SIZZLING SUMMER SIGHTS
After three years with a home base in Zagreb I decided to forgo my apartment and embraced a true ‘digital nomad’ experience by again putting my belongings into storage, and travel the world full time. I thought perhaps it would bother me, an undercurrent of anxiousness to not having a permanent place to call home but instead I feel a sense of freedom and have wholeheartedly explored some more out of the way places like Albania, to get out of my comfort zone.
First of all, getting there is not easy. There are some direct flights to the capital of Tirana, but my goal was to spend most of the summer on the Albanian Riviera, the southern part of the country, so the best way I found is via ferry from the Greek island of Corfu.
Exploring the Island of Corfu was a pleasant bonus as we stayed a week during Orthodox Easter and were witness to many interesting customs such as its long procession/parade through old town streets and residents throwing pottery from windows to smash on the ground to chase away bad spirits. The town itself was a remarkably charming place with two large medieval fortresses, numerous little shops that sell spices, sweets and souvenirs as well as many great taverns with authentic island cuisine. Our palettes were tantalized by Tzatziki and pita, fresh locally made feta and Pasticada, a pasta dish of beef and cinnamon that was amazing with its exotic flavour.
ASTONISHED BY ALBANIA
Many ask, why go to Albania? Isn’t it dangerous?! People would clutch their throats when I mentioned my plans to this small isolated Mediterranean country. But I knew through my research that it was worth visiting and I wanted to see it for myself. It's still rather undiscovered by mass tourism except for a few hard core travelers and digital nomads but times are changing, so more and more people are embracing this beautiful and really affordable country.
I arrived to Sarandë on a speedy ferry from Corfu and at first was a little disappointed at the lack of greenery and vast apartment buildings stretching up the hillsides but it wins you over with its soul. It’s built on a beautiful coast, but in that architectural jungle you discover small treasures such as markets filled with fresh and notably cheap vegetables from nearby farms, eclectic local bars and a plethora of authentic restaurants that offer you the royal treatment of Mediterranean food and hospitality.
Although this region has plenty of lovely beaches, they can be overly crowded so I explored a few nearby villages over the summer, one of my favourites was Ksamil. It has some of the most gorgeous white sand beaches I’ve ever seen in Europe, with turquoise, clear water, and beautiful lush landscapes. I had only planned to stay a month in Albania but after experiencing this slice of heaven, I decided to stay 3 months in total (it's all my Canadian passport would allow, Americans are luckier in this regard, they get 12 months!)
Not far from Ksamil is Butrint National Park, one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, containing different artifacts and structures, dating from the Iron Age up until the Middle Ages. It’s an oasis located on a charming small peninsula, and has preserved ruins of temples, villas, an amphitheater and city walls built by former Greek and Roman empires. It was a beautiful escape through history and enchanting nature.
Intrigued by this country's natural beauty and welcoming culture I wanted to discover more so I headed into the interior to the capital, Tirana. The infrastructure is a bit chaotic and a common saying is “Welcome to Albania, We Are Under Construction” but it’s charming and has a great vibe despite their difficult history and period of complete isolation. They truly suffered under 40 years of Communist Dictatorship since WWII, which made them into one of the world's most isolated and secretive states. Their regime built 173,371 bunkers constructed out of fear from foreign invasion. I admire that they don't shy away from their history and instead have transformed some of these vast underground complexes into museums so you can learn more about the suffering of their people under totalitarian rule.
I found the locals to be extremely helpful and super friendly. Travelling in Albania without a car can be tricky and unpleasant but they have public transit utilizing small van-buses called Furgons that can get overcrowded. (My scariest experience was returning from Vlorë to Sarandë over the Llogara Mountain Pass in a mini-van that seated 8, but was packed like a clown car with 15 other passengers. The front seat was piled with people and others were in the luggage bunker with improvised plastic seats.) It was definitely harrowing going through narrow switch back roads 6800ft above sea level. NOT FUN!
Anyways after exploring Tirana, we headed to Durrës, the second largest city in Albania which houses a significant harbour. It’s an interesting town to visit with historical sights like the Amphitheatre of Durrës, Venetian Tower and Ancient Roman Walls.
I then travelled to Vlorë which is more touristy and has a beautiful long promenade you can walk for hours watching the sea and explore sandy beaches that stretches alongside. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Ceraunian Mountains along the Adriatic and Ionian Sea Coasts and with over 300 sunny days a year, it’s easy to see why it’s a popular beach resort. For a real escape, you can catch a boat to the Karaburun Peninsula, which offers pristine white pebble beaches and has less development.
The interior of Albania is filled with tremendous mountains, incredible clear streams, and lush greenery that reminded me of Canada and the Rocky Mountains, making me a bit homesick. Albania also has a significant expat community and quickly became a place where I made lifelong friends that helped my summer pass far too quickly.
GREECE AGAIN? WHY NOT?!
Although my plan was to fly to Athens and ultimately make my way to Thessaloniki, there was chaos at the airports with reports of lost luggage and cancelled flights so I headed overland to experience the interior of Greece. Although it was in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures rising above 40C, the beauty of nature and places along the trip made it worth the trouble. It was interesting to see how many solar farms and wind turbines there are in the interior. I was rather impressed how they’re trying to focus on more renewable energies and sustainable eco-innovation.
I'd been to Athens before so after rediscovering some of my favourite places, I took a ferry to the island of Hydra. Such a pleasant escape from the modern world where time stops and only the simple things in life truly matter. To bask in the sunshine, feast on delicious Greek cuisine, enjoy soothing cold drinks by the sea and marvel at the whitewashed buildings and steep cliffs that surround you. Hydra is truly special as it’s serene and devoid of vehicles. Local donkeys are used instead for transporting goods and people so it was charming to see such a glimpse of the past.
The train ride from Athens to Thessaloniki gave me insight on other parts of Greece and a view of Mount Olympus, a mythical place of ancient Greek gods. Thessaloniki seems to be off the radar to most visitors to Greece who prefer a quick exit to the islands but for those looking to explore the mainland, Thessaloniki offers a variety of exciting ancient wonders. They have a very sophisticated and food focused center, as well as many UNESCO World Heritage sites from the Byzantine era. Everywhere around me I discovered interesting side streets full of local boutiques, amazing restaurants, and small coffee shops filled with different desserts. One of my favourite was Bougatsa, a custard pastry wrapped in crispy golden brown phyllo, sprinkled with melted butter and garnished with icing sugar and cinnamon. Sooo good!
Thessaloniki has a rich history dating over two millenniums and there are many monuments such as the White Tower (a cruel prison from the Ottoman Empire), remnants of a Roman Emperor’s Palace, a Triumphal Arch as well as numerous Byzantine churches and Ottoman relics to explore. The promenade is also a wonderful place for walking to experience gorgeous views of the bay. Evenings are the best time to visit as you can catch spectacular sunset views.
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Thank you for joining me again on my worldwide journey. My next newsletter will be about my time in England, Scotland and Northumbria as well as my winter escape to Portugal and Spain! I'm very grateful for your continued support of my art business and am pleased that my work brings you joy.
Stay safe and much love,