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!)

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.

Siesta
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.

Xhiro
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…