Cultural & Religious Tour, South Albania

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    Tour Description

    The tour amalgamates a selection of some of the most important points of cultural and spiritual attraction in south-eastern Europe and blends them with events empowering participants to ‘live’ the heritage. We shall explore the relationship between culture, spirituality and the environment, natural or built, in such natural contexts as mountains, valleys, rivers, seashores, lakes, caves, hills, woodlands, waterfalls and thermal waters or in urban or semi-urban spaces, such as cities and cemeteries. The history of religions in the territories of modern-day Albania will be traced through visits to key-monuments from the early-Christian, Byzantine and Ottoman (or post-Byzantine) periods. These enable participants to experience the grandeur of major pilgrimages in urban centres (e.g., Basilica of the Forty Martyrs, Sarandë) and the refined architectural and artistic trends of the Byzantine capital centre, alongside the frugality and modesty of cave churches and small-size family chapels appealing to the artistic tastes of a mostly rural society. Guided observation of eating, drinking and other social practices manifested in paintings and woodcarvings compared with contemporary such practices carefully selected for participants to participate will reveal both continuities and changes. Participants will also have the opportunity to ‘live’ various aspects of the cultural heritage they will experience by participating in a Vespers Church service, a series of special events, (monophonic and iso-polyphonic songs, mussels tour, cooking classes and wine-tasting) and workshops (painting, restauration and icon conservation workshop).


    Day 1

    Thematic itinerary
    We shall assemble in the historical museum-city of Gjirokastër, whose old quarters are enlisted in the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate.” In the evening we shall attend the Vespers service at the historical eighteenth-century church of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael of the old Varosh quarter with its fragmentary early nineteenth-century fresco paintings.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:
    Transportation from Tirana airport or Sarande port (respectively 3 hours and 1 hour)
    Dinner and presentation of the week’s itinerary in a restaurant in the heart of the historical area.
    Accommodation at Hotel Rose Garden / Gjirokaster

    Day 2

    Thematic itinerary
    This day starts with two meso-Byzantine monuments and a landmark of post-Byzantine architecture in Albania and beyond. We shall visit the beautiful 12th-century church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Kosinë, Përmet, with its impressive ceramic decoration, with fragments of fresco painting dating 13th and early 20th century. Another visit will be paid to the 11th-12th century cemetery church of the Prophet Elias at Buhal, Përmet. Its early-19th century iconographic programme lays over a 13th-century layer. We will then proceed to the majestic late-18th-century cemetery church of the Virgin Eleousa at Leusë, Përmet, whose impressive iconographic programme alludes to culinary and social practices still to be observed in the region. After lunch we will pay a visit at the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Përmet, to observe how ecclesiastical art forms transform to socialist-realist art during communism, before visiting the Banjë thermal waters. Wine-tasting over dinner in Përmet shall provide points of comparison between early-19th century and contemporary drinking and eating habits and items.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:

    During this day travelling by car from destination to destination will take round 3 hours.
    You will have lunch at Antigonea restaurant in the center of Permet. You will attend before lunch a presentation of 10 different receipts cooked with traditional “butter sauce”
    After the thematic activities you can enjoy the thermal waters of Benja
    Wine tasting (depending on group number we might also introduce a local polyphonic group) will take place at hotel restaurant Villa Permeti, your overnight stay.

    Day 3

    Thematic itinerary
    Today we will visit the principal pilgrimage destinations in central Albania. We shall begin from the monastery of the Nativity of Mary, where a new church dedicated to All Saints, also built upon the initiative and funds of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, was later known as the catholicon of the monastery of St Kosmas the Aetolian, a major eighteenth-century proponent of education. We will then visit the awesome monastery of Ardenicë, whose 18th-century decorative programme in fresco paintings, icons, icon-carving and ceramics allows for deliberations on the deeper theological meaning of post-Byzantine art. After lunch we will proceed to the 11th-century church of St Nicholas at Perhondi, once on a monastery site, whose remaining fresco fragments can be dated in the 13th century. On the evening we shall take a tour at the Ottoman centre of the museum-city of Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage site, offering insights on the spread of Sunni and Sufi Islam in the Ottoman period in the Balkans.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:
    During this day travelling by car from destination to destination will take round 4 hours.
    Lunch break will be in a traditional restaurant in Ardenice
    Dinner and accommodation in Berat city center.

