Days 46 and 47 – To Tiranë via Vlorë and then Italy

We managed to get to Vlorë, the port town north of Orikum very easily, and the bus was only half full! Then a quick walk up the road to reach the other bus terminal to catch our bus to Tiranë, Albania’s capital city.

Statue in Vlorë celebrating independance from Ottoman rule in 1912

On the way we passed a rather heroic sculpture reminding us that Vlorë is the place where independance from Ottoman rule was declared in 1912.

The 2½ hour journey to Tiranë took us to the main north/south bus terminal on the outskirts of the city. The terminal was a piece of mayhem that seemed to just about work, with buses arriving and departing all the time in a general melée.  There was the usual scrum of insistent taxi drivers trying to get fares.. However we knew the city bus was a flat fare of 40 Lek each (around 35p) for the 3.5km ride into the city centre, so we headed for the bus stop on the main road outside. A bus arrived quite quickly so we got on… however after about ½km we realised we had caught the bus in the wrong direction! Off we got to get the bus in the right direction (for another 80 Lek.)

Skanderberg – an Albanian hero from Ottoman times who fought the Ottomans to try and achieve independance.

Once installed in our accommodation we began exploring and orientating ourselves. Conveniently, not far from where we were staying, in Skanderberg Square, there was a ‘free’ walking tour of the city centre starting at 6pm. The idea is you pay what you can or feel is right.. at the appointed time there was a group of around 40 so assembled so the 2 guides split the group between them.

Our guide was a very knowledgable historian who was resident in Tiranë but was actually an American. As we visited each feature we were given very interesting background information, not only on the building or sight, but also some contextual history.

A piece of the Berlin Wall donated to Albania by Germany following re-unification. Situated next to one of Hoxha’s ‘mushroom’ bunkers in a central Tiranë park

The tour lasted around two hours and helped us more easily navigate Tiranë during our stay and decide on the places we might want to visit.

One of the features of the tourism ‘offer’of Tiranë is the focus on the leftovers of the postwar Hoxha period when Albania isolated itself not only from surrounding countries but most of the rest of the world, bar North Korea and China.

The major sites include Bunk’Art and Bunk’Art2. The original Bunk’Art is 4km or so from the centre and is also quite close to Tirana’s very own cable car which can take you 1,000mtrs up into the mountains that lie to the north. So we combined a visit to both places. Bunk’Art is reached either by local bus @40Lek or a taxi ride likely to be anything up to 20 times that, and probably in Euros as well.

Local bus was fine, but was also well used, so it somewhat inevitably meant standing for the 20 minute ride.

The guy at the ticket office for Bunk’Art helpfully pointed out that we were both entitled to an older person’s discount, which was around half price… he then pointed out we also could buy a combined ticket for BunkArt2 at the reduced price, and this meant we had entrance for both sites at a little less than full price ticket for one site.

Walking to the entrance tunnel to, what is esentially a cold war nuclear bunker buried deep in the mountain, was a weird feeling, especially since just outside the tunnel was a very old and rusty children’s playground.

As you went through thick airlock after airlock the temperature fell to the steady 16C temperature that the site has all year round.

You then passed through room after room in the huge underground complex, each filled with exhibits that tell of Albania’s history from the time it was free from Ottoman rule in the early part of the 20th Century, through the time Italy annexed the country in the 30’s , to the second world war and Nazi occupation, the communist post war period and almost up to the present day.

Guarding the exit of BunkArt’

Walking out of the lower entrance you passed an eerie armed gas masked statue of a soldier before re-entering normal life in the outer suburbs of the city… then a short walk through the backstreets to the pretty modern Austrian made cable car complex, where loads of tour coaches and taxis were parked up, either having just dropped off their passengers or waiting for their returning sightseers.

The 15 minute ride in the cable car gondola was well worth the €10 return fare. Travelling high above trees, the odd house dotted about, cliffs and outcrops it was very peaceful, since the cable car was almost silent. You could hear birdsong, and water coursing down an unseen stream through the open window vent as the cabin climbed ever higher.

The top station, where we had our lunch sitting on a bench facing a panoramic view of Tiranë was rather an anticlimax, apart from the view of course. There was a collection of amusement activities, including go carting, crazy golf and a shooting arcade. None of which seemed to be attracting many customers. It was possible to seek out some paths away from this into the wooded mountainside but, unusually for this part of Albania at this time of year it had been raining and there were some low clouds scudding about so it may not necessarily have been that pleasant.

Back down again, we continued our wanderings, taking in an attractive produce market, the “Pyramid” of Tiranë and the outside of the city’s oldest building, the 14th century mosque which looked particularly attractive. We weren’t able to go inside, sadly, and admire the architecture, for it was a very busy mosque for worshop so had restricted visiting hours for tourists.

We climbed the “Pyramid” and admired the cityscape from the top. This included very bold architectural forms, together with the familiar older architecture of mosques and churches.

We rounded off the evening at a very good restaurant that had been recommended to us which served good quality Albanian cuisine. Unfortunately the Albanian dancing to accompany the dining was only presented at weekends, and this was Thursday!

