Tag Archives: BikeTours.com

E-Bike Opens World of Possibility for Bike Touring

BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson (left) and Junid (middle) riding e-bikes on the mountain roads of Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/gongplacesfarandnear.com
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson (left) and Junid (middle) riding e-bikes on the mountain roads of Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson biking in Albania on an e-bike. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goinplacesfarandnear.com
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson biking in Albania on an e-bike. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Biking in Albania brings you into villages you would not visit otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/gongplacesfarandnear.com
Biking in Albania brings you into villages you would not visit otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Many of the BikeTours.com offerings now give an e-bike option.

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking Albania: Touring Centuries Old City of Gjirokaster

The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(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.

Bridal shop in a village in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bridal shop in a village in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster is known as the “city of stone roofs” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gjirokaster is known as the “city of stone roofs” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The bazaar in Gjirokaster’s old city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 347 –
The bazaar in Gjirokaster’s old city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Gjirokaster Castle

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.

Gjirokaster Castle was used as a fortress and a prison and now is a military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gjirokaster Castle was used as a fortress and a prison and now is a military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

US plane on display at Gjirokaster  Castle military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
US plane on display at Gjirokaster Castle military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Skendulate House

The 9th generation owner relates the history of Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The 9th generation owner relates the history of Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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  grand room of Skendulate House where weddings were held © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The grand room of Skendulate House where weddings were held © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Night time in Gjirokaster’s bazaar © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night time in Gjirokaster’s bazaar © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Enjoying dinner in Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Enjoying dinner in Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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). 

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com. 

See also:

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour 

Biking Albania: Exploring Heritage Sites of Lake Ohrid, St Naum, Ancient City of Ohrid

Biking through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the ‘Paris of Albania’

Biking Albania: Farm, Thermal Springs on Route through Countryside into the Mountains

Next: Biking Albania: Greco-Roman City of Butrint

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the ‘Paris of Albania’

Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of Korca and the largest in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of Korca and the largest in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(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.)

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.”

Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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!).

Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Coming upon a funeral procession in the Albanian countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coming upon a funeral procession in the Albanian countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Women leaving fields © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Women leaving fields © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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’

“National Hero” Monument with Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Korca 247 © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
“National Hero” Monument with Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Korca 247 © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Life Gallery Hotel, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Life Gallery Hotel, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

One of the European-styled buildings in Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the European-styled buildings in Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 First School of Albania, dating from 1887, now The Education Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The First School of Albania, dating from 1887, now The Education Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

After becoming the first officially atheist country, even after the fall of Communism in 1991, it took a couple of years before Albania started to reopen its churches and mosques © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
After becoming the first officially atheist country, even after the fall of Communism in 1991, it took a couple of years before Albania started to reopen its churches and mosques © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Korca’s historic cinema © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Korca’s historic cinema © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Ladies, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Ladies, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Korca Brewery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Korca Brewery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Nighttime in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 

See also:

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour 

Biking Albania: Exploring Heritage Sites of Lake Ohrid, St Naum, Ancient City of Ohrid

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Biking Albania: Exploring Heritage Sites of Lake Ohrid, St Naum, Ancient City of Ohrid

Albania
Our first glimpse of Lake Ohrid and Albania’s beautiful farms © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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)

Johnson has been working with USAID and the Albanian government to help cultivate sustainable tourism – bike tours are the best form with the least adverse impact for return – to not only boost the economy but to bring Albania out of darkness into the world community. Americans, particularly, have either no impression at all about Albania or have woefully wrong impressions and stereotypes (myself included – that’s why my visit here was so surprising, not for how exotic Albania proved to be compared to other “hot” off-the-beaten-track destinations like Myanmar and Cuba, but to see a young country emerging). What is more, tourism helps generate the funding to sustain important historical and heritage sites as well as infrastructure improvements that might otherwise be lost to time and future generations because of neglect (this is what “ecotourism” is about: sustaining heritage and environments).

Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We could appreciate this aspect as we travel newly built and paved roads (as well as bike on the old battered or abandoned roads that make us really appreciate the quality hybrid bikes with hydraulic brakes and suspension), the hotels and inns and coffee stops along our way, and of especially, touring such extraordinary ancient sites as Butrint and environmental treasures like Lake Ohrid.

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – essentially a broker that selects the best local cycling tour companies that give us the most “authentic” experience but also the best value and service. I had previously done a self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip with my adult sons, and a bike/boat trip of the Greek Islands and had every confidence that BikeTours.com would select the best operator.

Bike touring in Albania is a very new idea and unusual – indeed, our appearance with our helmets and state-of-the-art hybrid bikes (as well as the e-bike that I used) – draws attention since it is so unusual. After all, about 70% of the country is mountainous and our route takes us up and over mountain passes (the regular tour has as much as a mile-high climb in elevation in a day; our trip maxes out at about two-thirds of a mile elevation, but that’s why I opt to try an e-bike for the first time, and I have no problem at all with the climbs). The local operator that BikeTours.com has enlisted purchased a fleet of Taiwan-based Giant bikes manufactured in the Netherlands.

