July 25, 2008

Kotor and Secret Location X, Montenegro

With a desire for less people and more sights to see, I took my friend’s suggestion to head out of Budva for the day and visit the quieter and quainter town of Kotor; a half hour bus ride on the coast and through the mountains. Getting out of the station, my first sight was of an old stone wall descending impressively almost straight down a mountain that houses on it’s peak a fortress from the 15th century. At the base of the mountain there is the Bay of Kotor and the Old City, which is much larger and more impressive than the one in Budva, with old stone walls enclosing a maze of old streets, peppered with churches, stores, cafes and inhabited houses with beautiful doors and hanging laundry.
I was told to take the local bus out of town and head to a small village on the coast for lunch, and when I got to the entrance road of this paradise I immediately fell in love with one of the most undiscovered and tranquil locations I have found on my trip so far. I have decided to call this town Secret Location X so that it remains an unspoiled little sliver of holiday retreat where one can spend all day gazing at the majestic, sunlit mountains framing the sparkling water while sipping a beer at a tiny beach café with local Montenegrins. If I had more time and the bus schedule was different, I would have parked myself there for much longer than just an afternoon, but now that I know it exists, I know I can always go back provided I don’t get thwarted by my own ruse to keep it secret and forget where it is.

July 24, 2008

Budva, Montenegro

Happily on my way out of Skodra, I became a financial slave to public transportation which turned a 2 hour car ride into a five hour connecting bus route into Montenegro. While trying to buy my ticket for Budva, I was introduced to a Montenegrin pastime – cutting in line without an ounce of remorse. I was truly amazed at the disorganization of purchasing things which not only pertained to bus tickets but to just about everything you could possibly stand in line for. My nerves must have looked racked as I was consistently shoved out the way with a near approaching departure time because when I turned around after waiting a good 20 minutes on one “line” only to be told to go to another “line”, a young man who had taken my similar “line” journey looked at me and said “what is your problem?” after which I almost socked him in his perfect white teeth, but after traveling for a while you learn not to take accented language for literal meanings and I am glad I held my composure because he turned out to be a great help and good company. I did, however, have a sliver of satisfaction when I learned he was a Serb raised in Germany, and the first response in my mind was “what’s my problem? More accurately, what’s your problem?” But then I learned he was only 19 and, therefore, too young to be posed that question.
My new friend helped me secure local accommodation at his neighbor’s house just outside the main town of Budva after learning I had not booked anything in advance and the bus was to arrive after 10:00 p.m. I was happy to be in a residential part of town, in a small house on a hill overlooking the beautiful Adriatic coastline, away from the swarms of young kids and Russian tourists near Old City. The town outside of the Old City, which is a labyrinth of narrow stone streets, expensive shops, overpriced cafes and a marina, is underwhelming and supremely crowded and if it weren’t for the mountain range and clear blue waters that surround it, there wouldn’t be much reason to visit, unless your main goal is to party in a kind of Adriatic Sea meets Las Vegas style. Although it could be fun for some because there was a high percentage of beautiful women with fantastic long, tanned and toned legs to which I renamed the country “Montelegro”, a place which is so small in size compared to their Balkan neighbors, that I finally gained some patience when they felt the need to cut the queue.

July 21, 2008

Shkodra, Albania

The best part about Shkodra?
Sleeping in a communist-government-building-turned-hotel, which was kept up just about as well as the economy that relies almost entirely on immigration. Walking into the Rozafa Hotel, named after the famous medieval castle that towers over the city on a large hill with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, was like stepping back in time; it’s as if they just cleared the nametags off the doors and replaced “Office of the Minister” with “Room Number 5”. I actually had room number 409 which was a good hike up the stairs because the elevators stopped working in 1991 when the mechanic no longer had a job, but it provided a good view of a medium size city whose layout was disconnected and architecture bland (sorry Shkodra!). I tried to fall into the rhythm of the city by walking the streets during family hour but was disappointed when I just couldn’t get the beat. But Shkodra had the last word on that because not only was there a big music concert in the square outside my window with subwoofers on steroids but there was a “music hall” attached to the hotel that blasted traditional Albanian tunes until 5:00 a.m. I felt like seeing how far a bribe for silence would take me in a striving economy in a post-communist hotel, but decided instead to lay my head on the pillow and listen to the “concert” I liked most and lull myself to sleep; and much like the politics of the region, weather forced upon you or found on your own, everyplace will eventually expose a beat.

