History, Passion, and Generations of Spirit & Wine in Montenegro

The view of Lake Slano from above and the road that twists and turns through the mountains between the Bay of Kotor and Niksic in northern Montenegro.

My plan is to meet Goran Radevic at the Radevic Estate Winery at 2:30. I carry all my bags down the steps from my Admiral Apartments in Perast. There’s an ice cream delivery truck blocking my bike. It’s a sign I should sit and have an espresso, or two, and enjoy the view before heading toward the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

I go the long way instead of riding through Budva or taking the tunnel. The views of the northern part of the Bay of Kotor are stunning and reveal hidden bays and other towns clinging to the hillsides. There are few cars, and with sweeping turns and perfect tarmac, it’s a joy to be riding.

I wind my way toward Niksic, and as I descend into the eastern valley, I am treated with views of Lake Slano, and the many dark green islands that dot the landscape. The lake isn’t natural, but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. It was formed in 1950 as a result of a recently constructed dam and the Perucica hydroelectric power station.

I love stopping by roadside stands where enterprising and very patient locals wait for passersby to stop and buy the locally grown and made treats. Here above Lake Slano the funny and gregarious merchant doesn’t speak English but has plenty of passion and a smile to go with!

About 15 kilometers north of Podgorica, just as the dark clouds hovering above leak drops of rain on Doc and me, my GPS guides me off the main road, through a few tiny towns, and winds me around a massive corn processing plant. I guess I must be close. I’m happy that I’ll be at the winery before the drops turn into a rainstorm.

The road follows along narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and the foliage grows denser while the road narrows. Corn fields rise above me, and my gut tells me I should either be on the other side of the river which runs to the west, or the railroad tracks to the right. I feel like I’m entering more rural countryside rather than the outskirts of the capital. So I stop at a minuscule store and ask for help. Nobody knows Radevic, but they agree I’m on the right road.

Ten minutes later my GPS tells me I’ve arrived. I notice vines outside a house along the river, but it hardly looks like the photos on the Radevic website. So I call Goran for help. I follow his directions but get lost again. He tells me to ride past the corn processing plant, and soon I’m back at that tiny store. Goran meets me there, and I follow him to the real Radevic Estate.

We cross over railroad tracks and ride up a gravel road for about 300 meters. An automatic gate opens as I drive onto the estate which consists of three or four structures situated around a large stone estate, the building that graces the label of the estate wines.

Goran Redevic exudes passion and quality as he takes me through the meticulous and clean Radevic Estate Winery & Cellar.

“For three years I have waited for the permit for the sign,” Goran tells me. I sense he’s annoyed that people have a hard time finding the property “It’s already made,” he asserts swiping through a few photos of it on his phone.

He apologizes and tells me that “the roads are not nice, traffic is horrible, there’s all this trash—and this is the first impression of Montenegro—but this is not really Montenegro.”

Thunder booms and crackles as we talk outside the wine cellar and winery.

The Radevic family, or clan, lived on this property dating back to 1604.

But Goran left the area after completing one year of mandatory military service. He studied medicine in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia republic. Trained as a trauma and emergency room (ER) doctor, he first moved to China where he continued his education in acupuncture and neuroscience while learning to write and speak Chinese.

Radevic Estate is a gorgeous home built of stone and like the great estates of Bordeaux, a drawing of it graces the label of Radevic Estate wines.

“Like you, Allan,” he relates, “I wanted to travel the world.” He moved to South Africa where for four years he worked as an emergency doctor. He then started the first emergency trauma center in Oman before settling down and serving Her Majesty’s Service as a doctor on the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. During the eight years, he lived on the Cayman’s he met fell in love and married Renee, an American living in the Caymans, the second marriage for both.

“I was on a treadmill,” Goran reveals. Explaining his belief if something didn’t change he’d burn out or the stress would kill him.

In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Ivan nearly destroyed the Cayman Islands. The storm demolished his home. Devastated and with two young children from the new marriage, Goran didn’t abandon patients and those injured in the hurricane. Instead, he stayed several months and provided medical care for the locals.

