Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Balkan Jigsaw

for Bobby

After a month of travelling around the western part of Turkey by bus in October and into early November, it was time to start homing in on Amsterdam, where I had a plane to catch on December 7. My bike was dispatched by post from Istanbul to Vancouver; it arrived safely only 13 days later by sea. Dan and I then embarked on a three-week overland journey through the Balkan Peninsula as far as Venice.

I know that some readers of this blog are familiar with the countries on the Balkan Peninsula, and that others, like me before I visited this region, keep in their brains an untidy jumble of familiar place names that, aside from Greece, they wouldn't bet money on their location on a map. (In alphabetical order, the Balkan countries are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo (recognized by the UN), Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Sometimes included are Moldova, Romania, Slovenia and Turkey.) In September, I placed the top edge pieces of my own Balkan jigsaw puzzle by travelling through Croatia, Serbia and Romania by bicycle. In early November we travelled by train and bus from Istanbul to Athens and placed the bottom edge pieces, Turkey and Greece. Over the next couple of weeks the western edge pieces were filled in: Albania, Macedonia (a middle piece), Montenegro, Croatia (the Dalmatian Coast), and Slovenia.

Athens, our first stop after Istanbul, was a requisite stop: it may have the most famous touristic monuments in the world. And these monuments did not disappoint. When we emerged from the Acropoli Metro Station into the night on arrival, the famous rock of the Acropolis was floodlit above us, promising a good couple of days exploring. We stayed in nearby Placa, the tourist district of Old Athens, where the pedestrian-only streets are paved with time-polished stone, and moussaka and Greek salad is on every restaurant's menu. On Sunday the 9th of November, we found ourselves at the finish line of an international marathon in the Olympic stadium (built in 1896). We cheered marathoners who had started the race at Marathon, 26 miles away, living out the ancient legend of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who ran this route to announce victory in battle (some versions of the story have him expiring on arrival in Athens but modern day marathoners are expected to finish in good health).

That night we travelled to Saranda, Albania, near the Greek border and just an hour's ferry ride to Corfu (Greece). There was an unusual camaraderie amongst the passengers, who were clearly strangers to each other at the beginning of the ride. I came to realize, through observation and shameless eavesdropping, that they were almost all expatriate Albanians working in Greece. They shared stories and laughs all night in a way common to comrade exiles everywhere. We arrived in Saranda at 7 a.m. sleepless and hoping for breakfast and coffee. There were plenty of cafes, occupied only by men, many of whom were drinking beer, but no food was on offer, so we stumbled down the hill to the seaside promenade to continue the search. The town was tranquil in the early morning, the rising sun just starting to light up the calm sea. The strains of Louis Armstrong floated in the air and as we got closer to the source we heard a raucous greeting: "Where are you from!" It stopped us in our tracks. Minutes later we were sitting with the owner of the voice, a tall, blond and shaggy Irishman (he corrected this label later, telling us he is a Celt). Bobby's 58 years show on a kind and craggy face. A perpetual traveller, he makes a clear distinction between tourists and travellers. We apparently made it into the favoured travellers' category and soon had a cup of coffee in front of us. Bobby arranged for us to have a room in the next door hotel for 5 euros a night each; but as the hotel didn't open until after 8 a.m., we would have to sit and drink beer first. I declined, but Dan found the Albanian cafe culture agreeable. He cracked the tab on his first tall beer around 7:30.

Over the next couple of days, Bobby became fond of us in particular among the few other travellers in Saranda, and we enjoyed some fish dinners at his friend Benny's cafe, and sat around telling stories over many beers. He was enchanted by the story of how we had been travelling independently across Europe until we met in Varna, and had been together ever since ("Magic!"). He told this story to his Albanian friends one night in slow and simple English. As each stage of the story was revealed, the three men at the table responded in unison: "ooh," they said, leaning in; "ah," leaning out, "oh," leaning sideways.

The hours sitting at Benny's cafe in Saranda were educational. We sat amongst the men and wondered where the women were? At work, of course, while their men drank coffee and beer at the cafe from 5:00 a.m. onwards. It was not necessary for cafes to provide food; the women would have a meal ready when the men returned home. We counted the Mercedes Benz cars parked on the other side of the street: eight out of nine. (We continued this research elsewhere in our travels in Albania and came up with the same ratio.) "Stolen," Bobby informed us. There was also a lot of repetitive discussion about the recent election of Barack Obama. The men could not understand how Americans could elect a black man. The "most educated" man in Saranda (according to Bobby), an artist and a teacher, told us that he felt Obama could lead a country like Jamaica, but not the United States. My argument, "But he's American, not Jamaican" did not have any weight. In Turkey people were elated about the Obama election, and it was hard to listen to such rigid racist beliefs in Albania. These can probably be partly attributed to Albania's political isolation and insularity until recent years. When we continued our journey to the inland town of Gjirokaster, we saw bizarre concrete domes, like beetles with eyes, scattered all over the countryside--bomb shelters--more evidence of insularity and paranoia during communist rule. According to the Lonely Planet guide, over 700,000 of these were built in anticipation of attack.

Bobby had been settled in Saranda, where people greet him by name with great fondness, for some months, but he was getting itchy feet and thinking of moving on. He came to see us off on our bus on the morning we left, beer in hand, and while we had a coffee at one of those food-less cafes, he jotted a rough itinerary of some of his favourite spots on our way along with a letter of introduction to friends of his who run an Irish bar in Macedonia. He waved us off, a bit teary, and we headed to the first town on his list, Gjirokaster. It's an ancient town of steep stone streets under a hilltop castle. And thus began a routine over the next few stops. First, a morning bus journey of some hours through dramatic terrain: steep and winding empty roads through valleys and around mountains inland in Albania and Macedonia; bright vistas of the Adriatic along the rocky coasts of Montenegro and Croatia (excellent cycling country, I tried in vain not to think, as we lurched and sped through it on buses of varying size and repair). We were blessed with sunshine and the beautiful clear days that come with fall.

Next, on arrival in town, find a place to sleep. Most often, we'd get off the bus and start walking with our packs, a clear target for someone to step out of the shadows of a shop door or lean out from an upper balcony to ask the welcome question, "Are you looking for accommodation?" In Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia, private accommodations are common. The quoted price for a night was consistent, usually around $20 CAD each for a double room, often an apartment with kitchen. We enjoyed the luxury of privacy and space, and started to get used to it. In Dubrovnik, our host Nikola offered to drive us to the Old Town and back and even gave us a phone card so we could call whenever we wanted to be picked up. Then he called his pal Luka on Hvar Island, who met us off the ferry and drove us to his rooms in Hvar town, a good 25 minute drive (and a pricy bus ride). These two in particular were great sources of advice and information. Nikola has his home in a village near Dubrovnik. He served in the Croatian army for three years during the war in the nineties, when Dubrovnik was under Serb attack by sea, land and air. About 70% of the town was destroyed then, but it is rebuilt, pristine and beautiful now, white houses and red tile roofs bright against the blue Adriatic. Luka lived in California for some years and peppers his rapid speech with American idiom. In addition to "Luka's Lodging" in Hvar town, he has a house in the village where he grew up. He recently had guests stay for free while they helped to harvest his olives there. The olives are pressed in a communally operated press, and the product is superb . . . we enjoyed it with our bread and pasta.

After locating our room, the usual next item on the agenda was to stroll through town. Budva, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split all have centuries-old walled towns which continue to be occupied to this day with cramped houses and shops and restaurants: quaint and fun to explore. Dubrovnik's old town has wide walls tourists can walk on top of (for a high admission fee, which is why only tourists would do it) giving magnificent views of the winding streets inside and the sea and rocky cliffs outside. After the walled town, we would head straight up the hill to the town's castle for views of the countryside. Every town we visited had a castle: Ohrid, Macedonia; Budva and Kotor, Montenegro; Dubrovnik, Hvar, and Split, Croatia; and Bled, Slovenia. We climbed to the first few, but I confess that our enthusiasm started to wane by the time we got to Hvar. Gjirokaster's castle was most recently a prison, decommissioned in 1968. It would have been an echoing, damp and drafty imprisonment; we stood for seconds in a cell with a closed door, looking up at the high window and it was enough. We got an especially dramatic view from Kotor's castle, and climbed even higher on the sheep tracks to look down on its ruins and the Bay of Kotor, surrounded by mountains. As we came back down the track to the town just before dusk, two nuns were working in a small chapel; back in the town we could see the track lit up for their return journey. Bled's castle was mysterious in the falling snow and glorious in subsequent brilliant sunshine, but we enjoyed it from below. At the higher elevations inland, the weather cooled off considerably, and the good smell of rotting leaves accompanied our rambles.

The coastal towns of Croatia had excellent seawall walks and trails to enjoy the coastline. Rosemary scented the air as we brushed past large bushes of it along the trail. Lavender also covers these coastal hills, particularly in Hvar, and although it wasn't flowering in November, I could well imagine it. The last olives were still clinging to the trees and littering the ground. We were blessed with sunny and warm days to enjoy the coast. The Adriatic sun does something to colour here: it makes the red roofed white houses luminescent, the sea a brilliant turquoise, the trees and plants glow.

We left the warm weather behind as the bus climbed from the coast up into the mountains to our inland stop in Croatia's capital, Zagreb. We shivered in the cold night air as we made an exploratory foray into downtown Zagreb, an elegant city of imposing Austro-Hungarian architecture similar to that in Vienna and Budapest. After an early morning stroll in the city in sunshine, once on our way we were surprised to see snow flying past the train window in horizontal lines; then even more surprised to see it stick on the ground and find ourselves later in a winter wonderland in the mountain resort town of Bled, Slovenia. From the window of our upscale hostel room on the hill above the lake, we looked out onto a UNICEF Christmas card scene of village houses on a snowy hillside. The next day the snow stopped for our tramp around the lake with the church on the islet in the middle, and the day after the clouds went somewhere else, showing us the surrounding mountains with their fresh caps of snow against a blue sky.

Thence to Venice by train . . . next post.

No comments: