April 30, 2016: Full House

It is Saturday, tomorrow is Orthodox Easter here in Romania.  So this is a long holiday weekend.  Tomorrow we have a lot going on, we have church in the morning, then we are having lunch with the family that owns the house that we are renting in Romania, then there are Easter activities in the evening in the village.  A lot of things for us to do.

Today is mostly a relaxing day, still.  We are all still pretty tired.  Today I found The 1983 Love Boat Fall Season Preview Special which Dominica and I watched this afternoon, complete with the original commercials.  We were laughing pretty hard at this bit of nostalgia.

This Love Boat special had really no “Love Boat” stuff in it other than the set.  It was a Who’s Who of the 1983 ABC line up with stars of their old and new shows all out on a “cruise” together to announce the new shows that ABC was bringing out in 1983.  It was shown just before the normal Love Boat time slot as Love Boat was one of their flagships and it let them tell people about all of the new shows coming out that week.  Boy did it bring back memories.  We knew nearly all of the commercials that were shown during the special and many of the shows.  But many we did not know, a lot of those shows did not make it for the season.

It is too bad that these kinds of specials have not existed for a long time.  And even this one was only ever shown once (and now only exists on YouTube as rip from an old VHS copy with very low quality.)  But it really takes you back to 1983.  This is what television was like when I was Liesl’s age.  What a different world.  Happy Days was still on, but was just wrapping up.  Dynasty was huge.  Webster was about the only winner that they had that year.  A year later would be the famous year that ABC shook up their lineup and changed all of their shows bringing in the line up that I would watch through most of late elementary school and middle school.  Three’s Company was even still on!

After that we went out to the Lidl to go grocery shopping.  We thought that we were out on the early side but ended up being the last ones there and having to rush to get our groceries.  They were closing early for the holiday.  We had hoped to have gotten Easter eggs and candy for the girls, but there was nothing there like there had been a few weeks ago.

We tried going to the Kaufland but it was already closed when we got there.  So we are not getting restocked on groceries like we had hoped.  Shopping fail for us.

Since we were in Reghin we went uptown to the Casablanca to get dinner.  This is our third time, at least, coming here for dinner.  We were the only ones eating but at least, since they are a pension, were open.  We had a very nice dinner, again.  We love the food there.

On the way home we ducked into the gas station and they had a decent enough candy selection so we stocked up so that we could make a candy basket for the girls for the morning.  Better than nothing.

Once home we found Full House on Netflix and Liesl agree to watch it.  We set it up on the projector and managed to get two episodes in before Netflix said that that show had been dropped and was no longer available.  Bummer.  Bad timing as we have spent a month cajoling Liesl to give it a shot and she has refused until tonight and now she really, really loves it!

April 29, 2016: Recovery Day

We all slept in until around noon today, boy were we ever tired.  Yesterday was such a long day.  We are glad that we did it, though.  We pushed through and got the driving done and now we are home and not spending money on hotels and going out to eat and we can just relax with no major agendas wearing us down.  Fifteen days of continuous travel like that is tiring.

It is very cold in Baita today.  It was just four degrees when we arrived last night and not all that much warmer today.   The sun was out a little this morning but disappeared soon and all afternoon it was heavy clouds and then a light rain late in the afternoon.

Dominica did one load of laundry today but it was unable to try with how humid and cold it was and she ended up having to bring it in to the kitchen to attempt to dry it.  We actually had to turn the heat on today, it is so cold.  So cold at the very end of April!  It is hard to believe that it gets this cold here while the coast is so warm that you want to be in shorts.  It is a long way away, but it feels like it is all so connected.

Everyone was pretty worn out today.  Dominica put in a bit of time cleaning the house this morning and then camped out in the kitchen slash living room area watching shows on her laptop.  Liesl and Luciana played with some toys, played some video games, had a couple kids stop by for about an hour to play with Legos and then Luciana went into the girls’ bedroom to watch videos and fell asleep like that and napped the evening away.  Liesl set up on our bed in our bedroom with her Kindle Fire and her headphones and watched YouTube all afternoon and evening.  They are very happy to be home.

We really did almost nothing today, we just did not have the energy for it.  We needed to get caught up after the past two weeks.

April 28, 2016: Driving Home

Today is our driving day.  No plans but to get in the car and go. We assume that we cannot make it all of the way back to Baita in a single shot but we are going to just hit the road and see how far we are able to get today.  It is going to be a very long day.

