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Albania and the Illyrian People


Albania is on the southwest edge of the Balkan Penninsula. We travelled a mountainous coastal route from Budva Montenegro to the city of Shkodër, in the foothills of the Albanian Alps.

The border crossing between Montenegro and Albania was under construction. According to the signs the EU is financing the Montenegrin portion.


Located in northwestern Albania, Shkodër was founded by the Illyrians in the fourth century BC.

Shkodër is on the confluence of three rivers, marshy land leads up to the city.

Perched on a hillside is Rozafa castle:

Legend has it that when being built in ancient times the fortress would collapse each night. Finally the three workmen, tired of having to start anew each day, decided to sacrifice one of their wives. Whichever hapless woman arrived with their refreshments would be a human sacrifice - Rozafa showed up and, upon learning of her fate, was granted her request to continue to care for her infant son:
'Let me see him with one eye
Let me caress him with one hand
Let me feed him with one breast
Let me rock his cradle with one foot'
She was buried alive in the foundation with her right eye, right breast, right hand and right foot exposed to grant her wish.

And so the castle was built and we have the disturbing story to remind us!

The fortress and walls we see today are from Venetian times although there has been a castle on this site for much longer. Admission is 200 lec - about two dollars!

There is a lovely restaurant at the top with a great glass-enclosed balcony hanging over a cliff.

We took a city bus from the centre to a street close to the base of the fortress. We walked about six blocks to the uphill road that leads to a rock paved path. It was a fairly steep climb. The rocks were slippery, not wet, but polished, so difficult to get a good foothold. In that regard it seemed more challenging coming back down, so not suitable for the elderly!!
Nobody on the bus spoke English but passengers were helpful and pointed when we needed to get off. We didn't know where to catch the right bus on the way back and decided to walk. We got a bit lost but only went a few blocks extra. 3.5 km as the crow flies, likely five km on the streets.

There seems to be a garbage problem in Albania. There is a lot of litter and garbage randomly dumped here and there - farmers fields and churchyards are littered with plastic bags. We passed piles of garbage on the way to the castle:
Garbage bins on the streets are overflowing, empty bottles, plastic bags and cigarette packages litter the curbs.
They incinerate the garbage, often next to rivers.
I read that people in the Balkans are becoming more aware of the environmental impact and are making efforts to do something about it.
It is a beautiful country, richly blessed by the sea, lakes, rivers and mountains but plastic bags hanging off branches, clinging to fences and generally blowing around ruin the aesthetics.

Lake Shkodër, the largest lake in Southern Europe is adjacent to Shkodër - it is a karst lake and a resort - we did not go there as public transportation seemed iffy - the same bus that dropped us off near the castle continues to the lake but only runs every hour and a quarter.

Also we have just spent time by the Adriatic Sea - so a big lake with pretty much a guarantee of litter didn't seem that appealing.

Still we are loving Albania. The people seem nice, everything is reasonably priced for us budget tourists and the scenery is fabulous. We have found a pretty restaurant where a substantial dinner for two costs thirteen dollars including gratuity:

Although Shkodër has a large Catholic population there are many beautiful mosques:
Albanians aren’t especially religious and the majority do not attend mass or mosque.

Shkodër has a pedestrian promenade lined with shops and sidewalk cafes. It leads to the old town where ramshackle old buildings sit empty (except if you peak through the shuttered windows - stuffed with garbage!!) interspersed with shops and bakeries.

Narrow little lanes branch off:
Crossing the street is a game of chicken, pedestrians do not have the right of way.
We got stuck in the middle of a traffic circle - I was terrified we would never get off but Jeff used the time wisely and ate his bagged lunch. By and by there was a break in the traffic and thus I am here to tell the story.

We met a nice young guy at a coffee shop, 33, born and raised in Shkodër. It is paradise, a wonderful place to live, close to the mountains, the Albanian Alps, the rivers, the lake and just half an hour to the Adriatic Sea. No jobs though, he works in Italy.

The government should hire a bunch of people to pick up litter, there would be no shortage of work!! Then I guess have a wiener roast. On a really big bonfire. ?

The streets are lined with narrow shops, lots of second hand stores, fruit markets, barbers and money changers.
Still, along fences and walls entrepreneurs set up random displays selling shoes, odds and ends, and vegetables.
It isn't out of the ordinary to see a horse or donkey pulling a cart down the street. I saw one every day but barely captured a photo.
All ages ride bikes, no helmets, brave.

Next stop is Tirana. We enjoyed Shkodër but two nights is adequate - our hotel was ok, although I froze at night. The air conditioner is also the heater and it didn't seem to throw much heat. The days are warm but it really cools off at night this time of year.
I may come from a cold country but have been spoiled by central heat!!
The Tirana hotel location is excellent. Two nights for 46 Euros, about 35 Dollars per night. We are a block from the intercity bus, no station, you just catch it on the street.
Food, accommodation and bus fare between cities are bargains in Albania.
Clothing and souvenirs seem comparatively expensive. So many men are wearing sweatpants Jeff calls them the Balkan tuxedo.

Albania had been part of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries and managed to gain independence in 1912.
Tirana, centrally located, became the capital. Today one third of the population of Albania live here!

