Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Albania Time

Albania has the most incredible wilderness I have seen in Europe, accessible with Drive Albania!
Darrell and I met up with our good Flagstaff friends Vera and Kathy in Tirana, Albania on the last day of April. Vera had long been planning a trip to Albania to visit places her botanist father had explored - via donkey as needed - in 1924. I asked to tag along, as following her father's footsteps into the alpine regions of Albania was a compelling reason/excuse for another great adventure with Kathy and Vera! Darrell was looking forward to bicycling in Germany while I traveled even more slowly by van with two of my best friends. Welcome to Albania time!

Kathy, Ed, and Vera toasting to our planned trip
Vera worked with Ed Reeves of Drive Albania and e-mails flew back and forth as they planned a two-week trip that reached key locations her father had visited as well as unique cultural, historical and natural sites that Ed knew we'd enjoy. Our trip kicked off with an amazing dinner and we met Ed, Ardi (our tour guide and driver), and Chris (an American of Albanian descent living in Albania and apprenticing on the trip).

The other significant partner in our trip was the newest Drive Albania van - a 60th anniversary model of the 1958 Russian UAZ. The first model of this series was a 4wd ambulance, arguably the best in the world for use in remote areas, and perfect for rural Albanian roads.

Chris in front of the eye-catching UAZ van
Our first visit was to the House of Leaves in Tirana. This museum is "dedicated to the innocent people who were spied on, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and executed during the communist regime." The building housed the Gestapo during part of its occupation in WW2 and then housed the Sigurni (Secret Police) from 1944 to 1991 when Albania was under communist rule. Enver Hoxha, the head of state from 1944 until his death in 1985, wrote "State Security is the sharp and dear weapon of our Party, because it protects the interests of the people and our socialist State against internal and external enemies."
Partial list of executed prisoners during the communist years
We tested both Ardi's driving skill and flexibility as soon as we left Tirana. Vera hoped to drive over the Kraba Pass where her father had traveled. This road is now all but unused as a newer road has been completed, but Ardi managed to find an entrance onto the older road, and Vera, nose pressed to the window, eyed the landscape her father had traversed 95 years earlier.

We went up and over our first of many mountain passes arriving at the lovely town of Lin along the shore of Lake Ohrid. We met Rosa, our super host, and enjoyed her upstairs room overlooking the lake while we drank hot tea and homemade raki to warm up. Ed had written that "Rosa will look after us as if we were her own children!" which is humorous considering we are all older than Rosa's own mother!
Super Hostess Rosa in Li

Vera, Mindy, and Kathy above Lin
Geek out: Lake Ohrid is Europe’s oldest lake, formed by tectonic rifting over 2 million years ago. The lake’s deepest part reaches 288 m. There is unique biodiversity due to millions of years of isolation, including the famous and delicious Ohrid trout that we ate for dinner. There are more than 1400 species in the lake including about 300 endemic species. Vera researched and discovered a 570+ m core extracted from the lake sediment in 2013 that recorded 1.9 million years of deposition and natural history.

From Lin, we traveled around the southern part of the lake and into Macedonia, but instead of following the coastline around, we went toward Lake Prespa and then over another pass in Galicica National Park - enjoying the subalpine beech forest that was remarkably green with lovely spring flowers to enjoy. 

Nature appreciation stop in the beech forest
Galicica National Park
From the peak we dropped down to Lake Ohrid again and drove north to the town of Ohrid; one of only 28 places designated as both Cultural and Natural UNESCO World Heritage sites. The unique architectural style of the homes is mimicked by the same form on their streetlights!

St. John's Church, Ohrid, Macedonia
Ohrid's unique architectural style
The next morning we drove south around the lake to visit the lovely springs and Monastery of St. Naum (est. 905 AD by St. Naum himself) and enjoyed lunch at charming Drilon Springs before heading into the mountains of Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park. We bounced on dirt roads to our homestay high up in Stebelev. Our host Baki Nura served us tea and raki (are you sensing a theme here?) while we listened to birds in the late afternoon sun. We slept in a large room with its own wood stove and plenty of blankets to keep us warm. The next morning, Ed arrived with his faithful dog Bubi, and we all piled into the van to get higher into the National Park and hunt for elusive spring wildflowers just coming out from under the snow.

