Macedonia, Kosovo, and Lunch in Albania

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<p>Here is a little trip report that I'm sending to ITN today:</p> <p>When it became clear that my March 2011 tour of Libya was not going to happen, I was able to switch directions quickly to arrange a fascinating ten-day visit to Macedonia and Kosovo, the two components of the former Yugoslavia that I never had visited. Flights between Rome and Skopje via Vienna on Austrian Airlines cost $458, and I paid $1278 to DEA Tours in Ohrid for the services of Dzengis Patel, my outstanding guide and driver, transport in a comfortable Alfa Romeo sedan, and some beers, coffees and admission fees along the way. Meals and hotels were extra, but didn’t amount to much.</p> <p>On the morning after I arrived in Skopje, we drove to Kosovo for two days and a night. It seemed to take no more than an hour to drive north to the Kosovo border, and the routine customs and immigration procedures gave no indication of the violence the region experienced in recent memory. Although not all nations recognize Kosovo, it has its own officials, flag, passports and passport stamps, but uses the euro as its currency, unlike Macedonia where the denar is roughly 42 to the dollar.</p> <p>We drove through scenic mountains and gorges to reach Prizren, with a flourishing café society in the center of town, surrounded by the combination of mosques and orthodox churches which is characteristic of the region. It also has a tower that thanks all the nations that have recognized Kosovo—“Thank you, America” Merci, France” Danke shoen, Deutschland”, etc. While savoring a coffee in the main square, it’s tempting to think that the violence has given way to the desire to be part of Europe that the young people seemed to exude. I was brought back to reality, though, when we continued on to Pec (in Serbian; Peja in Albania) where the patriarchate at the heart of Serbian orthodoxy sits in the midst of a region where ethnic Albanians predominate. When we approached the patriarchate’s entrance, we were stopped at a camouflaged KFOR (the NATO-led Kosovo Force) hut, and could not proceed until the friendly soldiers on duty phoned a nun to get her permission for us to enter (while a helicopter kept watch above us). The main church, built in stages over the centuries, is replete with magnificent frescos and icons which a young nun was happy to show us once we evidently satisfied her that our interest was genuine.</p> <p>We reached Pristina early that evening, and spent a few hours exploring the city on the following morning. However, what’s most striking about Kosovo’s capital is not its few historic monuments but all the new construction that marks the city’s rebirth. On the outskirts of town is the Gazimestan tower commemorating the great battle of 1389 between Serbs and Ottomans which is key to their sense of national identity for many Serbs even though, in its aftermath, Serbia became incorporated into the Ottoman empire. Both the Serbian king and Ottoman sultan were killed at the battle, and the tomb of Sultan Murad is only a few kilometers distant.</p> <p>From Pristina, we drove back across the border to Tetovo in Macedonia in time for a late lunch and a visit to the unusual Sarena Dzamija mosque with geometric and floral paintings on its outside walls. Then it was on to Ohrid, the gem of Macedonia on the shores of Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, and my base for six nights. During these days, we visited the towns, churches and museums of Struga, Bitola, and Vevcani, and the jewel-like monastery of Sveti (St.) Naum, near the Albanian border, where a delicious species of lake trout is served in a parkland restaurant. We explored the Galicica national park and Lake Prespa, though a main road through the park still was blocked at its highest points by snow which remained in mid-March. Another day took us all around Lake Ohrid by road, including a lunch stop in Pogradec on the Albanian lake shore and visits in Korca to the market and the impressive Museum of Albanian Medieval Art behind the new orthodox cathedral. If Korca and Pogradec are typical, economic change is coming more slowly to Albania than to Macedonia, but the difference is dramatic between Albania in 2011 and when I had visited eighteen years earlier.</p> <p>All this still left plenty of time to wander the streets and lanes of historic Ohrid, to enjoy a coffee or a Skopska beer in one of the many outdoor cafes, and then to relax on my balcony, literally a stone’s throw from the lake shore, watching Macedonians promenade below me into the evening hours. I was told that Ohrid becomes quite busy during the peak tourist months of July and August, but if there were any other non-Balkans enjoying Ohrid at the same time I was there, I didn’t encounter them. It’s a good bet that in ten years, Ohrid will be a hot tourist destination with new hotels and with many of its shops and restaurants catering more to visitors than to local residents. If those things are important to you, defer your visit for a few years; otherwise visit Ohrid now, before it begins to resemble a stage set.</p> <p>As my visit ended, we drove back to Skopje by way of the monastery of St. Jovan Bigorski. The monks’ quarters were damaged by fire several years ago, but the magnificent church escaped the flames. On the same afternoon, we visited the adjoining old Ottoman quarter and the new quarter, separated by the old Stone Bridge. Around the bridge and Plostad Makedonija, new museums are under construction, including a large new holocaust memorial center, surpassed in size only by those in Jerusalem, Berlin and Washington, which was scheduled to open “any day now” when I tried to visit.</p> <p>In the Ottoman quarter, several old bath houses (hamams) have been converted into museums of Macedonian painting and sculpture. At the foot of the stone bridge is a shop selling colorful flat-weave textiles, but don’t expect to find more than a handful of other shops marketing to tourists—at least not yet. I enjoyed several meals at the “Tourist Restaurant” in the heart of the Ottoman quarter. In good weather, it’s an excellent spot to sit outside and watch Skopje pass by. </p> <p>I stayed in Pristina at the Afa hotel, which offered good value for money at 45 euros, including breakfast, for single occupancy, though it was decorated in the style I associate with Intourist hotels in the former Soviet Union, with dark rooms and a color scheme that ranged from light brown to dark brown. In Skopje, I used the Mramar hotel (, which was about a $3 taxi ride from the center of town, but at 36 euros, including breakfast, cost between a third and a quarter of what a larger and centrally-located hotel would have cost. The room was plain but the staff was very helpful, having no problem arranging a taxi at 1:00 in the morning. (Flights leave and arrive in Skopje at inconvenient hours.)</p> <p>In Ohrid, I stayed in one of the rooms on the third floor of the DEA Tours building, right on the lake shore. The office is on the ground floor and the owner (a doctor) and his brother (a dentist) live with their familes on the first and second floors. The room was 35 euros per night, and DEA arranged for me to have a buffet breakfast at a hotel across the street for five euros per day. The “villa” was a 5-10 minute stroll from the center of town. It doesn’t offer all the amenities of a hotel—no fitness center, etc. But as a visitor using DEA’s touring services, I could use the office internet computers whenever I wanted, my room was well-maintained, and there was a little convenience store across the street for when I just wanted to snack at night after a full breakfast and lunch. For dining, I recommend the Belvedere restaurant on the lake shore and on the same square as the post office in Ohrid.</p> <p>I fell into a pattern of eating a full breakfast followed by another coffee with my guide and Dr. Agolli, DEA Tours’ owner, and then a late lunch. Because there were only two of us, Dzengis and I could eat wherever and whenever we wanted, and we generally chose tiny hole-in-the-wall places that served shaslik (in Pec) or burek (cheese, spinach or meat in filo pastry). I noticed more lamb and pork on offer than either beef or chicken. A personal favorite is shopska salad, with tomatoes, cucumber and onion (but no lettuce) topped with a tangy white cheese. I drank only bottled water, although I was assured that the tap water would do me no harm.</p> <p>It would be possible to make a trip like this in a rental car but I wouldn’t recommend it. The streets and roads generally are in good condition, but they are not well-marked. Furthermore, although most young people seem to speak at least a little English, getting accurate directions and finding anyone to explain what you were looking at would be a challenge. Finally, there are political sensitivities that would not occur to most American visitors. For example, my guide said that most Kosovars in the predominantly ethnic-Albanian regions, including Pristina, speak fluent Serbian, he often asked questions of them in English, because he didn’t want to imply that he assumed they were ethnic Serbs. Although he said that such sensitivities have diminished, visitors could too easily give offense unintentionally. For example, do you ask directions to Pec or Peja? That said, I saw no visible evidence of ethic-national tensions, and only noticed soldiers at the patriarchate at Pec, and at the Gazimestan tower where several GIs were visiting.</p> <p>In March, the skies were sunny, the weather was crisp (usually in the 50s), and I didn’t see a single tour bus. </p> <p>Contact DEA Tours and Villa DEA ( by email at </p>

Great information -- thank you for posting.