Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday in Tirana

It's a rather noisy Sunday here in Tirana. As I'm working to update all of you on the last couple months of our lives, gunshots are ringing (have been ringing for the last 3 hours) at the shooting range RIGHT NEXT to our house. Ugh. This morning we were awoken to loud wedding music being played at the neighbor's house. Actually the music has been going almost non-stop for a week now. It starts about 7:30 am and sometimes doesn't end until 11:00 at night or so. We're headed to Golem Beach in Durres (the coast of Albania) to get away from it all and have some R and R for a couple of days. Stay tuned for pictures.

Wandering the Balkans with friends

I (Amy) think I’m going through empty nest syndrome. All the friends are gone and the house is quiet once again. We’ve had two fun-filled weeks of roaming the Balkans with Wes, Penni, Chris, Andrea, Matt and Entela. Here’s a recap:

Matt came to Tirana on Thursday March 29th. After a day’s rest or so he took off to the South of Albania. On Saturday March 31st, we picked Wes and Penni up at the airport. They were determined to fight the jet lag and stay awake until bedtime, so we strolled around Tirana and ate some good Albanian home-cooking at Petro’s Kitchen Club, one of our favorite little eateries owned by this guy who speaks about 4 different languages and has had 10 restaurants in the past 9 years. The food it traditionally Albanian and very well done, although the restaurant is more of a shack. The tables are wobbly and the outdoor seating is literally in his yard. We think he lives in the upstairs part. He has one other cook and one waitress working with him. And the bill always comes late. We love it, though. We sure hope this one sticks. On Sunday we took them (along with Entela) to the port city of Durres and had an amazing seafood dinner on the water.

Travis and Wes conquering one of Hoxha's bunkers-Durres, Albania

Entela, Amy, Penni dining by the sea- Durres, Albania

Ulcinj, Montenegro

Now on to Montenegro where we traveled up the coast, hitting the cities of Ulcinj, Sveti Stefan, Budva and Kotor. Monday we woke up bright and early and the six of us (Travis, Amy, Wes, Penni, Entela, Matt) grabbed a couple of taxis and headed to the buses. In Tirana, there are official bus stations, but many of the buses just congregate on major streets on the way out of town. We found the bus and headed to Shkoder, a northern Albanian city, where, during lunch at a totally local hole-in-the-wall eatery, met a famous Albanian actor who bought us all a round of Raki, a very alcoholic drink that looks and tastes similar to vodka but is made from grapes. He said he was celebrating because he just got back from the States where he'd landed some sort of contract or movie deal. From there, slightly woozy, we picked up a bus that would take us to Ulcinj, a coastal town where, even though it is in Montenegro, the majority of the population is Albanian. It’s a lovely city with a charming old town inside a fortress, long beaches and rocky cliffs. It’s said to have been a favorite destination of pirates and at one point even housed the famous writer Miguel de Cervantes (“Don Quixote”) who was held captive there for 5 years. While we were there, there were rumors flying of Adrian Brody (The Pianist, King Kong) in town filming “The Brothers Bloom”. On a stroll through the old city, we happened upon the production office for the movie. Travis asked if it was the movie in which Mr. Brody was starring and the women in the office dodged his questions fearing him to be a stalker. Travis took the hint. However, we remained vigilant, looking out for him around street corners or relaxing at a restaurant.

Ulcinj, Montenegro

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

We stayed a night in Ulcinj and then continued up the coast on Tuesday. Our next stop: Sveti Stefan (St. Stefan). A treasure of an island in the mighty Adriatic, connected to the beach by a short walkway. It was once an old fishing village until someone snatched it up and converted the whole island into one giant hotel with rooms costing about 200 euros a night. Needless to say we didn’t stay there, but admired the view from afar. You actually couldn’t even go onto the island. It is closed for 2 years to “give it a rest” from eager tourists like us tromping through its historic cobblestone pathways.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Budva, Montenegro

From Sveti Stefan we headed to Budva, evidenced to be one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic. According to Wikipedia, a famous legend tells that Cadmus the Phoenician, who was exiled from Thebes, took up refuge in Budva with his wife, Harmonia. In 1979, a powerful earthquake destroyed much of the old city, which has since been restored. Once we arrived there, we needed a place to stay, so we walked around, knocking on doors, asking if anyone had rooms for rent. We found some in a house up on the hill, with gorgeous views of the sea and the old city. We spent our time there walking around the old city and the beaches. There was great eating to be done there, which we did.

