Now that I’m in the last few months of my Fulbright grant the fact that I am going home soon (July 31st!) is starting to hit me. Ever since I moved to Macedonia I’ve been pretty relaxed about travel; I thought about going to a lot of places around Eastern Europe, but never did because it seemed more important to me to sit around with my host sister, drawing and baking cookies. (I think this was a good choice, still.) But now that I can say I will be home month after next, I feel a new panic about travel. I need to see ALL the places!
I dealt one small blow to my list of Eastern European Countries I Will Probably Not Manage to Visit by going, last week, to Montenegro and Croatia with Albania’s two other Fulbrights. We started the trip in classic Albania style, with a furgon ride up to Shkoder where we spent the night in a former Communist hotel. The next day we took a bus to Ulcinj, in Montenegro, where we were able to indulge in my #1 Favorite Travel Activity (eating food in a bus station) before catching another bus to Bar and then on to the resort town of Sveti Stefan.
Sveti Stefan is actually a small island connected to the mainland by an isthmus. I think the island is closed – someone mentioned this to us, and wikitravel confirms – but the day sitting on the beach, then looking out over the island while we had dinner, was perfect. I am becoming a big fan of traveling in the off-season, because we had the place mostly to ourselves, with just a few other tourists and locals on the beach in the afternoon.
The next day we caught a couple more buses up to Kotor. Our hostel was located in the Old Town, hundreds of buildings smushed within the city walls – walking around Kotor almost felt like being back in Italy. After a coffee and a few hours spent sitting waterside reading The Help, we laid out a few euros to climb the old city walls. Such a cool thing to do, and since the last time I climbed up a mountainside to look at a town was when I lived in Diber, the hour-long climb was weirdly reminiscent of those Peace Corps days. The waters in the Bay of Kotor are so deep that full-size cruise ships can be brought in, which was unsettling – I am pretty sure the Old City was only a few times larger than those ships.
From Kotor, Dubrovnik. More beaches, good food, and lots of gelato – including some from a shop owned by Albanians from Gostivar. This was my first glimpse of the benefits I’ll reap from knowing Albanian, at least if I hit some pizzerias on Staten Island (or, let’s face it, anywhere on the East Coast) – free gelato! free pizza (I hope!)! Plus the pure joy of meeting someone who lived so close to my Peace Corps home.
Especially when we were in Croatia, I was struck by what a good job people have done building up the tourism industry and making these places accessible to visitors. I couldn’t help comparing Sveti Stefan, Kotor, and Dubrovnik to Macedonia’s main tourist destination, Ohrid, and feeling kind of glum about Macedonia’s development. My parents loved Ohrid when they visited in 2010, but it still doesn’t compare to these other sites in the Balkans – what shot does Macedonia really have at tourism dollars, when its claim to fame is an overcrowded lakeside town?
I’m at risk now of overthinking these things, so back to other subjects…like how my host mother one-rang my phone yesterday, and then did a great job guilt-tripping me into a visit (soon!) when I called her on skype. A trip back to Diber can’t really compare to these other travels, in a touristic sense, but it will still be one of the best.