After a bit of a slow start from Tirana- weaving in and out of the traffic and juddering along in a stop-start fashion 10 metres at a time we were eager to escape the smog of the city and venture towards pastures new.
Leaving the tower blocks, dental surgeries, lavazhs, and betting parlours behind us we drove out onto the Tirana plain. With the windows down and some traditional Albanian music on the radio, the cool breeze provided welcome relief from the hot afternoon sun. The Tirana Plain is a vast, flat expanse of lowlands peppered with terracotta and pastel rectangles, and framed by the layers of violet velvet mountains on all sides. The road cuts through the greenery like a river of asphalt with groups of bedraggled sheep perching on its precarious banks. As we rose up into the mountains, I could see smoke across the valley- tendrils of soft grey swirling upwards to lick the haze of the afternoon sky. The expanse of the countryside vista is only broken from time to time by the obnoxious intrusion of a faux-roman themed hotel or an orange/pink plastered monstrosity that looked as if it had been plucked from Las Vegas and dropped like a pin without a second thought or care. These vast hotels stand empty and forgotten, large lions stand to guard the guests that never came, and imposing iron gates keep out the undesirables that will never come.
The road became steeper now as we started our ascent into the mountains. A forest sprung up around us- ancient looking trees rising out of the burgundy toned earth casting shady and cool shadows over the narrow road. After 8km of twisting and turning up the perilous mountain highway, the trees relented and Kruje was visible in front of us like a mosaic of multi-coloured tiles set against the purples and greys of the marbled mountains.
The castle with its two eagles strung high, protrudes majestically and oversees all that lies beneath it. It isn’t hard to see how the Ottoman invaders tried and failed three times to besiege this place as even our car struggled with the steep inclines and hairpin twists in the road.
We arrived at the hotel and checked into our rooms, each one offering incredible views of the town and the plains below. The scenery is just breath-taking and words and pictures alone can not do it the justice that deserves. As we sit and take coffee on the precipice-like terrace, the xhami starts its evening song that reverberates and echoes ’s from its sky-piercing minaret.
A short stroll from the hotel is the renovated Bazaar of Derexhik- surviving for many centuries, it was almost destroyed at the beginning of the 20th Century before being brought back to life during the time of Enver Hoxha. A long cobbled street lined with wooden buildings bursting with antiques and souvenirs, vendors jostle for business as you negotiate its slippery path. Traditional handmade lace, shoes made from wool, ceramics and pottery, and of course, hand-woven rugs- all bright colours and geometric patterns, hang from the rafters and catch the eye.I saw several women weaving in the traditional way- an art that is sadly slowly dying out.
The bazaar has a truly oriental feel about it and the Ottoman impact on this place and its past is palpable. It was once home to around 150 shops- selling wares and crafts from all over the empire, but today only around 60 remain with the sole function of entertaining the large numbers of tourists that flock to it- one of the most visited places in the country. Despite its renovated and tourist-friendly feel, it is still quintessentially Albanian. I spy two stray kittens chasing each other’s tails and scaling a small tree, whilst a clutter of chicken’s scuttle along the road, pecking at the dirt and cackling like chickens do.
An elderly man sits in the last breaths of the afternoon sun playing a stringed instrument and tapping his feet in time with the intricate melody.
From here the pathway became markedly steeper as we climbed up into the mouth of the castle walls. As we passed through the entrance, the ruins of an ancient mosque are laid out before us and a large oak tree with a solitary bench underneath its bows, makes me stop to catch my breath.
The castle museum looks out of place in such ancient surroundings- clean and almost polished stone with the red and black flag whipping in the air. Feeling hungry and in dire need of refreshment, we headed to a restaurant within the castle walls.
Offering a beautiful view of the plain, Durres, and the Adriatic Sea, we sat and ordered a selection of traditional food. Qofta with spinach, grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs and tave kose with succulent lamb. I asked for tres leches cake but was told that the only option was receta per kabuni. Now I consider myself quite adventurous when it comes to food, but when it was explained to me that it was a dessert consisting of rice, lamb, sugar and spices, I must say I wasn’t quite convinced.
When it arrived, we looked at each other with trepidation, but I must say it was quite nice. Such an unusual and interesting combination of flavours is completely unknown to the British palette and whilst I finished what was on the plate I cannot say I will be ordering it again. I will stick to cake soaked in three different types of milk thank you very much.
After having our fill of delicious treats, and sweet lamb pudding, we started our descent. Negotiating the slippery cobbles was proving a lot trickier on the way down, so I kicked off my shoes and decided to go barefoot with the soles of my feet offering better grip than my thoroughly unsuitable ballet pumps. Making our way back to the hotel, we retired on the terrace with a bottle of Prosecco and admired the patchwork of twinkling lights that lay before us.
Kruje is a truly beautiful place and I recommend visiting I the mid-afternoon when the light is at its softest and most wistful. See the pictures for yourself!Follow The Balkanista!