A Travellerspoint blog

September 2015

Not the Athens I expected

The plane arrived in Athens and I am so glad I did well in physics and math. Many of the signs at the airport are in Latin letters, but once you get into town, a lot of signs are only in Greek. I speak zero Greek, but I can figure out the names of places based on knowing the letters from math and physics. It's helping my navigation tremendously.

It seems that there is some sort of fundraiser for breast cancer today, as everybody is walking around in pink shirts from some event. It might be why the crowds are thick, or they might always be that way because I'm in the touristy part of town. I know that it's a big tourist trap, but I stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants on the way to the Acropolis. It had Greek food, and was full, so I thought it would be fine. Actually, I had some of the better food on the trip there.

I then continued on to see the Acropolis. It was apparently free day there. You still needed a ticket, but they cost 0 Euro. I don't know if that's because of the fundraiser or just a normally occurring thing, but I was pretty pleased to get in for free. I was even happier when I saw what there is to see at the Acropolis- a not-great ruin. The view of the city is pretty good and the Acropolis is a classic building, but there's really not much left to see, and they don't make the ruins speak at all. Plus, the experience was ruined by the bags of construction materials and the big construction vehicles sitting in the middle. The best part was the sign telling of the history- it was ruined a little when it was being used to store ammunition and blew up, but completely destroyed and utterly ruined when the Brits came and took off pieces of the art to bring over to the British Museum. If I had to pay 12 Euro, or whatever the normal price is to see that, I'd be a pretty unhappy camper.

On the other hand, the Agora is way underrated. I also got in free there, as the Acropolis ticket covered that as well. The Agora had art and statues, many ruins and buildings that we could go inside of. It was prettier, more educational, had more art, and just generally better. I spent much more time there than at the Acropolis.

I wasn't feeling super great when I finished there, but I decided that I wanted to see the Acropolis Museum to see if there was similar interesting art and maybe the Acropolis could redeem itself. When I got to the museum, I saw that while it wasn't free right now, if I waited a half hour, I could get in for free. So, I pulled out my book, sat down, and read for a half hour. When I looked up, the previously non-existent line had grown to a line out the door and to the street. Apparently everybody else had the same idea as I did. And then, my trip took a turn for the worse. I decided that I needed some bushes and I have to say that while lunch was one of the better meals I had the first time round, the second, it was much less good. On that note, I decided to head back to the airport, where I could always be near a restroom, and coudl sit calmly before the flight, even though I had plenty of time left. Without too many details, I'll just say that my lunch revisited many more times and I do NOT recommend the restaurant I ate at. I can, however, recommend the little emergency room they have at the Greek airport. Everybody who helped me, from the mini-ambulance driver to the nurse and the doctor was extremely kind and friendly. Big thanks to all of the helpful people who put up with a sick and gross traveler! After my lunch stopped returning, an IV, and some rest, I was ultimately able to make it onto my flight on time and arrived home safely, albeit still not 100%. It was a crappy end to a great trip, but now I just have another excuse to go back.

Don't eat this!

Don't eat this!


