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.