Albania & Macedonia, Part Two

When last we left our intrepid travelers they were stuck in the mud in the middle of Albanian farmland.

I know you’ve all been biting your nails and wringing your hands and wondering whether we ever got out.

Oddly enough, I didn’t get upset at all when the car got stuck.  Despite the fact that neither of us speaks a word of Albanian and had no idea how to call the police or a tow truck or anything, I was calm.  Even if we had known how to call someone, we wouldn’t have been able to tell them where we were to come get us.  It was really just a ridiculous situation.

Even though the road – if you can call it that – was in horrible condition, it was obviously used.  So, I figured someone would come along eventually even if s/he was riding a donkey.

Luckily it ended up being a little better than that.  2 guys riding a little scooter approached us on the road from the opposite direction.  I said to Sean “Maybe these nice people will stop and help us” and sure enough, they did. 

You can see their little scooter in the photo above.  This was something we saw all over the country – two men riding on a scooter or dirtbike or motorbike or whatever.  Of course nobody wears a helmet and they drive like maniacs. 

The first thing they said to us was “No” while pointing to the road, as in no, we could not drive any further.  As I mentioned in Part I of this post, the road to the left sloped down and the road to the right sloped up.  We clearly couldn’t turn around because of that, so if we couldn’t continue on the road then we were really screwed. 

In any case, between the two of them – who didn’t speak much English – and Sean, they managed through gestures to work together to pile rocks around the tires and then push the car while I tried to drive the car out of the mud.  The three of them ended up covered in mud.  Sean realized later that it was even in his hair.

Nothing worked, though, and the car was still stuck. 

There was some farmer working across the valley and one of the scooter guys yelled over to him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation, yelling in Albanian, and finally the scooter guy ran off to the farmer.  He returned with a shovel and the farmer followed behind him shortly so we had another person helping.  They used the shovel to scoop up dry dirt and throw it around the tires.

Finally they told me to try driving off again while they pushed the car and it finally worked. 

So what is the lesson learned here?  Everyone should learn how to drive a stick shift.  Luckily I learned years ago or I wouldn’t have been able to drive the rental car out of the mud.  But the other lesson is if your GPS tells you to drive on a dirt road, don’t listen to it.

The farmer indicated to us that it would, in fact, be okay to continue on the road.

I wish I had gotten a photo of the guys who helped us but I didn’t think of it in time.  Sean said the scooter guys were both quite drunk, and just before we parted ways one of them did the international sign for drinking by pointing his thumb towards his mouth with his pinky pointing up.  As he did so, he said “No police!”, indicating that police would not have been a good idea in his inebriated state.  That much English he knew. 

We drove along for another half a mile or so and finally reached a paved road.  We were ever so thankful until the GPS told us to “Turn left on road.”  Yes, that’s exactly what it said.  No road name or number or anything.  Just “road”.  After just a few feet Sean said “Oh HELL no” and reversed the car until we were back on the paved road.

The “road” the GPS wanted us to take was even worse than the one on which we’d gotten stuck.  This road seriously looked like it had been pecked out by chickens.  Maybe even this chicken and her babies who I think were all secretly laughing at us.

Once back on the paved road we passed some more beautiful lakes and hills.

We also passed this brightly-colored cemetery.

Almost every grave had a splash of flowers on it and it was quite eye-catching.

Every so often the GPS would try get us to turn onto another “road” and Sean would just repeat his “HELL no” and stay on the paved road.  He knew as long as we were heading somewhat south that we were going in the right direction, and we were not about to chance getting stuck again.  Even the paved road wasn’t great as every so often it would just end abruptly and without warning and then turn into a gravelly mess. 

Due to the road conditions and getting stuck, it took us about twice as long to get to our destination of Saranda, Albania as we thought it would.

We also had to spend a couple of hours driving on mountain roads.  Apparently the GPS and Google Maps thinks you can speed along these mountain road at 60 miles an hour, but as we preferred to live to tell the tale, we did not go that fast.  That also contributed to the trip taking much longer.

