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Published: January 15th 2022
Gjrokastra, AlbaniaYOU CAN CLICK ON ANY PHOTO TO ENLARGE IT - RECOMMENDED -
Bernie & Kathy in Gjrokastra Castle, which was also a museum. Note our clothing - every layer we had with us! It was COLD our entire tour.
THEN GO BACK TO THE BLOG OR GO THROUGH THE 72 PHOTOS IN THAT ENLARGED FORMAT.- CLICK ON NEXT OR PREVIOUS OR ON A NUMBER BENEATH THE PHOTOS. I PUT LOTS OF INFORMATION IN THE PHOTO CAPTIONS SO YOU CAN SKIP THE NARRATIVE, JUST LOOK AT THE ENLARGED PHOTOS AND CAPTIONS AND YOU'LL STILL GET MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU EVER WANTED. TO RETURN TO THE BLOG ENTRY, CLICK YOUR BACK BUTTON OR ON THE NAME OF THE BLOG - BELOW THE NUMBERS ON THE LEFT.
As you have probably figured out, these travel blogs are a way for Bernard and me to keep track of our adventures. I can't tell you how many times we've referred to one of our over 80 travel blogs looking for various details, maps, dates, etc. That said, feel free to enjoy the photos and just skim or ignore the text.
November 28 - December 24, 2021 Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo
: Albanian is an Indo-European language, in the same group as Greek, Italian (and English), but in a separate linguistic branch from all
Note the spelling on the map and mine in the blog can differ. Seems there were different ways to spell things in Albania. Our guide tried to explain: something about if you are going to a town, you spell it one way. . . . no, we didn't understand
of them. It shares certain grammatical features with Romanian. English
is widely spoken; many store and restaurant signs are, of course, in Albanian, but 'subtitled' in English. Currency
: $1 US = 100 Albanian Leke - pretty easy to mentally convert prices Size:
11,100 square miles - slightly smaller than Belgium and slightly larger than the US state of Maryland. History: Rough Timeline of Ancient Albanian History:
Illyrians 1000 BCHellenistic/Greek Period 3rd Century BCRoman Period 2nd Century ADLate Roman Period 6th Century ADMedieval Period 13th Century ADVenetian Period 16th Century AD<li style="margin: 0px; font-stretch: normal; font-size: 16px; line-height:
Bunkart Museum, Tirana
In the Bunkart Museum, a restored bunker, the history of the 'bunkerization' of Albania (1975 - 83) is related. That is when 173,371 bunkers were constructed all over Albania. Most still exist and some have been repurposed
normal; font-family: 'Helvetica Neue'; color:">Ottoman Period 1478 until 1912
November 28 - 29
It took all of Sunday and most of Monday to travel Tucson/Dallas/London/Tirana, Albania. A Pictet-arranged driver was waiting to take us to our nicely-appointed boutique hotel, Sokrat Hotel, in central Tirana. Dinner at an Irish pub nearby, asleep by 7:00 p.m. local time; slept 12 solid hours. We find the first night of sleep after a long trip with such a dramatic time-change (9 hours) is usually pretty good because we are EXHAUSTED. It is the second night that gives us fits - up before dawn, etc., and that was indeed the case.
Our main reason for coming to Albania was to participate in the annual Jean-Pictet International Humanitarian Law Competition, in which Bernie has been acting as a juror/judge since 2009 and I’ve been volunteering with the administration since 2012.
We scheduled a few free days in Tirana so we could recover from our jet-lag and also tour the capital city before going to the second largest city, Durrës, for the week-long Pictet competition, December 4 - 10. November
After the competition we had 13 days, so in the morning we went to a local tour agency to arrange for a private tour: car, English-speaking driver/guide and accommodations for that extended tour. We sussed out an itinerary that was mostly in Albania, but also went into Montenegro and Kosovo.
Our original plan was to rent a car and tour on our own. However, getting around is not easy because of the lack of street signs. Our decision to get a tour with car and driver was a GREAT decision. While we might have navigated the roadways, reading the signs, finding places, getting good hotels - all would have been extremely difficult. Even with Google Maps, for example, you still need to have street signs to follow the directions.
We took a taxi to the tour office, but the taxi driver couldn't find the address. How delusional were we to think we could navigate the city if a born and bred Tiranan couldn't find the tour office?
