Thursday, November 24, 2022

Kosovo September 2022

Today, Ilir picked us up for our next adventure. Our first stop will be Prizren, Kosovo, where we will spend the night.
Once we arrived in Prizren, the cultural and historical capital of Kosovo. Prizren is surrounded by mountainous landscapes. Ilir walked us around the old Ottoman center of the city, where the Lumbardhi River passes.
We walked by the Catholic Cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Relief. Mass was happening, which kept us from going inside.
Next, we visited the Sinan Pasha Mosque. The Mosque is stunning inside and out. The centerpiece of the city.
Up on the hill was the Saint George Orthodox Cathedral.
We meandered through town, Ilir pointing out historical landmarks, one of which was the oldest tree in the area, over 400 years old.
The stone bridge was built in the 1600s.
We saw the Hammam, a Muslim bathhouse.
We all went to lunch, where Ilir gave us his history.

As with most of the Balkans, Kosovo has had many conflicts over its thousands of years of history. More recently during World War Two they allied with the Germans. With a small Jewish Population and a large Muslim Population, the Muslims hid the Jewish People during the war saving 100% of them.

In the late 90s, after the break up of Yugoslavia, Kosovo was attacked by the Serbians. Slobodan Milošević was the President of Serbia (Which at the time was a much smaller Yugoslavia).

All Albanian Muslim men were slaughtered (over 8,000) or deported by the Christian Serbs. Ilir and his father were the lucky ones loaded on a train and deported as refugees to Albania. A place they had never lived. The women, Ilir’s mother and sister included, were kept as hostages (which means raped and tortured).

Listening to Ilir tell his history was heartbreaking. He was sixteen at the time, a high school student. He came home from school there were soldiers in his house. Ilir and his father are loaded onto a train with thousands of other men and boys, not knowing their destination or if they would return.

Luckily, NATO intervened and ended the war. About 80% of Kosovo was destroyed.

Now 30-plus years later, most of Kosovo has been rebuilt. Now muslims, Christians, and Catholics live in harmony. But the Serbian Government and some Serbians still don't recognize Kosovo as a separate country, regardless of what Jared Kushner says.

Just two weeks ago when we were in Serbia we saw signs and billboards stating “Kosovo is Part of Serbia”. From my understanding this issue goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
After lunch Ilir departed. Margarite and I hiked up to the Prizren Fortress, which overlooks the city.
Guess what car manufacturer this car is?
We had dinner at Hani I Vjeter and we ordered the Specialty, Ilyrian. It was delicious.

Dinner video-

We got up early and took a short walk around town.
Today we depart for Albania. Before leaving Kosovo, our driver for the day Alan brought us to Gjakova, a small Kosovo town close to the Albanian border.
We walked the main shop area and visited the mosque before having lunch.
We learned a bit of about how during the Serbia, Kosovo war. The Serbs surrounded the town with military tanks, gave the citizens a short warning, and then flattened the old city.
After lunch, we drove two hours to Valbona Valley National Park, Albania, also known as the Albanian Alps.



