Saturday, January 17, 2009

Albania or bust

This time my blogging hiatus has been mainly due to actual, legitimate work instead of simple fronting. But now the skies have cleared, for I have finished applying to grad schools. The past 3 months have been quite a rat race of doing nothing more than teaching and busying myself with applying to 12 (that's right, count 'em, 12) grad schools and all of the associated fellowships and scholarships. Now I play the waiting game and just enjoy teaching and living in Hungary for my last semester here.

Over winter break I was fortunate enough to take a great trip through the Balkans to visit my old friend Jen, a volunteer in Albania, for our second international Christmas adventure together (note: full trip pics are on my flickr page). I left Szentes early one morning a few days before Christmas and took a combination of trains and buses through Serbia and Macedonia until I reached our rendezvous point. Though the trip was long and exhausting, it was actually pretty fun. I got to see a lot of Serbia, including an evening in Belgrade. Moreover I found fellow travelers to talk to for a lot of the time. One of them was a young Serbian marketing agent who took me for a trip down memory lane reminiscing about when the American bombs fell on Serbia in the late 90's. Another was a man I met in Skopje who gave me a wallet sized picture of Tito as a souvenir.

After nearly 36 hours in transit finally there is Jen!

We met in Ohrid, Macedonia. Ohrid's really not much larger than Szentes, but it does have a few things we are painfully lacking here. First of all, snow capped mountains. Also, beautiful Lake Ohrid is a plus. Oh, and a castle (the fortress of Tzar Samuil):

Our first night in Ohrid we spent the evening walking around and catching up.

Medieval Ohrid and the lakefront

Ohrid street scene

On Christmas Eve, our second day in Ohrid, our original plan was to return to Jen's apartment to begin our tour of Albania. We were so impressed with Ohrid, however, that we decided to stay one more night. We spent the next day walking around the city, visiting the Orthodox churches and the castle, and occasionally dropping in to one of the city's many coffee places to escape the cold.

Trusty! Gayle asked me to take this dashing T. Rowe Price mascot to a few interesting places. I was happy to comply. Why is traveling so much more fun with an inanimate companion, be it a flat genius or a stuffed ram? Here he is with the Macedonian flag.

Ohrid is famous for having 365 churches, one for each day of the year!

Saint Panteleimon Monastary is surrounded by a large archaeological site. For good reason, it was here where scholars translated the first bible into the ancient slavic alphabet.

Trusty face!

Jen smiles for the camera from the ramparts of the Tzar's fortress

After so much time in flat flat flat Szentes, I couldn't get enough of these snow capped mountains.

St Panteleimon's and the lake as seen from the castle

Walking along the shore of Lake Ohrid on Christmas Eve

Maybe the people at the end of that pier are waiting for Santa Clause....oh wait, Orthodox Christmas isn't until January 7. Bummer.

Prime real estate

As we were strolling along Lake Ohrid we noticed a smaller Orthodox church on an overhang. We decided to scope it out and in doing so stumbled upon the most picturesque scene in the city:

St Jovan's may not be the most historically significant church in the city, but it certainly is the most beautifully situated.

Jen and Trusty took a few moments to really soak in the moment.

My favorite view of the entire trip, or, Ohrid's Christmas gift to me.

On Christmas morning we were up early and headed for Jen's home in Fier, Albania. It was quite a long transit due to the unique nature of public transportation in Albania. To get around in Albania you must use a network of minibuses called furgons. There is no schedule and as far as I could tell, no place to get the information about where furgons for different locations leave from. Luckily I had such a pro with me to help get me around. At any rate, you just go to the part of the city where furgons leave for a certain other city, get on a bus, and when the little bus is full it takes you to that city. Then you have to go to the other part of that city where the furgons for your next destination leave from. Therefore, getting from Ohrid to Fier took pretty much all Christmas day. When we got to Fier we bought a rotesserie chicken and some side vegetables for our Christmas dinner.

Christmas dinner in Jen's apartment

We hung out around the apartment on Christmas, relaxing after the long transit and the good dinner. I introduced Jen to Reno 911, which in my humble opinion is about as good as a Christmas present gets. The next day we jumped on a furgon to go to Tirana, the country's capital. Honestly, as far as capital cities go, Tirana isn't very impressive. I found some of the other cities we visited to be much more interesting, but it does have it's own sort of gritty charm.

A statue of Skanderbeg, in Tirana's main square. Skanderbeg is Albania's most decorated national hero, who for two decades in the 15th century held off the advance of the Turks into Albania. He is credited with slaying over 3,000 Turks with his bare hands.

Socialist realism! This mural on the facade of the National History Museum depicts a woman in a position of power and leadership. This is a bit ironic in Albania, a place where the ideals of the women's liberation movement haven't excactly taken hold just yet.

What to do about the omnipresent and tragically unattractive concrete communist-era block apartments? Edi Rama, mayor of Tirana and former artist, had a pretty good idea: a fresh coat of paint! Funky color schemes dominate Tirana's scenery, and it is pretty amazing the difference a coat of paint can make.

Another bit of interesting architecture - "the pyramid"

According to Jen, no trip to Albania is complete without a night on the town in Tirana. Though Albania is by and large a relatively conservative culture, Tirana is a rapidly expanding and cosmopolitain city that offers up a huge number of places to party after dark. We met up with some of her friends and spent Friday night out on the town in couple of Tirana's trendy watering holes:

Live music at a bar in the once exclusively communist "block" neighborhood of Tirana.

Jen and her friend Miri at a disco in Tirana.

After returing to Fier to relax and watch more Reno 911! we decided to take another day trip out to Berat, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country due to its castle and the famous Ottoman style houses.

Making the climb up to the Berat castle.

Trusty at the top and somewhat less winded than Jen or I as he ascended by way of Jen's purse.

The city of Berat as seen from the castle.

Another view of Berat, this time with the river and impressive Mt Timori.

A pretty little corner of the castle.

A lot of homes are inside the castle complex, so a lot of people actually live within this historic structure. Here some of the inhabitants play soccer with an improvised goal.

The front gate of Berat's castle. Because Jen is such a pro we entered via a secret back entrance and exited the front gate, where we would have had to pay an entrance fee.

Me with one of Berat's historic Ottoman neighborhoods in the background.

Exploring the Ottoman neighborhood

Jen looking and feeling wonderful in Berat.

After a full day of taking in Berat we returned to Jen's apartment for the evening. The next morning, however, we were up and out early for another day trip, this time to the seaside town of Vlora.

Vlora is the birthplace of modern Albanian independence. On November 28, 1929, Albanians declared themselves free after 500 years of Turkish occupation.

Vlora on the Ionian coast

Jen had heard that Vlora also had a castle. Not really knowing where to find it or what to expect, we found a friendly taxi driver and Jen convinced him to take us up to Vlora castle. It is clearly not much of a tourist destination, as the road leading up to it can only very euphemistically be dubbed a road. Perhaps mule path is a more fitting title. At any rate, the driver skillfully manuevered his old Mercedes up the side of the mountain to what is left of Vlora's castle, which is not much. The views of Vlora and then sea, however, were spectacular:

Another interesting day trip was to Apollonia, a UNESCO Heritage Site and once a cultural and commercial hub of the Roman Empire.

The Roman ruins at Apollonia

A monastery beside the Apollonian ruins

While walking to and from Apollonia we passed a number of Albania's bunkers. These little gems are leftovers from Enver Hoxha's reign. He peppered the Albanian countryside with these mushroom shaped concrete bunkers, making Albania one of the most fortified little parcels of land in the world.

After our afternoon in Apollonia we jumped on a furgon and made our way to the village of Levan to have lunch with Jen's host family. When Jen was first on assignment in the region she spent nearly a year living with a kind Albanian family. Lunching with them was one of the highlights of my trip. Mom and dad didn't speak English, but I was able to communicate on a very rudimentary level with the father with our rusty Russian. Jen's host brother Arbri is also fluent in English, so with he and Jen translating we were able to communicate with ease. I really envy Jen for having had such a nice host family experience in Albania, and it was great to get to meet them.

Finally, the next day was New Year's Eve. I couldn't believe how fast my trip had flown by, it was almost time to take another monumentally long bus and train trip back to Szentes. First, however, it was New Year's Eve in Albania. The country is split between Muslims and Christains, but due to the many years of communist rule and Albanians' generally easy going nature, nobody is very concerned with religion or the associated holidays. The new year, however, is something everybody celebrates. The tradition is to have a big turkey feast on December 31st. This accounts for the number of live turkeys sold on nearly every street corner the week preceeding New Year's Eve. It was a rare occasion to be on a furgon without at least one live turkey along for the ride. They like their turkey fresh! One of Jen's best friends in Albania, Nevilla, invited us to her family's New Year feast. It was a delicious meal and a real treat for me to get to take part in another family gathering in Albania. After dinner, we watched the bootleg fireworks going off all around us and then headed out to a club to party.

Our New Year's host Nevilla with her brother.

Jen and I celebrating the New Year.

There aren't any organized fireworks on New Year's Eve. Instead everybody buys their own fireworks - the kind that are way illegal in the states. It was quite a site, very hectic. We watched from the 8th floor and this video only captures a tiny bit of the insanity. I'm just glad to have escaped with both eyes and all appendages.

On New Year's Day, the country was pretty much closed down and we were relatively worn out so we just stayed in. A couple of Jen's fellow volunteers came over for the day and we watched a few movies and Jen made a delicious dinner. Then the next day it was time for me to say goodbye to Jen and Albania and head back to Szentes. I took away a very positive impression of Albania. It is one of the most unique little countries I have ever traveled to. At first I found the lack of infrastructure and organization and the ubiquitous litter a bit of a turn off, remarking to Jen that Albania is like one big obstacle course. I quickly got used to it, however, and warmed to the better climate and beautiful scenery. The best part of the country, however, is definitely the warmth of the people. I was impressed again and again by the kindness of the Albanians I met. It is also aparent in all the little ways, like the willingness of furgon drivers to strike up a conversation and the friendliness of shopkeepers and servers. Overall, a great trip and another great holiday spent with Jen!