Category Archives: Tirana

Mali i Dajtit

The best thing about our apartment is that you can walk onto our balcony and look up to the mountain of Dajti. We are the last apartment building before the mountain begins and after us its farm land, small villages and olive groves climbing up the lower slopes to the steep rock face.

Dajti watches over Tirana sprawling out over the flat land below. Its foothills mercifully prevent the urban growth from moving much further east. It’s gloriously fresh with blossom in the spring, green in the summer, orange and red in the autumn, snow-capped in the winter. We’ve come to think of it as our mountain. We have our favourite trails over the foot hills, around the lake, past abandoned tunnels built as bomb shelters during the regime.

Ten years ago the Austrians built a cable car up the mountain. The 20 minute ride provides spectacular views of the mountain (including our apartment!) and Tirana. It’s made the mountain more accessible as the road, while vastly improved, remains very potholed in parts. It’s become a favourite part of our standard itinerary for our overseas visitors.

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The Dajti Express runs from Linze. You can catch the Linze bus from the centre of Tirana. Look for the signs or ask the bus driver to tell you where to jump off the bus. It’s a steep hike from there up Rruga Shefqet Kuka to the cable car station. If you’re feeling less willing to battle public transport then a taxi from the centre of Tirana will cost you approx 700-800 lek.

It’s hard to give you solid operating times for the cable car. Generally, it seems closed on Mondays… and operates from around 9am till 10pm (earlier in the winter). The website currently seems to be closed for refurbishment!

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At the top of the cable car is a hotel, cafe, restaurant, walking trails and fantastic views over Tirana. Behind the hotel is a large grassy area where the kids can ride horses, clamber over bunkers, etc. There are also free mini-buses put on by the restaurants set up on the mountain. Our favourite, by far, is Gurra e Përrisë. The restaurant is in a gorgeous setting surrounded by forest. In the summer you can sit out under the trees. In the winter you can warm up by the log fire. The restaurant is also a trout farm and you can watch the chef catch your fish before its cooked and served.

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The mountain is very walk-able. Tracks are reasonably well-marked. I’m told it takes 3-4 hours to get to the level of the cable car. It’s another 2 hours to the summit. (Confession: we’ve only actually ever made it three-quarters of the way up to the cable car level! The full hike is definitely on our Albanian bucket-list!)

Summer heat

It’s been quiet on the blog front for the last few weeks, which reflects how quiet life has been in the heat of the summer. Summer here is relentless… day after day of blue skies and scorching temperatures. On one hand, this is perfect after 10 years of London’s brief and frequently disappointing summers. On the other hand, the heat saps my energy. Much of the day is spent hiding in doors waiting for the heat to cool. To top it all off, we have been subject to frequent water cuts. In the last week, we had running water for just two days. Eww.

In a perfect world we would have shut up our apartment and relocated to the coast for three months – but unfortunately, the un-employed Albanian housewife’s income doesn’t quite stretch to such luxuries!!

But there are a few reliable tricks to help make the summer months more enjoyable…

Get up early
Albanians are generally early risers. The business of the day is conducted first thing. I wonder if this is partly to do with the midday sun, and partly to do with the lack of certainty about how long a task will take to complete. The earlier you start a task, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to complete it before public offices close at 3pm.

Siesta
Unlike other southern European countries, there is no ‘official’ siesta in Albania. But it does happen. It’s hard to find anyone out and about in the heat of the day. Shops close. People hide indoors.

Do nothing
If taking a siesta isn’t an option, then the next best thing is to do nothing. Life becomes lethargic. Things move slowly. Time is best spent in a shady café.

Xhiro
One of my favourite Albanian traditions is ‘xhiro’. In the early evening families emerge from the shelter of their homes and promenade. In towns they will stroll down the main road (in many towns, roads are closed to cars during xhiro to make way for pedestrians). In our neighbourhood, families wander up past our apartment and into the foothills of Dajti. Grandparents, parents, kids, teenagers… everyone is out strolling. On our xhiro route, the local farmers sit on the side of the road and sell fresh produce. BBQs sit atop wheelbarrows with cobs of corn cooking in the coals. It’s like a big communal sigh of relief that the heat has abated – at least until tomorrow.

