Hola from Spain (Part Two)

The Bogside in Derry viewed from the city walls



To pick up where Part One ended, my Ireland experience was not limited to simply the Republic of Ireland.  Northern Ireland is a constituent country of the United Kingdom, but if you were to travel between the Republic and the North without knowing better, you could easily fail to notice that you had made an international journey.  The landscape does not change, no significant geographic features demarcate the border as you travel along the highway to Belfast, and formal border checkpoints are not in place.  An inconspicuous road sign welcomes you to Northern Ireland and alerts you that speed limits are denominated in miles per hour rather than kilometers per hour.  Other subtle signals let travelers know which country they sit in.  Gone are the place names in both English and Irish, as in the Republic.  Northern Ireland’s signs feature only English.  Gone too are references to the Garda, law enforcement on this side of the border is handled by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  The pound replaces the euro as the currency de jure.  All these differences, even when taken together, seem quite small.  It may be possible to experience Northern Ireland without feeling that it is all that different from the rest of the island.  However, it is the unique history of Northern Ireland, the events before and after the island’s partition in 1921, that were of particular interest to me.

I visited the two largest cities in the Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry.  While a few days spent between the two cities was not enough to experience them fully, which is a truism for nearly every location, it was sufficient to get a glimpse of what interested me.

The three decades of regular political violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles left their mark in both cities.  In Belfast one of the areas that saw the most activity during the Troubles was in West Belfast where the Falls Road and the Shankill Road neighborhoods exist next to each other.  Though both are working class areas, the neighborhoods are divided by sectarian identities.  The Falls is a Catholic neighborhood, while the Shankill is Protestant.

I spent a day walking through both areas.  Though the two neighborhoods sit right next to each other, they are separated by a barrier, sunnily known as a “peace line,” which has remained in place longer than the Berlin Wall. Clues like murals and flags make it clear which side of the barrier a visitor is standing in.

The Cupar Way peace line separating the Falls and the Shankill

The Cupar Way peace line separating the Falls and the Shankill

Located around the Falls Road are a number of places with significance to the Irish republican movement.  A local Sinn Féin office, adorned with a widely reproduced mural of Bobby Sands, sits blocks from the Irish Republican History Museum.  The museum exhibits uniforms, weaponry, political art, and handicrafts relating to Irish republicanism and the Troubles.

Displays in the small, but dense, Irish Republican History Museum

Displays in the small, but dense, Irish Republican History Museum

Bobby Sands was an IRA member serving a prison term at the Maze Prison who died after 66 days on hunger strike.  During the strike he was elected to the British parliament.

At the other end of the Falls Road is Milltown Cemetery.  A number of significant Irish republicans are buried in a plot replete with memorials to their efforts.  The most well-known burial is Bobby Sands, but along with him are numerous political activists and Irish Republican Army volunteers.  In 1988 the cemetery gained attention when Michael Stone, a loyalist paramilitary volunteer, attacked mourners at the funerals of three IRA volunteers who were killed in Gibraltar.  Stone used hand grenades and hand guns in the attack to wound more than 60 people and kill three.  Stone was sentenced to life in prison, released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and is currently back in prison for plotting to kill two leading Sinn Féin politicians.  He has been celebrated in some quarters of the loyalist community.

A portion of the republican section at Milltown Cemetery

A portion of the republican section at Milltown Cemetery

On the other side of the peace wall are the same kinds of commemorations as in the Falls Road, but from the opposite perspective.  Like the Falls, the Shankill experienced a disproportionate share of violence during the Troubles.  IRA bombings and shootings targeting locations and residents of the neighborhood were common.  Loyalist paramilitaries, notably the Ulster Volunteer Forces and Ulster Defence Association, were based in the Shankill and are still celebrated on a number of murals.

The mural greeting visitors upon walking through the gate between the Falls and the Shankill

UVF memorial mural utilizing poppy imagery typically associated with World War I remembrance.

A memorial to the First World War along the Shankill Road.  Symbolism and rhetoric related to the war is often used by loyalists.

Mural commemorating the Ulster Covenant, a 1912 oath signed by nearly 240,000 men opposing Irish Home Rule.

Belfast is also home to the Ulster Museum.  As the largest museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum houses an impressive mixture of collections.  A large exhibit is dedicated to the history of Northern Ireland.  Other exhibits include natural history and art.

The facade of the Ulster Museum- notice the bizarre meshing of architectural styles.  The original building was constructed in the 1920s, while the brutalist extension was completed in the 1960s. 

The facade of the Ulster Museum- notice the bizarre meshing of architectural styles.  The original building was constructed in the 1920s, while the brutalist extension was completed in the 1960s. 

With a population of around 100,000, Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland.  The name of the city has been a point of controversy between the nationalist and loyalist communities.  Officially, the city is known as Londonderry.  This reflects the contribution of London guilds to the establishment of the modern city during the plantation of Ulster.  The area and an earlier settlement were originally known as Derry.  While both names are commonly used to refer to the area, the decision to use one versus the other was traditionally interpreted as a reflection of a speaker’s identity or sentiments.  Protestants or unionists would refer to the city as Londonderry, while Catholics or nationalists would refer to the city as Derry.  Today Derry is more widely used in the vernacular, regardless of sectarian identity, but the issue remains complicated.

Derry’s old city is contained within a walled area.  The city walls during the 17th century and are the only complete city walls within Ireland.  Historically, the Protestant population lived within the city walls, while Catholics lived beyond them in an area known as the Bogside.  With time the Catholic population has displaced the Protestant population within and around most of the walled city.  The majority of Derry’s Protestants now live on the opposite bank of the River Foyle.

Bloody Sunday Memorial

The 1960s Catholic civil rights movement was strong in Derry.  Among the leaders was future Nobel Peace Prize and Derry native John Hume.  This activism made Derry the setting of a number of the defining episodes in the preceding and early years of the Troubles.  Most notorious of these is Bloody Sunday, an incident in which 14 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by British Army soldiers during a demonstration protesting the practice of internment.  In popular culture this event was commemorated in the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

As in Befast, a number of political murals exist in Derry.  The most visible of these are in the area known as Free Derry Corner in the Bogside.  From 1969 through 1972 this area was frequently barricaded off by nationalists and British security forces were prevented from entering. Bloody Sunday occurred in this area.

Iconic Free Derry Mural

A small protestant neighborhood, the Fountain estate, still exists just outside the old city walls.  The neighborhood is enclosed by peace walls on the sides not shielded by the city walls.  British flags, painted curbs, and unionist murals leave no room for doubt as to the neighborhood’s identity.

Loyalist mural in the Fountain.  This relies on several simple, but powerful tropes and historical references.  "No Surrender" is one of the most common loyalist refrains. In 1689, Protestant forces were besieged for three months by Catholic forces during the war between supporters of William of Orange and James II for control of the English throne.  Protestant forces eventually broke the siege.  The use of Londonderry as the place name plays to the language politics of the city.

Free Derry and the events of Bloody Sunday are documented in the Museum of Free Derry.  It is in a small (and quite cold) space within the walled city while the permanent location in the Bogside is being renovated.  The brother of one of the victims of Bloody Sunday guided visitors around the museum during my time at the museum.  His personal experience and stories added to the museum’s displays.

Displays in the Museum of Free Derry

Displays in the Museum of Free Derry

Those sites related to the recent conflicts in Derry are hardly the only things that make the city worth a visit.  As mentioned above, the city walls are a landmark themselves.  They form a one-mile loop.  Provided the weather is pleasant, which is asking a lot considering that it is still the island of Ireland, the walls make for a great walk and way to see both nearby and faraway areas of the city.

