Jonny's Travel Blog
Getting into our stride

Day three with the horses and we’re getting the hang of things. With help from the gang - and the ever decreasing roll of gaffer tape - we were tacked up, mounted and on our way on schedule at 10am. A minor miracle if you ask me!

On top of a ridge overlooking the fertile valley with the rugged mountains behind, we rode through the ruins of the ancient city of Antigoneia. Situated on a major trading route between Illyria, in northern Greece, and the Adriatic coast, the town reached its zenith in the 3rd century before Christ, when it was the third largest metropolitan centre in the region. Sadly very little has been excavated, but there are enough exposed walls, pillars and pathways to imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday and made an interesting start to the day.

Leaving the site behind we happened upon an old shepherd, travelling up to the high pastures with his three donkeys, who directed us onto the right trail, directly across the hills. At first the path was clear, hugging the contours of the land, passing through meadows of long grass. But little by little the route narrowed and the grass grew higher until it was barely discernible at all. We stopped on a ridge and looked out across a canyon, a giant ravine, stretching away before us. Another dead end? On foot I scurried down the hill, where, much to my relief, I found a narrow track through which we could pass. Summoning the group forward, we all dismounted and lead our horses down towards a river at the bottom. It was a slippery route, with vegetation often hindering the way, but eventually we made it to the water and rode up the other side.

Here we reached a picturesque village of Qesorat. It was here that Byron and Hobhouse had lunch in a house they described well. We found the house, but sadly the last 200 years have taken their toll - the roof had caved in and one wall had collapsed - leaving it unsuitable to use today. Beside the dilapidated dwelling was an old school, now being used as a cow shed. Beside that we found a small shop which we cleared out of beers, had a rest before continuing on to another little village where, by the shady spring, we had a delicious lunch of peaches and cherries, cheese and tomatoes.

In the afternoon we rode on through meadows and vineyards, crossed small rivers, waved at shepherds, and eventually reached the village of Andon Poci. Here we left the horses and, sensing a shower and a comfortable night would go down well, jumped into a minibus and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Gjirokastra where we checked into the town’s best hotel.

Well, it is supposed to be a holiday!

First Impressions of Tirana

As far as international cultural centres go, Tirana does not have a great reputation. More renowned for shabby communist architecture, litter and abysmal driving than anything of historical significance, it has been almost totally overlooked by the modern tourist.

I think this is a shame. Okay, so the mayor’s idea of simply painting the town in bright colours (leading Michael Palin to utter the immortal line, ‘you can’t polish a turd!’) has not done that much to smarten up the city centre, but it does add a jolly air to what would otherwise be a grey remnant of the former Eastern Block.

Added to that, the litter has gone and the driving I felt was fine. We visited two excellent museums - the first showing English photographer, Martin Parr’s, pictures of the country in 1990 and the second a fascinating archaeology museum - walked on boulevards  built during the Italian occupation, visited a building that housed the Gestapo during WWII, sauntered in pretty parks, and ate at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant.

Later the town was buzzing. We went for a drink at one of the many street bars all of which were crowded with the city’s beautiful young. It was strange. It seemed like a typical Mediterranean coastal town, but with no tourists, only locals. One thing that surprised me was the minarets and early evening call to prayer. During communist times, religion expression was banned, mosques were closed, churches turned into welfare centres, synagogues pulled down, as Albania became the world’s first official atheist state. But since the wall came down and the government changed, religious expression has increased and once more chants from the minarets can be heard echoing across the city.

Quite who’s listening is hard to say. Not the young judging by the scantily clad girls walking the streets in miniskirts, boob-tubes and halter-necks, or the men enjoying a beer. But that’s the feeling you get from the place; somewhere that has had  a tricky past, revelling in the new. I liked it.

After 48 hours here we’re now heading south to start our horse trek.