Friday, January 6, 2023

Albania September 2022

After lunch, we left for Gjakova, a small village in Kosovo. We then drove for two hours to Valbona Valley National Park in Albania. The drive was beautiful and it was a nice change of pace to be in nature after spending the past few weeks in cities. We stopped a few times to take pictures along the way.
Once at the park, we met Ben, who will be our guide for the next five days. Tomorrow, we will be doing a long hike with a lot of climbing.
Ben took us on a short hike to test our fitness. We hiked about four miles through the valley and hillsides. Ben thought we did well for two "old" people. We are staying at a very basic guest house, which is fine considering how remote we are.
On Tuesday, September 20th, we hiked from Valbona Valley National Park to Theth, Albania. The statistics for the hike are as follows: six and a half hours, 9.12 miles (14.68 km), climbed over 6,000 feet (1,830 meters), descended over 7,000 feet (2,130 meters), and burned over 1,700 calories (leaving room for ice cream). We had read a few blogs about this hike, but we weren't quite sure what to expect. That seems to be par for the course with our travels.
As it turns out, Ben is the most experienced guide on this mountain, or at least that's what he told us. His experience proved to be valuable, as most hikers start the hike directly from the guest house. This involves hiking about three miles on a rocky dry riverbed. We decided to go with Ben's plan and hire a van for 15 Euro to drive us to the trailhead, skipping the three tedious miles of ankle-twisting.
Additionally, Ben hired horses to carry our luggage. This is a point-to-point hike, meaning we won't be returning the same way, so we had the option of carrying our luggage or letting the horses do it. We opted for the horses.
The hike started off fairly steep, with a lot of climbing. However, the views were spectacular and provided a nice distraction from the exertion. After an hour of climbing, we came upon a bar and Ben indulged in some Rakia, a type of fruit brandy common in the Balkans. We just refilled our water bottles.
We continued climbing for several more hours until we reached the pass about three and a half hours into the hike. Up until this point, the weather had been perfect - cool, slightly overcast, and no wind. However, as we reached the pass, the winds picked up as the pass funneled the wind. The cool weather turned cold. Once we descended a few hundred meters, the wind dissipated and the temperature warmed up.
The descent down didn't seem as steep as the climb up, and the scenery was much greener on this side of the pass. We saw several types of wild mushrooms, which Ben said were all edible, but only under proper supervision. At one point, we veered off the main trail and ended up at a gentleman's house. Ben immediately asked about his Rakia, as this gentleman is known for distilling the best Rakia in all of Albania. He gave us a tour of his still and served us a sample of the goods. The taste of Rakia was very similar to moonshine, which I had only tasted once before on a trip to West Virginia. If you've never tried either, you can get a similar idea by picking up some rubbing alcohol at your pharmacy.

We continued our descent until we reached Theth and stopped to take some photos of the church in the center of the town. We completed our hike at our guest house, where we will be staying for the next two nights. Shortly after we arrived, our luggage also arrived.
Today, we did more hiking. The statistics for the hike are as follows: seven hours, 9.37 miles (15 km), climbed over 2,600 feet (790 meters), and burned over 1,683 calories. Today's hike had several destinations. Our first stop was the defense tower, where people who are guilty of a crime must wait to find out their punishment.
Our next stop was the large waterfalls, which are fed by glacial meltwater. The hike to the falls was steep, with ups and downs. After the falls, we hiked a bit in the riverbed. After about an hour, we crossed the river and came across the ruins of an old stone house dating back to 300 BC.
Once we were on the other side of the river, we headed up the mountain until we reached a beautiful canyon that had been carved over thousands of years. It was time to turn back and climb down to the riverbed, continuing on to our final destination: the Blue Eye.
The hike to the Blue Eye was extremely steep and had plenty of loose rocks. We actually hiked above the Blue Eye and had lunch at a rustic café overlooking it. After lunch, we hiked down to the Blue Eye and Margarite took a three-minute dip in the frigid water before our hike back.
Once again, Ben came through for us and arranged for an SUV to drive us back rather than hiking the six miles back. We still had to hike the steep one-mile downhill, but we got to skip the dry riverbed, which was about five miles long. Once we reached the SUV, we found out that Ben had many friends.