Ampitheater

Ampitheater


Acropolis

Acropolis


Agora Museum

Agora Museum


At Agora

At Agora

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Tour Tirana

This morning, I checked out of the Hotel Republika, grabbed street breakfast that was as good as anything else I've had on this trip, and moved over to the Hotel International Tirana. It's my last night in a hotel on this trip- tomorrow I sleep on a plane- and I figured that I could splurge a bit since I actually got a pretty good deal. What a difference in hotel quality! International had strong wifi in the room (as opposed to having to go in the hall like at Republika). It was clean and pretty (although that's not super-important to me). What was important was that the bed was incredibly comfy and had a ton of pillows on it. After dropping my stuff there, I headed out to take the Free Tirana Tour. Our guide did a great job showing us around town and giving us an idea of life in Albania. He was very frank, answering our questions about the mafia with as much candor as questions about local foods. We learned how the cheating in the educational system works and how the medical system is a bit bribery-driven, but we also learned about how Albania has many religions living together in peace, in rare display of ultra-modernism. Part of this religious tolerance came from the atheism of the communist years. According to our guide, the Albanian communist dictator really believed in equality and communism, to the point where he stopped being allies with countries he felt weren't communist enough- like Yugoslavia, China, and even the USSR. His people were all equal- they all had nothing. Our guide remembered that growing up, they didn't have coca cola, bananas, or jeans. He remembers the first time some other kid got bubblegum. They all took turns chewing the one piece because it was so new and exciting to them. The tour basically covered the same part of town that I walked yesterday, but I had a bit of a better idea as to what I was looking at and what the significance of it all was. For example, in the park, he explained why there were bunkers still in the ground. Or at the big Pyramid, he explained why it was built and what it's doing now. The tour was very worthwhile. It ended at a beautiful, brand-new orthodox church, which was not so far from where my map said there was Chinese food. However, when I got there, it turned out to be a Mexican restaurant. Ok. I'm also curious how Albanian Mexican food tastes, so I ate there anyway. After my late lunch, all I really had left to see was the park and the artificial lake. They were quite pretty, and relatively calm and quiet. I sat there and read for a while. Then it started to rain. I taxied back to the hotel for a super-cheap price and hung out there for a while, still reading, but also catching up on everything else and getting packed. Tomorrow I have to be airport-organized, which is a step up from just dragging my bags around as I've been doing. I headed out for dinner, which was good, but again, nothing special, and then turned in for the night.

New Orthodox Church

New Orthodox Church


Park

Park


Bunker

Bunker

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Albania Comments (0)

On to Tirana

Without an alarm, I woke early enough to catch the 6am bus to Shkoder. I'm guessing the bus was built in the 80s. The driver had been smoking on it before we boarded, so upon entry, everybody let out a cough, but the back of the bus wasn't bad. The driver came around to collect our passports and then rattled out of town, picking up more people, most likely daily commuters, on the way.We stopped for gas at one point, but it wasn't a stop long enough for us to get off the bus. Apparently, just a top-up and a place for the driver to put his cigarette butt on the ground. The border was a little building and there was nobody else there, but it still took them quite some time to process our passports. The rest of the ride was uneventful, but pretty. I enjoyed the rural areas and the quaintness of the people walking their cows and working their fields. Upon arrival in Shkoder, I walked the city a bit. The city itself seems very nice and very lively. Unfortunately, there is no bus station, so there is no place to really live my luggage and go explore the castle. Instead, I hopped on a bus to Tirana. I don't think that they have official schedules. I'm pretty sure it just leaves when it's full. However, the price is right. I gave the guy 5 euro for the bus and he gave me 400 Lek (about 4 euro) change. I feel like I'm doing pretty well with prices for long bus rides on this trip. I enjoyed the Albanian scenery more than the Montenegran, and I also enjoyed chatting a bit with the lady sitting next to me. She was on her way to a job interview in Tirana, but took the time to tell me all about what it was like living in Albania. She gave me some suggestions for what to see and do in Tirana, and I wished her good luck with her interview. Also, there is no bus station in Tirana. The various buses just drop off in various parts of the city. I walked a bit towards the center, until I arrived at a street full of travel agencies. The windows were plastered with ads about tours, but none of them seemed to have any customers. I just popped in one and asked abut local tours. Unfortunately, she only organized tours abroad, so I didn't get that set up, but she did show me how to get to a hotel that she recommended as "not good, but cheap." I headed towards Hotel Republika, the recommended hotel, and by pure happenstance, stumbled upon a tourist info counter. I made a stop there for a map, and also got a list of recommended hotels, which included Republika. Unfortunately, she also couldn't set me up with day tours, but did give me a flyer for the Tirana free tour. The hotel is again, more of a motel. It's cheap and it has a smell, but it's cheap. A dorm bed in Venice cost significantly more than the whole private room with ensuite bathroom including a tub at Hotel Republika. After dropping off my stuff, I decided to tour around Tirana a bit. I walked around the main square a few times, looking for something to eat and something to do. It took me a surprisingly long time to find a restaurant. Finally, I got a seat at the University Book Store, which is also a restaurant that has crepes, so I at least ate something. After a short nap, I decided to check out the Albanian History Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed until later, which I found a bit odd, since middle of the afternoon seems like prime museum time. Instead, I walked the area around the main square and down to Mother Teresa square at the other end. On the way, I passed pretty much all of the sights, although I didn't know it until the tour the next day. One of the more interesting sights was the Pope and Mother Teresa church. There are tons of shrines and statues to/of her all over town, but one inside the church was a mosaic made entirely of sea shells. Finally, it was late enough to go the museum, which also contained a whole section on Mother Teresa. It's amusing that Tirana has so much dedicated to her since she was from an area of Albania more north than Tirana and she never lived here. But, I think it's great that a majority Muslim country is so proud of their Catholic saint that everybody wants to claim her. This is how multi-culturalism and respect is done. In addition to Mother Teresa, the museum taught about the various stages of the Albanian history (with signage in English and Albanian). Pretty much everybody was there at some point- the Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, Austrians, Italians, Germans. I guess that when you're in the middle of East and West Europe, you get passed back and forth from the border of one power to the next. One thing I learned that was particularly interesting was that Albania saved a lot of Jews during WW2, including a guy named Albert Einstein. I guess I knew he escaped, but never really thought of what kind of path he took to get out. I highly recommend the museum as a primer to Albanian history. There is some other stuff there that's less interesting (like the stamp collection), but overall, it was educational and worth the few dollars admission price. By the time I exited the museum, it was starting to get a bit rainy and wet, so I ended up taking a bus to eat at a mall food court for dinner. However, I at least got an Albanian sandwich there. I can't say it was any better than any of the rest of the Balkan food I've had here, but it was at least as OK as the rest of it.