Later, the couple moved to the United States and then to Goran’s homeland in Montenegro where he tended to old vines and planted new on property outside the Montenegro capital, Podgorica that has been in the family to 1604.

“We are the 26th generation on this land,” he tells me.

The hillside estate vineyard gently slopes down to the new wine cellar completed in 2013, and next to the estate home that is featured on the Radevic wine label.

When Goran and Renee moved to Montenegro, there were centuries-old buildings on the property. It wasn’t feasible to restore them. So the first building Goran built was a garage with a small apartment above. It was in this garage in 2009 that Goran made the first vintage of Radevic Estate wines. He jokes, “yes, for three years I made garage wine right here.”

“I had ten bins,” Goran explains. “They were 1,000 liters each, and I had to punch down with the hands. To break the cake,” he says referring the cap, or the skins that rise to the top of the juice during fermentation.

Goran tells me that he learned to make wine from his grandfather, a priest and who lived on this land until he was 103 years old. “My grampa.” Goran explains, “is responsible for my love of grapes and winemaking.” Goran was grafting grape vines before he could read and write. This passion for wine followed him through the years.

To find relief and peace from the stress of his job as an emergency room and trauma doctor, Goran would dream of living on land with a small vineyard and a small house and spend days working in the vineyards. For vacations, he would always travel to the famous wine regions of the world. He would ask questions, observe winemaking techniques, and taste wine.

Today Radevic Estate harvests 45 tons of grapes which produce about 24,000 bottles of wine They also bottles a small production of port, brandies and soon a cognac-inspired brandy that will spend five years in the barrel and bottled in an elegant Chanel-inspired bottle without a label—only etched.

A beautiful “cognac” from Radevic Estate will be released next year in this elegant bottle—sadly the first bottling is completely sold out by pre-orders.

Later, he hands me a glass of the “cognac” from the barrel. It’s graceful and smooth; pure, and clean, one of the best tasting cognacs I’ve had.

As I snap pictures, and the clouds move to the distant sounds of thunder, Goran explains his philosophy for his wine—and his life.

“No chemicals is rule number one,” he insists “Look around here, there are no weeds. We will not rape this land. No herbicides. No pesticides.”

He points to the vineyard just 20 meters away from where we stand.

“My ancestors spilled blood on this land, I will not destroy it with these poisons,” his voice dips to a whisper, with passionate expressiveness.

“My grandma, Janica died in 1999,” Goran shares more of the story of this land, “She gave birth to nine children and buried all of them. They were part of the resistance.”

When the communists came to get her to sign papers to expropriate her property to the state, she met them with a gun. She refused to sign the documents and told the soldiers if you kill me I’ll kill you. When the state began restoring property rights to previous owners, it stunned them to discover the deed to the Radevic property was never signed over.

Is it Ivan or is it Goran who had the idea to ask visitors to wear antispectic medical-grade booties before entering the winery? Hmmmmm?

I can see a bit of his grandmother’s toughness and insistence in Goran as he guides me through the wine cellar, fermentation and barrel rooms. But first, he hands me a pair of light blue booties, the kind that surgeons wear in the operating room. “It has been raining, and there are a lot of sheep droppings around here,” he explains and then blames his enologist and consulting winemaker for the insistence, though after spending so much quality time with him, I’m betting that is just his story— he’s the insistent one here.

Goran is like a proud father as he walks me through the meticulously clean winery with towering sparkling stainless steel fermentation tanks, explaining the details and decisions involving winemaking, equipment choice, and environmental controls of his cellar.

Goran tells me that the products he chooses to use in his winery are like the United Colors of Benetton: Bulgarian craftsmanship, computers from Italy, bottles from Italy, corks from France, corkwood from Spain, American Oak, and stainless steel from Finland.

A boutique shop packed with great wine, brandies, and locally crafted products available at Radevic Estate.

As we walk through the winery, with its state-of-the-art equipment, efficient design, and organization I can see Goran has invested significantly in his passion and dream. There’s a lot of love here, too.

