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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Highlight Reel 2: Albania, Greece & Egypt

I'm thinking you may well want to make yourself a cup of tea or pour yourself a glass of wine before embarking on this post as even I would admit it's long. I hope you will bear with me, though, as I tried to recreate what were the highlights of this portion of our long adventure. After visiting Macedonia, where I ended the last post, we took the bus south to the Albanian capital of Tirana on 9/27. Albania was a country we were largely ignorant of with prior to deciding to include it on our trip. 
We learned from our walking tour guide that, of Albania's population of just three million, one-third live in Tirana but one-third of all ethnic Albanians don't live in the country. Albanians only had access to private cars in 1991 as they were banned under the Hoxha dictatorship. Funnily enough, we saw more Mercedes Benzes throughout Albania than any other place ever in our travels.
The interior of the Et'Hem Mosque in Tirana, the only religious institution left standing in the country after the country's brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, banned all expressions of faith.
One of the strangest sights in Tirana was this Pyramid that had been the Enver Hoxha Museum, then a nightclub and convention center but was now empty. Some people on our night time walking tour climbed up it.
A visit to Albania would have been incomplete for us without a tour of one of the 173,371 bunkers constructed under Hoxha's regime. Bunk'art, a massive nuclear bunker constructed in the 1970s, was located near Tirana.
On 9/29, we  took a self-guided day trip to Kruje, a pretty town about an hour northeast of Tirana by car but only accessible by four buses without! The town was famous for its beautiful crafts.
We had been told about this Kruje shop owner who was well-known for making traditional Albanian men's hats from people we had met back in Prizren, Kosovo.
While in Kruje, we spent time wandering around the Skanderbeg Museum, a tribute to Albania's most famous hero.
So glad we next spent a few days visiting the UNESCO-listed town of Berat. Luckily, it had been preserved as a museum city by the former Communist regime. Berat's main plaza, in a sign of religious harmony, contained both an Orthodox church and a mosque next to each other.
The charming town and, for a brief time, the former capital of Albania, certainly deserved the nicknames of a 'town of a thousand windows' and 'White City' because of the striking collection of white hill-side homes.
The very impressive citadel atop the town:
Berat's Church of the Dormition of St. Mary dates from 1797 but was built on the ruins of a 10th century church. Only one service a year is held there as it was transformed into a museum honoring the country's most celebrated painter, Onufrio, in 1986.
Throughout our trip through the Balkan countries, we never saw any spud but French fries. How we longed for mashed, baked or boiled potatoes! Almost always, the fries were included in the pita or bun with a burger or hot dog and covered with a cold sauce, akin to mayo.
On 10/1, after climbing one of the mountains overlooking Berat, we reached St. Michael Monastery only to discover it was closed. The views over the Osum River, however, were spectacular so all was not lost.
Sights of a bygone age were still visible in parts of Albania. This photo was from Berat.
If any of you ever are ever lucky enough to travel to Albania, I would strongly recommend you stay in Berat with this most wonderful couple at Villa Lili. They were the epitome of graciousness and the most hospitable hosts I could imagine. When we left, I felt like we were saying good-bye to dear friends.
On 10/2, it was on to the UNESCO-listed town of Gjirokaster founded in 1336 and known as the 'City of a Thousand Steps.' As the town was the birthplace of Albania's brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, special care was taken to retain its traditional architecture during the Communist era. Through our room's lace curtains, we had a marvelous view of the city's mosque and castle in the Old Town.
Two stories surround the downed US military jet in the castle courtyard: either the pilot had engine troubles and was forced to land in Albania or the plane was captured.
We were extremely fortunate to be at the right place at the right time when a parade of people wearing costumes from many Balkan countries walked by as we were eating dinner on the main street.
The following day, we took a furgon, like a small bus, to Blue Eye Spring. The natural wonder was well worth the hike to get there after being dropped off on the highway.

Our last stop in Albania was the Albanian Riviera town of Saranda, a short ferry ride from Corfu, Greece. Getting there was a little more exciting than we planned on, though, as our driver was stopped by the traffic police just outside the town as he was not supposed to carry passengers, only make deliveries between Gjirokaster and Saranda. 
The weather was absolutely blissful in the charming town in early October. 

We spent almost a full day discovering the archeological wonders of nearby Butrint National Park, the most visited cultural destination in Albania. Butrint was settled first by the neighboring Greeks in the 6th century BC and later by the Romans when Julius Caesar declared it as a Roman colony in the 1st century BC.
In the castle courtyard was a massive bust of Apollo that was discovered by an Italian archeologist in 1928 and then taken to Italy before being returned in 1981.
We were intrigued by the small car/passenger ferry that ran on a pulley system and took those interested in viewing the Triangular Fortifications on the other side of Lake Butrint.
A view at dusk of Saranda's harbor on October 5th:
 10/7: Walking from our apartment in Perama outside of Corfu, Greece, to get a meal in the neighboring town of Benitses, we noticed these gorgeous trumpet flowers. They bloomed so profusely, no doubt, because of the heavy amounts of precipitation the island received. Corfu was fittingly described as Homer's 'well-watered gardens.'
This roadside memorial near Benitses with the typical white Greek church and pale blue roof was the first of many similar full-scale churches we saw while in Greece.
Luckily, the sun shone the next day when we explored Corfu's Old Town and meandered along the Esplanade, a huge open parade ground bordered on one side by exquisite Venetian and English Georgian buildings.
One of the most memorable museums we enjoyed throughout our long trip was the Museum of Asian Art that was in the former Palace of Sts. Michael and George built by the British between 1819 and 1824 from Maltese limestone for the residence of the Hugh Commissioner.
Before reading information at the Museum, I had always thought the origins of cloisonne had been Chinese. But, in the early 14th century, the Chinese were taught indirectly by the Byzantines through artists who worked in the Armenian and Georgian monasteries, the cloisonne technique or working with inlaid enamel. 
What a lovely view we had from the top steps of the Reading Society in Corfu Town:
In Corfu Town's Old Fortress or Citadel where Corfu's entire population once lived, was the Church of St. George that was built by the British in 1840 to look like an ancient Doric temple, It had then been converted into an Orthodox church before becoming an exhibit space.
On our way back to our lodging outside of town, we decided on the spur of the moment to jump off the bus so we could see the tiny white convent of Vlacherna for a few minutes – how perfectly picturesque the famous landmark was. We were lucky the boats were still running from the convent every few minutes over to the minuscule Pontikonisi Island, known more commonly as Mouse Island and said to be Odysseus’ ship turned to stone by Poseidon.
On October 9th, we took an intercity bus to Paleokastriska, about an hour from Corfu Town along some narrow roads with stunning views. Immediately after arriving, we jumped on a boat that was leaving to view three caves. The combination of crystal-blue water, rocky cliffs, bright blue skies, interesting caves and peaceful waters made for a lovely time.
Overlooking the rugged west coast and perched at the very top of the mountain overlooking the town was the 13th century Monastery of Paleokastritsa. It was the reason why many tourists visit the town. Its gilded chapel was outstanding with icons going back centuries.
Whenever I see this photo, I can't help but smile!
Atop a bluff near the monastery was this unusual cross that looked more like a radio antenna. It was the ideal spot to admire the stupendous views as we took in the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks below and the wind whistling through the trees.
On 10/10 before flying to Athens that night, we toured by local bus Corfu's North Coast. We first stopped at the small town of Kassioppi, a resort of sorts since Roman imperial times. Tiberius had a villa here and Nero paid a musical visit with his lyre in 66 AD. It and the other towns on the north coast are tremendously popular with British tourists, so much so, that the area is known as ‘Kensington on Sea.’ After traipsing through town and dodging puddles from the constant rain, we hiked up a slippery path up to the 13th century Byzantine castle.

Our next stop on the northern coast of Corfu was the town of Sidari, famous for its Canal d'Amour, so named for the legend that by swimming the length of the channel, lovelorn women would gain the object of their affections.
Because it was rainy, we began our time in Athens on October 11th by touring the Acropolis Museum, which occupied a large plot of the city's most prized real estate just below the Acropolis. It opened to worldwide acclaim in 2009 and drew 90,000 visitors in its first month and more than 6.5 million in the first five years.
Lil Red: I immediately thought of you when admiring this sculpture as I thought back to a comment you posted on a blog I had written in Budapest a couple of trips ago!
One of the museum's 'best' pieces in my mind was this magnificent plaster reconstruction of the combination of leaves and a phoenix fan pediment which once crowned the ridge of the Parthenon.
The Plaka was the historic heart of Athens. At the top of one of its hills was Ayios Nikolaos Ranyavos, an 11th century church built with fragments of ancient columns. Our matching 'apple' raincoats purchased in Hoi An, Viet Nam have come in very handy often since then.
The Acropolis and its surrounding archeological sites in ancient Athens were where the most essential aspects of the European and North American identity like democracy, philosophy, theater, sciences and arts later emerged. This photo was of the Roman Agora, Athens' commercial center from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD.
A really pleasant walk through the Ancient Agora, another commercial hub, led us to the Temple of Hephaistos, the best preserved Doric temple in all of Greece. A little older than the Parthenon in the Acropolis, the Temple was surrounded by 34 columns and once was filled with sculptures and dedicated to the god of metalworkers.
The Ancient Agora's showpiece was the Stoa or colonnade, of Attalos II where Socrates once lectured and incited the youth of Athens to adopt his progressive ideas on morality and mortality. The two-story building was first designed as a retail complex and was erected in the 2nd century BC.
One of the many 3rd and 4th century BC sculptures of historical and mythological figures in the Stoa was of a Sleeping Silenus Herm. Herms were originally cult images of the god Hermes but they were used as markers on roads and graves.
We started the following day walking to the Acropolis. The first monument that we came to was the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Built at the foot of the Athenian Acropolis, it was a major theater in Athens and was dedicated to Dionysus, the god of plays and wine.
We had had to wait for a long time to enter the Acropolis. It turned out we had just missed seeing these military guards participate in a celebration of the liberation of Greece from the Nazis.
The Parthenon is the best known of the remaining buildings of ancient Greece and was decorated with the best of Greek architecture. The Parthenon is an enduring symbol of Greece and democracy and is seen as one of the greatest cultural monuments of human history. To be able to stand in front of such a monument was nothing short of breathtaking.
We loved our visit to Athens' Benaki Museum that covered the entire history of Greece with displays from the Bronze Age up to WWII. The museum had a collection of over 100,000 items. A favorite was this stunning wreath of gold oak leaves from the late 4th/early 3rd centuries BC.
The museum had a stunning collection of icons. This monumental one, titled In Thee Rejoiceth, illustrated the hymn of the same name and referred to the Virgin.
Directly across from the museum was the peaceful National Park. I had a blast seeing this bride enjoy her wedding day as we have likewise seen so many other brides and grooms around the world enjoy theirs.
From there, it was just a quick hop to the Olympeion, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was a colossal ruined temple in the center of the city dedicated to Zeus, king of the Olympian gods.
Construction of the Olympeion began in the 6th century BC during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisaged building the greatest temple in the ancient world. During the Roman periods, it was renowned as the largest temple in Greece and housed one of the largest cult statues in the ancient world. What a sense of awe and wonder as we walked all around it to see it in different lights and shadows as the sun was setting.
On a day trip to Delphi on October 13th, we walked first to the Delphi Archeological Museum as visiting it was essential to understanding the site and sanctuary’s importance to the ancient Greek world. I loved the fabulous statue of The Winged Victory, the God that Nike was named after. It was all original except for its broken feet and wings.
One of the greatest surviving ancient bronzes and, for me, the most impressive sculpture, was The Charioteer. This was the only statue found with eyes that seemed to move with you, like the famous Mona Lisa smile. 
The Temple of Apollo, who was the god of music, harmony and light, occupied the most prominent position in the Delphi sanctuary. The partially restored colonnade dated to the 4th century BC.
According to prevailing theory, the famous Oracle at Delphi operated inside the temple.
Above the temple was the well-preserved Theater which seated 5,000. In 1930, there was a performance there of the ancient drama Prometheus Bound at the Delphi Festival.
On our last day in Athens, pungent meat and fish odors drew us to the neoclassical covered market built between 1870 and 1844
Couldn't resist including this photo of an Orthodox priest using his cell phone outside his tiny church in downtown Athens. No more than a couple of hours later, Steven was robbed by a very well organized group of thieves while we were on the metro en route to the airport and Santorini.
Diane, a dear friend from Denver, had recommended we visit Santorini this trip. I will be forever thankful to her as the group of islands was one of our favorite stops all trip. I so loved the glistening whitewashed and turquoise buildings set against the azure skies and the gorgeous Aegean Sea.
The Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist included one chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the same name of the church and elementary school I attended while growing up in Ottawa, Canada.
Who could ever resist loving this picturesque scene as we walked to Santorini's Red Beach?

There weren't many times or places this previous trip we chose to OR could just be beach bums. This was one we took every advantage of!
On October 16th, Steven and I took a day cruise to some of the five islands that comprise Santorini. Thira, the main island and the one everyone thinks of when hearing about Santorini, was settled in the 8th century BC by Spartans and then by the Turks. In 1207 AD at the end of the fourth crusade, Thira was inhabited by Venetians who built six castles on it. A view of our traditional boat, the King Thiras, the dark vessel below, as we climbed to the top of the super volcano on Nea Kameni:
After visiting a couple of islands and swimming in a hot spring, our next stop was Oia, Santorini’s second largest town located on the northern part of Thira island and the Aegean’s most photographed spot.
To reach the town from the port, we had to make our way among the donkeys also climbing up the steps. Our guide cautioned us to  make sure we kept our backs to the wall to allow the donkeys to pass and not push us!
 Every evening, travelers from all over the world congregate at the caldera’s rim, each looking out to sea in anticipation of the perfect sunset. I doubt I'll ever forget our guide's advice that, in order to see the sunset, we just needed to ‘follow the zombies’ down the one road to the sun!'
On October 17th, we hiked toward Oia, stopping first in the blindingly white village of Imerovigli, set on the highest point of the caldera’s or volcanic crater’s rim. Imerovigli – the name means ‘watchtower’- is quieter and less expensive than other villages on the caldera.
There were so many spots for getting that classic blue-domed picture in Santorini. I just fell in love with Santorini and would love to go back some time and spend a week or so there with Steven.
It was a bit of a culture shock going from tiny, peaceful Santorini to the hustle and bustle of Cairo, Egypt, one of the world's largest cities just hours later. We sure didn't complain when we checked into our hotel room just across the road from the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids in Giza, mind you!
As we had arranged day tours to begin the next day of the pyramids in Giza and then for much further afield from Luxor, we took the opportunity to walk around Giza on our own. 
It was the first time this trip we encountered such poverty.
But I can never overstate the extreme friendliness of the Egyptian people we encountered. So, so many people spontaneously came up to us welcoming us to their homeland, thanking us for coming AND wishing us a wonderful visit. And no, there was absolutely NO sense that they wanted anything in return either. We have naturally become somewhat jaded or skeptical at times on our world travels wondering who wants what from us as we are obviously perceived by many less affluent people as having so much money. That was never the case for us in Egypt, however. 
As I wrote in the blog, I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin as kids kept coming up to say a few words to us and then began following us around. None of them asked for any money, unlike so many other countries where we’ve been and have had children follow us. They just appeared thrilled to be with us and have their pictures taken. We were the only foreigners so we were as much a novelty to them, I'm sure, as they and the sights and sounds were for us.
When our tour guide picked us up on October 18th, he took us to Memphis, the ancient Egyptian city that served not just as an important city but also as the capital of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom. There we viewed a sphinx of Ramses II. That was where I learned  the word ‘sphinx’ was a Greek word because the man who wrote ancient Egyptian history was Greek! 
After visiting several underground tombs in the town of Sakkara, we stopped at one of the many carpet schools to learn about carpet weaving in Egypt. I asked what age the children can start ‘learning’ or perhaps, more accurately, working, and was told they start as young as ten so they can help support their families. Seeing first hand these very young workers made me wonder who had made the beautiful Turkish, Indian and Afghani rugs we have. Ignorance had been bliss until we were faced with the reality of how young those workers had probably been too.
The oldest pyramid in Giza and the largest in Egypt is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It took our breath away as we felt the power of long ago civilizations and what they had been capable of accomplishing.
Coming face to face with an unforgettable look in the eyes of the great Sphinx, the guardian of the greatest pyramids in Egypt, will not be an experience soon forgotten.
We had a day to ourselves in Cairo and chose to visit the Coptic area where there was a maze of ancient and modern churches and monasteries set within the walls of the fortress of Babylon founded in the 6th century BC. More than 20 churches once were clustered in just one square kilometer; the first one we toured was the Hanging Church.
At the Greek Orthodox Monastery & St. George Church, it was extremely touching when one of these Muslim women kissed me on both cheeks after I took their photo in front of the cross. When we hear so often in the news of the hatred expressed between followers of one religion or another, it was hopeful there were a number of Muslims also visiting the churches when we were there.
Walking through Coptic Cairo showed us the peaceful coexistence of the Christian community in a huge and predominantly Muslim city. The enclave was a testimony to the Christian life of a branch of Christianity that predated the famous great schism of 1054 AD between the East (Orthodox) and the West (Rome) by almost a thousand years. The Church of the Virgin Mary was a site believed to have been used by the Holy Family while escaping persecution.
The Amir Ibn al-As Mosque, the first mosque built in Egypt, was established in 642 AD by the general who conquered Egypt for Islam. We've been in a huge number of mosques over the years but this was the first time we saw the imam chant the 'Call to Prayer.' 
I had certainly appreciated seeing the other areas of Cairo with the fabulous ancient churches and religious sites that were famous the world over but I loved the Tentmakers' District the most after learning of its existence in Kuala Lumpur. Seeing the riotous colored fabrics with intricate quilted designs made into wall hangings, table runners and cushion covers made me feel like a kid in a candy store! I had such fun that we returned the next day to splurge once again.

The next day, October 21st, we walked to the nearby Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, known the world over as the site of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. The pigments in the Meidum Geese, even though painted around 2500 BC, still remained vivid and the degree of realism made it possible for ornithologists to identify the species with no trouble. 
Seeing that painting brought tears to my eyes as here is a photo of the same drawing we have at home. It was painted by my maternal Great Aunt Nina de Garis Davis about 100 years ago when she and her husband, Norman, worked in the early and mid-twentieth century drawing and documenting tomb paintings in Egypt. Nina spent half of her time making drawings for the Metropolitan Museum in New York where we have seen many of her other paintings. 
The Museum was so mammoth that it would take nine months to see it all if you were to look at every piece for one minute! It was so hard for me to decide which of the hundreds and hundreds of pieces we saw to include here in this highlight post. Figuring that most readers would be drawn to the mummies was the only reason I included this next photo. The Mummies Halls housed the remains of some of Egypt’s most illustrious pharaoh’s and queens from the 17th to the 21st centuries, 1650 to 945 BC. The mood inside each of the rooms was suitably somber and talking above a whisper was forbidden. King Amnehotep I died in his late 40s during the 18th dynasty, circa 1525-1505 BC. The body was later re-wrapped by 21st dynasty priests and provided with a new mask and a garland of flowers.
The following day in Cairo, I noticed a young local girl taking a picture of these two other girls so I thought I would also take one. The girl on the left was laughing so hard the basket fell off her head!
A common sight in several areas of Cairo was of men pushing OR carrying large numbers of boxes. What a hard life many Caireans lead.

These young women wanted their picture taken with me at the Sultan Mosque of al-Nasr Mohammed ibn Qalaun, an early 14th-century mosque in Cairo. I was glad to oblige.
On October 23rd, we flew from Cairo south to Luxor, described as the world's largest open-air museum. At the Temple of Karnak, we learned that Karnak means sacred house and it took 2,000 years to build the great palace as each king or pharaoh added onto the temple during his reign. The word 'remarkable' seems inadequate to describe seeing the color preserved through the millennia. As so much of the original paint still remained, it was still possible to imagine the spectacular vision this place must have been for the Egyptian people of the time.
Queen Hatsheput’s face was sadly destroyed by her son, Tuthmosis III, as was her name and record of her achievements.
The deep carvings indicated they were done during the time of Ramses III.
At the Luxor Temple, there was part of a depiction of The Last Supper indicating the Christians' strong influence in the area.
Another scene from Luxor Temple:
A cartouche, i.e. his name as written in hieroglyphics, of Alexander the Great dating from 330 BC:
Our last activity of the day after crossing over the Nile River from the West Bank to the East Bank was to take a ride at sunset on a felucca, a traditional sailboat that has remained the primary transportation on the Nile. This photo was an easy choice for the highlight reel.
On 10/25, our guide and driver took us to the temples in Abydos, located 200 kms away. Among the brightly colored wall paintings, we saw Amun-Ra, the oldest and the most worshipped ruler of ancient Egypt who was always depicted in blue. Many considered him as the God of Kings and King of Gods.
A temple guard, leaving at the end of the day, asked me if I would like to hop on his motorcycle to avoid the long walk back to the van. I sure wasn't about to say no to that fun and enticing offer! Our guide was astounded as he'd never seen any other tourist being offered the same chance before.
Driving from place to place in southern Egypt was an adventure as our guide needed to get permits from the police to take us from site to site; the guide had to arrange in advance for a police escort from one city to another; and the police 'required' our driver to take certain highways even though the distance was infinitely further. 
The driver, however, chose to take the shorter route and had us slink down in the back seat as we neared police checkpoints so we wouldn't be seen. No need to have worried about us as we entirely safe at all times! When we had been with the guide and driver in certain areas of Cairo, the police checked the van's license plate and the time as we arrived at one site and then we were checked again at the next site. Unusual to say the least for us but not unnerving at all.
Our final destination on 10/25 was Dendera, one of the best preserved temple complexes in Egypt. It was a site for chapels or shrines from the beginning of history of ancient Egypt. After learning previously about so many pharaohs and wars, it was almost comical to see Bes, the god of fun and an ancient Egyptian dwarf god who was both a deity and a demonic fighter. He was a god of war yet he was also a patron of childbirth and the home. It was thought that he could scare off any evil spirits lurking around the birthing chamber by dancing, shouting and shaking his rattle!
Breathtaking scenes and color from the walls and ceilings at Dendera:

The early morning local ferry we took across the Nile on 10/26 to meet our guide and driver for the long trip to and from the Aswan Dam:
Our view as we crossed from the Old Dam en route to the High Dam in Aswan:
At the High Dam:

The Temple at Philae was nearly lost under water when the High Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s. Fortunately, the temple was rescued by a joint operation between the Egyptian government and UNESCO. In an engineering feat to rival the ancients, the whole island was surrounded with a dam and the inside pumped dry. Then every stone block of the temple complex was labeled and removed, later to be assembled, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on higher ground. The whole project took ten years but it saved one of Egypt’s most beautiful temples from certain destruction.
A view of Luxor Temple on our last night in Egypt:
I hope my trying to condense four weeks of travel through Albania, Greece and Egypt didn't leave you as exhausted as I am now! Reliving that portion of our trip was great fun but trying to determine which were the most scenic, memorable, humorous and/or interesting photos from such a long journey was challenging to say the least. Next up (after I've had a breather, that is) will be the Highlight Reel from Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.

Posted on May 9th from Ottawa, Canada.

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