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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The rugged Albanian north opens its doors to sustainable tourism

by Cynthia Ord

International tourists are noticing Albania, attracted to its unspoiled Mediterranean coastline and the quality-for-price value that it offers.  Tourism-oriented growth and development, often rampant and unchecked, is most visible in the capital city of Tirana and along the coast.  Roads are widening into protected areas and high-rise hotels obstruct previously natural landscapes. Such unregulated growth threatens the same natural and cultural endowments upon which the tourism industry depends.  

Development organizations such as the UNDP and USAID recognize the need to implement a more sustainable tourism strategy that conserve Albania’s natural environment and cultural heritage while increasing quality of life for local people.  Tour operators such as Outdoor Albania brand themselves by their commitment to these principles. In some of the more isolated regions of the country, such as the alpine north, communities and small businesses are working together to harness tourism as a means of much-needed sustainable development for the area.  

Traditional beekeeping in the northern Albanian Alps

Outdoor Albania offers culture and adventure trips to bridge the gap carefully between tourism development and this geographically remote mountainous area.  Its destinations are tiny rural villages such as Vermosh, Valbona, and Theth. Its goal is to develop trips and itineraries that will bring economic benefits to local people and keep Albania’s environment pristine for future recreation and enjoyment.  

Both fixed and tailor-made tours to the Albanian Alps are available. One of the most popular tours is the 5-day mountain trek and village guesthouse tour.  The highlights of the itinerary include transport to the valley of Valbona via local ferry on lake Koman through the Drin canyon, and guided trekking along a mountain pass between the valley of Valbona to the village of Theth accompanied by luggage-bearing mountain horses.  

local transportation: ferry through the Drin canyon

The cultural aspect of the tours is accommodation with local families who offer their homes as guesthouses to travelers.  Hospitality has been a pillar of northern Albanian culture for centuries, as the oral tradition of the area mandates the welcoming of strangers into one’s home.  By lodging with local families, tourists get a taste of authentic local dishes that the families prepare. They also get a glimpse of the mountain life and agricultural livelihoods that Albanian northerners have been practicing for generations.  The tall stone and wood-shingle architecture of the village guesthouses is traditional, characteristic of the northern region, and highly photogenic. 

The Terthorja Guesthouse in Theth, Albania

As the northern Alpine region emerges in the guidebooks and on the maps for culture- and adventure-seeking tourists, demand for infrastructure and services such as transportation is increasing in the area.  Outdoor Albania recognises the need to meet this demand in a way that will benefit the local people of the area and preserve the environment for future generations.  Rather than encouraging hasty construction in the area, OA utilizes the local guesthouse accommodations that are already available and eager for tourists.  OA also utilizes local transportation and trekking that respect the natural environment rather than threaten it.  In these rural northern villages, the doors are open to the Outdoor Albania brand of tourism. 

Your local hosts at the Terthorja Guesthouse

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Weird Albania: 5 oddities to notice while passing through

This article originally appeared as a guest post on the travel blog

by Cynthia Ord

A “deeply weird place” is how New York TImes travel columnist Seth Kugel aptly described Albania in 2006.  While still coming of age as destination itself, it attracts more adventurous travelers who treat it as an odd little piece of the larger western Balkans puzzle.  Some quirks of note in Albania:

1) Bunker madness
            If good data existed about military bunkers worldwide, Albania would probably top the list for bunker density.  By some high estimates, the 750,000 bunkers built during communism translate to 28 bunkers per square km and one bunker for every 4-5 citizens.  The numbers square away with the landscape -- these “concrete mushrooms” are ubiquitous.

Bunker albania

2) Car washes and Mercedes Benz
            The chaotic traffic in capital city Tirana is Benz-heavy.  Old ones, new ones, even the taxis are Mercedes Benz.  Why?  By one account, the Benz went out of style in the rest of Europe in the mid-90s when more fuel-efficient vehicles were introduced, so Albanians bought them at clearance sale prices.  Others chalk it up to theft and corruption.
            To keep the Benz fleet shiny where roads are gritty, an industry of car washes has sprung up.  These “lavazh” stations are about every 100 meters. The fully automated car wash is still a thing of the future. Here, it’s usually a guy with a high pressure hose in a covered parking spot.

3) Nodding “no” and shaking “yes”
            This source of endless confusion can be enchanting.  Shaking one’s head from side to side does not mean “no” here.  It means “right, I agree, I’m listening” while someone else is talking.  Conversely, nodding one’s head up and down does not mean “yes” here.  It means “sorry, I’m afraid not” and seems to accompany bad news.
            Talk with the older generations to get these reversed gestures.  Younger and more urban Albanians have caught on to more international non-verbals.

