Pittsburgh was at the crossroads, commanding a literal pivotal position in the struggle for control of New World colonies by France and England – the Keystone of the Frontier. George Washington surveyed from a point now known as Mount Washington and picked the location for what became known as Fort Pitt, for who controlled this confluence of the rivers, would control the Colonial empire. Meriwether Lewis embarked on his historic westward Lewis & Clark Expedition from Pittsburgh.
The city grew and prospered and was blighted under the control of Industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick whose steel mills controlled almost one-third of US output that built America’s infrastructure and turned the nation into an economic world power.
Most of those steel mills, the coal mines, the rail lines, the glass factories are shuttered, and the city went through a dismal time. But today, the city has been reborn.
One of the best reasons to visit Pittsburgh is to see how a city reclaims itself, how it can rise like a phoenix quite literally from ashes and turn itself into a city that embraces and nurtures its people.
The most fascinating discovery about Pittsburgh is how a city built for commerce and industry, built upon steel and machines, has become such a walkable, bikeable, liveable place – from grey to green.
You still see coal on barges on the river, railroads carrying freight on the bank below Mount Washington, the skyscrapers housing US Steel Corporation and the United Steelworkers Union, but you can actually see the city from Grandview Avenue, where once, the smokestacks would billow such thick particulates as to choke the city.
There is such richness in culture and heritage that abounds here, but the best reason to visit is to feel the vibe.
You feel it as you walk about, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, taking in the stunning juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture against modern structures. Pittsburgh is becoming an example of a “best of both worlds”, though old and new doesn’t necessarily mesh seamlessly, but rather with an exciting creative tension.
I have come to Pittsburgh to join the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn three-day, 120-mile bike tour on the Great Allegheny Passage – a trail reclaimed from a former rail line that was used to carry the coal from the mines to the steel mills. It is the foremost example of the transition of an economy and the society that it supports. But I only have one full day, so I want my time to be as productive as possible.
I start with the hotel’s concierge to get some ideas of how to organize my day in order to pack enough highlights that give me a real sense of this place – the things that are unique to the city.
She, in fact, epitomizes the story of Pittsburgh:
You see, her father worked in those steel mills of Andrew Carnegie and Frick, suffering the intense heat of a firey hell. There used to be steel mills lining the riverfront. She remembers how the pollution in the city was so thick, that you could not see the city below Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington ridge where I will be heading soon to take in the view. Her father died at an early age.
Today, the city’s main industries include academia, robotics, banking and finance and his daughter is now a concierge in a luxury hotel.
At its bicentennial in 2016, Pittsburgh boasted a population of 305,704; 2781 acres of city parks; 300 downtown restaurants; 31 skyscrapers; 90 neighborhoods; 24 miles of riverfront trails; 500 bicycle rentals through 50 stations of Pittsburgh Bike Share (download app); 445 bridges (more than any city in the world) across three rivers.
Several Pittsburgh’s unique attractions are associated with people that I had not realized were native sons: August Wilson, Andy Warhol. Indeed, the special history of Pittsburgh is preserved in the institutions associated with the Senator John Heinz History Center (yes, the ketchup company family), as I discover.
She loads me up with handy lists and maps, and draws a route for me, and I am on my way.
Walk with me…
Around the Omni William Penn Hotel, a complete renaissance is still underway: modern skyscrapers in glass and steel reflect back on restored brick Victorians – not exactly a seamless melding of past and present, nor is history accurately reflected.
I head toward the Southfield Street Bridge, a jewel of a steel bridge with a walking/biking lane, that takes me over the Monongahela River, where on the shore, a lovely indoor Station Square mall has developed around what would have been a factory, and there is a lovely bike path. Across the street, is the entrance to the Monongahela Incline, a funicular that takes you up to the Grandview Avenue, aptly named for the grand view of the city from its heights, on Mount Washington, named for George Washington who surveyed the area from this place, choosing the location at the Point below for a fort.
It is one of two remaining of the original 19 that used to run.
The Monongahela Incline originally opened in 1870 (refurbished in 2015) and is the nation’s oldest cable car operation. Its 35-degree grade makes it the steepest incline in the US; it travels the 635-foot length at 6 mph. It is operated by the Port Authority (so your bus pass works). Though the ride takes but a few minutes, it is so much fun. (portauthority.org).
The story of Pittsburgh is encapsulated from Mount Washington, named for George Washington who as a young man surveyed the area from this perch to choose a location for a fort. You gaze down at the expanse from viewing perches – how the rivers merge together, the skyscrapers and landscape. There are fascinating historical markers along Grandview Avenue that tell the story of steel and the critical role Pittsburgh played in the industrialization of the United States and its emergence, really, as a world economic power, and ultimately, “the Greening of Pittsburgh.”
Mount Washington was once called Coal Hill, the spot where the nation’s coal industry was born around 1760. “Here the Pittsburgh coal bed was mined to supply Fort Pitt. This was eventually to be judged the most valuable individual mineral deposit in the U.S.”
Another marker: “With its steel mills belching fire and smoke, Boston writer James Parton described the city as ‘hell with the lid off.’ Streetlights were often needed in the middle of the day to combat the haze of industrial smoke and grime. As recently as the late 1940s, visitors to Grandview Avenue had to strain to see the skyline through the haze.” Today, despite the clouds casting a grey pallor, I can still see the striking skyscape, and follow the outline of the rivers a long distance.
I stroll the avenue toward the next incline, the Duquesne, passing lovely Victorian homes and a library.
The Duquesne Incline opened in 1877 – it has quite an interesting display of historical photos and artifacts. It is operated by the Society for the Preservation of Duquesne Heights Incline. It travels the 793 length at a speed of 6 mph, bringing me back down to the riverfront and I walk across the Fort Pitt Bridge down into Point State Park.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Here’s my dilemma: A chance to see Albania by bike, a country that is steeped in mystery having been secluded behind an Iron Curtain for decades, but so mountainous, it may be too difficult to make the enormous climbs. Or, I could set aside pride and principle and use an e-bike – an electric bike that uses a battery to give an extra push to your pedaling.
I’m a purist and enjoy the physical challenge of biking. I had had an amazing time on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip in the Greek Isles the year before and know the pain (and accomplishment) of burning lungs that come with tackling the steepest, longest climbs of my life. But the BikeTours experts say that the Greek Isles was a Class 3 ride and Albania would be a Class 4 – with even steeper, longer climbs (and when I look over the day-by-day elevations, one day stands out at being the equivalent of a mile in total elevation gain). So if the Greek Isles was my physical limit, I’m not so sure I can do Albania.
But I also believe that the best way to engage, to discover a destination like Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways, or through villages and neighborhoods. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace to see things, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bells attached to goats, the cicadas; you can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through a forest. You can stop at a bend in the road to take in the breathtaking views or just get your breath. You can stop – even chat – with a shepherd edging his flock across the road. People wave and call out hello as we ride through a village and we wave and say a cheery “hello” as back. Most important of all, you can stop when you want (as I did most frequently) to take photos.
And, finally, I believe ardently in the quest for knowledge and understanding and ambassadorship that is the essence of travel and particularly, the style of travel of a bike tour, so if the only way to experience Albania is to use an e-bike, I will set aside my pride and principle.
And actually, the e-bike is part of the new experience and I discover a whole new dimension of possibility.
For one thing, I discover other advantages of using an ebike: I can stop for pictures and know I can catch up with the group; I don’t suffer or need to focus exclusively on the ride; I don’t lose sleep over the worry of whether I can manage the next day’s ride. What is more, I discover I can make the ride as challenging as I want (I simply don’t go into an easier setting), so I still get the workout I want and feel the satisfaction of conquering a climb. But most importantly, the priority of this trip is to experience a culture and explore a destination, not a physical work-out or just getting from point A to B.
And finally, what I realize is that the e-bike extends horizons and lifespan for adventure and exploration for many of us who have reached an age where we appreciate biking but are unsure of doing the distance or the hills.
And so I opt for the e-bike for the first time. It takes me about two minutes to figure it out and three minutes to get comfortable.
The e-bike is not like a scooter – you still have to pedal. But to me, it takes the hill out of the climb, making it like pedaling on flat surface (unless you want to retain the challenge, as I did, and keep it at an “Econ” setting, the lowest of three “speeds”, “Norm” and “Sport” being the others). In “Econ”, I find, it makes my hybrid bike, which with the added weight of the battery (about 12-15 pounds) feels like a mountain bike, ride like a road bike.
The e-bike that I ride is so responsive – it changes gears immediately, efficiently, at the push of a button (up arrow, down arrow) and I could change speeds if necessary, from “Econ” to “Norm” on a dime, smoothly, without any hesitation or resistance.
I find that on the big hills, by keeping the setting at Econ I still have that physical effort of climbing, but I don’t wind up with burning lungs. And of course, I can just zip up the hills by going to the Norm and for an even greater push, the Sport setting (I never use the Sport setting, and only use Norm a couple of times, when the climb seems never ending).
It makes me feel as if I have superpowers.
The cycling company that BikeTours.com has selected for our tour, Cycle Albania, is relatively new and may in fact be the only company offering bike tours in the country. We attracted attention as we zipped through villages because we were such an oddity.
I am really impressed with the quality of the bikes, manufactured by the Taiwan-based Giant company, which Cycle Albania purchased from the Netherlands. Each of the bikes – the regular hybrids and the e-bikes (probably the only ones in the entire country) – are the best quality, valued at thousands of dollars (in a country where the median income is $5000 a year). They have hydraulic brakes, suspension. (You can bring your own seat and pedals if you want, as does a couple from Oregon, used to climbing hills).
My pedals have screw heads that grip the soles of my sneakers for the extra push without toe clips.
And boy are we grateful for suspension and hydraulic brakes on the Day 6 ride, when we come down a road more like a mountain trail – broken gravel, rocks, potholes, gravel, steep with winding hairpin turns.
I use the e-bike feature of my Giant bike for the first time on the second day of cycling, when we are leaving Ohrid, in Macedonia, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, and are on the last third of a 35-mile ride. We have three progressively longer and harder hills to climb on our way back into Albania. I just whisk up the hills like nothing – and am only in the “Norm” setting – I didn’t even use the “Sport” setting which gives even more thrust to each pedal stroke.
But that’s what it is – it’s like taking the hill out of the ride. You feel like you are riding on flat. You still pedal each stroke, change the gears but each stroke is magnified. You hear a tiny whir of a motor but it isn’t like riding a scooter.
The e-bike is a superb alternative for anyone who has denied themselves the opportunity to discover a destination by bike – the best way in my opinion – because they were afraid they could not go the distance or manage hills. The e-bike is a godsend: destinations and experiences that seemed out of reach can now be conquered. If you felt you had aged out of managing 35 to 50 miles a day on anything but flat rail-trails, e-bikes open up a whole new world, and a whole new dimension.
(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip. (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 7th in the series.)
After our tour of the National Park of Butrint, the extraordinary archaeological site that lets us travel through five époques of civilization, from the Hellenic to Roman, to Ottoman to Venetian, we continue riding our bikes into Saranda, one of the most popular beach towns along Albania’s Riviera, the end of a 70 km ride.
Draped along a curving bay with a narrow strip of beach, Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.
Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.
Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.
Saranda, formerly known as Porto Edda, named after Mussolini’s daughter, has emerged as a major beach resort on the Ionian Sea, just opposite the Greek island of to Corfu (we watch major cruise ships sailing in the distance toward Corfu). Indeed, it has that cosmopolitan flare we found in Korca, owing to the fact many foreign day-trippers come by ferry from Corfu. There is a very festive atmosphere – and didn’t exist during the Communist reign. Indeed, most of its buildings are post-1990.
Still, Albanian most southern coastal city, only recently accessible, remains unpretentious.
I get the idea that this would be a great place for some Americans looking for an inexpensive place to retire where there is a very pleasant, relaxed, welcoming atmosphere (like in “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). It is cheap to live here, where I calculate living costs at about one-fourth to one-fifth of what we expect to pay in the US, and where the median annual income is $5000 (though Albania’s medical infrastructure gets mixed reviews).
Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.
I drop my stuff at our hotel, a very pleasant place which is directly above this marvelous promenade with gorgeous views from my balcony to the beachfront and marina, and go for a swim.
Instead of soft white sand, though, the beach is made of pebbles (bring water shoes, not just flip flops).
