Observations, thoughts and occasional gibberish

A collection of … stuff

Time to get it together

Today is very gloomy outside, wet, windy and cold, which has plunged me in a contemplative negative mood. And also today, as has been the case so many times in our recent past, there has been another mass shooting in the United States. So, inside my head I go, but it turns out that I think there are some things that I should say out loud. Here goes …

I watch the news like a hawk these days, as do most people. Our world is so full of hate and nastiness. Like so many others, I want to see a return to a world of caring and civility, which didn’t seem so crazily out of reach just a few short years ago. I try to monitor both the Left (where I see myself), and the Right (where I don’t see myself). And there I see the problem. Us and them. Right and wrong. Positive and negative. Except it isn’t positive and negative, it’s all negative. And the worst thing of all is that within the much more liberal Left, where I see my tribe, there is such antagonism and rancor. How can we ever get our thoughts across if we can’t even agree with each other?

It seems like the Right has been able to decide on some key points that really matter to them, and let the details sort themselves. This is crucially important. On the Left, I see all sorts of infighting. Instead of sticking to key issues, people seem to establish for themselves a nice, long list of “must haves”, details that often eclipse the big picture things that should really count. This results in, well, I’m going to say chaos. No one, or only one, person has the perfect enough agenda, or has addressed the little details in a satisfactory manner, to win our vote. I know. because I used to be like this. I will admit to actually having missed voting in several elections. Why? Well, no candidate thought exactly like me. Now, I watch the same thing happening, either no perfection, or just that one, sometimes very niche, person can speak to all our concerns. The result? The people that care about the exact opposite get into power. Oops.

In the United States this June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a very important Democratic primary in New York City. Yes, the immediate response from the left was very positive. However, within a short few weeks people started poking holes in her platform. Not strong enough on this, too much pandering to them, etc, etc. I don’t want to point fingers at anyone in particular, but Leftist groups who should have been supportive of a win for the Left started looking at the minute details and found her lacking. Seriously, could anyone thrive under that scrutiny? She is just one example. Here in Canada we have the constant push/pull between the Liberal Party, the NDP, and the Green Party. Three major political parties represent the Left, where only the Conservatives, for most of the country, stand for the Right. The parties on the Left field candidates with varying degrees along the spectrum. And they all seem to fight with each other.

The world today is being assaulted by the erosion of human rights, equality and freedom. In Ontario this week we saw the Conservative government roll back protections for workers, including pay equity for part time employees. In the United States, the government is attempting to remove transgender equality legislation. How can this be happening in the modern world? We really need to stop bickering and backbiting and start working together to get things back on track.

Why don’t we try starting by agreeing on what really is truly important, possibly starting with the above-mentioned human rights, equality and freedom? Let’s stop concerning ourselves with labels like democratic socialist or communist. Look for candidates that hold our basic tenets top of mind, and give them your support. Details can be ironed out later, when our direction is once again a positive one. The rhetoric from the other side stokes negativity. As a famous American (Michelle Obama) once said, “They go low, we go high”. I think it is time to listen to that wisdom. Let’s stop trash talking each other. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s just stop trash talking full stop. As the news tells us daily, that road takes us right to the bottom.


Albanian holiday

Some of you may have already read my previous blog about the unusual parts of Albania, but I thought I should also show what a wonderful vacation spot it really is! Although we had two weeks in a relatively small country, we still left plenty of areas for a return trip. We cut out the north and the east, and focused more on the sea than the mountains. It turned out to be quite hot in Albania in August, 30C to 35C daily, so sticking to the beaches and missing the mountain hikes worked out well for us. What did we get? Lively illustrated history from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and recent Communist times set in spectacular scenery with dramatic mountain and beach backdrops. Exceptional food and drink with prices to please even the most frugal traveller. Add in kind, friendly people and you have a perfect holiday!


We only allotted a day and a half in the capital of Tirana. Comprised of a compact city centre, walking turned out to be the perfect mode of transportation.


