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xEurasia Odyssey

Adriatic Coast - Week 2 A, Northern Albania and Western North Macedonia

MACEDONIA | Thursday, 8 July 2021 | Views [42]

Museum on the Water, Neolithic Stilt Village reconstruction, Lake Ohrid

Museum on the Water, Neolithic Stilt Village reconstruction, Lake Ohrid

Week 2a  - Adriatic Coast + Northern Albania to Western North Macedonia

It turned out that Velipoje is right on the coast, and it was here that I found our hotel.  The dark grey sandy beach is extensive. It stretches from the town area about 300-400 m down to the shore and along the shoreline for many kilometers.  The end of the area where we were had a “Grand Europa Resort,” which came complete with a water playground and pools. This Disneyesque venue was the only private spot I saw during the walks along the boardwalk or beach; everything else is public and open to everyone.  No one batted an eye when I took the dog in the sea or when we walked along the beach, not like at Sunset Beach where I was quite severely reprimanded for walking Nori near the shoreline. (Although I did find some private rocky spots where she was allowed to go in.) The area is quite an economic mix, and clearly geared primarily for local or regional tourists. The hotel where we were, Kamberi, was very nice (although the bathroom was quite small and the shower didn’t have a curtain so the entire bathroom floor got sopped after a shower), but directly next door was a place that had obviously started out well, but was never finished and was left to dilapidate. The same could be said for at least 20-25% of the structures in the area. I asked if this was due to remnants of the war, but was told that the war didn’t affect this particular area and that the people simply ran out of funds.  I was told that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Albanians tried to leave the country.  Those who were successful often sent needed funds back to family and friends in Albania so that they could rebuild their lives and property.  Often the funds sent by the immigrants were invested in what later turned out to be pyramid schemes by the banks, any number of which subsequently went belly up in 1996-1997. Many people lost everything they had. The transition from a communist economic structure to a free market left many without the necessary investment caution and they got caught. The political unrest in 1997 was a direct result of the economic disaster.  Today, the economy seems to be coming back on track and there are new, often very attractive, houses sprouting up all over the country. In Velipoje, amid the crumbling 1990s structures trash was everywhere, except directly on the beach, and stray dogs roamed and barked all night long.  One of them tried to attack Nori a few times, so we avoided that part of town whenever we saw the stray.  It is quite possible that she, it was clearly a she, was rabid. My guess is that this area will clean up and become a much better known international tourist destination in the coming decade.  The beach is simply too nice for it to be otherwise.

The drive to Tirana wasn’t long, only about two and a half hours and was fine until entering the metropolitan area. Traffic suddenly became almost unbearable, with drivers either not knowing or totally ignoring any rules of the road.  The roundabouts were particularly interesting, and not in a good way.  Google maps was somewhat helpful, but as I found elsewhere, not always accurate. After a bit of circling around through small one-way alleys, we finally found the Berberi. It is hidden without a sign, but offered a complete apartment, and was one of the only places in the city that allowed dogs.  This would be an ideal place to stay for a number of days, or weeks, if one were staying in the city.  As I just wanted to get to the Historical Museum and walk a bit around the downtown area, a single night in the city in summer was enough.

The Historical Museum is nicely laid out chronologically starting with the Mesolithic and ending with a series of rooms with 20th C guns and weaponry. The pre-historical exhibits weren’t particularly extensive, as most of the artifacts are in the Archeological Museum attached to the University and only open during the week, but were exemplary. The descriptions in English were well written and conveyed a synopsis of the various eras, cultures and tribes across the geographical expanse of the country. The museum itself is in the main square area, dedicated to the local hero, Skanderbeg.  His name is derived from his role under the Ottomans, under whom he served until switching sides to unite Albanian tribes and towns to shake off Ottoman rule. His given name was Kastrioti and local gas/petrol stations are named Kastrati; which is somewhat confusing to an opera person unless one knows local history. Skanderbeg Square has a large equestrian statue of the hero not far from the mosque and clock tower. The Opera is in a building from the same architect as the Historical Museum, all from around the 1930s, designed during an Italian fascist phase. There are trees lining the river in the center of town and Skanderbeg Square has a few parks, which makes for a pleasant city center. During the day, the square has some life, but it really comes alive during the evening when it seems all of Tirana gathers on the green spaces for walks with their dogs, children and grandparents. It is truly family affair. Albanian gratitude to the US for their support with independence from foreign rulers is demonstrated in the names of various streets in the capital, i.e., Wilson street and square and George W. Bush street.

