Friday, February 21, 2014

Montenegro and Albania

On February 9th, we checked out of our "Rock Palace Apartment White Rabbit" in Dubrovnik and started our journey to Montenegro. We were treated to more stunning scenery, however somewhat dampened by the heavy rains. When we reached the Croatia-Montenego border, we had to exit Croatia with a document check and then drive 50 ft to go through the Montenegro border control. Having Molly's pet passport has made her crossings thus far pretty straightforward; we just hand her passport along with the other passports for a cursory look. Like other times, the border control agent asked for our green insurance card; additionally, for the first time since we imported the Prius into England, the agent also asked to see the title of the car. We had that with us but had to dig it out of my bag (of course located underneath all the other bags in the back of the car). The immigration officer was satisfied everything was in order and so we were waved through. The customs agents weren't interested in us and so we continued into Montenegro. The whole journey took about 2.5 hours and we arrived in Kotor about 14:00. Our GPS was still functioning with correct maps and it took us right to the apartment. I had to go into a nearby restaurant, Fortuna, in order for the owner to call our apartment host who was ready for us and immediately came to greet me. Once again, our airbnb apartment was just as advertised and we were very pleased with our lodging.
A view from our apartment balcony (taken the next day with the sun out): The river Skurda runs by and out to the Bay of Kotor.
Looking inland at the river Skurda coming from the mountains
As it was pouring rain, the rest of the day we just stayed in. I tried, with little success, to find a tv channel that was broadcasting the Olympics but only managed to find a couple hours of alpine skiing. No skating, snowboarding, nothing else. We managed to get to a grocery store and bought supplies for dinner and breakfast and then retired hoping for better weather the next day.

On February 10th, we woke up to partially cloudy skies and it looked like we might get through most of the day without rain. We were expecting more rain the next day so we knew we needed to make the most out of the dry break. I had researched things to do in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, but recommended attractions were pretty weak and so Vincent made the call that he didn't want to drive the expected four hours to do so. Instead, we decided to go to Cetinje which had at one time been the capital of Montenegro. It is still considered the historical and the secondary capital of Montenegro and the official residence of the President is there.

On-line travelers recommended that one reach Cetinje via the Lovcen National Park and Njeguši, which guarantees a most scenic mountain route. The guidance did not disappoint view-wise but it was a bit of a hairy drive loaded with hairpin turns. The initial part was on a crumbly steep narrow road that I don't think would have allowed us to turn back even if we wanted to. Fortunately, the disintegrating road eventually intersected with a paved road, albeit quite narrow.
Working our way up the mountain with Kotor below: Kotor settlements were first recorded around 168 BC; it was established during ancient Roman times and was part of the Roman province of Dalmatia.
We happened upon a random free-roaming cow on our journey up.
Another view further the way up.
And still further the way up.
We eventually arrived in Cetinje, most of us feeling a bit queesy, after the windy drive. We parked the car and then set out to investigate the main pedestrian street and find some lunch.
The main pedestrian street, Njegoševa, in Cetinje: Apparently, in the '90s cars used to go down this street despite it being designated for pedestrians only and the police weren't able to stop this behavior. Along came the Cetinje comedy troop, TBOK (whose name translates to "The Books of Books"), who organized that one day ALL streets in Cetinje would be pedestrian streets. Drivers got the message and thereafter never drove down this street again.
Ministry of Culture.
It didn't take long for the kids to spot the remaining snow and shift into snowball attack mode. Being California kids, even this ridiculously small sampling of snow brought some excitement.
Many of the buildings along Njegoševa were at one time very grand but today look tired and in need of some TLC.
Despite a number of buildings looking like they've seen better days, there have been recent efforts to make investments to improve the city and to bring more people to the area. Apparently there are plans to build a cable-car from Kotor to Cetinje where the project will start in 2014; if executed, it will be the longest tourist cable-car in the world and would indeed be a fantastic experience.
The former British Embassy.
Official residence of Montenegro's President.
These two guards stood at the front entrance. With the door open wide all day long, the heating bill must be huge.
One really needs to watch where one steps while walking in Cetinje (make that Montenegro). We saw several holes that were not covered or inadequately covered. Just an accident waiting to happen.
We drove back to Kotor but on a different (and easier) route, via Budva on the coast. Budva is known for its sandy beaches (called the Budvanska Rivijera) and is a major tourist draw in the warmer months. The skies were threatening with rain and so we didn't stop; we just saw the beaches from the car.