Every good story starts with a hero, in this case a national hero, Skanderbeg. His statue holds pride of place in the central square named for him.


Albanians have no fear of colour, as you can see. Much of what might have been square, bland architecture has come alive under many a paint brush. In front of this particularly magnificent building emerges the exit of Bunk’Art 2, a fantastic and horrifying museum depicting Albania’s recent Communist past.


The Blloku neighbourhood originally housed communist party elite only. Now, it is home to all the trendy restaurants and bars. We loved the Colonial for cocktails, and found yummy, inexpensive food everywhere we ate!


Behind the art gallery we bumped into a motley crew of no-longer-in-with-the-in-crowd characters, including Lenin without a hand and a very large Stalin, banished after the fall of communism.


The singular Pyramid of Tirana.

Tirana park

Checkpoint, the Memorial to Communist isolation, includes several bunkers, a sculpture made from mine supports from an infamous forced labour camp, and a portion of the Berlin Wall.

Our visits to Bunk’Art 2 and the House of Leaves told us all we could handle about the communist past of this amazing country. We could maybe have stayed an extra day, to get outside the city to Mt Datji and the larger Bunk’Art Museum. I guess we managed to save those delights for our next trip.

We picked up our rental car at the airport, a small 4 wheel drive SUV (as recommended in very many guides), and headed off to Krujë, a convenient 45 minute trip. A small mountain city, Krujë’s medieval castle complex dominates the skyline.


The legendary Skanderbeg fought and successfully pushed back the Ottomans 3 times from Kruje’s 15th century castle. The lighter coloured building just right of centre (behind the castle walls) is a museum dedicated to Skanderbeg and his countless accomplishments.


It looks like old Skanderbeg also appreciated a spectacular view when he spotted one.


We felt compelled to shop in Krujë’s traditional bazaar. Really. No choice.

Another hour on the road brought us to Durrës, Albania’s oldest city, also home to one of the largest and busiest beaches. We quickly discovered our sea view overlooked the port, the beach being 10 kms away. After the initial panic settled, I realized the beach area is just that, beach, accommodations and restaurants. We wanted  to be in the city, with the Roman Amphitheatre, Byzantine forum ruins and early medieval castle walls.


Very much a part of the city, the Roman Amphiteatre still impresses from the outside.


Underneath the amphitheatre we found a myriad of nooks and crannies to explore. Just imagine the gladiators and wild animals descending this staircase to … entertainment for the masses?


The Roman Amphitheatre treasures its Byzantine mosaics. However, around town we spot random mosaics on the sidewalks.


The remnants of the Byzantine forum look messy and neglected among the stark communist buildings. Kind of cool, actually.

Leaving Durrës for Berat, we opted for a side trip to Apollonia, an ancient Greek city that served as an important port city from the 6th to the 3rd C BC. In its time, it also housed a school of philosophy.


The 3rd C BC main administrative building, showing the horseshoe shaped meeting area. I’ll bet there were some lively discussions in there after the earthquake that filled their port with sand!


The museum complex includes the 13th C AD Church of St Mary, and a Byzantine monastery. Lots of excavations still to come, so worth another visit or two.

Another hour and a half takes us to Berat, our home for the next 3 nights. Built on the side of a mountain, tucked into the valley of the Osum River valley, sits the preserved Ottoman city of Berat. And what a lovely place it is too! We loved wandering the narrow streets leading up to the castle, the castle grounds itself with its own little “village”, the sidewalks along the river, and the hiking trail up to the old castle on the other side. Oh, and in the evenings, the “xhiro”, where pretty much the entire population of Berat walks the Bulevardi Republika. The time there just flew!


This iconic view of the Mangalem neighourhood in Berat illustrates why it is referred to as the city of a thousand windows. Easy to see why UNESCO selected it as a world heritage site in 2008.


From the top of the 13th C fortress, looking into the Kalaja neighbourhood, inside the old city walls.


