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Renault Roaming

October 2018 - May 2019
Italy -- Croatia - ? All in my little Red Renault Trafic
  • Day194

    Krujë Castle

    May 9 in Albania ⋅ 🌧 10 °C

    Gjergjj (or George,) Kastrioti was born in 1405, the son of an Albanian Prince based in the fortress city of Krujë . Unfortunately it was a vassel state of the Ottoman Empire, so he and 3 siblings were shipped off to Constantinople as hostages, meaning they had to join the Janissary Corps.
    The Janissary philosophy was to take the boys from their vassal states, convert them to Islam, train them in military tactics and religious fanaticism, and then send them back to attack their former countrymen.
    The Sultan renaged on the contracted 3 winter enlistment period when the old Prince died, so our George had to stay a slave-soldier nearly 20 years until he kicked over the traces.
    He commanded a cavalry regiment, governed 9 provinces, and once personally thrassed a Mongol and two Persians in the Throne Room of the Ottoman Court after they were being disrespectful to the Sultan. Whilst he himself proved to be a strong and ruthless commander, and perhaps because of it, his three brothers were poisoned.
    In his honour - or maybe ironically - the Sultan named him "Arnavuthu Iskender Bey", meaning "Lord Alexander the Albanian" in reference to Alexander the Great, but he himself preferred to be called the more Albanian sounding "Scenderbeu", (Skanderbeg in English for reasons unknown.)
    One can surmise that having been circumcised forcibly at the age of 18 left an unpleasant feeling for, when he was 38, he chucked away the power that came from being a high-ranking Turkish official with all the wealth and women he could want. During a battle against John Hunyadi, a Hungarian Crusader, he absconded with 300 fellow Albanian Janissaries and returned to his birthplace at Kruje.
    The castle was under Turkish control, so the canny Georgey forged an order appointing him Governor of the region in the name of the Sultan. As soon as the previous governer left, George raised his own double-eagle standard over the ramparts and rallied the Albanians to it, openly declaring rebellion and obviously re-converting back to Christianity again. He quickly secured his position by liberating surrounding cities and towns, giving the Turkish defenders the usual Christian offer: Baptism or Martyrdom.
    Sultan Murad II was a bit miffed and came with 100,000 men to recover his assets.
    Using a combination of guerilla warfare, scorched earth policies and hit-and-run attacks on supply columns, the Turks were repulsed several times over the next few years and never succeeded in dislodging the self-styled "Avenger of the Albanians." Surrounded by the Empire, George spent the rest of his life fighting battles in which he led from the front with his goat-head helmet and 2 handed sword. Thus was a legend born.
    Pope Nicholas V called him the "Champion of Christendom" (sometimes translated as "The Athlete of Christendom"). Pope Pious II called him the "Christian Gideon", and Pope Calixtus III appointed him Captain-General of the Holy See.
    After Sultan Murad died, his son, Mehmet the Conqueror, had another 2 goes at capturing the fort, which Skanderberg repulsed in his traditional way, whilst finding time to negotiate deals with the Hungarians, Serbians and Venetians. Oh! And repressing a rebellion started by his own nephew.
    Once, taking a vacation from his Balkan odyssey, he nipped across to Italy with 800 cavalry to break the Siege of Naples and pick up a Dukedom, ( which his son and heirs enjoyed for a few hundred years.)
    Eventually he was defeated - by a mosquito and he died of malaria in 1468. During his career he is credited with 3,000 kills and has become the Hero for the Albanian people: his battle standard is the present-day Albanian Flag and school children are required to memorise a song about his feats.
    Ten years later, Kruje fell to the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed II. The Turks dug up the Dragon of Albania and made bracelets out of his bones; either as keepsakes to disperse any trace of his body or as a fetish to get some of his power.
    Not much of old Kruje remains now within the castle walls. In front is the rebuilt Sultan Mehmed Fatih mosque, (named after the man who finally broke down the castle’s security,) and in use. Its about the size of a living room and still un use.
    Visitors are channelled from the car park up a shopping street to the gate. For 450 years it was a bazaar with up to 150 shops: now it is reduced to selling tourist trophys. It reminded me of villages outside Hanoi.
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  • Day194

    Bunk Art

    May 9 in Albania ⋅ 🌧 13 °C

    Enver Halil Hoxha (16 October 1908 – 11 April 1985) was the WWII resistance leader who became the First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania (socialist), from 1944 until his death in 1985.
    Now Anwar as the Arabs would call him, liked to do his own thing, so Albania became famous for its independence, not just from the yoke of Western style free market, pretend democracies but also of other pretend Communist ones - even neighbouring Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, after a particularly exciting trip to China Mr Hodges, (as we would spell his name,) came back thrilled with the idea of an NBC proof bunker which he had visited near the Celestial City. So he had this one built in a hill just outside Tirana to act as the centre of government in case of nuclear war.
    It’s set over five stories and has more than 100 different rooms including a meeting hall with 200 seats. With almost 3000 sq metres of space underground spread over several floors, the bunker is a natural fit for a history and contemporary art museum.
    A guard stands at the entrance, bored stiff by the inaction.
    5 doors are provided for the safety of inhabitants. First a curved 15cm thick, concrete blast door, then a small 10cm concrete door, followed by 3 airtight sealed steel doors. [And a cat to keep the mice out.]
    Photography is strictly prohibited, but I managed to sneak a photo of the Prime Ministers room by standing out of sight of the surveillance cameras.
    They say that the absence of any creditable war ensured the bunker was never used, but I think it was for a different reason. In the West we treat governments who do not do what we tell them by shunning them, trade sanctions etc. But China is more subtle: they welcome recalcitrant nations and give them gifts. All the equipment in the bunker, (electronics, communications, pumps, gas filtration etc) was provided. But all the signage and instructions for use are in Chinese.
    One room has been set up as a standard Albanian post-war flat. It looks just like my digs at uni, dating from the same period.
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  • Day194


    May 9 in Albania ⋅ 🌧 13 °C

    I nipped into Tirana to see what the extensively rebuilt communist capital had to offer. Very little in the trad tourist market but a few interesting relics. I was struck by the cleanliness of the streets after my sojourn in Southern Italy. Rubbish was collected and numerous street-sweepers - with old fashioned brooms - wheeling their carts around bright in their hi-viz clothes. I have been told that this does not extend into the peasant countryside but is a reflexion of the new found wealth entering the country in search of cheap labour unrestricted by such fanciful notions as employment or environmental rights. Thanks to a maverick politician in the '80s, many of the concrete tower blocks are painted in loud colours which considerably softens the deadening effect of such structures on the population. Another striking observation was how many new Mercedes were being driven: followed by Audis and VWs. The government imposed an import ban on used vehicles made before 2005 from 1 Jan this year, ostensibly to curb pollution, by encouraging people to buy new cars from certified domestic dealerships, (and of course to improve overall road safety.) I'm sure European car manufacturers had little to do with it, and the banking system is naturally happy to carry the debt.
    My first stop was in the recently renamed Skanderberg square, where a huge socialist mosaic of victorious partisans on the History Museum dominated one skyline.
    The square itself is a huge piazza buging upwards in the middle. There is a carpark underneath it and a statue of Skanderberg mounted on his horse, with his hair nicely sharpened into a point, has replaced the rather staid one of Stalin.
    In another corner of the square is the the Et’hem Bey Mosque that dates back to the late 18thC.
    At the fall of communism it was the site of one of a remarkable event on the 10th January 1991 when 10,000 people gathered to practise their religion, against the decree of the authorities who had banned Islam for almost half a century. In the end there was no police interference and the event marked a turning for religious freedom in Albania.
    Unfortunately, I could not admire the idyllic scenery such as forests and waterfalls. as the walls were shrouded for building restoration. (They are on the outside because inside they would contrevene Sharia.)
    The rather bland and often altered Clock Tower goes back to 1822 when it was completed by the court poet Haxhi Et’hem Bey. The first change was a Viennese design, which was replaced by a German-style timepiece which was destroyed in the Second World War. After that there was one with Roman numerals that came down in the 70s in favour of the current Chinese clock.