The Old City and Marina- Budva, Montenegro

View from our Room- Budva, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

On Wednesday we left for Kotor, the highlight of the trip. It rests in a little bay in a river canyon creating a dramatic landscape. The delightful old city is suggested to be one of the oldest medieval towns on the Adriatic and is kept in such good condition. It’s been declared an UNESCO world heritage site. After walking through the narrow cobblestone town streets, we hiked up the mountain to St. John’s fortress and to a church built by the survivors of the plague. The hike was intense, climbing 1,350 crumbling steps. Apparently it wasn't intense enough for Travis who decided to get off the beaten path for part of the climb and head straight up a grassy, rocky part of the mountain. he was detered from ever doing that again by a rather large black snake that seemed to be detered by him too as it scooted away quickly into the rocks. From the top, the view of the fjord was beautiful, with mountains surrounding a series of breathtaking bays, encircled by red roofed houses and other old buildings.

At the Church- Kotor, Montenegro

Left to Right: Penni, Wes, Travis, Amy, Entela, Matt

View from St. John's Fortress- Kotor, Montenegro

St. John's Fortress- Kotor, Montenegro

More friends arrive!

After Kotor we spent one more night in Budva and then headed home. It took us about 3 hours to get back to Tirana by the same way we came. The next Saturday, Chris and Andrea arrived! We were SO happy to see them! We spent Saturday trying to keep them awake and then Sunday we went to Kruja, a little mountain town about 45 minutes from Tirana which is the center for Albanian souvenirs and antiques. We visited a castle there, had lunch and shopped. We also had an encounter with a turkey which Travis tried to speak to in its own language. On Monday morning, we took a bus to the old Albanian city of Berat and stayed the night. The next day, Matt, Chris, Andrea, Wes and Penni headed off for the Greek isle of Corfu and Travis and I sadly journeyed back to Tirana without them (we had to teach the next day).

Lunching in Berat, Albania

Wes, Penni, Matt, Chris, Andrea, and Amy - For more on Berat, see earlier posts.

At Taiwan Fountain: Us with Matt and Chris- Tirana, Albania

Taiwan is a popular restaurant/bowling alley/dessert parlor here in Tirana.
In March our school flew us to Sanaa, Yemen where we completed our writing of the new Reading and Language Arts curriculum for our organization of schools, QSI. We stayed right in the beautiful old city of Sanaa. The buildings all look like wedding cakes, with their mud-brick facades and white frosted windows and decorations. Being in the old city felt in many ways like going back to the old west. The men and boys each wear a knife, called a jambia, around their waists and some of the men carry rifles or pistols as they walk through the streets. One man (see picture below) was very proud of his rifle and asked if we wanted a demonstration. Travis said sure, but Amy emphatically declined the offer. The women of Yemen, on the other hand are in stark contrast, quiet and elusive, wearing all black and covered from head to foot with only their eyes and the tips of their shoes showing. The head covering is due to family tradition rather than government mandate, so Amy didn’t have to cover up. However, a friend of ours who was writing curriculum with us, purchased and donned a balto (the full covering) and walked through the market just to see what would happen. The women were awed that a foreigner would wear it, actually stopping and turning their heads as she walked by (I’m sure they could tell by her walk and her shoes that she was a foreigner). The men had mixed reactions. Some of them would look at her, put their thumbs up, smile and yell, “Yemeni!” Some would gawk. It was an interesting social experiment. All in all, we loved Yemen. Travis was able to use his Arabic and Amy had fun seeing her husband’s more “Arab” side. Check out some of the photos below and click on the link for more Yemen photos.

Sanaa, Yemen

Big Blacksmith, Little Blacksmith

Proud Yemeni Men

Palace on the Rock- Sanaa, Yemen

Yemeni Kids