Monday, September 24, 2018

Final Musings

It has now been weeks since I've been back. I haven't changed my mind wanting to go back to Albania and starting my little Bed and Breakfast.

I want to thank Aneta, and all the people she has introduced me to, for helping me to work towards this dream. I am now so much wiser and more knowledgeable of what is needed and what needs to be considered.

Albania has unfortunately earned an unfair reputation that has still stuck. I could hardly find any traces of communism in the everyday life of Albanians, apart from the bunkers. Tirana might have some more remnants of the era. I can't say if the citizens were better off back in those days, there is quite a bit of poverty in Albania these days, as not much of the wealth is trickling down to the ordinary people.

Many youths are talking about moving to neighboring Greece to find better work and for bettering their lives. Most of the people working in the tourism industry in the summertime also head to Greece to work in the winter, if they don't have another job in Tirana waiting. The salaries in Albania are very low, and it's very difficult to get proper education or hospital services, and those who can afford it, go aboard for all this.

Some people are also worried about crime and drugs. I didn't see any of that during the time I was there. Well, unless you're talking about the extortionate prices they demand from tourists. The furgon rides, food and drinks in restaurants etc. Even during my quest for a plot of land, I was told the price per square meter was 120 euros for one particular lot, when in reality it wasn't worth more than 60 euros, if that. But apparently they have seen the prices asked in Spain and Italy, and feel like the same applies to Albania. 

This is actually one of the reasons a lot of the people I talked to, dislike this practice, and feel, rightfully so, that this is a deterrent for more tourists visiting Albania.  The short-sightedness of some people, wanting to get as much as they can today, will hurt them tomorrow. The tourism has already gone down from last year, whether it was due to the heatwave raging through Europe this summer, or the issue above, can't tell.

Albania is so rich in natural beauty and natural resources. So many resources that could be used to bring more wealth to Albania, but one thing that has carried from the communism days is corruption, which is still a big problem in Albania. Rights to these natural resources are sold to foreign corporations, resources drained and sent abroad, and money kept for the high-ups. The nature ruined for good. Greasing particular people's pockets also helps things moving along.

Religion was also one of the issues that I was warned about before going to Albania. Islam is the biggest religion in Albania, and this can be heard almost everywhere, with Calls for Prayer sang from the Minarets in almost all bigger cities in Albania. It was strange when you heard it the first time, but then you got used to it, and eventually it was an exotic charm related to Albania. However, at 5 a.m. the charm was sometimes difficult to find. You could sometimes see a woman in a hijab, but that's pretty much it. You can see the same almost anywhere else in the world.

Arjon told me about Albanians view about religion, which is basically 'mind your own business, and I'll mind mine. How about a game of dominoes?' It just doesn't factor into people's relationships with others. I find that very admirable, and that's how it should be. Majority of Albanians are Muslims, as said, but there is also a large number of Greek Orthodox people, as Greeks make up quite a big minority in Albania.

Another problem is also littering. Which isn't that different from any other developing country. Locals don't mind throwing their trash out of the car window, and a lot of the roads and beaches too are littered with all sorts of trash. Maybe providing more trash bins everywhere is a solution, and just education.

Someone might ask, with so many negatives, why would you want to go back? Because there are also so many positives. Most of the people are very nice and friendly, willing to help you out and treat you as a honorable guest to Albania. They are obviously proud of their country and its beauty. I would just say that I'm going in with my eyes open. I don't think Albania is a paradise, but then again, what is? It still has a lot of developing to do, but hopefully they will see tourism as a way of enriching even the ordinary people.

I love the scenery of Albania, the mountains, the coast, the small villages littered here and there, the laid back life in said villages. There is still so much I have to explore in Albania, so I'm far from done yet. Expect a part 2 of Albania sometime in the future! 😘

Oh, and should Aneta or Arjon have any corrections to make to what I've said, please let me know.

Back to Saranda

As the days got fewer, we were heading back to Saranda. If things had been perfect, I would've had a car, and stayed in Himara, driving to all of the small beaches to the North and South of the town. However, that wasn't the case, and as Mom wasn't very appreciative of sometimes wavy Ionian Sea, a decision was made.

Another furgon ride and I felt robbed, as I explained in an earlier post. But that's how some of the Albanians roll.

We stayed at a friend of a friend's hotel near the previous one in Saranda. It wasn't right next to the Promenade, but very close, and much cheaper than the original was. The rooms were very nice, owner and staff very friendly and breakfast very good. So I would suggest it to anyone.

While back in Saranda, I met up with Aneta, who had made things happen for my hunt for a nice beach lot for a B&B. A very nice young couple drove us to see some lots near beaches all the way up to Borsh, which was over half-way to Himara.

I saw so much along the way, and met many people. There were also lots of animals minding their business along the road, and didn't seem bothered by us trying to get through.

Goats at Lukova Beach

Horses at Lukova Beach

Luckily, I had Aneta with me, and with her help, we were able to get information out of the locals. When I come back though, I need a better command of the language!

On our way, I friendly guides took us to one of their hotels, as well as a pretty old village of Lukova.


Aneta wanted to move to this pretty little village :) 

I didn't enter into the negotiations for this little donkey, sorry Juhi!

The village gets its water from a nearby spring, and it is ran to each house through this channel.

Llogara Pass and Himara

One of the reasons I chose to take a furgon from Vlora, was that I wanted to drive through Llogara Pass. The normal bus route goes further inland, which makes more sense, but I had wanted to experience the views and thrill of driving up a mountain and then back down again with breathtaking views wherever you look.

Currently the only coastal road from Vlora to Saranda goes through the mountainous area.

Porto Palermo

Llogara Pass is the highest point of the road, and at certain times of the year, the road takes you through the clouds. To my disappointment, this wasn't that particular time. The highest point of the road is over 1,000 meters above the sea level. The route also goes through a National Park, and there are hotels within the park for the nature lovers.

I was told that there are plans to build a coastal highway closer to the ocean, which will, of course, impact the beautiful beaches that dot the coastline. We'll see when that happens.

These pictures don't really do justice to the trip, as they were taken inside a rattling and bumping furgon that didn't really care about passengers taking great pictures. I'm just very happy that the lady from our earlier trip wasn't travelling on this one *shudders*.

Arjon told me that according to one story, the road from Vlora to Saranda was designed by an Italian engineer who had a donkey travel up first, then marking the way the donkey took. He based it on a fact that donkeys are essentially rather lazy, and try to find the easiest way anywhere. It makes perfect sense! However, the road is very winding, and not for those who get easily nauseous. 

I didn't find the driving to have been particularly dangerous. The driver didn't speed through the hairpin curves, and although there were cars passing us on the serpentine road, there weren't any dangerous situations I noticed. 

Honey seller's tent along the way
 There were a lot of honey sellers on the way, and usually they were right next to the hives. You can't get it any fresher than that! 

Eventually we descended from the mountains and started passing one beach after another. 

And finally arrived at a small beach town Himara. We were left at what seemed to be the center of the town, but had no idea where the hotel I had booked the night before was. I tried to ask some taxi drivers that were gathered at the city center, but no one knew where it was. I tried to call the hotel, but there was no answer. Finally a driver who already had passengers waiting called the number again, and this time got an answer. He quickly got the coordinates and explained them to another driver. Then all of a sudden he was gone, before I even got to thank him! 

Well, this other driver started us off, it was only about 55 minutes' drive from the town center, and we were greeted by the hotel owner, who loaded us with out luggage to his car, and proceeded to drive us a small dirt road to his hotel. It really was only about a minute drive, if that, but it was very nice of him. Especially when we were way early, and they hadn't have time to get our room ready yet. 

He was very apologetic about it?! I tried explaining that we were the ones who were too early, but he then proceeded to offer us coffee and I finally got the Mountain Tea I had heard so much about! I think I read about it somewhere, and finally the lady back in Vlora had told me if I came to Himara, they would sure have it. And she was right! 

