Archive for the ‘Albania’ Category

An Hellenic Adventure

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

We went first West to the coast to catch a good road, then South toward the border with Greece. Roads were not horrible, but not great. Our suspension got a few more dings in it but nothing shocking. The border crossing went off without a hitch and we were pleased to be back in Euroland.

Northern Greece was partly wooded, hilly, not fully agricultural but with some fields. Small towns separated by longish distances. We hit the town of Ioninnia and continued south to Patra where a large bridge now crosses the strait to the mountainous Peloponnese penninsula. We camped that night just outside of Olympia.

The next morning we spent several hours wandering the ruins of the temple complex of ancient Olympia where the old games had been held in celebration of the festivals for many Greek gods. We also saw the point where the Olympic flame for the modern Olympics is lit and the trip to the site of the Olympics begins.

We traveled back along the norther coast of the Peloponnese peninsula arriving later in the day at the Acrocorinth, the high mesa overlooking both the ancient and modern city of Corinth. It was spectacular. We saw it from miles away, rising hundreds of feet high separate from the surrounding mountains. On the top and down the sides, walls and ruins outlined the forts, castles, citadels, temples, and other buildings of the ancient Acrocorinth could still be seen. We explored for hours, hiking to the different high points, climbing the ruins and walls, and exploring the underground cisterns. We were also pleased by the entry cost: free.

We left in high spirits and aimed our citröening black Passat for Athens, stopping at the famous canal to see a spectacular bridge that lowers itself deep into the water instead of rising up or splitting to allow wider and taller ships through. It was cool.

We knew we were in Athens when we saw the Acropolis rising from the center of the city and we headed for it. After finding a Lidl and replenishing our stocks, we found a camping spot and spent the night just outside the city.

Swimming: a Picturesque Beach, a Trashy Beach, and a Five-Story Diving Board

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

The morning of July tenth, we drove south along the beautiful Dalmatian coast. Croatia’s impressive Dinaric Alps mountain range runs close to the sea and provides beautiful vistas of rugged peaks and cliffs above gorgeous water. Our path ran through numerous coastal towns of picturesque white villas with clay roofs, ornamental gardens, and roadside cafes. Our enjoyment of the coast was slowed by tourist traffic. Apparently, others had heard of the coast’s fame as a less crowded alternative to the French Riviera. The result seems ironic. We stopped in the early afternoon at what an advertisement proclaimed to be the “Best Beach on the Croatian Riviera.” After a quick lunch, our Ramen noodles and tomatoes attracting the curiosity of some mature Croatian women, we hit the beach for a few hours of relaxation. Swimming in the waters of the Adriatic Sea, wonderfully clear and warm in the Mediterranean climate, soothed our tired bodies. I found the water salty as well, especially up my nose. Each of us was weary, still adjusting to life as one of only two travelers. We were content to read and sleep on the beach of fine pebbles, content to rejuvenate from saying goodbye to our friends, longer stints behind the wheel, more one-on-one time, and our recent stress at the Croatian border.

By-the-way, the Dalmatian name comes from from the Delmatae, an Illyrian tribe that lived along the coast in the 1st millennium B.C. The Dalmatian, “Dalmatinac” in Croatian, is a breed of dog thought to have originated in the area though it’s not known for sure. We didn’t see any Dalmatian dogs. Nevertheless, we continued through a tiny section of Bosnia before stocking up with provisions at a Croatian Lidl, tomato soup, and stopping for the night. We couldn’t understand why cars kept pulling in behind us in the small parking lot at the edge of the mountain until the explosions of fireworks began appearing above a nearby coastal town. Croatian Independence Day? Tardy American Independence Day? The only thing of which we were certain was that we had two borders and roughly 500 km between us and Lezhë, Albania, where we planned to meet our friends, Leon and Naomi Zimmerman at 1700 the next night.

The next morning, we spent some money on vehicle insurance to travel through Montenegro and then some more at the Albanian border about twenty minutes before the Zimmermans were expecting us. Montenegro was beautiful but the roads there and Albania proved disappointingly less than the major thoroughfares we were hoping to find. Our 8-year-old roadmap was alarmingly up-to-date. It was, we reminded ourselves, the Balkans. It took us well over an hour to travel less than 80 kilometers to Lezhë, over some of the sketchiest roads we’ve encountered on this trip. The barely two-lane road, with its occasional patches of pavement, often became three and four lanes as confident locals with significantly better suspension systems then ours passed at unbelievable speeds. They were all Mercedes-Benz vehicles. In fact, I counted. Of the first ten cars we encountered, eight of them were old model Mercedes. Most are stolen or illegally brought into the country, we learned later. Our humble and dirty VW pulled into Lezhë an hour and twenty minutes late when Caleb hailed us with a loud, “Matt Wolfer!” The men of the family, missionaries in Albania, were with Raphael, a man from their church who immediately sized up our car’s condition as needing new shocks. Absolutely, especially after that road.

The two of us and the entire family took off to the beach, an interesting collection of trees, trash, cows (seriously), swimmers, snack shacks, and bunkers. The latter were the remnants of the Communinist era where they were erected around Albania to convince the inhabitants that they were in need of protection. It was a change of pace from swimming in the Croatian Riviera. The boys, Caleb, Micah, Josiah, me, and Dan) rented a petal-boat and set sail for the open sea, braving treacherous waves, partially submerged bunkers, and stories of 2-foot jellyfish before returning to shore. We returned to the family’s small weekend apartment for delicious fajitas and a great, new card game, Bohnanza. We walked one of the town’s two main streets and hit the sack. The next morning Dan discovered someone had attempted grand theft auto, trying to punch out our passengers’ side door lock. No success. We had success, instead, attending the Sunday morning meeting the Zimmermans organize, following their “organic church” concept. After Caleb led worship in Albanian, the group participated in a engaging discussion following Leon’s printed questions about the Samaritan woman’s interaction with Jesus in John 4. It was a refreshing change from the sermon and seemed more beneficial in a society focused on relationships.

After the meeting, we drove an hour to Kruja’s castel where Scanderbeg, the Albanian hero, held off the Ottoman Turk hords, restraining the Muslim expansion from reaching more of Europe. We reenacted such a competition with the boys before appreciating a delicious meal of pizza and salad. It had been so long! We continued on to Tirana where the Zimmermans live most of the week. A enthusiastic game of Scattergories, some time on the Internet, sleep, and we woke to a overwhelming breakfast of pancakes with peach or banana slices with whipped cream or a ham and potato topping, perfect with homemade syrup. We explored the city center with the children and then Dan and I accompanied the two youngest to a nearby swimming pool facility. We spent three hours tossing the football and frisbee into the air above the water for each other to dive after and team keep-away with the frisbee. Then we faced the high-dive boards. It was a structure of diving boards on every floor for five floors. At the end of the fifth board, however, it suddenly became quite death-defying! Naturally, Dan and I had to try pencil-jumping from the fifth floor board. There is nothing like jumping from five stories into water. I started at the fifth story.

That daring feat completed and my ears still stopped with water, we walked home for kebabs and conversation about colleges with Caleb, planning our trip, and romantic relationships (sort of). We then walked the town to a high-rise with a rotating restaurant on its top. Slowly rotating 360 degrees an hour, we enjoyed coffee and Leon’s explanation of the organic church. We must have made it 480 degrees before returning to earth and the Zimmerman’s house. I handily (ha!) beat the two youngest at two more games of Bohnanza over the midnight hour as Naomi cut Dan’s hair. One last night with the incredibly gracious family and we set our sights for Greece.