Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Albania, Montenegro & Croatia - Wooo hooo

Since the last update we have had two weeks in Albania - wow, what a time! It is now high on our list of favourite countries. We didn't find the dangers that fog foreigner's minds from a decade ago (uprisings, crime). Instead, this diamond in the rough gave us everything we wanted out of our trip. Life changing experiences, breath-taking scenery, visible fascinating history, beautiful people who welcomed us to their tables and in their homes, looked out for us on the buses or just gave us a wave on the street. Many countries are friendly but this was another level. Traditionally guests were placed next to God, and we felt this trait at every turn.

There is the rough edges of a poor country (rubbish, broken communist buildings when everyone went on a looting rampage, some rough roads) but they are fast emerging from the ashes of a complicated history. Get in quick, this will have to be a travel hot spot soon.

The coast was spectacular. We sat on the beach drinking with boys from Kosovo and hung out playing chess with the guys at our beach side hotel; had the best fish meals of our lives; drove tiny, old road winding around the mountains that crash into the sea, shepherds and their flocks diving out of the way; sat on long pebble beaches all to ourselves with little coves to climb around to.

We explored ancient hilltop fortresses and checked out how Ottoman's lived in their mansions. We climbed in, on and around the indestructible bunkers that litter the entire country; placed there by Enver Hoxha's paranoia.

Mick on top of one of the many one-man size bunkers that will litter Albania for eternity

We stayed in the trendiest area of Tirana where the communist honchos once lived it up behind walls to keep everyone else out. We took in celebrity spotting as we stood with a media pack gawking at the Prime Minister.

Inspired by an evocative book about the Accursed Mountains, we just had to see them and the mountain people's traditional life for ourselves. The people used to live by a specific code, the Kanun, that included rules about conducting blood feuds. We took a guide, Florian. He is well educated, worldly and has a great laugh - we became good mates.

We travelled into the remote north, got a ferry up to a spectacular dam, stayed in traditional homes. On our six month anniversary we challenged ourselves walking over a mountain pass covered in snow with stunning weather and views.
Florian, Zeni (local Shepard) and Mick on our challenging walk in the Accursed Mountains

We stayed with a gorgeous
grannie and her son for four days in a monstrous valley on the other side. We ate home made everything (butter, honey, raki etc) and explored the area. Tastiest water ever. We saw the tower men used to lock themselves up in forever to avoid being killed in a blood feud. Met kids who acted very grown up. Everyone was working hard in their fields.

We were the first Australians anyone in the village had met. How weird is that!

Alas, we left Albania and had a week on the Montenegrin coast. We enjoyed Ulcinj where the local men swam in their undies and lolled around in the black sand. Cute old town. Good local vino varieties.

There was more cute old walled towns along the small coast, along with big tourist holiday spots. We stayed in Kotor within the beautiful, old, walled, vibrant town on the edge of a stunning fjord. But I must admit, we were not in a touristy holiday mood and got a bit bored. Maybe we had too much excitement in Albania.

Now, we have just concluded another super duper highlight of the trip - a week on the Croatian island of Vis with our friends Ben and Emma. Again, it was everything we could ever hope for. We had quality time with good friends; met many friendly locals who invited us into their homes; learnt much of the islands history and culture; enjoyed charming villages with low key tourism and great restaurants - more fabulous fish dishes.

Emma and Ben took us to the gems of the island such as a winery set up in old WWII tunnels; a fancy dinner cooked in a Peka at another winery (like a big cast iron tagine - I want to buy one now!); swimming in special spots in the glittering blue sea; and a boat trip into a florescent blue sea cave that took our breath away. Their home in Vis town was a haven of cosy comfort.

Mick and Emma lit by the glowing blue cave, Bisevo Island

Time to go farewell them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Greece - Cafe Loafing Wannabees

Mick and I have had a month in Greece now. There is a lot more to it, but we feel we have had a good look about Northern Greece.

We hung out with more Greek-residing Germans, marvelling the emerald (by Greek standards) isle of Samothraki where there are more goats than people. We wandered ruins of temples more ancient than the Olympian Gods with only some goat herders for company.

Bird watchers we are not, but you have to get excited about a flock of massive black vultures flying just over your head! We perched in a hide spying on three different types of vultures bickering over something dead. They deserve their reputation as looking menacing, but they are fascinating all the same.

The draft wine at dinner is cheaper than coca-cola; only once was it truly vile. We've eaten everything Greek in sight. There is such a thing as too much cheese. We haven't, however, had enough of Greek sweet shops. Service in bars and restaurants is second to none. Travel has been too easy as everyone is so friendly.

We tried to imitate the professional cafe loafers, sitting on one drink for hours. Mick discovered why they sometimes don't even bother finishing their token coffee - he had one and couldn't get to sleep until 3am.

We saw more snakes in one day than in my whole life. The pretty Prespa Lakes were ringed with tall reeds – a cesspit of musical frogs, birds and snakes. Since the mobs of Greek teenagers on a school trip didn't notice them (expect the bus driver stabbing some snakes with a stick), mobile phones still glued to their ears, we assumed they mustn't be poisonous and walked amongst them on the shore - carefully.

We drove around the stunning Zagoria villages for days in drizzle. Blending in with the mountains as they are made from the same stuff - slate, sturdy, proud - these villages cluster together in impossible locations in breathtaking mountain ranges. We brought on vertigo looking into the colossal Vikos Gorge; almost one kilometre deep, and over one kilometre across.

Me looking down into the immense Vikos Gorge

We finished up in Meteora marvelling the monasteries perched on giant rocks and hordes of tourists. Until then we hadn't seen many other foreigners, but here we were lucky to get a bed or not get run over by a tour bus.

A scene of the monastries of Meteora

Now we are in Albania. People are more reserved than the colourful Greeks, but friendly just the same. We were greeted by fields of one-size-fits-all bunkers poking out like mushrooms from crazier days of the mad dictator's, Enver Hoxha, reign.