Weekend at Lake Ohrid

Continuing to cross places off of our Balkan Bucket List, last weekend we drove to Ohrid, Macedonia.  So we loaded up the car (and I mean loaded -we still haven’t mastered packing light with Abigail in tow) and drove about 4 hours to Lake Ohrid.  Our inn was located in the old town, which was very neat for walking and sight seeing, not so great for driving and unloading your car.  I nearly cried when the lady at reception told me the parking spot was very, very far away.   Luckily, JR is a great sport and he did all the unloading, and then went to park our car.

In spite of the parking issue, I highly recommend Vila Mal Sveti Kliment for lodging in Ohrid.  The room was small but adequate and very comfortable.  In the future, we’ll try to get rooms that have a separate bedroom/living area, or are a bit larger.  It’s kind of hard to do much when the baby goes to sleep at 8pm, and we are whispering and hanging out in the dark!   The Vila makes their own wine, and had a nicely stocked mini bar.  Unlike the US, I find mini bar prices here to be very reasonable, so we took advantage by drinking wine in bed to the light of our iPhones while Abby snored up a storm.   I’m not cut out for room sharing with that one.

Here are some pictures from our weekend:

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Valentine’s Day in Bulgaria

We did Valentine’s Day a little bit differently this year.  We traveled to Bansko, Bulgaria, a popular ski resort town, for a weekend of fun with a group of friends.

Traditionally, JR and I make lasagna (truth, he normally makes it) and we watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  The first time we celebrated Valentine’s Day, we’d been together for about 4 months.  JR was not so much into making things official, so no girlfriend title had been bestowed upon me.   When he talked to his family about me, he was very casual and didn’t provide many details.  In fact, one of the only things he shared with them was that my favorite movie was Crossroads (not entirely true, but I do love that movie) and I’d never seen Lord of the Rings, so he didn’t see us staying together for very long (muahahha, little did he know!)

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Anyway, back to present day.   We got up Friday morning and picked up our friend Katie to make the drive to Bulgaria.  JR and I are always excited to add a new country to our list.  We only had a few problems with directions, and we only made two stops (this was a real feat considering Katie and I are both pregnant).

Stopped for food
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The drive there took about 6 hours.  We had lunch and then napped before meeting up with everyone else for dinner and drinks.  The next day, JR treated me to some quality time at the spa – I had a relaxing massage and facial.   We rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain to check out the view, which was beautiful. Even though we were at a ski resort, neither of us skied. Obviously, I couldn’t, and I’m not sure if JR chose to sit out in solidarity, or because these mountains looked a bit different than any ski resorts in Ohio.

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Gondola ride up. Only the top of the mountain and the ski slopes had snow.
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I had no idea paraskiing was a thing – looked terrifying!
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Saturday night we had a big group dinner, complete with a birthday surprise for Katia!
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We drove back on Sunday and didn’t get lost once. It was a really fun weekend and very cool to visit a new place.

Bears, Beets, Battlestar Gallactica

A trip this week made me think about one of our favorite Office quotes.

Anyway, this week it was Bears and Balkans! On Thursday, some friends and I took a little road trip outside the city to visit a new bear sanctuary. Until recently, it was not unusual for people to keep brown bears in cages near restaurants as attractions. Kosovo either recently passed a law about it, or just started enforcing it, because earlier this summer about 15 bears were taken from around the country and placed in this new sanctuary.

(Here are some articles about it: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/2-brown-bears-rescued-captivity-kosovo, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/captive-brown-bears-gain-fresh-start, http://www.four-paws.org.uk/projects/bears/prishtina-sanctuary/).

The road trip was an adventure because these were the directions we followed:

Take the road through Gracanica, past Badovcit lake, then make a sharp left as soon the lake ends. (Should be a gas station there). Keep on the gravel road furthest to the right (White pebbles that look newish), and follow it about 3 km. The road ends at the sanctuary.

I struggle with directions when they are step by step from Google, so this was a bit of a challenge. When we turned left at the gas station, the gravel road was on the left, and a paved road was on the right. So we were confused. We went back to the gas station to ask the attendants for directions. They were happy to help, but they did not really speak English. I put my hands up like claws and did a little “roar” and they laughed and then pointed. And JR doubts my charades skills!