We got out on the proper street and just started asking people. A helpful young man at a hotel pointed us in
Tirana, House of Leaves
A communist-era listening station for spying on its own citizens, foreign visitors, etc.
the right direction.
It was a sunny (crisp at 44˚ F/7˚ C), beautiful day, so we walked back to our hotel. I had downloaded walking directions, but soon found them useless because of the lack of street signs - NOTHING matched what I had on my phone. Fortunately using landmarks (what we’d seen on the way to the tour office) we were able to unerringly walk the 15 minutes back to our hotel. We were pretty chuffed (pleased) with ourselves. December 1 Tirana
While at the tour agency we arranged for a day-tour of Tirana
. Our guide, Sokol, picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 and we drove to several sites, then for a walking tour in the city center until around 5:00 p.m. It was a cool, but sunny day, so we didn’t mind a bit.
Our first stop was at Bunkart
, a restored bunker, one of Albania’s largest, that was for use by the government elite should the USA begin a nuclear war.
The bunkerization of Albania
: from 1975 to 1983 they built 173,371 bunkers, about 1 for every 11 residents of Albania.
Tirana House of Leaves
Room full of listening devices used by the communist party
Hundreds of workers died from construction accidents during this 8-year period. BTW, the bunkers, all over Albania, were never used. Government:
After WWII Albania became Communist, first allying with the Soviet Union and then in the 1980s with China. At that time Albania was literally cut off from the rest of the world. During this whole time Albania was ruled by a dictator, **Enver Hoxha
, who ruled until he died in 1985. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the tumult that followed, Albania eventually became a parliamentary democracy governed by a constitution passed in 1998. **Enver Hoxha
, who ruled the Socialist People's Republic of Albania for four decades, died on April 11, 1985. Ramiz Alia succeeded Hoxha as the First Secretary of the Party of Labour, and gradually introduced economic reforms and opened diplomatic ties with Western European countries.
Next we took a cable car
up a nearby mountain for lovely views. Sokol regaled us with historical facts the whole way. We were so happy to have a clear, if cool, day as we were able to see all the way to the
Tirana Walking Tour
70% of Albanians are Muslim, so many wonderful mosques. It was super cold and as a result we didn't go inside any mosques on this trip - couldn't face removing our shoes and washing our feet in cold water before entering
Finally we did a walking tour
of Tirana, to the old and new bazaars, into an old castle turned into a luxury shopping area, through neighborhoods lined with cafes and restaurants. We couldn’t go into the **
mosque being built in the middle of Tirana - Turkish money - as it wasn't open yet, but it is going to be fabulous. We visited an **
Orthodox Cathedral, which was beautiful if understated. It was getting dark as we ended a fun yet exhausting day. Our heads were abuzz with historical and cultural facts. **Religion
: in 1967 Albania’s communist government prohibited religious worship and the country became the world’s only officially atheist country. Churches and mosques were demolished or turned into warehouses or sports halls and the practice of religion would remain an offense until 1990.
Although no longer illegal to attend a religious ceremony, Albania remains an extremely secular society. There are few records of how religions breakdown in Albania now, but the traditional breakdown is 70%!M(MISSING)uslim, 20%!O(MISSING)rthodox and 10%!C(MISSING)atholic
, with evangelical Protestant churches becoming more popular in the cities in the past decade
Tirana Walking Tour - Mosque
This massive mosque is funded by Turkey and will be spectacular I'm sure - not opened at this time
Back at the hotel we connected with our Pictet colleagues (6 of us; 2 local) and went out to dinner to a restaurant featuring traditional Albanian food. We decided to do it tapas-style, so had about 10 different dishes: cornbread baked with fresh butter, dunked in ayran and covered with seasoned goat cheese; pancakes baked on flagstone, white feta cheese pieces, broiled garlic and fresh butter; peppers stuffed with cheese, soft curd and herbs, served in a traditional oven-baked dish; stuffed grape leaves; sausage with special yogurt sauce; and noodles layered with a cream sauce and minced lamb - most we didn’t recognize, but they were all delicious. Food:
I was expecting more influence from Turkey as they occupied Albania for many hundreds of years. I also thought there would be more influence from Greece since Albania and Greece share a border, but while you definitely see those influences, the Italian cuisine is dominant today and to-die-for. Italy occupied Albania periodically throughout the years and the heel of the boot of Italy is only 38 miles/61 kilometers away across the Adriatic Sea, so I suppose I shouldn’t have
Montenegro, Niagara Falls
On our drive from Tirana to Montenegro our lunch stop was at this scenic falls area
been surprised. Pleasantly surprised I might add. December 2 Tirana
We obviously hadn’t quite gotten over our jet lag because we slept until after 9:00.
