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).
(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).
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”