A Weekend in Albania

The Port of Saranda

The Port of Saranda

One of the beautiful things about Europe is how close everything is to each other. When I started looking into Corfu, I discovered that one of the suggested activities is to take a day trip to Albania to see Saranda (also spelled Sarandë) and the ancient ruins of Butrint. I found the idea of going to Albania very intriguing and after doing a little research decided to go for it. While most resources say 30 minutes on the ferry from Corfu town to Saranda, it was more like an hour and a half. Passport control and customs in Albania was surprisingly easy (of course since I was only going for the night I only had a small backpack) and entry into the country is free for U.S. citizens.

When I was on the ferry I was approached by a guy who asked if I was from the States. I confirmed that I was and he said his name was Albert and he was from Canada. He was in Albania visiting his family and was headed back to Saranda with his cousin. We chatted for a bit and when we got off the ferry, he invited me to join him and his cousin for coffee. Having no real plans, I joined them. While having coffee at a lovely cafe overlooking the bay, we were joined by a second cousin who came to pick them up. With Albert acting as an interpreter (they spoke very very little English and I speak zero Albanian), we made plans to head up to Lekursi Castle. This castle is now a restaurant and doesn’t offer much in the way of interesting history – but it does provide a great view of Saranda.

The main aisle of the Great Basilica at Butrint

The main aisle of the Great Basilica at Butrint

After the castle, I said I was going to try to head out to Butrint to see the ruins and everything there. Albert was planning to visit an uncle in another city about an hour away and Butrint was on the way so they would just take me if I wanted. Butrint is an ancient Greek city first founded around the 10th-8th century BC, but really built up by the Roman Emperor Augustus  in 44 BC. Before that it had been a small settlement, but the Romans added a large basilica and baptistry. After the fall of Rome, Butrint fell into the possession briefly of the First Bulgarian Empire before reverting back to the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century AD. It was purchased, along with Corfu by the Venetians in 1386. However, they were more interested in Corfu and didn’t pay Butrint much attention except to protect the fisheries. The area changed hands a few more times, including the French and the Ottomans before being conquered by the Ottoman governor Ali Pasha in 1799 and becoming part of the Republic of Albania upon their independence in 1912. However, by this time most of the site was abandoned and totally decrepit.

The ruins are quite impressive, especially of the theater, the basptistry and the basilica. Remains of the walls and the gates that protected the city can also been seen. The site overlooks the Vivari Channel, itself a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Butrint is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The captured American "spy plane" overlooks the city of Gjirokaster

The captured American “spy plane” overlooks the city of Gjirokaster

Offering to let me continue to tag along with them, we headed to Gjirokastër to meet with Albert’s uncle. While they caught up, his cousin and I had lunch and then went to check out the castle. Gjirokastër Castle is the second largest castle in the Balkans. Although the castle has existed in some form since before the 12th century AD, it wasn’t until Ali Pasha expanded it and added to it in the early 19th century that it attained its true majesty. From the castle, there are amazing views of the city, the surrounding mountains and the river valley.

The old part of town is really neat, with the houses and the streets still made out of stone, earning the town the designation of “museum town” and inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The majority of these houses were built in the 17th century and showcase typical Ottoman architecture. The castle is also home to the Armaments Museum, which I didn’t go into but several of the larger items (tanks and cannons) are on display outside, including an American Air Force plane that made an emergency landing in Albania in the 1950s – earning it the title of “American spy plane”.

After that we returned to Saranda, said goodbye to my amazing hosts and I checked into my hostel. Saranda is a very seasonal town, and since it was the off-season, I was the only one at the hostel. The next morning I got up and wandered around town a little. The town has grown immensely in the last five or ten years, and therefore most of the buildings (primarily hotels) are fairly new. With that, it was time to head back across the Ionian Sea to Corfu for my last few days in Greece.

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Athens (Greece, that is)

Since I took the ferry from Venice into Greece, this was my first time in Athens. Although I lived in Athens, Georgia for five months, I had a feeling that this Athens would be a little different. I took the bus from Nafplio after my short but sweet stay there and headed to my hostel. Athens has a metro system similar to D.C. so getting from the bus station outside of town to my hostel was fairly easy. I was a bit nervous since one of the other helpers at my first placement had his wallet stolen on the metro in Athens, but it wasn’t too crowded and I didn’t have any problems.

