Sep
05
2009
0

Our return to Lin, Albania

On the Albanian shore of Lake Ohrid lies the small village of Lin. The village is situated below a massive rock formation which juts out a few hundred meters into Ohird and the lake shore. At the very end of this great rock sit two communist-era bunkers erected by the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.

Three years ago, we stopped at Lin and were lucky to have some local children as our guides.  On our return, we sought out the same children who gave us such a memorable tour the first time through and took them out to dinner at a local restaurant as a thank  you.

Here we are sitting on top of the bunker over Ohrid. Residents have convereted this particular bunker into a shrine and the children asked that we place some coins there for good luck.

Lin, Albania

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Sep
04
2009
2

Ksamil Beach in Southern Albania

Ksamil is a small coastal village 15 minutes south of Sarande and just north of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrinti. There are a number of small hotels and restaurants on the mainland all serving fresh fish from the local waters. Three are also four small islands you can easily swim to (or hitch a cheap boat ride to) which each have small bars where you can get a drink. A beautiful little oasis with a lot of potential.


See the full size panorama here.

Sep
04
2009
1

Swimming in Syri i Kalter (The Blue Eye)

Swimming in Syri i Kalter

Click the image to see the full 370 megapixel photo

Syri i kalter is a natural spring believed to be fed by Ioanina lake in Greece. Divers have not yet been able to touch the end. The name is said to come from a sound engineer who worked for some years in the nearby hydropower station, and compared the spring with the blue eyes of his fiancée.

I’d been here once before three years prior and told my Kejda that I wanted to swim in it the next time. Of course, she thought that was crazy. We made it back late in the afternoon, on September 4, 2009. The sun was setting and the colors were not as brilliant as before, but the spot was still beautiful. I setup the gigapan and quickly stripped down to my shorts, standing on the shore line while my wife watched carefully the direction of the Gigapan robot. One her cue, I dove in and felt a cold shock the likes of which I’d never felt — and probably will avoid in the future. I started swimming furiously across the short distance, but my muscles had to work much harder than I expected and it seemed to take a while to get to the other side. Exhilerating but pretty scary too.

In order to get in this shot, I had to time it perfectly. I wasn’t sure the gigapan was going to capture me and was very pleased to see that it did.

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Sep
02
2009
5

Hotel Liro in Vlore, Albania

Hotel Liro

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Nestled into the cliffs overlooking the Ionian Sea, Hotel Liro in Vlore, Albania is a rare experience. Offering balconies almost straight above the clear, cool, transparent Mediterranean waters. the hotel offers free use of kayaks, canoes, a pool, scuba, and various water sporting equipment. The restaurant and espresso bar are pricey by Albanian standards, which means, for only $15 a person, you can eat an excellent meal with two appetizers, a main course, and beer or wine. The private beach below is made up of smooth rocks, but I suggest aqua socks or sandals. What I love about the Ionian Sea is that just a few steps out from the shore and you are above your heads (a haven for cliff-divers). You can literally dive into the ocean from the shore.

Three years ago we stayed in Vlore at a hotel above the cliffs where Liro sites — we didn’t see even the hotel until after we had checked in at the other hotel. We vowed to stay at Liro on our next trip and this time we spent three days and nights and we loved every minute of it (September 1 to September 3).

Vlora beach in southwestern AlbaniaThe city of Vlora, known also as Vlonë, or Valona is located in the southwest of Albania, with a population of 61,300 inhabitants. It is in front of Karaburuni peninsula and Sazani Island, close to various sandy and rocky beaches and the scenic mountains. Vlora is Albania’s second largest port, having regular ferry boat connections with Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi. The city is rapidly expanding with massive hotel developments. The downtown coastal region is literally starting to look like Miami — I kid you not. Vlore and Hotel Liro is a must visit if you find yourself visiting Albania.

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Aug
27
2009
0

Returning to Albania

New write-ups and lots of amazing photos coming soon…

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Aug
03
2006
0

Last night in Tirana

Taiwan Center

After a long day looking at churches and sites in the southeast of Albania, we worked our way back to Tirana in time to have a late dinner with Kejda’s cousin Dasara. We chose the Taiwan Center, even though we’d been there once already earlier in the week. The food is amazing and the prices are so reasonable, it is hard to believe.