When we returned to Kotor, I wanted to go into the old town and walk the walls before the rain started. We were expecting heavy rains the next day and so I wanted to see as much as we could that day. Unfortunately, just as Paul, James and I were leaving, it started raining but we headed out anyway. We bought a couple umbrellas and walked on top of the town wall.
Bay of Kotor looking north. Some call the Bay of Kotor the southern-most fjord in Europe, but it is a ria, a submerged river canyon.
Another view of the bay from atop of the town wall.
Bay of Kotor looking south.
Once reaching the southern end of the town wall, the wall seemed to end so we climbed down and walked back through the cobbled streets.
St Nicholas Church: It is an Orthodox church located in St Luke's Square and dates from the early 20th century.
We hadn't planned it at the time, but the next day we'd hike up that mountain (St John) to the fortress above. The fortifications surrounding Kotor were built during the Venetian period. The ancient walls stretch for 4.5 km directly above the city.
On February 11th, we were surprised to wake up to partially blue skies; we received the unexpected gift of a dry day. We therefore decided we'd explore Kotor's old town, find a restaurant for lunch and then climb the mountain at the foot of Kotor to the fortress above.
Entering the northern gate to the old town. This currently ranks #8 of 17 things to do in Kotor, as rated by TripAdvisor, which is a tip off that there isn't a lot to do in Kotor, particularly in winter.
There are a number of hotels within the old town walls.
An anchor collection near the Maritime Museum.
The Maritime Museum: Opened to the public in 1900, it was once the Grgurin Palace. Located on Museum Square near the Karampana Fountain, it offers a look into the area's naval history. Its exhibitions include information about Montenagran maritime developments and artifacts from past eras.
Cathedral of St Tryphon: Consecrated in 1166, it is the largest and, some perceive, the most beautiful building in Kotor. The cathedral was seriously damaged and rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667, but there were not enough funds for its complete reconstruction which why its two towers differ from one another. Another massive earthquake occurred in April 1979 and so it had to be restored yet again. They were asking a fee of €2.50/person to go in and take a look. With the 5 of us, that would be €12.50; peeking through the door, I didn't think it worth the price. It didn't look like there were any others interested enough to go in. I left thinking that might not be the best approach for maximizing donations for the cathedral.
The old town is entirely a pedestrian zone filled with narrow streets.
This was formerly a palace built after the 1667 earthquake and was inhabited by the Pima family. (I have no information on who this Pima family was unfortunately.)
We found a Chinese restaurant in the old town! We didn't need to negotiate whether or not to eat here. After months of pasta and pizza, we were all game for something different. As you'd expect, it didn't really measure up to qualify as a great Chinese meal, but it was just right here in Montenegro. And yes, we were the only customers in the restaurant at the time.
Once satisfied with our Montenagran interpretation of a Chinese meal, we set out on our journey up St John mountain to the Tvrđave Kotora or Castle of San Giovanni (St John fortress).
The Bay of Kotor is about 28 km long from the open sea to the harbor of the city of Kotor. It is surrounded by the mountains of Orjen on the west and Lovcen on the east.
I read somewhere that the climb up to the fortress/castle is more like a “huff ’n’ puff” hike because one ascends approximately 1,350 stairs to a height of 1,200 metres. I'd say the description was pretty accurate.
Taking a break part way up.
On the way up, there were different paths from which to choose catagorized as "relatively safe paths", "paths of increased risk" and "high risk zone". We tried to keep to the "relatively safe" route.
About a third the way up, Sarah was questioning the wisdom of our plan to reach the top. Just a little over half way up, she went on strike. She was done and wasn't going to go a step further.
A look up at the St John fortifications. The formidable fortress walls date back to medieval times, built on and off between the 9th and 19th centuries, and built by everyone from the Byzantines to the Venetians.
I made mention of Fantas for those who make it to the top, so Sarah was back climbing, but complaining every step of the way and having her photograph taken wasn't part of the deal.
A zoomed in shot of the two branches of the Skurda river and the edge of the old town at the bottom of the photo. Our 3-story gray apartment building can be seen next to the upper branch of the river.
Great feeling of accomplishment: We made it to the top.
A view of building remains looking down St John mountain away from the Bay of Kotor.
Working our way down.

Walking past the Church of Our Lady of Health which was built in the 15th century following numerous plague epidemics.
When we returned back to the old town, we wandered around the streets a bit more, found those promised Fantas and went shoe shopping for Paul.
Church of the Monastery of St Clare which dates back to the 18th century.
Interior of the Church of the Monastery of St Clare.
Kotor certainly wasn't the place to bargain shop. Wow, €45 for a pair of toddler sneakers.
February 12th was our day to move again. Our next stop was Tirana, the capital and largest city of Albania. (Modern Tirana was founded as an Ottoman town in 1614 by Sulejman Bargjini, a local ruler from Mullet.) The scenery again was beautiful for much of the journey. Our border crossing again went smoothly, first exiting Montenegro and then, a few yards further forward, dealing with the Albanian border patrol. At this point, we have all necessary documents together, handing the officer 6 passports, title to the car, green card (proof of insurance) and front license plate (which we keep off the Prius so that it is not stolen).

Once we entered into Albania, we noticed a significant decrease in the quality of the roads and housing construction. Also, random animals seemed to appear with increasing frequency along the roads.
Where's this cow going? To the corner store for bread?
We made the mistake of not stopping for lunch in Montenegro because once we got to Albania, we couldn't find an (open) restaurant that took credit cards. We didn't have any of the local currency yet (leke). Finally, we found a restaurant that would take euros. The lady serving us was so friendly and welcoming and she especially took an interest in Sarah. Maybe it was the blond hair and blue eyes. She showed us photos of her girls on her smart phone. (And I was thinking this waitress in Albania has a smart phone and I don't even have one. Could I be any further behind in technology?!) She later gave Sarah a hug and kiss good-bye. I'd never seen such personable service!
The kids spotted a swing set next to the restaurant and so blew off some steam before getting packed up back into the car.
We arrived into Tirana and our airbnb apartment ($65/nt) a little after 17:00. Our apartment host, Ray, was there to meet us and got us smoothly checked in to our accommodation.
The view from our 6th floor apartment balcony. Clearly, Tirana wasn't anything close to London, Paris or Rome.
On February 13th, we woke up to rain but fortunately it tapered off during the late morning. We headed out towards Skanderbeg Square where most of Tirana's main attractions are located. I had read that the best (and the country's largest) museum to visit was the National Historical Museum. Unfortunately most of the information presented there is in Albanian; I read that if one is to see it, one needs to hire an English speaking guide. When we reached the museum, it looked pretty empty and there was one women at the front desk. We asked about whether there were any English speaking guides who could take us through the museum and she looked at us with a blank expression, clearly not being able to speak any English, but managed to point us to the tourist office located on the street behind the museum.
National History Museum: Each hall in the museum covers a period of the development of Albania. Themes include finds from archaeological sites across the country, the resistance movement during the Second World War, the 'Pavilion of Communist Terror', and an exhibition about Albania's prison and labor camp system and the thousands of men and women who were swallowed by it.
This mosaic above the entrance to the National Historical Museum is called "The Albanians". It is the collective result of five Albanian artists – Vilson Kilica, Anastas Kostandini, Agim Nebiu, Justin Droboniku, Aleksander Filipi – and was completed in 1980. It tells the story of how Albanians have fought against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries.
We walked over to the tourist bureau and spoke to the one woman managing that office. She was the most unenthusiastic tourist agent I'd ever met. I asked about English-speaking guides and she asked, "For what?" I replied, "For anything in Tirana." She informed us there were no guides, at all. Given it was February 13th, I could somewhat understand that there might not be guides (but this is the capital city). Then I asked what we should see where we wouldn't need a guide. I saw in the tourist brochure that there's a zoo in/near Tirana and (as I stood with the 3 kids beside me) asked, "What about the zoo? "No, don't go there," she replied. She finally circled the Et'hem Bey Mosque, clock tower, Art Gallery and a couple other landmarks and gave us a couple restaurant recommendations (for which we had to ask). Some people clearly aren't the right fit for their job and this woman was one of them.

