Exploring & Escapades

bits & pieces of my travels

Tag: Balkans

Skopje

Skopje, Macedonia, is known as Europe’s “capital of kitsch,” recognizable by it’s overwhelming and apparently random assortment of statues scattered across all streets in the city. There’s the giant “Man on a Horse” in the square (obviously, though not publicly for political reasons, Alexander the Great); there’s the small man with oversized shoes in the alley, a stone swimmer frozen in a forever dive in the river. I’ve read that there’s no conclusive number on how many statues there are or even any conclusive record of where they all are. It’s truly bizarre – bizarre, but also mesmerizing. As if, upon waking one day, you found yourself but a small character in a larger-than-life movie set or some alternate reality Disney World. It was quirky; it was fun. It’s all part of the very controversial “Skopje 2014” project, which saw the government spend hundreds of millions of dollars on urban embellishments in an effort to boost nationalism and tourism. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars of development dollars spent this way in one of the poorest countries in Europe. 

White tiles and white marble gleam in flashing lights, swanky cocktails and juices are served in the cafés nearby. The square is lined with partially constructed buildings; it’s as if we’ve arrived a bit early before the official opening of a theme park. The geographic epitome of “fake it until you make it.”

And the plan seems to work, at least, in the tourism aspect – I loved our day-to-day life in the small, eccentric town. I would love to go back. 

 

Mavrovo

Macedonia, getting here was an adventure in and of itself. Renting the car, crossing the border, having no cash, no phone, no knowledge of the language. And yet, we made it here. First to Skopje to settle and then out here to really explore the next day. 

Here, Mavrovo, a national park on the western border, about 1.5 hours away from Skopje. By all accounts we had read online, it seemed to be a populated place, a place with something to do. We arrived, though, to isolation. Seeming abandonment, though I’m sure it was just the season itself. Abandoned, that is, by all except a dog.

And that’s how we came to befriend Mac, the Macedonian stray dog, who so kindly accompanied us on our adventures for the day. She was covered with fleas (we made sure not to touch her directly), but oh so sweet and loyal. She climbed steep hills with us. She posed for photos. She waited patiently for us when we paused to take in the view. 

A true friend, who left us at her own accord at the end of our hike to venture off into the abandoned town, which made goodbye much easier. I’m not sure I could have left her otherwise. I am sure that I’ll never forget her. 

Rila Monastery

One hour and forty minutes outside of Sofia, Rila Monastery. A gem in the mountains. The pictures online are beautiful. I’m not sure what word to use to describe the reality, because it was more than that. 

Driving to Rila, first of all, transports you to another world completely. It’s not that the nature itself is so impressive, but rather, the sheer isolation of the space. Fields, mountains, forests, and then – suddenly – a wall appears, and there it is! On the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nothing. Upon exiting the car, the sweetness of the mountain air overwhelms the senses. It’s completely silent, save for the natural sounds of the mountain – the birds, the stream. 

And then entering the gates – wow. It’s everything like the pictures and nothing like it at all. It engulfs. The color, the intricate detailing, the snow-capped backdrop, the church walls of solid gold.

I’ve truly never seen anything like it. 

 

Sofia

A rainy Sunday in Sofia, Bulgaria. Thracian, Roman, Communist – there was a bit of all and more, as we learned on our two hour free walking tour (a must-do when in Sofia). And while it rained heavily and relentlessly during our tour (to the point that my rain jacket, sweater, and blouse were entirely soaked through), the sun did emerge eventually in the afternoon to transform the city and, with it, our entire day. 

Walkable streets winding around old Roman ruins, bland stone architecture, exotic and colorful cathedrals, the domes of former mosques painted over and changed into museums. And with a clear sky, we could see the mountains surrounding us in all directions. 

I ate so much delicious Bulgarian food at the tavern for dinner. Stomach, heart, day – full. 

Ksamil

Ksamil, sun and sand; we came for the pristine and beautiful Adriatic beaches, just opposite the more famous Greek island of Corfu. This was our treat after days of driving and exploring. It was as relaxing as we had hoped. Perhaps even more than we had hoped, as we quite literally had the entire place to ourselves.