When we finished our dinner, we walked back to the Mercedes (which had just been over 1000 kilos of some of the worst roads known to cars without any incident whatsoever) to discover a flat tire. That was cruel irony, given how tired we were.

We went home – got a couple hours sleep, and set out for the airport around 330AM in the middle of a quiet Tirana night. Kejda dropped me off (she would stay an extra couple of weeks with her family – I had to get back to work) and alone I set off back to New York, grateful for the experience, eager to return.

Aug
03
2006
0

Driving Home to Tirana

After squeezing in as many sites as possible, it was finally time to get back to Tirana for a late dinner and to catch a few hours of sleep before I had to set out to Rinas Airport for a real early flight back home. Here are a few photos of that quiet and relaxing drive.

Driving Home to Tirana - Aug 3, 2006 - 13 Photos

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Aug
03
2006
0

A Quick Swim in Lake Ohrid

Michael found the beaches in Tushemisht too littered for a comfortable non-repugnant swim, so he seemingly decided to give up on Lake Ohrid. We stopped in quite a few places with better cleaner beaches than Tushemisht; Pogradec was one of these places. But Michael seemed convinced in his decision so I stopped asking him if he wanted to take a dip. Driving back from Pogradec to Tirana, however, he just suddenly pulled over in the middle of nowhere, and told me he’s changed his mind as he was taking his shirt off. So he went in for a quickie. I’m glad he did, so glad I didn’t want to ruin his moment by asking him to put his shirt back on when we drove off. I should have, it was a little embarrassing when he was pulled over by a cop, shirtless, for trying to pass a big truck on a narrow and curvy pass.

Quick Swim in Lake Ohrid
Aug
03
2006
0

Voskopoja – Land of many churches

Three very old churches and a monastery and lunch for $4.50.

Aug
03
2006
0

The Church of Ristoz – Mborje, Albania (outside of Korce)

The Church of Ristoz - Mborje

Finding the Church of Ristoz, what the local population claimed was the “oldest church in the balkans,” was not easy. The people of Korce all seemed to offer generalized directions (“by the beer factory” or “up that way”) so it took a bit of time and a bit of walking to find it. The mountainside village, resting safely above Korce valley, was in the middle of road and pipe repairs so that the entire village roads were dug up and impassable by anything not resembling an army tank.

We were directed around a corner and managed to find the front gate but were disappointed to see the church door closed and no windows at all to peek in. We walked around back to find four teenage boys smoking and lazing around in the shade of a tree. They told us the guy who maintained the church wasn’t there at the moment. After a few minutes walking around the church clearly disappointed, one of boys asked if we “really needed to see it” and we said we had come from far just for this. He said okay and set off down the road to find the man who held the key. Ten minutes later, he returned key in hand, and unlocked the door and let us be.

The doors opened to a dark and mysterious three roomed church, intact with ancient christian murals painted on almost every wall. Sadly, we had no flashlight (if you are going to explore the castles and churches of Albania, a flashlight is a good idea) but still managed a few stunning photographs out of the dim light available only through the front door and cracks between the rocks that made up the walls. The church was not so easy to navigate, as there was scaffolding setup by whomever was working on the restoration.

Our exploration was cut a bit short by some locals who had marched up the hill to find the out of towners who had managed to block his car from leaving town.

Google Map

Aug
03
2006
0

Korca, Albania

Korca

The drive from Pogradec to Korca was pretty uneventful, or so I am deducing because I do not remember anything from it. Once in Korca, I was shocked at how bare the city looked baked in the sun. And then I remembered that Korca is a city whose center is off-center. It’s full of beautiful houses and monuments which are hidden in narrow alleys and semidetached neighborhoods. I have lots family in Korca, but I’ve never paid attention to where they live, or the nice parts of the city that they’ve shown me because I’ve always passively followed people to places and I’ve never actually led the way. We found the city looking upside-down, or inside-out to be more accurate, because the municipality was redoing all the pipes across town.

People were cordial when asked for directions, but they had that implied sense of self-importance, typical of Korcars, who assume everyone should know where certain things in their city are, that’s why they gave us directions that were based on us knowing where major buildings or institutions were. Oh well, it’s the Korca way.

- Kejda

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Aug
03
2006
0

Driving Tushemisht to Korca

Sites included lush vegetation, curvy yet well-paved roads. Most interesting was a farm animal market in the middle of the mountains. Buying and selling cows – pretty cool.

