Podcast #32 From Slovenia—Riding the Balkans 2018: A Live Update

When I set off on this 2018 Eastern European Tour, I had no real plan except to search for the best stories in food, wine, and culture. I wanted to discover the truth about the region. Like me, most North Americans do not understand what is happening over here—my aim was to find out.

Now two months into my journey, I’ll admit, it has surprised me. I’ve been disappointed too. You’ll hear more in this podcast. Recorded live in the wine cellars of Movia in the Gorica Brda region of Slovenia. I wanted to get more current with my readers and listeners than my blog currently shows.

So this is likely the shortest Podcast in the history of the WorldRider Podcast, or 32 episodes.

So my goal with this podcast is simple. I want to provide a quick audio update to my journey to date because it takes much longer to write, edit, and choose photographs to capture the essence of my journey and post to the WorldRider blog (here).

Don’t get me wrong. The blog posts are coming. And it gets better.

The first part of this podcast is me explaining a few hightlights of the journey so far while wandering the caves and cellar of Movia Winery in Slovenia. The second part includes snippets of interviews and discussion I’ve had with so many interesting people along the way. So be sure to listen to the very end as this podcast will give you a glimpse of what’s to come over the next several months.

I’m not here to just “Instagram my trip. Instead, I want to bring you along so you can meet the people, taste the food, understand the culture and feel and experience as I do.
So stay tuned to my blog—it may not be timely, but it will always be real and curated to the best I can given the time and demands of travel on the road.

LISTEN TO PODCAST #32: FROM SLOVENIA

 

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Albania to Montenegro—with riding Vlog (video)

It’s with regret and sadness that my time in Albania nears the end. From Sarande to Tirana the history, people, food, and wine excelled and beyond expectations. Only the thrill of discovery, something new helps to cure the sadness of long goodbyes. So it’s the open arms and welcome of Montenegro and the promises of connecting with my Albanian friends in the future that give me the energy and drive me to travel.

Even filling up “Doc” with petrol is a fun experience in Albania.

Before crossing the border into Montenegro, I stay one more night in Shkodra another ancient city built around a castle—the Rozafa Fortress. I tuck in at a little hotel that surrounds a cozy courtyard with a restaurant. It’s where I sort out my plans for Montenegro and beyond and enjoy my last Albanian meal, Mish Cereme me Kerpudha te Egra, a traditional dish of beef and wild mushrooms oven roasted in a clay pot and served bubbling over hot coals. It’s here at Hotel Tradita that I have my last glass of Albanian wine for some time, I’m sure.

The lovely Hotel Tradita has the right idea

Cheese plate at Hotel Tradita in Skoder.

You might think this little shack is “shit” and wonder why someone tagged it as such. The first time I saw this “SHITET” it was crudely spray-painted on an old beater car that did look like a piece of “sh•t” — but alas, this means “For Sale” and in some cases, like this shack and that car, probably have been for sale for years.

The ride to the border winds around Lake Shkodra which Albania shares with Montenegro. It’s hot, and the middle of the day when I arrive to a long line of cars, all heading the same way. I meet several motorcyclists, a couple from the Czech Republic, guys from Slovenia, Australia, and Italy. All of us shed our riding gear and push our bikes toward the border officials after each car ahead of us clears. It’s slow, humid, and the brutal sun bakes our bikes and faces.

A couple from the Czech Republic wait with me at the border of Montenegro from Albania

It’s hot and a long wait getting into Montenegro.

I now close this last post from Albania with a short video blog or VLOG including commentary as I rode Albania from border to border of Greece to Albania and now to Montenegro.

Feeling Like Royalty In Tirana

What I thought would be a night or two in Tirana is now three nights. In between getting work done, laundry, and learning about Balkan wines from Jimmy, I continue to meet a host of influential people from the Albanian world of hospitality, literature, and wine.

The largest distributor, exporter, and importer of wines in Albania is Vila Alehandro, and they also have a wine shop. And here at Hotel Dinasty I meet Lola the director or big boss of the firm. She shows me a video that promotes the firm’s new wine shop in Tirana. It’s well produced and features a cameo by Zhek, my new friend the Albanian poet. I learn that they import the finest Italian wines, and probably most of those offered by the restaurants on the Albanian Riviera.

Lola does not speak English, but we soon learn we both speak Spanish, so our conversation dotted the world of wine, Albanian food, and travel.

Talking wines in Spanish with Lola, the director of Vila Alehandro, the largest wine distributor, importer and exporter in Albania.

Lola invites me, Zhek, and Jimmy for a lunch at a traditional Albanian restaurant. The chef at What I thought would be a night or two in Tirana is now three nights. In between getting work done, laundry, and learning about Balkan wines from Jimmy, I continue to meet a host of influential people from the Albanian world of hospitality, literature, and wine.

Lola does not speak English, but we soon learn we both speak Spanish, so our conversation dotted the world of wine, Albanian food, and travel.

Lola invites me, Zhek, and Jimmy for a lunch at a traditional Albanian restaurant. The chef at Mullixhiu is known throughout Albania for his take on traditional dishes. They bake their own bread from wheat and corn milled on site. I take a moment and capture the action in the mill while the chefs there also create special Albanian bread. Check out the video for more detail.

Jimmy, head chef Bledar Kola, and breadmaker Jovani at restaurant Mullixhiu in Tirana, Albania

Lola and her two boys.

Delicious roasted potatoes and vegetables from the wood fired oven at Mullixhiu in Tirana

I feel like royalty here in Albania. First, at Cobo Winery in Berat I’m treated to barrel tastings of young wine and brandy, at Uka Winery and Farm I feel feted on wine reserved for presidents and prime ministers, get a private tasting and introduction to Albanian wine by the president of the sommelier association, and here for lunch I’m treated to a feast of Albanian food paired with wines chosen by the director of the largest wine distributor in the country. Wow! All of this is overwhelming and makes me forget about the crowded roads and crazy drivers.

I like Albania, maybe I should stay here longer.

Albanian Hospitality & New Friends In Tirana

Jimmy the owner of Hotel Dinasty in Tirana

The Dinasty Hotel in Tirana meticulously built, with beautiful wrought iron accents, hand laid stone tile floors, handmade furniture, and beautiful stone walls. Tables on the patio are all made by hand with beautiful mosaics. The four-story building looks nothing like other buildings in the neighborhood. Bay windows, stained glass, and curved balconies fitted with iron and stone accents are just a few of the details you notice here. The entire building is a work of art.

“This hotel took me 10 years to build,” Jimmy tells me. His hair, a mix of grey and black, is long and falls gently on his shoulders. He looks more like an old rock star, with a flair for casual fashion than a hospitality business owner. He designed and worked with local artisans to fulfill his dream to build the hotel which he runs with his wife and a competent and service oriented staff.

The restaurant dining room at the beautiful hotel

The outdoor patio at Dinasty

Zhek London, an Albanian poet I met on the patio at Hotel Dinasty in Tirana, Albania

Jimmy bounces around his hotel, from the outdoor patio to the dining room and reception. He has an intoxicatingly positive attitude, laughs often, and full of stories. The Dinasty Hotel is home to the most important wine tastings in Albania. On his phone he thumbs through photos of tastings he has attended in Slovenia, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, all with dignitaries and special guests.

Jimmy tells me he is a wine-lover, he loves Albanian wine but tells me that the best wine in the world comes from Slovenia. He promises to connect me with some top producers for my visit there in a few weeks.

The Dinasty Hotel is an institution and attracts an incredible collection of prominent locals. I meet Jack, or Xhek in Albanian, a published poet who also plans to buy a motorcycle and adventure around the world. “It gives me inspiration for my poetry,” he tells me. After I posted our photo with his book on my Facebook page, he thanks me and tells me that now his book and poems have crossed borders and oceans.

I get a personal tour of the hotel, dining rooms, wine cellar, kitchen, and special event and meeting rooms. Jimmy enlightens me with some of his favorite Italian and Slovenian wines, and the Albanian wine producer based in Fier, that offers unique blends of Albanian and international varietals. Sitting on top of one of his wine displays is a wooden box of the “Max” a Movrud wine made by Flori of Uka Winery & Farm.

Jimmy imports special pasta, cheeses, and other products from Italy. “The best pasta in the world,” he boasts, holding a package of the coveted brand. It’s easy to see how visitors to his hotel and old friends alike are cast under a “Jimmy” spell—his enthusiasm and energy intoxicates and sucks you in.

Later he introduces me to Dashimar, the president of the Albanian Sommelier Association, owner of Class Wines Albania, a well-stocked wine shop in the Tirana city center. Like Jimmy, the attention to detail in the design, product selection and even the painted scene in the tasting room.

Dashimar treats Jimmy and me to a tasting of Albanian wines. We try three white wines, a unique Orange wine, and several reds. The Kallmet again impresses me as does a Chardonnay. We talk about the wines and enjoy a selection of cheeses, meats and spreads selected for our tasting. For the white wines, the Class Wines Albania chef first prepares a traditional spread called fërgesë verore and is made with fresh red pepper, tomato, ricotta cheese, garlic and olive oil, we spread this on freshly baked bread. Then he prepares Italian pasta with a Bolognese sauce to pair with the red wines.

Tasting room at Class Wines Albania in Tirana

Plenty of good wine in Albania — and from around the world — in Albania. Find a bottle at Class Wines

Our tasting lasts until late in the evening. Back at the hotel Jimmy and I sit down and share a bottle from Fier, a blend of Sangiovese and Kallmet. It disappoints Jimmy. The wine he tells me is better than this. So he opens another bottle, it’s the same. He then calls the winemaker, and they chat in Albanian. I suggest the wine is not bad, but maybe the heat of the past month damaged the wines. Perhaps the wine is heat damaged—the temperatures have been soaring since I’ve been in the country. He’s not so sure.

We are joined by another friend of Jimmy’s who is finishing construction on the first Hilton hotel built in Albania—A Hilton Garden Inn, due to open in September. It will have some 150 rooms, much bigger than the 30 rooms here at Dinasty, and I’m sure without the heart and soul. We snack on olives from his property. As he leaves, he hands me a bag of dried figs also from his home, good energy for my ride.

Ali is opening the first Hilton property in Tirana.

Ali may be ready to ride!

Paradise Tucked Into Tirana: Uka Farm & Winery

I park my bike “Doc” at the entrance of Uka Farm & Winery outside of Tirana, Albania. Once inside I feel a transformation from the neighborhood outside to the paradise here.

I’ve been looking forward to meeting Flori Uka for many months. He’s a sommelier turned winemaker and along with his father and brothers, is focused on sustainable and organic farming for not only wine grapes but for fruit and vegetables.

After the fall of communism in Albania, a 2-hectare parcel of land outside Tirana returned to his family. His father, Rexhep Uka, who served as Deputy Prime Minister of Albania gave up politics to focus on his true love and passion, entomology, the study of insects. He planted some 200 different varieties of plants, vegetables, and fruits on the parcel and vowed to avoid the use of any pesticide, herbicide, or chemical, and thus began an experiment that continues at Uka Farm today.