But bike touring affords the opportunity to really explore, really discover a place. We travel through small rural villages, national parks, cities and along the coast to beach communities (a post-Communist creation). We travel at a pace and with the ability to stop and really look around (take pictures or even chat with a shepherd or a group of ladies sitting on a bench with their knitting) without the artificiality of staring through a bus window.

We get to see things that would otherwise sweep past our notice: a man sitting on a donkey cart loaded up with hay, chatting on his cell phone; a woman in the field leaning on a hoe also talking on a cell phone. The meticulously maintained farms remind me of Amish country, especially with the use of donkeys and mules and manual tools and a minimum of automated equipment. What is more, you feel part of what is around you – in the moment – more of a participant than a spectator.

Each evening we are given an orientation about the next day’s ride, a map with the route outlined, showing the coffee stops, lunch place and endpoint, a diagram of the elevations– in essence, an graphic illustration of the ups and downs of the ride, as well as notes about the places we will be traveling. We are also accompanied by a van driver who keeps an eye on us even while trying to stay innocuous. And had the climb proved too difficult on any day, we could have just hopped into the van (that doesn’t happen, though).

Our itinerary is modified from the regular Albania cycling trip because this is the President’s Tour, and Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com, has requested certain special features. This trip includes a circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO-protected lake that is shared between Albania and Macedonia, which enables us to visit the ancient town of Ohrid in Macedonia, plus two days of kayaking and a stay at Albania’s #1 rated beach, added on to the end, for a total of 13 days versus 9 days.

Each day is characterized by a highlight, and in my mind, a different color: blue of Lake Ohrid, green/brown patchwork of the farms; grey of the ancient city of Butrint, aquamarine of the Ionian Sea.

Day 1: Arrival in Tirana

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at the international airport in Tirana, named for Mother Teresa, perhaps Albania’s most famous heroine, where we are met by Bato, who will be our van driver during the trip. I am immediately surprised as we drive into the capital city to see palm trees (this area is subtropical), mountains, and a bustling, if small scale, city. Our hotel in the center of town is only a short walk from the National Museum, but I do not know that and make a terrible mistake by not rushing out in the waning hours of the afternoon to visit the museum – it would have provided an excellent foundation for appreciating Albania’s history and cultural heritage.

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our group of five meets up for an orientation with our guide, Junid Jegeni, at the hotel before walking over to a restaurant for dinner. After dinner, I walk about the city, amazed at how busy it is – it turns out that it is the custom of Albanians to come out in the evening – how pleasant and how comfortable I feel wandering around.

Day 2: Cycling to Lake Ohrid

After dinner and overnight in Tirana, we depart for a two-hour ride in the van to the northeast side of Lake Ohrid on the Albanian side. Our coffee stop is at a lovely hotel along a stream, where we chance to see a bride who we guess is there to take her wedding photos.

Our first day’s ride is designed to be an  easy warm-up, beginning with a long downhill and mostly flat ride for 41 km, with a total elevation gain of 140 meters, but an elevation loss of 360 meters, taking us around one side of Lake Ohrid.

Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the top of Qafe Thana Pass, Bato unloads the bikes (it takes me two minutes to learn how to operate the e-bike and three minutes to get comfortable riding it), and begin our 27.5 km ride, cycling counter-clockwise from the northwest side of the lake to the southwest side, to the city of Pogradec. We see gorgeous farms that hug the shore. It is very beautiful riding on the road alongside the lake. We have to avoid two donkeys that wander blissfully across the street as we reach a picturesque town of Tushemisht, a popular lakeside holiday village filled with bright-colored umbrellas and scantily clad beachgoers.

Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s deepest (at 1000 ft.) and one of the largest biological reserves in Europe. One of the oldest lakes in the world (1 million years), it has primeval life forms which no longer exist anywhere else or only exist as fossils. It is an aquatic ecosystem of such global importance, that Lake Ohrid is protected by UNESCO (on the Macedonian side, so far). It has more than 200 endemic species (like Belushka, which we get to savor for dinner).

The lake lies in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains with peaks of over 2,000 meters: to the east, Mount Petrino and Mount Galacica; to the south, hills and lower mountains of Albania. Two-thirds of the lake surface belongs to the country of Macedonia and one-third to Albania.

Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the afternoon after a delightful lunch on the lakefront patio of our hotel, The Millennium, we cycle 4 km, taking us across the border into Macedonia (passports please!) to visit the 1000-year old monastery of St. Naum, where there is a small church that holds magnificent 500 year old frescoes.

Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here at an auspicious time: it is the day before the annual festival to St. Naum, who is said to have built the monastery with his own hands, between 900-905, and is buried in the church.

Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

People have come from all over. We witness an interesting custom: people take turns parading a lamb around the church as they are followed by two men banging on a drum. The next day, the lambs (there are 2) will be sacrificed for a feast.

Another unusual feature of this place are peacocks that are everywhere.

There’s a hotel right next to the church; a market as you walk up the cobblestone path to the church. There is actually a beautiful beach place at the foot of the walk up to the monastery at the top of a hill overlooking the lake. People line the lakeshore for swimming, boating, lounging, which strikes me as an odd contrast to the monastery.

We get back to our hotel with time to enjoy a swim in Lake Ohrid before a lakeside dinner that includes one of Lake Ohrid’s unique fish, Belushka, while enjoying an exquisite sunset. After dinner, we gather in the hotel lobby to watch the Euro Soccer championships on TV.

Day 3: Cycling to Ohrid, UNESCO World Heritage Site

For our second day cycling, we complete the circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, but start off with a transfer by the van back up to The Qafe Thana Pass where we had started cycling yesterday. But this day, we ride clockwise. It’s also completely designed by Johnson, who is very anxious for us to visit Ohrid, a historic city on the Macedonia side of Lake Ohrid, and not part of the regular Albania cycling tour.

Today’s ride is one of the longest, at 65 km, but mostly downhill or flat, with the three progressively higher climbs at the end of the day, for an elevation gain of 545 meter and elevation loss of 784 meters.

Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We start with a mild ascent to the Albanian-Macedonian border (passports please!), then a long, steep downhill ride to the road that follows the lake (passing Viagra Beach – a coincidence, but our guide, Junid remarks that Ferid Murad, an Albanian-American, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998 for discoveries that led to the development of Viagra to treat impotence (he was looking for a way of opening blood vessels to remedy cardiovascular conditions). It’s irresistible not to stop to take pictures in front of the Viagra Beach sign.

We ride the beautiful (and flat) road – which has been largely replaced by a new road so it has very few cars – into the historic town of Ohrid. Johnson leads us on a fast-paced walking tour of the city (starting with his favorite baklava shop where we sample the pastry), walking up old, typical narrow cobblestone streets.

St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, with a history extending back 2000 years. The city was built mainly between the 7th and 19th centuries and still preserves the most complete collection of ancient urban architecture of the Slavic lands (St Pantelejmon is believed to be the oldest Slav monastery). You can find more than 800 Byzantine-style icons dating from the 11th to the end of the 14th century, “which, after those of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, is considered to be the most important collection of icons in the world,” according to UNESCO World Heritage notes.

At one point, Johnson tells us, Ohrid had 365 churches, one for each day of the year.

One of the most impressive medieval buildings in Ohrid and a rare work of architecture of the Byzantine era, St. Sophia is a large three-nave cathedral with a dome at the center, built on the foundation of an ancient cult during the period of King Samuil. St. Sophia boasts the largest collection of 11th C frescoes in world, Johnson tells us (no time to visit inside though). With wonderful acoustics and a gorgeous garden, St. Sophia is the main stage festivals including the annual Ohrid Summer Festival.

Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other important monuments include Samuel’s Fortress and a classical theater built 2000 years ago (in the late Hellenic period or shortly after the Roman occupation).

We also pass an intriguing National Workshop For Handmade Paper, where you can see a demonstration of paper making by hand, and a Gutenberg printing press (no time to stop, though).

After a delightful lunch al fresco on the lake, we get back on the bikes.

Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The end of the ride is the toughest, with a steep uphill climb, made unusually difficult because of the volume of traffic of people who have come for the festival of St. Naum. Normally there is hardly any traffic on the road, Junid tells us.

We pass an intriguing “bone museum” – a reproduction of an indigenous village which appears to float on the lake.

Completing the circumnavigation brings us back to the Hotel Millennium, the only hotel where we will stay two nights during the biking portion of our trip.

Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dinner is at the Millennium hotel’s lake-front restaurant with gorgeous views of the setting sun. The scene reminds me of Lake Tahoe.

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: Riding through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the “Paris of Albania” 

See also:

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour

The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com

You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).

You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.

You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.

Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.

Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.

Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.

Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world,  under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.

To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.

Surprises Abound

I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews  from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.

“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ –  made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”

“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”

Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains.  According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”

Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.

The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.

The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.

The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.

The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).

Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).

But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).

Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.

Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)

In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda,  when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.

Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom  – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).

You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)

Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field  leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.

Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.

Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)

Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table.  With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.

And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.

Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.

Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)

Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans,  and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.

Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).

Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.

Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.

Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.

BikeTours,com

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.

These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).

BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.

The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.

The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.

Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.

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.

(More to come: Day by Day Biking in Albania)

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