“My wife is allergic to sulfites,” Goran tells me. “We don’t use sulfur or sulfites in our wine.”

Renee Radevic is a beekeeper and through a small store on the estate she sells natural honey, oils, and health, beauty and handmade products made by neighbors and others in the community.

He shows me a few old bottles of wine that are dusty and with mold. “There are three types of mold: black, red and white,” I feel like I’m in a science lesson as he pinches a bit of white from the lip of one bottle. “White mold is very desirable. In France,” he explains, “in some cellars, the white mold clings to bottles like a beard on an old man,” he hesitates, looks at me, “Let the mold grow.”

Good mold is white. “Let the mold grow!”

Tucked into the back of the winery is a small humidifier with additional measurement instruments. It’s obvious this guy is serious about controlling the environment. This perfection and passion with such a low production could define what makes for a true artisanal and boutique winery.

“My mouth is dry, it’s time to drink.”

Before we taste wine, we must taste grappa—brandy—lovely!

We walk into an alcove in the cellar designed for relaxing and tasting. As we pass a long row of barrels, stacked two high Goran points to the information that’s burned into the heads, or covers, of the barrels. “These are number eleven,” referring to the profile of the barrel, or the amount of toast or oakiness that results from curing (burning) the barrels during the coopering process. He tells me that one (1) is the most toast or oak, and ten (10) is the least amount. It’s the toast that can impart flavor to wines during the barrel aging process.

“I asked them to create a new profile for me—eleven (11).” He points to the number 11 burned into the barrel. Radevic uses only American oak for aging its wines.

We sit down at a circular table, and in the center is an elevated tray containing several bottles of brandies, also known as grappas, rake, or schnapps. Radevic makes all its brandies from pure fruit: grapes, apples, plum, quince, and pomegranate.

“My wife is a wine lover, I love brandy—grappa,” he asks me which I’d like to try first.

It takes a lot of fruit to make just a few bottles of brandy. He sources the wild fruit from all over Montenegro, explaining that 2,500 kilograms of fruit  (just under 3 tons) yield only 60 liters (15 gallons) of brandy.

I try the apple, quince, and pear. He uses wild pomegranate to make a liquor which clocks in at about 22% alcohol while the others are about 42%.

In addition to the six fruit brandies, Radevic Estate bottles two white wines, a rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Vranac, two ports and soon that cognac.

I love the family recipe and homemade pepper sauce/salsa!

Goran shares a beautiful cheese and charcuterie plate made of all local products to pair with his excellent wines.

 

The bottle and label of Radevic exudes quality and class.

Custom-designed stemware made from lead-free crystal in Slovenia.

We move to a bar area that overlooks the barrel room as he pulls a tray of charcuterie, cheese, olives, bread and a delicious sauce or puree made from roasted peppers. We taste his wines from lead-free crystal glasses that are specially designed and manufactured for him in Slovenia.

He pours me tastes of the wine but not for him. “Today my limit is three brandies,” he explains. The chardonnay is young and elegant. I’m most interested in the Vranac, which is an indigenous grape to Montenegro and the Balkan peninsula. It’s creamy, thick, and with lots of black fruit, berry, and spice and with a deep dark ruby color.

I explain I’m fascinated by the indigenous varietals and am pleased to find so many winemakers respecting the heritage of the farms, fields, and varieties.

They export many of the Radevic wines to Europe and the USA.

Goran explains that he took an early vintage of Radevic Estate to New York where a sommelier enjoyed the wine but suggested he upgrade the bottle and label. Goran hands me the original bottle and then the current bottle. The new bottle weighs more than twice the original and is embossed with the Radevic emblem, similar to the bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Everything is first-class at Radevic. And it shows.

He shows me a special bottle of Vranac that is packaged in a wooden box. It’s a co-branded bottle that is exclusively sold at the Aman resort on the Sveti Štefan islet on the coast. Aman resorts are beyond five-star and cater to uber-wealthy, jet set, and celebrity clientele. With resorts all over the world, each location chooses a local product and packages it under the Aman brand name—everywhere except in Montenegro where the Aman name is shared with Radevic Estate.