View of Athens from Areopagus hill

View of Athens from Areopagus hill

My hostel was in the Monasteraki section of town, most well-known for its large flea market. I arrived late in Friday so I didn’t have much time to see anything then. My hostel, Athenstyle was hosting a Halloween party in their rooftop bar. This was a good chance to chat with a few people from around the world and take in the view of the Acropolis, which is lit up each night and can be seen from around town. I called it an early night – or at least I meant to. Turns out, the street directly below my window at the hostel was hosting a large party for the Athens Public Art Festival. A large, VERY loud party that lasted until 2 am.

Needless to say, I was a little tired the next morning, but I set out to explore Athens – or at least hit the major highlights. I started with Kerameikos, which was on the border of the ancient city of Athens and contained two important gates into the city. Kerameikos was home to a major cemetery where elite Athenians were buried starting around 1200 BC. The cemetery was home to a huge number of elaborate grave markers, funerary urns and statues. This cemetery was also the home to a mass grave of plague victims that died during the Peloponnesian War. Some of the more important or interesting marker have been replicated and placed back along the “Street of Tombs” while the originals are housed in a museum at the site.

The next stop on my tour of Ancient Athens was the Ancient Agora of Athens (so called because it was replaced later by the Roman Agora). Each Greek city-state had its own agora, an area in the middle of town that was the athletic, artistic, commercial and governmental center of the city. The agora in Athens dates to the 6th or 7th century BC, and was built along the main street in Athens that leads to the Acropolis, the Panathenaic Way. This was the seat of Athens government and politics, including public forums and meetings to enact legislation. The neatest thing here was the Temple of Hephaestus, which is one of the best preserved and largest Doric temples in the world. It might look familiar to anyone who has visited Arlington National Cemetery – it was the inspiration for the Custis-Lee Mansion (aka Robert E. Lee’s house).

The back of the Parthenon has less visible construction equipment

The back of the Parthenon has less visible construction equipment

After a quick lunch, I headed out to climb the Acropolis and see the Parthenon. I had seen it from afar (it’s hard to miss) but I was excited to see it up close. However, most of the Parthenon and some of the other structures on the Acropolis are under serious renovation. The Parthenon was built in 438 BC and was built in honor of the patron goddess of Athens, Athena. Athena is the goddess “of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill” (per Wikipedia). In addition to being a temple, the Parthenon during its long history has also served as a treasury, a Christian church, a mosque, and most notably a munitions dump – which ignited during a Venetian bombardment in 1697 causing a major explosion that severely damaged the structure and its sculptures. The renovation aims to restore some of the structural integrity so that it doesn’t collapse any further.

Although a significant amount of the sculptures and carvings from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis were destroyed or stolen (several major ones can be found in the British Museum and a few in the Louvre), the new Acropolis Museum has about half on display. I went to the museum on Sunday, and was very impressed. The museum has a ton of artifacts, from small vases found on the slopes of the Acropolis to recreations of the metropes and statues from the other buildings. The most interesting was the five cartytids (female sculptures that are used as columns) from the Erechtheion, which is a temple dedicated to Poseidon as well as Athena.  The Acropolis Museum is quite impressive and must-do in Athens.

On Sunday, I was delighted to find out it was a free museum day. From November-March (low season for tourism) the first Sunday of the month is free entry to archaeological sites and most museums*. I started with the big one – the National Archaeological Museum. This museum is the largest archaeological museum in Greece and as you might imagine, one of the most important museums in the world for Ancient Greek artifacts and art. According to their website, they have more than 11,000 exhibits. I spent a couple of hours wandering around checking out pottery, vases, statues and other art works from all over Greece and especially Athens. I also stopped at the National Historical Museum, because hey, free museum! This museum while small, had an interesting collection of traditional Greek costumes, assorted artifacts from the Greek War of Independence and even King Otto’s throne.

The Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis is in the background.

The Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis is in the background.

Other stops on Sunday included Hadrian’s Arch, completed in about 132 AD on the occasion of the dedication of my next stop: the Temple of the Olympian Zeus by Emperor Hadrian. This destroyed temple is one of my favorites – all that remains of the 104 columns that held up the place are 15 columns still standing and a 16th on ground (knocked over by a storm in 1852). This temple took more than six centuries to finish – after several interruptions for various wars and invasions. During the Roman Era, it was the largest temple in Greece. I also stopped by Hadrian’s Library (the same Emperor Hadrian) and the Roman Agora.

As you can tell, it was a busy two days in Athens. Next stop is my second HelpX placement on the Ionian island of Corfu.

*NOT the Acropolis Museum

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Nafplio, Greece’s first capital

After two rainy days in Pylos, I decided to head closer to Athens and check out Nafplio. Of course, it took three buses (Pylos to Kalamata, Kalamata to Korinthos, Korinthos to Nafplio) to get there but there weren’t any other major transportation woes. I arrived in the late afternoon, settled into my hotel and headed out to explore Nafplio.