The following day we wanted to leave Tiranë at around 2pm to catch one of the many buses that connect the capital city with the country’s main port, Durrës, so we had a little more time in the morning to see a few more sights. This included Bunk’Art2 which was  very close to the main square. This was entered via a recreated “mushroom” bunker which mimicked the design of the hundreds of thousands that Enver Hoxha had built across Albania.

It caused some controversy when it was built some 7 years ago, since some people who had lived under the paranoid dictatorship thought it amounted to a celebration of the brutal period in the past. Having visited it, it provided a sensitive record of the thousands of people who lost their lives who were regarded as traitors or were shot for leaving the country. All this housed in an extensive nuclear bunker in the city centre which was designed to maintain some form of elite government after nuclear attack.

And so to Durres to catch our ferry to Bari.

Following our previous visit when we arrived we thought we might see if the town was more attractive than we thought previously… after all it had a Roman amphitheatre!

The few hours spent before our departure confirmed our previous assesment. There was little to appreciate beyond a long tree lined promenade… and the amphitheatre barely could be discerned from the pile of stones we could see beyond the boundary fence.

Leaving Durres port.

Day 45 – Orikum

And so to Orikum. The journey in our almost empty furgon from Himarë was spectacular. The road hugged the mountainous coastline on our journey northwards. We twisted and twined up mountainsides with magnificent views down the coast far below.

We passed through the occasional hilltop villages and picked up the occasional passenger and then we descended the twisty and  sometimes sharp descents over the other side which took us through the  thickly forested Llogara National Park area.

The scenery here now cool and misty with forested vistas being quite a contrast to the more arid and hot coastal plain.

Eventually, we were back down on the coastal plain where we reached Orikum, with the town having two distinct halves. The more populated residential area and the beach area with its small hotels and bars strung out along the sea shore.

The place we stayed at was Maxola’s Dream, a small fairly basic family-run guesthouse right on the beach with its own parasols and loungers ready set up for lazy days at the seaside. The guest house took its name from a famous Albanian footballer from Vlorë who often visited Orikum in the past.

Our original reason for spending two nights here at Orikum was to try and take a boat trip exploring the caves and coves on a nearby peninsula which was a National Park and Marine Protection Zone. Unfortunately we hadn’t realised that such trips needed to be organised from Vlorë a large town some 20km away up the coast. Although it would only take about 1 hour on the bus with a 300 lek  fare for both of us (€3) we would not be able to get to Vlorë early enough to take a boat trip.

So, a lazy beach day it had to be under the parasol on the loungers beside the sea.

It was an attractive, shingly beach, with lovely views of the mountains ringing the town which you could admire if you were swimming.

In the evening we went for a beautifully peaceful dusk time stroll to explore a large brackish water lagoon with extensive reed beds around it that was a short distance from where we were staying. We later found out from a faded interpretation board we passed on our way into Orikum main town (to buy lunchtime supplies) that it was an important migratory bird feeding zone and was part of the National Park protection zone.

The walk into ‘town’ was down a wide decently paved and tree lined boulevard which contrasted somewhat with the smaller tarmacked road beside the beachfront. We wondered whether there had been, at some time in the past, plans to extensively develop the beach area, but for whatever reason had not taken place.

Although disappointing that we were denied our planned boatrip it was nice enough to laze about for a day, with cooling dips in the sea from time to time.

We met some Kosovans who were also staying at the hotel and we had some interesting conversations with them. For example, about how Kosova was once part of Albania and how, after the collapse of the communist regime in Albania that Kosovans were the trailblazers for the fledgling Albanian tourism industry as it gradually emerged from its peculiar self-enforced isolation. Interestingly, they considered that Albania was now getting quite ‘Mediterranean’ in its culture, and changing from its original Balkan identity, which they felt landlocked Kosova retained.

The next day we planned to take the bus up to Vlorë and then onward for our last two nights in Albania spending a little time in its capital city, Tiranë. Of course, we had previously checked out where one had to stand to catch buses to get to Vlorë since there were no obvious signed bus stops. Just a convenient shady tree on the main road near a bar/cafe for handy refreshments.

Day 44 – Himarë

Today we move on up the coast to Himarë, a smaller town to Sarandë and where, reputedly there are some nice beaches to enjoy.

Having checked where ‘furgons’ and buses left Sarandë for Himarë we were quickly able to find  a furgon that was nearly full with a sign ‘Himarë’ displayed in the windscreen. There was an Australian called Jerry who was also interested to get to the same destination so with the three of us , all seats were then taken and off we went.

Up the twisty road into the coastal hills and along cliff top stretches and down into seaside villages we went as we followed the road to our destination. During our sardine-like ride we got to know Luisa, a Portuguese lady seated near us in the minibus, and together with Jerry the four of us exchanged travellers’ tales as one often does when on the road. The 1½ hour ride soon passed and we were all able to unfold ourselves out of the full minibus at Himarë.

At first sight this seemed an attractive place with two stretches of sandy beaches book-ended with woodland and without much development up into the hinterland. And it was not nearly so busy as Sarandë.