Good that we didn’t have big plans for the day because the hotel (or Expedia) had gotten our departure date wrong and we had to change hotels. It was hassle-free as our hotel was affiliated with another boutique hotel about a 2-minutes walk away. The hotel schlepped our bags over for us, easy peasy, albeit in the rain.
Our outing for the day was to The House of Leaves
museum. This was the ‘listening’ station for the communist party - phone tapping as well as other spying on their citizens was coordinated from this location. The building was covered in ivy and hence ‘house of leaves.’
It was a sad and depressing walk through the communist era of neighbor spying on neighbor, children turning in their parents for ‘unpatriotic’ talk. All the hotels were bugged, as well as most businesses. About 100,000 people were arrested, imprisoned or executed from 1944 - 1991. Mind you, there were only about **
1 million Albanians
Montenegro, Dajbabe Monastery
This Orthodox Christian monastery's chapel was inside a cave where they keep the remains of St. Simon
at that time, so that is a HUGE number and many Albanians believe that number to be exaggerated. **1,160,000 in 1994; 2,839,000 in 2020 December 3 - 11 Durrës
On December 3 we were picked up at our hotel (in the pouring rain) by a van arranged by the Jean-Pictet IHL Competition and with several other early arrivals, transferred to the second city of Albania, Durrës, on the coast where the week-long 36th Edition of the competition was taking place Dec. 4 - 11. I’ve done a separate blog on the Pictet competition, so if you are interested, you can see much more here: http://www.travelblog.org/fred.php?id=1063999
- Albania, 36th Edition of the Jean-Pictet International Humanitarian Law Competition
I explained, for example, what the competition is about in general and what this edition was like in particular.
The competition ended Friday night, December 10, with the announcement of the winners: Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya
who competed against the University of the Philippines College of Law, Quezon City for the title.
After the competition we started our two-week private tour of Albania, Montenegro and
Podgorica, Capital of Montenegro
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ with jaw-droppingly gorgeous frescos
Kosovo. Choose Balkans
, our tour company, sent a car (Skoda sedan - nice and roomy) with our guide/driver, Sokol,
to pick us up in Durrës on Saturday morning. So after breakfast and good-byes (sometimes tearful) to our old friends, new friends and the participants, we began our adventure. Sokol had been our guide for our city tour of Tirana, so we already knew and liked him. Itinerary: Durrës (Albania) – into Montenegro: Podgorica – Budva – Kotor - back to Albania: Shkodra; into Kosovo: Peja & Prizren; back to Albania: Kruja – Elbasan – Korca – Pogradec – Berat - Vlora – Llogara National Park – Sarande/Albanian Riviera – Butrint - Blue Eye – Gjirokastra - Përmet – Apollonia – Tirana
Montenegro borders: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the north; Serbia to the northeast; Kosovo to the east; Albania to the south; to the west of Montenegro is the Adriatic Sea. Religion:
Montenegro is a multi-religious country, but has Orthodox Christianity as its dominant religion with 74.24%!o(MISSING)f the country’s population. The other major religions
Lovely town; river running thru it with parks along the banks
are Islam with 17.74%!a(MISSING)nd Roman Catholicism at 3.54%! (MISSING)Protestantism and Judaism exist in the country in small numbers. Population:
Montenegro's 2020 population was estimated at 628,066, according to UN data. Language:
Montenegrin is the Balkan state's official language, however, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Albanian all remain languages in official use in Montenegro. Our guide and we spoke English in Montenegro. Our guide could occasionally speak Albanian, but the default was English. Size:
Montenegro covers an area of 13,812 km², making it slightly smaller than half the size of Belgium, or slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Connecticut. Currency
: They use the Euro/$1 = .89 Euro December 11 Durres, Albania to Podgorica, Montenegro
After our guide, Sokol
, picked us up in Durrës, Albania, we drove north to Podgorica,
the capital of Montenegro. It was an all-day drive with stops along the way, notably at Niagara Falls and Dajbabe Monastery
, which is remarkable for having a church inside a cave.