We had lunch at one of the recommended restaurants and then walked over to the clock tower and Et'hem Bey Mosque; both which were closed. We then continued to the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral which was also on our list to see.
The National Theatre of Opera and Ballet: Founded in 1953, it's located on Skanderbeg Square.
Skanderbeg Monument located on Skanderbeg Square (of course): It was inaugurated in 1968 on the 500th anniversary of the death of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Skanderbeg was considered by many in western Europe to be a model of Christian resistance against the Ottoman Muslims and he is Albania's most important national hero. In 1423, Sultan Murad II took him hostage and he served the Ottoman Empire during the next twenty years. In 1443, he deserted the Ottomans during the Battle of Nis and became the ruler of Kruje, Svetigrad and Modric. In 1444, he organized the League of Lezhe, which proclaimed him Chief of the League of the Albanian people, and defended the region of Albania against the Ottoman Empire for more than two decades. Together with Venetians, he fought against the Ottomans during the Ottoman-Venetian War (1463-79) until his death in 1468. Prior to the fall of communism (1991), a statue of Joseph Stalin stood in this location.
The clock tower and Et'hem Bey Mosque: The clock tower dates from 1822. It was extended to 35 meters in 1928, when a German-made clock was also installed. For a long time, the clock tower was the highest building in Tirana.
The phone booth is still alive and well in Tirana. Some considerate person chained a chair to the booth so one can sit and chat.
Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral of Tirana: It was opened in June 2012 and cost millions of euros. It’s the third largest Orthodox church in Europe and took 8 years to construct. During communist rule, the cathedral was shut down altogether. Given that the population of Tirana is a little over 421,000 (2011) and just under 7% of the population are Orthodox Christians, many feel this was a crazy amount to spend on the Cathedral (particularly looking at the appearance of much of the city).
Interior of the cathedral: The cathedral complex includes a cultural and conference center, an amphitheater and library.
As in most orthodox churches, the cathedral dome has an icon of Christ.
Not being confident in the state of public washrooms, we briefly went back to the apartment building to freshen up with the plan to set out again to Tirana's National Gallery of Arts.
While our apartment itself was fine, the entrance to the building was a little "unfinished". This turned out to be the norm across Albania. There's a lot of unfinished construction pretty much everywhere one looks.
Now with the clouds breaking we could see from our balcony the mountains that shoulder Tirana.
After our break, we walked to the National Gallery of Arts which we thought might be engaging (enough) even if there was no English translation of anything. When we arrived, we were the only patrons and the lady at the front desk seemed particularly happy to see us. She told us the upper floors were closed off due to some meeting but we were welcome to visit the ground floor and there would be no charge to do so. One area of the ground floor was showing a temporary exhibit, "Posters and Ideas", from the Hungarian poster artist Péter Pócs; Pócs was inspired mostly by the history of Hungary, and particularly by its politics during the 20th century. The other section on the ground floor showed Albanian paintings from the period 1883–1930.
The National Gallery of Arts.

The boys clearly weren't swept away with the National Gallery of Arts.

The Shkodra Wedding Ceremony by Kol Idromeno: This painting was hanging in the permanent collection which covers the beginning of secular painting in Albania. Other works in the collection were by Pjetër Marubi, Simon Rrota, Zef Kolombi, Vangjel Zengo and Spiro Xega.

