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Classical Tour of Albania

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Until the fall of communism in 1991, Albania was closed to tourists. Even now it is only just being discovered and doesn’t feature on the usual tourist itinerary. In the C18th the historian Edward Gibbon described Albania as, “a country in sight of Italy less known than the wilds of America.” This could still be true today.

This seemed to be an excellent reason to visit before it gets discovered. It is a remarkable country with over 75% of the land being serious mountains with a narrow coastal plain and long sandy beaches along the Ionian and Adriatic sea. It also has a history stretching back to the C7th BC with many ancient cities.

There are a few companies running escourted tours to Albania and I decided on the Classical Tour of Albania with Jules Verne.

This just concentrated on Albania and also gave a reasonable amount of time in each place - important considering the long distances driving and time spent sitting in the coach. They also have small groups; fifteen on our tour. It was also a reasonable price. I discounted other companies as often tours included time in neighbouring countries which I didn’t want or else were action packed with many stops in one day which wouldn’t allow much time in any.

ITINERARY
It was an early morning flight from Gatwick, with a 5am check in, so I booked the previous night at the Bloc Hotel in the south terminal at Gatwick Airport. This is just a short walk from check in.

The flight got us to Tirana just before midday where we were met by Ilir Parangoni who was to be our guide for the holiday. Having written several books on the archaeological sites in Albania he was a good choice.

DAY 1
We drove from the airport to Durres where we visited the Amphitheatre and archaeological museum before booking into Hotel Belconti for the night. This is a big modern building on the southern edge of the town next to the beach. I had a large and comfortable corner room with a large balcony overlooking the beach and gardens of the next door hotel.

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DAY 2
This was a long day driving to Saranda. We had a brief stop in Vlora to see the Independence Monument in Flag Square. The Museum was shut as it was a public holiday for Nevruz day. We then drove south along the dramatic Riviera Highway over the Llogara Pass with its steep hair pin bends and snow topped mountains. There was a brief stop to visit Ali Pasha’s Fortress at Port Palermo before arriving in the dark at Saranda where we were booked into Hotel Brilant for two nights. This again was a large modern hotel overlooking the bay.

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DAY 3
The highlight of the day was a visit to Butrint set among the trees on a peninsula in Lake Butrint. This is a very photogenic site with a history stretching back to the C7th BC and has a small museum of finds on the site. This site really does need a half day to do it justice, especially if you visit the Triangular fort reached by a rickety, pontoon style ferry across the Vivaro Channel. We finished the day by driving up to Lekuresi Castle on a hill top over looking Saranda. There is little left of the castle but it is worth the drive on a clear day for the views.

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DAY 4
Leaving Saranda, we made a detour to the delightful Blue Eye Spring, before heading to Gjirokastra with its narrow cobbled streets, ottoman houses and fortress. We climbed up to the fortress and visited Skendule House, a typical Ottoman house. We spent the night at Hotel Argjiro, a very comfortable hotel in the heart of the town.

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DAY 5
This was another long day visiting two important sites as well as a shot stop in the small village of Krahes for the Saturday market. There were two sites on the itinerary; Byllis is an impressive and massive hilltop site, founded in the C4th BC and Apollonia which dates from the C6th BC and was very important in Roman times. The C13th monastery church of St Mary is part of the site and has a small museum with some wonderful examples of early pottery. The church with its iconostasis and the refrectory with the remains of wall paintings are also worth seeing. We were booked into Hotel Mangalemi in Berat for the night. Set in the heart of the Ottoman city, in one of the old Ottoman buildings, this was the most interesting hotel we used.

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DAY 6

We began with a short walk around the Mangalem quarter of Berat with its Ottoman architecture and the Islamic centre with the King’s Mosque and Helveti tekke. We then headed up to the castle set above the town with the Onufri Museum. The castle is unusual as it is still inhabited with narrow streets lined with old houses. Again plenty of time needs to be allowed and we could easily have spent a whole day here. We only just scratched the surface. We were booked into Hotel Theranda in Tirana for the next two nights. This is a good location close to the city centre attractions. We had time for a short guided tour of the Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombrit, part of the ministerial area built by the Italians between the wars.

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DAY 7
This was an easier day beginning with a visit to the Headquarters of the Bektashi Sect of Islam, who are a very liberal form of Islam. This was followed by a cable car ride up Dajti Mountain with views back down to Tirana. The rest of the day was free.

