Cold and Hungry in Fier
Day #4 Friday December 30, 2012
A very cold morning greets us when we wake and there is no way any of us are taking showers as we have no hot water and our daughter is smart enough not to get cold and wet in her bathroom. She put her clothes on the heater before she put them on and I put my clothes in front of the heater before I put them on me. So we dress quickly. My hubby & I go to the lobby and into the restaurant for breakfast. There is a group of 10 men or so with coffee and smoking. One woman is seated with them and she never looks up and never joins the conversation. I don’t think she smokes either. The breakfast isn’t bad, just not wonderful either. Can’t even remember now what we had. The group of men at the table look over at us occasionally and stare but when I smile, they smile back. They finally leave and the smokiness clears a tiny bit.
We go back to our room and haul out our bags. Our guide had not stayed in this hotel last night as he has friends in town. As we are checking out, the management is very apologetic for the power outage and no heat and no hot water. There are three bottles of wine sitting on the counter and I think, “I’ll bet he is going to give those to us” and I was right. At the end of his apology, he offers us the wine for the inconvenience. They also gave our daughter an energy drink since she had not stayed to have any breakfast. We carried it with us for a few days and tasted it later, possibly in Sarande and while it might have been a beneficially drink health wise, it was pretty nasty flavor wise. Anyway, this was a delightful little hotel and would have been quite nice with heat and hot water. But the management had tried so hard to get us warm and was so sorry they had the problem and gave us the wine that we really felt it was a good stay.
We make a photo stop on the way to the castle so I can take photos of the old Orthodox part of the city across the river. I can also see an old citadel tower above me on the cliff. I am trying to get photos of cemeteries when we pass. Unfortunately many of them are not coming out because of the speed with which Klodi drives, which means as fast as he can most of the time. The cemeteries are colorful with photos on a good many of the head stones etched into the headstone with the new methods that are current these days. Most of the photos look exactly like a good Polaroid would look, I think. The cemeteries also have a lot of elaborate headstones in them and crypts that appear to be half buried. Cemeteries are always interesting.
We are back up to the castle/citadel this morning. In its heyday, there were 40 churches and two mosques inside the walls. Now most of them are in disuse or dilapidated. The UNESCO money is apparent though as we have to pick our way past workmen in many of the alleyways and streets and sidewalks. Some of the churches are being given overhauls as well. They are all busy getting ready for the tourist season coming this year.
Entering the citadel through the same arch, we pass by the restaurant where we ate last night. We all wave to each other and say hi like old friends. Klodi starts his narrative as he walks us around the citadel. On the wall outside of the restaurant is a plastic bag full of aluminum cans. As there are more along the way and sometimes bags with garbage hanging outside of a house, we think it is their recycling pick up point or their garbage bin that hangs rather than puts stuff in a bin.
We are walking through the citadel on ancient streets of cobblestones – well, the streets are ancient but the cobblestones have probably been replaced a number of times. Most of the city is either uphill or downhill too. Nothing much on flat ground. Our guide is naming all of the churches as we pass so I was able to label the photos with the proper names. Hopefully I spelled most of them correctly.
We are going into one of the churches to see the altar and the icons. Of course, it is a place where I am not allowed to take photos. I would have loved to break this rule but as a matter of course, I try not to break the rules in churches/temples/mosques, etc. and have sometimes been lucky enough to be allowed to take photos. This church had a beautiful wood panel across the front of the church with icons. One of their famous icon painters was Onufri who was called Onufri the Red because he used a lot of red paints in his icons. He also painted a Madonna with child where the child was on the left and that is unusual. Our daughter commented on the single seated pews being around the sides of the church and sat in one to see how comfortable it was. We speculated on which seat would be the best to sit in and fall asleep because you couldn’t be seen by the monks. I did take a photo of her sitting on the pew. Think it shows how sleepy we were as that was the first thought that came to mind – which seats would be best to take a nap!
Our guide clued us into how to tell what the church was called by looking at the icon in the second panel on the left of the altar door. It helps to know your Bible stories too so you can recognize what is painted and therefore know what the church is called. We don’t so we never could guess at any of the churches but at least we knew where to look. We were able to go behind the front wooden panels into the altar room in this church because it isn’t a working church anymore. There were frescoes on the walls behind the altar at one time but they have pretty much been destroyed. The church we visited was St. Mary’s Sleep because the icon with the church name was a painting of St. Mary sleeping.
Continuing our journey around the citadel inside the walls, we pass through an alley where some lovely yellow flowers are blooming on a bush to the right and a great view of the valley ahead of us and some birds swarming on a wire to the left. Both my daughter and my husband had to tell me to stop and take photos as I was busy trying not to fall on the cobblestones. Nice having directors with me so I don’t miss any shots. I do appreciate the help although sometimes I have no idea what my hubby is talking about when he says “take a photo” and I haven’t spotted whatever awe-inspiring view he has seen already.
We curve around various churches and streets and alleyways through all these stone buildings and wind our way down past two churches where there is a large bust of Constantine in the square and two churches beside him, St. Constantine and St Helena, I think. I am behind at this point snapping photos of the vistas before me so didn’t get the entire explanation of these churches and the huge bust. Continuing down the cobblestones and step walkways, we reach the bottom tier of the citadel and there are several dozen workmen repairing the sidewalks and putting in new stone/brick walkways. We had to wander off the path and through the mud to get past them. We have a fine view of the entire valley before us and the Orthodox side of Berat. Almost directly down from us is the Muslim side and Klodi points out the Bachelors Mosque which we’d walked by last night and also a Harem but in the dark, we didn’t get much feel for it. Almost directly below us at one point is St. Michael’s church. Not sure how people got to that church.
Of course, every down has an up and now we climb up the steps to St. Trioda’s church which has been restored but we can’t get into it. There was actually a small souvenir stand outside the church and a small coffee shop as well. We passed back through a gate and wall and on the left, there was the white mosque which has been grafatti’d. There isn’t much to it now.
Our guide tells us that he grew up in Berat and these citadel walls and alleyways and such was his playground with his companions. We walk down another small street and there is a group of 2 boys and 2 girls who are now using the entire site as their playground. Still plenty of workmen too. They are working hard to get the entire place spruced up and ready for the hordes of tourists they hope to have this year.
In 1997, when our guide was a teenager, there was a pyramid scheme going around the country which the government told people was a really good thing and a good way to invest their money. Many, many people put their life savings into this scheme and when it collapsed, they lost all their money and basically the government said, Oh, that’s sad but hey, what can we do? Nothing. People rioted and threw out the government and closed down the country for a couple of months. Guns were passed out to teenagers but for what purpose, who knows? Klodi says he had an AK 46 machine gun, a pistol, and a hand grenade and he was just a teenager. We didn’t ask what happened to the guns and grenade nor if he had used them or not.
We pass the Red Mosque which has the remnants of a minaret and past a hotel that was a church, then a barracks, then a hotel and now seems to be nothing. A lovely climb down a path and rocks with a view of the main city below us where Klodi points out the Leaded Mosque, the King mosque and a big government building/conference center being built. When we overlooked the old Orthodox city, he pointed out the names of several of the churches within that complex. Also says he and his friends used to slide down the hill that was to our left. Looked like good place to run into a tree.
And of course, once we are at the bottom of the hill, we have to turn around and go up because the way through to the parking lot is closed. We tried to take a short cut so we wouldn’t have to walk the complete city again but it was being worked on with water and cement and cobbles and rocks so we had to mince our way through the water and mud and we all got muddy shoes which pretty much wiped off with the grass but not totally.
On the way out, we stopped at the restaurant’s toilet again. There was a statue to Onofri, the painter, in the square just as you entered the grounds. We paid our entry fee upon exit. Winding our way down the hill to the town and heading out again. We passed a large complex that is closed. It is a former communist factory. Think this one was textiles. Most of the windows are broken and there is little or no activity in the complex except for a couple of buildings that have been turned into something else. When communism fell in many countries, whole buildings and towns were abandoned almost overnight. Amazing it could happen so fast but it did here and in Armenia we saw it too.
Going out of town now and on our way to Fier much later than we should have because of the stop this morning to see Berat Citadel. This is from our printed guide: “Berat, known as a ‘city of one thousand windows’, and has been declared a ‘museum city’ and UNESCO protected site. A highlight to any trip to Albania, Berat is one of the country’s most beautiful towns. The old name of the city was Antipatrea, built on the slopes of mountain Timori, with a castle dominating the city. Within the city walls there are houses and the Onufri Museum, where we see paintings by this outstanding painter from the 16th century as well as his son Nikolla. We will spend most of our time touring in the old part of the town (we didn’t do any!) This is perhaps one of the best-preserved Ottoman cities in the Balkans, with a lively lower town and a beautiful medieval citadel district on top of the hill. One of Berat’s highlights is a visit to the inhabited citadel. Once inside the walls, we can visit ruined mosques and several medieval Orthodox churches, still intact and with restored frescoes and icons. The famous Onufri museum is housed in a wonderful church and holds the best collection of Albanian icons. In the lower town, we will see the Leaded Mosque, so named for the roofing material, the Bachelor’s Mosque, the Sultan’s Mosque and the Ottoman han.” Well, didn’t get to see any of the mosques except for from above and sometimes wasn’t sure if I was looking at the right thing. Good thing about mosques, usually there’s a minaret so you can home in on that.
We see a cloud front coming into town. It is a quite distinctive line where the cloud front meets the sky. We stop at Ardenica to visit an old monastery where Scanderbeg was married, supposedly. A lot of it had been destroyed but someone had some foresight to say, wait, this is where Scanderbeg was married so we can’t destroy the entire thing. There are still some monks living there. Also, Klodi challenged us to determine the name of the church. We knew where to look but we don’t know our stories so didn’t know what the picture meant. There was a great clock/bell tower on the outside and I could take a photo there. Sometimes the memory of a vacation is as much about the photos you didn’t get to take as it is about looking at the photos you did take.
We took the tour out of order here and instead of heading for Apollonia, we went to Bylis for another archeological site. On our way, we pass through the small town of Blish or Blash or Bilash. Wasn’t sure which way it is spelled and not really sure of the pronunciation either. As we enter the town to drive through, there are several butcher shops on either side of the road from us. Each one has meat hanging from hooks on the outside of their shop for sale. Each one also has a cow or maybe a sheep or both or goat also by the shop. As we are driving slowly through, a man at one shop pulls a cow up to the shop slab of concrete and as we are watching, lifts a wooden mallet and swings it hard right onto his head. Another man blocked my view just as the first man swung the mallet so I didn’t see him hit the cow but I saw the cow go down and as we continued past, the cow was on its side with all four feet sticking straight out as if it were a stuffed animal. I think one of us, possibly me, said OMG, did he just kill that cow??? Well, heck, it is a butcher shop but I don’t want to see it. I think Klodi said something like stupid people don’t know how to kill a cow, he’s just stunned it. For some reason we are driving by really, really slowly, it seems. Think there was traffic. I saw that the man with a mallet was drawing back for another shot at the cow’s head so I looked away at that point. My daughter also looked away at the killing moment but she saw that it took the guy 3 times with the mallet to kill it and there was a group of about 4 men standing around “helping” and he still couldn’t kill it with one blow. Up until I saw the man with the mallet start to swing the first time, I had my camera up and ready to take photos but I don’t really want photos of this. Not a good investigative reporter am I. As we continue through the town, there are more men looking like they are about to pull up a cow and give it a good whack. Not cool. So we named this town the Killing Fields.
Now on to Bylis. This was a site chosen by the ancient Illyrians which overlooked a river plain below. The river has since changed location and isn’t as deep so ships cannot come up as far as they used to do in those days. But the views from up here were great.
I took a photo of each of the explanation signs so we would know what we were looking at as we went through the ruins. Quite an interesting place and actually had some stone walls and such rather than just markers to show what had been on the site at one time. There were sheep on the other side of a fence from the site. I’m always interested in watching them as well. We walked to the edge of the cliff and looked at the mountains across the valley. They are snow topped and the sun was shining rays on them from a hole in the clouds. Somewhere there was an old path that the women would have used to walk down the hill to the river and climb back up again. They probably went 3 or 4 times a day. I’m thinking it would take me all day for one trip and I’d get thirsty and drink most of the water!
Then we walked back to the restaurant and insisted that we have some lunch. There were two other groups in the restaurant and one was sitting right in front of the fireplace and the other had a heater blowing on their table. Luckily, the fireplace seated group finished shortly and left and we moved over to their spot. Our daughter gives her vegetables to the kitchen to cook for her. They were happy to cook it but asked if she wanted everything cooked and she said yes. They brought it back with the leaves and stems of the cauliflower cooked as well and they actually tasted just as good as the white part of the cauliflower. We did say everything after all, expecting they would take off the leaves but guess they just chunked the whole thing into the water. We had chicken and rice, way too much chicken and rice.
This place had three birdcages. One was a lovebird and one was a canary but not sure what the other was. They were all singers and while we were sitting there, they would sing and chirp. Wasn’t really sure it was them at first because they were so loud and noisy but finally decided it was. Almost like being in the Tiki Room at Disneyland!