Strolling along the promenade after dinner, I mix in with the crowds of people – couples holding hands, groups of friends, families with young children excitedly leaning up to an ice cream stand. There is a gay, carefree spirit.
This could be Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Long Beach, Jones Beach.
Across the water there is a loud dance place, with bright lights flashing; they shoot off fireworks.
(I subsequently learn that just before we arrived here, the city unveiled a bust to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but I did not know to look for it.)
Today’s ride, the last of the cycling portion of our specially arranged President’s tour of Albania, is the most arduous and challenging, with a total elevation gain of 1064 meters (and an equal drop), over a distance of 54 km.
We cycle up out of Saranda, along the Albanian Riviera heading north toward Himare, a small Communist-era fishing village. We have mountains to the right and coastal views to the left before descending to the long beach and bay of Potam where we get to swim in the brilliant aquamarine waters of the Ionian Sea, just across the street from our hotel.
This ends the biking portion of our trip and I am frankly sad to see our bikes (especially my e-bike, which I have become very attached to) being hauled off in the van by Bato, our wonderful driver. The next two days, we will be traveling by kayak – another special feature of this specially tailored Presidents’ tour.
Seeing the coastline from the kayak is stunning – the blue-to-aquamarine-to-emerald colored water, so clear when you look down; the rocky cliffs that drop straight into the water.
We paddle about 6 km, pulling into secluded beaches and coves, and get to peak into a couple of small caves. There are any number of these beaches where there are but a handful of people, some of whom are camping out.
One of the beaches near Himare (also spelled Dhimare), in particular, has a canyon for a backdrop of exquisite beauty.
It is tremendous fun to arrive into the place where you will be staying by kayak.
Our last two days are spent in Dhermi – a small village that is considered Albania’s #1 beach town – providing us with an unexpected time to just relax and stay put.
This is like the Riviera without any of the pretension. Lounge chairs and umbrellas are neatly laid out; a waiter comes to take drink orders; the roadway (sometimes asphalt, sometimes cobblestone and sometimes dirt and rock) lined with hotels and restaurants.
Here we get more opportunity to hang out with ordinary Albanian families. I am struck to see how parents dote over their kids, how tender, attentive and adoring fathers are with their toddlers, how women are every bit on equal footing with the men, without any kind of self-consciousness. It just is. And how scant the bathing suits. So much for a Majority Muslim country.
On our last evening, Junid, our guide, drives us up to the actual town, Dhermi,built into the hillside, where there is a delightful tavern that has an exquisite view of the sunset.
The next day, on our way back to Tirana, the capital city, where the Mother Theresa International Airport is located, he takes us up to an even higher promontory on the mountain pass, where we get to watch a paragliding club take off and soar down to the seacoast.
It is hard to imagine these scenes 35 years ago or even 20 years ago.
This is the new Albania, the young Albania. It is a very different place from even 10 years ago and one only can imagine what it will be like in 10 years time.
“It’s Europe’s best-kept—and maybe last—secret,” says Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com. Few foreigners have visited this mysterious country due to decades of Communist rule, dictatorship and isolationism. But since the country opened its borders in 1991, visitors have been awestruck by its untouched nature and rich culture and the overall uniqueness of this truly special place.
“Albania still remains undiscovered by mass tourism, setting it apart from other European destinations. In Rome, you’ll throng elbow to elbow with tourists vying for views of ancient ruins. In Albania, you’ll often have them all to yourself. In Butrint National Park, for example, our small group roamed nearly alone among acres of ruins dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval times. Even just to the north in Croatia, tourists clog the beaches. In Albania, we could dip our toes into turquoise waters along the pristine coastline with not another person in sight.
“Albania is the best place no one has been to yet,” he says. “See it now” before it comes on to travelers’ radar.
Bike Touring: Best Way to Travel
I’ve been touring Albania for just two weeks – before it was a complete unknown to me, and I expect most Americans. But I believe that I have really come to know the country, its culture and its people and that’s mainly because of the way we travel: by bike.
Bike touring is the best way to engage, to really discover a destination even in a short period of time. Cars and tour buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways; they would never come through these villages and neighborhoods as we have. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality.
I have found, over a lifetime of travel, that bike touring is my favorite style of traveling. The pace is perfect to really see things – I really like the physical aspect (as opposed to sitting in a car or bus to get point-to-point), with the ability to stop and really look around, have a conversation with a local person, take a photo. The word “authentic” has been bandied about, but bike touring affords one of the more “authentic” travel experiences. Typically, the routes go into villages, through neighborhoods, and along country roads that would not typically be traveled by a tour bus.
And now, with the availability of e-bikes (which are not scooters, but basically provide an electronic boost to your pedaling), especially in hilly destinations, you really don’t have to worry about being able to manage the distance or climbing the hills.
Exercising your body (biking versus sitting in a car or bus) also gets your brain working, and you find yourselves really thinking about what you are seeing, really absorbing.
And what you feel at the end of the trip is a combination of exhilaration, satisfaction and personal growth.
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson, who is leading this special “President’s Tour” of Albania (and who is providing some counsel to USAID on how to develop sustainable tourism, like bike trips), says that too many people have a misconception of what bike tours are about.
“They think they will be biking 100 miles in a day.” In fact, the distances each day were more in the range of 25-50 miles, depending upon the difficulty, and are broken up with coffee stops and lunch.
More significantly, the bike tour itinerary is constructed so that the distances are manageable (there are classes of guided bike-tours which indicate the difficulty), and the emphasis is on enjoying and appreciating the destination, as opposed to racing or training for the Olympics. The day’s rides are designed to feature the best scenery and sites. And each day, we finish biking early in the afternoon and have time for sightseeing, or visit sites along the way, still arriving early in the afternoon at our destination. (Admissions are typically included and the visits are guided.)
Also people assume that on a guided tour, they will have to ride in a pack. In fact, we ride at our own pace.
Also, even though this is a guided group trip, we ride at our own pace – the guide or the group typically will take a water break to allow the slower rider (me) catch up, and there will always be someone to wait for the following rider if there is a turn. When there are larger groups, there is typically a guide at the front and at the back. (Once I inexplicably wound up as the lead rider and came to a fork in the road, and was just consulting my map when I hear shouts to tell me I was on the wrong side of the fork.).
In the Greek Isles on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip, when we had a dozen in our group, there was a guide leading and another following; here in Albania, with only five riders, we had a guide and are followed by a van (Bato keeps a distance so we barely notice him) – and if any of us would have felt we couldn’t finish a climb, could have just hopped in.
The rides are supported – the van carries our luggage (that is a key difference with traveling on your own) as well as a supply of water.
There are variations on bike tours.
Guided bike tours are a terrific advantage, especially if you are traveling on your own – you get to join a group. But you also have the benefit of a guide to lead, who knows the territory, speaks the language, has mapped the best route both for riding as well as sights), and can explain things. Equally important, there is the benefit of the support van that carries luggage and is available in case someone feels they can’t climb the hill. You have the benefit of arranged coffee stops, lunch places, quaint accommodations, admissions to sites and attractions. On your own, you would need massive amounts of time to research the route, find lodging, not know the quality of the road or how long it would take to get to the destination.
Self-guided trips: Apart from guided tours (as the Albania trip and the boat/bike tour of the Greek Isles), there are self-guided trips, where you travel on your own, say with a friend or family or your own small group (which I did on the Danube Bike Trail with my two adult sons). But you still have the benefit of a mapped-out route (you can do at your own pace and pleasure), the maps with the route, itinerary, the bike rentals, and vouchers for the pre-arranged accommodations. You can choose your style of accommodation, from modest inns to luxury hotels (if available). The ride is supported – they pick up your luggage and deliver it to the next inn, which is a tremendous advantage. And there would be help available if you needed it along the way.
In both cases, you benefit from the expertise of the local tour operators, as well as their buying power to book accommodations at favorable rates.
BikeTours.com is basically a broker that has cataloged the best tours operated by local companies. I have typically found the programs to provide excellent value for dollar. Their pre-trip preparation materials are excellent, and their logistical coordination (pick up at airport, transfers, for example) are really well done.
Beginning with next season’s brochure, the company is returning to its roots and concentrating its offerings on Europe, rather than the entire world.
The biketours.com website is really user-friendly, but if you have trouble deciding where you want to go, you can check out the Gold Star Tours, which is a compendium of the most popular (for different reasons), and the Founders Tour (which I took this year to Albania), which is specially done.
The key advantage of working with BikeTours.com advisors is that they know the destinations and the biking programs and can give the kind of advice to make the best choices (based on interest, goals, ability) and prepare for the trip (everything from a superb packing list to organizing transfer, pre- and post-trip hotels).As BikeTours motto says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip. (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 6th in the series.)
On this, the seventh day of our cycling through Albania (8th day of our trip), we have our longest distance ride, at 70 km, but it is mostly downhill: just 725 meter gain in elevation and a total of 1285 meters drop, and mostly along the coast, giving us our first spectacular views of the Ionian Sea, with the Greek island of Corfu in the distance.
But today’s attraction is an absolute highlight among the many fascinating places we have already visited in Albania: the National Park of Butrint is a 2000-year old Hellenic-Roman-Byzantine city, reclaimed from forest overgrowth and an earthen tomb by Italian archaeologists beginning in 1924, nearly 100 years ago. Indeed, Butrint is the most visited cultural tourist destination in Albania, and for good reason.
The setting is exquisite, the ruins most impressive, and for me, the connection to Asclepius (the Greek God of Healing or more accurately the father of Medicine), and to Anthony and Cleopatra (defeated in the battle Actium nearby by Augustus who is immortalized with busts created during his lifetime which can be seen in the museum), makes this place all the more profound.
But to get there, we have a fantastic ride.
After the past few days riding in the mountains (affording magnificent views), we reach the seacoast. Albania’s coastline extends over two seas: from the Adriatic Sea in the north to the Ionian Sea in the south, where we are.
We start with a 45 minute transfer in the van to Muzina Pass in the mountains that brings us to the seacoast. We start descending just before the turnoff to Saranda which is our ultimate destination today (we will double back to Saranda, a beach resort city, by the end of the day) and continue south toward the southernmost tip of Albania, near the Greek border.
We pass a fascinating triangle-shaped fort on our way to a small “improvised” ferry – a wooden raft pulled by cables that calls to mind Huckleberry Finn – to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of Albania’s most important archeological treasures.
Before visiting the site, though, we enjoy a terrific lunch just next door at the Livia Restaurant (named for Emperor Augustus’ wife, as I learn later in the museum at Butrint) – mussels, calamari, sea bass, dining outside under a canopy, across the road from the water.
After lunch, we stroll into the National Park.
Butrint’s history dates back to Greek times (in fact, this whole area was part of Greece), and was an important coastal city.
Roman writer Virgil said the legendary founder of the city was the seer Helenus, a son of the King Priam of Troy who moved West after the fall of Troy. Greek Historian Dionysius of Halicarnasseus, as well as Virgil, in his epic poem “Aeneid”, wrote that Aeneas visited Bouthroton after he escaped the destruction of Troy.
What is so fascinating is that there were five civilizations that occupied this town, and you can peel away the centuries and eras, one by one. The city was hidden underground until 1924 when Italian archaeologists began to excavate. Most of what we see is thanks to the Italian Archaeological Mission, headed by Luigi Maria Ugolini, who worked for a decade in Butrint (1928-1939). What has been uncovered shows the stamp of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilization, and the artifacts are presented in an astonishing museum.
According to notes, Butrint (also called Buthrotum or Bouthroton) was originally within the region of Epirus, and one of the main centers of the Greek tribe of Chaonians who had close contacts to the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (Corfu).
The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates between 10th and 8th centuries BC. The occupied original settlement likely sold food to Corfu and had a fort and sanctuary. It occupied a strategic position due to its access to the Straits of Corfu. The geographer Hecataeus of Miletus described Buthrotum as an important port and trading center on the main Adriatic waterway.
Around 380 BC the ancient settlement was surrounded with defensive walls, fortified with a new 870 meters long wall, with five gates, enclosing an area of four hectares.
By the 4th century BC it had grown in importance as a cult center, and included a sanctuary to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, on the southern slope of the Acropolis hill, an agora and a theater – there is even an inscription from the 4th century BC on one of the seas of the theater that credits donations of religionists that supported construction.