We made it to the sanctuary and were greeted by the employees. It’s a relatively small operation and I don’t know how many visitors they get, but we were glad we went. The man who showed us around was able to tell us some of the bears’ names, and ages. They were also feeding them while we were there – all produce, no meat. I’m not sure why that is, but possibly due to the cost of meat? (Also because I was curious, according to Google, only the polar bear is a true carnivore. All other bears eat both plants and meat. Who knew?)

Here are some pictures from our adventure!

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This is Kassandra.

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That’s Vinnie standing up waiting for food.

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They have pictures of the bears’ former cages – very sad.

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Mirusha Falls

I contemplated several different titles for this blog post, including “Our First and LAST Hike with Jessica”, “Why I Don’t Hike”, and “You Said We Were Taking a Short Uphill Walk.”

Jessica had the day off on Friday and offered to take Stacey and I to Mirusha Falls, a waterfall and swimming hole about an hour outside of the city. Now, Stacey and I aren’t the most outdoorsy people, but Jessica assured us that it wasn’t really a hike, more of a short uphill walk to get to the top of the falls and the place she wanted to swim. We both want to see more of Kosovo, and we were feeling adventurous so we said let’s go!

The drive was very pretty, and we only made a few wrong turns. It’s not always easy to find things here. Eventually we made our way to a very small, windy and bumpy road that promised the waterfalls were ahead. We parked and started walking.

This is the kind of “hike” I was imagining.
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Right away we saw the beautiful waterfall, a large pool of water, and a few stands to buy refreshments and enjoy the view. It was gorgeous. I was thinking, “Oh, yeah, this took like 5 minutes and we’re here. I don’t even think it was uphill. How fun!” Little did I know, Jessica had other plans for us.

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We started to make our way up what she called a trail, but I use that word very loosely. My thoughts alternated between “JR would be so proud that I did this” and “How proud will he be if I’m dead”.

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It didn’t take long before Stacey and I were starting to struggle, even though Jessica hadn’t broken a sweat. She just continued on her merry way – upright, I might add, while Stacey and I were using more of a bear-crawl approach on all fours.
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We heard whistling from down below, and looked to see the men from the restaurant waving at us and trying to get our attention. Stacey thought they were trying to tell us that we had gone the wrong way, but Jessica and I thought they were just saying hi, so we just kept going. A few minutes later, we realized one of the young men had actually climbed up to get us, to tell us we were in fact headed the wrong way. Oops!

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Right before he stopped us, I swear Jessica was about to head directly up that cliff. There is no trail there!

So we had to backtrack through some tricky areas, but eventually we got to the next waterfall. Stacey and I were quite relieved to take a break, and we got some nice pictures.

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Jessica informed us it was time to keep moving, we STILL hadn’t reached the swimming spot. This is how we felt about that.

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We struggled uphill a bit further, and came to another waterfall and beautiful pool of water. Now, a word about me. I don’t think I have EVER just jumped into water like this. I can rock a swimming pool, I usually do okay in a lake with a lot of other people, and you know how I feel about the ocean, so when Jessica said it was time to swim, I was a bit scared. But I didn’t want to chicken out! I came this close to asking if there was any Kosovar Loch Ness Monster I needed to worry about, but I threw caution to the wind and jumped in. It was absolutely freezing, but it felt awesome. We couldn’t believe we were the only people up there.

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Look at those bathing beauties! 🙂

I totally want to go back with JR. I have a very romantic notion of frolicking under a waterfall, like the scene from Cocktail (what a classic!) with “Run for the Shelter of Your Love” playing in the background. I’m sure he’ll be super pumped to play along. If you don’t immediately know what I’m talking about, shame on you.

The hike back down was pretty rough. Considering how much trouble we had finding a trail on the way up, it’s not surprising that we got lost. Jessica thought she had found the way down, and wound up going down a really steep incline. She couldn’t get back up. She thought she would find another way out, and said that Stacey and I (experienced hikers that we are) should try to find another way and she’d meet us at the bottom. How could that plan possibly go wrong? Stacey and I quickly realized we were not cut out for doing this on our own. We made our way back to where we had left Jessica, thinking she was long gone and we’d just try to make our way following her. Turns out, she was standing right where we had last seen her, and she was kind of stuck. She couldn’t find another way out, and she didn’t think she could get back up to us on her own.