One of the many “shops” in the village.


I suspect the white line in the middle of this street does not actually separate two lanes of traffic. Humans only!


The trek up the hill on the opposite side of the river to see the “old castle” (tumbled down rocks) in 35C temperatures resulted in a lot of sweat, and a particularly spectacular view.


We also met a shepherd with his goats. He directed us to a different path to get down the mountain. Although he only spoke Albanian, we managed to sort out most of the instructions, get lost for a while, then find our way. Adventures!


The skies went black while we were up inside the castle, at the 13th C Holy Trinity Church. With the hot weather it was kind of nice to get rained on. And the storm looked so dramatic!

After a fantastic few days in Berat, we headed for Ksamil via Gjirokaster, another Ottoman UNESCO world heritage site. We enjoyed a quick lunch then headed for the fortress. Gjirokaster could likely entertain for longer, at least a few days, but we had to make decisions. Well worth the time we did have, though, we thoroughly enjoyed poking about in the castle/fortress with its spectacular views.


The old section of Gjirokaster, like Berat, boasts Ottoman houses with many windows, but these ones are generally larger and taller. The town feels very prosperous.


Colours in the bazaar. A mix of traditional and modern wares.


This castle has interior lights! Quite amazingly high arches too.


Definitely a serious sign. Kept me off the grass!


The castle hosts a folklore festival every few years. Not a shabby view behind the stage …

Ksamil marked the most southern destination for our adventure, and the southern most beach on the Albanian Riviera. Although busy in August, this little village is well worth a visit. Restaurants dominate the crystal clear beaches, but not the ubiquitous high rise developments that dot a lot of seaside landscapes.


Avoiding the central beach was easy, and this was the most crowded area. Still lovely though.


Spectacular area for sunsets!

Although we thoroughly enjoyed the beach, the main reason to go to Ksamil was its proximity to Butrint. This ancient Greek city harkens back to the 10th C BC. It turns up in every search for tourist sites in Albania, and is a well preserved gem. Set in spectacular parkland, the individual Greek, Roman and Medieval sections leap out of the landscape of a perfectly lovely walking trail. There are several sites accessible only by boat, but we ran out of time. What we did see was truly amazing.


I wonder if we could lobby for a concert here. Quite an evocative, 4th C BC theatre.


The remains of the baptistery stretch from the Roman into the Christian era. Humans continually do renovations …


Apollo graces the view from the museum overlooking the strait below.

On the way back up north along the Albanian Riviera, we made a side trip to the busiest site of our entire holiday – the Blue Eye. A natural spring set in a gloriously scenic river, its depth has been measured to 50 metres, which is not the bottom. The colour is spectacular! However, the overwhelming crowds when we visited in August took away from the beauty of the site, and rushed us back onto the road to Dhërmi.


The signs asking people to stay out of the water fell on deaf ears.

Next we stopped at Phoenice Archaeological Park, to view more remnants of an another ancient Greek city, this one with the added scenery of 20th C communist bunkers.


Portable toilets with a view.


And at the top? Bunkers! Actually, this is one bunker with several halls and rooms. Former ancient Greek city gives way to 20th C military base.


Nice, spacious, mostly underground bunker room.


Seriously, if all Phoenice had to offer was this view it would be a perfect sight. Spectacular!


And yes, remnants of an amphitheatre … with a view. The site is not fully excavated, rambles over the hills interspersed with bunkers, and we were the only tourists there. If this works for you …

Our Albanian adventures finished in the coastal beach town of Dhermi. The beach here is much more open than the one at Ksamil, perfect for a few days swimming in the ocean and enjoying the sun. And, of course, contemplating our brilliant experience of an Albanian vacation. I will leave you with this beautiful, enigmatic view …


After the rain on Dhermi beach.


