Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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My plan for the summer had been to tour all seven of the countries that once composed Yugoslavia. I was close to meeting that goal, having visited five of the seven, but my last minute decision to visit Lake Ohrid, Macedonia put me so close to Albania that I could have walked there. While never part of Yugoslavia, Albania has always held an important location on the Balkan peninsula, thus I assumed it shared much in common with its Slavic neighbors and was worth a visit.

Though Tirana offers little to see outside pretty Skandeberg Square, travel to Albania should include a day or two in the capital city, if only to haunt the coffee houses and sample the local dishes

Though Tirana offers little to see outside pretty Skandeberg Square, travel to Albania should include a day or two in the capital city, if only to haunt the coffee houses and sample the local dishes

I was quickly disavowed of that notion upon arrival in the capital, Tirana. The languages of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia are similar enough that I had picked up enough vocabulary to communicate, but Albanian was unlike anything I’d ever heard. During my entire stay, the only word I was able to twist my tongue around was “FA-le-min-DER-it” (thank you). Even the slightest suggestion on my part that Albanians are similar to their Balkan neighbors was met with dogged resistance. “We are not Slavs,” they insisted. “We descended from Illurians, an Indo-European tribe.” Read More

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Sweeping view of the city of Kruja, Albania from the National Skanderbeg Museum

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Sweeping view of the city of Kruja Albania from the National Skanderbeg Museum. Kruja (Krujë) was the first capital of the autonomous state of Albania in 1190, and later became the capital of the Kingdom of Albania. The city was conquered by Read More

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View over the surrounding countryside from the Dollma Teqe, an ancient mosque in Kruja, Albania

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: View over Kruje, Albania, from an old stone terrace next to the Dollma Teqe. Built in 1789, this ancient mosque on the grounds of Kruja (Krujë) Castle, belongs to the Sufi order of the Bektashi. Once banned by the Ditator Hoxha, today Read More

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The front desk clerk at my hotel didn’t hesitate a moment when I asked if she could recommend a good restaurant in Tirana.

“Oda Restaurant,” she said. “You will love it.”

Off I went, without even asking what type of cuisine they served. My GPS soon showed that I was close. I was debating whether to turn down a narrow alley that ended in darkness when a jowly street vendor whistled and nodded toward a second lane, a bit further down the street. This one was brighter, but I saw nothing other than an unassuming little house with wooden tables on the front porch, beyond which were sterile-looking apartment buildings. A young boy with saucer eyes stopped kicking his soccer ball and looked at me curiously, no doubt wondering why I had wandered into the bowels of his neighborhood.

Front porch of Oda Restaurant, serving the best Albanian food in Tirana, Albania

Front porch of Oda Restaurant, serving the best Albanian food in Tirana, Albania

“Oda?” I asked. I spun around when he pointed behind me and realized the old house was what I had been looking for. A young woman sitting on the porch, who had been watching the scene play out, smiled broadly and ushered me inside. Read More

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Skanderberg Square, seen from the balcony of Tirana International Hotel in Tirana, Albania

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Skanderberg Square, seen from the balcony of Tirana International Hotel in Tirana, Albania, is the main tourist attraction in the capital city. It is named after the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, whose statue sits in the middle of the grassy green oval. Read More

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You won’t find any amusement parks in Ohrid. Nor will you find a wild party scene. You can windsurf on Lake Ohrid, but this isn’t the adventure capital of the world, either. There are no aggressive in-your-face touts littering the town’s main square and even the handful of vendors selling Ohrid’s famous pearls along the lakefront promenade sit back in the shade of trees, waiting for potential customers to ask for help.

Maybe Ohrid is this way because the city fathers are smart. Or maybe it hasn’t yet been discovered by mainstream tourism. I had never heard of it before I arrived in Skopje, Macedonia, but shortly thereafter people began suggesting, always in voce sotto, as if it was a secret not to be shared indiscriminately, that I must go to Ohrid.

The crystal clear water of Lake Ohrid, in Ohrid, Macedonia

The crystal clear water of Lake Ohrid, in Ohrid, Macedonia

With no itinerary and a nose for sniffing out off-the-beaten-track destinations, I was only too happy to oblige. I made a reservation for three days at a local guest house and hopped on a bus. A week later, I was still there, trying to tear myself away in order to complete my tour of the Balkans before cold weather set in. I was too content. I worried that the first snow would have to fall before I finally decided to move on. Read More