From Tirana we drove to Korce, where unfortunately, I didn’t get into the museum, but did visit the Albanian Orthodox Church, which is an impressive structure at the end of a pedestrian tree lined path. Along the walkway were large Commedia dell’Arte masks attached to the light posts, which probably indicate some kind of a festival. Korce sits in a basin with low-lying mountains surrounding the city. It is a pleasant area, and one that has been inhabited since the Neolithic. There are numerous ancient archeological sites in the region, but most are not signed, so finding them can be a trick.  Prior to driving to Korce, I had wanted to stop at the Illyrian Kings Tombs, but there wasn’t a sign on the highway directing to Selca e Poshtme, the village where they are located, so didn’t make it there. I have since found out how to navigate the drive, and now plan to visit them on the way back from Northern Macedonia. In Korce, I needed to ask directions as my GPS on the phone wasn’t working & I don’t have one in the car, so I stopped by a park area in the center of town and went looking for a coffee shop, where I hoped someone would speak English.  Up until this point in the trip, hardly anyone spoke German, but most people could find someone nearby who spoke English and could help.  This was true in Korce as well, but I noted that here as well as in Tirana, that the patrons in the coffee shops in the non-tourist areas (& Korce isn’t geared towards international tourists) were all male. Women were nowhere to be seen other than in the isolated shops. This wasn’t the case in the center of the towns where young people gathered, but during the day the over 35 years old crowd was almost homogenously male.

From Korce we drove to Pogradeci, or rather to the beaches a bit outside of town in Tushimisht on the border to North Macedonia. As it was a hot and humid Sunday, the 4th of July, I expected the beaches to be packed, but was very pleasantly surprised to find lots of space between people and family units.  By the evening, even these relatively few people had left and Nori & I basically had kilometer long sandy beaches on the south shore of Lake Ohrid to ourselves. Lake Ohrid is huge, and it is spectacularly beautiful with mountains surrounding the entire expanse. It is one of the largest lakes in Europe, and one of the deepest.  There have been documented settlements along the shoreline since the early Neolithic period. Today, historical struggles are documented in war bunkers, small cave-like concrete structures that dot the area. Some have been imaginatively painted, but most are left bare with barbed wire around them.

            The next morning, I went back into Pogradeci to the local museum, which has a small collection of ancient artifacts and a very informative director. She was quite helpful with explanations about ancient Illyrian religion and their gods and how they merged with the Greek gods when the Greeks had more political and economic clout than the local rulers. She mentioned that Greek mythology still impacts the town, as the town’s symbol has two dragons. They relate directly back to the Greek myth of Cadmus and Harmonia, who were turned into black serpents after their retirement in Illyria. When pressed about specific Illyrian gods she mentioned that it is possible Redon, the Illyrian sea god, blended with Poseidon, and Prende, the Illyrian goddess of love and spouse of the sky and thunder god, Perendi, became affiliated with Aphrodite. En, the main deity of the Illyrian pantheon, has attributes of Enki from Egypt. In Albanian, En is now part of the word for Thursday, as Thor was used for the English term; Prende is used in the root for Friday, premte; and Perendi is their name for God. The cult of the snake also lives on, especially in small rural villages where it is considered unlucky to kill a snake. Having a snake by the doorway is considered a means to ward off ill fortune. The Greeks with their myths weren’t the only foreigners to influence the region, and the museum has a number of artifacts from the 500 year Ottoman occupation.

It was now time to head on to Ohrid in North Macedonia. The border crossing was easy, never a given in a COVID world. The only hiccup was that one of the border patrol fellows thought the green card I have as proof I passed a dog-owner’s course that Austria mandates was the green international vehicle insurance card and he didn’t want to give me back the white print out that I had from the insurance agency instead of a ‘green card.’ Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro all asked to see my car registration and the ‘green card’ along with my ID, vaccination card, and Nori’s EU dog passport prior to entering.

Just over the border is St. Naum Monastery. He was a 10th C servant of God, who established a monastery by the reeds on the southern end of the lake.  Most of the reeds have now been cleared out and beautiful sandy beaches grace the shoreline. Next to the monastery grounds, there is a nature sanctuary that is recognized as a great place for birders. The monastery itself has a number of medieval structures, including three churches, all in amazing settings.  There are springs and small pools of spring water with waterfowl set amid willows and shade trees. Trinket shops line a walkway from the parking area to the churches, but are set back from the lawn and beaches, so unless one wants to purchase something, one doesn’t need to confront all the things that are for sale and can walk directly to the springs and/or churches. The Monastery has a hotel and, as it is in an idyllic location, would make for a very nice stay.  Boat taxis and boat tour companies are available to transport people from St. Naum to Ohrid or vice versa.

