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Albanian Odyssey – May 2022

We welcome a second travel blog from David Grosvenor, an artist based in North Wales, who returned to travelling further afield with gusto this year by joining two of Festiniog Travel’s Small & Traditional escorted holidays. In this write-up David offers further, frank insight into our ‘away from the tourist trail’ tours when he travelled with a small group to Albania (including visits to Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia) to explore this mountainous and sparsely populated country and encountered a very warm welcome, delicious food and spectacular scenery that he struggled to find the words for!

Days 1 & 2

After a much delayed BA flight we arrived in Tirana to a thundery downpour which fortunately cleared while we dined al fresco under the branches of highly scented orange blossom. It was quite a lovely start to this tour of a little known European neighbour.

Albania is, I guess, regarded as something of the poor man of Europe. Under former repressive regimes it was effectively the North Korea of the European Continent more inaccessible even than most iron curtain countries. Relatively recent moves to democracy and the much needed investment the country has received have obviously made huge changes across the board.

I have been surprised so far at the quality of the infrastructure from roads to the Internet and a lot of the buildings we've seen from relatively humble dwellings to hotels and shops. And another surprise has been the fact that so many people have an understanding of English despite the lack of tourism...but then post Covid perhaps I am getting a false impression of the inroads tourism has made. Many signs include an English translation. Most importantly though I found the people to be warm and welcoming and generous. The food has been surprisingly good too and more than generous in terms of quantity.

Tirana itself is a modern bustling European capital and is not as I imagined it as some post Stalinist grey concrete jungle. It is one of the greenest cities I have visited. The railway system however as seen so far is in need of some TLC...in fact the line we took yesterday is currently closed but a special train was laid on for this group of enthusiasts. Windows were impenetrably covered in graffiti, and many were cracked or broken and the track was impossible to discern through the undergrowth - however, given the speed we travelled, I assume someone was running in front of the loco to check that the rails were still present!

The scenery as we headed south and then inland towards the border with North Macedonia has been spectacular with Lake Ohrid providing a dramatic and panoramic conclusion to a long haul along a busy switchback road. The second of two nights here at a charming guest house in an historic village awaits before hitting the road southwards tomorrow along what promises to be an even more hair-raising drive.

Days 3 & 4

Another packed couple of days in Albania. Strangely despite its rich and long history there is little obvious evidence of this on the ground. In part this is due to repeated invasions from outside and in no small measure to the destructive regime of Enver Hoxha, the tyrant who ruled Albania during the latter part of the 20th Century. Mosques, cathedrals and monasteries were systematically stripped of their contents and their walls defaced. Many buildings of note were simply converted into warehouses.

Yet the country does have a huge amount to offer, most especially its scenery which leaves me breathless at times.

After exploring our base for the last two nights including its charming Cathedral of St Mary, we went back down into the valley to explore Korcë, the major city in Central Albania. A word about St Mary's...although it looks rather squat and humble the apparent height of the cathedral is an illusion as a good part of it lies beneath ground level. The Ottomans who ruled the country at the time permitted its building on the proviso that it did not exceed the height of the mosque which then dominated the village. This part of the country, and especially Korcë itself, has links with France and a little of that influence remains in the city, including some attractive patisseries with tasty looking gateaux on display in their windows. Korcë also has a new museum containing a collection of icons which managed to survive the years of destruction. The work is housed in a slightly quirky building and this quirkiness extends to the arrangement of the exhibits but, it is curated by a charming lady with whom Helen and I were able to have an interesting discussion about the building.

After another delicious meal and a night disturbed by dogs barking near and far (maybe a wolf was on the prowl) today we headed off south having been promised an exciting trip. It did not disappoint. I hadn't expected such incredible scenery culminating in astonishing views over the adjacent border with Greece. We stopped off at an organic fish farm where we had a fabulous lunch including freshly caught trout. Tonight, we are in a town called Permet on the banks of one of Europe's only remaining natural rivers...that is, it has not been dammed and there are no hydro power stations along its length.

The hotel is the orange and white block. It may look a bit featureless, but I have a balcony! ...and it overlooks the central square and mountains beyond.

Day 5

This morning we set off in glorious sunshine heading south to the UNESCO heritage city of Gjirokastra.

Another absolutely stunning journey...if I were doing it alone, I would probably never arrive. I would be forever stopping to admire the scenery and if so equipped I would be sat drawing or painting.

En route, we passed through a dramatic gorge full of birds and wild flowers including broom, phlomis, tiny alpine geraniums and wild herbs. Swallow and Martins filled the skies.

