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Exploring Albania

Ancient Greek ruins tucked away in a seldom-visited Mediterranean country

sunny 79 °F

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The Ancient Illyrian city of Byllis and its commanding view of the Albanian countryside

We'd been at it for nearly seven hours straight, pacing through ancient ruins under the warm Mediterranean sun. It felt good to sit back on the cafe verandah, taste the well-earned lunch and sip a crisp Albanian beer. While the others concentrated on the food, I could barely take my eyes from the panorama beneath me -- line upon line of hills fading away into a bluish afternoon haze. You could see this would be a hard land to take from its inhabitants, as each hill could be a fortress, and behind each fortress, yet another one.

That was one of the things that intrigued me most about Albania. Some claim that the descendants of the Ancient Illyrians -- tribes that fought the Greeks nearly 3000 years ago, still walked this land calling themselves Albanians. And you could see it in the facial features, too. If a group a school children would file past you at one of the ancient sites, maybe two thirds would be what most would expect: Olive skinned, dark haired -- typical southern Mediterranean complexions. The other third, though, would be fair skinned, blond or tawny haired, with gray eyes. The same eyes looked down from these hills at Greek invaders, at Alexander the Great's army, at Romans, Turks -- centuries of foes who had tried to put their mark upon this land. But still the gray-eyed mountain folks were there. And language experts bear this out, saying modern Albanian preserves elements of those Ancient Illyrian voices.

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The ancient Roman arena at Durres -- our base for exploring Albania

Scott and I began our trip in the seaside town of Durres, which the Romans called Dyrrachium. It was one of their chief ports when they ruled the peninsula. It is a pleasant town, with a very Italian seaside "passegiata" or evening stroll. People sat at cafe tables drinking beer, children ran around or played soccer, and teenagers clumped together to socialize.

Our hotel wasn't far from the line of Byzantine era walls, which ended in a 3-storey tower built later by the Venetians, nowadays turned into a bar with wonderful views. We walked the line of the walls our first afternoon, chancing upon Durres' most famous site, its 2nd Century A.D. Roman amphitheater. Only about half of its stone bowl remains, and houses sprout from its upper reaches. Most of the stone seats are gone, pilfered away over the centuries to build newer structures. You can clearly see steps, though, and the slope and curve of the amphitheater, the largest in the Balkans. There is a grassy area at the bottom where gladiators fought and died. Archeologists have excavated some of the tunnels underneath, and you can prowl through them in the gloom, running your hands along the Roman stone, listening for echoes of the crowds chanting the names of their favorites.

Our second day in Durres, we set out to navigate the local "furgon" or minibus system. As in other countries, these minivans post a sign in their window with their destination. Once the seats are filled, it departs. So, there is no schedule, but the prices are cheap (around 200 Albanian Lek each way, or $2). As we walked through the Durres bus station, we saw plenty of larger buses going to other towns and cities, but none to our destination of Kruja. We saw only a couple furgons, too, none going there, either. When we asked around, taxi drivers descended on us trying to con us into paying 20 euros for a ride there. They were remarkably unhelpful -- lying and saying no furgons went to Kruja (despite the fact our guidebook said they did). When we wouldn't bite on their fares or their tales, one driver made a mistake by trying a new angle. He would line a furgon up for us for 12 euros (no doubt, getting his "take"). In doing so, though, he revealed to us where the furgons actually were -- about 50 yards further down the main street. Sure enough, we saw a steady line of furgons cruising by with signs in their windows. We took one going to Fushe-Kruja (or "Kruja on the Plains" about 25 minutes from our destination). Our prospective taxi driver was left empty handed while Scott and I were out about $4 each for our ride and transfer in another furgon to Kruja itself.

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Kruja is the walled town of Skanderbeg -- Albania's medieval hero who fought the Turks

Kruja is a town built upon steep slopes. At its top is a castle that was ruled by Albania's medieval hero, Skanderbeg. He fought the Turkish invaders, uniting the divided Albanian clans into a successful war of resistance. Many times Skanderbeg -- or George Castriates, his real name -- drove Turkish armies from Albanian lands. Two of his more famous victories came at Kruja. A museum inside the castle tells Skanderbeg's tale in enthusiastic detail -- my guidebook calling it a "Skander-fest" for the interested. It was neat to see the amount of historic relics they had collected, including letters from European leaders responding to Skanderbeg's calls for assistance against the Turks. In one room, I read a letter from the Doge of Venice praising Castriates' fight and waffling (as only medieval Venetians could waffle) on whether they could send men or money to help).