In 228 BC, Buthrotum (Bouthroton) became a Roman protectorate and later, in the 1st century BC, a part of the Roman province of Macedonia. In 44 BC, Caesar designated Buthrotum as a colony to reward soldiers who had fought with him against Pompey, naming in Colonia Julia Buthrotum. In what sounds like it could be ripped from the headlines of today, the local landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus objected to his correspondent Cicero who lobbied against the plan in the Roman Senate. As a result, Buthrotum received only a small number of colonists.
In 31 B C, Emperor Augustus, fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium mere meters away from here, renewed the plan to turn Buthrotum into a veterans’ colony.
Under Emperor Augustus, the city, now known as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum, experienced its greatest development, doubling the size of the town – temples, fountains, baths (thermae), villas (private residences), a forum complex, and nyphaeum ( a monument consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs, typically natural grottoes, which were believed to be where local nymphs lived), a new water supply and a bridge linking the two banks of the Vivari canal. (We see these ruins clearly, and even the nyphaeum the mere thought of which had piqued our curiosity.)
In the 3rd century AD, an earthquake destroyed a large part of the town. By the 6th century, it became the seat of a bishop and new construction included a large baptistery, one of the largest Paleochristian buildings of its type, and a basilica. We see some of the gorgeous mosaic floor of the baptistery, laid out in 8 rings with columns, which, we are told, is a rare treat and a bit of luck because the mosaic usually cannot be seen, kept under protective sand. But because they were in the process of changing out the sand, we get to see half of the floor exposed. So far, eight other churches have been uncovered, the most important of which is in Vrina plain on the other side of the Vivari canal.
Butrint followed the historical pattern seen in other Balkan cities, with the 6th to 7th centuries being a period of transformation of the Roman world into the Early Middle Ages.
By the beginning of the 9th century, Butrint had become a small fishing settlement. Around 1807, in the outfall of the Vivari canal, Ali Pasha built a fortress to guard against French attacks coming from Corfu. After his death, Butrint fell under Ottoman Rule, until the Declaration of Independence in 1912.
What is so impressive about Butrint is that it is at once a place of these extraordinary historical monuments that clearly depict these époques of civilization, but also the natural setting and landscape and the scale.
Pathway Through Time
Our visit begins at a Venetian tower built in the 15th and 16th century and a chapel of the 4th century BC dedicated to the god of Asclepius.
Junid, our Biketours.com guide on this two-week cycling trip through Albania, leads us on a path through the woods to the 300-seat theater where plays were performed and there was public discussion (they still hold festivals here).
Buthrotum was as much a healing place (or in modern terms, a spa retreat) as a religious center, dedicated to Asclepius, god of heating because in those days, the earliest form of medicine involved spiritual healing.
I am particularly fascinated with Asclepius, who I first encountered on the island of Epidaurus in Greece on a previous Biketours.com tour. Asclepius is regarded as the God of Healing, by virtue of being the son of Apollo and the human princess Coronis, but who incited the wrath of Zeus (who would have been Asclepius’ grandfather). Zeus struck Asclepius dead with a thunderbolt because Asclepius had the audacity of cheating death – Asclepius used his powers of healing to restore people to life, usurping Zeus’ power. To me, though, Asclepius is the first doctor, the first to use the scientific method – testing what worked and what did not; he kept notes and refined his technique. (The medical symbol still used today is the staff of Asclepius.)
In this period of time, though, “medicine” or “healing” was all wrapped up with spiritualism (faith). So, just like at the temple at Epidaurus, Butrint has a great amphitheater because Greeks believed in the connection between spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health (theater as well as athletics were part of religious experience).
The sick usually had to spend one or more nights in Asclepius’ sanctuary so that remedy for their ailment could be revealed in their dreams. Priests and physicians would perform rituals to interpret their dreams so an appropriate cure or treatment could be devised (or surmised).
We come to the remains of a really magnificent Roman Forum – it is astonishing to learn that it was only unearthed as recently as 2005.
We go by a structure that is thought to be a gymnasium (a high school, still the word that is used in Albania today for high school).
We come to the Baptistry and Junid, points out the mosaic floor (partially exposed). The use of mosaics, he says, meant that it was a place of importance. It was designed in a series of eight circles (we see the columns). Junid notes that the mosaic is usually covered with sand and the only reason we are fortunate enough to see even part of the art is because workers are changing the sand.
We walk further through the forest path and come to the Basilica, constructed in 6th century, which Junid notes has an altar facing east.
The historic markers (in English), are really well done.
We come to the Lake Gate, a beautiful setting on the water, then walk through the woods again, along the outer fortress wall, until we come to Lion’s Gate – where there is a big stone with a relief of a lion devouring a bull’s head. Junid notes the odd position and how the boulder stands out from the rest – an indication that the stone may have been taken from a temple (but that doesn’t answer why it was positioned too low for a door frame).
Remarkably, only half of Butrint has been excavated so far. “They want to leave something for next generation of archeologists,” Junid tells us.
Finally we come to the Butrint Museum, situated in the Acropolis castle (and what a setting this affords, with a view out to the water).
The museum was established in the 1950s to house the finds from Italian archeologists who first excavated 1928-40. In 1988, the museum was enlarged, and in 2005, it was completely renovated, updated and reopened under the aegis of the Albania Institute of Archeology, Butrint Foundation, AG Coventis Foundation, Packard Humanities Institute and Butrint National Park.
The museum is absolutely astonishing – it presents a chronological overview of the history of Butrint starting from the Bronze Age to the Late Middle Ages, and displays artifacts that have been uncovered from the archaeological digs.
In 1992, the ancient city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Butrint is also a national park comprising 9400 hectares and since 2003 has also been designated a wetland area of international importance (RAMSAR area). There are some 800 kinds of plants among them 16 which are considered endangered and 12 as rare; 246 species of birds; 105 species of fish and 39 species of mammals.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
(On September 3, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hangzhou, China, in Zhejiang Province for a ceremony in which the United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement. This is sure to spark interest in visiting this enchanting destination that I so enjoyed experiencing a few years ago. This story was originally published in 2008.)
Zhejiang Province, just south of Shanghai, is a veritable microcosm of China, I discover during my five-day visit. In a relatively compact area, it offers some of the most beautiful scenery and natural sites to be found in China – landscapes that evoke the classic Chinese paintings – as well as ancient Buddhist temples, historic and heritage places. It is where you can trace the development of silk, porcelain, and tea that proved so important to China’s history and are still so important locally, and where you can see firsthand modern life in both urban and countryside settings.
If you only have a week (and I only have five days), touring Zhejiang Province, and its provincial capital at Hangzhou, can give you an excellent sense of China, as an ancient civilization and as an emerging global power.
I can see why the phrase “paradise on earth” is used in referring to Zhejiang – it is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, with the 7000-year old Hemudu culture and the 5000-year old Liangzhu culture. It has fabulous natural wonders – breathtakingly beautiful scenery that has inspired art, poetry, music, and unleashed extraordinary creativity and innovation.
It seems to me as I travel through the province, that throughout China’s history, Zhejiang was on the cutting edge of culture and handcraft development, as in the case of sword casting in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (770-221 BC), porcelain production and bronze mirror making in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), and silk production, tea cultivation, engraving and printing techniques, traditional medicine, pagoda and temple construction, and the art of Buddha sculpture after the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The Zhejiang region has ideal conditions for cultivating the mulberry tree, which nurtures the silk worm, so this became a region for silk production going back more than 5000 years. Here, along the bank of the stunningly scenic West Lake that so captivated Marco Polo, is the China National Silk Museum, purportedly the largest silk museum in the world.
The museum superbly shows how silk was so much more than a cloth, and how it became a major impetus to trade with Europe along the so-called Silk Road. Silk is far more than just a commercial product – it permeates Chinese society. Silk was considered “the gift of gods,” it was used to show status, was a sign of good luck, and a longing for a better life. The style of dress related to the political structure – literal “rules of dress” were dictated by the Emperor. A fabulous exhibit displays examples of silk clothes over the centuries.
There are looms, some interactive computers, a video of the life of a silk worm, and an excellent (and large) shop. They even do fashion shows; indeed, Hangzhou continues to be a major center for women’s fashion.
As I look at the displays, especially the “rules of dress,” I think about the role of fashion in terms of political authority – and understand better how a people that clearly cherished color could be regimented to gray, blue, brown and green and the bland, military styles under the Mao Tse Tung regime, and what a thrill it was to be allowed to buy colorful fabrics again, beginning in 1978 when I made my first visit to China.
I look at the tiny shoes that were used to bind girls’ feet so they could barely walk – it was a sign of submission to male authority – and think that there was one good aspect of the Cultural Revolution that seems to have remained: while people seem to have wrested themselves from such sterility of the Cultural Revolution, it seems to have eradicated from Chinese society the entrenched inequality of women. I see it in the “body English” in the way women and men talk casually to each other, and the way they interact with one another in their jobs. (Interestingly, I am told during my visit in Tokyo, that in Japan there are still gender biases that keep a glass ceiling well in place.)
Not too far from the Silk Museum is another interesting site (which I will make a point to visit next time): the Museum of Guanyao Kiln (the official kiln) of the Southern Song Dynasty, the first museum devoted to ceramics that was built on the original site. China developed the technology for porcelain, which also figured into its place in global trade.
Traveling down Tiger Running Road, we come to The Pagoda of Six Harmonies, considered one of the best examples of pagoda construction technology in China. It was built in 970 during the Northern Song Dynasty by Qian Hongchu, the last Yue king, who built it to (spiritually) “calm” the tide of the Qiantang River, and more practically, serve as a lighthouse. The pagoda, destroyed in the peasant uprising of 1121 and rebuilt in 1152, has 13 stories outside but seven inside. You can climb to the top (be warned: there aren’t always banisters and the stone steps can be high) and be rewarded for the effort by a beautiful view of the Qiantang River and the 1937 Bridge.
The Qiantang River is considered a world wonder for its Tidal Bore, most prominent on the 18th day of the 8th lunar month when the attraction between sun and moon is most pronounced. People have been amazed by the spectacle for 2000 years.
Continuing on, a short distance beyond West Lake, we come to Mei Jiawu Tea Culture Village – with a heritage in harvesting tea that goes back 7600 years. Here, there are optimal conditions of white sand soil, temperate climate, not too much rain, for producing a sweet-tasting tea. The tea grows in terraces up the mountain sides, making for a lovely scene. The village is ancient and most typical in style. Here you are fascinated to learn the painstaking effort that goes into producing tea – women pick the leaves; men fry the leaves in small batches three separate times, so it takes four hours to produce a half-kilo of the tiny leaves.
This is the Dragon Well tea, the most famous and important in China. The region has been supplying tea to the Emperor in Beijing for centuries, and now supplies the government with half their harvest, in place of tax. It is the most delightful, tranquil setting. There is also an excellent shop.
As I sit and am served samples of the green tea that is grown and harvested so carefully, I am told of all the healing benefits of tea – good for digestion, an anti-oxidant, good for complexion, blood pressure, helps control weight – I can’t resist but purchase my own supply.
If you are still thirsting for more, the China Tea Museum (Longjing Road) is the only national museum in China focused on tea. Various aspects of the tea culture are displayed, including tea history, famous teas, tea events, tea sets and tea customs.
The massive and spectacular Lingyin Temple (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat) was originally built in 326, though it has been rebuilt many times over the centuries (it was never destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; Chou En Lai protected it). It is one of the ten most celebrated Buddhist monasteries in China. The statue of Sakyamuni carved from camphor wood and gilded with gold inside the Grand Hall of the temple is considered a masterpiece. It is the largest carving of a sitting Buddha in China.
At its peak, there were 1000 rooms and more than 3000 monks living here, and it was the most popular temple in Southeast Asia, attracting scores of worshippers. Even today, there are flocks of people who have come from all over.
We come late in the afternoon, around 5 p.m. Inside the temple, the monks have gathered and are chanting and banging drums as they go through their prayers.
Opposite the temple stands the Feilai Peak – the Peak Flying From Afar. It is marked by a rocks and limestone caves with some 340 Buddhist sculptures in grottoes, most of them dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. These are considered the most precious of China’s grotto art. The peak goes up 548 feet, but our time to wander about them is very limited, and we go into a few of the closest grottoes.
