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xEurasia Odyssey

Balkan Adriatic Coast Weeks 2B and 3: Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia

ALBANIA | Sunday, 18 July 2021 | Views [35]

13th C Church of St. Mary, Apollonia

13th C Church of St. Mary, Apollonia

HMMM, never made it to the Illyrian Royal Tombs.  Even though I knew where to turn off from the main road, there were no signs on the back roads and I drove around on pot-holed dirt tracks for almost an hour, before giving up and asking for directions to Elbasan, which would get me headed in the right direction to get to Sarande near the Greek border. The drive there took almost six hours from Elbasan as I stopped at the Ardenica Monastery and the Apollonia Archeological Site near Fieri, both of which were well marked from the highway.  The Monastery has some amazing frescos in the 18th C Church of St. Mary.  The Monastery itself is much older, probably from the 13th C and sits on the top of a small mountain (it’s more than a hill) and from the parking area below the pathway to the gate, there are views stretching for miles to the coast. The gate was closed when I got there, but after knocking and waiting for awhile the groundskeeper came to let me in. The frescos are famous because they were painted by perhaps the most famous icon painters of the time, Kostandin and Athanas Zografi. What I found most amazing is that the frescos were intact and not bullet-holed potmarked like those in Ohrid, or for that matter those in Northern Turkey or in Georgia near the Azerbaijan border.  The churches and frescos in those sites were damaged by Islamic fundamentalists. This church somehow made it through cultural revolution without too much damage. There is one spectacular fresco of the Dormition of the Virgin on the rear wall as well as those representing her life throughout the church.

Apollonia was an early Greek settlement, supposedly founded in 588 BCE. It is named after the god Apollo, and a sculptured head that was originally ascribed to Demeter, is now said to be Apollo.  I have to say that to me the figure looks much more like a benevolent goddess than the male god of the sun, but as he was also the god of dance and music, perhaps his feminine side was captured in this statue. In ancient times, his city, Apollonia, was an important trading post and one of the starting points for the Via Egnatia, a road connecting the Adriatic with Constantinople. I’ve written about the portion through Northern Greece in an earlier blog. The archeological site is well-maintained and has a good museum with artifacts found at the site and posters that indicate which artifacts from the site are now in the National Museum in Tirana. Explanations of the artifacts are in Albanian as well as English, which is very helpful. The day was unbearably hot, 34-36 degrees celsius depending on where we were with 80% humidity. (It’s the humidity coupled with the degrees of heat that got to us.  I’m normally fine in UT and AZ until about 103, but this felt much worse.) When I opened the door from the air-conditioned car, my ears were bombarded with the forte pulsing of cicadas.  It was too hot and humid for Nori, so she hid in the shade in an old Cistern, while I explored the rest of the site. The remains of the structures were explained in display cases by each of what used to be buildings. The most intact of the structures is 2nd C CE Bouleuterion, where the city fathers met. The columns dominate the surrounding rocky outlines.  The theater was a bit of a disappointment as not much other than the platform is left. They say that only about 10% of the area has been excavated, and as it sits on a hill, there is probably much more to learn that has yet to be uncovered. The site was inhabited until a series of earthquakes moved the river, and destroyed the port that allowed for easy access to trade routes. Without access to the river and sea, in late antiquity the town’s economy collapsed.