Two long days of hiking, but it was worth it to see this beautiful area.
On Thursday, September 22, 2022, we departed Theth, Albania for Shkodra, Albania. After breakfast, we headed towards Shkodra, the largest city in northern Albania and the former cultural and economic center of the country. It has witnessed many acts of war due to its strategic location.
Once in Shkodra, we dropped off our luggage at Hôtel Tradita, a local hotel with a lot of charm. Ben took us on a walking tour of Shkodra. Our first stop was a shop that sold products woven from locally made materials. The owner and Margarite hit it off, and we were invited to tour the factory where the products are made.
After the factory tour, we visited the Catholic Cathedral (which was closed). In front of the church is a monument honoring the 23 clergy members who were killed during one of the many conflicts/wars. These clergy members were not all Catholic; they were from many different religions, including Catholic priests, Muslim imams, and Orthodox priests.
We continued our walk through the old city where we had lunch and could see in the same view the Mosque and the Orthodox Church. After our lunch and walk, we picked up some bicycles and headed to the castle.
First, we had to get some ice cream. The ice cream in Shkodra is made from burnt sheep's milk. It took me three scoops to acquire a taste for it. The castle, built on the highest hill along the river, was one of the largest castles in Northern Albania. It was built to protect the area from invaders and has been controlled by different empires over the centuries.
After the castle tour, we biked along the perimeter of Skadar Lake, the biggest lake in the Balkans, which separates Albania and Montenegro.
Today, we had an early morning departure for a day of exploration in one of the wonders of Albania: Lake Komani. It was artificially created in 1979 with the construction of a hydroelectric dam called "The Light of the Party," which unites the Shala and Valbona rivers. Komani Lake is considered one of the most beautiful attractions in Albania and the Balkans.
This may have been true if we hadn't just spent three days in the beautiful Albanian Alps, and the water level was not five meters lower than normal. Because of the threat of rain, the dam operators had proactively lowered the water level. We embarked by boat on Komani Lake and traveled through mountain landscapes that reach heights of 1,000 to 1,500 meters.
The boat was extremely overcrowded, as was the ferry next to us. Our boat was constructed by taking a public bus from the Czech Republic, cutting the bottom part off, and welding the top part, seats and all, onto a barge. This resulted in a 60-passenger boat that was loaded with 100 people.
We arrived at "Peace Island" 45 minutes after departing the ferry dock. We were offered three excursions: a boat ride around the lake, hiking in the area, or a boat ride exploring the Shala River. Margarite and Ben chose the hiking. Ben volunteered me for the Shala River tour. I think Margarite had requested Ben to do this, as she needed some time away from me.
The Shala River is the same river that formed the canyon and river beds we had been exploring in Theth. We had seen the source of the river, and now I would see the mouth. We got in a smaller boat that could hold maybe 30 people, but there were only six of us. We motored for about 15 minutes and came to a pile of rocks in the river, very similar to the dry river bed we had hiked.
Because of the lower water level, the river was not passable by boat, as you can see in the photo where one boat captain tried. I spent an hour with about a hundred of my best friends on a pile of rocks. We then returned for lunch before boarding an overcrowded ferry boat for the ride back to the dock. Margarite and Ben did enjoy their hike. I would describe my adventure as corny at best, but boring would be more accurate. When you travel, you take the good with the bad.
Here comes the good news. Ben saw that we were disappointed, so he added a stop to make up for it. A friend of his owns an agro-tourism farm called Mrizi i Zanve.
What a wonderful place! Everything grown there is organic. They have a winery, a restaurant, and accommodations ranging from camping to luxury rooms.
We toured the grounds, seeing where they make cheeses and visited the canning area. We also took a tour of the winery and wine cellar. The owner even asked Ben and Margarite to give some employees a pep talk about their impression of the farm.
Of course, the farm has to have a traditional Rakia still.
The farm was privately owned, but during communist times it was taken over and turned into a work prison. Once communism fell, the family fought to get their land back and created this farm to help drive tourism to the area.
To remind people of this time, they left the army bunkers but decorated them in different ways. Ben really made up for the earlier part of the day.
We reached our guest house at seven in the evening. It was a beautiful guest house situated on top of a hill overlooking the town of Rubik. The owner and her son run the guest house. The owner made us a fantastic dinner, everything was grown or raised on her property.
This morning, we departed to visit the Catholic Church built up on the hill in Rubik. The highlight was a fountain designed by a woman from Austria.
After visiting the church, we headed to an olive orchard and saw a 3,500-year-old olive tree. Imagine all the history this tree has witnessed.
Next, we went to a family that Ben is friends with (Ben has numerous friends). They have recovered the land that was taken from them during the communist era and have turned it into an organic farm.
More recently, they have turned to using the organic waste from the coffee industry in the compost they use for fertilizer. This has brought them much attention because it reduces waste in landfills and the need for chemically produced fertilizers.
The issue now is that, with all the PR happening around the organic waste from the coffee-making process being used by organic farmers, the coffee industry used to pay farmers to take the waste but now they want farmers to buy the waste.
After our tour of the farm and sampling much of the produce, we headed to the town of Kruja. This is where we found the oldest bazaar in all of Albania.
As you may have noticed, Ben wears a traditional hat of the Albanian Highlanders (the mountain people). We stopped by the only shop in all of Albania where a father and son still make the hats using the traditional method. It takes over an hour to make one hat.
This video shows the process in under a minute: 

After walking around the town a bit, we got back in the car for our final destination for the day: Tirana, the capital of Albania, where we will be staying for the next three nights.
Sunday, September 25, 2022

Today we will visit the city of Berat, about an hour and a half south of Tirana. Ben was not picking us up until 10:00 am, so we had time to visit the House of Leaves Museum.
The building, known as the "House of Leaves" (so called because of the clambering plant covering its facade), is now the Museum of Secret Surveillance. It is the newest museum in Albania and certainly the most intriguing one. The museum tries to narrate one of the darkest periods of the country's history to young people and foreigners.
Located in the center of Tirana, in front of the Orthodox Church: "The Resurrection of Christ," this building temporarily housed the Gestapo during the occupation of Albania in WWII and was the Central Directorate of the Secret Service from 1944 to 1991.
It was interesting to see all the surveillance equipment they had back in the day, as well as where they would hide them. There was even a tunnel entrance, so officers could enter and leave without being noticed.
After the museum, we visited the Orthodox Church. The tower is contemporary in design, especially with the modern "Green" building as the backdrop. Since it was Sunday, mass was taking place.
On the way to Berat, we got to participate in a wedding parade. In Tirana, when someone gets married, they hang out the windows of their car and drive through traffic, blocking all lanes. Rather than getting upset, other cars (not in the wedding) join in the parade, honking and hollering out their windows. It was a sight to see!

Wedding video:  

Berat is one of the unique cities of Albania with typical Ottoman architecture. The city is characterized by the coexistence of different religious and cultural communities over the centuries.
We visited and toured the Berat Fortress/Castle "Kala," built in the XIII century and listed as a UNESCO heritage site.
The one difference between this castle and the other castles we have visited in Albania is that this castle is alive. By "alive," I mean that people live here, have homes. There are shops, restaurants, and hotels. All of this, along with the ruins of over 35 places of worship, some of which are still in operation.
We had lunch at a fantastic restaurant with a view of the castle.
After spending time at the castle, we went to an Ethnographic Museum, where we saw how people in Berat lived in times past.
In Albania, there is a Muslim sect called the Bektashis. They follow the faith of Islam, but they have relaxed rules and some differences. Two notable differences are that they partake in alcoholic beverages and that women and men pray side by side.
We visited a Bektashis mosque. As you can see, it is simpler in design than some of the other mosques we have visited on this trip.
Before departing Berat, we walked along the pedestrian walkway below the castle.
Berat's nickname "the city of the thousand windows" was given to it due to the "skyline" formed by its houses and their windows that seem to be "climbing" the city's hills. When you visit the city for the first time, you instantly notice its seemingly "never-ending windows."
While the houses seem to climb the hillside one on top of the other, the windows are not the first thing I notice. Another interesting site is the church built into the cliff side just below the castle.
After visiting Berat, we headed back to Tirana. We headed east for two reasons: to avoid the seashore traffic, as it was a Sunday, and to see the area known as the Tuscany of Albania. This area has smooth rolling hills, much of which is covered with fruit and vegetables.

