Ever since we pruned the grapevines back in February I have anticipated our harvest! It was always going to be a bit of a gamble whether or not we’d get much fruit. The vines had been neglected for many years and even if we managed to coax some life out of them, we then had the weather gods to contend with. Would we get enough rain to keep our grapes going? Would a freak hail storm ruin the crop?

But finally it is time to harvest! And yay – we have some grapes to harvest!

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As with everything on the farm, this is a manual job – best achieved by team effort. It involves hand picking the grapes into buckets and loading them onto the donkey to go back to the house for crushing.

Many years ago hubby’s dad built a wooden, hand driven, grape crusher! It basically achieves the same thing as a woman in bare feet stomping on grapes in a barrel and is marginally less messy. The grapes are fed into the crusher by the bucket load… scooped in leaves, twigs, bugs and all. Once crushed the grapes are poured into 200 litre drums and sealed. The mulch will be stirred daily for the next few weeks while it ferments.

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The best grapes are set aside for wine. The rest are used for raki. In a few weeks the wine barrels will be opened and the liquid will be siphoned off from the mulch and put in smaller barrels. And that’s it… nothing else it added… that’s the wine… and it won’t last the year before it’s drunk. Village wine is not left to age!

In a few weeks we’ll be back at the farm to distil the barrels of raki grapes over a log fire… the resulting clear alcohol is the firewater that keeps Albania turning!

This whole process has been so satisfying! I’ve really enjoyed the manual labour – working out in the sun in the gorgeous Albanian countryside. I’ve enjoyed learning the process and, for someone who has never managed to keep even a house plant alive, it’s been rewarding to have successfully contributed to the production of an entire crop of grapes! With any luck we’ll get to taste the results of our hard work before we leave for New Zealand in a little over a month.

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Summer heat

It’s been quiet on the blog front for the last few weeks, which reflects how quiet life has been in the heat of the summer. Summer here is relentless… day after day of blue skies and scorching temperatures. On one hand, this is perfect after 10 years of London’s brief and frequently disappointing summers. On the other hand, the heat saps my energy. Much of the day is spent hiding in doors waiting for the heat to cool. To top it all off, we have been subject to frequent water cuts. In the last week, we had running water for just two days. Eww.

In a perfect world we would have shut up our apartment and relocated to the coast for three months – but unfortunately, the un-employed Albanian housewife’s income doesn’t quite stretch to such luxuries!!

But there are a few reliable tricks to help make the summer months more enjoyable…

Get up early
Albanians are generally early risers. The business of the day is conducted first thing. I wonder if this is partly to do with the midday sun, and partly to do with the lack of certainty about how long a task will take to complete. The earlier you start a task, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to complete it before public offices close at 3pm.

Unlike other southern European countries, there is no ‘official’ siesta in Albania. But it does happen. It’s hard to find anyone out and about in the heat of the day. Shops close. People hide indoors.

Do nothing
If taking a siesta isn’t an option, then the next best thing is to do nothing. Life becomes lethargic. Things move slowly. Time is best spent in a shady café.

One of my favourite Albanian traditions is ‘xhiro’. In the early evening families emerge from the shelter of their homes and promenade. In towns they will stroll down the main road (in many towns, roads are closed to cars during xhiro to make way for pedestrians). In our neighbourhood, families wander up past our apartment and into the foothills of Dajti. Grandparents, parents, kids, teenagers… everyone is out strolling. On our xhiro route, the local farmers sit on the side of the road and sell fresh produce. BBQs sit atop wheelbarrows with cobs of corn cooking in the coals. It’s like a big communal sigh of relief that the heat has abated – at least until tomorrow.

Hit the beach
While we did our summer holiday in June, most Albanians head away after Ramadan, mid-July into August. Beaches are packed. Hotels are super expensive. If a week away at the Riviera isn’t an option, then come the weekend, swarms of people head to the nearest local beach. Tirana is inland, but there are numerous beaches less than 90 minutes’ drive away. Most day-trippers rent a sun-lounger and umbrella for the day, but many erect temporary shelters out of bed sheets, umbrellas, tents to create a home-away-from-home.

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Despite the slow meander of summer, we have had some excitement with family weddings (as a guest, not the bride – phew!) and it being summer, overseas family are back in town. Yay! Now if I can just find some running water…

Summer bliss on the riviera

In my opinion, June is definitely the best month to holiday in Albania. The weather is hot and sunny – and reasonably stable. The beaches are empty. The water is warm and the hotels are cheap. What more do you need? Come August and the water and weather are still warm but the beaches are packed and the hotels pricey.

So for our early summer holiday we headed south to the Albanian Riviera. This stretch of coastline on the Ionian Sea boasts numerous perfect beaches with unbelievably crystal-clear water. Seriously good beach action!

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We based ourselves in Drymades – one of three beaches just over the Llogara Pass – Palasa, Drymades and Dhermi. Dhermi is the most developed, then Drymades. Palasa only just got a paved access road last year. It’s a gorgeous isolated beach that is, unfortunately, already earmarked for some horrible tourist development.