Hit the beach
While we did our summer holiday in June, most Albanians head away after Ramadan, mid-July into August. Beaches are packed. Hotels are super expensive. If a week away at the Riviera isn’t an option, then come the weekend, swarms of people head to the nearest local beach. Tirana is inland, but there are numerous beaches less than 90 minutes’ drive away. Most day-trippers rent a sun-lounger and umbrella for the day, but many erect temporary shelters out of bed sheets, umbrellas, tents to create a home-away-from-home.

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Despite the slow meander of summer, we have had some excitement with family weddings (as a guest, not the bride – phew!) and it being summer, overseas family are back in town. Yay! Now if I can just find some running water…

Not Durres

Like London has Brighton, Tirana has Durres. A quick 45 minute drive down a decent motorway gets you out of the city and to the sea.

The only problem with Durres is that it’s awful.

Rapid and unsympathetic over-development has created a wall of apartment buildings and hotels that loom over the beach. The port built to make the most of Durres’ natural harbour pollutes the water. And the historical significance of this former capital city is over-looked by swarms of summer visitors. You can get away with a pleasant off-season stroll but if you want a decent day trip to the beach – it’s not Durres that you want.

It’s Lalzit Bay.

The weather has been spectacular lately – and unseasonably warm. Unfortunately it’s still too early in the season for the hotel up the road from our house to have filled its swimming pool for the summer (hurry up!). So we decided to find an alternative beach option and headed out of the city on the newly re-sealed Tirana-Durres motorway towards Lalzit Bay. (Take the exit at Maminas and follow the road north).

Thanks to it being the favourite getaway of Albania’s politicians, this expansive beach is easily accessed by a surprisingly good-quality road, and is mercifully undeveloped. Hotels are not permitted! Instead, there are a couple of private villa complexes and a splattering of beach front cafe/restaurants. Unlike most of Albania’s coastline, it’s a lot of very undisturbed beachfront. Brilliant! Obviously this is Tirana’s worst-kept secret day-trip so the weekend traffic in the summer months is out of control, but seeing as we’re happily unemployed, we’ve decided this will be our summer mid-week beach getaway!

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After a very pleasant few hours on the beach we headed off to explore nearby Cape Rodoni. This gorgeous peninsula offers stunning sea views out both sides of the car. We followed the road to the gates of the park (100 lek entrance fee per car), home to the remains of a castle constructed by the Albanian hero Skanderberg in 1467. Much of the castle has now slipped into the sea. But it is well-worth the 20 minute walk (or 5 min boat ride) just for the views. It’s a shame though, that once again,  a site of historical importance is seriously blighted by litter. Sigh.

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Also in the park (by a small beach and fishing wharf) is the beautifully restored St Anthony church, a remnant of the Franciscan community. The church now owns the land (the park entrance fees help maintain it). And apparently once the summer kicks in properly, the park becomes a popular venue for summer parties!

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It was a great little day trip from Tirana. Here’s another great (non-beach-based) day trip easily taken from Tirana.

The end of the beginning

So as you read this we will be in New Zealand! It’s a very exciting trip for us. It’s hubby’s first visit to my homeland and we have two months of important family events and sightseeing ahead of us.

A few days ago on our last day at the farm, we were sat outside in the late autumn sun cooking corn on the fire and drinking the new raki. All four generations of us. The past and the future hanging out together. And I thought: this is the memory I will take with me. The easy-going, live-in-the-moment moments of life on the farm.

A year-long holiday might look, from the outside, like one big party. But its been also been normal ‘life’ and we’ve had our fair share of difficulties and challenges this year. It’s also been a big risk. More than one person has commented on our level of crazy to give up a good lifestyle and income in London for unemployment in a developing country. They’re kind of right. But for many reasons, we’ve had little choice but to take the risk. And so this year has been about making the most of it.

I am anxious about our return here in January because then the holiday will be well and truly over. We will need to find jobs in a difficult economy. All the locals say that Albania is brilliant if you have the money, but it’s very very hard if you don’t. I’ve had a few nibbles from people who have been interested in the concept of paying me money in exchange for my knowledge and experience, but as yet no one has stumped up with a contract (and cash)!

