It’s Orhid here

One of the major differences between this trip and Big Trip is the amount of socialising that happens. Lingering for a few drinks after an early dinner means that we end up having late nights – by the time we’ve written about the day and selected the photos to post, it’s really late.

We’re both tired today.

We left Skopje at 9:00am aboard a public bus to Ohrid.

Small towns and villages are scattered about; some buildings in the bigger towns reflecting that awesome Soviet brutalism style. Villages are nestled at the bottom of the mountain range.

Some of us drifted off to sleep (probably dreaming of the swimming opportunity ahead), but the vast majority chatted all the way. The only noise on board.

The journey took approximately 3.5 hours.

We saw storks nesting; storks on the ground, storks flying.

A village we passed through had a stork nest; and an Orthodox Church and a mosque in the background. I wasn’t sitting by the window today, so sadly I was unable to take photos.

A quick ‘technical’ stop saw the whole bus tracking down the facilities, and coffee and water for us.

Upon boarding the bus, I grabbed the window seat.

We travelled through a wooded area, the hills in the distance covered in trees. Huge infrastructure projects are underway – a new road; a new bridge and upgrading the road we’re travelling on (small delays incurring as a result).

We pulled in at a major bus station. I watched people buying tickets, chatting, saying goodbye to loved ones… a small window into other people’s lives.

We arrived in Ohrid (pronounced something like ‘oh-ready) around 12:30pm. We got a taxi to the hotel. Well, we got in and then the taxi couldn’t start so Andy was asked to push start the car. In the heat. A hot car. Ah. Welcome to Ohrid!

Ohrid. We’d both wanted to come here for a long long time. It’s all in the name!

And also, it’s supposed to be pretty here. All Macedonians we’ve spoken to told us to come here. It’s a place they are proud of.

There used to be 365 churches here (one for each day of the year). I think we had one of these towns in Central America. A prize to the person who comes up with the name.

We dropped our bags into our room – beyond any kind of interior designer’s imagination… as in, almost kitsch but bad – and left for lunch.

With the heat we’ve had throughout the trip, we’ve all been looking forward to the lake. We went to the coolest bar by the shore; scored great seats and dived in. The water was cool at first, but oh so pleasant. We had cocktails, Andy read his book, we chatted. Most relaxing.

At 6pm, we were ready for our city tour. Orhid has a look and feel of a Mediterranean town. Cobbled streets, many churches; terraced bars. It’s busy but not crazy busy. Everyone here is having a nice time.

Our tour lasted two hours and it took us though all the major sites in town. As well as being an extremely popular summer destination, Ohrid has many claims to fame: a superb music festival yearly (tonight’s the opening night and the President of Macedonia’s in town); an Easter procession; the lake (as a summer destination) and of course (oh the things you learn!) Saint Clement of Ohrid who invented Cyrillic – now used by 250 million people.

It’s so pretty here – every corner is an opportunity to explore and photograph. Andy and I both got left behind by the tour. We have no idea what is what or why, but we had a great time and have cool photos! I’m seriously thinking we should come back for a week; there are so many back streets we’d love to explore further.

We did all end up at St Jovan Kaneo just in time for sunset. The church is picture pretty, and the sunset was vibrant. Its supposedly the most photographed building in Macedonia, it’s easy to see why.

A short walk back to town for dinner. Traditional food (which was delightful) and a break away from the wine drinking group tonight for me. I ordered a small bottle of red wine. It was divine. I let people try it and soon enough bottles of the stuff were ordered.

We walked back to our hotel (we’re about 15 minutes from the centre) along the busy promenade.

The place has a great vibe. We like it.

Ohrid is nice.

Wonderfully weird Skopje

We left the hotel at 6:30am; we just had time for a quick breakfast – boiled egg, bread, and a good coffee.

We got into taxis and headed to the railway station. One of the taxi drivers was puzzled when we told him we were getting the train to Skopje and said he could drive us there in an hour.

Ah. The romance of rail travel.

Ivan had told us that the station was something special. It was.

The decrepitude was an indication of the state of the railway and the many trains we would take today.

We boarded the train, the engine switched round and we were off. Two stations later – at Fushe Kosovo – we got off and boarded a smaller train. This one was more crowded.

Very quickly, the scenery became more rural but even then, houses scattered the landscape and you do feel that you’re never far from people.

Past Kacanik, a series of tunnels and bridges took us further into the hills. The train emptied, and there were only a handful of us left on board.

We followed streams. There are signs of progress in the distance – a new road, a new bridge.

The train was constantly blowing its whistle.

We stopped at Hani i Elezit and were told to get off the train. So we did. We used this opportunity to stretch our legs and use the bathroom.

A new Macedonian engine arrived after about 20 minutes. We boarded and departed.

Andy and I had our own cabin. We looked out of the window – very green – and read our books.

The only reason we knew we’d crossed the border is when the train stopped outside abandoned buildings which – a sign told us – were the border police. After 10 to 15 minutes, a police car arrived. The officer got on board, asked for our passports, got off the train and drove away. We all stayed on the train apart from two men who went into one of the buildings, got up on a desk and took two fluorescent tubes down and boarded the train again.