It is mysterious and mystical.
Wuzhen, Water Town
The hub for my stay is Hangzhou, China’s capital city for 150 years and still the provincial capital. On my second full day in the city, we drive about 1 ½ hours away to Wuzhen, in Tongxiang, one of six ancient water towns that have been preserved as living history museums. The ride is fascinating because it is not much different than driving in upstate New York – the juxtaposition of the modern cities downstate with the rural areas; here, a modern highway ribbons through the countryside now dotted with high-rise buildings, new factories and farming communities.
Wuzhen, which means “black town,” is named for the black color of the mud. With the Grand Canal passing through it, it has been an important gateway connecting Suzhou (that gorgeous city of gardens) and Hangzhou.
The town is known for its quaint stone bridges with crisscrossing rivers flowing under them, buildings with high walls and tail-shaped eaves, and long narrow lanes, lined by wood structures in the traditional architectural style of south of the Yangtze River. The wood carvings and decorations are breathtakingly beautiful.
Wuzhen’s settlement goes back 7000 years; the village, itself, has a 1300 year history, and these houses, in the Qing style, are 200 years old. There would have been 1,000 people living in the town; today, the buildings are inhabited mainly by older residents who are allowed to live there for free and make it very much a living place, versus a museum exhibit.
In 1991, Wuzhen was “authorized” as the Provincial Ancient Town of History and Culture, ranking it first among the six ancient towns south of the Yangtze River. Wuzhen is a huge tourist attraction now – it costs 100 yuan (about $15) for admission, and its popularity is indicated by how it is being expanded with shops and eateries.
Wuzhen is famous for the picturesque scene known as “Bridge in Bridge,” created by two ancient bridges, one of which is Tongji Bridge that crosses the river from east to west and the other Renji Bridge running from south to north, which join at one end. Either of two bridges can be seen through the arch of the other, hence the name.
A popular way to experience the setting is by a traditional wooden boat.
As you walk through and in and out of houses and buildings, you come upon displays that present a fascinating picture of Chinese society and cultural heritage. There are also demonstrations of traditional handicrafts, rice wine making, printing and dyeing of the traditional blue printed fabrics.
The exhibits are fascinating in how they present the traditions and beliefs of the time. In the bed exhibit, you see an “unmarried daughter bed”. In the clothes exhibit, you learn that in feudal times, dress was regulated, but in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a break from “the emperor system” and people started choosing freely; during the time of arranged marriages, embroidery was a key to a successful match.
There is an exhibit about important Chinese ceremonies – like one that is held on the fifth day of the first lunar month, which is dedicated to “living fish” – they put some red substance on its eyes to prevent them drying out and ultimately free the fish after the ceremony. (You would need a guide to understand any of this, because there were no English-language brochures or signs).
You also can visit the former residence of one of the famous native sons of Wuzhen: novelist, cultural critic and journalist Shen Dehong, known as Mao Dun, who lived from 1896 to 1981 and served as the Minister of Culture from 1949 to 1965, and grew up here. Considered one of the best modern novelists in China, his most famous works are “Midnight” and “Spring Silkworms.” His masterpiece, “The Lin’s Shop,” describes the life of Wuzhen.
(Interesting bit of information that I subsequently learned from Wikipedia is that he adopted the pen name of “Mao Dun” which means “contradiction” as a reflection of the conflicting revolutionary ideology in China in the unstable 1920s; his friend, Ye Shengtao, changed the character he used for the first word to protect him from political persecution.)
Wuzhen is now like a tiny protected oasis, though it is already being expanded with shops and services. But all around it are modern high-rise buildings and the trappings of a village turned metropolis.
(Another of these preserved historic water towns in Zhejiang Province is Xitang, in Jiashan, which is known for its 27 stone bridges, 122 old lanes, and corridor canopies more than 1000 meters long. It has folk museums – a buttons museum, tiles and bridges exhibition hall, Zhangzheng Root-Carving Art Museum, exhibition hall of woodcarving of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and brown wine display hall.)
Shaoxing, Venice of the East
The next day, we travel again about 1 ½ hours from Hangzhou to Shaoxing, a water town known as the Venice of the East. A cultured city with a 2,400-year old history, it has a long tradition in calligraphic art.
Here, we visit East Lake, a small preserved village, where you walk along an ancient tow path along a narrow lake as black-topped boats glide by, powered by oars pushed by the feet of oarsmen wearing traditional black velvet hats. It is a stunning landscape of limestone cliffs carved into shapes by the water.
From the village, it is a short ride to Lanting Pavilion, known as the Orchid Pavilion, at the base of Lanzhu Mountain. In ancient times, Goujian, the Yue King, planted orchids. The site is even more revered as a center for China’s most important calligraphy, displayed in a park-like setting and in a Calligraphy museum. In 353 AD, the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi and others assembled in this serene setting, and were inspired to write the famous “Preface to Lanting Pavilion Collection of Literary Writings.” It has become a place where the sages of Chinese calligraphy resided, known as “one preface, three tablets and eight scenes.” Now Shaoxing city holds a calligraphy festival every year, drawing famous calligraphers from around the world.
Shaoxing is an important city, noted for its rivers, bridges, and lakes making for lovely scenery, and for several key figures: Lu Xun, a great modern writer and thinker grew up here and there is a memorial and museum to him. Chou En Lai, the former premier of China, also grew up in Shaoxing, and you can visit his ancestral residence.
More to See
There is so much more to see through Zhejiang Province, which offers five major historic and cultural cities; 70 historic and cultural relics; more than 140 museums including The Zhejiang Provincial Museum, originally built in 1929, housed in a villa with a garden which has a collection of more than 100,000 cultural relics; and a Hemudu Primitive Culture Museum.
I am intrigued also to return to Zhejiang Province to visit the city of Ningbo, where 7,000 years ago, the Hemudu culture in the New Stone Age was established; the port city has been important to trade and transport for the millennia and was the starting point in the Ceramics Route and the Silk Route. The Tianyige Library, dating from the Ming Dynasty in the 1560s, is the oldest library in China; it offers a museum that preserves books, gardening arts, Majian culture and Ningbo folk culture. There is also the Fenghua Xikou Scenic District, which offers a Xuedou Mountain Scenic Area, known for its natural valleys and waterfalls, and the Xikou Ancient Town, famous for its ancient temples and pagodas. There is also the former residence of Chiang Kai-shek in Xikou.
Wenzhou, another important trading port, offers a charming river town. Mount Yandang, formed 120 billion years ago from acid lava from erupting volcanoes, presents a scenery of “grotesque” rocks, cliffs, dingles, caves, waterfalls and lakes, and is known as a “Museum of Nature.”
Quzhou offers one of only two Confucian shrines in China. This one was reopened to the public in July 2000. Here, too, is the Longyou Rock Caves, completely underground, where the origins of abstract drawings on the rocks are still unknown.
Another area that prompts a return visit is Taizhou and the Tiantai Mountain, located on the eastern coast of Zhejiang. Taizhou is a newly emerging tourist city, with beaches and hills, the Shiliang Waterfalls, and the Linhai Great Wall, built before the Great Wall in Beijing.
There is so much more to see in Hangzhou and Zhejiang Province than I could possibly do in the five days, and I look forward to returning. Several tour companies offer itineraries, such as a 10-day Zhejiang Highlights bus tour.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
(On September 3, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hangzhou, China for a ceremony in whichthe United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement. This is sure to spark interest in visiting this enchanting destination that I so enjoyed experiencing a few years ago. This story was originally published in 2008.)
Through its 5,000 years of human habitation, Hangzhou, a city on China’s southeastern coast about two hours drive south of Shanghai, has been called many things – Xifu, Li’An; Marco Polo referred to the city as Kinsay.
I have spent three days touring Hangzhou and the Zhejiang Province with a guide and a driver provided by the Zhejiang Provincial tourist office. They have given me a fairly good orientation to the city (see related story, Hangzhou: China’s City of Romance). I am very grateful for having had them, because it would have been difficult to figure out in the short time I had what to see and how to see important sites travel without the ability to speak and read the language. (Americans coming to China can arrange for escorted tours through several different agencies, though I did not find an easy way to hire a car and English-speaking driver.)
But for my fourth and final day in Hangzhou, I am completely on my own and I am eager to explore the city on foot (and by bicycle, as it turns out). Frankly, what made me anxious was the prospect of crossing the street.
Hangzhou is a city that seems eternal for preserving its ancient heritage, but it is manifestly modern in its economic and social development. Instead of quaint narrow streets and bicycles, it has massive boulevards just crammed with cars, people riding mopeds and bicycles, all manner of vehicles and people crisscrossing, and it seems that in this mashing of man and machine, the cars have right of way – pedestrians better get out of it.
I am in the minority, it seems, in trying to merely walk on the sidewalk. But the first time I cross the street from my hotel (they have pedestrian crossing signs and some of the intersections have traffic controllers) I am okay.
I have planned my day to just wander around the city – I have a general idea and one specific destination in mind – rather than figure out public buses or hire a taxi to get to more distant places. I have plotted my course. Most of the main streets, thankfully, have English transliteration of the names on signs (something they didn’t have when I was last in China). The problem is that the spelling is not always consistent. But this is my adventure and I imagine myself Marco Polo coming into a completely foreign place.
I have prepared in advance by taking away the Capital Star Hotel card in Chinese and English, with the directions; also, my guide has written a list of places she recommended I visit, in Chinese and English. And I know that if I run into trouble, I can just to go any hotel and hail a cab. And of course, I have my street maps and handy tourist guide.
Walking about on your own is an entirely different experience than being driven places. Driving, the world unfolds like a grand tableaux – I notice, for example, buses wrapped with boldly colored advertising (even a bit risqué) on the side and such sights as the Family Planning Publicity & Technical Guidance Station of Hangzhou City.
But walking, you can choose the pace and take time to really observe things – shopkeepers opening their shops, commuters making their way to work having conversations with each other as they ride side by side on mopeds, grandparents biking their grandkids to school. Because you don’t understand the language, it is as if you are watching television without the sound – you find yourself intently focusing on details. You watch daily life unfold in real time. You also get to interact with people.
More importantly, you can follow an inner spirit, a whim.
The city itself is crowded with cars and skyscrapers, but now that I have the time to look at them more closely, many show pleasing architecture, not the sterile, institutional, massive apartment buildings that you might have imagined would have been built hurriedly, in order to accommodate the needs of the 1.5 million who live downtown and a burgeoning economy. The buildings have big windows and actually are built with light and air around. And everywhere I look, there are plantings – Hangzhou prides itself on being a “green” city. Here, at least, the oppressive pollution that I have heard about in other major cities, has not taken hold – no doubt because of the large amount of greenspace, national and protected lands, and the vast West Lake, itself.
At a major intersection, where the roads seem to diverge a bit, I stop to study the map (okay, I am a little confused), and a young woman wearing a leather cowboy hat asks in wonderful English if I need any help – she has just come from making a film in Tibet (I don’t ask her about the riots that had just taken place).
I have walked from my hotel in virtually a straight line, down South Hushu Road, which turns into Wulin Road, called “the Fashionable women’s garment street” on the map. This reminds me that Hangzhou is considered the capital of women’s fashion. Wulin is a street of boutiques with very fashionable clothes, western music playing, and ads on the street with western faces.
A little further on young man on a moped stops, intrigued by seeing a Westerner. “Where are you from?” he asks. “USA? America is wonderful.”
I have been surprised, in fact, that my presence (I am the only Westerner around that I can see), barely catches anyone’s notice. I had been in the first wave of Westerners to penetrate the Bamboo Curtain that had kept China virtually in isolation for decades, during my last two visits, in 1978 and 1980; today, you have the feeling that the Chinese are not so insulated, despite the government control of the media. This is probably because of all the multinationals setting up factories and other commercial ventures, and because television, even though limited, does offer some American movies. Whether or not they are actually still behind some curtain of censorship, the people don’t necessarily reflect it.
I continue on my way and come to the Anji Road Experimental School, built in 1954, where children are playing in a courtyard. The name and date intrigues me, and I wonder how teaching has changed from those days.
I finally come to West Lake and see a bicycle rental stand. I figure it will be great for transportation, if not for a chance to see more of the lake. The cost is 10 yuan (about $1.50) an hour, with a 300Yuan deposit, about $45, including the use of a bike lock and helmet. (My guide had made mention of the 300 Yuan deposit, so I am prepared, and we are able to have this conversation with the rental guy without actually understanding each other).
