Where Eagles Soar

Life In The Fast Lane
Thursday 14th July 2022


It was an early check-out this morning, or at least earlier than normal at 10am. We packed our suitcase ready for a quick getaway and then went down for breakfast.

Julie filled her plate with her new found taste for cured pork sausages and sliced meats whilst I continued my adventure into Albanian pastries.

We sat outside this morning which at first was a great idea but then Julie got bothered by a little stripey blighter whizzing about her like a nutter. It seemed attracted to the flowers on her dress. I tried to lure it away with the honey on my plate but it wasn't interested. 

It brought breakfast to a pemature end.

All packed up and in the car we set the SatNav to Gjirokaster and set off on the third leg of our trip.

Heading North we ignored the same stupid off-road suggestion for a short cut and continued on the tarmac. Then at a T-junction we turned right, ignoring the SatNav telling us to turn left. "Good job you're not blind" said Julie, (because I saw the road sign to Gjirokaster) before realising it was such a daft thing to say!

 The road continued across the plains towards the Gjerė mountains.

When we were approaching the town of Mesopotam we pulled over at the side road to take a photograph of the impressive Holy Church of Saints Peter & Paul.

A little further down the road two police officers were pulling cars over by waving their lollipop bats at them. It dawned on me that we looked highly suspicious by stopping just  short of them.

I was a little nervous moving on, not only because I always have this guilty feeling whenever I'm near to authority but it would be a great inconvenice if we were stopped. Fortunately they were busy interogating someone else when I drove past.

We began to climb into the mountains. After a few miles I noticed a large sign for Syri i Kaltėr, which meant nothing to me but I recognised the image below it. It was for the "Blue Eye" a natural spring of such beauty that people flock to see it.

I pulled off, screeching as I swung the car quickly.

Cars were parked on the side of the road all the way to the top of the hill. I had to turn around and come slowly back down hoping to find a gap. Halfway down there was a small cafe so I decided to drop Julie off, save her having to walk all the way back up.

Towards the end there were some gaps but they were precariously near the edge of a significant drop. I could see in the distance there was an open space that could be used as a car park, although I suspected it was meant for larger vehicles. 

Two massive converted army trucks which we had seen yesterday in Butrint were parked there, a coach and a large motorhome. There were a few cars also parked, so I decided to tuck myself in the corner next to the Fiat Ducato camper .

It was a warm day to go for a long walk but I was convinced it was going to be worth it.

I rejoined Julie who was sat in the shade sipping a diet coke. "It musn't be too diificult of a hike" she said "because you could hire electric scooters from here!"

We walked up to checkpoint where we paid 50 leks each to enter the park and then walked across the top a dam built across the Bistricė river forming a beautiful lake.

There appeared to be a lane system over the dam, a grey lane for those on foot and a faded red lane for the scooter riders. There was also a road wide enough to drive along by the side of them.

The lane system continued all the way, and it was quite some distance. "Perhaps we should have hired the scooters." I said, only half in jest as a couple whizzed past us. It took us twenty minutes of hard slog in the midday sun to reach the end of the lanes, at a cafe and toilets.

From there we followed a path that crossed a stream of the clearest water we'd ever seen and then onwards into the forest of sycamores and oak. Although the presence of large leafed plants in the undergrowth gave it the look of a tropical rainforest.

We reached the end, where it became busy with people, many dressed in swimming costumes despite the "DO NOT ENTER THE WATER"  signs everywhere!  Obviously there was no policing of this request.

We noticed a viewing platform on ahead and continued to follow the path up into the trees.  It was full of people when we arrived so we continued a little further up to try and see the source of this incredibly clear water.  

The path continued all the way up the hill. You could actually follow the trail through the forest back down to the lake if you wanted to take a hike. But that wasn't for us.

Eventually the viewing platform came free and we stood directly above the spring. The water was a magnificent blue yet clear enough to see fifty metres down. Just off centre dark shadows create a pupil effect for this "eye".

The way the water rose from its depths constantly breaking to the surface was quite hypnotic.  I was well and truly mesmerised until someone dived into the middle of it, ruining the moment.

The spring is considered the main source of the Bistricė river which flows from here 25km South to the Ionian coast near Sarande.

The water wasn't the only blue phenomenon in the area.  Blue dragon flies, with dark blue wings and lighter blue bodies were the most apt of creatures to be fluttering around, further adding magic to the place.

