That Time I Traveled to Italy, The Alps, and Montenegro

That Time I Traveled to Italy, The Alps, and Montenegro

One of the primary reasons–actually, arguable, the ONLY reason–that I became an international teacher is because it affords me SO many opportunities to travel. At any given moment I’m only a few short weeks away from another international adventure, and in three short months I’ve managed to see all four corners of Albania, plus a few trips to the neighboring countries. In this blog post I’ll tell the stories of some of the things I’ve been doing when I’m not teaching.

Amalfi Coast, Italy

For fall break, we were fortunate enough to have an entire week off, so I spent my time in southern Italy with two coworkers and one of their teenager daughters, who is actually a student of mine too. We took an overnight ferry to Bari, Italy, and drove a rented car all over the Amalfi region. We visited Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, and Naples over the course of our seven day trip. I could tell you about eating great food in beautiful locations between endless bottles of wine, but instead, I’ll fill you in on the highlights and mostly my observations and reflections on a week in Italy.

Of all the cities we visited, Pompeii was definitely my favorite. It was incredible to walk along the streets of an entire Roman CITY. Not just the ruins of the Colosseum or an amphitheater or a few columns here or there. Pompeii is an entire city frozen in time. Homes, bathhouses, public restaurants, town markets and forums, all standing like they did a thousand years ago. While not the largest city of the Roman Empire, it was a beautifully flourishing city with homes decorated in beautiful paintings and vineyards placed all along the city. (Pompeii was also an extremely erotic city, with explicit sexual motifs uncovered in numerous paintings.) And one of the most amazing things about Pompeii is that excavations are still ongoing today, with significant portions of the city still covered under ground.

The museum of the petrified bodies of the citizens of Pompeii was extremely unsettling though. Humans, couples, children, pets— huddled around in embraces or collapsed in various positions on the ground, all frozen at the moment of their deaths. It was a somber situation to witness, but still an amazing opportunity to step back to 71 AD and see the lives they led.

Pompeii was a technologically advanced city for its time. For example, they had running water installed at strategic locations all over the city, so all citizens were only a few moments walk from a fresh water spout. At times, I would marvel at the advancements of Pompeii, and be reminded at how far modern Albania really needs to go. I mean, I don’t even have consistently running water in my town! The perspective granted to me by spending a week in Italy helped me see that Albania’s aspirations to join the EU are a worthy goal, but still a long way off. Coming to Italy was the first time I’d been back in a developed, first world country in a few months, and the stark contrasts between Italy and Albania were swiftly made apparent to me. Stepping off the ferry into a city where buildings are finished and the trash is off the streets made me gape in appreciation at the efficiency of the city’s inhabitants. Driving along paved roads and walking along finished sidewalks reminded us that Albania’s current physical infrastructure is merely symptomatic of much larger problems within Albania that need to be reformed before Albania can compete on a global stage in either tourism or industry.

The best thing about traveling with my small group was that my companions were very laid back about us having the freedom to do our own things during the day. There was one night in particular that I wasn’t hungry for a big fancy dinner and wine, and preferred to stay back at our villa. Our villa in Positano was absolutely beautiful, overlooking the Aegean Sea and the lush mediterranean island of Capri. There was a space on the deck that perfectly fit my yoga mat, so instead of heading to dinner with the rest of my group, I rolled out my mat to unwind from hiking around all day.

At some point during that practice, I found myself kneeling on my mat with tears of gratitude welling up in my eyes. I worked and planned for many years to have this opportunity move abroad, and there on my yoga mat under the sunset, a whirlwind of emotions—joy, relief, happiness, excitement, thankfulness— welled up inside me. I was, and still am, so eternally grateful that this dream came true, and that I have had these opportunities to travel while I am young. In that moment, I was so deeply moved that all I could do was kneel on my mat and whisper to God, thank you, thank you, thank you.

While Italy is a beautiful country, I have to admit, I’ve been a little spoiled living in Eastern Europe, for reasons you might not expect. At the risk of all my readers shaking their heads in disbelief, I have to admit, the Italian food is better in Albania! If you know where to go in Durres, you can dine on some of the most exquisite, flavorful Italian dishes–made by authentic Italians– that your tastebuds have ever enjoyed. And for a fraction of the price!