There are many bike rental stations around the lake; you can also get around by a golf cart – either hailing one like a cab, or chartering one.
Once I have the bike, though, I feel I have wings – I am not so brave as to tackle the major streets which are much too congested for me, but stick around the Lake and the side streets. Even here, though, it gets fairly frantic. I am thankful that it is a very low bike, and I can quickly put a foot down when I need to.
It is this wonderful sense of adventure, of having no schedule, no itinerary, just following a whim that makes the day particularly exciting. I follow whatever seems interesting, and so I find myself following the willows and the purple blossoms, and come to West Lake, again.
I stop at an archway made of these graceful willow trees, and come upon the statue of Qian, the first king of Wu, and then to the memorial to him, the Temple of King Qian (15 Y, about $2 entrance). Qian Liu, who lived from 852-932, was born in Lin’an (later called Hangzhou) and in 923 established the Wu Yue Kingdom with Hangzhou as the capital.
From what I read, Qian Liu sounds like a fascinating man. He was born to a peasant family and made his living selling salt. He joined the army when he was 20, and “suppressed war chaos of military governors.”
A curious artifact on exhibit is a replica of the Iron Certificate that Qian Liu received from the Emperor, in 895, for suppressing rebel official Dong Chang. The certificate basically exempts King Qian and his descendants from the death penalty and other legal penalties.
“The iron certificate was lost in wartime but found by fisherman in deep water,” the notes read. “Descendents of Qian bartered it back with rice. It had been for sale in bazaar.”
In 923, Qian Liu became King of the Wu Yue. He is revered for “guarding the border and keeping the people at rest, including initiating no war, converting people, awarding cultivation and weaving, building irrigation works, dredging West Lake, recruiting talent and developing trade.
“He built irrigation system and sericulture [raising silk worms for the production of raw silk], treated subordinates well and enlisted competent people.” Under his rule, the notes say, “Hangzhou became the #1 city in Southeast China in prosperity.”
He died at the age of 81 and was followed by four other Qian kings from three generations (one became king at the age of 14 and another lasted only six months).
Hangzhou served as the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom for 200 years; the city reached its zenith of power in the period just before China was invaded by the Mongols, in 1276. By then, the city had nearly a million people, making it one of the most populous cities in the world.
Though it was no longer a capital, Italian explorer Marco Polo found it a beautiful city even after the Mongol conquest. During the years of the great Kublai Khan, 100 years after the Mongol conquest, Polo wrote, “[It is] beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world. The number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate….”
All through my visit to various historic sites, I try to absorb as much as I can, but it is very difficult – for one thing, you are dealing with thousands of years of history, with dates based on dynasties and kingdoms; for another, the spellings and names of places and people are not consistent, and for an American, it is often difficult to distinguish the Chinese names because of the different transliterations. Even maps are hard to follow because they don’t always use the same English names or transliterations. But that is part of the fun of discovery – pieces of the puzzle come closer together.
As I leave the King Qian’s memorial hall, I hear “Auld Lang Syne” playing in the orchard of willows. I follow the willows and then I follow purple flowers, and come again to the water’s edge. I am pulled in two ways: Spend more time at the magnificent West Lake, perhaps to ride completely around it (about 15 miles or so), or to go in search of Hefang Street and the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
I make my way to Hefang Street, which turns out to be an ancient market street that seems little changed from the centuries, and in fact, epitomizes the history and culture of Hangzhou.
When the Southern Song Dynasty set up Hangzhou as its capital, a ten-li (li is a measure of distance, 500 meters or 547 yards) royal street was opened. Today, there are more than 100 shops including teahouses, drug stores, silk shops, baked goods, food, curios, calligraphy and paintings, and some noted shops including the Wanlong Ham Workshop and Wangsingji fans, that line the promenade, including a massive multi-story market building where you can buy fresh flowers, fresh fish, and just about anything else. But the most famous, is the Hu Qing Yu Tang Drugstore.
Chinese Medicine Museum
My key objective for the day is to find the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Hu Qing Yu Tang Chinese Medicine Museum), but I am having trouble figuring out where it is (largely because the maps don’t conform). I look down a narrow alley that seems intriguing and see giant Chinese characters on a wall and an arrow pointing down the street. I feel compelled to follow the arrow, and sure enough, almost by accident, I come upon the entrance to the museum.
I pay the 10Y fee ($1.40), and follow the signs: “Upstairs, Visitor” and “Onwards, Visitor.”
The first museum dedicated to Chinese medicine in China, it is located within a fantastic house like a palace and today, one of the finest examples of architecture that remains from the late Qing Dynasty. It is exactly as the brochure says, “ingenious in layout, antique in form, most well preserved”. The structure is a significant attraction in itself.
This is the site of the Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan, who is identified as “a red-hat businessman”. A man of modest background, I learn, he made his money by raising food and supplying the government during a period of rebellion. As a reward, he was crowned by the Emperor Tongzhi of Qing Dynasty with the top rank and bestowed a yellow mandarin jacket.
He became fantastically wealthy, owned an enormous amount of real estate, and founded the pharmacy as his way of giving back to the community. But in 1883, he began to invest in silk and “failed in competition with foreign adventurers, went bankrupt and two years later, died of depression.”
I am intrigued by the Hu Xueyan motto: “Refraining from cheating.” In fact, on display is a “Deception Warning Tablet”. According to the brochure, Hu Xueyan instructed salesclerks to raise deer and, dressed in livery uniform, parade them when the Idrodeer pill was being prepared. The deer was killed in public to show that the ingredients were “true” and there was no deception.
The art, relics, architecture of the museum are simply fantastic – as you roam from room to room, exhibit to exhibit. In fact, the brochure says this is the largest ancient commercial building hall in the country.
The exhibit lays out the fundamentals of traditional Chinese medicine, and asks and answers, “How did it come about? In a primitive society, hungry people are forced to eat anything – they ate poisonous plants and suffered vomiting, diarrhea, coma, even death; sometimes they ate and found the poison alleviated.”
Archeology on the lower reaches of the Yangtze showed the use of traditional medicine from 6000-7000 years ago. Marco Polo also described traditional medicine.
In the exhibition hall, the history of Chinese traditional medicine is demonstrated through a great number of items and descriptions, including anecdotes of famous Chinese doctors in history.
A legend of one of the founders of the science of Chinese medicine is quoted: “’Shennong tasted every herb and met poisoning 10 times a day’ – through numberless intentional and accidental trials, found what worked.”
Other early practitioners, like Zhao Vuemnn (1719-1805), a native of Hangzhou, who wrote 12 books kept detailed records of scientific observations.
There is a medicine preparation hall, where veteran masters demonstrate for visitors such operations as pill shaping and slicing of crude drugs and give visitors the chance to use the hand tools, themselves (though none are there on the day I visit). I learn how the medical pellet originated from ancient alchemy by a Taoist priest.
I go through room after room of specimens of just about every element used in traditional Chinese medicine – from plants and rocks to animals, including gecko, snake, tiger, lion – with descriptions of what they are used for: leopard relieves rheumatism and pain; oil from fur seal to moisturize skin, clear wrinkles; Mastodon fossil for calming mind and settling fright.
In 1958, the pharmacy was turned into a Chinese medicine factory; it was restored and opened as a historical site in 1988 (a year which I note there seem to be a renewed respect and appreciation for ancient heritage). Most amazing to me as I finish exploring the museum, is that it is still a traditional Chinese pharmacy. As I leave the museum, and walk next door, there is an enormous salesroom with counters and white-coated pharmacists, jars of floating roots; I see patients waiting in a pleasant seating area where there are pools of water. Upstairs, in an attached modern building, are medical offices.
You need to spend at least one hour to go through the museum; it is simply not to be missed (www.hqytgyh.com).
As I make my way around the corner back to Hefang, I look beyond this ancient street at the McDonald’s, and my trip to the past is ended.
It’s my last day in Hangzhou and I realize I haven’t had much of a chance to shop (only kind of ironic, since everything in the U.S., it seems, is manufactured here). I look more closely at what is on sale here – there is fabulous stuff. After hearing so much about silk, I decide to buy some – silk pajamas for everyone.
I cycle back to the bike rental station – get back my 300 Yuan deposit, minus 50 yuan for 5 hours of bicycle rental ($7) – all of this by writing on a pad the number of hours I had the bike – we laugh.
As I walk back, parents and grandparents are waiting for children at dismissal from school. I watch a kind of parade as the students leave.
I make my way to a commercial center, just below the Radisson Hotel, where there is a Starbucks, as familiar in décor as the one our neighborhood, and enjoy a mocha Frappachino and a scone, watching the traffic and reading the newspaper.
On the way to the airport, I finally get to hear what the story of the Chinese “Romeo & Juliet” is about. My guide has made frequent mention of it, in connection with the legend of West Lake. It is a love story of a girl who pretends to be a man and falls in love. The boy realizes his friend is a girl and rushes to her home to ask for her hand in marriage, but she has been married off. I think this sounds more like “Yentl” than Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” but my guide has never heard of “Yentl.”
There is so much more to see in Hangzhou and Zhejiang Province than I could possibly do in the five days, and I look forward to returning. Several tour companies offer itineraries, such as a 10-day Zhejiang Highlights bus tour.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
(On September 3, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hangzhou, China for a ceremony in which the United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement. This is sure to spark interest in visiting this enchanting destination that I so enjoyed experiencing a few years ago. This story was originally published in 2008.)
From the first glimpse of West Lake, you are caught under the spell of Hangzhou, once China’s capital city. Both ancient and modern, you feel you are communing with Marco Polo who must have stood on this shore as I am, looking out at the silhouette of a wooden boat on the flat water against the backdrop of a pagoda and mountains, receding in haze in the distance.
Marco Polo called it “The City of Heaven.”
Hangzhou is at the very end of the Grand Canal, which extends 1800 kilometers from Beijing; it is where silk has been produced for 5,000 years, where for centuries, the green tea grown on the mountain side has been used by the Emperor and still is the official tea of the government. A great river, the Qiantang, flows to the sea. Its West Lake has inspired philosophers, poets, artists, music, folklore and legend.
And for me, Hangzhou and the larger Zhejiang Province, is like a microcosm of China. It seems that all the significant elements we associate with China, from silk to tea, ceramics to calligraphy to traditional medicine, Buddhism to Cultural Revolution to capitalism, are associated with this place, but on manageable scale.
If you only have a week (and I only had five days in China), this is the place to come to capture the essence of this fantastically dynamic and complex country.
A two-hour drive south of bustling Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan and commercial city, Hangzhou, with a population of 1.5 million in the downtown and 6 million more in the surrounding areas, is at a slower pace – no doubt because of the calming effect of the scenic beauty and open space. It is a resort city, especially popular as a respite for Shanghai residents, the place for weddings and honeymoons, exuding romance, where the music, legends and folklore of the Chinese “Romeo & Juliet” abound.
Hangzhou and the Zhejiang Province is also an exemplary place to see modern China – how people work and live, the schools and offices and shops.
The first thing you notice when you leave from the modern Hangzhou International Airport for the 40-minute drive into downtown by a modern highway are the farming communities – tall (four and five stories high) townhouse-looking dwellings that apparently house extended families beside small fields. They are actually charming in their way – with the classic curved roofs at the top and a cupola that provides respite in the summer heat.
Typically, there is a backdrop of high-rise apartment buildings, as well. In the city, some of these large office and apartment buildings are actually showing some architectural aesthetic, rather than the institutional blandness that followed the building boom of the 1980s.
The number of cars is shocking – the city is a ribbon of massive boulevards of six lanes or so– with people on mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles trying to compete.
Despite the number of cars, Hangzhou does its best to be a “green city” – all along the new roads and even highways, there is greenery and bike lanes (the citizens even chose the color green for their taxi cabs).
I get my first view of the Grand Canal as we enter the city. The Grand Canal is considered to be the China’s greatest engineering wonder next to the Great Wall. The earliest and longest man-made waterway in the world, it dates back 2400 years and was completed into Hangzhou in 1293 A. D. It is 21 times longer than the Panama Canal, 10 times the size of the Suez Canal and 2000 years older. It was the political belt that allowed rulers to centralize power, maintain a feudal society and dominate the nation. It would take the Emperor three months to sail from Beijing to Hangzhou. In recent years, the section around Hangzhou has been renovated and extended to meet the Qiantang river and a museum, three parks and two public squares have been opened.
