Thursday, July 30, 2015

Living the Macedonian dream

So, our Albanian road trip turned into a Macedonian road trip as we continued around Lake Ohrid to our destination, also called Ohrid (quite the coincidence).

We only drove on a very small and pretty touristy section of Macedonian roads, so it might be unfair to comment, but they did seem better-maintained and the drivers less crazy than their Albanian counterparts.

I wanted to detour out of Albania to Ohrid because I thought it would be a beautiful, relaxing spot to spend the last few days of our holiday, and also because I had read there were some lovely and historic churches and monasteries in the area which I was keen to visit. It is true that there are some nice churches, but it probably delivered more on the relaxing front than the cultural. The churches were pretty and richly-decorated (more on them later), but very small on the whole, so you couldn't fill up too much time on each one.

As for the city itself, it was probably the most "complete package" of the destinations on our trip. It has the stunningly beautiful lake, an old town artfully piled up on the hillside which screams "Balkan city" (I've not been to Croatia, but it reminds me of photos I've seen of the likes of Dubrovnik, with all the red roofs), good food, sunshine, shopping, and cultural activities. On the downside, the beaches are, unsurprisingly, not up to snuff compared to those on the Albanian Riviera, and as mentioned, the cultural stuff is nice but not absorbing.

Still, it most definitely seems like the sort of place you dream of moving to and living a life of leisure, sipping cocktails in a lake-front restaurant or enjoying the view from a terrace on the hill.

Speaking of which, here's the view from our hotel balcony, which cost the princely sum of 30€ a night:

It's actually even better in real life

Looking down on the city at dusk

Sunset view from the hotel

The night view, captured as we sat on the balcony sipping Macedonian wine

We happened to be there at the same time as a folk music festival, and the folk music festival happened to be at a location where we could hear the concerts (over multiple nights) while sitting on the hotel balcony. It's fair to say not all the music was to my taste - it is folk music, after all - but it was pretty special to be able to sit out there, enjoying the view and listening to some traditional music. Slightly spoilt by the noisy family on the adjoining balcony who seemed to mystifyingly prefer to listen to practically the same music, but on a radio instead of the live version. Savages!

We spent a good amount of time trying to think up get-rich-quick schemes so we could pack it all in in dreary northern Europe and find our own dreamy balcony here minus the annoying family next door. Any ideas?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Border crossings

After the medieval museum and a tasty milkshake in Korçë, we were on our way again for a fairly quick and easy drive over to the border of Macedonia, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, if you prefer. Hopefully any angry Greeks who might stumble across this blog will have bigger things to worry about, as I'm just going to call it Macedonia from now on. We actually got very close to the Greek border too; it would have been fun to pop over there as I've never been, but that will have to wait for another time.

I've been over international borders by car, of course, but I don't think I've ever crossed a non-Schengen border by land, other than between the US and Canada, which was quite the ordeal. Actually, that happened pre-blog, so I'll tell that story quickly. I flew from NZ to Toronto, with a stop in LA all the way back in (I think) 2004. Things might have changed now you need to register electronically to get into the States, but back in the day, they would process you through immigration at LA, even if you were just changing planes, and give you a 90-day visa (or actually a "visa waiver", apparently, but I'm not sure what the distinction is). The visa came with a green piece of paper that you were meant to give up when you left the country, so you could prove how long you were in the States.

Like so. Source
I duly got on my flight to Toronto a couple of hours later, relinquished my departure card since I was, you know, leaving the country, and thought that was that. However, my cousin went to university in upstate New York but was home for (American) Thanksgiving when I arrived, so we decided to drive her back to college a couple of days later, stopping by Niagara Falls on the way, because, hey cool, Niagara Falls! (I unfortunately have almost no memory of the actual visit to Niagara Falls, which is sad, especially since I can remember every fricking detail of this border crossing. Apparently depression can inhibit memory formation so that it's not so much that you forget things, but that you never really stored the memory to begin with. Yay.) 

