Balkans Part Two
Balkans Part Two
Cambodia → Thailand → Jordan → Israel → Kuwait → Turkey → Bulgaria → Serbia → Croatia → Bosnia →
Montenegro → Albania → Macedonia → Greece → England → America → Canada
24 MAY 14 - 01 JUN 14
28 MAY 14 - 01 JUN 14

Although Greece is considered a Balkan country it is hard to group it with the rest. Greece is legendary in the list of well known countries of the world. I couldn't believe how many aspects of Greece were familiar. For starters I could sound out all the words, remembering the alphabet from mathematics. We don't learn about the mythologies and gods of most countries but you can't get away from Greek history in the Constellations, horoscopes, and popular media. Then there's Mt. Olympus, Marathon, the Acropolis, Parthenon, the Greek empire, Alexander the Great, the Olympics and of course the birthplace of democracy.

With this in mind we plunged into Athens for a few days very much enjoying the food, experiences and meeting up with old friends.


A day sailing on the Morningstar
Amie by the Acropolis
Steve by the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens
Aya captaining the Morningstar
23 MAY 14 - 28 MAY 14

Meteora or 'suspended in the air' was something that grabbed our attention quickly. It is a very fitting title for the (Greek Orthodox) Monasteries that cling to the tops of rock pinnacles, some of which are only accessible through strenuous hiking or mountaineering. Unfortunately, many of the monasteries are plagued by tour buses but that didn't stop us from seeking out the old mountain paths used for centuries by devoted monks.


We sent three full days to pause in Meteora before finishing the last two weeks of our Long Way Home. I am so glad we did.

It is excessively picturesque with rock spires jutting into the sky and five hundred year old centres of worship and meditation cleaved to their tops. Opening the door of our room at our guesthouse, we were greeted by these pinnacles.

My personal favourite was the particularly mysterious monastery cut into the rock face. At night it would light up - twinkling, dazzling lights suspended in the darkness.

Just beautiful. No wonder the ancients chose this location to build no less than 24 monasteries. I'm not sure you can find a more dramatic and inspiring location.


The Holy Monastery of Rousanou
Overlooking Meteora valley
Play park at Kalambaka
Walking up to Agion Pnevma
17 MAY 14 - 24 MAY 14
22 MAY 14 - 23 MAY 14

We were in Skopje for a whopping total of 18 hours (in transit from Kosovo to Greece) but loved every minute of it. Well, minus the two hours of waiting for our train which two attendants assured us said arrived at 5am, but actually arrived at 7. (Breakfast and entertaining two young children on the tracks ensued for two hours).

It is a charming little city with an astonishing number of sculptures and monuments. Everyone from Alexander the Great, to Mother Teresa, to an 'Ode to Breastfeeding Mothers' is on display. I vacillated between awe and chuckling as we wandered the old city. There is no end to the demonstrations of grandeur.

We loved roaming the old town, taking the gondola up to the top of the "Millennium Cross" mountain, meeting another expat couple with kids the same age as ours followed by a delicious dinner of kebabs and Greek salad at an old Turkish-style eatery.

Oh, and of course birthday cake for Arwen! Macedonia is where Arwen turned one!

We're only sad we didn't have longer to explore.


Macedonia ended up being the Balkan that we spent the least time in. Perhaps that was to be expected for a country that most people would question even exists. Maybe that's why Skopje took us by surprise. We were greeted by one of the region's most pleasant capitals, now beginning to grow in tourism after a completely redeveloped central walking area is now finished. No one was shy about erecting a few more dozen statues either (Skopje has hundreds of statues, many of which anger Greece who claim sole ownership to Alex the Great). We ended up hitting it off with an expat family we bumped into unexpectedly and they showed us some of the hidden secrets Skopje had to offer.


Aya's first gondala ride up to millennium cross in Skopje
Millennium cross overlooking Skopje
20 MAY 14 - 22 MAY 14

What a strange little country! We're glad we stopped through, if only to say we've experienced Europe's newest country.

Where we were, in Prizren and Pristina, we couldn't see open remnants of the war, or certainly not in the same vivid way as Sarajevo. It's possible we weren't in the right places and that the most extreme violence in the 90s took place outside of the capital and second largest city. (No, we were not out for a voyeuristic experience of the war - but having lived in Cambodia, also a post-conflict country, we are always curious how other nations reconcile the past with the present (and future) and what remnants of conflict stubbornly continue on hampering development and healthy progress.) It's possible that much has been rebuilt with the support of the UN, NATO and the rest of the international community in the past 15 years.