Now to find our accommodation, booked through whivh seems to be the  website of preference for most Albanian accommodation providers. Cryptically the directions given said… “follow the steps opposite the pizza place ‘La Famiglia’ up to the top. If you have a low car best to find parking in town because our street is under construction”

Google maps was not indicating any paths to the pin position provided and our open source mapping app showed a bit of a spiders web of pathways. Anyhow, following pathways, past a digger in the process of constructing a new road and over a few mounds of gravel we got as close as we could to the map pin. Suddenly we noticed a small handwritten sign stuck to a gate, no larger than A6 with ‘Tasos House’ displayed on it, that being the name of the place we were staying in.

We were greeted by an elderly couple who clearly lived there and who, it turned out, were Greek… and they only spoke Greek and Albanian.  Anyhow, daughter was on the end of a phone, who spoke English, so we were able to check in and pay her parents the agreed €35 for the room. It seems daughter is the organiser of the letting of the 3 or 4 rooms in the house and her parents do the ‘meet and greet’ and room cleaning and preparation.

The steps down to the sea front from our accommodation

Our pleasant room had a sea-facing balcony with a lovely view over the bay and mountains beyond. Being a little way above the seafront bars and restaurants it was also nice and peaceful.

Then to the beach, where we again met Jerry (of the bus) who very conveniently had a parasol with him that had been loaned by the backpackers hostel where he was staying. We all were able to sit in its shade whilst more travellers’ tales were exchanged; these interspersed with refreshing dips in the clear blue waters of the bay to cool off from the powerful heat and sunlight.

On the beach

Thus we passed a pleasant and lazy beach afternoon spent in the sunshine.

We three decided to meet up again for dinner, inviting Luisa who was staying at Livadi beach, the next bay a short distance along the coast.

Having toured the various beachfront restaurants, and with somewhat involved conversations with puzzled ‘greeters’ about gluten free AND vegetarian foods, we elected to go to a Taverna style establishment a couple of blocks in from the front. We duly Whatsapped Jerry with our location and shortly after we enjoyed a nice meal together, with Luisa joining us at ‘Portugese eating time’ somewhat later, having had a rather convoluted journey from her apartment to reach us.

The next day we planned to get to Orikum some 60km further up the coast, since it looked possible to take a boat trip from there along a marine protection zone nearby.

However, before we left,  we decided to take a little ramble over the headland, to Levadi beach which we estimated to be about 5km over paths and tracks.

We managed to find the steps leading us up and out of Himarë  but, disconcertingly it led us to a construction site. However, we could see the continuation of the path beyond the workings, and decided to walk through the site to reach it. No hi-viz clad foreman shouted at us and workers seemed totally unconcerned at us walking through.

We continued on our narrow path steeply upward, then down through woodland and across some rocks, where we came across a beautifully situated little bar/cafe nestling in a secret cove. So, of course, refreshments had to be ordered and enjoyed.

The woman at the bar told us how to get to Levadi and off we went up some steep steps and onto the footpath again. This time we noticed the occasional footpath markers painted in red and white flashes onto convenient stones to show us the way.

Footpath markings to guide us

The beach was lovely – a long stretch of soft gravel and sand backed by trees and with a small number of beachside bars and restaurants strung along the rear of the beach that had yet to open up for the season.

As we retraced our path we were saddened by the amount of discarded plastic bottles and packaging to be seen. So, using a couple of plastic bags we had in our pockets from fruit we had bought earlier, we litter picked as we went. By the time we reached Himarë we had two small carrier bags full which we were able to place in the litter bins on the sea front. Hopefully this would be recycled or at least processed appropriately rather than littering a beautiful place.

We did not have to wait long at the accepted waiting area beside some shops before a furgon arrived headed for Vlore, a large town some 75km away and beyond Orikum where we were headed.

Days 41, 42 & 43 – A few days in Sarandë

Sarandë is not only a beach resort in the South of Albania but also a ferry terminal with frequent services to the Greek island of Corfu, just 12km or so away. It is also large enough to have good connections to various places of interest in the vicinity which is why we decided to stay here a few days.

Our booked apartment was comfortable enough,  close to the centre and also  very near the seafront promenade. It was also  within earshot of the local mosque, so at least we knew when to pray if we wanted to!

Sarandë is not a particularly attractive place, and most of the beaches that are within walking distance seemed to be private – to the extent that they relate to a particular bar which rents out recliners and parasols at a daily rate. These tend to fill the entire beach area. However, the two public beaches just in front of the promenade are nice enough, and just a three minute walk away from our apartment so we used them for refreshing swims in the late afternoon once we had got back from whatever trip we had been on for the day.

Fortunately there was a tourist information office a short walk away so we had the potential of finding out useful information such as places to see locally and how we could reach them by public transport and from where. It was unclear when it was open since no opening hours were shown and during what might be normal working hours it was usually without anyone inside. So we relied upon checking as we passed by on the street. Anyhow, when it was open one time when we were passing, we were able to gather relevant information that we needed.

The Blue Eye – Syri i Kaltë

The Blue Eye lagoon (Syri  i Kaltë) is perhaps one of the most well known and popular destinations in the area and even attracts day tours from nearby Corfu. To get there involved catching the bus heading back to Gjirokasträ and getting off 18km or so from Sarandä at the big car parking area at the entrance to the National Park entrance.

