Albania’s southeast

With the stunning landscapes of Albania’s Accursed Mountains in the north, and the coastline that runs down the west to the turquoise waters of the Riviera in the south, it’s often the east of Albania that is neglected by visitors to the country.

We neglected it too – but with two months left until we leave Albania for NZ, we’ve finally managed to tick Albania’s southeast off our Albanian bucket-list.

This region is culturally and archaeologically rich. It’s main centre is Korçë. This city has been central in the development of Albanian culture since during the time of the Ottoman rule. It’s home to the first school to teach using the Albanian language. I loved the clean, tidy public space. It felt a very welcoming city. The cathedral is stunning and well-worth popping in to visit. And we had a lovely mooch through the cobbled streets in the surrounding area.

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One of the key tourist attractions listed in Korçë is the church in Mborja, Kishe e Ristozit. We managed to find the pretty little church but it’s currently undergoing restoration (yay!) so is surrounded by scaffolding and is inaccessible (not yay!). Instead, we made the drive up the hill overlooking Korçë, to the church visible from the town. It gives amazing views over the valley.

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We stayed in Voskopojë. This small village, about a 20 min drive from Korçë, was once the largest city in the Balkans with 35,000 citizens, an art school and the first printing press in the region. This was very hard to believe standing in the sleepy village square and looking at the small collection of stone houses! It’s a very pretty little village with clean (litter-free!) streets.

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In every direction there are churches – just a few of the 24 that once stood. We visited several – the most famous being the Church of St Nicholas. (If you find it locked, ask a local and they will help you find the key holder. Alternatively, find the priest!) What a stunning church! This gorgeous gem survived Hoxha’s destruction of churches and mosques when the town ganged together and persuaded him that it was worth preserving this culturally important building. I’m so glad they made the effort. It really is glorious!

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We also made the trip south of Korçë (about 45 min on sealed roads) to another beautifully conserved village – Dardha. Nestled in amongst the mountains, the village was settled by Catholics following what seems to be quite a successful strategy of escaping the Ottomans by setting up home in a very remote and inaccessible part of the country. (Theth is another example of a village settled for this reason!) You can park at the ‘top’ of the village, near the church and meander down steep cobbled streets and past lovely stone cottages and bountiful plum trees. Apparently a number of well-known Albanian politicians and celebrities have houses here which may explain the good quality road and clean and tidy appearance of the village!

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Another big attraction of the southeast is Lake Ohrid which is shared with Macedonia. Pogradec is the main town on the Albanian side of the lake. The town is littered with beaches along its shore and boasts some great public space stretching along the lake front. But our favourite place to stop on Lake Ohrid is the pretty little village of Lin, just a few kilometres outside of Pogradec off the road heading to Elbasan. Lake Ohrid is famous for its fish – the koran in particular – and the nicest place to try this fish is sitting out over the lake at the restaurant in Lin.

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Mali i Dajtit

The best thing about our apartment is that you can walk onto our balcony and look up to the mountain of Dajti. We are the last apartment building before the mountain begins and after us its farm land, small villages and olive groves climbing up the lower slopes to the steep rock face.

Dajti watches over Tirana sprawling out over the flat land below. Its foothills mercifully prevent the urban growth from moving much further east. It’s gloriously fresh with blossom in the spring, green in the summer, orange and red in the autumn, snow-capped in the winter. We’ve come to think of it as our mountain. We have our favourite trails over the foot hills, around the lake, past abandoned tunnels built as bomb shelters during the regime.

Ten years ago the Austrians built a cable car up the mountain. The 20 minute ride provides spectacular views of the mountain (including our apartment!) and Tirana. It’s made the mountain more accessible as the road, while vastly improved, remains very potholed in parts. It’s become a favourite part of our standard itinerary for our overseas visitors.

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The Dajti Express runs from Linze. You can catch the Linze bus from the centre of Tirana. Look for the signs or ask the bus driver to tell you where to jump off the bus. It’s a steep hike from there up Rruga Shefqet Kuka to the cable car station. If you’re feeling less willing to battle public transport then a taxi from the centre of Tirana will cost you approx 700-800 lek.

It’s hard to give you solid operating times for the cable car. Generally, it seems closed on Mondays… and operates from around 9am till 10pm (earlier in the winter). The website currently seems to be closed for refurbishment!

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At the top of the cable car is a hotel, cafe, restaurant, walking trails and fantastic views over Tirana. Behind the hotel is a large grassy area where the kids can ride horses, clamber over bunkers, etc. There are also free mini-buses put on by the restaurants set up on the mountain. Our favourite, by far, is Gurra e Përrisë. The restaurant is in a gorgeous setting surrounded by forest. In the summer you can sit out under the trees. In the winter you can warm up by the log fire. The restaurant is also a trout farm and you can watch the chef catch your fish before its cooked and served.

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The mountain is very walk-able. Tracks are reasonably well-marked. I’m told it takes 3-4 hours to get to the level of the cable car. It’s another 2 hours to the summit. (Confession: we’ve only actually ever made it three-quarters of the way up to the cable car level! The full hike is definitely on our Albanian bucket-list!)

Spring

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.

Limbo

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.

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!

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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