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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Albania & North Macedonia 2023



May 3, 2023

It is without fail, the day before I depart, I toss and turn at night fearing that I am going to miss my flight. Mind you, that has never happened to me, but my mind is revered up. I usually wake every hour on the hour after 2 a.m. Egads! I decided to finally get up at 6 a.m., even though my alarm was set for 6:30 a.m.

Brad and Ann were kind to offer to get me to the main bus terminal for Land to Air. The schedule stated it would leave by 8 a.m. and with everyone who had a reservation there, we left 15 minuities early. YEAH! Traffic on 169 was busier than usual because of road construction, but we still got there in 1 and half hours as planned. I checked in to my flight, got through TSA, and when I arrived at my gate discovered the flight was going to be an hour late. Oh well...better to arrive alive than 6 feet under. I had never flown on Austrian Air before was pleasantly surprised by the food quality. The main dinner was a nice sized boneless chicken breast with green beans and a cheesy potato with a cucumber salad with black olives, fresh hot roll, and coffee cake for dessert. I washed it down with Sprite and a lovely white wine blend. (Why can't U.S. airlines serve better food?) The longest flight was over 8 hours. It went smoothly overall minus the mother with her 3 children who kicked and squirmed the entire time of which one of the children was a newborn. Thump, thump, thump went the back of my seat leaving me restless and sleep deprived. It also did not help that my neck and spine were shooting shots of pain waking me at every bump and kick. Add insult to injury with the previous evening of sleep depravity, I am worse for wear and even more so because of the time change. ************ The first two takeaways upon arriving to Tirana's airport is I did not expect to see palm trees and almost everyone smokes. While smoking is forbidden in the arrivals hall, smoking permeates the space as doors open and people pour through. The outside area is smoker's central, leaving an odious linger in the air that makes me want to barf. My sinus immediately took notice and was nauseated by the overpowering stench of burning tobacco. And to make matters worse, when you leave the building, you have to waft though it as I hold my breath for dear life as I wander to the parking lot directly outside to my bus. Before I had left the arrivals hall, I made my way to Vodaphone to purchase a SIM card. Tech has caught up with folks here in Balkans because you can now get a card for the entire region. In the old days, this was not possible. For $20, I will have unlimited access for 21 days. When it is time to reload, they will send me a text on my phone - or at least that is what I think he said. Time will tell... I was the first to arrive to the bus as I followed the signs leading me to the parking lot on the side of the airport. While the temperature was hot, it was not miserable. Buses and caravans with destinations posted on the windshield sat idling for guests to arrive. A short, half bearded man took my bag and confirmed to me the bus was going to the city center. I decided to sit in the front seat just in case of car sickness, not knowing the quality of the roads, and if bad driving would encourage me to hurl my dinner. Transportation to the city leaves on the hour and would take approximately 30 minutes pending traffic congestion. And yes, traffic here can be nervy with folks beeping horns, merging onto the highway with little or no respect for traffic signals, and each driver playing a game of chicken as to who will be the first to cave in to and allow another car to pass. Because the locals know the traffic rules, we all came out unscathed. To top it off, the roads are in good condition, and everyone kept their lunch down. It is a good thing I got my SIM card before I left the airport because once I got off the bus I needed to find my hostel. I was a mess trying to make sense of the app with this being my first time. Now mind you, directions are not my forte, and I have never done walking directions on Google maps. I ended up walking 20 minutes out of my way and finally steered my way to the hostel without too much disgrace. It is also a good thing I have the phone because I do not speak Albanian. The app guided me through twists and turns, name changes of streets and across intersections with me finally getting to my destination in grandeur. If I did this the old-fashioned way with printed paper, I would have given up and hired a taxi. Now it's important to consider this Soviet era city is not built on a grid that would make sense in most parts of the USA. What appears to be an alleyway is actually a thorough fare and often times there is a business trying to make a living -- nails, hair, tires, electronics, etc. This is particularly true when I walked right by a grocery in the alley right next to my hostel and never put two and two together until I asked the receptionist where the nearest grocery was. We had a good laugh together. I am staying at a place called Mosaic Hostel and Gardens. For approx. $12/night, which includes breakfast, I get a shared room with a bunk and 2 singles. I informed them in advanced of my car accident, and they were able to accommodate me for a lower bunk. The newly renovated bathroom is right next door and has a rain shower with plenty of hot water. It's about 20 minutes from central Tirana and 20 minutes away from the international bus station. I took the bus from the airport to the central plaza ($4) versus taking a taxi for $16. It worked out well for me b/c I was able to get a SIM card before I left the airport and didn't have to pay a driver to wait for me because I took the next bus on the top of the hour.


Mosaic Hostel and Gardens

Mosaic Hostel and Gardens Bathroom

Mosaic Hostel and Gardens Bedroom There are many places here in Albania that do not take credit cards -- mom and pop restaurants, tobacconist on the street corner, coffee shops, etc. I knew I was going to need some Lek to get around for museum admission b/c they would not take a credit card and always concerned not to take out too much because who wants Lek on the world market after I leave the country? (No one!) I chatted with the hostel receptionist, and she said there was a bank down the street which had the cheapest commissions. Mind you, nothing is posted at the machine and so I have no idea what it cost me in the end. I decided to take out $3000 Lek and bought a pack of cookies at the grocery so I would have smaller change. Let's see how this unfolds. I know at least it will cost $1500 Lek for the bus to Ohrid, North Macedonia and was told they might not take a credit card.


Austrian Air

Flight to Tirana DEPART Wed, May 3, 2023 11:35 AM Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, US ARRIVE Wed, May 3, 2023 3:11 PM Washington, DC, US DEPART Wed, May 3, 2023 5:35 PM Washington, DC, US ARRIVE Thu, May 4, 2023 8:30 AM Vienna, AT DEPART Thu, May 4, 2023 9:50 AM Vienna, AT ARRIVE Thu, May 4, 2023 11:20 AM Tirana, AL

Flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul DEPART Fri, Jun 30, 2023 6:10 AM Sarajevo, BA ARRIVE Fri, Jun 30, 2023 7:20 AM Vienna, AT DEPART Fri, Jun 30, 2023 10:30 AM Vienna, AT ARRIVE Fri, Jun 30, 2023 1:20 PM Chicago, IL, US DEPART Fri, Jun 30, 2023 8:10 PM Chicago, IL, US ARRIVE Fri, Jun 30, 2023 9:40 PM Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN Total cost for roundtrip flight in USD = $1353.78 COSTS: 100 Lek = $1 USD $4 US for the airport bus into the city $130 Lek for cookies $34.67 Euro - Mosaic Home (Hostel) for 3 nights including breakfast


May 5, 2023 Tirana has over 600,000 people and is the capitol of Albania. Tirana was founded as a city in 1614 by an Ottoman Empire general. Of course, it existed long before then during the Iron Age and inhabited by Illrians and later by Romans during the Roman Empire. After the Roman Empire split into East and West in the 4th century, Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. In more modern history -- In 1939, Tirana was captured by Fascist forces, who appointed a puppet government. The town soon became the center of the Albanian communists, who mobilized locals against Italian fascists and later Nazi Germans, while spreading ideological propaganda. On February 4, 1944, the Gestapo executed 86 anti-fascists in Tirana. On November 17, 1944, Tirana was liberated after a battle between the Communists and German forces. The Nazis withdrew and the Communists seized power. From 1944 to 1991, Communists reigned supreme which is evident in the bland architecture of the city as Stalin and his posse were heavy handed in building a "new" city. In addition, private car ownership was forbidden, and mass transportation of bicycles, buses, and trucks filled the roadways. Communism collapsed in the early 1990s paving the way for new roads, business, and opportunities for the people. In June 2007, George W. Bush traveled to Tirana on an official state visit, becoming the first U.S. President to visit the former communist country. Today, the city continues to evolve and grow. Buildings are being built, new apartments are being erected, and there is an entrepreneurial quality among young people. It remains to be seen where this young, democratic country will become. I trust tourism and the rise of new money will help this country prosper.


Former Communist Building


Communist Wall Relief ******************* The Great Mosque of Tirana (Namazgah Mosque) has been under construction for over a decade. After the fall of communism in Albania, in 1991, Albanian Muslims complained about being discriminated against. While two cathedrals (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) were built, as of 2016 Muslims in Albania still had no central mosque and had to pray in the streets. In 2010, construction moved forward and has yet to be completed.


Great Mosque of Tirana (Namazgah Mosque) The building of the mosque is necessary because there are now 8 mosques in the city, down from 28 in 1967. During Islamic holidays, the main plaza, Skanderbeg Square, is filled with Muslim worshipers, because the Ottoman built Et'hem Bey Mosque can only fit 60 people.


Et'hem Bey Mosque

The mosque will have four minarets, each 50 meters high, while the central dome will have a height of 30 meters. The first floor of the mosque will include a cultural center and other facilities. The mosque is being constructed on a 10,000-square-meter parcel of land near Albania's parliament building and will have the capacity for up to 4,500 people to pray at one time within the mosque.


Namazgah Mosque


Et'hem Bey Mosque was closed under communist rule. The mosque reopened as a house of worship in 1991. Without permission from the authorities, 10,000 people attended and the police did not interfere. Frescoes outside and in the portico depict trees, waterfalls and bridges. While small, the space is lovely.


Namazgah Mosque

Namazgah Mosque

The Et'hem Bey Mosque is composed by prayer hall, a portico that surrounds its north and the minaret. On the north side is the entrance to the prayer hall, which is a squared plan and is constructed in a unique volume. It is covered with dome and the dome is semi-spherical and has no windows. Construction started in 1791 and completed in 1891.


Namazgah Mosque Interior

Namazgah Mosque Interior Dome

Around the corner from the mosque is Resurrection Cathedral. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the Balkans. It was officially opened in June 2012 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. It is worth a visit inside, and the doors are open during traditional business hours. It is also a good place to get some peace and quiet as well as escape the heat of the day.


Resurrection Cathedral

Resurrection Cathedral Side Church Door

Resurrection Cathedral Side Church Entrance

Resurrection Cathedral Interior

Resurrection Cathedral Interior Mural

Resurrection Cathedral Interior Mural

Resurrection Cathedral Interior


Resurrection Cathedral Interior Ceiling

Resurrection Cathedral Interior Ceiling

The former city mayor was an artist. He encouraged business and government buildings to be more colorful after the downfall of Communism. There are traces of this across the city from government building to private property. It makes for an adventurous walk not knowing what surprises you may find around the corner.


Ministry of Internal Affairs


Ministry of Internal Affairs

Ministry of Internal Affairs and New Construction

Apartment Building

Apartment Building


Apartment Building

Costs in Lek: $130 cookies $1049 50+ SPF sunscreen May 6, 2023

Tirana and Albania are in an emerging economy. This is a blessing and a curse. There is growth in the city with new buildings, hotels, and markets in the city. It's a blessing because new opportunities for prosperity are happening for young people. It's a curse because there is clear sense people want luxury goods at the price of having nothing else. Hence, there are counterfeit goods in shops and on the street. I hope too that city planners have a clear vision as what they want the city to look like versus being a homogenous scape like so many across Earth.