The mural above the National History Museum on Skanderberg Square in Tirana depicts Albanians fighting off invaders throughout history,

From 1945 to 1991 Albania was under Communist rule. The mural was created during communist times with the prominent working man standing next to the strong woman with a rifle held high in her muscular right arm.
Enver Hoxha was the leader from 1944 - 1985. He ruled with an iron fist and was a huge fan of Stalin, breaking off ties with Yugoslavia because Tito was too soft and then abandoning Russian connections when Kruschev came to power.
About 17000 Albanians disappeared during communist times and over 100,000 spent time in labour camps. Even in the 1980s public hangings of 'enemies of the people' took place to discourage dissent.

People were not allowed to own cars but in the 1980s one hundred percent of the population was literate.

Why do we know so little about Albania?
1. It is a very small country with a population of about 3 million.
2. After breaking ties with China, in 1978, Albania was completely isolated/insulated from the rest of the world.
Nobody got in, and nobody got out! The people were told how great their country was doing, how much better off they were than everyone else.

The domino effect of other Eastern European countries leaving communism, coupled with a more liberal leaning leader helped Albania establish a democracy in 1992.
All of a sudden Albanians were exposed to Coca Cola, blue jeans, bananas, Madonna.
They were allowed to own cars! They have only been driving for 25 years, cut them some slack, but be a defensive pedestrian!!
Prior to 1991 they would not have been heavy consumers, they were living in one of the world’s poorest countries. there was not much to buy. Each household got a voucher that allowed them to purchase 1 kg of meat per week.
Informers could be anywhere and the Sigurimi, secret police, had ways to make you talk. If you managed to sneak out of the country, your family members would be punished.
In 1991 Albanians were exposed to the outside world for the first time in over 45 years. But their troubles were not over.
By 1997 Albania was in a state of anarchy or civil war. Two thirds of the population had invested in Ponzi schemes, allowed to flourish by the government, and lost their life savings, in total over a billion dollars.
There are layers upon layers of complexity in Albania.

From 1928 to 1939 Albania was a kingdom under self-proclaimed King Zog. King Zog was no sissy - he personally returned fire during an assassination attempt outside the Vienna Opera House in 1930. He fled into exile in 1939 when Mussolini took over the country.

During the chaos of 1997 a referendum to restore the monarchy was not successful although it is suspected there were irregularities in voting and the population may have wanted it back!

Winston Churchill said, 'The Balkans produce more history than it can consume.'

The Albanian flag is a red background with a black double headed eagle - taken from the national hero, Skanderberg's coat of arms. The square bearing his name was, until recently, a traffic circle with a fountain in the centre. What we see today was only completed in June 2017!
The pedestrian-only, slightly sloping area of 40000 sq metres, the largest public square in the Balkans, is very new!! Total cost: over 13 million euros.
The Opera House is under renovations right now so is not open.
The Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, is considered one of the great European writers of the twentieth century. Books include Broken April and The General of the Dead Army. There is a book store, a librari, in the opera house and it offers Kadare's books in English translation. There is also a Tourist information next to the book store and they have information on buses within Albania - we found this very helpful.

Albanian food is good, lots of veal dishes and fish. Bread. Shopska salad. Beer is cheap and good and a block from our apartment we could get a good cup of Americana coffee for 60 lec. We liked going there, one of the waiters spoke excellent English and would get our coffee as soon as he spotted us on the pleasant outdoor patio. However we found the child beggars disturbing. Their mother/handler would watch from across the road and the kids were persistent and pathetic. Runny noses, not too clean, defiantly making there way between the tables, hands out. The waiters gave them a bit of change so they would scamper off and quit bothering the patrons for a little while. We couldn't wrap our heads around it. Why weren't the kids in school?

Cappacino is typically one hundred and twenty lecs. One hundred lec is about ninety cents Canadian.

Pica is pizza, Byrek originated in Turkey but is like a national delicacy in most Balkan countries and coca-cola!! Fast food in Albania:

Mother Teresa, born in Macedonia, was of Albanian ancestry. Her statue sits outside St Paul's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Tirana.
The Tirana Airport, Nënë Tereze is named after the saint.

Mother Theresa was allowed to visit in the late eighties. She told the communist leader, Ramiz Alia, she would like to build a facility for poor children.
'There are no poor children in Albania' he retorted.

Tirana's pyramid, built in 1988 as a museum honouring Enver Hoxha, is in bad shape, kids play on it, scrambling up to the top. There is talk of fixing up the building but a previous decision to tear it down vies for attention. Hoxha's daughter was one of the architects on the original project.


Nearby, behind a locked fence, the Hoxha family mansion waits to be dealt with appropriately.

The communists built some 750,000 bunkers in Albania. Hoxha and his cronies were paranoid about an enemy invasion and were determined to protect themselves!
Concrete bunkers litter the landscape of this geographically small country.

There are two underground bunker displays in TIRANA, BunkArt 1 and 2. One is just off the main square, it goes underground five stories and is a major tourist attraction. The citizens only found out about it two years ago, likely just before it was announced as a tourist attraction!

In a quiet Central Park, near the Parliament buildings, a monument, Post Blloku, displays three items:

1. A bunker:
2. A sculpture made with mine shaft columns from the Spac Work Camp:
3. A fragment of the Berlin Wall:

During communist times electricity was brought to the country, farms were collectivized, industry developed, illiteracy stamped out and churches and mosques closed. 70 percent of the churches were physically destroyed.

Religion was completely banned from 1967 to 1990.

Albania was the world's only atheist state.

Today the majority of the population identify as Albanian not by their religious affiliation. It is not a particularly devout country and all kinds of people smoke, drink and eat pork.

