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.

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.

It’s what isn’t in Saranda that makes it worth visiting…

It’s a crying shame that the town probably visited by the most overseas visitors to Albania is Saranda. Its close proximity to Corfu (30 min on the hydrofoil, 70 min on the car ferry) makes it a popular day trip destination for tour groups from the island’s resorts. But Saranda does not come close to showing off Albania at its best.

The town feels squashed in between the seafront and surrounding mountains and is dominated by unattractive concrete buildings and hotels. The most appealing part of the town is the promenade that stretches along the seafront but even that seems to lack personality. (In saying that, you can find the best ice cream you will ever taste from the cafes on the promenade!)

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We used Saranda as a base for visiting Corfu and for seeing the nearby sights. Because it’s what’s around Saranda that makes it worth visiting…

Butrint

It’s hard to believe that this expansive park is of such archeological and historical importance mostly because there’s hardly anyone there! Compared to the mobs of tourists that swarm all over other more well-known historical sites in other countries, this place is a dream! It’s huge, the ruins are seriously impressive, and it is a gorgeous park.

You can easily spend half a day mooching around the Greek, Roman, Venetian and Byzantine ruins that were only discovered in 1927. The highlight for me was the Roman theatre.

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Note: when you leave Butrint, don’t just drive back up the road towards Saranda. It’s worth going across the small estuary on quite possibly the scariest cable ferry ever. Foot passengers are free, but if you’re brave enough to drive your car onto the rotting raft of random bits of wood and an old school chair then the small ticket price is totally worth it for the adrenaline rush! (If you do make the trip – then you might just want to turn around and take the trip straight back – there’s not much to see on the other side!)

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Ksamili

Don’t ever ask me to try to pronounce this name! Despite extensive coaching from my hubby, I’ve still not been able to master the ‘k’ and ‘s’ sound right next to each other!

This gorgeous seaside resort has suffered from the usual poorly planned over development. But if you can see past all that, then the little beaches, islands and turquoise blue water are well worth a visit. We stopped for lunch after our morning at Butrint.

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It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to do a day trip to the Blue Eye from Saranda (see my previous blog post).

Where we stayed
We stayed at Hotel Olympia. The location was great. The room was not. It was super tiny – sleeping all four of us – with a bathroom that flooded. And the breakfast was rubbish. But it was cheap and had a fantastic swimming pool. However, it was the thumping dance music played out by the swimming pool until stupid o’clock at night that killed it for us. In the end I stormed outside in my pjs and turned down the stereo myself – to the complete astonishment of the hotel staff. In addition, the horseshoe shape of Saranda, coupled with the surrounding hills, basically makes the town a massive amphitheatre. It felt like the nightclubs dotting the beachfront were right there in our tiny bedroom. We actually cancelled our last night’s accommodations and travelled to Gjirokastra a day earlier than planned!

The stone city

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog front in the past few weeks… it’s the tail end of winter and aside from a week at the farm pruning the grapes, we’ve not been up to much. So I thought that with the weather warming up, you lot will be starting to plan your summer holidays… so it’s about time I did a round-up of some of the Albanian destinations we’ve enjoyed – just in case you’re planning on heading our way!

Gjirokastra

Often over-shadowed in the tour books by nearby Berat, this UNESCO World Heritage Site actually wins the race for me. The old town in southern Albania tumbles down the hill from the enormous castle perched on top. Car tyres and tourists slide on smooth cobbles on the steep streets. The town is full of beautifully restored Ottoman buildings. Seriously atmospheric!

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Gjirokastra is also the home town of two of Albania’s famous sons – author Ismail Kadare, and perhaps remembered less fondly, the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

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We loved visiting Gjirokastra’s castle (tickets: 200 lek). It was worth the hard slog up the hill. It’s huge vaulted chambers house a strange collection of enemy artillery seized during World War 2. Parts of the castle were also used as a prison up until 1971. Now it houses the National Armaments Museum. Outside are the remnants of a US airforce spy plane shot down in 1957 and great views across the valley.

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It’s worth wandering the town to check out the beautiful Ottoman houses. A few can be explored such as Zekate House and Skenduli House. The Skenduli House is currently being restored. There are opportunities to participate in the restoration work.

In the centre of town is the Bazaar – full of small shops featuring local arts and crafts – definitely worth a wander just to enjoy the vibe.

What’s nearby
The Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër) is not far off the main road from Gjirokastra to Saranda and is well sign-posted. It’s a underwater spring that bubbles up to the surface creating a deep blue pool. Its stunning and well worth the trip.

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The Ottoman bridge at Bënja is amazing – but difficult to get to due to the poor condition of the road. Thermal springs turn the river white, and give it a sulphuric perfume!