I have to confess here that Bernard and I were not feeling well at this time. Yes, we’d picked up
Sveti Stefan - near Budva, Montenegro
The medieval remains on this tiny island were bought and it is now a 5-Star Resort
the Pictet Crud
, AGAIN! I think with being exposed to so many people from so many different countries, it is almost impossible not to pick up something. This is the third Pictet in a row that I’ve gotten sick. Bernard had a cold after France also, but missed the Bali Belly that plagued me in 2020.
Fortunately it was just a bad cold, but since we hadn’t had so much as a sniffle for almost two years, it hit us hard. Bernard got it first so I could see how mine would progress, and it wasn’t a pretty sight - I already had massive congestion, but Bernardo was really coughing. On our way out of Durrës we stopped at a pharmacy for cough medication and decongestion tablets. At this point it was just congestion and feeling crappy for me; Bernardo was congested, but also was dealing with that horrible cough. Turns out it was a long-lasting virus and stayed with us almost the entire two weeks were were touring - getting better and better every day, but still . . . . NOTE
: Everyone had COVID tests prior to their traveling to Albania. We
Narrow, cobblestone streets; built to confuse invaders and they so confused us that Sokol and I had a hard time finding the coffee shop where we'd left Bernie; Sokol took me to an overlook that he and B had been to the day before
had COVID tests twice in the Pictet week; everybody arrived on Saturday; our first COVID test was on Sunday with another on Tuesday. The Tuesday test was to make sure nobody had picked up anything while traveling. Also, a third COVID test was given at the end of the week for return flights. All tests were negative. Hooray! For the competition week we were masked at all times in public except when eating or drinking.
We overnighted in Podgorica, capital of Montenegro
at a lovely boutique hotel - Hotel Boscovich.
In the morning we did a walking tour of Podgorica and visited the Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection, an impressive Serbian Orthodox cathedral. December 12 From Podgorica via Budva to Kotor (Montenegro)
We drove from Podgorica, through the mountains, past the picturesque seaside town of Budva
to Kotor. We could also see from our hilltop vantage point the island of Sveti Stefan
. You can’t visit there any more because it has been turned into a five-star resort.
I was feeling terrible, so we went straight to the hotel in Kotor (Garni Hotel Tianis) to drop me off.
Bernard and Sokol hiked up to an old city overlook and walked in the old town until dark, which at this time of year is 4:00 p.m.! December 13 Kotor, Montenegro,
a UNESCO world heritage site. Bernie & Sokol retraced their steps to show me the Old City
- started in the 9th century and tweaked until the 18th. As we wandered through the maze of narrow, cobblestone streets it seemed chaotic, but that was the purpose - confuse invaders. They managed to confuse us too as Sokol and I had a hard time finding Bernie whom we had left in a cafe while Sokol and I climbed to the overlook. Bernie had been to the overlook the day before so opted for another cup of coffee, but ended up having two because of our inability to find him. Back to Albania for One day
: Shkodra, Albania
. (Hotel Rose Garden) We crossed back into Albania. The big attractions of this Venetian-influenced city are a first-rate historical museum (closed because of COVID) and Rozafa Castle
, which stands above the confluence of three rivers. The oldest walls of the castle date from
Photo of Kotor from the walk along the waterfront
the first millennium BC, but most of what remains is from the 1400s.
We visited a shop that makes masks for Carnaval in Venice. They did all the masks for the Tom Cruise movie, Eyes Wide Shut. It was a magical place.
Kosovo is a small country in south-eastern Europe. It shares borders with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia. Kosovo is only recognized as an independent country by about half of the countries in the world - other countries consider it to be a province of Serbia. Religion:
A large majority of Kosovo Albanians consider themselves, at least nominally, to be Muslim. A minority, about 60,000, are Catholic. Most Kosovo Serbs, even those who are not active religious believers, consider Orthodoxy Christianity to be an important component of their national identity.