Instead, he figured he would let the pests fight themselves and use the parcel as an ongoing science experiment to identify which plants would thrive and which would die. As Flori, his son, explains it, through the use of pesticides and corporate farming gives insects the perfect environment to be our enemy. It seems that Uka Farm aims to explore how to recruit insects to sustain plants.

The Uka Winery Chimaera is a blend of different grapes from all over Albania, in this wine Flori explains he celebrates the diversity of the terrain and climate of Albania.

We sit on a table under a small grove of apple trees as Flori explained that the family urged their father, in the age of capitalism, to figure a way to generate cash flow as the science experiment continued to drain the family’s savings. We taste Uka Winery wines, and a selection of vegetables and cheese as our conversation evolves.

We talked for several hours, and it will be difficult to capture all the nuances and Flori’s contagious passion in this post, so I urge you to return once I’ve had the time to edit and post our conversation.

Flori is a storyteller, and we connected on multiple levels that stretched well beyond our shared passion for wine, which made the time I spent at Uka Farm and Winery so special for me.

Tucked into a neighborhood outside the Albanian capital of Tirana, Uka Farm started as an experiment to understand and discover which plants would thrive among others. As Flori explains it, he and his brothers tried to convince their father to use the farm to generate cash flow, rather than burn through it.

The brothers have big ideas, but dad wants merely to experiment. Hanging from a tree on the farm is one of his father’s inventions—and experiments. It’s an organic bug catcher. “Insects are attracted to light,” Flori explains. It’s a conical shaped device topped by a light. Below are a series of fins. When the insects fly to the light, they hit the fin and fall below into a bucket of water and drown. “In the morning my dad knows what insects were here.” This gives his father more data for this some ten-year experiment.

At one point, they convinced a merchant to sell the organic apples at the local market. When the merchant saw the apples, they weren’t pristine, and shiny like those pesticide-treated and perfect looking apples at the market. Instead, the organic apples from Uka Farm looked terrible, with wholes, and visual defects. They offered the apples to the merchant on consignment, and when Uka walked into the market, the aromas of fresh apples permeated and dominated, yet the merchant had yet to sell a single apple. “You can take your apples,” the merchant told Flori.

Inspired by sommeliers who could identify wines by merely looking and tasting them, Flori told his father he wanted to study wine and asked if the local university where his father taught offered such a program. Happy that one of his sons was interested in something related to agriculture, he insisted that if the Tirana University where he teaches doesn’t, he will start one. The university had a newly created program, and Flori was one of the earliest to enroll.

This began his journey into wine by first training to be a sommelier. He then spent three years in Italy studying wine and winemaking. It wasn’t long until Flori earned credentials as both a sommelier and a winemaker.

Winemaking is science, Flori explains. Yes, it starts in the vineyard with good fruit, but the magic happens in the vinification. And Flori treats winemaking with a gentle hand, he touches, smells and listens to the wine from the formation through the bottling process. As he punches down the cap of large vats of fermenting grapes from a harvest just three days before I arrive—Cabernet Sauvignon—he tells me to ignore the fizzing sounds of CO2, but listen and feel the grapes. “These are my babies,” he tells me, “I can feel them.”

Flori checks on the newly harvested and fermenting cabernet grapes in the Uka Winery Cellar

As his passion and lust for creating great wines grew, his father suggested looking at a wild white grape he discovered in the hillsides of Albania. This grapevine thrived by attaching to and winding itself around trees. The clusters of grapes were tight and curve-shaped like a banana. The local villagers used the wild grapes over the centuries to make Raki, a brandy-like high alcoholic beverage. “It is bad raki, too,” Flori explained, “they wasted it.”

He convinced the villagers, who lead simple lives but are as wild and lawless as the grapes, to let him harvest the grapes and to make wine. Flori’s passion now is to comb the country for varietal grapes unique to Albania, searching for old vines or forgotten vineyards planted with Kalmet, Pulës, and the coveted wild tree-climbing vines of Ceruja.

After his first vintage, Flori took his wines to restaurants throughout the country. Most of them told him the wine is too expensive. He offered to consign and leave a case or two with the restaurant and suggest they try to sell them.

When he returned to the restaurants, he discovered not a bottle was sold. They opened not even one bottle. Ignorance is the biggest problem, Flori explains. They never tasted, shared or tried to understand. He gave up on the restaurants and never retrieved his wines. “I don’t want to waste my time,” Flori says. They want a bottle of wine that costs two or three Euros. “I’m not interested in that.”

So Flori and his brothers shared the wine with friends and families at a modest table and outdoor grill. Friends would gather, and Flori would cook, open his wine, and they all laughed and shared stories, often until late at night, as we were doing on this evening we met.

Flori figured instead of just cooking for friends and for free all the time, he opened a restaurant with his brothers. They would use all organic produce from the farm, sell the wine that other restaurants refused to try, and provide a gathering place for young and old to share ideas, connect and learn.

And where his wine could shine, and people would have the opportunity to experience a genuine expression of Albanian wine and food and the truest farm-to-table restaurant I’ve ever been to. And he now has a place to let his wine shine, and he can price it for its real value.

Uka Farm is an organic farm-to-table restaurant tucked into a neighborhood oustisde of Tirana, Albania.

In the beginning, Flori did everything. Waited on the tables, cooked the food, and collected the money. As word got out, Uka Farm Restaurant grew in popularity. The operation had to get more organized and serious. His older brother who studied hospitality business in Switzerland provided the core of management and training. His twin brother who studied engineering and architecture designed and built the building and infrastructure, while Flori focused on the food and wine.

Today Uka Farm boasts a large dining room sitting among the grape and other plants, a covered gazebo tucked under apple and olive trees, and intimate tables tucked under a small grove of apple trees, where he and I shared wine, grilled vegetables from the farm, cheese from small producers in the north of the country, and grilled meats.

“I know everyone, and everywhere this food comes from,” Flori tells me.

The oven roasted goat, cooked for hours in its own fat and juices is divine. Later we try over roasted lamb, and sausages made right on the farm.

Our conversation continues through the night. Flori shows me a video of a seven-meter python a villager shot near where he hopes to harvest a new vintage of Ceruja. He’s apprehensive and doesn’t want to run into such snakes, which are not indigenous to the area.

Flori holds a rare bottle of the Uka Ceruje

He explains it’s difficult dealing with the villagers, who by there nature trust no one outside their tribes, or clans. Last year he hoped to harvest six tons of grapes, but when he arrived the villagers had already harvested and made their nasty raki. He ended up with less than a ton.

I don’t have enough to sell, he tells me, I think I keep this all for my family and friends. From a small stainless steel again tank he pours me a taste of the wild vine Ceruja from the minuscule 2017 vintage.

Flori believes that Ceruja can lead to some of the most exceptional white wines in the world. And that’s his mission. It’s rare, has a great story, and crisp acidity, beautifully fruit flavors and a luscious mouthfeel.

We take a walk through the Uka Winery’s dusty cellar. Spiders are good as they eat bugs that might eat the corks, he tells me as he brushes the dust and cobwebs from a bottle of 2010 Kallmet, perhaps the indigenous grape that could well define the identity of Albanian wine.

“The last time I opened a bottle of this wine was almost two years ago,” he tells me. “When the prime minister was here.” He explains that he only opens these early vintage wines for presidents and prime ministers. I’m honored that he will open and share a bottle with me this evening.

The restaurant is alive with energy from big groups, all with a bottle or two of Uka wine on the tables. We take refuge away from the crowds in a large covered patio area near the apple orchard.

Servers bring vegetables, oven roasted lamb and goat, cheeses, vegetables and more. It’s an Albanian feast, and we taste the rare and coveted Kallmet, the first I taste in Albania. Intensely dark, full-bodied, and layered this fragrant wine is youthful and has good structure and complexity.

Flori smiles as I swirl my glass, smell, and sip the Kallmet. “For presidents and prime ministers,” I say while raising the glass for a toast. We are like old friends, sharing stories and an appreciation for well-made wine.

After, we imbibe in a tasting of Uka Winery’s raki, or brandy, made from grapes, apples, pear, and quince. They are smooth, even at 30-40% alcohol. Then he pulls out a box of unique cigars from Indonesia. Flori explains a friend picked them up at a duty-free shop in western Europe. We fire up the stogies, dip the ends into the raki and relax, with good wine, good brandy, and beautiful cigars.

It’s 2 AM when we both resign to call an end to the evening. I would rather not get on my bike and ride. It’s dark, late, and I’m tired. But Flori has called a friend who owns a hotel in Tirana. It’s a twenty-minute ride on a good and well-lit road. “You will like it there,” he tells me, “the owner is a wine lover.”

Farewells, hugs, and promises to stay in touch and see each other again, and I’m off.

It’s almost 3 AM when I pull into the Dinasty Hotel in Tirana and meet the owner, “Jimmy.” The dining room is elegantly decorated, and they stack wine, wine boxes, corks, wine gadgets and more on a large round table at the head of the room. He hands me a glass of rosé wine and says “welcome drink.”

Welcome to Tirana.

Berat—On the Castle Trail

The old Ottoman City of Berat retains the age-old charm and traditional architecture as the old homes line hillsides on both sides of the Osom River.

When I tell Muharrem the hotel I’m thinking of staying, he picks up his phone and makes a call. “You will stay in a traditional hotel, not a modern hotel.”

But the hotel he called was booked. He makes another call and books me a room at Hotel Muzaca, a hotel in a traditional stone building that sits on the banks of the Osum river, in the shadows of the Berat Castle, a Byzantine-era fortress that sits on a rocky bluff high above the river.

I arrive late, but the restaurant stays open for me. I bring in a bottle of the Cobo Vlush and share a glass with a couple from the Netherlands and with a fellow American, Jeff, who is on holiday from his job as a teacher in Russia.

The Vlush wine is rich, decadent, and yet expressive and with the aromatics of flowers, cherry, and berry. Wonderful.

I wake up early and ride five kilometers to the Berat Castle. It’s a bit nerve-racking when I arrive at the steep hill leading to the castle is under construction. They are getting ready to pave the road, so it’s full of marble or golf-ball sized polished rocks, deep. This, of course, I contend with on a morning where I decided to forgo the usual riding gear as I knew I’d be hiking around the castle. I certainly don’t want to drop Doc on this loose gravel. It’s especially challenging because many groups of tourists climb up and down the road, many elderly people who slip and slide as they walk up and down. I need to commit and be steady on the throttle to make it up without incident, I don’t want to negotiate around hordes of castle-happy tourists.

I make it. Coming down will be another story.

The fortress is well preserved and inside are nearly one hundred small stone houses built during the 13th century. Some of these have been converted into guest houses, cafes or gift shops. There’s a mosque and at one time many churches. One still sits on the cliff, and a massive discern with arched roofs is impressive and reminds me how important water was for the Byzantines—or anyone.

I’m apparently I’m on the castle trek as I make my way north along the Adriatic.

Some of the homes within the fortress appear abandoned and not yet restored.

