The Norwegian fjords lookalike – Koman lake

Koman Lake 5
The Koman lake is said to be one of the highlights not to be missed in Albania. Upfront we had read about a car ferry going from one end to another, and planned the trip with this option. As we were not able to find any timetable online, we asked at our hotel in Shkodra before going out for dinner yesterday. It turned out that the car ferry is only running in the summer season. If you are lucky…

However, they thought there was a tourist boat (not taking cars) leaving around 9 in the morning, but could not guarantee that either. The last option was the one we eventually decided to go for; to take our chances that some locals would hang around with their own boat, hoping to earn some money.

Lessons learned (but not really…), the way there of course took us longer than expected. But, I must confess; this time I have to blame myself as well, as I several times stopped to take photos.

The road was not very busy. At least not with cars. On our way we met 13 cars, 7 donkeys, one cow, four pigs and a turtle (!). Cars-animals: 1-1, that is! Or 13-13, if you wish…

Donkey on the road to Koman Lake.

Donkey on the road to Koman Lake.

A turtle passing by!

A turtle passing by!

A turtle passing by on the road to Koman Lake 2
As we had wished for, some local boys were waiting with their boat. We decided to make a two-hour trip, and agreed on the price of 5000Leke in total. An elderly local couple was also waiting at the pier, so we brought them with us. They were going to visit some friends living up in one of the mountain farms. After a short while, we let them of by a mountain trail, and they started the steep walk.

A couple walking to visit friends at a mountain farm by Koman Lake

A couple walking to visit friends at a mountain farm by Koman Lake.

Start the steep walk.

Start the steep walk.

The dam holding the lake was built in 1971 for a water power plant. Before that, there was a river running freely, 75-80(!) meters below what is now the water level! Before that year there were about 1000 families living there. Many of their homes were flooded, and only half of the families still live there. The majority of these live at small farms in the mountains along the lakeside. Most of them earn their living by fishing and trading parts of the catch for other goods, as the lake is full of fish. The Chinese that helped build the dam brought fish to breed. This fish is commonly known as the Chinese fish, and are quite large in numbers. There is also trout and other kinds as well.
Koman Lake 1
Koman Lake 3
Koman Lake 2
Koman Lake 4
Koman Lake 6

Mountain farm.

Mountain farm.

Old power plant by Koman Lake.

Old power plant by Koman Lake.

Some of the farms are situated higher up in the mountains, like the farm the elderly couple was going to, and some will even be hours walk.

The trip was well worth both the time and money. Some of the parts were even similar to the Norwegian Fjords, except this is a lake, not a fjord by definition. But definitely beautiful!

A short stay in Shkodra

Shkodra is situated by the Shkodra Lake (surprise, surprise), and was more or less just a place for us to spend the night before heading onward to Koman. Arriving just before sunset, we only freshened up and went out for some food and drinks.

Sitting outside in the main street was nice, but made me feel that this was more or less all that was to be seen here. By all means, correct me if I am wrong! I have not much knowledge about the place.
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Shkodra2
Shkodra3

The detour via St. Naum Monastery to Tirana

When we were in Ohrid, we were advised to visit St. Naum Monastery. It is situated in the south end of the lake, close to the Albanian border.

The monastery and the area around in itself was quite nice, but they were in the process of building many small tourist shops just outside, so it is only a matter of time before it loses its nice atmosphere.

Entrance to Monastery St. Naum

Monastery St. Naum

Monastery St. Naum

Monastery St. Naum 2

Peacock at  Monastery St. Naum.

One of many peacock at Monastery St. Naum.

Backyard of Monastery St. Naum.

Backyard of Monastery St. Naum.

Surrounding of Monastery St. Naum
Taking the long way all around the lake from Ohrid via Elshani, St. Naum Monastery and Pogradec, took much more time than expected. The road on the Macedonian side were in quite good shape, but more or less the moment we entered Albania, that certainly changed. Most of the way we had to drive very slowly to prevent the car to get damaged by all the holes. By all means, not all the roads in Albania are that bad. We have driven many streaks of decent standard, and some even great highways. But in general; expect to use much longer time than you think!

Another sign we had entered Albania.

Another sign we had entered Albania.

View on our detour around the lake from Ohrid to Tirana.

View on our detour around the lake from Ohrid to Tirana.

Both of us had been to Tirana before, but I had not been up to mount Dajti by the cable car.

