Roadtrip from Tirana to Apollonia (Illyria), Zvërnec Islands and Vlorë
How to get to Apollonia
The best way to get around in Albania is probably by car, even though it might take a little getting used to the Albanian driving style (don't take the traffic rules too seriously!) ;-) There are very few trains in the country, and they are not in a good state, which is why Albanians prefer to take furgons (small shared busses). The pro is that they are cheap, the con that there are no schedules, so planning your trip would be more difficult. The car allows more freedom to get to places where no busses go, and would save you a lot of time. That's why me and two of my friends decided to go on a road trip for a week from Tirana all the way to Southern Albania, starting with the ancient Greek town Apollonia, the Zvërnec Islands, and we would spend our first night in Vlorë.
Apollonia is an archeological site about 12 km from the city Fier, which is easiest accessible via the main road passing through Durrës and Lushnjë. Once in Fier the small and sometimes sandy road to Apollonia passes through some countryside towns which is quite a nice drive. On the way we encountered some traditional farmers carrying their products on wooden carts with donkeys. After driving up the rocky road that led to the mountain of Apollonia we found the entrance of the site, which consists of two parts: the old ruins of the town and museum in a monastery, which is next to a renovated Catholic church. The view from the mountain is quite impressive, especially with the Agonothetes (which used to be an assembly place for the city's council) faced to the seaside. When we arrived there was a wedding shoot going on, which made the whole scene even more dreamy.
The information about Apollonia is quite limited, and sometimes it is difficult to make sense out of the remaining ruins and to imagine the history of this place, still I really enjoyed having a walk around the different structures and to let my imagination free. The museum in the monastery provides a little bit more context to the story, and also displays quite some objects that were found at the site when it was discovered in the late 19th century by the French archeologist Auguste Charlois. It was amazing to see how many of the structures dated all the way back to when the city was founded in 588 BC by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth. Before that, the territory was occupied by Illyrian tribes. Apollonia flourished in the Roman period and was home to many philosophers, but began to decline in the 3rd century AD when its harbor started silting up as a result of an earthquake.
When driving to Vlorë, we decided to make a stop at the Zvërnec Islands in the national park Vjosë-Nartë just above the city. With a long wooden bridge we walked to the main island, which is really tiny and has not much more more than a small church. We walked to the other side where the sun had already started to go down, which gave a beautiful scenery. It's definitely worth to make a stop if you're in the neighbourhood, especially in summer as the pine trees were spreading their delicious smell. We had dinner in the middle of the forest at a small local restaurant without a menu :-) I ordered a great spaghetti with sea fruits for 500 LEK, and my friends Stephanie and Christian ate grilled fish for 800 LEK - the two options for that day.
The road to Vlorë was not that far from there, but quite adventurous as it was already pitch dark. When leaving the nature park the road became worse, and I had to be careful to avoid all the holes with our rather small Fiat 500 L. The apartment we had booked was situated at the edge of the city up a hill, and we had to drive in a really small sandy road, just big enough for one car. Luckily it was already very quiet and we didn't encounter any other cars. Once we entered the porch of the apartment everything changed - the improvised sandy and rocky roads, defined by grey concrete walls, made place for an amazing colourful garden full of grapes (and a kitten!). The apartment was part of the house of an Albanian family who welcomed us very warmly. The space was big and incredibly cheap: €10/night for 3 people. A great start of our adventure :-)
Rental car: €20-30/day
Entrance to Apollonia site & museum: 400 LEK
Food at the restaurant in Apollonia: around 500 LEK for a salade, 200 LEK for a beer.
"Berti apartment" in Vlorë: €10 for 3 persons