Frankfurt Germany – A Pleasant Stopover 44 Years Later

Posted by Pat on September 26, 2016 in Travel |

25 September 2016

“Hate at first sight. If there is a thing as love at first sight, then Frankfort is at the opposite extreme. Left peaceful Heidelberg for dust, strip joints, and drug addicts. Got my mail at AmEx and got on next train out of town to Mainz .”

These were my words in the summer of 1972 after 50 days of travel and what must have been a tough night. I remember I went straight to the AmEx office, picked up my mail, got some cash and boarded the next train out of town. Flying through Frankfurt in 2016, I decided it was time I revisited this city. I am extremely glad I did.

My goals for my day is to participate in a “Frankfurt on Foot” walking tour, replenish my supply of Euros, and have a typical German dinner and beer. The day is spectacular, sunny and warm. There are lots of tourists even in late September, but overall the day is perfect.

I chose to stay at a hotel near the airport so must take the hotel shuttle to the terminal, go downstairs to the train station, and purchase a 4.65€ ticket for the S-Bahn into old town. There, on the corner by the Binding Schirn Cafe, I meet Greg, who will be my guide for a 5-mile walk about Frankfurt’s Altstadt. In the background, it seems every church bell in the city is peeling and tolling; it’s Sunday and Frankfurters take the religious holiday seriously.

Our stops include:

Römer and other half-timbered houses of the Römerberg.

The Römerberg has been the historic heart of Frankfurt since the Middle Ages and is the center of the Altstadt. Almost totally destroyed during WWII, it is a picturesque rebuild of its former greatness. The buildings include the 1405 Römer which has been the city hall (Rathaus) of Frankfurt for over 600 years. About the square are beautiful rebuilt half-timbered houses. In the center of the square is the large Römer fountain which, when a new Holy Roman Emperior was named in Frankfurt, ran with wine, thus making locals very happy citizens indeed.

Also in the Römerberg is the spot for the Book Burning Memorial, the site where the Nazi coordinated the burning of all books they deemed inappropriate. Burned books included those by Helen Keller. As a “inferior, handicapped blind person” her books were turned in and burned. This is the first but far from the last site on our walk where Greg stresses that Frankfurt had not supported Hitler. This liberal city drug its feet at every opportunity. In turn, Hitler hated Frankfurt.

The Alte Nikolaikirche is one side of the Römerberg. A Lutheran medieval church, it has 51 bells. The first chapel on its site was built in the mid-12th century, the current in the mid-15th. The Old St Nicholas Church had only minor damage in the war. 

Haus Wertheym is the inner city’s only original half-timbered house left at the end of WWII. The half-timber architecture is typical of the old city and was built as a way to save money. By building the ground floor of stone and upper stories of timber, residents saved money and taxes and created some striking houses. Nearby is the bakery where JFK stood for photos and possibly ate his first Berliner pastry before heading off to his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Certainly his speech was referring to the citizens and not the donut. 

The Eisener Steg or Iron Bridge over the Main River affords a nice view of the old and new skyline of Frankfurt. This pedestrian bridge is the “love locks” site for local couples to express their un breakable love by clamping a lock to the bridge. Currently, the city is encouraging couples not to throw the key in the river as their numbers is causing a toxicity that is killing the fish. Along its banks is a wonderful walking path for sunny days. Just across the river is museum row where the majority of Frankfurt’s museums are found.

Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew

Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew, or the Kaiserdom, has never been a true cathedral. It is called the Kaiserdom (“imperial cathedral”) or simply the Dom due to its importance as former elections and coronations of the Holy Roman Emperor for centuries. Since the late 19th century, excavations have revealed buildings that can be traced back to the 7th century. St. Bartholomew’s is the main church of Frankfurt and was constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries on the foundation of an earlier church. From 1356 onwards, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected in this collegiate church as kings in Germany, using the Wahlkapelle, a chapel on the south side of the choir built for this purpose in 1425, and from 1562 to 1792, emperors-elect were crowned here. WWII bombings severely damaged the church and the interior was burned out completely. The church was  reconstructed in the 1950s. Are those blocks of stone or is the mortar design painted on? 

Joe rage Ratgeb’s wall paintings in the Karmeliter Kloster (Carmelite Cloister), is the largest religious wall paintings north of the Alps, painted in the early 1500’s. The huge fresco depicts the life of Jesus, including the scene of circumcision where the rabbi wears a pair of glasses. No mistakes were risked because of poor vision. 

Because it is Sunday, most stores are closed, including the Klein Markt Halle. It is a highly recommended produce market. I love markets and am sorry it is closed. The high end shops and retail stores are also closed, a surprising twist in a modern capitalist society. 

The full sized bronzes of a Bull and a Bear are seen at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Frankfurters have been renowned as bankers and money lenders for centuries. All parts of the bull are anatomically correct. 

We walk past the remaining Eschenheimer Turm, an original guard tower from the city’s outer defensive wall, built in the early 1400’s and the only one of the original 60 wall towers not destroyed by Napoleon. Some 53% of the city is comprised of parks and gardens and many of them were planted to outline the original stone walls Napoleon destroyed. 

The Goethe House, where Frankfurt’s’ favorite son was born, has also been restored. It is nearby Goetheplatz where his statue stands. After the war, his home was the second building they reconstructed.

Other stops and narration include Paulskirche, the location of Germany’s very first democratically elected parliament in 1848; the Stumble Stones commemorating the many victims who lost their lives under the Nazi regime; the Alte Opera, one of Europe’s classic opera houses, once known as the most beautiful ruin in Germany and the building that the mayor “Dynamite Rudy” suggested be blown up instead of repaired; and St Leonard’s where, for a price, pilgrims and visitors were buried in the church until the church ran out of room so buried them on top of each other, and over 10’ of headstones are being excavated marking these mass graves.

And Greg’s continuous narrative is constantly sprinkled with tidbits of history, gossip and humor. What about the largest Euro sculpture with its original 12 stars, one of which is usually dark marking first Greece and now Great Britain’s potential exit? Or what about a bank’s skyscraper where on the 39th floor there is an infinity urinal over Frankfurt? 

Loved the story about the time Hitler came to town and the vegetarian restaurant where he ate was the hotbed of an anti-Nazi underground group who learned his next day’s route and the night before covered the route with anti-Hitler signs. And when the Nazis asked for the church bells of Germany in order to melt them down to make tanks, Frankfurt drug its feet to the last. As a result, the war was over before they were melted so Frankfurt has most of its original bells. No wonder Hitler hated the city. 

After the tour, most of the group joined Greg at the Paulaner behind the Dom for drinks and dinner. It was a wonderful tour and I highly recommend it for an introduction into Frankfurt. The knowledge learned most certainly encourages me to return for a more in depth visit. 

Prince-Bishop Franckenstein

Frankfurt opened a Dunkin’ Donuts a couple years ago and for months people lined up everyday for hours to buy a donut! It also is the city that lies less than 25 miles from the geographic center of the European Union. St. Bartholomew has a statue of Prince-Bishop Franckenstein, the namesake for Mary Shelley’s book. There are many churches, museums, garden and river paths, a market, cafes and German Weißbier. Seems this is my kind of town and I should have explored it years ago. Certainly I am glad I did today. 