It was a 30 minute walk to actually get to the springs, which was pleasant enough since it twisted up and down through forested areas and nice views over the mountains. It was a very popular place though, and meant that we were accompanied by people of all ages and nationalities coming to see the springs as well. It was sad to see rather a lot of overweight people struggling in the heat and with walking the distance to get to the attraction.

The springs themselves were remarkable. Crystal clear water welling up from deep underground (more than 50mtrs we are told), lending it a deep blue colour. And the lagoon into which it flowedb formed a little of the shape of an eye.

The water was really painfully cold, a steady 10C apparently, and as we confirmed with our paddling a little downstream from the spring in the cafe/bar nearby.

Taking a little walk around the many forested footpaths in the vicinity meant that we could enjoy the scenery and different vantage points of the pool and also observe the wildlife away from the crowds. There was a profusion of cobalt blue dragonflies clustering around the vegetation near the water and lots of various coloured butterflies fluttering around the greenery.

For our return journey to Sarandë we gathered with others on the main road near the turn off in the expectation that the bus driver would see us and stop. No marked bus stop here! Sure enough, around 30 mins after we were told to expect it, the bus stopped to pick us all up.

Back in town, and after a refreshing swim at the town beach whilst watching the hydrofoil and ferry service to Corfu depart we took part in the “passeggiata” along the promenade as one does in thus part of the world.  On our walk we came across an Italian style restaurant that was able to serve a delicious and filling gluten free pizza.

Exploring the ancient town of Butrint

Next day was a ‘service’ bus ride from Sarandë to Butrint National Park. We got on an already
full bus in town, which, as it negotiated the built up area,  stopped quite a few times and more and more people were shoe-horned in.  The ticket man really had to struggle to collect fares amidst the squeeze! This time the bus appeared to be a recycled German bus, with various pieces of passenger information still displayed in German, including maximum number of passengers allowed ; a figure which clearly doesn’t apply in Albania!  Thankfully,  quite a number of locals together with tourist visitors  got off at  Ksamil, a small beach resort along the coast a few kilometres before Butrint.

Butrint itself is geographically interesting, not quite an island on the edge of a lagoon, very close to Corfu. This location has made it strategically important, to control the trade and protect the rich fishing grounds and agricultural land thereabouts.

It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Evidence of human activity and habitations have been found here dating back to the iron age.

The area was first heavily developed by the Greeks in 6th Century BC and is mentioned in classic mythology as a place of healing and dedicated to Asclepios (God of Healing), with an Agroria and Amphitheatre being built. Then it was ruled by the Romans, who further developed the settlement including  an impressive aqueduct to supply fresh water from nearby hills. Sadly, only the base pads for this exist now, largely because of an earthquake in early times.

Then it became part of the Byzantine Empire, with churches and a basilica being built, but well before it was sold off to the Venetians in medieval times. Unusually, the Ottomans were succesfully fought away by the Venetians, and despite their best efforts, the Ottomans were never able to exert their control here. Instead, in the  19th century, Ali Pasha ruled, a local powerful ruler who was adept at fending off the French and taking advantage of various British arms deals to thwart Napolean’s ambitions locally, as well as maintaining the challenge to the Ottomans.  We Brits seem to specialise in arms trading.

For a brief period it became part of Greece, but it then was formalised as part of Albania in the early 20th century.

With all these waves and changes of rule, there are archeological remains of many eras scattered amongst the trees growing all over the site. There are Roman baths and villas, an amphitheater,
castle and wonderful mosaics, churches and a basilica.  Sadly the mosaics are kept covered for their protection and only exposed every once in a while.

The whole site formed a fortified settlement through the ages and in places, erstwhile gates into the settlement  seemed to have been specially blocked up by large pieces of stone, sometimes taken from a previous building.

The layers of history and romantic past attracted people like Lord Byron and Edward Lear to visit on their grand tours of Europe; they were friendly with the ruler at the time, Ali Pasha.

The bus back to Sarandë was thankfully not so crowded this time and we both had a quick cooling dip in the sea when we arrived back.

I was keen to experience a few of the beaches along the coast, but in the main they could only be accessed by public transport travelling inland a little from the coast, so it would have meant anything from a 30 minute to a 1 hour walk down a dusty and hot track to reach them. And then there was the unknown quantity of bus times and where to flag them down for the return journey.

A boat ride to explore the coast and visit beaches

A boat ride seemed to be the answer. Along the promenade there is a profusion of signs advertising wonderful boat trips to beaches as well as fishing trips. Some with people doing the hard sell, some simply with sign with photos and a phone number, whatsapp account or instagram address. Some, we quickly ruled out, being on larger boats that seemed to have constant music blaring. Others  were ruled out on price. We were keen on a smaller boat so that we could get closer to coves and caves and access potentially smaller beaches.

In the end Molly Instragrammed one that looked promising, especially since the online conversation gave a price of €25 each and the details of the trip. A rendevous at 19:30 was arranged.

