Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From Tirana to Belgrade

Tirana had its charm, but after a few days in this messy metropolis Tim, Al and I were wanting to move on. We had seen all the sights - which are conveniently located along the Bulevardi Deshmorel - walked through the trendy neighborhoods - mainly located in what was once the exclusive stomping grounds of Albania's communist party leaders - and marveled at the good to comically bad architecture of Albania's seething capital city.

One of the highlights was visiting the Albanian national art gallery. Housed in a stark communist era box of a building, the museum displays a narrow spectrum of art - often dimly lit - ranging from giant socialist realist paintings to ancient iconography, with not much in between save for a few sculptures. Nevertheless the museum was quite possibly the most entertaining museum I have been to. The paintings were characterized, for the most part, by each ones inclusion of at least one weapon - gun, knife, saber - a heroically poised male - usually with fist tightly clenched in an attempt to convey male virility and power - and Albania's famously foreboding national flag - see it here. Photography, unfortunately, was not allowed, but since the gift store offered no way to buy even a postcard of one of the socialist realist paintings, we had no choice but to take a few shots when no one was looking - this task our Australian friend Tim readily accepted. Hopefully I can get those photos from Tim sooner than later and put them up on the blog.

We had a few favorite socialist realist paintings. One was of a mother breast feeding her child, her knitting needles set aside, replaced by a large rifle which she rested upon her knee. She sat before a farmhouse with a red door emblazoned with the black double eagle crest of Albania. Behind the farmhouse a dark storm was gathering. We also enjoyed a large painting of a muscular man with a cape straddling a tank about to throw a grenade down its hatch.

After perusing the museums modern collection we went into the iconography section. I am not very interested in early iconography. It doesn't really do anything for me although I appreciate the skill that was involved in making it. What I did find interesting in this section of the museum was what was behind a large iconography piece: a set of seven panels outlining a "master plan" for the redevelopment of Tirana. Included was a large 3D map of what the new Tirana will look like, the skyline ripe with futuristic curved glass buildings. The project looks a long way off, though with China as the obvious model for redevelopment things could start rolling sooner than later. Now all Albania needs is an Olympics to really spur development, though from my experience in Albania I think we won't be seeing Tirana host the games for a long long while.

From Tirana we decided to head to Montenegro to get back to the beach and away from abject poverty. We got a bus from Tirana to the border city of Shkoder, and from Shkoder we got a taxi to the tourist hub of Bar in Montenegro.

Maybe it was just the changing climate, but very soon after crossing the border I began to notice that Montenegro seemed much more green and lush than Albania. Thick foliage hugged both sides of the road. We drove through tunnels of greenery, a light canopy of trees hanging low above us until we emerged from these forests and could see our surroundings: high craggy mountains dusted with snow.

From Bar we traveled to our final destination: Kotor, a small town on a fjord set below towering peaks. After walking around a bit trying to find a suitably inexpensive place to stay we were approached by Marko, a friendly man who spoke no English but was somehow able to communicate to us that he had a room for let in the old walled city of Kotor. Al's heart was set on a hostel that was a few euros cheaper though we had heard some bad things about it, but we all agreed that staying inside the walled city, at least for the first night, at 10 euros a person was the best idea. Al got his wish the next night; more on that to follow shortly.

Kotor is a beautiful city with small twisting streets, ancient orthodox churches, and hopping bars and clubs. Not only is Kotor beautiful but the people who live there are also very beautiful as well. This goes for Montenegro as a whole. The women are tall and shapely, and they are not shy about flaunting their figures. This can often be a good thing, though many girls can push the fashion envelope too far, and end up looking like prostitutes. This lascivious dress code was present in Albania as well, although I thought the girls were often more dolled up and weren't able to get away with it as well as Montenegrins could.

Our second day in Kotor we made the 2 km trip down the road to the youth hostel Al originally wanted to stay at. We found the place in a state of total disrepair, apparently in the midst of remodeling. The receptionist was happy to book us into a 3-bedroom dorm though. We went to our room and found it to be dirty, with unwashed sheets and a few half-finished beer bottles strewn on the table. I went down to talk to the boss and try to bring the price down to 8 euro from 10. He thought my complaints humorous and said that someone would be up to clean the room in half-an-hour.

Tim, Al, and I didn't want to wait around so we went down to the beach and hung about soaking up the sun - responsibly with sunscreen - for most of the day. When the sun was setting and the temperature lower we climbed to the fortress high above the old town of Kotor; a long, steep hike that was in the end rewarding for the view down on the town and across the fjord from the top was incredible.

Late at night we returned to our hostel with a bet on whether our room was cleaned while we were gone. I said that it wouldn't be, and Al, always the optimist, thought it would be. We had 1 euro riding on the professionalism of the hostel.

I won the bet and so went down to talk to the smiling manager who seemed to think it funny that we were still willing to stay at the hostel. I told him that we would at least like clean sheets to which he responded "You want sheets?.... OK" and he took me into his office where he gave me a stack of sheets a bid me farewell - still smiling.

The next day we caught a bus to Durmitor National Park in the north east of the country. The drive was very long, and half of it was on a cramped minibus, but on arrival we knew we had made the right decision in going. The high country of Montenegro is like a less populated version of the Swiss alps, with high alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, giant craggy peaks, and many translucent lakes.

Al and I camped for 3 euro each a night, while Tim stayed in a room. We met up the next morning for Turkish coffee and pastry, before starting a long hike into the heart of Durmitor NP. Our goal was an "ice cave" below an imposing peak that resembled half-dome in Yosemite. The trail took us through some incredibly rugged terrain. Al and I shared crime-scene puzzle stories we had learned while in Israel with Tim as we bouldered up to our destination, and Tim reciprocated with more outlandish puzzles of his own.

We eventually made it to the cave. After a bit of cajoling Al and I climbed down into the ice cave. We were joined by a group of Czech backpackers who were more prepared to get into the cave than we were. We took some pictures with giant stalactite and stalagmite ice sickles, climbed out of the cave, and began our long journey back to town. We rewarded ourselves with a meat meal before Al and I returned in the dusk to our camp ground.

The next day we boarded a bus at 11 bound for Belgrade. We arrived in Belgrade at 8:30 PM, exhausted by the trip and began our search for the Chillton Hostel. After having no luck finding the place we asked a man who happily walked with us to the hostel. He had just graduated from University as a doctor, but due to the state of things in Serbia, was unemployed. He asked where we had come from and we told him Montenegro, to which he responded that he doesn't go to Montenegro any more because they don't want to be part of Serbia so he doesn't see the point in "supporting their economy". Already it was apparent that in this part of the world politics is a fact of life and cannot be easily ignored.

At our hostel we were greeted by two stunning Serbian girls, offered shots of some sort of local spirit which we accepted and then shown our rooms. We showered and headed out to get some food at a fast food chicken joint. We were tired so we went to bed fairly early at around 1 - most people stay up and party in Belgrade, or at least that is what we have heard.

That's the update. Check back soon for more.

From Belgrade,

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