Sadly, not a lot of Kruja's castle remains -- a couple lines of walls and one forlorn, boarded up tower that looks more like an Italian belfry. However, the atmosphere on the hilltop is superb, with steep cobblestone streets and a tiny village with houses surrounded by stone walls and penned up livestock. We visited one house (still lived in) that had been converted to an Ethnographic Museum, displaying the way a wealthier Albanian family lived centuries ago. The current owners give tours and are descended from the local chieftain. And finally, we visited a small Islamic shrine belonging to the obscure Bektashi sect. The old caretaker gave us a tour, and even showed us his family's living quarters built into one of the castle wall's outer towers. He led us atop the circular stone platform to take his in his majestic view of surrounding villages and valleys.

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Skanderbeg's statue stands in the hilltop town, reminding the Albanians of their glory days

We then trekked back downhill through Kruja's covered bazaar, which is lined with more souvenir shops that an visitor could possibly see. Nothing caught my eye as we paced along, peeking at the ceramic statues of Skanderbeg, brightly patterned wool fabric and merchandise festooned with Albanian's distinctive black two-headed eagle upon a red flag. Since the day had been so cheap, Scott and I splurged and talked a furgon driver into hauling us the 45 minutes back to Durres for $20, with no wait.

As we pulled back into the bus station in Durres, I prepared myself for the next challenge. We'd agreed to hire a cab for the next day's sightseeing. Albania has a wealth of ancient and medieval sites, and I had been steadily been quizzing people on a "do-able" day trip that crammed in as many sights as possible. Unfortunately, the roads and mountainous terrain meant that only about two sites in one day seemed possible. We'd decided upon the Greco-Roman city of Apollonia and the nearby medieval monastery of Ardenica.

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The entrance to the Orthodox monastery of Ardenica

Since earlier that day, the taxi drivers who tried to mislead us were all relatively older men, I sought out a younger driver. Plus, it's been my experience across the world that the younger generation speaks more English than their elders. Since my limited Italian had proved remarkably useful in our trip, so far, I took the lead. In Italian, I asked if he spoke Italian (he did), then if he spoke English (a bit). I explained what we wanted to do in Italian, as best I could. He understood, but also felt squeezing anything more than Apollonia and Ardenica in would be too much. We agreed on a price of $40 per person for a day's sightseeing, although he said it would be his father (who was from that area) who would actually pick us up in the morning. He swore his father spoke good Italian and better English.

To his credit, his father was prompt...actually 15 minutes early. It quickly became evident, though, as we set out at 7 am, that his father was nowhere near as proficient in either Italian or English. However, we seemed to be getting by on his and my less than fluent Italian, so I didn't worry. After about 40 minutes of driving, our good 4-lane divided highway degenerated into a rutted, two lane road that slowed us down to a fraction of our earlier speed. Another 45 minutes saw us turning off and climbing a lane to the top of a hill, cloaked in fragrant pine trees. We spotted the monastery's bell tower, and shortly turned down its gravel drive.

We stepped through a wooden gate set in a high, stone wall, hearing deep singing come from the stone church directly ahead of us. The beauty of the monastery's buildings held me for a minute. It was easy to see the Byzantine influence on the design. I took some pictures, then ducked inside the church. Its dark interior was lit by candles and filled with the Orthodox prayer/chant/song of a service in progress. The walls were covered in soot-darkened frescoes, through which the faces of medieval clergy peered down upon us. My gaze was drawn to the front of the church across which stretched a massive iconostasis encrusted in gold painted decoration. Along its length, circles of soulful icons depicted saints, angels and the Mary.

