Where Eagles Soar

Saturday 16th July 2022


No alarm was set this morning, we made a pact last night to just go with the flow today. Our only objective was to check into the airport hotel tonight. What we did between then and now was left to chance.

Obviously I had a short list of options if chance would allow it,  including visiting Berat, Apollonia and the capital Tirana. So we reached an unspoken compromise of leaving when we were both ready. 

But first breakfast.

We walked through the twee reception room into the large function room in the back, only to find it empty! No buffet, no guests, no staff. "Have we missed it?" we both thought.

A quick glance at the time and we weren't too late. It had only just gone 8:30am.

 Confused and hungry we returned to the reception desk where the young girl couldn't hide her amusement. She explained that breakfast was served this morning outside on the terrace.

 Back to the function room we noticed a side door that was left open and there it was, half a dozen tables laid out ready for breakfast. There wasn't a buffet available. It must have been because they didn't have many guests staying last night.

The waiter came around, who incidentally was the same guy who sold us the peanut cake last night, and offered us coffee and asked us what we would like. Despite not having a choice in the matter he did a good job of bringing out almost exactly what we helped ourseles to yesterday.

The "pastry of the day" award went to this amazing apple infused cake. Delcicious.

We checked out before 10am and were already making our way down to the car  which was thankfully parked where we left it and didn't have a parking ticket!

We set off down the valley, the road more or less following the Drino river.  The mountain of Mali i Golikut, and the Shėndelli-Lunxhėri-Bureto chain of mountains loomed large in the distance and was a constant companion as we drove North towards Tepelenė.

After all the twists and turns of the road down the coast to Ksamil Julie really appreciated the relative  straightness of highway E853. The drive was comfortable and relaxing in comparisson.

Within half an hour we had reached Tepelenė catching a quick glimpse of its castle walls as we whizzed past. Onwards and Northwards we drove, still undecided on whether we could make it to Berat for lunch or not.

There was an opportunity to take a mountain pass over towards the Ottoman city on the banks of the Osum river but we decided to stick to the main roads. We had come this far without any incident.

As we approached the toen of Levan we pulled over to check the map and it was clear that a detour to Berat would now add an extra three hours to our journey which would have meant missing out on Tirana. I made an executive decision and decided I would rather see the capital. "We'll keep Berat for our return" I said floating the idea of our long lasting desire to spend a year touring Europe. 

A short distance away was the archaelogical park of Apollonia so joined the dual carriageway A2 until we saw the brown tourist sign for Albania's best knoen Greco-Roman ruins.

A lovely smooth tarmac road took us towards the site but then stopped in the middle of nowhere. Quite literally.

The road crossed a small river and then came to a patch of rough ground. We couldn't see a troad, a track or even a path to follow so we turned around and returned to the A2.

As we were leaving a small motorhome did turn down a dirt track along the bank of the river heading towards the village of Pojan but we decided not to follow it "off-road".

Thankfully a slight detour back to the motorway and turning off at the next junction for Pojan brought us to the offical car park for Apollonia . I was a tad disppointed when we noticed the little motorhome had beaten us!

We parked up then walked up the hill towards the ticket booth where the guy inside had a strange request. After we had paid in cash he handed over two entrance tickets then asked us to return the tickets to him, so he could put them in the waste paper basket beneath his desk. He even lifted it up to show us.

 Not that he intended to recycle the tickets to the next tourist and pocket the 600 lek per person. Of course not.

Before heading to the main attraction we aimed for the cafe for a drink. Fortunately we weren't hungry as they didn't have much on offer.  Rehydrated we continued towards the Temple of Apollo.

Apollonia was established around 600BC by the Corinthians as a trading outpost but quickly developed into an affluent city with all the temples, theatres, and public spaces expected from Greek town planning.

What I assumed to be the Temple of Apollo but was described as the Monument to Agonothetes, and so nothing more that a glorified council office, had been reconstructed like a large jigsaw puzzle, pieced together from the rocks that lay strewn on the ground. 