Steeped in history and the climb to the top, I’m rewarded with fantastic views of the Osum River and the bends and twists it takes as it winds around the scenic village of Berat. And from the top of the castle, I can see miles and miles in all directions. I’m sure I can see the new Cobo Vineyards, I’m just not sure where—as vineyards and olive groves dominate the landscape to the south and west.

The ‘newer’ city of Berat from high atop the castle

The landscape paints a picture in my mind of the future of Albania. With the history, passion, and I hope the changing attitudes of some Albanians, that there is much more prosperity for this country in the future.

Another Ali Pasha Fortress? Gorgeous Gjirokastër Albania

I face more Sarande traffic madness to get out of town; I find myself more bold and aggressive, which isn’t always a good thing when riding a motorcycle on foreign soil. But I make it out of Sarande and head down to the valley through the same mountain pass I arrived two days earlier.

To navigate, I rely much more on my iPhone than I do the Garmin GPS on my bike. The Garmin is impossible to see in the bright Balkan sun, plus the user interface is horrific and feels like I’m in 1999.

The iPhone which connects to my SENA 20S Bluetooth communicator and provides me with prompts through speakers in my helmet. This worked great in Greece, but since crossing the border, Apple maps does not give turn-by-turn prompts, and while Google Maps does, the prompts are often wrong, or worse, missed completely.

So as I approach destinations, I often pull over to look at the phone and get my bearings—old school.

Yesterday I pulled over several times to get to Butrint. Each time, a friendly Albanian approaches me and offers to help—sending me along the right path. Today it is no different. I’m on my way to Gjirokastër, an old Ottoman town that also carries a UNESCO World Heritage designation since 2005.

In Gjirokastër, I will not stay the night, so after hydrating at a local cafe, I ask the waiter to watch my helmet and riding jacket. To be honest, I would rather get out of my riding pants and boots, too. It’s much more comfortable exploring sites in my civilian gear. But when I stop for a few hours somewhere that’s more difficult. Today, I’m happy to make a new friend like Marco here in Gjirokastër, who is glad to keep an eye on my bike and belongings.

Gjirokastër is a well preserved Ottoman city of ancient stone houses with stone roofs. Above the town is a medieval fortress—castle—built in the 12th Century.  In 1419, after a century of Albanian inhabitants under the Despots of Epirus and Esau,  became part of the Ottoman Empire. Over the next several hundred years several clans battled for control, but the Ottoman’s held on.

I cannot get away from that determined Albanian, Ali Pasha, as Gjirokastër came under his rule as the Pasha of Yannina in the late 1800s. Later, in World War I, Greece annexed the city along with most of the former Epirus territory, but this was short-lived as at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the town returned to Albania.

Italians occupied the city after the Italian Invasion of Albania, during the Greco-Italian War, and for a short period, the city fell under German control before ceding back to Albania in 1944.

So there’s no shortage of history and multi-ethnic influence here in Gjirokastër, and most everywhere I go as I head north. It’s often a rich, but always ever complicated history. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. Yet I understand I’ll never fully understand just how this history and the conflicts that have colored the past and region unless I commit to several years of study. For now, I travel to study and learn, but most importantly,  to connect with the people. Along the way, I continue my education with baby steps.

I wander the cobblestoned town and hike the steep path up to the citadel, the castle fortress. A man selling water, fruit and sweets halfway up the steps, motions with his hands as if he’s riding a motorcycle. Then points to the top. He recognizes my motorcycle pants and boots, and without words, tells me I could have saved the hike and ridden my bike to the top.

That’s okay. I wouldn’t have met Marco, or the woman selling figs and herbs also on the steps to the castle. With warm eyes and a face weathered by her own history in this town, I couldn’t resist giving her one Euro for a bag of figs she asked for fifty cents. But I didn’t want the figs or herbs. Yet she insisted, gently place the bag into the palm of my hand—pointing at me and clasping my hand with her other hand, while gently squeezing and smiling at me. “For you,” she motions.


I tried to explain that she should give the figs to someone who is hungry, needs to eat. I take her picture. Later walking down the steps after roaming the castle, I noticed she has moved to the opposite side of the path, taking shade from the brutal sun. She tries again to give me the bag of figs. I smile at her, fold my hands in thanks and bow my head. Respect for her and how hard she works for what I’m sure is so little.

The castle is impressive, and within is a museum with arms and artillery from the last two centuries, such as an Italian tank built by Fiat, guns abandoned by, or captured from the Italian and German occupation forces during World War II.

There is also a US Air Force Lockheed T33 Shooting Star spy plane once forced to land at Rinas airport near Tirana in December 1957. Two stories make the “fake news” for how the aircraft ended up here. The American’s say it landed due to technical problems from foul weather. The Albanians at the time say they spotted the plane and its military forced it to land.

For some 30 years beginning in the 1930s, the castle served as a prison. Today besides the Artillery and Armament Museum, they use the space for music and dance events; it was once home of the Albanian Folk Festival.

The views of the city and to the mountains in the east are stunning. After a few hours, I climb back down and retrieve my helmet and jacket from Marco and head north to the wine region of Barat where I am excited to meet an Albanian who is doing his part to change the face of and attitude toward Albanian wines.

Forging Change And Excitement In Albanian Wine

No worries if the GPS leads you astray in Albania, the locals are always there to help you get back on track. Thanks guys!

I take nearly three hours to ride from Gjirokastлr to Cobo winery, just outside the village of Berat. I still fight with Google Maps, and once inside the town of Fier, I pull over at a roundabout to look at my phone to make sure I don’t miss a turn. Two men drinking coffee at a cafe just 20 feet from me wave at me, then shrugging their shoulders. It’s sign language for “do you need help” or “are you lost?”

I flip up my helmet and say hello. “Berat?” I say, likely too loud because I’ve still got my earplugs in. They point right and wave their hands up and down—straight there. I thank them and motor on.

Albanians are friendly.

The road gets rough. I’m in an industrial part of the city, heading toward tall mountains. I cruise through another roundabout and now have second thoughts. Was I supposed to turn? I pull over in the shady parking area of a tire store and pull out the phone. Two men emerge from the store and confirm, I’m on the right road. I joke with them, “can you check my tires?” They do and give me a thumbs up.

The road gets worse. The worse I’ve traveled to date. Massive potholes, buckling and cracks, so much so that cars coming from the opposite direction weave and skirt about trying to avoid the defects. It’s slow and hot. Just five kilometers from Cobo, the road improves.

A new take and color on communist block-style apartments.

The sign for Cobo Winery is easy to spot, but once inside the complex of three buildings, it’s not clear which is the winery. I park the bike, and a man guides me to the building, the third and furthest from the road.

Muharrem Cobo and his latest passion, sparkling wine from the Pules grape, native to Albania

I am hot, sweaty and tired. The owner and winemaker, Muharrem Cobo tells me to get comfortable. I change out of my riding gear and put on civilian clothes. It seems like I’ll be here a while. Muharren tends to a small group of Italians tasting wines and pairing them with olives and cheeses.

When the Italians leave, they purchase two cases of wine. I imagine if the restaurants on the coast saw this perhaps they would list more Albanian wines for sale. The Albanian wine is good enough for these Italians.
I tell Muharrem that the road from Fier was rough. He asks which way I traveled. He laughs and tells me I went the hard way. The other way is longer in kilometers, he explains, but the road is better and faster. Oh well, I guess my gut was right—I was on the wrong road, but also the right way as far as locals go.

“Even people from Fier, don’t use that road,” he says.

Beginning in the early 1900’s, Muharrem’s grandfather had a vineyard and made wine, but under the communist regime after World War II, all personal property appropriated to the state, and they discouraged winemaking.

In 1991, the communist regime toppled, and property returned to Albanian families. The Cobo family received about 1.5 hectares where they planted grapes in 1993. Muharrem and his brother lived in Italy at the time, but returned for one-month to harvest and make wine in 1998 and 1999 before moving back indefinitely in 2000.

As Muharrem guides me through the winery, showing me the fermentation room with some 30 sparkling stainless steel fermentation tanks, then opening a large wooden door revealing the barrel room and cellar. “We don’t have bottles dating back to 1998 and 1999 because then we only sold open wine,” he explains showing me the library wines in the cellar. The 2000 vintage was the first that Cobo bottled.

With a focus on quality and indigenous varietals, he convinced one of Tirana’s best restaurants to sell his wine, and with this success in 2003, the family secured a loan to build the winery, which they completed in 2006.

The tasting room has high ceilings with massive wood beams, and plenty of wine fills four large oval cask-shaped. Original artwork–paintings—from the 1970’s and 80’s is displayed throughout the tasting room. And displayed on a large wooden credenza at the front of the room is a golden plate proudly commemorating Cobo’s “Award of Excellence.” Two separate rooms with lower tiled roofs are tucked into the corners and serve as a kitchen and office. Up a small flight of stairs is a wine cellar.

Muharrem brings me a glass of his new love, a sparkling wine made from a unique Albanian varietal known as Pulës, that he named Shendevere. He is proud of this wine and shows me a video he produced to announce the first vintage, just last year. Now in the second vintage, he explains that the word Shendevere comes from two Albanian words, ‘shende,’ which means health, and ‘vere’ which means wine. Yet, together the words form an old Albanian saying which means “full of joy, happiness.” He explains that when you are feeling great, or you see someone who makes you feel great, you feel “Shendevere.” I sense that Muharrem has a knack for marketing and branding. He tells me it is just instinctual and natural to him.

The sparkling Shendevere is crisp, fragrant and with tiny bubbles, but I sense Muharrem is unhappy. He asks me, “You like?” I tell him, yes, and he says, “but it is better.” He tells me someone opened this bottle yesterday and while it’s drinkable, it doesn’t have the life he expects. He returns with another glass.

Wow. Now I am drinking an altogether different wine and one of the best sparkling wines I’ve tasted in some time. He shares with me his plan to eventually make and offer for sale everything that can be produced from grapes. This sparkling wine is his newest passion. He then shows me three barrels of brandy he’s made from grapes that have been aging in these barrels for five years. “I think next year, I will bottle.”

Later he lets me taste the brandy, and it’s creamy, complex, and while still resolving in the barrel, it exudes quality and balance. Smooth.

“You want to taste everything?” he asks. I do, but I’m riding a motorcycle. He knows, and I explain I must be careful so I might spit the wine after tasting. He looks at me funny.

“You stay in Berat?” he asks referring to the Ottoman town tucked under a Byzantine fortress just down the road. I am, but as always on these long journeys, I haven’t made a hotel reservation.

“Ah,” he smirks, “just 12km down the road!” he laughs, “You only spit if you don’t like the wine.” Now I feel I’m under pressure and don’t want to offend him. So I taste—and drink, but he brings me a dump bucket, so I am not obliged to drink all of the wine.

We taste two white wines, a Pulës, and a Bardha e Beratit, both are clean, balanced and smooth, but the Pulës stands out with good acidity, lots of pear, pineapple and a weightiness that reminds me of Viognier.

