a note

Here's where to look if you want to know what I'm up to. You'll find photographs, sketches, anecdotes, ideas and updates, including - hopefully - book publishing news. I can't promise to post regularly while I'm travelling - and I can't promise to be witty or clever, but I will promise to be honest. No fake news here.

*Another post I discovered I had written but not published. My brain was obviously in holiday mode...*

When I first imagined going overseas and travelling through Europe Albania was not on my radar! But I’m glad we decided to take the ferry from Corfu to Sarande. We also decided to slow down our pace of travel – instead of bouncing from place to place every couple of days to pick a destination and stay a week (staying in a place for a week is apparently very unusual, judging by the responses we’ve had – and on top of that we’re travelling in the off-season, people have intimated we should come back in the summer and see how vibrant and busy places are - we’ve seen the photos of rocky shorelines (aka “beaches”) crowded with chairs, umbrellas and people and though we don’t get to swim and the temperature is plummeting as we head north and it’s dark by 4.30pm – I’m still not used to that – I much prefer travelling this time of year. You get a sense of what the place is really like!

All weathers in Sarande.

Greece and Albania both have a thriving cafe culture. People catch-up and linger hours over espressos and conversation - there is no sense of hurry, nor the feeling that you should move on because you’re taking up tables – in Athens, when the cafe we were having lunch at was full the owner carried out more tables and chairs and set them up in the road – the scooters just had to dodge them.

Sarande was once a fishing town though is now a summer holiday destination filled with high-rise hotels which were mostly shut for the off-season. We walked along the promenade, tried different foods, wrote a lot (nothing shareable, all rough drafts and jotting ideas) and watched storms over the sea from our apartment on the sixth floor. The building had no elevator so we got no small amount of incidental exercise, which allowed us to make the most of our discovery that chocolate croissants only cost the equivalent of 50c from the local bakery.

Views of Durres.

From Sarande we hopped on a minibus to Durres – a coastal port city, where we swapped 50c croissants for 50c ice creams. The ferry from Italy arrives in Durres and there was a large Italian influence with plenty of pizza and pasta restaurants. We walked along the restaurant-lined promenade (walking was our prominent method of exploration) where plenty of people were taking their poses for photographs very seriously.

In the city centre were the ruins of an amphitheatre. The site was literally hemmed in on all sides with flats built up against the exterior walls of the amphitheatre.

We had some trouble in Albanian (and Montenegran) museums – and historical sites – because in many cases the information was not translated to English – and you cannot rely on the accuracy of google translate, as shown below.

(I was trying to translate a warning sign on the train from Durres to Shkoder.)

*The continuing travel adventures of Stephanie and Gordon presented to you only 3 months after the fact...*

Our last stop in Greece was the island of Corfu, which we were to take a bus from Kalambaka to. We made sure to arrive at the bus station early because the bus only comes twice a week but as our departure time came and went - and so did several buses - I got nervous, but we were assured that our bus hadn’t come yet. It did, nearly an hour late, stopped for mere seconds during which we raced across to get on and sped off, winding along hilly roads until we arrived at Igoumenitsu where we and the bus boarded the ferry (the ferry was huge! There were at least 6 buses, 1 truck plus a heap of cars inside).

Corfu was very different from Aegina. Firstly, it’s in a different group of islands - the Ionian. The architecture is distinctive and it was under British rule for a time following the Napoleonic Wars. (There’s a lot more to Corfu’s history and though I find it fascinating you mightn’t, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Our accommodation was in the main town of Kerkyra in the old quarter, in an apartment off a narrow cobbled lane. Of all the things we did in Corfu, wandering the lanes was my favourite.

We were pre-warned the music hall was nearby and that we might hear the orchestra play, but what we were not expecting was 5 hours of music practice, of which the first 3 hours sounded like beginners who did not know how to play their instruments. Between 9 and 10pm it did improve as the orchestra practised a piece that was recognisably musical.

The next night’s practise was slightly better: it was a shorter practise session – though I did tire of hearing the same section of Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer being played over and over again. But it was an “authentic” experience.

Other things we did in Corfu:

Took a scenic walk past the jail to the British Cemetery (okay, it looked more scenic on the map, and there was no mention of the jail…) As implied by the name the British cemetery stemmed from the time of the British protectorate. There were some very elaborate headstones in a tranquil garden setting. There were also tortoises.

We walked to the estate where Prince Phillip was born. The estate is now in Corfu’s hands and the main house has been turned into a museum…but it didn’t look open, and the buildings in the grounds were falling into ruin.

It had been suggested to us to walk to the next town where there was a good lookout over the water towards Corfu airport where the planes come in to land. When we arrived at said vantage point, it was obviously a stop on the island tour route because about 6 bus loads of tourists were milling around the lookout. We took a quick look, didn’t see any planes in the vicinity and made our way back to the main town.

I think this was where Gordon first ordered hot chocolate and received a cup of what tasted like - and had the texture of - hot chocolate custard. Every new place we’ve visited he’s ordered hot chocolate in a very hopeful manner - only to be served cups of hot chocolate custard all through Albania and Montenegro…we’ll see what Croatia holds. And who knows… maybe we’re the ones ordering it wrong!

P.S. I can tell you now he got a proper milky hot chocolate in Croatia!

(As I upload this from our draughty flat in Glasgow, after a cold, windy and wet day the sunshine and sea of Corfu are very appealing.)

*No you didn't miss reading this in December – I wrote it in December, then promptly forgot I had done so...but here it is now for you to peruse at your pleasure only 3 months later...ahem*

We left our hotel early to take the train from Athens to Kalambaka and arriving at the station knew immediately which was our platform: the one swamped with tourists. I thought the train might be crowded but we had a carriage to ourselves. I’m not used to trains with carriages - it was a great novelty! So was visiting the dining car, even though the coffee I got was - to put it nicely - not very nice.

The air was cool and crisp, and the mountain tops and the monasteries on them were shrouded in mist the afternoon we arrived. But the next morning dawned clear and blue as we set out for a day of exploring. We saw our first salamander! And climbed many, many, many stairs.

A salamander!

Our first monastery was the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, built in 1362, and the most difficult (read uphill) to reach. I wish I had done an organised tour to learn more about the monasteries – as it was we wandered through the building, admired the frescoes in the chapel (no photos!) and the view.

Then we continued our uphill walk heading towards the Great Meteoron Monastery, stopping enroute to take photos of the view and scramble along a cow track to get a closer view of one of the hermit caves…there’s no way I’d want to be a hermit in a cave. It was all too dark and smelly - and I don’t like the feeling of tons of rock being above my head.

The hermit caves.

By the time we reached Great Meteoron Monastery and saw how many stairs we had to climb to view it our legs were tired at the thought, but it was worth tight calves and throbbing feet. This is the oldest and largest monastery. The chapel was twice the size - and even more ornate - than the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

The complex also contained several museums including historic documents (no photo-taking), holy relics, an old kitchen, cellar and display of tools.

The next day we set out to find the “hidden” monastery, not built in plain sight on top of the rock like the others, and after a 6km stroll through the forest we found it - though we would have found it much easier if we had just followed the road … which we did on the way back.