The tea is made of particular flowers that grow up in the mountains... Of course. It tasted delicious, and it's only later on that I realized that is something I should've taken with me as a souvenir! Well, not the tea from the cup, but find the packages... 

Grapes at the hotel garden

The owner was also a lifesaver; there is quite a good Wi-Fi coverage all over the hotels in Albania, which was rather surprising, but sometimes you just need a bit of data on-the-go. I had bought a tourist sim for my phone, with calls, messages and data. The calls and messages worked fine, but it was the data that didn't. The owner called T-mobile service line, even though I didn't have the number, and tried to figure out what was wrong. Eventually he had to give up, and said they had told him I hadn't paid for the service, which certainly wasn't true. But just like that, a few minutes after that call I got a few installation messages, and after installing them, the data package started to work!! 

Of all the beaches I saw on my trip, the ones in Himara were my absolute favorites. Of course a lot of the beach towns have many beaches, hidden and not so hidden, and they could've been how beautiful ever. But I'm going with what I've got. 

It was obvious that the season was over in Himara too. So many restaurants had already closed, or working with a limited menu. More often than not, you got a 'sorry we're out of that dish' even if you ordered from the menu they gave you. It's a pity, as our hotel owner said that he was fully booked still for the whole week, and was going to stay open until end of September. I do think that was a smart choice from him. There's still lots of money to be made in September.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

From Berat to Vlora

The hotel manager had promised Arjon that they would call us a taxi to take us to the bus station down in Berat new town in the morning. We agreed the time we would be leaving, and for 4 euros, the taxi showed up, and took us right at the furgon that was going to Vlora, our next stop. The service at hotel Mangalemi was very good. There was an option of taking a bus, but it sounded too complicated; we wanted the easiest option, for a change. And there was no way we would've walked there with all our luggage.

At the bus station, there were lots of buses and furgons (mini-buses) waiting to take people into different directions. Like I said, we could've gone directly to Saranda, but it was going to be a long trip, plus I wanted to go through Llogara Pass, which I'm going to talk about later.

Image from

As the furgon filled up, we were finally ready to go. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of it. It was a sight to see. I think it hadn't seen any TLC for decades. The road was winding, as usual and the furgon rattled and bumped along.

Image from

We were fine, looking out at the lively scenery outside, when an elderly lady in front of us put her head out the window and started projectile vomiting. Fortunately for us, the window was open where she sat, if not, it could've been much worse!

Somehow people found plastic bags that they gave the lady. Now, I understand how that works, having been sick on airplanes, but the lady spat in the bag, tossed the bag out the window (don't get me started on how people just happily litter away everywhere), and proceeded to vomit again.

At this point, people were starting to move away from her proximity, even those who were further than us. Not to be trapped, I ushered Mom to move to the very back, next to the window before any one of the elderly could get there. (I can be ruthless sometimes! Survival of the fittest!) However, there was some projectile on the window at the back too, and instead of fresh, vomit-free air, it stank to the high heavens. Needless to say, I closed the window, God forbid there was going to be any more projectile heading my way!

All in all, the furgon rides were entertaining, to me, at least, not so sure about Mom, I think she would've preferred Arjon's car. No complaints from me either. A lot of the drivers were happily smoking, stopping to get some groceries, there was even a grocery bag left for them on a traffic sign! Sometimes they stopped and delivered the packages to people along the way. It was actually quite convenient and made sense to deliver things that way. However, if you're in a hurry, I suggest you don't take a furgon.

You paid the driver after the trip. They don't give out tickets to locals, and I assume their rates are much lower than ours. The fare at the hotel's list for the trip was 300 lekes, but it was 450 when it was time to pay up... The worst was a furgon from Himara to Saranda, the trip was short, and it was almost double the longest trip from Berat to Vlora: 810 lekes. A friend said when he used to travel from Himara to Vlora, he paid about 200 lekes for the same trip. Well, I wasn't going to start arguing with the conductor, we needed to get along... But just so you are aware. You will have different rates than the locals. You might be able to 'negotiate', I didn't even bother trying.