We got up at around nine and went up to breakfast at the Hotel Super 8 in Skopje, Macedonia.  There were a lot of people having breakfast this morning.  The place was nearly full.  We ate and then returned to the room to shower and get packed up.

While we were packing up we saw the news that Freedom House had reclassified Macedonia from “partially free” to “non-free” last night, basically meaning that the country had officially turned into a dictatorship while we were here!  A very interesting situation to have gotten to witness first hand but it also meant that it was definitely time to be getting onto the road.

We packed up the car and manoeuvred it out of the crazy parking lot requiring me to drive backwards through a maze of poorly and irregularly parked cars and having to wait for some to move as well.  Navigating Skopje is a bit challenging, the city has a lot of traffic problems and the recent maps do not show the existing roads at all.

We did well and in no time we were off into the beautiful countryside east of Skopje with its low, rolling hill and quaint little villages.  The roads were good and we made very good time up to the Serbian border.

At the Serbian border we had a long line of traffic to wait for; our guess was that a lot of people had decided that it was time to leave Macedonia for a while as it was nearly all non-Macedonian vehicles making the exit this morning.  We had no issues getting back into Serbia and were on our way.

We decided to take the big, main roads right up to Belgrade.  This looked like the roads would move faster and be less twists and turns to make Dominica sick.

It was a lovely, bright day without heavy traffic.  Perfect for driving the entire way across Serbia and much of Romania.  These are big countries when you have to drive all of the way through them.

The nice thing about the route from Skopje to Belgrade is that it crosses most of Serbia while basically not hitting anything that we have driven previously, so we got a massive survey of what Serbia is like having now driven it north south as well as east west.

The drive today went well and there is very little to tell.  Drivers are crazy, the sun was agreeable, we had to stop for petrol only once before getting to Romania.  No getting lost, nothing went wrong.  It was an efficient and easy drive.

We skipped meals today completely.  We ate breakfast at the hotel, of course, and other than that it was just snacks in the car.  We stocked up on snacks each time that we got fuel.

In Belgrade we turned east and took the route from Belgrade to Timisoara, Romania that we had taken two weeks earlier in the opposite direction.  At Belgrade there was just a tiny bit of that “feeling of home” as we turned onto familiar roads and saw familiar sights.

It was getting dark out as we approached the Romanian frontier.  We crossed the border, again without any issues, and were back in Romania!  Everyone was excited, this was the last big step before home – although it is six and a half hours from the border to Baita, Mures County.

We pushed on crossing past the hotel that we stayed at on our first night, fifteen days ago, and marked our time – nine thirty.  If we push hard we will get to Baita just one hour or less later than we decided to give up on our first night – and we only stopped then because we did not want to attempt the first Balkan border crossing in the middle of the night, especially for a non-EU country.

We did better navigating Timisoara this time.  We have gotten smarter and no Google GPS is being turned on to mislead us this time.  We zipped through and grabbed the new A1 highway and were on our way east at 130kph in no time.

It was along the A1 here that we took a bathroom break at a rest stop and then hit a gas station for our second and final fueling of the day, loaded up on chilled Illy coffee drinks, bags of chips and prepared to make our final run for home.  No more stops after this.

We took the big route to Deva, up to Targu Mures to Reghin and on to Baita.  It all went smoothly and we moved so much faster and more safely than going the way that Google had tried to send us two weeks ago.

It was four in the morning when we pulled into Baita.  We were so glad to be home.  We loved our two week whirlwind trip around the Balkans and are so glad that we took the time to do it.

Dominica was exhausted and went straight to bed.  The girls, who had been asleep in the car, were wide away and demanded to play The Lego Movie on Steam for an hour and a half before I made them go to bed.

So it was at five thirty this morning, with the sun coming up, that I finally managed to get to bed myself.  Going to be asleep until very late tomorrow.

April 27, 2016: Colourful Revolution in Skopje

We got up just in time to run up to the top floor of our hotel, the Hotel Super 8, here in Skopje, Macedonia and get breakfast.  We were the only ones up getting breakfast at the time that we were there.

After breakfast we set out to go for a walk and see a little bit of Skopje’s old town, Stari Grad.  In 1963 80% of Skopje was levelled by a massive earthquake.  Nearly all of the city has been built since that time and now there is a new project to rebuild much of the city in an older style since the work done since 1963 was mostly done in a drab, modern, grey block style that was en vogue at the time.  But today it looks boring and ugly and the original project was never completed so a new project to build a bright and beautiful city in a classic style is under way.

