An American Expat’s Experience of Albania

By Jordan Jeppe
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Despite warnings from well-meaning friends about the country’s notorious crime rate, she decided to travel to Albania. Jordan shares her personal experiences and lists all the reasons why you need to visit this beautiful underrated country.

“I don’t want to scare you, but – kidnapping, corruption and drugs rule that country. Whatever you do, just be careful.”

This was a text message I received from a friend the night before I boarded my one-way flight to Tirana, Albania. As a solo female expat, receiving warnings from friends and family becomes an innate part of the lifestyle. However, this particular message left me feeling doubtful. Was leaving America and traveling to Albania a terrible idea?

Fast forward 3 weeks since arriving  in Albania’s cosmopolitan capital city, Tirana, and I can happily report I will be extending my stay in this underrated country.

exploring tirana

Despite the country’s dark Communist past and poor reputation from their European neighbors, Albanians wear their history with perseverance.  This desire to progress trickles into everyday life here in Tirana, where the atmosphere is vibrant and youthful. This walkable city showcases primary-colored buildings, produce stands scattered throughout the streets filled to the brim with fresh figs, and coffee bars everywhere.

Literally, did you know Tirana is the second city in the world with the highest number of coffee bars per capita? AKA expat heaven.

Adventuring beyond the city walls is where you really experience the day-to-day life of Albanians. The difference between rich and poor protrudes from the streets as you witness the Mercedes being quickly replaced with donkeys pulling carts of local people. Here, the Skanderbeg mountain range provides a backdrop to the partially constructed homes and  farmers walk with sticks, guiding their cows down the sidewalks; but nothing quite catches your eyes and ears like the people who inhabit these streets. Shiqp, or Albanian, is spoken loudly and passionately. While you have no idea what is being said, the body language of two locals exchanging laughs over a coffee speaks volumes.  As they share that smile with me, sitting in a passing car with my windows down,  I can’t help but think for one to truly know Albania, they must experience it themselves.

Berat: The city of a thousand windows

an aerial view of the city of Berat showing a river, a bridge and houses along the hillside

My desire to develop a well-rounded perspective of this country meant experiencing  as much of it as I possibly could. With this in mind, my first weekend in Tirana I rented a car and drove down south to Berat, an UNESCO protected destination, also known as the city of a thousand windows. Just before arriving in Berat, I took a mini detour to a local vineyard called Cobo Winery. I was immediately welcomed into the care of a young woman who walked me through the vineyard and gave me a tour of her great grandfather’s legacy. Once learning about the wine, it was time to give it a taste!

Over the course of 3 hours I relaxed in their yard, playing with the kittens who roamed freely, talking with the family, and sipping the incredible array of wine. While the €20 tasting could have been completed in an hour,     it added to the experience to genuinely connect with this beautiful family while enjoying the fruits of their historical, hard labor. Eventually, I arrived in Berat and checked into Berat Backpackers Hostel. The hostel sits on the right side of the Gorat Bridge with a view of the Osum river and a complete panorama of the Ottoman architectural city. From the garden you also have a straight shot of the famous Berat Castle. 

After a night’s rest,  I made my way towards the fortress. Just before arriving though, I noticed an older woman sitting under an umbrella with a bucket of green bulbs. We made eye contact and she lured me in by offering her hand out, in which sat a sun-kissed fig. I cautiously bit into the delicate fruit and immediately shared a giggle with her.  No words were exchanged, but I’m sure she could tell I had never tasted anything so delicious before. Figs in hand, I made it up the 30 minute hike to the castle. Within the walls resides a small village at which you can sip coffee, peer at the embroidered table cloths for sale and eventually make your way to the very top where the Church of Holy Trinity sits. From this 15th century Albanian orthodox church, you have made it to the highest point in Berat.

a memorable road trip

A quick 24-hours in Berat and then I was on the road again to Vlorë. It’s important to note that driving through Albania is an experience in it’s own. A lesson I quickly learned is that driving and parking rules are merely suggestions. While the car rental is affordable (€35/day), there are parts of the country where you can’t rely on Google maps. All part of the adventure, right?

Only a few false right turns later, I reached the picturesque beach and city holiday location of Vlorë. At first, driving the boardwalk felt like I was in California, passing the strip of Santa Monica, but you know –            Albanian style. Tall, pastel painted apartment buildings and local restaurants advertising the “catch of the day” dress the left side of the street and to the right, pedestrians stride along the ocean as it expands beyond the eye. One day spent at Kalaja Restaurant, swimming and sipping on Peroni with locals, was enough for me to confirm what I had heard since arriving in Albania: The rocky terrains and crystal blue waters of the south hold some of the best beaches in Europe. 

In one weekend I hit just shy of 400 km and a more conscious view of this country. While the sites were incredible on their own, the most memorable experiences were in the small, unexpected moments. Driving along the jaw-dropping Tomorri Mountains passing the petit village towns, the on-the-house Brauhaus and reki from my friendly waiter at Tradicional Zgara in Vlorë – each exchange with local Albanians, either young or old, showed me how proud they are to show me something of their culture. 

Since I arrived in Albania, a reoccuring moment stayed with me – the shared smiles and overall welcoming spirit from the people. I always gauge my likability on the road with the people, and while many would argue that Albanians are cold and corrupt, they are the exact reason why I extended my stay in Albania.

About the author

Image of the author Jordan Jeppe wearing a hat and smiling into the camera

Jordan Jeppe

Jordan believes her purpose in life is to be of service to others. Jordan runs a social media marketing business and has successfully built a lifestyle around traveling and remote working. She mentors individuals towards adopting a similar “ultimate freedom lifestyle,” and has a deep love for yoga, mindfulness and meditation. 


 
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