I have to say an enormous thank you to my hubby’s family who have embraced the foreign ‘nusja’ (bride). They have been patient and gracious as I’ve navigated Albania’s complex family culture. And they’ve made Albania feel like a safe place to fall.

You might be lucky to get a few blog posts from me over the next couple of months. I want to stay in touch while we’re in NZ – because I’ve really loved having so many people tagging along for my Albanian adventure and I definitely don’t want you to go away while we’re on a holiday from our holiday! I’ll be back to share some more Albanian housewife adventures…

A whole month

This week it’s a whole month since I said goodbye to London and lugged four suitcases and a wedding dress to the airport for the short flight to Tirana. A whole month. It feels like a lifetime ago!

There have been some achievements for us so far. The most recent being the purchase of a car. This was a priority for us – we’re so keen to hit the road and explore this incredibly beautiful country. But I am nervous about adjusting to driving in Albania. It’s chaos out there! The roads, while vastly improved even in the three years since I was last here, are still really bad in parts. The road down from our apartment just turns to a river in the rain and the potholes are brutal. If it isn’t the potholes, then it’s the random holes in the road where drain covers have been stolen for scrap. Locals have described their driving style as ‘aggressive’. Road rules are irrelevant and pedestrians will cross the road whenever and wherever takes their fancy without a glance for traffic. Wish me luck!!

Testing the car on Tirana's roads
Testing the car on Tirana’s roads

We are settled into our lovely, albeit scantily furnished, apartment and feel at home in our neighbourhood. I love the proximity to the mountains, that we can walk 15 minutes up the road and be in the countryside. A 30 minute bus ride and we’re in the centre of Tirana.

Hoxha'a Pyramid in central Tirana
Hoxha’s Pyramid in central Tirana

I’ve found myself some volunteer work with a NGO working on civil society projects. It’s keeping my brain going and has meant I’ve met some pretty interesting people. I’ve also found myself connected to Tirana’s diplomatic WAGS and am looking forward to developing some new friendships.

There were days in the beginning when tears were shed – when coping with everything in daily life being new or different was just too much. But I love not having to get up every week day morning and go to work! I love that hubby and I are getting to have this adventure together – it is a luxury to have time with each other that doesn’t consist of us being too tired to talk and just falling asleep on the sofa. I love being a part of a big Albanian family! The hospitality and generosity are phenomenal. Everyone has been so welcoming and it makes me feel safe here.

We’re now just three months out from our Albanian wedding in June (I can’t believe I’m back in wedding planning mode just five short months after our London wedding!) and we are looking forward to hosting friends and family from overseas. And the best time to be in Albania is fast approaching – spring!

Culture shock

We’re here! In Albania!

It’s my second full day. It is starting to feel like we’re here for more than just a holiday. And its overwhelming on a number of fronts.

We’ve moved into a brand new, almost completely empty apartment that’s being generously loaned to us. It’s awesome but it feels a little like we’re camping so today we hit the markets to find some bargains to help kit the place out – primarily deck chairs so that we can sit on the balcony with a Birra Tirana and watch the world go by!

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We’re also in the suburbs – a big change from living in the centre of London. But the suburb is brand spanking new – eight years ago there was nothing here. Now there are roads, blocks of apartments, shops, restaurants, a school and a cable car up to the top of Dajti, the tallest mountain overlooking Tirana. And the development continues at great speed.

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While the hubby’s family has  helped make our transition the smoothest possible, there is no mistaking that this is a whole other world we’ve just moved to – from goats grazing on the side of pot-holed roads, to some very creative construction work.

Then there is the language barrier. I’ve never been a great one for languages but I can comfortably say my vocabulary has doubled since I arrived – not hard when I only knew half a dozen words before my arrival. I’m coping for the moment – but being someone who likes to chat, I know that learning the language is critical to my future happiness.

I’ve also become the proud owner of proper slippers… no Albanian home is without them:

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And the pace of life has slowed to a crawl. It’s awesome. There is no rush for us to do anything and the whole year is  yawning out in front of us. Bliss.