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Europe » Albania » South » Gjirokaster
February 26th 2015
Published: February 26th 2015
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Wedding - the most important event in each Albanian (woman)
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Literature:

Map of Albania (Shqipëria), Freytag&Berndt, 1 : 200 000, www.freytagberndt.com

Guidebook: Albania, by Gillian Gloyer, 3rd edition, www.bradtguides.com

Barbara Hausaman: Wanderfürer Nord Albanien

The published photos by Miran Hladnik



LET'S GO TO ALBANIA




From the very beginning we had a totally different plan – the trip was supposed to focus on the northern part of Albania, with the highlight of conquering the highest mountain Maja Jëzercë (2694 m) in the mountain group Prokletije (The Accursed Mtns.). But the whimsical weather forecast, plus non-existant trail markings (leter we found out that Albania has no mountaineering association yet, has made us change the route drastically. Maybe we'll try to climb some of these peaks from Črna gora (Montenegro) next year.


And this is the circle we finally did.








DAY 1 2nd September, from 16.00 on


Ljubljana, J. P. AirportRinas (Nënë Tereza) Airport – Tirana – Elbasan






In front of the Tirana Airport


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The symbol of Albania - two-headed black eagle, also found in their flag, Rruga Durresit (Durres Road)
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First we intended to take car ferry from Trieste (agemar.bk@agemar.it ) to Durres ,but it would take 35 hours, the fare for deck 'accommodation' would fetch up to € 500 per 2 people plus car, so we finally decided to fly from Brnik (Ljubljana J. P. airport) to Tirana, which lasted only 1 hour and 20 min. To the flight ticket of € 550 (Billige flüge.de) we added additional costs of € 200 for the VW polo car we rented from Top rentals at Rinas airport in the Albanian capital. People back home warned us from all kinds of dangers that would lurk at us in the land of Sqipetaris, like thieves, maffia, wild animals etc., so we came to the land with confused feelings.
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On the way to Elbasan
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We were lucky to come alive out of the crazy Tirana traffic. It was like the 'swim or get drowned' game. As road signs are either non-existant or misleading, we spent quite some time looking for the right exit, i. e. Rruga Elbasanit, that would take us towards our destination. The navigation device shows only some main roads, rivers and the sea ... Having 'threaded the needle' we took the mountain road instead of the new and quicker (because of tunnels) paralel road. The views from the sharp and often unprotected edges were breathtaking. Ok, there were some arched railings, broken here and there (almost everywhere). Later we learned, that the design and the crumbled look of such a fence is one of Albanian 'specialties'.



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The typical design of Albanian road railings
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There were also some blurred murals (mozaics), we also spotted first bunkers (hardly noticeable as they have become incorporated into the greenery) and neglected partisan monuments, all from Enver Xoxha times. Later we realized how people in general don't want want to hear anything about the strict communist regime; no wonder as it kept them isolated from the rest of the world from 1944 till 1990, when also Albania shifted into the multi-party political system.
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The concrete of numerous Hoxha's bunkers, scattered around the country, seem undestroyable;

luckily the greenery is about to cover them soon.
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Staying overnight in Elbasan at € 20 for both in an old-fashioned but clean Shkampa hotel room opposite the city wall. Our first dinner was average pizza - because of heavy raining we didn't feel like looking for some typical local food.



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KERKOJME PUNETORE = Alb.: Ask the staff

Kukurec = grilled tripes, rolled on a stick
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The local meals offered by the family in Berat we stayed with:

I ordered fërgjes (sataraš), Miran had dolma (filled pepper&tomato)
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DAY 2 3rd September


Elbasan–Librazhd–Qaf
ë Tahnë–Struga–Ohrid (Macedonia, FYROM)





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Q. Stafa/Ali Pasha Elbasanit Boulevard, Elbasan;

the names of streets are sometimes differrent from the ones on the city map, and so is the case here.
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Near a partizan monument on the way along the Shkumbin, near Librazhd


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Within the city wall we expected to find maybe old ruins, a museum, stalls with souvenirs but we discovered a fancy old-style hotel there instead. A stroll around the city walls, then through the busy market place followed and the picture of alive chickens, strung together at their claws doesn't go out of my head. The life in the small town Librazhd was also very lively, typical of all the places we saw. Next we noticed a sign pointing left saying 'Ancient bridge', wihout additional info, e. g. about distance. After some 8 km of driving through rural places, left, right, back and forth, we got aware of the futility of achieving the site - and were happy to find the main road again. Acording to the map by Freytag&Berndt, there must be two sites, one at Selce and another one, named Verreza Iliri near Proptisht.