Poor thing. After seeing Stacey and I struggle the whole morning, it’s no wonder she was skeptical when I told her I could help her. But we got her back up, and with our little group reunited we managed to make our way back to the bottom of the waterfall, with just a few scrapes and a lot of dirt covering us. Oh and we got to see this guy cliff jump/dive from pretty high up! Can you spot him sitting on the cliff?

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It was a really awesome way to spend the day, and I can’t wait to go back. Thank you Jessica and Stacey for such a fun experience!

Visoki Decani

On the way home from Junik, MD suggested we stop and visit a well-known monastery, Visoki Decani. It is a Serbian Orthodox monastery, and due to the potential for violence or damage from ethnic Albanians, it is under the protection of KFOR (Kosovo Force, a NATO-led international peacekeeping force).

The monastery was incredibly peaceful and beautiful. The church was not damaged during the conflict, and has hundreds of frescoes (I feel fancy using that word, but that’s what they call the paintings inside on the walls.) Although visiting hours had just ended, the security guards allowed us to go inside, and one of the monks gave us a tour of the grounds and the church.

This is the original gate entrance dating back to the 14th century.
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View of the church.
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Tour of the inside of the church. The paintings covered the walls, top to bottom. Although the church was looted many times, the building itself has been preserved.
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He showed us a book from 1860 that is still used during the weekly services.
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This picture is not mine, but I found it when I was looking up more information online and I thought it was worth sharing. There are about 25 monks currently living and working at Decani. More information about the monastery: http://www.kosovo.net/edecani.html
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As we were leaving, I was happy to see they had signs pointing to a W.C. (W.C. = water closet, or toilet. The entire time I was studying abroad in Austria I thought W.C. meant waste closet, which is really basically the same thing.) I’ve had pretty good luck with public restrooms so far in Kosovo, which should have been a sign to me that my luck was sure to run out.

There were three female stalls with closed doors. I cautiously opened one and looked inside. I don’t know what concerned me more, the toilet itself (if you can call it that, which I’m guessing they do) or the flies. There were so many flies. I had questions – which way do I face? (according to my online research, this does not matter), does this flush? (it did, you pulled a string behind the toilet. I didn’t know where the water would come from, I had visions of it pouring down from above like a shower so I tried to press myself up against the wall and I closed my eyes when I pulled the string.)

Of course I took a picture to show JR what an adventurer I am.

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It seems like poor form to end this post talking about toilets, when it was a really lovely visit. So here’s a final picture from the grounds looking at the mountains.

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Rugova Gorge

This past Saturday we went on a CLO-sponsored trip to Rugova Gorge, which is near the Montenegro border. CLO stands for Community Liaison Office, and they coordinate family events, trips, and other things to do in the area. Sort of like the social chair for the FS.

The drive to Rugova was beautiful. As soon as you get outside of Pristina, the mountains and scenery are so nice to see. But it’s still unnerving the more you drive up into the mountains, at least for me. The windy roads, steep inclines, and when the last few miles of the road is actually just a dirt path, I start to worry about getting stuck. Or falling off the side of a cliff. Or both, even.

We had a group of about 16 people, and most people were planning to take a 90 minute hike to a lake. Others who didn’t want to hike could relax at the restaurant and drink wine. Tough choice, right? I did want to see the lake, but the hike was classified as difficult. Still, I did start with the hikers, and I lasted about 5 minutes. It was straight up hill, no warm up, nothing! I had flashbacks to a hiking trip I took with my family to Coopers Rock, West Virginia. It did not go well. I’ll spare you the details, but at one point I thought I would never get off the mountain. (Krissy and Kristen, I bet you two are having flashbacks right now!)

So, I threw in the towel and parked myself at the restaurant. It was nice, I chatted with some new people and read my book. JR did the hike and he said it was great, so thanks to him we have some pictures to share!

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