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Puglia

On day two of my stay in Polignano a Mare, I rented a bicycle for 5 hours and rode along the seaside road to the small village of Santo Stefano, location of the historic Abbey Santo Stefano. Along the way, I saw olive groves and trulli, the conical-roofed stone buildings that are traditional in this agricultural region. On the way back from visiting the abbey and eating lunch, I stopped to swim at one of the many coves that provide sea access.

The first view of the Abbey Santo Stefano from the road.

Boats anchored on the beach in front of the Santo Stefano abbey.

Inside the abbey courtyard looking toward the sea.

A trullo in a field overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

The view of Santo Stefano from the olive groves behind it.

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After spending quite a bit of time on the Balkan side of the Adriatic–a week in Croatia and later 5 weeks in Albania, it was finally time for my first visit to the heel of the boot! From Durres, I took an overnight ferry to Bari, the main port in the Puglia region of Italy (which is the region that appears to be the heel of the boot on a map of Italy). The overnight ferry was quite a deal: 68 euros and I had not only transportation to Bari, but also a private cabin with a shower for the night. Combine that with the very good prosecco available at the bar for 3 euros per glass, and I was set! Once I reached Bari the next morning, a 30-minute train ride would take me to Polignano a Mare, where I rented a small apartment for 2 nights. This was my “relaxation” phase of my trip home–two nights in a quaint sea-side town in rural Italy. When I finally arrived in Polignano, it was everything I had hoped for! The owner of the apartment met me at the train station and drove me the short distance to the wall of the old city; from there we had to walk with my suitcases because no cars are allowed within the city walls. The apartment was adorable and the old city itself was like a mini version of Dubrovnik. It was gorgeous!

The buildings of Polignano a Mare go right to the edge of the cliffs over the turquoise Adriatic waters.

I cannot rave enough about how wonderful Polignano was! I found an adorable café with a tiny balcony overlooking the water, where I had an amazing, local lunch of burrata verdure (burrata mozarello on a plate with local veggies, including cherry tomatoes, grilled eggplant, rugula, and grilled peppers) and rigatoni al forno with a house-made tomato sauce, accompanied by a local white wine. The owners of the café served me espresso while giving me lots of interesting information about the town and what to do in the area, as well as just providing an interesting conversation about each other’s lives. This was a great start to my stay there, and I found it to be true that everywhere I went while I was there, people were unbelievably friendly and helpful. Another great thing about Polignano was the cute library right at the edge of the city walls that had free wifi access–my apartment didn’t have it, so this was a lifesaver since I needed to finish coordinating the rest of my trip. Finally, the swimming cove right next to the city provided a close, easy spot for spending some time in the refreshing cold water of the sea.

The beach at Polignano a Mare

The same beach, viewed from the bridge behind it.

This cute little stray kitten was sneaking out from under a house. He did not want to be petted!

Buildings in the main piazza of Polignano

My first night, I ate an amazing dinner of local fresh fish at a nearby restaurant. I ended up talking to the Swedish couple next to me, and we we had to move inside during a sudden downpour, we just sat at the same table and continued our conversation. It was a great night, and one of those times that traveling alone feels really good, because it makes you more open to talking to strangers when having someone with you to talk to might have prevented it.

Here are a few photos from my every day life in Tirana. My stay was brief, but I did develop some habits and a routine. Other things I found out too late, like when I discovered a different way to walk to my office that didn’t take me through the outdoor produce market during my last week in town. Of course, I can hardly be found at fault for this, since Tirana’s streets–and lack of street signs–are notoriously confusing. This first photo is a byrektore in the neighborhood, one of the many where I could stop on my way in to work. For the uninitiated, byrek are savory pastries that make really convenient street food. They differ at each place, but the general idea is that it is some kind of flaky or puff pastry with a stuffing, usually in a triangle or square single-serving size. My favorite stuffing was the cheese (think something like a feta), but the tomato ones are also really good.

My favorite Albanian breakfast

An observant person will notice some Italian-era villas in between many of the drab apartment buildings.

This one is just down the street from my office.

And this one is on the secret route to my apartment that I found right before I came home.

The strange, hurried, and haphazard development of the capital city is exemplified by the state of the electrical wires. All you have to do is look up and you can see it all around in many areas.

Tirana is known for its colorfully-painted apartment buildings. A former mayor was also a painter, and he brightened up the post-Communist city by applying paint in interesting patterns to many of the formerly grey buildings.

A colorful building near the river

On my daily walk past the outdoor market, I always passed this guy sitting on this corner. He usually had a crate with just a few very large, very overgrown-looking squashes, and he would start his sales pitch as you walked by. It always ended in a mutter, and I’m pretty sure that even if I understood Albanian his speech would have been a little unintelligible. You can see examples of the squash right above (behind in the 3-D world) the seat of the motorbike in the photo.

Unfortunately, he decided to hold an umbrella for some shade on the day I brought my camera!

One word that aptly describes Tirana is “construction.” This is a city that is constantly updating itself. The main square of the city, surrounded by stately Italian-style buildings, is lovely but a bit unsightly from all the construction–overturned earth and temporary chain link fences invade any view. Still, once you get used to it, it almost seems normal this way. I gave up trying to take a “pretty” photo and just took a photo of what I saw. It was home, after all!

The statue in the square is Skanderbeg--if you ever see him, you can recognize him by his long beard and helmet with a goat's head on top!

This area where the square is located is known as the “Center,” or Qender in Albanian. The Q is pronounced with a “ch” sound, like in “choice.”

The mosque and clock tower in the center are some of the few older structures that remain in Tirana.

See you later, Tirana! My brief time “living” here was definitely a once in a lifetime experience!

Bicycles are a popular form of transportation in Tirana (seen here in the outdoor market).