Furthermore, the waiters and owners here are genuinely pleased and excited to have your business. In contrast, Italians in booming tourist cities can appear utterly indifferent or even rude by comparison. And while Italy was absolutely gorgeous, it’s beauty is rivaled by that of Macedonia and Montenegro, who also have equally stunningly quaint towns alongside crystal Mediterranean waters. Furthermore, Macedonia and Montenegro are a delightful surprise all to yourself when you go visit, whereas Italy was still SWARMING with massive tour groups from all corners of the globe. And I went during October, in the off season!

The bottom line is this: Overall, Italy is gorgeous, and Southern Italy is enchanting. But don’t forget its oft-overlooked Balkan neighbors–because they can easily compete with the beauty of Italy for a fraction of the price and twice the hospitality.

Albanian Alps

When we got an email from an Albanian coworker saying he intended to join a weekend hiking trip to Lapushe, Albania, my friends and I knew better than to let that chance pass us by. Saturday morning we met at 6:30am to make the journey to Tirana, where we met a few of our fellow teachers from AC-Tirana, and about 15 more Albanians who would be joining our hiking tour.

Saturday we hiked to the Kelce Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Albania. While it was a physically demanding trail in terms of elevation and length, the real challenge arose because the trail itself was arbitrary at best, and completely nonexistent at worst. We just scaled the side of a rocky mountainside, stepping where it seemed appropriate as opposed to following any sort of predetermined path. After maybe two hours of hiking through rocky terrain, steep white cliffs, and beautiful trees in their last stages of autumn, we arrived at the waterfall. The water was crisp and deep turquoise, and we drank the mountain water straight from the pool. We laid in the meadow next to waterfall, felt the cool mist on our faces, and opened up our bags for a picnic.

For some reason, hiking up is actually easier than hiking down…and hiking down this particular trail was flat-out dangerous. The rocks and gravel slid underneath our feet with each step of our descent, and we’d skid unsteadily down as we walked. I knew it would be a miracle if we reached the bottom without any injuries. Unfortunately, we had two—and I was one of them! At the same time that one of my coworkers twisted her ankle some 20 meters behind me, I slipped down the rocky path, with my knee twisted around and my body weight collapsed on top of it. I laid on the path in pain for a few minutes, but fortunately my friends were very accommodating. I am extremely thankful I did not blow my ACL, and even as I sat on the ground in pain, I was counting my blessings that it wasn’t any worse. Fortunately, after some time we were able to finish the hike–however, I still must admit, it was plainly dangerous and I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone in good consciousness!

Returned to our car, we finished the rest of the journey through small rural villages in northern Albania before arriving in Lapushe. (I invite you to google any of the names of locations I’ve mentioned so far– you won’t find hardly any information or photos of these places because they are so remote and difficult to reach.) Our accommodations were extremely humble and rustic, but more than enough for one night of hiking the Albanian alps. We were greeted by happy dogs and the gentle tinkling of goats with bells around their necks. Plump horses grazed in wide pastures all across the valley surrounded by mountains on either side. Our hosts served us tea, coffee, and blueberry raki (raki is a strong alcohol distilled from usually grapes.) We huddled around a stove in a hearth of a cabin, warming ourselves with the drinks and good stories. After some time, (plus some amazing homemade wine), they served us the lamb they’d been roasting on a spit over the campfire out back. Everything they served us–the bread, salad, potatoes, cheese, and butter– were all completely homemade and farm fresh. It was a humble but bountiful supper, which we were happy to eat after hiking all day (and then drinking.) When power went out, we brought out candles and lanterns and cozied up around the tables as we ate. After filling our bellies, we headed outside to sit under the most exquisite stars I have ever seen. Wrapped under a big thick blanket and sipping on raki, we spent the evening laughing and counting the comets that streaked across the sky. With the Milky Way spread out above our heads, we all counted our blessings over and over for having chosen to come on this trip.

That night, we all slept under a massive pile of blankets, as our cabin was not privileged to have any heating.

I woke up just in time to watch the morning sun rise over the meadows of the valley. We ate a traditional breakfast of bread and homemade jam, milk, yogurt, and cheese—again, all things they made from the farm. Even though my knee was tender and uncomfortable, I refused to remain at the cabin while everyone went hiking that day. My guide assured us this day’s hike was an easier one, so I tagged along.

