Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Little Paris of Albania, the city of love, the city of serenades..

You will understand why. Korca, or Korce, (Korcha, or Korchuh) has long been influenced by Francophone culture, especially since the opening of the French Lyceum in the twentieth century, but there is something in its entirety, in architecture, in the cobbled streets, in the windows with pots of colorful flowers, in cafes and warm and in the eyes of the people.

The peace of a quiet and hospitable city. A heart-shaped city as its poets say, but also a hearth of knowledge. Korca is remembered for the opening of the first Albanian school in 1887 and is still a cradle that raises important Albanian figures.

A city that opens its doors to the explorers and is much loved by tourists.

All the best things to do in Korca (Korçë), one of Albania’s most beautiful cities and unofficial capital of culture.
The small city of Korca (also written as Korçë or Korça) in southeastern Albania might only be 3 hours from Tirana by car, but it feels completely off the beaten tourist track.
As soon as I saw photos of the city’s distinctive architecture, I made a point of including it in our Albania itinerary – even if it did involve making a pretty big detour.
The country’s eighth-largest city by population, Korçë (pronounced ‘kor-cha’) has a history that dates back to the 13th century. It’s known for its role in Albanian culture and intellectual heritage (most famously for being home to the first Albanian language school), world-class museums, beautiful old churches, and pretty architecture.
It gets its rather idyllic nickname, ‘The City of Serenades’, from the love ballads men used to belt out from the balconies and courtyards of their enigmatic European villas. Sadly, the sounds of guitar and mandolin don’t fill the streets of Korca like they did in the 1930s – but the town still has the same charm and a feeling of nostalgia.
In fact, this might just be one of the prettiest European cities I’ve been to.

When is the best time to visit Korca?

Korca is an all-season destination with relatively mild weather year-round. Winter brings cold overnight temperatures and snow; while the warmer months see the town come alive with festivals and special events.

If you’re travelling Albania in the off season, it’s a great addition to your schedule.

In April, Korca hosts a two-week-long Spring Fair with outdoor markets and parades. In June, there’s Carnival, in July the Lakror Fest (celebrating the city’s favourite pie and its culinary traditions), in August the Beer Fest, and in October the Apple Fest.

Whenever you decide to visit, there’s a good chance there will be a special event taking place. See more details and future dates here.

CLIMB THE PANORAMIC TOWER FOR A VIEW

When you reach the top of St. George Boulevard you’ll see a rather odd modern building near the tourist information office. The Panoramic Tower isn’t terribly tall, but it’s high enough to give you a pretty incredible view of the entire city from its observation deck.

From the top, you get a 360-degree aspect of the city and distant mountains, including a look all the way back down the street to the cathedral. Korca looks like a model town – almost too cute to be real. I especially love the retro corner building that houses the BKT bank (pictured above). From up high, you also get a feel for how green and clean Korca is.

Be warned – the elevator is often out of service so you’ll probably have to walk a dozen or so flights of stairs to get to the top. It’s worth it though!

VISIT THE GJON MILI PHOTOGRAPHY MUSEUM

As you twist and turn your way up the stairwells of the Panoramic Tower, you’ll notice art posters have been added to jazz up some of the concrete walls. These are works by local photographer Gjon Mili.

Having learned about Mili’s work at university, I was very keen to check out his museum on the top level of the Romanian House. Entrance is free, and you might even be treated to a guided tour with the very knowledgeable curator. There’s even a ‘light experiment room’ where you can try your own hand at light painting.

Mili, who was born in Korca in 1904 and raised in Romania, is best-known for being a photographer for New York’s Life magazine from the 1940s until his death in 1984. He pioneered experimental light photography, worked with the likes of Man Ray, and counted Pablo Picasso among his portrait subjects.

The Gjon Mili Museum exhibits a huge collection of his most iconic frames alongside touching family portraits and letters penned by the artist. Given his prolific career, Mili’s story is tied in with many important historical events. It’s fascinating to see the moon landing, Watergate, and other milestones told through his photographs – I’m sure you’ll recognise more than a few of the shots from popular culture.

Info: The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays) from 9am-2pm and 5pm-7pm. Entrance is free.

GO CAFE HOPPING IN PAZARI I VJETER (KORCA BAZAAR)
GO CAFE HOPPING IN PAZARI I VJETER (KORCA BAZAAR)
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Korca’s Ottoman-style Bazaar accommodated more than 1,000 stores and two renowned inns, the Old Elbasan and Old Monastery. It was completely refurbished in 2015 and is probably the Balkans’ best example of how an Old Bazaar can be reborn as a vibrant community space.
A central cobbled square is surrounded by small cafes and tavernas, their tables spilling out onto the streets. In the late afternoon, families and groups of friends congregate under the awnings, making this the most atmospheric time to visit. If you want to see Albanian coffee culture on full display, this is the place to be!
There are a couple of very cool cafes, including a branch of Komiteti Kafe Muzeum and the Communist-themed Kooperativa, which reminds me of Cong in Hanoi. Needless to say, locally brewed Birra Korca is the beverage of choice.All around the main square, winding pedestrianised streets lead to little boutiques, galleries, creative studios and antique shops
GRAB A BEER AT THE BIRRA KORCA BREWERY
Korce has been a centre of beer production for decades and is the birthplace of one of Albania’s most famous beer brands: the eponymous Birra Korça.
Founded in 1928 by an Italian investor, this was the first beer ever brewed in the country. Production shut down during the war, then the brewery was nationalised during communist times. It finally reopened under new leadership in 2004. Today, Korca’s beer factory churns out an eye-watering 120,000 hectoliters of ale every year.Now I’m not exactly a beer lover, but even I could appreciate the delicious flavour. Made using natural spring water from the nearby Morava Mountain, Blonde Birra Korca is light and fresh. They also do a dark lager and a dark ale.
You can taste test the whole range (and then some) at the Birra Korçë beer factory, which doubles as an outdoor restaurant and beer garden. Located on a leafy lot in the city’s east – an easy 1.5km walk from the Old Bazaar via Bulevardi Fan Noli Korçë – this is honestly one of the nicest places to hang out in the city. Fresh kegs are on tap, and the kitchen serves a great menu of salty nibbles.
I recommend visiting in the late afternoon when the light filters through the trees and groups of locals congregate. It’s a very family friendly place with a friendly atmosphere. Behind the tables, you can walk up to see the beer brewing facilities – and maybe even tour the brewery and do a proper beer tasting.
Info: The bar-restaurant is open daily from 8am until midnight. Every August, the brewery hosts a 5-day Beerfest.

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