This past week I have grown one year older but have noticed more than one grey hair starting to appear over the past year - I don't like that ratio. So as I face my own mortality, I figured I'd take you all on a walk through Albania this week.
This is going to be a brisk walk. Each of these places/themes rightfully deserves its own newsletter, and some will. But if you find any theme or place particularly interesting, let me know, and I'll do my best to provide more information.
And for those who like a more "raw" look at traveling and my deepest, darkest thoughts, here's a snippet from this week's member-only newsletter:
Atop my nightstand currently sits the following: ibuprofen, melatonin, allergy meds, antibiotics, ear plugs, an eye mask, and an old cup of coffee. I'm tired. I haven't had a normal shit in a month. I've been sick for what feels like most of those four weeks.
These are the dog days of traveling.
Our home base for our month in Albania was Tirana. It's the capital city, roughly 520,000 of the 2.8 million residents in Albania call it home. In many ways, it feels like your average modern city in 2023 - young professionals walking about, plenty of bars and cafes, coffee shops, shopping districts, etc.
But it also feels very different from other modern cities in Western Europe and the United States. What you'll likely notice first is the lack of fast food and large box chain stores you typicslly find in other cities. You know that street, usually in the oldest, most historic part of the city, that is now lined with the likes of H&M, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Calzedonia? Yeah, not in Albania - there's no clown here.
Somehow Albanians have avoided, or more pessimistically, not yet convinced, big brands and chains to infiltrate their city.
The other thing you'll notice is the immense amount of construction going on in the city. It's difficult to walk a few blocks without passing at least one construction site.
So there seems to be this duality forming in Tirana; 0lder communist-era buildings and bunkers are interwoven between the modern building designs - scars of the past and signs of the future.
I couldn't leave out our friend from one of the small Albanian grills Steph and I would eat at least once or twice a week. This guy (in red) was our waiter every time at this grill. And every time, he greeted us with a huge smile, and we'd exchange pleasantries through a combination of broken English/broken Albanian/Google Translate. For the life of me, I can't remember his name, but I do remember that he has family in Detroit.
The Albanian (and Balkan) grill is truly something special. From the outside, it's nothing fancy, mostly some grilled sausages, cheese, salads, and beer. But believe me, the Balkans do sausages damn well. So just find a grill that has some folks sitting down and enjoy.
All throughout Albania, you'll find these little bakeries. Some are actual stores, while others are makeshift carts set up along the sidewalk. But inside is the most delicious breakfast. Byreke is common throughout the Balkans (often burek or banitsa) - buttery, baked phyllo dough usually filled with cheese, spinach, or some minced meat.
Admittedly some are better than others; you can really get into a crispy surface-area-to-filling ratio debate, but I don't think I met byreke I didn't like. Better yet, it's cheap - I'm talking $0.50 for a serving.
On one of our excursions outside of Tirana, we went to Shkodër (by bus, for those who read last week's account). An hour and a half north of Tirana, it's set between Lake Shkodër and the Albanian Alps. We only spent two full nights in Shkodër; our real goal was to get into the mountains.
Though Shkoder is a big city with an incredibly significant historical context, most tourists go up there as a gateway into the Albanian Alps.
Most folks go to Theth. I, too, wanted to go to Theth. But sadly, the weather gods weren't smiling on me this trip, and the road up to Theth was supposedly impassable due to a recent snowstorm. All the guesthouses we contacted corroborated this story.
So after scrambling a bit, we found a guesthouse that was open in a place called Tamarë. Trying to find information on buses that took us up to Tamarë was virtually impossible. Either they weren't operating this time of year (January) or they were, but not on Sundays. Seriously, the bus system is chaotic.
After some discussion with the guesthouse, they offered to arrange a taxi for us in both directions. In hindsight, I think it was less of a taxi and more of their friend Mateo agreeing to pick up some weird Americans. In any case, we made it to the mountains.
Tamarë was...fascinating. And not in the sense that I would recommend travelers to make the trek to Tamarë specifically. But fascinating to experience life in a small Albanian village. We were quite literally the only tourists in town. Hell, I think we were two of maybe 20 people in Tamarë? There were two small general stores, a cafe, and maybe two restaurants (including our guesthouse) open. As I recount this experience, that sounds like more than enough. But in the moment, it didn't feel like much.
If you look at any "what to see in Albania" guides, Berat is going to be on the list. And they'll probably call it the "city of a thousand windows." Because of this, I wasn't sure what to expect from Berat, but I was pleasantly surprised by the city.
The views were simply incredible, the food was superb, and it felt like a city that people lived in, which surprised me.
In contrast to Berat, Gjirokastër is a city that is very aware it's become a tourist destination. The old town is perched upon a hill with absolutely breathtaking views of the mountains to the east.
The quaint cobblestone streets will take you through the old bazaar, which is full of small shops and restaurants that all have spectacular views. The bazaar itself dates back to the 17th century but was renovated in the late 1800s after a large fire. But it feels even newer than that - the consistently branded signs and styling feels like, "hey we have tourism money now." But still beautiful nevertheless.
Some of the photos below are from outside of Gjirokastër, from an off-roading excursion we did—more on that in a future newsletter.
Phew, that was a lot of pictures. I hope you liked the "photo walk" format - I like experimenting with different mediums and want this newsletter to be a fun place for it. So if you dig it or not, let me know.
And if you're interested in more information about a specific place or theme, leave a comment.
See ya next week!
Skylar Renslow Newsletter
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