New Budget Tour To Socotra Island – Visit A Lost World And One of The Most Unique Places In The World

The Lost World. Alien Island. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

These are just some of the phrases often used to describe Socotra Island, often seen as a highly prized travel destination to visit in most adventurers eyes. Sadly for the past few years it has virtually been off the map due to the awful civil war in Yemen, although thankfully it has never been part of it and remains stable and secure.

Thankfully with the arrival of new direct flights this is all about to change making it more accessible but most importantly – safely! The flights from Abu Dhabi in the UAE will pave the way for tourism to be reborn in a place that is fourth in the world for endemic species in terms of the archipelagos flora and fauna.

My first ever group tours will be run in partnership with Lupine Travel and we’ve already announced two tours that will be running to the island, the first is in October and second during Easter 2018. Group numbers will be restricted due to the limited infrastructure on Socotra.

Itinerary

Day 1: Wednesday 4th October

Upon arrival to Socotra airport, you will be transferred to the Hadibo eco-lodge to acclimatize and have lunch. After lunch, we will head to Ayhaft Canyon National Park. In the canyon we will visit large fresh water-pools where you can swim and relax. All around can be seen a huge variety of endemic plants such as Dessert Rose,  Tamarind trees, Cucumber trees and a wide variety of birds such as Socotra Sparrow, Socotra Sunbird and both Socotri and Somali Starlings.

After swimming, we will drive to Delisha beach which is is packed with pristine white sands full of crabs. We will relax while swimming both in the sea and in a freshwater lagoon. Afterwards we will climb a huge sand dune overseeing the beach. There is also a possibility of watching a beautiful sunset from Delisha.

Dinner and overnight stay at the hotel in Hadibo.

Day 2: Thursday 5th October

After breakfast, we will drive to the island’s north-east coast to explore a snorkeling site in Dihammri. Once in Dihammri, you can swim, snorkel and dive in the Marine Protected Area of Dihammri, home to one of the richest coral reefs on the archipelago. Dihammri is blessed with more than 200 fish species and 4 of the 5 coral species that inhabit to the island. This shallow reef will allow even the most inexperienced snorkeler to enjoy its beauty. The many marine creatures to be seen whilst swimming and snorkeling include; parrotfish, Moray eel, Rays, turtles and much more. Diving and snorkeling gear can be hired from Dihammri Diving Center. In the afternoon, we drive to natural zoon of Homhil which is home to many sorts of endemic plant like Dragon’s Blood Tree, Frankincense Tree and Desert Rose. Once in Homhil, we will walk along a selection of trails, on one of which takes us to a viewpoint where there is a natural swimming pool and a view of villages below on the plain and of the Arabian Sea.

Dinner and overnight camp at Homhil campsite.

Day 3: Friday 6th October

After an early breakfast, we will drive to Terbak village where Hoq Cave is located. We will then hike up for 1.5 hours until we reach the entrance of the cave, before spending an hour inside. Hoq is the largest cave in the island. Over three km deep, the cave holds a wealth of Socotri history full of archaeological findings such as pieces of pottery, paintings and wooden tables with inscription in Aramaic language dating back to 258 AD. The cave offers an overwhelming beauty and variety of crystal decorations, like stalagmites, stalactites and calcite floors. We then drive to Ras Erisel which is located at the eastern end of the island where the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet. Afterwards we depart to the Arher area, which is a meeting point of fresh water from the mountain and salt water from the sea. Arher is also home to another magnificent sand dune. If you are feeling especially fit, you can climb the dunes for a view that is really worth the effort.

Dinner and overnight camp at Arher campsite.

Day 4: Saturday 7th October

Today we drive to the southern coast of the Island, through the unique Defarhu Valley. We will see traditional villages, natural water pools at the bottom of the canyon and the unusual Desert Rose tree growing on the canyon walls. The vegetation here is lush green and the area is full of birds. After lunch, we drive to Hayf and Zahek village to witness the massive sand dunes which have been pushed up against the mountainside by the seasonal winds of Socotra. We then make our way to the very expansive beach of Omak in the Indian Ocean. After swimming, sunbathing and relaxing in the clear water of the Indian Ocean in Omak, we depart to Digub cave, which overlooks a scattering of traditional villages below. There are many stalactites, stalagmites and pools of water in the cave that have seeped through the rock over time.