On the drive

On the drive


Skodra

Skodra


Shkodra Mosque

Shkodra Mosque


Albanian History Museum

Albanian History Museum


Pyramid Building

Pyramid Building


Nana Teresa

Nana Teresa

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Albania Comments (0)

I'm on a bus (in Montenegro)

Today is my first day of the trip on my own. I didn't bother making plans for the rest of the trip, I figured I'd play it by ear and somehow get to Tirana in time for my flight. I started at the Dubrovnik international bus stop, which is right by the ferry port and conveniently walking distance from the hotel. I saw that they had an evening bus that wasn't advertised on the internet, and was very tempted to just leave my luggage at the storage facility and go sea kayaking until the later bus. However, I decided that it might be a better idea to get to Ulcinj earlier in the day when there's still light, as I didn't know where I'd be staying. Turns out, that was a great idea, as I doubt that the sea kayaking trips were still operating. It got pretty rainy pretty quickly. The entire bus ride actually had on and off rain, with more on than off. Other than a slight delay at the border (they did stamp our passports this time) and a slight traffic jam at Kotor, it was a relatively uneventful, if wet, ride. 90% of the bus disembarked at Kotor, and only a few people were left with me by the time we got to the end- Ulcinj. Upon arrival, many taxi drivers offered to take me and the other passengers to Shkoder, but they weren't going there, and I decided that nor was I. I had spent enough time on a bus already today and was kind of tired of sitting. Fortunately, there are a string of little hostels and motels right across the street from the bus station. I just picked one and went there. For 20 Euro (including tax) I got a private room at Hotel London. It's more of a motel, but it was clean and had good enough wifi, so I was fine. I headed out towards old town for dinner, but wasn't very lucky. This is clearly a beach town in off season. I passed a ton of closed-up restaurants, boarded-up hotels, and other businesses that were clearly closed for the off-season. I passed a couple of bars containing people smoking and drinking, but that's not a super-great dinner. Finally, I came to a grocery store. I stocked up on granola bars, fruit, and these cereal cups they had, so as to be covered for breakfast tomorrow as well. Clearly, I'm not at the beach part of town (what Ulcinj is known for) and not seeing the town in full swing, but I have to say that I'm not super-impressed. The packs of feral dogs wandering the streets made it feel less safe. The garbage littering the streets made it feel dirty. The part of Ulcinj I saw sharply contrasted with the parts of the other cities I've seen on this trip. Due to the shadiness and the fact that it wasn't too far from dark, I headed back to the motel with my forage and got stuff done instead of exploring on my own. Hopefully, by going to bed early, I'll be ok to get up for the first (6am) bus to Shkoder instead of having to wait around for the later bus.

