We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite… Ruined Cities?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition looks at our top 10 favorite ruined ancient cities. These are not in order from best to worst. They are just our top 10 favorite in the order in which we visited them.

Butrint (Albania)

Butrint was the first large ruin we visited in Europe. This archaeological site has a fascinating history: it has been the location of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman settlements. Old structures from all of these are scattered throughout this small park located on a peninsula in a lagoon off the Straits of Corfu.

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Delphi (Greece)

The ancient site of Delphi was a pilgrimage site located in the Peloponnese of Greece. The biggest part of the site is the sanctuary of Apollo, the big destination for those coming to consult the Oracle. Delphi was an active site from at least the 8th century BC up until the 4th century AD (meaning even the Romans kept the site active). Since it was such a popular site, many of the different Greek city states built “treasuries” containing offerings to Apollo to thank the oracle for her advice. The most well-preserved of the treasuries is the Athenian Treasury, built by the Athenians to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon.

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Olympia (Greece)

Olympia was the host site for the ancient Olympic Games from the 8th century BC all the way until the 2nd century AD. These ancient games were not just an athletic competition: they were also a chance for the Greeks to pay tribute to their Gods. Therefore, the site has quite the collection of ruins, both for athletic and sacred events.

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Mystras (Greece)

Mystras is the ruins of the medieval fortified Byzantine city located near Sparta. It is considered as one of the last remaining centers of Byzantine culture until the empire fell in the 15th century. It is located on a mountain with the ruins of the castle at the very top, with monasteries, the palace, and residences on the way down. The monasteries were both abandoned and active with some old but well-preserved frescoes that gave a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox culture as it existed during the late Byzantine period.

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

Ephesus (Turkey)

Ephesus is on the western coast of Turkey. According to Lonely Planet, it is the most complete classical metropolis in Europe. It started around the tenth century BC and was once part of the Ionian League. It also served as the Roman capital of Asia Minor. Its Temple of Artemis was the biggest on earth and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, all that is left of that Temple is one solitary, lonely, rebuilt column. The rest of the site is quite extensive and includes a large marble-paved sacred way, lined by different structures, such as temples, fountains, public baths and even a public lavatory. The most impressive piece of architecture is the restored facade of the Library of Celsus.

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

Tlos (Turkey)

Tlos was one of the most important cities in ancient Lycia. It is a fascinating site because it has been pretty much continually occupied from the time of Lycia all the way up to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century! It has the distinctive rock tombs of Lycia, as well as an a Roman-era acropolis, theater, stadium, and baths. In addition there are Byzantine church ruins and an Ottoman-era fortress atop the peak. Another thing that makes Tlos impressive is its absolutely awesome setting, situated in the foothills of the Akdağlar mountain range.

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Bagan (Burma/Myanmar)

The area of Bagan  is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century.  After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. This site was the largest that we had seen thus far on the world trip.

View from Shwesandaw Paya

View from Shwesandaw Paya

Angkor (Cambodia)

This was another site that was extremely large, stretching over some 400 square km. Angkor  contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. The kings who ruled over the empire constructed large numbers of temples in the city as befitting of its status. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations, and many others.

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Sukhothai (Thailand)

The Sukhothai kingdom came into prominence in the mid-13th century AD after the Khmer empire began to decline. It grew into a strong regional power and is known today for the unique artistic style that can be seen in the remaining temples. There are a large number of ruins to be seen which are spread out over a moderately-sized range. We particularly enjoyed Wat Si Chum, which contains an impressive large Buddha that is a great example of the Sukhothai style of art. The location of this image helps amplify its impact: at first you can only see the face, until you slip through a narrow passage and find yourself at the base of the immense seated figure.

Looking up at Buddha

Looking up at Buddha

Ayutthaya (Thailand)

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, located on an island in the middle of a river about 50 miles north of present-day Bangkok, came into prominence a couple of centuries later than Sukhothai. It was the capital of the kingdom of Siam and the major trading port with the outside world. An invading Burmese army destroyed most of the city in 1767, but some restoration has been done. Our favorite part was a unique and curious sight: the head of a Buddha image wrapped up in the roots of a tree. No one is sure how this got here.

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Flashback Friday: European Sunsets

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances! 