Anyway, there we are, me, my aunt and my cousin, two Canadian citizens and a New Zealander, all with the same last name, trundling across the border. But wait, why do I have no little green card in my passport? Um, because clearly, I had to have left the US in order to be here in Canada, trying to get back in. Apparently, I should have magically known to keep it, even though that would obviously have been a great strategy to get into even more grief if some other guard wanted me to prove that I ever left the States.

Here's what I wrote in an email back home at the time:

We got stopped at the border because I didn't have this departure card which is meant to go along with my visa - they took it off me when I left LA (duh), so all I had to do was fill out a new one of those and pay $6 US, which you would think would be easy enough, but with waiting and everything it took an hour. I was terrified of the border guards - they have guns and everything, and you know how paranoid americans are with security and stuff*. In the end, they weren't too bad, but they take your passports and then you have to wait for them to call you up. Meantime the room was full of indian, mexican and arab-looking people (surprise surprise**) who they were interrogating. This one couple had come to the wrong bridge, and didn't speak english very well, but they had the list of the different bridges on a card or something, and the customs guy was going on "didn't you read the card? it says right here, this bridge, mon-thurs, 9-11 only! I don't know how much clearer we could make it, it's written right on it! Everyone can read, right? I don't know why you came to this bridge" and on and on, and he had to write them a letter to go back through the border to the canadian side and get back to whatever damn bridge they were meant to be at in the first place. And this other indian-looking guy, he was asking him where he was going - "Buffalo" (American city not far from the border) "Where in Buffalo", "Downtown", "Where downtown?", "To the mall", "There is no mall in downtown Buffalo. Where are you going? You don't even know where you're going, do you? Why would you come over here if you don't even know where you're going? What's your business in America" etc.**

*Strange as it may seem to some, police don't routinely carry guns in New Zealand, so it used to really freak me out when I saw them. Plus, generally when you see encounters between US cops and unarmed citizens it never seems to end too well for the one without a gun. Brussels has been on fairly high alert since the terror attacks in France and on the Jewish Museum, so I see plenty of armed people these days, so it doesn't phase me as much, but I still don't like e.g. being in Gare du Nord with all the soldiers with machine guns.
**This was meant to be a comment on the racism of immigration officials, by the way, in case it just sounds like me being racist.
***Also, "THERE IS NO MALL IN DOWNTOWN BUFFALO" is an excellent rejoinder to any argument, and also the only thing I know about Buffalo. According to TripAdvisor, there kind of is a mall in downtown Buffalo, only it's full of empty shops and crackheads.

It's quite funny to read that email, since it was my first major trip overseas. I was, as always, mainly focused on the "exotic" food, which lived up to all my dreams fostered by American TV and the Babysitters Club books (other than Twinkies, which are the most horrific abominations known to man) :

Didn't get up to much yesterday, pretty tired. Did go to the supermarket though, to stock up on foreign chocolate. I got tootsie rolls, caramel-filled hersheys kisses, this stuff called almond bark, which is like a slab of thin almond-filled chocolate, caramello aeros mmmm, and junior mints - just like on seinfeld! sweeeet. can't wait for the chocolately delights of england etc. you would like the range of chips ger, there's all the ones like cheetos, doritos, lays etc. like on tv, but I didn't get any.

Evidently didn't worry too much about proper sentences and capitalisation in my emails home back in the day... It was also my first and only visit to an American college, which was also a novel, TV-esque experience for me:

Anyway, didn't spend long in K's dorm - tiny rooms and they have to twin-share. Seems very like american TV - there were hand-done posters on the walls on the evils of marijuana use, and people had dumb posters on their doors and stuff, communal bathrooms etc. Big sports stadiums on campus, free gym etc.

Finally, I also reported back on homeless people. I sound like a real hick, but you never really saw too many back home when I was growing up, so it was quite strange for me to see, odd as that seems now!

Homeless people sleep on vents right on the footpath in the middle of the day here. Apparently it's too cold to sleep at night, so they'll sleep in the day then roam around or whatever at nighttime. They look like big bundles of clothes left on the side of the road. And they beg in subways.

They *beg* in *subways* . I suppose that's quite nice that I wasn't used to it then though!