At the arranged location 19:30 came and went. So at 19:50 an Instagram message elicited a response.. “we are not here, we start out from home now. See you at 20:15.” Meanwhile a young Kiwi couple asked us about the trip, so we told them what we knew. It sounded interesting to them so they ‘whatsapped’ the number given to reserve their places. Sure enough at 20:15 someone appeared to reserve our places. A €20 deposit was requested, which, with some trepidation we handed over, and arranged to meet at 10 the following morning at the same place. We both wondered if we would see the value of that note again.

10am, and no one to be seen… at 10.15 a young man ambles up “you waiting for 10 trip or 11 trip?” It appeared he was the agent for the boat trip we had reserved places for and he asked for the balance, after pointing out the boat we would be on.

15 minutes later a group 10 was assembled by the said boat and off we went. We were asked to wear the provided life jackets ‘just for a few minutes’.

Just as well, since 10 minutes out the boat was stopped by a police speedboat ( funded by the EU!) . A group photo of all of us was taken on the boat, presumably as evidence that a) they were doing their job, b) that we were all wearing lifejackets and c) we weren’t a group of Albanians heading for Corfu and the EU to seek employment.

Papers of the boat ‘skipper’ were checked and all was well, and off we sped along the coast. Once out of sight of the Police everyone took off their life jackets to get ready for the various short swimming visits in different coves and beaches along the coast.

The coastline was very interesting. Various highly contorted rock strata forming striking patterns on the cliffsides interspersed with small caves eroded by the sea from the soft white rock and now and again pretty unspoilt beaches some of which we moored up for swims in the beautiful clear blue/green sea.

Here and there we could also see a few of the rounded “mushroom bunkers” built on the coastline (and most places else in Albania) under Hoxha’s paranoid hardline Stalanist dictatorship.

Ostensibly they were built to defend Albania against invasion either from Western countries or so called ‘Revisionist’ Eastern bloc countries, such as Yugoslavia. Albanians also say they were there to shoot at Albanians trying to escape Hoxha’s oppressive rule and poverty.

Lunchtime stop at Krorës beach for a couple of hours was time enough to swim, have our picnic lunch and do a spot of sunbathing before heading back to visit another small beach for a swim then some bouncing on the swell back to port at Sarandë .



Day 40 – Gjirokasträ and on to Sarandë

Breakfast view in Gjirokasträ

After a simple breakfast in the cool of the early morning on the patio of where we were staying we made our way into town for our morning of sightseeing.

On our way we passed through what we christened “derelict row” which was a line of old boarded up shops and the odd bar. Just ¼ mile up the road it was full of  colourful shops with locally made craft work (ceramics, mats, and jewellery) plus, of course,  lots of rather questionable touristic “tat”.

First up was to see round the well preserved Ottoman Castle which in its high position, dominates the town. It was very interesting wandering round the old stone buildings which dated from anything between the 10th century up to late 19th century.

Then we walked down to the entrance of the”Cold War Tunnels” to wait for the guide. These tunnels and nuclear bunker were constructed under the orders of dictator Hoxha as part of his wider scheme implemented over the whole country during the late 70’s and early 80’s fuelled by his paranoia about possible invasion and nuclear attack.

The guided tour was made much more interesting by the guide’s wry sense of humour giving us a bit of an insight to the rather spooky, cool and drippy network of tunnels and chambers which formed the sealed complex.

Afterwards we wandered up to the rather crowded touristy part of town where we encountered a film crew taking videos of a group of traditionally dressed young men and women for what we presumed was a promotional film.

Molly was keen to see them dancing but was disappointed to see that they just performed simple step routines to the accompaniment of contemporary Albanian pop music.

Having heard the bus for Sarandë was due to leave at 1pm we made our way downhill to the roundabout on the outskirts of town which was the location for longer distance bus departures and arrivals. And lo, there was a bus with a sign in the window saying Sarandē!

Day 39 – Travelling to Gjirokasträ

We were keen to visit Gjirokastra before heading to the coast . Partly because of its setting in a mountainous area, partly because of its well preserved Ottoman Castle and the surrounding old town, and partly because of its eerie cold war bunker underneath the castle as a legacy from Hoxha’s time.

Getting there was relatively straightforward. Tourist Information in Berat confidently said there were buses at 08.00 and 14.00. These being the shared minibuses or ‘furgon’ as they are called.

Bearing in mind the bus ‘terminal’ was on the edge of town a 20 min local bus ride away we thought the early bus was way too early, especially since our attentive airbnb host provided simple, yet magnificent breakfasts to start the day right.

Breakfasted, and having located a supermarket and fruit and veg shop to buy some fruit and  gluten free provisions for the journey it was just 9.30 am! As one does in Albania, you gather at certain points which are regarded as bus stops (no signage!) and wait.. sure enough, the recycled bus with cracked windscreen (this one originally from the Netherlands complete with some dutch signage inside) turns up and everybody squashes on. Buses are well used here and limits to numbers of passengers are solely determined by space available. Man in grubby hi-viz collects the fares by squeezing past up and down the passenger squash. Just 30 Lek each (around 25p) for the 20 min ride to the outskirts and main bus terminal – so not a bad price.