Dinner and overnight camp at Omak campsite.

Day 5: Sunday 8th October

Today, we make our way to Dixam plateau (700m above sea level) and Shebahon viewpoint. This area is home to many of the Socotri endemic plants such as Dragon’s Blood Tree. The Shebahon viewpoint gives a fabulous vista overlooking Daerhu canyon where we will see breathtaking sceneries and unusual, beautiful rock formations. We then make our way down to the Wadi in the canyon for lunch and swim in the freshwater pools. The afternoon is spent exploring the canyon.

Dinner and overnight camp at Wadi Dirhur campsite.

Day 6: Monday 9th October

Today we explore the Western part of the island. Our first stop will be Qalansiya; a small traditional fishing town. From there we will hop on a boat and head to the remote beach of Shuaab. We are very likely to see Spinner Dolphins and other sea life during the boat ride. Once in Shuaab, we can swim, relax and enjoy the pristine beach as well as have a look at nearby mangroves. After exploring the mangroves in the areas we head back to Qalansiya in time to explore the Detwah lagoon which is a marine protected area renowned for its magical landscape. This area has some of the best views on the island. We end our day by making the long drive back to Hadibo.

Dinner and overnight camp at Detwah Lagoon Protected area. ‎

Day 7: Tuesday 10th October

A free day relaxing around the Detwah Lagoon area.

Day 8: Wednesday 11th October

After an early breakfast we transfer back to the airport ready for our flight back to Abu Dhabi.

Trip Information

The cost of the tour is £795 per person.

The price includes:

  • Visa support documents
  • All ground transport in 4x4s
  • Accommodation and camping equipment
  • Tours, entry fees, permits and English speaking guides
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner each day
  • Bottled water and soft drinks
  • Lupine tour leader

The price does not include:

  • Visa fee
  • International Flights
  • Tips

* Please note the flights are scheduled to depart from Abu Dhabi to Socotra every Wednesday starting from October 2017. Prices are not yet confirmed. Please don’t book your flights to Abu Dhabi until the Socotra flights go on sale (estimated July 2017).

BOOK NOW

Further Information?

If you’d like to have a chat about the tour or if you have any questions, concerns or suggestions please feel free to ask me by emailing me here.

You can also visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images used have been sourced from Google and quoted to highlight ownership.

Baku – An Exciting, Exotic and Mysterious Caucasus Capital

Azerbaijan – A relatively unknown country outside of the adventure travel market, but for how much longer? With the country already hosting huge events such as Eurovision, Formula 1 and recently the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games is it only a matter of time before people realise how wonderful this Caucasus country is?

My trip to Azerbaijan preceded Armenia and Georgia so it was an easy decision to tag it on to my journey, however why would you visit Baku for a city break? Well, a lot of people looked rather confused why I would even visit the country, presumably as they didn’t know where it was or the delights that await. Thankfully being an adventurer and wanting to seek out new opportunities, see exciting sights and discover local culture meant that I was in for a treat.

Where is Azerbaijan?

Often referred to as the “Land of Fire”, if you haven’t heard of it before the easiest way to describe its location is being situated in the South Caucasus region, similar to Turkey, Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Europe and Asia and sits on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Surrounded by Georgia, Russia, Iran and Armenia, this oil-rich nation is gearing itself up to become an established player in the International tourism market.

Baku – City of Lights

When people ask you where you are going on your next mini break, I highly doubt they expect you to say you’ll be heading to Baku. However, this is a crying shame and the city definitely deserves far more recognition. Something that made the city stand out compared to all the others I’ve been to was how clean, well maintained and functioning it was, they’ve even managed to maintain the old medieval part of the city, even with all of the huge new developments popping up around the city it hasn’t taken away the historic charm.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived, but it certainly wasn’t the glamorous, modern yet traditional capital city that I discovered.

Some of the highlights from my trip to Baku

What to see?