The old town is small and leaves a lot to be desired.  It was full of panhandlers and was not very pleasant.  It is loaded with jewellery shops, if you are looking for that kind of thing.  There were a few restaurants and cafes but nothing that we saw that was very interesting.  Nearly every shop was a kabob place.

So we just walked around for a little bit, saw most of the stari grad and returned to the hotel where we ate in the restaurant downstairs for lunch.  I decided to not order any food for myself and just see if I could eat enough from getting the leftovers from what the girls did not eat and, without any surprise, that worked really well.  It is very easy to do that as they are always leaving way too much food that they do not touch.  They both order ridiculous amounts of food and eat almost nothing.

After our late lunch we hung out in the hotel.  I had a lot of catching up that I wanted to do so I put in a long day of writing and posting from the hotel since the Internet access was pretty good.  Everyone was glad to have down time and the girls just played in the room all day.  It is a very large room so this worked out really well.  They could even run around in it.

This evening, while on a call, we suddenly heard a commotion out in the street.  So Dominica and Liesl ran to the window to see what it was.  It turned out to be six thousand protesters in a huge march coming across the river past the Department of Foreign Affairs and turning right by our hotel and going down the main street and under the bridge all within full site of our hotel windows.  This was amazing, we had never seen anything like this.

It turns out that this is day fifteen of marches against the government here in Skopje.  There has been a major issue with corruption and scandal and things are getting pretty serious.  The military was deployed to keep things under control, but nothing got out of control or felt dangerous.  We were watching the news and Twitter to see what was happening.  It was so interesting.

The mob painted over murals of the president, paint bombed the Department of Foreign Affairs, marched on to parliament and buried a tombstone to human rights in front of it.  This is one major political learning experience for the girls, Liesl at least.  She and Dominica got to watch a lot of it.  I can’t believe that we managed to be right in the centre of things!  This explains so much of what we saw last night.

Given the events of the evening, we opted to  just stay in and go to bed early.  No one was all that hungry and we have to be on the road early tomorrow, anyway.

April 26, 2016: Macedonia

We only had one night in Prishtina, Kosovo before we needed to move on to Skopje, Macedonia.  We had breakfast down at the hotel’s restaurant today.  Breakfast is almost always included with your room in Europe.  I almost cannot remember when it was not.  Even hostels normally include it.

Our Internet in the hotel did come back last night so we have been connected.  It was only out for a few hours and much of that we were out at our friends’ house across town.

This morning we decided to check out and load up the car after breakfast but to leave it at the hotel so that we could see the city on foot before leaving.  Our hotel is right next to the old city centre, just a three minute walk.  So very ideal for exploring. They did not have people checking in soon so leaving our car in one of the three parking spaces was not an issue.

We crossed the big street and were right into the city centre.  Even the side street leading into it that we took was lined with bustling cafes.  Kosovo, I have read and now seen first hand, has an extremely busy cafe culture.  From what I understand, culturally it is a “go and and be seen” culture but current economic conditions have left a huge portion of the population without the funds to go out to eat and such.  Because of that, the trend has moved to going out for coffee, buying one cup and sitting with it all day out in the public spaces.  So the coffee shops are very busy places, but not making tons of money.

We walked the main square for a while.  It is a beautiful downtown square and the national government offices are right there on it.  It is always interesting to see how a country of under two million people hands their national government since, in some ways, their national government handles only one third the number of people in the population as does the Houston or Dallas mayor’s offices!

The girls wanted to play tag.  So Dominica sat at a fountain with them while they ran around in a mostly empty part of the square.  I was sent out to scout lunch options.

I walked all the way down the square to the Grand Hotel.  I got to see a small group of protesters marching through the square.  First time that I have seen that in person.  It was very small, very much lunch time and very low key.  But they had a banner and a dozen people are so bringing some complaint to the government.

For a Tuesday middle of the day, the square was incredibly busy.  We were very surprised at just how  many people were out enjoying the nice weather.

From my scouting we found a restaurant that looked like it would be good and had some space on the side where the girls could run around and not be in the way of people on the square. So we found a good table and sat out.  The girls played for a good long while.  Dominica and I had coffee and everyone ordered sandwiches for lunch.