New Market to Replace the Former Communist Market that was Torn Down

Office Building with Clock Tower in Front


Albania is a predominantly cash economy. Credit cards can be used at some stores, restaurants, and higher-end venues; however, cash is king on the street. Trying to spend little money as possible is tricky because folks do not know if the bus ticket to Ohrid, Macedonia tomorrow can be paid by cash or card. I only took out $3000 Lek at the ATM when I first arrived, and the bus will be approx. $1500 - $2000 Lek. No one knows the exact price. It's a Price is Right guessing game. *****************************


The Tirana Art Museum has been under renovation since 2018. It remains closed, and no one knows when it will reopen. This is sad because I was very interested in seeing art from this region. Red tape and painful bureaucracy keep the country in check but also slows progress. The joys of an emerging economy. In front of the closed museum is an art installation by a Japanese artist called "The Cloud". It sits prominently on a street corner with bustling traffic. Visitors can walk inside the piece. There is also sitting within the sculpture, and it is where I saw the 2023 Cloud Hip Hop Competition.

The Cloud by Sou Fujimoto

The Cloud by Sou Fujimoto (Detail)

The Cloud by Sou Fujimoto (Detail) No matter, there is plenty of art to be seen across the cityscape -- namely street art. And if anyone knows me well, I am always up for self-expression and seeing art of the people in an urban landscape.


Street Art

Street Art

Street Art


Street Art

Street Art

Street Art (Detail)

Street Art

Street Art

Street Art

Street Art

Street Art


Tomorrow, May 7, I leave to North Macedonia (Ohrid) by bus. I am told there is only one bus that goes there at 1:00 p.m. I always get a bit nervous not knowing if the internet is correct or not. I am keeping my fingers that all will work out well. I plan to depart the hostel at 11:00 a.m. and head to the international bus station. This morning I walked over there at 6:30 a.m. to make sure I could find it. I am thankful that I got a SIM card and have access to the internet and Google maps because if I had to make the trek without it, I would have been in a heap of trouble because the road twists in and out (more like alleys) and feels like you are going the wrong way only to discover it as it unveils itself around the corner. And, there are few to no signs or street names on corners or on buildings. Trust me when I say it would have been maddening without my phone app.


International Bus Station in Tirana, Albania The station is not exactly what I would have pictured for an international departure. There is a large building, but no one goes inside it. It is locked. All the buses are parked in a lot with a wall of tour operators with their doors open to sell tickets along the sides of the building across the parking lot. Arriving early in the morning, only a couple were open when I was there. The bathroom is across the parking lot, and there is no information booth. To make it even more comical, no one spoke English to help me out (First World problems) which I find peculiar because of how many international travelers pass though this area on bus. It became a game of guess where I am going with blank stares and lots of giggles. So, I figure I am going to trust the time is right on the internet and will ask around saying, "bus...Ohrid, Macedonia"? Let's see where the travel gods lead me.

Costs in Lek: $130 cookies 624 - 3 pretzels and pack of cheese


May 7, 2023 Last night two French guys came and checked-in very late to the hostel and came to the room at 2:00 a.m. Worse scenario, they talked in a loud whisper for what seemed like an hour. And once 4:00 a.m. came, I woke to the one of them snoring. 6:00 a.m. could not come soon enough for me to take a shower and start my day. The joys of hostel living and sharing a bunkroom.


Breakfast at Mosaic Hostel

I went down to eat at 8:00 a.m. for my last breakfast here at the hostel. I will say it has been a great value. For Approximately $12/night, I also get breakfast. It consists of salad with tomatoes, fresh bread, eggs, French toast or homemade doughnuts from the stove, olives, coffee, etc. Afterward, I went back to my room to lay down before heading to the international bus station. I decided to leave by 10:30 a.m. to buy some cookies and then get to the terminal for my ticket. Yes, the bus would not leave until 1:00 p.m. but want to be safe than sorry.


Breakfast at Mosaic Hostel


Having a couple of hours to wait around, I chatted up a hostel guest. I discovered she was a college student studying finance. I asked about the basic salary for a young person and was told it was roughly $400 Lek/month. She said many people live at home because they cannot afford to get an apartment which runs about $1500 Lek/month. She said many people can't afford to pay that amount. Even with the high costs, I was surprised that the entire time I was here, I never saw a person who was houseless and living on the street. She said there are homeless people, but they are pushed out of the city center by the police.

************

The bus to Macedonia was packed with not one empty seat. It was not really a bus but a large van. The thing that was frustrating was there was no a/c. Can you imagine driving 3+ hours in a packed van with the majority of them being elderly, international tourists with no a/c? It was ghastly hot. I was pushed up against a window that did not open and the van's mechanical door. We ended up popping the roof window for ventilation because none of the other windows opened except for the front driver/passenger windows.


Macedonia Mountain Views The vistas to Macedonia were lovely with views that stretched for miles. You could see in the distance the mountains capped with snow and green/blue water rushes down the streams as the occasional fisherman would catch his dinner. Goats and sheep that have not sheared filled the yards and fields and the occasional donkey would be seen on the rock face. Further afield you could see a large mass of water, Lake Ohrid.


Macedonian Border Crossing

The border crossing went well; it took approximately 20/30 minutes because for security measures. It was good to be traveling in a tourist bus because it sped up the process. The driver collected all of our passports, his certificate, and other legal documents. He managed the entire process for us and paid the transportation fee. Before long, we were off and raring to go into Ohrid.

