Friday, August 14, 2015

The pearl of the Balkans

A few more observations to finish up our time in Macedonia. We didn't do too much, a bit of wandering around, eating, shopping and visiting a couple of key sites.

We spent one afternoon on a beach about 15 minutes' drive out of the city. It's called Sveti Stefan, which means Saint Stefan, but since it sounds like 'Sweaty Stefan' in a slight German accent, we were amused. Since it was pretty hot, there were not a few Sweaty Stefans to be found on the beach. The beach itself was not as nice as those on the Albanian coast, which is to be expected. A bit crowded, full of kids, and with only a small strip of gritty sand. But, you know, not exactly a hell-hole, so can't complain.

I forgot to say earlier, Lake Ohrid's claim to fame is that it's one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back up to 5 million years ago. I was surprised to learn that most lakes only have a lifespan of around 100,000 years before they fill up completely with sediment. So Ohrid is kicking most lakes' arses! In honour of this, a lake on Saturn's moon Titan is named Ohrid, and both the lake and city of Ohrid are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Talking of heritage, they are clearly proud of their wines in Macedonia. They were a big wine producer in Yugoslavia, and local wines still feature prominently on Macedonian menus, many produced from local grape varieties such as Vranec. We picked up some bottles of red and rosé from the Bovin and Stobi wineries (the latter has a bottle with a cute peacock mosaic on it) to bring home with us. Not bad at all.

A stroll along the lake front
We dropped in to a couple more painted churches. One was completely covered with scaffolding, and had a team of people working to restore its frescoes. It was a shame not to be able to see all of the frescoes properly - as with many of the other churches we saw, they were literally covering the entire interior - but it was pretty cool to see the restorers meticulously working away on one tiny patch of paint at a time. I'm not sure I approve 100% though - some of the restored bits looked way too bright and fresh for my tastes. It is great to be able to see the colours and patterns as they would have been, but restore too much and you lose the authenticity.

We also visited Saint Sophia, the largest church in Ohrid, with frescoes which date to the 11th-13th centuries. These retain more of the authentic "faded" look. Photos a bit blurry since I wasn't meant to be taking any!

Ceiling of St Sophia's

Interior St Sophia's

Night in Ohrid

Dinner on the lake (literally, on a sort of jetty)
Lastly, we spent our final morning in Ohrid in pursuit of icecream (gelato-style, much better than the insipid stuff we got in Albania) and pearls. Ohrid is known for the imaginatively-named "Ohrid pearls", which are on sale in approximately one billion shops in the city, despite authentic Ohrid pearls only being made by two families. Yes, made, not harvested. For these pearls do not come from oysters, but are crafted from the scales of fish! The very same lake fish that you might find on your plate in one of the city's restaurants. The secret of how to make the pearls was supposedly learnt from a Russian immigrant who knew how to make pearls from similar fish in Lake Baikal, and it has been scrupulously guarded by the two pearl-making families (not sure how family #2 got in on the act) ever since.

I bought a single black pearl pendant, which was fairly cheap, and the three-string necklace below, which was really not all that cheap. And the clasp on it broke as soon as I got it home, boohoo! But I think it's a pretty cool souvenir that I can keep for years (once I fix the clasp) to remind me of my holiday in Macedonia and Albania.

My Ohrid pearl necklace

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Naumin' Aroun'

Naumin' Aroun', Naumin' Aroun'. A monastery made for young adults, by young adults.

The Monastery of Saint Naum lies just inside the Macedonian border, near where we crossed over from Albania. It was founded by Saint Naum himself at the turn of the tenth century, although much of what remains today dates back only to the 16th or 17th centuries.

The monastery church
Something went wrong with the latest anti-tobacco advertising
According to one website we consulted, the peacocks of Saint Naum will "welcome you with their screams". This turns out to be very true. I've only ever seen peacocks one or so at a time, and haven't previously noticed much screaming, but there's peacocks running around all over the monastery, screaming their little heads off in welcome.

Not heeding the anti-peacock warnings
The church is liberally covered all over the walls and ceilings with frescoes from the 16th-17th centuries. A lot of the frescoes and icons we saw in Albania and Macedonia were deliberately and literally defaced, or had the eyes excised. I'm a bit confused as to why, since I don't think there was a Protestant-style movement in the region - could it have been done during the Communist period?

You can see two of these faces are scratched out - we saw too many similarly disfigured for this to be just by chance

Ceiling inside St Naum's
Legend has it that if you press your ear to Saint Naum's tomb, you can hear his heartbeat. I tried, despite the tomb being covered with a probably gross cloth, and could kind of hear something. Jules didn't, though. A Guardian article I read posited that it was the sound of "water dripping somewhere in the monastery", but I think it's much more likely to be the same effect as holding a seashell to your ear, i.e.  your own heartbeat. Proof at last that Jules is a zombie.

Inside a different, newer church built over a natural pool at the spot where three springs converge. Supposedly the water helps women conceive, so I didn't get any closer
We found Rachel Dolezal's sunscreen in the gift shop. How's that for a topical reference? Seriously though, think harder about appropriate names for sunblock, Macedonia.
The main church above, with the frescoes and tomb of St Naum, is the chief attraction as far as the monastery goes. I think, however, the site is a major tourist destination mostly because of its location. As you walk through the grounds, on one side you have Lake Ohrid, which appears mostly placid, as lakes do. On the other side, though, water rushes from a smaller lake through a stream into Lake Ohrid. This smaller lake contains many springs (which ultimately themselves are filled by water flowing underground from the nearby Lake Prespa) which feed Lake Ohrid.

There is a cottage industry taking tourists on boat trips around the smaller lake, which we partook of. The springs were nowhere near as big and obvious as the one at the Blue Eye, rather, you had to look quite closely and listen to the guide's local knowledge to spot them, which was pretty cool. The water, filtered through layers of karst rock on its way out of Lake Prespa and back into Lake Ohrid, is very pure (or so we were told), and we had a little drink leaning out of our boat.

Water bubbling up from these springs reminded me of bubbling mud at Rotorua
After we had finished our boat trip, a walk around the small lake, and lunch, we moved a few feet to Saint Naum's beach on the shores of Lake Ohrid itself. After sunbathing, we took a dip in the lake, which we shared with hundreds of tiny fish. The lake is so clear (with visibility up to 22 metres/66 feet) that we could look down and see the fish swimming all around us - and sometimes feel them brushing against our legs or arms. Quite bizarre! Finally, a trout sighting (maybe?) for my Dad!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Out and about in Ohrid

After a delicious "Macedonian tapas"-style lunch at a restaurant right on the water's edge, where we stuffed ourselves with delicious pepper spread, the ubiquitous feta-style cheese also found all over Albania, chicken wings, stuffed fried pancakes etc., we decided it was time to work off lunch by tackling Ohrid's hilly streets.

We had heard the church of St. John, further along the bay, was a beautiful spot, so we headed there first. It actually wasn't nearly as far as it looked on the map, although the steep streets and flights of steps make you work for it! Dating back to the 13th century or thereabouts, it is pretty tiny inside, and covered with frescoes. What really makes it special is its beautiful location, perched on a cliff looking out over the lake.

Since we were there, we decided to head up a nearby flight of stairs to get the above view of the church and also to head to a nearby archaeological site called Plaoshnik. According to the internet, it features beautiful mosaics and an old church. All we could see was a fenced-off collection of unimpressive-looking ruins. Maybe we should have tried a bit harder to find it, since it seemed we missed out on a nice spot.

It was pretty hot and tiring work getting up the hill, but since we had come halfway up and failed to find the archaeological site, we kept going to the very top of the hill and visited Tsar Samuel's Fortress. This is basically a shell, with only its perimeter wall really left intact. You can climb all the way up this in a couple of spots though, and walk around most of the wall, which offers some beautiful views both over the city and the lake.

Standing on the walls - not much to see in the middle of the fortress

But the view from the battlements over the lake is gorgeous

We also read online that St John's was the perfect place to watch the sun set over the lake. From our hotel, you couldn't really see because the hill was in the way, but St John's did indeed offer the perfect vantage point. We timed it to perfection, arriving just as the sun began sinking over the horizon. Lucky we did, because it set really fast, dipping below the hills on the Albanian side of the lake in a matter of minutes.

For some reason, I get an almost Egyptian vibe from this photo - just imagine the boat is like one of those you see on the Nile

St John's just after the sun set
Apparently this is Macedonia's most photographed spot, and you can definitely see why. A magical place to watch the sun set.

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.