Berat – an Albanian Must-See

When the overcrowded, touristy beaches all get too much, head for the hills.

If you’ve had it up to here with new architecture, crowded beaches, dirty resorts, jump on a furgon, privately-owned minibuses, and get the hell away from the coast to this beautiful city where old, Ottoman architecture in all its white glory still survives. Most Albanians are pretty friendly, but hospitality takes the biscuit in Berat.

Ottoman Architecture in Berat

I always choose Airbnb because it lines the pockets of the locals and not some huge probably foreign-owned conglomerate chain. You get to know the people too and here’s where the real Albania lies. The guy sitting behind me on the bus, peers over my shoulder with the address I’m looking for on the piece of paper. What would normally seem like strange manners, he tells me where to get off and I’m grateful to him. My little suitcase doesn’t weigh much but rolling it over the slippery stones towards my destination is not an option so I have to carry it. I stop to ask some young guys directions. They smile at me, call my landlord Petrit Sheshaliu and lug my luggage up the hill to his place. A warmer welcome you couldn’t get. The airy room is high up, looks over the city and is equipped with air-conditioning, phew!, and excellent wi-fi. Petrit and his wife are delightful. Petrit serves me homemade berry juice, drive me to Çobo Winery (see Albanian Surprise: http://foreignfinn.com/?p=1638) and waits for me to take me back. The breakfasts come with homemade jams and they’re quick to point out that the butter and cheese has not been bought in the supermarket but locally sourced from a farmer. It’s all delicious.

Petrit and his lovely wife

The Mangalem district or Old Town with its three mosques and Ottoman architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring it takes you over rocky patches, through small walkways, passed flowery window boxes and quaint chimneys. If you keep looking, you will eventually find Lili’s Homemade Food which is absolutely where you want to eat. The four or five tables in the tiny courtyard are usually fully booked in the evenings but lunchtime is a good bet and lasts from 12.30 to 4.30pm. Lili, strange as it may sound, is a man with impeccable hosting skills who knows how to make you feel comfortable, wanted and at-home. Stuffed tomatoes, aubergines, pork with cheese, and byrek pastry, come in huge quantities and don’t be fooled by the size of the portions on the photoboard that acts as a menu, it’s a lot bigger than you imagined. Lili’s father makes the homemade wine from Shesh i Zi and Merlot and it’s a brilliant accompaniment to the food they serve. You get chatting with people at the next table and before you know it, you’ve exchanged details about your life with complete strangers. Getting away is the hard part and Lili insists on drinking a small, yes homemade, raki or firewater with you which settles the tummy and sends you on your way with the best of memories. Don’t give up on finding this unique spot – just keep asking and eventually you’ll stumble upon it.

Lili’s Homemade Food – keep trying until you find it
You’ll not go hungry (or thirsty!) at Lili’s

The climb up the mountain to the Castle is a trek but needs to be done to see the sweeping views over the city and the Byzantine churches. On the way back, take a break from the super-slippery stone road to see the Ethnographic Museum which constitutes an enormous home of a former rich Muslim landowner and gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of the citizens of Berat. The archways are low so be careful of your head.

Ethnographic Museum, Berat

The Boulevard or ‘strip’ as I might call it, fills up with the people who live in this city in the evenings. Well turned out families buy ice cream for their kids, young guys try to catch the eyes of the stunningly, sexy girls while the elderly amble along enjoying the cool, breeze and the social chumminess of it all. Tolerance is a word that springs to mind when you know that Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic all live and have lived side by side for many centuries here which is the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world.

Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics live in perfect harmony in Albania

Links:

Airbnb – Petrit Sheshaliu

Ethnographic Museum

Lili’s Homemade Food

Butrint – City of Occupations

A 45-minute bus ride from Sarande will get you to Butrint for 100 lek (0,76EUR). Entrance fee will set you back another 700 lek (5,50 EUR), every bit of it worth it. Its history has seen all kinds from pre-historic man to Romans, Greeks, Christians, Byzantines, Venetians and finally Ottomans. It tells a tale of civilisations and how they lived but also enables you to take a walk through the National Park of Butrint on the banks of the Vivari Canal. Historical monuments, nature and landscape all make it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Eucalyptus trees line the entrance to the ancient city of Butrint

In spite of cars and tourist buses blocking traffic to and from the entrance, it has remained remarkably untouched by development. There’s a little kiosk inside that sells some handicrafts from the area but mostly people are lining up for the cold drinks from the fridge. The restaurant close by is the only one and no one crowds the sidewalks with made-in-Taiwan trinkets for sale.

