16th October 2021
Life During a Coronavirus Pandemic: Week 81 Albania
Albania is proving to be full of surprises including stunning coastal scenery and fascinating castle ruins on elevated sites.
This week my tour of Albanian takes me from Tepelene to the seaside town of Himara. As the country as only emerged from a strict Communist regime relatively recently some parts still reflect this oppressed period. Other areas are exploiting their attractions in preparation for the country’s emergence as a new and exciting destination for the curious traveller. I was here three years ago and the developments that have taken place since then have opened up some hitherto unknown and inaccessible areas. This makes it a very exciting trip for me.
Monday 04 October 2021
Our first stop today is Tepelene birthplace of the Ottoman ruler of Albania, Ali Pasha. We admire his huge statue before moving on to the ruins of the castle built by Ali Pasha. All that remains of this castle are the walls that surround private houses. I nearly lost my voice when braying at a donkey to get him to turn his head so my group can get a photo of him. I succeed. Tepelene was also a favourite haunt of Lord Byron, the poet, who was welcomed to the town by Ali Pasha
Our next destination is the Ancient Site of Apollonia. This site includes the beautiful Byzantine church of Saint Mary encircled by the buildings of its monastery, all recently restored. The original buildings were built using bricks from the ancient city of Apollonia. After looking around these buildings we visit the on-site museum which includes some fascinating artefacts relating a chronological and thematic history of the ancient city. Finally, we have a walk around the archaeological site that includes the remains of the Monument of the Agonothets and the Odeon.
We have a mad drive across country to get to the UNESCO city of Berat also known as the city of 1001 windows. Our speeding vehicles are not conspicuous as all Albanians drive at speed and take heart-stopping risks overtaking on bends the brows of hills. We have to make haste as the Onufri Museum closes at 4 pm. It is not usually open on a Monday but has made an exception for two large groups who visited today. We raced up the steep, cobble street that leads to the museum and got there just in time for our guided tour focusing on the museum’s famous icons.
After leaving the museum we explore the ruins of Berat Castle which has been incorporated in the town. I am alarmed when a car stops beside and a young man winds the window down. But he just wants to tell me “papa thinks you are beautiful.” Papa is sitting in the passenger his face creased in a toothless grin. It is a funny and memorable moment. They speed away and I walk briskly down the path to join my group who have just walked past the Acropolis and are now admiring a beautiful Byzantine church.
We just have time for a stroll along the promenade beside the River Osum before checking into our hotel. There is a dance festival about to start and we stay and watch the arrival of colourful groups of all ages from toddlers to adults in their traditional costumes.
Amber list scrapped as travel rules simplified in the UK, with the traffic light system replaced by a single red list. Most fully vaccinated travellers arriving from non-red list countries will no longer have to take a test before setting off for the UK.
Tuesday 05 October 2021
We have a very strange breakfast this morning in a huge restaurant/function room that looks as though it has never been used. A lot of basic items are missing from the buffet including cold milk but are produced from somewhere on request – we suspect the shop in the garage next door. When we finally finish breakfast we set off for Elbasan where we walked around the castle. It is impossible to distinguish the castle from the private houses that have built inside the walls despite this amounting to an illegal activity. Our circular tour brings us back to the Taverna Kala where we enjoy some Turkish coffee, baklava and fresh pomegranate. We sit outside but take it in turns to go inside to admire the clutter of bizarre artefacts there.
Our next stop is Kruja and our priority is lunch before we walk through the Grand Bazaar to Kruja Castle. This lunch is the cheapest meal of the trip and I have a simple pizza with a bottle of mineral water for little more than £2. At the castle site we visit the Ethnographic Museum – every town in Albania has one. It is very interesting to see the different rooms and learn about their different functions – rooms for the men, the women and weddings.
The Museum of Skanderbeg, in a purpose-built building matching the architecture of the ruins of the old castle. It is beautifully laid out on three floors and tells the story of the national hero of Albania. This military commander led a successful rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. This is our last visit of the day and we stroll slowly back to our vans through the Grand Bazaar browsing the small shops.
The rules for Covid travel test are now determined by vaccination status following the end of the traffic light system in the UK. The rules on Covid travel testing are now determined by vaccination status, with double-jabbed travellers requiring fewer tests.
In the News Today
Blair and Putin’s finances exposed in a vast leak of financial documents detailing the secret wealth and dealings of world leaders, politicians and billionaires. The files from offshore companies have been named the Pandora Papers.
Wednesday 06 October 2021
A new hotel and a new day – in Tirana. This morning our comprehensive breakfast buffet includes some freshly cooked items including the popular puffball bread. I have some of this bread with an omelette that is cooked for me. Our sightseeing today starts with a trip to the top of Mount Dajti in a very modern cable car. The panoramic views from the top are spectacular. My companions decide to play a round of crazy golf while I walk around the small park that features bee hives, gardens, a large playground and a lone horse.