4) Stuffed animals at construction sites.
            Where there are unfinished buildings, there are also large teddy bears hanging eerily for all to see.  This is pure superstition -- it wards off the evil eye.  Other superstition on construction sites: mixing ram’s blood into the foundations and hanging horseshoes over the front door.
            Occasionally you can spot dolls hanging in gardens and crop fields.  This is for the more practical purpose of scaring off birds, but can have the added effect of spooking tourists.

5) Boxy buildings painted in technicolor.
            Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, is also an artist.  His efforts to beautify the capital have been recognised internationally.  His most famous endeavor is the vibrant painting of Tirana’s previously uniform buildings with “Edi Rama colors” such as violet, green, and orange.


Some buildings are even painted in fantastic patterns like colorful plaid and argyle.
Albania is growing steadily as a destination so check it out soon.  This off-beat place will only be off-the-beaten-path for so much longer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

5 guesthouses in Theth and the Albanian Alps: a photo essay

What Outdoor Albania loves most is to send people deep into the heart of Albanian nature and culture.  That is why we choose traditional, family-run guesthouses for our tours to Theth and the northern Albanian Alps.  These wood-shingled stone structures endure the harsh winter weather conditions of the region.  OA co-founder and photographer Genti Mati captures their visual charm.

The Selimaj Guesthouse in Valbona, Albania

The village of Theth has made its way into the guidebooks as a must-see in the Albanian Alps, and for good reason.  The nearby villages of Valbona and Vermosh are also idyllic and picturesque, and even less tourist-trodden. 

The Nacaj guesthouse, Vermosh
The village of Vermosh is in the northernmost tip of Albania.  With a population of only a few hundred, rural serenity is guaranteed. 

The Nika guesthouse, Nderlysa (near Theth)

The whitewashed exteriors and antiquated roofing of traditional guesthouses lend them character and distinction.  They punctuate the postcard landscape of the Albanian north.

The Mitaj guesthouse, Vermosh

A highlight in Vermosh is the Mitaj guesthouse and nature hostel, where the owner has actually built a tree house bar on his land.  

The Terthorja guesthouse, Theth

The village guesthouses of the north are perhaps at their finest in the late summer and autumn.  Fall foliage in this region adds an extra layer of enchantment.  

To plan a weekend trip to the north, contact us at Outdoor Albania

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Outdoor Albania partners with World Hotel LInk to offer online booking services to tourism SMEs
For the past three years, Outdoor Albania has been fostering a relationship with World Hotel Link, an internet platform that provides online booking services to tourism SMEs (small and mid-sized enterprises) through its online listing sites and hotel website development.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, one of the major trends in the tourism industry is “increased looking and booking online.” International travelers are increasingly using the internet to plan their holidays and book their accommodations.  

For tourism enterprises, this means that a strong presence online is more important than ever. Unfortunately, small-scale and mid-sized accommodations often lack the technological infrastructure needed to position themselves online and reach the global marketplace.  

Through its “market place operators” such as Outdoor Albania, World Hotel Link hopes  to bridge the technological gap between locally-owned accommodations and online consumers worldwide.  Small business owners now have the opportunity to list their accommodation on a destination website, and they have the additional option of a high-quality hotel website in English with high results in search engines such as Google.  

World Hotel Link’s destination websites cover three geographical regions of Albania: Shkoder and the North, Tirana and the East, and coming soon: Saranda and the coast.  In addition to listing accommodations and offering instant online booking services, these websites also contain a wealth of tourist information. They provide travelers with information about activities, restaurants, events, and transportation.  Each site’s traffic has been increasing steadily, with an average of 3,093 total weekly pageviews during the months of July and August.

“We are promoting the 'real' Albania, and we are looking for small family- run hotels, guesthouses or sustainable hotels which are interested in a free listing of their accommodation on one of our websites.” says Laura Payne, co-founder of Outdoor Albania.  “Our goal is to bring as much economical gain to small scale accommodations as possible. With WHL, we create a win-win situation.”

One success story is Hotel Lugano in Tirana.  Through its listing on the the WHL Tirana destination page and on its WHL hotel website, Hotel Lugano secured numerous bookings during the summer 2010 season.  Most importantly, Hotel Lugano is findable to those who search for it online.  When “hotel lugano tirana” is entered in a google search box, the destination site and the hotel website appear among the top ten results.  