-Michael

I really enjoyed the ride for the most part, might have been more fun or more stressful if I were behind the wheel, I don’t know. The road curves and curls like crazy but the scenery is rewarding. If you see little kids selling pears or peeled hazelnuts on the side of the road, don’t get something you don’t need just because you feel bad for the kid: if you do, you will feel bad for the next ten kids you’ll pass by without buying anything from in the next couple of minutes, all trying to sell the same things. I suggest having the camera ready at all times, this is a beautiful strip of Albania.

-Kejda

Aug 3, 2006 – 2 Photos
Aug
03
2006
0

Good Morning – Tushemisht, Albania

Tushemisht – Morning

Since we arrived so late and exhausted the previous night, we walked around a bit in the morning to see the beaches in Tushemisht near the Hotel Millenium. I was pretty disappointed with the amount of trash that the locals were throwing on the beach and in a small stream that was feeding into the southern shore; disappointed enough to not want to go swimming there. The Millenium Hotel was great, with an amazing view of Lake Ohrid, but sadly I remember the unkempt nature of the beach as a lasting impression.

-Michael

This beach has only recently gotten that dirty. It’s all superficial (though heavy) pollution. I mean that the water of the lake and the beaches themselves are very clean so once you manage to dive in, it’s pretty pleasant. The locals put up with the thrash because most of them just don’t know any better, but it’s unlikely that any tourist will excuse the flagrant negligence and disregard in maintaining the beach. Tushemisht has always been pretty isolated, and members of the bureau would come there in the summer to spend their holidays during communism. I know their villas are somewhere around the coast of the lake, but I’ve never seen them; I guess I haven’t been in Tushemisht all that often. There are some really nice restaurants in the area, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to eat there. I suggest anyone to try the Koran fish, it’s endemic to Lake Ohrid so you won’t find it anywhere else, not that fresh anyway.

-Kejda

Aug
02
2006
7

Lin, Albania – Shen Kolli

Lin, Albania

In transit between Elbasan and Pogradec, we were mesmerized by and decided to visit the giant boulder that juts out into Ohrid Lake. Little did we know that we were about to be taken on a tour of an ancient Illyrian basilica by two cousins, aged 15 and 7.

It was the rock that drove us here, and it only exceeded our wildest imaginations. The boy guides were urged by their parents to show us around and they promptly hopped in back of our trusty 84 Mercedes (with many jealous neighborhood boys wondering what the commotion was all about) and they guided us up a few narrow paths until we reached a partially excavated Illyrian ruin with an open steel structure built over it to smartly protect the site from the sun and the rain. Within minutes, the boys were uncovering sections of floor mosaics they obviously knew well, showing us an ancient grave (as well as a human leg bone), and telling us about the other nearby holy sites and the man who was charged with guarding the site. They told us to lock our car doors and invited us out to the very end of the rock that had called us to Lin in the first place. Here we would find an Enver Hoxha-era army bunker converted into a church (seriously)!

The sun was setting and a swift breeze was buzzing telephone wires above our head, creating an almost surreal hike out to the rock point and the coverted bunker. This rock was the sort of place that invites deep breaths and a reminder of the joy of life and discovery.

We left Lin causing quite a happy stir, buying soda and candy for the raucus neighborhood boys, to whom nearby Pogradhec was a big city, never mind Tirana or New York. Driving away, we realized how lucky we were to discover such a gem of a village and illyrian ruin, considering the whim that took us there to begin.

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Aug
02
2006
1

Masio Scampa – Elbasan, Albania

Driving down into Elbasan

My grandfather is an Elbasan Jew. I really didn’t know much about the city, pretty much nothing at all actually, except for the infamous metallurgic complex uptown. I asked grandpa what it’s worth seeing in Elbasan as we’d drive by the city on the way to Pogradec. He completely dismissed my new-found interest in his hometown and said that there’s really nothing there, except for a really nice restaurant he suggested we stop to have dinner in.

The restaurant was easy to find, right inside the front-walls of the castle. So yes, there’s a castle in Elbasan. It’s not by any means an impressive one from the military point of view. I think its role was mostly that of encapsulating the city and providing a few watchtowers to look out for potential invaders.

