Ksamil to Greece – Dec 2017

Waved cheerio to Mairin & Todd but, otherwise, I did very little yesterday. It was a total “chill” day. I simply drank some wine and watched the first four episodes of the latest Peaky Blinders series on the BBC catch-up facility.

Actually, it hasn’t been all that different today with my only priorities being a short drive across the border into Greece and to put my watch forward another hour.

I have really enjoyed Albania. Yes, the roads and the standard of driving are about as bad as they could be and; there is a marked shortage of the luxury items I currently crave (after almost 2 months on the road) and; there is a really serious rubbish problem (the place makes Canterbury look spotlessly clean) but, without a doubt, I have not come across a more friendly and welcoming people anywhere in Europe – so many total strangers have gone out of their way to offer help or advice or simply ask how I am finding Albania and if I am enjoying my stay. Lovely place, lovely people.

I would have stayed another couple of days but the weather forecast for the Ksamil area is not good for the next two weeks or so and, while the north of Greece (about 30 miles away) is likely to be very wet for the next two days, it is scheduled to get significantly better in the area just south of Igoumenitsa. It is amazing how the weather can vary so much over such a short distance; it’ll be the mountains I suppose.

By Albanian standards the roads weren’t too bad coming over the border to Greece today but there was monsoon style rain for parts of the journey. At times the windscreen wipers on the Van couldn’t cope and I had to pull in. I’m currently parked up just outside Igoumenitsa; it’s raining cats and dogs and I am not going any further. There’s an open bottle of Bailey’s in the fridge and the freezer is half full of ice. Job done!

The main road to Greece – Been on worse since arriving in Albania

The Greek side of the border

Do I stay with Igoumenitsa and the coast road to Syvota (which has long been on my list of places to visit) or make a short detour to Ioannina (and take in the road to Papingo which I also fancy)? I suppose I could stay in the region a little longer and do both

The road to Papingo

Sarande, Albania – Dec 2017

I decided to stay on in Albania a little while longer and took the bus yesterday to Sarande with a really nice couple from the USA, Mairin and Todd, whom I met a couple of days ago and who are themselves currently touring Europe in a van (although they are following a different route to me).

In Albania too the bus services are frequent, regular and cheap and for just 100 leke each we were soon in Sarande, a fairly sizeable coastal town some 8 miles to the north of Ksamil. I passed through it on the way down here.

There is not a great deal going on in Sarande at this time of the year but we had a very pleasant afternoon; starting off with a brief walk along the promenade; followed by a leisurely walk to and from the mostly derelict Lekuresi Castle (which sits on a small hill at the back of the town and offers sensational views) and; finally, relaxing in a seafront restaurant (with a litre of the local white wine, a pretty good pizza and some fried squid &  prawns) waiting for the sun to set. Then it was time to take the obligatory sunset photos and take a taxi back to the Van for a proper drink.

Sarande sea front

These silly one man pill boxes are everywhere, even in the town centre. It seems more than 750,000 were built – nice contract for someone

The entrance to the Lekuresi Castle and a view of a part of the castle which has been converted into a restaurant 

Two views from the Lekuresi Castle. Had the restaurant been open we would have stayed to photograph the sunset but it wasn’t to be…

… but the sunset from the promenade wasn’t bad

Mairin & Todd are heading north tomorrow and we therefore took it fairly easy on the alcohol; a bottle of Albanian Berat (or was it a Fernet Branca?), a bottle of Amarone from Italy, Bailey’s with ice, a couple of cask strength Ardbeg Whiskies and then Todd produced a very unusual and very nice raki (Raki me Arra from the Cobo Winery in Albania) which tastes unlike any other raki I have tasted, probably because it is mixed with various unripe nuts and herbs.

All the best Mairin & Todd. Stay well.

Ksamil, Albania (Butrint) – Dec 2017

Ksamil is a small town on the peninsula of the same name about 8 miles south of Sarande. Just 3 miles further south in the National Park on the shores of Lake Butrint are the archaeological remains of Butrint city.

Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and has been since 1992) and, while it was off limits to the general public under the communist regime (because of fears people could be tempted to flee the country by swimming the short distance to Greece), it is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Albania. It will inevitably be busy in the summer but it really is a “must see”. I consider it to be one of the most fascinating places I have seen during this tour.

It is different from many archaeological sites because in this one place you can see structures from so many different eras (especially Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman civilisations) and it has, rightly, been described as a microcosm of history. It costs 700 leke (just over 5 euros) to enter the site and with your entrance ticket you get a pamphlet which identifies various walking trails that showcase both the different cultures that have occupied this area and the scenery. This is a National Nature Reserve too. You don’t need a tour guide because the pamphlet with it’s trail map, the museum and numerous information boards in Albanian and English tell you all you need to know.

Too much has happened at this site over the years for me to recount in this blog so, I will simply say that there is evidence the site was occupied in prehistoric times but it was about 1200 BC when a first proper settlement was established (reputedly by the Trojan exiles Helenus and Andromache) and it was under the Greeks (starting around 400 BC) and especially the Romans (228 BC) that the city really developed and grew. It declined with the demise of the Roman Empire and, most especially, following a 3rd century earthquake which saw extensive flooding and caused the formation of malarial marshes around the city. Indeed, most of the city was abandoned at that time but the area was still of strategic importance and what remained changed hands many times between the Byzantines, Angevines and Venetians (who all left their mark on the city) with the ultimate victors, the Venetians, then having to develop various military installations in an ultimately failed attempt to fend off the Ottoman Empire.

In 228 BC the Romans took the city from the Greeks and the Greek Theatre was “Romanised”. Over a period of time, most especially under Augustus, the Romans more than doubled the size of the city adding an aqueduct, fountains, baths and villas

The city was already in decline when the Byzantines built their Great Basilica and, especially, when the Venetians started on their Triangular Fort the other side of the Vivari Channel (which connects Lake Butrint with the Straits of Corfu)

The grounds of the 14th – 16th century Venetian Fortress which now houses the museum and sits on the hilltop where the Acropolis used to be, have been turned into delightful gardens

The Venetian Tower and the Lion’s Gate 

I suggested in an earlier blog that Albania is a place of total contrasts and I see yet another example of that in Butrint  because I really cannot understand how a place can be so tranquil and yet exude such feeling.

Cicero said it all in letters to Atticus when he wrote it is “… the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world”. He’s not far wrong.

Ksamil Beach on the way out

Ksamil Beach on the way back

Collected on the way in. I feel a Gin & Tonic coming on

Going to have to think about moving on to Greece.

Vlore to Ksamil, Albania – Dec 2017

The roads in and around Vlore are no better than those experienced yesterday. I was going to visit a monastery, the Manastiri i Shen, which is on an island just off the Zvernec Peninsula near Vlore (you have to use an unusual and rather fragile wooden walkway to get to the island and I thought it would be fun and it would make for some great photos) but the town road to Zvernec was simply too dangerous. It’s bad enough having to cope with pot-holes the size of small wells but in the towns you also have to contend with the fact that manhole covers and the iron grates over most drains have been removed (presumably taken for scrap value) leaving seriously deep holes to the side and in the middle of the road that you cannot see because of flooding.

Just go for it and hope…

I’m pleased to say that everything improved after I made the decision to move further south to the small town of Ksamil, not far from the border with Greece. It was an adrenalin filled drive around the hairpin bends as we (the Van and I) moved south but the quality of the mountain road was much improved over the town roads and with the temperature well up in the teens I wasn’t worried about the snow on the higher hills- that’s what the winter tyres are all about.