The scenery driving through the mountains was amazing.  Unfortunately they don’t really believe in scenic pull-offs in Albania, but we did manage to find a spot at one point so we could enjoy the moonlit mountains.

It was probably about 9:30 p.m. when we finally arrived at the apartment we were renting and we were both exhausted.

Because the trip took so long and we were so tired upon arriving in Saranda, the Libation of the Day for day 2 of the trip was this.

Just plain ol’ water.  We had bought some in Macedonia, thankfully, before we started the drive to Saranda.  I actually took this photo to show how cheap the water was.  You can see 15 on the sign, which indicates 15 denar or the equivalent of about 33 U.S. cents. 

The next day we woke up somewhat refreshed.  We took a walk to a nearby market and picked up some food and drink to keep in the apartment.  The apartment, by the way, was very nice.  It had 2 bedrooms, one bathroom and a spacious living room/dining room/kitchen area.  It also had 3 balconies – one off each bedroom and one off the living room.  There was no point in using the bedroom balconies as all you could see was the crumbling buildings next door. 

As I said, the apartment itself was nice but the outside surroundings were not.  From the living room balcony, however, you did get a glimpse of the Adriatic Sea.

If you look between that lovely red and yellow building and the one to its right, you can see what I mean.

In Part I of this post I mentioned how common it was to see unfinished buildings.  That white and greenish-colored building to the left in the photo is an example of one of them.

After our trip to the market, we took a drive down to the sea to find a place to have lunch. 

Once we were done eating, we took a stroll along the paved promenade next to the sea.

Looks like a typical sea resort, right?  With all kinds of hotels along the water?  Well, more than half of the buildings you see in that photo are unfinished.

Remember how I said earlier that sometimes the paved road just stops and you’re suddenly driving on gravel?  Apparently the same thing happens with paved sidewalks.

We were walking along the promenade and all of a sudden it was just torn up.  No warning sign, no orange cone, no nothing.  It just stopped and you either walked through it or around it.

When we reached the end of the promenade, we sat on a bench to take in the scenery for a bit.

The little boat you see there is a hydrofoil that goes between Saranda and the Greek island of Corfu.  It’s about a 35-minute ride but it’s also rather expensive at 38 Euro – over 50 U.S. dollars – for a round-trip ticket.  The average monthly salary in Albania is the equivalent of about 250 Euro, so they are probably not going to spend 15 percent of that to day-trip to Corfu.  Most people do the opposite and they day-trip from Corfu to Saranda.  Corfu is a popular stop for cruise ships, so a lot of cruisers do an excursion to Saranda for the day.

After our little rest on the bench, we walked back to the car and drove up to the nearby Castle of Lekursi.

It was built around 1537 and now is just a restaurant and bar.  You can’t even go into the castle to see anything.  When we were there, the restaurant and bar weren’t even open for the season but people were working to get it ready.

Sean said he could get used to this.

He really did say he could put up with the lack of infrastructure in the country if he could have a house with a view like this.  Mountains on one side and the Adriatic on the other.

He later rescinded that statement, but there’s no denying that we both would be willing to trade in a lot for that view.

When we left the castle we went for a drive and ran across this.

The white column has a date of October 2, 1943 on it so it’s clearly a World War II monument, but I’ve been unable to find out the significance of the date or why there is an American flag at the monument. 

I can tell you that we were amazed by all the American flags we saw flying in the country.  We saw them at hotels, monuments like the one shown above, houses and other places.  I’m not sure why but I have read that Albania is a very pro-American country, which I have to say is rather refreshing.  Everyone who asked us where we were from were thrilled when we said America.  We’d ask if they’d ever been there and a typical response was “No, but it’s my dream.”  Although we didn’t see it, there is a George W. Bush street in the Albanian capital of Tirana and there is a status of him in another Albanian town.  He was the first sitting U.S. President to visit the country and they loved him. 

As a little side note, brothers and actors John and Jim Belushi are of Albanian descent.  Their father was an Albanian immigrant and their mother was the daughter of Albanian immigrants. 

