Thursday, April 30, 2009

Faces of rural Albania

Faces of rural Albania, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

It has bene an interesting couple of days as we have driven from Shokdra in the north back down to Lezha and across east to the mountains on the border with Macedonia. In doing so, we have crossed incredible terrein and travelled back in time to rural Albania, where the fields are dug by hand or with a horse drawn plough. It could be Africa if the people were black.

The roads are terrible, worse than in the African countries we travelled in adn it took more than four hours to travel the 127 kms from Lezha to Preshkopi and the same on the way back, although this does not count for the time spent stopping and taking photos of the magnificent scenery. The roads pass through river valleys, the river water a bright turquoise, turning brown when it rains, over some hills into another valley, past rustic farmlands, with characteristic hay stacks and lots of wild flowers, every so often a relic of the communist industrial age, such as a (disused) coal mine or phosphate factory. Then over some more mountains and into another valley adn another, finally ending up against the steep snow topped peaks of Macedonia.

Preshkopi, our destination seemed a bit of an anti-climax, full as it was of dreary Communist-built apartment blocks under a grey sky, but we managed to have a nice time there, staying in and having dinner at the hotel restaurant served by a charming waiter who could not stop winking at us;)

This morning we walked around town, to the market, up to the old Ottoman houses and along to the main street where the local men were having their morning passegiata. It looked am lot better in the sunlight.

We drove back on the same road as we had come, recognising many of the places we had stopped on the way up yesterday, whilst stopping also to wander around a local village just outside Preshkopi, listening to the birds singing, the water rushing off the mountain, a man bringing logs back on the back of his donkey, the swallows nesting under the eaves of the old wooden shed, everywhere covered in beautiful wild flowers, hens running around and children playing.

Later on, we would run into a major thunderstorm, the sky had been black for awful long time. The rain came down, turned to hail, the roads became rivers, thunder clapped and lightning struck and all the time there were big gaping holes in the tarmac but on we went, struggling to get back to Tirana before nightfall.

We made it back OK, many hours after we had left. The city is preparing itself for a National Day holiday tomorrow, so hoping to see a lot of flag waving, as long as it doesn't rain too much. We have had a bit of rain the past few days and it was the rain which dissuaded us from going further north from Shkodra to Thethi, but it was a good decision as we had such interesting drives to and from Preshkopi. we are just left thinking that it is a pity that the Albanians did not learn more from the Turks about cooking and from the Italians about road building...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

River Drini reflections

River Drini reflections, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Shortly after Lezha, one is passing through this sort of scenery...

Tilling the fields

Tilling the fields, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The view on the way to Preshkopi...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The old Ottoman bridge at Mesi

So, just like last summer, after a couple fo nice warm sunny days, the rain came today and threatened to wreck our plans. Fortunately we are staying in one of the most interesting cities in Albania, namely Shkodra in the north, next to the border with Montenegro.

Apart from wandering around town this morning, we paid a visit to the very interesting National Museum before taking the car out and going to the Mesi Bridge and then up to Rozafa Castle just above the town.

The National Museum was housed in an old Ottoman building, very similar to the one which housed the National Museum in Prishtina in Kosova last summer. A whitewashed building under wooden eaves with large guestrooms. This one housed an archeaological department with very interesting and beautiful finds from the Illyrians, who lived here from the bronze age times, through to the Greek influence, the Roman Empire and times under the Venetians and the Ottomans. Star of the show was an African-looking head, which may have come here through the Phoenicians but no-one is sure.

Upstairs was an ethnological museum with costumes and furniture from the Ottoman times. Everything was very well brought to life by our informative guide Fadmir.

The drive out n the rain to Mesi Bridge was fascinating as we passed the old industrial estate, which under the Communists was probably a hive of activity, now in unemployment-ridden Albania almost all empty. Past the graves and the plastic flower shops, along to ea very long bridge over the stoney river bed, where a shepherd looked after his sheep and along a very bumpy road (including road humps, as if the road surface itself wasn't bad enough), we finally came to a village where a big big hole was being dug in and along the road (for a new drain). Somehow we gathered that teh bridge must be here and after asking around, we were shown to the top of a mound of rubbish from where we had a very good view of the most wonderful bridge down in the valley below.

The bridge was built by the Ottomans and is in very good shape and the river below was a clear turquoise colour, set amongst green fields with views out to the misty mountains in the north. A beautiful spot ) despite the mounds of rubbish which had been dumped here. Horses and carts passed along the road, alternating with minibuses into the mountain villages.

