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Road tripping into the Albanian mountains

Not enough people visit Albania. From the conversations I've had with travel-heavy friends, it seems that even the most eager of adventurers seem to skip over the southern European country for two reasons - its a little out of the way, but more significantly, just like its neighbours in the former Yugoslavia region, Albania suffers from a bit of a public relations problem.

And while I can't shift Albania geographically closer to the heartland of continental Europe, I can help to dissect the public relations problem, which I generally found to be factually misrepresented and a little unfair.

Here's a write-up of my 24 hours buzzing through northern Albania.

Getting in

I arrived by road from Montenegro, in a rental car that I had picked up a week earlier in Croatia. This is a practical option for many, given the low level of English comprehension in Albania makes it difficult to organise a rental car, and the fact that the country offers little in the way of regulated public transportation outside of the major cities.

Admittedly, Albania had not been part of my original itinerary, but after a few days of rest and relaxation by the beach in Montenegro, I was ready to hit the road and embrace a new adventure.

Crossing the road border from Montenegro was as much of a highlight as it was unconventional. Hilariously, a rogue family of goats had wandered past the border control checkpoint, and looking slightly baffled, the Albanian military police didn't really know how to respond. After scratching their heads and debating the situation for a while, the most confident of the military officers attempted to forcibly push one the goats back across the border into Montenegro. The goat wasn't interested in this sudden change of course, and relentlessly, he put up a fight, barging past the military, beyond the checkpoint, where the entire family of goats joined him as they sprinted away into the Albanian countryside. It was the grandest of border escapes, and it set the tone for a compelling trip into this curious country. 

That Albanian vibe

Visiting Albania for the first time, I admittedly wasn't sure what to expect. While other more-popular European countries drive a visual agenda, it would be false to suggest that Albania has a premeditated 'postcard' scene.

The northern Albanian landscape is wide, empty and with the exception of wild animals and stray cattle, remains largely unpopulated. Driving between the larger cities, it's not unusual to travel for hours at a time without seeing any form of human civilisation - there are no supermarkets and churches outside the cities, and with little public infrastructure, you're unlikely to pass a bus or train as you parade across the country. 

But in its relative emptiness lies the country's beauty. The calmness of the fresh Albanian air that you feel when you step outside the car and take in the compelling view of the Accursed Mountains is a feeling that can't be described. Similarly, watching a lone farmer, wandering through a seemingly abandoned desert landscape with his donkey in toe is just as romantic in real life as it may appear in literature.

Inside the cities, the vibe moves from the barren and peaceful vibe of the outside world, to a pulsating, vibrant cultural hotspot. On the weekends, the more populous towns are alive with colourful street markets, as the local Albanian community takes to the town to prepare their wares for the week ahead. 

On first glance, life in Albania looks difficult. With limited access to clean drinking water, and the majority of the population living in poorly-constructed slums, it is clear that much of the country lives in genuine hardship. The recent spate of blood killings have further added to the country's problems, with official curfews being put in place in some areas after nightfall. But despite this, my short time roaming the country was met with smiles, waves and optimism. Almost as soon as I arrived, I couldn't help but feel that this wonderful country has much more to offer than I was going to be able to discover in just 24 hours.

City life in Schköder

You've probably never heard of Schköder before, but that's probably for good reason - there's not a great deal there. Although the broader municipality represents the fourth-largest city in the country, it has traditionally been a port of call for education and teaching, rather than tourism and culture.

It is however, about as authentic an experience as one can expect in the lower Balkan region. There are no fancy window-dressings here - it's real, genuine, and a whirlwind introduction to what life really looks like in Albania.

Wandering through the city, it's commonplace to be confronted with goats, donkeys and other cattle. Farming represents a poignant component of the city's economic muscle, and it's pleasant to witness little division between farm life and city life in Schköder. People smile, but generally keen their head down as they go about their business. 

Among the most interesting of sights was a barbershop that doubled as an ambulance centre, and a local businessman selling sheep from the boot of his car. I've seen it all now. 

The Accursed Mountains

If Schköder was the entre of this experience, then the Accursed Mountains were surely the main course.

The Albanian alps region is elevated to the point that the mountains are covered with snow for more than half the year, but during the warmer months the tracks can be accessed by standard car. Our primary destination - the isolated mountain village of Theth - is only accessible by 4WD, and during the winter months is not accessible at all.

The road to Theth was winding and headache-inducing. Although sections of the road were in good repair, the final 20 kilometres of road was well, not really a road, and perhaps even the description of dirt track might be slightly generous. As we spiralled up, and then down the mountain, we had a few moments where the car was forced to hug the outer side of the mountain path as we gave way to larger passing vehicles. Like all good adventure trips, there were a few moments where we looked at each other and thought, 'Well, this could be it, mate'.

Stepping into the isolated village of Theth, positioned seductively at the base of the towering mountains, I couldn't help but feel that I was so far away from the rest of the world. The small population (less than one thousand permanent residents), is due to the fact that there can be no coming and going between September and March each year due to the snow. The town has very basic infrastructure and has historically struggled to attract quality teachers and doctors, making it almost inhabitable for all but the most self-sustained families. 

Visiting Theth in the early 20th century, traveller Edith Durham said, 'I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world,' and without giving this much thought, I can't help but feel she was just about right.