Monday, September 29, 2008


At the risk of sounding like just another tour guide, I want to tell you about Byllis. I had heard of it in passing and no one really seemed to rave about it. There's no "Byllis Foundation" like the fund started by British gazillionaires to protect and promote Butrint. There should be. The site is phenomenal.
The first thing you notice about the place is, it's up on top of a hill. Make that a mountain. The views are spectacular, even on a hazy day like this. Stand at the highest point of the site on the ruins of a watchtower and you can see for miles in all directions. The view to the west is dramatic with the Vjosa River winding between the hills 500 meters below.The walls are clearly visible around the entire perimeter. You immediately get the feeling of purpose which drove the inhabitants to create this secure citadel. When I came across the sign explaining the origin and history of the walls, I was amazed to find that almost two-thirds of the city was left outside the walls when they were constructed to guard agains Vandal attacks in the 3rd century. Two-thirds? The one-third inside the walls is almost 8 acres. Imagine what lies under the brush outside the walls.
It's not crowded in the least. On a warm September day I was the only visitor, other than a bridal party who had bounced their way along the road to take photos among the ruins before scooting back to the reception.
The place compares favorably to Butrint because it's dry. You can walk in among the ruins and never have to worry about slipping in the mud.
Imagine watching a performance in this theater. It must have been tough for the performers to compete with the view from the seats out over the valley.

Informative signs posted at all the major ruins clearly describe the purpose of the building, when it was built, and any unique aspects of the construction.

Mosaics. Lots of them. Several were uncovered for visitors to see which beats the heck out of having to buy a guidebook and then imagine what lies under the protective plastic sheeting and sand.

A shopping mall with a view!

Another endless view over the mountains of Mallakaster. .

If you want a second opinion on Byllis, here's a great article.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Lonely Planet Slideshow

I came across this today and thought I would share it. Not because it is a particularly good piece of journalistic reportage, but because it's from the biggest "alternative" tourist guide company in the world. Having said that, you would think that the CEO of said organization could make a video showing more of his subject city and less of himself.

With no further ado, "The Lonely Planet Does Tirana."


Thursday, September 25, 2008


One of the reasons I enjoy living in Albania is the sheer unpredictability of the place. You never really know what awaits you when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes it's as pleasant as a soft rain shower that makes the morning stroll envigorating. Other times it's unpleasant like the incessant screeching of some death-metal wannabe band in Mother Theresa square at midnight. (Rally Albania, I'm talking about you!) Other times it just weird. Like bicycle boy a few posts down.

The same sense of anticipation applies to driving around the country. You never know what will be around the next corner. Usually, it's just a clapped-out Mercedes straddling the center line while its driver chats on the cell phone. Every now and then it's entertaining like this gaggle of well-mannered turkeys being herded across the road.

This always brings a smile to my face. Herding turkeys. I ws raised with the conventional wisdom that turkeys are so dumb that if you leave them out in the rain, they will look up to see what is happening and drown because they aren't smart enough to shut their mouths. Turns out these little geniuses are more clever than I thought. Not only do they herd well, but they can be made to sit peacefully at the roadside as the locals haggle over price. I now have a new respect for turkeys; mildly intelligent and very tasty too!

Other surprises around the corner are less amusing, yet not entirely unwelcome despite the delay and inconvenience they bring. This sight greeted me last weekend on my way down south between Qeparo and Borshi.

I was a little annoyed that these intrepid workers couldn't find a way to route traffic around the worksite. My annoyance was counterbalanced by the knowledge that each rock chipped off the side brought this road one step closer to completion. Overall, almost 60% of the road between Vlora and Saranda has been improved. Still lots of work to do, but it's going to be a super drive once it's done. I may have to buy a motorcycle so I can appreciate its winding, smooth pavement and stunning views the way it should be enjoyed.

I also had grudging respect for these guys who were doing the job with a hand-held jackhammer. Although, during the 20-minute wait for the truck to fill up, I did wonder why a country that has thousands of tons of excess ammuniton can't spare a few kilos of TNT for something constructive.

Once past this roadblock, I rounded another curve and there was a second crew, hammering away at the rock. This time I spent 15 minutes listening to the "Saranda Seranade" of the backhoe-mounted super jackhammer as it chunka-chunka-chunka-ed a pile of rock onto the road and an old bulldozer pushed the rubble off the side of the road. I drove past I waved and wished them 'Pune te mbare' as I accelerated down the road. From here to Saranda it's an hour of winding road. I can't wait to see what's around the next corner!


Reuters Gets In on the Act

Oh look, a bandwagon! Let's jump on it!


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Road Warrior

So, how many little kids do you have to run over to amass a collection of bikes like this?


Tuesday, September 23, 2008


My first overseas trip took me to Greece where I had my initial brush with historical ruins. Venetian castles, Turkish fortresses, German bunkers, and the Minoan palace at Knossos. It was a new experience and created an awareness of the vast continuum of history that I didn't have growing up in the American West. In Greece, goats grazed on the ramparts where Venetians fended off attacks 300 years ago and local residents treated the site as nothing special, just "our castle."

The same thing exists in Albania today. People go about their lives in the midst of antiquities. Castles, tombs, forts, basilicas, amphitheaters are scattered throughout the countryside and woven into the fabric of life. In Kruja, Berat, and Tepelena, people live inside the walled ramparts of castles as people have for hundreds of years. Some sites have faded from national consciousness due to their isolation. One is Bashtova Castle. A Venetian fortress built at the mouth of the Shkumbin River as part of the chain of strong points that secured their mastery of the maritime trade throughout the Mediterranean.

Today, the castle sits in solitude, another landscape feature for the farmers to plow around. Time has chipped away at the massive walls, but enough remains for a visitor to appreciate the size and layout of the bastion. Walk the walls and hear the wind whispering across the fields, carrying the scent of the nearby sea. The Shkumbin has changed course over the centuries, depositing its load of silt on the flatlands so the castle no longer commands a view of the harbor.

It's not hard, though, to imagine the place full of the bustle of trade. Goods from inland brought down the ancient trade routes that follow the river through the mountains. The Romans built their Via Egnatia along this route, connecting Rome to Constantinople and the Venetians followed suit.

The arches which line the inner periphery of the wall served as storage for goods awaiting transport out by ship as well as magazines for supplies and weaponry for the soldiers who kept the area secure for trade.

From atop the guard towers at each corner and above each gateway you can feel the strength and sense of security that those defenders must have felt. No doubt they felt a sense of supreme confidence not knowing that, like all the things man makes, even the ramparts of Bashtova Castle fall in the face of the ceaseless march of time. Albania has seen them rise, prosper, and fall into ruin. At the peak of their power, they shaped the society and to a lesser extent still do. Even if their presence no longer command respect and awe, these citadels draw the interest of travellers and the annoyance of farmers.

Times They Are A-Changin'

Was it only two years since A.A. Gill penned his sarcastic, snide criticism of Tirana?

Now this article comes along to join the chorus of voices extolling the unique attractions of the city and Albania. You gotta love it!


Monday, September 22, 2008

A Day at Butrint

As I stood in line at the entry to Butrint on Saturday, the words of William Butler Yeats came to mind:

"Now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Granted, I've never actually read Yeats. I only remember this quote because it was included by Stephen King in his ultra-long novel of dark horror, The Stand. Pretty grim stuff. Why would I be thinking of this line at Butrint?

I took some friends down there to give them a chance to see some of the southern parts of Albania. One was a history buff who I had convinced to travel to Butrint. No place in this country has more history stacked layer on layer than this archeological marvel. I explained how the road south is much better than it used to be, that I could find a nice hotel to stay in, and that he would be practically alone in Butrint as the tourist season was over and the crowds had gone home.

As we left Saranda and headed south toward Ksamil, I knew I would soon be eating my words. There were buses on the road in front of us. Liberal use of the horn and some creative throttle work saw us past the buses and at Butrint in no time. As we loaded up our gear to enter the park, three buses pulled up and disgorged their cargo. British, French, and German tourists followed their guides like so many ducklings. We ended up in line behind them, queuing for tickets. That's when I had my Yeats moment.

