Let’s Talk about Greek Food

Food is Greece is an important part of the culture. Many people are familiar with Greek food – gyros and Greek salad are menu staples that transcend Greek food. Greek food is full of flavor, commonly seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme, basil and other fresh herbs. Lemon and olive oil are common bases for sauces and soups. Greeks are very welcoming and love sharing their food with you. Several of the restaurants I went to gave me a free dessert, which were all amazing. Honey is the main sweetener used, and fresh fruit is popular as well. When I was in Greece in October and November, it was pomegranate, orange, and mandarin season.

Olives and olive oil are abundant as well. I actually passed through Kalamata, home of the olive of the same name. These olives are popular since they are larger and meatier than other olive varietals. Olives are packed in brine or olive oil and keep until the next year. Green olives and black olives are the same olives, but picked at different parts of their maturation process. Olives in Greece are almost always served with the pits in them. Olive oil is used in anything that needs oil – even for light frying. Greece has the purest olive oil in the world and it is pretty tasty.

Here are a few other tasty things I ate during my time in Greece:

Feta cheese: The most common cheese in Greece, feta is served in slabs as an appetizer, atop Greek salads, and as a snack. Sometimes it is served with olive oil and oregano drizzled on top. This salty cheese is made by brining cheese curds made from sheep’s milk (or a combo of sheep and goat milk) and stored in the brine to preserve it.

Greek salad with a Corfu Beer - perfect combination!

Greek salad with a Corfu Beer – perfect combination!

Greek coffee: A thick, foamy coffee served with the grounds. Boiled over an open flame in metal pot used specially for coffee, it is usually served very sweet and very hot. There are varying levels of sweetness and strongness. Although it is a small amount of coffee (about the same as a cup of espresso), it is a great start to the morning. Don’t drink the grounds (unless you like coffee grounds, then drink away!).

Greek salad: Similar to a Greek salad that you would find on many menus in the U.S. except for the notable distinction that a true Greek salad does not have lettuce. Usually made with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives (with the pits), onion, green pepper and a slab of feta cheese on top. The dressing is usually heavy on oregano and olive oil. This is a great side dish or light meal, especially in the summer when these veggies are at their peak freshness.

Greek yogurt with honey

Greek yogurt with honey

Greek yogurt: Now pretty common in the U.S., Greek yogurt is a high-protein, thick yogurt with no flavors added. Greek yogurt is commonly eaten for breakfast or dessert, usually with honey. It is also used as a base for dips and sauces.

Chicken gyro in Athens

Chicken gyro in Athens

Gyros: First off, stop saying ji-ROS. It’s pronounced more like YEUR-o. Here’s a helpful video. Moving on, a gyro is the Greek equivalent of a fast food hamburger: ubiquitous, cheap, portable, quick and most importantly, delicious! Before coming to Greece, a gyro was pretty much the extent of my experience with Greek food.  A warm pita filled with meat (usually lamb or chicken), french fries, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce – either a mayo/ketchup hybrid or tzatziki sauce (see below).

Mousakka: The Greek version of lasagna, this is a layered casserole made with eggplant, potatoes, meat sauce and Bechamel sauce. The meat is flavored with tomatoes, garlic and onions. This is a hearty dish, perfect after a long day of touring monuments and museums – or working!

Prawn souvlaki with chips in Methoni

Prawn souvlaki with chips in Methoni

Souvlaki: Basically a meat kabob, souvlaki can be made from pretty much any meat, but chicken and pork are the most common. These are usually cheap (2-3 Euros) for a skewer of meat, making it cheap – and filling. The meat is usually marinated before being placed on the grill, and they are brushed with olive oil, lemon and seasonings (oregano, garlic, etc.) while on the grill and after. Souvlaki can be eaten by itself or on a pita with toppings similar to those in a gyro – tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, onion, etc.

Tyropita (cheese pie): Made from phyllo dough, a flaky, thin pastry crust; and filled with cheese, these pies are easily portable and delicious. A variety of cheeses can be used, but a mix with feta is the most common. Cheese pies are a great breakfast or snack during the day, especially when they are served warm.

Tzatziki: A dip or sauce made from Greek yogurt, lots of garlic, and cucumbers. Most of the tzatziki I had in Greece did not have dill, but a few did. Tzatziki is a great sauce for gyros, a dip for French fries or pita, and even by itself.

Similar to Italy, my advice would be to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. Many of the places I visited were near the sea, so there was an abundance of fresh, amazing seafood, including prawns, kalamari, and a variety of fish. So go beyond gyros and really experience the fresh and vibrant flavors that Greek food has to offer!

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Let’s talk about Italian food

Obviously, one of the first things thatcomes to your mind when you think about Italy isfood. I can’t lie, I do love a good trip to Olive Garden, but what I experienced in only two weeks in Northern Italy  and Rome is so far beyond amazing that it is hard to describe. However, I will try my best. Here are some of the highlights (in alphabetical order, it was the only way that seemed fair).

Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como

Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como

Bresaola: This is a thinly sliced beef that has been salted and air-dried for two or three months to a dark, almost purple hue. Similar to American chipped beef, this is common in far northern Italy, including the Lake Como region. I had it by itself, in sandwiches, and even on pizza. One of the most popular ways this meat is served as an appetizer with rocket and parmesan cheese.

Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice

Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice

Cuttlefish ink: The cuttlefish is a member of the same family as squid and octopus, and serving it in a sauce of its own ink is a traditional Venetian speciality. Although it looks a little strange due to the deep black color, the taste is very mild and a little salty. The flavor is not too fishy or overwhelming. Pasta made with cuttlefish ink is another option, with the black color of the pasta providing a unique look to regular spaghetti.

Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome

Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome

Gelato: No doubt you have at least heard of gelato, which is basically ice cream. The process for making gelato is bit different, and it is a little lower in fat than traditional ice cream. While not a huge fan of ice cream, I did appreciate gelato for the wide range and uniqueness of flavors available. I tried cream, pistachio, coffee, hazelnut, Nutella, salted caramel and a few other flavors. My favorite was a Disaronno (amaretto) flavor.

Panzerotti: Kind of like a softer fried meat pie or calzone, this was one of the specialities in Milan. We tried the classic tomato and mozzarella and were not disappointed. Although it can be messy to eat this “pizza donut” (as Chelsey calls it) would be right at home at the Iowa State Fair. These are also available at Italian McDonalds.

Pecorino: A hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, pecorino is a common staple on cheese boards, breakfast buffets and sandwiches. Although occasionally gritty, it has a nice, smooth flavor that stands on its own, as well as blending with meats, honey or jam.

Truffles: A member of the fungi family, truffles have long been treasured for their complex flavor. We were very lucky that we were travelling through Tuscany, the heart of Italy’s truffle production during truffle season. Especially in Siena and Florence, dishes with truffle were prevalent on many menus. The woody, mushroomy flavor of truffles added to gnochi (potato dumplings), risotto, and pasta was truly amazing. Truffles come in both white and black varieties, with white being rarer and therefore more expensive.

The biggest advice I can give about food in Italy is not to be afraid to try something out of the ordinary. As with most cuisine types, the actual food is very different from what we have Americanized it into being. Don’t stick with the turisto menu of lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese; try something new. If something is speciality in the area where you are, try it! There is a reason it is a speciality, it’s probably delicious. Try the strangest gelato flavor, the weird-shaped noodles and the dishes you’ve never heard of. After all, you can have as much chicken ziti as you want next time at Olive Garden, but who knows when you’ll be in Italy again.

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…Do as the Romans Do.

After a successful day in Vatican City, I decided to dedicate my second full day in Rome to the Colosseum and Ancient Rome.

Up close and personal with the Colosseum

Up close and personal with the Colosseum

The Colosseum is something that absolutely lived up to its larger-than-life reputation. I walked from my hostel near Termini Station to the Colosseum in order to see a little more of Rome. Just as I was starting to wonder where it was – I looked down the street and was blown away by how big the Colosseum was. The Colosseum also won the award for the longest wait time of any attraction I visited in Italy, with an almost 30-minute wait.

The inside of the Colosseum is less impressive,  but it is very cool to walk around and take in the view from each side, trying to picture 55,000 or so screaming spectators watching a pair of gladiators fight to the death or a lion or elephant being hunted down below. While most of the stage is gone, one section has been restored. The part that is not covered shows the ancient aquaducts. It’s amazing that this building is nearly 2,000 years old.

After a tour around the Colosseum, I headed over to Ancient Rome. This site includes the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and several temples and churches. Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome. Located in the center of the seven, it is the middle hill and the most important in Roman mythology. It is here that the cave that sheltered Romulus and Remus and kept alive by the she-wolf. Of course,  Romulus and Remus later fought about where to put the new city and Romulus killed Remus (thus the name of “Rome”). Historical evidence does support that people have been living there since 1000 BC. The Palatine Hill overlooks the Roman Forum on one side and the the Circus Maximus (ancient chariot racing stadium).

