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The Balkans .... part of it (part 1)

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Joined: 19 Dec 2006
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Location: BLR, DXB

PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 12:18 am    Post subject: The Balkans .... part of it (part 1) Reply with quote

Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia- countries I knew practically nothing about. This was a 9 day trip with an uncharacteristically difficult set of flights in and out of Albania. All my doing of course, but it alll worked out in the end and I got a bunch of new airlines. And a few new airports! And a few grey hairs.
One of the original plans was Fiji, well that general area. Problem was it would mainly be a 'beach holiday' (didn't want that now) .... and it's ... far. Then we wanted Europe and narrowed it down to Spain or the Balkans.
Once again, this TR is a handful of flights and (a lot) of touristy stuff thrown in … I can vouch for most of its accuracy heheheee.

Day 1
Getting to Tirana

Emirates EK-043

Got to fly the new Emirates F class on the 777, the 1-1-1 config with ‘virtual’ windows. It’s milleees better than the old F seat. Only downside over the 380 = no bar and shower ….. tsk tsk 😜

The reason for FRA was MXP was full, so we had to do DXB — somewhere else — Milan. FRA had the most free seats and ok connections.

On arrival into FRA our bags came towards the end. There were 2 luggage belts with bags coming out on either one, quite confusing.

Lufthansa LH-272

Took the sky train to Terminal A with a self checkin and bag drop at LH, then a lonngggg line at security. Almost :30 mins meaning we had to rush to the gate. Boarding pass said A-30, LH sent an email saying A-30. The information screen said A-24 so that’s where we went 😬. There was a CSA Czech 320 at the gate, but the gate info said whatever flight to Prague and below that LH272 to MXP. hmmmmmm. Few mins later it changed- gate change to A-23. Thank goodness the adjacent gate, but there was a 748 on stand. How I wish that flew the hop to MXP! ..... anyhow the new info said :30 mins delay. Long story short it was (eventually) the correct gate and ‘twas a long bus ride to a remote stand. Some great airside views at FRA …. but we were really late by this point and our connection from MXP was getting uncomfortably tight.
D-AIUM. The captain apologised for the delay, apparently the original crew got stuck in Brussels and these guys were called out- always good to get an honest reason. Pushback at 1155 and airborne literally 5 mins later.
No pics ..... nothing to say really it was a normal short flight with a drinks run.

Our 2:15 buffer in Milan became 1:15. Mad rush to get our luggage and get upstairs to check in, we got our boarding pass exactly an hour before departure (after the crabby check in lady told us we missed the flight) then it took us :45 mins to get to the gate. Line after line and slow after slow 😖😖 but that’s Milan for you.

Air Albania ZB-2004
Milan Malpensa — Tirana (Nënë Tereza)

Another bus ride to the aircraft. Turkish registration + Turkish stickers randomly placed + Turkish interiors hehehehe. At least the tail and wings and uniform said Air Albania.

1425 ETD came and went, no one was at the gate but the screen said on time departure. Eventually 10 mins late or so people showed up and started the bus boarding. There couldn’t have been more than 35 pax on this 738, and no explanation about the delay 🤦🏼‍♂️
We sat on board for 40 mins before the cabin crew said they were waiting for ‘some documents’ (after all 35 of us started asking questions I might add) Turns out ZB just started flying to Milan … I guess their ground support was a bit behind and eventually we left over an hour late. One hour after boarding and not a single PA from the pilots so far 🙄🙄 that’s unforgivable.

Snack. Caesar salad + cheese sandwich + slice of cake. Was Ok whatevs.

O yea I did hear one announcement from the cockpit, the “cabin crew prepare for landing” PA!!! That’s something right?
Small terminal, everything quick and easy passport control bags etc etc.

There was some traffic getting into Tirana but it wasn't a long drive. Check out these traffic lights 😃 Never seen anything like it hehehehehe the whole pole lit up red/yellow/green. Can you imagine the excuse for jumping a light? “I didn’t see it …. errrrr my eyes were closed” 😂

We stayed at Hotel Austria. No time to relax after check in, quick clean up change and started a walking city tour. The hotel was nice- well located, comfortable and a nice breakfast.

Some info on Albania::
The name Albania comes from an Illyrian tribe ‘Albani’
The Albanian language uses Latin text, but this is a recent development only from the 19th century.
They had their own written language at some point but it was lost (wasn’t allowed during the Ottoman rule amongst other things) it was a spoken language but could be written in Greek/Turkish/Arabic. It changed to Latin alphabet only in the 19th century.

Tirana is a newish city, founded in the 16th century. Back in the day the Ottomans controlled the area and Tirana was basically the outpost to protect the roads and trade routes.
The ‘founder’ was this Ottoman chap who built a bakery + a hamam + a mosque in Tirana - symbolically the 3 basic buildings for a city.

