Tag Archives: travel

On being an Albanian housewife

I’m finding it difficult to summarise the personal highlights of the past two years. There are so many! There is nothing like throwing yourself miles out of your comfort zone for delivering very big highs and inevitably some deep lows. We’ve had them all! I’ll do my best to keep it brief… (Warning: this post  is not really at all about making byrek)

Albanian housewife best bits

  1. I am the happiest I think I’ve ever been

Which isn’t to say I’m not also anxious about the next few months settling into life in NZ… a little stressed about getting everything done before we leave in a week (!)… and sad about saying goodbye to people and places I’ve come to love deeply. But I am deeply, contentedly happy in my life.

2. Yay for two-year honeymoons!

Now please do not be under any illusions… Spending the first two years of marriage with your partner 24/7 on a wild adventure does not necessarily mean you come out the other side with the world’s most blissful relationship. We’ve had to take the rough with the smooth. But being able to see my hubby in his ‘natural environment’ and learn more about his family and culture has enriched me, and our relationship, and has certainly given me a much greater appreciation for how utterly fabulous he is. I’ve loved the time we have been able to spend together and I know that we will miss each other when we have to return to busy working lives.

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3. I have a new appreciation for ‘family’

Albanian families are definitely a whole other level of ‘tight knit’. The family is central to everything – and not just the immediate family. Second and third cousins can be considered close family. We had nearly 200 people at our wedding last year – and that was just ‘close family’! I love the respect younger generations have for older generations. I love the time people are happy to give to family, the ease at which conversation flows when the family is together. It makes me excited to return to my family in NZ after 12 years overseas.

4. I have learnt a lot from the Albanian women in my life

Albania would fall apart without its women. The women I have been privileged to spend time with here are fierce, hard-working, generous, hospitable, strong, resilient, resourceful, beautiful, loving people. I am in constant admiration of their willingness to put the needs of others before themselves. They are entirely selfless in a way that I can only aspire to be. While my world tells me I should put myself first – that I need to carve out ‘me’ time – I look at these women and I think it would probably do me better to live a life that’s a little less about me. I am going to really truly miss not having these women in my life on a daily basis.

5. I discovered I’m a little bit ‘country’

I am, truth be told, a born and bred city girl. I grew up in the ‘burbs of NZ’s largest city and then moved to London, arguably one of the world’s greatest cities. So I am quite proud to have discovered that I can pull off a passable impression of a country girl if I try hard enough! I love hanging out on the farm in my gumboots (wellies), wielding a pitchfork and hoeing the potatoes! I loved the process of nurturing our grapevines and producing some pretty awesome wine and raki. I will happily admit that I am probably a fair weather country girl and I know that should I find myself in the situation where I was to be living in the sticks full time, the gloss would probably wear off super fast. But still, drinking wine made from grapes I grew? Gotta take some credit for that!

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This is the penultimate post of this Albanian housewife blog. Some people have suggested I keep writing but for me it feels like a good place to stop. So with one week left in Albania, my next post will bid mirupafshim (goodbye).

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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 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.

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!