The Tower Museum, housed in a tall tower next to the city wall’s, gives the city’s history from early settlement to modern events.  Another exhibit displays finds from a Spanish Armada wreck discovered off the coast of Donegal, just across the border in the Republic.

Derry city walls and gate

Derry city walls and gate

Northern Ireland shares the beauty, allure, and availability of high quality alcohol of its neighbor to the south.  Beyond that, it has the tragic and muddled recent history that continues to shape it.  

Keep checking back for the final post in this series- the one where I actually talk about Spain.

Hola from Spain (Part One)

Lake Ägeri, Switzerland


I have been neglecting to keep up this blog for a while now.  With my days left in Europe numbering somewhere closer to the number of members of Five for Fighting than the Jackson Five, it seems that I should provide some updates. 

I am currently in Algeciras, Spain.  Morocco is the next destination and so my African adventure will begin with a few weeks in the land of Atlas Mountains, Berbers, the oldest American diplomatic property in the world, and the hash that contributed to Burroughs' state of mind as he wrote Naked Lunch.

In the last month I’ve seen the ancestral homeland of the Nussbaumers in Switzerland, looped around the coast of Ireland, and cast my eyes upon the continent of Africa from the southern extremities of Europe.  In each of these places I’ve had unique experiences that join the long list of highlights of a journey that I can fortunately say has been consistently pleasant, stimulating, and varied.


In my last post I left off with my wild adventures at the unmissable Räbechilbi Richterswil.  I have not attended any turnip festivals since then.  That is probably for the best, as any other would likely pale in comparison.  To recover from the excitement of turnips I headed to tranquil Zug.  Zug is a welcoming place to people of all walks of life, particularly those that have luck to be corporations.  (Need I remind you that corporations are people too?)  As a particularly low tax locale, Zug is home to more corporations than humans.

 My main draw to Zug, other than exploring if it was possible to start living as a corporation and save on my tax bill, was to see the land that my great-great-grandparents abandoned for America. Oberägeri on tranquil Lake Ägeri has grown in the 125 years since Benedict and Adelheid packed up and left.  Yet, with a population of around 6000, it still feels sleepy and insulated from the outside.

Views like this are surely what convinced Transocean to move from Houston to Zug

One of the excitements of being in Oberägeri is the chance to see the Nussbaumer name plastered on more buildings, buses, and (in a morbid turn) gravestones than I have encountered in all my life.  It’s enough to see why the orange haired wizard of Chapter 11 likes to put his name on the classiest steaksboard games, and bottled water ever seen in his commercial crusade to Make America Great Again.

Roughly translated it means something along the lines of "Nussbaumer- Holla Atcha Boy"

Oberägeri and Zug, being surrounded by hills and situated at the lakeside, benefit from surpluses of verdant natural beauty simply unmatched by most of the earth.  It could lead one to question why anyone would choose to leave.  Then again, 19th century Switzerland was not the land of bankers and corporate mailboxes that it is now.  I won’t complain, for as Lee Greenwood sang in that sweetly jingoistic jingle, I’m proud to be an American.

Oberägeri: Blue skies, green fields, and plenty of Nussbaumers

Ducks on Lake Ägeri- perhaps we were destined to be a UO family

German beer: financing not needed to afford

From Zug I made a brief stopover in Basel.  At this point my rail pass had only a single day left on it. Determined to make the most of this, in an act of exuberance I made the decision to make the 45 minute trip to Freiburg, Germany, where I could enjoy one last German kebab and more than one German beers for a price that would not treat my wallet to a bit of monetary liposuction.  Sure, Switzerland is gorgeous, but at least Germany feels affordable.

 The next day I took my first flight of this trip since landing in Istanbul more than four months earlier, this time to Dublin.  Considering that Ireland’s climate is fairly similar to that of Oregon, but a tad wetter, commonsense would dictate that November is not the ideal time to visit.  However, considering that I was in Europe and that flights to and from the island cost less than a used textbook, commonsense went out that window and I have no regrets.  In my two weeks on the Emerald Isle I managed to make a tour around the island, absorb the beauty of the land, and enjoy the local tipples


In Dublin I visited two local ethanol producers for tours and product familiarization.  The first, a quaint operation known as the Arthur Guinness Brewing Company, is one of the icons of Ireland.  Few things are more associated with this country than the dark stuff coming from the St. James’s Gate Brewery.  Having checked out my share of breweries, this one is definitely the largest brewery I have toured. Much of the tour is the same as any other brewery, though it caters to a broader audience than the craft brewery tours I'm used to.  You can’t expect much variation when a product only has four ingredients.  However, being a large operation the Guinness Experience also covers the unique aspects of the company’s history, including their distinctive marketing efforts.  The tour culminates with the opportunity to learn how to properly pour a pint.  They insist it takes 119.5 seconds to do right.  While pouring Guinness might be more involving than pouring standard swill like PBR, moving a handle and holding a glass at an angle is not rocket appliances.  Whatever the marketing may be, the product is good and brand’s longevity is understandable.

A portion of the Guinness Brewery as viewed from the River Liffey

When Barack "O'Bama" Obama drinks from your keg you better put it in your company archives

The other producer of sweet liquid intoxicants I visited was the Teeling Whiskey Distillery, a relatively young enterprise and the only active distillery in the city of Dublin.  Personally, I prefer beer to whiskey, but I appreciate a bit of diversity in my drinking portfolio and you won’t find me complaining if I have a well made Old Fashioned in my hand.  Teeling was my first experience seeing the inner workings of a whiskey distillery and I did learn more about the process than I knew before.  Like any proper tour, this one ended with the chance to try the product.  I’m no expert, but, in short, I approve of Teeling Whiskey.

 In the time I wasn’t learning about the transformation of sugar into sweet, sweet ethanol, I also sought out some of the city’s other attractions.

The National Museum of Ireland's Decorative Arts and History branch had an exhibit on the Irish at war.  This focused both on the military activities of Irish in Ireland as well as abroad over the last 500 years.  Considering the turbulent times on the island and the size of the Irish diaspora, a significant amount of information is covered.  The role of the Irish in America’s military is devoted a fair amount of space.  The museum building is also of interest because it was originally a military barracks and functioned in this capacity for over three hundred years before museum conversion in the 1990s.

The Fighting 69th, an infantry regiment that has served in conflicts from the US Civil War through Afghanistan, gets particular attention for its Irish roots.

The former Collins Barracks' parade deck

They got this display right

 Dublin is fairly unique in having two cathedrals, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, in the city located within blocks of one another.  I walked around the exteriors of both, but only took the time to see the interior of Christ Church.  I think I can be forgiven for my impiety considering that both churches charge an entrance fee.  The interior of Christ Church is not outstanding, though still interesting, in light of the countless churches I’ve seen in the past months.   Fans of The Tudors may recognize it, as it has been used as a filming location in that series. Fans of Joyce may recall that in Finnegans Wake a reference is made to the cat and rat that were trapped in the cathedral’s organ and mummified.  Admittedly, I’m a fan of neither, but signs on displays provided these interesting bits.

Christ Church Cathedral with a surprising amount of blue sky in the background

Inside of Christ Church Cathedral

Cat and Mouse: Play it and you could end up mummified in a pipe organ.  You've been warned.

Ireland's oldest harp

Ireland's oldest harp

Trinity College Dublin has an impressive library which is most famously home to the Book of Kells.  This intricately crafted manuscript containing the Gospels is impressive with its beautiful calligraphy, colorful decorations, and Celtic styling.  Also impressive is the library’s Long Room.  Long, as implied by the name, and narrow, it is lined with the busts of philosophers and writers through the ages.  On display are an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the 1916 Easter Rising and the oldest harp in Ireland.  The olfactory senses are treated to the rich scents of mahogany and leather bound books.  Were it to be bottled, I might just start wearing cologne to increase my aura of sophistication.