Drymades has a stretch of fairly inoffensive hotels and restaurants along the seafront. We were at Hotel Summer Dream… very nicely located at the far end of the beach, set against the cliffs and next to a hole in the rocks which lead to a number of gorgeous little beaches. (In June it was €35 a night for a double room incl. breakfast. This increases to €99 a night in August!)

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This being our third visit to the Riviera, we felt zero need to do touristy sightseeing. Instead, we spent our time moving between the sun-lounger and the sea (with breaks for fresh seafood from the hotel restaurant.) Bliss!

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Access to the Riviera still remains a little awkward if you don’t come with your own private transport. Minibuses are available from Tirana and would take most of the day, or it’s about 2-3 hours from Saranda (connected by ferry with Corfu).

Albania’s Riviera has long attracted tourists – local and foreign – and rightly so. There are few, if any, places left in Europe that can deliver so much gorgeous coastline for so little money. But I can’t see it remaining that way for too much longer. Unfortunately Albania isn’t known for its sympathetic coastal development.

So if you’re planning a European beach holiday this summer then this is a part of the world you should seriously consider – before it’s changed forever.

Not Durres

Like London has Brighton, Tirana has Durres. A quick 45 minute drive down a decent motorway gets you out of the city and to the sea.

The only problem with Durres is that it’s awful.

Rapid and unsympathetic over-development has created a wall of apartment buildings and hotels that loom over the beach. The port built to make the most of Durres’ natural harbour pollutes the water. And the historical significance of this former capital city is over-looked by swarms of summer visitors. You can get away with a pleasant off-season stroll but if you want a decent day trip to the beach – it’s not Durres that you want.

It’s Lalzit Bay.

The weather has been spectacular lately – and unseasonably warm. Unfortunately it’s still too early in the season for the hotel up the road from our house to have filled its swimming pool for the summer (hurry up!). So we decided to find an alternative beach option and headed out of the city on the newly re-sealed Tirana-Durres motorway towards Lalzit Bay. (Take the exit at Maminas and follow the road north).

Thanks to it being the favourite getaway of Albania’s politicians, this expansive beach is easily accessed by a surprisingly good-quality road, and is mercifully undeveloped. Hotels are not permitted! Instead, there are a couple of private villa complexes and a splattering of beach front cafe/restaurants. Unlike most of Albania’s coastline, it’s a lot of very undisturbed beachfront. Brilliant! Obviously this is Tirana’s worst-kept secret day-trip so the weekend traffic in the summer months is out of control, but seeing as we’re happily unemployed, we’ve decided this will be our summer mid-week beach getaway!

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After a very pleasant few hours on the beach we headed off to explore nearby Cape Rodoni. This gorgeous peninsula offers stunning sea views out both sides of the car. We followed the road to the gates of the park (100 lek entrance fee per car), home to the remains of a castle constructed by the Albanian hero Skanderberg in 1467. Much of the castle has now slipped into the sea. But it is well-worth the 20 minute walk (or 5 min boat ride) just for the views. It’s a shame though, that once again,  a site of historical importance is seriously blighted by litter. Sigh.

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Also in the park (by a small beach and fishing wharf) is the beautifully restored St Anthony church, a remnant of the Franciscan community. The church now owns the land (the park entrance fees help maintain it). And apparently once the summer kicks in properly, the park becomes a popular venue for summer parties!

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It was a great little day trip from Tirana. Here’s another great (non-beach-based) day trip easily taken from Tirana.


It’s one of those things, isn’t it, that the time between making a decision to move on from something, and the actual moving on from it, is the killer… it feels that nothing about where you are now is good and everything about where you will be soon is dreamy. And it’s a drag.

And boy have we been feeling that lately!

Not that everything is bad, I mean it’s Albania in the spring. It’s gorgeous blossoms and sunshine and green – it’s the best season! But we have really been experiencing the frustrations of living here. And it’s been hard to pull ourselves out of it!

Lots of people say there are bad things about living here. People drink coffee all day and complain about the lack of jobs, the lack of money, the poor quality of the politicians, about Albania’s multitude of problems. And we sit in coffee shops with friends and theorise about how the biggest problem with Albania is Albanians. We sit with the arrogance of outsiders and suggest that the hangover of a harsh dictatorship may not excuse, but does explain, the pervading culture within the country. But mostly we balk at the size of the problem. I mean, where do you even start with a country like Albania?

Pretty much the best thing we’ve done in the past few months has been investing some time at the farm working on the grapes. My husband’s family have three fields, two of which are mostly grapes which have been pretty much untouched since his parents moved to the nearby town 10 years ago.

So back in February in the deep of winter we spent five days pruning. I learnt how to prune a vine to encourage growth not just for this summer, but in preparation for the summer after. I learnt that it’s all ‘less vine more grape’. Be cruel to be kind. And all of those clichés. For most of the time it seemed pointless. The vines seemed completely dead. We pulled out a lot of them. It was hard physical work and very satisfying. I love the farm so much and to feel like I could actively, positively contribute to such a special place was rewarding but we left two fields of stumpy looking vines and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.

