Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gjirokastra: City of 1000 Steps

                                     The view out our window

Wednesday, April 28

We arrived in Gjirokastra, another Albanian "Museum City'' after a four-hour ride from Berati on a public mini-bus. The mountain scenery was spectacular, but we were glad we brought along Dramamine. It was two-lane roads all the way, with the bus winding through pine forests and up and down mountain passes. About three-quarters into the trip, the driver stopped at a nice mountain cafe where everyone sat down at tables and ordered drinks or food. This is civilized travel! And of course, this being Albania, the price was right- $7 each for the bus tickets.

Gjirokastra has a historic upper town and a modern lower town built during the communist era. Because of its "Museum City'' designation, most of its old buildings were spared. The exceptions were the mosques. Six were destroyed. One was left standing. It was turned into museum, then when communism fell, became a mosque once again.

The upper town, known for its Ottoman-era tower houses built along the steep sides of the valley, is where we settled into the Kotoni House, a  six-room B and B run by Haxhi and Vita Kotoni in Haxhi's 300-year-old family home.

                                             Vita and Haxhi Kotoni

                                                 The  Kotini House

There are fancier places in town to stay, but likely no nicer hosts than the Kotoni family.They opened their inn in 1993, the first private hotel after communism.  Later they received UNESCO funding to renovate inside and out, with a new facade and ceilings of carved wood. Rooms are $32 night including a breakfast of fried eggs, cheese, bread and homemade marmalade. The house sits just below a  13th century castle. Many of the homes surrounding Koton's are historic, but in need of repair. The owners have either abandoned them (one neighbor moved to the U.S.), or lack funding for restoration.

                                       View of old Gjirokastra from the castle

Albania's communist dictator Enver Hoxha was born here, but the only evidence left is his house, now an ethnographic museum with a collection of furniture and household items that were used in Ottoman times. Most of the usual businesses, stores etc. are in the new town, but there's a handful of good restaurants in the upper town, many cafes serving excellent cappuccino and lots of restoration going on, manly funded by donations from private foundations and foreign governments.

                                              The Hotel Kalemi

Drago Kalem bought the 200-year-old home, above, and restored it as a 12-room inn. We found him in the garden when we dropped by, and he showed us around. Rooms are spacious and cost about $47 a night with breakfast. Book early if you want to stay here. April is usually a slow month, but he was booked.

Albanian food is mostly Turkish-influenced, and we love it. An English-speaking tour guide in the museum turned us on to qifqi, a "rice ball'' made from rice, egg and mint, a Gjirokastra speciality, made in a utensil similar to a pan for making poached eggs.

                                Gjirokastra's 17th century bazaar

We found it on the menu at the Kujtimi restaurant in the old bazaar area in the upper town. Our guides were two Peace Corp volunteers, Courtney Jallo and Chris Hassler, whom we met through We had a wonderful evening talking and eating with them and other American volunteers stationed in Albania. Courtney works in public health. Chris works on city development projects. Their first choice for a Peace Corp posting was the "horn" of Africa, but when that didn't pan out, they opted for Albania, and seem to be enjoying their work and travels. CouchSurfing is a great way to connect with people when traveling, whether or not you need an actual couch for the night.

                                    Chris and Courtney

We certainly appreciated their suggestion that we meet at the Kujtimi. We sat on the outdoor terrace, and feasted in a parade of salads, stuffed peppers, grilled eggplant, potatoes and other vegetarian dishes. When the bill came, we each threw in 500 lek - $5 each!

Next stop: Saranda, the coast and Greek ruins of Butrint.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Berati: City of a Thousand Eyes

Sunday, April 25

                                                             Berati, Albania

We left Tirana by bus and have settled in at a beautiful little inn in Berati, one of the oldest cities in Albania, with a collection of white Ottoman-style houses built into the hillsides. The windows in all the houses are what gives it its nickname, City of a Thousand Eyes. There's a castle and a well-preserved collection of mosques and medieval Orthodox churches that were spared by the communists. Berati was a   government-designated "museum city.'' It's now a UNESCO site. We explored just a little on our first afternoon, climbing up a steep path to a little 13th-century chapel, called St. Michael's, wedged into the hillside. A woman who said she was a French teacher tried to explain a little of the history in French and Italian.

                                             St. Michael's Church, Berati

We were lucky to get a room at the Hotel Mangalemi a little inn in what was once the Muslim Quarter, and home of the Ottoman king, or pasha, of the time. There's a mosque across the street, a Catholic church nearby, and and a temple built by Bektashi followers, a Muslim sect, sometimes identified by their whirling dervishes.We awake to church bells and the Muslim call to prayer.

                                               Hotel Mangalemi

Tomi Mio started the Mangalemi as a four-table restaurant in 1993, after communism, when private businesses were allowed for the first time. 