We arrive at my hotel, the Capital Star, a four-star business hotel outside the resort section around West Lake. It is beside narrow waterway, which is lined on both sides with a greenway, where people come out to do tai chi. My room on the 10th floor looks out to the river and faces into an apartment building.
I stay just long enough to drop my bags so that we can spend a couple of hours touring. We drive beside the West Lake on our way to visit a famous Buddhist temple, Lingyin.
But that first look of West Lake – the willows dipping toward the water, the row boats on the lake, blossoming trees – is so captivating, I have to stop.
In its thousands of years of history, Hangzhou, once China’s capital city, has had many names. Marco Polo referred to it as Kinsay, as he related:
“Inside the city there is a Lake which has a compass of some 30 miles [he probably meant 30 li] and all round it are erected beautiful palaces and mansions, of the richest and most exquisite structure that you can imagine, belonging to the nobles of the city. There are also on its shores many abbeys and churches of the Idolaters. In the middle of the Lake are two Islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful and spacious edifice, furnished in such style as to seem fit for the palace of an Emperor. And when any one of the citizens desired to hold a marriage feast, or to give any other entertainment, it used to be done at one of these palaces.”
This is the same scene that I come upon West Lake, a designated National Scenic Area. In an instant, was swept under this city’s spell just as Marco Polo had been.
There are literally dozens of “West Lakes” in China (the name is like “Main Street”) but this one is the most famous. It is something like 20 kilometers around, and shaped in such a way that you cannot see all of the lake at any one time.
My guide tells me, “Hangzhou people live longer (79 on average), experience less depression, feel happy. They are not the richest in China, but the happiest.” I believe it.
For one thing, the air is cleaner (a relative term). China has become notorious for air pollution, a by-product of population and economic development – but despite the fact Hangzhou is a major city, there is tremendous amount of open space, and even in the asphalt areas, there are bushes, shrubs, trees that grow; the canal that goes through the city with parks alongside. And there is a tremendous amount of protected land immediately around the city for national parks and temples. Hangzhou prides itself as a “green city”.
From the first moment you start walking along the West Lake, take in the plum blossom scented air, the refreshing breeze, see the wooden boats silhouetted against rolling hills which fade out in the faraway haze like a classic Chinese painting, the wisps of willow trees, the couples strolling arm and arm, the families delighting in their children and hear the laughter, the talented kite flyers, the bridal couple posing for pictures, you understand why Hangzhou is the city of love, the city of happy people who live longer and with less depression and stress than the national average.
West Lake, which is largely man-made, is not just scenic, tucked into nooks and crannies are some of the most important cultural sites, which pop up everywhere. Tucked all around the lake are gardens and former villas that have been turned into museums, memorials, tea houses.
In fact, West Lake is connected with many of China’s most noted historical figures, like the famous poet-governor Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty who was the first to organize a large-scale dredging; then, another famous poet-governor Su Dongpo dredged the lake and used the silt to form the graceful Su Causeway (the home of this famous man of letters and a poet “of bold and unconstrained style” has been turned into a memorial hall).
In the 10th century, during the Kingdom of Wuyue, King Qian Liu formed a 1,000-strong dredging team to look after the lake (I later visit the memorial temple for this fascinating leader, who rose from being a peasant to king, and who built irrigation system and “treated subordinates well and enlisted competent people”). The Qing Dynasty emperors Kangxi and Qianlong expanded the lake to its present proportions, visiting frequently and inscribing tablets of most of popular scenes.
Others who are remembered as national heroes and revolutionary martyrs buried around the lake, such as General Yue Fei, who resisted Jin invaders, and Qiu Jin, “an outstanding heroine, who fought against the decadent Qing court.”
The Northern Song hermit-poet Lin Hejin secluded himself until his death at the foot of Solitary Hill. Today, you can visit Solitary Hill, the only natural island at West Lake, where there are several important historical sites. One of these is the Xiling Seal Engravers’ Society, a hall of arts housing calligraphy of China’s famous artists. It also is where Emperor Lizhong of Southern Song Dynasty and Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of Qing Dynasty built their palaces. We come upon a bridal couple posing for their photographs.
Legends of love abound: the Scholar Xu Xian and the Lady Snakewhite, Liangshanbo and Zhu Yintai (the eastern Romeo and Juliet), and Su Xiaoxiao at Mucai Pavilion (a romance of a beautiful and gifted girl – and have lent the name of “City of Love” to Hangzhou.
The Bai Causeway is the most revered, named for Bai Juyi (772-846), a governor of Hangzhou who built several of the causeways at the lake. The Broken Bridge, located at the east end of the Bai Causeway, is the place where folk legend has it that Lady Snakewhite and Scholar Xu Xian met.
As we walk across the Bai Causeway, I see a man flying a kite – a very sophisticated contraption and he is amazingly skilled. And I am reminded that the Chinese invented kite-flying. In fact, the Chinese invented rockets, gunpowder, fireworks, paper currency, ink, printing blocks, rice cultivation, cast iron, helicopter rotor and the propeller, and, as I recall, the seismograph (about two months after my visit, central China was rocked by the worst earthquake in 30 years, killing tens of thousands).
Capitalism, free enterprise and entrepreneurship thrive – the boaters who give rides on the lake, the pearl shop where you can buy a string of fresh-water pearls harvested from the lake.
Nothing is what I expect based on my prior experience in China – but then again, I had been completely dazzled by the speed of change between my first visit, in 1978, when a chink had opened in the Bamboo Curtain of China’s isolationism from the West, and my return just two years later, in 1980, when you could see the Four Modernizations literally sweep across the country. (Between my first visit and the second, I was amazed at how many people spoke English.)
Things like colorful fabrics (I remember going to a fabric store in 1978 when the first bales were being sold when everyone was still wearing drab Mao jackets), Levi jeans and western dress, even walking hand in hand, playing Western music in the park, and studying books at the University were all just being revived after decades of being forbidden and all scholarship obliterated.
Today, the cars that clog the streets, the computer, cell phone and electronics stores, the leather and punk outfits, decorated jeans and odd hairdos on some young people, girls in short pants, some with exposed midriff, even couples embracing, let alone holding hands are dizzying changes from my last visit.
In those years, politics pervaded every aspect of society, in many ways antithetical to the cultural traditions stretching back thousands of years. In those days, all art and music was political – homes only displayed political posters with the message of the day. There was a forceful extraction from everyday society of everything else.
From what I can see today, even in these first few hours and through the rest of my visit, politics is no longer the overarching value or bulwark to everyday life. People, it seems, are not much different than we are. In fact, as I come to realize, they are (somewhat ironically) concerned about many of the same issues as we are: the cost of health care, the quality of public schools, the pressure to get into college, the rising cost of housing, what will happen to social security and retirement savings, the downturn in the stock market (the U.S. credit crisis and fear of U.S. recession on Chinese exports was a great concern).
You have to look hard for any reference of the Cultural Revolution – and if you did not know about Chinese history, you would not even think about it – but that whole chapter comes out in one of the small museums and memorials that ring the West Lake – housed in what used to be grand villas.
One of these is Mr. Jiang’s Villa, built 1901 & 1923 in Chinese and Western style. It is where a famous scholar, Ma Yifu, took up residence. I study the English cards that tell his story – how he came to St. Louis in 1903 “to find a way to strengthen China.” He studied Western philosophy and literature – Hegal and Shakespeare – and later went to Germany. When he returned to China in 1911, he brought with him a German edition of Marx’s “Capitalism”. He supported the Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, writing articles to popularize Western progressive ideology. After that, he devoted himself to the study of textual criticism, argumentation, ancient philosophy, Buddhism and literature. He was hailed for his work during the “Anti-Japanese War” as World War II is known. He briefly served in the Ministry of Education but resigned because he couldn’t stand the bureaucracy. He served as the Director of Zhejiang Research Institute of Culture and History from 1953 to 1964 and was known as a great master of the Confucian School and philosophy of the times.
But then the Cultural Revolution came, and he did not fare well. I take note of one card, “In the beginning of the 10-year long Cultural Revolution, Ma Yifu was falsely framed as ‘The Old Fogy of the feudalistic society’ and was expelled from Jiang’s Garden.” He sold his works of calligraphy “for money shortage and made his due contribution.”
Ma Yifu never recovered and died in 1967. In the reversal that took place during the Four Modernizations, his legacy was resurrected and a memorial service was held in his honor in 1989.
I see this museum as part of a policy to resurrect academics and re-ignite a reverence for history and learning.
I think of this when I am back at my hotel, and watching television (yes, there is a remote control TV). There is no CNN (perhaps there would be at the Grand Hyatt across from West Lake); there is an English-language Chinese news program and I switch to it because there is very little else to watch (most of the American movies they show are violent and most of the Chinese programs are dubbed in Japanese or else are in Japanese and dubbed in Chinese, though I do get to see a few good American movies).
But I happen to listen to an interview with a high-level official who is talking about China’s need to break from its dependency on manufacturing and export. He notes that this is deleterious for China’s resources, for its pollution, and because downturns in foreign markets (such as the U.S.) cause upheaval. Instead, the government will launch an initiative to become the producers – the creators and inventors – and will spend on Research and Development and on tightening its laws governing intellectual property.
And then I am reminded about the man flying the kite and all the rest of the inventions that China gave to the world, including paper money.
One of the best ways to enjoy West Lake is to take a boat ride – and there are many different variations, including a wood boat powered by an oarsman – which brings you close to the three small, manmade islands in the West Lake. It occurs to me that taking the boat, you become part of someone else’s idyllic scene.
The boat brings us up close to Yingzhou Islet, a small island in the lake built in 1607, famous for the three stone pagodas that were set into the water in 1621. Each pagoda has five round holes and when there is a full moon, and a candle placed in each of the pagoda, the light mingles with the moonlight, from which comes the name, “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.” I’m especially impressed when I see the same three pagodas on the Chinese currency.
Mid-Lake Pavilion, built in 1552, has an ornamental stone arch with Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong’s inscription, “Cong Er” which means “endless romance here.”
One of the most picturesque elements on the lake is the Leifeng Pagoda, originally erected in 977 by Qian Hongchu, the last King of the WuYue Kingdom. It is so stunning during sunset that the site named “Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow.” The original pagoda collapsed in 1924 and the new one, 72 meters high, was reconstructed on the original site in 2002 with a museum at the base where unearthed relics are exhibited.
I love the poetry of the place with such names as “Lotus in the Breeze at the Crooked Courtyard,” “Yellow Dragon Spitting Green,” and “Precious Stone Hill in the Twilight of the Setting Sun.” Another site, “Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake” is so-called because it is the best place for enjoying the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
For more information about travel to Hangzhou, contact Hangzhou Municipal Tourism Commission, http://eng.hangzhou.gov.cn/
(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip. (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 5th in the series.)
Our ride today, the 6th of cycling (7th of the tour), will bring us into the historic city of Gjirokaster – an Ottoman-era city carved into the hillside overlooking a spectacular river valley.
Today’s 46 km ride is one of the easiest – almost steadily downhill or flat – for a total elevation gain of just 200 meters and a loss of 360 meters. We follow the Vjoca River to Kelcyra Gorge.
We stop on the road in a small village (I note the bridal shop) and Junid, our guide on this biking journey across the southern part of Albania, picks up ice cream for 50 Leke (that’s about 50 cents for an ice cream that would be $2.50 in the US) and we fill our water bottles by a natural spring – fresh and cool.
Our lunch is in a delightful restaurant which literally has a stream running over it, like a waterfall. We sit upstairs on a terrace, and the water runs down as we eat, making it look like a sunshower.
After a most delightful lunch, we drive in the van 24 km along a highway and then up a steep, twisting road into the old city of Gjirokaster (also spelled Gjirokastra or Girocastro) built on a hill 300 meters high, overlooking a lush valley beside the mountains Mali Gjerë and the Drinos river.
This means we only biked 46 km instead of 70 km, but that saves our legs and lungs (which would have been brutal to go up the hill to the village). The biking trip is not designed to be a brutal test of endurance; it is designed so that we can really enjoy the scenery and get a sense of place. So driving us into Gjirokaster also gives us more time (and energy) to explore “the city of 1000 steps”, with its narrow cobblestone streets, that is dominated by a formidable castle.
I quickly drop my things at the Hotel Cajupi, right below the Castle which looms from above, and go off to explore on my own before we are scheduled to meet for Junid to take us on a walking tour.
Gjirokaster is one of the oldest cities of Albania, its name means Silver Fortress and the city clearly shows the confluence of Greek, Roman, Turkish and Albanian cultures. The historic district is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gjirokaster is a very popular tourist attraction (they are cultivating cultural tourism) and it is understandable why we see (wonderful) souvenir shops, English signs, historic markers with English translation, a fantastic tourist map. In fact, these are the best (actually only) tourist shops we encounter on our trip. That’s not because of American tourists, who are scant in number (though I do come upon a few), but because of Scandinavians, Swiss, Germans and Poles who come for whom English is the most common language.
I explore a bit on my own and enjoy discovering the 18-19th century houses with their distinct architectural features.
The “city of a thousand steps” which is also known as the “city of stone” is distinguished by hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with distinctive shapes, stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls.
Gjirokaster has gone “from feudal stronghold to Ottoman jewel to Italian colony, the city has known many rulers and has inspired poets, authors and artists,” Europa Travel & Tours, an Albanian travel company, notes.
The network of cobblestone streets climb steeply out of a bazaar at the center of the old town. You walk ever higher to the 13th century castle.
The village is perched on the steep side of the Drino Valley overlooking a stunning landscape framed by snow-capped mountains.
In 1336, the city was known by its Greek name, Argyrokastro and was part of the Byzantine Empire. It later became the center of the local principality under the Albanian lord, Gjon Zenebishi before falling under Ottoman Empire rule for the next five centuries. It was occupied by the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars because of its large Greek population (street signs are in both Albanian and Greek and the Greek minority still speaks Greek instead of Albanian). It was eventually incorporated into Albania in 1913, when Albania won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and the Council of Ambassadors (Western powers) put the area within its borders.
Gjirokaster owes its preservation to the fact it is the birthplace of the former Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ordered that the city remain untouched (except for destroying the mosques; the city, Junid says, once had 15 mosques but today has only one). It has been under UNESCO protection since 2005.
This is a city that honors three important writers including Ismail Kadare, most famous for “Chronicle in Stone” which is set in Gjirokaster, tells the history of the city during the Italian and Greek occupation in World War I and II. Kadare, who lives between Paris and Albania, was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded a gold medal from French President Hollande. You can visit his house in Gjirokaster.
Gjrokaster has an abundance of fascinating attractions but the two standouts are the oldest, grandest house, and the Castle that lords over the town and the valley below.
According to some notes I am able to find, the castle dates back to the 12th century, the earliest parts built by the Despots of Epirus, an off-shoot of the Byzantine government. It was reconstructed and adapted to modern war techniques during the reign of Ali Pasha of Tepelene, 1812-1821. The magnificent clock tower and an aqueduct were added in the 1800s. But it was Zog, the self-proclaimed King of the Albanians, who, in the 1920s, converted the fortress into a garrison and political prison. Zog also forged an alliance with Mussolini, who provided funds to Albania to modernize its army, but, in 1930, sent 30,000 Italian soldiers to occupy Albania.
As Junid relates, Mussolini modernized Albania’s army believing that Albania would provide a barrier for Italy’s own defense. “But then the King made a new connection with Mussolini’s enemy – so Mussolini invaded and occupied and used castle for defense,” Junid tells us. He says that there would have been as many as 5000 soldiers living in the castle (hard to imagine).
It was operated as a prison until 1968 when the castle was turned into a military museum paying tribute to Albanian independence.
Inside the stone walls, we find World War I and World War II Italian tanks and cannon (including a tiny Panzer with a Fiat engine) on display. Outside, there is a US fighter plane that they claim was a spy plane that was shot down (actually the plane had crashed landed near Tirana) and is shown off as a kind of trophy.
From this perch, we gaze out to a spectacular view of the valley. Greece is very close by; indeed, until 1914, this area was part of Greece, but was assigned to Albania by the Council of Ambassadors (the Western European powers). There is still a large Greek minority near here – signs are in both Greek and Albanian, the TV is Greek, and there are Albanians in the area who only speak Greek.
The castle is also the venue for the Balkan Festival, held every five years, a music and cultural festival involving some 30 countries.
(Admission to the castle is 200 Leke, or about $2).
A second attraction we visit, the Skendulate House, is spectacular in its own way because it provides a human connection to quite literally centuries of history.
As luck would have it, we are escorted around the house by the 9th generation owner, the last to occupy the house before it was taken over by the Communists and turned into an “enthnographic” museum (and after Communism fell, tried to block the owner from filing his claim of title, offering a pittance, the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, to maintain it as a national museum.)
Before Communism, a feudal system prevailed and a handful of rich families owned the land. Then the Communist regime nationalized all the property and took over the house.
Since the fall of Communism, in 1992, property ownership was restored, but there are still unresolved issues about who actually owns the land: The original feudal families? The workers who labored on the land. Until ownership is resolved, investment and development has simply ceased – as we travel around the country, we see numerous buildings left unfinished – the owners purposely started building in order to establish their claim.
This grand house of Skendulate dates from 1833 (according to one document I see; he says it dates from the 17th century, which could mean that his family owned the property from then). He is the 9th generation and the last to live in the house before it was nationalized by the Communist regime and turned into an ethnographic museum.
You get an idea of what the conditions were like when this great house – which would have been one of the richest and most splendid in the region (though he says it wasn’t the richest or most splendid) – was built. Junid translates as he points out 10 openings to protect the house; there would have been 10 guards to control the courtyard; two entrances (one for people and the other for animals). It has 64 windows, 44 doors, a cellar to preserve food for winter, a cistern to store water captured from the rain. He points out how the house was built with layers of natural chestnut wood, because it would be flexible.
The house had a bunker “in case of war or barbarity” and was constructed with two cupolas – so that cannon fire would hang from the first cupola and not penetrate deeper.
The house was built with a cellar for natural refrigeration (milk could be kept fresh for 3-4 days), they captured rainwater and had a water cistern that held 130 cubic meters of water so they could be pretty much self-sufficient for a period of time.
The house was built for cooler rooms in summer and warmer rooms for winter with a wood fireplace. It had six indoor bathrooms (the waste was pumped out) and 9 fireplaces (the more fireplaces, the greater the wealth). There would have been 20 people – 3-5 families – living in the house at one time.
The house was constructed so that men and women were kept separate.
In one room where men would gather, women could look down and count the men in order to know how much coffee and Rakia (a liquor) to prepare and serve, giving it to a male who would serve the rest.
We visit the kitchens where children and women would eat first, then the men; and poke into the various bedrooms one by one (the grandmother’s room was the smallest).
The family lived in the house until 1981, when the Communist regime turned it into an Ethnographic Museum.
The family got the house back in 1993 (as well as their landholdings), after a year of filing claims and the state trying to keep it as a museum. But it was unlivable (in fact, it would not be allowed to be opened to the public in the US in its condition), so he has continued showing it as a private, cultural museum.
It is odd to sit in the grandest room, lined with banquettes. He says it is the room where weddings would be held – in fact, it was the very room where he was married.
The decoration of the woodwork, the ceiling, the painted fireplace, is magnificent. The fireplace is painted with pomegranates – a symbol of his family.
He says that the only time a bride would be in the same room as men is at her wedding. It would be an arranged marriage, performed by the family.
There would be two days of receptions – one day for the bride’s family (Saturday), Sunday for the groom’s family. Women would look down through a screen from a mezzanine. “They might see their future husband” among the gathering.
He seems to get wistful as he relates that his was the last generation to live in the house; he had lived here for 33 years, was married in this very room, but, his son was 3 years old, they all were kicked out when the Communists took it over. (200 Leke entry fee, about $2).
There are many other attractions of Gjirokaster, most that can be appreciated just by walking around. You can also visit Ismail Kadare’s house, historic houses such as Zekate House (1812), Angone, Babameto and Kabilate. the Ethnographic Museum. Besides the buildings in Ottoman style, there are several stunning buildings in the historic district in 19th century Italian style, like the hotel “Royal”, the former “Banco di Napoli”, the former shopping center Ziga, the High School (labeled the “gymnasium”), Villa “Kokalari” and Villa “Papavangjeli”.
There’s also an intriguingly named The Cold War Tunnel, which Junid dismisses and I don’t have time to discover on my own.
We get a little time to shop (this is the only place we find where there are actually shops to buy crafts and such, and meet up at a delightful restaurant for dinner, where I watch as entire lambs are roasted on a spit.
We then go off to a tavern in the square just outside our hotel, where big-screen TVs are outside, and people have gathered to watch the European football (soccer) matches.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
Day 4 of our cycling (day 5 of “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” tour) proves to be one of the most demanding rides of the trip, and a culture shock as well, as we leave the relative sophistication of the city of Korca, “the Paris of Albania” (and our luxury boutique modern hotel!) and head into the mountains.
We start with an hour-long transfer in the van out of Korca (mainly because the roads out of the city are being completely rebuilt and would be unbikeable). We travel 14 km south of the city to Gramoz Mountain, where Bato, our trusty van driver, deposits us on top of a mountain pass. We have a long downhill ride through the countryside to our coffee stop in a delightful wooden cabin/guesthouse, Sofra Kolon Jare, that looks like a Swiss chalet, with a playground for chickens, bird houses, and stuffed bears. Then we have a long uphill, followed by a roller coaster of ups and downs and tight turns. The roads here are rough, potholed and rocky, which makes me grateful for the hydraulic brakes and suspension on our hybrid bikes, and also makes me think, “Now I know how a pinball feels” after riding down the corkscrew road.
After lunch in a small town of Erseka, we have two more climbs in a national forest, where we feel the cool, moist breeze as we ride, and fill our bottles from fountains funneling mountain streams, before we reach Farma Sotira in a tranquil valley at about 3 pm in the afternoon, after a 50 km (30 mile) ride that involved four major climbs for a total of 800 meters in elevation, and 970 meters drop.
Coming upon Farma Sotira is like an oasis in the wilderness. Farma Sotira is absolutely charming – a guesthouse consisting of small two-bedroom cabins, on a working farm raising their own vegetables and produce and (apparently) animals that are slaughtered for meat, and they have a trout farm (which supplies the trout we have for dinner).
Junid, our guide (pronounced Yunid), explains that the owners, when they were 28 years old, wanted to live in the area. They camped out for a year, raising cows and sheep while living in a tent. They kept reinvesting to buy more. After the first year, a wolf almost ate their tent. So they built a new structure and later built cabins for guests. Today, they have 150 cows (each cow worth $2000, he says) and 20 hens, and fields, as well as a trout farm.
Guests are invited to help with the farm and make Raki, a local liquor.
Our cabins are beside a babbling brook which is the dominant sound. It is utterly peaceful here, especially with the pure, moist air.
Dinner is served al fresco on a covered pavilion – the fresh, grilled trout (which we saw swimming only minutes before). Dessert is a honey-soaked cake (revani).
The Farma Sotira guesthouse has really been pleasant – and despite being on a farm, ironically, we aren’t awakened by roosters crowing (as just about every other place so far). It has been really pleasant and peaceful.
For breakfast, our sunny side up comes from duck eggs.
Our ride today begins with a steep uphill -100 meters elevation in first 2 km. The ride today will take us up 687 meters, but dropping 1352 meters for the last 14 km.
We cycle along the border between Albania and Greece before descending continuously down from 1100 meters to 300 meters to Carshove, and then on to Peetran.
There are gorgeous views of mountains, the frenetic sound of cicadas, smell of evergreen trees, cool moist air as we ride through the forest, the wind rushing by. We fill our water bottles from spring water that flows from fountains.
Even though it is hot (this is one of the last tours before there is a month-long summer break), it is not humid, so not uncomfortable, especially with the wind we make as we ride.
It’s 18 miles to the coffee stop, where we meet a young fellow who speaks English quite well, and says he goes to school in Greece only 8 km away, whereas the nearest Albanian school would be further away.
We have another 20 miles before we get to our destination, the Coli Guest House.