If you only have a couple of days you’ll have plenty to fill your days with, my best advice is to simply wander aimlessly, you’ll be amazed at some of the new developments and getting lost down the narrow back streets of the Old Town.

Here’s a list of things that I wanted to see during my time;

  • Bayraq Meydani (3rd tallest flag pole in the world)
  • Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
  • Palace of The Shirvanshahs
  • Maiden’s Tower
  • Old Town (İçərişəhər)
  • Baku Eye
  • Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

Also don’t forget to take the metro somewhere, it’s a throwback to Soviet times! It gets incredibly crowded but is very efficient, I’d read reports that people have been arrested before for taking photographs but I found the station staff to be very friendly and excited to be given the chance to speak English when asked questions.

Baku Metro – a fascinating insight into the city’s Soviet past

During my time visiting Baku in May 2017, I was lucky enough to attend a wrestling match at the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games that were being held in the city. It was fantastic to watch and I even got see the Vice-President of Azerbaijan, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, just a typical day mixing with the rich and famous don’t you know!

Vice-President of Azerbaijan First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva presenting an award to one of the Azeri wrestlers at the 4th Islamic Games.

Optional excursions

Although you’ll be kept busy in the city, don’t forget to do a day trip to visit some of Azerbaijan’s most famous tourist sites including the famous Mud Volcanoes, flaming rocks of Yanar Dag and the burning fire temple of Ateshgah. I don’t think I really believed that Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, I seriously thought it was some sort of myth, but when I got there and I’m standing there staring at the bubbling mud on top of a volcano it was a surreal, Mars-like experience.

These incredible sites can all be visited on a day trip, a local company called TES tour offer a trip for 50AZN per person.

Don’t forget the name Azerbaijan, you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the coming years, believe me!

Let’s be honest, did you know Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, flaming rocks and ancient rock art?

How to get here?

My route to Azerbaijan took me via Turkey, this isn’t the easiest route due to connection times but it is the most cost-effective. If I’d had more time to plan my trip I could have flown Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Air Baltic via Riga or WizzAir via Budapest.

Previously applying for a visa for Azerbaijan was rather complicated and simply put people off due to the expense and red-tape involved. You can now thankfully apply online for an e-visa and pay $20 plus $3 processing fee and you’ll receive your confirmation email within a couple of days. Make sure you print this off and keep it throughout your trip as you’ll also need it to leave the country. My only negative comment about the process is that they ask your HIV status, I know several other countries do this but I find this incredibly intrusive and a bit unnecessary in this day and age!

The national airline, Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) fly direct to many major capital cities including London, Paris, Rome, Dubai to name only a few. They’ve heavily invested in their fleet, when I flew from Baku to Istanbul with them there was plenty of leg room but sadly the entertainment system left a lot to be desired.

Heydar Aliyev International Airport and the national flag carrier Azerbaijan Airlines

Where to stay?

Baku is not short of luxury accommodation, one of the most unique places is the Fairmont Hotel located in one of the famous Flame Towers. I was lucky enough to stay here as a treat to myself, usually I opt for a homestay or budget hotel but I’d already seen the view from other people’s photos and I knew that I had to experience it for myself.

After being lucky enough to get upgraded to an incredible Caspian Sea view I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty of Baku, forget Dubai, this place is absolutely awe-inspiring!

Fancy visiting yourself? I highly recommend staying here, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Fairmont Hotel, Baku. Click here using this link!

Fairmont Hotel, Flame Towers

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

A Day Trip From Vilnius to Kryžių Kalnas (Hill of Crosses)

One of Lithuania’s most famous and fascinating places to discover is in fact a site of pilgrimage. When I visited, as I approached the hill in a very eerie twist of events a burst of icy snow blasted my face before I was able to be awe-inspired and impressed by the sheer scale of crosses and monuments of Kryžių Kalnas.

I’m not a religious person in any way, but I can appreciate how this place is somewhere that people can receive comfort and even a sense of pride. This site has existed in various forms from approximately 1831 and was formed after the failed rebellion of the Russian Empire, as many people died relatives were unable to locate their bodies and instead started to put up crosses here in commemoration.