The ascent up to the pass Qafë Tahnë was rather gentle despite the 989 m above the sea. At the border with Macedonia everything ran quickly and smoothly; for both, Albania and FYRUM (Former Yugoslav republic Macedonia) we just needed to produce our identity cards. We were warmly welcomed by an old friend of ours professor Dragi Stefanija, who used to be a lecturer for Macedonian at Ljubljana University for many years. His hospitality and his tell-tale of wild Albanian drug (opium and hemp) gangs around Korçë, which may stop and rob us on the road at night, persuaded us to stay at his homely place facing the lake over the night. We really enjoyed his company - despite being over eighty he still is an interesting companion and host.

Of course we went sightseeing around Ohrid, first to the Ortodox church Saint Jovan Keneo, placed on a rock above the lake shore, then up to some ruins behind a majestic monastery of Saint Panteleimos , further to Samuil's fortress and to a small church Mother God Periblebtos (located within the walls), and finally down the slippery cobbled main shopping street, full of disorganized tourists.

The evening passed in pleasant conversation on the terrace above Lake Ohrid, lightly encouraged with Macedonian wine.



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Above the Saint Jovan Keon, Ohrid Lake
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Our host dr. Dragi Stefanija, a native to Ohrid
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No words needed for the beauty of Ohrid Lake ...
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DAY 3 (4th September)


Ohrid–St. Naum–Pogradec–Korçë–ErsekaLeskovik–Përmet



There are several brooks of fresh, clean water flowing from the mountain Galičica into the lake; the lush park abounded in tourists; some even took a boat to admire the famous area from the lakeside, some lit a candle or two in front of the St. Naum's church, some walked peacefully through the greenery.

The ride through Pogradec was so exciting that none of us could take a single photo: wild traffic, market stalls with noisy vendors and potential customers, potholes in the pavement, crowds of people chaotically walking across the street, dirt and mud everywhere ... It's a pity we don't have any document of this chaos indeed!

The market part of Korçë looked the same way, though the centre has been polished and completely modernized; there is a wide avenue going down from the beautiful Ortodox cathedral.



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The centre of Korçë with the new Ortodox basillica at the back








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The busy market place in Korçë
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A monument to one of road accident victims; no wonder it comes to

frequent fatal road accidents on this deadly part (Korçë–Përmet)
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DAY 4 (5th September)


Përmet–KelçyraTepelene–Gjirokastër–Saranda–Ksimili


The town of Përmët seemed the most pleasant to us – located on the river Vjosa, is not small neither big or crowded with street vendors ... and we had luck with both, overnight accommodation (Hotel Ana, Prane Salles se Kongresit, Përmet, Albania,

Tel: 00355672874788) and the evening meal at a homely family-run restaurant (lamb stew, Korçë beer and Tirana beer, Greek salad). Both teenage girls, the landlady's daughter Ana and the waitress in the Permet restaurant spoke English fluently, while older people we met speak only Shqip/Albanian or some Italian.



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A kind and English-fluent waitress from Përmet
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Gjirokastër is the hometown of two famous Albanians, the communist leader Enver Hoxha and the novelist Ismail Kadare, awarded several notable prizes for literature.The birthplace ot the first one is now an ethnologic museum (without even mentioning E. Hoxha!), and the home of Kadare is under construction, so it will soon be open to public.

The walk around the castle left us a bit disapointed, as a great deal of it is still neglected (but overgrown with wild fig trees, full of ripe fruits at the time of our visit), the central patio was full of hardworking rednecks who were obviously preparing the venue for an important event. For a festival of folk music maybe? No, but for a lavish wedding party.

The entrance fee was low (100 leks), but one should pay extra for entering the historic museum, though the exhibition of old war machinery (tanks, cannons, an American spy plane) was included into those hundred leks.



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Climbing into the American spy plane;

the Albanian sources state that the pilot was released, but was never seen back home in the USA
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Ismail Kadare's home (the one with a board) is being turned into a museum
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A busy street with souvenir shops in Gjirokastër
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Men resting in the park and a memorial dedicated to a brave young partisan woman
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DAY 5 (6th September)



Ksimili–Butrint–Himara–Borsh-Dhërmiu–Qafë Llongaraja



The landlady at the small camping site, located at the entrance into Ksamili coming from Saranda, Linda was exteremely hospitable and warm person; she greeted us (probably every guest) by serving us ice cofees with sweets. Also the lavatories and other conveniences of the camp were new and clean. The beach near Ksamili was packed with bathers and 'indispensible' equipment, like deck chairs, colourful sunshades, mini bars, full of 'happy' people ... We rather walked further towards Sarande to find some neat and quiet (they got quiet because of the strom approaching) places where we had a few swims in the Ionnian sea. Near the beach one could notice ghost concrete buildings, having been pulled down. The landlady Linda explained that they had been built without any documents and left in ruins - as people are prone to forget quickly about prohibitions.

The visit to Butrint is really a must-see. Refer to

http://www.butrint.org/index.php


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The beach of Borsh
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The beach of Palasë – how long will it stay like this?
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Saranda is a colloseum of modern (=concrete) hotel settlement, similar to many found elswhere in the world, so we decided just to drive through. On the way along the coast towards the north we spotted some beautiful beaches deep down, but made a stop only when it stopped raining, at the pebble beach of Borsh. Almost no infrastructure, no tourists (unfortunately also no shade), but a long stretch of white, blue and mountaneous grey-green!



DAY 6 (7th September)


Qafë Llongaraja–Vlora–Fier–Ura Vajgurore–Berat


One of the most demanding and trikiest tasks was to find the way from Fier to Berat on the Osum River. We decided to follow the wider and better road – and got stuck in an asphalt base. The fast food meal (pita, suvlaki, Kaon beer) in Ura Vajgurore helped us recover from the traffic puzzlement.



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It was really tough to find the right way to Berat from Fier


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Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008


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We stayed in one of the old private houses under the fortified hill in a room with a view over the river Osum onto the hill called Bistrica. The landlord denied any connection of this name with Slavic origins. It's true that people are proud and don't beg in the streets but often they do approach you offering you sightseeing, overnighting or local food. And you are not reluctant to give them some alms, though the evening meal at the Berat family finally turned out to be overpaid.

DAY 7 (8th September)


Berat – Vodice–Karkanjoz–Tomori (National park/Parku Kombëtar Tomori)–Berat–Kavaje


And the most hair-rising adventure was the ride 10 km from Vodice near Berat to the villages of Karkanjoz and Tomorri under Ҫuka Partisan (2450 m) in the Tomorri National Park. No trails, no marking, no information, not even from the people living directly under the peak, neither from the Berat info centre. The two teachers from the village school, which is accessible by a high-axis 4WD cars, located on a quite sharp range, had no idea either.

Then we decided to climb the right direction, but after two hours of tracing tha maze of goat/sheep tracks and because of the approaching storm we gave up. Though the views were unforgettable!

On the way back a young teenage girl Sidorela invited us to their terrace to share Turkish coffee, plum juice and sweets with her family and a friend of hers. They were very hospitable, though the communication was weak. Anyway, we are in touch on FB with her and Xhezi now.
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Versatile means of transport on the road that doesn't deserve its naming
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DAY 8 (9th September)


Kavaje–Durres (Slov. Drač)–Kruja–Nature Park Dajti–Tirana



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The famous WW II monument in Durres, placed near the port




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Durres is a bustling town on the Adriatic. Walking up and down the streets and along the embankment, sightseeing of Roman remnants (e. g. amphitheatre) and the open museum of modern art, sipping coffee or cold beer by a boulevard side, having a swim at a near beach ... all these activities are fun!

An upset old man stopped us on the pavement and started explaining to us what a whore Albania was both towards Putin and towards Obama. Maybe he is right, but unfortunately there are many other similar 'whores'.
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Skenderbeg's (Kastrati's) statue in Kruja


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Kruja, a Unesco World Heritage site, an extremely beautiful town , we admired already before landing in Tirana






DAY 9 (10th September)


Tirana, near Dajti National park–Tirana, Rinas Airport–Ljubljana




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Bike hire in Tirana – not card-operated but it's 'personalized'
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One of numerous stray dogs, calm and friendly
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National historical museum, Tirana
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Everybody is selling something ...
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A likeable little gipsy boy accosted tourists in fluent English,

fluent Polish, fluent German, fluent Italian ...