We’ve been experiencing some nice sunsets here in Asia, so naturally, we remembered some of our other nice sunsets from the road. During our self-drive safari in Africa, we saw some amazing sunsets almost every night. We shared some of those in a flashback Friday post. We were in Africa for only 6 weeks and came up with 11 photos we just needed to share. We were in Europe for much longer and saw much fewer nice sunsets. However, there were 14 pictures we wanted to show you. Enjoy some awesome sunsets!

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“The greatest sunset in the world” in Zadar, Croatia

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A closer shot of the “greatest sunset in the world” in Zadar, Croatia

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Sunset over the Adriatic from the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Sunset over a mosque in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina

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Berat, Albania

Pretty sunset

Tirana, Albania

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Delphi, Greece

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Nafplio, Greece

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Fethiye, Turkey

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This one was so good, we had to show you two! Fethiye, Turkey

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Selcuk, Turkey

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Kas, Turkey

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Pamukkale, Turkey

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Antalya, Turkey

Monthly Recap: Month 4

Wow! Month 4! The month was characterized by slower travels and more connections! We are also so pleased to announce that we have become first-time uncle and aunt this month. Congrats to Eric’s sister Suzanne on the birth of her beautiful baby girl, Sofia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited: 3 (Montenegro, Albania, and Greece)

Beds Slept In: 12

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 7 (Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastra, Butrint, Meteora, Archaeological Site of Delphi, Archaeological Site of OlympiaArchaeological Site of Mystras, Archaeological Sites of Mycenae and Tiryns) Total on RTW: 30

We traveled by 0 planes this month!

We traveled by 0 trains this month!

We traveled by 20 long distance buses.

Top Moments:

~ Our first top moment came at the very beginning of the month! We had been looking forward to our visit to Kotor for a long time. We really enjoyed slowing down in Kotor at the end of last month and the beginning of this month. One of the best days we had there was when we climbed the fortress walls. It was an absolutely gorgeous day weather-wise. We waited until the late afternoon to miss the cruise ship crowds. We climbed up the mountain, enjoying amazing views, and even a sunset on the way down. It was lovely!

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~ Our second moment came in Berat, Albania. We knew almost nothing about Albania when we arrived (though learned a lot while we were there) so we didn’t know what to expect. We had heard that it was not really on the tourist track in Europe. We were so impressed with Berat! Our top moment came when we decided to take a tour of the city offered by the worker at our hostel. He was a native of Berat, and knew a ton about his city and the history of Albania. The tour was particularly personalized because there were only 4 of us. The other couple was an amazing pair of bikers from Belgium. The tour started at 10 am and after seeing the beautiful city of Berat, we sat down for Turkish coffee (tea for us) and then dinner with both our guide and the Belgian couple. It was a fantastic way to spend the day, full of everything we love about traveling – new friends from around the world and learning a lot about cultures we didn’t know much about!

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~ We mentioned above that this was a month where we made some really great connections. The first was our Belgian friends in Berat, the next was a couple of Americans from Washington state (and Idaho). There is almost nothing better than seeing another pair of travelers trying to make the same long travel day as you are. It helps with confidence, knowing that someone else is attempting the same trip, as well as company! It is even better when you find out that you have a lot in common and really enjoy chatting with each other. Our top moment was when we were able to visit the ancient site of Delphi with our new friends. Wow, we have to say, it is a wonderful experience to find another couple who enjoy reading Rick Steves (and other informational signs) as much as we do, and who enjoy talking popular culture, TV, and books (even the Wheel of Time series!!!) in the breaks. What luck! We had a great time!

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Runners up for Top Moments:

~ We already mentioned in this recap that we really enjoyed our time in Albania. Another example of this was our time at the archaeological site of Butrint. This was a wonderful place with a lot of history, but the best part was that we got to experience it practically on our own! We didn’t see any other tourists almost the whole day! What was even funnier was that when we got back to our hostel in Saranda, we found out that 4 other people from there had done it as well, separately, but it was big and empty enough that we didn’t even see each other. This is not to say we don’t enjoy company, but there is something special about experiencing an ancient city (and tourist attraction) without having to dodge the crowds.