The Palatine is home to the remains of several aristocratic homes, including the one that is believed to be the home of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. Rome’s subsequent emperors including Tiberius and Domitian also had their palaces here, and eventually the hill was home to one giant palace, called the Palatium. The Latin word for Palatine, Palatium is actually the root of the word palace.

The remains of Ancient Rome

The remains of Ancient Rome

The Roman Forum is the remains of the main marketplace of Ancient Rome. Similar to the Agora in Greece, most large cities had a similar forum for conducting commerce, catching up on news, giving speeches, and other important events. Along with the commercial center of the city, near the forum were other important government and religious buildings, including several churches and temples.

Since this was my last night in Rome, Italy and Europe, I went all out for my last big meal. I started with an antipasto of bresaola,  rocket and parmesan; followed by a main dish of a typical Roman dish of Bombolotti al Tamatriciana con guanciale di amatrice e pecororino romano (short pasta tubes with a spicy tomato, guanciale (similar to bacon), and pecorino cheese). While the pasta was a little more al dente then I would have preferred, it was still delicious! For dessert, my waiter brought me a shot of limoncello, a strong, sweet lemon liqueur that is a traditional after-dinner drink. It was the perfect last supper in Italy.

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Since my flight wasn’t until Sunday night, I still had most of the day to wander around Rome. I started the morning by attending mass at the Basilica Papele di Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome. It is a Papal Basilica, which means that the pope can (and does) use it. I actually ended up at the Latin mass, which was interesting even if I only understood half a dozen words. By my count there were at least 30 priests, counting the Archpriest and other assorted super-priests (not sure of their official titles), which is probably more than there are at church most Sundays in Corning.

After mass, I wandered around and checked out some of the other sights in Rome including Piazza Navona, my favorite piazza. Piazza Navona is home to the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), which represents the major river from each of the four continents that were under the papal authority when the fountain was designed in 1651 by Bernini. The four rivers represented are the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia), and the Río de la Plata (America).

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona

I also stopped by the Campo de’ Fiori, another square that hosts a huge open-air market with vegetables, clothes, and other food items. I also went to the Pantheon, which is one of the best preserved Ancient Roman buildings. This Roman temple was first commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and rebuilt in 126 AD by the emperor Hadrian. The reason for the preservation is that it has been in use since it was built, including for the last 14 centuries as a Catholic Church. I also stopped by the Spanish Steps.

As my time in Rome drew to a close, I reflected on the amazing opportunities I had in Italy and in Greece. It was an incredible adventure and I am very lucky that I was able to do it. My advice? If you have the means, motive and opportunity to travel – do it!

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When in Rome…

Technically this was my second time in Rome, but since the first time I was there for less than 24 hours, I considered this my first real trip to Rome. The reason I planned my trip this way (starting and ending in Rome) was because when I decided to change my trip from two days to two months, it was cheaper to change the dates of my flight out of Rome (even with the added transportation costs to/from Greece) than switching my flight to go out of Athens. Plus it gave me a great chance to explore one of the great cities of the world.

I flew from Athens to Rome. When I flew into Rome the first time, we took a taxi to our apartment. However, since I was alone this time (and not so jetlagged) I tackled public transportation. Similar to Athens, the airport is about 30 kilometers from the city center. Both airports are easily accessible by train – however, the Rome (FCO) airport is a non-stop, 40-minute train ride to Termini Station instead of a multi-stop, hour and half to the Athens airport from Syntagma Square.

After arriving at my hostel, the first order of business was food. It was late afternoon so I decided to take it easy and wander around and see what there was to see. I ended up in the San Lorenzo area and figured it was time for a glass of wine so I ducked into a small bar for apertivo. Along with my glass of wine, there were a couple kinds of pasta, salads, bread and other appetizers available for an extra 1.50. The apertivo is a fantastic deal – especially if you are travelling on a budget!

The next day I headed  to Vatican City. The first thing I noticed after getting off the metro was the incredible amount of tour guides trying to drum up business. Many offer tours that allow you the opportunity to ‘skip the line’. However, being the low season, there wasn’t much in the way of lines, so even as much as I hate waiting in line, it wasn’t even close to being worth it (especially at nearly twice the price). Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free, and I waited in line for about 15 minutes – roughly the same amount of time I waited in line to see San Marco’s in Venice.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square is an amazing place, so waiting in line wasn’t too bad. The church itself is beautiful, although it isn’t as ornate outside as some other cathedrals that I visited in Italy, although it is much larger than most of them. The square is surrounded by massive Tuscan colonnades, topped with In the center of the square is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk that is approximately 4400 years old and has been in Vatican City since 1586. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Rome and I enjoyed wandering around the basilica and the square.

Next stop was the Vatican Museums, which house the collection of the Catholic Church. Founded in the early 16th century, the Vatican Museums are actually more than 50 galleries, and 2013 was the 5th most visited art museum in the world. On the way to the museum, I was again assailed by tour guides begging me to go on a tour. These tour guides were the most frustrating thing about Vatican City. While they can be found throughout Rome, they seemed especially aggressive around the Vatican Museums. Again, while definitely busy, the lines weren’t terrible and nothing was too crowded.

The collection is amazing, with works of art from Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio,  and lots of other well-known artists. Of course the main draw at the museums is the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. This was the only place in Italy that I visited where the ‘no photo’ rule was strictly enforced. Along with art and other relics amassed by various popes over the past 5oo years, there are also papal artifacts, including stamps, personal effects and Popemobiles of all kinds – sedia gestatoria (gestatorial chair; a fancy throne used to literally carry the Pope on your shoulders), carriages and modern-era vehicles. After a few hours exploring the museums and grounds, I headed back into the city center.

The eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I wandered around and encountered Il Vittoriano, or the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II).  This this a massive monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Italy (1861-1878). Completed in 1925, according to Wikipedia it is 135 m (443 ft) wide and 70 m (230 ft) high – so yeah, it’s huge. All columns and statues and fountains and winding staircases and stark white marble, this structure is excessive and somehow perfect. I know it’s totally tacky and all dignified visitors and Italians hate it, but I actually kinda loved it. In the front, below a statue of the goddess Roma is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider that holds unidentified remains from WWI.

I went up to the roof to check out the best 360 degree view in Rome and was not disappointed. From the top of the Vittoriano you can see across Rome, including Ancient Rome.  There is also a great museum on the experience of Italian emigrants, including those that emigrated to the U.S. While I am a fairly typical American mutt, there isn’t any Italian blood in my family, but I still enjoyed this small museum. After this, I was exhausted and headed back to the hostel and to another amazing Italian dinner.

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Corfu Town

I spent just over two weeks on the island of Corfu with a HelpX placement. Corfu is a beautiful island in the Ionian Sea, off the northwestern coast of Greece. The main port and town is Corfu Town, which has been an important trading post, military post, and cultural center for hundreds of years. As the island passed from the Venetians to the British, Corfu Town served as the center for whichever government was in charge. Corfu was especially important to the Venetians due to its strategic position between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians kept control of Corfu for more than 400 years, the longest they held any overseas possession.

Corfu Town is flanked by two large fortresses, appropriately called the “New Fortress” and the “Old Fortress”. Both were primarily built by the Venetian Empire, but the British made some improvements at the Old Fortress during their period of rule from 1815-1864. These fortresses made Corfu one of the most heavily fortified cities and showed the value that the Venetians placed on the island. They also were responsible for keeping the island out of Ottoman hands – one of the few places in Greece.

Corfu Town from the New Fortress

Looking over Corfu Town, including the Old Fortress from the New Fortress

There are two reasons to visit the New Fortress: it’s free and the view is amazing. While there isn’t much left of historical interest, there is a coffee shop/bar overlooking the town and over to the Old Fortress. Building started around 1577, although all the current buildings in the fort date to the time of British rule. There isn’t much to see here besides the view.

While the ‘new’ fortress is still more than 400 years old, the ‘old’ fortress earns the title from the fact that it has been some sort of fortification for almost 1500 years. After a devastating invasion by the Goths in the 6th century, the people of Corfu moved into the fortress where they would be protected. To further protect the fortress after an Ottoman siege, a moat was added during the mid-16th century that helped repel the Ottomans during their two subsequent attacks on Corfu. A visit to the Old Fortress is rewarded with great information, fabulous views of the sea and of Corfu Town and a chance to look back at the history of Corfu. I recommend climbing up to the lighthouse to get the best view.

A side street in Corfu's historic Old Town

A side street in Corfu’s historic Old Town

Corfu’s Old Town is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site, as “The urban and port ensemble of Corfu, dominated by its fortresses of Venetian origin, constitutes an architectural example of outstanding universal value in both its authenticity and its integrity.” The Old Town is full of Italianate buildings, cute souvenir shops, restaurants and bakeries. It’s well worth wandering around for a couple of hours exploring the streets and squares. Traces of the British occupation can also be seen, especially in the love of cricket that persists on the island (and no where else in Greece).

