Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday, June 16th, Skopje, Macedonia


The Kale Fortress, Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Museum of the Old Bazaar, a walk through the new side of the city, and the Museum for Mother Teresa.  All that before lunch.

But you can see all that in the photo album.  I want to take the rest of this final blog to tell you what the doesn't become clear as you visit Macedonia and Skopje.

Macedonia doesn't tell you how old it really is.  Fixated on its link with the Greek warrior, Alexander, The Country's ancient storyline stops just beyond the fourth or fifth century BC.  The pile dwellers on Lake Ohrid lived there as early as the 12th century BC, but aren't well-publicized or even named.  They're probably Illurians from the territory now in Albania.

But it's the people who are best known for their fertility worship, and their broken figurines of women found near Skopje who lived from the 42nd century to the 20th century BC that ought to get some publicity.

I'm not sure how you make statues out of people you can't identify, but since their figurines pre-date anything other than some gorgeous pottery traced to a civilization two thousand years before that (yes 6300 BC), either or both of these groups ought to get some recognition.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Friday, June 16th, Skopje, Macedonia.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thursday, June 15th, Skopje, Macedonia


At 172 kilometers, it's hard to call today a relatively easy traveling day, but it was.  Getting up this morning on Lake Ohrid (to an almost vacant hotel, and with no breakfast prepared), our bus took us to Bigorski Monastery, and lunch in Skopje, Macedonia's capital city.

Once again, we can't show you the inside of the Monastery, but the wooden carvings on the walls, and in the construction of chairs and podiums, were unbelievable.  Intricate designs of humans, animals, flowers, and birds are woven together into stories and religious scenes.  It really does amaze us by the dedication of local artists centuries ago.

After lunch, we traveled through the National Park of Mavrovo (largest in Macedonia), and on to the town of Tetovo.  A strongly moslem town, with Albanian ties, we walked the streets of the town bazaar and had lunch by the Pena River.  Nearby was the Painted Mosque, probably the most stunningly vibrant color scheme on the outside and inside of a mosque in the region.

Finally, we drove to Skopje, where we'll spend our last day in Macedonia.  On Saturday morning, we head home via Istanbul.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Thursday, June 15th, Skopje, Macedonia.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wednesday, June 14th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia


Our friend and fellow traveler, Julia McCabe, suggested that we should go to Heraclea Lyncestis,   Located a couple of miles from Bitola, a great little town on our itinerary, it was not hard to convince the rest of us that we should definitely stop by.  Founded by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, in the middle of the 4th century BC, Heraclea is a main city on the 2nd century BC Roman road Via Egnatia. 

Macedonia and the travel companies are beginning to plan trips along the pathway through Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.  Completely overwhelmed by the mosaics in the Basilicas there, we went into Bitola.

Elena lived in Bitola for three years, and described the town as the antidote to high stress Ohrid, and wanted us to experience the laid back lifestyle of the easy-going, hardly-working residents.  Sure enough, our lunch was long and delicious, and the town stroll on the promenade lasted until late afternoon.  Afterward, we got to wander inside a local restored active mosque.

But more exploring was in store as we drove to the top of the pass which separates Lake Ohrid from Lake Prespa.  Five hundred feet higher, the water from Lake Prespa drains through the limestone mountain pass, and erupts in springs at the edge of Lake Ohrid.   Hang gliders and para sailers regularly launch from the pass, and land near the lake's shores.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, June 14th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tuesday, June 13th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia


Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in the world.  It's also one of the cleanest and clearest.  Completely refreshed every seven years, it has springs bringing water through limestone layers from the nearby mountains, and rivers emptying it in the same volume, at the same pace.  With a comfortable water temperature, especially in the summer, it serves as the perfect beachside vacation for thousands of tourists escaping the crowds.

Along the coast our ferry took us this morning, we passed a pile dwelling settlement established in 1200 BC named the Bay of Bones.  Named because a cache of animal bones were found near large carbon-dated underwater poles, the settlement has been reconstructed, and an accompanying museum and roman fortification nearby adds to the important set of resources.