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Albania’s Adriatic coast – Beaches and Vistas 

Posted by Pat on September 24, 2016 in Travel |

23 September 2016

Llogora Pass above Albania’s Rivera

Departing Corfu, our hydrofoil arrives into Sarandë after a quick, smooth crossing of the Ionian. It is a beautiful, sunny day and our route will be via SH8, a relatively new coastal road that snakes its way north along the spectacular and relatively undeveloped and unspoiled east coast of the Albanian Riviera. The hills smell of heather and nature and alive with the sound of music: cow and sheep bells, birds and butterflies. And west is the blue, blue expanse of the Adriatic. Olive trees and rustic shepherd shelters dot the hillsides and cows outnumber cars on the road. 

Our first stop is the castle fortress at Porto Palermo situated above a bay of the same name. Here again the infamous Ali Pasha of Tepelena rears his ornery head. Though the information near the castle attributes the building of the fortress in the early 19th century to Ali Pasha, most probably it was built by the Venetians as it has the same triangular plan with round towers found in the Venetian fort at Butrint. At the end of the 18th century the sultan appointed Ali from Tepelen as the governor of Epirus /present day southern Albania and the large part of northern Greece, with his court at Ionina (thus at times he is referred to as Ali Pasha of Ionina.)

In 1803 Ali Pasha offered the castle and port to the Royal Navy. The fort is on a low hill connected with the continent by a low narrow isthmus. Records note 4-5 cannon, implying that Ali Pasha did not see the fort as important for him. Near it are some warehouses, a custom-house, and a Greek church, to where, I am told, he ordered his architects into church and bombed it to keep his Christian wife safe from harm. 

The fort was not open as our guide could not find the man with the key, but I was able to circumvent its walls and towers overlooking the bay. Supposedly these stone walls are about 10’ thick with lots of gun holes. The fort served as a former Soviet submarine base during the communist regime in Albania. (Look closely and one can spot huge WWII submarine pens and the ubiquitous bunker on either side of the road.)

We continue our winding drive north along the coast, reaching Llogora Pass with the 6700’ peak of Mount Çika to my right. The switchback road is a nightmare as we climb to the top of the pass for spectacular views of the Ionian Islands as far as the Italian coast. 

After lunch at one of the many restaurants atop the pass, we drive through the Llogora National Park and up the rugged coastline toward Vlorë, the second largest port city in Albania and where Albanian Independence was proclaimed on 28 November 1912. The city was for a short time the capital of Albania. We continue our drive through the lush green olive groves of Vjosë-Nartë and around the protected Narta Lagoon. Sandy beaches, small lagoons, wetlands, rocky drops to the coast, and secluded beaches line the route. I wonder for how long this pristine and peaceful coastline will remain so. 

Monument of Agonothetes at Apollonia.

Our next destination is the ancient city of Apollonia, an ancient Greek city in Illyria, located on the right bank of the Aous River (modern-day Vjosë). Apollonia was founded in 588 BCE by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth, on a site initially occupied by Illyrian tribes and was one of the most important of the several towns known as Apollonia as well as an important port along the route between Rome and Byzantium. The city flourished in the Roman period and was home to a renowned school of philosophy, but began to decline in the 3rd century AD when an earthquake changed the path of the Aoos, causing the harbor to silt up and the inland area to become a malaria-ridden swamp. It was abandoned by the end of Late Antiquity.

The city seems to have sunk with the rise of nearby Vlorë . It was “rediscovered” in the 18th century, though it was not until 1916–1918 that the site was investigated by Austrian archaeologists, the a French team between 1924–1938. An Albanian team undertook further work from 1948 onwards. Some of this team’s discoveries are in Apollonia’s fine new museum, other artifacts were removed to Tirana. Priceless artifacts are continually being found and something like less than 10% of the ruins are currently excavated. The ruins have been frequently plundered for relics to be sold to collectors. The small Church of Saint Mary is currently under renovation. Our guide is pleased with the solitude and sites a lack of money as to why so little of this important site is excavated, or will be in the future. In fact. The rule is to excavate, document, then refill the site as a way to preserve and protect. 

The site Monument sports far more brides and grooms than ruins. It is THE place for wedding videos and up to a dozen or more couples can be seen strolling and posing within the grounds on any weekend. Apollonia’s makes for beautiful wedding photos in front of the facade of columns and lintels of the Monument of Agonothetes or seated among the seats of the Odeon. 

We have run out of time, leaving the beautiful coast and sea to turn inland towards Fier and Tirana. It has been a long day and the evening, our last together in the Balkans, will be for the celebration of a successful, enlightening trip. It will also be an evening for Albanian wine and salutes. Or maybe a Greek one:


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A Return to Corfu

Posted by Pat on September 23, 2016 in Travel |

21-22 September 2016

I was last on this very same spot two years ago in July 2014. Then, I was here via a cruise ship celebrating a friend’s retirement; no other reason for a retired person to be in this region in summer. Had a great time visiting Achilleion Palace, a sweet monastery and even sweeter winery. Probably my sweetest time on Corfu was in 1972 when I backpacked with a couple newly found friends onto Pelekas Beach to sleep on the sand under the stars and moon.  

I am surprised to find myself in Corfu for what is actually my fourth or fifth time as it is not particularly my kind of town. But I am told Corfu is considered part of the Balkans (Corfu was the capital of Serbia for a time) and so we include a visit to Kerkyra in our itinerary. And that is fine with me as I hunger for a Greek salad made in Greece, a change of beer, a boat ride on the beautiful waters where the Adriatic meets the Ionian. Easier just to say we float our boat on the Mediterranean. I just did not expect to trade the beach accommodation for a bed at the end of a busy airport runway. 

In the morning, after a spectacular sunrise, we take a ferry out of Sarandë Albania for a sunny, pleasant 2-hour ride to the island of Corfu, Greece. Land of Zorba and retsina wine. Opa! 

We visit the Achilleion Palace, built by the Empress of Austria, Elisabeth of Bavaria, also known as “Sisi”, wife of Austro-Hungarian Monarch Franz Joseph, third longest-reigning monarch of any country in European history. Achilleion was just one of several palaces used by Sisi throughout her life. 

Probably escaping the demanding nature of the formal Habsburg court life, for which she was ill-prepared, and definitely avoiding the reach of her overbearing mother-in-law, Elisabeth moved around a lot. Following the 1889 double suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his young mistress, she built a summer palace on Corfu and named it Achilleion with the mythical hero Achilles as its central theme. However, it seems the panoramic views nor the statue of Achilles were enough to surmount Elisabeth’s lifelong struggle with an eating disorder and depression. But it was a beautiful palace to which she could escape. Elisabeth wrote: “I want a palace with pillared colonnades and hanging gardens, protected from prying glances – a palace worthy of Achilles, who despised all mortals and did not fear even the gods.”