    Albanians prefer their books to cover weighty themes and in fact buy them by the kilo.
    The third-largest such structure in the Balkans is the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, completed in 2012.
    You will be fascinated to learn, as I was, that the dome reaches 32.2 m above ground and the bell tower stretched 46 m to the heavens: and the complex is now a major tourism attraction.
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  • Day194


    May 9 in Albania ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Durrës ( Dyrrah ), founded in the 7th century BCE by ancient Greek settlers from Corinth and Corcyra, is another of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
    During the Roman period, 5th century BCE. Epidamnos as they renamed it, was a main harbour during the Peloponnesian War. After the war it expanded and changed its name to Dyrrhachion; Dyrrachium was used in Roman literature and known as the battlefield between the legions of Caesar and Pompey (49-48 BCE). Dyrrhachion was a vital Roman port of The Egnatian Way (Via Egnatia). This trade route was one of the main roadways which connected Rome with Byzantium and Durres prospered with it. A result it had the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans which is now a pile of rubble and easy to overlook. (I did, though I saw it.)
    This is the so called Durres Castle, aka Venetian Tower.
    It dates back to the 400s, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I who was born here. Although it's only a single tower and wall reinforced by the Venetians just before the city’s conquest by the Ottomans.
    It's seen some serious action right up to WWII but s you can see, the Martini rifle is no match for the Martini cocktail whose umbrella battle standards now fly triumphently above the parapets.
    The Great Mosque was built in 1931 by King Zog I on the site of an earlier Ottoman building. After 1967 its minaret was destroyed and the building was used centre for local youth organisations. It survived the Communist repression and is now fully functional as a religious centre.
    There is another, smaller and older one; the Fatih Mosque, which dates to 1503 in the first decades of Ottoman rule. This was also closed down during communism but was declared an Albanian cultural monument in the 70s. I found it down a side alley, all boarded up.
    Albanian drag racer?
    Britannia rules - thanks to Tony Blair
    The old part of town
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  • Day194

    Global warming

    May 9 in Albania ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    The very first sight I saw after a tortuous and poorly signed (but maybe that was because I can't read Cryllic scripts,) exit from the docks, this is what I discovered: Albania's version of a carbon tax.
    Now whether this makes clear what will happen to petrol users, or if it is restricting use of the pollutant to a limited subset of potential clients, I could not work out and did not have the bxxxx to try.Read more

  • Day193

    Straights of Dozing

    May 8 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    Despite all the adverts for a crossing from Brindisi to Durres, after spending an hour at the port trying to buy a ticket, I was told that there were no services - at least none that would take the van. So I had to go to Bari, which allowed me time to visit the Castel del Monte before taking the 10pm ferry.
    Bari itself had nothing to attract me particularly - churches and another fort courtesy of Isabella d'Aragon - so I went straight onto the the port and queued for 4 hours. Most of the boat is passenger accommodation is in cabins, for which I had not paid extra, but I found a perfectly good bit of floor spce behind the seats in the one lounge and had a good night kip on my mat and in my sleeping bag.
    Despite the strong winds and rain, the crossing was not very rough and I awoke in Albania to a glorious sunny day.
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  • Day193