Following Dublin made the journey to Cork, the third largest city on the island, with a night’s layover in Waterford.  The University College Cork campus is one of the main sights in the city and beautifully kept.  The city also has two quality brewpubs, Franciscan Well and Rising Sons, as well as the significantly larger scale Murphy’s Brewery.  I enjoyed beers from all three.  My motivation for visiting Cork extended beyond academia and fermentation and onto live music.  Titus Andronicus, one of favorite bands, was on tour and in town.  Considering that their album The Monitor was essentially the soundtrack to seven of the most frustrating, but character shaping, months of my life, I could not pass up this opportunity.  The concert was in an intimate venue with a small crowd.  Their sound lends itself well to a live environment where the richness of the music can assault the eardrums with full intensity.  Of all the ways I could be reminded of my tinnitus, this is one of the most preferable.

University College Cork Quad

University College Cork Quad

Galway was the next stop after Cork.  It was here that I got perhaps the best day of weather in my two weeks, though it was sandwiched between days of the typical wet and cold.  I took advantage of the situation to go for a walk along Galway Bay.  The sunny, windy, and brisk conditions call to mind more comparisons to Oregon while remaining distinct.  I found myself refreshed in walking around town in the sun and appreciating the island’s beauty even more.

The best weather observed in Ireland

I will continue my final update from Europe in another post to follow shortly after this one.  I still have my time in Northern Ireland and here in Spain to recount.

Venice: Lagoon City

Venice viewed from the Campanile di San Marco

The city at night


Gondola's floating down one of Venice's canals

Venice is easily one of the most touristed cities in Europe, especially once you consider its relatively small size.  The typical tourist fare from gondolas to the Piazza San Marco exists just as presented in guidebooks.  As a visitor it is hard to be disappointed by the city.  It draws nearly 10 million tourists a year for a reason.

Being on a lagoon, the city feels like it violates common sense for siting a human community.  This is part of its magnetism and thankfully it does exist to be visited.  You would be hard pressed to find another city that offers everything you find in Venice.

In keeping with a trend of other cities I've visited, Venice has appeared in three James Bond movies, making it one of the most frequented locales in the franchise.  From Russia With Love, Moonrakerand Casino Royale all contain scenes in Venice.  For what it's worth, my personal favorite is probably Moonraker's boat chase.

Despite all the museums, galleries, and churches in Venice, the best activity is exploring the city on foot and getting lost along its canals.  The walkways are a labyrinth with seemingly endless permutations for getting from one location to another.  For backpacker with limited means, getting lost is the most budget friendly activity in pricey Venice.

Exploring the city on foot can lead to some pleasantly surprising discoveries.  Not all parts of the city are consumed with masses of people.  It's also possible to find some green spaces.  The Giardini Pubblici is the largest of these.  The greenhouse along this park area is great spot to enjoy some wine and some shade.

Statue at the edge of the Giardini Pubblici

A tranquil street devoid of both canals and crowds


Piazza San Marco during a relatively quiet moment

The Piazza San Marco is the buzzing hive of tourist activity.  Here can be found the Basilica di San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale, and more cafes and restaurants than can be counted.

The Clock Tower in the Piazza di San Marco

At one time Venice was a true power.  Just in my travels I have seen where this little city built fortresses in Montenegro and fought the Turks in Athens.  Even though tourists flock to Venice today, the city’s glory has actually been on the decline for centuries.  These days Venice is no longer a powerful republic in its own right, but another city in big Italy.  The decline in power is not all that bad of thing though.  As a visitor one of the benefits of this is the ability to visit the grand buildings from the height of Venetian prestige.  

Palazzo Ducale courtyard

The most noteworthy civic building is the Palazzo Ducale.  The palace, tucked next to Basilica di San Marco was home to the rulers of Venice (doges) starting in the 9th century.  It also housed numerous government chambers and a jail.  Inside and out, Palazzo Ducale is appropriately ornate.  Statues, paintings, and all measure of small details are to be observed.  Permanent exhibits provide an overview of the goings on of the Venetian government when the palace still served its original function.  A temporary exhibition on the role the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s financial police, during World War I was on display during my visit and was fascinating.

Il Paradiso by Tintoretto is the focal point of the Great Council Chamber and the largest canvas painting in the world

The Palazzo also includes a prison that once housed Giacomo Casanova

My travel companion Adam reliving moments from the Charlie Company armory

The Golden Staircase leading to the upper floors of the palace

Display from the exhibit on the Guardia di Finanza during World War I


Basilica di San Marco

Basilica di San Marco is one the symbols of Venice.  The Byzantine architecture is eye catching and stands out from other Italian cathedrals.  Construction of the church began at the end of the 11th century.  The centerpiece of the interior is the altar containing the relics of Mark the Evangelist.  Photography is not permitted inside so you will have to settle for a shot of the exterior.  Photos of the inside can be viewed here.

The Venetian Arsenal was once a major source of the city's power

"Bok" from Croatia




It's the second night of what was supposed to be a one night stopover in Zagreb.  I decided to land here after two days in Belgrade and three days in Veliko Tarnovo before that.  The plan was for me to spend just enough time in Zagreb to walk around the city, check out the Museum of Broken Relationships, and then skirt on to Budapest.  I accomplished the first parts and failed on the last.  It seems that I misread the departures board at the train station and got on the wrong train.  The Budapest-bound train had left the station before I realized my mistake.  Fortunately, I was able to hop off the other train before it left.  I'm still unsure where exactly it was headed, but I do know that it certainly wasn't stopping in Budapest.  

Because of my rail pass, missing this train cost me nothing more than another day here in Zagreb.  It's a pleasant city to spend time in, so I have no complaints.  The city has attractive architecture and is easy to walk around.  It's a quiet place and I enjoyed just relaxing, it is the weekend after all.

St. Mark's Church

I will be catching the early train to Budapest tomorrow and you better believe that I will hop on the right one this time.

As I referenced above, the one thing I really wanted to see while in Zagreb was the Museum of Broken Relationships.  I checked it out this morning and it delivered as I had hoped.  Unique, funny, heartbreaking, tender, and very well curated are all words to describe this small museum housed in an old baroque palace.  It's a museum that is easy (perhaps painfully so) to connect to and I have never seen anything quite like it.

Mementos range from a basketball jersey to an old checkbook to an axe used to smash an ex's furniture.  The stories and types of relationships are as varied as the objects on display.  Some are of brief encounters or unrequited love, others detail the loss of a parent, others still are decades long marriages fallen apart.  In the course of one string of displays your feelings can be pulled a dozen directions.

Objects on display come from across the world.  The museum accepts donations of items associated with broken relationships without imposing any real parameters.  They are displayed with a basic description including the donor's location, the period of the relationship, and some description provided by the donor.  The shortest description I saw on display was for a Linksys router from a donor in San Francisco- "We tried. Not compatible."  That's a failed relationship I can understand.

The longest descriptions were several paragraphs and tended to detail relationships that were more involved than one with a piece of networking technology, like the woman who donated olive pits from the man with whom she carried on a years long emotionally draining affair.

One of the museum's exhibition rooms

"Florida lake where I skipped school with my boyfriend.  The arrow indicates where I first saw a penis in the sunshine."

The Museum of Broken Relationships is a concept that seems so odd yet universal.  It is worth visiting if in Zagreb.  I love weird museums and this is one done right.