Kaiser Wilhelm’s Achilles

Achilleion is small and simple by Habsburg palace standards. In fact, the Empress seemed more obsessed with her own beauty than the palace. The grand stairway, it’s decorations and mirror, is possibly the most unique feature. The panoramic fresco on the upper level of the stairs, showing the Triumph of Achilles as he is seen dragging Hector’s dead body in front of the Gates of Troy, is well done. Classic Greek statuary fill the gardens which offer magnificent panoramas of Corfu and the Ionian Sea. (The casino scene of the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” was filmed at Achilleion.) 

Elisabeth used the place often until 1898 when she was assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist, stabbed with a long thin needle. German Kaiser Wilhelm II purchased Achilleion in 1907 and used it as a summer residence. He expand on the main theme of the grounds and commissioned his own Achilles statue, sort of a “man’s version” of the hero – an imposing bronze sculpture that stands tall facing toward the city, spear in hand in full hoplite uniform and shield. Elisabeth’s more tragic version was relegated to a less prominent location. 

We also make a short stop at the Paleokastris Monastery and the very crowded Church of Holy Virgin Mary. To me it was a lot of driving, crowding into a small hot chapel for a couple minutes, a bathroom break, and could just as well have been spent having another retsina at lunch.

Before we arrived at our hotel, we stopped for a panoramic view of the sea and the picturesque Vlacherna Monastery on its own little spit of land below. Ditto, could have stopped for another retsina.

We finally arrived at our “Grand” hotel which really put me in need of more retsina. Located at the ass-end of the Corfu Airport runway, I spent “happy hour or two” toasting passengers as their planes roared down the runway, jets blasting with power as they lifted into the sunset, escaping Corfu as I am left in this crummy hotel. Opa!

After a very cold dinner and no improvement for breakfast, we are led on a walking tour of the historic old city of Corfu. Streets are pleasant except for the 6000-8000 cruise ship participants hanging about with selfie sticks and ridiculous shorts. We are able to walk past the wonderful Old Venetian fortress on the promontory which initially contained the old town of Corfu, Spianada square, a bunch of architecturally interesting buildings, along some marvelous narrow streets and among endless “shoppes” (as opposed to kiosks and stores). We visit the Synagogue. We briefly enter the 1580s Ayios Spyridon Church, a single-nave basilica that houses the relics of Saint Spyridon (and lines of people to see his silver casket). Its painted ceiling is gorgeous. 

Like most walking tours, you walk a lot, listen to, hopefully, interesting narrative, and maybe learn about something you might have time to visit later on your own time. Pretty much what we did. It is good to hear about the locals’ laundry habits, how they pipe water in and out of their old buildings, and about the narrow stairs within these old houses. 

I mention the Old Fortress because I climbed it’s walls and bastions in 2014. Evidently Byzantine fortifications were here first and the Venetians replaced them with fortifications of their own design in the early 15th century. A big change when they separated the promontory from the rest of the city of Corfu by creating the Contrafossa, a moat or sea channel. It must have been effective because the fort successfully repulsed all three major Ottoman sieges: the great siege of 1537, the siege of 1571 and the second great siege of Corfu in 1716. 

I still have not made it to the top of the New Fortress, built between 1576 and 1645. In Corfu, that’s new. The new fortress is just above the port and supposedly its fortifications included 700 pieces of artillery with a range estimated to reach the Albanian coast. Perhaps Hoxha built extra bunkers because of this. Anyway, I’ll have to save the views for another visit.   

Grilled octopus and retsina. Opa!

Instead, it is a small bit of shopping, some walking along the streets and back ways of Corfu, and a Greek beer at one of its many cafes. And we dine at a restaurant near our hotel, enjoying delicious Greek food (grilled octopus) and retsina. I think, pretty much why most people come to Corfu. 

Never thinking I would say it, but tomorrow, yippee, we get to return to Albania. Opa!

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Gjirokastër, Butrint to Sarandë, surprising Shqiperise

Posted by Pat on September 21, 2016 in Travel |

19-20 September 2016

It is a beautiful 2-3 hour drive over 85 miles of very rough road to reach the new highway through the mountains. New facilities are being built everywhere, Kostrati Gas Stations popping up like mushrooms, ultimately changing the landscape and culture of the Albanian. Rural Albanians are feeling the change: building of infrastructure and what looks to be modernization of their country to make it tourist friendly. We drive to the historical region of Epirus and its capital, Gjirokastër, situated in a picturesque valley between the Gjere mountains and the Drino River. 

Gjirokastër can be divided into two halves, the old town up on the hill, and the new town in the valley below. The city is built on the slope surrounding the citadel which dominates a plateau 1,102 ft. above the city. Although the city’s walls were built in the third century and the city itself was first mentioned in the 12th century, the majority of the existing buildings date from 17th and 18th centuries. Gjirokastër’s old town is recognized by UNESCO as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estates.”  

Gjirokastër Castle

Our vans power up the steep cobbled street to Gjirokastër Castle, which includes a pre-Ottoman citadel, lots of cannon, a weapons museum and former communist offices and political prison. The Castle is billed as the second largest in all the Balkans – it certainly is one of the most formidable above a strategically important route along the river valley. But wasn’t that always the case for big fortresses?

The Castle contains a stage for the Gjirokastër National Folk Festival, a prison which is part of the Armaments Museum, and numerous chambers, some in ruins but open to exploration. Underneath the castle, but not seen, is a recently discovered underground bunker built in the Cold War. A second museum gallery, features the history of the castle and its infamous inhabitant, Ali Pasha Tepelena, and art exhibits. 

I enter the fortress gate into a long, wide corridor lined either side with two columns of large German and Italian WWII field guns. There is other captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation, as well as a captured US Air Force plane to mark the Communist regime’s struggle against the “imperialist western powers.”  

The citadel has existed in various forms since before the 12th century. Renovations and additions were built after 1812 by Ali Pasha of Tepelenë (Tepelenë is another village just to the north). Also, the government of King Zog I extensively expanded the castle prison in 1932. Zog was the leader and eventual king of Albania from 1922 to 1939, his rule as king characterized by oppression. About 600 blood feuds existed against Zog, and during his reign he survived more than 55 assassination attempts. Zog fled in 1939 with a bunch of Albania’s gold wealth, and died in exile in Paris. 

Ali Pasha is also an interesting character with very mixed reviews. In 1809 the Poet Lord Byron visited him and wrote a romantic epic poem of his experience at Ali Pasha’s fortress in Tepelena where “like meteors in the sky, The glittering minarets of Tepalen Whose walls o’erlook the stream; and drawing nigh, He heard the busy hum of warrior-men Swelling the breeze that sighed”. Ali Pasha was equally impressed by his famous guest as Byron writes: “he said he was certain I was a man of birth, because I had small ears , curling hair, and little hands…” (Hmmm, my reaction inserted here.) “he told me (Byron) to consider him as a father…treated me like a child….He begged me to visit him often, and at night….” (Double hmmmm.) 

The other side of the coin was that Ali Pasha was a ruthless ruler of south Albania and north Greece. The cruelties inflicted by Ali Pasha on his subjects became notorious throughout the region and empire. Ultimately, the Sultan Mahmud II ordered his beheading not so much for Ali Pasha’s atrocities but that he dared independence. When asked to surrender for beheading, he famously proclaimed: “My head … will not be surrendered like the head of a slave.” In 1822, he was shot through the floor of his room and his head cut off to be sent to the Sultan. Ali Pasha was still buried with full honors, though, I guess, headless.

Today Gjirokastër Castle possesses five towers and a picturesque clock tower, a church, cistern, lots of dripping water and dark crumbling passages, water fountains, horse stables, and lots of corridors and cubby holes to explore. 

Below the castle is the wonderful town of Gjirokastër. The city appears in the historical record in 1336 by its Greek name as part of the Byzantine Empire and largely a Christian city, then falling under Ottoman rule for five centuries. Conversions to Islam and an influx of Muslim converts from the countryside gave Gjirokastër a majority Muslim population by the early 19th century. It also became a major religious centre for Bektashi Sufism. Claimed by the Hellenic Army during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 because of its large Greek population, it was eventually incorporated into the newly independent state of Albania in 1913. 

This proved highly unpopular with the local Greek population, who wanted to cooperate with the Greeks, and Albanian nationalists who formed guerilla bands operating in the countryside; after several months of guerrilla warfare, the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus was established in 1914 with Gjirokastër as its capital. It was ultimately awarded to Albania in 1921. In more recent years, the city saw anti-government protests that lead to the Albanian civil war of 1997. Gjirokastër, together with Sarandë, are considered centers of the Greek community in Albania. 

A second distinction of Gjirokastër is that the city is the birthplace of dictator Enver “Never” Hoxha. It is a complex issue where Albanians stand on Hoxha. Though there seemed to be competition among some as to how to best honor (suck up) to Hoxha, including planting trees on hillsides to spell out his name, there were just as many who would freely use the letters of his first name to hope he “never” return. The demolition of Gjirokastër’s monumental statue of the Hohxa by members of the local Greek community in August 1991 marked the end of the one-party state. 

There are more than 500 homes preserved as “cultural monuments” in Gjirokastër today. Many houses have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname “City of Stone” because the old houses have roofs covered with flat slate stones. The city, along with Berat, was among the few Albanian cities preserved in the 1960s and 1970s from modernizing building programs. Both cities are designated as a “museum town” and are UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

Gjirokastër’s old town is described by UNESCO as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estates.” However, although many houses have been restored, others continue to degrade.

Houses are of tall stone blocks which can be up to five stories high. There are external and internal staircases that surround the house perhaps for better fortification. The lower storey of the building contains a cistern and the stable and the upper stories are to accommodate extended families and are connected by internal stairs. Rooms are the typical guest rooms and family rooms containing fireplaces. 

Not only is the Ethnographic Museum typical Gjirokastër architecture, but was the 1908 birthplace of communist dictator Hoxha. It is a well-restored Ottoman house which displays clothing, kitchenware, tools and other cultural artifacts, but only a couple artifacts from Hohxa’s time. The rooms are generally of simple arrangement, divans encircling the rooms for easy conversation, lots of windows for cooling breezes.

Blue Eye Springs

We next van in a south westerly direction toward the Ionian seashore. On the way, we do a short stop to see the Blue Eye Springs, a natural phenomenon of the region. The water descends down the mountain, goes underground until the crystal clear water bubbles up from a deep blue pool which is more than 160′ deep. Divers are still unclear what the actual depth of the karst hole is. The waters are incredibly clear, stunning shades of blue and green, and cold, forming the source for the Bistricë river which ends 40 miles away in the Ionian Sea. The pool supposedly is the shape of an eye and legend says a one-eyed monster tried to capture a virgin but drowned instead. Didn’t get the impression of a blue-eyed cyclops but did speak to a table of women traveling from Kosova who said they “would vote for Hillary.” Smart women. 

After lunch, we drive to Albania’s most important archaeological site of Butrint (UNESCO), a part of the Butrint National Park on the Ionian coast. We zoom through mountains and over passes, the smell of wild oregano among endless olive trees. Fluffy white clouds shroud mountain tops. Below on Butrint Lake are mussel farms and across the short expanse of blue sea is Corfu. It is warm and idyllic and I can imagine those cyclops, virgins, and even Odysseus plying these shores. 

I am sick of the poor roads and endless potholes.

Butrint was an ancient Greek city and later, a Roman city in Epirus, located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel exiting to the Ionian Sea. Inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint was a city of a Greek tribe, later a Roman colony. It entered into decline in Late Antiquity, before being abandoned during the Middle Ages after a major earthquake flooded most of the city. Today, this multilayered site includes Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman ruins spread over a huge area. It also includes a lot of flooding. 

The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation of this area dates to between 10th and 8th centuries BC, although some claim there is earlier evidence of habitation in the 12th century BC. This ancient port city does date back to at least the 8th century BC, established by the exiles escaping the destruction of Troy. Mentioned in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” records indicate the city’s defensive walls date 4th century BC and the city was ultimately a harbor for a religious cult. 

Under Roman rule by 228 BC, and by the 1st century BC, Butrint became part of the Roman area of Macedonia. Known as Buthrotum, the colony was established by Julius Caesar 44 BC to reward soldiers that had fought with him against Pompey. However, it experienced its most rapid development under the rule of Augustus after his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. So much history here. 

Butrint ruins

What I see as I walk the paths of this peaceful national park and wetlands are temples, forums, an 8th century BC Acropolis, 3rd century theater with engraved stones recording the freeing of slaves once the stadium was complete, fountains, 2nd century Roman baths, and many private villas, aqueduct, agora, gymnasium, baptistery (but it’s fabulous mosaics are under water), a 6th century basilica, Hellenistic Lake Gate built in 4th century BC, and Lion Gate probably constructed in the medieval period. Its latest build were the 15-16th century Venetian walls and tower. The museum is small and contains a few artifacts from the Bronze Age to Late Middle Ages. 

Because of its strategic location, Butrint has seen success, decline, earthquakes, wars, and changed hands many times. At the beginning of 19th century, in 1807, Ali Pasha established his fortress here on the Straits of Corfu to protect against French attacks coming from Corfu. After his death, Butrint passed under Ottoman rule up until Albania’s independence in 1912. 

In fact, it appears it is a miracle that Butrint remains for me to enjoy. The first modern archaeological excavations began in 1928 when Mussolini’s Fascist government sent an expedition to Butrint. The aim was political rather than scientific, aiming to extend Italian dominance in the area. After the communist government of Enver Hoxha took over in 1944, foreign archaeological missions were banned. Nikita Khrushchev visited the ruins in 1959 and suggested that Hoxha be turned into a submarine base. After a major political and economic crisis in 1997, UNESCO placed it on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of looting, lack of protection, management and conservation. Yet, for 10,000 years it has survived.   

Sarandë sunrise

I appreciate the importance of Butrint. I also recognize how fragile and endangered these ruins and others like them are. Nowhere could this be more evident than around Sarandë where I stay overnight. The endless partially built Condos, abandoned after a drop in the economy, are ripe for the pickings of expats and investors. The affordable gorgeous coastline of Albania is clearly going to be the next “in” destination. All the American flags tell me not only are we liked, the US is here already. As I watch the beautiful sunset and the spectacular sunrise over Sarandë’s small port, I already mourn the loss of its innocence and character. 

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Exploring the villages of Durrës and Berat – Shqiperise at its best

Posted by Pat on September 19, 2016 in Travel |

18 September 2016

Berat fortress walls

After a breakfast of tomatoes and cucumbers, shepard’s cheese, olives, yogurt and fruit, we drive west to the second largest city in Albania, Durrës, which sits on a lovely bay of the Adriatic Sea. The water looks calm and is a beautiful blue-green. But we zip past the inviting seas in pursuit of knowledge. Our destination is not the sea and beach but the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. I find consolation that at least the Romans may have been able to stop and smell the sea breezes.   

Archeologists are discovering that the entire city of Durrës is an underground museum. Many ruins and artifacts have been discovered in the last few decades with more unearthed every day. This is a city where one dreads excavating for a new home’s foundations as one never knows what will come up in a shovel of dirt. 

The Romans, possibly Hadrian, built an Amphitheater here sometime in the 2nd century AD, the second largest in the Balkans. The views of the sea would have been magnificent. The amphitheater is pretty much in ruins with little surviving but the shape and tunnel entrances. The seating and steps are rubble but the large chariot entrance remains. 

Above the amphitheater is an old mosque that was used as a Museum of Atheism, created by the communist in their efforts to discredit religion. It is not the only such museum that the communists created, but it is a reflection of communism’s failure to do so. 

From the amphitheater ruins, we bus the short distance to the Archeological Museum. It is relatively new and its priceless artifacts are well protected from the elements. That’s a good thing because on artful display are artifacts found at the amphitheater and from sites around Durrës. 

We are guided by a knowledgable curator who takes us chronologically from the earliest times of the Illyrians and Romans. Most of these artifacts were found beneath the streets of the surrounding cities. They are in amazing condition. The most ancient artifacts date from the Bronze Age, as early as 7th century BC. The aquamarine glass pieces of the 2nd century AD, including a large vase found in one piece, are exquisite. Much of the statuary and pottery are unique to the area. There is finely crafted gold jewelry, sarcophagi, and carved Roman statues. It is a fine museum and well-presented. More items are being found weekly around Durrës. 

I feel we get the “Bums rush” out of Durrës as we speed off for lunch. But there is even better ahead though it is hard to think that way with the beautiful sea and warm breezes of Durrës.

From the seaside we drive to the wonderful ancient city of Berat, which lies on the eastern bank of the Osum river. Berat has a wealth of beautiful architecture and is known to Albanians as “The City of a Thousand Windows” or “The City of Two Thousand Steps.” Even past-dictator Enver Hoxha loved it and declared it a ‘Museum City’ in June 1961.

For me, Berat is love at first sight. 

Berat, on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is a wonderful old city towered over by the historic Berat Castle. Our vans struggle but achieve the climb to the top on roads better cobbled for foot or donkey. Once atop the fortress walls and within the city, I could loose myself for hours just walking around enjoying the peace and spectacular views of Berat below.

Cobbled streets of castle.

Berat Castle and its small community of residents living along its narrow cobbled streets are simply fantastic. Not only can I walk a section of the walls but along quiet streets, much like the early Romans must have done. The fortress dates from the 13th century and contains small Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques. Built on a rocky hill 702 ft above the left bank of the river Osum, the formidable fortress is accessible only from the south.   

After being burned down by the Romans in 200 BC, the walls were strengthened in the 5th century under Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, and were rebuilt during the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian I and again in the 13th century. The north entrance is defended by a fortified courtyard and there are three smaller entrances. 

As I said, the fortress is formidable. The Second Siege of Berat in 1455, the first real test between the armies of the sultan and the great military leader Skanderbeg, ended up in an Ottoman victory. Skanderbeg besieged the town’s castle for months, causing the demoralized Ottoman officer in charge of the castle to promise his surrender. Skanderbeg errors and relaxed his grip, split his forces, and departed the siege, leaving behind one of his generals, and half of his cavalry on the banks of the Osum River in order to finalize the surrender. The Ottomans saw this moment as an opportunity for attack and sent a large cavalry force to reinforce the garrison. The Ottomans caught the Albanian cavalry by surprise while they were resting on the banks of the Osum, and almost all the 5,000 Albanian cavalry laying siege to Berat were killed. 

Along the charming cobbled streets is the Onufri Museum which displays several 16th century murals and icons by Onufri, Albania’s most famous Medieval painter. Part of the museum is the small Church of the Dormition of Saint Mary built in 1797 over the foundations of an earlier 10th century church. The beautifully carved and gold painted 16th century iconostasis is priceless and in good condition. I also was allowed to walk behind the iconostasis, something not allowed generally. It wasn’t that mysterious back there but the icons and painted panels were interesting. Frescos that were whitewashed during the communist era were being restored. I did note the early painting of the Byzantine Eagles, one for Rome, the other representing Constantinople. 

The fortress of Berat, even though considerably damaged, remains a magnificent sight. The surface that it encompasses made it possible to house a considerable portion of the cities inhabitants. The buildings inside the fortress were built during the 13th century and because of their characteristic architecture are preserved as cultural monuments. The population of the fortress was Christian, and it had about 20 churches (most built during the 13th century) and only one mosque built under the Ottoman for the use of the Turkish garrison (of which there survives only a few ruins and the base of the minaret). 

Remains of the White Mosque and of the Red Mosque’s mineret, built can be seen. But it is most enjoyable to walk around the fortress and climb the walls for fabulous views of the Osum and Berat, “the white city.” And there are many ladies who line the walls outside their homes with samples of their knitting abilities, from clothes to linens of all kinds. There are also places to eat or have a coffee.well as several mosques built under the Ottoman era which began in 1417.

Downhill in the old city is Berat’s Ethnographic Museum. The museum is in an 18th century, traditional two-story home with lobby and porches, a typical rich merchant home. Inside are the usual guest room, kitchen, lady and children rooms, separation of sexes, and selection of period artifacts and crafts. A family of 15-20 lived in the home. Of particular note are the wood carved ceilings, cabinets, balconies and beams. Example of specific trade crafts were displayed below the living quarters.

The King Mosque or Xhamia Mbret) was built in the 15th century. It is in disrepair and struggling to survive. The carved ceilings and interior decorations are very good. I especially liked the women’s balcony tho the stairs to get there must be a struggle for the women. Always we are made welcome to their house of prayer and photos allowed. Just behind the mosque is the Halveti Teqe, The teqe was built in 1782 from Ahmet Kurt Pasha and related to a Sufi sect.   

The promenade along the Osum River affords a charming vista of Berat. Fishermen line the river bank fishing for their local fish, eager to share their fishing acumen and describe their catch as “small but tasty.” The 16th century bridge across the river leads to our restaurant and a fine dinner overlooking “the white city.” With traditional houses marching up the hillside, Berat is a lovely city and worth a longer stay. 

As clouds build over the mountains and lightening once again lights the sky, I see the shadows of the city and the castle. No wonder Berat is such a beloved city. 

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Tirana, Shqiperise – Capital of Albania

Posted by Pat on September 17, 2016 in Travel |

17 September 2016

Upon entering the city of Tirana, it strikes me as a typical capital city, a 1950s square concrete modern; Communist architecture at its “best.” Buildings are crowded, unremarkable, overbuilt. Streets are crowded and noisy. There lacks the charm of the smaller villages and cities mainly because it is so crowded I don’t see it. Newer construction has discovered the joy of color and stands out like a ripe strawberry among slices of day old bread. I miss having a pedestrian street to enjoy. If there is one, I would have to risk life and limb crossing streets to get there. Maybe this is as good a time as any to explain my version of “Albanian Rules of the Road.”

  1. Don’t hit anybody.
  2. No matter what, just assume nobody is going to hit you.
  3. Assume waving your thanks is enough to be forgiven all sins of driving and the other guy really meant for you to cut in front of him, make a u-turn, or park in the middle of the road.
  4. “Shiten” is not an expression of frustrated drivers, it means “For Sale” in Albanian. 
  5. Kostrati is not what one driver threatens another, though he may think it. It is the name of a large oil company.  

Today, I see the sights of Tirana. Tirana was founded as an Ottoman town in 1614 and became Albania’s capital city in 1920. With a population of over 800,000, with its terrible streets and plethora of cars, it feels like a city of twice that number. The Tirana River runs through the city and there are four artificial lakes. There doesn’t seem to be as many stray dogs in Tirana, but that may be because they have all been run over by cars.

When I started planning for this Balkan trip, in case I wanted to stay an extra day after the tour, I researched “What to do in Tirana.” I came up with few interesting suggestions. My guide has led me to these options:

Close to our hotel is an excavated ruin of an old Roman home/Christian church. To unlock the gate, one contacts the old woman selling vegetables across the street. Once inside, there are some wonderful mosaics being restored and a small box filled with a treasure trove of pottery shards. The site is old, Roman, and recently discovered. Come back in a few years and no telling what one will find. It is clear that there is much ancient history remaining uncovered beneath the streets of Tirana.

Skanderbeg Square is an excavation site, which is unfortunate as it would otherwise be a spectacular square. Located around the square are several government ministries, Parliment, national theater, national library, national art gallery, an orthodox cathedral, a mosque, the Kapllan Pasha Tomb, and some of the more interesting architecture in Tirana. Also in the center of the square is the gallant, successful warrior Skanderbeg astride his horse. 

Our destination is the large building at the end of the square, The National History Museum. Opened in 1981 under the communists, it is a huge modern building organized by pavilions which include Pavilion of Antiquity, Pavilion of the Middle Ages, Pavilion of Renaissance, Pavilion of Independence, Pavilion of Iconography, Pavilion of the National Liberation Antifascist War, Pavilion of Communist Terror, and Pavilion of Mother Teresa.

The most important pavilion is the one of Antiquity. Rooms are chockablock full of displayed objects starting with the Late Paleolithic and prehistoric culture including coins of silver and bronze embossed on behalf of the Illyrian kings of the centers of Durrës, Apollonia, Shkodra, all cities we will later visit. Proving their connection with the ancient, mysterious Illyrian culture was a communist goal.

Albania essentially got along with its neighbor’s BP (Before Paranoia). However, with the leadership of Hoxha, so too came the education of his people into their origins. Part of this education came from ancient history and the excavation of Illyrian, early Roman and Greek sites. Another part came from the duty of the party to separate Albanians from any connection to the Slavs. The Albanians were to learn they had been on this land a long, long time. 

Other pavilions are equally interesting and objects are well presented. However, nothing is explained in English. There are many original objects, documents, books, photographs, national flags, weapons, banknotes, stamps, and other cultural objects. And though gruesome, the sections on Liberation and Antifascist War and the Pavilion of Communist Terror are well done. Little is known about Albania during Hoxha’s regime as no news in and news out was the rule. These displays give a hint at the repression and terror that occurred in those 44 years.

I might add here that there were also many good things that happened under Hoxha and, as in most post-communist countries, there are those who miss them. Hoxha’s government adopted Agrarian Reform Laws and confiscated land from beys and large landowners, giving it without compensation to peasants. Illiteracy, which was 90–95% in rural areas decreased to 30% by 1950 and by 1985 it was equal to that of any Western country. The State University of Tirana was established in 1957. The Medieval Gjakmarrja (blood feud) was banned. Malaria, the most widespread disease, was successfully fought. From 1965 to 1985, no cases of malaria were reported, whereas previously Albania had the greatest number of infected patients in Europe. 

However, the party was terrified of a tiny old nun known to the world as Mother Teresa. They thought she was dangerous and she was not allowed back into Albania, even when her mother was dying. It was not until Hoxha’s death that the Pope and Mother Teresa came to Albania. 

Across the square is the 18th century Xhamia e Et’hem Beut Mosque. Like all religious buildings, this beautiful mosque was closed under communist rule and only reopened for worship in 1991, without permission from the authorities. 10,000 courageous people dared to attend, all carrying flags of unity, and the police did not interfere. The frescoes outside and in the portico depict trees, waterfalls and bridges – designs rarely seen in Islamic art. The interior is stunning and intricately carved and painted. 

No tour would be complete here without a short walk around the “commie block” area, this small park just beside the old communist party headquarters and residences. In the park is an intact, though stinky, example of the two-man bunker seen covering the landscape of Albania. There is also a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Just down the street is the house of Enver Hoxha, empty now. Even though his wife is still alive and living in Tirana, no one uses the home. And the city, as yet, has not decided what to do with it. I suspect a restaurant as it is on prime real estate in an up-and-coming yuppie area.

Probably the most interesting, unusual and possibly most baffling site we visited in Tirana was the Headquarters of the mysterious, mystical Muslim Bektashi Sect. The building is relatively new and quite impressive. This is a dervish order named after the 13th century saint Haji Bektash Veli from Khorasan, but founded by Balim Sultan. The order is mainly found throughout Anatolia and the Balkans, and was particularly strong in Albania, Bulgaria, and among Ottoman era Greek Muslims from the regions of Epirus, Crete and Macedonia. We arrive in a downpour and lightening. 

Picking up the free brochure in an attempt to understand this sect was fruitless: “live very rich shepherds in both sheep and cows and in lawns. The most ancient in those places is said to have been cowboys (vuvote-gr) and mention that Dodona city is found on the other side, far away in the fartest boundaries off.” Thankfully we had a friendly, happy member show us around the upstairs hall and museum below. 

Our guide was kind enough to go to great lengths to explain his sect and how it is organized. Bektashism has its own interpretation of the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad and the Twelve Holy Imams. Bektashism respects all monotheist faiths. I did understand that the Bektashi Order is a Sufi order and shares much in common with other Islamic mystical movements, such as the need for an experienced spiritual guide—called a baba as well as the doctrine of “the four gates that must be traversed.” Members study to reach the various levels or ranks as they progress along the spiritual path. Only a select few attain the rank of baba and there is only one dede or “grandfather.”

Bektashis base their practices and rituals on their non-orthodox and mystical interpretation and understanding of the Quran and the prophetic practice (Sunnah). They have no written doctrine specific to them. Our guide stressed their acceptance of all faiths and their peaceful intentions, i.e. not like their radical brethren who would probably eliminate them given the chance. There is a lot more to these sects than meets the eye and clearly the different sects of Islam are not getting along. 

We end our day riding the Mt. Dajti gondola car to the mountain top. The line is almost 3 miles long, the longest cable ride in the Balkans, taking travelers over the mountain tops of Dajti to the Ballkoni Dajtit restaurant. A beautiful landscape underneath makes this trip memorable. So does the storm clouds. In clear weather it could be spectacular. We, on the other hand, went up to the restaurant after a storm and the top of the mountain was above the clouds, temperatures dropped and there was concern if we would be able to ride the cars down after dinner. 

The ride is about 15 minutes total, a very long 15 minutes when one is riding in a metal box in the highest object in the sky traveling over mountain peaks, sometimes the only thing in the sky at which those lightening bolts can aim. We anxiously watch lightening flashing and listen to thunder roll over Tirana. Supposedly these are amazing views. I wouldn’t know.

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Northern Shqiperise (Albania) – Land of Skanderbeg

Posted by Pat on September 16, 2016 in Travel |

16 September 2016

Skanderbeg – one of best general’s of all ages.

Today I am driven south through “rustic” scenes of drying corn fields, herds of sheep, flocks of turkeys, women working fields with large wooden rakes, simple villages, minarets, horse carts and pack donkeys, clearly a simple “peasant” life of a rural Albania. I see more women in traditional clothing but the homes are mostly modern and large. There are also more roadside police. I also see people driving on the right side of the car here.  

Lezhë is extremely important to the people of Albania. Our destination is the Memorial to Skanderbeg. High over town is the ubiquitous fortress. But it is for Skanderbeg we come – Albania’s “Alexander.” I have read of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Genghis Khan and Hannibal. However, unknown to me was the great military commander known as Skanderbeg. He faced unbelievable odds yet despite the adversity, he prevailed. (I thank Wikipedia, local literature and information for filling in my lack of education about one of the greatest general’s of all time. Omission and errors are mine.) I start at his memorial, below the ancient fortress.  

Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti 1405-1468) was an Albanian nobleman and military commander who served the Ottoman Empire in 1423–43, the Republic of Venice in 1443–47, and lastly the Kingdom of Naples until his death. After leaving Ottoman service, he led a crusade for independence of Albania from Ottoman rule. 

A member of the noble Kastrioti family, he was sent as a political hostage to the Ottoman court, and conscripted into the Devşirme system, a military institute that enrolled Christian boys, converted them to Islam, and trained them to become military officers for the Sultan. Thus the Sultan would exercise control in the area of the father. The treatment of the hostage was not a bad one: sons would be sent to the best military schools and trained to be military leaders.

Skanderbeg participated in Ottoman military campaigns against Christians until 1443, when he deserted the Ottomans during the Battle of Niš and immediately led his men to Krujë Northern Albania and by the use of a forged letter from Sultan Murad to the Governor of Krujë he became lord of the city. Legend says he raised a red standard with a black Byzantine double-headed eagle over Krujë (Albania uses a similar flag to this day). Skanderbeg reconverted to Christianity and ordered others who had embraced Islam to convert to Christianity or face death. 

In 1444, he became chief commander of the League of Lezhë thus consolidating nobility throughout Albania. With partisan support, Skanderbeg organized a mobile defense army that used hit-and-run tactics of a guerrilla war against the Ottomans and used the mountainous terrain to his advantage. During the first 8–10 years, Skanderbeg commanded an army of generally 10,000-15,000 soldiers.

Despite his military valor he was restricted to a small area in northern Albania where almost all of his victories against the Ottomans took place. Skanderbeg’s rebellion was not a general uprising of Albanians, as he did not gain support in the Ottoman-controlled south or Venetian-controlled north. For 25 years, from 1443 to 1468, Skanderbeg’s 10,000 man army marched through Ottoman territory winning against consistently larger and better supplied Ottoman forces.

In 1460–61, he participated in Italy’s civil wars in support of Ferdinand I of Naples. In 1463, he became the chief commander of the crusading forces of Pope Pius II, though that Pope died while the armies were still gathering. But he fought anyway. Together with Venetians he fought against the Ottomans during the Ottoman–Venetian War (1463–79) until his death in January 1468.

Skanderbeg’s military skills presented a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion, and he was considered by many in western Europe (along with his contemporaries Vlad III Dracula in Wallachia and Stephen III the Great of Moldavia) to be a model of Christian resistance against the Ottoman Muslims. Before his return to Christianity, Ottoman Turks called him Iskender bey, meaning “Leader Alexander,” assuming a comparison of Skanderbeg’s military skill to that of Alexander the Great. After his desertion he was referred to as “kh’ain (treacherous) Iskender.”

After his split from the Ottoman Empire, Skanderbeg led successful after successful campaign against the Ottomans. In 1444, Skanderbeg’s Albanian armies of 18,000 men faced General Ali Pasha’s army of 25,000 men which gave Skanderbeg his first victory. This was one of the few times an Ottoman army was defeated in a pitched battle on European soil. (I will visit Ali Pasha’s spectacular fortress further south in Gjirokestrë.)

At first, Skanderbeg’s Albanian insurrection seemed a good thing to the Venetians. However, his rise as a strong force on their borders came to be seen as a threat, starting the Albanian-Venetian War in 1447. The Venetians sought by every means to overthrow Skanderbeg or bring about his death, even offering a life pension of 100 golden ducats annually for the person who would kill him. During the conflict, Venice invited the Ottomans to attack Skanderbeg simultaneously from the east, facing the Albanians with a two-front conflict. Skanderbeg learned of the treachery and in 1448 he crossed the Drin River with 10,000 men, meeting a Venetian force of 15,000 men. He ordered a full-scale offensive, routing the entire Venetian army. A lucrative peace treaty was signed between Skanderbeg and Venice on 4 October 1448. Then Skanderbeg intensified relations with Alfonso V of Aragon (r. 1416–1458), who was the main rival of Venice in the Adriatic, where his dreams for an empire were always opposed by the Venetians. 

In 1450, the Ottomans laid siege to Krujë with an army numbering approximately 100,000 men and led again by Sultan Murad II and his son, Mehmed II. Following a scorched earth strategy, Skanderbeg left a protective garrison and with the remainder of the army, which included many Slavs, Germans, Frenchmen and Italians, he harassed the Ottoman camps around Krujë. The garrison repelled three major direct assaults on the city walls by the Ottomans, causing great losses to the besieging forces. 

Over the next years, the Ottomans laid siege to the garrison at Krujë three times. Murad II, and later his son Mehmed II, ultimately acknowledged they could not capture the castle of Krujë by force of arms. But the nobles from the region rejected Skanderbeg’s efforts to enforce his authority over their domains, yet he held Krujë and regained much of his territory.