*********************************************** When I first got to Ohrid, my phone's GPS had not caught up to where I was. I began the journey on foot from the bus station to the center of town only to find 20 minutes later I was going to the in opposite direction. I was eventually able to get my phone on par and was able to use Google maps to get me to town. And as usual, Google worked miracles! It is a 20-minute walk from the bus station to the town center. You know you have arrived because of the large minaret from the temple mosque greeting you. My first impression of the city center is it is hopping! There are stores galore (particularly jewelry stores and ice cream). The main walk path is paved in marble and granite stones that are mixed in colors of misty grey, eggshell white, aubergine, etc. It is really lovely to see but can imagine how slippery them must be during the rainy season.


City Center Walk


The center of town radiates from the Lake Ohrid. The views are breathtaking. I can only imagine how gorgeous it must be with a dusting of snow. I decided to visit this town because of a recommendation from a Warren Wilson College friend, Amanda Becker. She had been here and said it was a great place to relax.


Ohrid, Macedonia


I am staying at Old Town Hostel Ohrid. It is privately owned. The woman who has it now inherited the place from her aunt. It is centrally located and adorable. the lower level has kitchen and chill space. The upper floors are bedrooms and shared baths. The owner is AMAZING and very friendly, insightful, and full of information.


Old Town Hostel Ohrid - View from my Room

Old Town Hostel Ohrid - Chill Space

Old Town Hostel Ohrid - Kitchen and Cafe

Old Town Hostel Ohrid - Chill Space

Old Town Hostel Ohrid - Kitchen


Ohrid is the largest city on Lake Ohrid and the 8th largest city in Macedonia. Approximately 50,000 live here. Ohrid is known for once having 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and has been referred to as a "Jerusalem of the Balkans". Sadly, this is no longer the case. I would have loved exploring the churches. Tourism reigns supreme in this city which is evident in the amount of apartment rentals for the season, restaurants, and the boats that line the shores for Lake Ohrid excursions. An interesting tidbit of information is Ohrid is one of 28 sites that are part of UNESCO's World Heritage that are Cultural as well as Natural sites.

****************************

Ohrid knows it financial markets and the value of thriving and keeping up with a modern economy. You can use a credit card just about everywhere! Albania, take note and learn from your neighbor.

Costs: $20 Euro ($1500 Lek and remaining in Euro)

$130 cookies $30 three nights at Old town Hostel Ohrid roughly 100 Lek in spare change given to the bus receptionist b/c I cannot use it in Macedonia Costs in Dinar: $56 Dinar = $1 USD but everyone rounds up to $60 Denar for $1 Euro $340 groceries - break, crackers, pastry, pack of cookies, Macedonia peperoni May 8, 2023 I wake at 6 a.m. after sleeping soundly. There were no snorers in the room last night which is always a win in my book. The bed was perfect and always love a privacy screen to cocoon the bed. I was blessed to have received a bottom bunk with a storage drawer below that holds my rolling bag and backpack perfectly with room to spare. Even better is the view from my room of Lake Ohrid and the mountains beyond.


Lake Ohrid What I love about getting up early is that I am usually the first in the bathroom and shower. This was again the case here at the Old Town Ohrid Hostel. I was out the door by 6:30 a.m. and had the entire town to myself except for the occasion stray cat digging through last night's garbage. I adore getting up early because there is a stillness about a town. I know this is precious because by late morning it will be hopping with tourists and locals. I soak in the quiet.


Ohrid, Macedonia - City Center I wanted to get to the churches before the tourist onslaught - St. Sophia in particular. (I also made it to Sveta Bogorodica & Sveti Nikola Bolnicka) but the gates were closed and from the outside looked very tiny.) St. Sophia was built on the foundations of a metropolitan cathedral demolished in the first decade of the 6th century by the barbarian invasions that brought the early Slavs into the region. The church was rebuilt in the last decade of the 1oth century and into the 11th centuries as a patriarchal cathedral in the form of a dome basilica, after the replacement of the capital of Bulgaria in Ohrid.


St. Sophia Church

St. Sophia Church

St. Sophia Church During the Ottoman Empire, the church was converted into a mosque. The interior of the church has been preserved with frescoes from the 11th, 12th and 13th century, which represent some of the most significant achievements in Byzantine painting of this period. The main part of the church was built in the 11th century, while external additions were built by Archbishop Gregory II in the 14th century.


St. Sophia Church


The old part of the town twists and turns. Around each corner are cobbled stone streets, historic buildings, and artisans. There is an age-old practice of wood carving, pottery, and silver filigree in Ohrid. The former school of wood working closed in 1969, but it is still evident in the talent of those who have kept the craft alive. The same is true for silver spinning, making of pots, and handmade wool socks and sweaters.


Each turn leaves me wondering who lived/s in a house, what if the walls could talk, and what the streets have encountered over the centuries from wars, battles, peace time, lives born, and those who have passed. I do love a place filled with history.



Around the banks of Lake Ohrid are monuments of leaders and heroes who shaped the region. I wonder what they did. Was it fighting for liberty, writing for democracy, bringing economic strength to the region, etc.? With more time I could find answers to these questions, but time waits for no one and so I explore further afield. I later return to St. Sophia to nap on the green lawn and to admire their free roaming turtles.







COSTS in DINAR: $1000 handmade wool sweater

$900 silver beaded necklace $40 ice cream cone $850 - bus ticket to Shojke on May 10 May 9, 2023 I am thankful for my phone's GPS. I can't tell you how many times it has saved me going on a wild goose chase. Every once in a while, it gets it wrong -- like the time it wanted me to walk into Lake Ohrid which was obviously wrong. I have not yet fully mastered reading the screen but getting better. The other blessing is the GPS will put an arrow and a name of the street. The arrow is especially helpful because the majority of the streets here do not have posted names on them. It's like everyone knows the name except those who come here to visit. This became evidently true when I went to see several churches and the classical Amphitheatre. I turned the wrong way and was blessed to have discovered the ancient Amphitheatre.