Corfu Town is a great place to get acquainted with the island. There are several ferries that come into Corfu’s New Port from Italy, Albania and other places in Greece. However, the schedules vary considerably during the year, and in the off-season, the best way to get to the island is probably to fly. Aegean Airlines offers several flights a day,and I was impressed with their service. However, Corfu is prone to large storms and pouring rain, so be prepared for a potential delay. My only flight delay of my entire two month trip was an hour getting out of Corfu due to a storm. After I finally got out of Corfu, it was back to Athens for a day before heading to Rome.

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HelpX in Corfu

Corfu (sometimes known as Kerkyra) is the second largest island in the Ionian Sea and is located just off the northwestern coast of Greece. I spent just over two weeks on the island as part of my second HelpX placement. I’m glad I did two placements in Greece, since life and work on an island is very different than life and work on the mainland. Corfu is known as one of the greenest Greek islands due to the high rainfall the island receives. Agriculture and fishing are the main industries, in addition to a huge tourism industry across the island.

First, some history on the island: Corfu was the longest-held overseas possession of the Venetian Empire. The Venetian influence can be seen across the island, with Italian-style architecture, Italian restaurants and two Venetian fortresses framing either side of Corfu Town. The Ionian Islands became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1815, and the British influence can also been seen, most noticeably in the love of cricket that still exists on the island. The island became part of Greece in 1864. During World War II, the island was occupied first by Italian forces and secondly by the Germans before being liberated by the British. It is said that the island is still occupied each summer by Germans and British – but at least now they are paying for the privilege. The island is especially popular for British expats.

Olive Oil with labels I helped finish

Olive Oil with labels I helped finish

The family I stayed with lives about ten kilometers north of Corfu Town. Apostolos and Christina, along with their two kids Stefanos and Daphne were very welcoming and a great family to spend some time with. Going in, the plan was to help out around the farm and help pick olives. However, this year was a bad year for olives and there weren’t many to harvest. There are several different ways that olives are harvested, and in Corfu the majority of olives are harvested by placing large nets under the tree to catch the ripen fruit when it falls naturally. Even though I didn’t end up picking any olives, I had the opportunity to work with the trees and the finished olive oil quite a bit.

 

An olive tree before I removed the lichen and ivy growing on it

An olive tree before I removed the lichen and ivy growing on it

The majority of the time, I worked on removing lichen from the branches of the olive trees with steel wool. These lichens must be removed manually so that they do not drain resources away from the olive trees and olives. While considered a “small” grove by most standards, there are about 200 trees – I didn’t get to them all. Also every day I was responsible for helping to feed the cats, goats and chickens at the farm.

On rainy days (of which there were a couple), I helped with filling in labels on the olive oil that was produced with last year’s crop. Each label needed to be filled in with the information on the variety of olives, expiration date and acidity information and then affixed to the bottles. This was olive oil left from last season’s harvest.

The beach at Ipsos empty in November despite the beautiful weather

The beach at Ipsos empty in November despite the beautiful weather

Besides working, I had a couple of great opportunities to explore the island. One Sunday I borrowed a bike and biked across the island to the resort town of Ipsos. I hung out here at the beach and read for a little while. Much of Corfu closes down during the off-season from November to mid-April, including shops, restaurants and bars so the town was pretty empty. While I was at the beach on a beautifully sunny 70-something degree day, there were only about five other people. While it was too cold for swimming, I did wade a bit and enjoy the solitude of the beach in the off-season. This was my first taste of how dependent Corfu is on seasonal tourism.

 

La Grotta at Paleokastritsa

La Grotta at Paleokastritsa

On the last day of my work with Apostolos and Christina, I went across to the western part of the island of Paleokastritsa. Corfu is widely accepted to be the mythical island of the Phaeacians, which was the last stop in Odysses’s journey back home. Specifically, Paleokastritsa is acknowledged to be the place where Odysseus came ashore and encountered Nausicaa (the daughter of the king) for the first time. (Here’s a helpful Wikipedia article on the Phaeacians in case you don’t remember your high school English lesson on the Odyssey). I just took the bus and upon my arrival I noticed immediately how deserted the town was. I checked out the beautiful beaches and noticed there were a large number of boat rentals, restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels – all of which were boarded up soundly. I saw a few people in town – but the town left me with the impression of being in a zombie movie.

Corfu is a beautiful island full of life, amazing beaches, history and friendly people. I loved my time there, and I hope to return to the island someday. In a second post, I will recap my experiences in Corfu Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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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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