Day 141 – 7.10.2016
Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Tirana (Albania)

We got on to the highway to Tirana. On the way, we stopped for some coffee where we met a few bikers and they warned us about the cops of Albania. They said that they penalised drivers for overtaking the cars on no overtaking signs and also for speeding. So we were alert. In any case the roads were bad, with a lot of potholes and only single lane road. Roads were badly damaged in some places and some places they were not paved at all.

By the time we entered Tirana, the sun was almost setting, besides it was even drizzling. We could see a lot of traffic with lots of honking. We were warned driving on Tirana streets was not a place for the faint hearted. Many Albanians do not abide by the traffic lights and a red light was simply an opportunity to skip to the front of the queue. There was like a free-for-all where cars and buses fly from every direction and would not stop even for Mother Teresa herself if she would have been crossing the street. Driving in Tirana offered us an unique experience, after driving through European countries with lot of discipline. However with a lot of caution and our experience of driving in India, we managed to reach close to the hotel, but could not find our way to the hotel. We called up the hotel and he sent a person to our car which led us to the hotel. On reaching the hotel, we had to negotiate through the narrow entry to the parking. With lots of instructions from the hotel guys, we managed to get the car in and parked it without a scratch.

We were already very tired and hence, immediately after checking into the hotel, we went for dinner at a restaurant suggested by the hotel guys. We were also warned don’t only look both ways before crossing the street, look every way and right enough we had to hold hands and cross the road. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, people are not very pedestrian friendly in general, but Tirana is in a league of its own so BE CAREFUL.

Tirana the capital and largest city of Albania has a population of approx 800,986 people. On our way, we noticed that the whole city was mostly surrounded by hills, with Dajti Mountain on the east and a slight valley opening on the north-west overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the distance. The Tiranë river runs through the city, as does the Lanë stream.

Albania spent the majority of the last 60 years under a strict and isolationist Dictator, Enver Hoxha. Upon his death, the country moved towards a free market economic model, with mixed results. Presently, Tirana is where the old and new Albania meet. Unpaved streets host brand new Land Rovers, iPhone-toting youngsters rub shoulders with street vendors peddling all manners of items, and gleaming glass towers look down on abandoned construction projects.

Tirana is a beautiful and charming city, while it suffers from pollution due to the rapid increase in cars in the city and continuous construction. Tirana is undergoing a major renovation from its communist days.

We observed that Albanians generally were very hospitable especially towards foreigners, despite media frequently portraying them as thieves and mobsters.

We visited a square named after Mother Teresa as she was an Albanian by blood though she was born in Skopje, and spent a great deal of her life in India.

Tirana was quite green and shockingly colorful and also a little more expensive than Skopje and Pristina, but still cheap compared to western European capitals.

Pyramid of Tirana was built to honour a reviled communist dictator. It’s now ugly — the cement is crumbling, several of the glass windows are smashed, and scrawled graffiti mars the slanted walls. But the Pyramid of Tirana, located at the center of Albania’s capital city, has an emotional and political resonance that makes it difficult to be destroyed.

National Historical Museum with Pavilion of Antiquity, Pavilion of the Middle Ages, Pavilion of Albanian National Renaissance, Pavilion of the Period of Independence, Pavilion of Albanian Iconography, Pavilion of the Antifascist War, Pavilion of the Communist Terror & also a pavilion dedicated to Mother Teresa’s family, life and work. acquainting visitors with her charitable work for which she has been assigned with many international awards. Also displayed are photos of global personalities who met Mother Teresa as Jacques Chirac, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Ibrahim Kodra etc., besides the personal objects used by her.

Day 142 – 8.10.2016
Skopje, Macedonia

From Tirana we drove down to Skopje via Prizren in Kosova. We had to cross three country borders – Albania, Kosova & Macedonia.

Skopje the capital and largest city of the Republic of Macedonia, known in the Roman period under the name Scupi.

The territory of Skopje has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC; remains of Neolithic settlements have been found within the old Kale Fortress that overlooks the modern city centre.

After breakfast we went to see Skopje city centre. It was very pleasant outside. This city of Skopje seemed to have been recently rebuilt. The central riverside area of Skopje has hammered out the look of a set design for an ancient civilisation. Towering warrior statues gaze down on you as you walk around and gleaming Italianate power buildings make you feel very small indeed surrounnded by Marble-clad museums alongside hypnotic new mega-fountains, with city lighting. The city center was not very large and we could visit the city’s most popular attractions in about a few hours.

The church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, an Orthodox Church – which had been built for four years, is located on the space of the namesake church, which was dedicated in 1835, but destroyed during World War II in 1944, on the left bank of Vardar river in Skopje. The church is of cathedral dimensions and though not yet finished, main icons required for dedication are placed. Marble iconostasis and fresco-painting on the church walls remain to be realised.

The Art Bridge features many statues of noted Macedonian artists and musicians. The bridge has 29 sculptures, 14 at each side and one in the centre. The Eye Bridge is situated between the Stone Bridge and the Art Bridge and includes 28 sculptures and the Stone Bridge is considered a symbol of Skopje. It is the main element of the coat of arms of the city. The Stone Bridge connects Macedonia Square in the center of Skopje to the Old Bazaar.

Macedonia Square is the main and biggest square of Skopje located in the central part of the city, and it crosses the Vardar River. It is situated on left side of Stone Bridge. The independence of Macedonia from Yugoslavia was declared here as well.

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle is located between the Museum of Archaeology, the Holocaust Museum of Macedonia, the Stone Bridge and the Vardar River. The exhibit covers the period from the beginning of the resistance movement against the Ottoman rule, until the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on 8 September 1991.

Archeological Museum of Macedonia – containing many artifacts and finds from different parts of the country with each displayed piece had its own story that only shows how rich the past of Macedonia and Macedonian people is.

The Stone Bridge across the Vardar River is considered a symbol of Skopje and is the main element of the coat of arms of the city, which in turn is incorporated in the city’s flag. It connects Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje, to the Old Bazaar.

This restaurant place was built in the distant 1836, and is the oldest traditional house in Macedonia, still in function. It is a house which represents national wealth, which testifies to the history of the Macedonian house and its validity, house-museum protected by the “Bureau of National Treasure.”. It is constructed of wood and stone, with original carved ceilings, home to 6 generations of family Jovanovich, and today a great national restaurant with excellent, warm and above all, old Macedonian traditional setting. We had dinner here.

While one could admire the beauty of the environment enriched with horticulture in the yard and the sounds of the fountain, we could caress the gentle sounds of national musical instruments and bagpipes flute, accompanied by violin, guitar and accordion. It is the first of the national healthy food, prepared in a traditional way in wood oven, and modern kitchen equipped.

Next day morning we visited the Memorial House of Mother Teresa located in her hometown Skopje, in Macedonia, where she lived from 1910 to 1928, featuring an exhibit of artifacts from her life. It is built on the popular Macedonia Street at the exact place the old Catholic Church sacred heart of Jesus used to stand and where she was baptized just one day after her birth. Mother Teresa’s original family home was located near Macedonia Square.

The Millennium Cross a 66-metre tall cross situated on the top of the Vodno Mountain in Skopje, is visible from quite a distance. It was constructed to serve as a memorial of 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia and the world.

Near the Pella square was a 21 metres high Macedonia Gate, a triumphal arch with reliefs carved in marbles, showing scenes from the history of Macedonia.

Day 143 – 10.10.2016
Skopje(Macedonia) to Thessaloniki (Greece) via Presevo (Serbia)

Presevo (Serbia)

We left Skopje for Serbia. We crossed over from the Macedonian border to Serbia border. Both the borders were alongside each other and after putting the exit stamp by the Macedonian border control officer, passed on the passports to the Serbian border control officer. After checking our Schengen visa and car documents, they let us cross the border. We were so happy to be out of the border control within no time when we were expecting a lot of hassles and waiting time at the border.

We then drove to a nearby city of Presevo in the Preševo Valley at the southernmost town of Serbia, bordering Macedonia to the south, and Kosovo to the west. It is consisting mainly of Albanians.

We drove through the city, stopped by a nearby restaurant and had some Bureks and coffee.

Burek is a kind of baked pastry made of thin flaky dough filled with meat, caramelised onion, bell pepper, cheese fillings. But we had one with cheese and

The town looked very quite and deserted, but people including kids passing by looked at our car and were amazed. After spending about an hour in Presevo, we came back to the border again and crossed over from the same border controls and then were off to Thessaloniki in Greece. We added one more country to the list of countries visited.

Thessaloniki, Greece

We reached Thessaloniki around 5.00 pm. After checking into Mandrino Hotel, which was very close to the city centre, we walked to the sea front. On the way, we visited several churches.

Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece has a population of approx 800,764, renowned for its festivals, events and vibrant cultural life in general. The city was founded in 315 BC by Cassander of Macedon, and was the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire. It was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430, and passed from the Ottoman Empire to modern Greece on 8 November 1912.

The White Tower of Thessaloniki a monument and museum on the waterfront of the city of Thessaloniki. The tower had became a notorious prison and scene of mass executions during the period of Ottoman rule. The White Tower was substantially remodeled and its exterior was whitewashed after Greece gained control of the city in 1912. It has been adopted as the symbol of the city.

The Rotunda of Galerius known as the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Georgios, The cylindrical structure was built in 306 AD on the orders of the tetrarch Galerius, The Rotunda withstood Thessaloniki’s earthquakes. Initially it was a Mausoleum of Roman Emperor Galerius, later a Christian church, and then a mosque. It is now the Church of the Rotunda and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Rotunda is the oldest of Thessaloniki’s churches and the most important surviving example of a church from the early Christian period of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church – Saints Cyril and Methodius were two brothers Byzantine Christian theologians and Christian missionaries. Through their work they influenced the cultural development of all Slavs, for which they received the title “Apostles to the Slavs”. Both brothers are venerated in the Orthodox Church as saints with the title of “equal-to-apostles”

The Hagia Sophia one of the oldest churches still standing today. Since the 3rd century, there was a church in the location of the current Hagia Sophia. In the 8th century, the present structure was erected, based on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). In 1205, when the Fourth Crusade captured the city, the Hagia Sophia was converted into the cathedral of Thessaloniki, which it remained after the city was returned to the Byzantine Empire in 1246. After the capture of Thessaloniki by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II on 29 March 1430, the church was converted into a mosque.[1] It was reconverted to a church upon the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912.

The Concert Hall located by the seaside of Thessaloniki in a plot of eighteen acres designed by the architect Arata Isozaki, with special attention given to elements as metal and glass.

Thessaloniki Port – one of the largest Greek seaports and one of the largest ports in the Aegean Sea basin. As a free port, it also functions as a major gateway for the Balkan hinterland and southeastern Europe. It also contains the second largest container port in Greece, after the Port of Piraeus, besides having the largest passenger terminals in the Aegean Sea basin. The passenger terminal handled around 162,731 passengers in 2007, and has recently been upgraded, as Thessaloniki is also slowly turning into a major tourist port for cruising in the eastern Mediterranean.

We then walked to one of the kebab restaurants and had kebabs for dinner before we went back to our hotel room.

Thus, we ended our day in Thessaloniki, Greece.