Anyway, this was supposed to be about crossing the Albanian-Macedonian border, not the exotic wonders of Canada and America. The border crossing took a wee while, as we had to stop and buy some kind of extra insurance or something for the rental car. Jules took care of that, whereas I was able to get out and wander around taking photos of the lake (not as strict as on the US-Canada border, clearly). We saw people going over the border on pushbikes and even on foot while we were there. Presumably the pedestrians were dropped off nearby by a bus or taxi, since there wasn't really much within walking distance.

The border, on Lake Ohrid, is really quite a picturesque spot to wait around at
Once that was sorted out, our passports were checked (but not stamped, dammit) and then checked again, by the Albanians and the Macedonians, presumably, and then we had to let them search our stuff. The Macedonian border guard was really quite friendly, and when he asked "do you have drugs? Not even marijuana?" I giggled, which is officially the last thing you're meant to do when a border guard asks you about drugs. I mean, I giggled and said no, so that's a step up on giggling and saying yes. He just asked it in this twinkly tone that sounded like if we did have drugs with us, he'd just call us a couple of young scamps and ruffle our hair. Probably not, but at least he didn't take my giggle as warranting anything more than a quick rifle through our suitcases, and we were on our way.

So my second-ever proper border crossing passed with less incidence than the first (would the US guards have be so forgiving of the giggle?) Makes you glad they got rid of them in most of Europe, though, right?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Albania - the real home of slow travel

Gjirokaster-Korçë was the longest leg of our trip, and sort of summed up the experience of driving in Albania. When planning out the trip, we were surprised at how short and manageable most of the distances were, making a multi-city roadtrip feasible. However, while Google claims a driving time of 4 hours, itself not exactly brilliant for a 191 km trip, it took us nearly 5. That's an average speed of less than 40 km per hour. See how wiggly the line gets, That's the road weaving back and forth through the mountains, often on narrow, bumpy and potholed roads. If it wasn't for the nice smooth highway at the very end, it would have been even longer.

On the other hand, for most of the first half of the drive, until the road turned north again, we were driving along next to the most beautiful river valley. The river was this gorgeous, bright pastel blue. I'm not even sure pastels can be bright, by definition, but this looked like someone had got all the sticks of blue chalk in the world and crumbled them up to make a river. And then surrounded it all with jagged, imposing mountain ranges. 

Oh, and the cicadas! That's such a summer sound to me, it really reminded me of home. I don't know whether there are fewer cicadas in Europe or it's just that I spent most of my time here in cities, but it's a noise I didn't even realise I was missing until we went to Albania and encountered the world's loudest. Usually on car trips, we'll be talking and/or listening to music, but the roads in Albania demand a lot of concentration, so often the only noise in the car was the loud, insistent buzz of a million cicadas. 

Beautiful, but not quite as blue as I remember

Once we turned away from the river, the road wasn't quite as picturesque, and we were both pretty tired and sick of being in the car by the time we got to Korce. Korce hadn't been on my original itinerary, but we added it in partly because my guidebook raved about it as a cultural centre and particularly a centre for medieval religious art, and partly to break up what would have otherwise been an even longer drive across to Macedonia. 

I think it's fair to say Korce was a bit of a disappointment, or at least, both of our least favourite destination. Circumstances were partly against us - we arrived on a Monday, when the Museum of Medieval Art was closed, and we had already driven for so long that neither of us wanted to get back in the car to see some of the apparently beautiful and old churches and prehistoric sites in the surrounding villages. So we spent the afternoon having lunch, doing a quick walking tour of the city and then sitting in a café reading.

Korce cathedral and (presumably) communist statue

The interior of the cathedral was lavishly-decorated, and obviously very new - the original was destroyed by the communists

All over the city were dilapidated and ruined houses. This one must have been something special, because it was all fenced off. Looks like it must have been beautiful in its day
I was a bit uncomfortable when we headed back out at night, because, although the city centre was bustling with both men and women, there seemed to be only men sitting out at the pavement tables in all the bars and cafés. Maybe it's just me, but it just gives me a creepy, weird vibe when places are frequented exclusively by men - reminding me, funnily enough, of the first time I visited Paris and stayed in Pigalle. That feeling of the streets (or bars, in this case) being the unique preserve of groups of men is maybe one of the reasons I got a fairly bad first impression of Paris and still wouldn't put it amongst my favourite cities, despite many return visits. We did eventually find a nice and very tasty restaurant, however - food was consistently good and cheap throughout our trip.