Hellenistic Amphitheatre The Ohrid Amphitheatre was built in the Hellenistic period and still used today for concerts. It has an amazing view of the lake in the distance with local houses surrounding it. The theatre was built in 200 BC and is the only Hellenistic theatre in the country as the other three in Scupi, Stobi, and Hereaklea are from the Roman period. No one knows exactly how many people the original theatre used to seat, because only the lower section still exists.

During Roman times, the theatre was used for gladiator fights. It was a site Christians were executed by the Romans, and it rapidly turned to a disliked site by the locals. The theater was abandoned and buried by the locals after the demise of the Roman Empire. This allowed for most of the structure to be well preserved, only to be uncovered accidentally in the 1980s. Namely, during construction work around some of the houses in the area, large stone blocks with carvings of the Greek god Dyonisius and the muses were showing up on the open market, which led archaeologists to believe that a Greek theater must have been located nearby. In the 1980s, theatre returned to this majestic site and is now part of the city's summer performing arts festival.


Sveti Jovan at Kaneo One of the most photographed sites in Macedonia is here in Ohrid. It is the church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo. It was built in the 13th century on a cliff over Lake Ohrid. It sits grandly on the rock face with the crystal clear waters below.


Sveti Jovan at Kaneo

Sveti Jovan at Kaneo The church is dedicated to John of Patmos, the writer of Revelations in the Bible, who has been by some considered to be the same person as John, Jesus' disciple. The construction date of the church remains unknown but documents detailing the church property suggest that it was built before the year 1447. Archaeologists believe that the church was constructed some time before the rise of the Ottoman Empire very likely in the 13th century. Restoration work in 1964 led to the discovery of frescoes in the dome which are still being worked on today. It is free to enter which is something I praise.


Sveti Jovan at Kaneo Dome Renovation


Sveti Jovan at Kaneo


Sveti Jovan at Kaneo

Down from Sveti Jovan at Kaneo they are excavating the earth where a former religious structure was and the same is true for the hills surrounding the area. If you can imagine a city with 365 churches, there is a surprise if you dig deep enough. There is also lots of buildings being built in the surrounding area and wonder how much is tossed aside versus preservation. I can only hope they are keeping their ancient history as these things are not replaceable.


Excavation of Ancient Mosaic Floor

One thing I often photograph are sewer and utility covers. I think they are tomorrow's artifacts. I also enjoy photographing new images that reflect the past -- faucets, down spouts, etc. While simple and almost unimportant they are a reflection of the times.


Sewer Cover

Sewer Cover

Sewer Cover


COSTS in DENAR: $300 laundry at hostel $40 ice cream cone $1830 three nights at Old Town Ohrid Hostel May 10, 2023 Rain started the day which is never a good time with a backpack and roller bag in hand and a mini umbrella in the other. It looks like it is going to be a bit wet for the good portion of the day and hope things clear up once I get into the capital. Time will tell. I am never one for chilly weather when also I am wet. It is a short 10-minute walk to the bus station, which is better than having to leave from the main terminal outside of town. One thing that is always good about staying some place local is they give you great bits of information like taking a bus from the city center. Winning! It is also a blessing that I have done international travel that I am wise to pack a foldable umbrella for days like today. *****************************


Skojpe Skopje is the capital and largest city in North Macedonia. It is the country's political, cultural, economic, and academic center. The area has been in existence since at least 4000 BC. It has a history that spans the millenia of which some but not all is known. From 1282, the town was part of the Serbian Empire and acted as its capital city from 1346 to 1371. In 1392, Skopje was conquered by the Ottomans. The town stayed under Ottoman control for over 500 years, serving as the capital of the region. In 1912, it was annexed by Serbia during the Balkan Wars. During the First World War the city was seized by the Bulgaria, and, after the war, it became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the Second World War, the city was again captured by Bulgaria, and in 1945 became the capital of SR Macedonia federated state within Yugoslovakia. It is no wonder the people who live here do not have an official language because they have gone in and out of countries not knowing their full identity. The city hosts about one quarter of the entire population of the country. Approximately 500,000 people call this city home.


Because of its rich history and story of conflicts, there are clear division lines between who calls this home -- Albanians or Macedonians. Relations between these two largest groups, are strained throughout the country. as in the rest of the country. Each group tolerates the other, but they tend to avoid each other and live in what can appear as two parallel worlds. Each view themselves each as the original population of Skopje and the other as newcomers.


On the end of the divide is the Roma. They are castoff and often times overlooked and misunderstood. The exact size of this group is not known. It is estimated that Skopje is the city in the world with the largest Roma population. *************************************************** I have to salute folks for their honesty. In Ohrid, I was at a jewelry shop owned by Marta Pejoska. I was admiring her silver filigree work and tried on several rings. They were all too small for me, though I did like a silver brooch which I almost purchased but refrained. I left the shop only hear someone calling after me. Looking back, she had made a dash down the cobbled stone street to find me because I had left my own personal ring with turquoise on the counter. She wanted to make sure I had it in hand. I thanked her kindly for helping me out and made she the following day I returned again to thank her for her hospitality.


