Thursday, July 02, 2015

In the White City

After our hair-raising drive on Sunday, we arrived in Berat in the centre of the country. Berat is known as a museum city - a term bestowed by Enver Hoxha, thus protecting the historic buildings in the communist period. Today, the old city is a world heritage site. As with the rest of Albania, the city had a tumultuous history, with long periods under Byzantine and Ottoman rule. Its hilltop castle complex dates (in its current incarnation) back to the 13th century, whereas its striking old town was built unde the Ottoman Empire. 


This photo makes it clear why Berat is also known as the "White City" or the "City of a Thousand Windows". The city is divided in two, this is looking across at the old town or Mangalemi quarter from the other side of the river. On the top of the hill, you can just see the castle. Yes, we had to walk all the way up there!

View from the restaurant where we had dinner. 

One of berat's steep cobbled streets. 


Rain was forecast on Monday afternoon, so we made sure to be out early to see the castle before the weather turned. I know it's about as hot in Paris, London and Brussels right now as it is here, so you can all empathise with hot much we were melting as we made our way up the hill. 


Looking down around halfway up the road to the castle. Those cobblestones were really uneven and sometimes slippery as well, making the walk much more difficult. In fact, coming down might have been just as hard as going up, since I was terrified of slipping over the whole time. 

The castle is actually more like a citadel, with walls enclosing a mini city which, even today, still houses people and businesses. There's not all that much to see in terms of visiting the castle, no big fortress or palace and most of the historic churches are kept closed and have a rather dilapidated air. We were disappointed that, being a Monday, the ethnographic museum (further down the hillside) and cathedral, home to a museum of icon painting, were both closed. However, the trip up the hill is more than worth it for the breathtaking views. 

I know the point of most castles is to have a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, but this one really does have the most amazing view. Given the clear blue skies, we could see for miles over the river valley and the surrounding mountains. Beautiful, and while we ran into other people at various points in the city streets (including an annoying beggar who just followed us around for a bit with a look on her face like that old lady in the wheelchair that Homer accidentally wheeled out of the retirement home instead of Marge's mum - anyone?), we had the various viewpoints all to ourselves. 







The quarter on the other side of the river. 







The entrance into the cathedral/Onofri museum (Onofri was a "famous" Albanian icon painter who apparently introduced the colour pink into icon painting).  Remember how I said we were disappointed that it was closed? When we came across it, there was a tour group outside and the door was open, so we just went in. Five minutes later, the tour group came in and the guide asked us who we were and what were we doing in the museum, and made us go pay at the ticket office (we knew there was a charge, but hadn't seen the ticket office, assuming the door had just been left open). So that was a nice surprise. Not sure if the opening hours were wrong or we got lucky and happened to be there at the precise time they opened up to let this tour group in, but either way, we were happy that we got to see it. The museum isn't wildly exciting, but it was nice to see. 

Altar screen 

One of the altar screen doors, featuring I guess Archangel Michael, maybe Gabriel. 

 Rain didn't actually arrive on Monday, turning up only on Tuesday morning to pelt us as we got into the car for the next leg of our roadtrip, over the Llogora Pass to Himare and the "Albanian Riviera". 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The road to Berat

I'm behind on blogging already, since we're sitting here by the beach in Himare already, after two nights in Berat I haven't told you about yet. I'm going to stay behind, since before dinner I just have time for a quick post about the drive from Tirana to Berat. It's okay though, we have some lazy beach days scheduled, so I'll be able to catch up then. 

We left Tirana about midday on Sunday to drive more or less straight down the country to Berat. The GPS suggested going all the way across to the coast, down and then inland again, but I wanted to drive right down the middle since we were planning to spend quite a bit of time on the coast anyway and I thought it would be more interesting to see the interior as well. 



Although most of the roads were paved and in a reasonable condition, we got a sense of why the GPS told us to take the coastal route when we turned off the highway on to a narrow, basically single-lane road. Which proceeded to twist and turn through the hilly landscape, at times on gradients that just have been at least 20%. The car engine was screaming as we went up some of these - I didn't have the presence of mind to take any photos to show how steep it was, I was just praying we'd get up the hill. Add in people walking along the sides of the road, occasional chickens, dogs and donkeys, and Albanians not quite grasping the concept of lanes, and you have the makings of an interesting trip. Oh, and did I mention it was raining?

Luckily, the gorgeous landscape made up for the moments of terror, and while they seem prone to weave all over the road, overtaking on blind corners or pulling out into oncoming traffic to drive around a pothole or donkey cart, luckily the back roads have the advantage of being very quiet for the most part. Plus the abysmal condition of some of the roads mean that you can't drive very fast anyway, although never has 50 km/h felt faster than at some points en route. (Sorry for freaking you out, mum.) 

Jules was a hero, as usual, and we arrived in Berat some hours later in one piece but definitely in need of a sit-down and a drink!