Walking along the pedestrian street Shetitorja Murat Toptani: Clearly, there's work to be done to spruce up this street.

And despite being a pedestrian street, there were tiles and lights missing so one always had to be watching where one was stepping.
President George W Bush visited Tirana in 2007. Being the first US President to visit Albania, he got a street named after him for making the trip.
Along the Shetitorja Murat Toptani, there was a sign advertising a "Children's Cultural Center". We think this playground was it.
Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral beautifully lit up at night. In 1967, religious practices were officially banned in Albania, making the country the first and only constitutionally atheist state to ever exist. After the fall of communism, in 1991, religious activities were free to resume.
February 14th
was Valentine's Day and we thought we finally found a country outside of Hallmark's reach. No sign of the holiday here except for a couple florist shops that seemed to be brimming with flowers, somewhat heavy on the red roses.

Vincent and I set out to see the Et'hem Bey Mosque which closed to tourists at 11am. I think this was my first visit to a mosque. We were greeted at the entrance with a kind man who spoke English and we were told to remove our shoes before entering the building, which I could see would be a bit tricky in the rain. I was also reminded to put a scarf over my head. My Scottish purple woolen scarf would serve the purpose. There was an outer room and an inner room to the mosque. Just outside the inner room was an electrical board showing the times the five required daily prayers would be held. It looked like the times varied each day, depending on the sun. There's the dawn prayer, 2 hours before sunrise. Then the noon prayer when the sun is just declining from its highest point. Then the afternoon prayer which is 3-4 hours before sunset. This is followed by the sunset prayer, just after sunset. Finally, there's the night prayer which is held after the twilight leaves the sky.
The prayer hall: The prayer hall, also known as the "musallah", rarely has furniture.
Opposite the entrance to the prayer hall is the "qiblah wall" (shown here), a "visually emphasized area". The qiblah wall should be set perpendicular to a line leading to Mecca. Usually in the center of the qiblah wall is the "mihrab", a niche or depression indicating the direction of Mecca (also shown here). The mihrab is normally not occupied by furniture. A raised "minbar" or pulpit is located to the side of the mihrab for a khatib or some other speaker to offer a sermon (khutbah). The mihrab serves as the location where the "imam" (worship leader) directs the five daily prayers on a regular basis. During active prayers, congregants pray in rows parallel to the qiblah wall and thus arrange themselves so they face Mecca.
Construction of the mosque began in 1789 by Molla Bey and was finished in 1823 by his son, Haxhi Ethem Bey. Closed under communist rule, the mosque reopened as a house of worship in 1991, without permission from the authorities; about 10,000 people dared to attend and remarkably the police did not interfere. The event was viewed as a milestone in the rebirth of religious freedom in Albania.
Detailed frescoes cover the interior of the mosque. There's a balcony which can be used for worship. Even though women can technically worship with men, I suspect women may congregate up in the balcony.
It was 10:59 when I took this photo. The next prayer time would be held at 12:02.
After visiting the Et'hem Bey Mosque, Vincent and I returned to the apartment. The rain continued to pour down through the day and none of us were inspired to go outside and explore. I eventually took a nap; it was that kind of day. Vincent did some research and found that the Lego Movie was playing at 17:00. Given it was animated, I gave it about a 10 percent chance of being shown in English but those were good enough odds that both Paul and Sarah were on board with making the 30 minute walk to the cinema. James chose to stay behind in the apartment. On the way there I finally did see a sign of Valentine's Day.
The western commercial Valentine's Day is indeed creeping into Albania. I saw a couple shops selling these "lovable" stuffed animals, plus a number of florists that seemed to have extra shipments of flowers.
When we arrived at the cinema, we had a total win as the movie was in English. It's interesting visiting cinemas of different countries.
We asked for the biggest popcorn they had and this is what they gave us. So we ordered 4 of them. On the bright side, they sold beer and whiskey so that's an improvement that North American cinemas could adopt.
On February 15th, we left our apartment in Tirana and made the drive to Sarande located in the south of Albania on the coast. The GPS indicated it would be a 4 1/2 hour drive, but given road conditions it ended up being more of a 6 hour drive. We stopped for lunch along the way and the kids encountered their first WC with no toilet; just a porcelain hole in the ground. I expected we'd find more of those as we progressed towards Turkey. Sarah also noticed a man bringing two cows heads into the restaurant kitchen, dripping blood on the way in; we could follow the blood trail as we exited the restaurant. I was beginning to think a good tag line for Albania would be "expect the unexpected".
Driving along the Albanian roads was an adventure. Pot holes galore and, at times, the pavement would end for 50-100 yards for no apparent reason.
No sleeping at the wheel: There were many sharp hairpin turns with no barrier between the road and the cliffs.
The Kastrati Group operates gas stations across Albania. Kastrati is an Albanian surname and is derived from the name of a tribe of the Malësi e Madhe district in northern Albania. However, every time we drove by one of these, we couldn't ignore the similar term "Castrati", which refers to male singers who had beautifully high singing voices due to being castrated at an early age.
We again encountered the hazard of livestock on the roads.
More congested traffic en route: We noticed that the career of "shepherd" is still alive and well in Albania.
Once we got away from the shoddy buildings of Tirana and some of the villages en route, we could really appreciate the Albanian landscape which was very mountainous and beautiful, especially along the coastal drive.
It was about 18:00 when we finally reached our Hotel Olympic (€45) in Sarande. Since we arrived after sunset, we so appreciated that our GPS was still providing accurate maps.