Quirky Albania – A glimpse into its more unusual side

For our recent trip to Albania (August 2018), I researched the history, cities, and most interesting sights, as well as the practical details like currency, internet, and driving conditions. Was I prepared? I think so. Nevertheless, reading about something and experiencing it doesn’t compare, and that’s a good thing. I can guarantee that if you keep an open mind, Albania will surprise and entertain you with both small and large details every day. Here are some of our experiences …

Our adventure began in the capital of  Tirana. The centre of the city is quite small, and very walkable. So, off we went! Our first clue that this country might be unlike anywhere we had previously travelled appeared in the form of a giant pyramid, rising out of a lovely, well tended garden area.


Tirana Pyramid – not sure if the bell has any significance but please let me know if you know.

Built originally as a museum to honour their former leader Enver Hoxha (an interesting and somewhat nefarious character – check him out on Wikipedia) in 1988, the Pyramid started its demise shortly after the fall of communism in Albania in 1991. It now stands as a crumbling “monument” to the past. People clamor up the walls and cover available surfaces high and low with street art. We crawled through a makeshift opening into the building itself. Inside looks like a neglected building site, damaged by vandals and ogled by tourists. Tiled floors, marbled walls and an ornately decorated ceiling still exist surrounded by the chaos. Fascinating.


The grand entrance to the Pyramid. I have seen earlier pictures. Sometimes it gets whitewashed, but the artists always make their mark. Much better!


The ceiling is mostly intact. Quite lovely it must have been too.


Concerts were apparently held in this space. Maybe someday …


Caught in the act! Note the little legs above the graffiti.


As much of the Pyramid as could be reached, all around, has been a canvas for street artists. My favourite kind of art.

Walking a little further north we encountered our first of many, many bunkers, this one repurposed into a museum called Bunk’Art 2. Enver Hoxha’s strategy for Albania’s defence included hundreds of thousands of bunkers spread throughout the country. Many have been destroyed over the years. Bunk’Art 2 is particularly large, originally planned to house government officials during an attack. Now a history museum, we learned a lot about spying, on both government and neighbours. And about prisons, and torture, and all sorts of horrendous things endured by Albanians during Hoxha’s rule.


The actual bunker contains 4 long hallways with rooms all along, built underground. Originally, the only entrance and exit were through the government buildings. They moved this bunker  from elsewhere to act as the entrance, and the exit was built separately across the square.


Inside the entrance to Bunk’Art 2, a mix of heroes and demons.


“Albania is closed to enemies, spies, hippie tourists and other vagabonds”. Luckily, those times have passed.


Did I mention that this bunker was meant to sustain a nuclear attack? You never know when you might need to be decontaminated…

The House of Leaves sits one block away, the former home of the Gestapo during WWII, and the Albanian secret police during communism. Ugh. More spying, keeping records, maps of sites for secret prisons (all. over. the. country.), etc. Unbelievable. I couldn’t help but be impressed at how the Albanians faced their quite recent, mostly appalling past, certainly in the memory of a large proportion of the current population. Pretty ugly stuff.


The House of Leaves discouraged photography within its walls. Heaven forbid you steal some of their surveillance secrets …


After visiting this museum, we started to feel this way about every room.


So, there was our introduction to recent Albanian history. I don’t believe there are other countries with a similar past, but I would be interested to hear if there is. Quite an eye-opener!

Now, off to get our rental car, and see a bit of the rest of the country. At the airport we are presented with our 4 wheel drive SUV, shown all the bumps and bruises, and assured that we would not need to wash it before returning it. What? Okay, we won’t. That comment puzzled me, until we started to drive and noticed all the signs for “Lavazh”, which turns out to mean “Car wash”.  Albania has to have the greatest per capita concentration of car washes in the whole wild world. And they were almost always being used. Sometimes they were separate businesses, but some people in residential areas had built their own wee car wash in their driveway.