During the drive I became in need of a restroom so we stopped at a seaside restaurant in the little town of Ksamil.  We ordered coffees and then I went to the restroom, which was accessed by leaving the restaurant and walking around to the back of the building.

You may notice that there seems to be a toilet bowl missing.  Luckily this is not the first time I have seen one of these – or used one of them – in my travels so I just sucked it up and went.  Like I said in Part I, when you gotta go you gotta go.  Thankfully there was a sink in this restroom, which is not always the case with these types of places. 

One thing about Albania is you are not going to find a lot of roadside amenities.  It’s certainly not like Germany where there are rest stops all over the place with numerous clean restrooms (with toilets) a lovely restaurant and a market.   A couple of times we saw signs for a rest area in Albania that supposedly had all that plus a gas station, bank machines and more, but when we arrived we were lucky if there was even a gas station that was open.  

On the other hand, there are stand-alone gas stations all over the place.  Whether they’re abandoned or not is another story, but there really is no lack of places to get gas.  Or to get your car washed.  You pass signs saying “LAVAZH” constantly, and a lot of them just had hoses propped up with water spraying all over the place.  Sometimes we’d see 6 or 8 in a row and all of them had guys standing in the street trying to wave you over to their spot for a car wash.  Clearly there is no water shortage and Albania and I’m guessing they don’t pay monthly water bills either.  Sean did end up taking the car in for a wash towards the end of the week because you can imagine what it looked like after getting stuck in the mud.

Back to the town of Ksamil, the views were, of course, as beautiful as they were in all the other places we visited.

What really amazed me about the scenery in Albania was how many different types of it you see in such a short time.

In this one spot you can see rocky mountains, tree-covered hills, a small populated area and the Adriatic sea.  It was unusual during a short drive to see all of that plus farmland, lakes and densely-populated towns plus more.

In Ksamil, we stopped at a mini-market for some drinks and headed back to the apartment for the evening.

Here’s a photo of the living room/dining room/kitchen area in the apartment.

You may notice that there is just a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.  There were a couple of little drawbacks like that but we had no trouble overlooking them.  The cost for 5 nights in this apartment was 250 Euro and yes, the owners did ask to be paid in Euro and in cash.  But 50 Euro a night for what we had was a pretty good deal.  You can certainly get a place for much cheaper though.  If all you are truly interested in is a bed and bathroom, you can get that for 10 Euro a night.  We just prefer a little more comfort and space.

The Libation of the Day for day 3 is Tirana beer.

You may recall that Tirana is the capital of Albania.  This beer is made at the Birra Malto brewery, the largest one in Albania.  We both really enjoyed all the different beers we sampled in both Macedonia and Albania.

The next day we drove over to see the ruins at Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

These ruins were as amazing as any we saw in Rome or Athens but not nearly as crowded.  We ended up spending almost 4 hours at Butrint and in that time ran across maybe 10 other tourists.

What you see above is the remains of what was a theatre. 

The settlement at Butrint dates back to about the 4th century BC.  Several hundred years later in 44 BC, Julius Caesar designated it as a veterans’ colony for Roman soldiers.  Much of Butrint was destroyed by an earthquake in the 3rd century AD.  It was used by various empires over the years and even belonged to Napoleon at one point.  In 1928, after a long period of disuse, archeological excavations were begun.  Butrint National Park was established in the year 2000, so it has not been open to the public for all that long.

In the 6th century, Butrint became the seat of a bishop. A baptistery and a basilica were constructed for the bishop.

Those are the remains of the baptistery.  The pavement of the baptistery contains seven different mosaics, but as you can see they are covered.  They are kept covered because there are lagoons nearby whose water levels rise and fall seasonally, which leads to the mosaics constantly getting wet and drying out again and therefore deteriorating.  Now they are uncovered only once every few years for public viewing.  We saw photos of the mosaics and they are stunning.

And here is part of the remains of the basilica.

The basilica also had a mosaic floor at one time.  In medieval times the basilica was rebuilt and the mosaic floor was covered with flagstone.

The park has benches all around so you can sit and rest and enjoy views like this.

I can see why people would want to build a settlement in this spot.