    Geometry lesson

    May 8 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 11 °C

    This famous World Heritage castle built around 1240 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II is famous for being without known purpose.
    Since the building sits on top of a hill with 360 degree views and a clear view of the sea 24 km away, experts have suggested that it was a fortress. Sounds more like a resort to me, though it does look like a keep and is believed to cover an earlier fort. From a military perspective it has shortcomings: no curtain wall, no drawbridge, no moat, no stables.
    The original marble and furnishings were removed long go, but as a home it would do during warm weather if one didn't eat: there are no kitchens and only 2 fireplaces.
    The best anyone can come up with is that Fred used it to fly his falcons. The daughter of my last host, Milli, came here on a school trip a a couple of weeks ago and left mystified.
    The castle is designed as a perfect octagon, 123 feet across, with eight rooms and an octagonal centre court. Octagonal towers on each corner , taller originally than nowadays, carry the octagonal theme downward to the missing Islamic, octagonal, floor tiles. The number 3 also re-occurs: in the entrance hall there are 3 rose and 3 mullioned windows as well as an engraved triangle, there are three towers with staircases.
    Frederick founded the University of Naplesand was friendly with the great Leonardo Fibonacci, (who introduced the Arabic representations for zero and ten into Europe.) Given that he was a scholar and architect, spoke Arabic as well as Latin, and had been on a Crusade, it is perhaps not surprising that people have been searching for symbolic meanings in what might otherwise be just a rich man's folly. All the fuss is about the geometry of the architecture, which is 'impecable' (as the French would say.) This leads the intelligentsia on a hunt for symbolic meanings and associations; a search that can continue forever and fund numerous research grants.
    Onto the octaganal floorplan can be can be projected any number of pentagrams, isoceles triangles, stars , circles and so on to tantalise the student. The number 8 itself has secular, religious and mythological meanings. The figure 8 rotated 90 degrees becomes the "lazy eight" representing infinity. There are eight compass points and eight is the union of divine infinity and human finiteness and resurrection. 3 denotes truth and the triangle perfection. Even the shadows in the courtyard form the Golden Ratio used in the Fibonacci Sequence.
    Here are some other cluesto hidden meanings that have been "found":
    + Egyptian epigraphs are written onto the structure. (Frederick is regarded by some as the last “Faraone.”
    + the castle lies on the meridian connecting the Cathedral of Chartres, the Duomo of Milan and the Egyptian pyramids - Templar connection?
    + it lies halfway between the French cathedral and the Sphinx of Cheops.
    and so on and so on. A contemporary observed it and wrote: "Stupor mundi et immutator mirabilis", (wonder of the world and marvelous novelty.) And that wasn't because of the advanced plumbing system, which uses rain water for the toilets and bathrooms of the fortress.
    Fred died from dysentery in 1250 and there is no evidence that he actually used the place. His son Manfred died in battle in 1266, and Frederick's three grandsons were condemned to life imprisonment in the Castel del Monte. One escaped after 30 years, only to disappear into Egypt.
    I had to brave the dozen busloads of tourists visiting the site, taking advantage of the interstitial gaps between the flocks circulating to get a few snapshots before taking the ferry to Albania. Whilst it only takes 30 minutes to walk through the place, even with the exhibition of paintings in each room, a better impression can be had by looking at the plans and drawing lines connecting different points: then the symbology becomes apparent.
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  • Day192


    May 7 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    Joe Masseria was the New York boss of the Genovese gang, who famously retired from the family firm at the unspoken behest of Lucky Luciano; (the report at least echoed round the world.)
    The Masseria I have been in is just an old country farmhouse in Puglia with no hint of a racket going on - its as quiet as Joe's grave.
    The property was falling down when Ian & Lucy found it and put it back together 7 years ago. Registered as an Historic Property, which triggers a whole set of difficult planning laws,I had imagined shady deals worthy of Mafia boss being done to satisfy or circumvent them. In fact by chance, the place lies in two different planning jurisdictions: as only one had it listed on its Historic Register, permission to rebuild the uninhabitable house was sought and obtained from the other one.
    after the event, the bypassed official was invited to inspect the work, and he proved sympathetic and content to see that which was fading away renovated.
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  • Day192

    Masseria Giulio

    May 7 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    My hosts Ian and Lucy, together with Milli (13) and Freya (10) run this Masseria or guesthouse in Puglia where I have been workawaying for the past month. Lucy rushes back and forth between here and Brindisi in order to supplement the income during the off-season by teaching English.
    Wine, women and 5 star accommodation - with room service- create the gold standard for a workaway experience. And I got to spend all day in the pool!
    Mind you, it would have been more relaxing if the pool was full of water and we did not have to clean, wire brush, make good small holes and paint it in quick time for the summer bookings.
    The only other jobs I had time to do were to demolish and rebuild a small wall around the pool pumps, (so contractors could position their machinery to remove 130m of artesian bore piping that had a small hole in the bottom section,) and assemble a dozen pieces of flatpack garden furniture.
    The 15 year old bottle of Laphroig, for my personal consumption since nobody else drinks it, was the finishing touch to the best workaway experience to date.
    To see more photos:
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  • Day191

    Whitewashing history

    May 6 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    That is until the northern Europeans came looking for authentic, quaint, holiday houses to do up. "So, iconic. One has to help preserve the cultural heritage after all - in law they re classed as National Monuments - and when the locals just let them tumble down ... ... ... ..."
    Many were bought and tarted up during the housing boom years, which has resulted in huge price rises. Unfortunately the foreigners no longer have the cash to buy them, and many who might are put off both by the draconian "rebuild it as it was originally" planning regulations and by the canny peasant's out-of-date perception of the value of rubble. Still, they will be around for a while as modern building regs require them to be earthquake proof, unlike the originals.Read more