We still had a long drive ahead of us, so I opted not to stop at Byllis as that would have taken at least an extra two hours, and I wanted to get to Sarande by evening.  The roads from Fieri to just below Gjirokastra are much better than they are in the eastern portion of the country.  There was actually a stretch of about 40 km of actual highway, where the speed limit dramatically increased to 110. Most of the time the speed limit is 60, with portions that are 40 or 20. The SH4, though, has a nice long stretch of 80-90, which is a relief after crawling along.  There is a reason for the low speed limits, though, and one is wise to pay attention to them, as people shoot out from nowhere or stop suddenly for seemingly no purpose in the middle of the road. Starting a few kilometers after the turn off to Apollonia, the road is lined with newly planted trees, mostly plum and maple, which create a colorful border amid the backdrop of the changing vegetation on the sides of the road.  The drive takes one through farmland, scrubs, and fields of spiked blue thistles. About 20 km south of Gjirokastra, recognized as a world heritage site for its unique old town houses cascading down the mountain, the road to Sarande takes a right turn to a much smaller road, but one that is still wide enough for two directional traffic, yet not enough for passing. This road winds steeply up over the mountain to crest at the border between Gjirokasta and Sarande provinces.  On the crest there were cattle and goats grazing. In both provinces, the signage to interesting sites was prevalent, not like in the eastern portion of the country. It was clear from the roads, signs, and general appearance of the towns, that the coastline and towns on the eastern portion of the country, with the exception of the most northwesterly corner near Velipoje, have been the beneficiaries of more infrastructure funds than those around Elbasan, or Korce, although Korce seemed better off than Elbasan, probably because of the National Medieval Art Museum and the wealth of archeological finds in the region. Elbasan was also a stronghold of the Ottomans, as was Gjirokasta, but without the former’s exceptional architecture to rescue it. The Albanian hero, Skanderbeg, is famous for uniting the regions tribes against the Ottomans and his city, Kruja, has clearly received infrastructure funds. The main road connecting Ohrid with Tirana passes by Elbasan and nearby there is a surprising view to anyone from the Southwestern US, namely red rock.  There were sections that could have been in southern Utah. In southern Albania, after coming down from the mountain pass into Sarande province, it is still over 30 km to town.  On the way there is a unique geological site, the Blue Eye, a small lagoon with turquoise blue water, which we saved for the way back north.

Sarande, on the Ionian Sea, is near the end of the Albanian Rivera. The Adriatic officially stops at Vlore and the Ionian Sea begins south of that city. Regardless of whether it is on the Adriatic or the Ionian, Sarande is a true beach tourist town. It could be anywhere along the coast that is backed by mountains.  The water is warm, the beaches clean, and the shops sell anything one could possibly want for a beach holiday. Restaurants, cafes, and bars line the boardwalk behind the beach and Albanian and Slavic pop music blasts from their loudspeakers. In the heat, people walk around the terraced streets of town in light wraps somewhat covering their bikinis.  The bikini celebrates its 75th birthday this year, and I wonder what the designers would say if they could see the shapes of the people wearing their creation today. There is no body shaming going on here!

The other famous beach town in this stretch going towards the Greek border is Ksamili. The sandy beach seems to go on forever and even beyond this one is a hidden ca. 7km long expanse called the “Women’s Beach”; no unintended eyes can view the people lounging here. Traffic is horrid in the beach towns; it simply stops when someone parks the car in the middle of the road to run into a shop. Yet one has to get through them if one wants to get to Butrint, perhaps the most famous archeological site in Albania, as I did.

Butrint is a remarkable place, and a pleasant one.  The forest has grown up around the ancient city; Mother Nature has taken repossession of the region after numerous human invasions. No one knows for sure when or who precisely founded the city.  Virgil makes the case in the Aeneid, that after Enea rescued his father and son from the burning flames of Troy and before leading them to Italy, they landed in Butrint. There they met Helenus, the son of King Priam, who had been taken captive by Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, and brought here. After his captor’s death, Helenus became king and married Hector’s widow, Andromache. Helenus then built a fortress that was a miniature version of his former homeland, Troy.  A different 1C BCE version comes from Teukruis of Kuzik, who says that while Helenus was on his way to Dodone, he decided to make a sacrifice to the gods.  The bull that was used, managed to survive the blow and the subsequent toss into the sea, and swam until it got to a seashore, where it finally fell down and died. This then became the site of the future city. There is no archeological evidence that connects the city to ancient Troy, but rather to the Greeks of the 6-5th BCE. An Albanian archeologist, N. Ceka, noted the differences between the Greeks of Corfu and the inhabitants of Epirus, where Butrint is located, based on inscriptions on ancient tablets. It seems that Epirus was somewhat unique in the Greek world in that women had full rights and could inherit and own property, they could function as the head of the family, and the region was organized by ethnic group rather than by city-states, i.e., polises. Old habits die hard and ethic tensions have been the cause of many wars throughout the Balkans. As with the sites to the north, after the Greeks, who made the city into a spa with a Temple to Asclepius, came the Romans who built up the old theater and made Butrint a festival city. Julius Caesar sent the veterans of his army here for rest and relaxation. Later the foundation of one of Roman baths was used by the early Christians to build a basilica. When the Byzantines were in power, they built a much larger basilica after a 5th C earthquake. During the coming centuries Butrint was ruled by the Normans, Charles I d’Anjou, King of Naples, and then there was a long-standing tug of war between the Venetians and the Ottomans for the city and region.

    Despite the changing rulers and geography due to floods, earthquakes and human habitation, Butrint manages to reign astride a peninsula separating Lake Butrint from the Bay of Ksmali. There are interesting sites on both sides of the Vivari Channel. The 19th C Ali Pasha castle is only reached by boat from either side of the channel. The main site is best visited by following along the path clearly laid out for tourists. It courses through both of the two still standing gates, including the lion’s gate by the former sea entrance. The name comes from a relief of a lion and a bull fighting, the bull is on the ground being ravaged by the lion. (From afar the relief looks more like a boar, but closer the bull is more evident.  The relief is fairly worn.) The theater is relatively small for a Roman theater, but is nicely reconstructed so that it still has the feel of an ancient site rather than one that has been completely redone. The temples of Asclepius and Minerva are nearby and are less reconstructed. The Great Basilica is the tallest standing structure with its’ pillars and arches more or less intact.  On the top of the hill, at the end of the marked path is the Fortress with museum.  The museum is only a couple of rooms, but does have a good selection of items uncovered at the site and plaques describing what was found here but is now at the National Museum in Tirana. Perhaps the best part of the site, however, is scenery. The views from the shady trees on the hill of the lake and bay on to the Ionian Sea are spectacular.

            There are a few monasteries that could be visited in the region, but for me it was time for the puppy to play amid the rocks by the beach.  The place we were staying was a small cottage behind Heaven Beach, a delightful little cove between Sarande and Ksmili. It is only reached via a very bumpy dirt road, so there weren’t many people there.  As there is only one hotel with a café/restaurant and no shops, it is quiet. At the end of the smallish pebble beach, was a very rocky stretch, where the puppy could play off-leash and not bother anyone, and I could go swimming without worrying about her.  It really was heaven.

 Sarande was the furthest south we were going, and it was now time to head slowly back north.  On the way to Kruja, where we were spending the next night, we stopped at the Blue Eye.  This is a small but absolutely spectacular pool of bright turquoise blue water. The site is off the ‘highway’ between Gjirokastra and Sarande on a 2 km dirt road.  It is quite the tourist area with cafes, restaurants and WCs, but as with the waterfalls, even the masses of people cannot detract from the beauty of nature.

 The drive to Kruja was over four hours and was luckily uneventful. The only real traffic jams were around Tirana and Kruja.  Kruja has been inhabited since the 3rd C BCE, but is now famous as Skanderbeg’s birthplace and site of Albanian resistance to Ottoman domination. The museum is basically an homage to the local hero, but does have a couple of rooms dedicated to earlier eras. As part of the homage, it showcases Skanderbeg’s library and correspondence with foreign powers, including the Habsburgs. It was an impressive display. During his lifetime, he was able to keep the Ottomans at bay, perhaps because he could think like his enemy as he was formerly in their service.  After his death, though, the greater forces the Ottomans had overcame Albanian resistance. Today, Skanderbeg is not just a national hero, but a symbol for national self-determination. As the country has been tossed between foreign powers for centuries, the desire for self-rule and international recognition is deeply engrained. The positive relationship with the US is based on Woodrow Wilson’s and subsequent US leaders support of Albanian statehood. Gratitude for this support comes in the form of naming roads and squares, but also most recently of the establishment of a bust of Hilary Clinton in Skanderbeg’s city.