An avenue of massive eucalyptus trees provides much-needed shade as you begin your walk. It takes you through the Chapel of Asclepius, Greek god of healing whom the frail and ailing would worship in hopes of a cure. They would sleep in the area and relate their dreams to physicians and medicine men eagerly proffering interpretations and selling them herbal concoctions to make them well again. The ancient Theatre was established by the Greeks but later re-modelled according to the Roman style. Today the International Theatre Festival Butrinti2000, held in July, fills the stone seating with audiences applauding drama, orchestral and dance performances in this magical setting.

What is left of the cult of Asclepius, on display in the museum.

The Baptistry and the Great Basilica attest to the Episcopal or Christian period albeit a cult establishment from the 6th Century. A staircase through the medieval Lion Gate leads you up the hill to the crowning glory where the remains of a Venetian castle, beautifully reconstructed in the 1930s, houses the museum. If you’d been wondering what had happened to the archaeological finds dug up over the years, this is where you’ll see the intricate sculpture of the Greeks, the fine glassware of the Romans and the primitive flint tools of the ancients. It is an excellent collection with easy to read explanations of each period. In praise of the Greek period are the inscriptions alluding to manumission or the freeing of slaves and that done by women who, unlike their Greek classical counterparts, were able to own and release them at Butrint.

The Baptistry
The Great Basilica

This ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’ as mentioned on the UNESCO website, survived occupations by the Byzantines and the House of Angevin or Anjou, English kings also known as one of the four royal houses of the Plantagenets. Who would have thought their empires in the 13th Century would extend so far east? Fortifications kept on getting bigger and stronger until Ali Pasha, the notoriously cruel Albanian Ottoman, built a new one in the 19th Century. After the decapitation of the ‘Lion of Yannina’ by the Ottomans because of his separatist attacks, Butrint was abandoned.

Fine Roman glassware

What is left is a rich legacy of a long period in time which stands as a testament to history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, science and domestic life.

Links:

Butrint

 

Sad in Sarande, Albania

From Corfu to Sarande, the ferry takes about 30 minutes. A nice, easy ride across the Adriatic gets you there but upon arrival I was shocked by the hotchpotch design of the city perched against the hill facing out over the bay. Electric cables join some pleasant looking buildings with some half-finished construction sites and if it weren’t for the boulevard and its palm trees, all would be lost.

Flowers Room – a haven in the heart of Sarande from Airbnb

The streets and steps, and there are plenty of the latter, are fairly decent but veer slightly off the beaten track and you notice so much trash and litter with rubbish bins overflowing and not a hint of recycling in place. Then you find out that tap water is undrinkable and that you need to buy bottled water to survive the hefty heat in the summer. Too much plastic, too much waste and very little urban planning is turning this seaside town into a concrete jungle with little more to offer than clear water and wall-to-wall beaches, a lot of which are private ones where you’re required to rent a lounger and umbrella. Top of the awful pops music blares and one bar competes with another as to choice and volume.

Ksamil islands – ‘commercial’ takes on a new meaning

You can’t say it’s not cheap, cheap it is in every way possible. Few shops have anything of value to offer and the restaurants have the same menu wherever you go i.e. ‘country’ salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish, seafood and meat. My country salad consisted of deliciously fresh veg and lettuce with feta cheese and olive oil salad dressing but the lamb ribs which I was looking forward to, came piled high on a plate with no more than a wedge of lemon. Ribs they weren’t, just random cuts of meat.

Too much plastic and trash

Everyone recommends Ksamil Islands but if you think Sarande is commercial, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Every inch of beach is lined with the ubiquitous sunbeds and umbrellas all costing something albeit cheap in comparison to other Mediterranean countries. Trash decorates the sidewalks with not a collector in sight.

My saving grace in Sarande was the haven of peace and beauty called Flowers Room which I booked through Airbnb. Besmir and his family couldn’t have been kinder or more generous and the smell of herbs and foliage filled the night air. Air conditioning meant that you could close out the sounds of honking hooters and get a good night’s sleep. I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot.

Kristiano Wine Bar – a must-see

Having said what I’ve said so far, there is one spot which is worth a mention – the wine bar called Kristiano, way up high on the hillside and perhaps impossible to find if it weren’t by taxi. The interior is elegantly rustic complete with stuffed animals and the terraces outside look out over the bay. Sip a glass of wine and just take it all in, including the huge cruise vessels that stop in during the summer months. My hike down the mountain was made all the more pleasant when I joined a mother, her child and grandmother who took me down a shortcut through bush and thoroughly uneven terrain. What amazed me even more was that granny and daughter were both wearing wedge-heeled sandals leaping across boulders and rocks with the sure-footedness of gazelles. We waved a friendly goodbye to each other when we hit the first tarred road.

View over the bay from Kristiano Wine Bar

Friendliness, smiles and generosity are in ample supply in this city and while English doesn’t trip off their tongues, they make an effort to understand you and to get you what you want. Here’s to the locals, in every way! My advice on food – go to the market, buy the freshest of ingredients and cook your own. The fish and seafood from the fish shops is excellent as is the meat from the many butcheries scattered across town. With a lathering of olive oil and green herbs, you’re your own best chef. One more thing, the internet works well in cafés and restaurants.

Links:

Flowers Room

Kristiano Wine Bar

 

Me, Me, Me

As modest as the Finns may be, selfies have caught on here too, dating all the way back to the 19th Century. The exhibition Me: Self-Portraits Through Time is a collection of 160 works by 102 artists from Finland ranging through the Finnish Golden Age to noteworthy contemporary ones.

In the early days they were called self-portraits and perhaps the focus was slightly different from today’s aren’t-I-stunning approach. ‘The eyes are the window of the soul’ is an expression we’re all familiar with, but what if you’re too shy or simply don’t want to reveal it to the onlooker, but you still want to be immortalised? Is it about immortality or just vanity?

Otto Mäkelä: Self-portrait (1929)
Alexandra Frosterus-Såltin: In the Studio (1858)

Thank God for Justus von Liebig who invented the mirror in 1835. Without it, some of these would never have existed and while they all used it, only a few admit to the fact and show it in their pieces. But even mirrors can be too self-revealing and hence reflections come into distorted focus in the metal of blenders as in Pauliina Turakka Purhonen’s Oaig, referring to the only visible letters on the cardboard Laphroaig box in which she keeps her paintbrushes. Or could it be a groan, an utterance of loathing? Or the sculpture in wood of 84 year-old Radoslaw Gryta strangely staring out at you from the backdrop of honeycombs.

Pauliina Turakka Purhonen’s Oaig (2010)

As a foreigner, I find the Finnish style rather intriguing. Seeing the exhibition as a whole, shows that most of these are realistic in the way they bare themselves to the general public. Some are perhaps flattering, some are distinctly distorted, others horrifying and abstruse. While you wonder about the character in the painting or photo or sculpture, it also brings you to a point of self-searching and your own reaction to it. The creator must have had this in mind and while they couldn’t predict the response, they could control it to an extent. This is where emotion comes into play. Seeing the irony and humour in Sampsa Sarparanta’s The White Man’s Burden, the Heidi man-girl ridiculously laughing back at you, the grotesque Last Man Standing evoking fear, the sadness, the playfulness, the sorrow – it all draws you into their world and their feelings at the time of execution. Finally, you walk out with a bag of mixed emotions to sort through and the memory of faces you never knew but will never forget.

Sampsa Sarparanta’s The White Man’s Burden (2015)
Last Man Standing – Stiina Saaristo (2007-2008)

Me: Self-Portraits Through Time is on show at Kunsthalle Helsinki from 27 May until 6 August 2017.

Kunsthalle Helsinki

Nervanderinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Tickets +358 40 450 7211

Tue, Thu, Fri 11–18

Wed 11–20

Sat-Sun 11–17

Mon closed

€12 / €8

Under 18s – no charge

It’s a Wild Ride at Linnanmäki Amusement Park, Helsinki

The locals lovingly call it ‘Lintsi’ and when the first rays of sunshine start appearing after the long winter, the kids are already tugging at their parent’s nerves to take them to this summer attraction. It’s a happy place and something sincerely has to go wrong for it not to put a smile on your face. Even better, the proceeds go to Finnish child welfare work. It’s the kindest thing you can do for not only your own children but also those less privileged.