Eventhough it was supported by red brick and many edges were worn away, especially from its architrave and cornice, it was still quite an impressive sight.  

The capital, at the top of the columns, were of course Corinthian in their desgin, with a wonderful flourish of acanthus leaf. Although the two central columns were completely plain. It was also noticable that one of the columns appeared to have been partially recreated. It's mid-section was clearly original whereas the whiter smoother parts seemed to added to complete the structure.

I suppose even the Parthenon uses this approach to recreate the bigger picture.

Julie decided to sit in the shade whilst I went to explore. Opposite the temple was the Odeon, a small theatre built into a natural corner in the hillside.

The Romans arrived in 229BC but changed very little, even encouraging the existing culture by establishing a library and school of philosophy. A very Greek pursuit.

Legend has it that Octavian, Julius Caesar's adoptive son and chosen successor, was studying here when he learned of the assasination of Caesar. He went on to become what many call the first real Roman Emperor, Augustus.

I walked up what was left of the stoa, a covered walkway. Only the bases of the many columns remain. There wasn't much else to see other than a pile of rubble that once was something.

French archaeologist Leon Rey who spent 15 years here, from 1924 is credited for having the greatest impact on excavating most of what was visible today. Apparetnly much of the site still remains to be discovered.

I walked no further in that direction, chosing to turn around and head up the hill towards a small column, described as the Apollo obelisk, standing alone. I'm not too sure what was its purpose. Perhaps a memorial to something great or maybe it had a more mundane municipal meaning. There wasn't much in the way of inscription to be seen.

At the top of the hill I couldn't see anything of interest. The sketchy map I had in my hand did show a few structures including a nympheum some distance away but once again I decided to walk no further.


On the way back down the hill I saw a doorway in the wall with a path that lead up to somewhere. There were no "do not enter" signs so I did. 

The path rose steeply and I soon found myself amongst the trees at the top of the hill.


My effort was rewarded with a nice view of the temple below but there was nothing else to see up there. That signalled the end of my exploration.

I returned to Julie and sat for a while in the shade. After only half an hour we had seen enough and returned towards the car park.

 However, our visit was not over.

The city went into a decline after an earthquake changed the flow of the river Vjose enough that its port became redundant. During the 4th century AD the city was more or less abandoned. But that wasn't the end of it. During the 13th century a monastery was established here. Today it hosts the Apollonia Archaelogical Museum.

The entrance was drawing us in with its heavy wooden doors wide open and the sun shining brightly at the end of this stone vaulted corridor. Even the stone floor, worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims, was luring us, inviting us to follow in their footsteps.

From the darkness into the light we stepped inside the inner courtyard. There was the Byzantine church of St. Mary's and beyond it a seperate belltower which looked very Venetian in its design. 

We began by walking over towards the white stone belltower built almost into the wall which protected the monastery from the outside. The door was shut. Whether it was locked or not, I did not try to find out but I assumed it was not possible to enter.

It was a shame as my motto is "climb every bell tower".

From the outside we could see what looked like a stone staircase and marble balustrade, which then became steep wooden steps without any hand rails.  Julie was relieved we weren't clambering up them!

Our attention turned to the church. First we entered the attractive portico to the front.  Again I felt the influence of the Venetians here and wondered if it was an extension added later by them.

Inside was bare, with the exception of a wooden chair and a well in the corner. There were eight delicate columns creating the porch.

The top of each column, the capital, were unique. Each had very different designs. One had what I first I thought was an angel but it was a bird of some kind. Judging by its profile on the side it looked more like a moorhen. 

Another had the bearded face of who I imagined to be a venered saint from these parts. He had a mark on his forehead. It appeared like blood, having trickled down between his eyes and dried up. I don't know if it was an intentional addition or a natural phenomenon.  

Inside the church, with the exception of the colourful iconostasis was plain and simple. Originally it would have been covered in frescoes as we would expect but only fragments of it had survived. A small pieces in the dome, 

In another room, the refrectory, a greater proportion of the frescoes had survived. What little of the decaying paintings that remained hinted and the masterpiece that once adorned the entire walls and ceilings. Pity it was in such poor condition.. 

