I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday, September 2, 2007 Three Countries in Three Hours

I woke once during the night and two men were talking loudly and got closer and closer and closer, until I thought they were actually in the flat and I was afraid I was going to have to find someplace to hide (I was a little out of it). In the morning K told me that a passageway between the alley and the street goes directly under that bedroom, and when I checked it out it was clear that's where the men were. Not actually in the apartment, as my jet lag addled brain would have me believe. I eventually got back to sleep and K let me stay konked out until 10.

We walked over to Marche for brunch. I had the Vegetarian Breakfast of beans, egg, mushroom, and the most amazing grilled tomato. Kathy had the vegetarian omelet, which she kindly shared with me. We both got the fresh squeezed orange juice (I once paid $5 in Georgetown for about half the portion) and the bread served to the table was truly divine. Kosovars make the best bread in the world, I am convinced. The food was again magnificent, as Kathy had promised, and a bargain at about 8E per person. On the way back we stopped at the Israeli bakery (where K got my birthday cake) and I got a tiny pear tart. It was so perfect.

We meandered back to the flat. On the way we saw another great Kosovar sign, this one for the bootleg CD and DVD store. Apparently, when you're looking for clip art of Mozart any old Western white guy in a wig will do. Plus, George Washington has already conveniently been placed in a circular frame. It makes the graphic design a lot easier.

When we got back the electricity and the water were both off (a common occurence). We packed, and when the electricity came back on we watched the music video station. K had been telling me about turbo folk--sad, wailing, traditional Albanian folk music set to a techno beat and sung by a girl wearing some version of a bikini participating in various inexplicable scenes. True to her description, the video was a girl on the beach in very short shorts and a belly top, and a guy who was covered in sand and sort of acting like a sea monster? She occasionally poured water onto him. It was all properly bizarre. Alas, the station then switched to Western videos (Backstreet Boys and Rihanna were as long as we lasted) so that was my only experience with turbo folk. I shall never forget ye.

Our driver arrived at 3. Our plan was to be driven to Skopje in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, rent a car, and then head into Greece, first stop Thessaloniki. K knows how all these things work--apparently it's too complicated to take a stateless rent car (and no international chains in Kosovo, remember) out of Kosovo, and Macedonia has better rent car rates than Greece. We bundled our bags into the small car and made a run for the border (while we are still in Kosovo I will indulge in some copyright infringement of my own). The border crossing at Macedonia was a bit slow, but all our passports were accepted and on to Skopje! By the way, the entire world is a giant strip mall.

The Europcar agency is in the Alexander Hotel outside Skopje's center. We got there and the rent car desk was dark, silent, and had a sign saying it was closed Sunday. Minor panic on my part, but K is very familiar with the Balkans and wasn't worried. K spoke to the check-in clerk, who made a call and our rent car agent arrived within minutes, bringing his small son who had apparently been bribed with an ice cream cone to come along. It looked good. We got the car, a white VW Polo. The agent showed us where reverse was and how to work the gas cap. Both of these things would later stump us.

We felt very, "If it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" as we crossed our third border in about three hours entering into Greece. The drive from Skopje to Thessaloniki was pleasant and not too long, maybe three hours. Arriving in Thessaloniki was a whole other matter! Since we were only a day there I hadn't purchased a map beforehand, figuring we'd just pick up a tourist map when we got there. We knew where our hotel was and it seemed quite simple to get there. It would have been, had all the streets not been one way. We found the street our hotel was on at the first try, but we emerged too far down the one way street for it. Simple, we'll just find a one way street running the other way and use it to go back. Hmmm, 45 minutes and a tour of the entire center of Thessaloniki later, we pulled up in front of the Tourist Hotel/Hotel Tourist (take your pick, it goes by both names. The next day walking around we kept saying, "We saw that!" and "We turned there!" and "We were on that street!"

