Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Marvelous Meteora and Delphi

I’ve been fascinated by the clifftop monasteries that balance precariously  in the Meteora region of central Greece since seeing them in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.

My previous time in Greece was spent farther south in Athens and on the islands of Ios and Corfu, so the opportunity last July to travel 230 kilometres southwest from Thessaloniki to this wondrous location next to the town of Kalabaka as part of a journey traversing eight Balkan nations was one I couldn’t pass up.

Twenty-four monasteries were built in this area to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church between the 14th and 16th centuries. Six remain functioning, four sparsely occupied by monks and two by nuns, in what was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

It cost three Euros (approximately $4.50 Canadian) to enter the biggest building of the Monastery of Great Meteoron, the largest and highest of the six. Climbing several flights of stairs is required to get to the top, and visitors can enter a church, a small museum and reproductions of an old kitchen and carpenter shop.

But it’s the spectacular exterior views that are the main draws of Meteora. I only had a few hours to spend here and the monasteries are spaced widely enough apart that there wasn’t time to visit the others: Varlaam; Rousanou; St. Nicholas Anapausas; St. Stephen; and The Holy Trinity.

However, even if I couldn’t enter these other structures, which at some point I’d like to have the time to do in the future, there were still vistas to be cherished from a distance from the viewpoints I was able to access. 

The concept of building these beautiful places of worship and contemplation on these steep natural pedestals more than 500 years ago, when ladders and rope pulleys were the only way of accessing and transporting materials to the top, boggles my mind.

It was time to board a bus again, and while its air conditioning was more comfortable than the 40-degree Celsius heat of Meteora, perspiration would have been a small price to pay for wandering around a place that I wanted to experience more than any other on this trip for several more hours.

It was another 230 kilometres to Delphi, much of it on winding roads through mountains, and the lovely views out the window lessened the blow of leaving Meteora. 

We arrived at 7 p.m. in Delphi, and I got fine looks of the mountains from the balcony of my room at Hotel Hermes. There are only two commercial streets in the small town, and I walked them both while checking out menus and taking photos of the surrounding landscape.

I bought a craft pilsner beer from Elixi Microbrewery, which is named after the town and comes in a unique bottle, and drank it on that balcony before heading out again for dinner.

I chose to eat at a small place where I was the only customer, perhaps because it was on the other side of the street from the restaurants offering much better views from their terraces. My meal consisted of a Greek salad, homemade bread, a plate of spaghetti, a large pork souvlaki skewer with green peppers, homemade French fries and a plate of different types of melon. It was more than adequate taste-wise, very filling and a good deal at 10 Euros (approximately $15 Canadian). People-watching on my sidewalk table was free.

I took another walk to work off some of the food, had another beer, and was in bed by the relatively early hour of 12:30 a.m.

While the town is quaint, Delphi is on the radar of tourists because of its historical significance and ancient ruins on the southwestern slope of Mount Parnassus. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is best known as being home to the Oracle of Delphi — an extremely influential priestess through whom the god Apollo is said to have spoken.

The archaeological site dates back to the eighth century B.C. and includes the remains of the Temple of Apollo, other temples, treasuries, statues, monuments, a theatre, a gymnasium, a stadium, a hippodrome and other structures.

The Delphi Archaeological Museum has been built at the site to house a collection of artifacts that have been excavated over the years, beginning in earnest with digs by the French Archaeological School in 1893.

A guided 2.5-hour morning tour allowed enough time to take everything in before it was time to board the bus for the final stop on this journey: Athens. There was one more photo stop near the base of Mount Parnassus ski area, the largest in the country, before the winding mountain roads started to straighten out as the terrain flattened before Athens came into view in mid-afternoon.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

North Macedonia’s Ohrid and Skopje

I passed through Macedonia on an overnight train in July 1991, a couple of months before its referendum vote to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia. On my most recent visit this past July, five months after the country was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia after a lengthy dispute with Greece, I didn’t sleep through most of it.

After leaving the Albanian capital of Tirana and entering North Macedonia after traversing winding roads through beautiful mountain scenery for two-and-a-half hours, my bus dropped me off at the 74-room Hotel Aura on the shore of Lake Ohrid. While the country is landlocked, the lake — one of the deepest in Europe and with a surface area of 388 square kilometres — provides waterfront views that would be the envy of some nations with ocean ports.