Aman Resorts, the uber-luxury resort group chose Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal product to represent the culture of Montenegro.

“They wanted my Vranac,” Goran explains, “but they didn’t want to use my name or logo. I refused. I won’t give up my brand—this is my life savings.” For two years the Aman lawyers battled with Goran and his lawyer. Radevic held strong, to its conviction. After all of this negotiation, Goran got his way. He points to the RR logo near the base of the bottle.

It’s a testament to Goran’s investment, philosophy, and passion that a five-star, high-quality brand chooses Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal local Montenegrin product to showcase Montenegro.

As we share stories, sip wine and brandy, I learn that a horrific accident that almost took Goran’s life just a few years ago.

“How many people you know survived after getting hit by a train?” Goran asks.

He picked up his daughter from flute lessons on a Saturday afternoon in 2014 when his car stalled on the railroad tracks just down the driveway when a train plowed into the car. The same railroad tracks we crossed just a few hours ago.

“I used to be a heavy smoker,” he divulges. His right lung was crushed, was bleeding in the brain, broke all his ribs, his sternum, and his right arm was paralyzed. For eighteen days he was in a coma. His daughter, who was also in the car came out with just a cut and eighteen stitches.

Today his right-hand shakes as he holds it up to show me.

“I came back,” he explains the dangerous surgery that brought him back to life.

We toast. “This is life, Allan,” he looks at me, smiles. “Enjoying life, the life. Life is to short to be wasted on stupid politics and stupid people.”

“I live with beautiful land, beautiful nature. People around here worry—they want to be in the EU. I would rather be Switzerland, on our own.”

“After this accident, I really see life is too short,” the conversation turns serious and then philosophical.

“What is important, Allan is health. You cannot buy it, yet you start appreciating it only when you start losing it.” he continues.

“The second thing, that’s important, is family happiness. Number three is having a few friends to share—that’s all you need—to share good and bad things.” We toast again.

“That is what is important, the rest is bullshit.”

 

Doc and me outside the estate before Goran guides me to a nearby hotel and local restaurant in the capital, Podgorica.

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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Thinking Of The Past in Perast

At the suggestion of Goran, I pull my roots from Kotor and motor north, rounding the bay and leaving the stop and go traffic behind. I pull off the road, and a parking guard lifts the gate that keeps most vehicular traffic out of the tiny bayside fisherman village of Perast. There is one street, it’s a stony concrete path barely wide enough for a car and motorcycle to pass. The bay kisses the path where people in bathing suits stroll. Many cafés sit on the water, and guest houses line the other side.

A courtyard with an old church and clock tower sits halfway down the two-kilometer stretch of this town. The first two hotels I try to stay are fully booked, another has an apartment. She says it’s just above the place near the church. Excellent. I’ll take it. An older woman joins us as we all carry some of my bags up the steep steps to the apartment. The spunky young woman giggles when I suggest after climbing the 50th step up, “Are we going back to Kotor?”

The cozy and recently renovated digs, the Admiral Apartments, sit on the top floor or a 19th century stone building. My host is quick to show me the view from the roof, where I find a small table and chairs surrounded by loosely spaced bare rods of protruding rebar. I see these often in developing countries. Some call them prayer rods, where people pray they can expand their homes. They’re planning more rooms.

There’s not much to do in Perast. And that’s the point. It’s quiet, there are just a handful of restaurants. Most people lounge on the rocks, swim or take boat tours to see the tiny islet Our Lady of the Rocks which was handmade of loose stones. As they tell the story, in 1452 seafaring sailors spotted the icon of Madonna and Child on a rock at sea. So they made an oath that after returning from each voyage the tossed a rock into the water. Over the years, the islet sprouted from the sea.

On the left is St. George, a natural Island with a Benedictine monastery. On the right is Lady of the Rock which over 200 years locals created this island by tossing rocks into the water. 

The timing doesn’t work for me to go out the island. I’m disappointed now I didn’t take the time, but I wondered about the elderly women walking up and down the path along Perast with lovely lace and embroidery fabric and clothes draped over their arms.

Another legend of the island is of a local woman, Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, who took 25 years to embroider a tapestry using strands of her hair among the gold and silver threads. She did this while waiting for her sweetheart to return from a long journey at sea. She went blind making it as he never returned. The tapestry is featured among other artwork in the church. Today, local women carry on the tradition of handmade embroidery with religious motifs and sell them along the seaside.

I enjoy fresh seafood at Conte Restaurant while waiting for my seaside table I enjoy a glass of local sparkling wine. Raw oysters followed by grilled octopus all paired with a nice bottle of Vrnac, the local grape that defines the best and future of Montenegro’s wine identity.

After dinner, I meet the owner’s son, who now manages the excellent restaurant and beautiful boutique hotel. He tells me that in high school (2001) he lived in Lake Elsinore, California as an exchange student, and confides that the cultural shock of being away at a young age made him bitter and reserved while in California. In retrospect, he wishes he took more advantage of the experience, though still says it was one of the best of his life.

Cat on a hot roof in Perast. She gets great views!

My apartment gives me the best view of Perast!

He tells me that the nationalism rampant in the Balkan states and especially in his own country is destroying culture and happiness in the local people. As one large Yugoslavia, he tells me, the former republic had more strength and commanded more respect on the national stage. Today, little Montenegro has no power in its own economy. He feels the split of the country into small states creates a false sense of nationalism and pride.

“I’m afraid what will happen,” his face falls as he ponders this thought. “Today the World Monetary Fund tells us to accept foreign investment—but all the money goes out of Montenegro.”

I see I’ve struck a sour chord in my host as he continues to express his doubts for the future of these states. His family is thriving and their business— the hotel and restaurant—are the priciest and highest rated in this small town. Yet it does not fulfill him, hinting at there’s more to happiness and success.

“The whole notion of business is to make a profit,’ he tells me. ‘But how much does one person need?” he asks. “I can make so much money and buy a boat, but my employees cannot buy new clothes or take their families out to dinner,” his saddening eyes reveal his compassion. “ This is not right.”

He tells me that Montenegro makes good wine, but Croatian wine is much better. His mom is Croatian, and dad is from Montenegro. He insists he’ll show me, and pours me a glass of 2006 White Riesling, explaining it was rated as the best wine in the world.

I imagine a time that the wine he poured was not Croatian; instead it could or would be Yugoslavian.

Travel Details
Leave Kotor at 12 noon
Arrive at Perast at 12:30
Mileage: 9

 

More Medieval Meandering in Montenegro

It’s pushing over 100 degrees when I arrive at the border between Montenegro and Albania. There is a massive line of cars waiting, to get into Albania. I join a handful of motorcycles that weave closer to the control point, but we still have to wait.

I take off my jacket and helmet, and as the cars move ahead, I push my bike forward. I’m hanging with a couple from the Czech Republic who don’t speak English, but yet we manage to chat about motorcycles, Prague, and more.

On my way to the coast, I pass through sweeping valleys with charming small towns.

At the immigration and customs checkpoint, the officials stamp my passport and ask for the bike documentation. I keep this in a waterproof Ortlieb envelope pouch. I keep this in my tank panniers, but the documents stick to the plastic which makes it difficult to pull them out or file them back in the pouch. I struggle to pull the documents out, and the Montenegrin official just waves me on. That was easy.

The roads are decent, but there is a lot of traffic. I head to the coast, and as I climb and twist over the mountains, I round a long and tight turn and pulling out of it I’m treated with a grand view of the Adriatic Sea and the tiny island of Sveti Stefan, and the sprawling coastal resort of Budva.

Looking down on the town of Bečići, just south of Budva with gorgeous Svet Stepan in the distance.

Winding down the hill I get caught in crazy Budva traffic, and soon find myself behind a Mini Cooper convertible with New Jersey plates. I wonder how he got here.