We left the viewing platform and before leaving browsed the small souvenir stall set up nearby. It had plenty of the usual tourist rubbish but also had some local handicrafts. Traditional felt hats seemed all the rage, although I never saw an actual Albanian wearing one!

Before starting the long walk back to the car we sat down at the cafe for an ice cream. I went for the grown-up choice of chocolate coated ice cream called a Boss Classic, (similar to a Magnum) whereas Julie treated herself to a watermelon flavoured (and shaped) lollipop called Pirulo. They were so refreshing in the 32C heat. 

Cooled and refreshed we began the stroll back down which felt a little easier as it was gradually downhill all the way.

It didn't seem possible but it was getting even busier with cars parking all over the place, I was a little worried we might find ourselves blocked in as I had tucked myself into a corner but thankfully I had room to pull out.

With some relief we were back on the main road continuing our journey to Gjirokaster.

The road rose sharply towards the village of Muzrinė with some wonderful views down the valley overlooking the Blue Eye Nature Park. I was itching to pull over so we could admire the scenery. 

The opportunity came when we came across an abandoned building at a junction in the road. I pulled over and parked up. "Is the handbrake on properly?" asked Julie always the worrier.

We stood at the edge of a concrete platform. I don't know if this was a former bunker or not. The country is littered with them. Three quarters of a million bunkers were built in less than twenty years during the paranoid communist regime of Enver Hoxha. That's almost fifteen per square mile!

So it probably was a bunker.

Whilst we were admiring the perfect location and its unrivalled views the two large converted army trucks drove past, crawling up the hill. We then spent the next fifteen frustating minutes stuck behind them they slowly rolled up and over into the next valley.

I'm no geology student but the valley looked like a glacial valley, shallow and wide and not carved out by the narrow river Drino. It was a little boring in comparisson to the twisting roads of the Gjerė mountains but at least the reasonably flat and fairly staright road gave us a chance to get around the two army trucks.

So I seized the moment and pulled out, put my foot down and waited a while longer for the automatic gearbox to shift down a gear and I eventually gathered some speed. I was fully committed eventhough we were approaching a junction to our left. "I don't think you should be driving over these" said Julie as I went over the diagonal painted lines. "It's fine" I replied.

At that moment we saw two policemen wave their red lollipop bats at me, "Shit" we both blurted. I had got past the army trucks only to have to pull over to the side of the road. I was cursing our luck.

I had overshot the officers by some 200m so I began to reverse towards them. To our reflief we heard them whistle at us and wave us on. Hopefully we interperated their hand signals correctly because we sped off again chasing the trucks.

We  were relieved when a little later one pulled into a petrol station and the other pulled over to wait. I didn't have to repeat my high speed manouver.

It wasn't long after that we turned left at a roundabout and followed the road up towards the historical centre of Gjirokastėr. There was a great view of the castle on the hill so I pulled over to take its photograph.

As I was getting back in the car those pesky converted army trucks drove past again!

"Those bastards are going to get the last parking spaces" I ranted.

As it happened there was only one space left in the car park and they were too large to fit. It was with some delight we slotted straight in, pulled up the handbrake and switched the engine off. We were going to be here for two nights and we weren't intending on moving the car.

I wasn't too sure exactly where our hotel was, so we decided to leave our luggage in the car and set off up the hill to find it first. There were some incredible buildings in the valley below, typically Ottoman in style. The historical centre was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2005 for these fine examples.

They were all a similar design, a multi-storey house with many windows and thick stone tiled roofs. Some looked very well maintained, in fact some may even have been newly built whilst others looked positively ancient.

At the top of the hill we came to a construction site, the reason why we couldn't park any closer to our hotel. Here we past the Greek consulate, a reminder that in this part of Albania at least, there's a large Greek pesence.

In fact during the Balkan Wars where the Ottomans were loosing its grip, the Greek army occupied this area and despite the creation of the independent state of Albania in 1913 Gjirokastėr breifly became the capital of a shortlived breakaway Republic of Northern Epirius, which allied itself to Greece.

Regions declaring their autonomy seems to be a recurring theme here in the Balkans.

The large construction site came to an end as we entered a small square where on the left was Hotel Argjiro. It was in a perfect location with the cobbled streets of the old town on its doorstep.

