Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Balkan Road Trip: Albania

We're finally doing it!! The road trip we've been talking about for two years is FINALLY happening.  It looks a little different and is only about half the length, but it's finally happening. Back story: When we moved to Turkey, we wanted to maximize our summer and spend a good chunk of it traveling.  Mike came up with this six week road trip through the Balkans to explore the former Ottoman Empire and we were stoked. Then, the evacuation happened and we spent the majority of the summer apart or moving, so our road trip didn't happen.

We spent the fall checking countries off our list, including some from our road trip itinerary (Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary to name a few). It wasn't quite the same as doing a road trip, but we enjoyed them all for different reasons.  We still had a few countries to explore and we were still interested in doing a road trip of some kind, so as we planned out our summer, Mike came up with a new, shorter road trip to check off most of the remaining countries.  We weren't sure how traveling with a baby would be, but we had a fellow Olmsted scholar do our original six week itinerary with a baby about Finn's age, as well as two other kids, so we knew it was possible.

Therefore, as soon as Finn was born, we booked our flights to Podgorica, reserved our rental car and began to plan our Balkan road trip.  Our first country was Albania, specifically Shkoder and the capital of Tirana.  The day started off with a bang as Finn had the worst diaper blowout to date right as we were about to get in line for security.  He didn't seem to mind and, in fact, had been extra smiley, but we changed him quickly and got back in line.  I was worried that was going to set the tone for the flight, but he did great.  I doubt anyone even knew he was there.  Once we arrived in Podgorica, we caught the shuttle to the car rental and eventually made our way to Shkoder, Albania.

The next day, our primary goal was to explore the Rozafa Castle and Skadarsko Jezero, which is a lake near Shkoder.  It was hot that day and we were glad we brought the Ergo, because the stroller would not have survived the hike up to the castle.  It was totally worth it, even just for the view.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant on one of the tributaries off of the lake and had wonderful views.  We are always unsure how Finn will be welcomed to new countries, but we were so happy to realize that Albanians (and really anyone from the Balkans) LOVE children and babies.  Even the men would come up to us and smile and check Finn out.  It makes us so much more comfortable to know that we are cramping people's style.  Anyways, this was our view for lunch and we definitely didn't complain!

Finn slept through our lunch but woke up towards the end and let us know he was ready for his. 

We walked around the lake after lunch before heading back to the hotel.  The lake was beautiful and we saw all sorts of wild life, including a herd(?) of goats! 

The next day, we packed up the car (we're those people that had a baby and now have enough stuff to pack the car full) and headed to the capital of Albania, Tirana.  We arrived there around noon after a two and a half hour drive and once again, unloaded the car and checked in to our hotel (the Sheraton! I highly recommend it!). When we checked into the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there was an outdoor pool!! What an exciting surprise!  Despite our desire to just spend the next three days at the pool, we knew we should venture out of the hotel and explore Albania's capital. 

This pyramid was built in 1988 as a memorial and museum to the communist leader Enver Hoxha, who had died three years earlier.   After  the fall of communism, the pyramid was used for a myriad of different things, such as a conference center and NATO base.  now, it's basically empty.

We went inside the National History Museum, which we both thought was kind of interesting.  I didn't know anything about Albanian history, but reading about it's role in WWII was especially captivating.

Our last day in Tirana we ventured out of the city and south to the town of Berat.  I wasn't feeling great, but figured I might just need to get up and moving. Berat is a two and a half hour drive and we originally had planned to stay the night there, but decided to make it a day trip so we didn't have to pack all of our stuff up just for a night.  We both agreed that was the right decision because, while Berat is pretty, there isn't a ton to do there and we probably would have been bored if we had a whole day there. 

We walked around for a little while before settling on lunch at The White House (fitting right?).  By this point, I was feeling pretty miserable and didn't even have an appetite, but the view and the chance to sit down was appealing. 

Old men playing chess in a park.  So picturesque.

Our view for lunch

It began to rain after lunch, I was fading fast and we didn't have much else to see, so we decided to call it quits and head back to the hotel.  While it wasn't quite the day we had planned, I don't think that Berat can be scratched off a to-see list.  it's white houses and mountain scenery were beautiful and it was a good glimpse into life outside the city.  It would probably be best as somewhere to stop for lunch on the way to another place, though, as there isn't a ton to see or do. 

After a long nap in the car, I was feeling pretty much back to normal by the time we arrived back in Tirana.  Since it was earlier than we expected, we had more time to do some sight seeing in Tirana.  Another guest at the hotel had recommended the Bunk Art exhibit in town.  There are thousands of bunkers throughout Albania and two of them have been renovated into a museum to tell the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Sigurimi (like the Stassi).  If there's one thing we learned, it was that you did not want to mess with Enver Hoxha and his regime. 

As we were heading back to the hotel, we were crossing Mother Theresa Square and found a huge political rally going on.  We couldn't understand what they were saying, but we gathered it was the liberal, young people's party.  Considering Tirana wasn't a huge city, we were shocked at how many people were there!

As far as traveling with a baby goes, Finn did great on this leg of the trip!! I was nervous about his first flight, but he nursed through the take off and slept through the landing.  He still hasn't fallen in love with riding in the car seat, but we get glimpses of progress occasionally that make me hopeful that one day we'll do a whole drive where he doesn't cry.  Inshallah. He's had a few nights where he's struggled to fall asleep, but he's also had a few nights where he slept better than average.  Luckily, he enjoys riding in his stroller and is pretty easy going unless he's tired. We've learned that getting back to the hotel after dinner is best, which works out well because it gives Mike a few hours to work on his thesis before bed and me time to blog.  The hardest part about traveling with a baby in Europe is the cobble stone streets and many staircases that lead into everything.  We have carried the stroller up countless stairs and are a little worried it may need new tires after a summer traveling around Europe, but we are always grateful to have it because Finn loves hanging out in it so much.  Overall, traveling with him really isn't that much more difficult than normal travel, it just takes a little more planning.

I didn't know what to expect from Albania, but it is a beautiful country.  It still has a ways to go in terms of development, but we were impressed by the cities, their amenities and people's ability to speak English.  We were able to see so many similarities between Albanian and Turkish culture, which is always a fun discovery.  I would say we were both pleasantly surprised with Albania and enjoyed the first leg of our trip! 

Macedonia is next on the itinerary! 

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