So, our first stop was Vlora, another port town and maybe the site of the future airport. I didn't really feel Vlora, it left me cold. The sea didn't look that inviting for a dip, and maybe it was that our taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel, and the one we ended up in was more expensive, but that didn't show in the quality... Someone had also nicked the batteries out of the A/C remote, and so the lady at the reception had to hunt down another remote to replace the one we got.

By the time we got everything settled, we were quite hungry, but didn't want to frequent the empty beach-side restaurants. We popped in to what looked like a restaurant, but it was actually a bar that was also a betting parlor. They had a few minutes of fun when the owner told the locals two dumb tourists were trying to buy food from them...

We tried a couple more, but they had already closed, as it was September, and not many tourists were around anymore. Finally we had to go to a pizzeria by the beach, and got huge pizzas. They were nice enough and offered us to box them so we could take to the hotel! As it was off season, our hotel had stopped offering breakfasts too, so we went to a store and bought what little we needed. I was stubbornly trying to stick to my diet, for what good it did, especially with the pizza waiting.

The next morning, the owner had kindly promised 'a boy' (at least a 35-year-old guy) would stop the furgon to Himara for us. Fortunately, the furgon would be passing by the hotel, as it was situated right along the highway to the South coast. We didn't need to call taxis to haul us back to another bus stop. While we were waiting for our furgon, the lady offered us coffee and tea, while we watched a Finnish family enjoy their breakfast on the hotel... The lady explained to us that they got a breakfast because they had a busy day with excursions ahead... Ok...

Berat and Cobo Winery

After a delicious breakfast from Esmeralda at Guesthouse Ahmetaj, our very capable guide Arjon was ready at 8:30 sharp to take us to our next stop. This time, we (I) wanted to explore another Ottoman city that was in the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Berat.

We had to take a detour, as the road from Gjiro to Berat wasn't in the best possible condition. At a crossroads, Arjon suggested we could go to Tirana and other places instead of my original plan Berat, but I stubbornly wanted to see Berat. No one tell Mom! She later on told me she would want to go see Tirana, but in my defense, I didn't know it then. Had she known we were that close to going to Tirana instead, I would've been voted down by the majority 😯

The drive was pretty long, but there was a surprisingly lot to see. During our driving along the countryside, Mom reminded how my brother, when asked, had wished for a donkey as a souvenir from Albania. There were lots of donkeys, and we even entered into negotiations with this feller:

Arjon said that we could actually have him for free, and have the milk it was carrying as a bonus! Eventually we figured the logistics would be a nightmare, and gave up (Sorry Juhi - you can thank me later, Domi!). After thinking about it though, as Arjon was negotiating in Albanian, I had no clue what the terms were. He could've been bartering Mom for the donkey for all I knew!

Donkeys, mules and horses are still used to work the land, and as load carriers. We sometimes saw donkeys carrying meters-high hay bales on their backs, let alone merchandise. It was fascinating to see Albanians in their every day tasks, you can't really see that in tourist centers. Arjon was sure to show us all the possible donkeys, sheep, horses and bunkers there were, to such degree we were starting to think he had a weird fixation about them bunkers. It was only later that I figured out he kept our attention away from all the roadkill we encountered, and I totally fell for it!

Bunker in Saranda

There were lots of bunkers though, it seemed that every 100 meter there was a bunker of some sort though. The former communist leader had become rather paranoid towards the end of his reign and commanded these bunkers to be built in case of an invasion. Little did he know that it would be his own people who'd had enough of his antics that finally disposed of him.

There were also a lot of wedding processions going on. Arjon told us that Albanian weddings usually start on Wednesdays and carry on each day with different formalities, until the final stage of celebrations and customs on Sunday. Phew, that's a lot of work! I wonder how many couples just elope? Hmm.. should've asked Arjon that.