We checked if our room was ready and it was, so Julie took a time out whilst I hurried back to the car for our luggage. 

On the way back down I took a slight detour to have a good look at what they were doing behind the screen and it looked like they were building a large underground car park.

Back at the hotel we were given the keys to our room. I didn't realise but I had booked a room with a difference. It wasn't their standard hotel room but it was an attic room above an adjacent building.

It could have been described as the penthouse suite as it came with its own private swimming pool and terrace. I am joking of course!

The roof top terrace between the main hotel and our room had this inflatable paddling pool and enough tables and chairs for about 18 guests. However, throughout our whole stay we saw no one else making use this area, so we justifiably thought of it as our own. 

We unpacked, then sat on our terrace for a while just gathering our thoughts. We had no plans for this afternoon except to stroll around what's known as the Old Bazaar area of the town. 

Leaning over the wall we could see the pedestrianised cobbled street below, paved with a geometric pattern of overlaping squares. Then as our eyes followed the hill up we notice  the special rooftops.

After only a minute of walking up the hill of the street Rruga Gjin Zenebisi we came to the most photograph corner of Gjirokastėr where two roads converge to such an extent that the house on the corner narrows to hardly more than the width of the door.

The building, now a souvenir shop, was also possibly the most typically Ottoman in town, where the upper floor extended out over the lower floors, supported by some lovely wrought iron work.

From the crossroad we walked downhill towards the 18th century Memi Bey mosque. At one time there were over a dozen mosques in Gjirokastėr but during the communist era not only was there a supression of religion but all the mosques apart for this one were demolished.

Oddlly enough Enver Hoxha the communist leader for over forty years was a son of Gjirokastėr. 

We followed the road up the hill beyond the mosque searching for a particular restaurant. It was called Taverna Kuka. I wanted to try a very local dish. Apparently it originated here in Gjirokastėr and I knew it was on their menu.

We sat outside on their large terrace looking over treetops towards a number of houses up on the side of the hill.

The menu arrived and I quickly found what I was looking for, a dish called Qifqi, a savoury rice fritter cooked in a traditional copper frying pan of sorts, made with five, six or seven or more shaped bowls, for want of a better description. The rice mix would be cooked individually in each "bowl" to create the fritters. 

They were amazing, moist and soft, seasoned to perfection with a hint of mint giving them a refreshing taste. They were larger than I expected and the I had three fritters served with a natural yogurt dip.

That wasn't all I ordered. There was another meat-free savoury option, two pastries called Qahi and Laropite. The menu listed almost identical ingredients for both pies with cabbage and this mysterious "spice" which wasn't translated from the Albanian word erza.

The qahi was a stuffed burek whilst the laropite was a more stodgy cake like consistency. Both were absolutely delicious.

Julie ordered chicken with roasted veg which was served nicely on a marble platter and also a side of potato puree which looked so amazing I had to try some. 

We also shared half a carafe of a local white wine which was exceptional. By far the best wine we had during our time in Albania.

After paying the 2700 lek bill we returned to the bazaar streets walking back up Rruga Ismail Kadare street.

We saw sign outside a large building suggesting it was the post office so we walked inside to buy some stamps. Searching for the counter we walked up the stairs and down a corridor but all we found were offices with people busy sat behind their desks.

As soon as it dawned on us that this wasn't a post office and before they called for security we turned on our heels and got out of there. 

Back out on the cobbled street we continued up the hill past several souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. We returned to the five way crossroads and the narrow buidling on the corner. I had to stop again to take a few more photographs of it.

Having eaten lunch our minds had already moved on to supper, so we decided to make a reservation at Restaurant Tradicional Odaja. It was so traditional it didn't have an on-line booking system so we turned up in person. 

It wasn't far, just at the top of Rruga Gjin Bue Shapta, another one of the roads that converged at the crossroads. 

We walked upstairs into an empty restaurant where they were busy preparing the tables. I spoke to an elderly woman. Her vacant look wasn't encouraging but I think she understood me when I asked to book a table on their balcony for 8pm. 

On the way back down the hill we browsed the many souvenir shops.

Very rarely do we buy anything whilst travelling. They only go into a box and shoved in the attic when we get home. However recently, especially after the world came to a stop with the covid pandemic we realise that tourist spending is vital for local communities. So now we try our best to force ourselves to buy a few small things at least.

We didn't find anything we liked this afternoon.

All of this was thirsty work so we stopped for a quick beer sat outside Bar Galo watching people come and go. Some had set up tables in the middle of the street on such an angle that surely your bread roll would literally roll of the table.

Bar (& Hotel) Galo had their tables on the narrow stepped pavement outside, which all the shops had. They were just wide enough and long enough for a table for two and perfectly level.

Refreshed we found oursleves back at the crossroads where again I simply couldn't walk past without taking yet another photograph before walking down towards our hotel.

It was now time for a siesta but our hotel room was a stifling 30C. The air con wasn't making any impact either so we sat outside in the shade. It was probably hotter in the shade but at least there was fresh air.  

I dipped myself in the paddling pool a few times which also helped.

Three hours later as the sun was setting over the Gjerė mountains we showered and got dressed for the evening. 

There was a buzz around the bazaar, a lovely atmosphere where restaurant tables were being laid out on the street.  

We stopped at a local bar. They didn't do food, only coffee and beer. They did have some crisps. When I asked the owner, who was sat inside busy watching TV if they had wine he said "Shit, yes!"

When it arrived, served in a glass chai cup, it looked alarmingly cloudy. Julie sniffed it and screwed her face up. She took a sip and recoiled. "Oh my God, that's disgusting"

"Try it" she asked me.

"What? Really?" I replied. Despite every instinct telling me not to drink it I did. It smelt of rotten apples and tasted like cider vinegar. If that was wine, it must have come from a bottle that was opened in 2019! 

We should have left it but the owner was such a nice man that we felt compelled to finish it. After dithering, taking small sips, it was time for us to leave and there was still half the glass left. So I knocked it back. It took me three gulps. Shuddering in between.

We arrived at Restaurant Tradicional Odaja at exactly 8pm. We were showed to our table like a pair of VIPs. They had somehow squeezed two tables on the balcony. There wasn't really enough room and I had to sit on a stool because a chair wouldn't fit.

Once in position however it was very pleasant with a lovely view.

I had heard that they did a vegetarian moussaka but I was disappointed when they told me they had sold out. Instead I went for the Greek aubergine dish Imam Bayildi.

It was an appertiser portion and served on a small plate. It was rich and flavoursome from being slow cooked and was served at room temperature as is often the case. I also ordered a fried cheese with honey and sesame seeds which was wonderful.

I didn't stop there but I should have. I also ordered "tomato balls" or a fritter typically from Santorini. Unfortunately they were greasy, overcooked and tasteless. They let themselves down with them. I could only eat one of the three. 

Julie ordered the lamb chop with fried potatoes. She expected the now familiar gnarly cut of lamb but what she didn't see coming was the tiny portion. It was served on the same small plate my appetisersand looked like a childs portion.

I offered her my tomato balls but I had already put her off them.

We were done and dusted by 8:30pm but it took us another twenty minutes to pay our bill. At first it wasn't a problem because it was nice to just sit and admire the view. But in the end I had to get up and ask for the bill. It seemed that only the manager/owner was authorised to hand write the bill and he was rushed off his feet serving the full restaurant they had inside.

The night was still young so we walked towards the Memi Bey mosque on our way to restaurant Kuka where we enjoyed their wine earlier.

Instead we saw the pretty terrace of another restaurant next door to the mosque. It was called Check-in. The stupid name almost put us off but we continued up the stairs. 

A young boy handed us a food menu as well as a drinks list. Julie was still hungry so we ordered more food. This was a first for us, two suppers in one night!

She went for chicken. The way it was served on the plate it looked nothing like chicken, more like a roadkill, like it had been run over, flattened by the large wheels of a converted army truck, for example. She really enjoyed it though.

It must have smelt good as it was attracting a number of the alley cats. One bold cat decided to join us for dinner and sat on the chair opposite Julie. It waited patiently and was rewarded with a chicken bone, not at the table but I lead it away to the back street.

Not wanting to sit and watch Julie eat I also ordered a portion of their vegetarian "meatballs". They turned out to be very tasty fritters made from shredded vegetables. 

Full and tired it was time to make our way back to the hotel, stopping on the way of course to take yet another photograph of the corner of wonder.

Back in our room we coudn't get the temperature below 27C. The air con was not having any effect, so we switched it off and opened the windows.

It was a sweaty and sticky night.

  Next Day >>>  

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