Today, as I made the 4-hour trek from Ohrid to Skojpe, I exited the van as it pulled into the bus station. There was a half dozen taxi drives to meet us there. They began to scrounge for business as soon as the van door open. Stepping outside, I pulled my phone from my jacket pocket and went to the back of the van to pick-up my luggage. Upon doing so, the force of me pulling out my phone also came with it my passport. I had dropped it outside of the van on the walkway. Someone called out to me and did not hear them. Another man with English, pulled me aside and delivered to me my passport. I thanked him for him looking out for me. Once again it proved to me the goodness of strangers. Walking twenty minutes into town from the bus station, I found my hostel. It is actually on the lower level of a hotel called Koka. The hostel is called Inbox because all of the spaces are in pods. There is a screen that shelters the front of the box from the hallway with a drawer below, a light and socket inside the pod, a bed with flat sheet comforter, pillow, and on the back wall a locked box for personal affects.


Hostel Inbox

Hostel Inbox The pods are singles and doubles and placed down a long, low lit hallway with tiles. There are no windows. The area is co-ed with separate bathrooms for men and women. There is also a community space with a microwave, dorm-sized refrigerator, several tables for congregating, and a TV. They call this a hostel, but it lacks character. For the price though, I can accept it.



The great thing about it is the location. It is around the corner from the bazaar, several mosques, 15 minutes away from a mall, and another 20 minutes away from museums and sites. When I arrived, the city was erecting a stage and lights for an outdoor concert in the plaza right outside the hotel. While the hostel is nothing glamorous, I can't beat the location.


St. Demitrius Church

COSTS in DENAR: $345 cookies and 3 chocolate bars $259 full meal - salad, bread, drink, 2 sides, meat $65 small beer $755 package to USA $2302 four nights at hostel May 11, 2023 Skopje was deeply impacted by the July 26, 1963, earthquake which destroyed approximately 80% of the city. Large patches of buildings were destroyed which impacted commerce, education, and the overall quality of life for its citizens. This created an opportunity to reimage what the city could look like. Rebuilding began immediately. Decades later, the city felt grey and unwelcoming. The former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, created a project called Skopje 2014. No sooner had it begun, it became controversial. Neoclassical buildings destroyed in the 1963 earthquake were rebuilt, including the national theatre, and streets and squares were refurbished. Fountains and statues were rebuilt as well as parks and bridges. The project was criticized because of its cost and its aesthetics. The large Albanian minority felt it was not represented in the new monuments, and launched side projects, including a new square over the boulevard that separate the city center from the Old Bazaar. While ethnically diverse, the city is separated. Macedonians live south of the Vardar River, in areas massively rebuilt after 1963, and Muslims live on the northern side, in the oldest neighborhoods of the city. The Roma live in illegally constructed homes not connected to electricity and water supply, which are passed from a generation to the other. Topaana, close to the Old Bazaar is a very old area. It was first a Roma neighborhood in the beginning of the 14th century. It has between 3,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. Šuto Orizari, on the northern edge of the city, is a municipality of its own, with Romani as its local official language. It was developed after the earthquake to accommodate Roma who had lost their homes. As I walk through the central area of the city along the Vardar River, the presence of the Roma is high with many begging for change, scouring garbage cans for craps, and handouts from the well-to-do and tourists. *****************

Peter the Great Skopje on first glance looks shiny and new like a play toy under the holiday tree; however, at a closer glance it is worn and falling apart. The main square has massive statues, Peter the Great in particular, with fountains, bridges, and flashy new buildings. It reminds me of a Hollywood movie set or a street from Las Vegas. It wants to suggest it is rich and full of splendor. Under the surface, it is a different story.


Out with the Old Looking more deeply, it feels contrived. Every other corner or pedestal has a statue placed on top of it, every twist and turn has something to claim its place in history, and it feels like it works too hard wanting to impress tourists and its citizens. When looking closer, benches are in disrepair, graffiti covers monuments, and electrical wires and covers are missing or protruding from buildings. What appears magical is actually smoke and mirrors. It so badly wants to be majestic.










********************* The Contemporary Art Museum was a gift from the Polish government to the City of Skopje. I went to visit it this morning as I dodged raindrops and chilly weather. The building is depressing. It looks like is has not been well cared for, dirty, and disheveled.


Contemporary Art Museum The website said it opened at 9 a.m., but this was not the case It opened at 10 a.m. Arriving as early as I did, two watch dogs came out barking -- all bark, no bite ad half-blind. Contruction workers shooed them away, and I kept my distance. 30-minutes later, a young man in his mid-30s welcomed me and told the museum would not open for another hour. Because it was chilly, he asked me to join him inside the museum to wait I followed his lead and pulled up a chair by the window. As I entered you could smell the walls as if they were smoking tobacco. It is obvious that guards and staff smoke inside the building. I can't imagine this is good for the art collection. I sat down in a chair by the window, and he joined me. I told me he was a curator at the museum. I shared with him my work as an artist, educator, and former employee at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. He shared with me that after the earthquake the Polish government was kind to build a museum for their collection. Artists from around the world donated pieces for the collection: Picasso, Leger, Hockney, etc. Sadly, the collection is not able to be seen because of the cost to upkeep and maintain the space. The roof is leaking on the upper level, and they can barely afford to keep the lights on. With 5000 square feet of space, they are in a predicament. The curator stated his salary is roughly $600/month. It is not much to live-on; he manages. (He said university professors make $1,000/month.) He said it is better than it was before because in the early days a curator made $250/month. He said there are millionaires in the city, but they do not give to support the arts; the same is true with corporations. He said they do what they can with the few dollars they do receive, but they can barely manage to keep the storage rooms to a level of quality to maintain the work. With about 5500 works of art, they remain on loan or traveling other countries in order to afford their upkeep. Several pieces are currently on loan in Austria. ************


National Gallery The National Gallery of Macedonia is housed in a former hammam built in the 15th century. It was founded in 1948. (As a hammam, it was the largest one outside of Istanbul, Turkey.) The space consists of seven rooms of which they kept the domes intact as well as the small lights that piece from them. The collection I saw was disappointing. It reminded me of undergraduate, contemporary work. There were several female nudes which surprised me for being such a strong hold of faith-based people. I was disappointed to say the least.


National Gallery COSTS in DENAR: $50 Contemporary Art Museum Admission $100 National Gallery Admission $360 Keith Haring T-Shirt $295 burger, fries, Ketchup, Coke May 12, 2023 Kosovo and Serbia have been at each other's throats for decades. This is nothing new. What is new is the escalation. The Kosovo War was an armed conflict in Kosovo that started on February 28, 1998, until June 11, 1999. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed in early 1990 to fight against Serbian persecution of Kosovo Albanians, with the goal of uniting Kosovo into a "Great Albania". It initiated its first campaign in 1995 when it launched attacks against Serbian law enforcement in Kosovo. In June 1996, the group claimed responsibility for targeting Kosovo police stations, during the insurgency. In 1997, the organization acquired weapons from Albania after guns were looted from the country's police and army posts. In early 1998, KLA attacks targeting Yugoslav authorities in Kosovo resulted in an increased presence of Serb paramilitaries and regular forces who subsequently began pursuing a campaign of retribution targeting KLA sympathizers and political opponents. This campaign killed 1,500 to 2,000 civilians and KLA combatants and had displaced 370,000 Kosovar Albanians by March 1999. By March 1999, NATO was involved via aerial bombings and was considered controversial because it did not get support from the UN Security Council. After the war, a list was compiled which documented that over 13,500 people were killed or went missing during the two-year conflict. The Yugoslav and Serb forces caused the displacement of between 1.2 million to 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians. According to an Amnesty International report in 1998, due to dismissals from the Yugoslav government it was estimated that by 1998 unemployment rate in the Kosovar Albanian population was higher than 70%. YIKIES! The economic apartheid imposed by Belgrade was aimed at impoverishing an already poor Kosovo Albanian population. Back a dog into a corner, you bet it's going to bite.

In 1996, 16,000 Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia were settled in Kosovo by the Milosevic government, sometimes against their will.


The list of atrocities goes on and on. Killing each other's children does not bring peace. And even now, the conflict between the two groups continues leaving a border in limbo with no one knowing if it is open or closed from one day to the next. The most recent disagreement in December 2022 was about license plates because Kosovo has created its own plate that is not recognized by Serbia because Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a legitimate nation. This results in tourism dollars going elsewhere because simple folks like me just want to visit. Having to manage travel and border conflicts creates chaos. It forces some people not to want to manage the headache and decide to go elsewhere. If governments could see this, I think money talking would have some impact in the politics. As for me, I will find a way around the situation because I want to see both places. So, for example, if you are going to Kosovo and get your passport stamped, Serbia does not recognize the stamp as legitimate which makes entering Serbia illegal. If you travel hours to get here, you can be turned away at the border because of the stamp. However, if you go to Serbia first and then into Kosovo all is well at the border. I was trying to figure out if the border was open or not, and no one could give me a straight answer. It is not on the Serbia website, travel agencies are uncertain, while people on the street think you can/cannot, bus companies don't know and don't want to take responsibility for bringing someone to the border and then having to leave them if the person can't get in, hotels are uncertain because folks on the Kosovo side say you can't get in and those on Serbia's side say you can enter. It's maddening! This leaves me in a quandary. Do I go and see what happens or change course? I spent more than 1/2 of my day yesterday trying to figure it all out as well as parts of my morning. I am still getting conflicting reports. This was after I had made my bus ticket purchase for Kosovo. The more I researched, the more I thought it was better to be safe than sorry. So, I did a 180 spin. I emailed both embassies and finally confirmed what I thought might be the case. I would need to go to Serbia before Kosovo. I sent an email to both of my hostels in Kosovo and Serbia. I explained the situation and if they could exchange the dates between each other. I was going to stay five days in each place so it would all come out okay, and no one would lose money. Kosovo immediately replied and said no problem. Serbia took a bit longer but told me my original room was booked if I changed the date. There was going to be another room open, but it would cost me more ($30 more for 4 nights). They said I would have to cancel my other room online, but by doing so I would be charged $28. I sent them a note expressing my concern, and if we could it as a handshake and work it out when I go there it would be favorable. They replied no problem, and so I informed Kosovo to flip my dates. I believe my accommodations are now resolved. YEAH! Now, the next dilemma is how to get to get to Zagreb, Croatia. There is very little information online about travel to Zagreb via Kosovo. It appears there maybe one bus, but it will take more than 12 hours. If I fly the price is more than $500 Euro! I will inquire as soon as I get into the bus station in Pristina, Kosovo. Worst case scenario is I will have to back track to Serbia by 7+ hours, stay the night, and then the following day take another bus to cross the border to Croatia. I sent emails to my hostel in Zagreb and Pristina to see if they might know of a solution. No rest for the wicked and delirious.

Try to think of the borders like if this was in the USA. For ex., if North Carolina and South Carolina were known as Carolina and South Carolina chose to split from North Carolina, each would create their own currency, rules, laws, etc. They would fight back and forth over trivial things. Now if you were from Florida and wanted to go to North Carolina, you would have to passed through South Carolina with the least amount distance. But, when you got to the North Carolina Border, they would see you entered South Carolina without North Carolina stamp of approval to enter the state. You would now be entering North Carolina illegally. So, in order to bypass this, folks would be forced to go through Goergia/Tennessee border to enter North Caolina and then to South Carolina. What makes it even more precarious is one day North Carolina and South Carolina will have worked out their differences. Then suddenly, North or South Carolina would make a rule that would get the other one unhappy. What was once a free border has now become closed again. This goes on for decades leaving citizens on both sides uncertain if the border is open or not. And if you are from a different state, it complicates it even more because you have no idea what the current conflict is all about and don't know if you can go through or not which leaves you deciding to go through the GA/TX border so that you are not stranded on the North and South Carolina border having to fend for yourself.

*****************************

Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Skopje was a medieval church in the early 19th century. The community decided to rebuild a new space when the Ottoman empire created a new law allowing construction and renovation of Christain churches. It was consecrated in May 1935.

In 1944, Allied bombs hit the church and put it ablaze. It is believed that Bulgarian Fascists deliberately burned the church. Knowing that urban folklore is not based in fact, it is unknow if this was the case or not. It is a fact though the church was damaged as well as other Christian properties in the city. In 2018, a report and a photograph of a preserved slab appeared in Macedonian media. On the slab was an inscription: "The Main Door of the Bulgarian People's Church of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, July 20, 1879." The report has revealed that the slab was mounted on the church itself, but later was removed and kept for years in a secret place, as not to be destroyed by the Yugoslav authorities. Yet again, why can't people of faith love each other and not squabble, fight, and kill each other in the name of their God? So much destruction and loss for power and ego. **********************************


Church of St. Clement Orthodox Church St. Clement was construction began in 1972 and was consecrated in 1990 -- August 12 to be exact, the same year of the 150 anniversary of the saint's birthday. What is a beautiful gesture is the Islamic community gifted the fountain that is in the front of the church. WOW!


Church of St. Clement What I love about Orthodox churches is the colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings. It is rich and striking. I recall going to Russian Orthodox churches when I was in St. Petersburg over a decade ago and was moved even then. It really is lovely. The ones here also massive crystal chandeliers. When I have visited, they are not on though can imagine how they must fill the room with light. I also love the front screens with their icons and richly carved wood.


Church of St. Clement What I have noticed in the Orthodox church is that people cross themselves multiple times. They often times buy candles to burn, and when they enter the sanctuary after they cross themselves, they go to the icon and kiss it on the glass as well as the textile cloth that is holding the icon. Often times when they leave, they do not leave the church with the back turned but rather walkout backward as if not to turn their backs on Christ. I am surprised too by how many men come to pray and bring an offering. (I don't see this often in the Catholic church.) And some women will have their heads covered with a scarf as a sign of respect.

Church of St. Clement

The sanctuary does not have chairs/pews in it. I am told it's because people need to stand for the service to suffer like Christ. There are wood chairs with high backs along the sides of the walls for the elderly and infirmed. In the front of the church before going into the sanctuary, there is usually a place to buy crosses, iconography, candles, etc. It reminds me what many Catholic churches do. I always feel a bit at odds with commerce in a church, but I figure they have to make money some way. I wonder who pays for the staff to manage the kiosk? Maybe it is run by the retired? I also wonder if you can bring in your own candles from outside of the church or forced to buy that them there. COSTS in DENAR: $20 pastry on street $550 bus ticket to Pristina, Kosovo with 10 a.m., departure $50 Orthodox icon form church

May 13, 2023 I woke first thing in the morning and headed out to the bus station at 7:30. Few people were on the streets. I explained to the staff at the ticket counter my situation at the Kosovo/Serbia border. They exchanged my ticket for me, and I had to pay the difference via a credit card because I only had a few Denar left to my name. I will leave first thing in the morning (7:45) for an 8-hour trip to Belgrade. At least I have this segment taken care of. Now let's see how it all comes together in the end. baby steps forward...onward ho! **************************** I forgot to mention yesterday that when I was coming back from the bus station I was attacked by a large black and white bird. I was walking back to the hostel under some trees and was attacked. Out of nowhere, something grabbed at my head of hair. Looking backward, a larger bird attacked me! With its claws outstretched, s/he clawed at my head. I came out without being scathed, but my dignity was bruised. It flew away as I cussed up a terrible storm. I wonder what caused the aggression. I mention this again today because I was attacked again today on the way to the bus station by the same bird. What are the odds? Living 56 years on Earth I have never been attacked by a wild bird before and suddenly in two days back-to-back I have been? Strange. This time it flew at my head, and its claws were outstretched while I could feel it pulling my hair upward. I cussed at it and kept moving forward when again it came at me. Egads! I kept walking but this time with more pep into my step. Glancing backward, I could see it taking flight and considering going at me again. Not this time, Satan! I was ready for him. Wisely, s/he decided to back off and go to another tree. I would turn around another 4 to 5 times before I felt I was out of harm's way. I saw the bird teetering with the idea as it circled me. I have no idea what is there by that set of trees, unless s/he is protecting their young? I did not hear babies chirping, but who knows. *****************************************


Turkish Market Blessings abound everywhere. When I was on Facebook posting about my trip, a former MSU, Mankato alum (Shkelqin Daci) who lives in Pristina, Kosovo sent me a private message. He wanted to know what dates I would be in his city and if there was anything he could for me. I told him about my predicament of getting there with the border conflict and if there were buses to get me Zagreb, Croatia. He insisted on picking me up upon my arrival to Prishtina. He also said he wanted to invite me for dinner at his home. No sooner had I asked about the bus, he sent me a confirmation that there was indeed an overnight bus to get me Croatia, the cost to get me there, and the times for arrival/departure. Wow! It pays to have a great network and 100,000 alumni across Earth. I am beaming in gratitude. COSTS in DENAR: $1300 difference from Kosovo ticket ($550) to Belgrade, Serbia $40 two pastries on street $200 kebab, fresh baked bread, fries with condiments

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