On our way to Berat, we first stopped at the Cobo Winery, which is the biggest and most popular in Albania. The granddaughter of the founder the family-owned winery took us to a tour of the facilities. They were getting ready to start processing this year's harvest, which according to one of the owners was going to be poorer than previous ones, due to the heat and drought experienced in the region.

After the short tour, we were taken to the restaurant for a tasting. For 14 euros, which was the cheapest option, you got to taste 2 of their whites, 2 reds and finally raki made with green walnuts, accompanied with all bread, feta cheese, olives etc. you could eat. One of the owners eventually took over from his niece who had first showed us around, as apparently she was wasting perfectly good wine when she didn't coat the glasses with wine correctly in the first place. I was a little miffed at this; he could've berated her away from prying eyes, but I guess that's not a consideration.

Normally, I don't like dry white wine, let alone Brute sparkling, and I much prefer reds anyway, but their white and the sparkly one were pretty good. However, the reds were a little disappointing to me, and the raki... I really wish I could've learned to like raki, but... I didn't. The glasses of wine we were offered weren't tiny ones, and eventually we noticed the effects. Luckily Arjon was looking out for us, and tempered the process. There might have been a little self preservation involved; carrying us both out of there wasn't an inviting option, I'm sure. On a side note: Arjon didn't have any of the wine because he was our guide and driver; just so you know you can trust him.

The older owner also came to show us a video of their upcoming Harvest Fest, which looked like great fun, and we were sorry we weren't going to be around for that. But if you happen to be around there (2018 the date was September 12th), it looked worth going to.

Our drive to Berat, which wasn't too far away, was rather quiet, as I tried to concentrate on getting my head straight after the wine tasting. Not that us Finns are a talkative bunch anyway... First we took a tour of the castle on top of the hill, with magnificent views over the city.

The castle is actually still used to this day, as housing, and many restaurants, hotels, mosques and churches are also located within its walls.

The castles like this and in Gjirokaster aren't actually just one structure, but consist of many outer buildings and layers, where people in the old times would carry out their lives and trades just as in any other town.

Berat, as many other cities in the region was fought over by many different nations; Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, Slavs, Ottomans, and that is visible throughout the city. However, it's mainly known for its Ottoman architecture, as Gjirokaster. It also shares similar names with Gjirokaster, as the 'White City' the 'City of Thousand Windows'.

After the tour of the city, and late lunch, we were relaxing in the hotel, I started feeling nauseous and got a horrible headache that even a 500 mg ibuprofen didn't conquer. I don't know how I ever survived without google, but according to it, I likely suffered from a sunstroke. It was a very hot day, it should've been around 28 degrees, according to a weather forecast. We actually had a discussion with Arjon about this. He claimed it was at least 33, whereas I stuck to my guns (when don't I?) and claimed it's got to be 28 as forecast. Well, turns out it was 35 that day, and I owe Arjon a drink πŸ˜• I can admit when I'm wrong, and I was surely feeling it.

I couldn't spend all evening cooped up in a hotel, so I dragged myself out of the bed and we headed to the Promenade by the river. It was rather busy, with families and children playing around, teenagers going to meet their friends and people just hanging out. Eventually I started feeling better, although the headache was still my constant companion.

We also stopped by at a local convenience store, and the little boy who was helping his granddad with English customers asked us where we were from. The excitement in his voice when he told his granddad that we were from Finland! I don't suppose many Finnish people travel to Albania... yet.

Before leaving the next day, I had time to take a little stroll through parts of the Old Town where we were staying. I wish I had more time for it, but the sun got the better of me the day before :(


Friday, September 21, 2018

Gjirokaster and Blue Eye

We started from Saranda with our knowledgeable and friendly guide Arjon towards Gjirokaster, that is an old city, one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites in Albania. We has never visited Lekursi Castle on top of Saranda Hills, only seen it lit up at night. Arjon was kind enough to take us there and we didn't regret it. The view down to the city and beyond was amazing. They were just getting ready to host a wedding, and it would, indeed be a perfect place to hold one. Arjon said that the views were even more amazing in the evening, with Saranda all lit up below.

