Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I (Heart) Santorini

If I had seen a t-shirt that said this, I would have bought it. A quick 20 minute flight from Athens had us landing on the glorious volcanic rock that is Santorini. We stayed here and during the first day, didn't leave our apartment and its private jacuzzi and complimentary wine. That jaw dropping tray of food goodness? That was breakfast.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Awesome Athens

I really wasn't sure what to expect before arriving in Athens. I think I had envisioned a hot, bothersome city that had been cleaned up thanks to the 2004 Olympics, but was still pretty rough around the edges. But I ended up being completely taken with the city. We lucked out with the weather - hot, but not too hot - which helped. It was perfect for wandering around all day and stopping to cool off in outdoor cafes in all of the gorgeous little courtyards that were dotted around the centre of the city. The shopping was a treat too - see the photograph evidence below. A department store window with fruit, linens and....Longchamp bags! Of course I ended up loving Athens.

We stayed very close to the Acropolis and spent one morning wandering around it. I hadn't imagined that the Parthenon was so large - and so intact. It was also pretty amazing to have the Acropolis as such a towering landmark - anytime we were a bit lost, we just looked up at it to find our bearings.

And apart from all of that...we ate. Oh. My. God. We. Ate.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Bitola to Athens: One Long Day

From Ohrid, we hopped on a bus that took us south in Macedonia to the town of Bitola (photograph below). Bitola wasn't much to write home about, but there were some cool ruins nearby, Heraclea Lyncestis, that we checked out. We were happy to just have a really chilled out day in preparation for our long travel day that followed. The route: Bitola to Florina (just across the border in Greece), then Florina to Thessaloniki by train, the day in Thessaloniki and then the overnight train to Athens.

We encountered an interesting dilemma when planning our route over the border into Greece: Macedonians cannot obtain visas to enter Greece. There's nothing like a couple thousand year feud to become a travel headache. We eventually found a driver with a Bulgarian passport to take us into Greece and ended up enjoying the harsh stares from both the Macedonian and Greek border guards as they went through our backpacks. The train from Florina to Thessaloniki was only 3 hours and we arrived in time for lunch on the very pretty waterfront.

We enjoyed Thessaloniki, which was a bit of a surprise. It's a very walkable city and we loved how on a typical 2009 street we would suddenly be standing in front of a huge, ancient Grecian arch; or have to maneuver our way around the ruins of a Roman bath. One highlight (as per usual for me) was the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography.

But the best part of Thessaloniki happened toward the end of our evening. Unfortunately, a storm rolled across the Adriatic and slammed into the city - thunder & lightning and torrential rain. Before leaving on the trip, I had picked up two "emergency camping ponchos" in lieu of packing an actual raincoat. So on they went. They were plastic and bright blue and completely hideous. Many jokes along the line of "Do you think they know we're travelling together?" were made. However, our evening in Thessaloniki happened to collide with the Greek PM being in town to give a speech before the EU elections. The centre of the city was full of thousands of people waving Greek flags and in our blue ponchos...we fit right in. We had numerous people coming up to us and asking where we had got our ponchos...or just slapping us on the back, high fiving us, and in one case, hugging us, for our Greek nationalistic pride. Go Greece!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sveti Naum

Our second day in Macedonia took us by bus to the monastery at Sveti Naum, established in 905. (Check out the photograph below of the old-school bus ticket contraption.) The monastery was small and lovely (the hotel next to it was garish and terribly unfortunate) but the most amazing aspect of the place was the view looking out over Lake Ohrid. Oh, and the peacocks.

We had read about the peacocks "guarding the monastery" but thought there would maybe be one or two wandering around. Not the 30 or so enormous, preening peacocks that really made their presence known.

We had to wait a couple of hours for the bus back into Ohrid and ran into this crazy Kiwi who is cycling from London to Brisbane. (Yes, from the UK to Australia.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Beautiful Little Ohrid

After experiencing the furgon (a small, I-can't-believe-this-is-roadworthy van with no seatbelts, that stopped every 2 minutes while the driver screamed our destination out the window trying to find passengers...and full of smoke and possibly live animals in the back) on our way from Krujë to Tirana, we decided to hire a driver to take us through Albania and across the border into Macedonia. Our destination this day: the beautiful little town of Ohrid.

The 3 hour drive was fascinating - like going back 200 years. Every property had its own vegetable garden and small collection of edible animals: still a country that relies on individual self-sufficiency. The scenery was amazing and hiring a driver was a great move. Not only could we not have imagined negotiating hairpin turns on a cliffside while in a furgon, but often the two lane road became one lane due to the donkeys sunbathing in the middle of it.

Lake Ohrid is the largest and oldest lake in Europe and the town of Ohrid was the perfect place to relax and recharge for a couple of days: wandering the cobblestone streets, eating in pizzerias, and drinking wine in the lakeshore cafés. Ohrid is also dotted with a plethora of old, tiny churches - like this one, the Church of St. John, absolutely gorgeous.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Skanderbeg is Albania's national hero and he hails from the little town of Krujë, which is about an hour's drive north of Tirana. On a rainy, misty day we made our way up there and scrambled and hiked our way around the remains of Krujë castle (built in the 1400s).

The town also has a bazaar which we poked our noses around. I spotted a handwoven rug that portrayed both the Albanian and Canadian flag. The shopkeeper noticed my interest in it and I pointed to the Canadian flag on my backpack. Suddenly the shopkeeper became very excited and reached for his wallet. He pulled out a very worn, obviously very loved business card and handed it to me. It was a ReMax business card with a Toronto address on it. The shopkeeper pointed to the picture of the real estate agent on the card, then pointed to himself and said, "Mine!" It was his son.

In addition to the old "It's a small world" adage, it was also a good business strategy. I bought some handwoven coasters from his little shop.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hello Josef

You certainly don't see this everyday. A huge statue of Stalin. As one of the last countries in Europe to eschew Communism, relics of the political system are still to be found in Tirana.

Behind an abandoned building we discovered a rather large Stalin, Lenin, and a couple of hearty "Commie Workers" with sickle and grenade belt. It was bizarre to just see them standing there, all forgotten but not destroyed like most of the others in Europe.

Another interesting thing we saw all over Tirana was this specific Communist pun graffiti. It refers to Sali Berisha, who is the current Prime Minister of Albania.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Tirana Conversation

Not only were we the only non-Albanians flying into Tirana, but upon entering the arrivals hall (at Mother Teresa Airport!) after getting through immigration, we were confronted by about 200 huge Albanian families...and one lone driver with a sign that had my name on it. Collecting tourists at the airport is definitely still a novelty. And further to this point, throughout our stay in Albania the first conversation always went like this:

Serious-looking Albanian: "You working for UN?"
Me: "No. I'm on holiday!"
Befuddled-looking Albanian: "What? Why you do this?"
Me: "I wanted to see your country!"
Bemused-looking Albanian: (Slightly confused, slightly satisfied grunt) "Okay. Welcome."

Tirana is quite a small city and our hotel was in a great location, so we were able to wander around all of the relevant parts and not have to worry about transportation (which we discovered the following day was a serious blessing). The centre of the city is home to Skanderbeg Square (photo above) which has the Opera, Natural History Museum, Kulla e Sahatit Clock Tower and Et'hem Bey Mosque dotted around it.

The city is an interesting blend of a few pretty buildings built in the early part of the twentieth century and then a lot of Communist-era cement block structures. In 2000, the "Return to Identity" campaign was started with the aim to return public space (especially the potential green space around the river) back to the actual public. The results are showing and the area around the newly trendy neighbourhood of Ish-Blloku (the Block - originally where the Communist administration was housed) is now full of families and young lovers in questionable fashion hanging out at outdoor cafes.

Also, fairly easy to outrun the police in Albania.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Yves Saint-Laurent, Hammam and Tito

After an entire day of shopping in the souk, the following day was much less frenetic and much more relaxed. The day began in the lovely Jardin Majorelle (where Yves Saint-Laurent's ashes are scattered) and then moved to a few hours being scrubbed and wrapped in clay and massaged in this hammam. The rooftop courtyard of our riad (below) was a great place to spend the afternoon before being collected and driven about an hour into the desert surrounding Marrakech for a bivouac dinner at La Pause.

At La Pause, we met Tito the dog, who lived there with the owners of the property. Tito was a lovely guide to the grounds, introduced us to his friend the camel and kept us company at dinner.

He also liked to be photographed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Weekend in Marrakech

Finally back in Toronto after a month away - a little bit of work and a lot of adventuring, beginning with my annual girls weekend. This year...Marrakech!

I arrived in the early evening, just in time to experience the chaotic and thrilling Djemaa El-Fna at night. Full of musicians and people dancing, we wandered around for a while sidestepping cobras and monkeys along the way. No photos of the cobras, unfortunately, because even a passing glance at them seemed to invite having one strung around your neck.

There were more tea stalls than I had ever seen in my life and we stopped at one for some friendly banter with two tea sellers who let me sample everything on their cart by passing me spoon after spoon of fig in various form. Then it was to bed in order to be fully rested for the monumental day ahead: an entire day bartering and bargaining in the souk.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Travel Planning

Waking up to this view when visiting the parents just never gets old. I flew out to the West Coast to have a visit upon their return from 2 months traveling through Chile/South Pacific/New Zealand/Australia/Far East. Lucky bastards.

But upon receiving feedback from my Ph.D supervisor on the 2 penultimate chapters of my thesis, I felt inspired to book my own travel adventure. I had been expecting the feedback to be "You need to re-write everything!" but rather it was "Minimal alteration needed!".

So between my previously arranged girls weekend in Marrakech and a conference I have to attend in the UK, I'm flying into Tirana and out of Santorini. 2 weeks in-between to make my way through Albanian blood feuds, Macedonian monasteries and Greek ouzo.