Come with us on the tea-horse-road

First page of the guidebook 古茶马道 Gŭchàmădào, “The tea-horse-road”

The tea-horse-road beneath the Himalayas, on which tea was carried for five thousand years from southern Yunnan to the north, the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and gorgeous nomadic horses to the south, to the courts of the Tang Empire, the Nanzhao Kingdom, and the local landlords, only stopped for a moment in 1949, with the Maoist takeover. Nowadays it starts again, today only for gourmets yet, but surrounded by a growing interest. The small towns along the road, like Sleeping Beauties for seventy years, still look like after the passing of the last tea transport to the north, of the last herd to the south. To this journey we invite our readers in this November, when the weather is the most optimal in the subtropical Yunnan, and we can best travel across the central part of the former route, which is the richest in historical monuments.

From Europe we will arrive with a couple of transfers, in about one day, to Dali, Yunnan’s second center, the capital of the two-million-strong Bai people (proposed to the World Heritage List). The beautiful traditional old town lays on the shore of Lake Erhai, surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas. The ancient Bai people were among the most important merchants of the tea-horse-road, so after visiting Dali, we will spend the second day in Xizhou (the “zhen” endings on the map mean “walled old town”), the best-preserved old Bai merchant town a few miles to the north along the shore. The trade of the entire Chinese Silk Road was in the hands of the Muslim Hui diaspora, and we will also visit their mosques and excellent small restaurants. Our hotel in Dali – just to enhance diversity – will be in Yahveh Hotel, operated by Chinese Catholics from Beijing in the former monastery of the still functioning Catholic church, built hundreds of years ago by Catholic monks in traditional Chinese style.

From Dali we go through the foothills of the Himalayas, along breathtaking mountain roads, to Nuodeng, an important branch of the tea-horse-road, still in Bai territory. The salt needed to provide for the large number of horses was mined here, in Nuodeng, which was thus a kind of free royal town, similar to the Transylvanian salt mine town of Szék. In the 1400s the beautiful small town was melted by the Ming Dynasty into the empire, and then, having lost its significance, it stopped in time, preserving its former richness, its temples, its shops, its airy aristocratic houses, one of which will be our hotel for two nights. From there we visit the surrounding ancient small trading towns, like Baofeng, and the stunning mountain range.

From Nuodeng we come back on long, winding mountain roads, through passes, along river valleys and next to thousand-year-old bridges to the main line of the tea-horse-road, to Shaxi, the best preserved merchant town of the old caravan route (proposed to the World Heritage List), the center of the Yi people. We walk around the city, visit the medieval monastery and the Qing-era theater, and make an excursion to the 8th-century Shibao Monastery in the nearby mountains, the royal sanctuary of the former Nanzhao kingdom, the historical core of today’s Yunnan, which, until the 1300s, was a country in a par with China and Tibet.

From Shaxi we go over to the headquarters of the once powerful Naxi people, to Lijiang, “China’s Venice”, a thousand-year-old town permeated by three main rivers and many side-branches (World Heritage Site). This town, the richest one in historical monuments on our route, is completely bilingual: everything is written both in Chinese and in the Naxi people’s own thousand-year-old hieroglyphic script, which was also declared a World Heritage Treasure in 2005. From here we go to visit the old Naxi merchant town of Baisha, or one of the deepest canyons of the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge along the upper reach of Yangtse (part of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site), where we do a whole-day excursion. Not by walking which is only for experienced tourists (22 kilometers, up 1000 down 800 meters), but by bus, nevertheless going up to important viewpoints. On the last stop of the road we sleep in a particularly nice guesthouse. The next day we return to Dali, and from there to the airport, heading either home, or, if you want to venture a bit more in China, to the site of your new adventure.