July 20, 2008

Tirana, Albania

Little did I know at the time that I was to have a guided, local experience in Tirana from the friendships I had made in Progradec. It was nice to arrive in a new city and not have to think of how to get places or where to stay; I was led to a simple and private room in the University section close to the center of town and, armed with the phone numbers of my” bodyguards”, I became immediately comfortable in my new surroundings.
Tirana is made up of three elements; Mercedes cars, coffeeshops and bars and cigarette vendors. Mercedes because of the bad roads (so I am told), coffeeshops and bars because of the bad economy and without jobs people get together and drink and cigarette vendors because, same as above, without jobs people get together and drink and then smoke. The ratio of restaurants to these other elements are very low and I have concluded that either Albanians do not eat or they only eat at home or they only eat coffee, beer and cigarettes. But besides for the lack of food options (although I did manage a medieval feast in a castle one afternoon) and second hand smoke, I found Tirana to be a relaxed city with an energetic early-evening-nightlife-vibe and some pretty groovy post-communist architecture; the town center is a circle of heavy buildings which were painted a soft yellow from the previous “revolutionary red” and has a museum with a large, communist mosaic on it’s facade that the city is in debate about weather to keep it up and preserve history or take it down and hope one day for an E.U nomination. I had wanted to walk the streets a bit more than I did, but I was “kidnapped” by my “bodyguards” into partaking in some serious café time, but I did manage to break free for a while and take some photographs of the city at sunset, with the Dajti mountain range surrounding the perimeter as the people gathered with their friends and families in the park by the casino and ate ice cream, played ball, and sat on benches talking.
After two days of being shuttled from coffeeshop to coffeshop and attended to as if I were the Princess of Tirana, it was time to say goodbye to my new friends and head North to see if the hospitality in the rest of the Balkans could match what I had been so lucky to find here.

Progradec, Albania

Saying goodbye to my new family and friends in Greece wasn’t easy, but the dropping Dollar and rising Euro had me fantasizing about my purchasing power with the more affordable Albanian Leke, and so, in the blazing summer heat, I boarded a bus at 2:00 p.m headed for Progradec, a small Balkan town on the banks of Lake Ochrid about 13 hours North of Athens. Now, if you did the math from the sentence above, then you would know that I arrived in Progradec at 3:00 in the morning. What the math won’t tell you is that I arrived at 3:00 in the morning on a dirt road with not a taxi in sight or any people on the streets. Just me, a few stray dogs, and some distant music – Welcome to Albania!
Luckily, I heard someone call to me from a balcony and realized there was a small “hotel” sign attached to the building. The voices belonged to two off-duty soldiers who were vacationing on the lake for the weekend and were rather confused and/or amused when they saw a bus stop and a girl with a pack get off and just stand there not quite sure of which direction to move toward. There was a considerable language barrier but, when one of them came down to retrieve me and tell me that I was “tardy”, I understood that to mean – “we are taking you off the streets at this hour.” And when it looked as though my only option was spending the night in a room with two Albanian soldiers, the McGyver in me came out and I made sure to talk really, really loud, waking some other guests and finally the hotel owner, where I was led to my own private room with my own private key where all I could do was practice my new Greek by excitedly exclaiming “Bravo!”
Lake Ohrid straddles two countries – Albania to the West and The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia to the East and has a peaceful, super-local vibe that attracts many weekenders from Tirana and absolutely none, except me, from New York. I arrived on a Sunday and after I walked down the dirt road I was dropped off on, I was able to see how Albanians spend their leisure time; old men in derby hats play dominos in large groups on benches in the park, families with small children rest and play under umbrellas near the water, teenagers smoke cigarettes next to parked cars playing music and adults eat the location specific fish of the lake, Koran (very tasty), and drink beer at small restaurants for hours. I chanced upon three nice guys from Tirana doing just that, eating and lounging, and we decided after my obvious isolation at the neighboring table to join forces and spend the rest of the day together. The Albanian hospitality was in full swing and I had instantly gained three new “bodyguards” who adopted me, since they were all related, as their token sister and made sure that anything I wanted or needed was taken care of – and I didn’t want or need for much; just some simple conversation, a view of the mountains, new friendships, and, well, perhaps a beer.
Leaving Progradec for Tirana on the minibus with one of my new friends in tow, watching as the small town faded into farmland on winding mountain roads, I thought about how much I am starting to trust the unknown. The fact that I could arrive in a small Albanian town at 3 a.m with no reservations and 48 hours later be on my way to being hand delivered in safety to the next destination is a measure of the amount of human kindness that still exists on all corners of the earth.