The drive around the lake from St. Naum to Ohrid offers amazing views, multiple public beaches, and a few large resorts. Small medieval churches, some with interesting frescos, are in at least a couple of the villages along the way. Ohrid itself is a modern tourist oriented town. Luckily, it is very easy to navigate, which isn’t the case in Bitola, where we went after checking into the hotel. Bitola is the town nearest the Heraclea archeological site and houses a National Museum with excellent Neolithic to Classical Age exhibits. There is one large room dedicated to icons placed in chronological order. The museum is in an old military school; the one Ataturk attended when he was a student. There is a whole section of the museum dedicated to him, and I have to wonder what he would say about what is happening to his legacy in Turkey today.  Turning the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque was certainly not what he would have envisioned or wanted.

From Bitola it isn’t far to the archeological site, but unless one is really interested in ancient Greek ruins without any remaining temples and only the outlines of two basilica, this one isn’t worth an extra drive. The mosaics, which were the most interesting aspects of the site, are similar to what can be found in most other ancient Greek or Roman sites.

Old Town Ohrid, on the other hand, is a must see for anyone interested in the history of the region or in sacred art history. The Old Town cascades down a hill toward the rocky shore. The oldest finds from the Old Town are from the Bronze Age, but there is evidence that the area near the shore by new town, where a boardwalk now extends from a reedy marshland to the port was once a Neolithic stilt city. Down the coast, about half way to St. Naum, is a Museum on the Water, which is a reconstructed stilt village on the site where one originally stood. The archeologist at the site took the time to explain to me that the main difference between the village and the original site in Ohrid, was that the latter was much larger, more like a city, than his smaller site.  There was only one votive figurine found in his area, but a few of them have been found in Ohrid.  His friend, the archeologist at the National Museum in Ohrid, met with me and explained some of their finds, including two Isis figurines.  Artemis and the Great Mother, Cybele, were worshipped and later Aphrodite and Athena, along with Zeus. In the Salzkammergut, we have evidence of stilt villages on the Mondsee and the Attersee, from approximately the same period and it would be interesting to know if there are commonalities in structure, even if the deities were different.  Scholars from Austria and Switzerland came to Montenegro in 2019 to research any connections, but COVID seems to have stopped this inquiry for the time being at least. I asked if any of the old stilt villages or bronze age structures had evidence of observatory attributes and was told there is a well in the middle of the country that functions as an observatory with the sun hitting the lowest stair on the staircase to the water on the summer solstice, signifying the marriage of sky and water/earth to form creation. The stilt villages, however, do not appear to have been situated as observatories, but rather all within protected bays. I have to double check when I’m back home, but I believe this is the same in Austria.

The main reason to come to Ohrid, aside from the lake, is to visit the medieval churches and their frescos. Old Town Ohrid is a medieval art historian’s delight, with church after church after church with frescos many from the 19th C onwards. The icon museum across from the Church of the Mother St. Bogorodica, has earlier, from the 12th C onwards, works. St. Sophia is among the largest and best preserved, and St. Nikola is among the smaller, but has almost completely intact frescos. Perhaps the most photographed of all the churches is St. John’s (Jovan Kaneo) at the spit of the peninsula. The walls to Samuil’s Fortress from the 4th C are still standing and the views of the lake, town, and surrounding hills across the waters to Albania are spectacular. The classical theater, which was first constructed for theatrical performances and only later under the Romans adapted to gladiator fights, also offers a good view of the lake behind where the performers stood. Cultural performances remain at the heart of Ohrid, and in the summer there are a number of festivals.  While I was here, there was a festival of Balkan Music in the open air pavilion in the town center for free. 

Ohrid is a wonderful place. The lake, the historical sites, the cultural events combine to make the town worth its reputation as the main tourist site in North Macedonia. And while there were lots of people when I was there, it wasn’t the mass tourism of the Croatian coast. There also seem to be two fairly distinct and yet connected areas of the new town. The boardwalk extends from the end of the Old Town to the marshy area, then goes up a few steps to a park, where there are brick red stationary bikes and an outdoor exercise equipment area. At the end of the park is a small children’s amusement arcade and a boat loading area. A bridge goes over an inlet, which is lined with new private boats, primarily sail, pontoon and motorboats. On the other side of the bridge is another boardwalk, with an outer area for bikes and an inner area for walkers and roller skaters.  Here too, are a couple of exercise equipment areas that were heavily in use in the evenings. At the end of the day, it seems that all of Ohrid heads here to enjoy the setting sun and go for the day’s final swim.

Tomorrow morning we head back to Albania and to the Royal Tombs, but before leaving my comments on Ohrid, I do want to say something about the food. It is quite good, but very heavy.  Creams, mayonnaise and butter seem to be staples and the portions are huge.  A caesar salad or pizza is large enough to feed three people easily.  The restaurants are nice, though, and allow the left over food to be packed up as take out.

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Tags: beaches, cities, history, museums, towns

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