By this time it was 11am we had 3 hour wait! Again very little signage to indicate or confirm information.. A faded metal sign with various destinations and times was visible but Gjirokaster not listed amongst them. So I went on a quick walk round the waiting vehicles with big signs in the windscreens showing where they were going – but our destination was not to be seen!

So, with Molly sitting down at a table in the shade to start sewing her clamshells, I wandered around the terminal building which very much looked as though it had seen better days. I eventually noticed a photocopied notice taped to a window of an office with a person sitting inside. ‘Reservations Saranda and Girokastä’ . Success! Two tickets were purchased for the 3 hour journey to Gjirokasträ at 1,000 Lek each… around €10. (14.00 departure confirmed)

At around 12.30 we noticed a minibus had arrived Gjirokasträ sign in the windscreen. So we decided to put our bags on two seats inside near the front… and then went back to the shade to wait.

13.45 gatherings of people around the minibus… and by 13.55 it was mostly full… 14.00 we left.

Our minibus traced a route through towns and villages, up and down hills and along valleys till finally we entered mountain scenery.

Every so often a solitary figure, sometimes two were picked up from what appeared quite random points on the route.  And also quite randomly, people were dropped off in what appeared to be the middle  of nowhere with their carrier bag or two of shopping. Goodness knows where they eventually had to get to.

At one point the driver had a mobile call which resulted in him stopping and then reversing down the road around 500mtrs to where a young woman was waiting. He’d not noticed her as he passed and tgat she wanted to travel on the Furgon!

The walk up to our accommodation. Many of the streets in Gjirokasträ were cobbled with patterns of different coloured stone

We arrived at Gjirokasträ at about 5pm and fairly quickly found where we were staying for the night to leave our bags and begin exploring.

We headed for the Shikat House, which supposedly was open till 8pm. We were not disappointed.

This is an Ottoman style house completed in the early 19th century which has a magnificent view overlooking the Drinos river valley.

It is in the ownership of a family whose house was next door, and they keep the Shikat House as a place where you can wander about in freely, absorbing the atmosphere.

After spending an hour or so in the house we enjoyed drinks in the informal bar set up on the patio with a marvellous view, as the sun set with a cooling breeze.

The view from the Shikat house

Wandering back down into the town as night fell we were able to have a nice evening meal at a small restaurant located just under one of the town’s mosques. For our pudding we sampled a delicious Albanian concoction of puréed figs and sheep’s milk topped with cinnamon.

Tomorrow we’re headed for Sarandë a largish resort town on the coast not far from the Greek island of Corfu. However, we planned to get up early and explore Gjirokasträ a bit more before catching transport to the coast.


Day 38 – a day or so in Berat

We arrived at Berat early enough to be able to walk up the steep hill to explore the Ottoman fortress situated high up over the town. Fortunately by this time, it was late afternoon and the day was cooling down. Nevertheless, we were quite sweaty by the time we got to the top.

It was lovely to wander about the cobbled streets and remnants of the castle fortifications up there – old mosques, churches and even a cistern that was constructed to serve the fortress all those centuries ago. A mystery as to how the water was collected, although it might have been collected rsinwatrr over tye winter months. The whole area was very atmospheric.

Being high up it provided amazing vistas down the river valley, over to nearby mountains and the town far below.

As evening fell we took part in ‘La Passeggiata’, the Italian tradition of a social promenade in town taken after work and before dinner. Albanians seem to follow this rather pleasant activity.

As the sun set, the call to prayer provided an atmospheric backdrop to all this social activity. First from one, then two, and then finally all of the three mosques in the town. These were the first calls to prayer we heard on our trip, reminding us of the country’s mixed religious heritage.

Our room, having windows all round the exterior corner meant that as dawn broke the following day, the room was flooded with early morning light. This accompanied the gentle cool breeze coming through the open windows. You  can understand why the Ottomans built houses like this.

The next day we devoted to exploring the many narrow cobbled streets and pathways all over town as well as paying a visit to two of the mosques and four of the Orthodox style churches which are dotted about the town. One church in particular was perched half way up the cliff only accessed by a steep  zig zag footpath. We arrived almost at the same time as the guardian who unlocked for us to see inside. In each of these churches there were lots of icons on the walls depicting the various saints.

The mosques provided peaceful spaces in which to contemplate and the interiors were simple but very attractive. Not quite as old as those we saw in Istanbul, but nevertheless still around 400 years old.

We had our lunch in the shade in the park by the main riverside promenade. The day before we had bought  some fresh apricots and peaches from an old chap who was selling his home grown produce. This fruit was very juicy and absolutely delicious and nicely accompanied the almonds and pistachio nuts we had previously bought in the fresh produce market in Durres.

The afternoon was spent pleasantly enough sipping cool beer and lemonade in one of the many bars that people hang out in to people-watch.

After another bit of wandering it was time to think about dinner and walking along the many restaurant options offered we settled upon a place that provided some delicous stuffed mushrooms, baked aubergines and vegetable risotto at a very reasonable price of 2100 Lek (around 21 euros) including wine. We followed this with ice creams bought from one of the many ‘dyqani i akullores’ (ice cream shops) that were situated along the town’s promenade.

Tomorrow we head for Gjirocastra,  4 hours away in a shared minibus (furgon)  to the south. It promises to be another attractive Ottomon style settlement, this time built at the top of a  hill.

