Incredible Experiences in 2016 and 2018
For anyone questioning whether or not to go on this tour, I tell you with utmost confidence to question it no further. The country and the people running this company are both fantastic. My mom and I did the cultural tour Land of the Geg & Land of the Tosk and experienced two weeks of eye-opening, jaw-dropping beauty. We loved it so much we went back again two years later for another trip.
First off, if you have extremely high expectations for luxury, this country may not be for you. While the hotels were all so unbelievably lovely that I felt grossly underwhelmed coming back to my own home with mix-matched decor and a bathroom that could surely use some updating (1970s purple bathtub, anyone?), the experience of going to Albania is not one filled with grandeur and opulence – thankfully, refreshingly so. It is a breath of fresh air.; a warm blanket on a cold day. You will regret not going.
Albania is honest, raw, sincere, naturally beautiful and has hospitality in places you’d least expect it. It is not perfect – and in some places it’s not even pretty -but the charms of this country-in-flux are ones that force you to love it. And you will love it in the purest way, not just on the surface. Albania creeps up on you. It moves its way into every pore of your body and starts imprinting itself on your mind and heart in ways you didn’t expect. It’s not like those touristy destinations where you feel removed and disengaged, shuffling from one in-your-face-beautiful attraction to the next like cattle and bothered by over-eager merchants to buy souvenirs in the interim. No, Albania just sits there and does its own thing while you become a part of it. It doesn’t tell you what to feel – you must feel for yourself. You are an observer but you are also a temporary inhabitant: how rare! (And there is indeed such unexpected beauty here that it just might move you to tears. Some of the mountain paths and small winding roads through towns lost in time are ones you are all too happy to get lost on.)
Albanian Trip is unequivocally the company with whom you should see Shqipëri. For one, the people running it are incredible. They offer a human side to the country and by no means do they partake in the “smiling guide who just wants your money” act. No, no. These people are genuine -they are everything missing from the world and from the ever-depersonalizing tourism industry.
Contact with Elton began in the winter and he was prompt and charming in his responses. Right away any trepidation I had with choosing an obscure online company was erased. I laughed out loud at some of our conversations and felt entirely sure that I should sign up. I wired my money off.
There were five of us on this particular tour. Although there may be more or less people when you might decide to go, the smaller size made for a unique and personal experience. Gjergji, another of the three owners, was our tour leader and we felt so thankful to have him. This is a growing company and not all will get to be directly with the owners but I can assure you that they carefully choose who works with them.
Gjergji is one of the sweetest, most sincere people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He noticed how everyone was feeling, was able to gauge how to act in any stressful situations and he was careful to balance all of our needs (just imagine working with a group of people with varying personal preferences! It’s no easy task but he pulled it off with great skill.) The tour is designed to allow a good mix of guidance and freedom, and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into planning it makes it too easy to forget just how much they’ve done to make it so seamless. There were no terribly early starts and almost every day we got to the next destination by the afternoon in order to have time to rest and then explore. Gjergji’s driving was flawless and he handled the more strenuous mountain roads with care and expertise (as one who sometimes gets carsick, this was great!)
The choice of activities included on the itinerary is mixed and you will surely get something out of all it. It is designed to give you a well-rounded taste of the country – geographically, historically, gastronomically and culturally. I shall not provide too many details as I don’t want to spoil the surprise but in general, here is what you can expect:
1. Fresh, carefully crafted, mouth-wateringly delicious food.
Everything we ate was above standard. Albanian specialties and meals with either Turkish, Greek or Italian influence were all cooked with precision (and some, in my opinion, were in fact better renditions than their countries of origin due to the high standard of ingredients.) It is obvious that those at Albanian Trip are “foodies” because of the places they pick and suggest to eat at. Not one of them disappointed me. Don’t expect to only get served meat – while the meat dishes my travel partners ate were raved about (whether it was goat, wild boar, fish, veal, lamb, etc.) there are so many kinds of wholesome foods to indulge in like roasted vegetables, salads, cheese, bread, olives, yogurt, savoury pies (byrek), fried spinach, zucchini or rice balls, etc. Be prepared for surprises, too. If you are a vegetarian like me, you will not once be forced to settle nor will you ever have to be a pain to someone. There is so much to eat -so much that you end up rolling home in blissful agony. (And do try the desserts. And also the wine and raki if you like a drink!)
2. Excellent hotels, all with character and some with historical significance.
They had first-class amenities: beautiful decor, hot showers, wifi, TVs with fun satellite channels to browse, comfortable beds, high standards of cleanliness, extra blankets and many had balconies with great views. A couple had wifi reception that was quite finicky but when you see where you are it is completely understandable. In the end, if you check about availability the day before, it’s nothing that can’t be planned around.
3. Natural beauty that will astound you.
The mountains- oh, the mountains! I’ve been to places with rugged landscapes before but this country could top the rest due to the diversity in these tectonic phenomena and also, where the roads are constructed! Never have mountains had personalities. It sounds crazy, but you’ll see when you get there.
4. Lovely, kind people.
Sure, not every experience going into a store to buy a bottle of water will be life-changing. But in almost all cases the servers are extremely happy you are there and go out of their way to speak English and care for you properly. The real surprise is the warm welcome you get from average people going about their day-to-day lives. Be open and communication will happen, even with a hilariously obvious language barrier. Also, if you have a chance to stop at random food markets and the like, do so. I am still teeming with the warmth I experienced from people.
5. Ever-changing identities.
Each pocket of Albania feels different from the one you were at before. This is due to several things: the climate, the flatness or elevation resulting in differing agricultural practices, the language, the proximity to neighbouring countries and absorption of some of their cultural particularities and what body of water is near (whether it’s a river, a lake or a sea greatly changes who’s there and what they are doing.) You will get cosmopolitan stuff: cafe culture, shopping, high heels and energetic youth; and you will rewind and get the idyllic: elderly folk walking hand-in-hand in traditional clothing while cows and goats are herded by a man in a gorgeous field.
6. A great tour company with diverse activities.
Albanian Trip will show you ruins, churches, mosques (don’t underestimate Albania’s religious diversity), natural wonders, historic buildings and places from all periods of Albanian history (Illyrian, Roman, Greek, Ottoman, Communist, present.) You will learn about the people, languages, food, musical styles, national heroes, national symbols and a whole bunch more you can only know about if you sign up. Gjergji was great at teaching about what was around us and often shared personal stories to make it seem more intimate.
All in all, this could very well have been the best trip of my life. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I have traveled a fair bit for someone my age but the unexpected beauty in Albania (again, the pure kind) is something that made it very hard to leave. Also, Gjergji is the type of person you wish lived closer to so you could go catch a Football match together from time to time. He is a guide, yes, but he acts more like a caring friend. He is an exemplary human being and I am a better person for knowing him.
If I have one complaint it’s that Gjergji promised to find my mom an Albanian husband but failed, tragically. If you are looking for matchmaking services, perhaps there is a better choice out there. Albanian Trip was too busy providing an awesome tourist service to find my poor mother a suitable mate. Perhaps we’ll have to go back again to find him.
If you have any more questions regarding the experience I had and what you might expect, ask Elton, Gjergji or Vilma for my email address and I will gladly chat with you! I am a Canadian if that helps – perhaps you might be further interested in a Canadian’s expectations and experience in this little Balkan enigma.