After our three days of sightseeing and eating gourmet meals in Greece, we crossed into Albania. We discovered that "traditional" Albanian food seems to be Pizza. There are pizza restaurants everywhere. Our first night was spent in Gijirokastra. We stayed in the Kotoni Inn which has 5 or 6 quaint rooms similar to the one shown above.
Gijirokastra is a UNESCO protected city. The old city is comprised of very, very steep streets of cobblestone and Ottoman-era houses. The more than 40-year Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha who was responsible for isolating Albanian from the world, was born here. One remnant of his rule are the bunkers sprinkled all over the country and especially along the west coast.
The wonderful writer, Ismael Kadare, was also born in Gijirokastra. I had hoped to visit the Kadare house but it was closed and under construction.
A stone carver holding the stone-carved plaque we bought from him
View from the Old City of the New City of Gijirokastra
We planned to stay in Gijirokastra two nights but after the first day of quaintness and sweating our butts off climbing up and down the steep streets, we checked out and fled to the Albanian Riviera for some sea air.
On our way to the Albanian Riviera, we took a detour to see the "Blue Eye" which is a stream that begins from a deep, underground spring. The natural spring is so far below the stream level that it appears like a deep blue eye. The water is also cold which is why most people just stand there looking at this blue phenomenon.
At the Albanian Riviera, we stayed in Sarande which is one of the last towns along the southern Albanian coastline. Sarande is built around a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay.
Our hotel, Seaside Sarande, is located somewhere on the distant middle hill and near the sea. These photos were taken from the older, more established portion of Sarande. Sarande has undergone an unregulated building boom in the last several years; however, from the quantity of vacant structures and half-finished structures, it looks like the unchecked capitalist bubble has burst. In Sarande, structures have been built on both sides of the main roadway without regard for parking, walking, buses trying to pass these bottlenecks, planning, or aesthetics.
The Ionian Sea is warm, very salty, and felt silky on my skin. The water is beautifully blue and clear. Beaches are mostly privately owned. To use a beach complete with lounge chair and umbrella the fee is quite small. The photo below is of a beach in a new development located closer to the center of Sarande. The Greek Island of Corfu located about 6 kilometers away is visible in the distance. Painfully, the beaches along the Albanian Riviera are rock not sand.
The inland town of Berat was our next stop. Berat is a UNESCO Museum City. The homes in the old city are Ottoman-era structures. There is also a fortress located atop a very steep hill that is occupied by people living within it. There are great views from the fortress and a wonderful icon museum, but most everything else there and even within Berat was closed.
One of the most memorable events in Berat occurs each evening. At about six in the evening, most of the residents of Berat turn out to stroll (xhiro) along a pedestrian street. Families, couples, friends walk up and down the street for several hours greeting friends and perhaps stopping for a cool drink at one of the many street side cafes. It was fascinating and lovely to see so many people out just enjoying the coolness of the evening and each other.
This photo of Berat University with the goats crossing the river in the foreground reminds me of an old photo of the US Capitol in Washington DC with cows standing in the swampy foreground.
After two nights in Berat at the comfortable Rezidenca Desaret Hotel, we drove back to Skopje. Most Albanians drive like maniacs passing wherever, whenever, whatever is in front of them. The only thing that slows them down is potholes which are very common on the roads entering towns. Dan referred to these potholes as "poor man's speed bumps." These drivers creep over and around these potholes at a ridiculously slow rate of slowness, and then they are off again at a blinding rate of speed until the next group of potholes. There are hundreds of roadside shrines bearing witness to dangerous driving and to the drivers that have been proven unfit to survive.
We saw Albania as outsiders. We were never able to have a conversation with anyone about life here due to the lack of a common language. Which is interesting as there were American Flags everywhere. Mr. Hoxha would be spinning in his grave if he knew this. My knowledge of life in Albania under Enver Hoxha comes only from reading Ismael Kadare books. I left Albania with the feeling that we showed up unannounced, found the doors locked, and no one was home.
Crossing the border into Macedonia, there was an immediate feeling that we were in a country that was more developed. The roads were wider and better. Drivers were mostly more sane than those we witnessed in Albania. And, even though Macedonia has a huge trash littering problem, there was less trash than what we saw in Albania. It was very eye opening and made us appreciate Macedonia a little more.