We decided to take a taxi to the cable car station for the Dajti Ekspres, and it turned out to be money well spent. The road condition up there is really, really bad, so the chance of damaging your own car is quite big.

The cable car journey is 4670 m long, and took us up to 1420 masl, an elevation of 812 m. The area is quite green, with a few small villages and farms along the way. On the top there is a park, a restaurant with panoramic view, and even a hotel, if you want to spend a calm night surrounded by the nature.

Dajti Ekspres in in Tirana.

Dajti Ekspres in in Tirana.

Dajti Expres in Tirana 2

View of Tirana from Mt. Dajti.

View of Tirana from Mt. Dajti.

Back in town, we walked around in the areas around Skanderbeg Square, trying to explore by getting ourselves a bit lost in the streets.

Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

Skanderbeg Square in Tirana 2

Colorful houses.

Colorful houses.

Colorful houses in Tirana 3

Apartment buildings in Tirana

Apartment buildings in Tirana

The orthodox cathedral.

The orthodox cathedral.

As I have a few friends living in Tirana, I was just hanging out with them in the evening. It is always nice to know someone when you visit a place!

Friends visiting Kopi at work

Friends visiting Kopi at work

My previous visit to Tirana.
More post from Albania.
More posts from the Balkan road trip.

 

The detour to Bajram Curry

Since we found ourselves near by the border to Albania, we decided to take a short detour, going to Bajram Curry. Well. It ended up not being that short, as the road conditions are quite bad most of the way, and we had to drive very slowly. At least we had good time to enjoy the scenery!

The city in itself is not very charming, but it is supposed to be a very good starting point for many great hikes in the area. And with the beautiful nature we passed on our way there, I have absolutely no trouble believing just that.

We passed a charming small village.

We passed a charming small village.

Passing by nice scenery

Passing by nice scenery.

Beautiful combination of green grass, snowy mountains and clear blue sky

Beautiful combination of green grass, snowy mountains and blue sky.

Beautiful view on our way to Bajram Curry.

Beautiful view on our way to Bajram Curry.

Farming in the mountains close to Bajram Curry.

Farming in the mountains close to Bajram Curry.

Street in Bajram Curry.

Street in Bajram Curry.

Read more posts from Albania.

Get your bearings – rental car in the Balkans

It was certainly not an easy task to find a rental company that would allow us to cross the borders of all the Balkan countries we planned to visit. Most of the big car rental companies like Avis and Hertz would exclude one or more of the countries. After trying several of the smaller companies as well, I finally found Milenium Car Rental.

As our plan was to go to Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, we needed to find a company that would allow us to enter those countries without charging expensive extras. Milenium Car Rental had green card to all the countries we planned to visit. The only extra we had to pay was an additional insurance at the border to enter Kosovo, as they are not a part of the Green Card System.

We picked up the car at the Milenium Car Rental office in downtown Dubrovnik, and agreed to deliver it at the airport when we returned.

Since we are off to explore, and plan to try different small roads, we figured it would be wise to rent a GPS as well. We also bought some more detailed “old fashioned” road maps, just to be on the safe side…

Off we go!

The beautiful and charming town Gjirokastra

The old town of Gjirokastra is one of the best-preserved examples of an Ottoman-style town in the Balkans. The town is packed with sights, and I recommend to do as we did; buy a map with the main sight. We also bought the book “Gjirokastra the essential guide” made by Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization for additional information.Gjirokastra old town
We followed the map as best as we could, even though some of the sight were not obvious. It sometimes felt like we walked around with a treasure map, but it was great fun. The facts on both the map and in the book was also very informative and useful.

Walking around we saw many different sights, including the hamam, the obelisk, the orthodox St. Sotira church and the mosque. At one point there were 15 mosques in the town, but when the Communists took over after the war they destroyed all but one. The remaining was of cultural significance and was used to train circus performers because of the high ceiling.
Bazaar main street
The old bazaar area was the first settlement outside of the castle, and the main city of Gjirokastra until the 19
th century. Many of the streets in bazaar area was totally abandoned, and it seemed that only the main streets was busy with shops, restaurants and houses. We figured that the houses and shops were probably abandoned during the massive emigration in the 1990s.Abandoned house

Abandoned houses
The residential area on the hill behind the castle was very nice, and also had an enjoyable view.
Gjirokastra hillside
The castle
The castle was first built more than 2500 years ago. It was developed further in the Byzantine period (12th and 13th century). In the late 1400s, the Ottoman Empire continued building to the present size and condition.
The castle
Once you enter the castle, you will go through a hallway with artillery and a tank.

We decided to pay additional entrance to enter the prison and weapon exhibition. King Zog built the prison in 1932, and many of the inmates had opposed communism in the period 1944-1968. Inside the prison cells there were writings on the wall stating quotes from personal diaries and news events. The inner part of the prison had separate cells for punishment, torture and executions. In the 1970s, the Communists opened the prison as a museum. I wish the writings on the wall would have been translated, so we could get more insight in what it was like to be imprisoned and their situation. But it was absolutely still worth visiting this part of the museum as well. The weapons museum had various weapons, mainly “trophies” taken from the enemy during the 1st and 2nd World War. 6000 women fought under 2nd World War. Some of the weapons also dated back from the Bronze and Middle Ages, gathered from all over Albania.
Prison
Other sight at the castle to be mentioned are the cannon collection with mainly British cannons, the American airplane and last but not least; the clock tower.
Cannons and the American airplane
The plane had to make an emergency landing in Tirana in 1957. It was said to be a spy plane, but the pilot was allowed to return home to the United States. The plane was confiscated by the Communist regime and has been exhibited as a trophy on the castle wall since 1969.

The Clock Tower was erected in the 1800s by the Ottoman Empire. They had a long tradition of building clock tower around their kingdom, partly due to the need to control the timing of their five daily prayers. The original clock was stolen either by the Italians or by the Nazis during WW2. The tower was restored in the 1980s, and got a new clock in the 1990s, but it has unfortunately stopped. The Clock Tower is a magnificent construction, and with the mountains in the background, it offer many great photo opportunities.
Clock tower
We could move around more or less everywhere, even in the dark abandoned parts of the castle, which now appears to be inhabited by bats.

From the castle you also have great views of the town and the surroundings, and I would advise to start the sightseeing in Gjirokastra with a visit here, to get the general overview.

The Zekate House
The beautiful tower house in Ottoman style built in 1812 for a general in the Ottoman army, is also worth a visit. The house is now uninhabited and serves as a museum. The neighbor owns the house and opens if you want to enter. There is no light, so it is best to visit while the sun is still up, or bring a small flashlight to be able to see. There is not much to see in most rooms, so you should have some knowledge and imagination to picture how the general and his family lived in the house 200 years ago.
Zekate House
The cistern is the first you see as you enter, and the size of this was a symbol of status. On the second floor there was a living room for guests. One corner is slightly elevated from the floor, and was where the guests with the highest status was sitting. The women of the household had a separate room with its own staircase down to food storage and cooking facilities. This room was located right above the cistern, and was cooled by the cold water. 
The rooms on the third floor was used in the winter since the stone walls made ​​it easier to retain heat. One of the rooms had a small loft, where the women of the house were sent when the men had formal guests. On the top floor there were three rooms, two summer rooms and the reception room. This room featured stained glass windows in several colors and carvings on the ceiling.

To sum up Gjirokastra:
Absolutely a place I would recommend! It is a very pleasant town with beautiful old houses and a great feel to it. Even though we visited during high season, there were few other tourists there. I would say two days is enough, unless you plan to use it as a base for daytrips elsewhere. The best tip; Just walk around, soaking in the fantastic atmosphere!

How to get there:
We took the bus from Saranda at 11.30, but there are several busses during the day. The ticket cost 350 Leke per person, and the drive is about 1h 15m. The bus stops in the new town, so from there you can either walk or take a taxi uphill to the old town.
Bus to Gjirokastra
Where to stay:
There are a few hotels up in the old town, as well as small guesthouses. We preferred to stay in an old local house, and booked a room in Hashorva Guesthouse. The stone house is 200 year old, and very charming. It was no luxury, but definitely good value for money, and good location just a few blocks below the bazaar.

Where to eat and drink:
Taverna Gjocka: Albanian food and local specialities, including the rice dish Qifqi that is unique for Gjirokastra. Very friendly staff.
Kujtimi Restaurant: Nicely located with outdoor tables in a cosy garden.
Taverna Kuka: Nice big outdoor terrace with nice view.
A. Muco restaurant: In a small side street with some outdoor tables. Simple but tasty food.
Byrek Shop: For a quick snack. Has byrek with different filings.
Restaurant Fantazia: It was closed during the day when we were there, but offers great view of the town.
Bar Clavis: A great place for some drinks. We enjoyed sitting outside, but it looked quite nice inside as well, with a movie theme on the walls. A little piece of the big city in the small town. In a very positive way.
Typical Albanian food

Dhermi and Drymades

As I only had a brief stay in Dhermi last year, I was eager to spend some more time there. We got on the mini bus leaving Saranda at 11.30, heading towards Vlora. The trip to Dhermi takes about 2,5 hours, including a stop about half way. The buses can be quite hot, so try to get a seat close to the door or a window that can be opened.