Our next stop was the Monastery of Saint Naum, one of the two most well-known figures in Macedonia.  Naum and St Clemons, students of Saints Cyril and Methodius, were responsible during the period of 863 to 910 for the development of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, which were instrumental in bringing the Bible and a civil code to the Slavic peoples of this region.

Just prior to a great lunch at the mouth of the springs which feed Lake Ohrid, we were rowed around the nearby lagoons and their islands.  It was such a serene aquatic journey, gliding slowly over the clear green, blue, and white depths.

Returning across the Lake to the City of Ohrid,  we took a taxi to the top of the hill where  Samuel's Fortress overlooks the town.  Afterward, we hiked down to another beautiful ancient church next door to the Ohrid Icon Gallery, where our guide, Elena, helped us understand the evolution of icons in Macedonia, and the early appearance of rennaisance art techniques in the area icons.

Then to a restored ancient amphitheater, and on down the hill to the Church of Saint Sophia, an 1100 AD Archbishopric, converted by the Ottomans to a mosque in the 1400s, and now used as a museum and concert hall.  The church contains some of the most vivid frescoes we've ever seen, and some thanks goes to funding from our U.S. State Department in the last few years.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on:
Tuesday, June 13th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Monday, June 12th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia


The only border crossing on this trip where the guard actually came aboard the bus to compare passports to our faces was this morning's entry to the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). That's probably because we're all Americans, and old, and not very likely to be terrorists.  And who'd be dangerous among four people who always insist on getting their passports stamped.

Macedonia has a beef with Greece over its name.  Until they resolve some territorial disputes, Greece isn't going to let Macedonia enter the European Union or other regional alliances, or use any name but FYROM - which is what the rest of the world uses.  But our hotel address says we're in Macedonia, so I'm going with it.

Before we crossed the border, we visited three spectacular Orthodox churches containing a huge number of icons on the inside and outside of the churches.  For those of us who had little to no religious education, unlike roman catholic churches whose walls contain lots of hanging paintings and sculptures, the variety of Byzantine churches have paintings directly on their walls.

In addition, they have a frontal set of panels that feature a central door, with Jesus on the right, Mary with baby Jesus on the left, John the Baptist to the right of Jesus, and whomever the church is dedicated to on the left of Mary.  There are additional images of saints, apostles, and other luminaries in rows above them,  and scenes of Mary ascending to heaven, or sinners descending to hell.  There's also lots of torture scenes before they descend.  When few could read, these taught values and beliefs.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Monday, June 12th, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday, June 11th, Korca, Albania

This is the last post from Albania.  After a week here, I think some conclusions can be made.  First, there’s no reason not to come here for a holiday.  Europeans have found it, and Asians are beginning to.  Travel groups criss-cross it, and big cruise ships and small sailboats can be found on its beautiful coastline.
The food is great, and there’s plenty of it.  Every restaurant seems like your favorite grandmother’s house, and you should count on getting too much to eat and drink.  Families are still big here, and most remember the times when there was not enough to go around.  And there’s lots of fresh and clean water. 
So, while the world is not panicked from economic recession or terrorist attacks, Albania should do fine.  There’s money to be made here, and a country that wants to do right for its citizens.   Hooray for the country of eagles, protected by teddy bears.
Second, let go of this stereotype of Albanians as thugs from a backward land.  Instead, look at them as survivors of just about every form of institutional abuse, now struggling to emerge and show the world who they really are.  They’ve endured centuries of sultans, kings, and dictators. 
And remember that Albania contributed far more than its share of bright and courageous leaders to other countries.  Greece, Rome, Cairo, and Istanbul owe their success to Albanian homeboys who led their armies and settled into their statehouses.
Tomorrow, we cross the border into the Former Republic of Macedonia.  In the next five days, we’ll try to learn all that we can about another country hardly any of us can locate on a map.
To see the photos taken during the last two days, click on:


Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday, June 9th, Saranda, Albania


For all of you who crave a challenge of imagination, try to guess where this land is.

