Vuno, the idyllic village of Albania

I fell in love with Vuno a month ago during our family trip to the south of Albania. A small village up in the rocky arid mountains with its beautiful white houses facing the deep blue Ionian sea. Charming, authentic, desolate, enchanting.

I was invited again by the village. I returned last Saturday, July 11th 2020, ready to experience the village, know its secrets, walk its streets and meet the people.

The first local from Vuno that we met was Filip, the owner of the Villa Filip, where we booked our room. His house offered a splendid view on the sea and was a few kilometers from the village.

Villa Filip, Vuno

We spent the afternoon amid chirping of cicadas. Their music lulled us. We could not resist their songs. We were watching the sea from the Villa’s terrace. An invitation to laziness. I liked it.

Filip prepared us a simple dinner. At the same time, he would tell about his time when he left Albania to go to Greece for a living, with his young children on the shoulders. The old regime was falling apart. He decided to come back thirty years later and construct with his wife the house he called a villa, a simple building where he offers bed and breakfast and a beautiful hospitality without fuss and glitter.

The little chapel in his yard intrigued us. My children entered and rushed to the candles to lighten them in the middle of the wooden icons. I was observing the momentum. A small demi arched window offered the blue of the sea which in combination with the whiteness of the small church’s interior reminded us Greece. For indeed Vuno has a flavour of Greece. It is not far from it and the island of Corfu can be seen from the village.

On Sunday morning, we went to the centre of the village. A small coffee place in the middle of the village aside the main road that leads you to the south of Albania invites you necessarily and you can’t resist. The tourists were already there mixing with old people of Vuno who were drinking “raki”, the Albanian fruit flavored alcoholic drink, early in the morning.

The centre of Vuno

The coffee place offered a view on the slope of the hill where white houses were standing out from the greenery. It was idyllic. We felt extremely happy. It was peaceful.

The waiter and owner of the coffee bar was suggesting us to see a church in the vicinity telling us proudly that the prime minister’s mother was from the village. He invited us inside the coffee bar handing us the key of the church. I had never had a church key before! I was puzzled!

We headed towards the church of Saint Mary. I had its key in my hand. I felt baffled but also like a child about to open a treasury. I was moved to open a church built in 1783 turned into a cinema during communism. The iconostasis displayed in front of us. My children would rush again to the candles playing with some coins left aside as charity. We were alone in the church serving guides to ourselves. I turned the key back to the owner. It happened in Albania, beautiful and exotic Albania.

It was time to go for a swim. We left the village and discovered some beaches nearby. The beach of Jale, Gjipe, Dhermi, Palasa are the most visited and are said to be some of the best beaches of Albania. But they are not the only ones in the area. There are many that are off the main roads and one needs to get off the beaten track to reach them.

Beach in Palasa near the Green Coast Resort

We finished the day on the beach of Palasa swimming in its crystal blue-green water with white stones. The sharp mountain was behind us. We knew that we had to climb the narrow serpentine road again for a 4-hour trip back to Tirana knowing that those mountains and sea would be there forever for new invitations.

One day in Durres, the ancient city of Albania

Durres is the port city of Albania. The city is known for its byzantinian, roman and ottoman archeological sites and relics. It is located in the western part of Albania, only one hour driving from Tirana. On Saturday we visited the Roman Amphitheatre, the Sorrounding Walls of Durres, the Venetian Tower and the Royal Vila of King Zogu. Our last stop was at the Taulantia street by the sea. Here are some photos from our visit:

The Roman Amphitheatre built on 2d century AD by empror Trojan
The Sorrounding walls of Durres build by the byzantinian empror Anastasias
The Venetian tower built on the 15th century

The Royal Vila of King Zogu

The Castle of Kruja, an Albanian true fairy tale

(Inspired by our family’s visit to Kruja, a city in north central Albania, in January 2020)

Up in the rocky mountains of a faraway land called Albania was a castle nestled in the hills, overlooking the lowlands, hamlets, pastures and olive gardens. The endless beautiful blue sea could be seen far on the horizon held in the arms of the blue sky. A nobly family lived there taking care of their lands. The small kingdom belonged to Lord John Kastrioti and his wife Vojsava and their sons and daughters.

Who could ever imagine that one day some strangers would come far from the east all the way up to the Castle to violently take the littles sons of the Kastroti family from their mother’s arms to be sent to the unknown?

Is it a fairy tale or is it a true story?

It is both, even now after many centuries is on my mind as I stand in in front of the Castle as I write to you with a desire to invite you to this fairy tale based on a true story.

