Monday, August 30, 2010

Southern Albania

The Espresso Trek:  From Vlora we wind through Llogara Pass, a mountain area thick with pine trees that once had many holiday camps.  Jimmy recalls that you had to have connections at your work to get the ration cards for vacationing here. 

From there, we spill into the Albanian Riviera.  What makes this area special, other than its stunning beauty, is that it hasn't been tainted by skyscrapers, hotels, or corporate pollution.  The road is newly paved and weaves through the mountains.  Stray mules roam atop hills and restaurants jut out from the cliffs.

Jimmy explains that in Albania the North is considered less developed and the South more developed.  The two regions have their stereotypes about each other also.  Northerners are rougher, while Southerners are easy-going.  We stop in the Greek Riviera town of Himara for swimming and a seafood lunch.  Here, signs display in both Greek and Albanian.


A little further along, tucked at the bottom of a mountain, we also visit the Palermo Castle where another of Albania's heroes -- Ali Pasha -- lived.  He built castles throughout the region and consolidated his personal power during the 18th century, stretching to the Greek area of Ioannina.  Threatened by his power, the Ottomans eventually beheaded him.

Palermo Castle

Near the Palermo Castle a defunct Russian submarine base hasn't been dismantled.  In 1961 Enver Hoxha broke relations with thee Soviet Union and the Russians left.  Hoxha, however, kept the submarine which still today is tucked inside this mammoth hole.

Russian Submarine Base

After a few hours, we are in Saranda where cruise ships dock.  Tourists often come from Corfu to Saranda on day trips.  Many people speak Greek here.  We hear the greeting "Yassas!" along the cobbled promenade where ritzy restaurants mingle with fishermen boats.

View of Saranda from atop the Castle/Restaurant Lekuresi

Saranda is a perfect base for visiting the archeological ruins of Butrint, first settled by the Greek Illyrians in the 7th century B.C.  Butrint was likely where people from the Greek world came to receive healing from the medicine god Asclepius.  A temple still exists alongside later Roman structures, including a theater that could accommodate an audience as large as 4,000.  When the Romans conquered the city, they created a 4 km long aqueduct and lavish buildings.  Thereafter, the people here during the Byzantine era created several opulent churches, one constructed during the 5th century A.D. was comparable in size to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia.  In order to preserve the church, archeologists have left most of the ruins underground.

Temple of Asclepius

Roman Theater

Byzantine Church (mostly underground)

After Butrint, we drive inland to Gjirokastra, first nearing the Greek-Albanian border.  The famed Hoxha bunkers dot the terrain throughout Albania, but in this region they become far ore numerous.  After Hoxha broke his ties with the Chinese in 1978, Albania was totally isolated and closed until 1992.  Paranoid of an attack, Hoxha built 700,000 bunkers throughout the country.  Jimmy explains that the cost of these bunkers could have provided a two-bedroom home for every Albanian family.  Instead, Albanians between the ages of 18-55 had compulsory military training every year for one month.


Bunkers Close To The Greek-Albanian Border

Today, off the highway several bottled water industries exist. We stop at the Blue Eye, the 100 meter deep spring. This is where tens of mountain springs meet. Eco-tourists will be happy to know that Albania has fresh water streams, which are not treated with chemicals. Spouts at restaurants and along the roads allow anyone with a container to take the free and plentiful beverage. The vegetables and fruits are also organic. After the fall of communism, fertilizer companies went bankrupt and farmers could no longer afford high-tech products.

The Blue Eye

Fresh Water Taps Are Everywhere

Gjirokastra, known as the silver city because of its glittering stone roofs and cobblestone roads, was the birthplace of Enver Hoxha.  His family's home has been turned into an Ethnographic Museum displaying how wealthy families during the 19th century lived.  At the top of the city, there's a citadel first erected in the 6th century A.D., then fortified by the Ottomans and used by Ali Pasha.  Here is a view of the stone roofed homes from the citadel:


A teqe also perches along the cliff of this citadel.  Teqe's are everywhere.  Sixty-five percent of Albanians are Muslims, having converted during the 500 years of Ottoman occupation.  Of these, about thirty percent claim to be part of the Bektashi order, a Sufi sect.  Today, Tirana is the world center of Sufism, but we visit a teqe outside Gjirokastra called the Zadhil Teqe led by Baba Sadik Ibro.


We drive back to Durres where we take the ferry to Bari, Italy and then a train to Naples -- but not before enjoying a last day at the Durres beach.


There is so much more to say about this country and its people.  After being completely isolated under a brutal regime from 1945-1992, a pyramid scheme sent Albania's economy toppling in 1997.  Nevertheless, ten years later Albania is safe, stable, and stunning.  This resilience testifies to Albania's spirit of innovation that stems back to their ancient Illyrian roots.  I highly recommend a trip to Albania.  A great option is hiring a private guide.  Jimmy Lama booked the hotels, drove us through the country, and was flexible about what we wanted to see.  You can find him here.

Thank you, Jimmy Lama!

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