Monday, November 14, 2022

North Macedonia September 2022

Friday, September 16. Goran, our driver, picked us up at 10:00 am. I like this DayTrip App. We will be traveling from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Skopje, North Macedonia, about a three-and-a-half hour drive. We will cross a time zone and gain an hour.
Goran suggested we make a short stop before crossing the Bulgarian North Macedonia border to see one of the oldest bridges in Bulgaria, built in the 600s.
As we continued our drive, Goran asked, "Will you visit Matka Canyon?" We asked, "What is Matka Canyon?"
Goran’s answer “I will take you.”
About 15 Kilometers west of Skopje resides Matka Canyon. A beautiful canyon with a river flowing through it. A hydroelectric dam on the river provides all the electricity for Skopje.
A good friend of Goran, named Dane, lives in a cave. The cave is on the bank of the river. Dane claims to be one of the best artists in the universe. His claim to fame (at least he says so) is that his art is hanging in Madonna’s home.
Dane is a very eccentric man.
We reached Skopje at 3 o'clock. We grabbed some lunch and walked around Skopje before going on a nightlife tour.
We learned a few interesting facts on our nightlife tour.
Most of the new part of the city, was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake.
When rebuilt, the buildings were designed to make it through an earthquake, but they were not anything to look at.
The oldest bridge in Europe connects the new part of Skopje to the old.
In 2010, the Prime Minister started a project called the 2014 project. This project was to rebuild the square in the new city and make it a tourist destination. What we saw has been built since 2010 but made to look like the style of times gone by.
That Prime Minister now resides in Budapest, Hungry, with the millions of dollars he siphoned from the project.
The project is named the 2014 project, because that was when it was supposed to be completed. Today, some buildings are still being worked on.
The last fact, please let me know if you know this, Mother Theresa was born In Skopje.
We finished the tour at the top of the fortress, but unfortunately, it was too dark for pictures.

This morning we took a walking tour of Skopje. We learned a bit about why things are changing in “North” Macedonia.
For several years Macedonia has been trying to get into the European Union (EU). To be accepted, they need to win the vote of other EU countries. Without going into great detail, they have been forced to add “North” before their name. No, this request did not come from Kim and Kanye. They had to change their flag. You can Google to find out why. North Macedonia has spent ten years trying to get into the EU.
If you visit North Macedonia, when speaking with locals, refer to the country as Macedonia. They are not happy about being forced to add "North" to their country's name.
It is sunny 300 out of the 365 days a year. We showed up on one of the 65 rainy days.

As you will see, there are countless statues and sculptures in the city center. Most have been commissioned since 2010. Some represent Macedonian History, but many are copies of things the past Prime Minister saw in his travels.
Of course, there is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe.
We walked by the old train station. Notice the time on the clock. Five—seventeen, this is the time the 1963 earthquake happened. If you look closely to the left, you can see that side of the train station collapsed. The remaining section of the train station has been converted into a museum. The clock was never fixed.
In this earthquake, thousands died and over 200,000 people were left homeless.
We walked by the new Orthodox Church that is being built.
Similar to last night, we walked through the old city. There is one street where almost every shop is a gold and jewelry store.
We stopped and had a traditional lunch in the old section. All this food plus some takeaway items and a tip for 15.00 USD.
In my Bulgaria update I mentioned while Bulgaria was on the wrong side of history, they were able to protect the Bulgarian Jewish people. While this is true, we learned a bit more about the history and how Bulgarians treated the Jewish People, particularly the ones that lived outside of Bulgaria.
Before World War Two, there was a population of 7,000 Jewish People, like in Bulgaria they came to Macedonia when Spain asked them to leave.
Today, there are about 250 Jewish People left in Macedonia. During World War Two, the Bulgarians used their trains to transport the Jewish People from Macedonia to the concentration camps in Poland to be executed.

The Bulgarians are not as innocent as they wanted us to believe.
They even have statues of homeless people.
Before going to sleep, we went for a short walk, or at least we thought it would be a short walk in the square. As we returned to the apartment, we saw the road our apartment was on was closed. There was a 40 lap (approximately one kilometer per lap) bike race. Forty minutes later, we were able to cross the street and return home.

Tomorrow we depart Macedonia for Kosovo, but there is a chance we will be back.

Stay tuned,




Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Bulgaria September 2022

If you are reading this, Alin our driver, picked us up in his Toyota Prius. Which means we are on our way to Sofia, Bulgaria. This will be our fourth country for this trip, bringing my total to 74. 

Kudos to Alin, he drove us from Brasov, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria. We left at 8:00 am and arrived at 7:30 pm.

The craziest part of the drive was the border crossing. Romania and Bulgaria are in the European Union but not in the same status (above my pay grade). When crossing from one country to the other, you go through customs and immigration. For passenger cars, this is only a formality that takes five to ten minutes. For trucks, it may take days. The line of trucks was ten kilometers long.

