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Date of travel

March, 2017

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Until the fall of communism in 1991, Albania was closed to tourists. Even now it is only just being discovered and doesn’t feature on the usual tourist itinerary. In the C18th the historian Edward Gibbon described Albania as, “a country in sight of Italy less known than the wilds of America.” This could still be true today.

This seemed to be an excellent reason to visit before it gets discovered. It is a remarkable country with over 75% of the land being serious mountains with a narrow coastal plain and long sandy beaches along the Ionian and Adriatic sea. It also has a history stretching back to the C7th BC with many ancient cities.

There are a few companies running escorted tours to Albania and I decided on the “Classical Tour of Albania”: with “Jules Verne”:

This just concentrated on Albania and also gave a reasonable amount of time in each place – important considering the long distances driving and time spent sitting in the coach. They also have small groups; fifteen on our tour. It was also a reasonable price. I discounted other companies as often tours included time in neighbouring countries which I didn’t want or else were action packed with many stops in one day which wouldn’t allow much time in any.

It was an early morning flight from Gatwick, with a 5am check in, so I booked the previous night at the “Bloc Hotel”:http:// in the south terminal at Gatwick Airport. This is just a short walk from check in.

The flight got us to Tirana just before midday where we were met by Ilir Parangoni who was to be our guide for the holiday. Having written several books on the archaeological sites in Albania, he was a good choice.

“DAY 1”:
We drove from the airport to Durres where we visited the Amphitheatre and archaeological museum before booking into Hotel Belconti for the night. This is a big modern building on the southern edge of the town next to the beach. I had a large and comfortable corner room with a large balcony overlooking the beach and gardens of the next door hotel.

“DAY 2”:
This was a long day driving to Saranda. We had a brief stop in Vlora to see the Independence Monument in Flag Square. The Museum was shut as it was a public holiday for Nevruz day. We then drove south along the dramatic Riviera Highway over the Llogara Pass with its steep hair pin bends and snow topped mountains. There was a brief stop to visit Ali Pasha’s Fortress at Port Palermo before arriving in the dark at Saranda where we were booked into Hotel Brilant for two nights. This again was a large modern hotel overlooking the bay.

“DAY 3”:
The highlight of the day was a visit to Butrint set among the trees on a peninsula in Lake Butrint. This is a very photogenic site with a history stretching back to the C7th BC and has a small museum of finds on the site. This site really does need a half day to do it justice, especially if you visit the Triangular fort reached by a rickety, pontoon style ferry across the Vivaro Channel. We finished the day by driving up to Lekuresi Castle on a hill top over looking Saranda. There is little left of the castle but it is worth the drive on a clear day for the views.

“DAY 4”:
Leaving Saranda, we made a detour to the delightful Blue Eye Spring, before heading to Gjirokastra with its narrow cobbled streets, ottoman houses and fortress. We climbed up to the fortress and visited Skendule House, a typical Ottoman house. We spent the night at Hotel Argjiro, a very comfortable hotel in the heart of the town.

“DAY 5”:
This was another long day visiting two important sites as well as a shot stop in the small village of Krahes for the Saturday market. There were two sites on the itinerary; Byllis is an impressive and massive hilltop site, founded in the C4th BC and Apollonia which dates from the C6th BC and was very important in Roman times. The C13th monastery church of St Mary is part of the site and has a small museum with some wonderful examples of early pottery. The church with its iconostasis and the refrectory with the remains of wall paintings are also worth seeing. We were booked into Hotel Mangalemi in Berat for the night. Set in the heart of the Ottoman city,in one of the old Ottoman buildings, this was the most interesting hotel we used.

“DAY 6”:
We began with a short walk around the Mangalemi quarter of Berat with its Ottoman architecture and the Islamic centre with the King’s Mosque and Helveti tekke. We then headed up to the castle set above the town with the Onufri Museum. The castle is unusual as it is still inhabited with narrow streets lined with old houses. Again plenty of time needs to be allowed and we could easily have spent a whole day here. We only just scratched the surface. We were booked into Hotel Theranda in Tirana for the next two nights. This is a good location close to the city centre attractions. We had time for a short guided tour of the Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombrit, part of the ministerial area built by the Italians between the wars.

“DAY 7”:
This was an easier day beginning with a visit to the Headquarters of the Bektashi Sect of Islam, who are a very liberal form of Islam. This was followed by a cable car ride up Dajti Mountain with views back down to tirana,. The rest of the day was free.

“DAY 8”:
This began with a visit to the National Historical Museum in Tirana which covers the history of Albania from earliest times up to the end of Communism. We then drove to Kruja, which was the capital during the Albanian resistance against the Ottoman in the C15th. Skanderbeg the local hero is celebrated in the museum in the fortress. This also contains an extremely good ethnographic museum. We finished off by haggling for souvenirs in the old bazaar before heading back to Tirana Airport for the late evening flight back to Gatwick.

It was an excellent holiday. It was intensive with packed days and long drives but we did have a reasonable amount of time to see the different places. I would have appreciated longer in both Gjirokrasa and Berat, possibly with an extra night in Berat. Having checked out other itineraries since I got home, this was certainly the best.

The full details and all my pictures are “here.”:


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