To see how the accommodation listings appear online, visit the three destination websites at, and

Monday, August 16, 2010

Express: Up Mount Dajti by Cable and down by bicycle
by Cynthia Ord

The city of Tirana is working on its image.  Its current mayor, Edi Rama, is an artist-turned-politician who is eager to introduce Tirana as a vivid European capital.  For the city, this means beautification projects like a fresh coats of colorful paint for formerly gray buildings and a total re-landscaping of the central Skanderbeg Square.

Tirana is indeed looking better, but perhaps the most beautiful part of the city is the nature around it.  Majestic green mountains hover around the city.  One of the highest points on the horizon is Mount Dajti.  Just 26 km outside the city, it measures 1,613 meters of altitude.  The mountain is known as the ‘balcony of Tirana’ and has been declared a national park.

Just a few years ago, a gondola cable lift called the Dajti Express was built to carry site-seers from the city to the mountaintop. For adventure seekers, the best part of the gondola lift is that there is room for bicycles on board.  Outdoor Albania offers a guided excursion that takes visitors up by cable and down by bike through surrounding villages.

The highlight of the trip is a stop at the restaurant built around a panoramic view of the capital below.  It is called Gurra e Perrise, and it is world class. The restaurant has outdoor seating in lush garden terraces. Stunning infinity pools swarm with the trout that also appear on the menu, and lamb roasts slowly on its traditional-style spit. Inside the restaurant, the presidential table is reserved for political personages who bring guests to this little-known lookout above the city.

The bicycle ride down kept me wide-eyed and white-knuckled. Good brakes and a fearless streak required.  There is no better way to enjoy the paradoxes and contrasts of Albania: rural versus urban, cattle versus traffic, and fresh mountain air versus the noise and pollution of the city.  This day trip is also evidence that Tirana is underrated.  Travelers pass through to other parts of the country without realizing the exciting possibilities in and around the city.  This is definitely my favorite OA day trip so far.

This post originally appeared in Cynthia's travel blog,

view from the cable car to Dajti

Panoramic view of Tirana from Dajti

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Tattooed Bunker: Colorful “repurposing” in Shkoder, Northern Albania

by Cynthia Ord

In Albania, around 750,000 bunkers form a gray mushroom network across the country.  This drab legacy of recent communism presents a creative challenge today.  Albanians are transforming the bunkers into more purposeful structures, often with tourism in mind. 

Remnants of a Paranoid Past

Built of thick cement and iron, the bunkers are phone booth-sized subterranean fortresses with rifle windows and cement dome roofs above ground.  Communist dictator Enver Hoxha built them in the 1970s in paranoia of nuclear warfare and xenophobia toward the rest of the world.  The bunkers were never used.  When Hoxha died in 1985, the communist regime lasted about five more years and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

Only two decades later, this history still haunts the present. Most of the 750,000 bunkers are still standing and crumbling slowly where they were built.  Moving or destroying them is no small task. Each one was built with 5 tons of cement to withstand nuclear warfare. Myth has it that Hoxha hired the bunkers’ engineer by instructing him to shelter himself in the prototype while it was attacked by military explosives.  The engineer survived, so Hoxha ordered almost a million of his bunkers to be built.

Creative Repurposing 

Today, Albanians face the question of how to address these scars from the past. Most are simply worked around, while some have been destructed by explosives in order to build in their place.  While the majority of the 2-person pillboxes continue to blight the landscape with concrete and iron, a rare few have been “repurposed” into worthwhile structures such as planters, cafes, playground equipment, and pieces of graffiti art.  

The creative repurposing of cement bunkers is a telling metaphor for Albania’s recovery from its recent communist past.  One project, Concrete Mushrooms, has secured resources for the research and documentation of Albania’s bunkers.  The organization works toward “inverting the meaning” of these symbolic structures by “giving bunkers value instead of having them as a burden”.  Concrete Mushrooms identifies ecotourism-related uses for the bunkers, such as tourism information points, cafes, and even accommodation, as an area with real potential. 

The Tattooed Bunker in Shkoder

On the highland road north from Shkoder to Tamare, where population is sparse, bunkers are also fewer and farther between.  Here, a bright example of creative repurposing can be found. A large bunker has been converted into a tattoo parlor.  This one is easy to spot -- the concrete is colorful, with “tattoo” painted on the outside dome in graffiti-style lettering.  For fearless tattoo shoppers, ink enthusiasts, or those who are simply curious, it is worthwhile to pull over and see this place and the tattoo artist, Keq Marku Djetroshan, who works there mainly during the summer season.  