 From the church we came across a number of items that were found here at Apollonia like large pottery vases, beheaded statues and a few busts displayed in long portico that skirted the courtyard.

Having learnt my lesson in Athens I knew not to touch the statues but I did try and get as close as possible to study the remarkable craftmanship.

We stopped at one poting bust which was described as a "portrait of a togatus".

I had never heard of that term before.  Apparently it meant a civilian, or more vaguely just someone who wears a toga. He must have been a somebody though to have commisioned a statue of himself.  

The outdor museum continued in the North Wing with a collection of marble sarcophigi which were mildly interesting.

Then, in the corner where was came in, there was a stone staircase which we insticntively walked up without questioning where we were going. There wasn't a sign nor any other indication what was up on the first floor. But we could have guessed.

It was of course the archaelogical museum. I don't why but we actually found it interesting. Perhaps we were in just the right mood for mooch around a museum.

It wasn't too large which helped. It meant we weren't overloaded with information which is when the attention span shrivels up and dies. 

One of our favourite pieces was this delicate broche. For stone and marble to last two thousand years is common but for a decorative piece of jewellery to have survived for so long, more or less intact, was miraculous.  .

Another piece that caught our attention was a face of tragedy discovered right here. The monastery is believed to have been built over a theatre where the masks of tragedies and comedies would have been displayed. 

Another was, we're assuming, was a female wearing a peculair headress, like a bonnet. It was a very unfamiliar image to be imortalised in marble, which made it stand out from the crowd.

 We left the museum and returned to the car, stopping along the way to return our tickets back to the guy in the booth to subsidise his income.


It was stifling inside the car. It had been parked in direct sunlight for the hour and had absorbed all the heat. The thermometer displayed 41C but that was the external temperature. I'm sure it was even hotter inside!

After half an hour up the road, before the city of Lushnjė, we pulled over at a petrol station. Not for fuel but to find some food. We were starving by now, and anything would have done.   

When we stepped inside the Jet Oil services were were taken aback by its jazzy decor. It had to be the strangest of service stations, what with bright neon lights, violet coloured walls, a trendy aluminium bar and a crystal tree in the centre, it was like a nightclub!

We walked up to the bar and asked if they did food. They didn't.

Instead they directed us next door which was the opposite of this Club Topicana vibe. In what looked like a warehouse, totally bare with just a fridge. We picked up a spinach burek and a chicken salad filled baguette.

I popped back inside the disco cafe and bought a coffee to share and sat outside to eat. Despite having just a view of the fuel pumps and the whiff of petrol in the air, it was still pleasant to sit outside eating our lunch.

Back on the autostada it didn't take us long to reach a familiar landmark, one we couldn't miss. The  Hotel Amadeus Palace looked like an oversized themed Vegas hotel. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some casino money behind it. 

Anyway, it was our cue to pull off for the airport.

A statue of Mother Teresa welcomed us. I must admit I hadn't realised that she was Albanian. She was such an international figure known for her work in Calcutta but she was born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu to an Albanian family living in what's known now as Skopje, in North Macedonia.

The airport is named Nėnė Tereza (as she is known in Albania) in her honour.

We were staying at the Best Western Premier Ark Hotel, within walking distance of the terminal. We couldn't have timed our arrival any better. It was 3pm and the room was ready for us to check-in.

It was an incredibly spacious room and bathroom, great value for money at £67 a night.

We didn't hang around for long and booked a taxi to take us into the city centre. The receptionist told us she asked for an eco green electric taxi as they are cheaper.

Expecting it to arrive imminently we sat outside to wait. Taxis came and went but not ours. It seemed that each taxi which drove past was eco green, raising and dashing our hopes every other minute. Eventually it arrived.

We got in the back, but just as we were about to set off a local jumped into the front seat. The driver turned to us and asked "Is ok?" We couldn't really refuse. He'd already sat down and put his seatbelt on

We whizzed our way towards the city centre. Thankfully dropping off our freeloading excess passenger wasn't a big detour from our route to Skanderbeg Square. 

The driver pulled up at a taxi rank opposite a massive skyscaper still under construction. He pointed across the road towards our final destination. He couldn't take us any further as it was a pedestrianised zone.

We crossed the wide and surprisingly quiet road to the base of a skyscaper which going to be the Intercontinental Hotel and probably the tallest building in Tirana once finished.

We continued into Skanderbeg Square. It was once a massive traffic choked car park but was now a delightful wide open space, a very pleasant plaza. Although it was a massive empty space and (in my humble opinion) missing a central focal point.   

It did have an impressive statue of 15th century national hero Skanderbeg who led a rebellion against the Ottomans and is symbolic of Albanian resistance and struggle for independence. But it stood in one corner, at the edge of the square, near to the Et'hem Bej mosque.

"Now that would make a perfect focal point if it was moved to the middle." thought the frustrated town planner inside of me. 

We turned to look back at perhaps the most photographed image of the square, the facade of the National History Museum. Unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding and draped with an image of what we should have seen, a spectacular communist era (1980) mosaic mural of flag waving Albanians through the ages, from bow and arrow warriors to communist partisan liberators.

I was gutted not to have been able to see it but if it needed restoration then needs must and as always, we have another reason to return. 

We turned our attention back to the horse riding statue of Skanderbeg as we left the square in its direction. Whilst he was known by his nickname his name was actually Gjergi Kastriotit. He was a fine figure of a man, strong armed, large chested, steely eyed, everything a hero should look like.

We continued down the Boulevard Dėshmorėt e Kombit lined with some grand Italianete town houses, now government ministry offices.

At the crossroads we continued down the boulevard to another attraction I desperately wanted to see, the bizarre "Pyramid" of Tirana. Originally built as a museum to Enver Hoxha but it had fallen into disrepair after being abandoned in the 90s.

As we walked over the Lana river it became obvious that this "attraction" was also under restoration. Two metre tall boards surrounded it, obscuring the view, so we had to cross the road to catch a glimpse of the surreal white concrete structure.

We came to cafe called Bar West where we sat down for a drink. The waiter told us that he had heard the pyramid was about to be demolished and a new conference centre built.

Hopefully he was mistaken and they were indeed just restoring the building. There was something remarkable about it, something uniquely Triana. It wasn't the Eiffel Tower or Sydney's Opera House but it was Tirana's White Pyramid. It would be a great shame if it was lost.

Once we finished our drinks we began the return leg of our journey by taking a slight detour through Rinia (Youth) park , also known as Taiwan park.

I'm not too sure why Taiwan, although the futuristic pavillion overlooking the large pond with fountains was known as the Taiwan complex. It sounded like a politican statement, poking two fingers up at China with whom the relationship went sour.

Regardless of its name it was a lovely park, filled with families and couples relaxing.  In addition to the pool with fountains there was another water feature/modern art instalation called the Memorial to Pavarėsisė. The feng shui was strong contributing to a very pleasant space..

We contnued to admire the architecture as we returned to Boulevard Dėshmorėt e Kombit, some very futuristic in design, others a modern twist on the old. I read that many people aren't happy with the changes being made in the centre of Tirana but as outsiders I have to admit we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw.

We expected drab and dilapidated communist era decay but instead found a vibrant and colourful forward facing city. 

The scale of construction was on a different level. Everywhere you looked there was something new being built. I'm sure in another ten years it will be unrecognisable. We only hope it doesn't loose some of its heart in the process.   

Back in the square we walked up the steps to the front of the monumental Palace of Culture,  housing Tirana's Opera House and the National Library. It ran almost the entire length of the East side.

There was nothing attractive about it, just a rectangle. If anything deserved to be demolished it was this but it was still part of the fabric of Skanderbeg Square. It wouldn't be the same without it. 