It has been destroyed several times during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, this was because they didn’t like that people were trying to showcase their heritage, religion and original Lithuanian identity.

Well that’s enough of a history lesson, how did I actually get there?

Here’s my exact itinerary from April 2017*

09:50 – Train from Vilnius

I must admit I was very impressed by the Lithuanian train system, it was fairly modern, clean and pretty efficient. After leaving a very snowy Vilnius I was pleased to see that this train appeared to be almost brand new and had free wi-fi!

Although scheduled to arrive at 12:01 we sadly crept in around 15 minutes late meaning I missed the earlier bus to Domantai, it was fine though because even on Easter Sunday the Rimi supermarket at the bus station was open for snacks.

13:10 – Bus from Siauliai Bus Station to Domantai

The bus station is an easy 10 minute walk from the train station, you don’t need to buy tickets beforehand but you can pick up a timetable from the one of the ladies in the ticket booths. When you arrive you’ll need to wait at platform 12, the bus driver we had was friendly and understood where we wanted to go. For the cheap price of €0.84 you can get to Domantai – the nearest bus stop to the Hill of Crosses.

Once you get off the bus you’ll need to start walking along a road called the 4033 for 2km and very soon see the magnificent and legendary Hill of Crosses in the distance.

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

15:02 – Bus from Domantai 

Although it might not sound very long to spend here you can catch the bus 2 hours later, there’s a bus stop on the opposite side to where you disembarked that’s clearly visible, once you get back to Siauliai you’ll have some free time to go and explore Lithuania’s fourth largest city. There’s a few cool sites to see including some funky street art…

Siualiai

17:25 – Train from Siauliai to Vilnius 

Sadly for me I didn’t realise I wouldn’t have the same brand spanking new train coming back, unfortunately it was a rickety old pile which was cramped and jam-packed with people heading home after the Easter holidays. There was another train soon after ours that left at 17:57 but I’m not sure if this uses the newer train, my advice would be to try that instead and stay a bit longer.

Oh…how the mighty have fallen :o(

How to Visit?

If you are travelling by train you can easily buy your train tickets on the day from Vilnius station, however during peak and holiday seasons these trains will get extremely busy. I was travelling to Trakai the day before and thankfully I booked all of my tickets together, most people speak some English in Lithuania but it’s always fun to make a fool of yourself by trying to local lingo.

The Lithuanian Railway website sadly doesn’t accept credit cards yet; however they do take some cards from several Baltic states and Scandinavian countries. A return second class ticket to Siauliai should cost just over €21, which given that it’s almost 200km I think it’s a bargain!

Driving here will likely take around three hours from the capital, there’s a brand new visitor centre and car park located opposite the site, although most people prefer to just park on the side of the road and avoid being charged. There’s no entry fee on to the site of the Hill of Crosses and you can freely roam around.

*Check local listings for updated train/bus times

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

The Road to Theth

When people described the road to Theth as extreme, difficult and off-the-beaten track, they weren’t kidding!

My destination is a beautiful and remote village nestled within Albania’s Accursed Mountains, almost completely cut off and only visited by the hardiest of travellers during the winter, whereas in summer between 5,000-10,000 tourists from all over the world descend upon this unique and unspoiled corner of Albania.

Whilst planning my trip the name Theth kept popping up as a must-see place, after doing a bit of research I realised how naturally stunning this place looked and it was decided – I MUST SEE IT!

Accursed Mountains, Albania

My adventure took place in late March 2017, very early in spring; officially the tourist season had yet to begin. After staying overnight in Shkodër I set off bright and early for the 75km drive, to my surprise the road initially was really good – it even had tarmac! After passing several quaint, traditional Albanian villages we arrived in the town of Bogë a.k.a the last civilisation before “the road to hell”, I mean Theth!

Little did I know that our rose-tinted glasses were about to be dramatically shattered, after being lured into false-pretences by good roads (in Albanian standards), as soon as you reach the highest point called Rrasat e Thores the tarmac suddenly stops and you are faced with what can only be described as a “road”. It’s simply covered with rocks, filled with pot holes and has a 2,500m sheer drop down the side of the mountain that still to this day makes me tremble with fear every time I look at my photos.