Monasteries and churches in Kosovo are protected by UN forces because the Kosovo people are still very angry at the Serbs for the war in the 1990s (Serbia tried to 'retake' Kosovo) that the Kosovars try to destroy their churches - Serbs are Orthodox Christian while most Kosovars are Muslim. Size
Shkodra aka Rozafa Castle, from below
smaller than the US state of Connecticut Language
. With approximately more than 90%!o(MISSING)f the population of Kosovo being ethnic Albanians, the Albanian language is recognized as an official language along with Serbian. Other languages spoken include Turkish, Romani, and Bosnian. English is widely spoken, especially by youth. Currency
: They use the Euro/$1 = .89 Euro December 14 Peja
Our destination for the day was Peja
(Hotel Karagaq), Kosovo,
but we had a wonderful stop at Decan Orthodox Monastery.
The monastery is a UNESCO cultural site because of its amazingly well-kept frescos. The monks take a vow of silence, but one priest is allowed to talk and give information about the monastery, frescos, their cheese and wine making, etc.
The monastery was built in the 13th century, but most of the frescos that remain are from the 14th century.
To enter the Monastery we had to go through a fortified (fence, gates) UN check-point where they took our passports before we went inside. The soldiers manning the check-point were Italian. In town we also saw Swiss soldiers.
In Peja we
Shkodra aka Rozafa Castle, view from above
walked through the old bazaar before dinner, but there isn’t much to see in this small city. Walking in the bazaar a man asked where we were from, when Sokol told him we were from America, the man came over to shake Bernie’s hand and say, "Hooray for President Clinton. Thank you America!"
He was referring to when Serbia invaded Kosovo in the 1990s and the USA was the first to come to Kosovo's aid. December 15 Prizren, Kosovo
Before leaving the Peja area, we had to see the highlight of Peja: the Patriarchate of Peja,
a medieval Orthodox Convent; a UNESCO cultural site because of its well-preserved frescos. Also protected by the UN.
Prizren is considered the cultural capital of Kosovo, mixing its rich history, incredible nature, religious tolerance and gastronomic delights. This site was a crossroads for the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. We walked the cobblestone streets and visited a heritage museum. Lunch at a traditional restaurant was a treat - all dishes were baked in a brick oven; a long lunch as everything was made to order. I had, for example, minced, spiced lamb in a pastry wrap, baked
Venetian Art Mask Factory - total overload on AMAZING!
and then covered with yogurt and herbs - outstanding! (Hotel Prior)
Albania, Again December 16 Back to Tirana via Kruja, Albania.
The highlight of Kruja was the overlook, the medieval bazaar and the Skanderbeg Museum.
Albania's national hero, Skanderbeg, kept the Ottoman Empire at bay for 24 years, which when you look at the size of Albania compared to the Ottoman Empire, was really quite a feat.
Overnighted in Tirana, apartment of Choose Balkans,
our tour company - great apartment; we highly recommend the tour company and their accommodations. December 17 Pogradec
Drove to Elbasan
- only thing there worthwhile was the Ottoman wall. The old city has not been preserved and is a mish-mash of stores and homes. There was a nice Orthodox cathedral, but not much else.
Drove to Korça
, little Paris of Albania, through the old bazaar (antique dealer kiosks; traditional cradle makers) to the cathedral. Highlight was museum of icons and lunch in the plaza. Korça is called 'Little Paris' because of all the outdoor cafes, but it was too cold to eat outside that day. Had a great lunch,
Venice Art Mask Factory - close up of a few masks
but inside near a fireplace.
Drove to Pogradec,
overnighted on Lake Ohrid
, at Hotel Perla (second favorite hotel of the trip) with a view of the lake. It was cold and windy so the lake was really whipped up in a.m. when we wanted to take a walk. We had stayed on the North Macedonian side of the lake a few years ago; had actually toured N. Macedonia extensively on that trip and hence why we didn't go there this time.