On arrival we find that Gjorokastra certainly delivers on its credentials. And, really for the first time, we find ourselves with other tourists. The old stone-built city flows down the hill from the dominating Ottoman Fort which sits brooding over the town. More recently the fort was used as a prison from which many dissidents were never to escape. Our guide tells us that as a teenager when anyone risked saying something against the state it would be suggested that they kept quiet, or they would be invited to the Seven Window Hotel in Gjirokastra and that it would be free of charge. (The prison section of the fort has seven windows looking down over the valley). As ever, the views from the terraces at the castle were breathtaking...parched looking mountains in the foreground backed by more distant snow-covered peaks.

We visited a 17th Century traditional (though perhaps grander than most) house sadly in need of a lot of TLC but nevertheless a fascinating insight into the family life of the Ottomans of the period. For despite having been pretty much continuously lived in by the same family for centuries, little of the fabric of the building has altered in that time except perhaps for the fitting of electric lighting...even the toilet was authentically ancient (a hole in the floor with a long handled wooden lid).

The hotel is charming. A restored old building with enormous character and my room has a view of the castle ramparts. I have just spotted the ceiling in this room as I write and I feel like a Prince...a Prince with rather a bad cold unfortunately but I was wise enough to bring plenty of spare handkerchiefs fearing high pollen counts...in the breeze this afternoon, cold or not, the pollen count was off the scale.

Dinner tonight is to take place on the site of a former monstrous statue of the tyrant Enver Hoxha.

Given the hugely generous meals we have enjoyed so far, today, I took the precaution of partaking in a light lunch of a fine, thin, flatish filo pastry pie filled with spinach, a little cheese and dill. Delicious.

Day 6

Is there another word for "spectacular"?...oh well...if the word fits it'll just have to do...another spectacular journey over a high mountain pass took us from Gjirokastra to the southern destination of Butrint (the site of archaeological remains from the Greco Roman era and the more recent medieval Ottoman and Venetian period) and then on to a resort sitting opposite Corfu for a lovely lunch.

Once again, the proximity of Greece led to smart phones being tricked into brief periods of Greek time which is an hour ahead...so one had to watch the clock carefully regarding returning to the coach.

I had a brief paddle in the Adriatic/Ionian Sea...very refreshing for hot feet! The temperature was hovering around 24 to 26 degrees Celsius most of the day again except during the worst of the storm.

Then it was time to do the dramatic (or spectacular) journey in reverse taking us back to Gjirokastra under very stormy skies for a delightful dinner at a family run restaurant in town. (Those dozing in the coach were rudely awakened by one particular crack of thunder which was directly overhead...the lightning was amazing.)

Day 7

Today we headed off early for the scenic coastal road which alternately meanders its way high above the tiny, secluded beaches of the Albanian Riviera and through somewhat isolated villages before straying inland from time to time through an epic landscape. At lunchtime we dropped down to the shoreline for a light picnic. My toes were once again baptized by the waters of the still cool Adriatic as I munched on my sandwich before retiring to the shade of a nearby cafe for a strong espresso.

Our driver took us up an unbelievable steep switch back road over a high pass and to dizzying heights overlooking the tiny beaches below. Meanwhile above and behind us were even higher mountains draped in cotton wool clouds. The hills here are once again full of wild flowers including wild cistuses and what looked like a prickly pink poppy or convolvulus. I spotted two large birds of prey...very apt for a country whose Albanian name means land of eagles (Shqiperia) and whose flag is a very striking double headed Eagle in black on a blood red background. Incidentally, this incredibly scenic, if not hair-raising route, is to be bypassed by a new tunnel, currently under construction, and if memory serves me well it will be something like 24km in length. I guess that is progress but hopefully the high pass will be maintained so that those who wish to see the country for its beauty, rather than simply getting from A to B at speed, will still be able to do so.

Still not feeling great unfortunately as this pesky cold has decided to irritate my chest and I don't think air conditioning is helping. In these times having a sniffly cold and a chesty cough makes one feel something of a social pariah so I'm trying to keep a bit of a low profile - not easy on a group tour.

We dropped down to sea level and then drove along the main road to arrive at the city of Durrës where we stay overnight. All told today's journey including various comfort stops was a drive of around 10 hours! So, after no sleep last night I am shattered. Durrës seems more international...perhaps it's the presence of an active port with regular ferries over to Italy. The pedestrianised seafront was, on this warm Sunday evening, thronging with people promenading and the huge number of smart cafes seemed relatively busy even in this out of season month of May. It has a whiff of Barcelona.

Days 8 & 9

Yesterday was a bit of a blur. Not sure why though it was a very hot day. The city of Durrës didn't do a lot for me but our guide did his best to take us to places of interest. There is, for example, a large roman amphitheatre lost between residential buildings and awaiting a great deal of further archaeological excavation. It is said that it could house 14,000 to 18,000 spectators who would have enjoyed watching Christians being devoured by lions...but as is the way with history, the amphitheatre was later converted into a cathedral of sorts with evidence of baptismal fonts and sadly damaged wall art.