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Where we stayed
We stayed at Kotoni B&B in one of Gjirokastra’s gorgeous old buildings. The rooms are all decorated traditionally and our hosts were super welcoming.

Further reading!
Ismail Kadare’s novel Chronicle in Stone is one of my favourite books ever – and not just because it’s about Gjirokastra. It’s a great story and beautifully written. I recommend it – even if you’re not planning on travelling to Albania!

Four seasons

Today marks one year since my arrival in Albania and with it, the passing of four seasons …

Winter

We arrive here in late winter… brown earth, snow-capped mountains and rain, rain and more rain. In winter I settle into my new home, meet my new family and learn to drive on the pot-holed chaotic roads. I learn to make byrek. We battle infuriating bureaucracy and spend many wet mornings queuing for paperwork. We network (Albanian’s are great at networking) and I secure some volunteer work with a local NGO. I get my first glimpse of the farm in all its isolated glory and fall in love with Albania’s gorgeous countryside.

What’s growing
Hudhër (garlic)
A rare splash of green in the fields in otherwise brown earth. People eat large amounts of raw garlic. So the smell of raw garlic is etched into my nostrils. It is a rare green vege in a winter of cabbage and potatoes.

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Spring

Spring arrives quickly. The country erupts into gorgeous fresh greens and the sparkling yellow of the mimosa. The weather improves and suddenly it’s all sunshine and blue skies. And beers on the balcony. We spend spring planning and organising for the summer ahead – the wedding, the holiday, the road trip. We bully the bureaucrats into giving my hubby’s cousin a new leg.

What’s growing
Kastravec (cucumber)
I’ve never tasted such deliciousness. So fresh. So much flavour. The first hint of summer’s bounty!

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Summer

Summer is a heady season for us in Albania. It is full of life, food, dancing… We have family and friends join us for our manic Albanian wedding. We show off our new country at its best. All blue skies and crystal clear waters. Then the country starts to tan in the burning sun and the only way to survive it is to hide. We wake early when it is still cool, and rush around to get the chores of the day completed before midday. Then, when the sun reaches its high point, we shelter on the sofa… the fan running on high… and hide until the day cools and the whole neighbourhood comes out to ‘xhiro’… the daily promenade of families and friends.

What’s growing
Shalqi (watermelon)
So many of them… piled up into small mountains along the edge of the road. And so sweet and refreshing.

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Autumn

It’s slow to arrive. It’s like the summer is reluctant to leave. But the sun has done its job and the fields are ready to harvest. We head to the farm to pick the grapes. Mats are laid out on the road where corn dries – ready to be turned into flour. We plan and prepare for our NZ adventure. We ponder our next steps.

What’s growing
Rrush (grapes)
The vines at the farm are heavy with their crop. We cut bunches of plump fruit and load them into baskets for the donkey to carry down to the house to be made into wine.

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The last year has quite simply been the best decision we could have made and our greatest adventure.

Homecoming

In my head I have daydreams of sunshine and beaches – of good times with family and friends – of new places and memories with my hubby… it is the daydream of my two months in NZ.

Anyone who knows me well, knows I have previously returned from trips to my homeland more than a little ambivalent about the thought of returning there to live. But this time was different. It was two months of seeing the settled, orderly domestic bliss that we could have in the future. This wasn’t helped by being at ‘that’ stage of life when visits with friends consisted of ‘here is my new house and here are my new children’ – all of which was amazing. The houses were large, airy, well-positioned, with gardens and ‘lifestyle’. The children, without fail, were gorgeous, intelligent, amusing little miniatures of my much-loved friends. (You all make such lovely kiddies! And I am so proud of you for the happiness you create for yourselves!)

I heard a discussion on the radio about the value of giving gifts for Christmas vs. giving ‘experiences’. There was talk about how ‘experiences’ lasted much longer than ‘things’. But oh, in my two months of sampling the domestic bliss that my friends enjoy, oh, how I want things! This came rushing home to me, literally, when we arrived back at our apartment in Tirana. The apartment with four cups, six knives, six forks, six chairs, six plates and one ancient TV. Our recent investment has definitely been in ‘experience’ over ‘things’. All well and good but I still crave things. I crave things so bad. I bought a cushion for 150 lek to make myself feel better.

At the end of the day, what is making my transition back to life in Tirana a challenge is fear. It’s not an unfamiliar fear. I felt it when I left university and had to figure out how to make my own life. I felt it when I packed up my life in NZ for an unknown one in London. And again when we moved to Tirana a year ago. And I knew that when I returned here from NZ that fear was waiting for me.