From my notes:
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It was our last full day in Albania, and we let ourselves sleep in, since we were exhausted from the last few days of constant driving and moving. It’s worth noting that the time was also weird for us; we were so close to Greece (we could see Corfu from the balcony) that our phones kept switching between Greek time – which is an hour ahead – and Albanian time, so I’m not even sure what time we did anything all day, which actually ended up being nice and freeing. Whenever we did get up, we both went for a long walk into town along the coastline. Then, finally, after days of anticipation, the beach.

Getting there was a bit confusing. We drove 15 minutes south to Ksamil, expecting a natural, wild, island-like setting. Instead, we found another mini, developing city. After getting lost on some dirt roads and driving into the hills for views of the city, we eventually parked our car at a place called Lori Beach to spend the day. It was so pretty, white sands and turquoise waters. We had nearly the entire thing to ourselves – chairs, umbrellas, beach bar and all (though, we were never really sure if the beach bar was open or even staffed). There was one family, but they left soon after we arrived. Otherwise, there was only one man and one separate woman. Sometimes, the bar played music. Beyond that, it was quiet.

We stayed on that beach, lying on those chairs in the sun until 5:00 pm, reading, swimming, napping. It was so, so, so peaceful. I still can’t believe that of all the people in the entire world, we were the only people there.

After 5, we finally brought ourselves to leave in search for food, and ended up at a place slightly up the coast called Bar Restaurant Korali. We drank Mojitos and more local white wine on the deck, sitting in the breeze, watching the waves while snacking on another local speciality, peppers and cheese. Then, for dinner, we finally were able to try the local mussels (a speciality and national export – so fresh!) and another local dish, a grilled vegetable plate, which honestly reminded us of pizza. The staff even brought us complimentary dessert – apple slices and ice cream served in this absolutely amazing sauce; we assumed it was honey-based, but when we asked, we were told it was burnt sugar with citrus and cinnamon. It was such a great meal, one of the best of our trip, and certainly perfect for our last night.

By the time we drove back, the sun had already begun to set. We went across the street to buy one last bottle of local wine, and then we drank it on the balcony, the very end of our wild, unpredictable Albanian adventure. 

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Posts from this trip:

Albania #1
Albania #2
Albania #3
Albania #4
Albania #5
Albania #6
Albania #7
Albania / Corfu #8

 

Sarandë


Bright, beachy Sarandë; an odd paradox of a place. Unexpectedly developed and modern, yet unexpectedly empty. While drinking wine on the balcony one night, we thought, if it does take off in several years and become a mainstream destination, how strange and wonderful it will be knowing that we were here alone just before it really came to be.

From my notes:
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The drive to coastal Sarandë from mountainous Gjirokastër, like all driving segments of this trip, was beautiful. We arrived in the early afternoon and immediately went to our Airbnb to get our lives together, running and napping. Eventually, we set out to find food – but everything was empty. It was like a ghost town, but instead of abandoned buildings, full of modern buildings that had never been filled. So much was brand new, well designed, and … just empty. No staff, no furniture, etc. My understanding is that this was because we were here in late May, and in Albania, where tourism is still a developing industry, the off-season IS off. We finally did find a cute place with little huts on the water to have some drinks, and then a small restaurant on the main street that we had passed earlier in the day, which ended up being excellent. The owner was Macedonian, and we had everything he recommended – house white wine, local fish, and Macedonian casserole, served with sauces, veggies, and bread. And *finally,* we tried some dessert.  After that, it was back home to sit on our balcony with some local wine and enjoy the sunset, followed by the slow lighting up of the island of Corfu, just visible across the Adriatic Sea. Even at our “resort” hotel, we were the only guests; a quick glance across the building revealed closed-down pools and only boarded and locked windows, ours the only one with curtains blowing in the wind. We have the entire place to ourselves. 

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Posts from this trip:

Albania #1
Albania #2
Albania #3
Albania #4
Albania #5
Albania #6
Albania #7
Albania / Corfu #8

 

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