Albania Cultural Tour: North to South

Albania may be a little country but there is a lot to see and do in this exciting up-and-coming location. Bordering Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo and Montenegro, Albania’s long coastline is one of the most ruggedly beautiful in the world.

While Albania is slowly becoming more popular with tourists it remains extremely undiscovered, as well as almost completely unspoiled. Albania boasts some of the best examples of Ottoman architecture in the world, along with supremely clear Mediterranean air and stunningly fabulous beaches.

And, perhaps best of all, travelling to Albania remains an extremely affordable trip, even compared to much of the rest of this part of Europe. Let’s start with the city and cultural tour North to South.

1. Gjirokastra

The City of Stone

Old City Gjirokastra

Old City Gjirokastra
The old bazaar

The city of Gjirokastra is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and is one of the most attractive tourist sites of the country. Perched on the eastern side of the Wide Mountain (Mali i Gjërë), the city began as a fourth century castle, which is today the greatest castle in the whole country. Inside the fortress is the Museum of Weapons, where weapons of different periods up until the Second World War are displayed. Gjirokastra is known as “The City of Stone”


The museum city of Gjirokastra was built on the eastern side of “Mali i Gjerë”. Since 2005, it has been in UNESCO World Heritage site. The origin of the city starts with the castle of Gjirokastra, built in IV century AD. The main characteristic of Gjirokastra is the intensive use of stone in building the houses, which look like small fortresses, the streets of cobblestone, which all lead to Bazaar. Due to all these features, Gjirokastra is also known as the “The Stone City”.

Zekati family houseGjirokastra FortressThe most important structure of the city is the castle, which is the biggest castle in Albania. You can also visit the house of Zekati family in Palorto, in a dominating position, which has undergone restoration. It is one of the most magnificent and characteristic buildings of Gjirokastra. Built in 1811-1812, it is a magnificent three-floor building and has two twin towers.

2. Butint
The Microcosmos of Mediterranean

Butrint Ancient theatreButrint mosaicButrintButrint Ancient theatreThe first Albanian site to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage was Butrint, in the south of the country, in 1992. It has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was a part of the Greek and Roman colonies.
The most ancient objects found at the archeological site in Butrint are a stone hammer and a shaft belonging to the second half of the second millennium B.C.

Hekateus made first mention of the city at the end of the sixth century B.C., affirming that the city was built according to Troy and that the origin of the name refers to the sacrifice of a bull, Buthrotos, provided by the Trojan prince Aeneas on his way to Dodona. During its early period, Butrint was the center of the Kaonic tribes, later to become part of the kingdom of Epirus.

The most extraordinary objects discovered in the theater of Butrint are the statue of Apollo, the goddess of Butrint, the marble heads of Zeus, the portrait of Agrippina, the head of Livia and many Latin and Greek epigraphs. Parts of the city were rebuilt during the fifth century B.C.

3. Apollonia
Where Roman emperor Augustus study philosophy

APOLLONIAAPOLLONIAAPOLLONIAApollonia was an ancient Greek colony city and former bishopric in Illyria , located on the right bank of the Aous river (modern-day Vjosa). Its ruins are situated in the Fier region, near the village of Pojani (Polina), in modern-day Albania.
The ancient city of Apollonia is situated in southwestern Albania, about 13 miles from the city of Fier. The fascinating landscape of the archeological park, which has been preserved in an exceptionally intact condition, comprises a successful combination between the beauty of monuments and nature, attractive through its long history, in an atmosphere of relaxation and meditation. Its foundation took place immediately after the foundation of Epidamnus – Dyrrachium and quickly became one of the most eminent cities of the Adriatic basin, which was mentioned more frequently from the other 30 (thirty) cities bearing the same name during Antiquity. The city lay in the territory of the political communion of the Taulantii and was broadly known as Apollonia of Illyria. According to the tradition it was founded during the first half of the 6th century BC by Greek colonist from Corfu and Corinth, led by Gylax, which named the city after his name (Gylakeia). After its quick establishment the city changed its name to Apollonia, according to the powerful divinity Apollo. It stands on a hilly plateau from where expands the fertile plain of Musacchia with the Adriatic Sea and the hills of Mallakastra. The ruins of Apollonia are discovered in the beginning of the 19th century.

This archaeologic park or site contain also a Museum of Archaeology that is situated at the old Monastery of Saint Mary .

