Subject: Two weeks in Albania - and a peek at Macedonia!
Dear Ziners! Years ago, I did some Balkan dancing - which has left me with great curiosity about that part of the world. I've been to Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia only.

Explore Worlwide or a British tour company, had an Albanian tour on their schedule - that included an overnight stay in Ohrid, Macedonia. It sounded good to me so I signed on some six months ago for the July 2005 tour. I missed the folk dancing at Ohrid but did find the music. And some absolutely gorgous mountain scenery and equally magnificant beaches. This is truly Europe's undiscovered frontier.

The tour took us from the capital city of Tirana to Ohrid lake, bordering Albania and Macedonia, down to Korca, Perment, and Gjirokastra: next over to Butrinti archeological site and the beach town of Saranda; from there up the coast and into the Llogara National Park; then onto Appollan archeological site and over to Berat; next up through Durres to Kruja. A wild and wonderful trip, mostly on roads only a mountain goat would love.

I hiked up to half a dozen old churches with ancient frescos that had survived the anti religious fevor of Enver Hoxhaâ's rigid communist regime, historic Ali Pasha citadels from Ottoman times, ancient mosques stilll in use. The Mantra for the tour became: where's the key?, for buildings were locked with a key being somewhere with someone in the nearby village. I visited an active one monk monastery along with a three monk monastery. While crawling up to yet another citadel, I did photograph a/the ship of the Albanian Navy! I was told they also had several rusty subs, inherited from the Russians.

I think of all the places we stayed, Gjirokastra was the most interesting. A hill side town with Hoxhaâ's family home now a ethnological museum, it was originally a 1st century BC Llyrian settlement. There I was part of the group, struggling up a gorge, crossing a rather fast moving river a dozen times - I really wanted a certificate of completion for that one for it was a round trip trek. But we did have barbecued lamb as our reward. Another hike took me over stoney trails about and intot local homes.

The high point was an invitation for morning coffe and raki (Albania's answer to Greece's ouzo and the Slavic slivowitz and if anything, more potent!) at a local homeowners residence while he and his granddaughter practiced their English . In this instance, the tour bus picked us up at the end of the journey.

There were three serious archeological sites: the one at Butrinti which has ruins from BC into AD - Illyrian under Greek under Roman. A UN Heritage site. Then Appollan which was mostly Greek-Roman. Finally there was the old Roman amphitheatre at Durres. All impressive and all indicative of Albania's long, long history. There were also various museums with the contents kept in fairly good condition. Several museums were quite modern. The Skanderberg Museum at Kruja, devoted to Albania's historic hero, was quite extensive.

But Albania is a poor country with limited infrastructure. Not only the roads were dismal, but buildings were half completed or half destroyed. Trash was all about with blue plastic shopping sacks decorating the landscape. When it appeared there had been an effort to collect garbage in a town, apparently, it was taken several miles out and dumped along the road. Albania is a work in progress.

Regarding the tour: it was well organized with good balance of activities and free time. I thought we got a good feel for the country, its history, traditions and people. The tour group itself could have been an Elderhostel bunch: there were 17 of us, at least four in our seventies, two under 55 years old and the rest in their sixties. Four women, four Americans, two Koreans (one was naturalized American), and the rest Brits. All but one had traveled extensively, up to 180 counties. We had a good leader from Explore as well as a enthusastic young local guide.

Costs: The basic tour with Explore Worldwide was $1340 plus $365 local payment plus $30 tipping kitty. Airfare SFO to Tirana via JFK & Vienna was $1459. Transportation to and from various airports approximated $150. Airport fees were $40 with meals estimated at $250.

Cheers! Jo in Sunnyvale, CA