The bus does not drive down to the beach, so you have to get off in a junction by the main road. From there it is about 1,5km downhill to get to Dhermi Beach, or about 20 min walk, depending on pace and luggage you have to carry… We had made reservations at Royal Blue Hotel, a double room with a sea view balcony, including breakfast for 70€ per night. The hotel does not have their own web site, but you can find information and book on www.booking.com, or call the hotel: +355 69 667 4992.
Beach in front of the hotel

Beach
The beach in front of the hotel is nice, but we wanted to check out the other beach close by, and went by taxi to Drymades beach. This was very nice as well, with small cosy bars along the seaside, and restaurants along the main road just behind the beach. There were also a few hotels, some camping huts, so I think it would be just as nice to stay here as at Dhermi Beach.
Nice and more private on the other side of the hole in the rock
As I prefer more remote beaches with less people, we went to the far end towards the north west. At the end there is a natural hole in the rocks, so continue through that. At the other side, the beach continues with some small coves, giving you the possibility to feel more alone.
All by ourself
Another option is to talk to the locals and ask them to take you by boat to Gjipe bay, a very nice and more deserted beach. The few people that we saw, appeared to be local. On your way to the bay you will pass by Pirate Cave. Since you are passing anyway it is worth to have a look, but I would not go without combining with Gjipe bay.
Gjiipe Bay
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Speaking of combinations; from Gjipe bay, you can walk Gjipe canyon. Even though it was a warm and sunny day, we were lucky with a nice cooling breeze. We walked for about 45 minutes between steep, green clad mountains until we reached a point where it was advisable to use some climbing equipment to continue. At this point it was also a small pond, and when we got there, dozens of frogs jumped in it to hide from us. A nice nature experience before we had to turn and walk back. Remember to bring water and anything else you need, as nothing is sold at the beach.
Gjiipe Canyon
Jumping frogs

Dhermi Village
If you are keen on something other than beach life, you can walk or take a taxi to the old town of Dhermi, up on the hillside by the main road. Even though we were here in the most popular tourist season, almost no other tourist had found their way to this charming small village, overlooking the ocean. In fact, the only people we saw were some local boys, and an elderly man with a donkey.
Local boysMan with a donkey
The village is built up by small stone houses, and has several churches. On the very top of the hill, there is an old monastery with many graves in the courtyard.
Dhermi Village (2)Dhermi village (3)Monastery
There were a few cafes down by the road, but we decided to walk to Panorama Café (a little longer walk then expected) to watch the sunset before taking a taxi back for dinner.
Sunset in Dhermi

Getting to Albania

The only international airport in Albania is found in Tirana, but as the Greek island of Corfu is only about 40 min boat ride away, it is quite easy to get to the south of the country from there. The departures from Corfu to Saranda by Ionian Cruises varies depending on season, so make sure you check the time table when you plan your trip.

It is also possible to get there from the other neighbour countries. Read more about how I got from Dubrovnik in Croatia via Montenegro to Albania.

A very relaxing week in Ksamil

We could not decide what to do after leaving Corfu, and we actually did not make the final decision before the same morning. We then decided to go back to Albania for a relaxing last week. We took the boat to Saranda, and went strait to Ksamil and found a hotel there. It was right across the street from the pizza place Rei&Rai, run by Dejans family. During daytime we mostly enjoyed the beach life, swimming, reading, playing backgammon and paddling a kayak. Most of the evenings after dinner we were hanging out with our new friends at the pizza place. One evening we also went to Saranda for some shopping and dinner there.

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Off to Saranda

Since we did not know exactly when the bus would leave, we were quite pleased with the timing when it arrived just as we got up to the main street around 8.30. The bus stopped by a small café a few hundred meters from the junction on the road towards Saranda, so it would not be too bad to have to wait there for a little while either. The trip from Dhermi to Saranda took just a little more than two hours. Saranda was the only place we had pre booked the hotel, but the moment we arrived we understood that that would not have been necessary at all! There were plenty of hotels, and many more were rising. We were quite disappointed as it was not at all what we had expected. The only nice part of the city was the small port.

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