    Day 4

    Thematic itinerary
    This day will be devoted in entering some key Ottoman monuments of Berat and the city’s Castle. In the Castle quarters we shall visit the late-18th century Orthodox cathedral (Onufri Museum), where we will also participate in a workshop on icons decoration run by the Museum’s specialists, the early-Christian church of Mary Vlacherna with its extensive 13th century repairs and exquisite late-16th century frescoes, as well as the 16th century family chapel of St Nicholas, providing glimpses into the organisation of the Christian communities in parish churches at the time of their construction. We will also tour through the late Byzantine monastery of the Holy Trinity, the stunning late Byzantine cistern at the uppermost site of the Castle, built next to another early-Christian church and other parts of the Castle, from which a spectacular view of Berat’s Ottoman quarters of Goricë and Mangalem is revealed. We will then have the opportunity to venerate the scull-relic of saint Nikodemos of Berat, learn about his vita and associate with it visited sites of the city. Its preservation by an individual in the course of Albania’s atheist communist regime, who kept it in his house, shall be the starting point of discussions over the ‘underground’ spirituality and religious communities in communist Albania.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:

    During this day all the itinerary is walkable so no need of cars.
    Lunch and 2 coffee breaks will take place in the restaurants and bars of the castle.
    Dinner, wine tasting and accommodation in the city centre / Same hotel as previous night.
    Activities: icons’ restauration workshop
    Pilgrimage ritual in the church where the scull – relic of saint Nikodemos of Berat are kept.

    Day 5

    Thematic itinerary
    Today we shall explore a variety of shrines in a variety of settings. The late-15th – early 16th-century mosque of Gjinaleks at Rusan, Delvinë and the 17th-century patriarchal monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin or Kamena at Kakodhiq, Delvinë, offer glimpses into suburban and mountainous religious monuments. After lunch we will visit the unique, hybrid late 13th-century monastery of St Nicholas at Mesopotam, followed by a visit at impressive cave monastery at Kostar, where one can observe facets of ascetism in the region. In the evening we will pay a visit at one of the most important early-Christian pilgrimages in south-eastern Europe, the monastery church of the Forty Martyrs, which gave its name to the city of Sarandë. After dinner, an optional city tour will take you to the recently unearthed synagogue and early-Christian basilica, which provides clues to interfaith relations in the city’s early Christian history.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:

    During this day travelling by car from destination to destination will take round 4-5 hours.
    Lunch break will be in a traditional restaurant in Karahaxh close to Finiq.
    Dinner and accommodation will be in Saranda city center. / Bougainville bay resort.
    Possible visit of Saranda Art Gallery (if time and schedule permit it)

    Day 6

    Thematic itinerary
    On this day we will visit the monastery of Saint George Dema, near Çukë, Sarandë, a 17th century monument with fragments of late-18th century paintings with early 20th century overpainting. The monastery is located on a majestic spot overseeing Butrint Lake and the Ionian see. We will then proceed to the archaeological park of Butrint to visit select few early Christian monuments (basilicas and the baptistery), where we will also get on an exciting tour to find and collect mussels. After lunch we will experience Paschal culinary practices at Livadhja, Sarandë. In the evening we will wander at the picturesque remote village of Leshnicë, where we will visit the late 18th-century monastery of Saint Athanasios “Germanos” and the early 16th-century of Saint George at the upper part of the village. At the end of the day, we will go through an impressive off-road route from Leshnica’s woodlands to the semi-barren woodlands of the Wide Mountain (Mal i Gjerë), to lodge opposite it, at the Labovë of the Cross.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:
    During this day travelling by car from destination to destination will take round 4-5 hours.
    Lunch break depending on the weather will be a mussels meal (following a boat mussels tour in Butrinti lake) or a traditional meal with the women of Livadha minority village. Depending on time you can experience a cooking class
    Dinner and Accommodation in Labova of the Cross. / Bujtina Maria

    Day 7

    Thematic itinerary
    We will start out day by visiting the renowned medieval pilgrimage of the Nativity of the Virgin at Labovë e Kryqit (i.e., of the Cross), named after a cross containing a piece from the Holy Cross that was once kept in the church. In its special style, the church dates 12th century and it distinguishes for the richness of its ceramic decoration. Fragments of frescoes can be found in its interior, dating 12th century with overpainting layers of the 13th, 14th, 19th and early 20th century, testifying for the church’s continuous use. We will then have the opportunity to get a flavour of Bektashi spirituality by visiting the 18th-century Tekke of Melan. From there we will proceed to another very special middle Byzantine church at Peshkëpi e Sipërme, a late-10th – early-11th century church with impressive ceramic decoration and fragments of frescoes from the 11th century, early 14th century, 1511 and 19th century. We shall then have the opportunity to get attend a live performance of monophonic and iso-polyphonic song by women in Selo celebrating different occasions. Before lodging at Gjirokastër, we shall pay visit to the middle-Byzantine church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Zervat, Dropull, Gjirokastër; the 11th-century cross type of this church was transformed to a three-aisled basilica in 1582/3 and was painted in 1605/6 by painters Constantine and Nicholas from Grammosta. Before dinner, we will have the opportunity to take part in a Byzantine icon-painting workshop.

    Other services, logistics and accommodation:
    During this day travelling by car from destination to destination will take round 3 hours.
    Lunch break will be a traditional meal with the women of Selo minority village
    Dinner and Accommodation in Gjirokaster / Hotel Rose Garden

    Day 8

    After having breakfast we will organize your departures to the airport.

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