 In Kruja we stayed at Rooms Emiliano in the castle. The drive up to the castle is clearly marked and when not sure how get to the Emiliano, the folks near the bazaar are helpful in locating the right path up. Once there, this is a great place. The views of the Kruja Mountain behind the castle and those stretching from Tirana towards the Adriatic were incredible. On the top of the mountain is the main temple of the Bektashism religion, and a now abandoned hotel. The museum was in a reconstructed castle tower just below the hotel. The old town bazaar is lined with tourist shops selling crafts of all kinds. The father of the family who runs the Emiliano makes his own schnaps from the fruit trees lining restaurant terrace and wine from the grapes shading the tables. The schnaps, provided as a welcoming drink, packed quite a punch, and the wine was an excellent addition to the local specialties the mother of the family made for the evening meal. The room here was only E20 for the night and this was remarkable. & yes, it did have a private bathroom with hot and cold water for that price! If going to Kruja, this is definitely the place to stay.

It was now time to leave Albania, but there was still one more place to quickly visit before crossing back over into Montenegro, namely Skhöder Lake.  This lake straddles the two countries and is quite large. We simply stopped by the end of the lake by Skhöder city for the puppy to go for a quick dip in the water before heading further north to Budva.

Budva is a delightful city. The Citadel has an amazing view of the bay, the old town is quaintly touristy, and there are any number of tour boats going to the surrounding islands and down to Petrovac, which is a truly spectacular little hamlet just south of Budva. Budva beaches are also pebbled, with a few rocky areas and warm water; perfect for the puppy and me. The table for dinner was directly on the shoreline, the water in the harbor less than a foot away; a very picturesque setting. For history buffs, there are also the remains of a Pre-Roman - Roman necropolis on the edge of town. The town has been inhabited since the 6th C BCE and necropolis excavations uncovered over 450 tombs with amazing riches, from gold and silver to ceramic and glassware. The jewelry uncovered and on display in the museum and at the national museum in Cetinje were finely delicately crafted often with geometrical or flower patterns. The necropolis was used until at least the 6th C CE. Today, Budva is a beach town, but one that is much more than that. It has all the amenities for a party beach holiday, yet is full of cultural sites and activities. All this set in a remarkably beautiful bay,

From Budva we headed to the former capital of Montenegro, Cetinje, which has a number of medieval churches and a monastery as part of the Old Town as well as the National Museum. The entire old town takes less than 10 minutes to walk through, but the churches and monastery are worth spending time in. The Monastery has the relic of a local saint, which the priest was happy to display by opening the saint’s casket to reveal a blackened hand up to almost the elbow. Photography was forbidden in the monastery, which was unfortunate, as the frescos were powerfully vibrant. The National Museum of Montenegro has a number of sections, two of which are housed in the same building across a square and park from the bright red King Nicholas’ Residence. The history museum and the art museum reside here. The history museum is laid out chronologically beginning with the Neolithic (there were no goddess votive figure in any of the cases) and going up through to independence. The majority of the museum deals with 18th through 20th C with lots of weapons and plaques describing the various wars. As part of the entrance fee, one gets a small, but well-written and descriptive, guide summarizing Montenegrin history.

 From Cetinje, it was quite a drive over eleven kilometers of gravel and dirt while the road between Cetinje and Niksic is under construction followed by windy mountain roads to the Ostrog Monastery.  I don’t understand the reasons behind laying such a large section of the main road bare when they could do it in smaller bits, but I’m sure they have their own logic.  It was a bit of a nightmare, though, as driving over 15 km wasn’t really possible, and the juggling in the back had the puppy bobby up and down like a spring. The bobbing was then followed by wiggling in and around innumerable tight mountain serpentines.  Eventually, we did make it to the parking lot of the monastery from where we walked up a series of stone staircases to reach the upper monastery. Ostrog and Kotor are the most famous tourist attractions in Montenegro and if, as they say, one hasn’t seen Albania if one hasn’t been to Kruja, one hasn’t been to Montenegro if one hasn’t visited Ostrog.