Some of the rooms are in what was his father's house, built in the 1930s. The others are in a newly-restored house built in 1775 by the Ottoman king or pasha as he was called. It's an incredible bargain. Our room is cozy, with pine ceilings, wooden floors, a balcony and new bathroom. The price is $40 a night, with a breakfast of blood orange juice, feta cheese, eggs, thick slices of toast and yogurt. Dinner last night (Tomi's wife, Violetta, is the cook) was a Greek salad, a delicious pepper and cheese spread, homemade sausage, potatoes, homemade merlot and a dessert made from honey and walnuts - $20 for the two of us. Albania is a true travel bargain.

                                             View from our hotel terrace

Berati is in the mountains, surrounded by pine forests, with fig and olive trees growing on the hillsides. A river separates the town into two sides, one that was once primarily Christian; the other Muslim. The castle area, another former Christian neighborhood above the Muslim quarter, is unique in that about 200 families still live within the castle walls. There's a very interesting museum there in a historic stone church housing some famous religious icons. Unfortunately it was closed the day we visited. The tourist office offers a very good audio tour of the town's historical sites, all of which can be seen on foot. 

                                              Red mosque inside castle

The people are very friendly, and we met several as we walked around. A few make a little money by offering visitors coffee or snacks from their homes. A woman named Violetta invited us in for coffee, and served us some of her homemade preserved cherries, then offered to sell us some of her homemade fig jam. We chatted a while, using a few Albanian words and some Italian. Then she went behind a chair in her living room and pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with raki, a clear alcohol everyone here makes and drinks. She offered Tom a sip, but he politely declined.

                                                  Violetta of Berati

We had originally planned to stay just one night in Berati, but decided to stay two, and we're happy we did. It gave us a chance to get to know Tomi and his English-speaking son, Valter, 22, and experience a little of the local life. 

The highlight is the evening "xhioro,'' or stroll along a street near the river. Every evening around 5 p.m., it's closed off to cars, and everyone walks or stops at one of the outdoor cafes. Vendors sell roasted sunflower seeds in paper cones and little sour plums the size of cherry tomatoes.

Our next stop is Gjirokastra, another historical town about three hours away by bus, and about an hour from the coast where we plan to spend a few days more. Buses and furgons are how we have been getting around. Driving is out of the question. Albanians drive fast. Most roads are bad, and there are few signs.

Furgons are vans that operate as a shared taxis. They park in the town squares or along the side of the road, and leave when they have enough passengers. Sometimes there's a sign in the window saying where they are going. Other times the drivers just stand in front of the vans, and call out their destinations. Furgons are cheap. A three or four-hour ride is no more than $3-$4, but the rides can be harrowing. Drivers tend to drive fast and squeeze in as many passengers as possible. We're sticking with buses when we can.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bush and Obama: Albanians like them both

       Saturday, April 25, 2010

Albania has some stunning mountain scenery, and it doesn't take long to get out of the city to see it. The scene above is right outside Tirana. It's the village of Pellumbus, and it's where we started a walk to a prehistoric cave, called the Black Cave, with an organization called Outdoor Albania

As is often the case with these sorts of outings, getting there and back was almost more fun than visiting the caves themselves, mostly muddy and dark, with some small stalagmites. Not the Oregon Caves or Mammoth Caves, but interesting maybe for no other reason than they are not more than a half an hour's drive from Presidenti George Bush Street (That's right. Keep reading) in downtown Tirana.

Our guide was the 60-year-old father of the owner of the company. When he was younger, he said getting here involved a two-day trek. Now it's a  half-hour of driving time, and about 1.5 hours to walk two miles along a rocky, up and down path cleared along a cliff high above a river. We felt lucky to be wearing hiking shoes, so we were pretty surprised to see a group of Albanian college students descending, many of them wearing sneakers, and a few in heels! The cave floor was coated with a layer of glue-like mud. Maybe they didn't go in very far. Probably not because none of them brought flash lights. They used their cell phones for light!

Their lack of seriousness didn't impress our guide, Ilir Mati, a life-long mountain guide who worked on submarines during the communist years. All the while Albania was closed to the outside, he said he dreamed that someday people other than Albanians would get to experience his country's natural surroundings. Now his son, Genti, who owns Outdoor Albania with his Dutch wife, is making that dream come true. 

                                          Tom and our guide, Ilir Mati

    Tom and Ilir discovered they share the same birthday, almost. Both are 60 and were born in 1949, one day apart. But as Tom points out, maybe it was the same day, with the six-hour time difference between Cincinnati and Albania. We  had a good time talking to Ilir about President Bush's visit to Albania. The Albanians liked him so much, they named a street after him. Or at least the government did. It's debatable as to if the general public was as enthusiastic as the officials who staged a big welcome in a nearby military town, Fushe- Kruja. It was there, according to which story you believe, where Bush either lost his watch or someone lifted it as he was riding along in a motorcade.
                                          George Bush Street-Tirana
 On the way to dinner tonight with an Albanian college professor and former journalist, we spotted an  "We love you Mr. Obama''' sign. 

