Updated: Dec 10, 2020
I got to soak in soothing hot springs and sleep nearby, raft on a river, meet the President of Albania, and enjoy a big communal meal. And I didn't end up paying for any of it! Surprised? Read on...
I had read about the "Blue Eyes" of Albania - spring waters that emerge from the ground; one in the north near Theth, and one in the south. I didn't hike to the one in the north but the southern one was right off the road from Saranda to Gjirokastra. I stopped by and the colors of the 52F (10C) water might have been more impressive, but without a sunny sky I couldn't see it all. Apart from paying $1 to access the site, it was basically a 15-minute excursion and nothing more. (In the picture: The Blue Eye...can you see it?)
I had some extra time on my hands and stopped in the charming interior town of Permet. I Googled things to do in the area and learned that there was horseback riding and white water rafting. I called the horseback riding and was basically told that it's not worth it for just one person. So I thought about rafting on the Vjosa river and reached out to Rafting Vjosa to inquire about a trip the following day. Elti, the owner, responded that the next day they were not doing a normal trip but rather a special ride on a calmer part of the Vjosa, to protest the construction of a hydroelectric dam there. Scientists and journalists would be in attendance, as well as a visit by the President of Albania, who would show his support. Elti invited me to join the group and told me that it was not a full rafting experience, and I may not get to raft if there are too many people, so I would not have to pay to join. Once I was assured that it was not a "protest" in the traditional sense and that no laws would be broken (being arrested was not on my to-do list), I agreed to join the next day.
Ahh, Permet. "We're not THAT great, but we're pretty great."
I picked up some dinner in Permet at a bakery and drove the nearby Benja hot springs. (I preferred to pick up food from a restaurant, but despite it being a weekday afternoon, everything was closed! I asked someone if it was a holiday, but was told that it was indeed a workday.) Normally the park charges $2 entry for the hot springs parking, but I must have arrived late enough in the day (~6pm) that nobody asked for money. I parked, walked across an 18th century bridge and soaked in several pools of warm spring water. (Despite the name, none of the pools was "hot", just "warm".) Supposedly each pool is good for a different part of the body (joints, stomach, etc.
18th century bridge at Benja hot springs Some of the natural pools to soak in
Once it started getting dark, I dried off and set up my tent for the night (GPS: 40.243968, 20.431434) before eating dinner. I went for a walk and met a local guy and his brother who runs the bar on-site. We chatted about all manner of things and they offered me a beer. Only the first guy spoke English, but soon he left and it was just me and the bar owner, who only spoke Albanian and Italian. I speak Spanish and German so we got by speaking Spanish/Italian and using Google Translate, watching TV and enjoying our beers. This is another time where I wish I could have spoken more Albanian, but seeing how it's unrelated to any other language and I'll never need it outside of Albania/Kosovo/Macedonia, it just wasn't realistic to learn more than a few words/phrases.
In the morning I got up and headed back to Permet to met the rafting folks where we set out for Qesarat. We turned down a narrow road which I was informed was the main highway until earlier this decade! The President's security detail showed up and followed us as we got a bit lost finding the launch site. The pros prepared the rafts while I hung out. The President himself (Ilir Meta) was over an hour late, with media crew in tow. He didn't stay long, but we all got to meet him! Elti told him that I was American, and in English he welcomed me to Albania and hoped I was enjoying my visit. Elti joked that he was their Donald Trump, to which he replied, "No, there is only one Donald Trump!"
Until ~10 years ago, this was the main road between towns! Elsewhere, the main road was still this narrow (if better paved.)
President's armed security detail President (in green) with media A shaggy me meeting the President of Albania!
The President didn't join the rafting as was hoped, so that meant that there was enough room for me to join! I shared a boat with an Albanian journalist and Albanian economist with an environmental NGO.
I quickly learned the Albanian words for "forward" and "backward" since those were the commands we had to follow on the raft. After we finished rafting, we were picked up and went to a nearby restaurant where the entire group of ~35 people enjoyed a large meal in the Albanian countryside. I sat next to a botany professor from the University of Tirana. Everyone there spoke excellent English. I offered to pay but the head guy from the NGO told me not to worry, and when I offered to give Elti money for gasoline, he refused to let me pay.
Driving back near Qesarat, there was a strong wind that ripped a raft and the attached roof rack off of our SUV! Elti and I had to retrieve both items and carry them back to the car, deflate the raft, and wait on the side of the road for his colleagues to come and take these items in their car, as ours was full. Once that was taken care of, we were able to return to Permet. I got back to my car, and went back to the Benja hot springs to enjoy the warm water once again.
Deflating the raft that was on the roof. Then dismantling the roof rack that is now on the ground.
I nearly camped a second night at Benja, but I had a long drive ahead of me the following day and wanted to cover some ground before going to sleep. So I drove east from Benja on a narrow road where I could only go about 10-15 mph to avoid going near the cliffs. I finally set up camp on the side of the road (GPS: 40.153228, 20.606025). Unfortunately, it would turn out to be another night of high winds and torrential rains. In the morning, the rain continued, so I was forced to pack my soaking camping equipment back into the car.