Monthly Archives: May 2015

It’s the Year 1259 in Boyana


Surrounded by old pine trees that seem to hover protectively over it, Boyana doesn’t look much like a church.  Boyana looks downright anonymous, perhaps like the workplace of a medieval craftsman with a low door and few windows.  Its exterior walls sport row upon row of alternating bricks and rocks, a characteristic Bulgarian building style. It’s only when I entered Boyana that genuine amazement began.  Its interior is tiny so no more than 8 people are allowed inside at a time to stay for only 10 minutes.  Photography is strictly forbidden.  Of all the fine sights I saw in Sofia, this was the best.

On UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, Boyana dates from the 11th century, and was reworked in the 13th and 19th.  Its true glory is its original frescoes that were completed by an unknown artist known only as the Boyana Master in 1259.  Master is definitely the appropriate word for him.   A couple of centuries before the Renaissance occurred in Italy, he was painting in its style.   His faces remain warm and human, not stylized and similar like most medieval church art.  His 240 realistic human figures show Bulgarian life at the time, and the subjects aren’t all saints and depictions of God.  They include historical figures like Tsar Konstantin Assen and his wife Irina.

Boyana seemed even more remarkable to me when I learned that it’s practically within walking distance of the fenced-in, very private residence of Bulgaria’s last Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the lavish National History Museum built on the same grounds during the Communist years.

Why did committed, non-religious party members who either turned places of worship into museums or destroyed them leave this remarkable Christian church untouched?   Perhaps they were distracted by Boyana’s pretty placement.   Both it and their upscale living quarters were at the bottom of 7,550+ feet Vitosha Mountain, which contains the oldest nature park in The Balkans.  Sofia, Bulgaria, has one of the most spectacular natural settings of any city.  Sofians can literally be skiing, hiking, or soaking in a mineral spring minutes after leaving their city.


Lake Ohrid: Macedonia’s #1 Attraction


One of the lesser known 5 Compass sights in Europe is shared by Albania and Macedonia–Lake Ohrid.  More than two-thirds of it is in Macedonia. Completely spring fed and extremely old, gorgeous Ohrid, 940 feet deep in places, is like few other lakes.  Perhaps its most famous relative is Russia’s Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest fresh water lake in the world.

Ohrid’s outlet, a major attraction in and of itself, is in the Macedonian town of Struga where its impressive outflow forms the Black Drin River, nickname: Mother of Lake Ohrid.  Black Drin eventually empties into the Adriatic Sea.

Deep and unbelievably clear, Ohrid can be penetrated with excellent human eyes to a depth of 66 feet.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it’s reportedly 98% pure and under strict regulation to keep it that way.  Its water has historically been linked to miracle cures and neolithic deaths.

We saw settlements on Ohrid’s eastern shore containing clusters of still-vacant vacation homes and restaurants, but there are only 3 real towns on its nearly perfect oval.  The largest is the Albanian city of Pogradec.   Ruth and I stayed 15 miles from Struga in the town of Ohrid in a resort hotel with an unpredictable power generator.  The hotel was across the street from a popular promenade on Ohrid’s curving shore. This town has several nicknames including the City of Light (see photo above) and the Jerusalem of the Balkans.

Lake Ohrid’s source is near scenic St. Naum monastery in Galicica National Park where 30 underwater and 15 coastal springs bubble up through sand. We drifted languorously in boats over these sands to observe the watery phenomenon that feeds 4.7 million year old Lake Ohrid.   Our guide called this “an eternal spring of drinkable water”.  This was clearly true.  He also told us that Heineken has tried to buy Ohrid’s water to make beer and, incorrectly, that the movie Blue Lagoon was made here.  By the time we saw it coming through the sand, this incredibly pure water had traveled for 21 days through limestone caves beneath a mountain being filtered and overly calcified.

Another impressibly large lake named Prespa is across a 6-mile-wide isthmus from Ohrid.  Prespa has a higher elevation and is more remote, so it’s not quite the tourist lure that Ohrid is.  Yet.




Albanian Hills Are Alive with Bunkers


Because Enver Hoxha was bonkers, he built bunkers.  Hoxha was the socialist leader of Albania from 1944 until his death from diabetes in 1985.   Especially during the Cold War years, he trusted no one.  Ruth is currently reading Ismail Kadare’s The Successor, a thinly veiled Albanian thriller about paranoia and a Man Booker prize winner.  She bought it in Albania.  During Hoxha’s reign no one could leave the country, Mother Teresa couldn’t get in, and to assure the survival of Albania from nuclear attack by Russia or the United States or possible invasion from a neighbor, Hoxha (pronounced hoe ja) ordered the construction of about 700,000 bunkers of varying sizes all over the country.

Concrete domes like the one pictured above still spring from the earth in unexpected places all over Albania.   The ones I saw in cemeteries, on beaches, and in fields looked like one-passenger space vehicles abandoned by ETs.   The greatest concentration of them were on a hillside that I gamboled up like Maria in The Sound of Music near Albania’s border with Macedonia.  There was one in the city park full of unusable benches across the street from our hotel in Tirana, the capital.