Spot the cool oldie-timey haystacks in the foreground?



I don't know if the photos do it justice, but at times you could swear you were driving through the hilly Tuscan countryside or something. Or what I imagine the hilly Tuscan countryside to look like, Florence is the closest I've got to it. 

Shortly before driving down that road looping down the hillside. 

You wouldn't know it from some of the other photos, but it really was raining quite hard at times. This photo shows the state of the road a bit better. 


This was a park in Berat, showing the after-effects of the rain. Fingers crossed, it's sunshine from now on, but the landscape is obviously quite green, so I suppose it rains more often than I would have thought. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Tirana day two

On Sunday, we headed out to see a little more of Tirana before our Albanian road trip began. We stopped off first at the Et'hem Bey mosque because we had read it had nice frescoes outside. A couple of friendly guys outside told us to go in, and helped us rouse the attendant inside. Inside was covered with beautiful paintings, including landscape views which are apparently rare in Islamic art. I'm no expert in Islamic art, but the decoration in general looked more obviously floral and less abstract than other examples I've seen. We were the only people in there, so it felt really special. We had to have a whispered discussion upstairs about whether a tip to the attendant would be insulting or appreciated - we went for it, and got a bow with his hand over his heart, so seems that was the right move. 





Outside, one of the friendly guys got talking to us and explained that this was Tirana's most beautiful and famous mosque, built by Et'ham Bey, who was the vizier in charge of Albania at one point during the 500 or so years it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. His tomb is outside. He offered to take us on a tour, and although it's dumb to set off without setting a price, timeframe, etc, we thought "what the hell" and went for it. 

It was a pretty good decision, we learnt a lot more about Tirana than we would have alone, and he was an engaging guy who didn't sound like he was just reciting from a script. He knew his stuff though, down to the exact day, month and year of events. 

Unbelievably, this house, built by Et'ham Bey's successor as vizier, is the first "official" house in Tirana - dating alllll the way back to 1837. Before that, people just lived in small huts. So this place was an impressive palace - which housed the vizier's harem. 



Mother Teresa, although born in Skopje, had Albanian parents and is very much regarded as one of their own. I had to stifle a giggle when the guide claimed that this mosaic was in y he Guinness Book of World Records as the "most beautiful mosaic of Mother Teresa made out of seashells".  I've never seen a mosaic made out of seashells before, so the competition might not be all that stiff. 


A trip to see the mausoleum of the dictator Enver Hoxha was definitely on my list. Hoxha was the communist dictator for 40 years, from the end of World War Two until his death in 1985. His daughter, an architect, built this pyramid for him to lie in state, Lenin-style, but by the time it was ready, he only spent one year within its walls before his successors decided to move him for fear it would become a focal point for dissent, and then of course communism fell. 


It was in a much more dilapidated state than I had expected - it's apparently made out of marble, although you wouldn't know that by looking at it now. There was talk of tearing it down, but apparently they've decided to keep it and restore it as a unique feature of the Tirana landscape. There were people walking up its steep sides, but we were both too scared to do that! 





This is the first (for me) of over 700,000 bunkers built by Hoxha, who was paranoid about the prospect of an invasion by the UK and U.S.  Given the population at the time, there were enough bunkers for one per every three inhabitants. Of course, this wasted a ton of money and were never used. Behind the bunker, the jungle-gym thing is actually an example of the torture devices used in the communist prisons. Dissidents would be tied by their wrists to the frame, left there for three weeks, and flogged. 

I forgot to say last time that we had dinner in "Bloku" (the block), which in communist times was an entire neighbourhood off-limits to all but the top Party members. Today, it's a very verdant and pleasant area full of bars and restaurants. 

By midday, we were ready to move on, and our road trip began! First stop, Berat - tune in next time for that. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Albanian adventures begin!

Greetings from Tirana! I'm going to try to blog every day or so, partly so I can get everything down while it's fresh, and partly because I only have my iPad to work with, which is a huge pain in the arse, so I'd rather not be composing huge long posts (and please excuse typos). 

I've been thinking about coming to Albania for a few years now, and we booked this trip early this year, so it feels like we've been waiting for ages. With all the confidence of someone who's been in the country for all of five minutes, I'm convinced Albania is going to be the next big tourist destination, so I wanted to get here before it gets too popular. Most people, when I've told them we're holidaying in Albania, have said "why?" I'm pretty optimistic that I'll be able to show you why over the next two weeks that we're here. 

So far, everyone has been super friendly - obviously not at the point where tourists are viewed as a nuisance or walking wallets - and mostly speak really good English, especially the younger generations. Luckily, because Albanian is complicated! The only word I've kind of got down so far is thanks, falemindere (so?) The only person we've met who was a bit of a pain so far was a little girl who blocked the door to the lift we wanted to get in to and then when she got out of the way, held out her hand for money. We chuckled, the way you would, got into the lift, and then the little shit pressed the open door button and asked for money again. We ignored her and thankfully once the doors closed, she let the lift go. It would have been unseemly to have to fight a little girl in an Albanian lift, and I'm pretty sure she could have taken us anyway. Other than that, I've felt perfectly safe walking around so far, although the traffic is a bit dodgy at times (I feel for Jules having to drive in it)!