4. Berat
2400 year old museum city

BERAT1Berat Old CityBERAT CASTLEThis 2,413 years-old city, the pride of Albanian architecture which is under the protection of UNESCO, is located 120 km from Tirana. The city forms a wonderful combination of eastern and western cultures, costumes, traditions and outlook. Berat is a treasure-trove of Albanian history, culture and a testament to the country’s tradition of religious harmony
The city’s life began in the 6th-5th century B.C. as an Illyrian settlement. Later, in the 3rd century B.C., it was turned into a castle city known as Antipatrea. The castle expanded afterwards, particularly during the feudal dominion of the Muzakaj family. Inside the castle, they built churches with valuable frescoes and icons, and also a calligraphy school. Uniquely today, residents still live inside of the castle walls. The three major neighborhoods of the old city are Mangalemi, Gorica, and Kala, where the castle itself is located.

5. Kruja
The City of Scanderbeg

Kruja MuseumKruja CastleKRUJA The Old BazaarKruja is just 32km away from Tirana and very close to Tirana International Airport. This historic city is 608m above sea level and offers an open vista to an amazing panoramic view.
The name and the importance of the city are closely related to the 25 years of activity of our national hero, Skanderbeg, who in the fifteenth century made Kruja a bastion of uncompromising resistance against the Ottoman. The Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg Museum is situated inside the castle walls, which date back to the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

The museum itself was inaugurated in 1981. Within the walls of the castle are also the Ethnographic Museum and the Dollma Tekke. Near the castle’s entrance is a traditional market, which dates back to the period of Skanderbeg. Here, tourists can find Albanian craft products such as embroidered items, carpeting, silver objects, copper, alabaster, filigree, traditional clothing, antiques at the traditional Old Baazar of Kruja .

6. Shkodra
Gateway to the Albanian Alps

Shkodra, it is one of the oldest cities in the country, founded in the 4th century B.C. as the center of the Labeat tribe of Illyrians known with the name Scodra .
Shkodra has been occupied several times throughout history: First by the Romans (168 B.C.), then the Serbians (1040), the Venetians (1396), and finally by the Ottomans (1479).
The city returned to Albanian control as the feudal principality of the Balshaj during the 14th century and served as the municipal center of the Bushatllinj Pashallëk from 1757 to 1831. Shkodra is very rich in cultural heritage , the city itself as well as the people bear pride in the large number of artists, musicians, painters, photographers, poets, and writers born here. Shkodra’s main tourist attraction is Rozafa Castle. Rising majestically upon a rocky hill west of the city, the outcroppings and battlements paint a blazing picture against the setting sun.

Shkodra is one of the most important cities of Albania and is also known to be the center of Albanian Catholicism , Culture and Harmony between different religions .

The lake of Shkodra is also suggested to visit , to bath , or to eat some of the best dishes of Albanian cuisine like Krap ne tave typical for this region .

3 lakes, view from castleCastle of ShkodraShkodra Pedonale

7. Tirana

The lively capital

We all can say convinced that the capital of Albania has transformed into a lively, affordable destination. And I might add, that every foreigner I have met there has falled in love with the city.

Interest in Balkan countries has soared significantly in recent years, with curious travelers now regularly seeking out the serenity of the Adriatic Sea and medieval, stone-walled cities like Dubrovnik in Croatia and Kotor in Montenegro. Tirana does not embody such traditional allure. Instead, it impresses as a soulful, urban hub with a strong personality shaped by a turbulent history.

Much like Sarajevo remarkably moved past the atrocities of the 1990s to evolve into a thriving Eastern European capital, Albania is looking past its own decades of horror and isolation to the future.

This is only the main cultural scene of Albania. Many more to come on beaches and entertainment on future blogs. Stay posted.

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5 Tips Not to Look Like a Tourist In Paris

If you want to blend in with the locals in Paris, these are the tips you need: how to dress, how to greet people, and why you need to know at least a few words of French.

caffeHow to greet someone

Start off on the right foot by greeting people with “bonjour” (hello). It’s not only polite to do when you’re introduced directly to someone, but also when you go into a shop, when you’re first approached by a waiter at a restaurant, even when entering an elevator. While this may seem a little much, it’s an important way to ingratiate yourself with the locals—and, in return, you’ll receive much better service or attention.

Do let the French person take the lead with cheek kissing, in order to avoid awkwardly misplaced lips or a shuffle of heads. You should also follow suit with the number of kisses exchanged. The general norm in Paris calls for just one kiss on each cheek, but some groups of friends have their own customs. Additionally, some regions around France follow different rules.