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~ Our second runner up was in Meteora, Greece. We were pretty excited to finally reach Greece, which we had been looking forward to for a very long time. Della has dreamed of visiting Greece for as long as she can remember. Meteora did not disappoint. We walked among the monasteries taking in the unique, impressive scenery and imaging what it must be like to make your home on the top of vertical pillar, high above the world. It was especially good when we were able to escape from the tourist bus crowds.

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~ We had a wonderful time with our new friends in Delphi, Greece. One of the activities that we did with them was to take a walk from Delphi, down the mountain, through the olive groves, and to the coast. It is actually the reverse of what many pilgrims did in ancient times on their way up to hear their fortune from the Oracle. We had a magnificent day, with perfect weather. The scenery was shockingly beautiful and our company was grand. It was hard to beat!

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~ As some of you may already know, we celebrated 10 years of being together as a couple this last month. We couldn’t have picked a better locale. Delphi, Greece was absolutely beautiful. It is hard to imagine a better way to remember 10 great years with a person you love while overlooking one of the most fantastic sunsets you’ve ever seen!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

1. Simple Wine Opener

Added:

1. New toothpaste

2. More Complex Wine Opener

3. Butter knives

Packing Update:

We got to use our summer gear a bit this month which made us happy! We also have used our winter and rain gear, so we are glad we have it all. Della hasn’t used her dress since Budapest so is wondering if it is necessary. Eric is happy with all of his contents.

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Eric has read The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, The Golden One by Elizabeth Peters, Black Ice by Lorene Cary, Making Money by Terry Pratchett, Crescent Dawn by Clive Cussler.

Eric and Della have BOTH read The Greek Treasure by Irving Stone and Hope of Earth by Piers Anthony.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3

Connections: Belgian Bikers!

Traveling is a wonderful way to meet people! Unfortunately, often those connections are strong but only fleeting. Connections is our tag to recognize and remember some of the wonderful people we meet.

We really enjoyed our time in Berat, Albania. We were able to meet and enjoy a lot of people from around the world. Not only did we meet an amazing Albanian tour guide/hostel worker, but we met another amazing traveling couple. This Belgian couple is traveling from Europe to Asia on bikes! Yes, that is correct, they are biking across the world! Amazing, right? Let’s just say that our trip felt positively cushy when thinking about theirs.

We met them during our tour of Berat and found we had a lot of similarities relating to our trip, age, and interests. We particularly enjoyed chatting about teaching (he works at a university to train teachers) and the differences between Belgium and the U.S. especially related to voting, politics, and other governmental systems.

One of the really fun things about meeting people on the road is being able to share experiences like this. We spent a wonderful day and fun evening with them in Albania. One of the really sad things about meeting people on the road is having to say goodbye knowing that it is unlikely that you will meet again. One of the slightly unusual things about this connection was that we didn’t have to say that goodbye right away. We knew that we were traveling the same directions, from Berat to Gjirokaster, and then on to Greece. They would be leaving ahead of us, though arriving behind us (they’re on bikes remember??) but we discovered we would be in Gjirokaster at the same time. We exchanged contact info and planned to meet up again. Unfortunately, our plans in Gjirokaster fell through. What a bummer! However, that made it all that much more fun when we realized a few days down the road that we would be in Meteora, Greece at the same time! We enjoyed another excellent evening with this excellent couple!

Now, it is hard to expect more than that, so we were especially thrilled when we saw the same couple (ever so) briefly in Delphi, Greece as well. After all of that, I hope we do manage to meet again some day!

Unfortunately, we failed and this was the only picture of us... Boo!

Unfortunately, we failed and this was the only picture of us… Boo!

What We Learned in Albania

1. Albania has a bad rep. Most people have a preconceived notion of Albanian gangsters. However, Albania was a lovely, safe country. We felt very safe and welcome almost the entire time we were there.

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2. Albanians take their hospitality very seriously. Our guide in Berat explained that Albanians have a strict code for their guests. Guests are like gods. They are to be protected with one’s own life. We didn’t have to see anything that dramatic, thank goodness, but we did experience wonderful hospitality. Two of the hostels that we stayed at would qualify as having the most helpful and kind workers in our entire travel experience.

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Our host providing us bbq dinner on the beach in Saranda

3. As our guide in Berat put it, “One thing that the world can learn from Albania” is the peaceful coexistence of religions. He explained how Albania has never been a location for conflict based on religious lines. He provided examples of how Albania sheltered Jews in WWII, and how religions worked together to rebuild after years of strict communism. It was beautiful.