So we are back to face the fear! I felt the reassuring pang of homecoming as the plane floated past the mountains into Tirana. The traffic madness felt familiar. I recognised snatches of conversation. Our local shopkeeper was delighted to see us. The guy from the car wash stopped to say hello. We had joyful reunions with family and friends. We have been missed in our absence. And I think knowing you are missed makes a place feel like home.

We face some real challenges in finding employment. To say the current job market is difficult is an understatement and it has become abundantly clear that it’s not going to be a matter of responding to a job ad. We’re going to have to create our own jobs and this pushes me well out of my comfort zone.  Wish me luck!

NZ vs Albania – a tourist’s comparison

Happy New Year! We’re rapidly coming to the end of our two months in NZ. It’s been a precious time with family and friends – and it’s been amazing being a tourist in the country I grew up in! We’re fortunate to have friends and family scattered all over the country so we’ve pulled in all sorts of favours and enjoyed all the beauty NZ has to offer.

Central Auckland
Central Auckland

Having spent most of the past year being a tourist, it’s been interesting to compare the good, bad and ugly between NZ and Albania’s approach to tourism. NZ is arguably a world leader in this area and Albania is definitely the new kid on the block – still a little rough around the edges, but with loads of potential. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed…

Clean and green
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… Albania has got to sort out its litter problem. Being in NZ’s pristine countryside has highlighted for me again how significantly Albania’s landscapes are spoiled by the litter that lies everywhere. Kiwi’s take pride in keeping their country clean. There is so much to be proud of in Albania and Albanians could do with taking some pride in their country.

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Cape Reinga

Connectivity
Seriously NZ, what’s with the terrible wifi access? How can hotels still get away with charging so much for wifi? Astonishingly, Albania totally wins this one. Free wifi is readily available – almost everywhere. And I could get a 3G network in the depths of the Theth valley (arguably one of the remotest areas of Europe) yet have no network service whatsoever in large areas of not-that-rural NZ.

To be fair, why would you want an internet connection when you've got these views?! (Lake Wanaka)
To be fair, why would you want an internet connection when you’ve got these views?! (Lake Wanaka)

Get online
Ironically, while Albania has great wifi access, there are relatively few tourism-related businesses online. These days, tourists book everything online. If you don’t have an online presence you will not be noticed. This was never more obvious than when we were in Thethi. The guest house we stayed in was the only one in the area offering online booking – and it was noticeably busier than any other accommodation provider in the entire valley. If Albania is going to become the tourism hotspot it deserves, and desires, to be, its tourism providers are going to have to get online.

Leave it be
I have often said that one of the things I love most about NZ is how we interact with the nature around us. Other countries build all over their areas of outstanding natural beauty… NZ just lets it be. It works around nature, not over it. Albania is struggling with this at the moment and is attempting to undo some bad development along the coastline. But I worry that if the coming tourism boom isn’t properly managed, Albania risks loosing a significant part of what makes it so special.

Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef glacier

Stop the eye-rolling
New Zealanders are very friendly – but they don’t tend to suffer fools. There is a straightforward, brusque-ness about much of NZ’s customer service which, frankly, can feel like being reprimanded by your mum. There’s much to be admired in this no-nonsense attitude but I feel perhaps there’s something to be learned from the Albanian approach to hospitality. There have been times when I’ve felt a little sorry for tourists bumping up against the Kiwi form of customer service. They can look a little stunned – like they didn’t expect to get the eye-roll and ‘are you that stupid’ reaction to what they felt was a reasonable question.

Make it easy to get around
Having grown up with NZ’s love for the motor vehicle, in my mind there was no way you could get around NZ without your own car. And to be fair, there’s no denying that it makes life so much easier and we have been so fortunate to have had the loan of a friend’s car for our time here. Despite this, it has been great to see (and experience) how much easier it has become to get around NZ sans private vehicle. And Albania really needs to crack this if its to successfully become a tourist hotspot. Currently visitors to Albania have the option of either renting a car and risking their lives on the roads, or gaining enough language skills to enable them to use the somewhat anarchic public transport system of furgons and mini-buses. In fact, it was only in the last few months that Albania finally got a published bus timetable.

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So with less than three weeks so go in NZ, we are spending as much time as we can with family and friends. I can say genuinely that I’ve enjoyed my visit home more than any other visit I’ve had before. It has been so much fun to see NZ through my hubby’s eyes. And I’ve loved those moments when the car has climbed over the crest of another hill, or crawled around a sharp corner, and an entire new picture-postcard vista has unfurled before us and my hubby utters an awestruck ‘WOW!’. Priceless!

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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