It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the much loathed previous dictator president Hoxha. He ordered one of the massive cold war era concrete bunkers to be built there as a result of his paranoia of the surrounding western orientated countries.

Days 36 and 37 – To Ancona, and then to Albania

It was a very early start to catch the 6.30am Regionale train from Albenga to Genova… it arrived bang on time which enabled us to catch the Intercity to Milano Centrale which then connected with the speedy ‘Freccerosso’ to Ancona, the ferry port for Durres in Albania and other destinations.

We thought we would walk the 3km to the port from the station, since we had arrived in plenty of time for check in for the ferry, rather than find a tabachi to buy local bus tickets.

We arrived at the ferry terminal ok….. but we found out that the check-in place was back 2km almost where we had come from! Fortunately we discovered that there was a free shuttle bus that ran every 15  mins between the check- in, the port terminal and the station! Frustratingly, there was nowhere on ticketing, or email confirmations that gave any indications as to the separation of check-in, passports and boarding.

Ferry ready and waiting to take us to Albania

Having checked in, passports duly checked and stamped to say we were leaving the EU we then boarded our  ferry to Durres, one of the port cities in Albania.

We had booked a cabin for the overnight journey to Durres, so that we would arrive rested to deal with a new country , new language and different ways of doing things.

Leaving Ancona

We sailed on time for a smooth crossing of the Adriatic Sea saying farewell to Ancona and temporarily to Italy.

On board, the majority of foot passengers were Albanian, who knew the score about occupying potential sleeping areas in the saloons with bags, airbeds…even a mattress! The other foot/cycle passengers were a mixture of nationalities, including Dutch, Swiss, British and German – there was apparently, another couple who had a tandem with them, although we never met them! All were puzzled by the fact we had cycle panniers with us, but no cycle!

Durres Port

At 8am the next morning, after a good sleep, we had our first sight of Albania, a sunny Durres Port.

Disembarcation was straightforward and soon we were outside the terminal to be greeted by a barrage of friendly, but insistent taxi drivers. “Where are you from?”, “where do you want to go”, “I can give you a good price”.

We were focussed, however on three main things to start with:

1) to purchase an Albanian data sim card for our stay to avoid steep roaming charges out of the EU so that we could continue to blog, use maps and send emails and messages

2) to get some Lek, the local currency, from a “Bancomat”

3) to find a market to buy our lunch.

Having achieved all 3 things we then found a convenient bar to have a coffee and fruit juice, to get the Sim card set up, and then decide where to spend the first night in Albania.

We decided to go to Berat, to the South of the country, since it had been recommended as one of the “must visits” of Albania, known for its unique Ottoman era houses, it’s imposing Ottoman  castle and its scenic setting.

But how to get there! There was a sort of bus terminal near the port entrance with many coaches and minibuses each with signs in their windows giving their destinations.. but not Berat!.

Eventually we managed to find out that the bus system in Albania operates on the basis of bus hubs at various points on the outskirts, each one specialising in the routes related to its geographic position. You reach these bus hubs, often located anything up to 5km away from the centre, by a local bus.. 40 Lek…. equivalent to approx 35p, so not expensive.

At the end of the route there we saw the bus stands.. and a minibus with a sign “Berat”. On we got, with the ‘furgon’ only half full. I had read that longer distance transport in Albania doesn’t operate to a timetable.. Buses only leave when full!

Fortunately it wasn’t long before a group of young Dutch people turned up, and with plank seats fitted across the aisle of the minibus we set off.

Whilst travelling to Berat we had a look at what Airbnb could offer for a 2 night stay, making use of our newly aquired Albanian Sim card.

Came up trumps… a room in a family home in the Ottoman era old quarter was available at a very reasonable price. So we booked it for two nights ready for our arrival.

The way to find our accommodation,once we had arrived in Berat, was surprisingly easy, especially when you consider the Ottoman old quarter was a maze of narrow alleyways and cobbled streets.

We were greeted by our Albanian host who spoke no English but some Italian, as well as, of course , Albanian. Nevertheless, as one usually does, we were able to communicate the necessay details of where everything was in her home, and we soon got sorted out. Our room was beautufully presented and had a fabulous view of tye river and town through Ottoman style corner windows.

Days 34 and 35 – two days near the Maritime Alps

We arrived at Albenga just a few minutes later than scheduled to be met by Liz, Molly’s friend from training days all those years ago.

After doing a grocery shop for our stay we wended our way up tiny twisty roads in Liz’s and Shane’s Landrover to arrive at Rezzo, their home for the past 15 years or so.

Once installed in a nice little apartment that Liz had booked for us just down the attractive stone-paved street from where they were living we started to drink in the peace and the fabulous views down the valley, with little hamlets dotted about the wooded hillsides with church steeples here and there.

Because Liz and Shane have lived in the village for such a long time they knew a good percentage of the regular population, as well as the ‘swallows’ who typically live and work on the coast, but own a holiday property in the village.

It also meant they knew most of the tracks and footpaths in the vicinity for rural hill walking.

On our first day Liz drove us to a start point high up in the foothills for a superb upland walk she knew.