Vera and Kathy on the hunt for subalpine wildflowers

Orchis purpurea
Scilla sp.

Besides flowers, we also saw some of the many bunkers that were built in the mountains during the communist era. That evening our hostess made us a delicious traditional meal with a huge variety of foods including roast lamb, meatballs, yummy crumbled cheese, byrek (feta cheese, cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, and meat all layered in a tasty filo pastry), pickled green tomatoes, savory yogurt and bread.

Delicious dinner with so many choices to tease the palate
We woke up to more rain, rain, rain. After breakfast we loaded into the trusty van and drove to Bulqize, a mining town where a young entrepreneur Lulzim (Luli for short) has been renovating his family's old stone kulla, a fortified tower from the 17th century. After dinner, Luli told us about how he had been working in the mines plus working every free hour on the kulla, plus helping his wife in their shop in town, when he received some funding so he could focus on creating a guesthouse at his kulla. His mother still lives there and is an amazing hostess to the guests. And Luli is full of ideas of how he can improve the local economy in a safer and more sustainable way than the mine provides.

Sophia roasting mushrooms over the fire
Luli in front of his renovated family kulla
We were getting deeper into Albania time as we stayed in places where the old traditions were honored, but there were also adaptations to the conveniences of the 20th century. While his mother upholds her ties to older ways, Luli has a strong online presence and has added electric outlets and WiFi to the family kulla. Both conserve and treasure the integrity and beauty of the historic stone and wood structure.

Ardi at the monument to Skanderbeg, an Albanian hero, near Bulqize
From Bulqize we drove high into the mountains again to Radomire, a village at the foot of Mt. Korab, the highest mountain in Albania at 2764 m (8983 ft). It was still raining but we found our way to our homestay with a Muslim family. Ramadan had just begun the night before, and we were all woken from our cozy sleep at 2:15 am by drumming! Kathy, who lived in Turkey for many years as a teacher, said that it was the call to wake up and prepare the meal before sunrise. We were lucky to hear the call, and then roll over and go back to sleep.
The Radomire mosque under the fresh snow of Mt. Korab
Instead of hiking up Mt. Korab as we had planned, the rain turned to snow above us, so Ardi rearranged our schedule to visit Prizren, Kosovo. Prizren is a beautiful town with gorgeous Ottoman bridges crossing the Bistrica River and weaving the two sides of the town together. The trees and lamp posts had whimsical tricotag (tricot-graffiti aka yarn bombing) that also tied the town together!
Tricot-graffiti in Prizren

Detail of charming Prizren tricotag
We admired the Sinan Pasha Mosque and had a picnic at the Prizren fortress. Kathy, Vera and I toured the ethnographic museum and wandered the streets. Then we all met for a lovely dinner and later some drinks at a Route 66 style bar in Prizren.
Ardi trying out his new cigarette holder from Vera
The next morning we stopped at one of the longest Ottoman bridges over the Terezingeve River on our way to the Decani Monastery.  Vera had to move out of the way of a flock of sheep crossing the bridge!
Ottomon Bridge outside Prizren  - Right photo shows Shepherd and sheep crossing bridge by Vera

The Decani Monastery is absolutely stunning. It was begun in 1327 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, citing it as "an irreplaceable treasure, a place where traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world." We could not take photos inside but it is worth looking at this wikipedia site to read more about it and see some images. There are over 1,000 fresco murals. Most are painted in a rich blue that came from Afghanistan and cost as much per kilogram as gold. Unfortunately, the monastery has been attacked several times, most recently in 2016, and is now under 24-hour guard by KFOR (Kosovo Force), a NATO-led peacekeeping force.

Outside of Decani Monastery (photo from Wikipedia)
We arrived in Gjakova, where our homestay was with a family that had been displaced by the Kosovo War 30 years earlier. They later returned to rebuild their heavily damaged home. Our hostess told us about the horrors of watching the bazaar (the oldest market in Kosovo) burn and seeing her friend running down the street with her children after having to step over her husband’s shot body and having her wedding rings stripped off. I will not forget the intensity of our hostess’s face as she recounted this nightmare. We couldn’t understand the words as she spoke Albanian with Ardi but we understood the message...
Mindy, our hostess, Vera, and Kathy in Gjakova, Kosovo
The next day we took the Koman Lake Ferry down the dammed and drowned Drin River. It was a beautiful ride despite the cold weather. A bumpy road led us to Shkoder, where Darrell and I had ended our bike trip less than 2 weeks before. We stayed at the Hotel Tradita in charming rooms and had an amazing meal at their restaurant.

Backing the van onto the Lake Koman Ferry
Our penultimate destination was Theth, a highlight of wilderness Albania. The winding road up and over the pass and down to the village had me clutching my seat, but Ardi and Chris drove it like the professionals they are, and we had great views whenever we stopped or I dared look out the window.
Looking down into the Theth Valley
Theth is incredible! It is in a beautiful bowl surrounded by mountains. Edith Durham, a British visitor who traveled and worked extensively in Albania in the early 1900's said this about Theth: "I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world." Theth has been "discovered” in the last five years so the number of guesthouses has gone from five to 30 or so. We were well accommodated at Shpella Guesthouse near the old Tower in Theth
View back to the Shpella Guesthouse and the Tower
Ardi on the shortcut "bridge" over the river
We toured the lock-in tower and Ardi told us the amazing story about how they settled blood feuds in the past. It was intense and you will need to go there to hear it, as I cannot possibly explain either the complexities or potential horrors of it. 

We woke to the first truly sunny day we've had since arriving in Albania. Vera, throwing open the window, said "Eat your heart out Switzerland! What a lucky bunch we are!" We had a grand day beginning with a trip to a nearby waterfall and then our longer hike to the Blue Eye. Of course Vera found special wildflowers on both hikes.
The beautiful Blue Eye near Theth
Our final place, before returning to Tirana, was a community-supported organic farm, hotel and restaurant. Mrizi i Zanave is agrotourism at its best. Drive Albania had organized our stay and our dinner, just as they had at every other place, and this was a fantastic place to experience how 400 families in the community work together to create, and be supported by, a local and sustainable enterprise.
Making rosewater for the restaurant at Mrizi i Zanave
The next morning, donning raincoats and umbrellas, we headed out to see the farm and watched the geese being led into the fields to eat the bugs! We received a personal tour of the farm and were proudly shown their cheese and meat production, as well as their homemade preserves and freshly baked breads.

We then drove to the charming hilltop town of Kruja, where we toured the museum that was an ode to Skanderbeg, the Albanian hero that lived here and led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the 1400's. We wandered the market stalls and watched while a man created a felt slipper from raw wool in about 20 minutes! Vera and Kathy bought the irresistibly warm slippers.
Skanderbeg leading the charge with replicas of his helmet and sword below the mural

Showing us the family business - making irresistibly warm felted slippers and hats
We returned to the newly remodeled Sarajevo Art Hotel where we had begun our journey and repacked our bags for our upcoming flights the next day. But we had three more "encores" before we left Albania. First we enjoyed dinner at an experimental restaurant with Ed, Chris, Ardi and his girlfriend. We were treated to incredible food plus the spontaneous singing by a local group celebrating a child's 1st birthday! I captured 26 seconds of the singing below.

Encore two was exploring Bunk'Art - a HUGE converted bunker built during Enver Hoxha's four-decade communist rule to protect him and his cronies in the event of a nuclear attack. It has been turned into a spooky museum showcasing its history, and also has contemporary art, and information on the cave ecology of bats that now live in some bunkers! It is definitely to be experienced.

Encore three was the most beautiful of all. Drive Albania had arranged for Vera to meet with a retired botany professor, Dr. Kashta, from the University of Tirana. Vera had written to him about her father's research in Albania and his botanical specimens in the University herbarium. And she had earlier mailed her father's photographic plates from his 1924 expedition to the University. Professor Kashta introduced us to others that came to meet Vera, and organized a tour of the natural history museum, herbarium, and a dedication poster of her father's work that reads: "Friedrich Markgraf - One of the most authoritative scholars of flora and vegetation". This honorary treatment and seeing Vera's father's work from so long ago being recognized was incredibly moving...
Vera and Dr. Kashta with poster honoring her father's contributions to Albanian botany

Vera looking at her father's floral specimens in the herbarium at the University of Tirana
Eventually it was time to leave Albania. There is no question that we all want to return to Albania and to delight again in Albania Time.

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