In our second and final week in Albania we had without doubt the most challenging drive on the worst road we’ve experienced yet in our five or so months travelling.
But it was also the week we drove through some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our trip so far.
Our first stop was at this desolate place….
It’s just outside the town of Elbasan which is known for its home grown tobacco and which is sold in enormous quantities…
The area of steel mills just outside of town is a now vast wasteland.
Back in the days when the communist dictator Hoxha was cosying up to China after falling out with the Russians, it was called the ‘Steel for the Party’ and the 150 hectare site employed up to 12,000 people.
But now the communist regime which propped this place up has gone and so are all the factories which have been left derelict.
Driving around this mini town past the skeletons of steel works, it looked like just one or two the units were still operating.
So that was a gloomy but weirdly interesting detour before we headed on to another communist regime favourite:
We had booked into one of the few hotels still standing there after a Government cull of the illegal builds which had sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 collapse of communism. Some 22 hotels were forcibly demolished to try to restore some planning order to the lakeside area.
We knew we were getting close when we saw the eel sellers by the roadside…
Looking at these snaps which I took as we trundled by in the van, it sort of looks like we’ve pulled these lads in to a photographic studio and set them up against a canvas backdrop.
But no, with this deep still lake framed by snow capped mountains Lake Ohrid really is this picturesque.
And on we travelled to Korce with its impressive Orthodox cathedral…
…and home of this square-jawed hero of the revolution.
It’s another triumph of the Socialist Realist style of art. Here he is all chiselled features and eyes narrowed with determination to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Just mind the hair comrades.’
A controversial development in the town is the old Ottoman bazaar which is being done up with EU funding. But apparently some 200 or so local traders with stalls that filled the entire bazaar up to recently were cleared out as the city seeks to gentrify it.
There are only a few units filled so far including one called ‘The Beatles’, decorated with many photos of the boys, and this metal working shop which we thought would have some wonderfully, authentic local craft work….
Well maybe some but not all. We were a bit crestfallen when we looked more closely at the miniature metal bucket we bought for the van and found a barcode. Imported from some factory in China maybe? Still, it’s a sale. We were the tourists and that was the tat we were prepared to pay for.
And this co-operative cafe in the bazaar was also up and running and served good coffee …
…and we met Gloria who works there.
She told us they would be serving traditional Albanian food that evening as there was going to be a public concert in the bazaar. We learned later the festivities were to mark the 1st. of March as the start of Lent for the Orthodox church and a week later for Muslims. (The religious tolerance in Albania where 70% of the population and 20% is impressive from what we’ve seen.)
We came back to the Ottoman Bazaar that evening with Korce locals Miri and his wife Elma…(introduced to us by Dorina who we met in Tirana).
..who joined us for dinner which was a hearty and very flavoursome lamb stew and a corn bread side dish.
Then it was time for the party in the square which attracted a good crowd for the traditional Albanian singing and dancing .
Korce likes a party we heard and (memo to selves), we decided we would come back one day for the Korce annual beer festival. Stuart is now a fan of Korce Black – a new star in his Beer Gallery.
The Korce party had also attracted a group of Greek motorhomers as we found next day when we travelled into the countryside to the village of Voskopoja.
We hadn’t seen any other motorhomers in Albania, then five come all at once..
This small village registers on the tourist map because it used to be a key commercial trading centre in the Ottoman Empire. It is also famous for its orthodox churches – though only a few still left standing. There is no UNESCO protection for conservation of the sites here and chatting to Rafail here…
..it sounds like it is a struggle to ensure what’s left will be preserved.
He lives in the village and works as a private guide. He approached us as we parked up which was lucky because without him we wouldn’t have been able to see inside one of the only orthodox churches from the Ottoman period still intact.
It was all locked up and the priest was away, but Rafail was able to track down the priest’s wife who unlocked the church for us so he could show us around.
We weren’t allowed take any photos inside but at least the frescoes were in better shape than these grafitti-covered ones outside.
And Rafail also introduced us to Lola …
..who was extremely hospitable and was very proud of her hotel. We weren’t staying in the village but she was very keen to show me around all the rooms.
Here’s the cozy lounge area……
Cheers Lola! One glass of raki is all it costs for some free publicity in this blog…
The worst road journey ever….I mean ever:
Some of the roads in Albania have been pretty bad but the one we had to take to get to Farmasotira, an agri-business offering tourist accommodation in the south of Albania, was unbelievably bad. The heavy rain made conditions even harder.
The road was made up of a series of steep, narrow hairpin bends, made worse because of the potholes and mud slides.
And the photo above shows a section where the tarmac had disappeared..
..it had slipped 10 feet down the slope.
We were mighty mighty relieved to finally get to the idyllic setting of Farmasotira just as it was getting dark.
In the morning sunshine we could see the place properly. It’s a unique tourism set up in Albania, we gathered from Nida, who has been building it up brick by brick over the last 18 years with her farmer husband.
So in addition to their business as farmers of cattle..
..and fish…this is their trout farm
…they offer accommodation in these cosy wooden chalet-style bungalows..
We didn’t meet her husband but we tasted (and bought) some of the excellent Merlot he makes. And they offer really good home cooked food in the farmhouse restaurant. Our dinner the night when we arrived was lamb slowly roasted served with tzatsiki and salad and was most welcome after the awful journey there.