I am telling you, dear Reader, the same story I told my children on the way back home, after the visit, on this day of a cold sunny Sunday of January 2020. And the story goes on …

It happened years and centuries ago.

The mountains and the walls of the ruined castle of Kruja are still there to bear witness of the blood and tears of the noble family. The desolation has not yet left the once beautiful lands with their many people.

The Castle and the possessions were grabbed and its people subjected to the new rulers. The Lady of the Castle, their mother, saw her little boys taken away by the strangers to be sent far away to the unknown. This has happened many years and centuries ago. Grief and mourning took over the beautiful Albania for many long years and the foes of the Castle Kruja would never be forgotten.

The Queen Mother had a dream that their boys would come back in all their brightness. And that did happen! The youngest son, the Great George Kastrioti, would come back for revenge for the death of his father. He never forgot what the strangers did to him, to his family and people. He and his small army would come and take the Castle again and stand against the unknown strangers for years and years.

Wall painting at the Museum of Gjergj Kastrioti

Afterwards he married a beautiful princess. The kingdom was once again happy with their Prince and Princess! They recovered their freedoms, the liberty to rule themselves without a mighty stranger over them, without seeing again their children taken away and sent to unknown empires. He then united noblemen and highlanders around Kruja and also other peoples and regions all the way up to Hungary. Some betrayed him. Some remained faithful and lost their lives before his death. For long years he resisted the big empire of barbarians coming back from unkown faraway lands seeking revenge on their turn.

Wall painting inside the museum of Gjergj Kastrioti

The end was looming. In the final days of his life he stood alone. His allies had abandoned him. His faithful fighters had died. His bones had been taken from his tomb to be lost for ever! The barbarians did not want him to be remembered for the posterity. His wife and sons left Albania to take refuge in the faraway lands of Spain.

Today, on this day of a cold January Sunday, I am standing in the ruins of this beautiful Albanian medieval castle, thinking of glorious times of the history and the beautiful tragic figure of brave George Kastrioti, while my children tugged my dress while asking all the questions of the world!

The Heaven of Cherries

If there is a heaven of cherries than it must be in Albania. In June you find cherries in all the shops and in the markets everywhere. They come from the different regions of Albania, such as Dibra, Peshkopia, Kukes, Elbasan, Shkoder etc. They have different tastes and colours, so delicate and full of flavours! A heaven of cherries!

Happy June everyone! Gezuar qershorin muajin e qershijave!

Mrizi i zanave, a blend of poetry and cuisine

It was a lovely Saturday in February and we finally visited the well known restaurant in Albania, Mrizi i Zanave. I was curios to visit this place. I had heard a lot about it. The name of the restaurant is after a book of poems called ‘Mrizi i Zanave’ (the ‘Shade of the Fairies’) written by the famous writer, patriot and Catholic priest Gjergj Fishta, universally known as the national poet of Albania until the communists took power in 1944, who was from the same village, Fishte, the region of Zadrima, North West Albania.

We arrived in the evening. The atmosphere inside the restaurant was warm and nice. The fireplace, the pictures on the wall and the light music coming from the piano in the hall made us feel welcome. It was new to us, beautiful.

Beautiful smile of the waitresses saying nothing but showing you the way to the table awaits for you at the doorway. Fairies leading and enchanting you to a new experience which you can’t but let yourself fall under the spell. The dishes will follow one by one in harmony, superb presentation for the eyes, a true festival of flavours and colors.

Dishes made of local products.

Our children could not wait to go outside, play and see the farm – part of the restaurant. We left the food for a little and went after them. As we looked at the farm, heard the sounds of the livestock and children and smelled the manure … such a reminiscence of childhood captured us. What a nostalgic feeling invaded us making us remember the beautiful days when we visited our uncles at the farm. My daughter could find right away all the animal characters of her favourite book the Charlotte’s Web. She was excited and happy to see the pigs, she would identify the runt piglet whom the little girl of the book treated as a pet, there were also animals in the barn, the lamb, the talkative goose and the intelligent ‘old sheep’. What a happy moment for children to see all these farm animals in one place.

The restaurant was more than a place where to eat. It was the poetry blending together with all the flavors of fields of Zadrima, a melody. A melody of one’s love for his village, fields and the early sunrise. At those deliciuous moments, we thought of the brothers Prenga, the owners of the restaurant, who made that miracle for the people of a poor village, giving them jobs and living. They made our day a beautiful experience to be remembered for ever.

Tirana, beautiful and sad, sad and beautiful; times that will be remembered

Spring has arrived in Tirana. The mimosas are blooming. The sky is blue and the sun is shining over the horizon. The heights and the slopes of the Dajti Mountain covered with a thin layer of snow. This year spring has found the city deserted like never before. My daughter and I are dancing, spinning around to the beautiful sounds of tunes of the tv swisspop music inside our appartment; my husband and our son each on their tasks; all in the dining room. Beautiful and sad; sad and beautiful at the same time. United like never before.

Schools, businesses, churches, mosques are closed. Time has stopped. The people confined in their homes. Tirana at the time of the coronavirus. A time to be remembered. And all this, in the time of democracy and coronavirus.

330 people are reported to be infected by the deadly virus, some are in the hospitals and others are isolated in their homes. 20 have died so far. Who knows how many are infected at large?! The contagion has found the poor country unprepared.

The main city’s avenue, the reknown Boulevard of Heroes, Skenderbeg’s Square and St. John Paul Street are empty and deserted at the time when I am walking. No tourists taking photos around. We used to see them a lot in the last years. Albania and Tirana had just started creating a place for itself among the Europe’s southeastern destinations trying to break into the dificult established tourism market. The country and its charms do not seem to work at the time of the coronavirus!

For the first time I could hear the singing of birds. No more cars and city noises. Nature takes over again and seems to take its rights back.

The cafes and restaurants are closed. This city does not make sense without them. The country does not have other established industry than these restaurants and cafes. The capital city lives thanks to them and they used to make Tirana such a beautiful and vibrant city. Notes of closures are displayed everywhere on the windows and doors of the cafes. The Cafe Bar Komiteti, whose name is a reminiscence and suggestive of the communist party political bureau committee shows the following note: “We like money but we like you even more, for your wellbeing Komiteti is closed as of today until further notice. Stay in your homes and drink a glass of raki and make much love”. But can we think of it in these times of contagion?! I wonder while holding the camera in my hands. The virus will be gone; it lives and lasts shorter than dicatorships.

Rare are people who think about the street cats and dogs in general. At these times of confinement, who could think that such a strange and beautiful sort people exist in my lovely Tirana?! But they do. I could tell it from the plates of food left at the the places frequented by the city’s street dogs and cats that have been abandoned and forgotten in the old derelict houses waiting to be swallowed by the real estates developers soon. They are heroes of my city.

Photography by Albi Beqiraj, animal rights activist

How long is this going to last?! Are we afraid, bored, tired?! Deep in my heart I know that this will end one day too, soon. Tirana will be Tirana again. She will come back to me brighter than ever.

Everything will be alright.

Arta Zimaj

The streets of Tirana

Some of the streets in Tirana are so lovely. The small markets of fruits, flowers and books are almost in every corner of the city.

Everytime I pass by the St. John Paul’s street, I see the flower lady selling seasonal fresh flowers for a low price of 200 lk or 300 lk. She and her flowers are like a framed picture, giving so much life and colours in that street.

Next to the flower lady, at Ismail Qemali street is the man who sells books. He comes at his corner everyday, except on rainy days, with his bicycle. He has a good selection of books of known foreign and native writers including children books. His favorite genre by the way is fabula.

We say our goodmornings every day. They are both very kind. Today, this is what I got for myself. Aren’t they lovely?!

The Petrela Castle

The Petrela Castle is only 20 minutes away driving from Tirana. It is a medivial castle and it has a very interesting history. The sister of Gjergj Kastrioti- Skanderbeg, the national hero of the Albanians, lived there. She was married to the noble Muzaka Topia, the lord of the castle and of the lands around.

The view from the castle is really beautiful. One can see the whole capital city together with the Dajti mountain overlooking it.

The Castle comunicated in distance with the two other castles of Skenderbeg’s time, the Kruja and Preza Castles, serving to defend the country from the Ottomans. On the top of the Castle, one can easily see the Preza Castle and the city of Kruja nestled into the mountains not far from Tirana.

One can visit the castle by car or on foot from the bottom of the hill. Walking all the way to the top of the castle will bring you joy, it can make the spirit and you will have a great pleasure.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

Tirana tells stories: One day in the capital city of Albania

Mirëdita! Hello as they say in English! So you arrived in Tirana safe and sound and wondering what one must visit here in the city. Probably you are very curious to know what this city has to offer!

This selection of things to do and see in Tirana rounds up some of most diverse and inspiring places of the city providing insights into how this city is different and exceptional from the other European capitals. The capital city of Albania, the Rock Garden of Southeastern Europe as the country was once called by one of his prominent intellectual of the beginning of the last century, invites us to this journey through the city.

How does the Scanderbeg Square with its small mosque look like? Or how a bunker was turned into a museum of art to remind us the totalitarian regime? Take a walk by the pyramid and continue all the way to the boulevard. We went to these places accross Tirana and found inspirations that will enchant you.

The locations could hardly be more diverse nor could be the views. They show how the city lived in the past and how vibrant is today aspiring to be a western capital through its many restaurants and coffee places with an unique architectural mix of different styles. This selection exhibits the effects of an aesthetic evolution. It also shows the pace of modernity the city and its inhabitants are trying to catch.

If you are visiting the city, here are the things that you should not miss in Tirana:

  • Visit the Skanderbeg Square

The Skenderbeg Square is the main Square in Tirana, surrounded by a mix of Fascist Italian-style buildings, Soviet buildings, Ottoman mosques. The National Museum , the Opera building, the Ottoman time clock tower and the Et’hem beu Mosque are the main buildings on the square. The square is called after Gjergj Kastrioti, Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albanians. The Albanian nationalism is inspired by his existence. You can take a tour and visit each of them.

The National Historical Museum features a building of Soviet Aesthetic Architecture with in front a monumental mosaic inspired by socialist realism.  The work is supposed to reflect and promote the ideals of the socialist Albanian society representing their aspirations to Independence and Identity.

  • Visit the Bunkart

In a walking distance from the Skenderbeu Square is Bunkart (a literary device in which the words “bunker” and “art” are joined together). During the Communism it served as a Nuclear Shelter for the Minister of Interior. Today the bunker serves as a museum of memories with an inscription of Primo Levi, the Jewish holocaust survivor, written at the entrance of the excellent artistic installation : “All those that forget their past are condemned to relive it”. The Bunkart alerts us to the warning signs with its many objects, relicts of remembrance, photos of people that were prosecuted and documentaries evidencing the horrors of Communist era. The Passage 2 (the Shelter had 4 corridors) confronts you with the bitterness, sadness, fear, strange emotions when reading the texts and watching the pictures relating to the activities of the communist secret police “Sigurimi” with its “36 ways of torture” used during the investigative stages against the “enemies of the people”. It teaches us that we are the ones who “create the monsters, applaud them, follow them, put them on a piedestal and afterwards the monsters feel so powerful that they don’t want to leave us anymore”. It is interesting to note that the museum was full of foreign tourists and, at the time of my two-hours visit, no Albanian visitors could be seen. Are the Albanians still afraid of the spectres of the past!? Are they not ready to confront the remembrance of the time?. These inner questions arose during my visit.

A must see: entrance fee around 3.70 Euro per person.

  • Castle of Tirana

The Castle of Tirana is an old castle since the Byzantine times. It is located not far from the Skenderbeg’s square. Inside the walls of the castle are few modern restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. It is a convenient place to go for a walk and enjoy a cup of coffee, ice cream, or the delicious dishes in the restaurants there. It is a very popular place for locals to hang out there too. In case you would like to buy a souvenir, something Authentic Albanian, in the Castle of Tirana you will find the best gift.

  • Take a walk by the Pyramid

The Pyramid of Tirana planted in the centre of Tirana is an emblematic building-museum, a city landmark, that the communist dictator erected to his glory. After the fall of the regime, it closed to later house a base of the NATO, a nightclub and TV studios, reflecting somehow the cultural changes of a society in permanent search for itself, for money, for aesthetics. Although not very beatiful to many tastes, it is a top attraction for tourists who, together with city teenagers and lovers killing their time there, experience the climbing. It failed to be demolished by previous city authorities but saved by the inhabitants. It will experience a renaissance by becoming an information technology center in the Albanian capital that changes all the time.

To be visited before it gets architecturally transformed by a Dutch Architecture Company.

A journey to Vlora and its coast

Driving from Tirana to Vlora and its Coast takes about 2 hours.

The first association to come to an Albanian’s mind when Vlora is mentioned is the city’s link with the proclamation of the Independence of Albania in 1912. Vlora has always been on my mind with the pictures that I remember from my childhood history book. A bunch of great bearded Albanian patriots who assembled on a tiny balcony of a house in Vlora on a certain day of November declaring the independence from the Ottomans, trying to save what could be saved from the Albanian territories. The desire to see the House of Independence drove my family and I from Tirana to Vlora on a beautiful Saturday last June. We could not visit the House of Independence as the square around it was being renovated. I wanted to look at that balcony from my childhood mind in an attempt to see the patriots again. I was sure they were no longer there and I was sure they would always remain in my mind’s eyes as black and white photos.