After eating, another trip to the toilet and then back down the mountain to Fier. Too late to do Apollonia today. We are running about half day behind on our visits to sites but doesn’t seem to be any reason to move faster or catch up at this point.
We get to Fier and our hotel is on the main square. That’s fine except everywhere there are a lot of fireworks being shot off at all times of day because it is so close to New Years. And there is another carnival on the square. We get out of our van and the hotel whisks our bags up the two flights to stairs to the lobby of the hotel before we had hardly even exited. This was the only time we saw anyone working at the hotel besides the desk manager. We get into the lobby and they want our passports to make copies. Why is it only the 4 and 5 star hotels want to see our passports. All the smaller 3 star hotels are just fine with who we say we are most of the time. Plus there is no one else at the hotel. Did they expect a big rush on guests at the last minute? The clerk behind the counter is not very friendly and starts an argument with Klodi when he asks for Klodi’s passport which he doesn’t have but has his national identity card instead.
Our bags are taken up to floor 4. Klodi is still waiting for a room. We get out of the elevator and it is totally dark on the floor and we don’t know which way to go. We are trying to pull out a flashlight when the lights come on. The manager or front desk person is there and has walked to the end of the hall to turn on the lights. We find out rooms and walk into a very cold room and turn on the heat. Our daughter’s room is directly on the square and she can hear the music quite loudly. We do what little unpacking we have and then decide to go out to get some fruit and such . We’re not feeling the need for a dinner since we ate lunch so late but maybe just some munchies. Klodi had insisted all the way into town that it would be easy to find restaurants and food just everywhere since we were on the main street.
We needed food for later because we are not thinking we want to go out much later. It’s cold and we don’t have a guide right now and we are honestly NOT seeing anything along the street that looks like a market or a restaurant. So our daughter pops into the hotel to ask the man behind the desk where is a fruit stand. He pretends she isn’t there and then pretends (?) he doesn’t speak English. She comes back frustrated. We walk down the street a bit then head for a side street to see if we have any better luck. Our daughter’s suggestion as she is smart enough to realize we are not going to find a fruit shop on the main street. We find a small market and are able to get some things for dinner including a couple of the croissant type things that come filled with two types of crème or jelly. I love these.
We make a bold move and ask when we check out if anyone speaks English. One man behind the counter says “a little” we ask for fruit and he is happy to know the answer and points us around the corner. We go around the corner and at first think he has sent us to a candy store with fruit candy like Haribo but we go a bit further and see some fruit bins in the street and are able to go and get most of the fruit we have been liking and some veggies as well. There were two stores next to each other. The first one didn’t have any lights outside so we went to the second one.
On the way back to the hotel, we stop in to see if we can find me a sweater. I was needing some extra warmth. Any shops we see are filled with very tiny clothes where even our daughter who is a runner and very well proportioned and about a size 8 in the U.S. is a large or extra-large here. We tried one shop where she liked a shirt with skull and crossbones on it but their largest size was a bit too tight on her. They did try hard to find something she would like but no dice We did find another shop that had some cool sweaters. The one I liked the best was a large and would fit her a tiny bit big but wouldn’t have fit me at all. She did find a sweater that she liked and the salesman wanted to make sure she understood it was a man’s sweater. He was amused that she kept trying it on and then said something like everyone wears either kind of sweater. Didn’t much look like a man’s to either one of us but whatever. I actually found a hoodie there. Also a man’s hoodie and not one I would ever buy on my own because it isn’t very pretty but I was desperate for more warm clothes so I got it. We all felt it was a hoodie for advertising Communist China as it was covered with red stars.
Back to the hotel and it is still very cold in the rooms. The heat is coming out of a vent and then disappearing back up into the intake vent which might be good for summer but it meant that the room wasn’t going to be much warmer. And it is still quite noisy. I call our guide and ask him if he can ask if we can change rooms to a quieter room away from the main square. We figure it shouldn’t be a problem because we seem to be the only guests. Klodi is on the third floor and we are on the fourth but I don’t think anyone else is here. He says he will go ask. Whether he really did or not, it is hard to say. As we are sitting in our rooms in the cold and getting a headache from the noise, our daughter went downstairs in about 20 minutes but our guide wasn’t at the front desk asking for a room change for us. About 10 minutes after that, he knocks on our door and says very sorry but they refuse to move us and say that the carnival will stop by about midnight. Of course it did not stop and went on all night long. Cuddle under the covers and try to warm up and do get some sleep. Gotta get an alarm clock that comes with a white noise generator!