So many people are interested in this road, that we must organize it twice, both times with about 18 participants. The first one is more or less complete, but in case of cancellation there may still be places in it, and the second is still open. The dates of the from Dali to Dali ten-day-plus-two-half-day tour are 4 to 15 November, and then 15 to 26 November, to which you should add one day travel there and one back, thus two weeks altogether. I can also give suggestions to those who, after the trip, want to further venture in China. The flight ticket from Europe to Dali on the above route is about 670 euro, and the participation fee 1000 euro, which includes accommodation with breakfast, domestic travel by rented bus or off-road vehicles (or on some tracks with public transport), and the guide. As for accommodation, it is important to draw attention to the fact that, as tourism is still in its infancy in many parts of this region (in some villages, in fact, I was the first foreigner they have ever met), thus comfort is also not always what we are accustomed to in Europe. For example, in Nuodeng they already have European bathroom and WC, but only three ones for eighteen persons in the whole hotel. Nevertheless, this hotel is the former home of a 14th-century aristocrat, preserved as it was, with the utmost convenience. If you are interested, write until 25 August, Friday, at the usual

George Soros in Luppa Island

Our partner blog, the Dunai Szigetek / Donauinseln is eight years old today. We celebrate the birthday with a post of the blog’s author, Dániel Szávoszt-Vass, specifically written for Poemas del río Wang.
It is an eternal question, how good is it for a community existing in blissful ignorance, when the wider world finds out about its existence, and hordes of tourists are attracted for a visit? For such isolated communities, one does not need to go as far as Papua New Guinea. You can find similar ones even in Hungary. What is more, one lies just seven kilometers from Budapest.

In Luppa Island near Budakalász, parceled between the two world wars, a unique architectural environment and micro-society emerged. In 1932, just a year after the inauguration of the experimental housing estate in Pasarét in the north of Budapest, the other Bauhaus reserve of Hungary was established here, on a one-street island in the Danube. Military officers, manufacturers, lawyers, architects, artists bought land here and spent their summer holidays in their cottages standing on high “legs”. The lawyer Tivadar Soros (originally Schwartz), father of George Soros, also bought here a cottage in the name of his wife.

Until it was parcelled, Lupa or Luppa Island was just a boulder with some lonely trees and a shepherd’s hut. Perhaps this is why it was called Mészáros (Butcher) Island. Administratively it belongs to Budakalász, but it is almost completely isolated from it by the Danube. It can be approached only across the water. It is completely covered during larger floods, so it is no accident that the airy ground floors of the cottages are primarily used for storage. During flooding, probably the inhabitants of Luppa Island are the most assiduous visitors of water level reporting websites.

In summer, Luppa Island is full of life. The surrounding Danube roils with motorboats, tugboats and oher hand-driven watercraft. On the shore, clouds of cyclists are wafted by the wind to the north, Szentendre and the Danube bend. Meanwhile, Luppa Island, nestling in the shadow of mighty plane trees, is filled with the noise of tinkering. The owners repair the damage from the spring flood, clear off driftwood, in order to prepare everything to receive family members and their guests during the summer. Not many unknown people visit the island. A few canoes stop here for a beer or for lunch, but they usually do not stay there for a night. They also feel that this is still a closed community.

A study by Bálint Ablonczy reports about the beginnings of the settlement in the island:
“On the 6-hectare island, 160 plots were parceled, each between 2700 and 8000 square meters. At the beginning, not all plots were sold, and the new owners built houses only on a few of them. (Some owners bought more than one neighboring plots.) The average plot size varied between 3000 and 4000 square meters, for which the buyers paid between 1200 and 1800 pengő. If they wanted so, they could also pay in installments. [...]
By 1941, 33 houses were built in the island. Their number rose only by two by 1947, but five of them were in ruins – not so much because of the destruction of the war, but due to the overwhelmingly devastating ice flood at the turn of 1944 and 1945. The first cottages already stood in 1934, and at the end of that year, the Budakalász-Lupasziget Baths Association was established in Fészek Club.”
The 33 cottages built before 1941 also included the holiday house of the Soros family, designed by Endre and György Farkas. The Budapest lawyer Tivadar Soros was born in Nyírbakta, to a family of ten children, and later died in New York. He was a famous Esperanto enthusiast. He had learned the language during WWI in Russian captivity. He also wrote in this language his memoirs, which contain many references to the summers spent in Luppa Island. Just like many other cottage owners, he bought the plot in the name of his wife. The Bauhaus-style Soros Cottage was completed in 1935. His designer, György Farkas had been acquainted with Tivadar Soros in Berlin, and later he married Klára, the sister of Soros’ wife Erzsébet. The two tennis courts in the island were established on the proposal of Tivadar Soros. The cottage was owned by the family until 1944. Then Soros donated it to a certain Hászka, in whose villa in Buda he was hiding during the Nazi occupation and the siege of Budapest, together with the famous architect Lajos Kozma, who was also a cottage owner in Luppa Island.

