Friday, August 24, 2018

Eastern Europe – Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia – June/July 2018
Last year I met many travelers heading to Albania so decided to go there as well!  Had a bad experience with prime time shuttle that called 20 minutes before they were to shuttle me to LAX and cancelled!!!  Luckily my dear friend drove me to LAX and I was in time for my flight.  With a quick stopover in Munich for a smoked salmon sandwich and coffee I arrived in Tirana, Albania about 7 p.m.

Taxi driver got lost so after many stops to ask directions I arrived at my very spacious airbnb and was warmly greeted by my host.  He showed me the area, the green market nearby and how to get to the center.  He finally dropped me off at one of his favorite restaurants nearby called Oda, where I had a wonderful dinner.  Cute little house with cozy rooms, Oda was the perfect place to start my trip.  I had a slice of spinach phyllo “pie”, a cottage cheese and peppers dish which I was to see often and a  slice of honey nut cake…

In the morning I walked to the green market to pick up some oranges and had a delicious chocolate croissant and double espresso at Mulliri Vjeter.  Walked into the center and then to the south bus station to see about buses to Berat which seemed to leave every 30 minutes.  Visited the House of Leaves, an old house once a medical office but during the war with Russia turned into a spy center where many people were falsely accused of political crimes.

Walked into the Blloku area with its cafes and little shops and had a piece of cheesecake on the patio of E Jona where I would dine tomorrow night.  Took the bus to Bunk Art 1 and spent a couple hours in the 3,000 square meter underground bunker spread over several floors.  In every room there was history of Albania being taken over by Italy, Germany and Russia.  What a saga!!!

In the evening even though it was raining pretty hard I took a taxi to Uka Farm, an organic farm and restaurant a bit far from town.  Sat in the large patio where chairs and tables were set up and had antipasta platter with cheeses, grilled peppers and eggplant, spinach pie, etc., followed by grilled lamb chops and some of their locally made wine.  Would have been a better experience with more people…

Breakfast again at Mulliri Vjeter and then I took a local bus to the south bus station and a bus to Berat, a Unesco world heritage site because of its collection of white ottoman houses climbing up the hill to the castle.  Took a bus to the castle/fortress and while wandering around joined an Italian group who were very welcoming and enjoyed a little tour with them.

Visited the Ethnographic Museum to see traditional clothes, tools, etc. which I really enjoyed and then walked along the river to the stone bridge so I could see the 1000 windows.  Crossed the river and stopped at a little hotel where I sat outside and had some baklava before taking the bus back to Tirana.

Later that evening I walked to E Jona and had a lovely dinner, i.e. a salad with “frico”, raisins, spinach, nuts and tomatoes followed by a rich brownie with ice cream as I sat outside on the patio…

After breakfast at Mulliri Vjeter I left my nice airbnb to check into Hotel Kruja where the Intrepid trip would start and then took a local bus to Kruja to see the old fortress and visit the very extensive Ethnographic Museum in an old house with interesting nicely restored rooms where people originally lived. 

Walked down a tunnel to the old mosque, interesting as it had no minaret and finally wandered into the street bazaar the town is famous for.  Back in Tirane, I walked down to the “Pyramid”, originally the Enver Hoxha Museum about the legacy of this long-time leader of communist Albania, it is now closed and possibly will be demolished…

Met our Intrepid group of 10 and then walked to Era for dinner, i.e. arugula salad with parmesan and cheese stuffed peppers in a very cute little place.  Walked to Sky tower and up to revolving bar where I enjoyed the view and a crème brulee.

Nice hearty breakfast at the hotel with delicious espresso and then an orientation walk of Tirana where I saw many things I had missed so far.  Stopped for coffee at Kommiti, a cozy little coffee bar and they went to the sky bar and I walked along the river.  Had an arugula salad and brownie outside on the patio of E Jona and then we met at the hotel to take the bus to Shkodra.  Walked up to the Rozafa Castle founded by the Illyrians in antiquity and rebuilt.

Walking tour at 7 p.m. to see the town followed by dinner at President, i.e. grilled vegetable platter with arugula, sitting outside on the terrace. 

Early morning transfer to Lake Koman where we boarded a ferry and spent about 3 hours enjoying the beauty.  Arrived at a guesthouse in Fierza where we took a walk to the lake and then later had a lovely dinner at the guesthouse nearby, i.e. special cheeses, peppers, olives, beets, salad with olives and oranges, trout and potato pancakes.  Quite nice. 

After a simple breakfast of homemade bread, jam and Turkish coffee we took a lovely walk through the valley, stopping once for coffee and again for lunch, i.e. spinach phyllo pie and shepherd’s salad (tomatoes, feta, peppers and cucumber). 

In the afternoon we walked over to one of the uncle’s homes and he talked about life under communisim.  Later in the evening we drove to a local restaurant where we had a fabulous dinner, i.e. potato/carrot soup with local bread, mixed greens with tomatoes, etc., fried cheese and peppers with eggplant in a casserole, corn and creamed cheese, crisp potato slices, yogurt with peppers, lamb and delicious nut cake with a creamy topping for dessert. 

In the morning, we crossed the border into Kosovo, Europe’s newest (official) country.  Stopped at the Decani Monastery, built in 1327, and known as the final resting place of Serbian King Stefan Unos III Decanski.  It is a place of stunning art heritage where monks still live.  On into Peja, the gateway to the Rugova Muntains. 

Had a quick look around before our orientation walk en route stopping at the folk museum which was very interesting.  Free time to visit the old bazaar, mosque, blood houses where the northern Albanians took refuge, etc.  Dinner at Kulla e Zenel Beut recommended by Trip Advisor, i.e. grilled fresh trout and Greek salad.  A peaceful atmosphere and delicious food.  Stopped for a baklava on my way back to the hotel…

Nice breakfast in the morning, pastries, cheese, honey, fruit and espresso.  Drove to Relaj, a village deep in the Rugova valley.  The Rugova mountains are nicknamed the cursed mountains and were declared a national park in 2013.  Stopped at the Monastery of Patriarchate in Pec, this complex of churches is the spiritual seat and mausoleum of Serbian archbishops and patriarchs.

Took a very pleasant 3 hour hike, stopping for lunch at a local family home, i.e. spinach pie, 3 layer pie, cornmeal pie, stuffed peppers, potatoes, vegetables and the ever present tomato/cucumber/feta salad.  We sat outside and it was lovely. 
Went to Prince in the square for chocolate cake and coffee later in the evening.

On our way to Prizren we stopped in Gjokove and wandered through the street bazaar on our way to the Hadum Mosque which was quite lovely.  Arrived in  Prizren at the foot of the Sar mountains and spent a couple hours in the house of Albanian League of Prizren where a monumental document was signed.   Orientation walk along the Bistrica river, over the stone bridge and around the cobbled Shadervan square and then free time to explore on our own.

It was a great city to walk around in and had the most delicious tres leches cake I have every tasted with a caramelized topping.  Dinner at Marashi by the river was grilled trout, nice but not worth the #1 Trip Advisor gave it!

Walked up to the Prizren Fortress in the morning built by the Byzantines in the 12th century and it was the seat of power for the Ottoman rulers until their expulsion in 1912.  It started to rain so we headed down.  Went by van to the winery with an elephant on the label and tasted some of their wines along with a simple lunch.
Walked around the vineyards before heading back to town.  I walked up to the fortress again to really see it well and had another delicious tres leches cake before calling it a day…

Spent the day in the capital city of Pristina first heading to the Field of Blackbirds, which the country is named after and where the 1389 battle of Kosovo took place.  Visited the tomb of Sultan Murat, leader of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century and finally the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gracanica, a Serbian orthodox monastery filled with paintings and frescoes painted in the 14th century.  There are 24 nuns residing there who are active in icon painting, etc.

Enjoyed a delicious lunch at Liburnia, a lovely restaurant with nice atmosphere and had fresh grilled trout with eggplant, peppers and mushrooms.  Stopped by a bear sanctuary where dancing bears had been rescued.  Back into town for the evening.

In the morning we crossed into Macedonia and arrived in Skopje about 2 p.m.  Had lunch and an orientation walk into the center of this very large city, stopping by Mother Teresa’s house, church on the square and through the large marble statues, fountains, etc. associated with very large cities.  Walked across the beautiful stone bridge to the bazaar and up to the fortress and later that night had a lovely dinner at House Restaurant near the center, i.e. delicious “tava”, stew with veal, chicken, eggplant, etc. and a kadaif dessert with nuts, honey and syrup – divine!

In the morning we drove to Canyon Matka, a beautiful spot along the river in the mountains where a couple of us took a ferry across the river and climbed up to the little church on top of the hill.  It was small but filled with beautiful frescos.  Free time in the afternoon so I visited the bazaar and the great fruit and vegetable market, contemporary art museum up on the hill and the national art gallery which I enjoyed very much.  There was an exhibit of Amen Kastrati on Albania life.

Stopped for an ice cream before visiting the memorial house relating to Mother Teresa who was born in Skopje in 1910.  We all met at 8:00 p.m. and walked to the Debar Maalo quarter for dinner which was very lively. I shared a mezzo platter with a few others, i.e. fried cheese, eggplant, chicken kebabs, etc. as we listened to some live music which was a great way to end our stay in Skopje.

After breakfast drove to Ohrid situated on Europe’s oldest lake and one of the oldest human settlements in the world.  After an orientation walk of the city we stopped at Potpie overlooking the lake and shared some delicious fried sardines, pizza and a couple salads.  Free afternoon.

Visited the church of St. Sophia, originally a Synod church and subsequently converted into a mosque during the Ottoman empire.  Today the interior of the church has been preserved with beautiful frescoes from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.  Its superb acoustics make it very useful for concerts.  Walked up to the Tast Samoil’s Foress on top of Ohrid Hill and down to the 2,000 year old Roman theatre used for concerts in the summer.  Had a chocolate ice cream as I wandered back to the hotel along the lake.

Took a lovely walk along the lake in the morning and then we took two boats out to see the lake, stopping along the way for a nice swim.  Stopped by the Museum on the water, i.e. the bay of the bones which sheds some light on the life of prehistoric peoples living near the lake with its 24 prehistoric houses on a wooden platform placed above the lake. 

Visited the Sveti Naum monastery, an imposing sight on a bluff near the Albanian border.  There are some very impressive icons and frescoes inside.  Later in the evening we took a ferry to our restaurant and ate grilled trout outside on the patio listening to live music playing downstairs.  So very lovely…

Drove back to Tirana in the morning, confirmed my morning flight and then to E Jona for another delicious brownie and ice cream.   Stopped by Bunk Art 2 which was very similar to bunk Art 1 except a bit smaller and then walked to the artificial lake where I would have dinner later.  Returned to the hotel and met our group in the lobby to say good-bye.  They were dining together but I felt that our last night in Ohrid was really our last night…

Walked to Mullixhiu and had a lovely dinner outside on the patio, i.e. the six course metamorphosis menu with some variations.  Chef Bledar Kola makes wonderful dishes inspired by Albanian organic products.  He joined me while I was having dessert and it was delightful talking with him.

In the morning I walked to a nearby Mulliri Vjeter for a chocolate croissant and coffee before taking the bus to the airport where I caught a flight to Slovenia where I would spend some time before picking up another Intrepid trip in Budapest.  So far Eastern Europe has been a very pleasant surprise!

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