Day trip to Albania – Visiting the neighbors

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The story goes as follows… During the period when the communist regime ruled supreme over the country, the dictator commanded that after dark all lights should go off, so that the country would save on electricity supply. The people living opposite the tourist loaded island of Corfu, would stare at the bright lights of the nearby shore and wonder why on earth would their capitalist-plagued neighbors have electricity, while themselves, a proud socialist nation would live in darkness. After many letters to the ruling party committee – all without any response, the big guy himself, the Albanian dictator, decided to visit the area and make a public speech. The people had no choice but to listen to a couple of hours of propaganda about the benefits the regime bestowed its beloved subjects (The guy was Kim-Yong-Illing before it was cool) and all they could do was cheering the dictator, as their other option was imminent imprisonment. They were exhausted, as after long hours of hard work the last thing they would like to do would be listening to a madman raving about the happiness and prosperity he had brought to these sad and poor people, but their patience would be rewarded as the great ruler rewarded them with the answer to the issue that had troubled them for months:

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“My children, check out the opposite shore, do you see these lights? Oh, my people you are indeed so lucky. For you my people, live in our blessed communist state. When it gets dark, you get to return home. Those poor souls that dwell under the iron foot of capitalism are forced to work all day and all night!”

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Although the story may not be true, it depicts the state of affairs in pre-90’s Albania, which was one of the most politically isolated countries in Europe for a great part of the last century. That state is also reflected on the empty concrete carcasses of the tens of thousands of bunkers that are dispersed across the country, since the dictator was constantly afraid of an attack. As we were told the state has issued a company with the task of demolishing the bunkers and retrieve the iron within their shell (it’s estimated that each one contains 1000 to 1500 euros worth of iron).

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On our way into the country we passed through Ksamil, the place where the country’s best beaches are to be found as we were told, but we wouldn’t pay a visit. I was impressed by the leaning carcass of a building I saw on top of a hill though and as I read many people are trying to build houses (or even hotels in that case) in order to take advantage of the rapid growth of tourism, but as they lack the necessary permit (or proper connections) receive a visit from the authorities that demolish a couple of pillars thus leaving the owner with the problem of funding the removal of the debris. I couldn’t be fast enough to get a shot, so here’s one I got from this guy. 

Our first stop was the ancient city of Butrint, where we strolled through the Greek, Roman and Venetian ruins and the national park. For those of us that like ancient sites it’s definitely a great place to explore and the trees offer their shade generously sheltering of the sun. We had plenty of time to explore the site and the adjacent small museum, although we couldn’t admire the mosaics as they were covered by a protective layer of sand (They become accessible to your eyes only in August). The place was very quiet as Albania is not heavily ransacked by tourists (although the city of Saranda seemed to be a bit damaged by high hopes of future tourist income).

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What impressed me was the cable ferry, as I hadn’t seen anything like it. It seemed like a rather popular method for crossing the Vivari channel and is situated just outside the entrance of the archaeological site. I even saw some cars and passengers taking the few minute ride across.

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This Church reminded me of Lisbon’s Carmo Convent in a smaller scale

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I also met an actor at Butrint theatre, I guess the play that was on, was The Frogs

Our next stop was the city of Saranda (the name stands for forty, derived from the monastery of the forty saints that can be found on a nearby hill). I had a coffee by the promenade enjoying the view of the Ionian sea (to tell you the truth I never get bored of that particular sea, although I get to see a lot of it as I live a hundred meters from it) and I was trying to figure out what to do with my time before we leave the place. There were many sites to see, but there was not much time and I was in a dire need for a coffee. Eventually, I decided to skip lunch for a while and decided to head to the ruins of the synagogue that can be found by the street that is parallel to the promenade.

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The synagogue ruins and a mosque’s minaret in the background

I also bought a book and a couple of souvenirs before rushing to a small grill house for a quick bite as time was running out. I wasn’t really as impressed by the city as I was by Butrint, but I would definitely pay a visit to Ksamil beaches in the future. The promenade was the coolest part of the few places I could check out in that sort amount of time. After a while we left Saranda heading for Gjirokaster, crossing the mountainous road to Albanian inland.

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The scenery was similar to northwestern Greece, so having taken such routes so many times in the past I wasn’t particularly impressed (I guess it’s more of a fuss than a joyride if you are forced to drive on such roads often, but it would be a beautiful scenery to eyes unaccustomed to snaky mountainous roadways and deep green forests). Eventually we reached the valley where a number of villages and the city of Gjirokaster are to be found (all situated on hilltops overlooking the valley).

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According to the program issued by the tour office we were supposed to visit the castle and then spend 15-20 minutes visiting the city. As I wished to check out more of the city and feeling stuffed of large scale site-seeing for the day I decided to leave the group and explore the city on my own. The center’s architecture is familiar to Zagoria villages in nearby Greece and it was a great place to visit. Cobble-stoned streets that went up the castle didn’t prove much of a challenge but I guess it might be a problem to some travellers.

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Visitors aren’t allowed to take photos of this room, which is supposed to remain intact since the 17th century, so I bought this photo on my way out

After walking uphill through the old city’s main road, I rushed my steps to the other side of the hill descending into a forest of cobbled paths, crossing boulder built houses with roof tiles made of stone. Having made some research prior to my visit I decided to visit Skenduli house. It’s a typical Ottoman period mansion from the 17th century and it shares similar architecture to some Christian mansions of the period. I walked around the stone made house on my own for a while, dragging my steps on the wooden floor,  until a guide showed up and graciously agreed to brief me on the house and its owners.

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I didn’t have much time so I urged her to be concise, so I was told that the building was taken from the owners after the Communists prevailed and a few years later it housed the city’s ethnographic museum. The house had two floors and many fireplaces (a sign of wealth towards envy neighbors I guess) and lots of them had a Turkish bath built behind them. I had never seen anything like it and I was amazed. Most of the rooms seemed to repeat each other, but the last one I checked on the last floor was amazing as it was fully decorated in 17th century style.

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That was the main hall, where every important family occasion was held. A wooden wall separated a small area of the room serving as the place where women could watch whatever happened sheltered from men’s eyes. It was truly the best room in the house. While I was taking the tour a Japanese guy showed up, so we took the brief tour together but I have to say, I liked the guy, I’m extremely fond of Japan (I hope I will learn Japanese some day) but he did act like such a stereotypical figure. I was walking around the house and I would constantly hear the sound of the camera taking pics and exclaiming his amazement. It was hilarious! I tried to greet the guy on our way out but instead of saying goodbye I said thanks. Still I got another exclamation of amazement.

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Having some more minutes at my disposal I walked around the center for a while, buying some more souvenirs and having small chat with the vendors. I met quite a few people speaking Greek since many Albanians migrated here in the past decades, while there are many people of Greek origin in the city. After a while I joined the rest of the group at our meeting point and prepared for the trip back home. I’d definitely pay another visit to Gjirokaster though.

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