If you believe the signs around Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) capital city is where the 20th century both began and ended.  If it were not for a number of violent events, the city might be overlooked by outsiders as another small Balkan capital.   However, the city is well remembered because it was the site of the assassination that served as a catalyst for the First World War.  In the 1990s Sarajevo became the embodiment of the bloody Balkans as Serbian forces surrounded the city, laying siege for the over three years and creating scenes of horror that would be broadcast globally.  Letting those events dominate common conceptions of the city truly sells short a place that is welcoming, safe, and offers so much to see and experience.


"The place that ended the 20th century" - Tunnel of Hope

Some of Sarajevo's eclectic architecture

Bosnia has long been a meeting point for cultures.  This is borne out today in the country’s demographics with three main ethnic groups- Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croat.  BiH is roughly half Bosniak, slightly more than a third Serb, with the remainder being Croat.  Sarajevo itself is a mostly Bosniak city, though Eastern Sarajevo (a formally separate city since the Bosnian War) is mostly Serb.  For several centuries BiH was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  Though as that empire declined a new one, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moved in to occupy BiH beginning 1878.  Austrian rule was fairly oppressive towards non-Catholics.  As a consequence, the Serb population grew restless and in 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo setting off events that would create the World War.

Following World Wari I, BiH joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the state that would become Yugoslavia.  BiH was occupied by German forces during World War II and was the location of significant fighting between the occupiers and communist Partizans led by Josip Broz Tito.  Tito, one of the 20th century’s most interesting figures, would form a socialist state in Yugoslavia after the war and effectively hold together the multiethnic state for nearly 30 years until his death in 1980.  

Sarajevo was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics.  This marked a high point for the city as the world’s focus turned to Sarajevo for an event associated with peace and cooperation rather than war and division.

Yugoslavia would start to fall apart as Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991.  BiH held a referendum on independence in 1992.  Over 92% of voters voted in favor the measure, though it must be noted that the vote was largely boycotted by the Serb population.  BiH formally declared independence on March 3, 1992.  Bosnian Serbs supported by Serbia refused to accept this.  The bloodiest war on European soil since World War II began as Serb forces attacked the Bosniak population.  Threeway fighting occurred among Bosnia’s ethnic groups, though the BiH military had a not insignifcant number of Serb and Croat soldiers.  Bosniak and Croat forces united as the war went on to focus on fighting the Serbs.

The conflict is remembered for its brutality and often indiscriminate nature.  Civilians were often the target of military and paramilitary forces.  All sides were responsible for atrocities, though the most notorious is the killing of 8000 Bosniaks at Srebrenica by Serb forces in 1994 under the command of General Ratko Mladic.  The longest siege of a capital city in modern history occurred in Sarajevo as Serbs dropped an average of more than 300 shells a day between 1992 and 1995.  Mass rape also became a common tool of war.  The conflict created a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale.

Memorial to the Murdered Children

The Bosnian War came to end when NATO forces intervened and began a bombing campaign against the Serbs.  This campaign was the first ever live engagement by a NATO force.  The bombing led the Serbs to accept the Dayton Agreement.  Under the terms of this agreement and the earlier Washington Agreement Serbia renounced its claims to BiH and a new political structure for BiH was put in place.  

The Bosnian War was mindbogglingly complex.  Like so many modern conflicts, the narrative depends on who you ask.  Whether it was a civil war or one of outside aggression, who bears moral responsibility, and more issues do not have clear answers.  Time has helped groups to reconcile and justice to be administered.  All of the individuals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have been captured and several have been convicted.  Still, progress remains to be had.  The war disrupted the lives of an entire country.  20 years since the end of the conflict can feel like a lot of time or not nearly enough.

BiH formally consists of two political entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (consisting of mostly Bosniaks and Croats) and Republika Srpska (mostly Serbs).  Each entity has significant autonomy within its borders, but the system is designed so that decisions at the national level are done by consensus.  Naturally, this leads to very little being achieved, as each group has effective veto powers.  The extremely complicated system is designed to placate each group.  At the same time it has the effect of codifying the ethnic divisions and freezing them rather than trying to advance past them.

While I mention the religious groups above, it is only to show that country is diverse rather than spiritually rigid, dogmatic, and divided.  Like its neighbors, Bosnia is markedly secular and historically the region has been extremely tolerant of different religions.  Sarajevo is noted for having had an Islamic mosque, a Catholic cathedral,  an Orthodox church, and a Jewish synagogue all within a radius of less than a  half mile.  These coexisted easily during the 19th century, well before any similar arrangement would be found elsewhere in Europe.  Tragically, the synagogue exists only as a Jewish museum these days as a legacy of the Holocaust.  Nearly all of Sarajevo’s Jewish population, nearly one quarter of the city, was eliminated during Nazi occupation.  

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Fountain at Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque

Map of the Siege

Empty building in Sarajevo

The impact sites of shells on some sidewalks were filled with red resin following the war.  These were dubbed Sarajevo Roses.  Fewer and fewer of these remain as large sections of sidewalk have been replaced.  Those that do remain stand as memorials to victims of shelling.

A Sarajevo Rose

A Sarajevo Rose

A view across the Sarajevo Airport runway

Though Sarajevo was surrounded during the siege, there was a lifeline to the outside world.  The Sarajevo airport, controlled by UN forces,  was a thin piece of neutral territory standing between Sarajevo and friendly Bosnian territory.  Initially this meant that individuals would risk running across the runways to transit between the two areas.  This was incredibly dangerous and a route beneath the airport was recognized as a better alternative.  An 800 meter long tunnel was constructed over several months.  From houses on either side of the airport, engineers dug out earth, built up supports, and laid down tracks for carts.  Idiosyncrasies in the tunnel construction reflected the different conditions faced by the people on either side.  The walls and support beams of exterior side are built of wood while those on the Sarajevo side of the tunnel made of metal because wood was too valuable as fuel within the city.  The tunnel is cramped.  A short section of it is open for visitors and at its tallest point my head was scraping the ceiling and I could touch either wall with my elbows.  Despite its claustrophobic construction, the Tunnel of Hope brought a flow of food, arms, and communication that was invaluable to the besieged city.  The tunnel went undetected by Serb forces for over two years from the time of its completion until the end of the conflict.

Model of the Tunnel of Hope

Front of the house on the Free Bosnia side of the Tunnel of Hope

Inside the actual tunnel

I cannot help but admire the people of Sarajevo for their resilience in the face of the siege.  For three years they faced the terror of mortars, artillery, tanks, and snipers.  Yet, they continued to live, not just in the sense of not dying, but also in the sense of embracing the struggle and recognizing the absurdity of their situation.  Less than a decade earlier the world had come together in Sarajevo for peaceful celebration competition and now the city was left isolated from the world and from that peace, the Olympic sites turned into rubble or battle positions.  Despite a daily forecast of possible death raining down upon them, the people of Sarajevo created art, they danced in clubs, they played music, they even held a Miss Besieged Sarajevo pageant in which the contestants unraveled a sign pleading, “Don’t Let Them Kill Us”.  All of these were  provocative, symbolic, and defiant gestures that yell out, “Fuck you, you will not kill me and, even more, you cannot kill my will to live!  End this war.”  I don’t know if I could embrace life in that way in those conditions, but it provides me with hope knowing that at one time a group of people were able to and for all of the pressure that could work to break their spirits they held strong.

The Bosnian Parliament building (left) and Executive Council building (right).  These were extensively damaged during the siege.

The Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery Kovači is the main burial site for Bosniak soldiers killed during the siege.

