Vacation is GOOD! #6

View of north Corfu from Mount Pantokrator

View of north Corfu from Mount Pantokrator

Last stop on our summer 2014 European travel adventure was Corfu, Greece – an easy commute via hydrofoil from Saranda, Albania and then a short drive across the middle of the island over to Pelekas and the Levant Hotel, our lovely home-away-from-home for 4 nights. The town is perched on top of a mountain with views over to Corfu Town, and our is next to Kiaser’s Throne, from which there are incredible 360 views of the island.

Highlights for me included sunsets from our hotel, days reading on the beach, afternoon stops at Agnes’ on the main square for pre-nap refreshments, and the views from the mountain tops. My favorite beach was Prasoudi, an unexpected find after we decided to move on from Paranomas, which had been our original destination. What a sweet little beach and lovely restaurant and accommodation at the top of the cliff before the stairs lead down to the sea. I really enjoyed the day we visited Paleokastritsa, an area on the NW side of of the island with its 5 lovely bays – we drove up to Lakones for spectacular views (by now we were both used to narrow roads and switchbacks!).

Our biggest adventure was on the last day when we had all day to fill before starting our travels home. We drove to the top of Mount Pantokrator for truly spectacular views of Corfu Town, the North coast of the island, and Albania. It was really cool to look east and see Saranda, Ksamil beach, Butrint and the Vivari Channel, where we’d just been days before looking out to this mountain. We decided to take the minor roads down the east side of the mountain, versus retrace our path down the west side of the mountain. The girl at the restaurant in Strinilis on the way up said the road would be fine given our Jeep and the man at the mountaintop shop said it was about a 45 minute drive to go 15 km down to Nisaki. Well, the road was bumpy with big stones so we ended up going about 5 mph for about 6 miles, wondering just what we’d gotten ourselves into. There was not a single other car, and just the mountain fauna and bees to keep us company. About the point we started wondering if we should turn back, we saw evidence of a paved road ahead so we continued on, hopeful our path would meet up with it. Ah, the huge sigh of relief when the stones turned to asphalt. Whew! But, wait, for a minute, we thought we were back in Albania (expect the unexpected) – we came around a curve and the road had sunk. Fortunately, it was just passable with the Jeep – oh my, if we’d had a car and had to turn around at that point, I think we both would have cried! The road was fine after that, and within a couple of miles we’d made it back to civilization. Albeit with a lot less time to visit Corfu Town before heading to the airport!

Enjoying the view of Prasoudi beach, SW Corfu

Enjoying the view of Prasoudi beach, SW Corfu

Enjoying an afternoon break at Agnes' Restaurant & Bar, on the town square in Pelekas, Corfu

Enjoying an afternoon break at Agnes’ Restaurant & Bar, on the town square in Pelekas, Corfu

Sunset from Levant Hotel, Pelekas, Corfu, Greece

Sunset from Levant Hotel, Pelekas, Corfu, Greece

For what came before:

Kotor, Montenegro

Shkodra, Albania

Kruja, Albania

Himare, Albania

Saranda, Albania 

[For photo highlights of our holiday, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]

Vacation is GOOD! #5

At Palermo Castle, southern Albania

At Palermo Castle, southern Albania

Our last top in Albania was Saranda, located about an hour north of Greece (and 45 minutes across the Ionian Sea from Corfu by hydrofoil, and south of Himare, where we’d spent a couple of nights. We were looking forward to a relatively easy driving day. Google maps told us it was about an hour to our destination, although our experience told us it would be double that, especially since we’d continue along mountain ranges and the commensurate switchback turns in the road (and beautiful vistas to the sea and distant beaches).

We enjoyed a couple of pit stops along the way. At Palermo Castle, we almost didn’t get to go inside. We trekked the quarter mile up to the entrance only to find the big steel doors locked shut and no one around. Given that we had nearly run into a huge spider and her web on the path up, and had to bat away additional ones as we proceeded, we were not thrilled with this end to the adventure. Fortunately, the displeasure didn’t last long – the gatekeeper, his dog, and a young man with his son headed up the path just as we started to venture back down. The young man was Albanian, on holiday from his job in Boston as a physical therapist, visiting his family. It was his second time to the castle so he gave us a personal tour, and we shared with us personal stories about the challenges of growing up and living in Albania.