 "Albanians love Americans and America,'' she explained. "They don't care who 'he' is."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tirana, Albania

Thursday, April 21

Our flight from Atlanta to Rome and onto Tirana came off without a hitch. No volcanic ash this far south.

Albania's come a long way in the 20 years since it opened to the outside world. Mother Teresa Airport is modern and efficient. We passed on the $26 taxi ride into town and took the $2.50 bus that leaves on the hour. When the driver saw us running to catch it, he met us halfway and carried my bag.

We've heard a lot about Albanian hospitality, and to experience from total strangers is surprising and refreshing.  We checked into our room at the Stephen Center, a B and B run by a Christian ministry next door to mosque and a big outdoor market, then went across the street for beer and a vegetarian pizza. The man sitting across from us struck up a conversation in English by saying he could tell we were Americans by the way we were dressed, and then asked if we had a t-shirt we might like to trade. Apparently American t-shirts are in demand here. Dang! I should have thought of bringing some to give away. He said he spent some time working in the U.S. during the Kosovo war, and earned enough money to pay for his engagement. Then he said he had to leave, but wanted to buy us an espresso. Tom explained he doesn't drink coffee. "Beer then,'' he said, and went in and told the waitress our drinks were on him.

Tirana is an odd mix of leftover communist-style architecture (notice the buildings above livened up with coats of bright-colored paint), big, wide streets built by the Italians for their military parades, a few old Ottoman-era buildings and modern sidewalk cafes. A lot of the streets could use repairs and the smog and traffic are pretty intense. The food is a blend of middle eastern, Balkan, Greek and some Italian. We found a little restaurant last night tucked into an alley near our hotel where we sat at low tables and ate stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers with rice and thin pie stuffed with goat cheese and spinach.

No McDonald's or Starbucks yet, but we did spot this local knock-off- Kolonat. It was  across the street from where the lady below was selling her homemade, knitted all-wool socks. I wished I could have thought of a reason to buy a pair.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why Albania?

So....where do travel writers spend their vacations? 

Tom, and I are headed off to Albania next week for 10 days before crossing the Adriatic by ferry to spend some time in Southern Italy. 

The first question almost everyone asks is "Why Albania?''

Well, for starters, it looks like we might be able to get there. The air space into Rome and on to Tirana, the capital, is clear of the ash from the volcano in far at least.  Who knows what will happen in then next few days, but we're keeping our fingers crossed that we'll have a smooth flight into Mother Teresa Airport. That's right, the airport is named after Mother Teresa. Luck is on our side!

Albania is mostly a Muslim country - another reason to make a visit there, interesting. Albanians are "European'' Muslims, liberal and Westernized, who converted out of necessity when Albania, like the rest of the Balkans, came under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, Catholic and born in Macedonia, is Albania's "favorite daughter.''  

Lonely Planet describes Tirana as a cross between Istanbul, Naples and Minsk. The language calls for many words, especially names, to end in "i'' - such as Genti for Gent and Presidenti for president. The Italian food is said to be as good as any in Italy. Why Albania? Why not?

With a beautiful coastline, Ottoman and Italian architecture and quirky post-communist cultural oddities, Albania is one of Europe's last frontiers. By that I mean, relatively undiscovered, friendly, interesting and cheap.

Many people speak Italian (Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and many learned the language). 

Greci, the town in Southern Italy where my Grandpa Pucci was born, was settled by Albanian soldiers in the 1400s, a reward for helping Skanderbeg, the famous Albanian military leader who fought the Ottoman Turks, win a war against the French for King Ferdinand I of Naples. When the Ottomans finally conquered Albania, some Albanian Christians fled to neighboring Italy, settling in communities such as Greci where they still speak an Albanian/Italian dilalect. 

Tourism is developing...slowly.  Consider that Albania was like the North Korea of Europe, isolated until the early 1990s from Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha who ruled for 40 years after World War II.

Albanians are curious and anxious to meet outsiders, especially Americans. President George Bush, a supporter of independence for Albanian Kosovo, even got a warm greeting. 

Many Europeans take tourists for granted, looking for ways to extract as many euros or dollars as possible. The Albanians I've met so far seem just the opposite. How many places can you go where no one asks for a deposit when you book a room?

"You are welcomed,'' is how the owner of the Hotel Mangalemi in the town of Berat responded to my e-mail inquiring about a room. The price: 25 euros including breakfast. In Durres, a port town where we'll get the ferry to Bari, in Italy, our host at the the bed and breakfast Tedeschini (15 euros per person in the former Austrian-Hungarian consulate), e-mailed that she'd recently been in Seattle visiting cousins.

In Gjirokaster we plan to meet up with a young couple in the Peace Corps whom I met on

Come along with us as we explore. First stop, Tirana and a room at the  Stephen Center bed and breakfast (20 euros per person with breakfast).  Then an all-day walk into the countryside with Outdoor Albania. Stay tuned!