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.
“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
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
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.
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
Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Fishermen cast lines from a wooden boardwalk that follows the cliffs surrounding Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. I had never heard of this destination prior to my arrival in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, but from the moment I arrived, everyone insisted I must go to Lake Ohrid. I was so glad I did, as it turned out to be probably my favorite place in the Balkans. I originally planned to spend three days, but simply couldn’t tear myself away for more than a week. Definitely an undiscovered gem.
I desperately needed a break from the city. My travels for the past few months through the Balkans had been fascinating but exhausting – just trying to wrap my brain around the convoluted history of the ex-Yugoslavian countries made my head hurt. Fortunately, Matka Canyon was an easy day trip from Skopje.
I’d learned about the canyon on my very first day in Macedonia. Posters showing gorgeous photos were plastered over the walls of my hostel, and the owner urged me not to miss it. So, after several days of wandering around the squares and sights of Skopje, I hopped on the number 60 public bus, paid my 60 cent fare, and settled back for a relaxing 45-minute ride to the end of the line.
The bus dropped us off below the dam on the Treska River, where I followed a dirt road up past the hydro-power plant. At the dam, the path narrowed to a stone-paved trail carved into the face of soaring cliffs that bracket Lake Treska, said to be the world’s oldest artificial lake. Half an hour later, I rounded a bend and stood before the Monastery of St. Andrews. Built in 1389, it is one of several historic churches, monasteries and old fortresses that can be viewed along the trails. I ducked inside for a gander at the ancient frescoes that adorn its walls, astonished by the deep blue pigment and the remarkable details that have been preserved. Read More