My friend took me to Durrës for the day, where he and his family have an apartment. One of his daughters went with us to see the old Roman amphitheatre and walk around the nearby town square that sits right on the water. The water and beach in Durrës aren’t very beautiful, but it is the second-largest city in Albania, and is practically a suburb of Tirana (based on its proximity), so it is crowded in summer nevertheless. However, it was definitely the history aspect that I found appealing about Durrës. Known as Dyrrachion or Epidamnus in Greek and Dyrrachium in Roman, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe and at various points was part of ancient Illyria, the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

The view of the amphitheatre from the entrance gate

The amphitheatre was unknown and rediscovered long after lots of construction had gone up over and around it, so the atmosphere is unique–ancient ruins surrounded by communist-era apartment buildings, buildings that are in such bad shape they are almost falling down, a mosque minaret, and streets. My friend told me there is probably much more really amazing structures left unexcavated under the surrounding structures.

These old walls unearthed to the side of the amphitheatre hint at what else might be hidden beneath the surrounding buildings.

A Communist-era relief sculpture we noticed on the side of an abandoned, Italian-style building near the amphitheatre.

In addition to the amphitheatre, ancient city walls can be found in this area of Durrës. They are remarkably thick and I think that is a reflection of the importance of this city in the ancient world.

This doorway in the city wall leads from the main street of this part of the city into the area where the amphitheatre is located.

Supposedly, this cavern-like tunnel is where the gladiators waited for their turn in the arena. I was also told that this tunnel used to lead into another part of the city, but was blocked off.

The southern beaches in Albania are hyperbolically amazing. I really don’t know how to describe them adequately, and my photos just can’t do justice to them. Of course I have seen crystal blue sea water and mountains together in one spot before, but everything is just a bit more here. The mountains are higher and more majestic, the sea is brighter turquoise while remaining completely clear. I’ve been to beaches Croatia and Turkey this summer, and all I can say is Albania’s southern beaches were more spectacular.

At the top of the Llogora Pass

Dhermi Beach

Palais Beach

The drive through the Llogora Pass is pretty hair-raising and not for the faint of heart. I had the great pleasure (or misfortune, I’m not sure which) of riding up and down the mountain 4 times. The views from the heights are pretty marvelous, and you can see all the way out to Corfu, a Greek Isle near Saranda at the very southern edge of Albania. The first village after you reach the bottom of the mountain is Palaisa beach, where Julius Caesar landed with quite a few legions during his war with Pompey in 49 or 48 B.C.E., depending on which source you find. Next is Dhermi, which has very nice beaches, and then a windy drive of about 30 minutes through more mountains will take you to Himara. There are lots of spots on the side of the road where a beekeeper sits under an umbrella selling honey (which was so tempting, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to take it home), and the drive often also takes you past many beehives right by the side of the road. You also will notice many Orthodox churches and roadside shrines in this area, and unlike in Tirana, you will usually find that the older generation’s second language is Greek (instead of Italian). In fact, for many people in this part of Albania who are Greek, this is their first language, with Albanian actually being their second language. This was more or less irrelevant, since I speak neither Greek nor Italian!

The view from my hotel balcony in Himara--it was right over the water.

One more view of the epic Llogora Mountains. I wish my photos had all the depth of real life so they would accurately show just how massive these mountains are...

Albanian Bunkers

Many of my excursions in Albania offered photo-taking opportunities of the famous concrete bunkers. These bunkers, most barely large enough for one person (and also partially caved-in or filled with trash, such that a person would not want to actually go inside one), are quite literally found all over the country. Sprouting up like concrete mushrooms, they invade almost any pastoral view. Though this makes them sound rather invasive, I was actually quite fond of them. They are certainly a unique and crumbling reminder that the paranoid dictatorship is not that far in the past. I think they are an interesting unofficial symbol of the country, especially because they are all over the country. In many places, they aren’t just invaders from the past, but have been incorporated into the landscaping by the landowners, who often paint them bright colors!

Beach bunkers, Palais/Palasë Beach, Southern Albania. Had they only been here in 49 B.C.E., they could have played a part in the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey!

The bunkers were quite prolific on the southern beaches.

A painted bunker on Mount Dajti.

I captured this view from above, riding in the cable car down the Mount Dajti slopes. It makes you wonder how they got them into some of these remote and difficult-to-reach places.

Bunkers near the beach at Dhermi, with the Llogora mountains in the background.

Kruja

Kruja is a town in the mountains about 45 minutes from Tirana. It is the home of the Skanderbeg Museum and the location where Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, held back the Ottoman forces from his citadel during the 1400s. Born Gjergj Kastriotis, he was sent to fight in the Ottoman army as most boys from the region were forced to do, but he later came back to Albania to fight against the Ottomans. During his time in Turkey, he earned the name Iskander, which is the Turkish form of Alexander and a reference to Alexander the Great. Beg or Bey means general, and Skanderbeg is the combination of Iskander and Beg. I learned all this and more from an English-speaking historian who worked at the museum, who was kind enough to discuss some of the history with me even though I was there alone and they normally only offer guides for groups of 8. The museum itself does have enough signs in (poorly-written) English that it’s worth a visit even if you can’t get a guide—assuming you are interested in history. As a bonus, the terrace of the museum gives you a great view of the valley below.

A statute of Skanderbeg in the entrance hall of the museum

The museum is the newer-looking building in the middle; you can see parts of the old fortress on either side.

Down the hill from the museum is the Ethnographic Museum, which features a 200-year-old Ottoman style house, with over 90% of its contents the originals, according to the English-speaking caretaker. This is a neat experience because you get to see how people in Albania lived during this time.

The rooftops of Kruja in the foreground, Tirana in the background

The Ethnographic Museum