"Butrint and its religious sanctuary lay in the territory of the Praisabes tribe, who were part of the Chaonians – one of the confederations of people who occupied the region of Epirus.

At this time, the principal town in the region was Phoinke immediately to the north of Lake Butrint.  Phoinke played an important role in the rise of King Pyrrhus (318-272 BC), who invaded Roman lands in Italy.  His victories against the Romans were so costly, they ultimately led to his defeat and the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”.
Phoinke was later conquered by Teuta, Queen of the Illyrians, in circa 203 BC.  Subsequently, the Romans led by Aemilius Paulus, conquered Epirus in 167 BC, and enslaved much of its population."

Except for the reference to Pyrrhic victory, I would have sworn this was so full of strange placenames and people that it must have been out of a new video game.  Not true.  We visited Butrint, the most popular national park in Albania, and were amazed at yet another archeological resource on par with any we've seen.  Virgil and Dionysius both wrote about it as having been founded by survivors of the destruction of Troy. 

Throughout much of its ancient history, Butrint functioned as a religious center, dedicated to Aesclepius, god of healing.  Visitors would sleep within the precincts of the temple, hoping for a dream or vision, that would guide them to a cure for their ailments.  Priests and physicians performed rituals to interpret the dreams and supply the medicines prescribed.

Poor internet access last night prevented the posting of Thursday's photos, so to see our two-day travel down the Albanian riviera, click on:

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wednesday, June 7th, Vlore, Albania


Albania is both one of the oldest and newest countries in the world.  Like a good family tree, it can trace it’s lineage at many archeological sites through many past civilizations to the oldest known gatherings of Neolithic peoples.  Every group you’ve heard of, and many you haven’t, have fought for territory and built structures here.
And also it reinvented itself about twenty-six years ago, proposing to model what it’s like to be uncorrupted, religiously-tolerant, democratic, self-reliant, all-inviting, and peaceful.  What is amazing is that they seem to be making good progress.
Over the last two days, we’ve heard and seen much, and asked a lot of tough questions.  All of our guides have lived through the changes in their country, and their enthusiasm for the future is catching.  Sure their childhoods were full of pretty horrible brain-washing, scarcity, and fear.  Then they endured years of chaos and anarchy.  But beginning about the time we were all frightened by planes and towers, they got serious about straightening out their country. 
Today, there is a generation in their thirties and forties who are committed to making their dreams come true.  Their parent’s brothers and sisters left the country when it got bad, emigrated to jobs all over Europe and North America, and sent lots of money home.  That money fueled the rebirth of Albania, and made the downpayment on a proper country.  For the past fifteen years, this generation has paid the price to live the dream.
--> Shortly after we return home on June 17th, national parliamentary elections will be held.  Parties which are the equivalents of our Republicans (Democrats), Democrats (Socialists), and Bernies (Social movement for Integration) are competing, and the betting is that a coalition of the latter two will form a government. 
To see all of the photos taken over the past two days, click on:
Tuesday, June 6th, Berat, Albania
Wednesday, June 7th, Vlore, Albania

Monday, June 5, 2017

Monday, June 5th, Tirana, Albania


Today was a day full of Albanian history.  We headed north to Kruje, the former capital of the country, and strolled through the town's old bazaar.  Like most shopping areas in the regions small towns, one can find some local products among the many imported materials.  We're trying not to add to the weight of our suitcases, or bring home anything that will break in transit.

Just up the hill is a trio of interesting sites.  First, we saw a Bektashi Mosque and lodge, a Sufi dervish order mainly found in Anatolia and the Balkans from the 14th to 16th centuries.  In 1826, it was banned in the Ottoman Empire, and its leadership moved to Albania.  It had a considerable impact on the islamization of Albania.  But after the communists took power in 1945, several babas and dervishes were executed.  Ultimately in 1967, Enver Hoxha banned religious practice in Albania, declaring the country "atheist".

