Participating in a conference in Tirana over the last few days has provided an opportunity to explore something of this fascinating city – a mixture of new constructions, communist era buildings, and a few much older medieval remnants. I hope that the images below capture something of its wide diversity: Skanderberg Square hosting a World Cup fan zone just a few days after it won the European Award for Urban Public Space (2018); Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox religious building reflecting the diverse beliefs of its people; the communist era bunkers and surveillance museum reminding us of the past; superficially refurbished shops beneath crumbling old housing blocks; the nearby woodland park and lake; diverse restaurants serving unusual combinations of food, with delicious local beer and wine… To these, though, need to be added the generous hospitality of our hosts! Thanks to Endrit Kromidha, and all those who made this visit possible.
One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan. As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind. Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.
Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends. Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!). The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.
Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer. A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website! Phone: +86 (10) 84021970). Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498). The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet! All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.
The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience. It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s. As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”. The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit. They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).
A holiday in Northumbria introduced us to the Durham Brewery – first bottle acquired on Lindisfarne….
Journeying back south, we stopped off at the tiny brewery, just outside the city of Durham, and bought a range of their beers – all excellent. It has just the right touch of quirkiness to make it of real interest!
This is how they describe themselves: “We believe that beer should be an experience in its own right. Too long it has languished as a nondescript alcoholic beverage; hops and malt subservient to the blandifying efforts of the big brewers. Have you ever reached the half pint mark and been overwhelmed by boredom? The Durham Brewery creates an experience that banishes boredom, enlivens the tastebuds and makes you want to have another. The Durham Experience uses the infinite combinations of malt, hops and yeast to give the ultimate in modern beer sensations. Traditional skills are employed to make beers from malt from a floor maltings and whole hops from around the world. Discover an ever evolving range of beers within our site. Some have been made since our inception and others are brand new. Between cask and bottle-conditioned, we believe that our range is at the cutting edge of beer flavours whilst retaining the traditional character of English ales.“