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Overall impressions - some stereotypes of the Albanian lifestyle





• large difference between the rich (immigrant workers who earned their fortune in Germany, Italy, etc., maffia tycoons ...) and the poor (gipsies, the unemployed, minor farmers ...)
• crazy traffic in cities, though drivers seem to master the chaos, as in all 8 days we didn't witness a single accident; quite numerous policemen stand admist this chaos pretending they master it;
• road signs, topographic information very scarce or even misleading
• sense for glitter, greatness (e. g. huge marbe-lined building with monumental pillars, castle-like roofs, mercedes cars, lavish weddings (numerous shops selling huge collections of long white gowns), pompous funerals and marble tombs ...
• trading; almost everybody is selling something, if not as a store owner, then he/she lays down stuff on the roadside, e. g. used shoes and clothes lie scattered on heaps ... You are supposed to barter for a lower price, which is considered as a sort of socializing, i. e. respecting the seller;
• there are no international food chain stores, like Lidl, Hofer, Spar, and no big department stores;
• ecology&environmental issues: in general they don't care much e. g. how to keep the ground water clean (scarce sewage or none), though they are forced to recycle. Gipsies, for instance, turn around whole trash containers in search for cans, metal, glass ... which they can sell to industry
• their vegetables and fruit aren't grown on pesticides, mostly because there is no money for extra costs;
• farm animals roam everywhere, even on busy roads in towns.
• unusual number of stray dogs that look for leftovers in trash containers; luckily they don't look aggressive but rather disinterested, apatic;
• endevour for cleanliness (numerous car wash services) next to heavily littered streets;
• apart from car wash services there are a lot of private dentistries, hair-dressers, lawyers, street shoe-polishers, who fight with dirt in vain
• it's obvious there is no shortage of water as we often saw how they sprayed whole streets with water pipes ...
• public transport is widely used; we saw crowds of people waiting and socialising near roads (often close to piles of rubbish, admist a muddy, puddled shoulder) for a bus, usually a smaller one - camionet;
• no documents needed when checking into a hotel; you are supposed to pay in advance, but don't expect any receipt; In the hotel in Elbasan we had to pay to a chambermaid who accidentally found herself near the reception desk. Later we concluded she was the most professional one of all, as it was only she who wanted to see our identity cards.
• almost all hotels (€ 10 per person/24-hour stay) offer breakfast and wi-fi
• women pay attention what they wear, how they move (they are real acrobats when passing dirty and concave/convex pavements on high heels; there really are many beauties though men didn't look much attractive – too short, chubby, with jutting ears
• camping sites are very rare, wild camping almost impossible because of stray dogs, dirty surroundings, ...but it might be pleasant to put up a tent farther from civilisation, in the mountains;
• bunkers and Enver Xoxha
• the food is available eveywhere within built-up areas; their local specialties are: dolma, čufte (meat balls), skewers with lamb meat, 'čevapčiči' like meat sosages (grilled), a lot of high quality vegetables, cheese ...
• It's good that beggars, gipsies and others leave you in peace, unlike in many other southern countries;
• It's not recommendable to take photos of people without asking them for permission; they let you only after a chat when some trust has been built up;
• a lot of topographic names of Slavic origin: Kamnik, Bistrice, Gorica, Selce, Divjakë ...
• the Albanian riviera with many beautiful pebbled beaches is still undeveloped, except in Saranda, Ksimili, Himara, but it is feared that in the near future everything will change in favour of concrete, high apartment buildings, not accessible for public.
• unlike the Croatian coast water traffic is scarce, which is of course very pleasant as you are not disturbed by e. g. motor- boat noises;
• unlike the Croatian coast, there are no islands but one - Sazan, located near Vlora;
• people are open, friendly (maybe the so called gekos from the northern Albania are not so hospitable, but the southerners, called tusks, are really happy to exchange hand waving or some words with you, especially if you speak some Shqip (Albanian), like faleminderit/thank you, mirëdita/good afternoon, mirupʃashim/good bye ... We noticed that when mentioning ex-Yugoslavia (which we, Slovenes, used to belong in the past, they were not cheered up; we realized a bit later that it is because of the past conflicts between the neighbouring countries:



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Another 'road of no return' above Kruja leading over Qafë Shtame, direction Burrel
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'Our hotel' in Tirana - clean, comfortable, and cheap ...
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One of most extraordinary views - the whole gipsy family on the move














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Tot: 1.969s; Tpl: 0.026s; cc: 9; qc: 49; dbt: 0.0147s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 2; ; mem: 1.5mb