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.**

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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Of Lost Cameras and Sinking Cities

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Sad story:  We lost our camera in Venice.  It was a hot, miserable day and our hotel was out in the middle of nowhere.  It took us 3 hours to find it, which meant we had to take a few breaks because the heat was so unbearable…it just so happens that on one of those breaks, I stupidly set the camera down and forgot to pick it back up.  Not a great start to our trip.

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After we got to our hotel, I was feeling so shitty about it that I didn’t even bother to go out into the city our first night, but I decided that one night of sulking was enough.  Camera or no camera, we had come to see Venice.

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It was hot, crowded, and beautiful.  I did my best to capture it with some grainy Kindle Fire shots, but of course, they don’t do it any justice.  We arrived with no itinerary and we definitely didn’t want to fork out the cash for an overpriced gondola ride – especially since we now had a camera to replace.  Instead, we simply wandered through the alleys, stopping for the occasional gelato to try and beat the heat.

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So where to begin with Venice…  It’s a tourist trap for sure, albeit a beautiful one.  It’s also possible that my experience was a little tainted due to having lost our camera.  I definitely couldn’t imagine spending more than a couple days there, but I certainly don’t regret going…especially when considering it may not be around much longer.  My advice?  Don’t go in July.  Wait for the off-season to avoid the crowds and the sweltering heat.

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Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge

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After several days of rain and grey skies, there was finally a sunny day in the forecast.  It was time for the crowning jewel of Slovenia:  Lake Bled.

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For some crazy reason, we left Ljubljana without having coffee, so we had to stop for a caffeine break before exploring the lake.  It didn’t look very big from a distance, but one we got closer, we realized what a walk it really was.

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It was big, beautiful, and impossibly blue for a lake.  The adorable island with the church in the middle was just the icing on the cake.

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After a nice, long stroll and picnic around Lake Bled, we decided to head to nearby Vintgar Gorge.  Unfortunately, we missed the last afternoon shuttle to the entrance, so we had to walk there; however, once we got a good look at the scenery en route, we didn’t feel so bad about it.

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After what felt like forever, we finally reached the entrance to the gorge.  It was much cooler there, which was nice after such a long walk.  The gorge itself was breathtaking, with mint green water rushing beneath the wooden path.

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I would love to share more photos from Vintgar; however, I stupidly forgot to check if all of the photos uploaded before I left for the States and the SD card with these photos is still in Turkey, so this will have to suffice for now.

For such a tiny country, Slovenia is teeming with natural wonders to explore.  In fact, my husband and I loved it so much that we are already planning a return trip…ideally in autumn so we can see everything surrounded by colorful trees.  There are also some sights that we didn’t have time for this trip, such as Lake Bohinj, that we’d love to go back and see.

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Thanks for being beautiful, Slovenia.  Until next time.

Škofja Loka

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We had to make some adjustments to our schedule in Slovenia due to some inclement weather.  We had originally planned on visiting Lake Bled on our second day there, but because of the forecast, we decided to delay it for sunnier days.  Instead, we decided to take a day trip that was a little closer.

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Škofja Loka is a cute little medieval village about 30 minutes away from Ljubljana. Luckily, our hotel was a short walk away from the bus station, so we didn’t have to spend too much time in the rain.  We hopped on the bus, and to our surprise, it had stopped raining when we arrived.

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The charming medieval houses were only made more stunning by the view of the mountains that surrounded them.  We didn’t go in with any kind of plan; we simply took off to wander all of the winding alleys.

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Though Škofja Loka wasn’t a part of our original itinerary, we were really glad we stopped.  It was a great place to wander, escape from the rain, and stop for a coffee while enjoying the view.

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Ljubljana: My New Favorite City

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Full disclosure:  I knew practically nothing about Slovenia before I flew there last week. All I knew is that Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blee-ana) was one of the cheapest destinations on Skyscanner for the dates we were looking to travel for our end-of-the-year/anniversary trip.  That was good enough for us.  I never would have expected this tiny city in a tiny country that still seems fairly undiscovered for this part of Europe to leave such a mark on my heart.

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There is something so genuine about Ljubljana.  Unlike much of Europe, it hasn’t sold its entire soul to the tourism industry.  It has nothing to prove, and because of that, Ljubljana is a city that is unapologetically itself.  Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the imposing skyline or massive crowds of cities like Prague, Ljubljana is an incredible, enchanting city.  It truly felt like something of a magical secret.

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Ljubljana seems to be in a stage of renaissance, with an incredible contemporary art and music scene.  You can’t walk five steps without running into some kind of street performer, though not the usual fare.  In our short time there, we ran into break dancers, magicians, bongo drummers, and opera singers, in addition to more traditional bands. Amazing street art lines just about every corner of the city, but especially in the little artsy neighborhood of Metelkova.

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We ended up basing ourselves out of Ljubljana the whole time we were in Slovenia simply because we loved it so much.  It gave us time to figure out all of the best places to eat,  hang out, and take walks at sunset.

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I wish I could find the right way to describe how laid back and charming Ljubljana is. The whole time I was there, I felt so at home…so much so that I probably could have moved in right then and there.  I’m really surprised it hasn’t become overrun with tourists!

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Until next time, Ljubljana!

26 and A Weekend on the Rhine

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So, I turned 26 last week.  I guess time just really flies as you get older because it feels like I just turned 22 last year.

Fun fact:  I am exactly 15 days older than my husband, which means I get to tout my extra wisdom for a couple of weeks every year.  It also means that we normally try to do something extra fun together to celebrate.

This year, we decided to spend the weekend in Switzerland and France because who doesn’t love croissants and chocolate!  I also scored a sweet birthday discount from Pegasus and I never turn down a cheap flight.

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It just so happened that last Friday was a holiday in Turkey, so we had an extra day to explore!  We landed in Basel, Switzerland Friday morning and hit the streets right away. Even though the forecast had shown three days of rain, we completely lucked out and had nothing but dry, sunny weather!  We had the best time walking through the city and admiring the architecture.

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Now that I’m 26, my sense of humor is vastly more sophisticated.

We also couldn’t help but notice all of the playful sculptures and parks all over the city. We may or may not have spent a lot of time on playground equipment.

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Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling tons of Swiss chocolate, but I ate it all before the thought of taking a photo of it even crossed my mind.  Just take my word for it…or go check it out for yourself!

The next morning, we got up bright and early to catch the train to Colmar, France -an adorable little village that has been on my radar for a few years.  I also had the good fortune of experiencing my first “cougar” moment, when my husband was able to buy a youth ticket and I had to pay full price for the regular “adult” ticket.  I guess this makes up for taunting him with all of my brand new freedoms on both my 18th and 21st birthdays.

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Although it’s only 45 minutes away from the Swiss border, Colmar is distinctly French. My heart leapt at the sight of all the colorful buildings and pâtisseries and at the sound of French being spoken all around me.  Though I studied French through part of high school and all of university, I’ve rarely had the chance to use it since graduating and moving to Turkey.  It made me so happy to jump back into that world.

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Seriously though, how stunning is this place!?  Each twist and turn of an alley led to even more beautiful, colorful houses.  I was in heaven, eating my weight in croissants and sipping on Alsatian wine.  I loved each and every second of our time there and felt so sad when it was time to leave.  I have such great love for all things Francophone and it is still a dream of mine to live in France someday.

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Lovely little nod to Magritte

Even though we only had three days, it was a pretty damn incredible three days.  26 is feeling alright so far!

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Pretty please take me back?