I’m including a photo of this wall and gate because the description of it on the nearby plaque was so interesting.

The first thing is that the wall dates from the 4th century BC.  Amazing.  The second thing is that it was constructed without mortar.  Even more amazing.  Third, it is believed that this is the Scaean Gate mentioned in the poem The Aeneid by Virgil.  According to legend, the Trojan Exiles Helenus and Andromache founded Butrint.  Lastly, if you look at the corner of the walls on either side of the door, you can see a vertical line where the stones meet.  This is proof of how exact the builders were back in the 4th century BC in getting their stones to line up.

The gate in the next photo is called The Lion Gate because of the relief you can see on the middle stone there.  It depicts a lion devouring the head of a bull.  That stone is not part of the original gate.  It was added around the 5th century AD for better defense of the gate. 

And another beautiful view.

The fortress seen here is known as the Triangular Castle.

You can see why from its shape.  It was built by the Venetians in the 15th century and its purpose was to protect fish traps in the area.  Fishing was the main source of income at the time.  Once this fortress was built, everyone apparently moved out of Butrint to live at the new castle instead.

After a quick visit to the small museum at Butrint, we made our way out of the park.  The building seen here, known as the Venetian Tower, is the first building you see upon entering the park and therefore the last building you see upon leaving the park. 

It was built at the same time as the Triangular Castle you saw above.

Napolean eventually took over the Venetians in 1797. At that point an Albanian ruler named Ali Pasha formed an alliance with Napolean and took over Butrint.  Ali Pasha’s castle, his second residence until 2 years before he died, can be seen from Butrint.

As you can see, there are no roads to the castle.  You can apparently get there by boat, and although we did see a sign for boat tours there, the dock near the sign was crumbling.  We didn’t see anything else that indicated how to get there, so we didn’t visit the castle.

Remember when I mentioned all the unfinished houses that you see around Albania?  Here’s an extreme example.

I had read that the foundations of some of the homes were actually destroyed on purpose by local authorities because people were building illegally.  It looks like that may have been the case with this house.  What a shame – look at the water view those people would have had.

By this time it was time for lunch so we ate at this restaurant on the Adriatic.

Unfortunately the seats you see there are reserved for people who are having drinks only, so if you want food at this place you don’t get as good of a view. 

After lunch we went back to the apartment to chill for a bit.  We then went back to the Lekursi castle mentioned earlier to watch the sunset.

It was beautiful and we were the only ones there watching.  I’m glad we did it that night because the rest of our evenings in Saranda were cloudy.

The Libation of The Day for Monday, Day 4, is this frappé. 

Now, this drink is nothing like a frappe you’d get at McDonald’s or a Frappuccino that you’d get at Starbucks.  This drink was invented in Greece in 1957 and in fact the first time I had one was last year in Greece.  It’s made from instant coffee, as you might have guessed from the Nescafé logo on the glass. You can order your frappé plain (no sugar), medium (2 teaspoons of sugar) or sweet (4 teaspoons of sugar). 

Day 5 started out with a visit to Syri i Kalter or The Blue Eye. 

It’s a natural water spring whose depth is over 160 feet.

There’s a little viewing platform from where you can take photos.  My photography skills do not do the color of this spring justice so take my word for it – the blue color was amazing.

There’s not much else to see there although there are a couple of restaurants where you could sit and enjoy looking at the water.

You can also walk along a little path and see a stream where the water is equally as beautiful as The Blue Eye.

By the way, remember when I said we saw American flags flying all over the place in Albania?

There you go.  There is inexplicably one hanging from the sign for The Blue Eye, along with the EU flag and the Albanian flag.

After seeing The Blue Eye, we continued on to our main destination of the town of Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokaster.  I’m not sure why they decided to do that because the two towns are a good 3 hours apart.

We had originally planned to visit Berat on the way back to the airport in Tirana on our last full day, but after seeing how much longer it actually told us to get anywhere vs. what Google Maps and our GPS said it would take, we scrapped that plan.

The town is on the UNESCO list because it is a well-preserved Ottoman town. 

