An Appointment in…Tirana

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Both my husband and I have been a bit hermit-like lately, preferring to spend our weekends playing video games in our pajamas over adventures in the city.  This is probably a symptom of our travel-heavy summer and the usual adjustment that comes with a new school year.  Still, we both caught a case of the travel bug this week after a particularly tiring series of after-school events and duties, so we scoured the internet for travel deals and settled on Albania.

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We knew next to nothing about Albania before we landed in Tirana, which, in this case, only enhanced my experience.  I was instantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, the beauty of the city, and the unique blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist influence.

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We got up first thing in the morning, ready to hit the ground running since we only had two days to experience the city.  Our first stop was Skanderbeg Square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.  The lack of crowds and grey skies made it seem all the more imposing.

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It was a bit chillier in Tirana than we had expected, so we found ourselves making frequent stops for cappuccino, which much to our elation was some of the best we’d ever had.  The cafe culture there alone is worth the visit.

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In addition to great coffee and cool architecture, Tirana is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.  It seems like you can’t turn the corner without seeing some kind of sculpture, art gallery, or street art.  This piece I am standing on – the cloud – was a personal favorite.

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The vibrant and youthful atmosphere of the city is likely a reaction to Albania’s dark past.   In the 20th century alone, the country went from being a police state at the turn of the century, to a fascist state under the Nazis, to a communist state after WWII.  During the 40-year reign of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country suffered from widespread oppression and isolationism.  The monument above, known as the Pyramid of Tirana, was commissioned by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a monument to his legacy.  Ironically, it still serves that purpose, though his legacy is not one that is remembered fondly.

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View of Tirana from a bunker

Another of the city’s bizarre communist remnants are the preserved bunkers, built by Hoxha to protect the country from potential invasions – which never came to pass.  One of the bunkers has been converted into an art and history museum known as Bunk’Art, which takes visitors through the murky tunnels (both literally and figuratively) of Albania’s communist history.  Among some of the exhibits are the names of people killed in concentration camps, methods of torture used against citizens who opposed the government, and examples of how families were bugged by the police state.  The thing that blows my mind the most is that Albania was only freed from this oppression in 1990, the year before I was born.

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It is perhaps because of its dark past and decades of isolation that Albania is so seldom visited, though tourism is gradually increasing.  At the moment, it is a bit of a hidden gem, but I suspect in the next ten years, it will become a hot spot in Europe, much like Croatia.  I’m grateful to have seen it when I did.

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I was totally blown away by Tirana and Albania in general.  The breathtaking view of the mountains below while I was flying away made leaving even more difficult than it already was.  It is another of many places that I know I must revisit.  I only had time for Tirana on this trip, but next time, I’d love to visit places like Berat or the Albanian Riviera to take in more of the country’s natural beauty.

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**As a side note, the title of this post comes from a song that has been stuck in my head all week.  Coincidentally, the song was recommended to me by a student after assigning the class to read the folk tale to which the song alludes…so there is a bit of a double allusion going on here.  Anyway, I feel like the song perfectly matches the atmosphere of Tirana…haunting and beautiful.**

Settled

dsc_0259In the blink of an eye, here we are in a new season.

This third year seems…different. Everything that at first seemed wild and foreign to me now seems so routine and familiar. Bargaining at the pazar, my days in the classroom, fumbling through conversations in taxis while zooming through traffic – it all feels so natural.

With my change in status from new to veteran yabanci, I find myself becoming more of a homebody. When I first made the big move, I set my sights on seeing something new at every opportunity; now, I am settling into favorite places and activities. Such a change may seem uneventful from an outsider’s perspective, but for me, it is welcome. As much as I love traveling, it feels good to finally feel like I belong here. It feels good to be home.

A World of Color in Alaçatı

IMG_0935.JPGAfter returning from Chios, we spent the last few days of our sweet, sweet summer in Alaçatı, an adorable little town just 15 minutes east of Çeşme.  We were pretty sunburnt and tired of swimming at this point, so a couple of days of wandering through colorful streets, drinking coffee, and stuffing our faces sounded pretty perfect.

