Wednesday, October 30, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF KOTOR, MONTENEGRO

Montenegro was another one of the countries on our grand tour of the Balkans that I knew almost nothing about. Slightly smaller than Connecticut, it is a tiny country, even by Balkan standards, but it is full of personality and chutzpah. In spite of the wars and break up of the Yugoslavian Union in the early 1990s, Montenegro elected to stay attached to Serbia in a loose union, but ten years later they became increasingly upset about Slobodan Milosovic's policies in Kosovo. Finally, in 2006, Montenegrins narrowly voted for independence, and, unlike many of the other Yugoslavian defectors, had a peaceful separation from Serbia.
Once we finally got across the Albanian-Montenegro border, we had a beautiful drive to Kotor, Montenegro's prime tourist city.
We immediately came into contact with local residents on their way to (or home from?) work:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

SLEEPING IN TIRANA AND LEAVING ALBANIA

Our hotel was not exactly in Tirana, the capital, for which we were really grateful. We had had enough of trying to navigate Albanian cities.  Bob had found a hotel for us right next to the Tirana International Airport Nene Tereza (Mother Theresa), which is about seven miles northwest of Tirana.  The recently expanded airport has traffic of about 1.5 million passengers per year.  (Compare that to LAX, with 64 million passengers per year).

There is no real city surrounding the airport, just a bunch of hotels.  Our favorite was this one, the Vila Aeroport Hotel. If we ever return to Albania, I want to stay here:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LOST IN ALBANIA, REDUX

We left Berat late in the afternoon with the goal of getting to our hotel near Tirana, the capital city, before dark.  A distance of about 75 miles would normally be an easy two-hour drive, but we had learned not to "count our miles before we drove them" in Albania. Our companions on the road kept the drive interesting for me and required that Bob be ever vigilant:
The parts of Albania we saw were drier than other Balkan countries--not as green, rockier, and with red clay dirt in places.

Monday, October 14, 2013

ALBANIA: "LOWER" BERAT

After spending several hours in Berat's lonely castle (which really isn't a castle but more of an enclosed city), our guide Elton took us to other parts of the city.

But first we had to become acquainted with a few friendly local residents:



(I think these are the lawnmowers of Berat.)


Saturday, October 12, 2013

BERAT, ALBANIA: The Castle

Driving into Berat, Albania, was easy compared to the prior four hours of wandering around the rest of the country. Bob reminded me after my last post that we had printed out some driving directions for the drive from Ohrid to Berat that failed us because the directions tried to put us on new roads that had been under construction for a long time and certainly should have been done by now--but weren't, requiring detours down unknown roads.  Surprise, surprise.
Once in Berat, however, we were able to connect quickly with the tour guide our original tour guide had been kind enough to arrange for us, a very knowledgeable and interesting Albanian named Elton. He has degrees in archaeology and history, so he really knows his stuff. I felt almost guilty using him as a tour guide. This is a man who should be leading an excavation or restoration project, but unfortunately Albania does not have the money to pay him to do that.

We made our way from our parking spot up some very old stone pathways




towards the castle overlooking the city:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

LOST IN ALBANIA

Disclaimer: I'm warning you now that almost all the photos in this post are taken through the car window. They aren't my finest photos. There's a good reason for that, which I'll get to in a bit.

We had outlined a whirlwind day for Albania. The plan was to drive west from Lake Ohrid towards the Adriatic, but then head southeast to Berat, the main attraction (at least for us) in Albania.  We had a guide planned for the morning and a trip to Kruje planned for the afternoon, and then we were going to drive north towards our hotel near Tirana, the capital of the country. It's about 85 miles from Ohrid to Berat, and we allowed a generous two hours for the drive.

Hah.

I think this was by far the most stressful driving day of the entire trip. Yes, even worse than approaching Sarajevo from the northern border of Bosnia rather than from the more common southern direction. Much worse.

Everything started off just fine. We had an easy border crossing and stopped to exchange money and get gas.  Gas, by the way, was $1.70/liter, or about $6.50/gallon. Yikes.  Who can afford that in a country where the average monthly income is about $335? Anyway, right away we could see that language was going to be a problem. No one, I mean NO ONE, spoke English. We had better luck speaking to these two cute bunnies at the gas station (probably destined for someone's dinner) than we did communicating with the Albanians.

No worries. The scenery, as usual in the Balkans, was lovely, and the distance wasn't that far.  We didn't have GPS, but we had a really good map.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

MACEDONIA: LAKE OHRID

As a reminder of our itinerary, we spent a day in Skopje, Macedonia, and then we took a little detour to Prizren, Kosovo. (See prior posts.) After spending another night in Skopje, we headed southwest for the incredibly lovely three-million-year-old Lake Ohrid (pronounced AWK-rid by locals), located on the border of Macedonia and Albania.

Our drive from Skopje to Ohrid, about 125 miles, was beautiful, full of sights like this family working what is either a very small farm or a very large garden. We saw scenes like this quite a few times as we drove around the Balkans. (Excuse the poor quality of the photo--I took it from the car window as we sped past.)

There were also a lot of campaign billboards. This guy seemed to be the front-runner, at least if the number of billboards was an indicator.  However, apparently at least one person didn't like him:

Lake Ohrid is about 20 miles long and almost 1,000 feet deep, one of the deepest lakes in Europe.

The town that lounges on its banks is full of Byzantine churches, a castle on the hill, and a wonderful old town shopping district (which, alas, we spent only 30 minutes exploring).

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