Ostrog is one of the most sacred Serbian Orthodox pilgrimage destinations, and people flock here from all over the world. Russian language descriptions along with Serbo-Croatian are prevalent. I could only find one pamphlet in English and  couldn’t find anything in German. Even if this is a tourist site, the monks are gearing towards pilgrims more than tourists. There is remarkably little commercialism here and the cafe is by the Lower Monastery. The face of the Upper Monastery lies flat on the cliff’s surface as it is built into the mountain. There are a number of levels with smallish completely frescoed cave shrines throughout. The frescos look like they were freshly restored.  On the staircases are mosaics of the Madonna, including one where she wears a crown reminiscent of Cybele’s Tower. The Monastery was founded in 1665 by the Bishop of Herzegovina, Visilije Jovanovic, (Saint Basil) after the Turks destroyed his monastery in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The new monastery was intended to be impregnable, which it unfortunately wasn’t. It was burned, plundered and pillaged a number of times; yet it remains a place of sanctuary for those seeking solace. The frescos inside were painted directly on the caves’ stone to harmonize with the geological formations.

After all the narrow mountain curves, I just wanted to get back to the coast.  We headed down to Niksic, where I found a small bakery shop, the Familja, that had a real cappuccino and a working wifi to see where we could find a room for the night. I found one in Pogdora, Croatia.  The drive from Niksic back to Croatia goes through Bosnia & Herzegovina, and when we crossed the border I was amazed to read “Welcome to the Republic of Srpska” not BiH. I had forgotten that after the 1990s Bosnian War this Serbian ‘republic’ was given special status within the country, without the right to succeed. There are no signs saying that one is leaving the republic. The road through this section of BiH passes through beautifully lush mountain terrain going down towards the more scrubby vegetation at lower elevations. There was almost no one on the road, which was perfectly paved, and amazingly only one to two cars in front of me at the border crossings. 

We didn’t get into Pogdora until almost 9pm, so there was just time to walk down the boardwalk to get a feel for the town and for Nori to have an evening wade in the water by the harbor. It is a very pretty busy seaside town on the Makarska Rivera. This section of Croatia is packed with tourists in the summer and the roads were as full as they had been in Sarande and Ksmili. We left the next morning after breakfast for the drive north to Karlobag, where Nori was found by the dog rescue people. We took the A1 expressway until just north of Zadar and was pleasantly surprised that, again, there were relatively few people on the highway and the drive could proceed smoothly. At least until we got back on the coastal road, number 8. There still wasn’t traffic on the road, but we were back to stomach churning wiggling hugging the cliffside as the pavement curved in and around up and down.  It took well over an hour to drive the 58km from the highway to Karlobag. 

I had wanted to see where Nori was from, which is why we stopped here.  I adopted her from a couple who run a dog rescue sanctuary just behind Karlobag in the mountains.  They regularly gather up strays and abandoned puppies to keep them safe until someone can adopt them. They work with a couple of women in Salzburg who try to place the dogs in homes in Austria and Germany. When I adopted Nori, the wife said that she had found her in an abandoned house along the coast and that she had probably been there for about five days.  No one knows where she was before then, but she was housebroken so she must have been under someone’s care. She wasn’t chipped, vaccinated or spayed when they found her, so she counted as a stray.  The adoption fees cover the costs of chipping, vaccinating, spaying or getting fixed, and for the EU pet passport; once all the medical issues are taken care of the dogs can be transported north. The folks at the sanctuary generally bring dogs to Klagenfurt and Salzburg to meet their new owners once a month. I wanted to see how Nori would react to being back in her ‘homeland’.

Karlobag is a small fishing village, with a couple of restaurants and a café and a few hotels, but not much else. The residential area is further up the hill. The setting directly on the coast looking over at what looked like barren islands across the deep blue water was magnificent. Those ‘barren’ islands are the top tourist spots of Rab and Krk. Nori wasn’t particularly impressed with the place; she played on the boat loading ramp for awhile, but didn’t act like she knew where she was when we sat at a café in the town square.  The owner of the café knew the people at the sanctuary though, and Nori was a hit with them for being one of ‘the rescued dogs’.

From Karlobag it was about another hour on the curves to Sveti Juraj, where we had our last stop of the trip. It was a perfect final stay to a culturally and scenically very rich journey. Sveti Juraj is eight kilometers south of Senj, and is in a quiet bay overlooking a number of islands, including Krk and Rab. The harbor is clean and the pebble beaches that extend over the entire town provide more than enough space for bathers to have some privacy.  There are also lots of rocks for Nori to play chase-the-crab, which seems to be her particular favorite game.  The view from the balcony of our hotel room was spectacular. While the hotels here were full, there was enough room for everyone so that it didn’t seem overfilled nor it was loud.  This isn’t a party place, but is more geared toward reflection and relaxation. 

The town’s church bells chimed at dusk, reminding everyone to be thankful for a good day.  Across the path from the current church, which still looks like it was built at the latest in the 17th C, is the old church. This one is a ruin. The ruins look like they were from the Middle Ages, but the overturned gravestones are from the late 19th early 20th C. I asked about the ruins and was told, that no this wasn’t a medieval church, it had been the church by the graveyard until the 1990s War when it was destroyed.  The Serbian War, the Bosnian War, the Croatian War, the 1990s War, the title of the destruction in the early 1990s changed based on location, but the scars across the entire region are still palpable. Economic progress in the former Yugoslavian states remains uneven and while tourists of all ethnic and national groups are welcomed in each other’s regions, there is an undercurrent of distrust of the other that is still evident.  The bombing and destruction of Sarajevo and of Dubrovnik, were topics of conversation with people I met, while the bullet-holed walls were not just from Ottoman times. One of the most striking differences is the difference between the tourist towns and major cities versus back-country villages. The infrastructure investment in the former is considerable, while the villages suffer.  There is also a noticeable difference between Croatia and Montenegro and the rest of the region. The EU is considering extending membership to many of these countries, and while they are still recovering from the devastation thirty years ago, and Albania with coming out of isolation coupled with its own struggles in 1997, the positive impact that membership could have in the region is, in my opinion from what I saw and experienced on this granted very short trip, not to be underestimated. The consequences of leaving them to fend for themselves individually, on the other hand, could be fraught with more problems than just financial for the EU in the future. They are European countries, after all, their history is Europe’s history. The foreign rulers have been Greek, Roman, Norman, Venetian, French, Hungarian and Austrian; i.e., quite a mix of Europeans, not just Ottomans. All of these former powers have left their mark on the lands along the Balkan Adriatic coast. Today, though, in the summer, the international beach holiday culture dominates. Yet just beyond the sand and pebbles lies a wealth of archeological, historical, and cultural sites and activities for those who are willing to explore.

            It was a good trip.

Just a couple of notes on traveling during the pandemic and on traveling with the dog.

COVID - The only people wearing facemasks were the museum staff (I was usually the only one in the museum) and the hotel receptionists.  I was often the only one wearing a mask in the grocery store or the gas station.  As most of the activity was outside, no one was wearing a mask and anywhere near the beaches social distancing was only by chance. At the borders they only briefly - if at all- checked my vaccination card.

Traveling with the dog - I had forgotten to check the satellite images of the 'pet-friendly' hotels I had booked and unfortunately soon realized that many were in locations where there was not a blade of grass or greenery anywhere to be found. I ended up cancelling and re-booking outside of town a few times just to be near some kind of lawn.  Even this didn't always work, as in Split the park was just a couple of blocks away, but there were signs clearly saying 'no dogs'. As the locals ignored the signs, I did too, but this was a problem. The second issue was that in the summer, even in the shade and with water, it was difficult to leave Nori outside the museums and churches while I went in to look at the artifacts and frescos. I tried to stay two nights in places with larger museums so that she could stay in the room while I was sightseeing, but this didn't work for the smaller museums, monasteries and churches. & something I had not anticipated was the problem with the strays.  They were often aggressive. It wasn't just the one in Velipoje, but any number of them throughout the trip. In Ohrid I had to get the hotel receptionist get rid of one who followed us over two kilometers. I cut the walk short to get back to the hotel just to get rid of him. & they barked! Often all night long so that sleep was impossible.  If traveling with a dog, please beware and do not let your dog off-leash as it could easily get hurt.



Tags: beaches, history, museums, on the road

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