The "rough beast" of mass tourism has awakened and is slowly slouching into Albania. I was on the verge of getting depressed until I started listening to the comments from some of the folks in line.
To a one they were enthusiastic about being in Albania. Several remarked on how different reality was compared to the image of Albania they got from the news. These were the same things I had been saying for years. How could I be critical when this is what I'd been advocating all along. This country is great! Come on over and see for yourself.

So, come visit Albania. Definitely go to Butrint. If there is a glut of tourists when you get there, don't despair. You can still have your quiet ramble through history. When you get to the fork in the path and all the tours go right to the theater, you go left and up the stairs. This clockwise circuit of the site has several advantages. One is that all the guides take people around counterclockwise so you won't have to follow them, just pass them halfway around. Second, you get to see the museum at the top first. This wonderful display puts everything in context and prepares you to better understand the ruins you will see on the rest of the walk. Finally, you finish at the theater, which is the highlight of the site.

And to cap things off, an article in the London Times was in my inbox this Monday morning which added to the chorus of positive reviews of travel in Albania. Even better, the author made it to Gjirokaster as well. Check here for the story.


Monday, September 8, 2008


Sorry for not posting in such a long time. I was out trying on moccasins. You've heard the Native American expression "Don't judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins," right? I had the chance recently.

The longer I stay here, the more I notice I am starting to have a harder time identifying with new arrivals and visitors. Their observations and complaints start to sound trivial and inane to me. I find myself listening while they talk and thinking, "What do you mean you can't find decent meat here? There's at least five good butchers in the Blloku area alone. Not another expat rant about how hard it is to communicate with the Albanians! OK, OK, I get it - you don't like the whole "shake your head no for yes and nod once for no." It really isn't that hard.

Secure in my smug sense of superiority, I went on vaction for a few days recently and found myself squarely in their shoes. That's another of the joys of living in the Balkans. Travel a few hours and you are in an entirely new culture. New language, new alphabet, new food. My role quickly changed from savvy local inhabitant to helpless foreigner.

At the border post there was an issue with my vehicle. After trying Italian, German, and his native Serbo-Croat, the officer resorted to monosyllables of pseudo-Esperanto. "Problem!" "Problem!" I did too. Flapping my hands around and talking louder in English and Albanian didn't help at all.

Somehow I managed to get through the border and head on up the road. Then it struck again. I couldn't read the road signs. The sensation of complete helplessness threatened to overwhelm me. "Can't these people mark the roads clearly?" Through sheer luck and repeated driving around in circles in town centers I made it to my destination, checked in to the hotel, and got some rest.

A few hours later I hopped in the shower and was blessed by a rain of freezing droplets. "Shit, no hot water!" After a much-shortened and thouroughly unenjoyable shower, I marched down to reception and played indignant customer. The clerk was unfazed because be didn't understand a word I said. Or I should say he did understand the problem, I just couldn't understand the solution he was trying to explain. We trooped up to the room and he showed me the switch on the wall with all the other light switches which turned on the water heater. As he left, I recognized the look in his eyes. "Silly foreigner, stop bothering me with your inane problems. Everyone knows enough to turn on the water heater when they arrive."

To be fair, I actually had a great time. Lounging on the beach. Exploring the old cities and new attractions. Getting the feel of a new culture. Listening to music which, while different, still carried the influence of past Ottoman domination of this part of the world. There were other moments when the sense of foreigness intruded and I reacted like a true tourist: internal panic followed by avoidance then a diatribe against the local practice. As I returned to Albania, I had a sly little smile on my face.

I had learned again the meaning of "culture shock" and how strongly it can affect a traveler. I reminded myself how every traveller, no matter how experienced or jaded, is susceptible. I also learned again how it doesn't help when the locals (native or expat) pooh-pooh your reaction. After a short time wearing the moccasins of a new arrival, I promised myself I would remember how it feels to be in that position and refrain from criticizing. I'll work on my patience and my Esperanto.