The Albanian Riviera

In southern Albania, sandwiched between the Ionian Sea and hills of olive groves, the town of Sarandë (pronounced and sometimes spelled Sa-ran-da) sits on a horseshoe-shaped bay, edged by beaches and a promenade, the Bulevardi Hasan Tahasini.  While Albania may not be the first place you would think of for a luxurious vacation, Sarandë’s friendly residents and phenomenal local cuisine (fresh off the fishing boats) makes the town a relaxing and inexpensive place to spend your holiday.

Facing west, towards the Mediterranean, Sarandë’s geography lends itself to spectacular sunsets. The climate is warm enough that Mandarin orange trees line the streets, providing a quick snack as you explore the plentiful bakeries, butchers and fruit stands.  While English isn’t always spoken by the locals, they are all exceptionally welcoming, and always happy to have visitors.

Sarandë comes from the name of the Byzantine monastery of the Agioi Saranda (Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning “Forty Saints” in honor of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The monastery dates back to the 6th century AD, and it is thought to have been an important regional pilgrimage site. The second floor of the monastery was destroyed during World War II’s Allied bombings.  While the monastery today is in a state of ruin, it is worth a visit, not just for its historic importance, but for the panoramic views of the town.

Nestled at the top of the hill about a 50-minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Sarandë is Lëkurësi Castle. The castle’s ruins feature imposing round towers and sweeping views, and it has been expanded with a spacious eatery. The views overlooking Sarandë and the farmland nearby, are stunning and well worth the trip. Built in 1537 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Lëkurësi Castle was constructed to protect the town from invaders approaching the coastline by boat.

Albania was an isolated country post World War II, and didn’t open her arms to tourists until the fall of communism in the 1990s. The country had distanced itself from neighboring nations and other communist countries, and even now you can see remnants of the communist era in the form of numerous pillbox military bunkers along the roads leading to places like The National Park of Blue Eye (Syri Kalter) with its 18 natural springs or the ruins at the Butrint UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since its liberation from the restrictions of a communist government, Sarandë has become a popular tourist destination among Albanians and visitors from around the world, with its population swelling to over 300,000 people during the summer months.  However, in the offseason, the town settles down into a peaceful village perfect for your extended, quiet getaway. Just a short ferry ride to Croatia or Greece, Albania is an ideal base as you explore the Ionian Sea region.

Related Reading: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1995) by the American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca.

 Blog post was written by and images copyright AlphaPixel Reach

Wales, The Hidden Gem of the British Isles

Tucked unobtrusively along the southwestern edge of England, Wales is a picturesque nation often overlooked by travelers. With a population of approximately three million people, the Welsh are outnumbered by their sheep by a ratio of 4:1.  And while this makes it a wonderful destination for oviphiles, Wales has much, much more to offer.

One of the first things most people notice as they explore the towns nestled in the rolling green hills and atop the steep slate cliffs is that every town has a church.  As the majority of early villages were founded by a Lord or landowner as they built their homes, most towns have a castle or manor house — and an accompanying church for which the town is generally named.  When you see “llan” (church) in a place name, odds are there is a house of worship close by.

Wales is a country rich in culture and legend passed down orally, by the cynfeirdd (early poets). This includes the earliest version of the legends of King Arthur, which are reflected to this day in the Welsh flag: a red dragon on a field of green. The red dragon is the nation’s mascot and is believed to have been the battle standard of Arthur and other ancient leaders. Some believe to this day that Camelot was in Wales and that its ruins can still be seen at Caerwent.

But Wales is not in short supply of other castles and ruins to explore. Tinturn Abbey, situated in Monmouthshire, on the Welsh bank of the River Wye, is the focus of Gordon Masters’ historical novel The Secrets of Tintern Abbey dramatizing the 400-year history of the Cistercian community there. Castell Conwy is a medieval fortification in Conwy, on the north coast of Wales, built by Edward I. You can walk around the city of Conwy atop its defensive walls. In fact, Wales is believed to have more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

Visiting in the spring or summer gives you the best opportunity to explore places like Bodant Garden, where you can spend hours wandering the winding pathways that meander through forests, lakes and flowers. Make sure to stop for tea and scones in Llandudno, a north Victorian seaside village with exceptional restaurants and breathtaking scenery. For those who appreciate the unique, a visit to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch in North Wales is always in order. Translated as “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave,” it is believed to be the longest place name in the world.

