Tuesday, September 13, 2011

City on the Hill: Ohrid, Macedonia

According to the Lonely Planet "if you haven't seen Ohrid, you haven't seen Macedonia" and I understand why because Lake Ohrid is spectacular. Situated on the Albanian-Macedonian border, Lake Ohrid is one of Europe's oldest and deepest lakes and covers an area of 138 square miles.

Luckily our bus ride to Macedonia went much smoother than the one to Albania and we were in Ohrid by early afternoon. We got dropped off on the main road in town and as we stood there looking completely lost, backpacks strapped on and map out, trying to figure out how to get to our guesthouse a man approached us and asked if we needed accommodation. Of course this happens often traveling and people are trying to get you to stay with them so we politely said we had a place to stay and went back to our map. He asked where and when we told him we were staying at Antonio Guesthouse he pulled out his phone and called Antonio to come meet us. Once we made it to our guesthouse (the house was shared by Antonio and his parents and they used some of the rooms upstairs for renting to travelers) we decided to relax for a bit and then headed out for dinner and a walk down to the harbor and through 'old town' with its lovely narrow cobblestone streets.

Upper Gate of Old Town Ohrid

On our second day in Ohrid we did Lonely Planet’s walking tour of Ohrid’s ‘old town’. We began our tour at Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta church, which is home to some amazing frescos depicting the life of Mary (not picture allowed though) and on to the old town’s Upper Gate and Classical Amphitheater. The amphitheater was originally built for theater, but later the Romans pulled out the first ten rows to accommodate the gladiator fights. At the church we were given a tour about the history of the church and an explanation of what the frescos depict. According to Robby our tour guide reminded him of the gypsy woman Esmeralda from the Disney movie 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'. She had long wild curly hair pulled back in a large jeweled butterfly clip and wore a long hot pink sundress and wedge sandals. Her tour style was animated and she spoke loudly with a very passionate tone about the subject matter of the frescos. When our tour first began there were four of us, but as more visitors came inside the church she had to tell them about the ticket price (she was only person working there) and she would yell to them that they could join our tour and pay later. Invariably when she went back to the tour instead of starting off where she had been she would quickly begin the story again.

Classical Amphitheater of Ohrid

Next we went to Car Samoil’s Castle. Car Samoil from Bulgaria ruled Macedonia from 980 AD to 1014 AD, until Byzantine emperor Basil II defeated Samoil at the Battle of Belasica in 1014. The castle offered panoramic views of the lake and city.

From the castle we wandered down a forest path to the ruins of a 4th century church, which is currently being excavated. Next to the ruins is the 5th century church of Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon that displays the architectural style of the various empires that ruled Ohrid.

Sveto Kliment i Pantelejmon church

Walking back up the hill we made it to Sveti Jovan at Kaneo, a 13th century church, sitting on a cliff above Lake Ohrid.

Sveti Jovan at Kaneo church

Chapel of Mala Bogorodica

Below Sveti Jovan tucked into the cliff base is the small chapel of Mala Bogorodica sitting next to Kaneo beach. We stopped for a fish lunch at a beach cafĂ© before finishing up our tour. After lunch we walked back up the hill towards the center of the old town to Sveta Sofija, an 11th century church that was modeled after Constantinople’s St. Sophia. Some of the frescos have been exposed from beneath the wall plastering that preserved them during the Ottoman era.

Sveta Sofija church

On our last day in Ohrid before our overnight bus to Belgrade we took a quick trip to Sveti Naum 29km from Ohrid on the other end of the lake. The Church of Sveti Naum is a multi-domed, Byzantine-style church and was built in the 16th century. Peacocks roam the grounds around the church (apparently peacocks were an early Christian symbol of resurrection and immortality. The peacock is also featured on the 10 Macedonian denar bank note and coin.

Church of Sveti Naum

Next Stop: Belgrade, Serbia

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's in Albania: Tirana & Kruja

When many of my friends found out I was traveling to Albania their first response was often "What's in Albania?" or "Why Albania?". Well I wanted to visit Albania because it is such an unknown to many people due to its decades of isolation under Enver Hoxha. My interest in post-communist states and Eastern European history also drew me to Tirana. Tirana is a city that reminds me of Yerevan in many ways, but also has the evidence of a stronger European influence than in Armenia. Albania is a country that was ruled over by many empires and ideologies all of which are evident in its architecture, cuisine, and people, which makes it a fascinating place worth visiting to me.

The cheapest way for us to travel from Athens to Tirana was to take the 11 hour overnight bus, which became a 16 hour journey because it took 5 hours to cross the border. Many tour companies run overnight buses to Tirana and that means that they all arrive at the Greek-Albanian border at the same time and each bus has to wait its turn to cross the border. We spent our first night in Tirana relaxing at our hostel and recovering from our bus ride. The next day we explored the streets of Tirana and this is what we saw.

The Pyramid was built in 1988 (can't you tell!) by Enver Hoxha's daughter and son-in-law to serve as the Enver Hoxha Museum. It is now home to cultural events and teenage graffiti artists. Hoxha founded the Albanian communist party in 1941 to fight back against the fascist occupation of Albania by the Italians. He was in power until his death in 1985. He kept the country extremely isolated breaking off relations with Yugoslavia in 1948. He maintained relations with the Soviet Union during Stalin's years, but after Khrushchev came to power and criticized the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, Hoxha broke with Soviet-style communism in 1960. After this Albania aligned with China and from 1966 to 1967 Albania underwent its own cultural revolution. Atheism was promoted and churches and mosques were destroyed and the collectivization of agriculture was completed. Hoxha built tens of thousands of igloo-shaped concrete bunkers that still dot the hills of the country. With Mao's death in 1976 Albania's unique relationship with China came to an end and the country became isolated with no allies.

The Bell of Peace was forged from bullet casings from the 1997 conflict in Albania.

Parliament Building: After Hoxha's death restrictions loosened a bit, but the whole system of government was falling apart. Throughout the 1990s thousands of Albanian fled to Western embassies in Tirana and to Italy in search of political asylum. The government finally agreed to allow opposition parties and the 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule in Albania. The transition from communism to free market led to increased corruption and smuggling. A severe economic crisis led to 70% of Albanian's losing their savings and rioting and looting in the streets. The situation has stabilized during the first decade of the 21st century, but it is estimated that around 25% of the population lives in poverty.

Communist-style Apartment Buildings fill the neighborhoods of Tirana. These buildings are a feature of all cities and towns throughout Eastern Europe, but unlike those of Armenia the one's in Tirana have been painted with bright colors and patterns. This really adds a sense of hope to the city and takes away from the grim nature of concrete block towers.

Italian Architecture: Albanian King Zog I cooperated extensively with the Italians in developing Albania during the 1930s. The Italians built grand boulevards and beautiful buildings from the Fascist school of architecture (that's right there is a Fascist style) and helped turn Tirana into a true capital city. However, this left Albania indebted to Italy and basically a de facto colony. In 1939 Mussolini ordered the invasion of Albania and King Zog fled to England. The Italians occupied Albania throughout World War II.

Skanderbeg: This statue of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg looks out over Skanderbeg Square, which is currently a giant construction site because the square is being renovated to be a pedestrian only area. Skanderbeg is a national hero because from 1443 to 1468 he led the Albanian resistance against takeover by the Ottoman Empire. He won all 25 battles he fought against the Turks and although the Ottoman's finally overwhelmed the Albanian resistance - it was only after 26 years of fighting.

Et'hem Bey Mosque was built in the 18th century and managed to survive destruction during Hoxha's 1960s atheism campaigns due to its beauty and its status as a cultural monument.

Mother Teresa Square: While Mother Teresa may be one of the most famous Albanians sadly the square meant to honor her is not much more than this statue and an empty concrete fountain.

Mother Albania sits atop a hill overlooking Tirana surrounded by Martyrs' Cemetery where 900 Albanian partisans who died in World War II are buried.

We took a day trip to Kruja, the site of Skanbderbeg's castle, during our time in Albania. Located about 45 minutes north of Tirana the ancient site is now surrounded by the modern city of Kruja. Skanderbeg was born in Kruja and Albanians still take pride in that fact that he and his forces defended Kruja until his death.

Next Stop: Ohrid, Macedonia

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Athens, Part Two

I spent about an hour our first afternoon in Athens trying to find out about how to take the bus directly from Athens to Tirana, Albania. According to many sources online there was a daily night bus, but I was not having any luck finding out where it left from or how to buy tickets. Like in Turkey, all the international buses in Greece are run by individual private tour companies. The front desk at the hostel sent us to a nearby travel agency, but I knew from their website that they didn’t offer bus services. We went on our second and last morning in Athens hopeful that they could point us in the right direction. Luckily they were able to because all of the tour companies that go to Albania are located near one particular metro stop. So off we went to the metro and the when we arose from underground directly across the street from the metro station was a line of tour agencies all with buses to Albania. Within five minutes we had our tickets for that evening at 8:30 and were back on the metro.

Triumphant we returned to our hostel to book a place to stay in Triana and then went out for some last-minute sightseeing and shopping. Located near the northern slope of the Acropolis is the ancient Roman Agora. Built in the 1st century BC by the Roman leaders of Greece you enter the sight through the well-preserved Gate of Athena Archegetis.

The Roman Agora is also the site of the Tower of the Winds, built by Syrian astronomer Andronicus. It functioned as a sundial, weather vane, water clock and compass. Each side of the octagonal monument represents a point of the compass. The reliefs around the top depict the eight winds. The tower was later used by the dervishes during the Turkic period.

Very close to the Roman Agora is the Library of Hadrian. Built in the 2nd century AD, the library is the largest structure built by the Roman emperor Hadrian. It was home to books, music halls, lecture rooms, and a theatre.

Next we made our way through the nearby shopping district and down the narrow lines of shops for a little window shopping (or in my case actual shopping). From there we headed for the Panathenaic Stadium, home to the first modern Olympic Games in 1986. The stadium was build from recovered Pentelic marble from the original Panathenaic Stadium built in the 4th century BC as a venue for the Panathenaic athletic contests.

To complete our loop of central Athens we walked along the edge of the National Gardens and past the Presidential Palace. The palace was being guarded by one of the Evzones, which are the Greek army's elite ceremonial unit, but as I like to call them they are the guys in the skirts with the pom-poms on their shoes. We made our way back to Syntagma Square and down the Plaka to our hostel. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing at the hostel until it was time to meet our overnight bus to Tirana, Albania.

Next Stop: Tirana, Albania

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

City of Athena: Athens, Part 1

Hope you are armed with a cup of coffee and ready for a long on because this may be the longest blog post I've written thus far. What can I say it is ATHENS!! There is so much to see and so much to say about this amazing historical city as well as its modern self. We were only there for two nights, but we saw a lot. Also, instead of telling you that I went to this really old temple and that really old building I'm going to give you a bit of historical background of the sites we visited in Athens. So ready or not here we go...

In order to make it to Athens directly from Samos Island we had to take a twelve hour ferry during the day (disappointingly the overnight ferry is the one that comes from Athens to Samos). When we purchased our tickets our only choices were outside seating or inside seating for only about €10 more so we selected inside, but it turned out that we were in first class. Getting onto the boat was quite an exercise though as it arrived in the port at Karlovasi from Samos’ main port at Vathi and simply backed up to the port let down its walkway and driveway (for those transporting vehicles) and everyone began to try and get on at the same time. The boat was very comfortable with lots of leg room and comfortable seats which made the ride much more pleasant. However, one thing I learned from the large amount of children onboard is that they have the ability to run around and play all during the ride unlike on an airplane where they must sit still. There were kids playing catch and tag and babies crying and screaming for a large portion of the ride. Luckily as the owner of an iPod I was able to ignore most of it and try and get a bit of work done on my final grad school research paper.

The Nissos Mykonos (Our Ferry to Athens)

We made it into Athens and off the boat around 9pm and set out to find the metro station. Robby (who thankfully has a great sense of direction as I do not) had already figured out how to make it to our hostel in central Athens from the port via the metro. It took quite a bit of walking to get to station, but all in all it was simple journey. Although due to metro construction we were unaware off the train did not stop at our stop and continued on to the next. Not wanting to get too far out of the way we got off at the next stop and found a map to try and figure out how to get to our hostel. An older man on the stopped train called Robby over and told him that because of construction the train skipped our stop, but was now going back to it. After he told us this of course the train doors shut and it left the station to go where we wanted to be. We dragged ourselves down labyrinth of stairs to get to the other platform so that we could go back one stop. Fortunately our hostel was very close to the metro stop and after a minute walk we made it the hostel around 10pm. Exhausted we had one last hurdle before rest could come because our hostel room was on the fifth floor and there was no elevator! It was all worth it in the end because we had a breathtaking view of the Acropolis perched over the city and all lit up from our balcony.

Night view of the Acropolis

Monastiraki Square

The next day we tried to get an early start so that we could beat the heat and the crowds for our day if sightseeing in Athens. First we walked from our hostel in Monastiraki Square to the entrance on the northern slope of the Acropolis. We made it to the top of the Acropolis and to the main entrance at Propylaia. This section of the Acropolis is home to the Propylaia, the Beulé Gate, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

The Propylaia

The Propylaia formed the towering entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times. It was built between 437 BC and 432 BC by Mnesicles. It is made up of a central hall with two wings on either side. The stairs lead up the main section lined by columns to the beginning of the Panthenaic Way.

The Panthenaic Way

The Panathenaic Way cuts across the middle of the Acropolis and was the route taken by the Panathenaic procession. The Panathenaic procession was the climax of the Panathenaia festival which celebrated the birthday of Athena.

Temple of Athena Nike

The Temple of Athena Nike is a small square temple perched atop the southwest edge of the Acropolis, to the right of the Propylaia.

The Parthenon

After making our way up the stairs of the Propylaia we saw the grand jewel of the Acropolis – The Parthenon. History refresher courtesy of my trust Lonely Planet guidebook – the Parthenon was built on the highest part of the Acropolis to house the great statue of Athena by Pericles and to serve as the new treasury. It was designed by Ictinus and Callicrates, under the surveillance of Pheidias. It was built between 447 BC and 438 BC. While it appears simple in form the Parthenon’s perfect form was achieved through the use of optical illusions. In order for the foundation to appear perfectly level to the observer it is actually slightly concave. The columns are slightly convex to make them appear straight. Most of the damage to the Parthenon was caused by an explosion in 1687. You see during this time the Turks were storing gunpowder inside the Parthenon and when the Venetians attacked it caused an open fire on the Acropolis, causing an explosion in the Parthenon. More recently acid rain has been dissolving the marble.

Me & The Parthenon

Across the Panathenaic Way is the Erechtheion, built on the part of the Acropolis held most sacred. The spot is where myth tells us that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and were Athena produced the olive tree. Wait you don’t know that story, well…

The Erechtheion

According to mythology, shortly after Kekrops founded a city on a huge rock near the sea the gods of Olympus proclaimed that the city should be named after the deity who could produce the most valuable legacy for mortals. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity. Poseidon, the god of the sea, struck a rock with his trident and a horst sprang forth, symbolizing the qualities of strength and fortitude. The gods judged that Athena’s gift would better serve the citizens of Athens than the arts of war personified by Poseidon’s gift (again thank you Lonely Planet Greece).

Anyways back to the Erechtheion….it was named after Erichthonius, a mythical king of Athens. It is best known for its six large maiden columns that support its southern portico. These columns are known as the Caryatids because the models for them were women of Karyai who were known for the poise. The ones now at the Erechtheion are plaster casts of the originals. The five of the originals are housed in the new Acropolis Museum, while one was removed by Lord Elgin (a British architect who took many things from the Acropolis back to the museum in London). It was constructed between 421 BC and 406 BC.

The Caryatids

After descending part way down the southern slope of the Acropolis we came to the Theatre of Dionysos. The ruins are from the reconstructed theatre built between 342 BC and 326 BC, with a seating capacity of 17,000 spread over 64 tiers, of which about 20 remain.

Theatre of Dionysos

Next up was the Temple of Zeus, the largest temple in Greece. It was begun in the 6th century BC, but abandoned due to lack of money. It was left incomplete until Roman emperor Hadrian (who had a great fondness for Greek culture) completed it in AD 131. It was made up of 104 Corinthian columns (the ones that look like pineapples on top). There are 15 columns remaining today.

At the Temple of Zeus

Parliament Building in Syntagma Square

Following our visit to the Temple of Zeus we walked to Syntagma Square, home of the Parliament and the heart of modern Athens. From there we walked down the Plaka, the old Turkish quarter now full of shops. After stopping for a lunch of mousakka and a stop for frozen coffee at Starbucks we headed off to tour the Ancient Agora.

Walking Down the Plaka

The Ancient Agora was Athens’ central meeting place during ancient times. The Agora was the center of administrative, commercial, political and social activity in ancient Athens. Socrates spent a lot of time there expounding his philosophy and in AD 49 Saint Paul preached daily in the Agora attempting to win over converts to Christianity. The Temple of Hephaestus (449 BC) sits upon a hill overlooking the Ancient Agora. There is also a reconstruction of the now destroyed Stoa of Attalos, which housed expensive shops during ancient times and is now home to the Ancient Agora museum.

Temple of Hephaestus

Stoa of Attalos

After all that sightseeing we were starving so we stopped for a nice al fresco seafood dinner at a local restaurant. We enjoyed a salad with grilled Greek cheese and balsamic vinaigrette with pan-fried shrimp, mussels, calamari, and octopus. We took a post-dinner stroll up to the top of Filopappou Hill or the Hill of the Muses. The hill, which is located southwest of the Acropolis, is topped by the Monument of Filopappos, built to honor Julius Antiochus Filopappos a prominent Roman consul and administrator. The hill offers amazing sunset views and photo-ops of Athens, the Parthenon, and the Saronic Gulf.

Filopappou Hill from the Acropolis

Sunset over Athens from Filopappou Hill

Next Stop: Athens, part 2