Agia Marina, Greece (Family Time!)

I was dropped off by my friends at my Aunt Eleni’s summer home in Agia Marina, which is 30 minutes outside of Athens on the coastline, and when I arrived, there was no one home, so I put my pack over the gate which led down to a beautiful pathway of trees, vines and flowers and decided to make my way to the beach while I waited. On my walk back to the house I heard a car gunning up the hill and stop behind me, and then heard Eleni’s voice call out “Yassas Andriana! Ella, Ella!” And just like that, the next two weeks with my newfound family continued to go straight uphill.
I didn’t know what I would find after so many years of distance, and not to my surprise but certainly to my pleasure, my Aunt Eleni is a super independent social-summer- butterfly and my Cousin Fanis has a great job, two beautiful and well-behaved teenagers, Christos and Anastacia, and a fabulous wife, Christina. I arrived a day before the “clan” and spent a reflective night, as Eleni was off with her friends playing cards, listening to the locusts music through the open window of what was once Fanis’ room as a child. Going from sleeping in dorm rooms in Athens to a family home by the sea that I never knew existed put me to sleep with the sweetest of dreams which came to a screeching halt when “Fanis and Family” arrived with their Athens house packed in the back of the car ready to settle in Agia Marina for the summer season. From then on the locusts music was intertwined with children’s laughter, feet pattering up and down the stairs, the clanking of dishes for afternoon snacks, ipod music and dinner party conversations. As I sat one night at sunset watching from the terrace as the wind brushed the surface of the Mediterranean in gradient patterns toward the West, vaguely listening to the sounds of domestic life surrounding me, I was recollecting a feeling of peace and belonging that had become a stranger to me in the year since my Mother’s passing. And at that moment, right on time with a clock I can’t see, I heard the news that her home in New Jersey had sold, which for many years was our “summer meeting place”. The clock was guiding me to remember, respect and love the past, but, also, to move forward and find the joy within the new and present future that awaits like the beautiful view from my families’ home in Agia Marina each and every morning.

July 18, 2008

Bethlehem, Palestine

In Jerusalem I was lucky to make a fast friendship with four other fabulous traveler’s who were as confused about the sporadic open and close times of the sights as I was. We decided to head out on a day when it seemed most things were closed (we think) and try an entrance into Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity, the barn where Jesus was supposedly born. A very short distance by car, we all piled in and made it to the imposing border in ten minutes where the high wall caging the city and it’s people on land they once roamed free can be seen stretched over the hillside like a scar. This border was not easy like Jericho with a few questions and a hand wave; this was an organized security maze of entrances, exits, passport control and metal detectors. We were able to pass without any trouble other than the feeling of sadness that people on all sides are living in an environment encased in fear, resentment, and anger.
At first sight, you are confronted with the towering cement borders of the designated land and the Palestinians have treated this wall as people from all over the world have done in the past; expressing themselves with spray-painted art and political messages – the famous JFK quote “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and a Bansky mural among them. Having to walk through this section to get to the main part of the city was, again, heartbreaking with it’s obvious lack of funding.
Keeping in the vain of struggle, we struggled about 5 kilometers in the heat, up a hill, toward the church where Mary struggled to keep Jesus from the same fate as the rest of the young boys in Bethlehem at the time – sure death. The Church of the Nativity has been one of my favorite’s so far, not just for the significant history, but for it’s elegant simplicity; muted, marble columns line the nave of high, rustic, barn-like ceilings with windows streaming in light on the preserved frescoes and highlighted floor mosaic. The Orthodox alter is dripping with lanterns of different colors and the surrounding walls display an impressive collection of interesting Orthodox religious icons. There are obviously many tourists and to see the spot where baby Jesus had his crib in the original barn beneath the present structure, everyone must bend through a small opening and walk down the stairs into a dark, candlelit, devoutly energized space where, much like the pilgrims at the top of Mt. Sinai, break into song and give the place a feeling of Christmas day over two thousand years ago (minus all the video and photo cameras).
On the way out through the winding fences of inclusion and exclusion under the watchful eyes of machine guns after just visiting the place where Jesus was hidden from a King Herod initiated genocide, I was scanning the millennium for some sort of progress on the “live and let live” frontier and, unfortunately, came up short. I wonder how many more thousand’s of years must past before we try the novel idea of learning from history and start playing nice in the sandbox.

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