I walked along the stony beach — which was full of bars, restaurants and hotels, though not all were open — for as far as I could go before turning around and stopping for a casual dinner at Grill and Pizza Boni. A basket of bread, a Macedonian salad (comprised of tomatoes, onions and peppers), a large bacon cheeseburger and French fries set me back 330 denars (approximately eight Canadian dollars).

After drinking a couple of beers while catching up with emails and social media in my hotel room, I went for another beach walk. I had one end of it all to myself so I was able to listen to the waves lap up against the shore and admire a very clear night sky full of stars. If I can’t be with someone special, I cherish moments like that by myself where I can appreciate the moment and the environment and how lucky I am to be experiencing them.

After a nightcap on the hotel terrace with some newfound friends, I went to bed at 1:30 a.m., anticipating getting up in five hours to experience more of the lake and the city that bears its name.

The first stop the next morning was the Monastery of Saint Naum, which is located on the lake and has a river running behind it. After 45 minutes of walking around the scenic grounds and admiring the architecture of a site that was first established as a monastery in 905, it was time to board the bus again for the drive into Ohrid.

The city of more than 40,000 people once was home to 365 churches — one for every day of the year — and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s also said to be where the Cyrillic alphabet has its origins. 

A local guide, who’s also a professor of tourism management and the environment at the local university, was entertaining and informative as he conducted a walking tour of Ohrid’s hilly old town. Stops included St. Sophia Church and the 13th century Church of St. Jovan at Kaneo, which sits on a point overlooking the lake.

I continued on my own from there up a trail that partially went through a forest to the hilltop Tsar Samuels Fortress. I climbed on top of its walls to get great views of the lake, the city, the mountains and what remains of the of the fortress that acted as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 10th century.

I walked back down into the old town via a different route and explored churches, an ancient theatre that originally dated back to 200 B.C., and several homes and other buildings that are hundreds of years old. 

I ended up on a lengthy all-pedestrian street in the newer part of the city and then turned back to walk along a lakefront promenade before it was time to board a bus to continue my journey.

There was more exquisite mountain scenery on the drive to Skopje, which included passing through an Albanian-dominated area where ethnic skirmishes early this century resulted in many deaths and almost led to a war between the two countries. 

We stopped at Matka Canyon and had three-and-a-half hours to spend in one of North Macedonia’s most popular outdoor destinations. A 20-minute boat ride up the Treska River passed by sheer cliffs that rose on both sides as well as more gradually inclined tree-covered areas.

We disembarked at Vrelo Cave, which some have speculated may be the deepest underwater cave in the world. The public is allowed to visit the most easily accessible parts of the cave, which is full of stalactites and interesting formations, and I spent 15 minutes taking it in before having to return to the boat to cruise back to the starting point.

Having seen things from the water, I hiked a trail along the river, the canyon walls and forested areas for 30 minutes before returning along the same route. That still gave me time for a pint at the riverside restaurant before boarding the bus for a 30-minute ride to the modern, four-star Panoramika Design Hotel in Skopje, the capital and largest city of North Macedonia with about one-quarter of the country’s 2.1 million people.

A group of people took taxis to the city centre for dinner and drinks at St. Patrick’s Irish Pub (not my choice). A chicken Caesar salad, calf’s liver and boiled potatoes set me back 400 denars (approximately $10 Canadian), while several half-litre mugs of beer cost 120 dinars (approximately three dollars Canadian) each. Four shots of rakia, a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans, also appeared in front of me and were quickly downed.

The pub was part of a vibrant night-time scene on one side of the Vardar River, which featured impressive government buildings on the other side reachable by bridges adorned with statues. They look more impressive while illuminated at night though, as I found out on a walking tour the next morning, Skopje’s architecture has a lot to offer.

The tour began at the former train station that was largely destroyed by a 1963 earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people. The earthquake happened at 5:17 a.m. and the clock on the wall of the station, which is now home to the Museum of the City of Skopje, still shows that time to memorialize those who perished in the quake.

A major rebuilding program began early in the last decade and is still ongoing, although fiscal restraint has stalled or cancelled some projects. There are several statues around the city centre, including one of Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje. A fortress overlooks the city, as does a large cross on a hill farther out.

An inclined area in one of the oldest parts of Skopje features its bazaar, a cobblestoned street area of shops, restaurants, bars and a microbrewery that was unfortunately closed that morning.

It was time to continue my journey and move on to Greece, but I enjoyed the few days I spent in North Macedonia and recommend it to those looking for a relatively untouristed destination in eastern Europe.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Visit Kotor, Montenegro before it’s too popular

Montenegro is an often overlooked country of the eight that comprise southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula and, while I didn’t spent a lot of time there last July, I didn’t need to in order to appreciate its charms.

I crossed into Montenegro, a small country of less than a million people that gained its independence from Serbia in 2006, after spending a couple of nights in Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina — about a 30-minute drive from the border. The country’s name translates into “Black Mountain” in English and, while the peaks surrounding us might not have been overly high, they were visually stunning. 

Our bus descended and offered beautiful views of the Bay of Kotor (known locally as Boka), which winds its way inland from the Adriatic Sea. The old town of Kotor is walled, not unlike nearby Dubrovnik, Croatia, but is even more compact. And even though two cruise ships were in the port, it hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists or experienced the price hikes of the gorgeous town that gained increased notoriety through its Game of Thrones association.

A local guide led a 45-minute group walking tour of the old town, talking about its history and showing us some of its more notable structures. To better get my bearings, I walked along the top of the 4.5 kilometres of walls wherever possible, which offered a better perspective and some prime views of the medieval era architecture that has contributed to Kotor being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Even better vistas could have been had from hiking up a steep hill to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy or even higher to the Castle of St. John, but my time was limited and I had fallen in love with the bay and wanted to get out on the shimmering blue water.

I paid 15 Euros (approximately $22.50 Canadian) for a 90-minute round trip ride on a speed boat that included two disembarkations. The first was a 30-minute stop in the lovely village of Perast, which has 300 people, beautiful old buildings and overlooks the Verige Strait, the narrowest part of the Bay of Kotor. I snapped several photos in my quick walk along the shoreline before it was time to get back on the boat.

It took just a couple of minutes to reach the next destination, Our Lady of the Rocks, the only artificial island in the Adriatic that was created hundreds of years ago by sailors through building on top of rocks and sunken ships. A church of the same name, which was renovated in 1722, offered more photo opportunities — as did the nearby St. George, an even smaller island that’s home to a quaint church that can be seen in my current Facebook cover photo.

The ride back to the Kotor port was exhilarating, where the wind would have been whipping my hair if I had enough for that to happen, while taking in picturesque buildings at the foot of the mountains surrounding the bay.

With 75 minutes remaining until I had to board a bus to Budva, I walked around parts of the old town I hadn’t earlier and discovered a tiny bar called Hoste that brews its own beer. I wish I could say that the bottle of Smilin’ Goat IPA I had made me smile, but the brewmaster told me that it was made five days earlier and hadn’t yet attained its full character. I can attest.

Budva, a town of 20,000 people on the Adriatic, was a 45-minute drive away. After dropping my bags off at the three-star Hotel Park Budva, I walked a couple of hundred metres to the stony Slovenska Beach, and then passed numerous beach clubs full of partying young people in the 20 minutes it took me to reach the old walled part of the town. 

While I enjoyed my wander, the architecture wasn’t as interesting as in Kotor or Dubrovnik, and it didn’t take long to take in the sights of the town ruled by the Venetians from 1420 to 1797. But it was a hot early July day and I’d worked up a thirst. Luckily, I ran into my friend Ryan, who was equally parched.

We had a beer in the Old Town Pub and then went just beyond the old town walls to the Akademija Crafthouse brew pub, where we were given three different beers for the price of two on a sunny terrace. My favourite was definitely the Cista Desetka Hefeweizen.

After returning to the hotel and having another beer, I had dinner at the beachside and somewhat upscale Restaurant Pivnica, where a good but not great meal of veal soup, spaghetti with seafood and a pint of beer set me back 16.50 Euros (approximately $24.75 Canadian) as musicians walked by serenading my table.

While the beach was packed with people and sun beds during the day, as the “Budva Riviera” is the centre of Montenegrin tourism, many of the beach clubs were closed at night. But those that were open, as well as other nightclubs set a bit farther back from the water, were pumping out loud Eurodisco dance music that I wanted no part of.

I was able to find a relatively quiet bar on the beach where I could enjoy a nightcap and reflect on my day. It was number six of the 16 I’d spend in the Balkans and, since I’d visited Dubrovnik years earlier and eliminated this return trip from consideration, I quickly came to the conclusion that Kotor had become my favourite destination of the journey.

More people are starting to discover Montenegro, just as they already have Croatia, so
I’d recommend getting there soon if any of what I’ve described appeals to you. 

If you’d like to get a taste of several countries in this part of the world, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.