Elbasan, Albania

I have to say, my parents and grandparents as well had all informed that this restaurant was top notch, but I really couldn’t have imagined how amazing it actually would be. It was more than a restaurant; it was a conglomerate of buildings and complexes, including a bar, a restaurant, a hotel and a stage for festivals or shows of any kind, build to look like a little amphitheater. The foundations of many of the buildings were elevated, displaying various ruins and artifacts that were still being excavated by a team of archeologists who looked like they worked for the Scampi complex. The architecture of the new complex was classic and sophisticated. I thought it really dignified the spot it took within the castle walls. We only explored the insides of the restaurant, which I was very impressed with. The furniture, lighting, decorations and atmosphere exquisitely combined to synthesize a very authentic high-class Albanian setting. The attention to detail was remarkable and the food itself was great and very affordable since prices in various Albanian restaurants usually fluctuate only by a few dollars. Service was fine, thought I thought the waiter was a little cocky.

When we were done eating and exploring the restaurant, we set off to explore the neighborhood inside the castle walls while we did a little digesting. I could not believe my grandpa was so dismissive of the place because I found the castle neighborhood to be beautiful and unique. It was full of narrow ancient streets of cobblestone, bright white walls running everywhere to connect houses’ yards, grapes growing in the sun and random monuments dropped here and there. I found every other moment in the castle neighborhood to be picture-worthy because every house or street I saw were unique. We asked some locals what there was there to see, and they gave us directions to an ancient church nearby. On the way there, we had to ask for directions again, this time from some British guy who just happened to be visiting there I don’t remember what for, and who seemed to be mesmerized with Elbasan, the only Albanian city he’d ever been to. The church looked very interesting, almost gothic, ornamented with big gloomy gargoyles (or chimeras, I was not sure if they worked as waterspouts). It had a unique architecture for an Orthodox church and I was very curious to see it on the inside, but as it turns out with most churches of similar caliber, it was locked and accessible only through some priest who had the key and whom we had no idea how to find. (Later that week upon returning to Tirana, I was very surprised to find out that this priest was actually my relative, a cousin of my grandpa’s. Made me wish I’d stuck around for him to come unlock it.)

So after seeing as much as we could of the church from the outside, we met with some other distant relatives of mine, who lived in this weird house right in front of the church. I knocked on their door just to inquire on how to get in the church, and the front door was unlocked. As I stepped in, I saw the place was loaded with Jewish symbols everywhere, but when I later asked the lady living there she said it was just a coincidence; well she said that before she found out I was part Jewish myself, but I still don’t understand why she didn’t want to reveal that. It’s not a big deal to be Jewish in Albania at all. She had a few girlfriends next to her as she was chatting with us from her house’s terrace. One of them was eye-humping Michael so hard he was getting uncomfortable. I got a kick out of that.

There was a lot to see in the castle neighborhood and I’d like to go there again sometime.

-Kejda

Google Map of Elbasan

Elbasan entry from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Elbasan came into prominenece in the Roman period when it was known as Masio Scampa. The word Scampa means rocks or peaks in the ancient Illyrian language. The Romans built a substantial fortress here, about 300 meters square, protected by towers. In the 3rd and 4th centuries it became known as Hiskampis. It had developed as an important trade and transport centre near the junction of two branches of the Via Egnatia coming from Apollonia and Dyrrachium.

Ptolemy wrote that it was the town of the Eordaei tribe, who later migrated to Macedonia. It took part in the spread of Christianity along the Via, and had a bishop, cathedral and basilicas as early as the 5th century. But as a town in a wide river valley, it was vulnerable to barbarian attacks once the legions were withdrawn, and despite the efforts of the Emperor Justinian to improve the fortications. Hiskampis was destroyed by the Bulgars and Ostrogoths during the Slav invasions of the Balkans. Although some semblance of urban and military life must have continued for a time, as it is mentioned in the work of Procopius of Cæsarea in the 6th century, it was totally destroyed by the Bulgars in intermittent attacks over the next 200 years.

The site seems to have been abandoned until the Ottoman invaders built a military camp here, followed by urban reconstruction under Sultan Mehmet II in 1467, who constructed a massive four-sided castle, with a deep moat and three gates. He named it Ilibasan, meaning ‘strong place’ in Turkish. It became a centre of Ottoman urban civilisation over the next 400 years. By the end of the 17th century it had 2000 inhabitants. The fortress was dismantled by Reshit Pasha in 1832.