The Ottomans ruled for around 500 years. They were generally good rulers they had rule of law and documented everything. If you were Muslim you paid less tax ... however all religions and faiths were allowed. Quite a few people converted, why not ‘‘twas cheaper 😄 All in all they were good rulers

Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. Seeing what the people/women wore you wouldn’t tell. I saw maybe 1 headscarf in 4 days? Lots of doggos, people walking with the their doggies everywhere half without leashes = very civilised country 😀. The roadside convenience stores sold booze. It’s super liberal and wasn’t religious at all. After effect of communist rule I guess?

After World War 1 Albania was a democracy later becoming a Monarchy, the King was very close to Italy. Mussolini invested a lot in their infrastructure and did a lot of rebuilding for them. Didn’t last long tho … the King ran away when the Italians invaded around World War 2.
After that the Russians took over- this area was strategically important to the Communists. It was close to the Western Bloc, connected by the sea etc. They even based submarines here. For the next 50 years Albanians lived under Communist rule and of course Socialism.
They also became very close to China.

Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hoja) ..... now consider a dictator he died of natural causes in 1985 and a few years later they became a democracy. Here's his (former) house ....

They’re now trying to join the EU. It’s a relatively poor country (cheap for tourists) and most citizens want to join the EU for jobs as you can imagine.

Resurrection Cathedral, Orthodox Church

Our hotel was waking distance from Skanderbeg Square. - The main plaza. Designed and built by the Italians when they were friends so 20th century.
Toptani Castle - Old city walls and fortifications. Don't ask where my pictures are 🤷🏼‍♂ 😱

Day 2
Kruja Castle

Albanian medieval hero Gjergj Kastrioti … or Skanderbeg.

His parents were wealthy noblemen and controlled Kruja (plus the castle). Kruja comes from Kroi ..... which means fountain. The 2 headed eagle was their principality, when the Ottomans invaded they took control of Kruja and took a few of the children hostage (basically kidnapped Skanderbeg and other important chaps children) and raise them to be Ottomans. Janissaries?

Skanderbeg was raised in Turkey and became a general in the Ottoman army. Later on when he was sent on a conquest to Hungary he forged a letter from the Sultan authorising him to return to Kruja, where he took control of his family castle. He came with 300 knights and eventually gathered 10,000 soldiers (thru rallying the neighbouring noble families against the Ottomans and some smart marriages)
Obviously the Ottomans were pissed and sent armies after him. With the castle as his fortress (on the mountain) he time and again fought off the Ottoman army of 100,000 for 25 years. He became a hero of the region- a returned prodigal son sort of thing.

In 25 years Kruja and his Castle was laid seige to 3 times by the Ottomans. This was in 1400s.
Skanderbeg had the port nearby for trade and made powerful friends. He helped the King of Napoli and did favours for Venice etc etc. .
His big allies were the Hungarians and Naples, and he rallied the locals agains Ottoman rule. Heck the Pope said Skanderbeg was a defender of Christianity as well.

Skanderbegs helmet- with a horned goat.

Basically he came and settled back in his castle and raised the flag against the ‘Ottoman invaders’ united the people.
Skanderbeg with the various tribes/people of the area united against the Ottomans.

Half of Kruja are Muslim and the other half are Bektashi / Dervish. They are a liberal branch of Muslims, their mosques don’t have minarets they can drink alcohol. I asked a few questions but ... don't know much about them 😳

The Illyrian King and Queen. One of their generals turned against them and helped the Romans conquer their kingdom.

The 3 big ruling families of the region- one had the Eagle, one was the Lion, one was the Wolf.
Skanderbeg united these families.

That's where the saying comes from .... huh. Good to know.

Skanderbeg died of old age in Kruja.
After he died the Ottomans (finally) took control of Kruja.
And stayed.
For 500 years. Ish.
As you can imagine he's revered since he was the first person to give a strong identity to Albanians.

Lunch was in the village of Marikaj. The food was good but we had no idea what was what 😑
Soup + cheese + potato something, Arabic tasting spinach + egg filo pastry + sausage. Good stuff and a nice quiet outdoor setting.

The only unmistakeable thing was chicken … which I didn’t touch ...

They had a bottle of red wine and this other clear looking bottle. I thought it was water, poured a respectable amount. Thank goodness my big nose protested before I gulped it down 😶. Turned out it was Raki, a traditional local grape alcohol. Smelt worse than tequila ... over 45% alcohol.

Dessert was pomegranate and this weird fruit. It looked like an olive, brown outside but light green on the inside and tasted like guava, it was interesting. Ide … I had never heard of it

That evening was back in Tirana, we just roamed around. A lot of nice bars/loungy places with good music.