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DAY 8
This began with a visit to the National Historical Museum in Tirana which covers the history of Albania from earliest times up to the end of Communism. We then drove to Kruja, which was the capital during the Albanian resistance against the Ottoman in the C15th. Skanderbeg the local hero is celebrated in the museum in the fortress. This also contains an extremely good ethnographic museum. We finished off by haggling for souvenirs in the old bazaar before heading back to Tirana Airport for the late evening flight back to Gatwick.

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It was an excellent holiday. It was intensive with packed days and long drives but we did have a reasonable amount of time to see the different places. I would have appreciated longer in both Gjirokrasa and Berat, possibly with an extra night in Berat. Having checked out other itineraries since I got home, this was certainly the best.

IMPRESSIONS
We arrived in late March. It had been a very cold winter with the first snow for nearly thirty years. Many of the palm trees had been killed and the first impressions on a bright and sunny day was of a semi arid desert. Trees were yet to come into leaf, although by the time we left most of them were green again. The trees with the bright pink flowers are Judas trees.

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Bright pink Herb Robert and white daisies were in flower everywhere, as well as bright pink daises which looked a bit like Osteospermum.

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Over 75% of the land is mountains. These are serious mountains, many over 2000m tall with bare rock and steep gullies carved out by rain water. There are few roads through them. In March there was still snow on the tops.

The coastal plain is flat and much of it has been drained and reclaimed from the sea. Beaches overlooking the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are coarse sand. Some are being developed as tourist destinations with towns like Vlora and Saranda building impressive promenades along the front. These are lined with cafes and restaurants with tables with palm leaf canopies. With the palm trees, this gives a very tropical feel. Most tourists come from surrounding Croatia which has a high ethnic Albanian population.

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It is still very much an agricultural community with small family farms, growing food. Fields are long and narrow and frequently unfenced. There are small haystacks by the farm buildings. On the slopes of the mountains, slopes are terraced to grow olives. Many of the farms have small vineyards attached to them. They make small quantities of their own wine which is drunk by the family. They also make raki which is a very fiery distilled liquor. Men are seen working in the fields. there are small stalls along the roads selling produce, mainly fruit and vegetables, although in the upland areas there are dried herbs (mountain tea and honey).

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The Saturday Markets in the small towns sell everything from bales of hay to chicks to clothes and shoes. The quality of the fruit and vegetables is excellent.

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On the outskirts of the larger towns are plant nurseries selling a range of trees and shrubs in containers.

Sheep and cows graze everywhere, including along the roadside and there is often a shepherd keeping an eye on them. Chickens and turkeys run free around the farm houses and fields.

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Towns like Berat and Gijirokastra are remarkable for their well preserved Ottoman houses from the C18th and C19th and narrow cobbled streets. The houses with their stone ground floors and whitewashed upper floors climb the hillside. Berat is often referred to as the “city of a thousand windows”.

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Elsewhere, you are very conscious of communist block apartments which are often beginning to show their age. Running water is only available for ten hours a day so many of the buildings have large water storage tanks on the roof.

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During Communist times many large industries were built round the edge of the cities, funded by the Chinese. Many of these sites are now abandoned. Over 700,000 concrete bunkers were built along the coastline and roads during the cold war and many still survive.

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After the fall of Communism in 1991 there was uncontrolled development in the 1990s when large and very modern buildings sprouted up throughout the towns and countryside. Many of the buildings in places like Vlora and Saranda date from then.

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There was increasing concern about uncontrolled development and the destruction of ancient monuments that there was a blanket ban placed on development. Buildings were left unfinished and some were even blown up and destroyed. Building is new permitted but there are very strict controls on any development.

Main roads around the country were good. Minor country roads off into the mountains are unpaved.

Albania used to have a good rail network built by Enver Hoxha’s government after the Second World War and it was the main means of transport linking urban and industrial centre. However after the collapse of communism and increase in car ownership, the network is in very poor condition and only two lines around Durres still struggle on.

Food in Albania is basically vegetable based and is good. breakfasts were a choice of homemade yogurt with cold meats, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and olives with bread. There was usually a cake or sweet biscuits.

Lunches and dinner menus included salads, a variety of vegetable dishes, pasta and rice based dishes. Lamb is a speciality in mountain areas and is very good, although it tends to come out as big chunks of meat with lots of bone and fat. Goat is also available on some menus.

MY FULL REPORT WITH ALL THE PICTURES CAN BE FOUND HERE.
 

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