On the way we stopped to admire some secret rocky pools fed by the stream running down the mountainside which, in warm summer weather, provided a great cooling wild swimming spot.   Too chilly today with temperatures only around 17 or 18!

We started our mountain walk up to a local peak that had a magnificent panoramic view right across the Maritime Alps and down to the Mediterranean sea some 35km away.

On the way we passed a profusion of wildflowers and in the distance heard the tinkling sound of sheep bells on sheep grazing on distant hillsides. Lovely!

On the second day Liz took us on a lovely peaceful circular walk down the valley following the stream to another of their favourite rock pools. Passing ancient stone bridges crossing the river from time to time we then walked up on the other side of the valley up to Rezzo again.

Shane, meanwhile, was working hard on the refurbishment/rebuilding of a traditional stone built house which, in due course was to be their new home.

To finish off our stay we had been invited to a barbeque held by some good friends down the valley.

We spent a very sociable evening with them on their patio under the branches of some very old kiwi fruit trees. We had interesting conversations running far and wide, accompanied by delicious food and wine – and I even finished off the meal with a small helping of some rather pleasant  grappa!

An early bedtime ready for our 5.30am start to catch our train from Albenga meant we didn’t stay too late!

Days 32 and 33 – two days in Torino

Catching the direct FrecceRosso train to Torino was straightforward, and the helpful TrenItalia app on which I had purchased and stored the tickets showed the appropriate train number and platform to head for.

For those readers who are cyclists, you may be wondering how we managed our luggage for our onward journey. Our two larger rear panniers had a special backpack attachment so that they could easily be used as small rucksacks…. and our two small front panniers had an easily attached shoulder strap for ease of carrying.

Our arrival in Torino coincided with lunchtime, so we headed for a convenient park near the Porta Sousa station to enjoy our picnic in the sun.

We then were able to check in with our airbnb hosts at their flat to sort ourselves out and plan how we were best going to use our time in Torino. This included purchasing a €4 euro daily travel card at a nearby  ‘tabacchi’ for bus, metro and tram.

Our hosts were lovely and gave us some good advice about where to go and what to look at.

We had a lovely riverside walk down the Po, not far from our apartment, and there we encountered a recreation of a rural medieval village that had been built as an educational and tourist resource. Although it was a 19th century construction it was nevertheless quite atmospheric.

Afterwards we walked up to a good vantage point at a museum up one of the hills overlooking the city as suggested by our airbnb hosts.

Walking back down, we headed for the striking building that is now the Turin photographic and film museum ‘Il Mole   Antonelliana’.

Bizarrely, it was originally conceived as a synagogue when building commenced in 1863 but just 70 years later it was acquired by the city and used as the ‘Museo di Risorgimento’ telling the story of the creation of the Modern Italian state . In the early 2000’s it was refurbished again and then turned into the Museum of Cinema and Photography.

We then headed off to the Central Makets to buy our lunch provsions. Our objective was a to buy a large tomato, some cheese and possibly some fruit.

Little did we know that the traders  expected you to buy somewhat larger quantities than we wanted. So, we ended up with 2 smallish cucumbers for €1 (starting off with 4!), 2 bunches of spring onions for 50 cents (starting off at 4 bunches), 4 tomatoes for €1.50 (starting off with 1kg!) and 500g of strawberies for €2 and half a local cheese (we wanted just 200g and got 500g!) for just €4.50. Amazing prices for such good quality fresh produce but it produced a bit of a logistical challenge for carrying.

Then off to the Roman Gardens, with some of the remains of structures from Roman times still visible to have our lunch in the shade. Molly then had to travel back to the apartment to deliver her workshop (arranged whilst we were on the ferry to Bilbao!). Meanwhile I went to the Museo di Risorgimento, now housed in another grand building not far from the Royal Palace.

After delivering her workshop we arranged to meet at the Royal Palace, a very grand collection of buildings that are perhaps the Crown Jewels of Turin. It included the Royal Palace buildings, chapel of the Shroud of Turin as well as the Armoury and some very pleasant gardens to the rear. Although it was closing at 7pm and we thought that it may just be worth the €15 entrance fee from 5.45pm.

Well, one could call the Royal  Palace the Palace of Bling, since there were huge amounts of ornate gold gilded woodwork and plaster, tapestries and huge paintings in a long series of galleries and rooms. We walked swiftly through the Armoury with its large and historic  collection of suits of armour for horses and humans, together with early examples of pistols, muskets and rifles and then to the Chapel. The Chapel of the shroud was fabulous and well worth the visit… and then we were able to briefly explore the formal gardens before the sirens were sounded, announcing closing time.

Once out of the Palace complex we bimbled through the streets and came upon a straightforward pizza restaurant, that was, fortunately, able to oblige with a delicious gluten free pizza for me and a splendid gluten full version for Molly.  After the complimentary Limoncello we then just had to find a gelateria to finish the meal off in true Italian style!

Tomorrow, onwards to Liguria by train, to visit Molly’s friends Liz and Shane who live in a lovely little village called Rezzo some 650mtrs up above sea level, nestling attractively amongst the hills and forests of the Maritime Alps.