Before entering Tirana, we came to an area with hundreds of massive oil rigs, all of which looked abandoned. Ben swore they were operational, pumping oil, but to Margarite and me, none looked like they had been used since the communist era.
After a long day, it was time for some ice cream.
This morning, we scheduled a walking tour. However, not with Ben. Today is Ben's birthday, so he gets the day off.
The walking tour was a bust. The guide was from America and knew less about Albania than Margarite and me.
More importantly, we think our guide, Evillene, was a witch. Yes, a real witch. You see, it was raining, from a slight mist to extreme downpours on and off. Evillene was not going to get wet (she might melt). Our walking tour turned into a standing lecture under the overhang of the opera house. What a bust.
The biggest observation I made during the tour was the amount of construction going on, with high-rise offices and apartments being built. When asked about this, Evillene provided an answer I'm fairly sure is accurate: it's a way for the underworld to launder their money, and if Albania gets into the EU at some point, these properties will significantly appreciate in value.
We got tired of standing and decided to bail on the non-walking tour and take a three-mile walk to Bunk'art 1. Occasionally, there is nothing better than a city walk in the rain. You get an entirely different view of the city.
We stopped at a great fish restaurant called Rei-Mer. What a great lunch!

Bunk'art 1 was built during the communist era as a bunker for the political elite in case of a nuclear attack. The bunker is four stories deep. To enter, you pass through two eight-inch-thick concrete doors, enter a decontamination room, and then pass through two additional steel doors.
The bunker was completely self-sufficient, with living quarters for the elite that resemble a five-star hotel at the time. There are living quarters for the staff, which reminded me of a college dorm from years gone by. They even had a Peloton bike to stay fit while stuck in the bunker.
This was a very fascinating building. A lot of thought went into its construction. There was no explanation of who was invited in when the nukes were on their way and who would stand guard outside. I guess they would draw straws.
We threw a surprise birthday party for Ben and invited his wife and two children. It was a blast.
Watch this video. This is the best example of why we love to travel and meet people. At the time of the party, we had known Ben for seven days.

Birthday video: 