Aug
02
2006
0

Driving Tirana to Elbasan

Driving from Tirana to Elbasan

Driving Tirana to Elbasan
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Aug
01
2006
3

Rozafa Castle – Shkodra, Albania

Rozafa Castle – Shkodra, Albania

Lat/Long = 42.046424,19.493898

Google Map

Rozafati

From Wikipedia

In the background of the city of Shkodra, in northwestern Albania, the “Rozafa” castle rises imposingly on a rocky hill, 130 meters above sea level. It seems as if iron claws keep it on the steep rocks surrounded by the Buna and Drini rivers. The city is the capital of the District of Shkodër, and is one of Albania’s oldest and most historic towns, as well as an important cultural and economic centre.

The castle is known by the toponym “Rozafa”. The hill on which castle lies is in the center of all transportation routes. The German author Johan Georgvan Han has asserted that no other place would be as suitable for its construction as the one chosen by the ancestors who were well aware of this fact. The castle has faced the torrents of history for thousands of years retaining ancient and medieval traces which are inseparably bound up with the roots of Shkodra city.

Legend

Its legend, archaeology and history testify to its early existence. The legend is about the initiative of three brothers who set about building the castle. They worked all day, but the walls fell down at night. They met a clever old man who advised them to sacrifice someone so that the walls would stand. The three brothers found it difficult to decide whom to sacrifice. Finally, they decided to sacrifice one of their wives who would bring lunch to them the next day. So they agreed that whichever of their wives was the one to bring them lunch the next day was the one who would be buried in the wall of the castle. They also promised not to tell their wives of this. The two older brothers, however, explained the situation to their wives that night, while the honest youngest brother said nothing.

The next afternoon at lunch time, the brothers waited anxiously to see which wife was carrying the basket of food. It was Rosafa, the wife of the youngest brother. He explained to her what the deal was, that she was to be sacrificed and buried in the wall of the castle so that they could finish building it, and she didn’t protest.

The faithfulness of the youngest brother and the life sacrifice of his young wife are highlighted as elements that acquire symbolic importance. Rosafa, who was predestined to be walled was worried about her infant son, though accepted being walled on condition that they must leave her right breast exposed so as to feed her newborn son, her right hand to caress him and her right foot to rock his cradle.

This was done, and that is why there is a stone in the castle from which, even today, milk flows.

Aug
01
2006
2
Jul
31
2006
0

Eating in Fier

Kestjella Bar – Restaurant – Pizzari (Castle Bar & Restaurant & Pizzaria)

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Jul
31
2006
0

Leaving Saranda

Headed North on what would turn out to be perhaps the most amazing day of the trip. We took in so much in so little a time.

Leaving Saranda
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Jul
30
2006
0

Last night in Saranda

Last night in Saranda

Jul 30, 2006 – 11 Photos
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Jul
30
2006
0

Ksamili Beach – Ksamili, Albania (near Saranda)

Jul 30, 2006 – 17 Photos

Velipje Beach - near Saranda, Albania

Kejda and I spent the afternoon at Ksamili Beach, a place she visited many times with her parents as a child.  About 15 minutes south of Saranda, this is a much quieter beach (and slightly cleaner) beach than what is available in Saranda harbor.

We both swam across the waterway to the island in the Google Earth screenshot above.  The water was warm and gentle and save for a lone cow rummaging through a dumpster on the way out, this is one of the nicest beaches in Albania we saw.

Google Map

Jul
30
2006
2

Good morning Saranda

Jul 30, 2006 – 6 Photos

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Jul
26
2006
1

Welcome to Tirana

The view from Kejda's apartment. Welcome to Tirana.

Jet lagged, we awoke to our first day in Tirana (after checking into a hotel the previous evening).  Spent the day walking around, meeting the family, eating at Kolonat (the Albanian McDonald’s rip-off) and getting our bearings.

My introduction to Kejda’s father was when he picked us up at the hotel, and walked into the middle of a shouting match between Kejda and the hotel’s owner, who was over-charging us for the room. There was some mighty fury and I admit to being sort of scared, not really knowing much of anything about the city or its people.

Eventually things settled down just enough for us to get out of there, though the yelling continued even as we were getting into the car.

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