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Before the pruning began

So this month we finally made it back to the farm. I said earlier that spring is the best season, and it really looks its best at the farm. I was so excited to see the grapes. All those dead stumps had been overtaken by new branches and leaves – and baby grapes!

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Baby grapes!

They looked amazing! And following the rule of ‘less vine more grape’ we had to spend another couple of days cutting them back again. All those poor little branches that had worked so hard to grow out of the dead stump ended up as pig fodder! The crop is looking good… there is a lot of fruit there… I can’t wait to see it grow and to be there at harvest time to pick our grapes and make us some wine!

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Sometimes Albania feels a little like the fields of dead stumps. Just a lot of not very much and some serious scepticism that it will ever be something else. My hope of growth comes from seeing the impressive level of innovation amongst younger Albanians. In the absence of opportunity, the best of Albania are those out there making their own opportunities. But it’s hard work for them. And many are actively looking to leave – through whatever means they can find. I recently saw published figures from the Home Office in the UK that Albania is 5th in the list of nationalities applying for asylum in the UK.

But then, as a friend said to me this morning, Albania has progressed further in the last 20 years than any other country in Europe. And its worth remembering that whenever it all gets a bit much.

Spring is the best season in Albania and with local elections only weeks away I can only hope that Albanians start looking for leaders who are going to start encouraging spring growth.


I’m not going to lie to you, the last four months haven’t been the easiest. Since returning from NZ in January we’ve been in this awful limbo… it’s been winter, we’ve been job hunting, and we’ve been seriously curbing our spending which has meant not doing very much at all.

And hanging above our heads has been this enormous question: do we stay or do we go?

Then about a month ago hubby and I had a conversation where we realised we had both quietly come to the same answer to this question: it is time to go. What we both want the most is to… settle down.

And just like that decisions were made. We’re moving to New Zealand!

Unfortunately, nothing in life is just that simple, and there is a bit of a process ahead filling out visa forms etc. But, all going well, our anticipated departure date from Albania is September/October. This gives us one final summer to enjoy everything this gorgeous country has to offer! And thanks to some clever money management on our part, we have the funds to get us through it. Plus, a couple of job opportunities have come up which a) will give us a bit more cash and b) jump-start my brain – which has seriously slipped out of work-mode after 15 months of ‘holiday’.

I’d like to say that it’s the ‘pull’ factors of New Zealand that are dragging us away, but there are definitely ‘push’ factors here which have made our decision easier. Despite its many, many strong points, and the friendships we have built here, Albania is still very much a developing country. It can be a difficult place to live. It has such a complex culture and attitude that it’s hard to understand its psyche. It fascinates me. But it’s hard to live amongst it.

So we have five months left of our Albanian journey and we are excitedly planning our Albanian bucket-list. So much to do. So little time!

Berat: the town of a thousand windows

Berat is on the list of must-sees in every Albanian guide book. The windows of its gorgeous Ottoman houses line both sides of the Osum river and wink at each other in the sunlight. At the top of the hill sits Berat Castle, dating from the 4th century BC – and still inhabited today.

The easiest way to get a feel of the town is to head out on foot and mooch around the narrow cobbled passageways that meander between the stone houses. Below the castle is the Mangalemi neighbourhood. Facing off across the river is Gorica. On the edge of the new town are a number of historic mosques (all well sign-posted) – also worth checking out.

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The castle is pretty impressive. And it’s a slog to get to. Locals drag their cars up the hill – but its super steep and paved with very slippery cobbles. I was convinced my car would just slide back down! So we headed off early on foot, before it got too hot! It was brutal… made worse by being overtaken by small elderly women power walking up the hill carrying their shopping!

It’s well worth it. There are a number of churches in the castle, gorgeous views across the valley and more lovely stone houses. There are also a few restaurants and cafes if all that sightseeing gets a bit much.

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Look out for the giant letters burned into the hill opposite the castle. During the regime they spelt out ENVER – as in Enver Hoxha, Albania’s notorious dictator. Following the regime the letters were altered to spell out NEVER – as in never again… a poignant memorial to a devastating period of Albania’s history.

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We spent a great morning exploring the castle and then, when the sun was getting too scorching, we retreated to the air-conditioned bliss of our hotel room.

Getting to Berat is a bit of a pain in the backside. There are main roads heading to this key tourist destination but when we visited some were still very much under construction. This made for a slow, dusty, bumpy journey. I’ve heard that there hasn’t been much improvement in recent months.

We spent two nights in Berat. It felt a little like one night too many – but then we didn’t bother going to explore the outdoor adventure playground of Tomori (one of Albania’s tallest mountains) and the Osumi Canyons – all hiking, cycling, rafting madness. If that’s your bag, then Berat is a great base to travel from.

Becoming an Albanian housewife


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