They are considered exceptionally tolerant and during the Second World War protected Jews and also harboured Jews escaping from nearby countries.

Albania was the only European state with more Jewish people at the end of the war than it had at the beginning of the war. They started the war with a Jewish population of 200 - the number grew to 2000 by 1945.

One mosque that survived the communist era was used as a museum until it reopened in 1991.
Et'hem Bey Mosque on Sanderberg Square, was built in the eighteenth century.

Although the Ottomans tolerated other religions, those who converted to Islam were granted privileges like lower taxes and the right to hold political office. The fifteenth century Albanian National hero, Skanderberg, was Muslim until he reverted to Christianity and led an uprising against the Ottoman Turks restoring independence to Albania for 25 years.
He is revered in Tirana where his statue holds a place of honour on Skanderberg Square. Stalin's statue used to be on this spot.

What happens to a very poor, isolated, historically tribal country reconciling with its communist past?
That is recent history here, still playing out over centuries of influence - the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, the Mussolini Italians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the nazis .....
They have applied to the EU for membership but it could take another decade to get the status. They have been a member of NATO since 2009.
They are pro-American, perhaps because Woodrow Wilson stuck up for them following the first world war, 'I stand with the Albanians.'
There is a George W Bush street in central Tirana. Albania is so pro-American there is even a Donald Trump street somewhere!

Japanese architect Fujimoto created 'the Cloud' now temporarily installed (until 2019) near Tirana's Art gallery:
The sculpture is used as an open air concert hall. It was moved here from the Serpentine gallery in London.

There are numerous coffee houses and bars with outdoor patios. Streets are lined with narrow shops, bakeries, shoe stores, fruit markets and money changers. Roma are wandering around begging, old ladies sit on the sidewalk and knit beside piles of slippers. Clothes are hung out to dry on these car and emission dense streets, I wonder how clean the walls of buildings can be yet so much laundry is flapping against them.
People walk on the road, the sidewalks are so narrow or non existent on side streets. Cars take corners with gay abandon, we all survive and live another day.
We are cautious crossing streets, even those controlled by lights cannot be trusted - I watched, frozen, as a car went through the crosswalk on a walk light, narrowly missing Jeff and then,as he was dodging the first car another vehicle almost backed over him. 'Stop yelling, you're distracting me' ok ok.

Who are the Albanians? They believe they are the Illyrian people, they have been here for thousands of years. When the southern Slavs moved to the area occupied by the former Yugoslavia (now seven countries) the Illyrians were here, and in fact, there.

Who are the Illyrians? Apparently Spartans were Illyrians. So Albanians are Spartans. Who knew?
93 % of the population of Kosovo are Albanian. Significant numbers also live in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Italy and Greece.
Shqipëri is the Albanian name for Albania.

We are staying in a terrific, centrally located two bedroom apartment. The landlord is personable, elegant and accommodating. He speaks excellent English. Four nights for 100 Euros. Central Comfy Apartment - actually very smartly decorated, large and modern.

We took a mini bus from Tirana east to Pogdorac. The terrain is mountainous, the roads twisting and zigzagging, a bit of a stomach churner.
The large van holds up to 25 people and a few extra stand. It left at 923 - it was full. (Scheduled departure was 930). We arrived in Pogdorac around noon. There were many brief stops along the way, picking up, dropping off and one stop for a coffee/toilet break.
The driver didn't speak English but a few passengers did and were helpful.

We were a little unsure what to do when we got to the bus yard, there didn't seem to be a station or info booths. Eventually a man approached us, taxi was his only English word.
I showed him the name of the hotel and, seeming confused, he made a phone call.
In the meantime a young woman approached. 'Do you need help?' I showed her the hotel address and she motioned 'there is a bus'. When the taxi driver returned she spoke Albanian to him, told us the bus was cheaper, eventually we agreed to the taxi for five euros which seems expensive as we had taken the bus all the way from Tirana for very little more!!

Our hotel was out of town a little, right across the road from the lake.

We got a big room with a double and a single bed, very clean and modern, with a balcony and breakfast included for 27 E per night. We have lake views from the balcony even though the room faces a courtyard.

Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in the world. It is spring fed and is over a million years old!!

Our room is nice, we could have had one with a balcony right over the lake had we not needed twin beds. But this one is great. Lovely duvets, a wardrobe and a desk. The bathroom light turns on automatically when you walk in, high tech.

We decide to go for a walk to explore the area, first we stop for shopska salad (sirene cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and onion) served with bread. I have a raki, the powerful local drink, made with grapes here, powerful stuff and a glass is one hundred lecs. Shopska salad is served in various forms throughout the Balkans. It is very refreshing. The sirene cheese is grated and generously layered on a bed of tomatoes and cucumber. Sirene is similar to feta but milder.

We walk along the beach, a bit spoiled by litter, very fine sand, likely packed with tourists in the summer, pretty much deserted in early November although it must be 18 degrees C.

We stop eventually at kind of a rustic cafe, the girl is nice, welcoming, gestures for us to wait, comes back with an older woman in an apron, recruited because she speaks some English. "Coffee", the older lady says, "cappacino, macchiato?", yes, "one moment".
We are ushered up some stairs, there is a wood burning pot bellied stove, cozy and warm. By and by the coffee arrives, with cake, traditional, free, no charge for the cake.

