Long Road Home to Macedonia

Part of the grounds of the restaurant

After Dubrovnik, we were eager to get home but of course further adventures awaited us.  We entered Crna Gora (Montenegro) expecting to cross it very quickly because its seafront is not very long (as the crow flies).  Unfortunately, we’d forgotten our wings, so

And this is only part of the coast

we spent hours winding around incredibly beautiful bays with unbelievably blue water and lovely little houses on the land and large sailing yachts in the sea. It was interminable.  The Guide said there was a wonderful restaurant, The Old Mill, just 7 miles outside Kotor (where we’d decided to stop for lunch).  But we regretfully realized we really couldn’t make a 14 mile detour for food.  Then suddenly right in front of us–first a sign with the name and then the  driveway under an arch. so we drove down toward the Bay and there it was. Of course, since we didn’t have a reservation, the waiter said they were fully booked.  Then the owner come out as we were admiring the grounds and said there’d be a free table in 15 minutes.  And there was. It was a wonderful place, both the outside with paths and a millwheel and trout ponds and a view of the Bay, and the

David and the waterwheel at The Old Mill

cozy inside with fireplaces and wonderful food.  We also decided, since there was WiFi there, to make a booking at a hotel in Bar. By that time it was clear that we were not going to reach the Albanian border before dark so we’d have a night in Crna Gora.

On the Internet it looked easy.  And the hotel seemed attractive, so we made the booking.  And on we drove, finally arriving at Bar around 4. We would have been driving til midnight if we hadn’t ignored the Navi – which told us to go on around the winding bay, despite a big sign saying ‘Tunel to Bar’ which saved us hours of undoubtedly scenic driving. It was still light, but we couldn’t find the hotel on the waterfront.  Of course we hadn’t printed the information about where it was from the Internet–who carries a printer?  So we asked some people.  Everyone knew the hotel.  Major place, right on the water, huge sign, can’t miss it.  Just drive straight up this road, got through two tunnels and you’ll see the huge sign.  No sign on either side of the road.  Asked some people there.  Oh, it’s easy, you can’t miss it.  Just before the tunnel (because we were now on the up side) go up the hill and you’ll see the sign.  Up the hill, dirt road tilting toward the sea.  Found a casino and half a dozen apartment hotels, but not the hotel.  Back down to Bar.  More instructions.  They said go through the two tunnels and turn downhill toward the sea.  By now it was dark. We finally found a one-lane road going down, prominently marked by a sign saying ‘Do Not Enter’. We asked again, and were told -‘Sure, go ahead, ignore the sign but watch for oncoming traffic.’ And as we crept down and down and down toward the sea, before us appeared a huge blue neon sign for our hotel – right across the bay.  So we drove around to it, found that the front desk had left for the

Next morning, the view from our balcony

New Year Holiday two days prior, and so we had dinner.  Afterward, the totally non-English-speaking manager of the restaurant got us into a (cooold) room and we zonked for the night. In the morning, we woke to a slightly warmed room and a magnificent view. We had a balcony right over the bay, with blue water, green hills, fishing boats and bustling markets in the villages. We had a lovely breakfast–huge omelets with ham and cheese–and when the front desk returned, we booked into, and out of, the hotel.  The Hotel manager spoke English and gave us directions to get to the Albanian border.  These were the one set of instructions that we got on this trip that were totally accurate and amazingly clear.  We might well have missed the turn to the border–our Navi hadn’t a clue as to where we were and while it had the name of a town, it had no indication that the town was where the border post was–if we hadn’t had the instructions.  So off we went in the morning ready for a new day. We actually might have found it without directions – it was the only pass in a long mountain range paralleling the sea. We’re sure it was the pass every immigrating/invading tribe took toward the seacoast.

So that day began with the crossing into Albania.  Lots of little villages.  Lots of fields of dirty plastic bags in between. Along with every other visitor, we gawked at concrete mushroom-shaped bunkers dotting every field and overlooking every road, especially near the border. We understand that the former dictator was convinced that the world would invade Albania (as refugees?) following World War III, and forced everyone to build bunkers. We decided that ElBasan, a university town, would be a good place to spend the night.  But the Guide mentioned that nearby in Llixha was a hot sulphur water river with a spa next to it.  Naturally, we were hooked and determined to try to get there. Have we mentioned that Albanian (like Hungarian) is a strange language with no cognates to anything else we can speak or read. Although given the name of the spa town, maybe it’s actually linked to Welsh.  Major City names on roadsigns are in Albanian and English, so, together with a map and the Navi, we were usually pretty sure we weren’t completely lost – but we spent part of the day navigating solely by compass readings. If the roads had been straight in any direction, it would have been easier.

After an hour or so in the capital, Tirana, we set out on the short route to ElBasan. Maybe that was a bad idea. The road was old (it would be generous to call it two-lane) and was short because it wound precipitously up the side of a mountain range, then plunged down the other side. The views were exhilarating, especially when the road followed the tip of a knife-edged ridge with views straight down both sides. Exhilaration, however, turns to sheer terror when an overloaded truck comes tearing around a corner on that same ridge. Eventually, we made it down to ElBasan. One problem – the little town with the spa, some 15 minutes from ElBasan, didn’t appear on any map or on the Navi. We are modern – so we cruised around until we found an Internet café. Elizabeth headed for the computer while I dashed off to find an ATM so we could get Albanian money. I came back to find the young man who ran the café hovering over Elizabeth trying (and failing) every bit of every language he knew to offer assistance. Google, however, said that the Spa had no website. Then the man called over another who was having coffee with friends.  He was a genius. He opened Google Translate, wrote “Çfarë ju nevojitet?” and pushed translate “What do you need?” came back.  So Elizabeth answered “Do you know how to get to Llixha where the Spa is?”in English, and hit English to Albanian. He lit up, and wrote a ‘wait a minute’ reply, then ran to get his friend. The four of us had a wild conversation – all trying for the same keyboard simultaneously, but it became clear that they knew where it was, but couldn’t describe the route, and Elizabeth wrote that if they took us there, we would drive them back. Delight! Off we went, through about eleven turns (He was right- he couldn’t have described it)and we found the Spa, at the Iliria Hotel, which did have a website, if we’d only known. Elizabeth checked that it was open for spa, meals and bed, and I drove the boys home while she checked in. When I dropped them off, I persuaded them to accept a small gift, then later realized that I had stiffed them on the use of the computer! I successfully navigated my way back just as night fell, and we asked for the spa. It turned out to be a series of rooms with two bathtubs each, into which they fed hot river water. It stank of sulfur, and they seriously warned that no one could soak for more than 10 minutes. We anticipated 10 minutes of blissful soaking, but the attendant popped in every two minutes, loudly instructing (?) us in Albanian holding up 10 fingers and shouting, so it was not relaxing – but the water was hot and felt good on sore driving muscles. Then a pleasant meal and collapsing into comfortable beds in a cold room.

In the morning, we set off for the border, but before we reached it, we were looking for a

Catch the brand on this gas station

gas station.  When we saw this sign, we decided to look a little farther.  So on we went, again encountering dozens of mushroomy bunkers, and finally passed into Macedonia – where the difficult signs somehow seemed friendly and welcoming (and readable!)  Our Cyrillic got better on our trip somehow.  We’d decided to spend one night in Ohrid, a city we’d visited a couple of times before.  As we found a place to park, a man with an apartment to rent approached us. We saw it and it looked very good–especially for only 30Euros.  He told us how to find a good local restaurant, and he was right–the food was delicious.  We’d never have found it by ourselves.  It was set a little back from the road and the only sign was on the side door.  But it served typical Macedonian food, delicious, filling and warm.  Good house wine too.  By the time we got the car unloaded it was beginning to get dark, but we decided to go to the old city anyway.  So we walked over there, went up one road, decided it was the wrong road, realized we were far to the right of where we wanted to be, started walking in the right direction and suddenly saw everything familiar.  That’s a good feeling coming off three weeks of being strangers everywhere.

I wanted to find the little corner shop that sold traditional clothing (not my interest) and bee products (yes!).  So we found it fairly easily and the English-speaking daughter of the owner was running it.  We remembered her because the last time she had been summoned to explain propolis and royal jelly with bee pollen to us. David looked around and realized that every item in the store was too small.  And we’d been talking about this shirt that he bought last time, but you had a larger one, the young woman finally recognized us.  Then she said that her mother had opened a larger store right on the main street. (We’d actually seen it, but we were looking for the place we knew.)  So we went down there and as we walked in the door the owner burst into smiles and greeted us like long-lost friends.  So David wanted a felt vest.  They were too small (he wasn’t happy).  They were black (I wasn’t happy).  There’d been a vest on the mannequin outside, so I asked if he could try

1920 Macedonian Freedom Fighter uniform

that one.  It fit (sort of–when we got home I had to rearrange the hooks and eyes a little), it was brown, and what more could you want. So David bought that.  Meanwhile, I was looking at the bee products and found the royal jelly I was looking for.  But I was feeling like penny pinching, I guess, because we got the small size.  Now I realize that was a mistake as we’re half through it in two weeks.  And it does seem to help with colds somewhat.  But the really funny part was that as soon as we’d collected what we were buying and paid for it, the lagniappe began to appear.  For David, (who had apparently bought the vest that was the uniform of the 1920 freedom fighters trying to break away from the Ottoman Empire), a pillbox hat to complete the outfit.  I’ll try to get a photo, but if you remember the little guy in the LSMFT Lucky Strike ads, that’s what the hat looks like, even to the chin strap. Okay, here’s the photo, so you know I exaggerate.  Then came the bee products–lip balm, face cream, propolis.  By the way, the face cream is amazing because it’s antiseptic.  Too waxy to use as a normal cream, but excellent on itchy spots or rough skin. So we were loaded down when we left there.

Then we kept walking up the street and David suddenly recognized a small bookstore as the one where he’d bought the relief map of Macedonia we had in our living room in Alameda.  Now you have to realize that when we showed it to people at UACS last time, no one had ever seen such a thing.  So I figured we had a unique item.  But David said it wouldn’t hurt to ask, so he did.  What size?  said the woman behind the counter. So we have another copy of the map on our wall here so we can figure out where we’re going or where we’ve been.  I guess there’s only one place in the world where these maps are sold.  And it may well be, only one customer in the world who has ever bought one.

And so back to the apartment, which had warmed up a bit, and to sleep.

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