We sat down for a drink at the Opera Cafe and spent some time deciding where to have supper. The only criterias were they had to be within a short walking distance of the square and reasonably highly rated.

Having come up with a shortlist of three restaurants we walked to the corner of the square where the mosque stood.

Looking closely at Et'hem Bej moqsue for the first time we realised how beautiful it was. The prayer hall  was surrounded by a portico, sealed with glass to keep out the elements, the top of its arches decorated with an intricate pattern. 

Our first choice, Restaurant Oda, wasn't far from the South East corner of the square.  We found it down an alleyway off the main road. The approach to it wasn't at all promsing, but the restaurant itself looked inviting. People raved about its traditional food on Tripadvisor.


We walked inside, then out into an inner courtyard. Waiters were buzzing around the tables but none came to greet us. I caught the attention of one and asked for a "table for two?" but he shook his head then buzzed off. 

So we left, disappointed.

Next restaurant on our list was a little further way. With Google maps activated we followed the directions through a large tourist souvenir market called Pazari i Ri. It was empty of tourists but then again it was almost 7pm.

We then followed Google's instructions down another backstreet. Thankfully it wasn't dark, it felt a little eerie even in broad daylight. Fortunately it was just a short cut to the main road on which we found Restaurant Shije Fshati.

We were unsure if we had found the right place at first as it was down some steps in the basement. A member of staff popped his head out at the bottom of the stairs and beckoned us down.

With the exception of one other diner the restaurant was empty. Our hearts sank further when the waiter brought a broadsheet newspaper sized menu with small images of each dish. It wasn't shouting out "quality restaurant" that's for sure.  

Things took an upturn when we ordered drinks and I had a local Tiranian beer called a Kugalashe. It wasn't particularly nice but it was authentic and local. 

I then saw fergesė on their menu, the dish I had made at home and enjoyed, the dish I wanted to try an authentic definitive version. This was also described as "verore" which meant summer. I hoped it wasn't served cold as the one I had in Porto Palermo.

It arrived, served warm and was a wonderful rustic blend of slow-cooked red and green peppers, onions and feta cheese with a hint of chilli. It tasted sublime.

Shije Fshati (the name of the restaurant), translates as the "taste of the village" and you could imagine this home cooked comfort food being served on tables up and down the country.

I also had a dish of spinch and egg. It had no specific name, just those two ingredients, baked and topped with a little cheese.

Julie's lamb was also very rustic but we were expecting that by now.

Whilst we waited to pay our bill we noticed they had colanders for lamp shades. We were undecided if that was clever or stupid. It was certainy different. 

The bill came to

We walked back towards Skanderbeg square, passing along the way a great mural at the end of a concrete apartment block turning it into a bookshelf. Now that was clever and not at all stupid.

A little further along, on the side of another block of flats, there was a mural of a young girl overlooking a really pretty period building.

At the taxi rank we walked up to the first taxi and asked "airport?" He nodded and we agreed a price of 2000 lek.

"Falerminderit" I said as we got in.

The driver turned to me and said "Respect"as he was ever so pleased I attempted to say "thank you" in Albanian. He spoke hardly any English but that didn't stop him from being very chatty. All I remember was his name was Atlen.

The sun was setting as we were  driven out of Tirana towards the airport. We passed along the way an industrial building, which I believe was partly a hotel, with a very large electronic billboard. It looked like a scene from a futuristic movie.

It was a waste of time as it was showing tv ads whose average length were at least 30 seconds. You could only see it if you were driving past and probably only spent 10 seconds looking at it. If you were lucky you could catch the end of one advert where they hit you with the tagline.

We made it back to the hotel before 8:30pm. Back in our room Julie ate a cake which she brought up from the bar downstairs. I ate the free biscuits left in the room.

Despite not having to get up early tomorrow we decided to have an early night, both of us fast asleep shortly after 9pm. It had been a long day.

  Next Day >>>  

©Copyright 2000 - 2022  Colin Owen