We try to explain we are out of lec, we only have euros, there are no bank machines or money exchanges, we are really out in the sticks. I pay with two euro coins and we agree to come back for supper, but to a neighbouring place which Lisa, we hug and kiss both cheeks, she does know a bit of English, is also affiliated with, Serenas. She walks us over, points it out, we will come back later, yes I will have the fish. No, we cannot stay there, 25 euros a night with breakfast, we already have a place, see you later.

We are staying at Hotel Pogdorecci 2.

I ask the guy at front reception ‘where can I change euros for lec?’. In the city. I am wide eyed with horror. How do we get there? I just want to change twenty euros. He sighs heavily as I wave the 20 euro bill, (this hotel quotes their
price in Euros!!) he motions for us to sit down, people check in, pay, time passes, he changes the money.

Now it is seven o'clock, we pick our way down a poorly lit road, there is a big full moon, that helps, a few dogs are running loose, the odd car passes. I keep a close watch so I can get off the road and not fall into one of the ditches where spring water flows, or in some other kind of hole. Wish we had a flash light, oh we are here, hey this is quite an upscale restaurant, looks new, the waiters are smartly dressed, linen on the table, Lisa, the lady we met earlier, has been waiting for us, she ushers us to a table, disappears.

Koran - Lake Ohrid spotted brown trout, is the local delicacy and may be an endangered species!! At Serena's it is served with salad, French fries and pickled peppers. artfully arranged and garnished with kasmat cheese (salty creamy cheese type clotted cream).

We are comped a traditional cake dessert:

The next day is bright and sunny, we eat breakfast at the hotel and head out to see the town. Fruit stands line the road.
Fruit stand with quince -

On a pedestrian side street we stop for a coffee on a pleasant patio. The waiter is fluent in English.
We are actually in the village of Tushemisht about 4 km from Pogdorac.
I inquire about traditional food and decide to try the pancakes. Good.
Albanian pancakes with fig jam:

In 1976 an Albanian communist-era movie was filmed here, 'The Lady From the City'. In the town square there is a statue commemorating the movie which was a favourite of the communist leader, Enver Hoxha.
Statue of Olga, 'The Lady From the City' or Zonja nga qyteti.

This Albanian Orthodox Church survived the communist era:

The church was locked but some kids, little boys, maybe 7 to 10 years old were playing around. As we were leaving an older man, maybe the caretaker, maybe the priest came along and motioned for us to come in. On his way up the walk he encountered the smallest boy, they spoke and then he smacked the child, twisted both of his ears and lifted him up by the ears!
We watched, horrified.
The child scampered off, I don't know if he was crying, I felt like crying, and we were let into the church where there were bright paintings of saints and one in particular was pointed out to us. We repeated his name, nodded and scurried off. Did you see what he did to that kid??

Past the village square we veered down a lane and I took a picture of the hills/mountain in the distance.
This may have been a private driveway. An older lady came along and gestured us inside the fence -

We went in, and were shown a fish farm. One of her daughters joined us to translate - broken English, yes thousands, nine months to maturity, trout, black and gold.

Fresh spring-water canals flow through the village. Here they are growing fish.

Christina and her daughters, Daniella and Alexandria, we kissed, shook hands, they gave us apples, a little bright spot, a moment of Albanian hospitality - we can't eat eight apples!!

Back at the hotel we sat on the patio, the lake in the background, kids playground equipment right in front, the hotel is still under construction. Workers are drilling somewhere on the building.

Across the road on the lake, some big birds are coming close to shore, oh, swans.

Thrilling to see the swans up close on the ancient lake:

Back in the lobby I regifted the receptionist two apples.

We ate dinner in the huge, empty hotel restaurant. We had a big salad, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, onion in about equal amounts - refreshing and substantial with meatballs and bread. Oh good, a plate of three apples with paring knives is presented. This meal was ten dollars including tip and a huge bottle of sparkling water.
Tomorrow we travel to Macedonia.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 10:40 Archived in Albania Tagged tirana albania ohrid shkoder enver hoxha tushemisht pogdorak Comments (0)

Lake Ohrid and Skopje, Macedonia and Pristina, Kosovo

semi-overcast 15 °C

Lake Ohrid is over three million years old and Ohrid town is one of Europe's oldest settlements

Even before we got to Pogdorac, Albania I was worrying about how we would get to Macedonia. Buses do not cross the border at Lake Ohrid.

I had read how people took one bus to the border, walked through customs, and looked for another bus on the other side.

The receptionist at our hotel spoke limited English. 'I will help you.' Our landlord in Tirana had given us a bottle of wine. We re-gifted it to the receptionist - thank you.
I remained skeptical when she walked us across the road and indicated we would catch the bus to the border there. To us it seemed the bus would be going the wrong way.
As she was heading back inside a car going the opposite direction stopped.
The girl and the driver spoke. 'Taxi' she told us. No evidence of a sign. She helped us negotiate a price, twenty Euros to the centre of Ohrid.

It was, I am sure, much easier to do it this way. We hopped in.

Support the underground economy.

It was about a forty five minute trip including a stop to drop off some fruit and the two stops at customs.
We never saw a bus as we progressed through the mountains.
Here there are hairpin turns. Not a relaxing drive.

Once in Ohrid we went to a cafe with wifi and I booked an apartment for seventeen Euros a night. We wasted time waiting for the landlord to get back to us, he never did, and eventually we arrived and he was there waiting.

It is a homey little place with a balcony, on a plainer scale than the hotel across the pond in Albania.