Today, we leave the city of Tirana and the country of Albania and head back to North Macedonia and the city of Ohrid, which is on Lake Ohrid. Lake Ohrid is the oldest lake in the world. It is two to three million years old, give or take a million years.
Before arriving in Ohrid, we had to make a few stops. The first stop was the city of Elbasani, the fourth-largest city in Albania. Guess why we stopped? Yes, to see the castle. In this case, it is not up on a hill but in the center of town, with a two-kilometer wall surrounding the area that makes up the castle grounds.
Like in Berat, this castle is alive, with shops, restaurants, hotels, and homes. However, it is not as fully restored as Berat Castle. The oldest mosque in all of Albania resides inside the castle.
The next stop is crazy. It is a heroin manufacturer/export business. Yes, you read that right. We all know Afghanistan is one of the largest producers of the poppy plant. It is a straight shot from Afghanistan to Albania, via Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Macedonia by land, or Iran, Turkey by sea.
The company is called 'Fish City'. It is built on an old military base that has over 14 kilometers of tunnels. They claim they are a fish processing company. What better way to hide heroin than in fish? Though I do give them credit for using the term 'hiding in plain sight'. They allow anyone to walk the grounds and have decorated the old military warehouses with pictures of famous people and their quotes. Guarding the entrances to the tunnels, they have sculptures of the heads of famous military heroes.
We walked the grounds and the biggest giveaway that this is not a fish processing business was the lack of fish odor. That is not possible if this was truly a fish processing plant. Once the heroin is processed, it is shipped by truck to Western Europe and by boat to North America. What a remarkable operation.
The next stop was the city of Lin, which sits on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. We had a fish lunch in Lin, of course, the fish was fresh from the lake.
One more errand before Ohrid: Ben's wife Rose asked him to pick up some onions. 'Some' might be the wrong word. 'Lots' might be a better word.
We finally reached Ohrid, Macedonia in the late afternoon. We are staying at an AirBnb on the water's edge. It has been raining on and off all day. The sky cleared around six, so we walked to dinner and checked out the town. As we walked, we noticed several jewelry stores selling Ohrid Pearls. We asked about this and got a bit of the history. For nearly 100 years, only two families have known how to produce the Ohrid pearls: the Talevs and the Filevs. Unlike regular pearls, Ohrid pearls are made from shells that are ground and made into balls of various sizes by adding at least eight coats of a secret emulsion, giving them their characteristic shine. Each layer has to be dried before the next coat is applied, which can take between 45 minutes and an hour for each layer. The emulsion's ingredients include scales stripped from plasica fish – sometimes called Ohrid trout or bleak – but the rest of the process remains a mystery. On the way back to our apartment, we saw some of the churches which were lit up.
On Wednesday, September 28th, 2022, we stayed at a beautiful Airbnb on Lake Ohrid. Unfortunately, we only had one full day to enjoy it.
Margarite went for an early morning swim before we went on a city tour. However, the tour was a disappointment. Over the past 20 years of traveling, it seems that male tour guides are generally more knowledgeable and engaging than female guides. Daniela, our guide, was boring and seemed to be going through the motions without any enthusiasm.
We met at the Upper Gate, which is the only remaining original gate of the stone wall that once surrounded the old town of Ohrid. At one point, the wall was several kilometers long. Trump would probably love the cities we have visited, as they all have huge, beautiful walls.
Daniela told us that Ohrid used to have over 300 churches, and many of them still exist. We visited a small church near the Upper Gate that had well-preserved original frescos. The U.S. government, using tax dollars, paid for the restoration of these frescos.
After the church, we saw the amphitheater, which was discovered in the 1980s during renovations on a homeowner's property. Eight homeowners had to be relocated, and the amphitheater was restored. It can hold 3,000 people and is now used for live performances.
From the amphitheater, we walked up to the fortress and then down to a church along the water. We then strolled along a boardwalk built between the cliff and the lake. Our last stop was at Saint Sofia Church, one of the larger churches in Ohrid.
In the afternoon, Margarite and I took a long walk along the lakeside and relaxed on the dock of our Airbnb. Overall, the city tour was not very impressive considering the rich history and stunning geography of the area.
This evening, we walked through the streets of Ohrid to see the lit-up churches.
The highlight of the day was seeing lots of Yugos.
Tomorrow, we'll be heading southwest back to Albania. Our guide, Bris, will pick us up at 8:30 AM. We have a lot of ground to cover and will be traveling along the Albanian-Greek border before heading west.
Our first stop is the city of Korçë, the eighth most populous city in Albania with a population of 75,994 in an area of 806 km2 (311 sq mi). It is located on a plateau about 850 m (2,789 ft) above sea level and is surrounded by the Morava Mountains.
We walked through the old bazaar, where merchants were selling traditional Albanian products, and then visited the centerpiece of the city, the Orthodox Church. While the style of the church is traditional, it was actually built in the late 1990s as the original church had been destroyed by the communists.
Korçë is close to the Greek border, so Greek Orthodoxy has a strong influence on the religion in the city.
Similarly to Sofia, Bulgaria, some children in Korçë drive their mechanical cars and trucks to school. The theater in the city is also well-known in the area.
Bris was our guide for the day, with help from Ben in planning our itinerary. Our next stop was an eco-farm called Farma Sotira located inside the Germenj-Shelegurin national park, which is in a remote location. While Ben had hyped up this place, the lunch was not special and the extra hour drive was not worth it, especially since it was raining.
After lunch, we visited the village of Permet, located on the Vjosa River, which is the largest intact river (no dams) in all of Europe. The Albanians are grateful to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for helping to protect this area from dams. On the riverbank, there is a large rock known as the City Stone. From the top, we had a great view of the village and river.
We covered a lot of ground and geography today and arrived at our final destination, Gjirokastër, located in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino, at an elevation of 300 meters above sea level. The old town of Gjirokastër is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is described as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate." The city is overlooked by the Gjirokastër Fortress, which is where the Gjirokastër National Folklore Festival is held every five years. Gjirokastër is also the birthplace of former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha and author Ismail Kadare.
We arrived in Gjirokastër after dark and walked through the old bazaar to find a place to eat.
The next day, we visited an old traditional Ottoman home built in the 1700s. It had been occupied by the same family (nine generations) until it was confiscated by the state during communist times and turned into a museum. After communism fell, the family reclaimed the home and moved back in, and they still live there today.
From the Ottoman home, we climbed the hill to the Fortress, which has been restored and now houses many artifacts from the Albanian liberators who captured them from the Germans during World War Two. One interesting artifact on display is a U.S. Air Force plane, the acquisition of which has three different histories.
It was almost noon, and we still had a long day ahead of us, so we left Gjirokastër for the Southern Blue Eye, a natural spring-fed river with crystal clear water. The video does not do this natural wonder justice.
Video southern blue eye:

We then continued on the road to Sarandë, a resort town on the Albanian Riviera in southern Albania. Located between the Ionian Sea and hills of olive groves, the town is situated on a horseshoe-shaped bay with beaches and a promenade. In the center of the town are the remains of a 5th-century synagogue, which later became an early Christian basilica, with intricate floor mosaics still visible. The 16th-century Lëkurësi Castle is located on a hilltop above the town.
Due to time constraints, we did not visit the synagogue/basilica. Instead, we went directly to the Castle to see the view of the Albanian Riviera. This area is popular with tourists for its beautiful beaches, which are said to be better than the French Riviera and less developed than the Greek coast, all at a fraction of the cost.
We had lunch in the Albanian resort village of Ksamil, located in the southwest corner of Albania near the Greek border. The sea there was a beautiful clear turquoise, and we enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch made with fresh ingredients from the sea.
It was approaching three in the afternoon and Bris had a lot of driving ahead of him. The drive took us along the entire Albanian coast from Ksamil to Durres, about four hours of driving. We stopped to admire the beautiful coast, so we didn't arrive in Durres until nine. Along the way, we saw many bunkers built during communist times, as well as graffiti-covered military buildings.
On Saturday, October 1st, 2022, the sky cleared, which gave us the opportunity to walk around Durres. We visited a few Roman ruins, starting with the amphitheater and then the Roman baths. Although there wasn't much left of the baths, we enjoyed exploring the promenade, which runs along the sea. Along the way, we found the remnants of a Turkish wall, which showed the history of the different empires that occupied the area.
The promenade was very nice, with the sea on one side and resorts on the other. However, the water was not nearly as clear and beautiful as it was further south. We suspect this is due to the activity at the seaport next to the beach. There was a lot of new construction going on, and we were told that the money is coming from the underworld.
Before lunch, we made a major discovery: doughnuts were invented in Durres, Albania! I had to try one, and I got the Philadelphia, a glazed doughnut filled with Philadelphia cream cheese icing. The owner of the doughnut shop was very proud of her products.
Now it's time for us to depart Albania and end our tour of the Balkans.


All Pictures