The officer came back after another 15 minutes or so. He handed all the passports and identity cards to a passenger who was having a cigarette and left.

That was all a bit funny.

At each station, I made sure to wave to the station masters – most waved back; one winked… and one was obviously too cool to acknowledge my wave.

We continued on to Skopje. As we got nearer, we could see the Millennium Cross on top of the hill. And a driving school where all the cars go round a course – a beginner’s off road driving course. Another funny thing.

As we got further into Macedonia, we really began to appreciate how poor Kosovo is. Everything is just a touch smarter in Macedonia.

When we got to the station, it felt like it was only us in what must have been at one time a huge busy intersection. Either that or the dream never realised. The platforms were all overgrown with weeds.

A quick taxi ride took us to our hotel. We checked in, handed the laundry in and left for lunch.

It’s about 15 minutes walk to the ‘centre’ of town. The first thing you see – and you cannot not see it – is a statue of Alexander the Great on Macedonia Square. It dominates the landscape, and we later found out it cost €35 millions. Crazy. Most Macedonians hate it. We also found out that the two lions at the end of one of the bridges cost €1 million each.

We had lunch on the square. We picked a branch of the first craft beer brewery in Macedonia – Temov. The food was excellent. We had tasty salads, and a traditional platter of cheese, garlic paste, bread, red pepper tapenade and olives. I tried a pilsner, and a smoked beer (my sample was almost as big as my beer!).

Getting going was tough. The temperature was well over 40c today, and shade was tricky to come by. But we knew we had to make the most of our day here so we soldiered on.

We walked along the river bank and crossed the Vardar river. The buildings on the other side of the river are insane. A modern ancient Rome is maybe the best description we can come up with. Andy’s going for ‘neo-classicism gone mad’. Ostentatious.

The other thing that struck us was the amount of statues and sculptures everywhere. Classical, historical, fun, tragic, arty. They’re everywhere. And as we crossed the bridge, I heard a noise. I turned to a local woman who was standing next to me and asked ‘music’. She replied ‘yes’. Classical music was playing in the street. When we passed by later on, it was Christmas music.

Three of us struggled up the hill. The heat was relentless. We made for the Contemporary Art Gallery but it’s Monday so it was shut. To the security guard’s dismay, we still went through the door and refilled our water bottles at the water cooler. Not wanting to waste a trip up the hill, we went to the fortress.

The fortress is the city’s highest point. It dates back to the 6th century AD, and underwent many changes throughout the years. It afforded us great views of the city, and in particular the national stadium.

Our travel companion started chatting to two young Turkish guys who were travelling. I noticed that they were carrying a musical instrument – a cumbus – and I asked them about it. One of them took it out, tuned it and started to play… and sing. It was a special moment.

We made our way to Čaršija (the Ottoman bazaar). A series of narrow streets – initially filled with tourist shops, and then further in with bars and cafés and then further on with local shops. We stopped for cold drinks and drank those quickly. We chatted some more, trying to gather the courage to stand up again. The local cafés furthest away were busy with men drinking coffee and playing dominos. We visited the big mosque on top of the hill. An older man inside delighted to see us waved us in. Back in the narrow street, I bought a syrup donut from a local woman, and it tasted heavenly. I tried to work out in my head how many more times I could ‘walk past’.

As the local mosques started the call to prayer, we made for a tea shop and had cold handmade lemonades.

Back on the main square, we met the rest of the group for a small orientation tour.

Dinner at Pelister was both fun (the company) and a little disappointing. It is the best restaurant in town, but the salads were not a success at our end of the table. We tried three different Macedonian white wines (taking our research seriously) and they were okay. I have a feeling that the reds would be better… but this is not red wine weather.

We had no expectations of Skopje. It turned out to be a fascinating, richly varied, historical and crazy place.

The ‘excited state of the Mohammedans’

9:30am start today to accommodate last night’s festival goers. This trip is sooooo easy!

We followed the river out of town. It was a gentle 45 mins walk up to the fortress. We were in no hurry, and the path was in the shade the majority of the time.

From the top, we had an incredible view of Prizren and the Shar mountain range. We saw how integrated the town used to be – with the main mosque, the orthodox cathedral and the catholic cathedral all within a short distance of each other. We counted up to 27 mosques; we were challenged by the information board to find 45. We could also see the terracotta tiles of the former hamman. All the roofs in town used to be like this. It would have looked spectacular.

We took a more direct route down – steep. En-route, we stopped to visit the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Saviour. There used to be 12,000 Serbs living in this corner of Prizren, now there are 12. They came back a few years ago when their houses were rebuilt by the British Embassy and they are financially supported by Serbia. The church was built around 1330, and sadly it was damaged and set on fire during the Kosovo war. The man currently looking after the church had to leave Kosovo along with his family during the peak of the conflict. Serbian homes were often set on fire. He came back a few years ago and told us there were no words to describe that feeling of coming home.

Back in town, we stopped for ice tea at a terrace bar, sitting facing the street – the way we’ve seen locals do it – and people watched.

