Unveiling the Hidden Charms of Southern  Albania

As my travels increase, so does my craving for adventurous and off-the-beaten-path destinations. Since my daughter’s college days, we’ve made it a tradition to take a yearly trip together. It all began when I visited her during her semester abroad in Barcelona, and since then, we’ve shared unforgettable experiences.

For the next four years, we revisited Barcelona, relishing our first trip’s memories while discovering new thrills. Then, we decided to break away from the familiar and explore Peru, hiking the Inca Trail side by side. Italy was next, where we enjoyed trekking between the picturesque villages of Cinque Terre. Finally, our wanderlust led us to India, where we enjoyed the vibrant bazaars of Delhi and embarked on a Golden Triangle tour.

Albania intrigued me, and soon enough, Morgan became curious too. It was a destination unfamiliar to anyone I knew, leaving me without any tour company recommendations. Interestingly, whenever I brought up the idea of visiting Albania with some of my friends and family, it was often met with negative reactions. Regardless, I was determined to go despite the pessimism.

I searched the internet, trying out various keywords like “Albania,” “travel to Albania,” and “hiking in Albania” —hoping to stumble upon some useful information. Eventually, I got lucky when I came upon a company called KimKim. Acting as a third-party trip planner, KimKim was just what I needed.

I shared my desired destination, interests, and budget with a KimKim representative, and they took care of the rest. They contacted local guides in Albania and crafted a fantastic trip itinerary they ran past me. With a few minor tweaks here and there, it was good to go. The responsiveness and efficiency of KimKim were impressive, making the planning process a breeze.

Before long, I was connected with the company I’d be traveling with—Drive Albania. The owner of Drive Albania, Ed Reeves, was equally attentive and readily addressed any questions I had. The itinerary for Albania seemed promising and aligned perfectly with my interests, setting high expectations for what would be an unforgettable experience.

From Tirana to Berat’s Timeless Charm

Our adventure began in the capital city of Tirana, where we met our guides, Henry and Elton. 

It’s worth noting that while this blog primarily explores Southern Albania, I should mention that I arrived in Tirana two days before the official start of our trip. Whenever I embark on a journey, I make it a point to extend my stay by a few days at the outset or the conclusion of my main adventure.

Tirana, Albania

Arriving a few days early allows me to explore and experience a city more personally (or, in this case, with my daughter). This extra time allows for some enjoyable solo adventures and also serves as a safety net should there be a flight cancellation or lost baggage.

Berat to Përmet – From Walled Cities to Canyon Wonders

Morgan and I exited our hotel and saw the Drive Albania van— the driver and passenger waving to us. After a quick introduction, we climbed into the van, Elton behind the wheel and Henry riding shotgun. Though this van looked kind of like an old VW van, it was NOT. This van was badass! It was manufactured in Russia and had exceptional off-road capabilities, making it perfect when maneuvering challenging terrains like rough roads, mountainous regions, and unpaved tracks, which, according to Henry, we’d be experiencing quite often.

Leaving the urban hustle behind, we set off on an adventurous route toward Berat, ascending a high mountain pass. It was our first experience seeing how the van handled the rugged terrain. We paused midway to enjoy lunch atop the mountain while also enjoying the breathtaking views.

As the day turned to night, we reached the historical town of Berat (a UNESCO world heritage site)—our home for the night. Our lodging was the Hotel Klea, which sat smack in the middle of the Castle of Berat’s grounds. I mean, talk about epic accommodations! The place had this old-school charm with weathered stone walls that seemed to have a million stories to tell.

In the morning, we wandered along the winding and narrow cobblestone path around this walled city as Henry shared stories of the city’s history. As we strolled, we discovered some incredible lookout points giving us views of the entire city and the snaking Osum River in the valley.

After having breakfast and saying goodbye to the beautiful city of Berat, we continued our journey southwards. With the 4-wheel drive engaged, we followed the rugged and meandering path, which closely followed the Osum River and eventually led us toward Përmet.

But, before leaving the town of Beret, Henry surprised us by stopping at the charming Cobo Winery, nestled amidst rolling hills and vineyards. It was the perfect place to take a short break, indulge in some wine tasting, and grab a few bottles to go before stumbling to the van and continuing the drive to Përmet. Is there ever NOT a good time for a bit of wine tasting?