Among the most noticeable Austrian-era buildings in Sarajevo is the Vijećnica, the City Hall.  This brightly colored Moorish building was constructed in 1896 and sits along the Miljacka River.  It served as the National Library before the war and housed over two million items.  It was hit by Serb shells in 1992 and it along with the documents inside went up in flames.  This act is remembered  as a particularly bad episode in the siege as it represented an attack on culture, learning, and history.  The building was rebuilt and restored over more than 20 years, reopening only last year.  The interior is beautiful and it alone is worth paying the entry price, however admission also includes access to whatever exhibitions are on display.  When I went these were a thoroughly detailed historical perspective of the city and a collection of photographs from the war and its aftermath.

To think that anyone would target a center of knowledge for bombardment and destruction proves the senselessness that emerges in war.  The use of incendiary shells on the National Library was unjustifiable from a military perspective.  Not only did the Bosnian people suffer from the loss of blood for three years, but they saw their culture turned into ashes.

Front of the Sarajevo City Hall

City council chambers

Plaque recognizing destruction of the library

As if the city itself and the aforementioned sites were not enough to elicit your sympathy and respect for the people of Sarajevo, a trip to the Historical Museum will provide insight into Sarajevan ingenuity.  A permanent exhibit on the siege displays household items improvised from the limited goods available at the time.  

Mural displayed in front of the museum

Items on display at the exhibition on the siege

Museum display demonstrating typical living conditions during the siege

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited Bosnia in June of 1914 to observe military drills.  Following the exercises they planned a brief stop in Sarajevo.  The Black Hand, a secret group aiming to create a large South Slavic state (Yugoslavia), plotted to assassinate the couple.  Six assassins participated in the event.  As the royal couple drove along the Miljacka River on June 28, 1914, a bomb was thrown towards their vehicle.  It missed and injured passengers in a car following behind the royal vehicle.  The visit continued as planned following this first attempt on the archduke’s life.  The Archduke attended a reception at the city hall and then headed back along the river.  Confusion about the return route led the motorcade to stop directly in front of assassin Gavrilo Princip.  Princip quickly shot Sophie in the stomach and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.  Both died quickly from their wounds.  Princip was apprehended immediately.  He and his co-conspirators were tried in Sarajevo.  Being 19 years old at the time of the assassination, Princip was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law.  He received the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.  He died in prison from tuberculosis before the war that he is associated with had ended.

Austria-Hungary responded to the assassination by issuing a set of demands to Serbia which were rejected when Russia signaled its support to Serbia.  Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a month later.  Russia mobilized its military which led to a German declaration of war on Russia.  In the months that followed declarations of war piled on as all of the Great Powers of Europe joined one bloc or the other.


The Latin Bridge (Gavrilo Princip Bridge): Franz Ferdinand was assassinated here, providing the catalyst for World War I

Historical marker at the assassination site.  Prior to Bosnian independence a monument celebrating Gavrilo Princip also stood nearby.  The assassin was viewed as a hero by Serbs.

The building at the assassination corner is the Museum Sarajevo 1878-1918.  This small museum takes up only one room, but covers the period of Austrian rule in Sarajevo.  Here you can see clothing, documents, and ephemera from the period.  A display of Franz Ferdinand and Sophia as they appeared on the day of their deaths stands out.

Old Town Sarajevo is a collection of Ottoman-era construction.  You can easily spend hours getting lost in the markets, alleys, and religious buildings of the area. 

Street view

The madrasa provided for by the endowment of Gazi Huzrev-beg, an early Orroman governor of the area, serves as a museum documenting the legacy of the endowment.

Courtyard of the madrasa

Entrance door to Gazi Huzrev-beg Mosque

My reward for visiting the brewery

The Sarajevesko Brewery produces Bosnia’s most widely consumed beers.  As fan of beer I made it a point to visit the brewery’s small museum and tavern.  The museum takes up a small room, but covers the history of beer in Sarajevo and displays items such as old labels and awards from festivals.  The ticket also includes a beer at the next door tavern.  The tavern itself is attractive with its wood floors, bar, and paneling.  You can choose between a pilsner style beer and a dark lager.  Seeing as how just about every beer I had had to this point in my travels was some take on a pilsner I gladly opted for the dark lager.  I was not disappointed.  Though it is hard to say how it would stack up against a quality dunkel from the US or Germany, I would say that this was one of the best beers I consumed in a month of traveling.  

Sarajevska Pivara

The brewery's beer museum

It is impossible to visit Sarajevo and not think about those violent events of the 20th century, however one must remember that we now live in the 21st century.  Sarajevo is not a place of misery.  The people stand out as amicable, helpful, and beautiful.  They live in the present.  While my life differs from Sarajevans my age, our lives do not feel so foreign that it feels as if we occupy two different planets.  I do not think I would have felt that way 20 years ago.

Street scene in Sarajevo

Sarajevo city and hills

The US Embassy in Sarajevo resembles a penitentiary more than a place for the conduct of diplomatic business.

A Montenegrin Stopover


My zigzagging journey through the Balkans brought me to Montenegro following Kosovo.  My time in Montenegro was necessarily brief because I have to be in Slovenia by August 15.  Having endured the region’s heat for the previous weeks, I settled on going to coastal Montenegro.  I stayed for three days in Tivat before going onward to Bosnia.

Bay of Kotor as viewed from Tivat

It seems appropriate that I would visit Montenegro after Kosovo.  You may remember the times when there was one country called Serbia and Montenegro.  Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia from its earliest iteration following World War I until its disintegration.  It remained in union with Serbia until 2006.  This divorce followed a national referendum in which the pro-independence vote narrowly met its necessary threshold.  Unlike the situation with neighboring Kosovo, Serbia accepted the referendum results and quickly recognized its new neighbor.

Casino Royale is certainly one of the best films in the James Bond franchise.  The series reboot set a new tone and Daniel Craig’s performance makes you quickly forget that there was ever any controversy about him playing Bond. The film’s  eponymous Casino Royale is in Montenegro.  Some of the tensest scenes come during a card game at the casino and the subsequent car chase.  The scenery is beautiful, regal, and appropriate for the action.  However, there is a kicker.  None of these scenes were shot in Montenegro and there is no Casino Royale in Montenegro.  The filming actually took place in the Czech Republic.



The town of Tivat is where I actually laid my head at night.  Tivat is the type of place I might spend a week if I was 38 year old banker from Milan named Benito looking for nice place to take my yacht for a getaway with my Slovakian model girlfriend.  That said, I am not quite in that situation, though the occasional model might right swipe me on Tinder.  Tivat has a few beaches and an old Yugoslavian submarine and not whole lot else for a traveler like me.  It is a pleasant place to spend a couple of days, but other nearby cities may be better options for travelers looking for actual activities.

Yachts in Tivat

Boats on the bay near Tivat

In the military I had a few opportunities to spend time at sea on naval vessels.  My feelings about those experiences are decidedly mixed.  Being on the ocean is alright for a short time, but months at a time with no land and no alcohol are hardly the life of Riley.  With that in mind, I made time to visit Tivat’s sole attraction, the Naval Heritage Collection.  Since the 19th century, Tivat served as a significant naval base.  As Montenegro entered its independent era a new plan for Tivat was envisioned.  Replacing the military arsenal is now a top tier port servicing luxury yachts and other civilian customers.  The Naval Heritage Collection exists as a reminder of Tivat’s past.  Inside the small museum building are pieces of naval equipment, weapons, and even a two man submarine.  There is also a rotating exhibit.  When I visited it was a photography collection with no tangible connection to the sea.  Outside the museum building are two unmissable submarines.  A guided tour of the larger one is included with the museum ticket price (€5).  This is a good experience as the guide served as a submariner himself and is very knowledgeable on submarines.

Naval Heritage Collection

Naval objects on display

The Naval Heritage Collection's two submarines.  The larger one, P-821 Heroj, is open for tours.

Interior of the Yugoslav submarine.  It makes the USS Peleliu seem spacious.



Among the more interesting towns near Tivat is Kotor.  Surrounded by mountains and sitting at the edge of the Bay of Kotor, Kotor is in a bona fide picturesque location.  The town’s real draw is its walled in Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Though settlements in the area have existed since Roman times, the Old Town as it exists today was mostly constructed during a period of Venetian rule between 1420 and 1797.

A Venetian lion on the city walls

Looking up the city walls

The best activity is a walk up the city walls.  Though exhausting, the walk is worth it for the views of the town and bay from the ruined castle at the top of the mountain of St. John.

View from the top of the city walls

I don’t like cats.  It is clear that dogs are superior companions and being allergic to felines also doesn’t serve to boost my opinion of the creatures.  However, I like strange museums and while exploring Kotor I stumbled across the Cats Museum and knew I had to go in.  This tiny two room museum holds mostly postcards and other prints designed for strange cat people from across the last two centuries.  The most interesting of which may be the collection of World War I-era cards featuring French prostitutes and their feline pals.

Kotor's Cats Museum

French prostitutes and their pets

Who thought this would boost anyone's morale?

Panorama of the Bay of Kotor

FYROM: WTF is that?


Skopje city center


If you look at just about any map featuring Macedonia you will see the letters “FYROM” in parentheses next to the word “Macedonia”.  The reason for this is because the country’s official name is the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  As you should have guessed, Macedonia was one of the six republics in the former Yugoslavia.  Macedonia became independent in 1991.  It was the only one of the Yugoslav republics to break away peacefully.  However, independence led to a new set of issues over the country’s name.  In popular conception, Macedonia most associated with the kingdom led by Alexander the Great.  The ancient Macedonia consisted of northern Greece, surrounding areas, and only the lower portion of modern Macedonia.  Ancient Macedonia was a Hellenistic (Greek) culture and is still held in high regard by Greeks to this day.  Modern Macedonia is occupied by Slavic people speaking a Slavic language.  They are not the descendants of Greek Macedonians and this is how the issue with Greece arises.  To Greece, the modern Republic of Macedonia is appropriating Greek history and culture.  Northern Greece is still referred to as Macedonia.  Pella, the city where Alexander was born, is in Greek Macedonia.  Greece is simply unhappy that another country would employ its history and symbols in its national identity.

Greece was quick to protest Macedonia’s name after the country’s independence.  Greece attempted to block Macedonia’s ascension to the United Nations as well as recognition of the country by other international groups until the name was changed.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached under which the country would be referred to as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on a provisional basis.  Greece would relent on some of its protests and Macedonia would be able to function on the international stage more easily.  Oddly, in the United Nations General Assembly, is seated in the ‘T’ section between Thailand and Timor-Leste.  While neither side is satisfied with this outcome, it does not appear that any change in the status quo is coming soon.

Another issue that Greece had with Macedonia beyond the name was its original flag.  The Republic of Macedonia’s flag incorporate the Vergina Sun, a Greek symbol.  This led Greece to place a trade embargo on Macedonia until the flag was altered.  The flag was changed in 1995 to a stylized sun and the embargo was lifted.

Though the majority of the population in Macedonia is ethnic Macedonian, a sizable Albanian minority is present.  Ethnic tensions have flared up on occasion.  Most significantly, conflict broke out in 2001 which led to increased recognition of Albanian culture and language by the government.  

Macedonia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, however the Albanian population uses the Latin alphabet.  The relative presence of these alphabets in an area functions as a visible shibboleth.


Adventures in Skopje

My experience in Macedonia was limited to two days in the capital city of Skopje.  Skopje is a peculiar city.  It’s not truly bizarre, it’s just odd in a way that reflects the identity crisis of the republic.  The city center is filled with monuments, statues, and fountains built or restored only in the last few years. A handful of buildings have also gone up as part of the city's effort to add a measure of classical gravitas appropriate for a European capital.  However, these monuments also lend the city a Las Vegas-like feeling of imitation.  It may feel slightly tacky, but I find the city is oddly enjoyable, especially for a quick trip.  At night the city center shines.  With the bridges, buildings, and statues lit up crowds emerge to make the city center buzz.

Porta Macedonia, dedicated to 20 years of independence

Statue of King Philip II in background, motherhood statue in foreground

National Archaeological Museum at night

In an act that surely irritated Greece, the city built a massive statue of Alexander the Great on top of a fountain in 2011.  The fountains water and lights coordinate with music to create a public show.  This may be the most Vegas-esque experience in the city.

Alexander the Great statue and fountain at night

The only museum I visited was the National Archaeological Museum.  This museum is less than one year old and holds from every period of Macedonian history through the middle ages.  A guide gave me a tour through the museum’s three floors and this made the experience much richer.

National Archaeological Museum

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje in 1910.  Though her home no longer stands, a small museum, the Mother Teresa Memorial House, holds a number of objects related to her life.

Mother Teresa Memorial House

Chapel inside Mother Teresa Memorial House

Just outside of the city is Matka Canyon.  I spent several hours hiking through the canyon on one of my days in Skopje.  The trail winds along the side of the canyon and the hike alternates between rock face with views of the Treska River and stretches of forest that offer much appreciated shade.

Matka Canyon

A lizard hanging out on the rocks

A shady stretch of trail at Matka Canyon

Tirana: Albania's Capital


Tirana is the capital and biggest city of Albania.  It is a great city to stop through even though it does not have a large number of attractions for visitors.  An interesting history, a relaxed atmosphere, and a lack of tourist crowds are all reasons to visit Tirana.

The city center is easily walkable, clean, and attractive.  Tree lined streets in the city center add aesthetic appeal in addition to offering some protection from the summer sun.

Like the rest of Albania, the 20th century was turbulent for Tirana.  Having began the century as a relatively unimportant town under Ottoman rule, Tirana became the temporary (later permanent) capital of independent Albania in 1920.  This set it on a totally new trajectory.  When Albania came under Italian hegemony, Tirana was a focus for Italian projects.  During World War II the city was occupied by both the Italian and German militaries.  The end of the war ushered in nearly five decades of communist rule.  The end of communism in the early 1990s opened Albanian markets, politics, and culture.  All of these periods left physical marks on the city that make spending a day walking around a worthwhile activity.

The center of activity in Tirana is Skanderbeg Square.  A large statue of the national hero sits in the middle of the square next to an Albanian flag.  During the communist era the square was pedestrianized and largely covered in concrete.  Now several lanes of traffic surround the green space where Skanderbeg’s statue stands.  A statue of the communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, was pulled down during a mass protest in 1992.  This area is now a small park with benches and trees in front of the National Historical Museum.

Skanderbeg statue

Tirana’s most significant road is Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit (Boulevard of the Martyrs).  It runs through Skanderbeg Square and a walk down it will allow you to sample all of Tirana’s architectural periods.

Very little of Tirana’s Ottoman past is still visible, however the Et’Hem Bey Mosque, built in 1823, stands prominently across several lanes of road from the Skanderbeg statue.  It was closed during the communist period because of Albania’s state atheism.

Et'Hem Bey Mosque on the left with statue of Skanderbeg

Several government buildings around Skanderbeg Square were designed by a handful of notable Italian architects during the 1930s.  

Further south down Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is the Lana River.  The river itself is not very wide and the water was low when I visited.  It was incredibly during and following the communist period.  Today it has been mostly cleaned up and a stroll along its banks is another worthwhile activity.

On the south side of the river is the unmissable Pyramid.  This eye sore was orginally designed to house the Museum of Enver Hoxha after the dictator’s death in 1985.  It sits mostly empty and covered in graffiti these days. An art installation out front, the Peace Bell, was made of metal from bullet cartridges used during the anarchic period in the mid-1990s.