And what about cars? Well, Albania is a poor country, so you would probably be as surprised as we were to note that almost every car is a Mercedes-Benz. Not always a new one, but a Mercedes-Benz nevertheless. And, of course, they are all clean. I found this article in the New York Times from 2004. They noticed the cars and the car washes too. They also suspect it may be possible that some of these upmarket vehicles may not have been acquired from an authorized dealer …

Driving in Albania is an experience all its own. We knew in advance about the road conditions, mostly smooth, sometimes more akin to a goat track. No surprise there. However, we were not prepared for the sheer amount of passing drivers in Albania do. They pass on the right or on the left, and don’t seem overly concerned if there is oncoming traffic. Because this behaviour seems to be the norm, both approaching cars and the car beside just move over a little to allow the passing vehicle up the middle. Just like that. No road rage. If someone’s in your way, just go around them. Makes sense, and runs quite smoothly, just be careful not to bring that habit back with you.


One minute you’re driving on pavement, next minute … this …


To be fair, there was a “road narrows” type of sign. But in reality, half the road has fallen off. So they put a little back, just enough for a car width. Fixed!

Speaking of driving, every good tourist knows to keep your eyes peeled for interesting items along the road. In Albania, the farm animals sometimes rule the roads.


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but these guys don’t seem to read very well. The sign says “Stop military zone”. And indeed you can see the remnants of communist barracks in the distance.


Cars? What cars?


The boss isn’t looking too happy ….


Despite the road conditions, we still managed to pass this tidy herd.

I saw this house in the Atlas Obscura before we left Canada. I had forgotten all about it but when you see it, it really stands out!


As of August 2018, this lovely abode was for sale. It might still be available …

Albania’s history ranges from 3rd century BC to present times, and they have the architecture and historic evidence to prove it. They are mostly protected, as archaeological parks, tourist sites or museums. However, the odd one goes astray. In Durres, they have preserved part of a 5th century wall and a medieval Venetian tower. As the tower is no longer needed for military reasons, it has been repurposed. As a cocktail bar. Yep.


It still feels like a medieval tower. With blue lighting.


The tower with its outdoor roof lounge and colourful umbrellas looks great at night. Cool place for a drink!

Further south down the coast, a bit south of Dhermi, poking out into the Bay of  Porto Palermo, lies Porto Palermo Castle. The panels at the site indicate it was built in 1805, but its shape (triangular) suggests much earlier, Venetian, pedigree. Whatever the truth, it is now an interesting tourist destination.


Approaching from the north, the castle snuggles into its “island” host. Very dramatic, particularly in better lighting.

Just north of the castle, on the coastal road, is a deserted communist era naval base.


Creepy abandoned buildings, dominating what would probably be a perfectly lovely beach. The area is still designated for military use but looks like it hasn’t seen humans in quite some time.


Crossing the promontory to the castle you see a lovely little beach, surrounded by old communist barracks-type buildings.

The castle itself has a ticket booth at the start, with a cost of the equivalent of $1.00 Canadian. Most sights in Albania cost $2.00 Canadian. I am using this as the excuse for the fact that there are zero internal lights inside the castle. I expect in a short time this will change, but what fun it is to investigate an old stone building, with all sorts of nooks and crannies, in the dark. Our phone flashlights got a bit of a workout. What fun!


Even spaces with window openings to the outside were spooky. Some spaces were completely dark. And there had to be ghosts …


The rooms facing sunny windows had crazy cool shadows.

So, those are the highlights of the more surprising and odd bits of travelling in Albania. Trust me, there is so much more to see and do. This little photo essay just barely scratches the surface. If you are intrigued at all, I suggest you visit. Keep an open mind and you will have an amazing time. And if you find some more peculiar spots or practices I would love to hear from you.

Just for fun, I will leave you with a few more bunkers. Enjoy Albania!



Giving it a try

Winter 2013

So … a blog. Well, I guess that means I will have to start making words on a page. Great place to start! Really, I just want to get this underway before my next trip, so I can stop boring everyone on Facebook. But I will probably blither on about this and that just to get into the swing of things. In the meantime, here is a photo from 2 weeks ago in glorious Elora. Stay tuned!