No scenic tour of Wales is complete without a trip on the railway to the top of Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park. The Welsh name – Yr Wyddfa – means “the barrow” which may refer to the cairn ( mound of rough stones built as a memorial) thrown over the legendary giant Rhitta Gawr after his defeat by King Arthur.

And the beautiful oddity of Wales is Portmeirion, a tourist village in Gwynedd. Designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion is an Italian village in the middle of Wales, created because he was tired of traveling between Wales and Italy. The village has long been a source of inspiration for writers such as Noël Coward, who wrote Blithe Spirit while staying there.

For a small country not often on the tourist radar, Wales has a wealth of culture, history, and scenery for those who want to spend a serene holiday just a little bit off the beaten path. 

TU HWNT I’R BONT TEAROOM https://www.tuhwntirbont.co.uk/

Blog post written by and images copyright Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach.

Ireland, from North to South

Éire, also known as Ireland, is the second largest of the British Isles, and is split into two countries, The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. From coast to coast, the Emerald Isle is awash in beautiful vistas and historic and cultural venues.

Donegal farm, Photo by Heather Mount

Many visitors begin their explorations in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland.  With the youngest population of any city in Europe (about half the population of the city is 25 or under), Dublin is never in short supply of adventure. One of the most walkable cities in Europe, Dublin has something for everyone.

With a vibrant theater and performance scene, a plethora of art galleries, museums, monuments and historic buildings, the arts lovers will never be at a loss for something to do. The sports fanatics can watch rugby, cricket or soccer from most any of the city’s 667 licensed pubs. And there are even a number of nature trails within a stones throw of the city. Whether watching the numerous and varied street performers, exploring the grounds of Trinity College, or drinking one of the ten million pints of Guinness produced in Dublin every single day, you could easily spend an entire vacation in Dublin alone, but Ireland offers so much more.

At the southwestern edge of County Clare’s Burren region you will find the iconic views provided by the Cliffs of Moher.  Running about eight and a half miles along the coast, the cliffs vary from 400 to 700 feet above the sea. Continuing south, you’ll come across the Gap of Dunloe where you can bike or hike along the winding mountain pass. And for the ultimate local experience, you can hire a trap and pony to take you on a horse drawn carriage ride to see the Gap’s five lakes.

The Gap of Dunloe sits within the Ring of Kerry, a scenic, 111 mile circular route through County Kerry. Along the ring, travelers will find epic vistas, classic pubs and historic landmarks such as Ballymalis Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Beehive Cells. For the hearty adventurer, there is also The Ring of Kerry cycling path (using older, quieter roads), and The Kerry Way, which takes its own signposted route.

The centuries of social and political fluctuation in Ireland has impacted the cuisine. Custom, conquest, and cultivation all changed the tenor of Irish food, culminating in the diverse menus we find today. Black pudding, poundies, curry chips, scones, fried bread, spiced beef and Irish stew are among the varied traditional foods you can find throughout the country. And for a uniquely Irish experience, you can find The Oratory Pizza & Wine Bar in Cahersiveen along the Ring of Kerry.  Built in an old church, they serve gourmet pizza and a wide selection of wines.

And of course, Ireland is home to numerous authors. WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, CS Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift and Maeve Binchy are only the tip of the Irish literary iceberg. May and June feature the Belfast Book Festival, the Bloomsday Festival, Yeats Day and the International Literature Festival Dublin.  A UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin is packed with landmarks honoring Ireland’s literary greats.

Ireland has adventures for everyone, and as Lady Gregory once said “I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland.”

Post written by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach for Endless Travel.  

Exploring Scotland, Something for Everyone!

At the northernmost tip of the British Isles lies Scotland. Home of golf, Scotch Whisky and Haggis, Scotland has a little something for everyone.  Whether you are looking to spend a night sleeping in a castle, go hiking across the lush, green countryside, or speed across the lowlands on a scenic train trip, Scotland will not disappoint.

Foodies tend to find that Scottish cuisine, which shares much of its background with typical English fare, is more varied and flavorful than the traditional foods of its southern cousin. With a wide array of seafood, dairy, game and breads, special delights such as Marmalade pudding, Dunlop cheese, Scotch pie and Rumbledethumps are always a treat. Accompanying beverages run the gamut from Scotch Whisky (no e in Whisky for them) to Ginger Wine along with Scotland’s other national drink, Irn-Bru, a non-alcoholic carbonated soda that stands up to competition with more ubiquitous global brands.

Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, is home to the country’s most famous fortress, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe which “opens the doors, streets and alleyways of an entire city to an explosion of creative energy from around the globe” every August. Started in 1947, the Fringe was created to celebrate and strengthen Europe’s rich cultural life post-WWII. Anglophiles will also find visits to Holyrood Palace, St. Giles’ Cathedral and the dormant volcano known as Arthur’s Seat quite fascinating.

For those seeking more high adventure, summers off Scotland’s Oban coast afford the opportunity to go snorkeling with the world’s second largest fish, the basking shark. Perthshire, Aviemore and Fort William’s narrow gorges and fast-flowing rivers are perfect for visitors who want to experience canyoning — sliding down naturally formed water flumes, cliff jumping, rappelling down rocky cliffs and climbing under thundering waterfalls. And for those seeking a little competition, there’s always land yachting, where you can race your friends across a beach in sail-powered three-wheeled scooters.

Fantasy and fiction lovers will find their heyday in both the lowlands and highlands as they explore Inverness’ Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle in search of Nessie, ride the Jacobite steam train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter movies, or storm the Castle of Guy de Lombard just as Arthur and his knights did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Bonnybridge, in Falkirk, has become the UFO capital of the world with more than 300 sightings every year. Not to be outshone by the mainland, the more than 790 Scottish Isles have their fair share of legendary locations as well. The Isle of Skye’s Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr make up the landscape of MacBeth. And the Isle of Lewis’s Calanais Standing Stones inspired a similar setting in Brave. Also, how can you truly go wrong in a country whose national animal is a unicorn?

Recommended Reading:

The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor

Inspired by true events, the New York Times bestselling novel The Girl Who Came Home is a touching story of a group of Irish emigrants who sailed aboard the RMS Titanic. Blending fact and fiction seamlessly, the book explores the impact and lasting repercussions of the Titanic tragedy on its survivors and their descendants.

Blog written by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach for Endless Travel.

Southern Sweden – Islands, Cuisine and Outdoor Adventures Await!

The Kingdom of Sweden is the fourth largest country in Europe in terms of land area. And while it ranks high in size, it also sits pretty far up the list in terms of adventure.

With 29 national parks and a myriad of smaller parks and gardens under the watchful eye of the Swedish Society of Public Parks & Gardens, outdoor excursions are always close at hand.  Featuring playgrounds, zoos, cafes, and other attractions, locations such as Fredriksdal Museum and Gardens, Drottningholm Palace Park, and Millesgården host thousands of visitors each year in search of choice photography locations, art, flowers, and history.

When the sun is out, so are the Swedes, patronizing any of a multitude of open air cafes, restaurants and bars. At summers high point, the sun can rise as early as 3:30 AM and set after 10:00 PM, which leaves a lot of daylight hours for socializing, sipping coffee, and eating.

While many people know much of the local cuisine such as Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes, potato pancakes and lingonberries from encounters with furniture giant, Ikea, not as many people realize that the smörgåsbord is a Swedish tradition. Culinary delights such as gravlax (cured salmon), Ärtsoppa (yellow pea soup), Flygande Jacob (chicken and banana casserole with peanuts and bacon), and Blåbärspalt (dumplings with blueberries) abound, and those seeking something more thrilling can sample Blodpudding (blood pudding) with lingonberry jam, Surströmming (fermented Baltic herring) and Smörgåstårta, a multi-layered sandwich often filled with shrimp, ham, mayonnaise and preserved fruit.

For those who want to explore the areas outside of the metropolitan centers, trains and ferries are both an economical and scenic way to travel, with many spectacular destinations just a short jaunt away from Stockholm. Day trips to locations such as Drottningholm Palace (The Queen’s Castle), Sigtuna (Sweden’s first town, founded in 980 CE), the Fortress of Vaxholm, and Lake Mälaren and Gripsholm Castle will immerse you in the historic and daily life of the Swedish people.

For the naturalists, ferries travel regularly to many of the 221,831 Swedish islands such as Donso in the North Sea. With around 1500 inhabitants, Donso is ripe with friendly people, local swimming holes, fresh seafood and beautiful walking trails.

And what visit to Sweden would be complete without a visit to Junibacken, an indoor amusement park built around Astrid Lindgren’s stories of Pippi Longstocking. With a visit to Pippi’s house, and a trip on the Storybook Train taking you on a journey through her adventures, adults and children alike can joyfully immerse themselves in the life of Sweden’s most famous literary creation.

Post written and photos provided by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach.