Balkans: Albania

I confess to knowing little about Albania before my arrival other than it was home to thousands of solid concrete bunkers built by a communist leader convinced his country would be attacked. Hoxha (pronounced Hodger), who kept his people in the firm bosom of isolation departed this world in 1985, and since the nineties, Albania has been opening albeit slowly to tourism.

We crossed the Macedonian/Albanian border from Lake Ohrid and spent 10 days visiting UNESCO listed towns Berat and Gjirokastra, the Albanian Riviera and the capital Tirana. We thoroughly enjoyed Albania.

Berat ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’ is Ottoman magic. Spreading up the hills on either side of the Osum River, impressive white Ottoman houses bear testament to this empire’s 500 year reign. We stayed in an authentic Ottoman house, Guva Mangalem Hotel, built from dark timber and found at the top of a hill along an authentic narrow, winding cobblestone path. Yes, it was a hike but the views were worth it. The feature photo for this blog was taken from our hotel room.

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Cafes line the rather long pedestrian path linking old town and new town. Food and drinks are inexpensive.

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Night view – heaving with locals who promenade for hours enjoying the warmer spring weather after a cold winter.
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Ottoman Bridge Gorica
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Two faiths co exist.
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Pedestrian walk continues into new town
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We were approached by these young people who asked our opinion about their proposal for a future tourist camping ground in Berat. It was a wonderful discussion and we couldn’t help but be impressed by their enthusiasm for their town.
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Ali Pasha Gate named after the Ottoman Albanian who rose to the rank of governor
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Berat Castle 2500 years old. A village of people still lives within the castle walls and there’s a fabulous museum here too.
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View of modern Berat from the castle. The dome like structure is Berat University
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Views from the castle – green as far as the eye can see.

UNESCO listed Gjorokastra is a 3 hour taxi ride from Berat. It too, is an Ottoman town packed to the brim with beautiful houses. There’s also an interesting bazaar, a great castle worth exploring and a concrete bunker.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at this family run hotel with its fabulous home cooked meals and spacious rooms.

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View from our hotel room
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More views from hotel
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Melting snow and rich, green agricultural land
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Enjoyed a raki and Albanian red at a friendly cafe while taking in this great view
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The famous bazaar – the roads have been dug up in preparation for the laying of new cobblestones
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View of the 17th century bazaar from above
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Yes, I’m a dork! I collect small tiles when I travel – the type I can use to rest a drink. I went one better at the ‘City of Stone’ bazaar though and bought a large stone tile etched by the master himself, Muhedin Makri. It’s very Gjirokastran with the castle, Ottoman houses and Albanian double headed eagle. I love it. Now I have to carry it!
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Muhedin Makri at work in front of his shop. He is a third generation stone carver and has taught his skills to his son and grandson.
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Gjirokastra’s famous 13th century castle has an impressive mountain backdrop
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Clock Tower at castle
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Inside the castle are these cannons left over from World War II when Albania defended itself against Germany and Italy
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This is one small part of the arsenal at the Arms Museum at the castle.
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The castle prison was used until 1968

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Views from the castle

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Skenduli House was built in 1823 and owned by the Skenduli family until it was confiscated by the communists and turned into a museum. It was returned to the family in 1992. We met and spoke to the current owner who lives elsewhere, but is often at the house to speak to visitors.
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One of the rooms in the house – splendid Turkish rugs on show
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Hoxho’s birth place.

We tried for two days to get inside Hoxha’s bunker, but it remained closed. It has 59 rooms, maybe more, has some furniture inside although much was looted after 1992, and is in original condition. I’ve borrowed a photo from Tripadvisor to show you, because if you are in Gjirokastra, it would be most interesting to see how Hoxha’s extreme paranoia gave birth to thousands of concrete bunkers.

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From Gjirokastra, we headed south to Ksamil via Sarande in a bus which was actually a station wagon where the boot had been converted into extra seating. Luggage was tied on top. The ‘bus’ would not leave until 6 people paid $A5 each. Our ‘bus’ needed two more people and after waiting half an hour, I approached the driver with an extra $A10 and google translator, and we were off. The elderly Albanian lady passenger held my hand in thanks, the young Albanian man laughed with the driver at the “Ostralias’.

Ksamil was fantastic. It’s located on the Albanian Riviera, but there is nothing pretentious about this place. It’s laid back and very, very grounded. I loved it. There’s plenty of coves and beaches for swimming (not for me since the European winter has lingered into Spring). There’s also plenty of beaut cafes and restaurants. We stayed three days (not enough time) in a very cute guest house run by an incredibly warm and friendly husband and wife team.

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Our guesthouse offers just 2 guest rooms. The owners also live on site.

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Our lovely hosts – so genuine and kind -we couldn’t speak each other’s language, but we did a good job of conversing through Google translator. The freshest, warmest bread was delivered to our room each morning.

It’s almost tourist season and there’s a flurry of activity as owners spruce up their cafes, shops and guest houses. A number of buildings are still being constructed and it’s easy to see why Ksamil which is just near the Greek border and within spitting distance of Corfu is popular. It is absolutely beautiful and I desperately want to return.

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The Greek island Corfu in the distance
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Lovely cafes line the beaches
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When in Albania – olive salad, tzatziki and red wine – delicious

A short 15 minute bus ride from Ksamil is the famous ancient site of Butrint. It’s 2500 years old, is a nod to both Ancient Greece and Rome and a delight to walk around its 97 acres.

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Theatre
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Basilica
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Stunning mosaics cover the floor of the Bapistery, but we couldn’t see them. They are covered with gravel to protect them from rising water levels. Soon, all the mosaics will be removed and exhibited in a museum.
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The Agora

From Ksamil we headed further north along the Albanian Riveria coastline to Dhermi. Our taxi driver, who we secured in Sarande talked very honestly about his family, the appalling years of Hoxha’s rule (likening it to modern day North Korea with a dictator and secret police) and the best places on the Albanian Riviera.

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Most taxi drivers buy a Mercedes Benz because ‘they are strong’. Germany has offloaded a number of these older model cars onto Albania.

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This raki cafe has been built around a natural spring. The noise from the rushing water was deafening.
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Himare Beach – a very popular summer vacation spot on the Albanian Riviera
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Dhermi Beach – also on Albanian Riveria
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Dhermi – 8 churches in this small town

Our last port of call was Tirana, capital of Albania and it’s here that our travel plans changed. Our beautiful daughter took ill and is in hospital. So, we are winging our way home. I need to. Somehow travel loses its shine when something like this happens. I can travel another time, but right now I need to get home and get my daughter’s health on track. Sepsis is a hard gig. Until next blog …

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