and then take a one hour ferry to Sarande. The cost of the ferry ticket was 23.80€ during peak season and the company I used was Ionian Cruises. The other option is to fly into Tirana, and then take a bus down to Sarande, taking anywhere from 5-8 hours.
My “go-to” booking site for flights is Skyscanner…I swear by them! You can start searching below ♥
(Full disclosure: This little search box contains an affiliate link, which means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using this link, at no extra cost to you. Yay!).
The Albanian Riviera
The Albanian Riviera is situated in the perfect location, where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, explaining why the water is so gorgeous and colorful. After seeing a handful of beautiful Google photos, I decided this is exactly where I wanted to go.
Sarande is a popular seaside town on the Albanian Riviera and is a great base for exploring other nearby destinations. Although it is a great starting base, I’m going to be honest and say it was a little disappointing. The town itself is lined with several hotels, bars, and restaurants, but it lacked the authentic appeal I had hoped for and seamed a bit commercialized. There were many fast food restaurants and bars, but not too many options when it came to sit-down restaurants. Furthermore, the food was mediocre at best, as I will touch on below. That being said, Sarande flaunted some attractive views over the waterfront during sunset and deserves a short visit.
Ksamil village is a group of 3 islands which lie about 15 km south of Sarande and are very popular (translate: overcrowded) amongst locals during the summer. However, it is easy to see why as it boasts some of the most deep bluish green waters I have ever seen. Ksamil beach is lined with fluffy white sand starkly contrasted with the turquoise water in the backdrop, reminiscent of the Caribbean. For a quick moment, I forgot where I was. Who knew that Albania had some of the most BEAUTIFUL beaches I had ever seen? Consider mind blown.
The main beach in Ksamil is very pretty, and super crowded. Meaning, if you don’t get there early, there will be no more sun chairs available. The good news? You can travel by small boat to the small nearby islands for a different scene. For a mere 500 LEK roundtrip ($4) you can hop on a small motor boat and get dropped off at the island of your choice. You must arrange with the driver on a pick up time to take you back.
We spent most of our time lounging around one of the smaller islands, although I don’t know the name of it unfortunately (we just pointed and said “take us there”). The island was mostly rocky, and it wasn’t the ideal place to sunbathe. However, the water was so warm and calming that we spent most our time there swimming and playing around in the sea. There are no bathrooms or food on this island, so keep that in mind. There was a man and his daughter going around selling fresh fruit in case you fancied a snack.
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Syris Kalter, aka the “Blue Eye” as it is known locally, is a natural phenomenon located about 20km east of Sarande. The Blue Eye forms a blue portal-like hole and is supplied by an underwater natural spring. The depth of the Blue Eye remains a mystery, but there are documented reports of divers reaching around 50 meters in depth.
The water at Syri Kalter is frigid, as in the coldest water I have ever felt in my life. The water hurt my legs when I tried to stand in it for just a few seconds, so I passed on this one. Surprisingly, there were several brave divers jumping into the Blue Eye and quickly exiting. Enter at your own risk! The Blue eye is something very unique and I recommend a half day trip here to see it for yourself. There is a restaurant with a great view of the lake and bathroom facilities on site.
Albania is one of the Cheapest European Countries You Will Ever Visit
Albania was one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, country I have ever visited. The food was cheap, the busses and taxis were cheap, and the clothes were cheap. I paid 650 LEK (a little over $5) for seafood risotto in the touristy port of Sarande, so this was even on the expensive side. A fancy margarita on the promenade cost 400 LEK (about $3.25). In Duress, it was even cheaper. For a fancy dinner with an appetizer, fresh fish, and a few glasses of wine, it cost about 1000LEK ($8).
Great for Extended Stay
Since it is so cheap, Albania is great for backpackers or even digital nomads who want to set up shop somewhere for a few weeks/months. If you’re looking to cut back on spending for a bit, or if you need to escape the Schengen for visa reasons (Albania is not part of the EU or the Schengen zone), Albania is the place to go.
It’s Not Too Touristy
I don’t personally know even one person from back home who has been to Albania. In fact, almost everyone I told I was visiting Albania responded with either “Why would you want to go to Albania?”, or “Where is Albania?”. Except for the local Balkan people in Ksamil beach and Sarande, Albania was almost completely void of tourists. I didn’t encounter ONE English speaking tourist my whole time in Albania. It has yet to be corrupted by mass tourism, and I don’t see that happening in the near future either. Translation: if you’re thinking about visiting, now is the perfect time to go.
The public transportation in Albania is TERRIBLE. I am going to say that Albania hands-down has the worst public transportation system I have ever experienced in my life. Actually there is no “system”. Yes there are busses, and frugons (think mini vans) that take you places, but don’t expect there to be any order or structure to anything.
There are no timetables, there is no air conditioning, and there are no marked bus stops. The only way we were able to take busses was by asking locals. We went into shops and asked anyone we could when the next bus was coming and where to wait for it. Sometimes the next one wasn’t coming for an hour and we would have to wait on the side of the road for that long because we didn’t want to miss the next one.