We went for a late lunch at the neighbourhood cafe our landlord recommended. A big salad, bread and beef stew, traditional food.

We had been lent a map, there seems to be a shortage, and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Sight old town. It sits on a hill. Quite a steep climb:

We turned back before we got to the top, it would be dark soon, we wanted to find our way back to the apartment in daylight.
As it was, I stopped to take a picture of roses, full blooms on a tree, and Jeff disappeared. I was lost for about ten minutes. Turns out our apartment building was right across the street and he had gone in, expecting me to follow.
Eventually he came and found me. I have no sense of direction and poor observation skills!!

Tuesday, Nov 8 - we have had such wonderful weather. Today it is raining. We stopped twice for coffee on the way to the old town, trying to wait it out. Eventually we just bit the bullet and walked.

The fortress is from the eleventh century when Ohrid was the capital of Bulgaria.

We hardly saw any people, the streets were deserted, most businesses are closed, the 'season' is over.

Near the highest point, overlooking the lake, is St Clements Church, the most sacred church in Macedonia:
St Clement was a student of St Cyril as in Cyrillic. He was born in the ninth century and oversaw the construction of an Orthodox church in Ohrid. The original church at this location was a university where the Cyrillic alphabet was taught.
It is the oldest University in Europe in discontinued use. Ohrid is the cradle of Slavic literature.

Hundreds of years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of a Catholic Church in Germany in 1517, these guys were making the Bible available in the Slavic language.

Both the lake and the old town are UNESCO World Heritage Sights - one of only 28 sights with both the nature and culture designation worldwide!! And the only UNESCO World Heritage Sights in the Republic of Macedonia.

Even the main square, overlooking the port and the lake, is quiet.

Three dogs are resting on the grass, they look like rocks. Dogs and cats wander around like this in many Southeastetn European countries (like Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia)

Lake Ohrid pearls are featured in shop windows. They are handmade using a secret emulsion from the scales of a fish native to Lake Ohrid, resulting in a particularly luminous pearl. Even Queen Elizabeth owns Ohrid pearls!!

We browse around.

It is a dreary, quiet day in what must be a busy place in the summer!!

Macedonia remained at peace during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
It has been independent since 1991.

Entrance to the EU has been blocked by Greece over objection to the name 'Macedonia.'

We took a three and one half hour bus ride from Ohrid to Skopje, 110 km.
Our landlord arranged for us to be picked up at a regular bus stop near our apartment and walked with us to make sure we got on the right bus!


It was another very scenic, mountainous journey.

For the second time in the former country of Yugoslavia we passed a serious wreck, another car on its roof, just past a bend in the road.
These roads are very twisty, narrow, climbing up and down mountains. There is a lot of road work going on so improvements are being made.
The distance between Ohrid and Skopje is 110 km as the crow flies, 172 km by road. We were glad to be on a big bus as the minibuses seem more stomach-churning, perhaps more of a sway, plus they travel faster.
This is the nicest and cleanest bus we have taken in the Balkans.

The scenery is breathtaking although the view is often blocked by trees or the side of a mountain.
On the outskirts of Skopje there is a river and in the river was a large dead animal, a cow, a deer or a moose, I couldn't tell what it was, but a disturbing sight. Yuk. Not an auspicious first impression. Garbage and litter are not confined to Albania, I saw a lot on the side of the road as we travelled, even high in the mountains.
The city centre is quite neat though.

Most of Skopje was destroyed by an earthquake in 1963. It is not a city of venerable old buildings.

In a city cluttered with statues stray dogs roam the streets.
We went on the free three hour walking tour that starts at the Mother Theresa statue daily at 10 am.
Along the main pedestrian walk on Macedonia Street seven large dogs with yellow ear tags followed our group, breaking off on occasion to chase a bike or bite cars. They bite on the metal or plastic near the wheel well, barking merrily, our guide has to stop talking because we can't hear him.
Animal rights groups seemingly want these dogs left as they are, running loose and free, relying on the kindness of strangers for food.
After a four year old child was killed by a stray dog early this year in another area of Macedonia there were many incidents of dog poisoning even in Skopje, followed by huge protests to protect the dogs.
We witnessed a man get out of his vehicle carrying a puppy pounder after three dogs chased and bit at his car - he did not actually hit a dog as our tour guide intervened and sharp words were exchanged.
They have implemented the tagging system to monitor the strays. The tag indicates the dog has been vaccinated. A foreign system to us, our group is mesmerized - when we stop for a drink a few dogs lay down outside the cafe and then quickly follow along when the tour resumes.

Mother Theresa statue on Macedonia Street, a pedestrian promenade in the city centre:
Mother Theresa was born in Skopje. She went to Dublin at the age of 18 and trained as a nun. From there she went to Calcutta and the rest is history.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, where she was baptized in 1910, was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake. It was at this location that the 'Mother Teresa Memorial House' was opened in 2009. It consists of a Catholic Chapel and a small museum dedicated to Mother Theresa.

The Memorial House stands out from other recently constructed or refurbished buildings in central Skopje in both size and simplicity.

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu at about 18 years, before she travelled to Dublin to become a nun:
The Catholic chapel is very simple and modern, decorated with filigree - a craft of Macedonia learned from the Turks during 500 years of Ottoman Rule.
Filigree is typically herbs, plants, vines. In the chapel version, symbols of doves for peace and fish (early Christian symbol that predates the cross) are incorporated within the filigree.