You may remember some information about Enver Hoxha, former Communist leader of Albania, from Part I of this blog.  He was born in Gjirokaster and lived in this house.

It is now the Ethnographic Museum. 

We actually didn’t end up walking around the town that much.  I had read that there was a tourist information office there and had expected to get the kind of information that we normally get in other cities, such as a walking map.  I should have known what I’d be in for after a few days in Albania.

First, when we got there the office was closed.  It really wasn’t even a separate office.  It was just located in a gift shop.  A woman from the gift shop across the street came over to us and told us to come to her shop and she could help us.  She did give us a brochure with a tiny map on it and pointed out a few things, but as much as I appreciated her helpfulness, the scant bit of information we got really didn’t do us much good.  It was kind of disappointing.  You’d think for a UNESCO site there would be more information.

We did go to the castle above town.

The plane you see there is a United States Air Force plane.  It was forced to land near Tirana in 1957 due to technical problems.  The sign near the plane hinted that it was a captured spy plane, though.

There was a nice view of the town from the castle.

The site of the castle has been inhabited since about the 8th century BC.  The castle itself was built around the 12th century AD.  Ali Pasha, whose castle near Butrint you read about earlier, added on to the Gjirokaster Castle around 1812.  During the Communist regime, political prisoners were housed at the castle.

One of the features of the castle that you can clearly see even from town is the clock tower.

There is a small museum at the castle as well which requires a separate entry fee from the one you pay to get into the castle.  Sean visited the museum while I waited inside the castle because I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing weapons and armor and things like that. 

Once we were done at the castle, we headed back to Saranda.

We had a late lunch/early dinner in town and after dinner I tried this, the Libation of the Day for Day 5.

It’s called raki and it’s a traditional liquor in Balkan countries such as Albania. It’s made from grapes and it is a VERY strong-tasting drink.  Thankfully I still had some of my cola left from dinner to chase the raki down with.  It might be an acquired taste.

Day 6 was a down day for us, which was okay.  Usually our trips consist of long weekends where we’re on the go all the time, so on trips like this that are a little bit longer it’s nice to have a day with nothing planned.  We did go out for a drive but really didn’t stop anywhere or do anything.  So, the only photo from Day 6 is this one.

Kastrati is a chain of gas stations in Albania.  Of course I chuckled every time we passed one, because all I could think of was that they must employ castrati there.  In case you don’t know, a castrato is a male with a high singing voice that results from being castrated before puberty.  Castrati is the plural of castrato.  I kept imaging some male soprano singing merrily while pumping gas.

The Libation of the Day for Day 6 is another type of Tirana beer.

It wasn’t quite as good as the other Tirana beer we had, but it was okay.

Day 7 was my birthday and I awoke to this. 

Sean was thoughtful enough to pack a happy birthday sign and some balloons in his luggage so I had some festivity before we started our drive back to Tirana.

We actually made pretty good time to Tirana and we checked into a hotel at the airport.  Our flight was the following morning so I had booked the hotel there in advance rather than chancing trying to leave Saranda at 5:00 a.m. and make the flight.  I’m glad I made that decision.

We had dinner in the hotel and although I did have white wine both with dinner and after dinner, I forgot to take a photo of it.  So, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the Libation of the Day for the final day of the trip was a nice Pinot Grigio.

The last photo for the trip is me on the balcony of our airport hotel with the tiara and Hello Kitty birthday button that Sean also brought for me. 

I will close by saying that while I’m glad I visited Albania, it wouldn’t be my first choice of a place to vacation again.  If you are the type of person who lives to visit a place without a Starbucks or McDonald’s in sight, then Albania might be the place for you.  If you are the type of person who doesn’t care about roadside amenities or if you are the type of person who loves a place without malls, movie theatres, bowling alleys and the like, you might love Albania. I personally prefer a place that’s a little more “first world”, but that’s just me.  I was still utterly floored by the natural beauty of the place and everyone we met could not have been nicer. 

If you’ve visited Albania and would like to share anything about your experience, leave your comment here or on our Facebook page!  

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