Nafplio’s main claim to fame is that it served as the first capital of newly independent Greece, from 1821-1834. Over the history of the area, it was controlled by the Venetian Empire, the Ottoman Empire (1540), back to the Venetians briefly (1685) before being retaken by the Ottomans (1715) and then finally the Greeks during the Greek War of Independence (1822). Despite all this back and forth, the town has maintained a very Venetian/Italian feel. The streets are dotted with gelaterias and Italian restaurants, and the town is in the shadow of the Palamidi Fortress, a great Venetian castle. This was actually the last overseas construction project that the Venetians undertook before their empire collapsed.

Nafplio from Palamidi Fortress somewhere around step 700.

Nafplio from Palamidi Fortress somewhere around step 700.

I had a wonderful dinner of Italian gnochi (potato dumplings) and limoncello (lemon liqueur). And of course, gelato. I had a wonderful chili-dark chocolate gelato from what Lonely Planet says is “the best (yes, best) traditional gelati outside Italy.” While I haven’t had a lot of gelato outside of Italy, this was pretty good. In fact, it might have been better than what I had in Italy (blasphemy, I know).

The next day I got up early in order to see some of the sights before heading to Athens. The main sight, of course, is the Palamidi Fortress. According to people who know lots about Greek castles (there’s a whole website!), it is a “huge, well-maintained and probably the best castle in Greece and the finest sample of the Venetian fortifications in Greece.”

Palamidi Fortress

Palamidi Fortress

Another reason that I got up early was to tackle the stairs leading up to the top. Legend has it that there are 999 steps from the town to the castle, but most counts vary from this convenient number. I didn’t count but I can tell you it felt like at least a thousand. These steps cover the 216 meters to the top, so they are pretty steep as well. However, the view during the climb and from the top is worth the effort! The fortress consists of a number of bastions from which guards kept watch for enemy ships (there were a lot of them) and other intruders.

After exploring the bastions and the rest of the castle, I climbed back down the 999 (ish) steps back into town. After a quick lunch, I grabbed my stuff and headed for the bus to Athens.

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Pylos and Methoni

After my adventures with the bus system in Greece, I was happy to settle in one place (even if it was only for two nights). I ended up staying in a nice hotel (if a little outdated) that had a great view of the water – and not just the pouring rain. When I checked into the hotel, the receptionist was taking my passport when she saw my visa from my visit to Zambia last year and was very excited. Turns out, the owner of the hotel lived in Africa for almost 40 years – including more than 15 in Zambia.

After I found this out, I noticed that the fabric decorating my room was, in fact, chitenge. Also in the dining room interspersed between naval scenes, were paintings depicting rural life in Zambia. I took this coincidence as a great sign for my stay in Pylos – despite the rain. Visiting seaside villages in the off-season can be great – the room was cheap and the first night I was literally the only guest in the hotel; however, there is a reason that people don’t visit these places during that time of year.

View from the MIramare Hotel during one of the rain breaks

View from the MIramare Hotel during one of the rain breaks

Pylos is located on Navarino Bay, one of the largest natural harbors in Greece. Navarino Bay was the site of one of the most decisive battles during the Greek War of Independence, a naval battle known as the Battle of Navarino. It was in 1827 when the allied forces of Britain, France and Russia defeated (almost totally destroying) a much larger Ottoman armada with boats from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey. The intent at the time wasn’t to have a huge battle, but to persuade the Turks to leave. As Lonely Planet puts it, “things got somewhat out of hand.” Apparently when he heard about the battle, the King of England, George IV was embarrassed and called it a ‘deplorable misunderstanding.’ I visited the Rene Puaux Museum that houses paintings, engravings and artifacts from this battle. I was also the only one there. Puaux was a French journalist and philhellene (a lover of Greeks and Greek culture).

View of the Methoni bourtzi (tower)

View of the Methoni bourtzi (tower)

I decided that a day trip to Methoni would be enough to see the castle and check out the town. I took the bus from Pylos to Methoni (about 30 minutes), leaving as the rain looked to be clearing up and returned four hours later under a threatening sky. While I was in Methoni, the weather cooperated as I explored the Methoni Castle. I’m not going to lie, this visit was prompted by this pin on Pinterest. Instead of cute crafts or fancy food, I can now say I use Pinterest to plan trips. The Methoni Castle has two parts – the main castle and an octagonal tower that juts out into the sea. This tower was used as a watchtower, lighthouse and a last resort safe haven in case of siege. People in Methoni had experience with sieges, with control of the town and the castle being passed back and forth between the Venetians and the Ottomans. Besides the castle, Methoni has some great beaches and great seafood. After a few hours in Methoni, it was time to head back to Pylos – where it rained all afternoon and night.

