We were up early this morning and our gear packed as we are heading to Gjirokaster, with a detour to Apolliana along the way. With all the bags over my shoulder I headed up to the Taverna Lazarus where the bike was parked to find the gate padlocked and not a soul around. There was no sense dragging all the gear back to the house so I climbed over the fence and packed the bike regardless. It wasn’t very clandestine for as I was climbing over busloads of tourists were arriving at the front of the taverna for a visit of the castle.
When I arrived back at the house I told Michele the bad news that the bike was locked inside the Taverna’s yard, but suggested we maybe grab a coffee and breakfast at Hotel Kalija in the castle.
Seeing the crowds of people streaming up into the castle we quickly changed our mind and headed for the local cafe.
There were only two guys drinking Rakija in the cafe when we entered and we found a table near the window overlooking the castle and Berat far below.
After ordering our coffees the husband came out patting our backs and chattering away excitedly. Soon he arrived at our table with three glasses of Rakija. After toasting us we all took a sip. Whoa flames were streaming out our throats. This is the second day in a row that we’ve been fed Rakija for breakfast which takes a bit of getting used to.
Another guy turned up and introduced himself as the neighbour. It seems everyone knew who we were. With limited language we had a conversation which was really nice. The custom in Albania is that if someone stays in your house they are treated with more respect by the community. Drinking Rakija on an empty stomach even though it was with coffee wasn’t real good and Michele was feeling a little giggly. The owner must’ve had ESP for he came back with a plate of cottage cheese which he poured his home made olive oil over. I don’t know if it was because of the Rakija, but it tasted pretty damn good.
Pretty soon the owner was back with a big bottle of liquid fire trying to top up our glasses. We humbly declined as there was no way known I’d be fit to ride if I had any more glasses of Rakija and Michele was feeling a little “three sheets to the wind”. She was starting to get worried she wouldn’t be able to climb in the bike.
I spotted the gates to the Taverna open so I took it as a cue to escape, and I quickly paid the bill. The rakija and cheese was of course on the house. Well the goodbye from the cafe was really heartfelt with the owner kissing my hand and hugging Michele. Having a local connection by couch surfing with Isuf and his family really is a wonderful experience.
Arriving at the Taverna we ordered more coffee and an omelet. We just needed something in our stomachs to soak up the Rakija. The Taverna owner came out offering us more Rakija, which we of course quickly declined. The omelet flavoured with dill and chives really hit the spot. It was accompanied by a farmhouse cheese and fresh bread which was really tasty. As we finished our coffee the owner was back with a water bottle full of Rakija to send us on our way. Michele quickly ripped the label off the bottle because we don’t want to get water and rakija mixed up. All the cafe owners are proud of their homemade Rakija, and Albania boasts it has the best in the region.
We received a lovely farewell as we left the taverna and headed out of Berat. It’s been a really heartwarming experience getting to know Isuf and his family.
Leaving Berat we headed north along the SH72 to Poshnje where we turned off onto the SH73 to Fier.
As we headed towards Fier it soon became painfully obvious that the road that had more lumps than Quasimodo’s back . There were potholes, subsidence, areas repaired with gravel, all sorts of problems. It really was a shocker. So far most of the roads have been fairly good, and I thought some of the stories we’ve read have been exaggerations. This road was exactly as people had described it.
Not far from Fier we stopped at the Boat Café. It’s a boat shaped house which we discovered on Atlas Obscura. It was massive. There was even a bow rope hanging down. It seemed out of place in the centre of a huge plain surrounded by fields and greenhouses.
Along the road to Fier we passed through lots of small towns, a few of which were set up for market day. All sorts of fruit and vegetables were on display, as well as clothing. Some markets lined the road and it seemed strange to be grinding through a potholed road in the middle of a market.
Arriving in Fier we marveled at the colours of some of the buildings. Around the city we even spotted plushies (plush toys) hanging from houses. Locals believe that if they have something beautiful to protect themselves from the “evil eye” they hang garlic. These days plastic garlic or more often plushies are hung to ward off evil.
We headed through Fier along the SH94, with more pockmarks than a teenagers face. Not far east of Fier we spotted the sign to Apollonia. If we thought the road from Fier was bad, this one was ten times worse. As we wound our way through the town of Pojoni we could see the evidence of the ruins of the ancient city of Apollonia. We found a spot near the old monastery to park the bike and took a look around.
Apollonia dates from 588 BC when Greek colonists from Corfu settled there. The nearby harbour was perfect for trade and over the next 800 years it was a major port for slaves, agriculture and asphalt. An earthquake in the third century, changed the course of the river, causing the harbour to silt up, an expansion of swamplands which increased the numbers of mosquitoes and also increased the number of malaria outbreaks. Not a pleasant place to live at all and by about 800 AD the city was abandoned. A church remained on the site and in 1282 after victory at the Siege of Berat, The Ardenica Monastery (Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Ardenica) was built. It was here that Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania was married in 1451. He fought the ottoman invaders for 25 years and defeated them in many battles.
During communist times, religion was banned, so the monastery was used to house livestock. These days the chapel houses a few statues that were discovered during archaeological excavations and the walls are covered in frescos of saints, although the paint is really damaged.
The Church of St Mary has returned to its original use and although the frescos are also damaged, the iconstasi has been returned and the icons returned. With its ancient architecture, dim candle lit rooms it is once again a place of peace.
Walking around Apollonia, there’s a quite a few story boards which explain the various buildings and archaeology. The front facade of the Monument of Agonothedes has been re-erected giving the site a real sense of size and importance. It also provides a reference for the layout of the city streets. Across from it are the ruins of the Odean, the original city theatre. The ruins of the Stoa are quite impressive. It was a 75m long building, which in its time was two storey with a covered walkway. At the rear of the bottom floor was a series of alcoves which held statues. The ruins of the alcoves and some of the columns give a real sense of how impressive the building once was. We walked around the site discovering old city walls, remains of temples, villas with tiled floors, and fountains.
Being here in off season was a real bonus as we were able to explore the site at our own pace without bus loads of people. It’s one of those hidden gems of Albania that before coming we knew nothing about.
After a coffee at the restaurant we returned to the bike and headed back towards Fier over the bumpy roads.
Back in Fier we headed towards Levan bumping along the E853 as we made our way up over the hills out of the city. It was pretty slow going with slow moving trucks grinding up the hills in low gear.
Not far out of Fier we turned onto the SH4 which was a fairly new highway. There was a little crosswind but we were able to sit on 110 fairly comfortably. The road took us though some really pretty countryside of cultivated farmlands, orchards, little villages, green rivers and steep mountains. It was quite nice riding towards distant snow capped mountains. Unfortunately the great roads didn’t last and as we drew closer to Gjirokastër it petered out to one lane either way with the occasional pothole.
On the edge of Gjirokastër we passed a brand new tiled promenade which we’ve seen in most cities. As we’ve mentioned before, Albanians love to walk on their promenades in their finest clothes and here in Gjirokastër is no exception.
Finding the guesthouse was a little harder than expected due to google maps and after asking a local shopkeeper (actually only a few houses away) they pointed us in the wrong direction. We found a local coffee shop nearby for a break and just by chance the guesthouse owner saw the bike. Soon we were parked up at the guesthouse. A strange thing happened when we were leaving the coffee shop. We discovered that our bill had been paid for by a group of men at a nearby table. Once again we are astounded by Albanian warmth and generosity.
After settling in to the guesthouse we were treated to local coffee and some local feta and spinach pie. Tomorrow we head to the castle to check it out.