Another stop was at Qepari Beach, where we admired a lovely stone hotel complex in front of a gorgeous little bay and crystal clear water beach. One of the owners came out to talk with us, and we discovered that he had spent time working in restaurants in London to raise money for the place, and how they built the complex one story a year as they had funds (currently 3 stories, possible 4 in the future).

THE highlight of our stay in Saranda was Hotel Harmony, and mainly the amazing food. The owner loves to cook. We’d read the raves on the internet and had been curious about whether they were to be believed. The answer: an unequivocal YES! My favorite? The eggplant appetizer – thin slices rolled up with prosciutto ham and cheese,  fried tempura style and served atop a rich tomato sauce. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it! It was the perfect place to have our 23rd wedding anniversary dinner, no doubt about it.

We also enjoyed a couple of relaxing trips to Ksamil beach, a visit to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was truly amazing for its history, and evenings on our hotel patio, watching the setting sun turn the sky the colors of the rainbow over the northern most Greek Islands.

Qepari Albania - between Himare and Sarande

Qepari Albania – between Himare and Sarande

At Hotel Harmony enjoying the chef's delectable creation

At Hotel Harmony enjoying the chef’s delectable creation

At Ksamil Beach, near Saranda, Albania and across the Ionian Sea from Corfu, Greece

At Ksamil Beach, near Saranda, Albania and across the Ionian Sea from Corfu, Greece

For what came before:

Kotor, Montenegro

Shkodra, Albania

Kruja, Albani

Himare, Albania 

[For photo highlights of our holiday, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]

Vacation is GOOD! #4

At Llogara Pass, a stop along one of the highest mountain roads in Europe

At Llogara Pass, a stop along one of the highest mountain roads in Europe

After an abundantly delicious stop in Kruja, Albania, we headed south on our holiday adventure. Oh, yeah, first we stopped at the Tirana airport to exchange rental cars. Not because anything was wrong with our car, but because you can’t get a one-way rental from Montenegro and drop it off in the port of Saranda, way down at the southern end of Albania, our destination before catching a ferry to Corfu. Jim managed to get us a one-way from Tivat, Montenegro (near Kotor, where we started our journey) to Tirana, and then another one-way from Tirana to Saranda (and yet another on Corfu). The only problem was that the folks in Tirana were not expecting us or our car. Even though we rented with Avis, the 2 offices do not really communicate. Basically, the expectation was that the Tirana Avis guy would collect the key and the Tivat Avis guy would come down to pick up the car and drive it back to the Tivat! After 90 minutes of waiting and dealing with the Avis agent, we were on our way.

We drove south through Lushnje, and on down through Fier, and then Vlore. We had some unexpectedly nice stretches of straight roads through valley and farmland – and thankfully, not much traffic. A little maneuvering needed through Fier and Vlore but Jim’s driving maps made the navigating a smooth operation (yay!) – and by this time, we’d gotten used to expecting the unexpected on the roads!

The highlight of the day’s driving adventure was Llogara Pass, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. The road was good, but necessarily full of switchbacks through the beautiful forests of black and Bosnian pines and ash trees before giving way to beautiful views of the Ionian sea and gorgeous stretches of beaches. It took about an hour longer than we’d expected to reach our destination (~5 hours) so it was extra sweet to check in to Mare B&B where we received a warm welcome and a delightful room with a sea view.

Highlights of our stay in Himare included having a full day to lounge on the beach in front of Mare B&B and having dinner at Restaurant Piazza, one of the many cafe’s on the waterfront where we could watch the World Cup with all of the other Europeans. By this point, we had really kicked into vacation mode…Ahhhhh.

"Our" Beach at Potami, Himare, Albania in front of Mare B&B

“Our” Beach at Potami, Himare, Albania in front of Mare B&B

Jim on a 'spiffed up' bunker on the beach in front of our B&B

Jim on a ‘spiffed up’ bunker on the beach in front of our B&B

For what came before:

Kotor, Montenegro

Shkodra, Albania

Kruja, Albania

[For photo highlights of our holiday, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]

Vacation is GOOD! #3

Selfie from our hotel room patio in Kruja Albania

Selfie from our hotel room patio in Kruja Albania

From Rozafa Castle outside of Shkodra Albania, we headed up into the mountains to the little village of Kruja, which sits, appropriately enough, on Mount Kruja. Ah, the view we had from our room at the Panorama Hotel (Room 301) was fantastic – the selfie above shows the view out one side of the room; the view from the other side (over Jim’s shoulders) was out to the Adriatic Sea. Really fantastic. We had a wonderful lunch (such yummy cheese-stuffed red peppers, baked in olive oil and garlic), visited the castle, did some shopping at the bazaar, and then as the drizzle returned, settled in for a nap (one of the delicious treats of vacation!).

A few memories from this stop:

1. Finding ourselves unexpectedly with a local guide explaining the castle and environs. As we approached the remains of the fortress at the top (which you see in the distance of the above photo), a young boy asked us where we were from, told us when the museum opened, started explaining a few things about the place, and before we knew it, we were walking around as he showed things. Naturally, he expected something for his time – but he was happy with a couple hundred leke (equivalent of a couple dollars).

2. Visiting the shop in the little bazaar with the loom where a local woman makes rugs by hand. Such beautiful colors and patterns. She said it takes about a month of working all day to make an 8X10 rug.

3. Eating dinner at Restaurant Ela, where the owner cooked for us, the only guests in his restaurant. Just after Jim commented on hearing the food cooking in the kitchen, the power went out.  So much for cooking! We pulled out our little flashlights (I carry one in my handy ‘blue purse’ that includes anything anyone could ever want…) and wondered if we’d end up at our hotel for a meal. The owner came out, disgruntled, complaining in some variation of Albanian, German, and a word or two of English – our take away was that whenever there’s a wedding at our hotel, the hotel sucks all the power off the grid. As he headed back to the kitchen, he said in the most memorable way, with a tone of disappointment only acceptable for a local: “That’s Albania!” (Within about 5 minutes, the power came back on and we were in business.) As we left the restaurant, the owner warned us of the music that would play into the wee hours as part of the wedding reception (we’d read about it, and our room was far from the noise so no sleep stopper for us). We enjoyed the fireworks that went off as we walked back to the hotel (also part of the wedding festivities), accepting it as celebration of our upcoming wedding anniversary.

4. Waking up in the morning to clearing skies and magnificent views over the valley and out to the sea. Nice weather was the perfect gift for our longest driving day – from north central Albania down to the Albanian Riviera in the south.

Our personal guide at the ruins of the Kruja fortress

Our personal guide at the ruins of the Kruja fortress

Rug shop in the bazaar in Kruja Albania

Rug shop in the bazaar in Kruja Albania

For what came before:

Kotor, Montenegro

Shkodra, Albania

[For photo highlights of our holiday, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]

Vacation is GOOD! #2

At Rozafa Castle, Shkodra, Albania

At Rozafa Castle, Shkodra, Albania

Second stop on our 2014 travel adventure in Europe (First stop was Kotor, Montenegro), was Shkodra, Albania, which is one of the oldest and most historic places in Albania. In planning our trip, we hadn’t been keen on staying in one of the bigger cities, but logistically, it was the way to go to break up the trip in a reasonable way. The main part of town, where we stayed was quite lovely, with pedestrian streets, beautiful churches and mosques, mountains as backdrop.

What was most memorable about this part of the trip? Well, the driving, no doubt about it! Jim’s been driving us around Europe for 15 summers and we’ve encountered lots of unusual things, like one-lane roads with two-way traffic, even ones with tall hedge rows (e.g., England, Ireland) or stone walls (e.g., Greece, Turkey) that make it tough to see oncoming traffic, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (e.g., England, some Caribbean islands), and driving in mountains where the roads are narrow, sometimes have no guardrails so you can see just how far of a fall it would be if the car went off the road, where tourist buses come out of nowhere (e.g., Spain, Croatia) and you wonder just how you will share the road without someone – YOU – going over the ledge.

But Albania was a whole ‘nother game! The only rule of the road I could come up with was “Expect the unexpected!” Reminded me a bit of India, where people, dogs, cows, bikes, scooters, cars, trucks, buses all share the road, doing their own thing despite the appearance of usual traffic lanes and signs. You just have to throw out any assumptions you might make about how things work. One example – we’re on a main road, like a 4-lane freeway at home, out in the country. We’re moving along in the left lane when all of a sudden the guy going really slow in the right lane pulls over into the left lane in front of us, and then, catch this, comes to a complete stop to make a left turn at a break in the median guardrails – no signs about a turn, no signals, no warning, just our 4 eyes super vigilent and ready for anything, so we were able to stop without rear-ending the guy.

After we crossed the border from Montenegro into Albania, everything was good. Not much traffic, nice roads with mountains on one side, Lake Shkodra on the other – mostly farmland. Then, as we neared the city, little signs of what was to come started to appear – cows tied up in the middle of a traffic circle, men riding bikes expecting you to share the road as they pedal toward you on the right side of your lane, farm equipment moving at a snail’s pace, kids moving unpredictably on scooters. Once in the city, pedestrians boldly stepping into the road, without even looking. Cars flowing in two directions, but without much regard for lanes. We managed to navigate our way through the city and to our hotel – but we made a point of not driving anywhere else until we had to leave town the next morning! First stop was a cafe on the pedestrian street near our hotel for a couple of big birras!

After our first day of driving in Albania!

After our first day of driving in Albania!

The good news was that Mother Nature continued to let up on the rain and we had a nice afternoon for sight seeing. By evening, the rain was back, although it was a drizzle so the little pink tote umbrella I brought managed to be sufficient. (Before the trip Jim chuckled that I was packing an umbrella, but by this point, he was thinking it was a pretty brilliant idea!). Mother Nature seemed to be inviting us to lean in, relax, go with the flow…and we did!

The next morning, despite the rain, we toured Rozafa Castle, just outside of town. (I won’t even go into the challenges of finding the road up to the place given the road construction, but give credit to Jim’s observations and persistence!) Fortunately, after going through the museum (inside away from rain!), the sun broke through the clouds. A sign of good things to come…

[For more photos of our vacation adventures, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]

Vacation is GOOD!

Kotor, Montenegro, hiking  to the Shrine of Our Lady of Health

Kotor, Montenegro, hiking to the Shrine of Our Lady of Health

 

I can’t believe it’s been a week already since we returned from our holiday in Europe! We had an excellent time, as we always do. (This is our 15th year of taking 2 weeks and heading off to Europe during the summer.) Our trip was packed full of beauty, adventure, delicious food and drink, and friendly people as we traveled through Montenegro, Albania, and Corfu, Greece.

First stop was Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque little town rain or shine – we know because we had both. Mostly the former, which turned out to be perfect for just easing into vacation mode and getting used to the idea that we don’t have to do anything but relax and enjoy ourselves. Fortunately, the day we decided to visit the old town, the sun came out – and we had this beautiful view. The hike up to the Shrine of Our Lady of Health was an impromptu inspiration with big payoffs.

One of my favorite moments was the last evening in Kotor, having dinner at Ombra Bar and Restaurant. It was raining and most of the tourists had left town with their bus or boat tours. We were the only two in this little cave-like place, with 3 servers, a couple of their friends and the owner’s beautiful 9 or 10 year old daughter, fresh out of her dance class. We enjoyed local Niksicko beer, and awesome hand-made garlic bread, Greek salad, arugula/ham/mushroom pizza for our meal. Something about the place was super relaxing…maybe we’d finally found our vacation groove, maybe it was the peacefulness of the evening with the rain gently falling outside, maybe it was the fun energy of the staff. Until they tried to put on the World Cup soccer match, we all had fun watching the monitor that shows what’s happening around back on the patio (so the servers know when they are needed). Mostly there was nothing but empty chairs and drizzle out there. At one point, though, a young couple stopped to kiss under one of the patio umbrellas. The girl’s smile and their laughter was precious when they discovered they were on camera.

Vacation is good, rain or shine. Kissing is good, in public or private.

At Plavi Horizonti Beach, wrapping up a driving tour of Lustica Pennisula in Montenegro

At Plavi Horizonti Beach, wrapping up a driving tour of Lustica Pennisula in Montenegro

A photo opp stop at Sveti Stefan, on the drive from Kotor Montenegro to Shkodra Albania

A photo opp stop at Sveti Stefan, on the drive from Kotor Montenegro to Shkodra Albania

[For photo highlights of our holiday, visit Jim and Vicki's Travel Adventures Shutterfly site.]