The Warrior on a Horse, commonly known as Alexander the Great, dominates Macedonia Square:

The first European style building constructed in the city in 1926, Ristik Palace, is located on Macedonia Square. It survived the 1963 earthquake and is today the picture of understated elegance in an over the top, architecturally, city.
It boasted the first elevator in the city, still in use today.

About a block away a sign marks the spot where Mother Theresa actually lived. The house, along with 70 % of the city, was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake:

Tumba Madzari was a matriarchy - on a bridge lined with too many statues, this one stands out, quite elegant:
The Cult of the Great Mother Goddess was from about 6000 to 4500 BC. Times Up!! Although there seems to be a dispute if there ever existed a true matriarchy due to lack of recorded pre-history.

The old stone bridge is a relief for the eyes. Although rebuilt many times it seems authentic to the city where it has spanned the Vardar River for centuries:

Karposh, a Christian outlaw who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks in 1689, is believed to have died on the Stone Bridge - he had been captured three days prior and was impaled but purposefully kept alive and awake until a molten crown was placed on his head to finish him off.
Our guide relayed this story and he is a historian. Below the stone bridge and to the right, is a statue of the Macedonian hero, Karposh, who led an uprising that eventually failed and was slowly executed by the Ottoman Turks to discourage dissent.

The stone bridge connects Macedonia Square with the Old Bazaar.
The old bazaar on the east side of the river has been in operation since the twelfth century.
Kapan Han - reconstructed travellers' inn from the 1500s, located in the Old Bazzaar - now used for businesses.

The Old Bazaar in Skopje is the largest Bazaar in the Balkans outside of Istanbul.
Turkish style restaurant in the old bazaar:

The fortress, Kale:

We are staying across the street from a very good Italian Restaurant with a nice patio and a good vibe so
we dine on traditional food at lunch and have Italian for dinner:

Close to our apartment on Macedonia Street, in front of a shoe store, is a statue of a bull. I rub his nose hoping it brings me some kind of luck, hoping I will always be able to afford shoes! Just another example of Skopje's propensity for borrowing ideas and transplanting them -

I like the Chelsea Girl statue across the street from the bull, life-size, not gigantic, whimsical.

Macedonia Street, now a pedestrian promenade, was once Marshal Tito Street.

Macedonia was once in Yugoslavia. This, though, is recent history, a mere hiccup in thousands of years of history.

Recent history:

Ottoman Empire ruled from the fifteenth to twentieth century - 500 years.
Occupied by Bulgaria from 1915 - 1918
Ruled by communist dictator, Tito, from 1945 to 1980
Declared independence 1991.

From Sarajevo to Belgrade to Skopje Macedonia we heard Tito praised - he may have been a dictator but he was a charming dictator a young Bosnian woman stated.
It was better with Tito.
Who was this guy, Josip Broz, the leader of communist Yugoslavia?
He was born in Croatia to a poor Croatian father and Slovenian mother. He left school at an early age and trained as a locksmith. From this inauspicious start he became the leader of Yugoslavia.
He maintained contact with both Russia and the west during the Cold War and kept Yugoslavia separate from the Soviet bloc.
He was considered more benign than Enver Hoxha of Albania and Stalin of Russia.
The people we met and talked with in Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia (an exquisitely small but very random sample) were nostalgic about the good old Tito years - it seems they had enjoyed a good quality of life and felt secure under his rule.
Can this be true?
Somehow he kept the tensions among the various groups in check and has been considered a pretty good guy. 128 countries sent representatives to his funeral.

Eleven years after his death the lid blew off and from one country, Yugoslavia, we eventually got 7: Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
Canadian troops, mostly deployed from Edmonton, stayed in Skopje during the Kosovo War. Ground troops were driven across the defile, into the war zone, along the steep mountain roads, mine sweepers leading the way.

On 10 November, a bright and hazy day, we took a mini bus from Skopje Macedonia along twisting, climbing, descending, climbing, mountain roads to Kosovo.
Why Kosovo - it’s personal.
On the Macedonia side of the border three cows roamed around the parking lot.
The mini bus rattled and squeaked its way along the two lane highway, not relaxing!! The driver passed the time talking on his cell phone.
As we approached Pristina the landscape flattened out and we were on a freeway for a time.

Pristina has a population of 500,000.
The most famous building is the unique Library at the University. Designed by Croatian architect Andries Mutnjakovic to incorporate both Byzantine and Islamic styles, it is considered one of the world's ugliest building.
It was built in 1982 during communist times.
The style has been called Brutalist. A metal grid, kind of representing filigree, but more sinister, covers the concrete walls and has a functional element - to protect against sunlight.

To the left of the monstrous library is the familiar shape of an Orthodox Church.

Construction started in 1995 but its completion was interrupted by the Kosovo War in 1999. In the intervening years it has remained in its unfinished state.

There is a dispute between the University and the Serbian Orthodox Church re land ownership. The fate of the church is under consideration. Students want to turn it into a bar or have it demolished. It has been part of the landscape for over 20 years.

Church of Christ the Saviour:
I feel sad when I look at the abandoned church, the gold cross gleaming in the sunlight, tall grass all around. To the residents maybe it symbolizes victory, but it seems such a wasteland here in the city centre, right next to the University.