Do shake hands when being introduced to a formal business contact, shop owner, or concierge, unless otherwise approached by them to give you la bise.

In the evening, you should technically say “bonsoir” (good evening), though the start time of saying this is somewhat fuzzy. It’s typically said as evening starts to fall, but in summer that ends up being rather late. Still, some others start saying bonsoir as soon as they leave work; a safe bet is to begin using that salutation around 7pm. If you say bonjour during the evening, it’s better than nothing, but you might be quickly tagged as a foreigner.

Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do exchange _la bise _(a light kiss on each cheek) in social situations between women; it’s also okay between men and women.

Do not greet another man with a kiss if you’re a man; shake hands instead. Men normally don’t give each other la bise unless they are very, very good friends or family; even then it’s rare.

What to wear:

Catherine Baba.jpgTo fit in with locals, it’s best to leave behind any sweatpants, baseball caps, flip-flops and white sneakers. Parisians are generally quite stylish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean extravagant haute couture outfits—instead, think casual chic. You’ll likely see Parisian women wearing some combinations of skinny jeans, an up-and-coming designer top, Converse, or ballerina flats. Parisians also love their trenchcoats (which they call le trench) and blazers, and wearing a long scarf will also help you blend in.

Fanny-packs or large colorful backpacks are a dead giveaway for tourists; if the latter is necessary, keep it more on the discreet side. Another option is to pick up a very Parisian Longchamp bag, a nice leather purse, or a chic bag designed for men. Lastly, while you might be tempted to purchase a beret while you’re here, unless you’re planning on playing petanque with elderly gentleman, you should save it for back home.

How to walk and talk:

Parisians walk with a purpose, but that doesn’t equate to a race through the streets; rather, they walk at a steady but determined pace. It’s good form to walk on the right side of the sidewalk (this also applies to escalators), but on busy streets it can be a bit of a free-for-all. If you need to look at your map, “pull over” and consult it to the side of the road instead of in the middle of the sidewalk: this will save you from the evil stares, huffs or nudges of your fellow pedestrians.

Contrary to some stereotypes of Mediterraneans, Parisians are very soft speakers. Speaking loudly in public is frowned upon, but it can also make you stand out as a tourist and thus lead to unwanted attention, particularly from pickpockets.

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Learning the local language:

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It’s polite to learn a few key phrases in French; this will earn you the respect of locals, and help you in the end. As mentioned above, the friendly bonjour is essential. Other key expressions include au revoir (good bye), _merci (thank you), s’il vous plait _(please) and l’addition (the bill). One thing not to do: Hail your waiter by saying garcon! If anything, it will likely encourage a waiter to take his sweet time in actually bringing you the bill.

Luxembourg Gardens – Photo Essay

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A warm-weather oasis that offers the simplest of pleasures, the Luxembourg Gardens provide ample green space for relaxing, sun-soaking in Paris and people-watching. When the city bustle becomes too overwhelming, meander around the paths and formal gardens, or just relax with a picnic. Kids can float sailboats at the Grand Basin, ride ponies or take a spin on the merry-go-round. Adults might delight in the on-site Musee du Luxembourg, the first French museum that was opened to the public.

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People watching (chilling)
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People watching (next time I pose like him)
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Young photographer here

 

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The Gardens also have sports courts, including basketball and baseball, but travelers say the best way to unwind here is to just kick back and admire the surrounding scenery. You’ll find Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement (neighborhood), just a short walk from both the Odéon (line 4 and 10) and Notre-Dame des Champs (line 12) metro stops. You can tour the garden for free but there is a fee to enter the Musee du Luxembourg.

 

Best way to see Mont Saint-Michel from Paris

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Rising out of the sea in the Baie de Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy, the island of Mont Saint-Michel and its magnificent abbey are among France’s most striking sights. The Abbey of Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perches on the highest point of the rocky islet. Looking like a fortified castle surrounded by ancient walls and bastions, it is one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic churches ever built.

Mont Saint-Michel

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Known as “La Merveille” (“The Marvel”), the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is truly a marvel of medieval architecture. Since the Middle Ages, this ultimate pilgrimage site has also been called “The Heavenly Jerusalem” and “Pyramid of the Seas.” Soaring to a height of 155 meters above the sea, the abbey is an amazing feat of construction. It is even more miraculous considering the difficulties of bringing building materials across the Bay of Saint-Michel; many perished while attempting to cross the bay’s sandy shores during unforeseen riptides. In spite of great technical challenges, the abbey was built between the 11th and 13th centuries in exquisite Gothic style.