The people here are very traditional and they seem to eye us with suspicion. Not hostile but also not welcoming. They have a very proud and strong tradition and they do not like outside influence. However a chap was found for us, Bassim, who spoke perfect English with a London accent because he had lived and worked near Finsbury Park for six years! He said that he and his fellow villagers were trying to prepare their village for tourism (attracted by the bridge below). Good luck to them.

Rozafa Castle, built on a rocky outcrop to the south of the present city has an amazing position, at the confluence of three rivers, views across the plains all around and across west to the mountains of Montenegro and north to the Albanians Alps. Strategically very important and with very steep cliffs, easy to hold.

However, every now and then on a holiday like this one makes mistakes and today we made the mistake of having dinner at the Palma restaurant, as only people eating there (probably in the past week, judging by the colour of the meats Fred was given and the state of my prawns. And to think we could have been eating bruschetta, fresh ham, risotto and so on with our dear waiter Marku, at the Colosseo restaurant just below our hotel room... we ended up having coffee (Fred) and ice cream (me) there to round off the evening.

With rain forecast to the end of the week we have to think about what we will do next. The mountains might be tricky, the south is a long way away and Ulcinj adn Budva just over the border in Montenegro beckon...

Anyway, we are a lot more positive about Albania than we were yesterday.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Charles weilding a sword at the Skenderbeg memorial in Lezhne

Today we shifted out of the safety of Tirana and took a rental car into the countryside, supposedly on our way to Shkodra in the north although teh nice young lady at the hotel suggested we might want to go to Kruja and then east towards the border with Macedonia. Having decided on this route, we left the main road up north and immeditely got blocked for about twenty minutes in the nearest town. Leaving the town there were no signposts just major potholes in the road. We were learning very soon that getting around outside of the capital was not so easy. We eventually found the main road and decided to go back to our original plan for Shkodra.

First stop, a so-called pleasant fishing village, which turned out to be the saddest most lifeless fishing vilage I have ever seen. Big new apartment blocks on the grey sandy beach and a few boats behind a security fence.

Second stop, Lezhne, the birthplace of the national hero Skenderbeg, who beat the Ottomans in about 17 battles in the early 15th century. A charming small town, where we had a delicious fish lunch and walked around in the hot sunshine as well as visiting his monument, which was earlier a church and then a mosque and is now a museum.

Later on the clouds would come over, but not before the roads cleared up and the countryside became a lot prettier (but not really THAT pretty) and we ended up in Shkodra where we are spending the night. Lots of old buildings here, what Tirana might have looked like had it not become the capital and attracted fascist and communist architects in turn.

Tomorrow we will try to reach Thethi in the mountains and we will see how far we get. Still enjoying Albania although we had our doubts earlier on today. A nice place for us to visit, but not necessarily a place to recommend to too many people... Nice people though, always nice people...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The colourful buildings of Tirana

Another day of wandering around Tirana, making it two in total. We have been just about every direction away from the main Skenderbeg Square and I walked all along from the station in the north ot the Italian fascist style University building in the south and a little bit further on into the main park.

Tirana is famous for its painted buildings. Yesterday we saw lots of pastel shades, very reminiscent of some part of Italy, like Rome. Today we saw some of the really wonderfully painted buildings which we had missed yesterday and here is a selection of photos taken of them. The buildings themselves are nothing special; and on the back side of some of these buildings there is not even any plasterwork. And many buildings do not have plasterwork which makes them rather poor-looking if not entirely unattractive.

Otherwise, we have been sitting at bars, drinking delicious Italian coffee - Fred an espresso and myself a capuccino. There is a lovely place with a garden quite near the hotyel (Villa Tafaj) where we often go to sit,. The air is full of the scent of orange blossom. Delicious!

The air is also full of birdsong but this is because many Albanians keep birds in cages, next to all their potted plants, which crowd every balcony, as if every Albanian wants to keep in touch with their country roots. In the big park, the woods were alive to the sound of nightingales. Our hotel keeps a menagerie of birds and animals, which we are not exactly happy about but we do our best to avoid them, the only life we see in the room are ants in the bathroom.

The streets are full of spontaneous markets, a small garden area betwene blocks of flats might have someone setting up stall selling teh most delicious looking fruit and vegetables (much fo which is organic). This brightens up many neighbourhoods. The strawberries are really tasty.

It goes almost without saying the the Albanians copme across as very friendly and hospitable people and that makes it always such a pleasure. One disappointment is that I have not heard as much Albanian music here as I did in Kosovo (Fred doesn't mind). It seems like Kosovars are more Albanian than the Albanians themselves.

Tomorrow, we take a car which we wil have for four days and we intend to go north to near the Monetengrin border at Shokodra.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Skenderbeu monument and Albanian flag

Today was our first day in Albania. We had been to Kosovo and Macedonia last summer where there are large numbers of ethnic Albanians and we liked them, so we decided to visit the real Albania for this week of May holiday.

Tirana was described to us (by an authoritative and well travelled source) as a quirky city and that it certainly is and that is a great part of the enjoyment. You never know what is going to come next, a building fromk teh Italian fascist period, an Ottoman mosque,a modern cafe, an old qebabtore with metal chimney, a Catholic church or an Orthodox one, a brightly coloured block of flats, or an old painted one storey brick building. But everywhere, great energy and a nice feeling given off by the local people. We like Tirana.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

St George's Day in London

St George's Day in London, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

St George came from the Holy Land and was brought back to England by the Crusaders.

A month ago, they were celebrating the well established St Patrick's Day at Leadenhall Market and today it was St George's turn. Not a bad turn-out. Give it twenty years and I think they will make it a national holiday. Global warming will have ensured that we get good weather for the day, just like it was today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Big power in Sheizar

Alls miles in Sheizar, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

What a cutie!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Morning flowers on way to work

A Bluebell (or something similar to a bluebell). The woods of England are carpeted this beautiful blue at this time of year. Unfortunately, they do not grow in Holland.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eurovision in Concert - Bistra Voda performed by Regina from Bosnia & Herzegovina

Less than four weeks to go now and I thought I would put down what my current favourites are (and see how much that will have changed by 16th May).

My points would go now to:

12 Bosnia & Herzegovina
10 Spain
8 Ukraine
7 Portugal
6 Estonia
5 Slovenia
4 Montenegro
3 Azerbaijan
2 Turkey
1 Albania

(All women singers, apart from Bosnia and half of Azerbaijan)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Welcome to Syria

Welcome to Syria, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Although I say it myself, I think this photo has a quality which could be used to sell Syria to tourists, with a note such as 'Welcome to Syria', the donkey showing the way to the vast expanses of green and the ancient castle behind.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The tops came off

Oosterpark - the tops were off today, but they'll be back on tomorrow as after almost two weeks of lovely weather, we are due to get rain tomorrow... a pity as the Polish painter from next door appeared on the pavement earlier on today with his top off... and he had quite a lot to show off... let's hope the painting takes a long time...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spring is bursting out in all its glory

Spring is bursting out in all its glory at the moment. The temperatures are about 20 degrees maximim every day and with a lot of sunshine, the whole process of spring has been accelerated this year, which is a pity, as there is less time to enjoy the flowers as they come out. In the meantime, the air is filed with birdsong.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

V and T

Easter Sunday with friends, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here are V and T, Eric's children, who came with us into town on Easter Sunday.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Agnus Dei - Lamb of God

Agnus Dei - Lamb of God, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Statues and paintings of Jesus as a shepherd borrowed from pre-Christian symbols for gentleness and charity.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday with friends

Easter Sunday with friends, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Timon's new favourite colour is black, which is why three of the eggs were painted black.

Eric invited us round to his house for brunch on Easter Sunday and we stayed thre the whole day.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Happy Easter

Jesus, by night, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Legend has it that Jesus visited Damascus with his Mum and stayed on Mount Qassioun. Here is a statue of the good man, at the side of the street in the Jewish District.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fruit market by night

Fruit market by night, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

As in so many places, you find fruit stalls in all parts of the city. Here the walls of the buildings lining the street provide a wonderful background for all the colourful fruit being sold. Here the grocer is cleaning and shining his apples, lit by a naked lamp.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The other butcher

The other butcher, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Granny used to refer to the meat she bought as ' Bert's Best' !

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

At the butchers

At the butchers, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

And this is how those beautiful animales end up... before being eaten by us!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Goats at Sheizar noria

Goats at Sheizar noria, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here we were a week ago!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Looking out over Hama

Looking out over Hama, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

My dear travelling companions in Syria - Fiona and Thomas, shown here looking out over Hama in the late afternoon sunshine.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Jude, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is the beautiful daughter of our dear driver, Abdul.

Friday, April 03, 2009

At the flour merchant's

At the flour merchant's, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The flour merchant just asked one of his lads to pick up one of the 75 kg sacks and pose for me... and this was the result. Very welcome. Afterwards we (the driver and me) were invited into the office for (yet another) cup of sweet bedouin tea.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Chicken tonight?

Chicken tonight?, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

This chicken almost lost his head due to a misunderstanding... I was pointing at him in order to get a photo of him and this chap was thinking I wanted him for dinner... fortunately the look on my face made him realise that this was NOT what I was thinking... still, we had chicken later on when it was offered to us by some chaps in a shop we were visiting.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Riding the range

Riding the range, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Locations of visitors to this page