On February 16th, we woke to one of the best days we've had since leaving London. Yes, it was that good. Clear blue skies with temperatures in the high teens and a breathtaking view of the Adriatic/Ionian Sea (Sarande's right on the border of the two seas).
We were greeted by this view on our balcony that morning. That's Corfu in the distance. No going to Greece this trip; it's in the Schengen zone.
Our Albanian breakfast: We each were presented with a cup of coffee, a mug of tea, bread, hard-boiled egg, creamed cheese, butter, a stewed fruit (black cherries perhaps) and fig juice.
We decided to drive to Butrint (Bouthroton), an archeological and UNESCO World Heritage Site which is ranked the #1 sight to see when visiting Sarande. There is evidence of inhabitants dating back to the 12th century BC. Butrint was in a strategically important position due its access to the Straits of Corfu. By the 4th century BC it had grown in importance and included a theatre, a sanctuary to Asclepius and an agora (gathering place). Around 380 BC, the settlement was fortified with a 870 metres long wall, with five gates enclosing an area of four hectares. In 31 BC, Emperor Augustus, fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, started the plan to make Butrint a veterans' colony. This was a year before Augustus's death and thereafter his son Julius Caesar completed the plans. The construction included an aqueduct, a Roman bath, houses, a forum complex, and a nymphaeum. During that era the size of the town was doubled.

Unfortunately, I forgot the memory card to my camera when visiting Butrint; I took a few photos directly onto my camera's memory and when I find a cord that will allow me to download those pictures, I'll update the blog with them.