Beaches

Beaches

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Montenegro Comments (0)

Montenegro

Today's tour was another Atlas tour, and so we were very excited, given how good the last was. The bus picked us and the other tourists up, and we were off to Montenegro! There were no issues with the border, and then we made a bathroom stop. The guide was a little focused on that, and there was actually only one female and one male bathroom for the bus of 40 people, but we made it through. Next stop was a half-paved road shoulder where buses could pull over for pretty pictures and guys selling souvenirs out of the back of their car. We took pictures and moved on. Next, we made a stop in Kotor. Kotor is a beautiful bay surrounded by mountains, and has a historic old city. It is more or less a large UNESCO souvenir shop. We met a local guide who gave us a short tour of the old city, but basically covered everything there was to see there, other than the inside of a museum and a hike up the city walls. I would have loved to hike the city walls, but we didn't really have enough time and my parents weren't about to voluntarily walk stairs that they didn't have to. Instead, we wandered the city and re-saw everything we saw on the tour, but at a slower pace and with more stops in souvenir shops. The outside of the buildings can't be changed because it is a UNESCO site, so they're interesting to see, but I guess people don't really want to live there, so most of the insides of the buildings have been converted into places for tourists- mostly restaurants and souvenir shops. If you're not eating, buying, or walking the walls, you don't need a ton of time there. We continued on our way, which led us up some very serpentine mountain roads. The views were amazing, especially as we got to the point where we were in the clouds. I was super-impressed with the driving, as the driver regularly had to back up as the roads were really only wide enough to be one-way in many places. I also fell asleep a little. The guide today was not as good as most of the other guides we've had. She was a bit unprofessional (sharing negativity about tour companies), and very scatterbrained. Her stories didn't flow, answers to questions were completely off-topic (ask about what's in a city and get a tale about why she doesn't drink coke), and she spent a lot more time telling us the names of places than what happened there. (But if you're into etymology, she's got you covered!) She also repeated herself a lot, possibly because her thought flow is a little scattered and she might not remember what she said. Based on her own comments and other buses I saw that were the same company following the same path, I would guess that she only gets called in when there's overflow and that she's a second or third string guide. Once we were mostly up the mountain, we did another roadside stop for pictures of the great view, and then headed for a “snack lunch.” It was basically a ham and cheese sandwich with a drink, but I actually really enjoyed the bread. It was one of the best things I ate on the trip. The cheese was just ok though, and I saw that several people took the meat out of their sandwich and left it over. From lunch, we drove back down the mountain and over into Budva. Apparently, there is a rule that the guides can't take tours into Budva, so she just told us where the city entrance was and let us loose. What would have been nicer is if she gave us a map of the city and before-hand told us what to go see and where it is. Instead, we just wandered a bit. Budva is also historic, but has less impressive city walls, is smaller, and doesn't seem to have as much going on. It was even more like a historic-shelled souvenir shop than Kotor. All the shops had the exact same jewelry and Chinese-made stuff you can get in every port in the Caribbean, except that instead of saying “St. Kitts” on them, they said “Kotor.” I can't say that I think that the city of Budva is worth any time, although maybe with a guide it would have been worth 20 minutes to a half hour. To shorten the drive back, the bus drove onto a ferry, which whisked us across the bay. Again, we had no issues at the border. Overall, I have to say that while the scenery was very beautiful, the concept of sitting on the bus and being driven around it wasn't the best use of my vacation time. Perhaps there is a different tour that is a bit more active and meant for people under retirement age that would be more interesting. Based on this tour, I'm going to try to skip Montenegro tomorrow and just get straight to Albania.We ate dinner at a restaurant on the promenade near the hotel we stayed in before. Again, the food here was not impressive.

Lady of the Rocks Island

Lady of the Rocks Island


Outside Kotor

Outside Kotor


Kotor

Kotor


Kotor

Kotor


View from the mountains

View from the mountains


Montenegran farm

Montenegran farm

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Montenegro Comments (0)