Magia for a heady ride

A new year brings new stuff to explore starting with Ice Age in 4D with arrows whizzing passed your head, water spraying lightly in your face and plenty of bumps and jumps for you to get the full effect. This is included in the wristband. Magia will take you on a whirl that reaches the heavens while you look down vertically at the ground below, spin you and settle you down back to earth before it all starts again. There’s wild and gentle for the not so brave and if you’re not interested in the rides at all, there’s the wheel of fortune which will add yet another soft toy to your already overflowing collection. Lots of the kiddie rides are free of charge and there is no entrance fee so if you just want to come along and watch, that’s possible too. The American Diner will satisfy your hamburger needs and there’s a lot more besides that. Caruzello has a family buffet while the Sports Restaurant has finger food to go with your beer.

Starting with the Spring Carnival, Linnanmäki has special events happening at times when the park might not be that crowded. Between 2 – 14 May, clowns, ventriloquists, and music are put on to entertain the crowds and you can even take a twirl on the dance floor if the mood hits you. At the beginning of September Iik!week brings zombies to scare you and other eerie phenomena to keep you intrigued. The Carnival of Light is a show to behold with plenty of design teams working on displays to light up the dark time of year.

Linnanmäki is open from 28 April until late October but do check the website if you’re planning to go in September or October.

Links:

Linnanmäki Amusement Park

A Walk on the Wild Side

A train and bus ride takes you a world away from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki city where you can experience Finnish nature, virtually and physically. Haltia Nature Centre transports you within its environmentally friendly wooden walls to the treasures of Finland’s natural wonders. Everything is well done and attention to detail is stunning.

Nou hätä – no panic but the real caption says, “If anyone asks, you haven’t seen me.”

Look up, look down, look around you as you go through a winter wonderland where a bear is feeding on the meat of a ‘fallen’ reindeer, where you can listen to the sounds of nightlife in the forest and experience the rush of rapids and see what goes on underneath the water’s surface. The panorama display keeps on changing, revealing all 5 seasons from polar night to summer. Enter the giant Duck’s Egg and see Osmo Rauhala’s installation of white swans playing chess on a randomly-changing board. Pat the snoring, sleeping bear in its den and look through the bird hold to see who the next visitor might be.

‘Now this sucks’ – part of an hilarious exhibition at Haltia.

It makes you hungry for the real thing which is easy to find since the Nuuksio National Park is right there surrounding you. Lake Pitkäjärvi is large and when the water is open, you can rent a canoe from Solvalla Sports Centre to see the forest from a different angle. The reception staff at Haltia will be happy to help you book one. Cycling, sauna, swimming and feeding reindeer at the Nuuksio Reindeer Park, are all options whether you’re there for a day or overnight. But it’s hiking that’s really the thing to slow you down, get you meditating and communing with nature. The slow pace brings peace and calm within this cathedral of birch trees with moss-covered primary rock and its here where you’ll listen to that inner voice that brings rest and a healthy mind. Stumbling upon a barbecue is not uncommon and wood is usually in plentiful supply. Take your own sausage and dry matches with you.

Osmo Rauhala’s swans playing chess
Cosy up to baby bear in his den

This paradise is easily reachable from downtown Helsinki: https://aikataulut.reittiopas.fi/linjat/en/b245.html

Haltia Nature Centre is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 – 5 pm: https://www.haltia.com/en/

A comprehensive guide to facilities and activities at Nuuksio National Park: https://www.nuuksioresort.fi/en/

 

Class with a touch of casual – Emo Restaurant, Helsinki, Finland

Wooden tables, serviettes like dishcloths hanging on the side, cutlery in a wooden box all add to the informal atmosphere. But don’t be fooled. This joint might not strike you as ‘fine dining’ but dining fine you will, believe me!