We made several pitstops, the longest was for lunch at Shtastliveca ("The Lucky One") in a small hilltop town in Bulgaria called Veliko Tărnovo.
We got a text from Alin, he got back to Brasov at 4:00 am.
Today, our first full day in Sofia we have a cooking class with Beni.
We walked over to our meeting point, Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. On the way, we passed a swap meet where they had some cool old cameras. We were told they were all functioning.
We met Beni at 11:00 am. She took us to the butcher and vegetable market to gather what we would need for class.
We will be making Moussaka, a traditional Bulgarian meat dish as well a salad.
Once the shopping was done, we walked to Beni’s apartment which she shares with her cat Miss. Greta.
We learned a lot about Bulgarian traditions, made a great meal, and enjoyed eating it.
Of course, Miss. Greta had to join us for lunch.
Next on the agenda is a Graffiti Tour, not until 6:00 pm.
We walked over to our meeting place for our Graffiti Art Tour, the Saint Sofia Statue, on the way we passed the parliament building.
Our guide, Tsvetan gave us a detailed history of Street Art. We learned that it started in New York City with vandals tagging buildings and evolved into street art and murals. Though Tsvetan said the movement started in New York City, he agreed with me that Philadelphia also has a claim to the origins of this art form.
In Sofia, Tsvetan's organization is working with artists, building owners, and the city council to use street art as a way to beautify the city.
As we walked through the city, we came across an area where they found Roman Ruins while building the subway.
The artists put some meaning into the art, though the meaning is not always clear.
Almost all the art is done with spray paint over multiple days. Sometimes by a single artist, and sometimes by a group of artists.
The walk was two hours, and we only saw a sampling of the street art in Sofia.
This last mural was painted on the side of the firehouse for their 100th birthday. If you look closely at the top, they are firefighters around the candle singing happy birthday.
What a great tour.
Today is the first day of school for the children of Bulgaria. On this special day, the younger kids get to drive their toy cars and motorcycles to school. They close the road for this. It is a big parade. Here is the school parking lot.
Before our tour, we walked through the park to see some water fountains.
If you look in the background of this picture, you will see American Capitalism is on bright display. Please let me know if you spot it.
We met for our tour at 11:00. This is a walking tour through Sofia.
We saw several churches, the last operating Muslim Mosque, and the largest Synagogue in all the Balkans.
The tour was informative. They say the city of Sofia has been inhabited for over 6,000 years. Many of the buildings we saw are built on top of the foundations of past civilizations.
We stopped by the presidential palace. This building is strictly used as an office. The president does not live here.
Behind the palace are some Roman Ruins. They believe this is the oldest building in all of Europe with the original roof.
We stopped by the national theater before ending at the orthodox cathedral we saw yesterday.
Today we went in and took some photos before we were kicked out. No Photos Allowed.
After lunch, we went back to visit the Synagogue. As I mentioned, this is the largest Synagogue in all of the Balkans. The Jewish People of Bulgaria faired a bit better than most of the Jewish People in this area.
On the way, I had to stop and get a Bulgarian Doughnut from the Bulgarian Doughnut Lady.
Before World War Two, 50,000 Jewish People were living in Bulgaria. They had immigrated from Spain. Or one might say they were expelled from Spain.
While Bulgaria allied with the Germans, the King of Bulgaria kept procrastinating sending the Jewish People off to the concentration camps. Finally, the war ended. Bulgarians claim to be the only country on the wrong side of history that spared the Jewish People.
Though things did not get better, once the Soviet Union took control of Bulgaria, all but 5,000 of the Bulgarian Jewish population immigrated to Israel.
After the visit to the synagogue, we stopped at a wine bar to celebrate our last night in Sofia and Bulgaria.
If you are reading this, we are on our way to North Macedonia.