We timed it so that we would be able to visit the Sinan Pasha Mosque between prayers. It was built in 1615 and it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in Kosovo. It underwent restoration a few years back funded largely by Turkey. I personally preferred the local one we visited yesterday – smaller, intimate and beautifully decorated. But this one also had beautiful calligraphy and details – such as the windows’ intricate pattern wood surround.

For lunch, we opted to go back to Besimi. We ordered a large bottle of water, a small salad to share (potatoes; olives; sweet corn and those red peppers we had yesterday) and some freshly backed round bread. I also ordered fli –also known as flia. This was a typical Kosovo specialty I was keen to try. It consists of multiple crepe-like layers brushed with cream, and traditionally it takes hours to make, as the batter repeatedly needs to be layered and baked. It was tasty.

We treated ourselves to ice cream; it’s at least 36c out there today and boarded the tourist train. We had our doubts but were persuaded to give it a go as other people in the group recommended it. The ride takes no longer than 15 minutes and we got to go down streets we hadn’t yet explored – shops full of those amazing dresses we’d seen in Peja, traditional clothing shops (these are primarily for locals rather then tourists) and shoes. We got to see a totally different side to the town, all for €1.50 each.

After a short comfort break back at the hotel, we met up with the group again as Ivan had made an appointment for us to go inside the church of the Virgin of Ljeviš. But as yesterday, we had to contend ourselves with looking at it from the outside. We completed the necessary paperwork with the police officer in charge of the site but both he and Ivan were unable to get hold of the priest. There was a strong siesta rumour going round 🙂

So three of us retired to a bar and people watched some more. We checked a couple of jewellery shops where we admired filigree (‘ornamental work of fine (typically gold or silver) wire formed into delicate tracery’ – source) and antique bracelets.

And then things got serious.

€1 got us into the League of Prizren museum. This is an extremely important place historically. Ivan started our Balkan history lesson the day we crossed into Kosovo. He carried on last night; he had us all sitting down on benches in a public square. We were absorbing his every words (we may be quizzed on this at the end of the trip). And it basically went something like this: to understand the Balkans today, you have to understand what happened during the Kosovo war. To understand what happened during the Kosovo war, you have to understand what happened during the break up of Yugoslavia. To understand what happened during the break up of Yugoslavia, you have to understand what happened during the Second World War. To understand what happened during the Second World War, you have to understand what happened during the First World War. To understand what happened during the First World War, you have to understand what happened at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The Congress of Berlin is what got us to this museum today. The Treaty of Prizren in June 1878 basically identified Albania groups of different religions as one nationality.

The museum was a little dry and there were copies of letters from diplomats reacting to the Treaty (hence today’s title) but we did feel a sense of history.

The other building contained some old clothing from the various regions, and an art gallery.

Wandering the back streets, we came across local mosques, and older houses with intricate details. A man approached me and in French, started telling me about the state of some of the houses. In the past, seven brothers used to live in one of the houses, now one of them comes back once a year for two to three weeks but he isn’t spending any money of the house, and soon the roof will cave in.

The best t-shirt of the day was this kid wearing a ‘I’m Albanian and I cannot keep calm’ t-shirt. Funny.

At 7pm, we left the hotel. Andy for the fortress to go and have a look at sunset and me for dinner with the group. Let’s be clear on this: I was on social duties. Marashi is local restaurant by the river. We had some great local food – fried cheese; a village salad; rough country bread (crisp outside but moist inside); a yogurt dip and white Albanian wine. It was a very relaxed affair. Good food; great company.

On our walk back to the hotel, we were again surprised by the number of people in the street. All ages are out and about every night – watching and being watched. The obligatory evening constitutional.

The newest country in Europe

 

Quite a leisurely start to the day with breakfast at 8am and departure at 9:30am. I’m really getting a taste for cheese and honey!

The drive to the border was short. 45 minutes or so. On the way, we followed the Dragobi river. Ivan told stories of the law of the mountains which still operate in the region. Historically, there was no police force around, so this was how law and order was maintained. But it is very much about blood feud – a perpetual cycle of violence based on revenge.

Crossing into western Kosovo was sleek. The border officer came on board, took our passports and came back within a few minutes.

We are in Kosovo; the newest country in Europe and the second newest in the World – after South Sudan. Newest and youngest, with youth representing a third of the population.

The first thing to hit you is the number of graves everywhere. Most of them from 2008/2009. We all know about the atrocities and the fighting that came with the independence of Kosovo. To date, the country is not recognised by all UN countries.

We stopped at the Dečani monastery. This UNESCO World Heritage site is guarded by KFOR, as are many Serbian monasteries in Kosovo. The seriousness of the NATO troops dealing with us (we had to leave our passports with them) give an indication of how raw things still are here.

Despite attacks from ethnic Albanians who’d like to see the Serbs leave, the 25 monks living here, in total isolation from the local community, have stayed and in 2016 even won a legal case reaffirming their right to ownership of the land.” (source: Lonely Planet)

We were promised a treat, and we were not disappointed.

The monastery was founded in the first half of the fourteenth century.

The 700 year-old frescoes are original; they were preserved by the smoke of the candles. They are carefully cleaned once a year. One of them is unique in that it is of Jesus with a sword – and if not unique, then one of the rarest depictions of Jesus. The sword holds a spiritual meaning and does not have any connotation of war. There are over one thousand compositions and a few thousand portraits. Once you enter the church, a sense of tranquility descends upon you. They only allow one group at a time, and we’re a small group.

The vibrancy of the colours; the smell of incense; the diversity of subject matters and a true sense of history make for an incredible site.

Majestical even.

Ivan had told us to stop at the shop to buy a bottle of 2009 red wine. This wine – made by the monks who still live on site – is allegedly one of the best in the Balkans.

We got to Peja after a short drive; checked into our room (I need to mention the art in our room. We have three frames. They are all empty) and made for lunch as the call to prayer started. We kept it light for lunch – but did try a draft Peja pilsner – and set off for a tour of the town.

Having asked Ivan about safety in town, we opted not to take our camera bags with us and went off with just our cameras. He’d also told us there wasn’t much to see in town and his orientation tour took about twenty minutes. We saw the Bajrakli Mosque; the Ottoman-era bazaar – which was rebuilt after the Kosovo War, and the diaspora monument.

Kosovo was one of the countries on my list. From the moment it became a country. And it is a difficult reality to be here and see that there is still much work to be done before people can be comfortable here. Politicians are corrupt; youth unemployment is between 50%-60%; it is one of the poorest countries in Europe with the average salary being €300… and allegedly, this is one of so called ISIS most successful recruitment grounds.

Interestingly enough, on our walk yesterday, Adenis told us that the UK was no longer a popular country to move to – as it now costs £12,000 to enter illegally. The stories we’re hearing here – and in the Valbona valley yesterday – are that the people who do move abroad – and now it is likely to be Germany or Switzerland – pour money back into the local economies. And these are the people who are responsible for moving their country forward and giving their families a decent lifestyle. A consequence of this is that the younger generation doesn’t now need to move abroad, and Adenis is making his own luck in Albania, guiding local and international tourists, aged 19.

We left the centre of town and walked through the suburbs to walk along the riverside. It was only 3pm and we were not ready to go back to our hotel. So we explored. The walk wasn’t scenic, but it was good to stretch our legs. We noticed some abandoned houses. Ivan told us Serbian families lived there, and the houses were set on fire. The street signs are in Albanian and Serbian; I noticed one where the Serbian name was crossed out.

We got into a semi-wooded area, and a bit further along a clearing with a few cafés. The place was incredibly busy; mostly older men sitting, chatting, playing cards. All topless.

We crossed the river – the banks full of rubbish – and walked back to town. We had a cool drink in one of the terraced bars and refreshed continued to explore the centre of town. It was only 4:30pm but the only museum in town was now closed so we wandered around. There are many shops selling incredibly detailed wedding dresses – colourful, fashionable or traditional. A young woman was trying a dress on and we found out it costs €380. And alongside, sport shops selling football shirts – Mustafi and Xhaka in particular.

The excitement of realising that dinner was at a restaurant our Dutch friends in Tirana recommended to us died down quickly as I read the menu and saw that it was Italian. This is the best restaurant in town; I would have liked to try Kosovan food. The walk back to the hotel took us down a pedestrian street – with restaurants and bars packed.

We got back to our room and immediately, it became apparent that we wouldn’t sleep much tonight. There is a wedding party in the hotel restaurant and the band has just got going. Wish us luck!

It’s the raki talking

Things we learnt from our first night in the Valbona Valley. The silence at night is eerie, and it gets really dark.

Not surprisingly, we slept well and slept in too as breakfast was at 8am. Sheep cheese, local honey, fig and plum jam, freshly baked bread and pancakes.

Our transport this morning was this awesome yellow thing, which somehow still works. We all loved it!

The drive was a short one. Which was a shame. I think we would all have liked to spend more time in our yellow van… but maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t.

We crossed a dry riverbed, and started to climb. Our three-hour walk took us deep into the remote valley of the Valbona Valley national park. The climb was slow, but we made good progress. Surrounded by high mountain peaks, the landscape is alpine. Green meadows, wild flowers, traditional homes and farmlands. Most houses around here have their own plot where all family members are buried. We had bird song for company, as well as butterflies, beetles, lizards and someone spotted a snake.

We foraged tiny wild strawberries and raspberries, which tasted heavenly.

It was a gentle walk – both the ankle and the knee held up so that was good news.

On the way back, we stopped in someone’s house for drinks. Andy had a Turkish coffee (strong and thick) and I had mountain tea. The tea is made with a natural plant we’d seen on our walk – a kind of chamomile.

Continuing down, we came across the abandoned post office, which in recent years was used by the mountain police – the high peaks are the border with Montenegro. In the village, we saw a few other abandoned houses and a couple of bunkers. I make it that I’ve now seen four bunkers, maybe five… so… only another 699,995 to go. Yep, Albania has a lot of bunkers.