Star of David on the Mosque

Star of David on the Mosque

4. Albania is another country that has had a tumultuous recent past – during our lifetimes. They left communism in the early 90s. Their communism was one of the strictest and most isolated in the world. They entered capitalism with gusto. Unfortunately, it went terribly wrong for them in 1997 when many pyramid schemes which the people had poured their entire lives into collapsed. The country was thrown into anarchy for several months. Gangs took over many different cities and it is only now that the government has been able to pull all of the parts back out of mob/gang control.

The "Bell of Peace," situated in front of the Hoxha pyramid, was cast from discarded shell casings from the 1997 turmoil

The “Bell of Peace,” situated in front of the Hoxha pyramid, was cast from discarded shell casings from the 1997 turmoil

5. Albania is a cool mix of very developed and very undeveloped. It feels like Europe one moment and Central America the next. We traveled by crowded mini bus much like in Guatemala but enjoyed spectacular, ancient, Ottoman architecture. Some of the roads were disasters, taking people more than 2 hours to travel less that 50 km because of the broken, potholed roadway… while others are perfect.

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Rainy, rutty roads

6. The touristy world hasn’t completely discovered Albania which is wonderful. It is still possible to have sights practically to yourself and find prices very very affordable. However, Albania is making the list! It is time to go!

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All alone at a major archeological site called Butrint

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All alone at the major site, the castle, in Gjirokaster

7. Because of the above point, Albania still hosts some hard core travelers. We felt pretty unadventurous in comparison. A large portion of the backpackers we met were traveling across Europe by bicycle, sleeping by the side of the road with no tent. We also met those trundling along in campervans way past their prime. Even someone who was hitchhiking all the way to India. Our trip felt positively cushy.

8. When we first arrived in Albania, we were shocked at the fact at what we thought must be a horrible gender imbalance in the country. There were guys everywhere! Men, young and old, strolled the streets, kicked back in cafes, and cheered soccer games in bars. Where were all the women? It turns out that Albania does still have pretty strictly defined roles for women that involved them being at home most of the time. This is not to say that no women were out working, because there were some. But after chatting with people, we did learn that it was traditional for women to be home keeping house while men were out spending the money. It was very rare to see groups of both men and women together. If girls were out, they were in groups of girls.

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9. It seems like all Albanian men of an older generation are required to wear suits. Preferably suits that seem too big on them, with cute hats!

10. The food is yummy and affordable! We really enjoyed a neat, soft sheep cheese (a bit like feta but not so stinky), fig jam, stuffed peppers, creamy fergese, and all the grilled meat you could possibly want. Add in super tasty crumbly, savory pastry called Byrek and fast food pizza, and doners (kinda like gyros) and you could hardly want more!

Enjoying stuffed peppers and fergese (a local specialy that is a ricotta-like cheese mixed with tomotoes, meat, and spices)

Enjoying stuffed peppers and fergese (a local specialy that is a ricotta-like cheese mixed with tomotoes, meat, and spices)

11. We noticed the word “Shitet” on all sorts of things, apartments, cars, etc. Apparently it means “for sale.”  We giggled a little bit each time!

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Budget: Albania

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Albania. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Albania we used the lek. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 100 lek to 1 dollar.

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Total Spent (11 days): $621.01

Accommodation: $294.32

We stayed in 4 different places in Albania: 2 dorm rooms, 1 dorm room by ourselves, and 1 private room at a resthouse/hostel.

Activities: $49.50

This included 2 walking tours, several museums, and the archaeological site of Butrint.

Alcohol: $20.61

Our alcohol category does not include alcohol that we buy with food. We bought several bottles of beer at different hostels and even some raki (Albanian brandy)!

Food: $185.25

We did almost no cooking in Albania. We really enjoyed the Albanian cuisine which was tasty, filling, and overall, really cheap! Luckily, every one of our accommodations included breakfast!

Miscellaneous: $4.59

This includes postcards and laundry.

Transportation: $66.74

We traveled to 4 different cities in Albania and we are pleased that this is so low. We traveled by bus and furgon (minibus). We did not pay for any transport within any of the cities, only transport between them.

This divides out to $56.46/day which is our lowest per day budget yet. Albania is a great place to travel cheaply! 

 

 

 

 

 

Saranda, Albania and Butrint Archaeological Site

Our last stop in Albania was the beach town of Saranda at the southern tip of Albania. We chose Saranda somewhat because we wanted to get in some beach time at Albania’s supposedly beautiful beaches, but mostly because we wanted to see the ancient site of Butrint.

Getting to Saranda from Gjirokaster was pretty easy. We did have to hike back down the large hill, but once we made it back to the bus stop there was a furgon waiting to go to Saranda.

Where We Stayed

SR Backpackers – We had read about the legendary hospitality of Tomi, the owner of the hostel, and we were happy to say that the legends were true! Tomi was an excellent host. He welcomed us with watermelon, cooked up a nice breakfast every day, and hosted a beach barbecue for all of the guests one night. He even was kind enough to show up at the bus stop early on our last morning to make sure we caught the bus out of town smoothly. The hostel itself was a basic hostel with different dorm rooms. We stayed in a four-bed room with one other guest.

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The kitchen. Lots of notes showing love for Tomi

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Barbecue dinner on the beach

What We Did

Butrint – This archaeological site has a fascinating history: it has been the location of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman settlements. Old structures from all of these are scattered throughout this small park located on a peninsula in a lagoon off the Straits of Corfu. There were very few other people visiting on the day we went, so most of the sights we had to ourselves! Getting to the site from Saranda was easy – a city bus leaves every 30 minutes or so and takes you straight there.

The first major area was the site of a Greek shrine to Asclepius, a god of healing – springs on Butrint were thought to have healing powers. This site was eventually expanded to include a theater, the ruins of which still exist today. The theater remained under Roman rule. The area around was converted into a classic Roman village with hot baths and a forum.

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The theater

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Writing in Greek on the walls that showed many people officially freeing their slaves!

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The area of the shrine

We walked past the ruins of some ancient Roman villas, where some of the rich citizens would have lived. Butrint thrived during the Roman period and greatly expanded in size from the Greek period. There even was a suburb across the channel from Butrint, and a large aqueduct bringing water into the city.

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Ruins of a great villa

As the Roman Empire transitioned to become Christian, Butrint began to have some Christian architecture built. We saw the remains of a 6th century baptistery. There was supposedly a grand mosaic on the floor, but it is currently covered in sand to protect it from the elements. We also encountered the remains of a large basilica as well, built in a style similar to many cathedrals.

Looping around the east side of the site, we came upon one of the massive walls surrounding the city. It was interesting because you could see where it was originally built during Greek times, then during Roman times and finally during the medieval period. We walked through one of the main gates, called the Lion’s Gate since it depicts a lion devouring a bull’s head.

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The large rocks on the bottom were Greek, the slightly smaller blocks on top of those were Roman restorations, the small blocks above came even later!

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Lion Gate

We walked up to the top of the hill, which has been the center of the settlement throughout. It was the Greek acropolis at first. Later during the medieval period, battlements were built around it to protect from invaders. Today, there is a tower that is a 20th century reconstruction. From up on the hill, you can also see the Venetian fortifications (a tower and the Triangular Fortress) guarding the channel, and a palace built by the Ottoman Ali Pasha.

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Venetian top of the fortress

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You can see the later fortress out there

There is also a small museum that goes through the history of the site and includes many of the original artifacts found there. There is also a small sculpture garden. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take pictures inside.

On the bus ride back to Saranda, we considered stopping at the beaches of Ksamil, which are supposed to be very pretty, but we decided to skip them since it was somewhat late in the day.

Explore Saranda Beach – We did spend a little bit of time on the Saranda beach. We strolled up and down the promenade a few times and admired the views. We also went swimming one afternoon. Low season had already started in Saranda, so we had the whole beach to ourselves. It is a pebble beach, but the water is nice and clear.

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At sunset

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“Celebrate” Albania’s “Victory” Over Serbia in Soccer – Our last night in Saranda turned out to be the same night as the Albania-Serbia soccer match. We didn’t watch it but could hear cheering from the bar below the hostel. Then, at one point there were very loud cheers. We thought it must be for a goal, but we discovered that it was actually due to a crazy series of events involving a drone carrying a “Greater Albania” flag into the stadium during the game, a Serbian player tearing it down, Albanian players taking offense, and Serbian fans rushing the field. After the game was called off, we could hear many fireworks being set off throughout the city, and car horns honking. Luckily they quieted down after 11 or so.