From the Fortress on the hill, we continued inland towards Gjirokaster, passing olive groves, vineyards, cattle and bunkers.

We found this family just chillin'

The road was surprisingly good, albeit a little winding. The dirt road to our first stop though; Blue Eye wasn't so good. You would think that with the amount they get from ticket sales, they could at least fix it, but I guess someone else needs it more.

Blue Eye (or Syri I Kalter in Albanian), is a spring coming down from the mountains of crystal clear water with beautiful shades of blue and green. Arjon had many wonderful legends to tell about how it came to be, and you could choose your favorite one. πŸ˜‰

The Blue Eye itself is so deep that people haven't been able to get to the bottom. They've been able to launch a probe down to 35 meters, but the force of the spring has always propelled everything back up before it reaches the bottom. The water in the pond, and the spring stays at 10 degrees C, which is way too cold for me, but there were lots of people taking their chances and jumping in. It's going to be a quick one at that. Plunging into the spring is not encouraged by the officials though.

You can rent paddle boats or even take a dip in the pool further away at a bar/cafe to explore the stream further.

If you are visiting Gjirokaster, Blue Eye is on the way, so it shouldn't be missed. Both of the sites can be done as a day trip from Saranda. There is a bus going that route too, but you would have to walk quite a long way from the road to get to Blue Eye itself, and in the parching heat, it's really not the best idea.

 'The Silver City' with its whitewashed walls was built along the hillside now looking down upon the New Town of Gjirokaster. In the olden days, the reason was for the local farmers to be able to keep an eye on their fields below. The old part of Gjirokaster was built around the 1300's, and having preserved the Ottoman-style of building, earned its place in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Upon arrival to the Old Town, you are greeted by statues of notable Gjirokastrians. Most notable of all, Enver Hoxha, the late communist leader of Albania. These days, Gjirokaster, along with Saranda have the biggest concentration of people with Greek ancestry. 

The city is also popular for its Old Bazaar, where local craftsmen and -women come and showcase their work for the visitors to take back home with. In the past, craftspeople were especially revered for their mastery of a particular trade, especially stonemasons. It was often that generations of families (mostly men) followed in their father's footsteps and took pride in their work. That isn't the case today, as it is very rare that craft alone will support a family, and whatever reasons there may be. There is, however, one stonemason's shop in the bazaar, where the son has continued his father's trade, and you can go see his work. It's a shame, in my opinion, as their exceptional talents should be appreciated for years to come. 

On the highest location of the town, stands the castle, guarding the town below. 

Clock tower in the castle
If you notice during the visit to the castle, square holes in the castle walls, do not suggest to your guide that they are used for shooting, should he ask the question. Doesn't go down well... Just know that they are a structural element, to make sure the walls stay intact and in good shape through the centuries, no matter what nature and time throws at them. Quite impressive, really.

The Castle is at the top part of the picture (find Waldo-style)

Looking out the castle window
A visit to the ethnographic museum offers an interesting look into how the old townsfolk lived their lives in the past. It's well worth a visit with a good guide who can tell you about all of the different aspects of living. I just realized that I didn't have any detailed pictures of the houses, which is funny, because I'm into architecture, but oh well, another time maybe. 

Surprisingly, seeing as it was all the way to September, our choice of accommodation was full at the time. The friendly receptionist of the hotel walked us to another hotel, which Arjon expertly negotiated for accommodation. We didn't have much to say, as the owner didn't speak much English. But the experience was wonderful, and we were showered with all sorts of goods from their garden, fresh peaches, fresh juice of unknown origin, and a surprise of a small pot of honey. It was a little too sweet even for my tooth, but pouring it in my tea worked fine too! 

Delicious natural, home-made breakfast. The flat breads to the left were made when we stepped in to have the breakfast. Very fresh!
I have this thing about both mountains and the sea, so of course I had to take pictures from the balcony of the hotel when there were mountains on sight.