Road to Theth – No, not a chance, never again (via road) anyway!

I can only insist that if you have a fear of heights, dislike  sheer drops or roads that have a mind of their own then this probably won’t be the best drive for you. Adrenalin and adventure junkies – perfect!

The night before we drove along the Rruga per Theth (Road to Theth) there was heavy rain, although this added to our problems it didn’t prevent us from reaching the highest point of the mountain so we decided to push on not knowing what was around the corner. Along the side of the road there were huge piles of snow and ice that the digger had pushed aside the day earlier. Thankfully for us there’s various panoramic photo opportunities along the route but beware that once you start going downhill these passing places become few and far between due to the narrow road. At Rrasat e Thores I got out of the car and was stood in snow that almost reached my waist, but was taken back by the incredible panoramic view in front of me!

The view from the top…simply breathtaking!

Stupidly I hadn’t hired a car that was a 4×4, initially I thought it was but sadly in hindsight I wasn’t prepared for how bad the road would be. As I began to descend the mountain the road got more and more snowy and icy, this made driving incredibly treacherous and pretty much impossible. After reaching a point where a car was stopped in the road ahead, as it’s so narrow it makes passing impossible. We got out to investigate and had the horrific realisation that the road was closed as we saw a digger was hard at work a short distance ahead clearing the snow (and some of the road).

Sadly the digger hadn’t finished clearing the road of snow which meant we could drive no further.

I’ve never really found myself in a situation like this before, I had several thoughts;

  1. Try to turn around and go back to the top of the mountain and potentially even back to Shkodër
  2. Push the car as far to one side of the road as possible so that cars can pass and walk the 10 miles down the mountain to Theth
  3. Sleep in the car overnight and risk hyperthermia and then still be stuck the next day

One of the key things I decided to do on this trip, that I wouldn’t normally, probably turned out to be the biggest saviour – I had bought a local sim card earlier in the day from a Vodafone shop and amazingly had signal and an internet connection (even better than at home!) which meant I could call my home stay and advise them that we were stuck.

…and we’re stuck!

As I can’t drive, my boyfriend had the unfortunate task of attempting to turn the car around with unfortunately not much luck as it had churned up the snow and ice leaving huge puddles. Thankfully the men who were operating the digger were kind enough to help. A young guy, probably no older than 22, simply got in the car and somehow managed to turn it around and get it into the side. Simple!

This also meant that option 1 would literally have been impossible and option 3 would have just been dangerous and stupid, therefore we had no choice but to grab our things and venture down the mountain. I was aware that it was almost 3pm, the sun sets at approximately 6.30pm meaning it would be pretty dark by 7pm and believe me I do not wish to be out in the wild where potentially bears, wolves or other animals could have had you as their dinner.

After abandoning the hire car we had the painstaking task of trudging through waist-high snow that the digger had yet to clear. Wet feet, tiredness and hunger started to take its toll, thankfully for us you can see Theth in the valley below which often made it look closer than it actually was.

Teasing me the whole way down, I could see Theth Village nestled in the valley below.

Nevertheless around 7pm we arrived into the village at dusk, crossing the main bridge we heard a few voices say, “are you okay, can we help you?!”, I think some locals most have thought we were mad and wondered where on earth these crazy people had just come from simply walking into the village. Thankfully Google Maps guided me the whole way to our home stay for the two nights that we’d booked.

I was greeted by Pavel and Vlora, owners of Bujtina Polia Guesthouse who welcomed us and made sure we instantly sat down next to the traditional wood-burning oven to warm ourselves up and thaw out. After walking for just over 10 miles downhill there was only one thing on my mind – FOOD! I was so hungry, thankfully Vlora had everything ready and provided us with a lovely feast that was perfect for the weary traveller. I was so tired and ended up going to bed about 8.30pm, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so early but believe me it was necessary – if not just to rest my feet. Sadly I didn’t get that much sleep due to having flashbacks and nightmares about falling off mountains and down sheer drops. Bloody overactive imagination!