Lunch was a relaxed affair at Tradita restaurant. One of those long stretched out meals in the shade. We were there for over two hours I’d say. And we tried a lot of things. The usual salad (cucumber, tomatoes, salad and olives); bread; grilled corn bread; chips; locally made yogurt (slightly sour); cheese; polenta and cheese; spinach byrek… So tasty. Lager for me, and local white wine for Andy (he will learn… eventually).

Back at Villa Dini for a rest.

At 5:30pm, we went to the house of a village elder. We sat under a tree, and we asked questions, many questions, about life in the village and the changes he’s seen over the last twenty years. His wife joined us. They’ve been married 64 years and they seemed very happy together, sneaking smiles every so often. They were very welcoming. And the raki came out. Homemade plum raki. Strong rough stuff. And fresh cheese. So good.

Dinner was a lengthy affair. We all got a little giggly.

Café society

 

 

We’d set the alarm for 7:30am in a bid to do quite a bit this morning as we were leaving Tirana at 1pm.

Bags packed, we got breakfast out of the way quickly and set off.

We headed for the square, which this morning had large patches of water running from the top down (the square is not flat). This – a man told us – is to keep the place cool. And as we looked around, we saw more irrigation gaps which we guessed can be turned on or off as needed. We crossed the square and headed for the Resurrection Cathedral – a modern Orthodox structure consecrated in 2014. A mass was in progress so the Cathedral was packed, we could only just have a look inside the main door; it has a large bright dome shape inside with lots of glittering gold tiles on the walls.

We’d planned to spend the morning at the National Art Gallery. For most of our time there, we were the only two visitors. On the ground floor, the art is traditional – people in traditional costumes, manual workers, peasants and so on. And then it got interesting. Artists were encouraged to paint historical and political scenes. Big scale art. Colourful scenes. Happy workers proudly working for the country. The industrialisation. Some even went further and painted scenes of Skanderberg fighting the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. One painting caught our eye. Edison Gjergo’s “The Epic of the morning’s stars”. There are a few figures in the background, and people took offence to this. They’re in the dark, surely that means they’re plotting against the regime. And so Gjergo was sent to prison (where he died) and his art was blacklisted.

At the back of the museum, a small garden – out of bounds unfortunately – holds a collection of bronze statues. These, we found out later, depict Socialist workers and two are of Stalin. Sadly, they were covered up. Apparently they were uncovered last week…. So maybe it’s to protect them from the sun? We must remember to check these out in two weeks time… who knows?

We stopped for coffee at Noor. Andy was happy with his macchiato. We reflected on the art we’d seen. We felt almost like locals. Sitting at a café, chatting. No matter what time of the day it is, you’ll find people chatting over an espresso. Making time for each other, catching up. No mobile phones in sight.

Our next destination was the Et’hem Bey Mosque. Visitors are welcome to look inside (and photographs are allowed). We took our shoes off and went in. The mosque was built in 1791. Closed under Communist rule but active again since 1991, it is seen as a monument to religious tolerance in the country. Trying not to disturb the men praying, we admired the frescoes inside, and those in the portico, which depict trees and waterfalls – motifs rarely seen in Islamic art.

We just had time to pop into the corner bakery for a couple of byrek (flaky pastry pies with cheese or courgette). Cheap, and tasty.

We left Tirana for Shkodër. We drove north-east along a main thoroughfare, with mountains as background and vast glass buildings on either side of the road initially, and then more residential properties. The sky clouded over and then it rained. Our guide, Ivan, set us a challenge (that’s the ex-teacher in him). A kind of Albania photography bingo. We have ten things to photographs. I already know that I won’t win as the last challenge is to get an Albanian Facebook friend. Oh well, it’s the taking part that counts, right?

We drove through various towns. Colourful high rises at the foot of mountains.

We arrived in Shkodër around 2.30pm. It’s the fourth largest city in Albania. I meant to check how many people live here. Can’t be many. There are three million people in Albania, of which one million lives in Tirana and all have a car. The traffic in town is non-stop. This is because no-one was allowed to have a car when the country was closed and so when things opened up… yep, they went car-crazy. (There’s a rumour going around that most of them can’t officially drive.)

Our hotel – Tradita Geg & Tosk – is super cute. It’s over 300 years old. Our room achieves both comfort and tradition. We left our bags in our room and made our way to the centre of town.

The short walk was pleasant enough with the temperature a gentle 28c. The town is one of the oldest and most historic places in the Balkan peninsula.

Passing the Ebu Beker Mosque, we walked down the main pedestrian street, lined up with cafés and bars.

Our guide suggested we visit the Marubi National Museum of Photography. The museum is in an old building on the main street, the interior is very modern with white walls and a glass staircase. It traces the history of photography in Albania – with photographic plates, gelatin silver prints, etc. And it had an interactive photo studio. The original studio was set up by Pietro Marubi. in the 1850s. Marubi was Italian and no-one really knows why he settled in Albania. At some point, all the works were donated to the country and so historical images were preserved. The wealth of images is staggering – from the history of Albania to its varied regional cultures. We had just over 45 minutes there and we could have done with another 30 minutes.