Peace Bell

Near the end of Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit are several communist era buildings  The well manicured Presidential Palace used to be the Soviet embassy until 1961, when Albania broke off relations with  the USSR.  The Palace of Congresses, where the Communist Party held its most important meetings is across the street.

The Palace of Congresses

At the very end of Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is Mother Teresa Square.  The buildings in this area are among the most noticeably ugly buildings in the city.  Structures here were built during the World War II  occupation by Fascist Italy.  Unlike earlier Italian constructions, these bland imposing buildings lack any charm.  The largest building is now part of a university.

Mother Teresa Square.  The middle area is a promotional plaza from T-Mobile.  

Just beyond Mother Teresa Square is the Grand Park.  This wooded area is quiet and relaxing.  There are plenty of trails that will take you to restaurants, an artificial lake, and plenty of spaces you can make your own.

The artifical lake

Three distinct grave sites and memorials sit within a few hundred feet of each other in one corner of the park.  A memorial to German soldiers who died in Albania during World War II is off to the side and easy to overlook.  Some German soldiers are buried at that location.  

The German war memorial

The tombs of three Albanian brothers who were early activists in the Albanian indpendence movement are laid to rest in a shaded area.

Lastly, a small graveyard for British Commonwealth soldiers who died in Albania is along the trail and easily spotted.  This particular memorial site has an interesting backstory.  The British military had limited military activity in Albania during World War II.  Those servicemen who died in Albania and whose bodies were not immediately recovered remained in the country following the war.  Efforts to repatriate them were made impossible by the communist government.  When communism fell these Commonwealth servicemen were given a place of honor in the Grand Park and the site is officially looked over by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  A large red granite slab sits in the middle of the cemetery.  This once stood over the grave of Enver Hoxha.  However, Hoxha's body was exhumed from its elaborate tomb in the Martyr's Cemetery in Tirana and moved to the public cemetery after the fall of communism.  The holes in the granite from where Hoxha’s name was fixed in place can be observed in the British monument.

The Commonwealth cemetery in the park

Commonwealth graves

The memorial monument that was once over Enver Hoxha's grave.  Notice the small holes above the middle plaque.

Two museums in Tirana worth visiting are the National History Museum and the National Art Gallery.  Both are located around Skanderbeg Square.  Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography inside, so you’ll have to settle for my descriptions.

The National History Museum is eye catching from Skanderbeg Square because of its prominent mosaic depicting Albanian history from early Illyrians to the post-communist era.  Parts of it are well signed in English, while other parts lack any English signs.  The museum is enjoyable enough, but English signs do make a difference.  A section on the victims of communist terror provided a glimpse into communist regime's brutality.  Mementos from individuals who were imprisoned or executed by the regime are on display.  It is apparent that this is one of the newer exhibitions at the museum.

Mosaic of the National History Museum

The National Arts Gallery is small.  Seeing as how the focus of the museum is on paintings and Albania does not have a long tradition of painting, this makes sense.  Most of the Albanian paintings on display are less than a century old.  Pre-communist realist paintings occupy a small alcove.  The bulk of art on display is of the socialist realist style.  Huge paintings of partisans fighting Axis forces and Hoxha during the liberation of Albania cannot be overlooked.  Admittedly, I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to art, but I can appreciate socialist realism because of its straightforward nature and my fascination with communist states. 

George W. Bush is a polarizing figure.  That feels like stating the obvious.  Some say his painting “lacks any sort of conceptual skill or depth”.  Another critic notes that Bush “has an uncanny ability to translate photographs into more awkward images enlivened by distortions and slightly ham-handed brushwork”.  One of the biggest surprises that may come while walking around Tirana is that the reclusive painter has a street named after him.  Rruga George W. Bush is located near Skanderbeg Square.  The street was named for Bush after his 2007 visit to Tirana.

Eat your hearts our Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder

It may seem strange at first, but Bush and the United States are very popular in Albania.  If you look around Tirana the flag you’re most likely to see after the Albanian one is the American flag.  There’s good reason for that.  Bush’s popularity, in large part, stems from that 2007 visit.  No other sitting president had visited the country before.  Besides the Rruga George W. Bush, Albania also issued a stamp of Bush and a small town erected a statue of him.  That can tend to make an American president popular in a locale that tends to get overlooked.  I saw the same phenomenon last year in Myanmar with Barack Obama.  As a relatively poor country with a complicated history, Albania can look to the United States aspirationally.  No matter how cynical your view of the United States is, as an idea it remains something that much of the world looks up to.

The pro-American sentiment is also a legacy of the American role in the Kosovo War.  Kosovo is majority ethnic Albanian.  The NATO campaign there and subsequent American support for independent Kosovo has bolstered American standing with the Albanian population.

Gjirokastër: The Stone City


Panoramic from the valley floor

The Drino Valley is a beautiful place.  Near Gjirokastër the valley floor flat and wide open.  The Drino River isn’t much to look at at this time.  Although, that’s not a problem.  The valley that has been carved through the Gjerë mountains is still stunning.  Green, tranquil, and idyllic.  It’s a perfect spot for the town of Gjirokastër.

If one word were to be applied to Gjirokastër it would probably be charming.  I don’t know what it takes to make a town “charming”, but Gjirokastër has it.  The old town is built on the hillside and its distinguishing feature are the hundred of old stone houses.  These stone buildings have led the entire old town be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These buildings were constructed during the period of Ottoman rule over Albania, mostly between the 17th and 18th centuries.

A typical street

It is possible to tour several of these old houses.  I only toured one of these, the Skenduli House.  This three story mansion was built in 1700 for one of the wealthiest merchants in the area.  It is still owned by the Skenduli family today.  Even though it is clear that a significant amount of restoration work has already been done on it, it still needs more.  The interior offers great perspective on the living conditions of the upper class during the Ottoman period.

The Skenduli House [apologies for the low quality]

A model of the Skenduli House

A room inside the Skenduli House

Across the street from the Skenduli House is another stone house containing the Museum of Ethnography.  The house itself is good condition and, while less extravagant than the neighboring Skenduli House, it is still quite large and its inhabitants would be have been well to do. The museum contains examples of traditional dress, crafts, and household items.  Unfortunately, there are no signs anywhere, but there are guides that can assist.

Traditional dress on display in the Museum of Ethnography

Carvings in the Museum of Ethnography

The dominant feature of Gjirokastër is Gjirokastër Castle which sits on an isolated outcrop above the bazaar area.  The passageway next to the entrance is lined with captured Italian and German artillery and other heavy weapons from World War II.  There is even a small Italian tank among the objects on display.

The open areas of the castle afford arresting views of the valley, the craggy mountains, and the countless stone buildings.  It makes the journey up the hill worth it.

The castle yard

Looking down from the castle

A clock tower sits at the edge of the fort.  This was built when the area was controlled by Ali Pasha (he’s the one that Lord Byron met) to assist in keeping track of the Muslim call for prayer.  These days it doesn’t function, but provides some aesthetic appeal.

The castle clock tower

The fortress is home to two museums.  The Museum of Gjirokastër is small, but well assembled.  All the signs are in English and provide a significant amount of background on the area and its long history from the Bronze Age through the modern era.

Displays in the Museum of Gjirokastër

The other museum, which is adjoining, is the Museum of Armaments.  There isn’t much English signage in this area.  A large portion of it is dedicated to the World War II period during which Albania was occupied by Italy and then Germany.  A number of small arms used by the occupying forces are on display, as well as those of anti-occupation partisans.  Statues, paintings, and photos provide a small amount of context.