Having lived in the United States for several years, Keq is fluent in American slang. When his time in the U.S. ended, he came back to northern Albania with his tattoo business.  He serves mostly Albanians and Montenegrins who cross the nearby border.  Inside the bunker-turned-parlor, the walls display more graffiti and an array of dog-eared tattoo art magazines sit on the table in front of the couch.  Keq’s arms are covered with layers of tattoos, perhaps a repurposing of his own scars from the past.  

To visit the tattooed bunker, go to for accommodation and tour information about Albania’s northern region. 
See more photos of Albania.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Outdoor Albania's view on local travel

by Lieke van Leeuwen

Laura Payne, co-founder of Outdoor Albania and local travel activist, believes that local traveling is about meeting and connecting with the locals and experiencing their culture, as well as about preserving nature and bringing economical benefits to those who need it most.

Six years ago Laura paid her first visit to Albania and directly fell in love with the country.   She traveled past beautiful deserted beaches in the South of Albania and rough nature in the North. She got to know the passionate people in Southern Albania and connected with the hospitable locals Northern Albania. Traveling through this wonderful country she saw the potential and the opportunities that Albania offers, especially the Albanian Alps in the North took her interest. She realized that most people don't have the means to use these opportunities, and decided that she wanted to do something for the locals.

Together with her Albanian partner Gent she started Outdoor Albania, a travel agency specialized in sustainable travel. From the beginning on their aim has been to give their clients a life-seeing experience rather than a sight-seeing experience. The past 5 years they mainly focused on promoting the Albanian Alps in Northern Albania, you can see the result on their website The Albanian Alps have hardly changed over the last 50 years due to the rugged landscape, the 500 year occupation of the Ottoman Empire, the Italian invasion and the many years of communism. Outdoor Albania has a network of local families who run village houses and guest houses in this amazing and untouched region.

One of Laura's favorite areas in Northern Albania is Theth, a village surrounded by a sea of mountains of rough limestone formations, dense forests, canyons, and waterfalls. The ruthless nature has always made living hard for the locals, which left traces in its culture. Opposite to the harsh nature she experienced that the local culture is very warm and hospitable.
One of the families in Outdoor Albania's Thethi-network is the Carku family. None Age, or “Mother Carku”, her son Mehill, and his wife Valbona run a village house. If you want to experience the Albanian culture and rural live you should come and try for yourself to stay overnight in Guesthouse Carcu or any of the other village houses Outdoor Albania is helping to gain a living.
When entering the traditional stone house of the Carcu family, you will smell the thick pinewood planks, and the family will be there to give you a warm welcome. Mother Carku will prepare a delicious meal for you with fresh vegetables from the garden. You can enjoy the delicious smell of her famous homemade bread, while you are drinking homemade raki in the garden of the village house.

Unique to village house Carku is that it was the first one to open its doors to visitors during the late nineties when the first community tourism projects were initiated. The guesthouse became a meeting place where other highlanders gain experience and vision. With their example and by showing effort the Carcu family is able to demonstrate to the community the immense potential they have to offer.

To Laura a stay in a village house ensures a unique cultural experience and it guarantees that the money spend goes directly to those who need it most.

Next to meeting the local people and their culture Laura believes that preserving nature and bringing economical benefits to small entrepreneurs is another important aspect of local traveling. Therefore she and her partner Gent decided to make their tours nature-friendly tours, which promote the protection of landscapes, bio-habitats, traditions and monuments. Furthermore they provide environmental education for local inhabitants, committing them to the protection of their natural and cultural heritage.
In addition they have started the Outdoor Albania Association, for implementing projects for the promotion of sustainable tourism.
Laura and Gent try to involve as many local actors possible in our business, using guides, winemakers, mule/horse porters and more on our tours. For transportation they decided to use local drivers who own a small bus called “furgon”.

Laura enjoys collaborating with the locals and seeing the small benefits brought to them by their cooperation. She loves hearing the enthusiastic, colorful, and amusing stories of her guests after a tour or a stay in one of the village houses. For Laura local travel became the way to show her guests the “real” Albania, the stunning nature, ancient culture, and miraculous traditions.

If you would like to know more about local travel in Albania, please feel free to contact Laura at
Mother Carku at her village guesthouse in Theth