George Soros, born in 1930, also often spent the summer vacation in Luppa Island. It was not only a holiday, but also “work”. He established a newspaper, of which he was the author, editor, reporter and distributor. The periodical was called the Luppa News. And in times of flood, he sat in a kayak, and slalomed between the recently planted plane line, as evidenced by the following images.

“– Gyuri! – I tell him strictly. – What does this mean? What do you want here with this big money?
A light flashes in the two angelic whimsical eyes.
– I brought it to the Finns. They are fighting a freedom fight now. Daddy said.
I put Gyuri under gritty cross-questions. He patiently replies to the questioning. The money belongs to him. No, he did not get it from his dad. Neither from his mom. It is his. He earned it. How? In the summer. Because in the summer he is a newspaper editor, publisher and paperboy in one. They spend the holidays on Luppa Island. And then he composes a newspaper, the «Luppa News». He is the only journalist, editor, reporter and paperboy of the news. As if he is a chamber member? No, no. In any case, the newspaper was mainly bought by the adults, since children do not have money. He, however, can earn money in this way. Until now he kept the two banknotes, put aside for Christmas, in a plaster money box.
One can even see the plaster dust on the crumpled banknotes. He broke the money box, and brought the money. To the Finns.
Gyuri Soros, a fourth elementist, who had five B marks in his recent certificate, this apple-faced smiling little guest, the all-in-one editor-in-chief of Luppa News, the golden-hearted little Hungarian calms down, when we take over his gift. Then he closes his pen holder, he says good bye, reaches up to the door handle, and goes home.”

„Soros Gyurka adakozik” (Gyuri Soros donates). 8 Órai Újság, 23 December 1939. Quoted by Béla Nové

Gyuri’s mother was also not idle. She opened a confectionery on the ground floor of their cottage, since she had studied pastry at the renowned Gerbeaud. She obviously did not base her business on local demand, since 33 families on holiday could have not keep it alive. The world of the rowers, buzzling all over the summer, presented a greater demand. The confectionery was an interesting island of social equality, where the high bourgeois served the rowers belonging to the most various social classes. The rest of the cottage owners were not so sensitive to equality, and they asked the Soros family to pay more into the common cash because of their industry.

WWII and the icy flood of 1945, and then the nationalization of the buildings caused serious damage both to the buildings and the micro-society coming together in the summers in the island. Despite the nationalization (and then restoration) of the cottages, the extinct high bourgeoisie and the M0 bridge monster pulled on its neck, Luppa Island is still a delightful and special relic of the Danube.


Civil spirit

Castelmuzio is a hard-to-find small borgo, a little walled town, on the map of Tuscany. It has three dozen houses and two hundred inhabitants, but there is everything there for a proper little Italian town: a small square with a medieval church, narrow streets with vaulted passages, and, of course, cats. It has a monastery that was the location for some key scenes in The English Patient, and has a city wall of Etruscan origin, with a beautiful view over the hills of Val d’Orcia, where scenes from The Gladiator were filmed. And it also has something else.

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At the southern end of the city wall, where the entire valley opens up in front of us, down to Pienza, there is a small square, with iron tables and chairs. I’m looking for the bar to which they belong, because it is obvious that in a pragmatic place, a pragmatic entrepreneur would have long ago taken over the spot in collaboration with the local government, so that people could enjoy the gorgeous sight only in exchange for proper consumption. But I find no bar. Instead, I find a sign that tells us that the inhabitants of the borgo, the borghesi, have created, on their own initiative and expense, a civic salon on this little no-name square.

“This salon was dreamed and created by local citizens and entrepreneurs who believe in cooperation instead of apathy, in culture instead of disrespect, and in love instead of selfishness. A place where we can meet, talk, be silent, and think, and where our gaze can be lost in the green sea of the hills, where «to be shipwrecked is beautiful» [quotation by Jacopo Foscolo].
The Civic Salon of Castelmuzio”

On the little square, free wi-fi and free holy water help one to connect to invisible networks.

And something else is also free.

One of the two tables has a basket full of peanuts. At first glance, it seems like someone has left it behind. But a sticker on the table informs us that this is not the case. This is the peanut basket of the Civic Salon, which is constantly refilled by the salon for the occasional visitors.

“The peanuts are a donation from the Civic Salon of Castelmuzio for everybody.
We say thanks to the signora for not emptying the contents of the basket every morning into her own bag.”

Which also proves that civic culture has its own enemies, against whom it is necessary to constantly defend its achievements. But they obviously cope with them.


Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Everyone stands alone on the breast of the earth
pierced by a ray of sunlight
and it’s suddenly evening.
Salvatore Quasimodo: Ed è subito sera

“Evening shadow”. Etruscan statue, 3rd c. BC, Volterra. The name is from Gabriele d’Annunzio

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The colors of time

Panorama of Durrës in the direction of the bay. 16 October 1913

On 16 October 1913, two Frenchmen landed in the port of Durrës, or as it was then called, Durazzo, in the recently created Albania. They opened an elongated lacquered trunk, and took out a folding camera mounted on a tripod. They inserted a glass plate, and made photographs of the port, a curious kid in the gate of the former Venetian fortress, two Muslim boys at the base of the wall – one of them also separately –, a man with an attractive face with three or four chickens in his hand, a master who offered his services on the square with a huge-wheeled oxcart and a Ferris wheel pieced together from raw beams. Then they removed the glass plates, and repacked the camera into the trunk. These were the first color photos ever created on today’s Albania.

Albanian Muslim. Durrës, 16 October 1913

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The two men, one the chemist and photographer Auguste Léon, and the other, Jean Brunhes, professor of human geography at the Collège de France, came to the Balkans on behalf of Albert Kahn, a Parisian banker. Their task was to travel throughout the peninsula, and to “record, once and for all, the aspects, practices and customs of human activity, the fatal disappearance of which is only a question of time,” as formulated in the statutes of Kahn’s ambitious visual archive, the Archives de la Planète.

Albert Kahn was born in Alsace to a Jewish merchant family. At the age of sixteen he went to Paris, where, as an exemplary employee of the Goudchaux bankhouse, he made enormous wealth both for the bankhouse and himself with investments in South African gold and diamond mines. As he also wanted to learn, but had no time for the university, he engaged a private tutor who was none other than the philosopher Henri Bergson. The two men became close friends, and under Bergson’s influence, Kahn established a number of philanthropic foundations, such as the program Autour du Monde, which allowed future teachers travel all over the world, to acquaint them with other cultures. Or the Comité national d’études sociales et politiques, which supported international specialists to come together and discuss the important problems of mankind. And the Archives de la Planète, which set out to document the variety of human cultures in photos and film. This latter project used the autochrome technique patented by the Lumière brothers in 1904, the first true color photographic technique, about which we have written in detail here. Kahn financed the training and travels of photographers and filmmakers, who were sent all over the world to document “the surface of the globe occupied and fashioned by man, as it appears at the beginning of the twentieth century.” He trusted the professional direction of this ambitious project to Professor Jean Brunhes, whose first trip took him to the Balkans. Until 1931, when the project fell apart as a result of the global economic crisis, they collected 72,000 autochrome photographs and 170,000 meters of film from 48 countries of the world, thereby offering an unparalleled slice of time covering the conditions of humanity. The digitization and publication of these images began in the 1990s at the Albert Kahn Museum, founded in the banker’s former Boulogne villa. The already processed photos are presented from year to year on thematic exhibitions, and published in albums that embrace the material of a chosen region. These include the selection Albania and Kosovo in Colour 1913, compiled in 2008 by the great Albanologist Robert Elsie, which is the source of the illustrations of our post.

The “fatal disappearance of the practices and customs of human activity” seemed particularly topical in the Balkan Peninsula, which had been in continuous wars since 1912, and perhaps that was why Professor Brunhes choose this region. In October 1912 they set out, together with Auguste Léon, on their first photo trip in Bosnia, from where in May 1913 they went to Kosovo, then through Skopje and the at that time still Ottoman Thessaloniki to Bursa. In October 1913 they arrived in Albania, where they were able to travel under the patronage of and in the territory controlled by Essad Pasha of Durrës, who was opposed to the government in Vlora, recently recognized by the Great Powers. Essad Pasha’s soldiers accompanied them from Durazzo to Tirana along the Erzen river. They stopped in Rreth, at the Pasha’s palace. In Tirana, which was just a small Ottoman town at the beginning of its development, they took a dozen photos around the market square with its three 16th-century mosques, two of which have since been demolished for the creation of the monumental Skanderbeg Square.