In a second attack five years later, Skanderbeg’s victory over a ruler even more powerful than Murad came as a great surprise to the Albanians. In 1453, Mehmed sent another expedition to Albania and Skanderbeg launched a swift cavalry attack which broke into the enemy camp causing disorder and chaos. The Siege of Berat in 1454 was the first real test between the armies of the new sultan and Skanderbeg.

The Ottomans did not give up. In the summer of 1457, an Ottoman army numbering approximately 70,000 men invaded Albania with the hope of destroying Albanian resistance once and for all. After having avoided the enemy for months, calmly giving to the Ottomans and his European neighbors the impression that he was defeated, on 2 September Skanderbeg attacked the Ottomans in their encampments and defeated them killing 15,000, capturing 15,000 and 24 standards, and all the riches in the camp. This was one of the most famous victories of Skanderbeg over the Ottomans, which led to a five-year peace treaty with Sultan Mehmed II. 

In November 1463, Pope Pius II tried to organize a new crusade against the Ottomans, similar to what Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III tried before. Pius II invited all Christian nobility to join, and the Venetians immediately answered the appeal. So did Skanderbeg, who on 27 November 1463 declared war on the Ottomans and attacked their forces near Ohrid. Pius II’s planned crusade envisioned assembling 20,000 soldiers in Taranto, while another 20,000 would be gathered by Skanderbeg. However, Pius II died in August 1464, at the crucial moment, and Skanderbeg was again left alone facing the Ottomans. 

Nothing if not persistent, in 1466, Sultan Mehmed II personally led an army of 30,000 into Albania and laid the Second Siege of Krujë, as his father had attempted 16 years earlier. The town was defended by a garrison of 4,400 men. After several months of siege, destruction and killings all over the country, Mehmed II, like his father, saw that seizing Krujë was impossible for him to accomplish by force of arms. Subsequently, he left the siege to return to Constantinople.

Skanderbeg spent the following winter of 1466–67 in Italy, of which several weeks were spent in Rome trying to persuade Pope Paul II to give him money. At one point, he was unable to pay for his hotel bill, and he commented bitterly that he should be fighting against the Church rather than the Ottomans. It is possible that the Curia only provided to Skanderbeg 20,000 ducats in all, which could have paid the wages of 20 men over the whole period of conflict. Skanderbeg probably financed and equipped his troops from local resources, richly supplemented by Ottoman booty.

On his return to Albania on 23 April 1467, Skanderbeg attacked the Ottoman forces laying siege to Krujë. The Second Siege of Krujë was eventually broken and the Ottomans offered to surrender all that was within the camp to the Albanians. Skanderbeg was prepared to accept, but many nobles refused. The Albanians thus began to annihilate the surrounded Ottoman army On 23 April 1467, Skanderbeg entered Krujë. The victory was well received among the Albanians.

Mehmed II again marched against Skanderbeg in the summer of 1467. Skanderbeg retreated to the mountains. The Ottomans failed again in their third Siege of Krujë, both to take the city or to subjugate the country, but the degree of destruction was immense. During the Ottoman incursions, the Albanians suffered a great number of casualties, especially to the civilian population, while the economy of the country was in ruins. 

In January of 1468, here in Lezhë, probably close to where I stand at this Monument to Skanderbeg, this great military leader called together all the remaining Albanian noblemen to a conference in this Venetian stronghold to discuss a new war strategy and to restructure what remained from the League of Lezhë. During that period, Skanderbeg fell ill with malaria and died on 17 January 1468, aged 62.

The Albanian resistance to the Ottoman invasion continued after Skanderbeg’s death, led by his son, Gjon Kastrioti II, who tried to liberate Albanian territories from Ottoman rule. 

Skanderbeg memorials are found not only throughout Albania but in Rome and Michigan.

The Ottoman Empire’s expansion ground to a halt during the time that Skanderbeg’s forces resisted. He has been credited with being one of the main reasons for the delay of Ottoman expansion into Western Europe. His main legacy was the inspiration he gave to all those who saw in him a symbol of the struggle of Christendom against the Ottoman Empire. During the Albanian National Awakening Skanderbeg was a symbol of national cohesion and cultural affinity with Europe. Skanderbeg’s struggle against the Ottomans became highly significant to the Albanian people. It strengthened their solidarity, made them more conscious of their identity, and was a source of inspiration in their struggle for national unity, freedom, and independence. 

The trouble Skanderbeg gave the Ottoman Empire’s military forces was such that when the Ottomans found the grave of Skanderbeg in the church of St. Nicholas in Lezhë, they opened it and made amulets of his bones, believing that these would confer bravery on the wearer. Indeed, the damage inflicted to the Ottoman Army was such that Skanderbeg is said to have slain three thousand Ottomans with his own hand during his campaigns. Among stories told about him was that he never slept more than five hours at night and could cut two men asunder with a single stroke of his scimitar, cut through iron helmets, kill a wild boar with a single stroke, and cleave the head of a buffalo with another. Certainly the statues of him reflect an imposing giant of great strength and fortitude. 

The Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled “Scanderbeg” and on October 27, 2005, the United States Congress issued a resolution “honoring the 600th anniversary of the birth of Gjergj Kastrioti (Scanderbeg), statesman, diplomat, and military genius, for his role in saving Western Europe from Ottoman occupation.” 

The Memorial to Skanderbeg is a simple columned building but of immense importance to Albania. The shields along the walls commerate his victorious battles. The red tile, double-headed eagle mosaic depicts his flag and that of Albania. The stone tablet with sword and famous horned helmet grace where Skanderbeg rests. His history and military skill speaks for itself.

We continue to explore this one-time stronghold of Skanderbeg and visit the hill town of Krujë. It is quite a climb even for the vans, steep, cobbled and narrow, better suited for donkeys than horsepower. I browse the shops at the foot of the castle. It has the feel of a Turkish bazaar but without the “kidnapping” to get you into their shop. I find a nice man with lots of military and communist pins and he is delighted to show me his selection. The group lunches overlooking the fortress hill, even higher and more inaccessible. 

Atop the fortress, we are shown around another Ethnographic Museum, much the same as the other Turkish house we have seen. Tradesmen’s shops are below demonstrating oil presses, weaving, butter and cheese making, iron forging. Upstairs, the family lives, many generations with the man of the house making sure the women follow what is expected of them. There are separate rooms designated for children, women, men and the guest. And the richer the family, the more fire places. The rooms are open and airy, simple and comfortable. 

But the star attraction of this fortress/castle is the Museum of Skanderbeg. The fortress surrounds me and is the remains of the fortress that Murad II and son Mehmed II tried three times to take, failing each time because of Skanderbeg’s armies. It was here that Skanderbeg first raised his red standard with a black Byzantine double-headed eagle, probably the precursor of Albania’s modern flag. (The second flag seen most often in Northern Albania is the American flag.) 

One of Skanderbeg’s most important speeches was given here:

“I haven’t gave you the freedom, but I found it among you.” 

The Museum of Skanderbeg is excellent, though not in English. In several rooms, the life and military victories of Skanderbeg are detailed. It could only be improved by translating the information into English.  

I end my day with tremendous respect for this soldier and leader. Indeed, Skanderbeg does deserve to rank up there as one of the top ten generals of all ages. 

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