And when you do finally get on a bus, expect to be piled in there like sardines, with no elbow room whatsoever. There is no structure, order, or organization to Albanian public transportation. Period. This was made perfectly clear to me when I went into a bus agency in Durres and asked for a timetable, to which I was told “We don’t have, this is not your country”. Wow, ok. I get the point. Sorry for asking, dude.
Power Outages are More Common than You Think
Several times during my trip to Albania, the power went out in restaurants and in the apartment. Sometimes it would last a few seconds, and sometimes for several minutes. No one seemed to make a big deal about it, leading me to believe this was quite common in Albania.
Expect to See Some Trash
If dirty streets bother you, you probably won’t want to go to Albania. I was surprised to see the abundance of trash lining the streets, even in the more developed areas. There was literally trash everywhere. Albania is not very developed yet, so don’t let this alarm you. This is where Albania really reminded me of Egypt the most.
Out of every country I have ever visited, I can say that Albania was the hardest to find anyone who actually spoke English. I am in Albania, I get it, you don’t need to speak my language in your country. I am not that ignorant or demanding to expect that, and that’s perfectly understandable. But as a visitor, it made it extremely difficult to communicate anything we needed. Your best bet? Look for a young local, as they are more likely to speak English.
I hate to say this, but I was a bit disappointed with the food in Albania. I thought with such close proximity to culinary havens such as Italy, Croatia, and Greece that the food would be outstanding. I put it under the “bad” category mainly because the food was so unpredictable. The food in Sarande completely disappointed me. I had some salty risotto, some bland risotto, and the worst gelato I have ever tasted. I took a bite and threw it away, it was that bad.
In Durres, however, I had some amazing gelato and some authentic Albanian stuffed peppers that were out of this world tasty. In Ksamil, I had some of the best grilled sea bass I had ever tasted. That being said, I never knew what I was going to get. I could get one of the best meals of my life, or the worst. C’mon Albania, get it together.
Ok, here is where shit really gets real. Sorry, but there is about to be some cursing going on in the next few minutes, you have been forewarned. With travel comes adventure, and sometimes you are faced with unpredictable moments. But that’s part of the thrill that’s so alluring, don’t you think? Everything about Albania seemed a bit crazy to me. However, there were 2 times where I actually said WTF. Here’s why…
Story 1: Crazyness.
When leaving Durres to catch my 7am bus to Montenegro (which actually ended up being 7:30am because the local told me differently. But hey, I didn’t actually expect the bus schedule to be accurate anyway with my experience), it was pouring down rain as I entered a taxi with an older driver. As we approached the bus station (they actually have one in Durres surprisingly), the bus driver was standing outside and my taxi driver accidentally side-swiped his body and broke off his mirror. The bus driver forcefully fell and skid in the rain. Holy shit, did he just hit him? Next thing I know, the bus driver gets up, dusts himself off, and approaches the taxi. He opened the passenger door, started screaming intensely in Albanian at the old man, and then got inside and started PUNCHING the driver uncontrollably. The old man fought back and things were getting heated up front. Meanwhile, I’m in the back horrified and shocked and just want to get the hell out of there, but I don’t. I sit there and watch the show. Not because I wanted to, but because my luggage was in the trunk and I was afraid the taxi driver would drive away with my stuff, just to get rid of the bus driver. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating, and the whole car was shaking as they were throwing fists and yelling. Some elbows were actually coming into the back seat as my eyes widened in horror. Fuck, get me out of here! Finally, another man came from outside and grabbed the bus driver and pulled him out of the car and the fight stopped. I grabbed my luggage and got onto the bus as quickly as possible. You know what was really awkward? That same angry bus driver punching the poor old man taxi driver was now driving my bus to Montenegro. Please don’t have road rage, please don’t have road rage, please don’t have road rage. Thankfully, I got to Montenegro safe and without incident. The funny thing was that when I got off the bus, I saw that the bus driver had a huge welt on his eye and it was almost completely swollen shut. Oh what a lovely experience.
Story 2: Unexpected adventure that could have turned out bad. Do NOT try this at home kids.
