Albania - Land of the Eagles


This was a 9-day Andante Travels tour, with most of the group from the UK.  As is often the case, Margaret Grant and I were the only Americans on the trip.  We joined the group in Vienna, and left them there as well; their flights were to/from London, while ours were obviously to/from Denver.

Most of the photos are "geotagged".  This adds GPS data (latitude, longitude, elevation, etc.) to the photo metadata, just as the camera brand and model, date and time, exposure info, etc. are automatically recorded by the camera itself.  Therefore, you can see exactly where each photo was taken, usually to within a few meters.  (Most recent smartphones, and some cameras, can geotag photos as they are taken.  I use a separate geologger, and geotag photos after the trip.)   The “Photos” links don’t show the geotagged information, but Google’s Picasa web site does an excellent job with geotagged photos, including integration with Google Maps and Google Earth.

The photos here are not edited, except for the GPS info, though some would benefit from some adjustments.  They’re size-reduced for the web, but I’d be happy to send you individual photos or a DVD with the full-resolution photos.

The information below is based on the Andante itinerary, with the Photos and Picasa links added for each day.  Any personal comments are in [brackets].

Day One
Flight OS458 Austrian Airlines to Vienna (06:00 / 09:20), then on to Tirana, flight OS847, arriving 14:20.  Drive to the modern Hotel Tirana International right in the centre of the city.  [Margaret and I flew from Denver (on Day Zero) and joined the group in Vienna on Day One.]

Day Two    Photos  Picasa
Full day investigating the sites of the capital Tirana, a city reinventing itself, a bustling capital, once austere, but now brightly painted, tenement blocks next to modern glass and steel skyscrapers. We visit the Archaeological Museum, National Historical Museum, Etham Bey Mosque and National Gallery.  Restaurant dinner.  Overnight at the Hotel Tirana International.

Day Three    Photos  Picasa
Drive to Apollonia, founded by the Corinthians in 588 BC, one of the largest cities on the Adriatic, the ruins of which cover an enormous area. Today the city lies romantically covered by waving corn with grassy banks hinting at what is still buried. Continue along the beautiful Ionian coast to the Italian-owned and stylish Hotel Brilant on the coast at Saranda, ancient Onchesmus, now a modern seaside town.  Restaurant dinner.

Day Four    Photos  Picasa
Picturesque drive to spend all day at Butrint, on a wooded hillside at the head of a lake with views to Corfu.  Butrint is both beautiful and unusual, probably Albania’s best-known and most spectacular site, and the first World Heritage Site in the country. Guide Lecturer Oliver Gilkes has directed excavations at Butrint for many years, and describes it as: “One of the most striking archaeological sites in the Mediterranean: splendid ruins in a breathtaking setting - a thickly wooded hill by Lake Butrint on the shores of the Ionian Sea, all within sight of the island of Corfu. Modern research has made it possible to chart Butrint’s progression from a small coastal settlement to Epirote city and Roman Colony; through its collapse and then rebirth in the Middle Ages under Byzantines, Normans and Angevins to its final years as a Venetian and Ottoman outpost on the Ionian Sea.”  Restaurant dinner.  Overnight at Hotel Brilant, Saranda.

Day Five    Photos  Picasa
A trip over the mountains from Saranda to the Gjirokastra valley and the town of Gjirokastra. A mountain stronghold, the city is dramatically set amidst the limestone peaks and was granted World Heritage status in 2004. Principal among its monuments are the great fortress that dominates the city and the late Ottoman mansions that festoon the steep slopes of the mountainside.  Restaurant dinner.   Overnight at Hotel Brilant, Saranda.

Day Six    Photos  Picasa
An exciting day of contrasts - first to Mesopotam to see the medieval monastery, with its elaborate Byzantine church. Continue north through the rugged and changing landscape to visit the remote excavated Illyrian city of Byllis, sited on a mountaintop overlooking the Vjosa River valley.  Dinner at Hotel Mangalemi and overnight at Hotels Mangalemi and Osumi, Berat.

Day Seven    Photos  Picasa
Full day exploring the attractive medieval town of Berat, situated on a hill dominating the River Osum and its gorge. The lower city along the riversides was the preserve of the Muslim inhabitants, while by agreement the Christians held the citadel, so there are both Byzantine Churches and Mosques to visit, as well as the Onufri Museum.  Our hotels here are right in the centre and provide a taste of the remains of the communist era - an interesting insight.  Restaurant dinner.  Overnight at Hotels Mangalemi and Osumi.

Day Eight    Photos  Picasa
Scenic drive from Berat to Durres (Epidamnos), Albania’s chief port and for many years the largest town in the country. The main surviving structure is the 2nd century amphitheatre, the largest in the Balkans. Sections of the mighty brick walls of the 5th century also remain standing. Nearby recent excavations have uncovered a large circular colonnaded piazza, paved with marble. This extraordinary monument had shops and booths behind the colonnade.  Then to Kruja, the last bastion of Christianity against the Ottoman Turks and now an interesting town set in beautiful countryside.  The Skanderbeg Museum here is a triumph of political museology, showing in concrete form the accepted story of Albania's medieval genesis.  Continue to Tirana, for restaurant dinner and overnight at the Hotel Tirana International.

Day Nine
Drive to Tirana airport for flight to London, flight OS858 at 15:00 from Tirana to Vienna, then OS457 arriving back at London Heathrow at 21:30.  [Margaret and I had rooms near the Vienna airport, and returned home on Day Ten.]

[Note: The verbiage above is a blending of what was on the Andante web site before departure and the updated paper itinerary provided at the start of the trip.]

April 4-14, 2013