After our little detour and Elton in the driver’s seat, we cruised along the paved roads, offering stunning views of the Albanian countryside. As we approached the remote area, Henry switched seats with Elton (though both Elton and Henry were excellent drivers, Henry was often behind the wheel on the more rugged terrain). And, as the well-maintained roads disappeared, he skillfully shifted the van into the 4-wheel drive mode, helping him navigate the challenging, unmaintained, deteriorating dirt paths. As we tackled the rough terrain, the engine seemed to roar as our wheels gripped the loose gravel and uneven surfaces, spitting up stones and debris behind us.

Morgan and I sat in the back, clinging to our seats, bracing ourselves over every bump and twist. The vibrations from the uneven road created a rhythmic dance of ups and downs. With each bump and dip, our bodies bounced from side to side, adding a comical touch to our otherwise hair-raising drive. We broke into laughter as we continued to hold on to our seats and sometimes each other, embracing the unpredictable motion. It was like nothing I had ever experienced, and I loved every minute!

With the van’s windows down, music blasted from the speakers. Each beat resonated with the energy of our journey. The music became the soundtrack to these joyful moments, amplifying the thrill of the adventure. Henry and Elton shared some of their favorite music, and Morgan and I shared some of ours. We had a couple of great playlists, which included some Metallica, that we would resort to often. I mean, what could be more perfect than having Nothing Else Matters blasting from the speaker as we made our way along the mountain path, where every twist and turn unveiled a new challenge?

It was a rollercoaster of bumps and jolts, as if the road itself had conspired to test our resilience. Yet, an incredible excitement filled the van. I will never forget the beauty in the chaos of that rocky mountain pass (and it was only the beginning because these types of drives became the norm during our adventure in Albania). It was truly WILD!  

We made a quick stop for lunch at a place that once again had incredible views. Elton laid out a blanket we all sat on while enjoying lunch: Albania-style pizza (Henry had picked up from a local bakery in Berat), salad, and fruit. Stretching our legs afterward, we took a walk to a nearby waterfall. 

We continued our journey towards Përmet, our adventure far from over. Our next stop awaited—the Osum Canyon. The scenery changed as we approached the canyon, revealing the natural beauty before us— an immense gorge adorned with dramatic cliffs and lush foliage. It was gorgeous!

You’d think the 4-wheel drive cutting through the Albanian mountainside, the delicious picnic lunch, the walk to the waterfall, and the visit to The Osum Canyon were enough for one day. Nope. There was one more surprise!

Morgan and I quickly learned that unfamiliar lands often bring delightful surprises. As we traveled between Skrapar and Cepan, Henry drove us down a winding road in the middle of nowhere. When we thought our adventure couldn’t get any better, we stopped in front of a little roadside stand.

Morgan and I stepped out of the van; little did we know that this unassuming spot would treat us to an Albanian favorite: fried dough (Petulla), which we dipped into a small bowl of locally sourced honey before eating.   We also enjoyed a refreshing Korça beer, a local favorite. I would never have thought beer and fried dough went together;  I was clearly mistaken!

After what I can only describe as an unexpected and incredible day, we arrived in Peshtan, a small village a little west of Përmet, at the charming yet unassuming hotel where we’d spend the night. 

Hiking the Hidden Beauty of Albania’s Zagoria Valley

Rising early the next day, we headed out with Henry and Elton, where they met and handed us off to two local hiking guides (Benny and Chimmy, non-English speaking). We then headed out on a strenuous hike through the lesser-known Zagoria Valley—Teleplene to Përmet (Apparently, the Zorgoira Valley on the Greece side is well known, but on the Albania side, it’s not, making it all the more exciting to be hiking here).

The rough trails led us through beautiful forests, past gushing rivers, over old Ottoman bridges (arched bridges usually having one to three arches), and alongside tiny villages. As we took in the crisp mountain air, we had awe-inspiring panoramas at every turn. 

After a long day of hiking, we arrived at the tiny village of Sheper, where we shared a simple meal with our guides and a local family (consisting of a couple in their mid-thirties, their 4-year-old son, a grandparent, and one cat) we would be staying with for the night. The meal was family-style, with all the dishes set out on the table.

The food seemed to be made up of leftovers and looked like it had seen better days, but there were vegetarian choices for us, so that’s something! So, I pretended everything looked delicious as I took a slice of spanakopita, some soggy-looking French fries, and a piece of bread—the other things looked either like meat or items I couldn’t quite make out. “When in Rome.”

The conversation around the table could not include us, as neither our guides nor the family had any English— but it was oddly delightful. After dinner and clearly trying to include Morgan and me, Chimmy, signaled to us that we should take a shot of some local spirit—which of course, we did!