On our drive from Pogradec to Berat we first drove to a peninsula on the Lake Ohrid to the small village of Lin
to see some Roman ruins w/mosaic (closed), but wonderful views. Our coffee stop that day was in Belsh,
lovely town on another lake. December 18 Berat
Berat is called the city of 1001 Windows, aka The White City. We had lunch on Berat’s lovely pedestrian street before visiting the Ethnographic museum
- clothes, tools, etc., of past. We drove to the ever-present castle for the views. We stayed at the Hotel Mangalemi in old city. It was a wonderfully restored ancient building and we had
Decani, an Orthodox Christian Monastery, frescos - most from the 14th century, but some from the 13th
a beautiful, big, WARM room; welcoming staff, great food; our favorite hotel of the trip. December 19 Llogara
Left Berat on our way to Llogara via Vlora.
First stop was at the Island of Zvërne
c and its ancient Monastery of Saint Mary
(13th century) - not a monastery now. The location of the monastery on a beautiful lake was stunning. Greater flamingos migrate through this area in the spring and fall. I saw some big birds far out on the lake, so zoomed in for a shot. I couldn't tell on my tiny camera screen what they were, but on my computer you could clearly see they were flamingos!! Stragglers?? Vlora
was our next stop and we first headed to an overlook of the “City of the Flag” that had a **Bektashi tekke,
i.e., mosque. Independence was declared in Vlora in 1912. We walked through the restored Turkish Bazaar; passed a huge monument to independence. **Bektashism
is an off-shoot of Islam, but much more tolerant. The Bektashi creed permits the drinking of alcohol — as the dervish explains, “It reveals a man’s true character” — and does
In the bazaar there were wonderful traditional craftsmen; this cradle maker was amazing
not demand men and women be segregated, nor that women wear a veil. Furthermore, Bektashi's tekkes differ from traditional mosques in that they do not have a minaret built next to them and babas (holy men) are buried inside. A constantly evolving faith, Bektashism has always valued encounter and exchange with other religious communities.
Albania is the country with the most Bektashis, where they make up 20%!o(MISSING)f the Muslim population and 2.5%!o(MISSING)f the country's population.
Beautiful drive along the Albanian Riviera
and lunch at the seaside - terrible service, but good fish (sea bass for me, Bernie had seafood pasta and Sokol had a plate of grilled organ meat), and beautiful views. We then headed inland and up into the mountains through the Llogara National Forest
. Overnight in Hotel Sofo in Llogara. Dinner at the hotel was nice and we met 2 Germans hiking in area. December 20 Sarande on Albanian Riviera
Leaving Llogara our first stop was at an overlook to see the islands of Greece in the distance and views of the Riviera. Then to the castle of **Ali Pasha
at Porto Palermo
Shop window - modern take on traditional clothing. Evidently traditional weddings are making a come-back, but with updated clothes.
1700 -1800s, near Himara
. Ali Pasha had numerous castles and fortresses in this area: **Ali Pasha
(1740 – 1822) was an Ottoman Albanian ruler who served as pasha, i.e., ruler, of a large part of western Rumelia, the Ottoman Empire's European territories, which included Albania.
Beautiful drive along the coast to Sarande, lunch in Sarande on the waterfront where we met an Indian couple from Dubai. First warm day in ages - must have been around 50 F./10˚ C.
We walked to the ruins of an ancient basilica and synagogue right near our accommodations: Hotel JoAn; small room, but warm and with a view of the sea. December 21 Sarande to Gjrokastra
Up at 7:00, breakfast at 8:00 on the road by 9:00 a.m. - that was our routine every morning of the tour. This morning we left Sarande headed to the National Archaeology Park of Butrint
The archaeological heritage of Butrint is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, containing different artifacts and structures, dating from the Iron Age up until the Middle Ages. Numerous monuments still
Peja to Prizren, Kosovo
On the drive from Peja to Prizren was an Ottoman bridge, circa 1600 - not in use, but still in really good shape
exist, including the city walls, a late-antique baptistery, a great basilica, Roman theatre and two castles. The ancient city is situated within a natural woodland with a complex ecosystem, which depends on the nearby lake and channel. It is this combination of cultural monuments and natural environment which makes **Butrint
such a unique place. **According to classical mythology, Buthrotum (Butrint) was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. On arrival, Priam’s son Helenus sacrificed an ox, which struggled ashore wounded and died on the beach. Taking this as a good omen, the place was named Buthrotum meaning “wounded ox”
Our next stop was supposed to the the Blue Eye, but the road was closed. We were disappointed as this is a natural wonder:
The Blue Eye is a wonderful spring located in the small village of Muzinë. It is the richest source of water in the country, commonly known as the "Blue Eye Source,, or simply "Blue Eye." Its name is inspired by the extraordinary play of colors that can be seen in the waters which resemble a big eye.