The next day, we made sure to go to the Museum of Medieval Art nice and early. We were the only visitors - the staff (after giving us a lovely introductory talk in perfect English) even followed us around switching the lights on and off in the different sections as we made our way through. It was a good collection, with more of the Onofri icons amongst many others, but unless you have a particular love for icons and Byzantine art, Korçë can probably be skipped off the itinerary.

Photos weren't allowed inside the museum, but I snapped this hungry horse out in the lobby

Monday, July 20, 2015

Up with King Zog and down with American spies: Gjirokaster day two

After visiting the traditional Gjirokaster houses, we had time to rush back to the hotel and watch the British GP in poor quality on a small TV in Albanian. Luckily it turned out to be pretty much the only exciting race so far this season, not a snoozefest like most of them have been. Grand Prix over, we hauled ourselves by foot up another steep path (I threatened to stall like the car did) to visit Gjirokaster Castle.

This was essentially the reason we came to Gjirokaster, since I know Jules is a castle fan and I'm reasonably partial to them myself. It dates back to the 12th century, although the most work was done in the late 15th century by the Ottomans, and major renovations and extensions continued right up until the time of our old friend Ali Pasha in the 19th century.

The impressive entrance hall filled with various weapons

A Communist statue from one of the museums inside - she's casting out a priest and ?? 
The castle was turned into a prison by King Zog in the 1930s, and subsequently used as such by the Fascist Italian and Nazi occupiers and then by the Communists. It was still an eerie place, and the museum told some of the stories of its unfortunate inhabitants. The guidebook I had described "punishment cells" set lower than the corridor where guards could throw in icy or boiling water, according to the season, which wouldn't drain out of the cells, but I couldn't tell if these were them.

Corridor in the prison

An eerie abandoned cell
Let's talk about King Zog for a minute. Just because he came up, and how cool is that name? First the badass flag, now a king called Zog. What doesn't Albania have? I had heard of Zog before, but it was only in the Gjirokaster castle museum that I learned that he was really Albanian. I had assumed he had been parachuted in like the Greek royal family (thus making it extra ridiculous that Queen Elizabeth still apparently sulks about them being kicked out). His original surname was Zogolli, though, which I suppose sounds Turkish, because he changed it to the more Albanian Zogu later on. Apart from his name, Zog is interesting for allegedly surviving over 55 assassination attempts during his reign, as well as being shot in 1923 when he was an MP. Popular guy! Anyway, his reign was brought to an abrupt end by Mussolini invading the country, and he died in exile in France many years later. That's all I have on Zog.

Jules, King of the Castle

Jules and the "spy plane"
Another interesting feature of the castle is the so-called "American spy plane". An American pilot was forced to land in Tirana in the 1950s due to technical problems - not sure what he was doing in the area in the first place. The Communists let him go, but confiscated the plane and declared that they had captured an American spy plane. And here it still is at Gjirokaster castle.

Windy up there

View from the castle - not quite as pretty as the view from Berat castle, but that was really incredible

The old town viewed from the castle
We probably could have seen a bit more if we had stayed longer in Gjirokaster, but we managed to pack the Skenduli house, Ethnographic museum, the castle with its museum, and watching the F1 all into one afternoon, and set out again first thing the next day for the longest drive of our trip, across country to Korçe. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Steep streets and creeping women: Gjirokaster part one

Of course, as soon as I get back to real life, I get out of the blogging habit again. It's hard to find time when adjusting to being back to work, dealing with all the post-holiday cleaning and unpacking and laundry etc. etc. I still have a lot to get through though, so I'll try to bang out a few quick posts now and publish over the next few days.

