We changed our plans slightly today after finding Sarandë a bit too busy for our liking, and not a great place to relax as a family. Nothing against this lively resort city in a stunning setting, but it is more a place for partying or families with older children (the streets are very un-buggy friendly). Luckily we had an informal arrangement with our friendly apartment host Romario, and he let us check out a day early for no extra charge. We therefore hit the road and decided to try to find a couple of spots to swim on the way to our main stop for the day: the Unesco city of Gjirokastër.
First stop was the national park 20 minutes south of Sarandë called Butrint National Park, which took us through the resort of Ksamil on the way. The whole area is a continuation of the coastline we've been spoilt by the past few days, and we made it down to a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the inlet to the large bay on the edge of the National Park. From here we were now even closer to Corfu, and we could see the town of Corfu itself in the distance. We had been hoping to go for a dip in the bay, but we struggled to find a good place to enter the water. Rather than get the car ferry to the other side and go deeper into the park, and with Lucy in the middle of her morning nap in the back o the car, we decided to finish this stop and head up to our second stop for the morning: the Blue Eye. This took us on a lovely drive to the North-East, on a winding road along a river. What made this quite unique is that the road was almost at the same level as the river, and right alongside it; something I don't remember ever seeing before. After about 50 minutes we made it to what is known officially as the 'Blue Eye Nature Monument', where we hit a long line of parked cars and saw people walking along a dirt track on the side of the road toward the Eye. Given it was already 37 degrees and the path was completely exposed to the sun and in terrible condition, we deemed this stop unsuitable for a dog and a baby and unfortunately abandoned our visit. At least we now have a reason to come back to Albania in a few years! I'd suggest Googling The Blue Eye to see photos of what we missed - it looks a bit like a cross between a Cenote and the Plitvice Lakes.
Slightly disappointed we hadn't had a swim, we pushed onwards over another mountain range for about 45 minutes before reaching Gjirokastër. On arrival we got stopped by a guard who wasn't letting any cars go further up the hillside and telling people to park further down. We told him we have a baby, to which he replied "ohh, a baby", and he gestured that we could continue past him up the road. We didn't get to go much further before hitting a dead end of roadworks, but at least we got a bit closer with the car saying 38 degrees at this point. With Lucy well doused in suncream and covered in the buggy, we walked up into the beautiful Unesco city centre, surrounded by little restaurants and souvenir shops, all in the fortified Ottoman-style houses which earned this city Unesco status. Here we stopped for a tasty traditional lunch, before heading to the very top of the city where the Gjirokastër Castle/Fortress is located. It looked liked the kind of place which wouldn't let dogs in, but we when we asked we were pleasantly surprised that Summer was very welcome! Entry was 400Lek per person to the main grounds of the castle, and then a further 200Lek each for the museums inside. We opted for both and decided to do the museums first since they were inside, thus allowing us to cool down a bit after the slog up the hillside. One museum was about the local revolutionaries who liberated Albania from Italian and German occupation during World War 2 (apparently none of the Allies came to help them), and another was about political prisoners who were incarcerated here during the Communist times, as well as a brief history of the city and the fact that the Communist dictator Hoxha was from Gjirokastër. The prison cells were not a very happy place to visit, but it was all very interesting and a part of history which is quite difficult to learn about otherwise (just look how strangely empty the Wikipedia page on Gjirokastër castle is).
After the museums we went outside to the top of the fortress, which is a flat area within the fortified walls where there apparently used to be a village of houses back in the days when this was an active fortification. Nowadays there was a lot of restoration work going on, and an outdoor venue stage set up right in the middle. What was most interesting to me was the outstanding views all around, with one side providing panoramic views over the whole city, and the other overlooking the fertile valley at the base of the city, with the mountains in the distance. After as long as we could bear in the 38 degree heat, we headed back inside to cool down, before heading back down to the city centre.
With Gjirokastër visited, we were now ready to make our way out of this fascinating country, and back into the European Union at the Kakavia border crossing with Greece. It was only about 30 minutes drive to the border, and luckily it wasn't busy at all, taking little more than 15 minutes to get through. First we got checked out of Albania, where we had our passports and car paperwork checked, and then a customs officer asked me to open the boot. The officer was surprisingly friendly, asking where we were from, and then joking that next time he wants to come with us on holiday. I said he can come next time, to which he replied "unfortunately my passport won't let me past here" - something which is sad but true, since my understanding is Albanians really struggle to get Schengen or UK visas. We then drove the few hundred metres to the Greek border post, where the guards were somewhat stricter and actually asked us to put the window down so they could see Lucy (the first time we've been asked this), and the customs officials then asked for proof of valid car insurance, and actually took the papers away to check them over. None of this took very long with only a few cars going through, and we were then off into Greece (and an hour ahead on the clocks).
Immediately on entering Greece we noticed how much better the condition the roads are in, and also saw our first speed camera for quite some time - definitely back in the EU! We only had about 45 minutes of driving to get to our hotel for the night in Monodendri, a charming little village on the mountainside right next to Vikos Gorge. We had a disappointingly average meal in a tavern in the village square, before heading off to bed. Tomorrow morning we'll be checking out the Gorge before heading onwards to Thessaloniki.
We expected the crossing back into the EU to be a tough one dog-wise, but yet again we crossed straight through without any checks on Summer. In fairness, there was a sign on the road shortly after customs which said 'veterinary control', but we opted not to follow it given we knew all of Summer's paperwork is in order (including a health check within the last 10 days from a vet in Bosnia) and there is no stamp or anything we need to prove re-entry of a dog.
Not the best EV charging experience today. We had carefully planned our first night in Greece to fill up the battery at the only charging point near Vikos Gorge in Monodendri, provided by a company called Blink. The charger is listed as being at the Mount Grace Hotel, which is difficult enough to find, up a steep ancient track which looks unfit for cars. Once up this track, the charger is found in the middle of a wall at a forked junction, with barely enough room for cars to drive on either side, let alone have a car park to charge in the middle (photo below). We had little choice but to charge up, otherwise we'd be spending hours waiting around tomorrow morning in nearby Ioannina. So we left a note on the windscreen with our phone number and blocked the track on the right-hand side which looked least used. Unfortunately it wasn't long before we were asked to move the car once, and I then got a call from a very angry man who claimed to be the manager of the hotel. He said the charger was only for hotel guests and we must move the car immediately or he will call the police. His threat was obvious nonsense since this is clearly a public charger, so we calmly told him this is a public charger, and he hung up on us. We went to the hotel and found out the man wasn't around, but the lovely staff in the restaurant assured us everything would be okay, but just to move the car early in the morning - something we were already planning to do at this point anyway!
- Blink charger at Mount Grace Hotel in Monodendri, claims for be 12KW in the Blink app, but only delivering 7KW. Expensive at €0.60 and you have to top up in the app before use, which is rather awkward. Best to avoid this charger!!