Gjirokastra to Butrint, & St. Nikolas’ Monastery, Albania

Appearances can be deceptive.

In some ways, the articulated lorries made us feel a little better. Clearly, the narrow, winding mountain road could take large traffic. In other ways, however, it tested our nerve. Albanian drivers have no qualms about nipping around lorries, or even other cars already overtaking them, on blind bends, regardless of what might be coming.

Also, in a Beast-sized truck, confrontations with artics in places where our offside wheels had to trust a crumbling road margin abutted to the edge of a cliff made the drive on the main highway to Sarandë somewhat more adrenalin infused than we expected.

The car overtaking the artic on a blind bend, which we soon found had oncoming traffic, had just overtaken us!

We had wanted to see more of the beautiful Ottoman city of Gjirokastra, and try out the restaurants. Qifqi is the town’s speciality – a baked rice ball with egg and fresh mint, but circumstance conspired to move us on.

The forecast promised a week of thunderstorms. Soggy sightseeing is not the most fun you can have. Plus, we had to consider the pups. Rosie is terrified of thunder, and although Kai’s wounds from the dog attack were healing, we wanted to keep them dry. A drive south to more clement climes seemed a productive way to deploy a torrentially thunderous day.

It didn’t start well – Mark fell out of the truck. He’d removed the lower steps and, distracted by a German chap asking questions about The Beast, stepped backwards to discover thin air. Despite hitting the tarmac from a height, he said he was okay. Bruised in both body and pride. It pressed home how important it is for me to learn to drive our Beast. Even a slight injury would have meant we were stuck.

The asphalt serpent of a road had wider effects on our confidence. As we descended forested hairpins on the far side of the summit, past a famous spring known as the Blue Eye, a familiar coke-like stench wafted in through the open windows.

The Blue Eye is hidden in these lush forests!

“Mark, the brakes are overheating. We need to stop and cool them down.”

“I’m nervous about pulling up on the roadside,” he replied.

I shared his trepidation. We were still on the O.S.S. (the Oh Sh** Side) of the road. After the heavy rain, we had passed a few landslides, where the sandy edges had surrendered to gravity and slithered down the precipice.

The sandy edges on the OSS (‘Oh Shit Side’) were anything but stable!

Mark is considerably more gung ho than me. When communicating route plans, he tends towards extreme understatement and is vastly economical with the truth. For example, when he drove The Beast to the top of a mountain on what resembled footpath on the map: a fact I discovered only because he handed said map to me to navigate when he got lost.

His strategy yields no opportunity for me to intervene with a, “What the <expletive deleted> are you thinking?!” until it’s too late.

I quizzed him about his prior knowledge of the precipitous nature of the route.

“Did you expect this and just didn’t tell me?”

Mark is the world’s worst liar. I scanned his face and totally believed him when he said,

“No. This is the main artery between two major cities. I honestly thought it would be like the other highways we’ve been on in Albania.”

We confront a coach on the main highway between Gjirokastra & Sarandë

Fortunately, the patron saint of sailors, brewers and the random gift giving which spawned his worldwide fame as Father Christmas intervened to offer us salvation.

On flattish ground at the bottom of a hill, St. Nikolas’ monastery at Mesopotamos looked like a good brake-refreshment stop. We bumped and rattled our way along an unmade road through a lumpy field of yellowish grass.

Next to a rough stone wall which was tumbling down in places, we left The Beast and her wheel hubs to smoke silently while we explored the deserted building, and the rustling stands of trees that surrounded it.  

Cooling our brakes at St. Nikolas’ Monastery, Mesopotamos

The current monastery was built in the twelve-hundreds, although it occupies on the site of a much older temple, which dates to around the fourth century B.C. I noticed stone plaques featuring figures from Greek mythology: evidence that the builders incorporated the original ancient walls into the fabric of the newer building.

The carvings featured serpent dragons, which the gods sent to attack Laocoön, a Trojan priest and his two sons. There was also a lion, perhaps representing ‘The Lion’, King Agamemnon, the legendary ruler of Mycenae in Homer’s Iliad, who picked a fight with Achilles and was commanded by Zeus to lead the Greek army against Troy.

Another unique feature of the monastery is its two apses (semi-circular domes), built to accommodate both Catholic and Orthodox worshipers.

Rosie inspects St. Nikolas’ Monastery in Mesopotamos

In the grounds, we had a profoundly troubling encounter with a very sick dog. We spotted the animal lying in the shade and were cautious. He didn’t move when we arrived, but even though I thought he could be dead, I kept a watchful eye on him. Later, when he did shamble over to inspect us, we realised he was so emaciated, he could barely walk. He seemed blind, and his staring coat looked full of mange. His face was so grotesquely deformed that initially, Mark told me not to look, to spare me the horror.

In Britain, the RSPCA would have stepped in immediately, but there is no such help available in Albania. We had no idea what to do.

The poor sick pup we encountered at the monastery. From his symptoms, we surmised later that he was suffering from Leishmania

“He can’t come with us,” I said to Mark. “We can’t risk infecting The Fab Four with whatever diseases he’s carrying.”

Via WhatsApp, we sent a photo to Dr. Andi, the vet in Fier who had treated Kai. He could only suggest we sent the dog to him in a taxi, but we were in the middle of nowhere, and Albanians generally don’t view dogs in a positive light. Even if we could find a taxi in this remote location, it was unlikely that a driver would permit a healthy canine inside their car, never mind one so obviously riddled with sickness.

I have never felt so helpless.

All we could do was try to make that day better for him. The only comfort we could take was that we didn’t think he would survive much longer.

We gave him food and water, which he gobbled down.

What broke my heart was that, even in his desperate condition, the poor little tyke still managed to wag his tail at us.

Even in his desperate condition, the poor little tyke still wagged his tail at us.


As we arrived in Sarandë, a Toyota Landcruiser chased us up the road, hooting his horn and trying to overtake. We thought it was just another Albanian impatient to overtake The Beast. He pulled past us on a blind bend, then swerved across our nose and screeched to a halt.

The driver leapt out and started waving frantically.

“I just wanted to salute you!” he said.

It was the chap we’d pulled out of the sand at Lido’s place in our first week in Albania!

As we dropped into Sarandë, the island of Corfu seemed within touching distance in a sparkling sapphire sea, and our mobile phone welcomed us to Greece.

The island of Corfu in the distance, as we approach from Sarandë

We parked outside the restaurant, Livia, where Enea and Volter greeted us warmly, and showed us into their shady garden for a beer. They had two dogs, a big male labrador and Volter’s golden retriever. As they played with their pooches and we enjoyed our drinks, another yellow lab came nosing through the gate,

“Be careful of that dog,” Enea told us. “He attacks humans from behind!”

He seemed deceptively friendly, but we knew to be wary. We also knew to beware the army of feral cats that patrolled the grounds. They were completely unafraid of our canine crew.

“They go for the eyes!” Enea warned.

As soon as Volter saw The Pawsome Fourome, he said,

“This is true beauty. You are surrounded by love!”

True Beauty.
The Pawsome Foursome in front of Ali Pasha’s castle in Butrint.

We asked him if the attitude to dogs was changing in Albania and he replied,

“Yes, among the young generation. My mum wants a dog, but she wants to keep it chained. It’s tradition, but they are angels. You can’t keep an angel on a chain.”

Some people don’t believe in angels until they meet one – and most of the ones I have met have four paws.

Our own little angel, Kai, still wearing a sarong to stop him licking his wounds from the dog attack in Vlorë

Volter’s comments backed up what a vet’s wife said when she stopped us on a street in Berat to chat and greet our four fluff balls.

“Previously, the Albanian people had dogs to work. Now, they are starting to understand the love.”

We returned to the restaurant for dinner and ate tender calamari (squid) and mussels in spicy pepper and cheese sauce. The mussels were a local speciality, fresh from the lagoon opposite.

Our park up was within walking distance of the ancient city of Butrint. In the balmy evening air, fragranced with the tang of the salt marshes just across the road, we decided on an early start to tackle the UNESCO listed Greek, Roman, Venetian, and Byzantine site the following day, before it got too hot.

Our view from bed over the salt marshes at Butrint

From the symptoms the stray dog exhibited, we think he was suffering from Leishmania, a nasty disease rife around the Mediterranean. To find out more about the disease and its prevention in dogs and humans, see my post How To Prevent Leishmaniasis In Your Dog When Travelling In Europe.

For more information on taking your dog to Albania, see my post Travel With Dogs to Albania – What You Need To Know.

Click this link Never Mind The Balkans Tour Part 2: From A to C (Albania to Croatia) to catch up on previous posts from our tour of Albania.

Animal Charities & Volunteering in Albania

Albania has many dogs in need. This post covers the subject of animal charities and volunteering in Albania in more detail, but in the meantime, if you would like to help stray dogs directly, the Animal Veterinar Hospital in Fier runs a sanctuary for dogs and cats. Their love of animals is absolutely clear and we are so grateful to them for saving our little Kai’s life after he was attacked and badly bitten by stray dogs.

By giving direct, we know that the money is used solely for the benefit of the 4 Paws. The vets provide their work and expertise to strays free of charge, but need the money for food and medicine. You can make a donation via Paypal on animalhospitalveterinary@gmail.com. Any amount would be much appreciated! If you do not have Paypal, you can donate direct by bank transfer. The details are given below:

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Published by Jacqueline Lambert @WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before". Since 2021, we've been at large in a 24.5-tonne self-converted ex-army truck called The Beast. BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

10 thoughts on “Gjirokastra to Butrint, & St. Nikolas’ Monastery, Albania

  1. What an adventure. I have to admit I would be afraid to drive on those roads, even something small. I don’t have a truck license. I am glad kai is healing. I love that photo with the four dogs on top.


  2. So much to comment in this post as per usual! Firstly ouch, falling out of the beast would be frightening for everyone. Secondly my husband is also the world’s worst liar (when it comes to understating), everything is ‘it will be fine’, until later on when he’s explaining to friends how hairy a journey was!
    I would be on edge the whole time on some of the roads and drivers that your photos show, but good on your guys I admire your courage. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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