On our way back into the town centre we stop at Bunk’art, established in a former Cold War bunker. This is an amazing place. We drive through a tunnel to get to the ticket office and then we walk along a track beside the bunker to the far end where we enter the bunker. As we make our way along the narrow tunnels we visit some of the small rooms that are set up as expositions relating the history of Albania during the years of the bunker. Other rooms display art installations including a rider less bike, a mirror room and the Promenade. The latter represents all the people who have left Albania.
After a very impersonal (and relatively expensive) lunch in a large city centre pizza house we have a walk around the city centre. We pass the house where the dictator Enver Hoxha lived on our way to Mother Tereza Square. Mother Teresa was born in Albania and commemorated here in a variety of ways. This large square features university buildings and a colourful tower block of apartments. We moved on to Skanderbeg Square which is even larger and surrounded by a mosque, a clock tower, the Cultural Hall and a magnificent statue Skanderbeg himself. It was a long, flat walk and I wished I could have taken advantage of one of the Boris Bikes I passed as I hurried along trying to keep up with my much taller companions.
100,000 pupils in England off school with confirmed Covid last week according to government figures. A further 84,000 did not go in on Thursday as they had a suspected case, an estimated 5,000 could not go due to restrictions on attendance to limit a Covid-19 outbreak, while thousands more were isolating.
Covid pass to be introduced in Wales after Zoom blunder sees Tory miss vital vote and Covid passes for entry into nightclubs and mass events will be introduced in Wales.
Sweden suspends Moderna vaccine for those 30 and under saying the move was done out of precaution. The reason for the pausing is “signals of an increased risk of side effects such as inflammation of the heart muscle or the pericardium.”
Thursday 07 October 2021
After breakfast we head for the coastal port-city of Durres. The traffic in Tirana is terrible as every vehicle assumes it has the right of way. It takes us nearly an hour to get out of the city. At Durres we walked to the huge Roman Amphitheatre. After exploring the Amphitheatre, we walk around the historical part of Durres and then back down a shopping street to the sea front and a very welcome coffee break.
When we finish our coffee we set off for the late Byzantine monastery of Ardenica in the hills of Ardenica. This little monastery comprises the Church of Saint Mary, the chapel of Saint Trinity, a mill and a barn. It also has some important frescoes painted during the mid-eighteenth century.
Our final stop today was Narta Lagoon, linked to the Adriatic Sea. The sun was shining when we left Ardenica but as we drew nearer to the lake dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain. This area is one of the largest and most important wetlands in Albania. I was delighted to spot some flamingos in the lake as we drove to the end of a long wooden footbridge bridge links the shore of the lake to Zvërnec Island. We scampered across the footbridge in a heavy shower and took shelter in the unique Byzantine Saint Mary’s Monastery also known as the Monastery of Dormition of Theotokos Mary until the rain stopped. Exploring the little island and then strolling back across the footbridge is a lovely end to this day.
Travel red list slashed to just seven countries so forty-seven countries have been removed from the Government’s red list in one of the biggest re-openings of foreign travel since the start of the pandemic.
Will PCR travel tests be scrapped this month? The mandatory PCR Covid tests for travel has been a bone of contention for both travellers and the travel sector. But on September 17, it was announced that PCR tests will be scrapped for fully vaccinated UK travellers and replaced by a cheaper, easier lateral flow (antigen) test after arrival in the country.
Friday 08 October 2021
This morning we walk the short distance from our hotel in Vlorë to the Museum of Independence. Founded in 1936 and the first museum in Albania it occupies a building that was originally a hospital and then home to the first Albanian government. It was here, in 1912, that Ismail Qemali gathered delegates from all over Albania to declare independence and raise the Albanian flag.
Our mini-vans then take us into the historical centre of Vlorë and we had a walk around the area before visiting the sixteenth century Muradie Mosque. I had to take my shoes off to go inside but I am pleased I made the effort as it has a very attractive interior. I was banished to the women’s area upstairs by an ardent worshipper but, once I had negotiated the steep, narrow steps I could appreciate the interior in peace.
Another highlight of Vlorë is Kuz Baba, the Temple of Bktashinj Sect, perched on a hill above the town. We drove up there and then had to wait until a woman came to unlock the door so we could enter the plush interior. Some of us walk back down into the town on a stepped path. Parts of this path have fallen away but we find our way around them – no longer surprised by the Albania’s relaxed attitude to health and safety.