The next morning, I had a little time before catching my next bus so I checked out the castle in Pylos town. This was a bit of a disappointment as it could be really great, with an amazing view but instead is totally overgrown, filled with trash and used as a garage to store wagons, tractors and other farm equipment. After that I headed out to Nafplio via Kalamata and Corinth.

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Ancient Olympia

Due to a change in schedules, I left from my first work placement a few days earlier than I had planned. At first it was a bit frustrating, but I understand that peoples’ schedules change – plus it gave me a great chance to get out and see some more of Greece and especially throughout the Peloponnese. I decided to tag along with my fellow co-helpers with a trip to Ancient Olympia.

We got lucky and the day we had to leave was a day that the shorter bus route from Tripoli to Olympia ran. This route runs across the mountains and only operates on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The ride took about three hours and traversed through picturesque mountain villages, some with impossibly narrow streets and bridges that I wasn’t sure if our bus would fit through. But somehow we managed and we arrived safely in Olympia. The town of Olympia is nothing special – two main streets and loads of souvenir shops and tourist-trap restaurants.

The Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia

The Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia

Olympia is home to Ancient Olympia, which is of course home of the Olympic Games. The original Olympic Games were held every four years from 776 BC until the Roman emperor and ended them in 394 AD (1170 years or about 292 Olympiads).  Events included foot races (with and without armor), chariot races, boxing, wrestling, jumping and other equestrian events.

The games were held in honor of Zeus, so it is only fitting that the largest structure in Ancient Olympia is the Temple of Zeus. The Temple of Zeus was home to one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the giant Statue of Zeus that was made of ivory and gold plating over a wooden structure (the technical term is chryselephantine sculpture) and was 42 ft (13 m) tall.  The statue itself, however was destroyed in unknown circumstances. The most common theory is that it was looted and carted off to Constantinople (Istanbul) where it was destroyed in a fire in 475 AD. The temple itself was destroyed in an earthquake around 551 AD. One of the columns was reconstructed to give visitors a sense of the scale, while the rest of the columns lay in chunks around the temple.

The Palaestra at Ancient Olympia, training ground for many athletes

The Palaestra at Ancient Olympia, training ground for many athletes

There are several other interesting buildings at Ancient Olympia, in various stages of ruin. My favorite was the palaestra, the training grounds for the boxers, wrestlers and jumpers. During the month leading up the Olympics, athletes arrived from their respective city-states, under an Olympic truce, ceasing all hostilities in Greece. The athletes trained together at Olympia before competing in what grew from a one day competition to five full days of competition. Of course only Greek men and boys were allowed to compete – and to watch the events.

One of the coolest things about Ancient Olympia is the Stadium. The Stadium was home to many of the events, most notably the foot races. There weren’t stands or bleachers, but up to 45,000 people (men) could watch from the grassy slopes surrounding the track. About 200 meters long, the track is evident and filled with people fulfilling their Olympic fantasies. There were lots of races, and dozens of people posing as if they were starting a race. Everyone was feeling the Olympic spirit!

Stadium at Ancient Olympia

Stadium at Ancient Olympia

We ventured to two museums, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Olympic Games in Antiquity. The Archaeological Museum contains statues, pottery and other artifacts from the site at Ancient Olympia and Ancient Greece. Of note are the murals from the Temple of Zeus, the Nike (Goddess of Victory, not shoes) from the temple, and the Hermes of Praxis that was found in the Temple of Hera. This museum focuses more on the life and architecture of Ancient Greece, while the second museum focuses more on the games themselves.

Overall, Olympia was a very cool thing to see and picture the Ancient Greeks running, boxing and jumping. The Olympic Games have changed over the nearly three thousand years since they started, but the Olympic spirit remains strong around the world.

 

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The Risks (and Rewards) of Winging It

Well, I’d say Tuesday was a change in plans – but I didn’t have much of a plan to start out with. After a trip to Ancient Olympia, I still had three nights to kill before heading to Athens. I was waffling between heading to Methoni and Napflio. Methoni is located down on the very southwestern tip of the Peloponnese and is most well known for being the home to a great castle that was once captured by the Venetians. On the other side, Napflio is significantly closer to Athens and was the first capital of Greece and another former Venetian stronghold. I decided to just wing it and let my fortunes fall as they may and end up wherever I end up. Travelling like this is equal parts exhilarating and nervewracking, with a healthy dose of anticipation and terror thrown in as well. Part of the reason that I wasn’t able to make a decision is that I didn’t have the information on transportation – I knew both locations would require at least two bus changes, but I had no idea where or what times the buses would depart.