Nobody seems to give a damn about the 20 kph speed limit on the hairpins; it’s like being on a helter-skelter

En route to Ksamil, just before the coastal village of Borsh , I stopped to investigate a small castle on an island in a bay. It was the Porto Palermo Castle built by Ali Pasha Tepelena in the early 19th century with the help of some French military engineers. Ali Pasha subsequently executed the engineers but that’s another story. I parked the Van up outside of a restaurant/cafe that I thought was closed but there were 2 Albanians sitting inside drinking from a bottle and in a combination of Albanian, English, Italian (sic) and, mostly, sign language they required that, prior to leaving my Van in their care, I should partake of some of their bottle. It was a home made Grappa and not bad. Of course, after visiting the castle, I felt obliged to reciprocate and insisted they drink a dram of 10 year old Ardbeg that I had in my hip flask. I stopped in a lay-by thereafter for a strong coffee. There’s no doubt the Albanians are a most friendly and generous people.

Porto Palermo Castle. The last photo is of Ali Pasha’s personal quarters

By the way, Ali Pasha got his comeuppance when on 21 January 1822 he was himself treacherously killed on the island of Ionnina. You reap what you sow.

Yer man himself

Currently parked up in Ksamil. More about that tomorrow.

Shkoder to Vlore, Albania – Dec 2017

While the weather was really nice today (how it can change so significantly from yesterday, I do not know), the forecast for Shkoder over the next 7 days is terrible. I therefore decided to spend this morning touring the city and revisiting the Rozafa Fortress (so as to get at least one decent photo) and then, in the afternoon, move south to Durres or even beyond where the weather forecast is considerably better.

Shkoder is a place of total contrasts. It is one of very few places in Albania with a track record of resisting communism and it’s not therefore surprising to see it has a cathedral and a number of mosques while the rest of Albania seems to have toed the party line and done away with religious buildings of any kind and; there seem to be considerably fewer of Enver Hoxha’s military bunkers in Shkoder than anywhere else in the country (Hoxha was paranoid about the West invading Albania and instructed that individual pill boxes be constructed for each and every Albanian capable of carrying arms) but; the contrasts don’t stop there. It is a real mix of ancient stone wall buildings alongside distinctive modern buildings such as the Marubi National Museum of Photography or even the city’s Grand Hotel (although, if I am honest, the ugly drab housing blocks one associates with Eastern Europe do predominate). There is clearly much poverty, with so many people standing on the streets all day trying to sell clothes that they have grown out of, and yet all the usual designer brands are on sale in shops.  Donkeys, goats, turkeys and so many stray dogs wander the same streets as are filled with expensive cars (the great majority of private cars on the roads, and almost all the taxis it seems, are Mercedes, Audi or BMW). I’m not altogether comfortable with that. It reminds me of Bangladesh and India.

The view from the walk along a bank of the flooded River Buna and a photo of Democracy Square in Shkoder

I said the weather was good today and that is perhaps reflected in a few of the photos I took both of Shkoder and during my return to the Rozafa Fortress:-

Going back up to the Fortress in altogether nicer weather.There has to be a window shot.

Looking down on Shkoder.

Moving on. I decided to chase the good weather and head for Durres but I think the sat-nav was playing up once again because when I entered Durres it kept directing me towards the ferry terminal and insisting that I take a ferry. After driving several kilometres in circles around Durres and repeatedly ending back at the ferry terminal I gave up on the place, turned the sat-nav off and followed the road signs further south to Vlore. What a journey that was but before I continue, lest there be any doubt, let me state categorically that the roads in Albania are the worst I have come across outside of Africa.

At the time I didn’t understand why the sat-nav should keep directing me towards the ferry terminal but now I think it was perhaps some form of divine intervention. It took me so long to reach Vlore and even then I didn’t have time to find a decent wild camp (I’ve literally just pulled up off the motorway) but, take a look at the quality of the road I had to follow for miles and miles:-

That, believe it or not, is an “A” road and that was one of the better parts where I could take a hand off the wheel to take a photo. I could have done with 4 wheel drive today (or perhaps I should have taken the ferry)

Anyway, I am in or close to Vlore. I’ll see what that is about tomorrow.