Apostol Tose (Coli is his nickname) opened his guesthouse in 1993 – shortly after the fall of Communism which was accompanied by an opening for Albanians to enjoy such travel experiences. It was renovated in 2000.
Coli is a master of meat dishes – lamb, goat and Kukurec are his specialties. It’s only around 1 pm when we arrive – time for lunch – and we are served a delectable soup with lamb, lemon, rice, wild spinach, “rice soup” and Byrek (spinach pie) among other delicious selections and salads, sitting around a table on the pleasant stone porch.
After lunch, Junid drives us in the van to the thermal springs of Benje (instead of us biking the 4 km there), then we walk upriver along the Langarica Canyon – one of the most impressive in Albania – to another thermal spring. Criss-crossing the river over the slippery rocks proves difficult.
Back at the guesthouse, dinner, served again on a beautiful stone porch with a flowing fountain, features a traditional Albanian vegetable dish, Turli Perimesh – diced onions, zucchini, squash, potato, tomatoes, and fresh parsley, prepared in a huge skillet with oil – which Junid says is commonly served once or twice a week in Albanian homes.
Each evening, Junid gives us an orientation about what to expect the next day.
Tomorrow’s ride will bring us to Gjirokaster,a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city has preserved the style and traditions from the days of the Ottoman empire – cobblestone streets, stone roofs. The Old City is virtually unchanged, he tells us, because it was the birthplace of the former dictator, Enver Halil Hoxha, the Communist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985.
“He turned it into a heritage town,” he says. “It is the only city where nothing changes.” Well, perhaps with the exception of the fact that the city once had more than a dozen mosques and Hoxha banned religion, even burning down mosques and churches; today there is only one mosque.
Gjirokaster also was home town of Albania’s most internationally renowned writer, Ismail Kadare, nominated five times for Nobel Prize in literature, and most famous for his novel, “Chronicle in Stone” (1971), which is set in Gjirokaster.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
Day 3 of our cycling adventure (the fourth day of “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” tour) offers some of the starkest contrasts, from Albania’s rural “breadbasket” – farmland where you think you have gone back 100 years in time – to one of its most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities, Korca, the “Paris of Albania.”
This day is marked for me with some of my favorite landscapes- stunning farms laid out like a neat patchwork quilt – that show Albania’s use of traditional agricultural techniques with little mechanization. If anything, the countryside reminds me of our Amish country, with the continued reliance on donkeys and mules, hoes and spades, and how the use of chemicals and pesticides is shunned (which is why the salads and produce we eat are so fresh and pure – talk about farm to table!).
Our ride is a 51 km distance, mostly uphill with a steep climb at the beginning, and then a series of smaller climbs and drops for a total elevation gain of 412 meters and elevation loss of 252 meters.
We start out of the hotel alongside Lake Ohrid, and cycle back to Pogradec, then head south and leave the plain, climbing to a higher one. We cycle the first half of the route along rural roads, looking at the vast plain of Korca from above, presenting these gorgeous painterly scenes of the farms.
As we come into one village, we see a funeral procession underway – a long line of people walking up a winding path to the hillside cemetery.
Our coffee break stop is a delightful restaurant right in the middle of the farms; Junid, our guide, brings us a watermelon to share. Lunch is in another charming restaurant, on the outskirts of Korca, where we enjoy stuffed grape leaves, beets, fries and lamb chops.
Korca: ‘The Paris of Albania’
We bike into Korca and am immediately struck by sculptures that line the boulevard and some of the prettiest modern architecture we have seen, abutting turn-of-the-century French-influenced architecture (hence, the title, “The Paris of Albania”), from when the French controlled the region. We also pass a curious cemetery with crosses.
You immediately feel Korca’s more cosmopolitan cultural vibes, but the essence of Albania’s 19th century history also is on display here, all compressed in a compact walkable distance.
Our hotel, the Life Gallery Hotel, is, hands-down the best of the trip. It is a microcosm of Korca in that it is actually two buildings: a grand French-style building dating from 1924 and a modern, chic boutique hotel with every modern amenity imaginable (an enormous marble and granite bathroom and free WiFi), connected via an enclosed walkway and courtyard. There is a stunning beer garden, a cellar restaurant, a tavern, and even a swimming pool (and they are opening a spa).
We are here early enough for me to explore on my own for an hour and a half before our group meets together for a walking tour led by our guide, Junid: the rebuilt Cathedral (largest in Albania), the First School of Albania (dating from 1887), cinema and casinos (which may actually be nightclubs) and a bazaar (closed when we come) and what passes for a small indoor shopping mall. There are also a surprising number of banks.
Indeed, Korca is one of the largest and most important cultural and economical centers of Albania and the largest city in the region. In addition to being dubbed “The Paris of Albania,” it is also known as the “cradle of Albanian culture.” Korca is named in documents dating from the early medieval period – the first half of the 15th century – when the entire province was the property of Muzakajt, one of the feudal families of that time. The city has been an important trading market: for centuries Albanian caravans began their travels from here to Turkey, Greece, and Russia. By the second half of the 19th century, the city rose to be a very important economic, trade and cultural center.
But its prime location that has made the city so important as a trading center has also brought tragedy. Albania was neutral during the Balkan Wars and World War I, yet so many battles were fought here that the country lost 10% of its population, Junid tells us.
The city also played a key role in its fight for independence from the 500-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. Korca patriots were well organized from 1906 – 1912, and took part actively in the movement to liberate the country from Ottoman occupation.
Korca enjoyed a heightened period of prosperity in the interwar period when many of its characteristic cultural institutions, mansions and boulevards were built by French and Italians.
The city also offers several museums including The Education Museum (housed in the building where the first Albanian school opened in 1887), The National Museum of Medieval Art, The Prehistoric Museum, the house-museum of the famous landscape painter, Vangjush Mio, and Bratko, the museum of the Oriental Art.
Walking Tour of Korca
The city of Korca takes great pride in being a welcoming and accessible city. You can best experience this by walking through its many parks, clean streets (we see people employed as street sweepers) and characteristic cobblestone walkways and roads. Which is what we do
Junid gives us a narration of Korca’s history as we walk passed monuments and structures: he points out the graveyard of martyrs, located at the top of a hill above the city.
By happenstance of location, Korca has been the site of a lot of fighting.
After Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, after 500 years under its rule, it did not take part in the Balkan Wars of 1912-4, or in World War II – it was neutral, like Switzerland, Junid says. Nonetheless, armies marched through; Albania had an army for defense; 10% of the Albanian population died in battles fought on its soil. The numbers also include 700 French soldiers who are buried in the cemetery, marked with crosses, that we saw when we biked into the city earlier.
In 1913, Albania’s borders were “redefined” by a Council of Ambassadors (Western Europeans). Albania had started out as 58,000 sq km; but in their collective wisdom, Albania’s territory was cut down to 39,000 sq. km, with sizeable chunks given to Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro. Today, there is concern that Albania may want to recover its lost territory, but Junid says, “Nobody wants to reestablish Albania.”
From 1916-20, Korca was occupied by the French who built many of the beautiful buildings we see. The French also installed Albania’s president.
By 1930, half of Albania was occupied by Italy and the rest by Greece.
“The Dictator” (as Junid refers to him) sought help from Hitler to push out the Greeks and allied with the Italians. Mussolini saw Albania as a 300 km-wide buffer zone for its own defense. Mussolini armed and modernized Albania’s army.
We come to the Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of the city and the largest in Albania and second largest in the Balkans. It was opened in 1995.
Junid explains that in 1967, under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha (dictator from 1944 until 1983), Albania became the first atheist country – religion was banned; priests and imans who refused to close their churches and mosques were shot and their churches and mosques burned down.
Even after Communism fell in 1991, it took a couple of more years before the people got over their fear and reopened churches and mosques. The Cathedral was built upon ruins with donations of rich families from area (they are honored inside the Cathedral). Despite the restoration of formal religion, and the fact that Muslims represent 70 percent of the country, other religions are tolerated (indeed, we see crosses topping many hilltops), the country is clearly secular, atheism is still prevalent and people consider religion a private affair.
“The religion of Albanians,” Junid tells us as we walk, “is Albanianism. First and foremost we are a nation. We all are human beings, respect each other.”
Junid gives us more of Albania’s history: he tells us that when one of the prime ministers died of heart disease (or at least that’s what they said). “Coincidentally, one of the doctors who treated him succeeded him (This reminds me of a plot of “Madam Secretary”). (I can’t reconstruct this timeline based on the list of Prime Ministers and Presidents but the only cardiologist I can find is (Sali Berisha) who became President in 1992 and later became Prime Minister, 2005-2013. Berisha was also the Prime Minister who, on 10 June 2007, met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Tirana, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania. But what appears to be the case is that there are a handful of politicians who move in and out of power, which accounts for a high measure of cynicism when it comes to politics.)
In 1991, a former economic adviser to Prime Minister Fatos Nano began a series of Ponzi schemes that embroiled much of the country, and when they collapsed in 1997, caused the bankruptcy of 25 firms with a face value totaled $1.2 billion and sank more than 200,000 investors who had sold off property in order to raise the capital to invest. That set off a civil war. “Almost all of Albania was burned to the ground,” Junid tells us. (What I can’t understand is why the money can’t be traced to bank accounts and recovered.)
Nanos served as Prime Minister 1997-8 (after the Ponzi schemes collapsed), was accused of corruption and remarkably, was returned to office 2002-2005, promising reforms, when new questions about corruption in government contracts emerged.
(I find it really difficult to get Albania’s history into perspective. If you look at a timeline of Albania’s prime ministers, some only served a matter of months and even days, and there was nobody in the office 1916-1918, but it also is clear that a small group of leaders dominated government for decades, switching in and out of office.)
The bottom line is that Albania’s history since 1912 independence has been one of kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents promising reforms but rife with corruption and intrigues which led to unrest, coups and uprisings. (The current prime minister, Edi Rama, came to office in September 2013, and judging from the massive infrastructure projects underway and what I gauge is a calm in the country, seems to be putting the country’s economy back on track.
Across from the Cathedral is the promenade and a prominent “National Hero” Monument, immortalizing the freedom movement that won independence from the Ottoman Empire after a 500-year occupation. The figure wears the traditional Albanian costume with the pleated skirt (the Greeks adopted the same outfit; the more folds, the richer the man). It was sculpted in 1937 by Odhise Paskali, considered Albania’s greatest sculptor, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Albania’s independence.
Along the promenade are important buildings – the literal ruins of a Russian Embassy (in 1957, the dictator broke off relations with Russia and allied with China) on one side, and the First Albanian School, built in 1887, which is today the National Museum of Education. Back when the school was built, under Muslim law only boys could attend, but a few years later, a girls school was built.
The promenade, Junid says, is an architectural feature common to all Albanian towns, a legacy of the Italian occupation. The promenade was designed by Mussolini’s architects in the 1930s.
Junid explains the Albanian custom of “xhiro” (sounds like “gyro”) – evening walks. Each evening after 6:30 pm, people come out and promenade down the avenues, come to cafes, sit in parks, and chat.
Our walking tour takes us through many neighborhoods. I note a small plaque dedicated by the Albanian American veterans of America in a park-like setting in the middle of a boulevard that is being reconstructed. We come upon a group of older women who are knitting and with Junid as translator, chat a bit.
Finally, we come to a street lined with beer gardens. We are headed for the beer garden right beside the Korca brewery (less than 70 cents for a mug of really terrific Pilsner-style beer).
Korca is Albania’s oldest brewery in Albania (since 1928), as well as the biggest (Tirana is the other major beer), supplying taverns and restaurants throughout the country (but not beyond). It is a traditional Pilsner-style wheat beer, full-flavored and quite good.
A little research uncovers that Korca has the best conditions for making beer: cereals are widely cultivated and the water is low in calcium. Under the Hoxha Communist regime, the brewery became the property of the state. The brewery was purchased in 2004 by a local investor, Irfan Hysenbelliu, who built new buildings in the traditional style and launched a new system of beer processing set-up by Czech engineers.
The beer garden is especially fun, just below a massive copper cover to what I imagine is the still.
Just as Yunid promised, in the evening, the streets and promenades and cafes are crammed with people, taking part in the custom of xhiro. The feeling that emanates from the streets is absolutely marvelous.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.
Next: Biking Albania to Gjirokaster, UNESCO World Heritage Center