I’ve included a photo (grabbed from the
On our way from Peja to Prizren we stopped for lunch in this lovely vineyard town
internet) so you can see why we were so disappointed to miss it. Gijirokastra
From Muzinë we drove to Gjirokastra, up to a hilltop hotel/restaurant, which turned out to be closed for lunch. Great view of the valley below and castle above. Down to a small taverna for a super lunch (Kuka), then a walk thru the bazaar to Hotel Gjirokastra - coldest hotel yet; Bernie slept all night with his watch cap on.
On our way out of town in the morning we stopped at the Gjirokastra Castle
- great views. The castle itself holds many cannons and vehicles from WWII. There is a museum of Communist memorabilia and an archaeological museum as well. December 22 - 24 Permet via Bënja Termal Springs
Bënja Termal Springs were in a beautiful area, but it was too cold to get in the tepid hot springs. We just did a small hike around the area.
The highlight of Termet for us was that our hotel room overlooked the plaza. That night there was a Christmas celebration for children. Metal barrels (at least 10) with fuel were set
Roman bathhouse from 1400s in center of Prizren
all over the plaza and set ablaze. Santa was there giving out presents. There was music; families gathered. If they’d had any kind of food (I’m thinking guhlwine and bratwurst??) we would have been out there in the plaza too - damn the language barrier!
On the 23rd we drove from Permet back to Tirana,
but with a stop at the ruins of the ancient city of Apollonia
- started by the Greeks and taken over, built upon, repurposed through the ages - from about the Hellenistic Period/3rd Century BC to the Venetian Period/16th Century AD. Overnighted in Permet at the Funky Hotel, yep, that was its name.
In Tirana we stayed in one of the apartments of our tour company - some of the nicest accommodations of the trip. Before we got to our accommodations, however, we stopped at a lab for a COVID test as we were traveling back to the USA through London the next day. Results came in via email, negative, so we had them digitally on our phones. The tour company, however, printed out copies for us as well. Did I mention the tour company was Choose Balkans
Prizren had its castle too - not much remaining; more impressive from below
we highly recommend it? Well, we do! December 24
Tour staff came to our apartment with printed COVID tests in hand and helped us to an awaiting car for transport to the airport. We flew from Tirana to London that day. We had an 18-hour layover in London, so had booked a room in the airport. December 25 - Merry Christmas!
Got up early, had a nice breakfast and were ready early, so at 9:30 we stepped from our hotel directly into Terminal 2 of Heathrow.
We took the air-rail to Terminal 5 and were 3 hours early for our flight. Good thing we started when we did. First the boarding passes they'd issued us in Tirana for the London/Dallaas flight didn't work; went to at least three different places in the departures terminal until we finally managed to get new boarding passes. Then through security where I got flagged. Not only patted down and checked for explosive trace, but my carry-on was torn apart and everything within it swabbed for chemicals.
However, before that could happen, there was a young woman in front of me who
From Prizren, Kosovo we drove back into Albania and the rest of our time was spent there. In Kruja at the local castle was the museum of Skanderbeg, Albania's hero for keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay for many years. He was eventually defeated and Albania was ruled by the Ottomans for several hundred years.
had, evidently, never traveled before. They were pulling out cans of Red Bull, huge containers of various liquids, etc. Then she had to repack her bag, slowly I might add. My bag was on the line, but there was another bag in front. Of course they start asking for the owner to come forward, but at this point Bernie and I are the only ones in the area. I had a feeling, so yelled at the young woman who'd been in front of me - she gone quite a distance into the terminal at this point - and asked if she had another bag. "Oh, yeah, maybe I do." So of course since she'd been a nightmare with things in her first bag, they were super thorough with the second bag. I'm not sure exactly how long it all took, but am thinking 30 to 45 minutes.