Our accommodations were basic, with no hot water, but the authenticity of the experience made it unforgettable. The mattresses we slept on had seen better days, lumpy and with deep valleys in them.

The following day, we indulged in a makeshift shower that epitomized the resourcefulness and hospitality of the family (the homeowners had to boil water and pour it into a holding tank, allowing us to take a warm but very quick shower)! We had a quick breakfast of sweet bread and donuts with honey.

Our hike continued on through the Zagoria Valley, leading us closer to Përmet, where we reunited with Henry and Elton.

We enjoyed some lunch and a cold beer and then made our way to the town center of Përmet, where we spent the night at the Funky Guest House

A Serendipitous Discovery in Gjirokastra’s Mountain Church

The journey towards Gjirokastra the following day was a testament to Albania’s rugged beauty as we navigated bumpy mountainous roads with Henry’s expert driving skills.

On our way to Gjirokstra, we made a brief visit to the  Archaeological Park of Antigonea (once the ancient settlement of the Drinos Valley)—the resilient walls, defiant against Roman destruction, continue to stand tall.

During our drive, we occasionally stopped and explored areas that caught our attention. Once, while wandering, we saw something that caught our eye—a doorway tucked into the mountainside. Curious, we hiked to the mountain’s base, and from there, we ascended its slopes. As we climbed, we were excited to find a ladder leading us directly to the doorway that had caught our attention earlier. Naturally, we couldn’t resist climbing that ladder and exploring further.

When we went through the door, we were all amazed!  We had just stumbled upon a beautiful church built into the mountainside.  It had a small chapel with an adjoining room.  Henry thought it was possibly an Eastern Orthodox Hermitage (even our guides had never seen this place before).  The paintings adorning the walls and domed ceiling of the chapel appeared to be fresco-style art, reminiscent of the Orthodox church tradition. 

The room was quite dark as there was no light except for what came through a small window and a hole in the ceiling. Despite the darkness, it was fascinating. However, when I took a photograph, and my camera flash illuminated the scene, I was amazed to see that the walls were rich with color and the paintings were beautifully ornate. We were all so thrilled with our find! I have since tried to find some information on the internet about this amazing little place, and to date, I’ve had no luck. We had stumbled upon a very little-known place –amazing when you think about it!

There was a quick stop for lunch at the Check-In Restaurant, where we sat at a patio table and enjoyed  Albanian vegetarian fare: spinach and cheese burek (spinach pie), grape leaves, Albanian cheese stuffed peppers, falafels, and some Qifqi, which are rice balls with spinach and herbs (a specialty in this area) (lunch is often the largest meal of the day).  It was quite a feast, and a vegetarian one at that.

Our stay for the night was at the small yet welcoming Kalemi 2 Hotel. After settling in, we grabbed a simple but non-memorable vegetarian meal nearby before heading up to the hotel’s rooftop to play cards and savor one of the bottles of wine we had bought from the Cabo winery earlier. It was truly an incredible day!

Gjirokastra Castle, Tepelenë Internment Camp, and Nivica Village

We kicked off our next day with a visit to the Gjirokastra Castle (a UNESCO Heritage site), another example of the well-preserved Ottoman architecture that characterizes this region of Albania.

As we continued our drive, Henry pointed out the Tepelenë Internment Camp. He explained that this had once been an internment camp during the time of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.

Modeled after the Soviet Union’s kolkhoz system, a diverse group of individuals were imprisoned here, including convicts, fugitives, and deserters. As we passed, I couldn’t help but think about the stories and lives of the people who had once been inside those walls. It was a reminder of the complexities of history and the human experience and the turbulent times this region had gone through.

Our day’s ending destination was the village of Nivica, where we spent the next two nights at the Guesthouse on the Canyon, which boasts a breathtaking location perched high above the Canyon. The welcoming hosts greeted us with a warm smile but no English. Thank goodness our guides, Henry and Elton, were also staying here.

Exploring the Enchanting Canyon of Nivica: Breathtaking Views, Waterfalls and Heartfelt Moments

When Morgan and I woke up the following day, our host directed us to a small table tucked away at the back of the yard. The table sat about six feet from the canyon’s edge, giving us views of the Canyon of Nivica. A basket of bread, jam, butter, and local feta cheese sat on the nicely set table. We were served the most delicious omelets along with some steaming hot coffee. Morgan and I exchanged knowing glances during breakfast – every aspect of this place and the surrounding area was fantastic.

