Bulgaria, August 2017

Our last country for this summer’s trip was Bulgaria. We spent a couple of days in Sofia first, doing the Sofia walking tour and trying out some Bulgarian delicacies such as horsemeat, tarator soup (a taziki-style cold cucumber dish), stuffed eggplants and stuffed peppers. Sofia is an old city, and actually claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe, with populations living there for more than 6,000 years. The Romans called the city Serdica, and Emperor Constantine was born very close to it. After the Romans, the Slavs came, and then the Byzantine Empire, later the Ottoman Empire, a brief Russian period, and then a Communist Republic- all with brief periods of an official Bulgarian state in between. They joined NATO in 2004.

 

One of our main goals for this trip had been to make it to the Black Sea, so from Sofia we took a bus to Borgas, the gateway to the Black Sea resorts. We wound up staying halfway between Nesebar, a UNESCO historic site old-town, and Sunny Beach, a 5 km long strip of beach, beach resorts, discos, and cafes. We walked into Nesebar once but other than that we just stayed at our beach apartment and enjoyed the pool and the sea, which was warm and pretty awesome.

In between the Black Sea and Sofia, on our way back for our final flight out, we stopped in Plovdiv. This city will be Europe’s Culture Capital in 2019, so they have made some great renovations around the place and are busy getting their transportation hubs up and ready for the crowds that will come. Plovdiv, besides being a university city, is full of Greek and Roman remnants, including a stadium that Emperor Hadrian had built, which residents discovered mid-20th century but was not fully excavated until the 1980s. It seated 30,000 people and is 250 meters long, and 50 meters wide. They could have chariot races, gladiator games, and even naval battles in it. Also in Plovdiv is an old Roman theater built in the Greek style, which sat 12,000, and is still used for operas, chamber music concerts, and other events. The Djumaia Mosque, built in 1634, still stands in Plovdiv as well, and has a delicious sweets shop tucked into one corner, where we had Turkish tea and coffee, with baklava.

And with that, it was time to return to Sofia for a last couple of days to relax and prepare for our flights home. We stayed in a hotel in Central Sofia, up on the 8th floor, and had a beautiful sunset over the city to watch. Very relaxing. Then Chris returned home, and one day later I returned home, after a stopover in London to see my old friend from Haiti, Lisa. And now it’s time to get ready to go back to work!

 

Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo: July/August 2017

I put Albania into the same post as Macedonia and Kosovo, seeing as they feel that the whole area was once a greater Albanian empire. While both Kosovo and Macedonia were formerly part of Yugoslavia, Albania was not. In fact, they felt that Tito’s communism was way too liberal, and they built over 300,000 bunkers throughout the country, preparing for the invasion from Yugoslavia or Russia. The invasion never came.

Some bunkers have been repurposed into art exhibits

Albania is a bit rough around the edges- not the best tourist experience we’ve ever had (but perhaps not the worst). Our bus arriving to the capitol was four hours later than the bus company said it would be, and our bus leaving was an hour and a half late. Getting through the border took two hours both times. But our busses wound their way through coastal towns and lake regions that looked pleasant, and the capital city, Tirana, is nice enough, slowly recovering from its communism-era building style.

Designed by his daughter, The Pyramid was dedicated to Dictator Enver Hoxha, but now is abandoned
The National History Museum of Albania- a good example of Communist style architecture
This 1793 mosque was the only one left by the Communists as a “cultural artifact”
National Opera of Albania- Communism style architecture but it reminds me of the Kennedy Center in DC!

Albania shares a massive lake with Montenegro, and shares another on its border with Macedonia. We went out to Lake Ohrid for a couple of days and stayed at a small town just 10 km over the Macedonian border. Ohrid, a UNESCO site and “the jewel in Macedonia’s crown”, once had 365 churches in it, but fewer remain now. In the 1980s they discovered underground the remains of a Greek amphitheater dating back to 200 BC, and the lake is renowned for freshwater pearls. We had some swims in the lake and explored the town a bit, walking up to the fortress and the amphitheater (we unfortunately missed the Summer Festival performance of King Lear by just one night).

 

 

View from Samuil’s Fortress at Lake Ohrid
Deah at Lake Ohrid
Greek Amphitheater 200 BC
Chris at Lake Ohrid

The bus to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, left exactly on time, and three and a half hours later we were in the city. Skopje itself is decked out in a sort of New Old Greek style- kind of like Las Vegas- with lots of statues, marble, and columns. They claim Philip II and Alexander the Great for themselves, which makes the Macedonian province of Greece kind of mad, and resulted in the long-winded formal name of Macedonia, “Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) and a veto by Greece keeping them out of the EU. About 25% of Macedonians are ethnically Albanian, and the black double headed eagle on a field of red- Emperor Constantine’s symbol- can be seen often in flags and t-shirts and alongside Macedonia’s red-and-yellow sunbeams flag.

Official Title: “Warrior on Horse”. Price: 8.2 million euros
Phillip II
Olympia and Alexander

Skopje is a pretty ancient city, inhabited and ruled by Paeonians, Persians, Greeks, Gauls, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Yugoslavians, and now Macedonians. Their Archaeological Museum is actually a very thorough collection of the ages, worth visiting. Roman Emperor Justinian, who was born near Skopje, helped rebuild the city after a 519 CE earthquake, while the Ottomans rebuilt in 1550, and Tito rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake. Most Macedonians are Orthodox Christian, but a sizable minority are Muslim, and their most famous recent resident, Mother Theresa (born in Macedonia but ethnically Albanian) was Roman Catholic.

Mother Theresa Chapel
Museum of Archaeology, Skopje
Handcarved iconostasis in walnut wood, 1817
Antique Macedonian Coins

From Skopje, several busses a day head to Kosovo- to most of the world an independent country, but to Serbia, a province. The Serbians refuse to let Kosovo go, on the grounds that several monasteries in Kosovo are the birthplace of Serbian Orthodox Church, to which Kosovo does not exactly disagree, but points out that Kosovo is 92% ethnically Albanian and wants nothing to do with Serbia. They love NATO, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair for helping them to get Serbia out of Kosovo in the late 1990s.

Statue of Bill Clinton
“Newborn” monument showcasing Kosovo’s status as the world’s almost newest country (The N and the W are tipped down, spelling out “No Walls” on the ground)

Kosovo, and its capital Pristina, are definitely still developing and have quite a ways to go. Sights around Pristina can be done in one day, and if you had private transportation, you could probably do most of Kosovo’s other main attractions in one day as well. We visited the Museum of Kosovo, where my favorite piece was a mural of Mother Theresa made entirely out of staples; the Ethnographic Museum of Kosovo, which was really just one small 18th c Ottoman-style home that was occupied until 1956; and the National Library, which might be the oddest and most interesting example of Brutalism architecture I’ve ever seen.

“Peace Begins With a Smile”- made out of staples
17th C Ottoman house
National Library of Kosovo

And now, we head off to our last country on this trip: Bulgaria