Thankfully for me as the sun began to rise it shone through the window waking me up to one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever encountered anywhere I’ve ever stayed. This put me in such a good mood and made me eager to go out and explore the valley, even though my feet, calf muscles and blisters didn’t seem keen.

One of the best views I’ve ever woke up to…

One of the must-see places in Theth is the Blue Eye waterfall (Syri Kalter), a natural pool that’s 3-5m deep. A rare natural beauty, located in a canyon that takes over 3 hours to walk from Theth village, if this place was located in Italy, Spain or Greece it would most likely be overrun by tourists, thankfully for me though we were the only people there.

Chilling in Theth, the water is so clean and pure here that you can drink straight from the river!

The weather was absolutely incredible that day, we had clear skies and beautiful sunshine, enough to make this pasty Brit get sunburnt! On the way to the Blue Eye you’ll encounter a number of bridges that vary in levels of state including one which wasn’t attached and one that you could see straight through the tiny planks of wood. Not a great experience for someone with vertigo!

The Bridges of Theth can only be described as having a scary level of 10!!!

One thing to point out throughout my whole time visiting Theth and the Blue Eye was how friendly the local people are, I couldn’t speak more highly about them. A lovely elderly lady who delivered the milk and cheese to Bujtina Polia didn’t expect to see tourists sat in their living room that day but was so excited because for the villagers it means an income; one that during the winter is virtually impossible due to the road being cut off. Before she said her goodbyes there was only one thing she wanted at 8am – Raki – an Albanian spirit that I like to describe as fire water! That’s one way to start the morning and brush away the cobwebs.

The very beautiful Bujtina Polia in Theth

Sadly it was time to say our goodbyes to the Polia family and to Theth, after a rather horrific initial experience it turned out to be one of my most amazing adventures, that sadly for me wasn’t over until we got the car back to the top of the mountain. Thankfully Pavel (an experienced mountain guide) drove us back to our vehicle and was kind enough to help us.

The road had become icy overnight which made things rather difficult when your car doesn’t have 4-wheel drive, thankfully his knowledge and experience meant we strapped ropes to the tires that gave them traction but not enough to make it without help. Ironically another car randomly appeared up ahead, they weren’t even asked if they would help but instantly got stuck in and helped us to push the car up the mountain and out of their way so they could pass. This would never happen in England!

Eventually after several false starts we made it back to where we started – Rrasat e Thores a.k.a the top! Tarmac road awaited, but not before my boyfriend got out of the car and breathed a huge sigh of relief that;

  1. We’d made it alive and…
  2. The car still worked! HURRAY

This is one truly off-the-beaten track destination, it’s one of the most remote places to try to access but is hugely worthwhile. Unlike any other part of Albania, Theth is unique, raw and truly awe-inspiring.

You can’t tell me you don’t want to see views like this for yourself? Quick, get to Theth now!

Visit Theth for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Bujtina Polia. Click here using this link!

You’ll be blown away by how incredible the Albanian Alps are, you can also check out the rest of Albania here.

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Albania – The Forgotten Europe?

Over the last five years tourism in Albania has increased exponentially; a trend that is set to continue for the near-future. Whether you’re exploring the magnificent beaches in the South or trekking in the Northern wilderness, there’s one statement that certainly describes Albania – there’s something for everyone!

Under the paranoid rule of dictator Enver Hoxha from 1945 to 1985 it was a country that hardly anyone entered and even fewer were allowed to leave. Probably due to its many years of isolation, even the well-travelled among us can struggle to point out Albania on a map. If you aren’t sure where it is, I can easily describe it as located east of Italy, north of Greece and south of Croatia i.e. easily accessible from many parts of Europe. So what can Albania offer a 21st Century traveller?

Get up close and personal with Albania’s past at Porto Palermo former submarine bunker, now abandoned.

I started my journey in London, travelling from Gatwick Airport there’s a rather random direct British Airways flight to Tirana. At just over two and a half hours it doesn’t take very long, if you can cope with the screaming children on board! To make things easier on arrival, I pre-arranged a taxi; mostly to avoid being scammed, at €20 I thought it was a bargain, until I later found a return option that would have cost just €15. Oh well, next time.