Tomato soup with truffle foam

With a choice of non-alcoholic beverages like fresh apple juice or spicy tomato to get those salivary glands going is just the ticket for lunchtime. The tomato soup starter brims with richness and elegance is thrown in with the truffle foam on the side while crunch is provided by the croutons. Every mouthful is a treat and if the croutons aren’t enough, there’s plenty of home made bread with butter on the side. Haddock is my choice of the 3 main courses only because it brings back memories of breakfast in South Africa when I was child and when it was always smoked. This one comes with potato mousse, a poached egg and lots of capers to give it a good kick of acidity. It’s all so soft and creamy but get your teeth into the crispy onion and the salsify slices on top and you know the chef, Ilkka Lääveri knows what he’s doing. Combine this relatively light lunch with a cold, crisp Brut Nature cava by Castell del Remei and you wish you could linger longer. My dining partner chooses the pork with gem lettuce and a heap of caramelized-to-a-crisp onions to make for a slightly heavier meal. There’s also a vegetarian option. Of course the menu changes and whatever’s fresh, seasonal and local when possible, is served up every week.

Creamy haddock and almond potato mousse

Lunch for 2 courses sets you back €25, 3 courses €29 and 4 at €34. Dinner comes in set meals or as à la carte and is a little more expensive as is the practice in Finland. That laid-back mood is just a ruse, there’s serious food and wine coming your way at Emo.

Links:

Emo Restaurant

Curves, Folds Shades and Sandals

An exhibition of the oil paintings of Caesar van Everdingen (1616/1617 – 1678)

Place: Sinebrychoff Art Museum

Time: 16 February – 14 May 2017

Mythology, portraits, history and hunting, the stuff of Caesar van Everdingen’s masterpieces and so much more. Overshadowed by his contemporaries such as Rembrandt, he has been rediscovered and takes his rightful place as a grand master of Dutch classicism. With the help of the exhibition’s curator from the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar, van Everdingen’s hometown, Christi Klinkert, we delve into the detail.

Christi Klinkiert, curator from Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar

“The Girl with the Broad-Brimmed Hat you will all agree is wearing a white shirt. Come closer and you see within the folds of this garment that colours emerge. Grey, pink, peach was used to turn it into a 3-dimensional garment. Her hat is made of coloured cloth wound around a wicker frame casting a half shadow over her eyes giving her a seductive look reminiscent of a gypsy. In fact, the hat itself was associated with that same culture. It’s okay to say that this painting is just lovely to look at. She is the epitomy of summer.”

Girl with the Broad-Brimmed Hat

“Now look at this portrait, also of a girl, part of three that are on loan from the Rijk’s Museum. Quite a contrast, warming her hands over a brazier, is wearing expensive clothes and everything about her demeanour and surroundings spells winter. Then there’s this lady, completing the trilogy, dressed in black wearing a hat which would normally have been worn by a greengrocer at a market stall. The black cloth on the smalt pigment which has faded from blue to greyish teal, suggests the season of autumn.”

We stand in front of a provocative scene: a huge canvas with a nude couple, the male obviously trying to seduce the female. Without looking at the title, is it a male? The secret is out – it’s Jupiter disguised as Diana and Callisto who looks apprehensively at her suitor, not knowing quite what to make of him. The cherubs in the top left hold a mask and Jupiter’s eagle spreads its wings wide in the shadows on the right hand side. In fact, what we’re observing is nothing other than a rape scene since the story goes that he gets his way with her. In the conservative times of van Everdingen, such a painting could have been construed as immoral but since the subjects hail from classical times, it becomes a story and he’s able to tell it without repercussions.

Jupiter and Callisto

The exhibition takes us through various portraits of people from the bourgeoisie, those that could afford to pay for the commissions or then the city of Alkmaar, immortalizing their city leaders and encouraging worthy values such as education. The detail with which every brush stroke is executed is extraordinary. The sandals are of such elegant design that they could even be Italian. The satins in contrast with wool, cotton and linen come alive in such a way that you want to reach out and touch it to feel its texture. The colours are rich and bold on whimsical backgrounds that give us hints but are not that important.

The Sinebrychoff Museum has always had a penchant for Dutch art with this exhibition being one of their great achievements. A string of events such as croquis nude drawing and guided tours of course will enhance the experience of having such mastery in our midst.

Links:

Caesar van Everdingen

Sinebrychoff Art Museum

Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar