A village church overlooks Koman Lake in Aprripe, Albania

A village church overlooks Koman Lake in Aprripe, Albania
©2020 Ariella Nardizzi

When I first announced I would be traveling to Albania, I was met with utter confusion – by colleagues and local Albanians alike. Why was I going to Albania, of all places? Where is it? What are you doing there? Is it even safe? Just go to Greece.

It was in this country that I experienced pure human kindness, saw some of the most beautiful natural sights, and fully experienced what it means to live in the present.

Arrival in Albania

Albania, located in the Balkans, is Greece’s silent neighbor. It is certainly a hidden gem in terms of what this region has to offer with a rich history and untouched culture, and boasts both magnificent mountain ranges and a picturesque coast. Categorized as a second-world country, Albania was under communist rule until the late 20th century. The country is also home to a significant UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My travels to Tirana, Albania’s capital, began with unnecessary stress: almost missing my flight from Florence, Italy. As I slid onto the plane just five minutes before the doors closed, my friend Avi and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief; we were going to Albania.

After a stunning aerial introduction to the Albanian Alps through the plane window, I rented a car for the week and took off due north. My first half of the trip would be spent in the mountains, a much-needed escape to nature. Without a working GPS, I followed road signs and old-fashioned, written directions I’d received from our AirBnB host to the small village of Aprripe, nestled deep in the mountains.

I drove for six hours through winding roads, very quickly learning that Albanian drivers are crazy behind the wheel. Having not driven for so many months, though, it was freeing to be on the open road. Road trips are liberating — they feed the soul, bond travelers, and allow the independence to go anywhere on wheels.

After navigating curvy, dirt roads that made my stomach do sickening flip-flops, I parked the car on the side of the road and proceeded to follow our host, Vogel, down a sheer cliff in pitch blackness, the light of the stars and a meager flashlight guiding our way. I laughed to myself in disbelief as we boarded a small, creaky rowboat, toting our heavy suitcases behind us as Vogel then proceeded to row 10 minutes in the dark, across Koman Lake to his isolated village on the other side. I’d been in Albania for less than 12 hours and was already taking on the adventure of a lifetime.

My First Day — Aprripe

Upon arrival, I was immediately welcomed by Vogel and his family – his wife and beautiful one-year-old boy Joy – and was ushered into their home, a delicious spread of food waiting on the table.

Communicating with the family was difficult at first, as Vogel spoke little English and his wife none at all. Not to mention, I did not speak a word of Shqip, the Albanian language, and had no cell service to rely on good ol’ Google Translate. However, the family spoke an odd mix of Italian and French, so our conversations consisted of a jumble of words in every language, accompanied by lots of hand motions. This seemed to do the trick.

My lodging for the weekend was a small, cozy room in the attic of their home, which I had to climb a ladder to get to. The room, with its high ceilings and wooden paneling, felt like a cabin in the woods. Truth be told, I felt right at home, even in this foreign country.

My first day consisted of doing a lot, and at the same time, not doing very much at all. The family had a vivacious rooster, — bringing ear plugs on this trip was a lifesaver — so I woke at the crack of dawn and rose with the sun at 5am, along with the rest of the family. I started the day off with a traditional breakfast of homemade bread and butter, Italian black coffee, and quince — a local fruit grown in their village, which also came to be my new obsession. The fruit looked a bit like a pear and tasted sweeter than candy, melting in my mouth the moment it touched my tongue.

My Abode

Then, Vogel showed Avi and I around his village, introducing us to his parents who lived in the house next door. I took in the incredible views that I'd missed arriving by nightfall the evening before, awe-struck at the hidden valley that I was nestled so deeply in. Aprripe, the village Vogel called home, was a tight-knit community built on the side of a mountain deep in Northern Albania. After trekking up steep cliffs for a half hour "” myself breathing heavily, Vogel barely breaking a sweat as he carried his son high on his shoulders "” he then left us to explore on our own.

I followed an unkept dirt path to a clearing which looked out over the lake and the rest of the village, using the afternoon sun to hike, meditate, journal, and simply be in nature; then, I returned ‘home’ to munch on homemade meals, fresh from the family’s garden; play with their kittens and various farm animals that wandered around their property; and take in the postcard-perfect views from their humble home.

The day was simple – I observed, sat, talked, and appreciated. In terms of actually doing things, I did very little. I simply existed. After traveling across Europe in an exhausting whirlwind of tours and overnight buses for the past two months, these days spent doing nothing felt like a dream.

Just as I’d risen with the sun, I also called it a day as the sun dipped beneath the towering mountains in front of me, casting a golden light against the rough crags before vanishing completely behind the wall of rock.

Lake Koman, Albania

The next day in Albania was a bit more adventurous as Vogel trusted me with his boat so that we could get to the car on the other side of the lake. As I slowly, but steadily, rowed my way across the lake, the oars creaked as the boat tossed and turned with each small wave that lapped at its metal sides. After reaching shore, I wrapped the thick, metal chain around a sturdy rock and piled heavy boulders on top so that it wouldn’t drift away during the day, leaving us stranded on the other side.

We made the long trek back up the mountain to the car, meandering through the winding roads to the nearby town of Bajram Curri – the closest ‘major’ town to the village we were based at. The town consisted of open-air markets, a few quaint churches, and a main street. As I meandered the roads, heads literally turned to watch as we explored.

Reminders Why I Travel

It was evident this place didn’t get very many tourists. Those who spoke a bit of English often stopped us on the street, inquiring, “why did you want to come to Albania?”

I experienced the kindness of the Albanian people firsthand in this small town, first while interacting with a shop owner who I’d asked directions from. He gave me a bracelet with the Albanian emblem on it to ‘remind me of my travels here.’ Then, he personally directed me to where I needed to go, walking halfway down the street to ensure I made it there safely. At another location where I asked for directions, a gas attendant offered to close up shop for a few minutes simply to drive in front of my car. In another city, an older gentleman went out of his way to stop traffic momentarily as I struggled to parallel park on a busy street.

The people I encounter while traveling are a huge part of why I travel. The random acts of kindness I received from strangers who often spoke no English was mind-blowing, but warmed my heart to the core. Despite the fact that they didn’t know me or my story, these people often went above and beyond the call of duty to help. It was in these interactions that I felt a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

I then journeyed further and stumbled upon a restaurant in the mountains, stopping for a brief lunch that turned into yet another touching moment with a stranger. As my friend and I struggled to decipher the menu, all in Albanian, of course, the chef personally came to our assistance, translating some of the options in broken English. The chef, named Joseph, warmly offered: “how about you let me make you breakfast?” It was one in the afternoon.

Putting my full trust in this man, I impatiently awaited the mystery meal, unsure of what I’d agreed to eat. This turned out to be a smart decision: he brought out Turkish coffee and a hefty plate filled to the brim with fresh vegetables, spicy sausage, and a fried egg pancake. It was one of my favorite meals I had in Albania – not to mention, each meal cost the equivalent of about four U.S. dollars.

After a day of adventuring, I returned to my new home, where I finished off the evening chatting with Vogel and cuddling with his sleepy kittens, who were quite taken with me and often found themselves nestled in my lap. Vogel’s father was especially fond of me as well. He spoke no English, but would come by every hour or so, grasping my hands tightly as he grinned from ear to ear. By the end of the weekend, he’d greet me with an ecstatic ‘hello!’ — a word that he picked up from me whenever I’d address him.

My Final Day in Aprripe

On my final day, I left with a heavy heart as I said goodbye to the family. Even the kittens followed me to the water’s edge as I boarded the boat, mewing with sadness. I left early in the morning after one final homemade breakfast, the wispy clouds hiding the mountain peaks as the fog rolled across the lake’s surface.

Vogel rowed the both of us to shore and we departed with a high five, unable to express my immense gratitude to this man for taking me in for the week. It felt like I’d been adopted by this sweet Albanian family – it was surprisingly difficult to say goodbye.

In these short three days, I experienced so much and left feeling more grounded than I have in a while. The kindness of strangers, of the family who hosted me, of the random man who helped me park, of the restaurant owner who personally cooked me an unforgettable meal – was something I will always keep with me, deep in my heart. It was these people who made me feel welcomed and at-home in this strange country, a place where I had never been and knew very little about.

My Albania Takeaway

Traveling to Albania was well out of my comfort zone. Yet, there were very few times during this adventure that I felt, well, uncomfortable. It was the people here who made this experience so memorable.

Despite not being able to communicate with words, it was also this experience that showed me how arbitrary words really are. Before I travel, I always try to learn a little bit of the language — just enough to get by, to show that I’m trying. But here, in a place where the language barrier could have been a very significant problem, it was a way of connecting with people on a different level.

The times where I spoke a little bit of everything with Vogel, the sentences coming out of my mouth consisting of a few words in Italian, French, English, showed me that you don’t need a common language to communicate with people. I learned so much about Vogel in the short time that I knew him with very little speaking.

And for the times where I didn’t speak at all — when Vogel’s father would grasp my hands and smile, or pat my cheek and laugh before continuing about his day — were more than enough to communicate with these people. It was simply two people, from two very different walks of life, connecting. To me, those were some of the most beautiful interactions I had.

When you go:

Before traveling, be sure to check Albania Travel Information for all up-to-date info regarding safety, visas, travel advisories, and quick facts about the country. You can also find a comprehensive list of some of the best places to eat, sleep, and admire Albania’s natural beauty with this guide. And to enjoy this family’s company, here’s a link to their Lake Komen AirBnb.

Written by: Ariella Nardizzi

 Ariella Nardizzi picture Ariella Nardizzi is a journalist and photographer at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism whose work has been published in Arizona Highways Magazine and other literary magazines. Her travels have taken her all over the globe, and she has a bucket list with over 500 destinations on it. She especially enjoys the excitement of the great outdoors and spends her free time rock climbing, backpacking, and camping. You can keep up with the adventures on her travel blog, Nomad Wanderlusts.

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