Row of columns lining the marketplace in Tirana. 18 October 1913

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Returning to Durrës, they set out to the north. On 21 October they arrived in Shqodra, or as it was then called, Scutari. The last Ottoman fortress of the Balkan Wars had been occupied on 22 April by the Montenegrin army, leaving massive destruction behind them. In the color photos the ruins stand in peculiar contrast to the rich and colorful costumes of the Catholic Albanian mountaineers.

Two young highland women from Hoti in front of an old house. Shqodra, 21 October 1913

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The siege of Shqodra was still going on, when the two Frenchmen visited the other Albanian majority area, Kosovo. After bloody fighting and mutual ethnic cleansing, the former Ottoman vilayet had gone under Serb military control in October 1912, but it was not yet annexed to Serbia: this only happened on 7 September 1913. The photos taken in Prištin, Gračanica, Lipljan/Lipjan and Prizren clearly attest to the Serb military presence and the close coexistence of the two ethnic groups. This latter was the reason for the tragic fate of the region. Similarly to Galicia, which was at the same time the cradle of the national rebirth of the Poles and the Ukrainians, Kosovo was also considered to be the birthplace of both the Serbs and the Albanian national movement. Between 1878 and 1881, the Albanians established here the League of Prizren with the purpose of establishing the national self-determination for all the Albanian-inhabited lands. As for the Serbs, to them Kosovo was the cradle of Serbian statehood. The town of Peć was the seat of the Serbian Patriarchate, and Lazar, the greatest Serbian king, fell here in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo while defending his homeland against the Ottoman army of Murad I.

(It is worth noting that Hungarians also contributed to the tragic fate of this region. After 1687, with the liberation of Hungary from the Ottomans, the army of the Holy League reconquered the entire Northern Balkans from the Turks, and the Serbian Christians were happy to support them. The Sultan then agreed with the Hungarian Protestant baron Imre Thököly, that if the latter attacks the almost defenseless Transylvania with an army of Crimean Tatars, he would be recognized as Prince of Transylvania. This was done in 1690, and the Habsburg army had to be withdrawn from the Balkans for the protection of Transylvania. They were followed by 40,000 Serbian families from Kosovo under the leadership of Patriarch Arsenije III Čarnojević, who had every reason to fear revenge from the returning Ottoman army. The Serbs of Kosovo now live in the town of Szentendre, north of Budapest, where the statue of King Lazar stands in the garden of the Serbian cathedral. And the now-deserted Kosovo was repopulated by the Porta by Albanians, who over the previous two centuries had converted to Islam.)

Blacksmiths. Prizren, 7 May 1913

Hekuran Xhamballi, Phirava dajle. From the album Kabà & Vàlle d’Albania (2001)

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View of the Serbian quarter. Prizren, 8 May 1913

Henri Bergson, the spiritual father of the Archives de la Planète, in his main work, Time and Freedom, makes a famous distinction between science’s measurable and homogenous time, and the individuum’s subjective time. The latter, called by him durée réelle, “real duration”, is preserved for us by the images of our memory.

In measurable time, more than a hundred years have passed since the Frenchmen’s photo tour. A hundred very bad years in the Balkans, with many cruelties, genocide and death. The “fatal disappearance of the practices and customs of human activity” has become a reality. Nevertheless, these photos, the images of collective memory, with their vivid colors, and the impressionist tones of the technique, the sensitive faces of their figures and the richness of their world in spite of every poverty, are still alive today. They are saturated with real duration, which they pass on to us, elevate us above the past hundred years, and expand the limits of our subjective time.

Miss Ljubica dressed in a rich Serb costume with a pink silk scarf on her head. Prizren, 8 May 1913

Come with us to Albania

Albania is one of the last “wild regions” of Europe, where, until recently, the mountaineers have lived in tribal communities and blood feud was a widespread custom, and where the medieval bazaars and Ottoman merchant houses are still alive in the rural towns. The second half of the twentieth century almost hermetically isolated the country from any change. It just starts to recover and to modernize itself in an ever-increasing pace. Roads are being built towards the secluded valleys, and Western European tourism begins to explore this stunning landscape. This is the last moment when we can see the country more or less as the great early 20th-century travelers, Baron Franz Nopcsa or Edith Durham saw and described it. That is why, in this September, we go to a one-week round trip to Albania, where we try to visit the most beautiful regions of the country.