Day 3
Bunk'Art to Gjakova (Kosovo)

After breakfast at Hotel Austria, checkout and a trip to Bunk'Art before the drive to Kosovo.
Built during the Cold War it's now a museum. The idea of this massive underground bunker was to protect Enver Hoxha and his military/ruling class in case of nuclear and chemical attack.
The museum was quite nice albeit a bit haphazardly organised in terms of showcasing the nations history.

Floor mat

The country is littered with these small bunkers, all towns had them. During Hoxha rule not only did they build them in every town the children had to learn to handle weapons.

Thick walls/doors and concrete slabs.

First .... some history Smile
28th November is an important date for them.
28 Nov 1443 = Skanderbeg raised the flag against the Ottomans
28 Nov 1912 = Independence from Ottomans - Liberation Day
28 Nov 1944 = Independence from Germans

In case you missed it .... the Ottomans were in power till 1912!
Only then did Albania get its independence.

The Italians invaded during WW2. The King of Albania ran away and died in France.
The people didn’t like Italian occupation, the Democratic Front (created or assisted by Yugoslavia) was gaining power and one of the members was Enver Hoxha.
The National Front was pro-Italian. The Democratic Front was not ….. The DF won.

Most of the National Front were executed after Hoxha came to power, he even killed his brother in law.
Religious leaders were part of the Democratic Front early on, but after Hoxha came to power they were all kicked out and Albania became the first Atheist state.

After the Italians were defeated the Germans held power for a year. The first ‘elections’ were held in 1944 when Hoxha came to power. He stayed in power until his death in 1985.

First elections = Hoxas won 93%.
There were 2 options- vote for his party or don't vote.

After he came to power no one was spared, even some of his earlier supporters were executed or died …. mysteriously.

Did you know ? — the original German SS uniforms were made by …. Hugo Boss 😑

Hoxhas right hand man was Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu ..... he was PM for 30 years. He committed suicide in 1981 .... but the conspiracy theory was Hoxha had him executed. Shehus son killed himself and PMs family (wife and kids) were sent to labour camps.

WW2 Albanian deaths were officially put at 20,000 but that’s probably high. Most casualties were due to German bombings.

200 tonnes of chemical weapons came from China Shocked Confused
Soldiers quarters, 2 to a room with their equipment.

Until 1991 Albanians couldn’t travel (under Communist rule). They even needed authorisation to travel within Albania.

Upside = everyone went to school and illiteracy rate went to zero. Also women were not oppressed and in some cases more equal to men.

Communication equipment was Chinese German and Russian.

Hoxas meeting room, next to his bedroom. Fancy obviously, he even had an electric geyser.

The ‘theatre’ wasn’t for entertainment. It was a meeting/discussion area.
People would gather and listen to speeches etc etc. So no ballets.

Sport was a big thing during the Communist era as you can imagine.
Did you know = they didn’t allow boxing it was considered to aggressive. Hmmmmm.
.… but torturing someone by putting her (sorry forgot who but they did this to some lady) in a bag with a big cat counted as gymnastics I guess 🙈

The bunker had 5 levels. And bats. Cold/dark/damp .... a lot of bats lived in bunkers.

Enver Hoxha died in 1985

Downside of the bunker museum = there wasn’t much about the bunker ☹️. How did they keep it ventilated? Where were the generators? Water supply? None of that info which would have been super interesting imo.

After the bunker we settled into our 4 hour and a bit drive to Gjakova in Kosovo. Thru the hills very scenic and super highways. Not a big 4 lanes road but even then not a single bump along the way.

The border crossing into Kosovo took a few minutes but no questions asked or anything he just took a few minutes with his computer. Then we got an illegible stamp 😜.

It pretty much rained all day in Gjakova we got there in the afternoon. We just ate and sat around the rest of the day. Our hotel Çarshia e Jupave was tiny but really nice and there was a fun bar/sheesha/food street nearby. Our room was small, bathroom even smaller and the first night was really loud (party goer pedestrian noise ….)
Evening snack

Day 4
Pristina and Peć (Peja)

Breakfast at the hotel was great! A lot of variety and cheeses and meats and breads and veggies.

Gjakova is just a small town, founded 8th century. A lot of people died in 1999 during the war.

That same street I mentioned earlier with restaurants/bars etc near our hotel. Obviously a lot more lively in the evenings ....

is 83% Muslim (Bektashi and Sunni)
The rest are Christian and Orthodox

Some Muslims belong to a different branch. Big differences = they pray once a day and can eat pork. Most people (including our guides) don’t know much about religion 😜😂 so they couldn’t tell me much about the types and sects etc etc. There wasn’t much much pork around tho, mostly beef sausage and the usual meats.