Through a doorway beyond the iconostasis, we could see one of the monks in a richly decorated red robe. His voice filled the church, along with that of a family who were participating in the prayer and response. The mother's voice was particularly beautiful, and echoed off the church's cool plaster walls. We watched and listened for awhile, then stepped outside to further explore the monastery. Since monks still live there, half of it was closed off to us. What we saw, though, was gracefully designed and peaceful looking.

Back in the car, we rejoined our rutted road and were shortly bouncing through the driver's hometown of Fieri. Beyond, I noticed our first concrete bunkers. These small, domed concrete structures litter the Albanian countryside, the mad genius of their departed dictator, Enver Hoxha. The communist strongman so feared an invasion by the other powers he eventually sealed off the nation from all outside contact. He had these sometimes absurdly small bunkers built for each citizen to be able to man when the Americans came...or Russians, or Yugoslavs, or whoever his paranoid worries dreamt up next. Nowadays, farmers use them for storage, or they sit abandoned like giant concrete mushrooms in the rolling landscape.

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The Ancient Greek town of Apollonia

Once at Apollonia, our driver rounded up an English speaking guide, who led us on a walk through the main sights of the Ancient Greek city (later taken over by the Romans). After we admired the columns of the restored Bouleuterion and steep bowl of the theater, the guide was pleasantly surprised we wanted to see more. We tramped through the hillsides where he pointed out a crumbling amphitheater being unearthed from the concealing vegetation. He took us to an overlook where he could outline the foundations of a sprawling Roman villa in the farmers fields beneath us. Then, obviously happy when wanted even more, he led us on a circuit of the town walls, pointing out the successive layers of Greek and Roman stonework. For a final treat, we climbed a hill to his favorite photo spot. The theater, temple columns and medieval monastery behind it blended together in a panoramic view. As he finished his tour, he urged us to visit the monastery which housed many of the artifacts unearthed at Apollonia. Despite our urging, he refused any tip or payment, which led me to believe he was actually one of the archeologists or their assistants working at the site.

The monastery was wonderful, as he said. Its collection of statues, columns, giant urns and other superb relics of Apollonia were arrayed underneath the roofed walkways and balconies that encircled the walled complex. The grounds were idyllic, built of warm, cream colored stone and rich brickwork with gardens and cypress trees softening its interior. A lovely bell tower, whose stairs you could climb to the top, added to the site, enabling you to take it all in with one glance.

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Beautiful Medieval monastery set in the midst of Ancient Greek and Roman ruins

As we returned to the car, our driver made a surprising offer. He would take us to the ancient site of Byllis -- one that I'd ached to see after reading about, but had heard was too remote to include in any other day's sightseeing. I asked him if it wasn't too far away, but he said "No problem." So, lunch was put on hold and we began a nearly two hour climb eastwards towards snow-capped mountains. The road got steeper and finally we emerged onto a triangular-shaped plateau atop the highest hill in the area. Ahead of us, we could see the town walls of Byllis, a stronghold of those ancient, fair-skinned and gray-eyed Illyrians. We parked near the cafe, going inside where we found a book detailing a self-guided walking tour. Our driver order lunch to be cooked while we explored. Only one other carload of visitors was at the site, so it seemed like we had the ruins to ourselves. Sheep and goats grazed peacefully across the site, the music of their bells accompanied by the wind that blew across the hilltop.

I have been to many ancient sites across the world, but few match the setting of Byllis. On all sides, a deep valley dropped away dramatically. For to the east, the sun glinted off the ice caps of mountain peaks, but we were at the highest point in the immediate area. An ancient city on top of the world, Byllis' atmosphere was incredible. And although the walking tour was not easy to follow (there were no signs or placards on the buildings), it didn't really matter much whether you were looking at the tumbled remains of a basilica, stoa or thermal bath. We paced alongside the walls, peered over fences at temples, looked down from rocky knolls at the ring of a theater, and eventually were able to align Byllis' layout with our guidebook map. At the driver's urging, I hopped a fence to wander through the Agora (market place), and explored a row of columns in a later period church.

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For me, the highlight of the trip, a visit to the ancient, hilltop, Illyrian town of Byllis

After more than an hour of wandering the hilltop, we returned to the cafe and had our long delayed and well earned lunch. I sat staring at the panorama of line after line of Albanian hills slowly fading into infinity. While Scott and the driver gorged themselves, I was entranced. This had turned into one of those days that are the real reason that you travel. The places you see, the people you meet and the spectacular settings combined to make your spirits soar, to truly give you a "travel high." At that point, you don't worry how your pictures may turn out because you know the images are set into your memory. I will always be able to picture myself sitting on that verandah and that line of hills stretching the distance.

Sated, we endured the long, bumpy three hour ride home in silence. As we handed over our payment to the driver, the one stain on the day emerged. He wanted extra money for taking us to Byllis. I had no problem with that, but I was disappointed he waited till the end to "shake us down." I'd pressed him closely when he offered, and gave him many chances to say he'd charge more. In the long run, the Byllis portion of the trip was well worth the extra $40 we forked over. Twelve hours of driving and sightseeing in your own vehicle is well worth what essentially cost each of us $5 an hour. I just resented him not giving us the choice. And probably subconsciously, I was annoyed at being bringing me down from my travel high.

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Berat is a beautiful rustic town, gleaming with white stone houses

The next morning, we tramped back to the bus station and located the one going to our next destination, Berat. Called Albania's loveliest town by guidebooks, it is located in the south, nestled among steep hills. Scott and I quickly found our hotel in the steep Mangelem quarter of town. There, the stone houses rise up the slopes of a wooded hill crowned by a sprawling castle. After unpacking, we grabbed lunch, then began the climb up the slippery cobblestone road leading up to the castle.

It was Monday, and we later found that many of the sights are officially closed. However, the castle is also home to a tiny village of about 200 people. So, the gates were open and the inhabitants (and other visitors) were coming and going, so we pressed on. The castle walls, towers and fortifications were impressive and extensive. We wandered amongst them for more than two hours, locating tiny, sealed churches throughout the site, ruined mosques and scenic views at every turn. Like all the other days we had in Albania, the weather was perfect. The sun warmed us from the clear blue sky, with just enough of a breeze to keep it comfortable. We wandered around, enjoying the spectacular views down towards Berat and the surrounding valley, as well as the grand castle setting.

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The castle walls and tower at Berat were an atmospheric place to wander for a couple hours

Later that afternoon, we hiked through the town and crossed the river to the Gorica quarter. The views of our own Mangelem quarter as the afternoon sun struck the serried ranks of houses were dramatic. As my gaze wandered up the slopes to castle, with its walls and towers sprawling atop the hill, I spotted the 13th century church of St. Michael. I'd read that it was perched precariously on the slopes between the castle and town, but hadn't been able to spot it from above. From Gorica, St. Michael's golden colored stones shone in the afternoon sun like a beacon. I pointed it out to Scott and vowed tomorrow to find the path leading down from the heights. I assured him that I'd read it was "steep, but safe." We continued on our wanderings, but my eye kept returning to St. Michael gleaming above us.

Castle and gate atop the hill above Berat, AlbaniaWe had been making daily visits to internet cafes while in Albania. That evening, I smugly gloated in my daily e-mail update about the perfect weather we'd experienced so far. I should have known better, and the folly of my hubris was driven home by the thunderclap that awakened me the next morning. I heard rain pouring on the cobblestones, sighed, and went back to sleep. Later, after breakfast, we were cheered to find that the rain had stopped when we ventured forth.

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The view from the hills overlooking the town of Berat

We started in Berat's Ethnographic Museum, touring another traditional Albanian house, then trekked back up to the castle to visit the Icon Museum in one of the castle churches. I asked the caretaker if any of the other churches were open today, she said yes, but that was proven wrong, a short time later. As we retraced our footsteps from the previous day, my goal was to find the path to the church of St. Michael. Just as we found an archway leading to steps going downhill, one of the villagers who'd tried to attach himself as a guide to us yesterday, showed up. We asked him if this was the path to St. Michael and he eagerly bounded ahead, gesturing the way. I smiled as he rambled on in a mix of Albanian, Italian and English, thinking of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam into Morder. Scott suggested it might be worth a few hundred lek to be sure of the path, and I agreed.

When we left the stone steps, though, and began to cut across the scrubby slopes, Scott became more and more hesitant. His boots did not have the traction of my hiking shoes, plus he admitted he was a tad bit afraid of heights. When I saw him scooting down the hillside on all fours, I knew he'd never make it. He turned back, and Gollum...er, the guide and I continued on. However, after we'd gone another fifty yards, the guide backed out, too. He gestured at his hip or back, explaining away in Albanian to my uncomprehending ears. He pulled out his packet of aspirin as proof of his medical condition which prevented him from leading foreigners down steep hillsides. He DID at least point out the path for me before he hurried back uphill after Scott.

Church of St. Michael perched high above BeratI paused for a moment. Scrambling down a steep, unfamiliar slope alone, with no one around, didn't seem the safest course. I could fall, break a leg, and no one would know. Then again, the path WAS supposed to be doable. I strapped my camera bag tighter over my suede "Indiana Jones" jacket, pulled my hat down firmly, and mentally told Short Round who was saying "Big meestake, Indy!" to stow it. Within a few yards, the path became much steeper than I'd expected, forcing me to hold onto the trunks of bushes to keep from sliding. At one switchback, I caught sight of the path as it edged path a cliff face. It got even steeper! Nowhere, though, did I look at a stretch and wonder if I could navigate it -- everything seemed within my ability.

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Gorgeous views await your every turn wandering through Berat

When I made the final turn and spotted the church, I let out an involuntary "Wow!" The church of St. Michael stood, just 30 yards away down the path, gleaming as it had yesterday in the now bright sunshine. As I approached it, I noticed the gate was locked. However, the wall surrounding it was low. So, I shinnied up and over, dropping down on the far side to explore further. Up close, it wasn't quite as spectacular, and it was obviously falling into disrepair. The padlocks were new and shiny, but there were no other signs of recent occupation or use. Hopping back over the wall, I began the more physically exhausting (but technically less difficult or dangerous) climb back up. Once back back within the castle walls, I took the steps to a nearby tower and sat down, removing my sweat drenched jacket and hat. As the sun and breeze dried me, I ate one of my power bars and drank my water, laughing inside at this trip's "Indiana Jones moment." Later, I climbed back through the village, found Scott, and we trudged back down the hill -- one of us noticeably more tired than the other!

Later that afternoon, while wandering Berat's central square, we ran into another American, James, who is serving two years in the Peace Corps in Albania. He quizzed us about our travel experiences in Albania, and Berat in particular. Part of his job is to help the local government develop tourism. He seemed perfectly suited for it, being young, outgoing and enthusiastic. His cell phone rang while we were talking, though, calling him away to meet some friends arriving into town.

Scott and I crossed the bridge into Gorica, again, this time intent on exploring its winding, cobblestoned lanes. We had the idle goal of checking out Gorica's two churches that we'd seen from across the river. We were defeated by the village's stone walls, surrounding the tightly packed buildings, which seemed to join them into one long structure with no entrances or side streets. We explored the passages we came upon, but they all ended up dead ends or leading into a family's courtyard. I told Scott we were in the same situation as a medieval attacker would be: Confused, channeled against stone walls, and unable to see any landmarks on which way to go find the center. I waved the white flag and we exited Gorica's maze, joining the open riverside road.

While having a couple beers in our hotel bar that evening, we ran into James and his friends. We scooted tables together and joined into one big party of Americans, French, Israelis and Germans, swapping travels stories. James and his friends entertained us with humorous stories about their experiences in Albania. Scott quizzed them about the differences between "good" raki -- Albania's fiery national drink -- and "bad" raki. I told them it didn't matter, it all tasted like turpentine! We had a blast and I gave out my website to everyone, so hopefully I'll hear from them, again.

That evening's bash proved a fitting end to our travels in Albania. We awoke early the next day and caught a bus to Tirana. Once there, we had less than an hour before heading to the airport. So, we took in some sights on Skanderbeg Square, then jumped on the Airport Shuttle that James had told us about. A short time later, we sat back in our seats as we took off from Albania's tiny airport, into the afternoon haze, climbing higher above the endless line of hills beneath us.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:07 Archived in Albania

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