We joined the rest of the group outside one of the terrace bars and had a cheeky half. My. If the beers in Tirana were cheap, they’re almost giving these away. 80 lek for a half. That’s £0.52.

We got back to the hotel for a quick refresh before getting taxis to the Rozafa castle. A stone road leads all the way up to the fortress – 130 metres above sea level. Perched on top of a rocky hill, it has wide views of the countryside on one side; an old mosque on another side (we were wondering whether it was still an active mosque when we heard the call to prayer); a lake with mountains on another (which turned out to be Montenegro) and Shkodër on the final side. There was hardly anybody there so we could play castle to our heart’s content. We didn’t. There isn’t a lot left to see but exploring the ruins was fun. There are three courtyards, and the fortifications are still intact. We had seen photos of it in the photography museum just a few hours before and it is still as imposing as it was then. And the views were pretty spectacular with special added cloud effects.

For dinner, Ivan recommended the hotel’s restaurant. The setting is truly special and homely. The food was great – a fresh salad of tomatoes, olives and cucumber; salty goat cheese; corn bread; cheese pies; dolmades and then grilled cheese. Andy had a glass of white wine, and I had a glass of red. Both Albanian, but we don’t know what they were as we never saw the labels. They were both good.

As the rest of the group moved to the courtyard for more drinks, we retired to our room to get ready for the morning. We have an early start. That, and the fact that we have a few smokers in the group.

Welcome to Tirana!

 

We’re back on the road, and it feels good.

We’ve missed this space, and we’ve missed you all (Chris, are you there? Chris?).

The cats looked at us in disbelief last night as we were packing our bags. But this trip couldn’t come at a better time for us. Re-adjusting to London life since Big Trip has been a challenge.

Packing was a last minute affair, yet fairly straightforward. I guess we’re expert packers now 🙂

The best thing is that our bags weigh nothing at all; they’re both hovering around 10kgs. That’s a whole 13kgs less each than we had when we set off for Mexico City!

The taxi picked us up for the airport at 5:30am. The drive to Gatwick seemed long but there was plenty to look at out of the window – the mist over the North Downs, patterned fields.

Andy got the window seat and was rewarded with stunning views of the (Italian) Alps. Three women seated a row ahead of us were discussing travelling to Nicaragua and Guatemala. They then settled on Costa Rica and they thought a week would be enough. No (I may have said this too loud at the time)!

We landed at Tirana at just after midday and we were in our taxi soon after 12.20pm. The driver spent the journey telling us about the corruption here, how immigration is a problem, the Albanian mafia and then basically increased the fare by €6. But we stood firm. The price had been agreed in advance.

The hotel staff were happy to see us (as in, really happy). Friendly, informative and welcoming.

We hit the town. Tirana is a city made for walking. It hasn’t got main sights as such, but it’s great to explore. As long as we kept going, we were fine. If we stopped, the heat got to us. We’re not sure what the temperature is exactly. Somewhere around 33c to 36c. I remember reading somewhere that in the summer you should never turn off the air conditioning. Tirana is hot, sometimes extremely hot.

We tried a few places for lunch without luck. The places we checked out didn’t take euros, or cards and we didn’t have any lek. So we got some cash out and hit an ice cream parlour.

It’s difficult to describe what the city looks like. It’s all fairly low rises. Big public squares. A lot of benches – the older generation sits and wiles away the afternoon. As tempted as we were to join them, we had a lot to see.

The Pyramid of Tirana was built as a shrine to communist leader (dictator?) Enver Hoxha. “From 1944 to 1992, Albania was governed under a harsh Communist ideal that modeled itself after Stalinism” (source). The Pyramid is now a crumbling – and unsafe looking – wreck of a building.

Next up was Reja – inside the cloud. An art installation which you can walk over and under. We didn’t stay long as sadly, it hasn’t been well looked after and is now quite grubby (think of it as sitting under a grey-brown cloud)

Thirsty after all this sightseeing and walking, we looked for a bar with Albanian beer in Blloku (“the Block”), which is a fairly upmarket area with lots of cool bars and restaurants.  And then gave up and had a Kosovan beer at Nouvelle Vague, a colourful cocktail bar. The beer was refreshing and we drunk it like we had a glass of water in front of us. Note to self: must remember to drink a lot of water.

Bunk’Art 2. This 106-room nuclear bunker is now a museum and an art gallery. It was built for the dictator in the event of an attack. The permanent exhibition is depressing – it describes how the country’s police force was slowly turned into an oppressive security force. This felt all too familiar, having just spent last weekend in Berlin where we learnt all about the Stasi and how they spied on and tortured their fellow country people. We were not expecting to find this in Albania, not to that extent anyway, and were shocked by what we read. One of the information panels described 36 methods of torture known to have been used there.

We crossed the Skanderbeg Square again. This is the main square in central Tirana. At one end of the square, there’s a statue of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu on a horse. I must confess I know nothing about him. As the temperature had dropped a little, locals were out and about, taking a stroll. A number of people were heading for a podium (near the monument) where loud music was coming from.