Haha…..should’ve known better! Albanians aren’t known for being the most proactively prepared people. Living and working alongside Albanians generally means I have to let go of any need to control— or even understand— the situations around me. No matter how many questions I ask, I’ve accepted that I will still be unprepared for how many curveballs are thrown my way.

So, what was supposed to be an “easier” hike turned into five hours of a bitter ascent up the foggy, snow-capped mountains of Albania. (Of course, none of us foreigners had been told we’d be hiking through such windy, snow-capped mountains, so none of us brought adequate jackets. Yes, we all looked like ignorant idiots.) For context, you should know that these mountains are aptly named the ‘Accursed Mountains’. They are simultaneously beautiful and treacherous, shielded from most of the world because of their extremely remote location.

On that note, I don’t think I can even convey to you the depths of the meaning “remote” that I experienced this weekend. Our “village”, a humble spattering of maybe eight houses situated in a wide valley, was easily two hours by car from the nearest small town. And then we hiked a good three hours outside that village. By this time, we didn’t even see any animals for miles in any direction, let alone other people.

We walked another arbitrary path down the valley alongside mountain streams and meadows. It was truly beautiful, and the pictures hardly do it justice. We hiked a few more hours along rocky terrain with rolling mountains stretching out in all directions. We climbed as the icy fog encircling the mountainous peak chilled us to our bones, and the wind whipped at our exposed skin until our fingers went numb. We climbed for several miles until we reached the literal peak of a rocky Accursed mountain. On one side of the mountain we looked to Montenegro, on the other side, we gaped at how far we had already trekked to reach that height.

Even though I had a bum knee and parts of the hike made me nervous about injuring it even worse, it was a phenomenal opportunity to see an extraordinarily remote region of the world. It was absolutely an unforgettable, challenging and breathtaking weekend hiking, and I spent the entire weekend thankful that I made the decision to come.

Kotor, Montenegro

I’ve always believed that short weekend getaways are the best way to enjoy life between larger vacations, and fortunately, I have found some friends here who agree with this philosophy! I booked an AirBnB, my buddy booked a car, and together three of us took off for a weekend adventure in Kotor, Montenegro—because life is short and it’s only a four hour drive! Well, only four hours, if you know the correct roads to take. Or own a GPS that is worth anything. Or have cellphone service. We, unfortunately, had none of these advantages—so our four hour drive quickly became eight. We left after school at 5pm on Friday, and by 1:30am we had managed to make it to the small town of Kotor.

Of course, the streets were empty and the town completely silent by this time of night. After unsuccessful attempts to locate our AirBnB (keep in mind that addresses in the Balkans may or may not exist, and may or may not be accurate) we eventually turned up at a hostel/college dorm room, which was the only building for miles with a light on. We walked inside to the front desk, basically a housing manager on duty for the college kids, and he was gracious enough to call our AirBnB host and provide him with directions to come meet us. By 2am, our kind host showed up to guide us all the way back to his apartment. Although getting so horribly lost was miserable, we are deeply indebted to the kindness of both men who helped us find our way to the accommodation. We would’ve been sleeping in our car that night without them!

Kotor was a perfect place to spend a weekend. It is a very small town built from antiquity on the coast of Montenegro, famed for its ancient fortress encapsulating the quaint buildings and thin alleys on the interior. Like several other seafaring towns, the city was built like a maze to prevent intruders from navigating around successfully. Serbian Orthodox churches stood guard over quiet cobblestone courtyards, with church bells that rang on the hour. The best view of Kotor is from the top of the thousand-step fortress that climbs the mountain, if you’re willing to hike up that far.

And I, being the dog-lover that I am, had to sweet talk some strays that were roaming about. All I did was talk to them, and suddenly I had two dogs happily following us—all the way up the hourlong trek to the top of the fortress.

That evening we wandered into an authentic Montenegrin restaurant, lit solely by a warm fireplace and tabletop candles. We ate on hand-crafted benches covered with hand-sewn blankets. It was an amazing meal in itself, again prepared with fresh, local ingredients, further augmented by the cozy warmth of the hearth away from the December air.

That night, we cozied up with a Christmas movie and a bottle of wine, just enjoying the finer things in life. Good friends, good food, good wine. It was a perfect last adventure to end the semester.

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