After breakfast, we hopped in the van for a morning of exploring.

As lunchtime approached, Henry trailblazed a path that led to this fantastic picnic spot—where we enjoyed a lunch of fruit salad and the most scrumptious Albania bread stuffed with cheese (Pogaça me Djathë). It shares a delightful resemblance to pizza and focaccia bread- but even better, taking it to a new level of deliciousness. It hit the spot!

Nivica, Albania
Our magical little lunch spot.

After refueling, we hopped back in the van and continued our adventure, heading to a spot where Henry had heard a double waterfall might be. He was determined to find it, and we were all up for the challenge. So, we parked the van, jumped out, and started hiking toward the area he had heard about. It didn’t take too long, around 20 minutes, until we finally reached it.  It was the most stunning waterfall I’ve ever laid my eyes on. I mean, it was another “Wow” moment for all of us.

And like the other waterfalls we had seen, this one emptied into a giant pool below the fall. Henry and Elton couldn’t resist the temptation, and who could blame them? They jumped right in for a refreshing dip. 

Our dinners at the Guesthouse on the Canyon always left us content and satisfied. Though meat was a standard fixture on the dinner table, being a vegetarian was never an issue. Our host served us an assortment of delectable dishes such as Perime Ne Zgare (Grilled vegetables) consisting of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, peppers, and freshly prepared Greek-style salads. One evening, they also served a popular Albania vegetarian dish called a Fergerse, made with tomatoes, feta cheese, onions, and peppers. Plus, there was always a basket of freshly baked bread on the table. As vegetarians, Morgan and I were well taken care of.

After a delicious dinner and beer, we capped off the evening with shots of Rakija (a strong alcoholic drink), popular in some parts of Europe, especially in the Balkans. They craft Rakija using fruits like plums, grapes, or apricots, giving it a unique and fruity twist.

In the Balkans, it’s not just a regular drink; it’s an essential part of their culture and heritage. Many people there take pride in making their own Rakija at home, keeping the tradition alive.

As the sun went down, Henry, Elton, Morgan, and I (camaraderie had formed throughout our journey, and Henry and Elton now felt more like friends than just our guides)  headed outside to this perfect spot located on the edge of the property, where a large portion of the cliff top offered the ideal setting for an evening of shared laughter, card games (we had taught Henry and Elton the card game Golf and seemed to always look forward to playing a few rounds), and contemplative stargazing. These cherished moments became the highlight of our time together, creating memories that will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Blissful by the Ionian Sea – Himare’s Coastal Charms

After two incredible days in Nivica, we bid farewell to our hosts and a few local travelers from Poland we met who had also been staying at the Guesthouse, jumped back in the van, and made the long drive (3.5 to 4-hour drive) to the beach town of Himare.

We arrived in Himare and said goodbye to Henry and Elton. For the next two days, Morgan and I relaxed on the sandy beach, lounging in comfy chairs under umbrellas, enjoying mojitos, and swimming in the Ionian Sea. Not bad at all! I even found time to do a little reading.

We had a blast celebrating Morgan’s 26th birthday at the beachside restaurant Cabo Del Mar.  Morgan had seafood, while I chose the pasta. The  hospitality of the staff was  outstanding. The staff went above and beyond to make Morgan’s birthday extra special. They even surprised her with a beautifully decorated, specially made birthday cake!

Himare, Albania
Happy 26th Morgan

Himare’s charm and beauty captivated us, providing a well-deserved break before our return to the capital, Tirana. With more than a tinge of sadness, we departed Himare. We made our way back to Tirana (Henry had arranged transportation back to Tirana with a local contact in Himare), where we reunited with Henry and Elton.

A Heartfelt Farewell

As a final gesture of gratitude, Henry treated us to an exquisite Italian meal at one of his favorite restaurants, showcasing the diverse culinary scene of Albania. We reminisced about the incredible journey we had experienced together, sharing stories, laughter, and heartfelt moments. Albania had captured our hearts in ways we never expected. 

Our 10-day trip through Southern Albania with Drive Albania was a remarkable journey that surpassed all expectations. Each day, from the rugged mountain passes to the pristine beaches, brought new adventures and unforgettable encounters. We discovered a country blessed with natural beauty, cultural treasures, and a rich history waiting to be explored. Albania has truly become one of my most cherished and exciting travel destinations, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly enough to fellow adventurers.