With only one airport in the whole country, Albania is quite a difficult one to plan a journey to – especially when you want to see parts of both the north and the south. The way I planned this trip meant that I arrived in Tirana, staying just one night and then meandering up to Shkoder. Thankfully hiring a car made things easier and it meant I could visit sites along the way, this included a quick stop off at second largest city Durres.

Mostly famous as a major port, Durres really wasn’t the highlight of my trip, I found it to be quite crowded and slightly unfriendly. I did make a quick venture to the incredible Amphitheatre and the train station. It didn’t look like any trains had departed here in a long time, but thankfully I was able to freely walk along the platforms, take photos and walk out without needing a ticket. The place seemed abandoned until a ticket inspector appeared who thought I wanted to get on a train…time to make a swift exit!

Durres Amphitheatre

Drive a little further north beyond Lethe and you’ll find Shengjin, which to me sounds more like a megalopolis Chinese city. Sadly instead you arrive in a rather dreary, closed and slightly unfriendly town (even in spring). I thankfully visited here only briefly so that I could see Rana e Hedhun a.k.a the largest sand dunes in the country. A rather random site that’s situated next to a very swanky new 4* hotel, it seemed clear to me that they are expecting tourism to take off here.

Be aware that if you decide to venture here there’s lots of work taking place building hotels, apartments and the situation isn’t helped by the crazy un-tarmacked road with pot holes the size of cows, you’ll ideally need a 4×4 if you are driving and a good smart phone app to tell you where you’re going. I visited off-season but I can only imagine how busy this place gets in the summer, it has huge potential but a lot of TLC is needed to make it a tourist hotspot.

Sadly the weather didn’t play ball when I visited Rana e Hedhun as it was rather overcast.

Just before it got dark we arrived in our overnight stopover in Skhoder. An important strategic location, close to the ports and the border with Montenegro, this is your typical entry point if arriving from Northern Europe. Clearly I brought some of our typical British weather the day that I arrived as it absolutely bucketed down, thankfully our hotel were kind enough to lend me an umbrella and I headed out for dinner. Make sure you try Tradita, a restaurant housed in an old traditional house dating back to 1694.

Mes Bridge

When planning my trip to Albania there was one place that repeatedly kept popping up. That place was Theth.

As my adventure took place in early spring the tourist season hadn’t officially begun, sadly for me the weather wasn’t that kind to me as the night before we were due to drive to Theth lots of snow had fallen onto the road which meant it was blocked, even with a huge 4×4 truck you wouldn’t have been able to get past. Some how I managed to get past a certain point and subsequently abandoned the hire car then proceeded to walked the rest of the way to Theth. It seemed the most sensible option, although I did have to trudge through waist-height snow! Thankfully I just made it dark and was greeted to a traditional wood-burning over to warm my feet.

This is one truly off-the-beaten track destination, it’s one of the most remote places to try and access but is hugely worthwhile. The Road to Theth – unique, awe-inspiring but terrifying!

…aaaaaannnd we’re stuck! On the road to Theth I abandoned the car and walked for 10 miles!

This was my incredible view walking up in Theth village

Albania’s Rivera, as it’s often described, is often overlooked by tourists opting for the more traditional resorts in other countries like Greece or Croatia. Something they have yet realised is just how cheap it is here, people can have the same holiday for almost half the price!

Bunkers on Dhermi Beach

One regular site you’ll see throughout Albania is concrete bunkers, all 750,000 of them! Most are now abandoned with the majority derelict due to being a symbol of the former communist government of Enver Hoxha. I was lucky enough to find several bunkers that are still nestled in the hills above Dhermi beach, sadly you can’t get into them due to rubbish and being overgrown but they are good for a few pix featuring a beautiful beach in front.

Vlore Beach

Some of the most famous towns along the coast are Vlore and Sarande, sadly as I discovered not all beaches are pristine white sandy ones, a bit of TLC is needed during the spring but there is huge potential to extend the tourist season here. I wanted to spend a bit of time by the beach and opted to stay in Vlore, this ended up not being the best decision as there isn’t much to do there and my hotel ended up being a nightmare. Had I planned things better I would have opted to skip the beach altogether and head for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster is a historic place located in the southern part of the country and unfortunately has the association of being the birthplace of dictator Enver Hoxha. The main site to see here is the Fortress, also referred to as the Castle, I’m really surprised this place isn’t more famous because it’s incredibly beautiful and well worth visiting. The surprise addition for me was seeing a United States Air Force plane that is now housed here as a commemoration to the Communist regime’s struggle against Western powers. After paying only 200 Lek (approximately £1,30) it’s super cheap to check out.

Gjirokaster Fortress

Me at Gjirokaster Fortress

Gjirokaster Valley

Gjirokaster Fortress

Tirana is a huge contrast to what I was expecting, in all of the photographs that I saw whilst researching things seemed a bit old, dated and with little to see – this couldn’t have been further from the truth. With exciting parts of the city to check out including the city centre and Blloku, I was relieved to see that progress was being made updating Communist-style blocks, creating new squares and making the city more green urban environment.

Traffic in Tirana is a distinct thorn in its side, there’s far too many people and not enough infrastructure. Unfortunately the main train station was demolished in 2013 and a replacement has yet to see the light of day. I didn’t get chance to try any of the public buses but they looked pretty frequent and far-reaching.

Pyramid of Tirana

100 Years Independence Monument, Tirana

I took some time out to see BunkArt2, situated in the heart of the city this place is a former anti-nuclear bunker used by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Built between 1981 – 1986 it is considered one of the last “great works” created by the communist regime, in fact both the Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu and Dictator Enver Hoxha who demanded the build, never ever saw it completed as they died before it was even constructed.

I think most hardcore travellers will know of or will have seen an image of the “Pyramid of Tirana”. Created by the son and daughter of Dictator Enver Hoxha, this building was initially constructed as a museum to the leader although as I discovered when communism fell in 1991 the public’s opinion swiftly changed and the museum closed. It has housed many projects and now part of the building is home to a radio station but clearly it’s an eye-sore, it looked to me like someone had tried to set it on fire. The funniest thing is at night it isn’t lit up, come on Tirana government, sort it out!

During the Communist period, almost everywhere was bugged – no where was safe!

Cabinet Office

If you arrived with a beard, it wouldn’t last for long…!

I’m glad I wasn’t arriving as a tourist during the reign of Enver Hoxha!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Albania, most people thought I was crazy as all they ever hear about Albanians is that they steal, murder or abduct you as depicted in various Hollywood movies. Thankfully this is not the experience I had, the people are warm, friendly and will welcome you to their country, even inviting you to have a coffee or raki with them. There isn’t many places that this will happen in the world, for me it made Albania stand out as one of my favourite countries that I’ve been to in Europe.

Since returning from my trip to Albania one of the main questions that pops up is what is the best time to visit? Well, I visited in very early spring, before the main tourist season opens but I was lucky with the weather because thankfully it was beautifully sunny and averaged about 24 degrees – enough to make this pasty Brit burn!

Believe me, in 10 years time this country will very much be established, opened up and any pre conceptions will have disappeared completely.

Not your typical traffic jam in Albania…

Travelling around Albania

How easy is it? Definitely far easier than I thought! Albania is a relatively pint-sized country, but the roads and transport infrastructure make things particularly difficult meaning some places take longer to get to than normal.

Trains are certainly decrepit, old and their windows are pretty much non-existent but they do surprisingly still run. Sadly I didn’t get chance to take one but I did venture to the station at Durres.

When I visited I travelled with my boyfriend and hired a car, this was easy to do whilst still in the UK, make sure that if you plan to go anywhere off the main roads that you hire a 4×4 or you may find it quite restricting. Some roads that you think are major roads turn out to be dirt tracks and main highways can have huge sections where the tarmac simply stops and you end up battling with pot holes that could seriously damage your car.

When in Albania be seriously prepared for anything – people do not have lane discipline, they will try to test your patience whilst driving but amazingly I didn’t see any road accidents. #organisedchaos

Further Information?

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