Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Albania - the real home of slow travel

Gjirokaster-Korçë was the longest leg of our trip, and sort of summed up the experience of driving in Albania. When planning out the trip, we were surprised at how short and manageable most of the distances were, making a multi-city roadtrip feasible. However, while Google claims a driving time of 4 hours, itself not exactly brilliant for a 191 km trip, it took us nearly 5. That's an average speed of less than 40 km per hour. See how wiggly the line gets, That's the road weaving back and forth through the mountains, often on narrow, bumpy and potholed roads. If it wasn't for the nice smooth highway at the very end, it would have been even longer.

On the other hand, for most of the first half of the drive, until the road turned north again, we were driving along next to the most beautiful river valley. The river was this gorgeous, bright pastel blue. I'm not even sure pastels can be bright, by definition, but this looked like someone had got all the sticks of blue chalk in the world and crumbled them up to make a river. And then surrounded it all with jagged, imposing mountain ranges. 

Oh, and the cicadas! That's such a summer sound to me, it really reminded me of home. I don't know whether there are fewer cicadas in Europe or it's just that I spent most of my time here in cities, but it's a noise I didn't even realise I was missing until we went to Albania and encountered the world's loudest. Usually on car trips, we'll be talking and/or listening to music, but the roads in Albania demand a lot of concentration, so often the only noise in the car was the loud, insistent buzz of a million cicadas. 

Beautiful, but not quite as blue as I remember

Once we turned away from the river, the road wasn't quite as picturesque, and we were both pretty tired and sick of being in the car by the time we got to Korce. Korce hadn't been on my original itinerary, but we added it in partly because my guidebook raved about it as a cultural centre and particularly a centre for medieval religious art, and partly to break up what would have otherwise been an even longer drive across to Macedonia. 

I think it's fair to say Korce was a bit of a disappointment, or at least, both of our least favourite destination. Circumstances were partly against us - we arrived on a Monday, when the Museum of Medieval Art was closed, and we had already driven for so long that neither of us wanted to get back in the car to see some of the apparently beautiful and old churches and prehistoric sites in the surrounding villages. So we spent the afternoon having lunch, doing a quick walking tour of the city and then sitting in a café reading.

Korce cathedral and (presumably) communist statue

The interior of the cathedral was lavishly-decorated, and obviously very new - the original was destroyed by the communists

All over the city were dilapidated and ruined houses. This one must have been something special, because it was all fenced off. Looks like it must have been beautiful in its day
I was a bit uncomfortable when we headed back out at night, because, although the city centre was bustling with both men and women, there seemed to be only men sitting out at the pavement tables in all the bars and cafés. Maybe it's just me, but it just gives me a creepy, weird vibe when places are frequented exclusively by men - reminding me, funnily enough, of the first time I visited Paris and stayed in Pigalle. That feeling of the streets (or bars, in this case) being the unique preserve of groups of men is maybe one of the reasons I got a fairly bad first impression of Paris and still wouldn't put it amongst my favourite cities, despite many return visits. We did eventually find a nice and very tasty restaurant, however - food was consistently good and cheap throughout our trip.

The next day, we made sure to go to the Museum of Medieval Art nice and early. We were the only visitors - the staff (after giving us a lovely introductory talk in perfect English) even followed us around switching the lights on and off in the different sections as we made our way through. It was a good collection, with more of the Onofri icons amongst many others, but unless you have a particular love for icons and Byzantine art, Korçë can probably be skipped off the itinerary.

Photos weren't allowed inside the museum, but I snapped this hungry horse out in the lobby


  1. Those river photos are beautiful. M x

    1. Very pretty, it was hard to choose just a handful of them x

  2. Where are all the trout?


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