We drove to Prishtina the capital of Kosovo, there’s no much here. Everything is new- all post war construction.

Strange building .... think it was a library?

History of Yugoslavia and the area …. it was Communist but much more liberal, very unlike Russia/Albania/Romania. Yugoslav citizens had passports and could travel the world etc etc.

A lot of Turkish food influence.
Lunch was flatbread (tasted like pizza) and a yogurt dip. Veal with onions as a main.

We just walked around Pristina for a while, didn’t really do much. From there drove to Peć (pronounced Peja) but had car trouble along the way. Got further and further delayed and reached Peja late, so we couldn’t visit the Patriarchate. The Patriarchate is a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery and one of the most important religious sites of Serbia (what’s now Kosovo) …. we just wound up walking around the town.
Random pictures from Peja .... election time.

Drove back to Gjakova for the night. It was raining so we ate at the hotel.
Dinner was beef cooked on a hot stone in front of us. A tiny bit of some gravy and salt + potatoes. Tasted ok but was a fun experience. DIY sizzler.

Dessert was a baklava and a chocolate thing. And some peach slices.

Day 5
Prizren to Ohrid (North Macedonia)

A quick drive to Prizren (south Kosovo, less than an hour away). The local name for Kosovo is Kosova. Why didn't they stick with A instead of changing it to O ?? anywayyyy
Prizren was built around the 2nd century AD. Its first inhabitants were the Byzantines then Romans then Slavs, then the Ottomans of course.
Main languages are Albanian, Bosnian and Turk. A lot of Turkish traditions remain since they administered the area for almost 500 years.

- Prizren was strategically located between Greece and Europe and also the route between Italy to Turkey. The travellers used to stop at this crossroad that’s how it grew. It’s now the second largest city in Kosovo.
- It’s been peaceful for 20 years since NATO ended the war in 1999. However the the biggest problem now is the economy- with almost 40% unemployment (depends who you ask) in Kosovo 😱. Even the educated don’t have jobs.
- The old square (Shadirvan square) which means fountain. It’s near the bridge to the old part of the city and connects the Mosque, the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church.
- Everyone smokes in these countries 😶

Sinan Pasha Mosque built in the 17th century. The separate praying area for women was a raised balcony which is unusual. It’s so men and women could be in the same room.

That painting above the 2 windows is the Hagia Sophia.

Stopped at a tea house to get .... tea

The hamam (Turkish bath) ..... it was a bathing area but primarily a social spot. This is the third biggest hamam in the Balkans. Well … it was, it’s closed until they get big bucks for renovations. A big waiting room at the entrance, drinking water and a place for tea and coffee.
There was a wood fire outside the structure which heated the water for bath and to feed the sauna.

There was a mosque nearby. Apparently they started constructing the mosque … but people were filthy so they said let’s halt the mosque and first build a haman. Once that was finished .... they restarted the mosque.

We visited this really nice Dervish ‘mosque’. Well they don’t have mosques so structure I guess, don’t know the term? Very green, fruit trees with kiwis grapes and pomegranates.
It’s only for men. On Thursdays they get in a circle and go round and round. Didn’t mean to sound disrespectful, whirling?

Drink = boza
Made with corn flour, yeast and water. Slightly fermented and sweet. Yellowish and a tad thick but it was nice, a tangy fermented taste but nice.

A UNESCO protected church - Saint Friday church or ‘Levisha Church’.
Started as a Pegan site 1500 years ago, then the Illyrians made it some Byzantine church (didn’t really get what was going on) then the Ottomans converted into a mosque. Then the Slavics made it a church again.
Now it’s just lying there, the inside is destroyed. They need UNESCO bucks to restore it eventually.

Food = a lot of meat, lamb and veal and chicken. Kebabs and peppers/zucchini stuffed with meat. Sausages and yogurt based meat stuff like that.
Lunch today was a lamb cooked with yogurt. It was really reaalllly nice, tasted a lot better than it looked. I’m not a lamb fan but this was not meaty at all which is a plus for me. In fact it was one of the best things we ate on the trip! A veal with vegetables which was also yum. Some accompanying bread and baklava for dessert.

Done with Kosovo, next was a longish 4 hour drive to Ohrid across the border. The Macedonian passport control was busy lots of cars and trucks the road looked backed up - but it was quick. Total 8 minutes in line (the car I mean, passengers don’t step out) and just a minute for the passport check. No stamps no questions nothing. It was a scenic drive with a lot of greenery thru the mountains.

Stayed at Hotel Lebed, about a 15 minute walk from the square. Ok hotel, huge rooms tho. We snacked in the car so weren't particularly hungry so for dinner we just walked down to this pub and had pizza.
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