At dusk, we left Vlora, the third largest city of Albania on its way to become a place of balneary tourism of predilection for all Albanians whether in or out of the country. We will remember its main vibrant boulevard recently renovated with modern street lights and newly planted trees with lots of people going out on a typical Mediterranean evening walk with a breeze. We could barely hear any foreign language spoken showing that city was not still invaded by foreign tourists.

The night was coming and we headed to Fiori’s Apartments. The place was recommended to us by our French friends who had been staying in Albania for two years. It was a very beautiful 135 square meter apartment in a setting of dozens of other apartments with simple and modern design with a swimming pool in the compound.

In front of the property was a little beach where you could go for a swim or you can also frequent the very beautiful uncrowded beaches next to the Hotel Liro or the Beach of Kalaja.

The owner’s daughter Michele with blue eyes like the sea of her city was kind and pleasant. She told us about the nearby beaches and the places to visit in Vlora. She explained to us about the island of Sazan, a submarine base for the Germans and Italians, that was subsequently bombed by the allies during the Second World War, to later become a base for Soviet submarines during the political relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union. She also recommended a visit to the peninsula of Karaburun surrounded by both the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas and she also told us about of the monastery of Zvrnec.

Her father Kristofor, who was a long line truck driver with a difficult life, boasted his Greek origin telling us how he and his extended family took back his family’s traditional property after the fall of the communism state. He had stressed how his father never accepted a penny of the regime which tried to take his land for nothing. It was on that property that he and his cousins had made the beautiful small resort.

Next morning we drove from Vlora to Orikum along the cost. That part of the Albanian seaside is beautiful with both rocky and sandy beaches with surrounding grey-green mountains overlooking the sea. The road had many hotels, apartments and rooms which you can easily rent through booking.com or airbnb, etc.

I could never imagine Albania so dynamic and vibrant! No country and people can be prouder of catching up with lost time than the Albanians, for no country and people in the region has gone through such an anti-humane regime as the Albanians have. 

I love Albania! I have always loved it.

We only passed by the town of Orikum but did not stay in this ancient coastal city. We read that the city was the scene of a key event in the conquest for absolute power by Julius Caesar in the civil war with Pompey. It is said that when communism was introduced into the country during the second half of the 20th century the regime had prevented archaeologists and historians from approaching this unique site. Albania had to wait until 2008, when the Swiss and Albanian archaeologists initiated their first excavations. It is a city that has so far only revealed very few of its mysteries.

With these thoughts and our restless kids in our red car we headed up towards the mountain of Llogara whose descent would lead us again to the beautiful seaside. Along the winding road were several restaurants, hotels and a complex of small wooden cabins for tourists. We could see several local suppliers of honey and mountain tea selling their local products by the roadside. We stopped and pulled over for a break at the highest point of this refreshingly green National Park with pine trees dancing and bending on the breeze of the fresh wind! We just could not sense that a few miles away the opposite of that landscape was awaiting us!

We met there our Indian friends from Tirana, who happened to be be there the same day, staying in the Tourist Village of Llogara, one of the best known hotels in the area. They told us about their hiking in the mountains with a local guide who told them of a hiking trail called the Passage of Caesar named after Julius Caesar, who had walked near the area in pursuit of his rival Pompey. According to a waiter serving in one of the restaurants, Llogara was historically known to be a holiday and entertainment area for Albanians during communism. The other well-known places to stay were Sofo Hotel and the Alpine Hotel.

We set off again being resolute to go further on our trip even though we were tired! We wanted to see the sea one more time. We had heard so much about that part of the coast.

From the top of Llogara, all of sudden we found ourselves driving on the serpentine road of a slope facing down to the Dhermi beaches. We stopped again. It was on a platform, a sort of landing, where there were many tourists and lovers were taking pictures of the places and of themselves hugging each other in front of the endless sea. I exited the car. The beautiful desolation of the blue sea was in front of me. The sea and the sky were like two lovers embracing each other with their nuances of blue in the melancholy. How much beauty was in front of that sea being there forever with the arid mountains behind! The Earth revealed to me for the first time as rounded.

We drove slowly down the road approaching Dhermi, a village at the foot of the mountain facing the sea. At some places wild, at some other places very touristic, Dhermi was in transition between past and modernity! Very seductive, Dhermi invited us to visit its old town, charming with its small peaceful streets, its churches, so silent in the hot day of June.

We finally ended up on a beach surrounded by restaurants serving a delicious food in company of few local and foreign tourists. The latter seemed to me having been lost and astray in a country which was little known to the people of the other world. I wondered how two young Spanish lovers ended up here? What adventure had they embarked on to this previously unknown part of Europe?

Beach in Dhermia

Thank you for reading my blog!

Much love,

Arta 🦋