Statue of a partisan fighting a German soldier

Armaments on display

The Museum of Armaments is located in the part of the castle that used to be a prison.  It was first used in this capacity during the rule of King Zog in the pre-World War II period.  Every successive regime used the prison until it was closed in 1968 during the communist period.

Hallway of the castle prison

While old town Gjirokastër is the main draw, a modern town exists down on the valley floor.  Though not large, it is a hive of activity compared to the sleepy hillside.  There is not much in the area to draw travelers other than the bus station, but it is still a pleasant area to walk around and remind yourself that modern civilization still exists.

View from the new town

My accommodations were basic, but for about $8 a night to have a private room I cannot complain.  As well, food was cheap and satisfying.

I think we can all agree that this qualifies as "basic"

Gjirokastër was a great place to spend a few days.  Just walking around the old town is a treat in itself, though there are enough attractions to hold your attention for a couple of days.  If you are in the region I highly recommend it.  It is easily accessible from Greece or elsewhere in Albania.  

Stone buildings in various conditions

Athens: Sights in the City That Shaped Western Civilization



Athens is a dirty, grimy city.  I feel obligated to include this knowledge in the way that drug companies list off the side effects of their products in advertisements.  If you come to Athens expecting that the cradle of Western civilization would be blemish free after all of these years, you will be disappointed.  I can’t recall another city I've been to that is more covered in graffiti than Athens.  I doubt even Gary, Indiana, has it beat, but nobody expects the hometown of the Jackson Five to compare to the hometown of Socrates.  There’s very visible squalor.  The mass of the city’s modern building are aesthetic garbage and make it look like the city planners were hired from the Eastern bloc.  What I’m saying is that the city has a lot of rough edges.  Athens is not unique in this regard.  Except for maybe Singapore, with its hospital like cleanliness, virtually every city I’ve been to has suffered in some degree from some or all of the issues of Athens.  These conditions are not enough to write the city off.

View of Athens from Mount Lycabettus.  The Acropolis is visible in the right half of the photo.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic of Athen’s sights is the Acropolis.  Overlooking the city from a rocky outcrop, the Acropolis was a complex of temples and other buildings serving as the center of religious and civic activity.  The influence of the Acropolis and its monuments can be seen in architecture around the Western world and Portland’s premier combination steakhouse and gentlemen’s club.

The most well known of the Acropolis’ monuments is the Parthenon.  Dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, it is the largest temple on the Acropolis.  Construction on it was completed in 432 BC.  Incredibly detailed stonework provided both function and adornment is a hallmark of the building.  The temple has served several purposes over time, having been used as a treasury, Christian church, mosque, and now archaeological site.

Details of the Parthenon

As with just about every major monument I’ve visited thus far, the Parthenon is undergoing significant restoration.  This has been an ongoing process for over 30 years.  The process has been very thorough and employed cutting edge practices.  Most interventions are designed to be reversible in case it is decided to undo the process in the future.

Restoration work on the Parthenon

Having been constructed so long ago, several events took their toll on the temple.  The most significant damage occurred in 1687 when Venice and the Ottoman Empire were engaged in the Morean War.  Venice sent an army to take Athens.  The Ottomans held up in the Acropolis, employing the Parthenon as an ammunition dump.  While besieging the Acropolis, the Venetians launched a mortar round that hit the ammunition dump and destroyed significant parts of the temple.  Venice would ultimately take Athens and win the war.

Though none are as large as the Parthenon, several other impressive monuments occupy the Acropolis.

The Erechtheion was a temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena.  It housed the sacred olive tree that rose as a result of Athena’s founding of the city.  If there is one thing I remember from my college class on trials in Ancient Greece, it’s that the Greeks took their olive trees seriously.  Cutting down an olive tree was punishable by execution.

The Erechtheion and its olive tree

The Propylaea is the large gateway at the entrance to the Acropolis.  It would have been an appropriately large and dramatic feature to pass through before reaching the other monuments on the hilltop.  It is currently undergoing reconstruction.

The Propylaea and some of the crowd of visitors

The Temple of Athena Nike is located on the edge of the Acropolis near the Propylaea.  It is the most completely restored monument on the hill.  Athena was worshipped here as the goddess that would lead Athens to victory in war.

Temple of Athena Nike

At the base of one side of the Acropolis is the Theatre of Dionysus.  Having read Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles during my education, it was incredible to see where the works of these playwrights were performed for the first time over 2000 years ago.

I should also mention that I was a bit of a thespian in college.  I starred as Child 2 in an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea.  Despite my lack of acting skills I had fun time doing that.  Being able to see where the play was first performed in 431 BC gave me an odd connection to the Acropolis that I would not have expected to have a year ago.  I’d like to think I outperformed whatever actor originally played Child 2 in light of the fact that the play came in last place in the City Dionysia festival when it debuted.  

The Theatre of Dionysus

Near the site of the Acropolis is the Acropolis Museum.  Regrettably, I did not visit it.  It houses many artifacts excavated from the Acropolis and provides more in depth information.

From the high ground of the Acropolis a noticeable feature in Athens is the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  This was a truly massive structure.  Prior to its destruction, it was considered the largest temple in all of Greece.  Work on it took over 600 years and it was not completed until the 2nd century AD when the Roman emperor  Hadrian took it on as a pet project.  Sixteen columns of the original 104 remain at the site, though one of those is collapsed.

Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus

A short walk from the Temple of Olympian Zeus will take you the to the Panathenaic Stadium.  Athletic events were held on this site during the Panathenaic Games in the classical era.  The ancient stadium was excavated in the latter half of the 19th century.  It was the site of early attempts to revive the Olympic Games and in 1896 hosted the first modern Olympics as we conceive of them today.  During the 2004 Olympics it hosted several events and was the finishing point of the marathon.

View of Panathenaic Stadium from the original royal throne

Among the qualities that make the stadium impressive are its all-marble construction.  It is the only stadium in the world constructed of marble.  

That's a whole lot of marble

There are sets of marble thrones in two locations in the stadium.  The King and Queen of Greece would occupy these during events.  The first thrones sit at the end of the narrow part of the stadium.  However, new thrones were constructed on the long edge to give the monarch a better view of events.  It’s as if the king had his own front row seat at the 50-yard line of a football stadium.  The row of seating around the thrones was for VIP guests to occupy.  Of course, I made it a point to sit in each throne.

Marble thrones

The stadium also houses posters and torches from throughout the years.  As an aside, the torch relay only began with 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Yes, those Nazi ones best remembered by Americans for Jesse Owens’ four gold medals.

Olympic torches and posters

The one museum I did visit in Athens was the National Archaeological Museum.  It has artifacts from a wide swath of historical Greek eras.  The exhibits are well put together.  Virtually everything is signed in English, a big plus when it comes to museums.

The National Archaeological Museum

The Mask of Agamamenon

Pan being a creep towards Aphrodite, Eros trying to help shoo him away

Sculptures make up a large portion of the objects on display.  However, you’ll find everything from utensils to Egyptian sarcophagi in the museum.

Egyptian Sarcophagi

Statue of Poseidon

An interesting piece is a recycled sarcophagus.  Originally it held a wealthy man and woman.  This was indicated by the sculpture on the lid.  However, at some point the original occupants were removed and a new body took their place.  The original sculpture of the man was cut off and replaced with the base of a pillar.  The woman’s head was removed and replaced with that of a man.

The recycled sarcophagus

Athens is not perfect.  It’s not even close.  However, it’s still worth the trip.  I’ve been to a lot of cities and there are some that I have totally hated.  Athens is not among those.  It offers some incredible opportunities to connect with a past that still influences us today.  The people were friendly and welcoming.  The backpacker budget food is great.  Pork gyros for 2 euros were a great deal.

Athens: Where even the cacti are covered in graffiti