The Tourist Hotel has an agreement with a parking garage for a reduced rate. Although K had confirmed with them several times, they forgot to mention that it is closed on Sundays. Kathy had gone into the hotel while I double parked to get directions to the parking area. I was very concerned as she was in there for quite a while and there was a lot of direction-giving gesturing going on. Getting lost had really been fine but I was needing to pee and getting very hungry, as it was 10:30 pm by now. I didn't know if I would be up for all the driving indicated by all the gesturing going on. The desk clerk got our suitcases to bring inside (there are about 8 steep steps up to the reception desk where the lift is) and K got in the car. The directions were, Make a left and a left and it's on the left. They were much simpler (and simpler to execute) than all the hand gesturing had indicated and I was very relieved. We got back to the hotel easily and went up to our room.

I can highly recommend the Hotel Tourist. Our rate was 75E per night for a double with en suite bath and breakfast included. The morning and evening desk clerks were both extremely helpful and spoke impeccable English. It is one block off the water right in the center of everything. And the room was just darling! It had high ceilings and gilded (well, gold painted) plaster wreath and garland molding and a lovely chandelier in the center of the ceiling. The bathroom was funny--a little box built into the corner of the room complete with its own ceiling about 4 feet below the regular ceiling (you can see the bathroom roof in the lower left of the photo). The beds were extra firm and a little creaky, but I was fine with that. Trip Advisor has a few people complaining of noise. We didn't find it particularly noisy, but are both city girls used to city noises at night.

One of K's friends had given us several restaurant recommendations. We stopped at the front desk for directions. They had a small map that wasn't quite adequate to offer us. At least we had something! The gesturing desk clerk told us how to get to Ladadika, but recommended that we go up to the top of Aristotle Square, make a right, and there was a corridor of restaurants there and we could choose from any of them. He also told us that there was a "Rock Bar" where we might enjoy ourselves (unlikely) and I said we were more interested in food. He said we could eat there, no problem (the area, not the Rock Bar).

He warned us about the touts but we thought we could handle it. The aggressiveness was crazy! K is much taller than me (5'10") so luckily for me everyone thought she was in charge. They were taking her arm and trying to pull her in all directions while I followed along behind. We decided to walk the length of the alley and then decide where to go. At the end is a lovely fountain lit with colored lights in a little square, so we decided to eat at the restaurant there so we could watch the fountain.

What an amazing first meal in Greece! Wow! We started at a table near the fountain but then it started to rain so we moved under the awning. The name of it is Opto Piri (Oπτo Πυpι) (see the photo of the sign), and if you are going through the alley from the square it is on the left hand side. We ordered a half liter of house white wine, horiatiki (Greek) salad, yiyandes (giant beans), sauteed mushrooms, zucchini patties, and tzatziki. Everything was beyond spectacular. The mushrooms were especially wonderful, wild Oyster mushrooms simply sauteed whole in olive oil. But really, I couldn't choose a favorite. We absolutely stuffed ourselves. Even by the end of the trip this stood out as one of our best meals.

Although this corridor looks like a major tourist trap, actually almost all the families dining were Greek. We later decided that even this does not matter--the only way to get bad food in Greece is to go to an Applebee's (of which there was one on the waterfront strip).

After we couldn't eat another bite we asked for the check. Instead, the waiter brought us dessert. I had read about the tradition of providing free dessert after a meal. K told me a story about going out to dinner to a place in Pristina with friends and one of their dining companions was stung by a bee on her tongue! The waiter was, of course, horrified and after the meal brought them some tiramisu and pronounced, "At the home!" Everyone looked around at each other and finally realized at the exact same moment, "On the house!"

Our dessert at the home was a lemon cake with ice cream, and just as good as everything else so we were forced to eat it. We then asked for our check again and finally got it--23.70E total. Craziness! I am from DC and for the equivalent in USD one person can have a good meal without wine.

We wanted to commemorate our wonderful meal, but my camera doesn't take great night pictures so we look a bit like the mushrooms were magically delicious. It had rained during dinner but stopped by the time we left, so we walked back to the Hotel Tourist dry and comfortable--well, perhaps uncomfortably full!

You can see all my photos from this trip to Greece if you'd like.

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