Where We Ate

We ate at two restaurants on the promenade. Both were good but neither was particularly memorable. We did enjoy a savory crepe we got from a creperie just below the hostel one night.

Final Thoughts

Saranda was a nice town to visit, but we decided it wasn’t our favorite in Albania. We did really enjoy Butrint and Tomi’s hospitality though!

Gjirokaster, Albania

We traveled to Gjirokaster from Berat via furgon. Unlike Tirana, there is an actual bus station in Berat. We took a Berat city bus to the bus station and then were able to take a furgon that left Berat at 2 pm. The ride was long because of bad roads and mountain passes, but we passed through some beautiful scenery.

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We arrived in the newer part of town of Gjirokaster around 6. There is not really a bus station, but all the furgons arrive at and leave from the same gas station on the main road.

Where We Stayed

Babameto House – We were asked whether we wanted a taxi when we got off the bus, but we elected to walk to our accommodation. It was a looong walk up a steep hill (into the Old Town part). There were times on the walk where we wished that we had taken that taxi. Babameto House is actually an old and wonderful Ottoman-style house. It has several dorm rooms and beautiful Turkish-style lounge rooms. We were lucky because we paid for a dorm but instead got a large 3 bed room all to ourselves. The only downside was that the walls were quite thin and there were barking dogs that kept us up both nights. =/

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Babameto House

 

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Our room. Notice the Ottoman style screens

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Common seating area

What We Did

Gjirokaster Castle –  Our accommodation was actually located very near to the castle, which is situated atop the hill and is a semi-large fortress. In contrast to the Berat castle, no one lives within its walls anymore. It offered sweeping views of the valley, an eerie collection of old tanks from WWII, and even a tomb of Bektashi, the founder of the Bektashi sect. It also had an old US Air Force jet that was shot down during communism that was just there, ready to play on. It was nice to spend time in the castle where we didn’t see a lot of other tourists. There was also a museum of more old armory which we did not choose to visit.

 

Walk around the Old Town – There is a small Old Town with a special market-y area called the “Neck of the Bazaar” which we enjoyed walking through. We also had received a map of the town from our hostel which had a couple of sites to see. The map didn’t have a lot of information other than the names of the sties, but we enjoyed walking around and trying to find them. The Old Town area is built into the side of the hill, so it was fun to feel like you were walking on top of the houses down the hill. The roofs of the houses were also very interesting: many were made of thick stone shingles.

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Distinctive Stone Roofs

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Some monument… We weren’t really sure to what

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Walking around

Where We Ate

Kujtimi – This restaurant was recommended by both Lonely Planet and the woman at our hostel so we knew we had to try it. Like much of the food that we have had in Albania it was plentiful, yummy, and very affordable!

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Berat, Albania

Getting to Berat from Tirana was not as hard as we feared. Our hostel in Tirana gave us a map with information about where the minibuses (furgons) for Berat left. There is no main bus station in Tirana. The bad part was that the day we left was miserable and rainy. It was quite funny, actually, we moved slowly in the morning and were planning to leave right at the checkout time of 11. We were a few minutes late, pulled our bags on, and started to head out the door. At that moment, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We decided to stay in the hostel for awhile to miss the downpour. We waited for almost 2 hours… then decided to set out anyway. After a 30 min walk in the rain, we were pretty grouchy. But luckily, the furgon to Berat was not hard to find. We did have to wait for awhile, as the furgons don’t really leave until they are full. But we made it to Berat by late afternoon. We were lucky to have GPS and the google map preloaded on our phones because, again, we didn’t get dropped off where we expected and had to find our way to our hostel. Luckily, by then, the rain had stopped!

Where We Stayed

Ana’s Rest House – We had spent a long time deciding whether to stay at the highly rated backpacker’s hostel or Ana’s, which was right across the street. We are happy with our decision. The guesthouse was quite new and comfortable. The bed was large and lovely. We also lucked out with the new worker there. He was a native of Berat and was starting a burgeoning tour business. He was around all the time and we really enjoyed a lot of discussions with him from everything from books, to American politics, to Albanian history.