What we found in Kosovo was a colourful and vibrant newborn nation (proclaimed in large letters in the downtown core), wide open parks packed with young families, walking plazas bursting with sidewalk cafes and restaurants, dozens of newly built homes and a general sense of optimism.

It was a powerful experience to visit a country that made headline after headline (for godawful news) when I was in high school and to see it stepping into what appears to be a positive future.


On the surface, Kosovo seems quite similar to it's Balkan neighbors. Having not much time to spend out of the major towns, the surface is about all we can comment on. The streets are vibrant and full of young people (perhaps a post-war baby boom). As with Albania, Kosovars love America and even have a statue of Bill Clinton in the centre.

One of the requirements before acceptance into the EU is friendly relations on all borders. It might be a while before Serbian relations are mended but until then, Kosovo seems to be pushing forward anyway.


At the famous newborn sign in Pristina
Aya having a blast in central Pristina
17 MAY 14 - 20 MAY 14

It definitely feels a little out of place to hear the call to prayer echoing through the streets. This country looks and feels like Europe and if it wasn't for the stats indicating Muslim majority and numerous minarets dotting the cityscape, I would definitely think it was like any other country in Eastern Europe - Europe in the 1980s of course. Seriously, someone here decided that nasty 80s hair and clothing should be the dominant fashion. These and other quirks definitely make the country interesting and reminiscent of our travels in Asia - the occasional donkey cart, some terrible roads, and squatty potties. There are other unique quirks as well like people carrying around drums and randomly banging them while walking.

Fifty years of Albanian communism was oppressive and has resulted in slower development compared to neighboring countries. Even 20 years after the fall of communism, the country remains one of Europe's poorest despite being a stone's throw across the Adriatic to Italy's heel. This has left an edge which we thoroughly enjoyed compared to some of the more modern and stuffy nations that have everything figured out.


Highlights in Albania:

-marveling at the fashion choices. Like Steve said, the 80s was in full swing complete with faux hawks, primary colour hair dyes, and bright pink lipstick.

-climbing the decrepit pyramid that was once home to Enver Hoxha's (the notorious communist leader) museum. It now gathers dozens of high school students every day (and of course Aya and Arwen) who climb to the top of the precarious monument and then run down full tilt.

-enjoying Albanian hospitality which embraces children wholeheartedly.


At the top of Enver Hoxha's museum pyramid
Steve and Arwen at Rozafa fortress in Shkodra
Walking along George Bush street
Amie and Arwen climbing the crazy Tirana Pyramid
13 MAY 14 - 17 MAY 14
13 MAY 14 - 17 MAY 14

Montenegrins have a lot of mountains to deal with and have tunneled their roads under many of them in order to more easily access the coast. We rented a car and drove through hundreds of tunnels - some several kilometers long. It is not surprising that the coast south of Dubrovnik continues to be spectacular, filled with ancient ports, walled cities, and hidden beaches. Kotor bay is especially stunning as is the view atop an ancient fortress close to the old city.

All is less than spectacular for the locals, who generally live on meager salaries and still hold a lot of resentment from the war. Like their Serbian brothers, they have strong feelings towards the loss of Kosovo. Times have never been as good as the days of Yugoslavia and Marshall Tito.

Lovcen national park was a clear favourite - a mausoleum built on a high peak with views across the entire country.


I feel like I've overused the word 'spectacular' as we write about the Balkans, but it's hard to find the right words to convey just how gorgeous these countries are. Montenegro did not disappoint. It was strikingly beautiful with dramatic, craggy mountains plunging into brooding waters.

"Oh look, there's another castle!" we found ourselves saying around nearly every hairpin turn. For such a small country, it packs a big punch with historical sights as well.

I found myself deeply marveling how Montenegro has managed to overcome incredible civil engineering obstacles, building roads, tunnels, houses and bridges in the most complicated of settings.


A forested view of Sveti Stefan
Climbing from Kotor up to St. John's fortress
Steve at the top of the world walkway in Lovcen national park
Aya flying high over Kotor bay