Last time I posted, we were en route to Gjirokaster (or Gjirokastra - I've seen at least two forms for almost every Albanian place name we came across, there must be some kind of inflection thing happening). We eventually got there and found out for ourselves that its steep, narrow, cobblestone streets are just as fearsome as the internet claimed. We couldn't go up to our hotel the way Google advised, due to a one-way street, and ended up in a very narrow and very steep street where the car engine finally had enough and stalled trying to go up it. With walls on both sides, a parked car thrown into the mix, and having to reverse back down around a corner, this was a tad stressful for both of us.

Not the greatest photo, but gives you an idea

We got there eventually, by going all the way down out of the old city and doing a big loop, at which point we were both pretty happy to abandon the car for a bit.

Gjirokastra is known for its traditional houses, like Berat. They are a bit more varied in style, however, and 'semi-fortified', apparently. I couldn't see much evidence of fortification from the outside, but we went on a tour of one of the old houses and he showed us the house bunker/basement and places for shooting out at attackers. We went to the museum in the castle, which was really quite informative, which had quotes from travellers right up until the 19th century who remarked upon the constant near-state of war in the city between rival families.

Some of the traditional houses on the hillside

The Skenduli House
We visited the Skenduli House, which dated back to 1700 (according to its owner) or the late 18th century (according to the museum). This may have been lost in translation, as we were given a guided tour by the house's owner in passable but not perfect French, interspersed with bits of Italian and English. It was very interesting! He explained that the house had been in his family for nine generations. He was living there with his wife and children in the 1980s when the ruling Communists decided to confiscate the property and turn it into a museum. When Communism fell, he managed to get the house back. It was really great to get the tour from someone for whom this was real, lived experience and family history.

Among other things that he explained to was that, traditionally, the more chimneys a house was, the richer and therefore higher-status you were. He joked that "the Communists would say, the more bourgeois you were". He also showed us how the bricks in the walls were interspersed with a layer of flexible wood, to prevent the house from falling down in earthquakes.

The summer living quarters were open to the elements

One of the fancier rooms

Beautiful wood carving and a cupboard and stairs for secret creeping about
One of the most fascinating parts of the house were the many small flights of stairs, mezzanine levels,  grilles, and two-way cupboard systems which existed to allow the women to move about the house without being seen by the men. He showed us several examples where a woman would mount a steep flight of stairs or a ladder behind a wall and peep through a grill to observe how many men were in the room. She would then prepare the requisite number of coffees/rakias/breakfasts/whatever for the family and guests, and place them into a cupboard with a double set of doors so it could be opened from either side. I'm not sure how the men knew when the stuff was in the cupboard, but whenever the signal was given or whatever, they could open the cupboard from their side and take the food and drink out without presumably being driven into a lust-filled frenzy by seeing the woman who prepared it all for them. I'm holding myself back from going into a rant about the kind of society that not only forces women to wait on the men in their lives, but then has the effrontery to make them creep about behind the walls while doing so like the imaginary woman in The Yellow Wallpaper (do read this, it's short and freely available online). I'm surprised this isn't still a feature of contemporary Saudi design (or is it?) Oh, oh, oh... You could say it's a case of structural sexism. (YAHHH! Puts on sunglasses.)

A not-especially steep street in Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster is also famous as the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator. His house has now been turned into a not-particularly-interesting ethnographic museum (the Skenduli House was much more interesting) which we also visited. Hoxha, incidentally, studied in France and was fluent in the language, which is perhaps why our guide at the Skenduli House spoke French. Outside of Tirana, we found more people who struggled with English, although most young people seemed to speak it pretty well. The second language of choice seemed, in fact, to be Italian, especially amongst the older generation. Italy is obviously not too far away across the sea from Albanian, but it also actually invaded and occupied the country during and after the First World War and shortly before and during the Second World War. Many of the government buildings we saw in Tirana around Skanderberg Square were built by the Italians. So perhaps this is why Italian is still widely-spoken by the older generations, or perhaps it's down to more recent emigration and economic ties;

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Behind the Blue Eye

I have to mention this, because I was so impressed. A contributing factor to cutting our day at the beach at Ksamil short was that I managed to get some sand into my ancient Kindle, and it freaked out and just started scrolling wildly. All resuscitation efforts proved in vain, and there's only so long I can lie on the beach doing nothing, so we packed up and went back to the hotel. I had pretty much resigned myself to the loss of the Kindle - it's a first generation I think, and second-hand even when my parents bought it about 4-5 years ago, but I was midway through Cloud Atlas and really wanted to see how it turned out. But Jules came to my rescue, disassembling the whole thing, repeatedly testing it with no results until he gave up and put it all together again, by which time it miraculously worked, hurrah! And I got to finish Cloud Atlas after all. 