What We Did

We stayed in Berat for 4 days but feel like we didn’t do a ton.

Ethnographic Museum – This was similar to something we did in Mostar, Bosnia. It was an old, Ottoman style Albanian house which had a small museum dedicated to arts in crafts in the area. The upstairs was a preserved living area from Ottoman times. It was fun to see the plush carpets and couches. It was also interesting to see and learn about the hidden rooms that women stayed in when guests were present that had small screens so they could watch what the men were doing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the museum.

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The Ethnographic Museum from the outside

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The grounds of the museum

It was similar to some of what we saw in Mostar. The pictures below are from Mostar, not Berat.

 

Walking Tour – The worker at our hostel was starting a walking tour business. It was not free, but seemed like a reasonable price. It ended up being a tour with just us and one other couple from Belgium (who we really enjoyed meeting and chatting with). It was really nice to have such a small tour because it became very personalized. Both Della and the guy in the Belgium couple were teachers, so we asked if we could see a school. Our guide quickly took us in and chatted with the director and we were able to quickly visit a classroom. We chatted about a lot of different things, learned a lot about the history of Berat, and enjoyed walking through the medieval center, entering a mosque and a Sufi Tekke, and hiking up to the castle where people have been continuously living for thousands of years. Our guide then took us for traditional Turkish Coffee and to his favorite restaurant in Berat.

Some of the things that we were fascinated to learn were that Albania has a long history of religious tolerance and has really never had any violence related to religion at all. Our guide showed us many examples of people of different religions supporting the beliefs of others. Some examples were the Muslims of Berat sheltering hundreds of Jews during WWII and including Stars of David in their Mosques as a way to respect them. He also talked about how during communism, most churches were destroyed. Many mosques were left because, once the minaret was torn down, the building could be reused for something else. He talked about some of the communities of Muslims coming together after communism and helping raise money to assist the Christian or Orthodox communities in building new places of worship.

We also learned about how much Albanians love the USA. This was surprising given how many countries don’t love Americans. The Albanians love us!  We had first heard about this in Tirana but it was confirmed here. Our guide explained that it stems from Woodrow Wilson making sure that Albania stayed a country back at the beginning of the 1900s and was confirmed with the US assistance in Kosovo and President George W. Bush’s visit earlier this century.

 

Visiting a School – Once our guide/hostel worker found out that Della was a teacher he expressed his deep interest in teaching as well. He also was adamant that Della have a chance to see Albanian schools in action. Not knowing what to expect, we said that might be cool. He called a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland, who worked in an alternative high school in Berat. This opened the door for us to spend the morning with the Peach Corps volunteer discussing his job and then an hour in his classroom where he works with a partner Albanian teacher to teach English to the students, the equivalent of seniors in the US. It was a unique experience that we quite enjoyed. We felt quite bad thinking that the school went out of their way for us. We found out that even though they are about a month into their school year, they are still working on getting their schedule in order, due to shifting teachers, who may or may not work at other locations in the area at the same time. So, the schedule for any given day comes out the prior day and can shift at the last minute. For this reason, our Peace Corps volunteer explained, the class we saw was not completely typical. There were about 20-25 students crammed into a small room and the class was a bit shorter than expected. There were things that were different that Della sees at home and a lot of things the same. Mainly, the room was very small and there was no technology. We also were told that the books hadn’t come in yet, so only a few students had them. We found out later that the class was combined so was twice as big as normal. We were really fortunate to be able to experience this!

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A hallway decoration

Where We Ate

Hotel Mangalemi – This very pleasant restaurant is attached to a Hotel. We liked it so much we went back twice. The second time we were able to sit on a lovely patio. The excitement of the evening came when a man and his two grandkids (??) came up to the patio where we were eating and proceeded to shoot off several fireworks, just for fun as far as we could tell.

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Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time in Berat, in large part to the excellent connections we made. We were so fortunate to meet several other travelers while we there that we really enjoyed chatting and hanging out with. We were even luckier to be able to connect with our hostel worker, who was an Albanian native who loved to talk. We hung out with people every day and almost every evening, learning a lot, and enjoying the ambiance. We even were able to hangout with the travelers who were staying at the backpackers across the road as well. Berat was a charming town with some beautiful scenery, but what made us love it was the people we met.