Public transportation in Greece means the bus. And each region has its own bus – and even though they are all part of the same KTEL system – each regional bus operates on its own and doesn’t necessarily communicate with the others. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some of the buses have good websites with helpful information in both English and Greek, but the ones I was looking at have terrible websites, only in Greek. So I figured my best bet to figure out which bus I needed to take was just to ask at the station in Pyrgos, the main town that connects with Olympia.

With this plan in mind I set out from Olympia early, attempting to catch the 7:30 bus to Pyrgos. Due to the holiday schedule or misinformation, the bus didn’t actually come until 8:00. About 45 minutes later, I arrived in Pyrgos. Asking at the ticket counter, I was told the best way to get to Methoni would be to travel to Kyparissia and then from there it would be easy to get to Methoni. Despite what I had figured out from the guidebook and from the internet that would be easiest to get to Methoni from Kalamata (the next major town past Kyparissia), I went with the advice of the ticket counter and headed to Kyparissia.

Here’s where things go really off the rails: once I arrived in Kyparissia, I was told there was no bus to Methoni or Pylos (a larger town near Methoni), only to a town called Hora (sometimes spelled Chora). But the good news was, it was coming soon. So I got on the third bus of the day and headed to Hora. The minute I stepped off the bus, I realized I had made a mistake. The bus dropped me randomly on the street in what appeared to be the middle of town with no indication of a bus station or even a shop selling tickets. Of course there is no one around who speaks English, either. I decide to make a halfhearted attempt at hitchhiking – Pylos is only 21 kilometers away – but then it starts to rain.

After making a loop of the town trying to find something that looks like a bus station, I give up and park myself under a large umbrella near where the bus dropped me off earlier. After sitting here for another hour and a half, finally someone attempts to ask me what I’m doing there instead of just staring. From here, we figure out that the bus station is the convenience store I passed more than once – with a tiny sign and bus schedule in the window. Of course, there are no more buses in the direction I want to go for the day. So at this point my options are stay in Hora or get a taxi to Pylos. I decide to take a taxi and get this day over with. 25 Euros later, I’m in Pylos at a nice hotel (with a nice off-season price!). So it might not be what I planned for the day, but Pylos is a picturesque town (when it isn’t raining) on Navarino Bay, one of the largest natural harbors in Greece.

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Mysteries of Mystras

Mystras is an ancient Byzantine city located about eight kilometers from the town of Sparti and Ancient Sparta. While not as well known as Sparta, what remains is far more impressive. Located on the top of a mountain for defensive purposes, it served as the capital of the Byzantine holdings in the area during the 14th and 15th centuries. After that it passed through a few hands, notably the Venetians (from 1687-1715) and the Ottoman Empire. According to Lonely Planet it is “one of the most important historical sites in the Peloponnese.”

Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras

Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras

The town is split into three main sections: the lower town, the upper town and the fortress (castle). If you visit, I would recommend starting at the Fortress Gate at the top and walking (or driving) down to the lower part to avoid having to walk back up. Even from the Fortress Gate, the hike to the top of the mountain where the remains of the castle are is brief but steep. The view from the castle ruins is amazing – not only can you see the ruins from the other parts of the town, you can also look out over the rows and rows of olive and orange trees, to modern Sparti and Ancient Sparta, and the mountains that shield the settlement on the other side.

Wandering down the hill, we came across a number of beautiful buildings and lots of remains of what were surely beautiful buildings a mere 700 years ago. A majority of the ruins have been restored and many are still in good shape. There are several churches, a palace (currently closed for restoration), as well as a number of walls and built terraces to keep everything (and everyone) in their place. The museum is small but worth a quick look.

View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta

View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta

Restoration work has been underway since the 1950s. The ruins were named a World Heritage Site in 1989, including the castle, the palace, the churches and the monasteries. One of the monasteries, the Monastery of Pantanassa is still functioning. When we visited, we mostly saw cats but we did see one nun (who then tried to sell us some dish towels). The modern town of Mystras caters heavily to visitors, with many tavernas and small shops and is located just down the hill about two kilometers.

This site is well worth a visit if you are in the Peloponnese. While it might not have the name recognition of Sparta, the ruins are in much better shape and there are great signs explaining the city and the buildings, as well as about life in the Byzantine Era in general. Mystras is well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee.

 

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