Luciana had been requesting cake, so after lunch, on the way back to the hotel we knew that there was a little cafe and bakery that specialized in cakes.  So we had planned to stop there.  More coffee and everyone got themselves a slice of wonderful cake.

From there it was back to the hotel and the car.  Time to get on the road again.

Getting out of Prishtina was not too bad now that we know the city a little.  This time we are heading south bound towards Macedonia.  Our last new country on this road trip.

The drive south was easy.  The mountains that separate Kosovo from Macedonia are huge.  We had no idea.  It was so tall that half of the mountain was covered in snow.  Half of it!  It was a warm and sunny today, too.  No hint at the snow that we had seen last night.  It almost felt like summer.

The Macedonia border was not hard, but the insurance fee was fifty Euros.  More than all of the other combined.  A bit ridiculous.  This is not a country working hard on encouraging tourists, I see.  But it is our last one and there is no good route home without going through it.  We do not want to miss it while we are here.

Sadly I have college friends from my time at MCC who were from Macedonia but I lost contact with them a very long time ago and no one that I know knows how to look them up so there is no way to make contact with them now.

Macedonia was an immediately different landscape than Kosovo. Kosovo was very verdant, Macedonia clearly drier and rockier.  Northern Macedonia sits in the rain shadow of that enormous mountain that we saw causing all of the rain in the area to go north into Kosovo and to avoid Macedonia.  So even though they are just next door, one gets four times the rain of the other.

The total drive from Pishtina to Skopje was very short, under two hours.  If we had insurance green cards for both places we could have probably done it in ninety minutes.  An hour if I drove like the locals 😉

Skopje is the largest city and the capital of Macedonia with about half of the country’s population living in it.  We had a little challenging navigating our way to the hotel.  Google GPS was useless of course, but even Google Maps was useless here.  Their data was totally wrong. Roads in the wrong places, bridges that don’t really exist.  What a mess.  I had to eyeball maps while driving and do some complicated things.

The Hotel Super 8 was great.  It is located right downtown in a great location and our room was amazing.  It was huge and very nice and with great views right down onto the new waterfront area that is being built by the city.  We were very happy when we checked in.

Having not had a lot of Internet access yesterday we decided to spend some time in the hotel catching up with things and enjoying the nice room.  The girls took out their toys and had a good time.  It is so nice here that we just went down and extended for an extra day so that we could avail ourselves of it a bit longer.  This will let me do things that I need without extra complication and give us a little bit of time to relax before we tackle the very long drive back up to Baita which is very, very far away from where we are now.

We have loved this road trip, though, and are planning to tackle a similar one in the north sometime “soon”, in the next year or two.  We want to do a massive northeastern European trip that will hit all of the countries that we have not yet been to.  We figure that a seriously long road trip, much like this but on a bigger scale, would let us hit everything that we have thus far missed in a single go.

Once it got late we went out for dinner.  Dominica had done some searching and found an Irish Pub across the river on the river walk that had extensive vegetarian cuisine.  So we went that way out for a walk.

On our walk across the river we quickly encountered riot police heading out to do something.  We practically walked with them across the river.  We also noticed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building that we walked past was covered in paint, but we did not think very much of it at the time.

Once we hit the bridge, Skopje was truly magical.  The river is spanned by many brightly lit and beautiful bridges.  The north side of the rive is lined with majestic buildings.  The trees and light poles around the area have speakers on them playing classical music.  Everything is lined with statues and is so well done.  It feels very much like walking around the World Showcase in Walt Disney World.  It’s really magical.

We found the restaurant easily enough.  A football game was on so the place was packed.  We sat inside, though, as it was just a little too chilly outside.  There was a table, though, so no problem there.  Dinner turned out to be excellent, everyone really liked their food.

After dinner we walked around the river walk just a little bit.  The girls were not in the mood to walk very much.  We got back to the hotel and I immediately realized that I had left my hat behind.  So I went back to the restaurant on my own where they had set it aside for me.  On the way back I walked around the area a bit more and explored the Art Bridge, the Bridge of Civilizations, found the Archaeological Museum, the monument to Skopje’s most famous daughter Mother Teresa, the Opera House and more.  The downtown area is still under major renovations and construction.  They have been doing this for years and have years to go.

The city was destroyed in the 1960s and when it was rebuild it was rather drab by European standards.  Now the city is working hard to reinvent itself as an amazing, classic European capital, which it has not been for a very long time.  So the project is very important and the scale is very large.  It seems like they are doing an incredible job, though.