Although getting to this remote setting from Paris may not present the dangers it did to medieval pilgrims, it can still be a challenge. It takes about 3.5 hours to drive there and about an hour longer by train to Rennes and then by bus. With so many things to do here, you’ll want to spend at least four hours to tour the abbey’s cloister, refectory, and ramparts; have lunch; and see the extreme tides shift the landscape between water and sand. This makes a long day for a driver. A more convenient way is to join a full-day tour to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris that includes direct transportation by bus or van. Or you can stay overnight either in the village below the abbey or in nearby hotels on the mainland.

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Inside the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel Pilgrimages

At the end of July, there is a pilgrimage across the Bay of Saint-Michel. However the pilgrimage depends on the tides. Those interested in taking this pilgrimage should check with the tourist office before planning a trip. There is also an important pilgrimage, known as the Autumn Pilgrimage, at the end of September on Saint Michael’s Day. The pilgrimage celebrates the Archangel Michael and several religious events. On the nearest Sunday to Saint Michael’s Day, a solemn mass is held in the Abbey Church. Later that day, there are vespers and an evening mass at the Parish Church. On September 29th (Saint Michael’s Day), the Abbey Church and Parish Church hold morning prayers and mass.

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Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Mont Saint Michel

Tours to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris: Enjoy the lovely Normandy landscapes while someone else drives you from central Paris on a 14.5-hour Mont Saint-Michel Day Trip that includes transportation, lunch, and a guided historic walking tour through the abbey and ramparts, as well as time to explore on your own.

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You can even relax reading a book

Getting to Mont Saint-Michel

If arriving by car, park in the parking lot which is located on the mainland two-and-a-half kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. From the parking lot, a shuttle bus drops visitors off 400 meters from the entrance gates to Mont Saint-Michel.

If planning to arrive by foot, first inquire about the tides. It is important to pay close attention to the schedule of the tides as it is extremely dangerous to venture into the bay when the water is rising. During spring tide days, visitors must cross two hours before the tides. Also note that walking across the bay is best done in bare feet.

Official site: http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/en/accueil.htm

 

Rome in 1 day! Is it possible?

File_000This was my first time in Rome, end of May 2016. I know, it was too late. Of course, I have been waiting for it for a long time, but other plans kept interrupting. I was transiting to another city, I had 24 hours to at least “taste” the roman atmosphere. I knew I would come back again, and a coin tossed into the Trevi Fountain made sure that happened 8 months later, January 2017. I will let you know about that in a future post.

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Is it possible to really immerse and enjoy Rome in one day? Possible enough to make you crave coming back.
Firs, avoid the museums. Too much time in the lines, so it will take a lot of time. If your absolute priority is the Vatican, than try going there first thing in the morning, but don’t expect to have much time after that, especially if you want to visit the Sistine Chapel. It is really amazing and awe inspiring experience, but I decided to enjoy it the next time.
So, 1 DAY IN ROME… You can start with the Colosseum or St Peters Basilica, everything else is in the middle. Apparently there are people trying this, and it is pretty doable,

so I was checking and I found this great, short, description of Rick Steves, which became my inspiration:
20160525_162444“Rome in a Day
Some people actually try to “do” Rome in a day. Crazy as that sounds, if all you have is a day, it’s one of the most exciting days Europe has to offer. Start at 8:30 at the Colosseum. Then explore the Forum, hike over Capitol Hill, and cap your “Caesar Shuffle” with a visit to the Pantheon. After a quick lunch, taxi to the Vatican Museum (the lines usually die down mid-afternoon). See the Vatican Museum and take a short-cut from the Sistine Chapel directly into St. Peter’s Basilica. Taxi back to Campo de’ Fiori for dinner then walk to Piazza Navona for dessert .”

Colosseo
What is a must see for me? Sunset in Piazza del Popolo, even thought maybe not the perfect place to watch the sun set until the end, because of the buildings in front, but going one hour before enjoying the last rays, it was perfect. You can climb a bit the Pincian Hill, just behind Piazza del Popolo overlooking toward St. Peter’s Basilica (like my featured image for this post). There was even a street performer with live instrumental music.
In that moment, it was my favorite place in the world!

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Piazza del Popolo
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Piazza del Popolo

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