It was a great location and imagine it would be a great spot in the summer to go hiking in the nearby hills or maybe just sit in the sunshine and just look at them.
The countryside nearby is spectacular too. We reckon the route that took us from Farmasotira in the east cross country and up to Tepelene pass the snowcapped Gramos mountains which ran like a high wall alongside us for long stretches of the way was some of the most amazing vistas we have seen on this trip so far.
￼￼￼And on to the tourist magnet of Berat:
We’d been saying how some of the towns we passed through in Albania had the feel of Morocco to them what with the markets and the continuous hustle and bustle of people.
The roads certainly reminded us of Morocco as we were sharing them not only with cars (mostly Mercedes seemingly without indicators) but with carts and donkeys.
And like Morocco we regularly passed by roadside sellers offering dates, bread, olives and olive oil.
But unlike Morocco where we managed to pick up a speeding fine the police here always wave us through with their green lollipop stick. Is there is a blanket pass for tourists? It seemed so because the police are absolutely everywhere, continually pulling people over to check documents.
The comparison with Morocco continued at the tourist magnet and Unesco Heritage town of Berat.
The town is famous for its white Ottoman era houses.
We walked up the steep hill to Berat castle and within minutes had attracted an unofficial ‘guide’ Vasil….
..who ambled alongside us helpfully pointing out in a mix of English, Albanian and Italian the main sights and, his particular fixation, exactly where we should stand to take the best photos. And he was as dogged as any wedding photographer in making us to pose amidst all the antiquities while he – having grabbed Stuart’s camera – shinned up masts..
…and clambered along high walls..
to get photos like this…
Believe me if we could have wrestled the camera back off him to stop him climbing up where there was a sheer drop the other side, we would have done it. But Vasil was a man with a mission which if I understood him correctly was to earn enough to emigrate to Greece.
Before leaving Berat we had a wander through the Saturday morning flea market…
…and on the way back to town we met this man heading home to make his dinner.
We know for sure this little lamb is heading for the oven because Stuart asked in the international language of mime i.e. questioning look whilst moving hand across throat in razor cutting action and got a happy grin and nod in response.
Our lunch was more instant.. cheese and figs from the market stall…
..and back in the town byrek from the bakery. That’s pastry filled with cheese or spinach..
..which is a handy snack to eat on the go.
We left Berat after a stint watching an intensely competitive dominoes match between the local old boys.
We were off to visit the Roman city of Appollonia which was in the UK newspapers recently with reports of a successful raid by Albanian police on smugglers trying to export over 200 artefacts from the site.
We passed more of Hoxha’s bunkers on the way. We’d passed plenty on the roads already…and some like this one near Lake Ohrid have been jazzed up.
But they are so heavy and most are too expensive to move so they are likely to just stay there, reminding Albanians of a terrible period in their history when Hoxha isolated the country from the world.
We went in for a closer look..
You get the idea of the kind of character Hoxha was from a story in the website Atlas Obscura. Apparently the prototype for the bunkers was built in the 1950s and the chief engineer assured Hoxha that it could withstand a full assault from a tank. Hoxha decided to test it with the engineer inside.
Vlore – the city with a place in history:
Vlore has a big place in Albania’s history as it was where a group of partisans declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912.
That explains this statue we saw on the way into town.
But at the Muzeu Kombetar which is the actual house where the declaration was made, I was probably more interested in hearing from Albiona (named because her Dad is crazy about English football) about the town’s more recent history.
Albiona was a teenager when Albania descended into anarchy in mid-1990’s after the collapse of corrupt and fraudulent pyramid schemes which saw huge numbers of people lose their entire life savings.
She recalls that even her own family had to have a kalishnakov rifle at home to protect themselves from intruders. To be fair, kalishakovs were going very cheap at the time as all of Hoxha’s arms magazines had been plundered after the fall of Communism. And she talked to me too of the tragedy that hit her family in 1997 when her cousin, his wife and their one-year old son drowned with the ‘Otranto’ ship carrying Albanians trying to escape to Italy was hit by accident by an Italian naval vessel.
And life now? Law and order has been restored but Albiona echoes many of the people we have spoken to during our visit here that life is very hard and many are still looking for a way out of the country to make a future for themselves.
And our last stop in our travels round Albania took us the other tourist magnet, aside from Berat, that of Gjirokaster. Here’s the view from the castle which was worth going to see though I have to admit by this stage, I was starting to feel castled-out and ready for a change.
After two weeks we are now looking forward to getting back to the van properly. We couldn’t find any open campsites in Albania and didn’t feel confident about wild camping.
So apart from Farmasotira we’ve stayed in hotels the whole time. Most have been really excellent and a very high standard as well as being very reasonably priced. Actually all have been good quality apart from the one we stayed at in Tepelena which was shitet.
Eh no, that’s not a typo – as Dave commented on last week’s blog – shitet that means ‘for sale.’
Here’s the one we stayed in:
Inside was everything you’d expect from a communist regime hotel complete with institutional corridor..
..lumpy mattress and dodgy plumbing.
Today we head for the Greek border and hopefully to find some open campsites.
We’ve loved our time in Albania and especially enjoyed meeting people like Ani, Dorina, Miri and Elma. Now it’s time for country number 7.
PS So Mount Etna has recently erupted after Stuart and Callum went skiing on her. Coincidence? Hmm.