He pours me two reds, a Shesh i Zi, from grapes in southern Albania and a wine made from E Kuqja e Beratit, or the red wine of Berat. Neither of these wines has touched any oak, and yet they have structure, good acidity, and lovely fruit. They are elegant and showing distinct flavors that come from the terroir of their origin.

He then pours the big guns. First, he pours me the Cobo Kashmer a blend of Shesh i Zi, Cabernet and Merlot, and then a reserve wine based on the same blend.

Piktor i meritour, brief break of the cooperative girls by Sotir Capo, 1988 Albania

Muharrem explains that he created Kashmer so to convince locals to try Albanian wines. He explains that if he used the varietal name on the wine, that most locals would brush it aside as a cheap Albanian wine. So he blended the first syllables as well as the wine from the grapes to produce and brand the wine. Cabernet (Ka) Shesh i Zi (She), and Merlot (Mer) — Kashmer. Once again relying on his gut to promote and market quality wine to an audience predisposed to judge Albanian wine as cheap house wine that should cost no more than €3 for 500ml.

Tasting Vlush grapes from young vines high on newly planted terraced vineyards of Cobo Winery.

Later, I’m treated a special barrel tasting of another varietal unique to Albania, Vlush — a dark, thick-skinned grape, that is intensely aromatic and full-bodied, yet with a light brick red color that is deceiving considering its complexity and structure.

I’m impressed by all the wines at Cobo. But the Vlush and reserve blend positively opened my eyes and my palate to Albanian wines, and I wonder why those restaurants on the Albanian Riviera in Sarande aren’t promoting them.

“They make more money on Italian wines,” Muharrem tells me. “They can mark-up Italian wines three maybe four times, Albanian maybe one and a half or two.”

After the tasting Muharrem drives me to a new plot of vineyards, he is in the process of planting. It’s a 15-kilometer drive to a tiny dirt road, and then we climb some 400 meters in elevation to a terraced hillside vineyard with chalky soil where panoramic views at the top show the stunning landscape of the mountains in the distance, and to the villages nestled along the river winding below.  Today, the oldest wines here are about three years old, so the fruit from these vineyards will not be ready for two or three years.

We meet one farmer working and helping Muharrem realize his dream to plant the 27-hectare vineyard with indigenous Albanian varietals. He hands me a grape from a vine of Vlush, then takes a handful and squeezes them until the dark red juice stains his hand.


But Muharrem has another dream: to build a unique eco-guesthouse among the vineyards. But he has bigger plans. He will plant vegetables, fruit and tend to goats and other farm animals. His idea is to create an experience where everything comes from the land—visitors and guests will taste and experience everything from this land—there will be fish, of course,  he tells me, but it will come from the nearby sea.

Lighting flashes and the dark black clouds open and rain begins to pelt us. Back at the winery, we arrive in a blackout, no power. Today, the storm is especially precarious as a wedding at the winery didn’t allow for a  contingency plan. It’s a cousin of Muharram who is getting married.

“In Albania,” he explains, “weddings last for days.” He tells me he is tired and hasn’t had a lot of sleep due to the wedding. Tonight is the last night.

The rain stops and later the power comes back on. The bride is happy, and the party continues.

It’s a grand vision, and in Muharram, I sense a passion and desire to create, build, and promote an Albania that is sincere, deep, and seducing. No wonder, as it’s these words, he uses to explain Cobo, the family, the wine, and the experience.

It’s exciting to discover here in a country that just over 25 years ago was under one of the most brutal dictatorships (think like North Korea) people like Muharrem and his family who are changing the face of Albania and are bringing new ideas that everyone in the country—and the world—should stand up and say “Bravo”.

Oh, and that’s what I hear from most everyone I meet in Albania, “Bravo.” The Italian influence here in Albania is hard to ignore. This is Albania,  people, wine, and dreams.

“Bravo.”

From The Romans to the Ottomans: Butrint, Albania

Just about 10 miles south of Sarande is Butrint, some of the most incredible ancient ruins in Albania and the Balkans. So with most of my gear unpacked and safe in my hotel room, I follow the coast south to Butrint.

I’m told that to explore and experience the ancient site, I’d need to plan at least ninety minutes. So I explore the site in the late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler, and the lighting better for photography.

Butrint sits on top of a hill on the Ksamil peninsula on the coast of Albania north of Greece and just miles from the Greek Island of Corfu and overlooking the Straits of Corfu—a strategic location that allowed the various inhabitants of Butrint over the years to control the passage of ships in the Adriatic.

The site dates back to prehistoric times, and as I wander the place, I find evidence of its time as a Greek colony, a Roman city, and Catholic bishopric, a Byzantine fortress, and a Venetian occupation, and ultimately it served as another of despot Ali Pasha’s Ottoman fortresses. In fact, the Ottoman’s were the last to occupy the city before it flooded and was overrun by marshland.

I’ve visited archaeological sites all over the world, but what impresses me so much about Butrint is the layers of history so well preserved in a single location.

Greek built amphitheater in the Roman style

 

The Baptistry at Butrint, Albania.

The impressive Basilica at Butrint, Albania

The impressive walls of the Butrint Fortress tower above me.

It was Julius Caesar who in 44 BC that first developed Butrint, recognizing its potential and strategic location. With funding from family and sponsors, the Romans built an aqueduct and a bridge across the Vivari Channel.

A natural forested path with plenty of shade connects the important sites within Butrint. I first come to a Greek sanctuary and theater, and next to this are ancient Roman baths. During the Greek period, it was a sanctuary to Asklepios the god of medicine, this dates back to the 3rd century BC as evidenced by an inscription on the first row of seats in the theatre that states the theater was built from the sacred money of the god Asklepios.