Kruge castle sits a few hundred yards from the Bektashi mosque, and was the site of the twenty-year seige (1444-1467) by the Ottomans in which the country's national hero (Georgi Castriot Skanderbeg) defended the castle.  A museum has been built on the castle grounds which is dedicated to Skanderbeg, and displays everything ever made in his honor.

Finally, we visited the Toptani family home near the castle, and understood better how powerful ex-Roman Generals families could become.  The two-story house very well displays the possessions and furniture, tools and weapons, art and family treasures acquired over centuries of power.

Back in Tirana, we were guided on a city tour which included the Et ham Bey Mosque, the Resurrection Cathedral, the Memorial to Communist Isolation and Mother Teresa Square.

To see all of the photos taken today, cick on Monday, June 5th, Tirana, Albania.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sunday, June 4th, Tirana, Albania


An all-day drive from Dubrovnik in Croatia through Montenegro to Tirana, Albania consumed Sunday, June 3rd.  Bosco, a delightful driver and jack-of-all trades, went completely beyond the call of duty in getting us through two border crossings during the first day of local vacations, and a city (Tirana) devoid of any signage and pretty poor drivers.
Since our group is now down to the two of us, we began to miss the wonderful people we’ve been with for the last five weeks.  What perfect partners we’ve had on this adventure!  Mostly American (three Canadian), and very progressive, they all shared our passion for learning and were eager to work as a team to discover the most from each day’s experiences.  Combined with great tour guides, local guides, and drivers, we couldn’t have gotten a nicer group of travelers.
When we finally checked into the Tirana International Hotel, we received a voucher for dinner at the hotel, and a note that we’d meet our new tour guide the next morning at 9am.  At dinner, we ran into and invited to dinner the two other travelers who are joining us for this fourth leg of our journey in this part of the world.  An Art history teach from Los Angeles, and an avid archeologist and veteran Adventures Abroad participant from New York City.   Boy, are we going to have fun.

No other photos taken today.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Saturday, June 3rd, Dubrovnik, Croatia


Imagine the coast of Santa Barbara north of Los Angeles, with only rocky beaches, but warm water.  Throw in the climate of San Diego, the crowds of Santa Monica, and the hotels of Miami Beach.  That describes the playground that attracts everyone within a few hours of here.  That's most of Europe and the Middle East, and doesn't seem to deter those from further away.

Today, we sat in the Old Town of Dubrovnik (pronounced by the way on the first syllable, without the "v"), and marveled at the great number of languages we heard, ages we saw, and cultures which had occupied the town over the past 2,500 years.  While the Italians and Slavs still make up the majority of residents and visitors, present-day explorers from Asia, northern Europe, and North America are increasing.

The town's walls are one of the highest in Europe, and were never pierced.  In fact, no one tried.  Only earthquakes in 1667 and 1979, and the War from 1991-1995, have damaged the town.  Several in ur group chose to walk around the entire wall (2.5 kilometers) for a unique view.  Pat and I deferred, choosing to explore more than our guide, Ivanka, showed us.  Game of Thrones fans, are you jealous?

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Saturday, June 3rd, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Friday, June 2nd, Dubrovnik, Croatia


After breakfast, we drove to Boka Kotorska in Montenegro, the only fjord in the Mediterranean.  It actually is a river canyon, cut deep into the limestone cliffs in the area.  At the town of Perast along its coastline, we boarded a tour boat and visited Our Lady of the Rocks, a church on a man-made island created by the town over 200 years.  The church is dedicated to Mary, who protected mariners, and was idolized by those living in the bay.

Sanja, our tour guide, led us around the perimeter of the bay to the towns of Risan and Kotor.  Risan was an Illyrian stronghold in the 5th century BC, where its Queen Teuta held off the Slavs.  In Kotor, Sanja led us on a city tour, which included a cathedral and a maritime museum.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Friday, June 2nd, Dubrovnik, Croatia.