Due to the great interest, we announce two consecutive trips. The first one, between 5 and 12 September, is already full, but for the second one, between 12 and 19 September, still there are places, and everyone is welcome.

We meet in Tirana. To fly there, we recommend the low-fare flight of Wizzair (now only 70 euros there and back, including a free small and big cabin bag) from Budapest, but you can choose any other flight as well. From there we travel around the country with a 18-seat bus, covering about 800 kms during the week. We focus on the northern mountains, the most beautiful region of the country, where, due to the difficulties, travel agencies still do not really organize tours. But we also visit the old towns of the historic cities of Shqodra, Tirana and the wonderful Berat, the beautifully preserved ancient Greek cities of Byllis and Apollonia, and travel along one of the most beautiful coastal routes of the world from Vlorë to the Llogara Pass.

Our planned route is as follows:

• Sept. 5 / 12 Tuesday: Departure from Budapest at 13:25. Arrival to the airport of Tirana, from where the bus takes us directly to Shqodra. Sightseeing and dinner.

Sept. 6 / 13 Wednesday: We set out to the north, the most secluded and most romantic region of the Albanian mountains, the National Park of Theth, “Albania’s Tibet”. We cross beautiful mountain ranges and majestic passes, and cover the last 10 kms of the route on unpaved road, with four-wheel cars. If we are lucky, we can even caress little bear cubs at our family guesthouse.

Sept. 7 / 14 Thursday: Excursion in the valley of Theth. We go with an off-road vehicle up to the hillside, and then we do an about two-hour walking tour (on not difficult terrain) to the Grunasi Falls. For lunch we return to our guesthouse, and then in the afternoon we go back to Shqodra.

Sept. 8 / 15 Friday: We sail along the Drin River. We start early in the morning (around 6:30 a.m.) from Shqodra to the Komani ferry station. The ferry leaves at 9 a.m., and goes about four hours long to the other station in Fierza between beautiful mountains, which recall the Norwegian fjords. Then we get on bus again, and go up to perhaps the most beautiful mountainous region of Albania, Valbona, where we dine and stay in a quite high-standard family guest house.

Sept. 9 / 16 Saturday: In the morning we do a short (about 2-kilometer) walking tour in an extremely beautiful valley of Valbona, and then go back to Tirana on a mountain road winding along the Drin river. We stop to take photos at the magnificent panoramas, and later at the former Catholic center of Northern Albania, the Franciscan monastery of Rubik. Afternoon and evening sightseeing in Tirana.

Sept. 10 / 17 Sunday: In the morning we go over to Berat, a well-preserved Ottoman-era trading town, the most beautiful historic city of Albania (World Heritage site). We spend the whole day rambling in the old town. We visit the Turkish quarter, the ethnographic museum installed in an old merchant house, the fortress, and the splendid Icon Museum in the former Church of the Dormition of the Virgin.

Sept. 11 / 18 Monday: From Berat we head towards the sea. We stop at the ancient Greek town of Byllis, situated in a wonderful place, on the top of a high rock. From Vlorë to the Llogara pass and look-out we go along one of the most beautiful seaside routes of the world. We spend our last night in Vlorë, on the beach, preferably arriving there in time to have an afternoon bath.

Sept. 12 / 19 Tuesday: In the morning we leave for Tirana. On the way we stop at Apollonia’s ancient Greek city and 10th-century monastery. Our plane sets out at 3:30 p.m., so we plan to arrive at Tirana Airport at about 1 p.m.

The participation fee is 550 euros per person, which includes hotels with breakfast, the bus, off-road vehicles and ferry fees, as well as guiding. Flight tickets should be arranged individually. Registration deadline: July 25, Tuesday evening, at It is recommended to register well in time, because travels are usually quickly overbooked.

Until departure we will publish a number of posts about the locations of our Albanian tour, as well as photos on our Facebook. Stay with us.