Something that we all have in common here at John Cabot University is that we love traveling! Whether you are earning your full undergraduate degree here, or you are studying abroad for one or two semesters, probably one of the many reasons you chose JCU is that you wanted to be able to travel easily around Europe.
Most students go to the typical locations of Paris, London, Barcelona, Berlin, Florence, and Amsterdam – and they are in fact beautiful, full of history and culture. But, in my opinion, it’s also good to get away from the “typical” destinations and discover other, lesser-known locations where you can travel without spending as much. This summer I got the opportunity to travel to Albania twice – or Shqipëria, as they call it in the Albanian language. Why go twice when I could have picked a new location for the second trip? For three simple reasons: 1. It’s extremely cheap, 2. My local friends showed me the country as a local does 3. The country is completely underrated – it is beautiful.
I arrived at the capital, Tirana (this is the only airport in the entire country!), and from there we headed south to our destination Dhërmi. On our way we stopped in Durrës, the closest port to the capital, to have an a-m-a-z-i-n-g barbecue of typical meats, qofte (this is what they call their meatballs but they look nothing like the ones we know), tzatziki, and salad. I appreciate good food so I was completely happy with this part of the trip! Here I also discovered that Albania’s cuisine definitely has some Greek and Turkish influences. After lunch, we continued our way through beautiful mountains full of vegetation and thrilling views.
A little before arriving at Dhërmi, there is a small village called Llogara. Llogara is a national park and full of huge trees, cliffs, and of course little villages. We stopped in one of the villages to have a typical snack, homemade Greek yogurt with nuts and honey that is collected from the beehives in the backyards of restaurants. At this point, we were just an hour away from the beach. Arriving at Dhërmi, we could see the cliffs that took us to the beautiful crystal blue beaches, and closer to it we could smell the salt from the water.
I was so excited about stepping out onto the sand and then the water, but to my surprise there was no sand- instead there were rocks or pebbles. They were a little painful to walk on, but the beauty of the scenery and simply being there blew away any feelings of discomfort. Besides, the rocks give off a different ambiance; they are so white and big that it seems as if they are simply there to decorate the beach. Dhërmi is a small town, pretty much a village. That means it’s hard to find WiFi and there is not much to do after 7pm, so it gives you an opportunity to disconnect and be with yourself, nature, and the people around you. Did I mention the food here? It’s delicious! Being by the beach, the few local restaurants get fresh fish, calamari, shrimp, and other seafood daily.
After a couple of days in Dhërmi we headed south to Sarandë. This is also on the south coast, but with a completely different feeling from Dhërmi. Sarandë is a bigger city and is famous for the amount of outdoor activities it offers, trips to Corfu (Greece), historical sites, and the nightlife. I cannot put into words how much I loved this place. Of course they have the typical beaches with restaurants filled with locals and tourists. But if you drive a little farther away from the touristy beaches, you can find practically empty beaches with just a couple of people. Here you are able to rent jet skis, paddle boards, and kayaks. We decided to go kayaking in the open ocean and we arrived at a small island that has a very famous cave. We were exhausted when we arrived after kayaking under the hot sun, but it was completely worth it. The entrance of the cave was quite narrow and as we got closer it became darker and darker. With the little light that shone in, you could see the rock walls that, because of the erosion by the water, had become shades of orange and gold. When we were fully inside we could not see anything but we could smell the bats and hear their wings slamming into one another. It was an amazing experience! For the rest of the time in Sarandë we relaxed, went to beaches close to where Enver Hoxha (the Communist ex-leader of Albania) had his camps, walked around the city center, ate lots, and visited landmarks. One of the sites we visited was a mosque on top of a hill. It was breathtaking. We arrived almost at sunset, and were able to see the sunset reflecting on the water while the lights of the city were turning on. The mosque is called Aslan Pasha and it has a small museum next to it that explains the religious history of the area and invasions of previous empires.
For our last day in Sarandë, we visited a natural spring called Blue Eye, or Syri Kalter in Albanian. I was mesmerized the whole time. On the way there, it’s all dry terrain and brown mountains, but at some point everything turns different shades of green. This natural spring is not very famous, but a lot of scientists and ecologists have studied it because nobody has ever found how deep it is. It just keeps going and going for kilometers. Also, the vegetation in this park is different from everything around it, and you get to see the many rivers and lakes that form because of the water spring. The water in the Blue Eye is ice cold – and I really mean it. There is a place that allows you to jump and fall into the center of the water, and of course I had to do it. It certainly was an experience!
To fast forward a little bit… eventually, I ended up in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Driving around the mountains surrounding the city, you can see some of the old bunkers. I hiked a lot during my stay here. One of my favorite hikes was going up the Dajti mountain, the tallest mountain in Tirana. I picked blackberries for the first time ever here. Apparently for my Albanian friends this was something normal to do, because they just grow naturally all over Albania, but for me it was completely new – and they tasted amazing!
Throughout my travels in Albania, I got to see and learn a lot of things about the country and its people. I learned how kind, friendly, and welcoming they are toward foreigners; how interested they are in different languages and cultures; and how much they love to watch soap operas! I think that this country is completely underrated and more people should visit Albania to learn about its history and culture and see its beautiful sights – and it helps that it’s inexpensive!
Some things to do when in Albania:
-Travel south to the beaches: Vlorë, Sarandë and Blue Eye, Dhërmi. Rent a car or take a bus.
-In the south (not on the coast) there is a city called Skrapar with a lot of historic monuments and a very important mosque. Skrapar also has white water rafting, for those who like extreme sports!
-Try byrek for breakfast or a snack. It has many fillings but the most popular is with ricotta or spinach, and it’s simply delicious!
-Go out on “the block” in Tirana. This is the area where Enver Hoxha lived and nowadays there are many restaurants, coffee shops, and stores.
-Eat in a castle. Albanians love to eat in castles and throughout the country there are many of them, almost in every city.
–Qofte for dinner- this is their traditional ground meat.
One last tip: Albania is one of the two countries in the world where the head movements to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are the opposite to the rest of the world. So basically you’ll be confused 99.99% of the time.
Thanks for reading!
Victoria Barreda de Alba
JCU Class of 2017
Hometown: Reynosa, Mexico