Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Traveling Summer Part 2: Thessaloniki, Greece

The flag of Greece (Hellenic Republic)- each stripe represents the syllables in the Greek saying, “Freedom or Death” (Eleftheria i thanatos) and the nine letters in the Greek word for “freedom” (eleftheria). They may also represent the nine Greek Muses. The cross represents Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Sometimes the flag is this colour blue, other times, the blue is darker.
One of the best trips Phil and I have taken so far was to Thessaloniki, Greece. We were expecting it to be a nice mini vacation, but underestimated just how nice it would be.

Every good travel adventure requires a bit of misadventure in my opinion. For us and this trip, it was actually getting to Thessaloniki. We awoke ridiculously early so we could catch a 5am bus from Shtip to Veles, where we planned on catching a different bus to Thessaloniki. However, after sitting at the Veles bus station (not a place I recommend hanging out) for hours, we realized the bus wasn't stopping for us. Thanks to some wonderful PCVs, we created an alternate plan and sat for a few more hours until we could catch the first bus of the morning to Gevgelija on the Macedonia/Greek border. By the time the bus arrived, we had been awake for 5+ hours and there had been no reason to wake up at 3:45am. With our Plan B in place, we found a taxi driver who was willing to bring us across the border and down to Thessaloniki for a fairly reasonable price. It seemed too easy and well, when things are too easy, something usually isn't quite right. We arrived at the border crossing and for some unknown reason, the taxi driver didn't have the appropriate papers, so after going back and forth from office-to-office and person-to-person for over 45 minutes, he finally appeared to collect Phil and I and take us the rest of the way to Thessaloniki. To this day, we are still unsure what the problem was, but it might have had something to do with him not having the appropriate papers filled out and then lying to the border patrol.

From there, it was pretty smooth sailing, thankfully. We had missed our time to check in with our host from our Airbnb apartment we were renting, so we had to schlep our bags around for a few hours, but none-the-less, we were just happy to have arrived in Thessaloniki only 4 hours and 50 euros later.

As usual, I will let the pictures do most of the talking!
Our first taste of Greek beer was at a very aptly named place.
Phil's first Mythos
View from the pier.
Another view from the pier.
And another one.
It was a little sunny out!
Our first meal- mussels and octopus
In our wandering, we came across a fun little street full of these colourful characters and two delicious restaurants.
Our view from the beach in Epanomi- the view straight ahead was nice, however our fellow beach goers were an interesting crowd of overweight, senior citizens whose bikinis only covered about half of what they were supposed to cover!
One of the main bus transportation hubs is at IKEA. Of course I had to take a picture!
The ruins of an old Roman Fortress
Fortress wall
At the fortress
Modiano Market
We ate these!
Inside one of the many churches. I wasn't sure if it was ok to enter with bare shoulders, but then the lady behind me was sitting there plucking her eyebrows and grunting, so I figured I was fine.
Hagia Sophia
Phil and I aren't very good at taking pictures together, so I made it a mission one day.
The Arch of Galerius

The Rotunda
This is the tree that Mustafa Ataturk played around when he was a child.
Ataturk's house.
Outside Ataturk's house.
The White Tower
White Tower
The pedestrian walkway along the water.
When in Greece, I think its a requirement to take a picture of a small fishing boat.
View back at the White Tower from the walkway.
There was live Greek music at our restaurant one night. It was very enjoyable.
We finally made it to the top of the White Tower (we went once and it was closed).
Very top of the White Tower

Monday, July 15, 2013

Traveling Summer Part 1: Pristina, Kosovo

The flag of Kosovo- each star represents one of the major ethnic groups living in Kosovo- Albanian, Serbian, Turkish, Gorani, Roma, and Bosniak.
On Saturday, Phil and I awoke in the early hours- much to our disappointment as we had been up late celebrating a friend's name day- to embark on the first of many trips together this summer. We had wanted to go visit Kosovo and after much deliberation, decided to make it just a day trip- a long day trip, but a day trip since neither one of us can say more than about 10 words in Albanian. Thankfully for us, Pristina is only 2- 2 1/2 hours from Skopje and there are frequent buses, so after a taxi, followed by a bus, followed by a komvi, and then another komvi, and finally another taxi, we emerged in the center of Pristina around 10:30am. This gave us about 6 hours to see the sites of Pristina before needing to catch the last bus back to Skopje at 5pm.

Now, I should point out that while we had done some research about what we wanted to see in Pristina, we weren't the most prepared as we didn't have a map with us, so despite having looked at a Google map the night before, we really didn't know where things were. So naturally, we hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the center. We started our trip strolling along the center walking promenade lined with coffee shops- typical in many Balkan cities.

From there, we wandered around and happened to stumble into almost everything we wanted to see. The only thing we were unable to find was the Ethnographic Museum, despite having been given directions by several people.
Mosques everywhere
Yugoslav World War II Monument of Brotherhood and Unity
Yugoslav World War II Monument of Brotherhood and Unity
The Kosovo Museum was surrounded by a high fence covered in razor wire
Some old artillery in the yard of the museum
Military equipment in the museum
The military zones of Kosovo
Just a table full of big guns inside the museum
One of the oldest and most famous mosques in Pristina
The clock tower
Best part of the clock tower was that it was put in so everyone knew when it would be prayer time- however, these two faces of the clock were about 4 minutes apart. Oops!
The Newborn monument
Phil and I signed our names in the bottom left corner of the first full white stripe
The Bill Clinton statue on Bil Klinton Boulevard that contains a store called Hillary
One of the best parts of the day didn't get photographed. We wandered and wandered and finally found the restaurant we were looking for- Himalayan Gorkha. It was in this rundown shopping center that was barely marked but the food was worth the wandering and hunting. It was the best Nepalese/Indian food I think I have ever had and certainly one of the best meals I have had in the past two years. Phil and I stuffed ourselves with mutton momos, garlic naan, Himalayan spiced mutton, and chicken korma. We could barely move and had enough left over food that we contemplated taking it on the 4 1/2 hour bus ride home, but decided not to.

After eating, we had about an hour and a half until our bus back to Skopje, so we decided to slowly walk towards the bus station. However, like I mentioned earlier, we didn't really know where things were in Pristina. We knew the general direction and there were a few signs to follow, but we finally resorted to stopping to ask. Now the thing with Pristina is that many people do speak English due to the extremely large international presence there, however, Phil and I kept choosing the people who didn't speak English. I stopped at a little tobacco stand to ask and accidentally said "da" to the guy's Albanian. He then asked me if I spoke Serbian, to which I said, "No, I speak Macedonian" (Kosovo and Serbia aren't the best of friends). He got really excited and gave us directions in Serbian while we responded in Macedonian (proof again that Serbians and Macedonians can understand each other despite what the Serbians like to say). We followed the directions and almost got the bus station, there was just the small problem of a 5 lane busy freeway and about 50 meters separating us from it. After feverishly wandering around some more, we stopped to ask the security guard at the site for the new US Embassy in Pristina who wasn't real helpful. Finally after wandering around some more, getting a little worried that we might miss our bus back to Skopje, we ended up back where we started and just gave in and took a taxi to the bus station. Within minutes of getting on the bus, we both fell asleep as it had been quite the day and we still had 4 1/2 hours on two different buses before we could crawl into bed.