Tuesday, March 11, 2014

From Greece to Albania

From Meteora we had wanted to visit Vikos Gorge, but with all the recent rain, there would not be much chance of hiking.  We really liked Greece much better than we expected, and will be returning soon and go back to Turkey too.  So, in Kalabaka we picked up the 9:00 am Trikala-Ioannina bus.  When we got to Ioannina we learned that the 11:45 bus goes only to the border but the 1:30 bus goes all the way to our destination Gjirokastra, Albania.  Since we already had some concerns about onward connections at the border, we opted to be easy on ourselves and wait for the 1:30 bus.

The 1:30 bus turned out to be a piece of cake.  On the Greece side all passengers got out of the bus.  The two of us got our exit stamps for Greece.  This is important so we don't exceed our 90-day Schengen stay.  After that we didn't have to leave our bus at all.  The driver collected our passports.  They came back not even stamped.  After dropping several people at villages along the way, we arrived in Gjirokastra.

While getting to Albania was easy, coping with Albania was not so easy.  From the bus, the place had a rough look to it; rubble all along the road, abandoned buildings, both old and unfinished, all over the place, animals grazing in flat fields.  Knowing that Albania is second poorest country in Europe, I was nevertheless disconcerted.  Gjirokastra itself is a regular-enough-looking town, except more densely populated than any we visited in Greece.  In fact, we are surprised to find that this part of Albania reminds us of provincial China, except Albanians are more genial.

We came to Gjirokastra because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Ottoman style residential building.  These buildings are really cool, but unfortunately a lot of them are in disrepair -- common problem in China too.  The old town also has kilometers of patterned cobblestone roads.  We had a lot of fun walking walking up, down, and around looking for old buildings.  Navigating around in these 3-D towns is not easy for those from flat towns.

On the second day we made an outing to the archaeological site of ancient Antigonea, though we had very low expectation for the site itself.  The plan was to cross 6 km in the valley (try for a ride) and ascend 4km (1-1/2 hour) to the site.  The shared taxi (furgon) tried to gouge us, we started to walk, but were offered  a ride the last 2 km;  On the way back, a shared taxi picked us up at regular price for the last 5 kms back to town.  This is how our transport works out in remote areas in China: one gouger; one free ride, one regular.

The hiking part turned out to not trivial either.  I had to take off my boots to cross an icy stream, out and back, though not too deep.  The trail was supposed to be blazed, but they were far and few in between, as expected.  Half of the time, we were basically going cross-country.  I cannot remember when John had to navigate this hard on a hike.  Towards the end when we were finally following the blazed trail and our destination ridge top was clear, a riffle carrying shepherd appeared to help us.  While I was touched by the goodwill, nevertheless I was unnerved by the weapon....  When we eventually reached the site, a young ticket taker greeted us.  Once money and tickets changed hand, he promptly got back into his car and drove off -- an interesting way of managing a site.

Antigonea, being a city, is a big site, half of which is for sheep grazing.  The other half does not has too many things to see either.  The highlight would have been a mosaic, but it was covered with a plastic sheet and six-inches of gravel, just as all the mosaics we came across in Greece.  I don't know when I'll ever see another mosaic in situ again!  The way back was much easier: it was downhill, we could see our destination village, trails were much easier to spot from top.   It was an overcast day, perfect hiking weather for me.  Now that I'm so used to this crisp weather, I'm not looking forward to warm weather.  The forecast for the next five days is sun and 60's.

Our first night in Albania we tried some traditional qifqi (fried rice balls). Tasty!
Qifqi - Gjirokaster, Albania

Ottoman buildings in the Old Town.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Typical family home.
Gjirokaster, Albania

And from the inside.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

And Gjirokaster has a very cool old castle with dungeons, a clock tower, an American spy plane from the Cold War, and great views.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

Plus we got to check out a small mosque near our hotel. Sun-Ling was required to enter the women's balcony.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Cobbled street.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Random buildings in the Old Town.
Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

Gjirokaster, Albania

A friendly shepherd with gun we met on our hike to the Antigonea ruins.
Hiking to Antigonea Archaeological Park - Gjirokaster, Albania

Antigonea's fortifications.
Antigonea Archaeological Park - Gjirokaster, Albania

Where's that mosaic?
Antigonea Archaeological Park - Gjirokaster, Albania

Recrossing the icy stream.
Hiking To Antigonea Archaeological Park - Gjirokaster, Albania

6 comments:

Kathy said...

Pity about the gorge, but congrats on reaching Albania. Glad you liked Greece, I want to go back, too.

Very glad I didn't try that hike! Where are you sleeping?

Crash Eddy said...

Schengen Visa had me Googling. I learned about the 90 days in 180 limitation.

"It was an overcast day" T'was similar when the Google sat photo of Antigonea Palace was taken. It's near the edge of a cloudy photo with a clear and distinct photo to the East.

john said...

@Ed, we have a GPS "track" of the return portion of the hike (using the Nexus 7) but haven't had time to figure out how to overlay on a Google Map. Stay tuned....Did you see any sheep or goats in the Google sat photo? ;-)

Sun-Ling said...

@Kathy, we made sure to stay away from the Kalemi. Kotoni's rooms looked small in photos, downright claustrophobic in person. Our choice was the Hotel Gjirokastra, overlooking the mosque, traditional room, stupendous breakfast, heated mattress, faint sounds of call to prayer.

Kathy said...

Sun-Ling - that looks very nice, not sure it was an option when I was there. Very scary incident with your computer...

Crash Eddy said...

John, I think I saw one or two sheep or goat herders taking "liberties" with their flock.