So we decided to take the bus to Syri Kalter one afternoon. After wasting time finding a bus that actually would take us there from Sarande, we were on our way. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere in front of a dirt road, to which the driver pointed. Ok, I guess this is where we go? We saw signs saying Syri Kalter 2km. To make a long story short, when it came time to leave, there were no busses going back. Shocker. We walked along the road in the sweltering heat as the daylight began to fade. Oh crap, we don’t want to be left here in the middle of nowhere, especially when it gets dark. We started walking back to where the bus dropped us off, hoping another one would magically appear in the distance. But literally, we were in the middle of the forest, with nothing around. As the sun began to set, we had to make a choice. We looked at each other, and said, fuck it we have no choice. So, hitchhiking it is! Neither of us had ever done it before, and it always seems to end up bad in movies. Don’t be the stupid blonde that gets into to car, don’t do it! But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. So, nervously and hesitantly, up went our fingers. What are we doing? Fuck. A few cars passed with no response. Crap, this is going to be harder than we thought. C’mon, we are 2 innocent stranded girls who just want to get back home. We were getting a bit concerned as we entertained the fact that we might end up sleeping in the forest. Nooooo, that can’t happen. Someone will stop, right? After some anticipation, we finally had a car drive by with loud music, and they slammed on the brakes. Yes! It was a bunch of local young Albanians who spoke some English and who were on their way North to Tirana. But Sarande is 30 minutes out of the way. Crap. After explaining our situation and after offering cash to take us there, they persistently refused, saying they would take us for free! What? That’s awesome. There are still some good people in this world. We had a good feeling about them, so we got in and were on our way, listening to Albanian music and learning some new Albanian words (bad words of course). They got a kick out of us repeating them aloud. We got really lucky that we safely made it back to Sarande. It could have been way worse. I would like to note that I do not endorse hitchhiking, but like I said before, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Lesson learned.
Other Unusual/Random Things I Noticed in Albania
- Any time we told someone we were from America, they seemed shocked and asked, “Why would you come to Albania? They couldn’t seem to understand. Literally, everyone had that same reaction.
- There is no concept of personal space. When you go into a store, everyone runs in and races to the counter to be served. To make sure that no one can get in front of them, they make sure there is no space between them and the person in front of them. I witnessed this several times and once this young man had to turn around and basically tell the man hovering over him to back off.
- People will stop their car in the middle of the street and run into a nearby store. This happened on a main road while we were riding a bus. We had to wait about 4-5 minutes and the bus driver had to actually get out and track the man down. Some unpleasant words were exchanged and we were on our way.
- Not one place in Albania accepted credit cards. They aren’t that advanced yet, so expect to pay in cash and leave the plastic at home.
- Pay in LEK only, not Euros. Locals will try to rip tourists off by charging them in Euro, but the exchange rate is much better when using LEK. They will be adamant about it, but tell them you live there and you only have LEK. They will accept it! Trust me.
- Don’t rely on public transportation if you need to be any place at a specific time, such as for catching a flight or ferry. Take a taxi instead, they are not that expensive. You can also bargain with them before you accept the ride. Or if you dare, rent a car to see more of the landscape in a short amount of time and to bypass the stress of public transport.
- Try to find accommodation on airbnb.com. It’s extremely cheap and you can get your own apartment for similar prices as a hotel. For 3 nights, my friend and I stayed a few minute walk to the center and paid $57 each, including all the taxes and fees. Use my coupon code for $20 off your first booking with airbnb.
- You can buy a local SIM for data at Vodafone for $6-10 depending on how many GBs you need. This definitely came in handy when I needed to use my maps for navigation.
Would I Ever Go Back to Albania?
ABSOLUTELY. Although this article might sound more negative than positive, Albania was charming in its own way. It was weird, wacky, unconventional, surprising, and quirky. But that is also what was so appealing about it. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, not knowing what to expect next, and that’s exactly the spontaneity I love about traveling. Albania is beautiful, non-touristy, the people are helpful and nice, and its extremely cheap. Despite the crazy adventures I experienced, I actually felt safe the whole time. Although the taxi encounter scared me a bit, they weren’t trying to harm me in any way, and I knew that. Overall, I felt safe in Albania, even walking around the streets at night. I realized there is so much more to explore and I have just cracked the surface of Albania’s weirdness. Until next time Albania. Stay Different.
MY TOP 5 RECOMMENDED TRAVEL GEAR FOR ALBANIA:
1.Sony Alpha 6000 Mirrorless Camera: I made the switch from my huge DSLR and I wouldn’t go back. It’s light, compact, and takes amazing photos!
2. Sony 10-18mm Wide Angle Zoom Lens: this wide angle lens is the key to landscape shots. I use this lens more than the original and am super happy with it. It’s not cheap, but super worth it if you want to get those special nature shots. Honestly, I would purchase the Sony alpha 6000 camera body only and save up for this lens to go with it.
3. E Bags Packing Cubes: the biggest life changer to keep me packing light! This is my biggest travel gear obsession and I have NO idea how I traveled without them before.
4. Anker Portable Charger: this helps me recharge my iPhone several times a day when I travel. It also has dual ports so you can also charge your camera or other electronics simultaneously. I couldn’t travel without it.
5. GoPro Hero 11 Black: I am a proud GoPro ambassador and obsessed with GoPro selfie pics if you didn’t notice! The Gopro cameras are the best for action and underwater shots, and of course for taking those selfies when you’re traveling solo. It’s super small, compact, and easy to travel with. Plus it’s so much fun to use! 🙂
Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a super small commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I have used before on my own and that I truly love 🙂