From Durrës we set off for Shkodër, a 3-hour drive north and arrived at this quaint and quirky hotel near the city centre called Tradita. I shall remember the hotel as much for my bathroom light, which plunges me into darkness if I stay still for more than a few seconds, as for its bicycle memorabilia...the town is cycling mad, and a group of touring Irish cyclists stayed the night here last night.

We went to visit the locally famous bridge at Mes. A typical 18th Century Ottoman construction with its lovely backdrop and then to the vast Lake Shkodër, which looked stunning in today's light.

Shkodër city itself is dominated by a vast Ottoman Castle built on the site of a former Illyrian Castle and after a long haul up a steeply cobble walkway, we were rewarded with stunning 360-degree views.

Off for dinner now at a nearby restaurant and an early night I think as the bus departs 6.30am for what promises to be a fantastic boat trip along a dammed lake to the northeast of here.

Day 10

After an unearthly start we set off into the northern mountains squeezed like sardines into a small minibus which bounced and bucked along the pot holed road, barely more than a dirt track at times. The driver had his radio on, so we were treated to a taste of Albania radio 2. ABBA and Beyonce amongst others interspersed with Albanian folk rock.

The hillsides were covered in wild Cotinus, the smoke bush, and we were teased with views of the huge, dammed river, turquoise and cerulean blue, deep down in a gorge. It was frustrating that the best views were to the left but that is the luck of the draw. Other days I was the fortunate one. We were headed to the point where we were going to join a ferry to take us along a flooded gorge higher up and similar to that which we had driven alongside but apparently narrower and even more dramatic.

Apart from the wreckage that humanity seems to create wherever the cause of progress is prioritised, the point at which the ferry, or ferries as it happens, departs promised well. We were at a large hydroelectric dam. Behind us the scarred landscape of electric sub stations and pylons heading back down the valley, ahead the most gorgeous scenery comprising of steep craggy slopes sometimes clothed in forests, sometimes frighteningly bare in a Tolkienesque way. My camera phone has severe indigestion today - too many photographs but hopefully you get some idea of what it was like.

Once the chaos of vehicles, tourists and regular passengers was sorted and we set sail we were faced at every turn with (and now I'm desperately searching for another adjective) a gobsmacking (it'll have to do) and constantly changing landscape. Mostly uninhabited but with the occasional isolated dwelling approachable only by boat. One of the ferries which left the dam with us was calling at some of these to either drop someone off or pick someone up. The trip lasted about two and a half hours and it went in a flash.

My photographs simply don't do these mountains and this scenery justice. It was the prospect of visiting the North of Albania that convinced me to come on this trip and when the south and east impressed me so much I was worried I might be disappointed by the north...far from it...it delivers 150% (as they say).

Our ferry dropped us off at the end of its route where we were met by our loyal coach driver who took us to nearby Bajram Curri where the lady of the house, Aisha, plied us with local, simple dishes including another bean dish which was delicious.

Onwards and upwards into the high Albanian Alps. This is wolf and bear country proper. I'm not leaving here!!! It is stunning! The hotel is pretty much at the end of a dirt track and surrounded by snowy peaks (have these ever been climbed?) After enjoying mountain tea and then a glass of local white wine I went for a short walk along a track up into the woods...I am SO privileged to be here. I heard a bird and thought it sounded like a chaffinch...Next minute a chaffinch appeared as if to say hello and welcome. I know I'm daft but forgive me.

Day 11

An astonishing and unscheduled trip into Kosovo today. I never dreamed I'd ever be in Kosovo and if I did, I guess I thought it would be a bit of a nightmare. What a surprise...an INCREDIBLY welcoming people and beautiful city visit with the added bonus of an old-fashioned land border crossing in and back out of tiny hard-pressed Kosovo. It was perhaps the biggest surprise of all in this jaunt round the western Balkans.

The landscape continues to be a dramatic backdrop to a learning experience and personal encounters including tonight's friendly chat with a burly bar owner back here in Shkodër. It totally restores one's faith in humanity and belief in internationalism.

Tomorrow, we head out of Albania and into Montenegro about which I know nothing other than the fact that it was once part of the former Yugoslavia. I gather the "new" capital is a bit of a disappointment (though I prefer to see for myself) and although there are optional rail trips available, I want to spend a little "me" time familiarising myself with the place and slowing down a bit from this full-on tour. I understand that the country, like Kosovo, uses the Euro...so easy, and hopefully plenty of opportunity to sit in a cafe somewhere with a coffee and cake and watch the world go by.

Days 12 & 13

Leaving Albania was kind of sad...it has more than delivered...it has surprised, and it has awed at times.

We crossed the land border into Montenegro without incident. Despite hearing some slightly negative reports I wanted to keep an open mind as the name of the country conjures up vaguely romantic notions of a tree clad black mountain retreat. The day was hot...29 degrees...but we stopped off en route to the capital, Podgorica and enjoyed a pleasant lunch by a river.

On then to the hotel which was right opposite the station...well...that was an experience I will not be wanting to repeat. The leather clad doors and pervading smell of stale tobacco redolent of seedy hotels the world over was most off putting. The plan was to catch one of Europe's most scenic railways which meanders slowly through mountain terrain over viaducts and through tunnels towards Serbia...it was originally planned to travel on this line all the way to Belgrade but Serbian railways had cancelled its leg of the journey, so we went as far as it is possible to go up into northern Montenegro.

The journey started late with over an hour’s delay before the train arrived. It was very dramatic and the scenery stunning but although the carriage was comfortable enough the windows were far from clean. The train journey was to my mind oversold though I'm sure it suited those more enthusiastic about novel rail journeys. The lateness of departure meant that our coach back to Podgorica didn't get us back till shortly before midnight.

So, it wasn't the best start to seeing Montenegro. Saturday happened also to be a public holiday so apart from a few cafes the town was basically shut...but we walked through pleasant back streets in the old quarter which helped to balance my overall impression of the place.

That afternoon we were catching an early afternoon flight to Belgrade in Serbia. Serbian Airlines had different plans and decided to operate the service some 2.5 hours late so given how early one has to arrive at airports these days we were at this small airport nearly 5 hours for a 50-minute flight! It didn't help that there was no information forthcoming. And who says travel can be fun!

Early evening arrival at the hotel all exhausted and overheated, we went our separate ways to find food in a city that was buzzing. Clearly a strong cafe culture here and despite my foreboding about being in Serbia I couldn't help but be lulled into a sense of being somewhere that I felt comfortable and eager to explore the following day.

Days 14 & 15

Where was I....oh yes...Sunday today so it must be Belgrade.

So, despite yesterday's later than planned arrival, the first impression of this large city was rather positive. The weather looked good...nice buffet breakfast where you always end up eating all sorts of stuff you wouldn't think twice of eating at home in the morning. A free day...so, equipped with my handy little sheet map of central Belgrade I set out to explore. It was nice to walk at my own pace and drift off course if I spotted something worth investigation. I first set out to a cobbled street in an older quarter which was quite quaint but being Sunday, everyone was still setting up their stall.

I then doubled back on myself to head for the remains of a large former Ottoman castle overlooking the confluence of two rivers one of which is the Danube. I found my way to the shoreline and took a peek at the "International" port there. A Viking cruise ship was one of the ships docked in the harbour and it was LONG. And I mean LONG.

Turning tail I made for the Danube itself...no waltz music but the beat of pop music emerging from cafes on the harbour side. I did the tourist thing and boarded a vessel tied up at the key to enjoy a dark espresso coffee and sat and watched the many swans as they drifted past. I also spotted a raptor with a distinctive white bar on its tail flying high over this extremely wide river.

Up the hill towards the castle, I happened upon what seemed like a Christening at one of the little churches alongside the steps and paused a while to listen to a little group of brass musicians. Little impromptu things like that are such a pleasure to encounter. The castle itself is set in a large park and families were strolling in the pleasant weather. I tarried a few minutes to watch a tennis training session before heading back by a devious route to search out a cafe for lunch. On the way I passed a number of chess tables which were occupied by serious looking older men being watched by an interested group of onlookers. I chose squid for my lunch when I finally settled on a venue and was presented with a plate of delicious tiny baby squid and an accompaniment of tasty potato, carrot and spinach.

More walking in the afternoon to try to work off the pounds that I must be piling on and to prepare for the "Last Supper". The walk this afternoon meant being surrounded by the traffic which is heavy, and my chest is grumbling though that may also be down to the constant presence of smokers at every venue including a gentleman I saw leaning out of his bedroom window here at the Majestic.

Sorting out the bill had me lose the will to live and I felt so sorry for the group leader trying to work it out. The hotel flatly refused to prepare separate bills for our group members.

I made a quick exit but got cold feet when along one of the streets two files of riot police came stomping towards me. After rejoining a now depleted group of fellow travellers we were "treated" to a parade of very loud and potentially aggressive protesters as they marched past the end of the street we were sitting in. No idea what it was about...but most Belgradians seemed unphased so it's probably a regular thing.

Bed now and flight home (to London) tomorrow.

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