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By night, the streets were an overpopulated nightmare that left me feeling a little like this, but in the mornings, they took my breath away.  Hardly a soul was to be found before noon, so my husband and I had the winding, colorful alleys to ourselves for hours.  I think I’ll just let the pictures do most of the talking on this one.

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Alaçatı is the sort of place that really embodies summer, with bright pops of color and flowers hanging above the streets.  It was a nice way to bid farewell to the season before long, lazy, sunny days are replaced with work and chilly weather.

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Chios, Greece: A Tiny Aegean Paradise

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Çeşme is a fairly frequented tourist haven, which is no surprise because it’s full of beautiful beaches.  What is surprising is that the Greek island of Chios is only 20 minutes away by ferry and it is seldom traveled in comparison…which is a shame because it’s lovely.

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We got an amazing deal on a resort with a private beach and got to wake up to this view every morning!  It was great only being a minute away from a perfect morning swim. Much like Çeşme, Chios is full of beautiful beaches, but because we basically had a beach to ourselves, we didn’t venture off to any of the others.

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After a much-needed day of settling in and hanging out in the water, we were ready to explore more of the island.  One of the main attractions of Chios is the tiny town of Pyrgi, known for its beautiful houses covered in unique grey and white geometric patterns.

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Every building in town was so beautiful and elaborate and I especially loved the color contrast of all of the tomatoes being hung out to dry throughout the neighborhoods. We spent several hours simply wandering through the tiny alleys admiring the patterns.  We also stopped to sip on some mastiha, a liquor made out of mastic, which is one of the island’s specialties.

IMG_0818.JPGAnother highlight of the island is the little pier with historic windmills, not far from the main port.  They are much bigger than they seem and look absolutely stunning next to the turquoise water.  We visited in the afternoon, but I imagine they are breathtaking at sunset.

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We were really surprised by how beautiful and charming Chios was.  We had been to Greece before, so we knew we’d likely be in for a treat, but it was so nice to explore one of the lesser known islands and not build up so many expectations.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about traveling, it’s not to be afraid to go off the beaten path.  The beaches, lovely architecture, food, and hospitable locals blew us away!

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I look forward to even more Greek islands in my future, but especially those that are so close to Turkey!  The ferry ride was only 25 euros and was a breeze (as long as you show up at least an hour before departure for passport control).  It’s also interesting to see the influence that both Turkey and Greece have had on one another so close to the border.

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Besides, it’s really hard to turn down the opportunity to see two countries in one trip and drink really good wine for 2 euros a glass.

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Chilling Out in Çeşme

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I realize I’ve neglected this space for about a month now.  To be honest, going from the U.S. back to Turkey wasn’t the smoothest of transitions, especially considering that we had to get up for a long day of meetings just 10 hours after stepping of the plane.  The week of jet lag that followed didn’t help.

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Still, we survived, got ready for the upcoming school year, and mercifully took off for a 10-day holiday, thanks to the Bayram.  We contemplated going off on a new European adventure, but after a crazy summer full of fast-paced traveling, we wanted to hang out a little closer to home and relax.  In the end, we decided to spend a few days in Çeşme, a nice beach town on the west coast of Turkey.

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Right away, we knew we had made the right choice.  The town was cozy, relaxed, very pedestrian-friendly and full of delicious meyhanes.  

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Our agenda mainly involved beach time, alternating between lounging in a sunbed and swimming in the beautiful Aegean Sea.  While there are many beautiful beaches in the Çeşme area, several of them are private and will charge an entrance fee for the day. We found the public beach – Ilıca – to be more than satisfactory and felt no need to pay for more than a sunbed and a couple of beers.  The water was perfect and there was plenty of space for everyone to lounge and swim, regardless of the Bayram crowds.

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Aside from beach bumming, we took some time to explore the local castle, which had some interesting exhibits and offered fantastic views of the city and marina from the top. The fact that we got free entry with our Muzekarts was just the icing on the cake.

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Çeşme was lovely and refreshing – exactly what we needed after a hectic summer and before the start of another school year!

 

Sun Up, Sun Down

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I might be a little biased, but I honestly think that the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen have been right here in the Kansas prairie.

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Even the cloudy night sky is stunning.

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It’s been good to be home and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit sad to be leaving next week.