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.

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!

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.

Becoming an Albanian housewife