Carol Pucci is the former travel writer and Travel Wise columnist at the Seattle Times. She is a contributor to The Seattle Times, Portland Oregonian, JoeSentMe.com, Virtuoso Life magazine and Northwest Travel magazine.
Before we left on our trip, we met up with two Albanians now living in Seattle. What did they miss most? "Pace,'' they smiled. Pace is thick breakfast soup made from parts of a sheep's head not normally eaten in the U.S. From what I can gather, it's found more often in mountain villages than in the cities. We spent days looking for it on menus, then finally found it on one of our long bus rides when the driver stopped for the usual 20-minute rest stop. It was early morning on the Llogaraja Pass, the highest point on Albania's southern coastline. Everyone on the bus went into a restaurant, sat down and ordered bowls of what looked like a hearty meat soup. It was pace, and despite our initial inhibitions, it was delicious!
We've been enjoying these long bus rides between cities. Listening to NPR podcosts we downloaded before we left helps pass the time. The scenery is amazing, and we like looking for oddities such as these concrete bunkers that are all over the hillsides. They're gun posts erected during the communist years. Lonely Planet estimates there were 700,000, intended so that every Albanian could defend the county if need be. Removing them is nearly impossible, so they're sometimes used for storage,or justl left in the fields or along the side of the road.
It's not unusual for a bus or taxi to have to stop for sheep or cows. It took us only about an hour to reach the coast and Saranda from Gjirokastra. Saranda is a 45-minute hydrofoil ride away from the island of Corfu in Greece. It's the Albanians' Miami Beach, with lots of high-rise hotels, swimming beaches and a big port. Our reason for spending the night here was to visit the Greek and Roman ruins at Butrint, about an hour away by bus. It's still off-season, so we were able to get a nice hotel right on the water for about $50 with breakfast.
Visting Butrint felt more like wandering through a wilderness park than a famous site. We were the only ones on the bus, and we saw just a few other people as we walked around. Almost everything, including the 3rd century Greek theater below, is hidden in a forest, accessible via good walking paths. There's also a small museum. The electricity was off when we were there, a fairly common occurrence, but the guard let us wander through anyway.
Albanians love the coast, so we decided to spend another night exploring before crossing the pass, and heading to our last destination, the port city of Durres, where we'll take an overnight ferry to Bari in Italy. We decided on Himara, a beach town about 50 miles from Saranda. We had planned to go by bus, but that plan was foiled when we showed up at the bus stop at 8:30 a.m., and found out the next bus wasn't until noon. It was the first time that we'd been given bad bus info, and it came from the lady at the tourist office! Oh well. We decided to cut our losses and hire a taxi. The fare was $40. That's a lot, but we've been spending no more than a few dollars each for all our long bus and furgon rides, so we figured we could afford the splurge.
Himara is lively in the summer, but slow this time of year. Tom sat at a cafe with our suitcases while I walked up and down the one main street along the beachfront looking for a hotel. There wasn't much open, but the little Hotel Gjicali at the end of the road had rooms. Vjollca Gjicali is the very friendly and enthusiastic owner. She and her husband opened the hotel 10 years ago, and they learned English from listening and talking with tourists. The room with a sea view was $40. She even offered to do Tom's laundry for an extra $2. No one has dryers here. They iron everything with big steam irons. That afternoon, we came back to find Vjollca on the porch ironing his underwear dry.
Swimming is the main activity in the beach towns. We didn't bring bathing suits, but had fun taking a two-mile hike straight up to the old town where we found a neighborhood of old stone houses, a Greek Orthodox church and a school where the kids ran up to us to practice their English. We also ate well. Greek salad, a tuna pizza and white wine at a beachfront cafe was $14 for the two of us.
Durres is our last stop, and as big cites go, it's our favorite. We didn't get to Vlora, the other big coastal city, so we have only Tirana to compare it to, but we like the relaxed feel, the sidewalk cafes, the boardwalk along the beach and the energetic vibes. Saturday, May 1, was a holiday so the xhiro (evening stroll) was especially lively. So many contrasts: Disco music blending with the evening Call to Prayer from the Great Mosque, ancient ruins to explore, girls walking arm in arm, Red Bull ice cream for 30 cents per scoop, kids enjoying carnival rides. Below is the Bar Tora, a cafe inside a 14th century Venetian tower, one of the first private businesses to open in Albania after communism.
The B and B Tedeschini is our must unusual accommodation so far. The house was built in 1843. According to the owners, it's the oldest house in Durres. The owner, Joseph Tedeschini, grew up here. His father was the Italian consulate, and later the Austro-Hungarian consulate in Albania. Joseph and his wife, Alma, a doctor, rent out three antique-filled rooms for $20 per person.
Our bedroom, above, is filled with books on Tolstoy, Dali, the busts above, and family photos including one of Alma, her son and daughters with Mother Teresa when she visited Albania in 1993.
We've barely scratched the surface of Albania, and I cant hope to do justice to all the details and history in a blog written on the fly from Internet cafes. I look forward to writing a story for print when we're back.
In the meantime, we're looking forward to the next leg of our trip, the overnight ferry to Bari. We picked up our tickets yesterday in an interesting neighborhood of neighborhood shops, Turkish bakeries and pizza restaurants. The ferry leaves at 11 p.m. and arrives in Bari at 7 a.m. The fare was $60 per person which includes a room to ourselves with shower, sink and toilet.
Who's this guy? Any Albanian student knows the answer. Skanderbeg is Albania's most famous war hero, credited with the the country's long resistance to invasion by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans eventually prevailed, ruling Albania for 500 years, but not until after Skanderbeg's death in 1478. The battles took place at Kruja, not far from Durres where we visited and took this picture at the start of our trip.
Skanderbeg is the reason many Albanians ended up settling in many towns in Southern Italy, including Greci, the town where my grandfather was born. Our family, as it turns out, has Albanian roots dating back to the 1400s-1500s when the Pucci's were among a group of Albanian soldiers and their families to relocate in Italy at the invitation of Neopolitan kings, a reward for Skanderbeg's help in defending against French insurgents. The Italians in these towns call themselves the Arbereshe. With the help of some contacts in the U.S., we're hoping to meet some of the people living in and around Greci. Stay tuned to a report from there.