Kanina Castle is our last destination today and we climb up the narrow, steep, cobbled path through some gentle rain. It is a large site and the ruins of this castle are spread out on a large grassy area. The only inhabitants here are some turkeys who ignore our efforts to get them to raise their heads for a photograph or ten. On our way back into Vlorë we stop at a café for coffee and cake. The owner says he does not have any cake but then ‘finds’ some slices of a large cake probably destined for a dinner party. We return there for dinner later today and enjoy a traditional Albanian dinner including large platters of well-done meat on a bed of either, potatoes, rice or pasta.
In the News Today
Lack of immunity may bring worst flu rates in 50 years The NHS is embarking on its biggest ever flu vaccination drive, with fears that deaths could be the worst for 50 years this winter because of lockdowns and social distancing
Bills fear as Ofgem signals energy price cap review After a rise in wholesale costs, Ofgem has opened the door to a significant relaxation of price cap rules - potentially exposing millions to the risk of sudden price increases.
Saturday 09 October 2021
Two days ago I ordered my PCR COVID-19 test to be done the second day after my return to the UK. I have a message to say my test has been delivered to me. How could that happen when I am in Albania? The message contains a photo of my test abandoned on the table in the hallway of my block of flats – so it has not actually been ‘delivered’. My concern is that it will not be there when I get back to the flat. I don’t have time to ponder this problem as it is time to leave for Himara where we are spending the next two nights. We drive along the Albanian Riviera enjoying beautiful views of the sea. We have to enter a military base to visit our first site, the ancient site of Orikum. Wandering through the ruins I hear the constant slapping of arms and legs in a bid to ward off the resident population of mosquitoes and biting flies. The views of the surrounding countryside are stunning as the autumn colours are spreading across the swathes of forest.
After lunch we drive to the Mediterranean village of Dhermi but just park on the road and look down on the buildings creeping down the hillside towards the sea. We move on to the stone village Vuno to see how stone houses were built in the past. We were supposed to have a coffee in the square of the village but everything is closed so we continue to Himara where we are spending the next two nights. This evening a fabulous sunset lights up the beach below the hotel and is reflected in the mirror doors of the wardrobe in my bedroom.
Isolate if you have Covid symptoms but negative PCR, says local health official
People should self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms even if they have a negative PCR test result, according to a regional public health official, after a number of cases where people tested positive using lateral flow tests – but then negative with PCR.
In the News Today
UK contactless payments limit is rising to £100 - in September 2007 the first contactless bank cards were introduced in the UK, allowing people to “wave and pay” for low-value items up to £10. On 15 October the limit goes up to £100 doubling the current cap of £45.
Sunday 10 October 2021
A short distance from the hotel our mini-vans turn off the main road and start the climb into the mountains. We are heading for Piluri, the highest village in Albanian. Piluri is known as the village of Polyphonic Music as the villagers would stand under the large tree in the main square and sing stories of war and love – no musical instruments involved. It is also called the Balcony of the Ionian Sea due to the stunning panorama that surrounds it. We stop occasionally to take photos and take in our surroundings.
After parking by the village square we take the path through the woods to the village church. During the Communist regime this little church was a shop but since 1991 it has been renovated and re-opened as a church thanks to donations from the villagers. We walk back into the centre of the village where we are invited into the courtyard of one of the houses. Here we are given the opportunity to try some local produce - raki, fresh persimmons, feta cheese, grapes and walnuts. We have to use a hammer to crack the walnuts which becomes a source of amusement.
Next, we follow a hilly path out of the village and walk to a reservoir reputedly 2,000 years old. We turn back there but a member of my group wants to walk on to another summit to take some photographs. Soon after he sets off on his own a battered old Mercedes passes us heading towards Matthew. The two young men in the car look a bit shifty. We stop and wait a while for him as we get near the village. Our guide tells us to walk on slowly as he goes back to find him. We have all had the same thought regarding the two men who passed us in the Mercedes so we are very relieved when both of them re-appear. It is now time for lunch and we follow a narrow, rocky path to Villa Cipa, a restored village house, and tuck in to a buffet featuring local produce.
Our journey back down the mountain is enhanced by the dramatic landscape of a recent fire – blackened tree trunks and branches bearing amber leaves. A memorable day out from Himara.
Some Government Statistics
By 5 pm on Monday 04 October, a total of 7,934,936 (total that day 35,077) positive COVID-19 tests have been recorded and the cumulative total of deaths within 28 days of a positive test is 136,986 including a daily total of 33. By the end of the week on Sunday 10 October, the total of positive cases had risen to 8,154,306 (total that day 34,574) positive tests, and the cumulative total of deaths within 28 days of a positive test is 137,735 including a daily total of 38. Total deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate is now 160,824, an increase this week of 1108. (this statistic lags behind the daily statistics as it is updated on a weekly basis).
More next week
Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller
An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing four books she turned to online travel writing.