Our apartment is very central. Although the stairwell and hallway of the building are littered with old flyers the apartment itself, is nice. 90 Euros for three nights, Duku’s Apartment.
We can see the distinctive spiked roofline of the Palace of Youth and Sport from our balcony:
On November 11 we walked to the New Born monument - a typographic sculpture and tourist attraction unveiled when Kosovo became a country in 2008.
The New Born Sculpture sits in front of the Palace of Youth and Sport, a communist era building from 1977, now a shopping centre and sports complex.

Across the street from the Newborn monument is Mother Theresa Park. 90 % of the people here are Albanian and, although born in Macedonia, Mother Theresa was of Albanian descent.

If you were here in 1999 - this is Pristina today:

We were accompanied in the early afternoon of November 11 by a young woman who volunteered to drive us to Martyrs' Cemetary and the Ethnographical Museum of Culture.
What a nice thing for her to do!! She was a friend of our landlord and did the translating when we checked in.

She also brought me a gift - hand knit slippers, made by her grandmother.
The workmanship is beautiful.
A real craft made by a real Kosovo/Albanian Muslim lady who lost daughters and grandchildren in the recent war. They were on an evacuation bus to Skopje - it was, inexplicably, a Serbian bus, that crossed a bridge that NATO blew up.

Kosovo War Memorial, deserted and desolate:
Not a tourist attraction, some evidence of vandalism and neglect, forlorn.

Martyrs' Cemetary has fewer graves than one might expect but families wanted their loved ones close so not many agreed to bury them at this location. Our new friend, who had never been here before, was stunned to find the grave of someone she knew - the brother of one of her best friends.

We wanted to pay our respects, it was November 11 - Rememberance Day.

For a more uplifting experience we went to the Ethnographic Museum where an authentic Turkish house from the eighteenth century is intact - there are in fact two houses but the larger one is being renovated so we could only tour the smaller guesthouse.

Low, three legged chairs made from a single piece of wood circle a table with copper tajines on display.
Water was brought to the sink from an outside well in jugs:
There was a kind of central heat in this house, the owners were wealthy.
Ornate wood carving
Eighteenth century deck overlooking the garden:

We ate a traditional meal for dinner, Kosovo sausage. Before receiving this huge plate of filling food we were comped traditional bread with a yogurt and cucumber dip, very good. Portion size seem huge.

We like it here. People are friendly. It seems very western. We can order an Americano (coffee) almost everywhere although macchiato is more trendy.
They use our alphabet. There is an American University near the New Born monument. New Born is in English. Their currency is the Euro.
We are staying near Bill Clinton Boulevard.
Bill Klinton Boulevard:
Mother Teresa Cathedral is located on Bill Klinton Boulevard near the University Library:

The population of Pristina is very young and many speak English.
They like NATO.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The name Kosovo is derived from a Serbian word meaning 'field of blackbirds.'
An apt name, there are thousands of blackbirds in Pristina. In the evening their singing drowns out our voices on the street.

Paul McCartney's tune from 1968 is persistently playing in my head;
'Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly...'

There is a place called Blackbird Fields near Pristina where, legend has it, a battle took place between the Serbs and the Ottomans in 1389. The Serbs were defeated in the end but they put up a good fight.

With a youthful population and a cafe culture Pristina boasts a lively nightlife - must be fun for international backpackers in the summer!!
Numerous coffee shops and bars line the streets and are great spots for people watching.

On 13 November we took the bus back to Skopje. Our friend arranged the taxi and the price was half of what we paid coming in - this guy used a meter. Two and a half Euros.
The taxi picked us up outside our apartment building on Rexhap Luci.
This is an interesting side street, fairly typical.
It has one lane for traffic and cars go both ways, and also park on both sides of the street, mostly on the sidewalk.
There are frequent traffic jams and it is almost as common for vehicles to be backing down the street as driving forward.
Today someone is parked in the driving lane. Eegads!! Everybody has to back up a block. In the meantime pedestrians are jaywalking to cross as well as walking on the road because cars are parked on the sidewalk. A general free for all. Still we made it to the station on time.

Bus fare for one person from Pristina to Skopje was 5 Euro 50 cents. They don't charge extra for luggage stowed underneath in Albania, Macedonia or Kosovo.

This time we got a big bus, comfortable and less scary than the van!

The first fifty minutes are through a plain, a flat area with mountain views:

Then there are twenty minutes of mountain gorges until we reach the border:

The 'defile' or narrow pass between mountains is breathtaking - the view is often obscured by trees or rocky outcropping. Very colourful this time of year!

It takes about ten minutes at the border.
Everyone has already written down their name and ID number on a clipboard.
A guard collects passports at the Kosovo side, hands them back, then in 200 metres a Macedonian border guard repeats the process.

We have been picking up and dropping off all along the way. I am sitting by the central exit door. Random women in headscarves shake my hand before they exit.

Another twenty minutes in the mountains and we are in the outskirts of Skopje.
We have taken a round trip to Kosovo that thousands of soldiers took during the war. They bumped along the twisty mountain roads preceded by mine sweepers. NATO troops actually lived in Skopje and commuted to the war zone.

Now, when we see the first monuments in Skopje, we smile. Something familiar.

We are back in Skopje and the monuments seem friendly, welcoming.

In a country of two million people, 500,000 live in the capital city.

We are staying in the same large one bedroom apartment we had before, clean, bright, great location on Macedonia Street for about 30 Canadian dollars per night.

After the devastating 1963 earthquake where more than 70 % of the city was demolished and over 1000 people died, England lent Skopje some red double decker buses for four years.
They were such a hit Skopje has acquired ten of its own red double decker buses since 2011.

There has been a concerted effort to manufacture tourist attractions in Skopje.
We took the number 7 bus to the large and modern City Mall as we needed a few staples. This was a good bus to take since the mall is at the end of the line so quite straightforward.

We stopped for coffee on our way back and a macchiato and large slice of tiramisu cost four dollars. A bargain and a tasty treat!

We love the location of our apartment and decided to venture beyond our usual Italian restaurant one night. We started out on the patio of an upscale restaurant right by the main square.
The patios have heaters and are kind of enclosed, still it was damp and chilly. We were offered a seat inside and enjoyed our supper there, warm and cozy!

We strolled around Macedonia Square and the stone bridge after dinner. It had been an overcast day but not cold.

Skopje looks beautiful after dark. The huge buildings and massive monuments are softened.
Porta Macedonia, Skopje's Arc de Triomphe, was completed in 2012:

It, too, looks better at night, where the impression that it has been randomly dumped in a parking lot is less obvious!
Valentina Stefanovska designed both the Arch and the Warrior on a Horse (Alexander the Great) sculpture.

Macedonia Square is lively even at night and seems a great meeting point, connecting the stone bridge with the main pedestrian promenade.

Most of what we see is new, ten to twenty years old.

Skopje has transformed itself recently and based on the number of cranes, the process is ongoing.

Following the earthquake of 1963 a transformation also took place. The Japanese architect who had redesigned post-war Hiroshima, Kenzo Tang, designed the city centre: modern, brutalist, clean, geometric.
The old train station has been left as it was following the earthquake with the clock fixed on the time the earthquake struck. It houses a kind of museum with information about the aftermath as well as some modern art and (possibly reproduction) pieces of antiquity.
The plain Jane look of most of the centre has now been tarted up!! The 21st century makeover is heavy on baroque and neo-classical.
The makeover has been controversial - 'When I look at this excess,' one local told us, 'I feel so ashamed. I live in a Disneyland city, copy and paste. What next?'

Below, Alexander the Great is just to the right of the massive cross - the Millenium Cross on Vodno Mountain stands 217 feet tall (66 metres). Construction started in 2002 and it was basically completed by 2008.
To put this in perspective, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro stands 98 feet tall (30 metres).
You can take a cable car to the top. We were satisfied to view it from afar, it is visible all over Skopje

The Millenium Cross is the fifth tallest cross in the world - Spain has the tallest and - this kind of surprised me - the fourth tallest is in Lebanon.

We have been lucky with the weather but on November 15 it rained all day,. We hid out in a coffee shop for an hour hoping it would ease up but no, now it was pouring!

The street dogs were out and about, accompanying a tour:

We crossed over the Stone Bridge and walked through one of the most statue-dense squares.
The centrepiece statue is 29 metres tall, Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great's Father) was unveiled in 2012. The sculptor: Valentina Stevanovka - her name keeps popping up. She holds the Macedonian record for publicly commissioned artwork and until that happened nobody had ever heard of her. I am convinced there is more to this story.
None of the fountains are operational this time of year, it must be astounding in the summer!!
Just behind the massive statue and fountain is the old town, the old bazaar.

The old bazaar, is a maze of streets and shops. Filigree is a specialty, there are numerous shops selling silver filigree and others specializing in Ohrid pearls as well as all manner of other shops, bakeries and cafes.

We bought a huge container of halvah, and enjoyed a cup of Turkish tea served in a glass with a wedge of lemon.

We stop for lunch and enjoy filling, traditional food including shopska salad, not shown. Price including a shot of spirits and tea was under ten dollars.


I decided to look for souvenirs while Jeff, not much of a shopper, remained at the restaurant drinking tea.
I made a right and a left turn. Along the way a shopkeeper I had met earlier hailed me down and gave me a pink umbrella. It was pouring, rain was dripping off my hood into my eyes.
I could not find my way back to the restaurant - everything looked the same. Eventually I walked into a small bar and announced 'I'm lost. Does anybody speak English'
The girl behind the counter was dumb-founded.
A dripping wet, wild-eyes, mature ha! tourist was talking gibberish.

A couple of young guys, customers, came to my rescue.
Sit down. Where are you from?
I tried to explain about Jeff being at a nearby cafe, name unknown, and how I had to find him.
Could we call him, text him, email him, no - he is off the grid, sitting there, waiting.

I have a picture of the restaurant - or a small section of it - now a third man takes an interest and, hallelujah, recognizes the restaurant.

This is nothing short of a miracle:

One guy says he will take me, I am relieved, ecstatic, but now we have walked almost to the Philip the Great statue and I know we have gone too far.
Not to panic, another of the original trio shows up and says he knows the way so we turn back and yes we got there but Jeff had just left, looking for me, they pointed the way, only two minutes ago. Very shortly I spotted him, called his name and waved my pink umbrella.
He was only mildly surprised to see his bedraggled mother in the company of two smartly dressed twenty somethings, waving a new accessory and quick-stepping towards him through the puddles.

Well, it was an adventure! Jeff fails to see the humour but I have had a good laugh - and I imagine the people I encountered along the way have had one too.
I missed the perfect opportunity to pretend to be American! 'Where are you from?' And I said Canada.

Na zdravje!

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 09:36 Archived in Macedonia Tagged mountains the monuments world heritage great budget unesco balkans yugoslavia ohrid alexander skopje macedonia affordable filigree kosovo pearls pristina shopska Comments (0)

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