Made of iron and concrete and put in place between 1950 and 1985, these bunkers are virtually impossible to destroy.  After all, they were built by a decidedly paranoid leader to repel invasion.  A tank assault wouldn’t affect a bunker’s resident soldier or civilian hider.  In fact, the bunkers’ engineer/inventor was so certain that they were impenetrable that he stood in one during a tank assault and was uninjured.  Almost 25% of Albania’s military budget went toward building them.

Modern Albanians are enjoying freedom if not complete prosperity after eons of control by forces from within and without. Some are looking for clever ways to use these ever-present eyesores.  There’s talk, for example, of turning some of the larger ones into curious hotel rooms.

One of the biggest thrills for healing Albanians occurred in 2007 when George Bush showed up rather unexpectedly in Fushe-Kruja.  He picked this small town north of Tirana to visit when he and Laura were in Albania on a mission to assure the world that this country was safe for investing.   The townspeople were so honored that they erected a dictator-sized statue of Bush that still graces a small park in the center of town across from a playground.  Ruth and I drove through this village but did not stop. Apparently, many Fushe-Krujan shops still sell George and Laura memorabilia.  Bill Clinton is reportedly a hero in Kosovo.  Perhaps Barak Obama should pay a visit to, say, Montenegro before leaving office.

Some day soon I’ll tell you about Albania’s other colorful ruler, King Zog.



A Shower in Albania


The very last thing I needed to deal with after spending 2 weeks in an incredibly rewarding but often difficult part of the world was that Albanian shower.

We arrived at the hotel, which I won’t name because the staff was lovely and earnest, near Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport about midnight because our flight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Tirana via Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci was delayed.   We dropped into bed like the last 2 advancing zombies.

The next morning Ruth came out of the bathroom and said, “You won’t believe the shower.”

The shower itself was tiny with just enough room for one average-sized human to stand upright in it.  It reminded me of time capsule machines in cheap 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies.  It had a control panel and, seemingly, 3 shower options.  The control panel’s controls mysteriously promised “radio, prog, search, memory, timer, alarm, and light.”  I tried light and a miniature strobe above the shower activated.  I never figured out any of the others.  In fact, I couldn’t even figure out how to get the water on.   By the way, we were told to drink only bottled water while in Albania. From the bedroom Ruth advised me on how to obtain water.

I faced into the shower again and pulled the easy-to-miss, unassuming silver knob forward.   Water was gushing toward me just outside the two sliding doors.  Water, however, was not coming from any of the 8 jets on the control panel or from the traditional oversized shower head in the ceiling.

I stepped into the shower and onto the somewhat triangular plastic disc on the shower’s floor.  It began gently moving back and forth like a surf board for beginners.   Water, at least warm, was now gushing from a traditional European shower head, the kind that’s detachable but is normally inserted into a ring that pivots as if it has a mind of its own sending water in every direction except where it’s wanted.

I eventually became reasonably wet and clean and suspect I’m now ready for competitive surfing.



Return to Whidbey Island




It was great to be back on Whidbey.  I first wrote about it when I worked for The Columbian, our local newspaper.  I blogged about it in 2011.  Ruth & I recently went from Seattle, WA to Vancouver, BC via Whidbey.  It’s better than ever.

Whidbey is the 2nd largest and longest coastal island in the United States. Only New York’s Long Island is bigger.  Whidbey is a 47-mile-drive from the Mukilteo to Clinton ferry, a 20 minute crossing, to Deception Pass.   The only other ferry is a 40 minute ride from the must-see town of Port Townsend to Whidbey’s mid-section.  The entire island is shaped like a seahorse.

Ruth and I have found 4 reasons to linger on south Whidbey, which is more rural, and Clinton isn’t one of them.  The town of Langley is.  Langley has the biggest concentration of b&bs in Washington State and the look of a New England seaside village instead of a tourist town.  Some travelers also like Freeland, which has a number of antique shops in its popular shopping district.  I prefer Langley.  Greenbank Farm is where Whidbey is at its narrowest.  Once a major loganberry producer, Greenbank is now a community founded, non-profit endeavor with a cafe specializing in pies, a shop, an organic farm school, etc.  The other 2 notable stops are the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens and South Whidbey State Park.

Near the ferry from Port Townsend terminal is this Island’s #2 attraction, the Admiralty Head Lighthouse.  North of it is 17,500 acre Ebey’s Landing, the United State’s first historical reserve.   Now a part of the National Park Service, Ebey preserves more than 400 buildings.  Many of them are in my favorite Whidbey settlement, Coupeville, the 2nd oldest town in Washington.  There’s lots to do here: a scenic wharf, mussel beds, a historical museum, etc.

North of The Landing on Highway 20, my absolute favorite Washington road (it terminates at the Idaho border), is the biggest and least interesting town on Whidbey, Oak Harbor.   Mostly a service community with shopping centers and every imaginable fast food franchise, it’s for those stationed at the Naval Air Station Seaplane Base and the Navy’s Ault Field.   Check out the Naval History Center at the Sea Plane Base.

At Whidbey’s north tip is its #1 attraction, the spectacular Deception Pass Bridge soaring over a historic water passage 185 feet below.  Those who take the time to read about the building of this difficult bridge will learn why Deception Pass is a perfect name.  Jet boat tours are popular here.