As the Roman empire weakened, during the 6th century AD, they further fortified the city with a new wall. Still, the inhabitants gained access into the fortress by earlier built Lake and Water Gates.
Perhaps most impressive are the Great Basilica and Baptistry, also built in the 6th century AD. The extensive mosaics from the baptistry are covered to protect them from the elements, and while some are displayed in the museum on site, but by the time I got to the museum it was closed—I wandered the expansive site for about four hours.

The walls of Butrint are solid and constructed with precision, reminds me of the Mayan ruins outside Cusco in Peru


At the top of the hill at Butrint, there’s a citadel and views of the wetlands, channel, and Adriatic. Across the channel, there’s another castle. It’s the Triangular Fortress of Butrint,  built on this channel by the Venetians, so they could better control the dominant commercial trading route to the Orient.

While the museum is closed, the small cafe at the top is open, and I am dehydrated. The waiters invite me to sit down, but the sun is setting, and I want to get back to Sarande before dark. So I took a large bottle of water and marched down the steps toward the exit. That’s when I notice the magic lighting reflecting off the Venetian Triangle Fortress, and that I don’t have my camera. Shit.

To get in and out of the fortress, inhabitants passed through one of many gates like this, the Water Gate.

 

Gnarly trees and brush have taken over much of Butrint over the centuries.

I set my camera down to pay for the water and with water in hand and forgot to pick it up before I blasted down the hill. Panicked and yet not worried, I waste no haste and run all the way to the top. My heart is racing, and I’m short of breath when I notice a security guard coming toward me. He holds up his hands and mocks taking a photo, then points to the cafe. Relief. People look out for me—and you.

The guys at the cafe have many questions. How much does the camera cost? Where am I from? Where am I going? They want to see the quality of photos taken with my camera. So I take a picture of, then zoom in on the eye of one of them. The laugh and make a joke about his eyes. I thank them and head back down the steps, this time with my camera and yet kicking myself for being stupid and absent-minded.

The ride back to Sarande is quick—I get to the south end of town in 15 minutes. But it takes 30 minutes to ride two miles back to the Aloha Hotel. That’s when I realized I should have found accommodations at the south side of town.

Nice guys kept my camera safe

The Triangular Fortress of Butrint was built by the Venetians.

I have an excellent meal later at #Hashtag Restaurant. It’s a stupid name, but fantastic food, particularly the sea bass crudo—so fresh and served with local olive oil and pomegranate seeds. But here, once again, they offer only Italian wines by the bottle. The manager serves me “open wine” — wine poured from a reused 3-liter water bottle. She explains that they make the wine from grapes on the property of the hotel owner. “This is Albanian wine,” she insists.

Once again I learn that Albanians don’t believe they make good wine. Plus, there’s still an attitude and perception it is ridiculous to pay more than a few Euros for 550ml of local wine. Yet, they are perfectly happy selling Italians and other tourists who ferry to and from Corfu Island, expensive Italian wine.

Things will change in Albania. I know this.

The road to Albania’s future will be rough, but there are hope and faith in many of the young people.

Finding Hope & The Future For Albania

I wander the promenade after sunset, catch a group of local musicians, and then settle in at a nice restaurant for my first Albanian meal. Mare Nostrum has a large covered patio and tonight is teeming with lots of people.

The buzz in the air is a mix of languages, some Greek, Italian, and various Slavic sounds I cannot distinguish. The wine list is modestly priced but what strikes me is that over 90 percent of the wines are Italian. There are three Albanian wines, two red and one white.

I ask the server about the two reds and he replies, “I don’t know we have.”

“People not want Albanian wines,” he muses. I wonder. Really?

“I think things are changing for Albania,” I explain as if I’m an expert and only in the country for a few hours. “Changing for the good,” I say.

“With good, always comes bad,” he says. I feel I’m on an upward battle with this guy. When he shows up with the only bottle of red Albanian wine they have, he tells me, “you know Italians have many histories making wine.”

I insist that there is good wine here in Albania and wonder why he doesn’t celebrate, or show pride in Albanian culture. I ask him what he sees as bad here in Albania.

“Corruption, violence, and in the mountains, the people, they’re monsters,” he says referring to the ongoing practice of blood feuds, and lawlessness that still is prevalent deep into the mountains or rural Albania. “We want to be in the EU, but we cannot if we have this stuff.”

They make the wine from a red grape, Shesh i Zi which comes from the Berat region, just a couple hours northeast of Sarande. It’s a hearty thick-skinned grape that produces a medium bodied, rich color red wine with smooth tannins and earth and fruit flavors. This wine cost me about $20 at this restaurant, so I assume it’s about a $10 retail value wine.

When my server takes a cigarette break, I engage the busboy in conversation. His family is from Albanian, but his parents fled the country in the late 80s and returned ten years ago. He was born in Greece and studied software development and network engineering, then tells me he’s a hacker—the good kind.

Most people are too cavalier when using the open wifi hotspots all over the world, he explains. They are easily trolled and he knows how to find and sweep them. Yet, he wants to be a teacher—to show people of Albania how to be more secure in computing. Though he doesn’t know much about Albanian wine, he shares that Shesh i Zi is his favorite. I offer him a glass, but he politely declines.

outlook is much more positive than my server, who seems bitter and angry. Working in a tourist resort city like Sarande can take its toll on a server. I’ll give him that. Later I get him to smile with a light joke and again insist that I will find what’s good about Albania as I travel—especially in the wine and food.