The town really comes to life in the evening. It feels like most of Tirana eats out, small tables set on the pavement. We headed to Oda – a traditional restaurant. We sat outside and were joined by two Dutch couples. We talked about the food – our two dishes were excellent – Patellxhan I mbushur me oriz (stuffed aubergine) and Lakror presh ose spinaq (filo spinach pie). One couple shared tips for Kosovo. And just then, I was reminded about how good it is to travel. How much we’d learnt already today. How meeting new people is fun and especially when they’re interested in the places they’re travelling through.

Hot and weary, we made our back to the hotel. After an early start this morning we were ready to go to sleep early.

Never stop exploring

We thoroughly enjoyed writing about our day, each day. It made us think about what we saw, the people we met and the adventures we had. And now, we have wonderful memories, which we’re hoping to convert into a book.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be sorting a lot of photos. We’re also planning to post a few round ups (e.g. country highlights, booking information and new photos).

We’ve already decided to continue our Explorers of the World blog. Of course, it’s completely up to you whether you continue to follow our adventures. We hope you will; we’ve enjoyed the comments and the many reactions we’ve had so far.

To give you a taste of what’s to come. 2017 will see us taking a few city breaks (Stockholm, Berlin and Edinburgh); exploring Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and going on a landscape photography trip to Harris (Scotland).

For now, it only remains for us to announce our competition winner. We’ve loved every single comment, and the discussions which ensued. We’ve loved sharing this wonderful world of ours with you all.

Our competition winner put a lot of work into it – with 135 comments, a mixture of information, stories, weather warnings to keep us safe and just the right amount of admiration.

Julian has blotted his copy book. The rum is all mine, all mine!

That’s right Chris. The rum is all yours. Congratulations! You just have to wait for our box to arrive in the UK (er, it hasn’t left Auckland yet).

A long good Friday

We had coffee in our room and finalised our plans for the day. Our first decision was to extend our room booking for another night. The alternative was to check out at 12 noon, hand our luggage in and have a shower later on. That all required too much effort, so we just booked an extra night and can use the room stress free until we’re ready to leave for the airport.

Our breakfast destination was only a few minutes walk from the MRT Outram Park station, just one stop over from our hotel.

The Populus Coffee & Food Co. has good coffee. Flat whites are back! And the food was tasty too. Populus wouldn’t be out of place in Hoxton.

From there, it’s a 23 minute walk to our next destination – Yong Siak Street. At first, it wasn’t apparent why you’d make the journey.

Yong Siak Street is in the middle of a residential area with high rises all around us. Yet, the small street is packed with cool things – great places to eat, a wine shop and a yoga centre. Some pictures on the wall tell the story of an old coffee stall that had lots of caged birds to entertain the customers. We had made the journey to browse the shelves of Woods in the Books (a children’s bookshop) and Books Actually, the latter has a book machine outside selling ‘mystery books’ and they publish books with a local slant such as mini guidebooks to each area of Singapore with hand-drawn sketches or short stories. We love it! Almost every single book we picked up captured our imagination and interest.

Our last stop was Plain Vanilla Bakery. They are famous for their cupcakes. Andy had a flat white and a raspberry breakfast muffin. I had an amazing strawberry custard tart and a carrot juice. This place is divine.

We were on a tight schedule so regrettably, we had to leave and so we got a cab to our next destination – Kampong Glam. This district formerly housed the Malay aristocracy and had a vibrant Malay population during the British colonial period. A man walking past us took the time to stop to tell us that Malay people had suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Chinese. Nowadays, the area is known as the Muslim Quarter and the imposing Sultan Mosque dominates the area. The streets were busy with people making their way to the mosque; we’d arrived just as the prayer call started. We walked down a few streets – Haji Lane and Arab Street in particular. Many have original shop houses with boutique shops and restaurants. Kampong Glam is very colourful. It is one of the few areas in Singapore where graffiti is allowed.

We had lunch at Alaturka, one of 34 restaurants in Singapore to be awarded a Bib Gourmand award in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide in 2016. We shared some olives, babakanus, hallumi and an ispanakli pite. We took our time as the sunshine had given way to torrential rain.

After lunch, we sought shelter in Intersections, an art gallery currently exhibiting the works of Tania Nasr and Hanibal Srouji. Burning Landscapes – the exhibition – explores the themes of fire and landscapes. The works were aesthetically pleasing. Yet, in Hanibal Srouji’s case, his works symbolise the journey he undertook when he had to leave Lebanon (background).

The woman manning the gallery spent a few minutes chatting to us about Singapore, and travelling in general.

We took the MRT back to the hotel, and reluctantly made a start on packing our bags.

The rain let off. Time to head out for one last adventure.

We took the MRT to Bayfront and spent an hour or so walking around Gardens by the Bay. Lush greenery, exotic flowers and a great background – the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the business district. And of course, Supertree Grove. The supertrees have become a symbol of Singapore. I love that they are actually used to convert sunlight into energy for the gardens. The park is stunning and it absorbs a lot of people. We often found ourselves on our own. We walked to the other side of the Marina Bay Sands to look at the waterfront and the business district.