We get to the gate in plenty of time, but when going through the final check where they wanted our vaccine records and negative COVID results, they now tell us we needed to have filled out on-line an 'attestation' of some sort. Via my cell we had to go to
In the museum of Skanderbeg, the hero of Albania, Bernard got to sit in his desk. Sanderbeg was a soldier, but also a scholar
a site, each fill-out a form (yes we were vaccinated, yes we had a negative COVID test; even though they had proof positive in their hands!!) and then wait for confirmation to be sent to our emails, which we then had to show at the gate. When we boarded, the sign over the gate was flashing 'Gate Closed.
Needless to say we were just grateful to (1) have a flight, as so many were being cancelled, (2) have it be on time and (3) that it turned out to be not so crowded; B had an empty seat beside him and for a 9 1/2 hour flight, that was sweet.
We landed in Dallas right on time. It was Christmas day, so there were only a limited number of restaurants open. I had a grilled cheese sandwich and broccoli soup for dinner and B had a burger. Again, NOT complaining as they were both way better than the ‘turkey with trimmings’ dinner we had on the plane. Do love that there is still unlimited wine (alcohol of any kind) on international flights, made dinner MUCH better.
Our Dallas-Tucson flight was also
on-time and we arrived in Tucson about 9 p.m. Christmas night. I tried to get an Uber for about 1/2 hour and when I failed, we tried to find a taxi. By now we were in a completely deserted airport. Truly, even the security people outside who watch that you don't park too long and also stop traffic so folks can cross over to the parking area - all gone. No announcements over the PA, not a soul in sight. I then called a taxi company who sent a one for us. We got home around 10:30 p.m., exhausted, but grateful. Another person happy that night was our taxi driver with the huge tip we gave him. Miscellaneous
: Touring this area of the world in the winter wasn't ideal. Of course we were there because of the Pictet competition, so the timing wasn't up to us. Albania and Montenegro have gorgeous beaches and seaside towns - summer is likely magical there and I'd not be averse to another visit in warmer weather. Guide & Driver
. We highly recommended a car and guide/driver. Language could be an issue. Even on the English menus it could
Korça, Orthodox Christian Cathedral
be difficult to know what to order. The description of something that is 'Korça style,' for example, meant nothing to us. Or lamb in a 'traditional' sauce?
Sokol was a skilled and patient driver, emphasis on patient as drivers could be aggressive and unpredictable. Hotels in Winter:
Summer is 'high' season for this area and the hotels are geared to that. For example, they had the dual air-conditioning/heating units mounted near the ceilings. Makes total sense for hot weather (cold air sinks), but that meant the heat (hot air rises) stayed near the ceiling until eventually forced down by keeping the unit running, like, FOREVER. Some rooms were much colder than others. Add to that the fact that we weren't feeling well and a cozy room would have been nice . . . . Hotel Rooms
: We were pleasant surprised that all of the hotels chosen by our tour company, while still in the mid-range, had excellent beds, linen and pillows. Most of all we were grateful for lovely, modern bathrooms. The shower heads were often of the 'rain forest' type and many had an additional hand-held device. There was always
Korça's museum of icons is said to the largest of its kind in the world
plenty of hot water and a stack of big fluffy towels. COVID
: Touring in the time of COVID meant many museum and venues were closed. In some ways that flew in the face of the fact that Albania is one of the only countries in the world that never closed it borders to foreigners during COVID. We saw VERY few masks and the only places we had to mask-up were in a few government-run museums and at the lab when we got our COVID test. Of course at the Pictet competition we set the standard and we were masked at all times, but most everybody else in the hotel, including many of the staff, were unmasked. Weather
: Most days were around 40˚ F./4˚ C. with nights below freezing. We'd packed warm clothing and most days had every layer we brought on. We'd had some rain in Durrës at the beginning of our holiday, but after that it was mostly clear and sunny, albeit cold. We'll take clear and cold rather than wet and cold any day! DON'T FORGET TO LOOK AT THE PHOTOS (TOTAL of 72) BELOW (VERY BOTTOM,
Pogradec, Ohrid Lake, Albania
We had been to Ohrid lake a few years ago, but on the N. Macedonia side
BELOW THE AD, OUR PROFILE, THE BLOG OPTIONS, NORTH AMERICA, TRAVELBLOG AWARDS, TOP PHOTOS - YES, RIDICULOUS!!) CLICK ON 'NEXT' TO ADVANCE TO NEXT PAGE WITH MORE PHOTOS. THERE ARE 4 MORE PAGES OF PHOTOS.
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