Monday, May 28, 2012

Yugos and Donkeys and Furgons, Oh My (Part I)

In the Land of Yugos

Being escorted through Southeastern Albania
This past weekend we took at road trip through southeastern Albania to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.  Under the auspices of an Albanian cultural trip, we travelled as part of a nine vehicle caravan with other attaches posted in Albania.  Logic would have dictated that we stay within the confines of Albania's borders but the desire for a brief reprieve from the country had us spending one night on the Macedonian side of Lake Ohrid.

Albania may be a small country, roughly the size of Maryland, but due to its varied geography and abysmal road conditions we spent a large portion of the weekend in our cars.  I don't know how many of you have tried to drive for 400 plus miles as part of a large caravan but visually it is akin to herding cats- mostly by pure miracle we all managed to get from one location to another without getting lost.  Strategically planned coffee stops helped us regroup and power on to our onward destinations.  (When I complained about the stops to Glenn he reminded me that this was a cultural trip and drinking coffee is very much a part of the Albanian experience).

Old Yugoslavian cars
The more we travel in Europe the more amazed I am at how topography, architecture, and culture can be so varied by simply crossing an international border.  Crossing from Albania into Macedonia- or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the country is officially known, was literally like crossing into another world.  Streets were litter free, infrastructure was modern, Ottoman influenced buildings were well maintained, and traffic laws were obeyed.  Instead of the diesel spewing Mercedes that are ubiquitous throughout Albania, the narrow streets were filled with well preserved cars from the days when the country was known as Yugoslavia.

We spent our first night along the shores of Lake Ohrid in the village of Ohrid.  The small lakeside village is a tourist destination with its historic district protected by its UNESCO status.  The village was filled with the usual tourist attractions you would find at any beach side community- trinket shops, cheap hotels, and fast food restaurants (there was even a McDonald's but for some reason they didn't serve French fries which lead Glenn to proclaim that it really wasn't a McDonald's).  Away from this commercialized strip, however, we wandered through cobblestone streets lined with ancient Ottoman buildings.  Dodging the raindrops we explored churches and an amphitheater, took in the views of the lake and the distant Albanian shore from the ruins of the castle, and sipped Macedonian wine from a waterfront restaurant.

Our brief trip to Macedonia got even better when we left Ohrid on the second day.  Traveling along narrow but meticulously maintained roads (we definitely weren't in Albania any more) we drove high above the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid and into Galicica National Park.  Through a collaboration with the German government, a series of linked hiking trails has been established throughout the park.  Roadside pull offs at trail heads made for easy access for those who are brave enough to hike the sheer cliffs.  The cloudy weather obstructed some of our views but that sheer raw beauty of the area was still apparent.  The feeling of driving above the clouds and looking down onto the villages and lake below was amazing.  We felt as though we were a world away from civilization, and in many respects we were.

We visited two other Macedonian sites that day, the Bay of Bones Museum, a prehistoric development along the shores of Lake Ohrid and the 16th Century Sveti Naum monastery.   Despite the intermittent rain, both of these sites were teeming with other visitors.  While I found both museums interesting, what struck me the most was how well developed and maintained they were.  From the neatly labeled signage- in both Macedonian and English- to the clean restrooms and restaurants, the area is obviously catering to tourists.  The Macedonian government has clearly figured out how to market its assets- both natural and manmade- and they are reaping in the financial benefits.

The Albanian government talks about wanting to attract foreign tourists, but Macedonia has figured out how to make this vision a reality.  Separated but a few miles and two large lakes, the two countries and their approach to tourism could not be more different.  This realization makes me both sad and hopeful at the same time.  I'm hopeful because Albania does have a natural beauty, friendly people, and historic sites that people would travel miles to see.  Under the right circumstances tourists could infuse desperately needed money into the local economy.  Simultaneously, I am saddened by the current reality that the country is so mired in corruption that it can't fully take advantage of the opportunities that exist.

I don't know what the solution is; if it was easy it would have already been done.  What I do know is that the stark contrast between the two countries is nakedly apparent.  It would become even more apparent as we continued our trip back across the border into Albania.

High above Lake Ohrid in Galicica National Park

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