“Come on, let’s go home” said Andy.

We took the MRT to Chinatown station, got a deposit back on our travel cards and instead of heading to the hotel to finish packing and leave for the airport, we went on one last last adventure.

The sixth floor of the People’s Park Complex. It’s not easy to find, and this top tip – believe it or not – came from Booking.com.

LePark! is a ‘secret’ bar on the roof of the shopping complex. It has imported craft beers.

We’re not naive. We know that things can be tough here. Yet, we’ve had a great time.

We cheered to Singapore and headed into the night.

Time to go home.

On boarding the plane, we turned left and kept going

We got to the airport hours before we needed to, which is very unusual for us. The check-in was strangely more chaotic than we’d expected due to a shortage of staff.

After clearing immigration, we went up to the lounge. There was an array of complimentary food and drinks – soup, sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, tea, coffee, juice, wine, champagne and spirits. We chatted about the next leg of our journey; it soon became apparent that following our initial research months ago, we remembered little about what we’d be doing in Singapore.

Apart from eating.

It’s going to be a food-fest. We’ve only got a couple of days and have a list of twenty places to check out 🙂

We left the lounge as our flight was ready for boarding. Once aboard, we settled into our seats and familiarised ourselves with our surroundings. We watched a bit of TV, had dinner (with proper plates and cutlery!), a couple of drinks and then asked the stewardess to make up our beds. We slept relatively well and watched more TV after a comprehensive breakfast.

We landed in torrential rain and it took us a little while to get our bags from the carousel due to possible lightening. The taxi from the airport to the hotel was incredibly cheap and we even managed to see a few sights on the way. The heat and humidity are staggering after New Zealand. I love it!

As our room wasn’t ready, we had tea and coffee in the hotel restaurant (oh, the quality of flat white has already deteriorated) and used our time to plan our visit. Our hotel seems to be well located, nothing’s going to be too far away. Sadly, we had to strike a few things off the list as they’ve closed down (Jungle Beer – a local craft brew and Tian Kee & Co where I hoping to try the rainbow cheesecake); are closed for renovation (the Long Bar at Raffles so no Singapore Slings for us!) or de-installation (Singapore Art Museum).

We took a short walk to the Chinatown MRT station to buy our three-day transport cards. Our room was ready by the time we came back; it has a great view of the outdoor terraced garden – one of the hotel’s distinctive features. It prides itself on being sustainable.

Our first port of call was Little India – we followed a self-guided walk around markets and side streets. The place has so much energy; it was buzzing. Colours, sounds, smells. We ticked off one of our places for lunch – Kailash Parbat. We ordered the Bhatura Platter (four flavour Bhatura) with cole masala, Mirchi and Achaar and Masala Cheese marvel. We were about to order a portion of Paneer Butter Masala (a house speciality) when the waiter told us ‘no’. We had enough. It was all incredibly tasty and of course, our waiter had been right 🙂

The city-state of Singapore is located in a tropical rainforest climate. It gets 92 inches of rain every year. Turning into a side-street, I found the art installation I was looking for. The Umbrella Trees – created by local artist Marthalia Budiman – offer colour and protection from the elements. Each of the five trees rises up from a large green cushion that you can sit on to escape the rain and/or sun. The umbrellas were being replaced whilst we were there.

We continued to walk around the area until 4pm, when the temples opened. First, we visited the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple – dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver. The temple has a 60-foot-high monumental gopuram. Devotees were making offerings of fruit to one of the manifestations of Vishnu – mostly bananas.

Our second temple was the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple which is dedicated to Kali the Courageous, a ferocious incarnation of Shiva’s wife, Parvati the Beautiful.

The Mustafa Centre nearby is open 24 hours a day and it allegedly sells everything — if Mustafa doesn’t have it, you probably can’t find it anywhere else in Singapore!

We took the MRT back to the hotel for a well-deserved R&R. And then we took off again. Back on the MRT. Our destination this time was the Marina Bay Sands hotel for sunset – one of the most iconic buildings in Singapore. We had to buy two vouchers worth 20 SGD each. These we swapped for cocktails once we got onto the outdoor bar on the 57th floor. We managed to find some seats and had a good view of the pool. It was like a zoo – too busy and full of selfie sticks. We’d thought of staying there but the price is prohibitive and looking at how busy it is, we felt we had a lucky escape. There wasn’t much of a sunset after all that, but the cocktails were nice and the panoramic views are a sight to behold.

Back down to earth, we took the MRT to Telok Ayer Market – known as Lau Pa Sat by locals. This is one of the most popular food markets in the city, surrounded by the tallest buildings in the heart of the financial district. The market is apparently open round the clock. Andy had Indian (bhel poori and samosa poori) and I opted for Japanese (a small curry udon). The market was busy, and spilled onto the streets outside. We will need to go back… as we spotted a vegetarian stall which only opens during the day.

By the time we got back to our room, it was close to 9:30pm – that’s 1:30am New Zealand time. We’ve done well today.