When we returned to Sarande, we parked the car and walked down to the promenade and beach and found a restaurant on the waterfront for lunch.
The Bar Restaurant Limoni, where we had lunch.
Waiter, waiter! There's a langoustine in my soup!
After lunch we walked along the promenade and found a playground.
Expect the unexpected in Albania: Just next to the restaurant, on the beach, this man caught an eel and was just starting the process of gutting it.
We walked a bit further but there wasn't much to look at in terms of shops. Just a couple of tourist shops selling trinkets. Noticing the sun beginning to set, we walked back to the hotel in order to watch the sunset on our balcony.
Vincent enjoying the sunset while Sarah does homework.
With no cloud coverage, capturing a good sunset was difficult with my Fujifilm camera, but anyway here it is.
View from our balcony looking south.
On February 17th, we woke to another perfect sunny day.
From our balcony, we noticed that our neighbor was raising bees on his roof.
We decided to visit Gjirokastra which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the few examples of an Ottoman merchant town surviving in the Balkans. Once we arrived and parked we decided to first fortify ourselves with lunch so that we could make the climbs to various sights (as we so often do).
Shopping center of Gjirokastra's old town.
We walked by Gjirokastra's cold war tunnel which inspired a few defensive moves from Paul. Not sure what James is plotting; maybe keeping warm over an imaginary fire.
Local sculptor.
After another so-so meal, we started walking to the Zecate House (200 leke/person) which is viewed as the best surviving example of an Ottaman Tower House in the area.
The house, built in 1811-12, follows a typical fortified tower house (kullë) layout; it has a secure stone lower storey and is topped by a wooden gallery where the principal rooms for an extended family are located.  Embrasures are set in the walls to help defend against attacking enemies.
The Zekate House has three floors; the ground floor contains storage rooms, a kitchen and the cistern. There is a central staircase which winds upwards through the building. The first floor has two rooms that were used as living quarters for branches of the family, while the second floor has a grand reception room and two other smaller rooms. The wooden floors in the upper levels don't seem very solid so tread carefully. One day, someone is going to fall through.
One of the living quarter rooms.
The grand reception room on the second floor: This principal room is very typical with frescoed walls, a carved ceiling and an ornate fireplace. This level would have been shared by the whole family.
View from the wooden balcony overlooking Gjirokaster.
After leaving the Zekate House, we walked back down to the old town and then up again over to the Gjirokastra Castle.
The castle sits on a rocky bluff with the city stretching out around it. It offers spectacular views of the Drino valley and surrounding mountains. Signs of the first fortress here are from the 5th or 6th century AD. Major fortifications were then built under the Despots of Epirus in the 12th and 13th centuries. After the Ottoman conquest of the late 14th century, the most extensive improvements were made around 1490 by Sultan Beyazid II.
The first area you see when you enter the castle is the Great Gallery; it housed the magazines, storerooms, bakeries and accommodation for the castle garrison. The gallery now houses artillery that was captured from occupying forces during WWII. There are German and Italian guns and mortars alongside examples from the Royal Albanian Army. A number of the "Italian" armaments are actually Austro-Hungarian pieces that were delivered to the Italians as reparations following WWI and an Italian "light tank" built by Fiat in ~1941-43.
There are remains of a US Air Force two-seater Lockheet T-33 "Shooting Star" Jet Trainer on the castle grounds. This plane was forced to land near Tirana in December 1957 after developing technical problems and running off course. The plane was exhibited in the National Museum of Armaments as an example of a "spy plane" and was made an example of the external threat against communism during the Cold War.
From 1811, the Ottoman governor, Ali Pasha of Tepelena, added many elements to the castle including this clock tower on the eastern side. 
Ali Pasha completed fortifying the full area of the bluff.  He also built an aqueduct to bring water to the castle from a distance of over 10 km from the surrounding mountains.
After leaving the castle, we got in the car again to drive to Syri i Kaltër (the Blue Eye) which is a clear blue water spring found on the main road between Sarande and Gjirokastra. It is the initial water source of the Bistrice River that ends in the Ionian Sea south of Sarande. The spring is at least 50 meters deep (that is as far as divers have descended) and the color of the water is an exquisite turquoise.

When we parked the car, Vincent and the boys headed off toward the Blue Eye while I was held back by Sarah who didn't want to walk anywhere to "just see blue water". Frustrated, I told Sarah to stay back at the car and proceeded to walk on my own to the bridge (by a hotel) that one crosses in order to see the Blue Eye. As I neared the hotel, two dogs sheepishly approached me. I looked at them and kept walking at a steady pace. One of the dogs, quickly circled behind me and bit me hard on the calf of my left leg. Fortunately I was wearing jeans, but even at that the bite of the 4 canine teeth pierced my skin through the denim. It hurt! This was a dog that lives/hangs out at the hotel. One of the men at the hotel poured vodka on the wound and gave me a glass of water. (I would have preferred a shot of vodka.) He told me the dog was "vaccinated". (Man, I hope he's telling the truth.) Albania: Expect the unexpected.
I asked Vincent to take these photos of the Blue Eye while I limped back to make sure Sarah was safely in the car.
Lovely. Vincent also took a video of the water so it was almost like being there.
When we returned to the Hotel Olympia, Vincent and I both researched "rabies in Albania" and were relieved that there didn't seem to be reports of dogs having rabies. Nevertheless, we decided I should go to the hospital for, at a minimum, a tetanus shot and, if the doctor advised me to do so, a rabies shot (which would lead to a series of shots). The man who helps to run the hotel volunteered to go with us to help translate, which was extremely kind.

The Sarande hospital was an experience. While I didn't relish going to a hospital and facing shot(s), I was interested in seeing a bit of the Albanian health care system. The hospital was certainly sparsely equipped. When I arrived, I was seen right away. A number of people, both staff and just lay people (seeming to be hanging out at the hospital) briefly discussed my injury. A doctor then came forward who could speak some English and reiterated that he knew no incidence of rabies in the area in the last 10 years since he'd been working at the hospital. He advised I get a tetanus shot, which is what I did. The hospital didn't have a rabies vaccine anyway which hopefully was a positive sign that they aren't needed. During this visit, there was no discussion of cost or credit checks or request for payment. Forty-five minutes later we were on our way back to the hotel. Hopefully I won't turn out to be the "first on record" to contract rabies in Albania. I guess if I finish this blog and our year long trip, the reader can ascertain that it all worked out.
Sarande hospital waiting area: We had to wait about 30 minutes after my tetanus shot to ensure there was no adverse reaction.
On February 18th, we packed up our car again and left the Hotel Olympia. Despite the dog attack, I was sorry to leave. The hotel staff were extremely personable and helpful and I enjoyed the area. We had a long drive ahead of us through most of Albania.
Driving along, we saw lots of examples of unfinished buildings. Is this a staircase leading to heaven?
Another building where they've finished the lower two floors with thoughts of adding upper floors at some point: We saw a few buildings that had fallen down due to poor construction; unfortunately I didn't have my camera ready when we drove by those.
Albania constructed roughly 750,000 bunkers (nearly one to every four citizens) during dictator Enver Hoxha's 40-year reign in an effort to fend off a threat that never materialized. Many of these bunkers still litter the countryside.
And speaking of litter, I gather Albania has substandard garbage collection (and maybe hasn't quite come to value the importance of a healthy environment) because we often found garbage dumped along the roadsides and even along the rivers and streams.
While traversing Albania, the GPS sent us on a "secondary road" which was so poor and filled with pot holes that the kids, dog and I had to get out and walk so as not to damage the undercarriage of the car. We ended up walking about 3-4 miles. I felt transported back in time to about 1940.
Our trek on foot across Albania: Sarah was hot and felt compelled to do the topless thing.
While Vincent had the stress of not destroying the Prius, the kids and I got to take in Albania's stunning scenery.
Ignore the poor construction and sightings of garbage and there's no doubt the Albanian countryside is really spectacular.
Meanwhile, Vincent had his own challenges trying not to get stuck in the mud (glad we got those new winter tires) or rolling off the side of a hill.
We eventually reached the Albanian-Macedonian border more or less in tact and onto our next destination in Ohrid. I was glad we visited Albania. While I might not return to Tirana again, I thought Albania's coastal region was worth visiting. And the Albanian countryside is stunning. I think in another 30 years or so with some serious investment in infrastructure, Albania will get some real tourist attention.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there

    I don't see a "contact me" button so I thought I'd try and leave a message. I am working on the Coles family tree and am of the same generation of you but a different branch as my great grandfather was EJ Coles, son of Clement Coles. Please contact me at as I have information that you might be interested in and am hopeful that you can fill in some gaps of where EJ's siblings ended up.

    Kind regards

    Chris Coles