By the time I get checked into my hotel in Kotor and explore the old town behind the city walls, I find myself swallowed by swarms of tourists. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beautifully kept, but no matter where I turn, I find crowds.

St. Luke’s Church was built in 1195 and rebuilt over the years featuring both Roman and Byzantine architectural features

With expanding tourism, I find more and more families with children wandering these streets.

You can find jewels in Kotor, like this feisty cat who wasn’t so happy when I woke him up to take his picture, swatting at me and strongly suggesting I let him sleep.

Until now, I have been lucky to travel a bit off the tourist track. Today, that changed.  Kotor is a small stone medieval town tucked into a hidden part of the Bay of Kotor. Built between the 12 and 14th century, the walls of the city crawl up the steep craggy mountain that wedges this town between the hills to the east and the crystal blue waters of the bay.

Cozy cafes, outdoor restaurants, live music, venues, and dozens of ice cream stands dot the cobblestone plazas and walkways. Today I find a craft beer festival, but I prefer the local light beer, Niksicko made by the Trebjesa Brewery in Niksic, a small town nestled in a valley in the mountains and known for fresh mountain spring water—the perfect ingredient for brewing beer.

I sit down in a small plaza outside a Romanesque church at a jazz bar that is playing a long set of music from the recently passed Aretha Franklin, celebrating her life and projecting a picture of her on the stone walls of the cafe.

Cats are very present in Kotor, they date back to the towns maritime heyday where they would stow and escape from ships all over the world.

The tiny wedge-shaped old town crawls up the craggy mountain and is surrounded by a wall.

Even with these crowds, I can find solace and take time to reflect on the history of this town. A maritime museum pays tribute to those seafaring locals who walked these streets some hundreds of years ago. Today, seagoing tourists disembark massive cruise ships that sail the Adriatic coast. Yet tucked into the hillside the few locals who live here year-round go about life, playing cards in their courtyards, hanging laundry, and giggling kids play in the streets.

I wander into the Old Winery, the small patio is packed. The waiter sits me down with another guy to share a table. It’s Goran, the owner. He takes me on a brief tour of Montenegrin wines and gives me tips for places to explore. He also sets me up with a massive plate of cured meats, cheese, and vegetables. “This is the small plate,” he tells me.

After a few glasses of wine and a journey through Montenegrin cheese and prosciutto, I head back to my hotel.

The fortress high above Montenegro offers incredible views of the Bay of Kotor and old town. It’s quite a hike, especially in these temperatures. I take about 45 minutes to climb the crazy and often maligned, and inconsistent stone steps, but once atop the reward is fantastic. Towering cliffs surround the bay, and tiny villages dot the shoreline, nestled in and climbing up the rock. Sailboats, cruise yachts, and liners move in an out.

Ahh, the rooftops and steeples of Kotor.

Montenegro hopes to be admitted to the EU, but there are issues lingering from its troubled past and relationships with its neighbors such as Serbia and Bosnia Herzogovina

 

I love the rooftops of medieval cities, here some new and others with history provides a birds eye view of the towns past.

The following night I’m guided to another wine bar and restaurant outside the city walls, Ladovina Kitchen & Wine Bar, near my hotel. The food is outstanding, and I sample wines from Plantaze, one of the largest producers in Montenegro, but find that though this place touts itself as a wine bar, and includes the Plantaze branded barrique wine barrels used as cocktail tables, the red wine is much too hot. Here room temperature is pushing 80 degrees. The waiter is apologetic and defensive. “We don’t have room,” he tells me. I don’t believe it. If they can store the wine, they could have a chiller. The white and rose wines are sitting in tubs of ice. There is a way.

 

Make no haste with waste, create art. I found this fish tucked into an alley in Kotor, it’s made entirely of discarded plastic bottles.

 

Not as attractive as the plastic bottle fish sculpture above, but instead of letting the wind blow the plastic bags strewn about the top of Kotor’s fortress, creative passersby tie them to this plant, making a statement and an art piece.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kotor has strict rules, so all the windows have green shutters, I love the look and the weathered bricks and stones.

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.