Anyway, by the time this was all done, it was a bit late to head back to the beach, and the next day (sunday), we packed in the beach portion of our holiday and headed back inland to Gjirokastra. First, though, we stopped off at a spot known in English as the "Blue Eye", a natural spring more than 50 metres deep. It's pretty amazing, this shallow lake with one spot of deep, dark water bubbling up. 

Looking straight down at the Eye from a rickety, rusty metal platform that scared me half to death. I'm convinced one day it will collapse, but hopefully in that case people will just fall into the deep spring with no ill effects

Got this backwards-cap wearing douche who was also at Butrint the day before to take this of us. I've got to take my backwards cap off to him though, he did a pretty good job. 

Just managed to catch this guy's splash (rickety platform too)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What do the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, Ottomans and Napoleon have in common?

On Saturday, we headed slightly south of Ksamil to the incredible ancient site of Butrint. Butrint is a microcosm of regional history - you can see buildings and ruins from Ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and even the Republic of Venice. 

Legend has it that the city was founded by refugees from the sack of Troy, including Priam's son. According to this mythology, it gets its name (Buthrotum) from a wounded ox which struggled ashore and died. The Trojans took this as a good omen (why? Reasons...) and founded their new city there. 

In reality, the site has been settled since at least the 10th-8th centuries BC, and was occupied by the Chaonian Greeks. It grew in importance due to its strategic position near Corfu and as a shrine to Asclepius. It later came under Roman control, with Julius Caesar officially declaring it a Roman colony in 44 BC. 

Greek theatre, later Romanized 

The city went into a decline, partly caused by a large earthquake, in late antiquity, before becoming the seat of a Byzantine bishopric in the 6th century AD. At this time, the Byzantines built a large basilica and baptistery on the site. 

In the Basilica

The circular Baptistery has the most amazing mosaic floor

And now you have seen the mosaics exactly as well as we have, as unfortunately they are almost always kept covered by a layer of sand for preservation reasons. Here's what you actually see:

There are more beautiful, well-preserved mosaics elsewhere on the site, but they are also covered up. Luckily we knew this before visiting, so we weren't too disappointed. It's a shame they don't at least have something like high-definition photos of all the mosaics though, as from the little we saw, they are amazing, full of darling animals and birds. Apparently they are uncovered every few years, but it was difficult finding information about the current opening hours of the place, let alone a website that might reliably tell you when they will next be on display. 

The natural setting of Butrint is an attraction in itself 

The Lion Gate in the city walls

The city declined again, fending off attacks from varied offenders including the Ostrogoths and even the Normans and Angevins, until it was purchased from the Angevins by the Venetians in 1386 (I didn't know some of these people got about so much!) The Venetians built a fortress on top of the hill to defend against the Ottoman Empire. 

Venetian castle

View from the Venetian fortress

The area went back and forth under Venetian and Ottoman control over a couple of centuries, even briefly being given to Napoleon under a treaty with Venice, before finally being conquered by the locally famous Albanian-Ottoman governor Ali Pasha in 1799, remaining in the Ottoman Empire until Albanian independence in 1912, by which time the city was abandoned. 

So there you go! Very complex history, but wandering through the site and seeing all the different layers of it really made it come alive. It was baking hot and quite tiring, but really engaging over the two or so hours we were there. We thought there would be guides hanging about like at Pompeii which we could hire on the spot, but there didn't seem to be anyone. In the end though, the pamphlet and explanatory panels did a good job and there is a small museum in the Venetian fortress, so I don't think we missed too much without a guide. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far.