We got into the city around 4 yesterday afternoon, so we just walked around and had some drinks and dinner. Dinner was delicious - we had an Albanian mezze plate to start with and then I had some traditional Tirana dish, no idea what it was, just looked like slurry, but it was so tasty. Some sort of ground veal, feta-like cheese and maybe peppers. The food so far definitely bears a strong resemblance to Greek and Turkish cuisine, which I like, so that's good! 

We'll look around Tirana a bit more this morning - sadly the colours on the famous painted buildings seem to have mostly faded away - and then set out on our road trip around the country. First stop, Berat. Unfortunately the weather might be a bit dodgy for the next couple of days - bit galling when the weather is better in Brussels than the Balkans - but then we're hoping for perfect sunshine and some beach days!

Flying into Tirana - much more rugged than I imagined

Huge Communist mural on the national museum in Skanderberg Square


Skanderberg himself


They have the coolest flag, by the way. NZ should just copy them

Opera house, mosque and government building (?)



Jules took this photo of the river, I love it


I declined to get *in* the guardhouse - looked pretty much like someone might live in there 



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Not Chambored

I found my camera cable, hurrah. And thus can bring you many photos from our trip to the Loire Valley a couple of weeks ago. It was, of course, our annual pilgrimage to Vitiloire. I won't bore you with all the details of Vitiloire - there was a lot of wine, a lot of food, and a lot of giggles. We went to the cheese restaurant and the guinguette, and I got raspberry financiers from my favourite bakery. We caught up with my sister, my friends, and my sister's friends, and a good time was had by all. We drank too much, stayed out too late, and still dragged ourselves up the next day for the train back to London/more Vitiloire, as the case may be.

I didn't visit any castles with Jules last year - he originally hadn't planned on coming along at all - but this year I thought it would be a bit silly for him to go all the way to the Loire Valley again and not see a single château. So, because it was kind of on the way from Brussels, and more importantly, because I'd never been, we decided to go to Chambord.

I've probably been to most of the major Loire châteaux now and several of the minor ones - Chenonceau, Villandry, Ussé, Azay, Blois, Chinon, Langeais, Loches, etc., but Chambord had long been on the list without quite managing to get there. It's the biggest and one of the most iconic of the châteaux, but not that easy to get to. There was a direct bus in summer, but I never wanted to go in summer,with all the tourists. Otherwise it was some sort of fiddly train/bus/faff which, as I recall, only allowed you to see the château in about an hour or you were stuck there for three or four hours. Picky, I know, but you can afford to be when you live somewhere and think you'll be able to go see it any time you want.

So anyway, it was a good opportunity to go while we had a car, and once Jules stopped sulking that I wouldn't go to Chenonceau with him (kidding), I'm sure he thought so too.

Chenonceau is undeniably gorgeous, but Chambord had a real fairytale frisson to it. It's not that it looks like a Disney castle, but walking towards it, seeing the towers first come into view, it does seem like something magical out of a storybook. You feel like Peer Gynt should be playing or something. We were lucky enough to have the only really nice weather of the weekend while we were there as well. Everything's that little bit more special with bright blue skies instead of grey on grey.

Behold.... Chambord!

At the back (front?) entrance

It took a long time to get one with the flag fluttering



The courtyard and the famous double-helix staircase, which doesn't look like much, but is fun to go up. Most scholars agree the staircase was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, then living nearby at Amboise.

Old-fashioned mirror selfie in the King's bedroom


I'm not sure whether I should find these taxidermied animals cute, but I kinda do.

Windows in the chapel



Built for François I, his symbols of the ornate letter F and the salamander were everywhere. In the legends of the time, salamanders were meant to be able both to extinguish fire and to spit fire, and throughout the château you see them doing both. This gave rise to François' motto, "I nourish and I extinguish", which sounds like a threat, but supposedly refers to being nourished by the "good fire" of faith and love while extinguishing the "bad fire" of passion and injustice. 

The château is huge - 440 rooms, although not all presumably open - and most of the interior is fairly unremarkable, at least if you've been to your fair share of castles. I loved this space on the second floor though, with an ornate ceiling studded with François' emblems.

This panorama is cool but gives a false sense of the layout - the rooms aren't in a row like they look here





Where Louis XIV liked to sleep
The other great highlight of our visit was getting up on to the roof terraces, which offered lovely views over the surrounding countryside and a close-up look at the fabulous towers. Supposedly, François I wanted the roofline to look like the skyline of Constantinople.

View of the church from the roof








I take too many photos, I know. So hard to choose the best ones. Let's round it off with a little Vitifun.