Dave Pattison embraces the Balkans and their unique heritages

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Traveling in the ancestral lands of Alexander the Great, I recently explored the unique sights found in the Balkan countries of Macedonia, Albania and northern Greece.

While this area is not well known to the average tourist, it does offer the opportunity to discover and enjoy many unusual and historic places with roots in the cultures of ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and the Muslim religion.

My trip was conducted by Overseas Adventure Travel of Grand Circle Travel, which seeks to uncover the history and past of places off the beaten track and provide opportunities to meet people and see things that illuminate their heritage and culture.

We began our tour in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city and a major port, which has retained a walled fortification above the city. Its most prominent landmark is a 15th Century tower overlooking its port. We also saw a 200-year old market full of vendors.

Our next stop was at Mount Olympus, the mythical home of Zeus and other Greek gods. They looked down upon us as we hiked along the base of this legendary mountain to the place were Alexander the Great made animal sacrifices before setting off to conquer the world.

Our next day we journeyed to Meteora to view the famous monasteries that are perched atop high mountain pinnacles. They were built by monks in the 14th Century for protection from Turkish Ottomans who had occupied the area. They are astounding feats of ancient engineering.

From here we explored the mountains of the Greek area of Zagoria to tour several century old villages containing small Byzantine churches, cobblestone streets and primitive homes. Featured sights were ancient arched stone bridges.

Our journey from Greece took us across the border to fascinating Albania, which was the most isolated and closed country in the world following World War II. Its brutal Communist dictator had closed its borders, and his irrational fear of an invasion led him to construct an unbelievable number of 700,000 small bunkers, plus tunnels, to allegedly protect his population. I have never seen such a weird sight as these bunkers still lining the highways and its cities.

Stunning Ottoman-style homes, ancient fortifications

In Albania, we spent two evenings in the UNESCO world heritage city of Gjirokaster, a very old historic town on a steep hillside containing several Ottoman-era mansions with stone slate roofs and crowned by a massive 15th century castle. We visited its Ottoman bazaar dating from the 17th century. Later we toured the town of Berat, containing stunning Ottoman-style homes and a 2,500 year old fortification.

Tirana, Albania's capital, was our next destination. It is a fairly modern city with wide boulevards, parks and high rises. Here we learned about the turbulent history of the country that included 400 years of occupation by the Ottomans, Italians and Nazi's during WW II, and the 45 years of a Communist dictatorship.

Macedonia, with a long history with some of Europe's oldest known settlements, was the final country we visited. We stayed three evenings at Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest and cleanest lakes in the world. It sits 2,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by mountain ranges.

In Ohrid, we explored its narrow cobblestone streets, its historic Byzantine Cathedral, and its massive fortress which includes a Roman arena. We also took a boat ride to view the reconstruction of a Neolithic lake dwelling that was recently discovered.

Our final stop of our journey was at Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It is a vibrant city with many huge statutes of national heroes, an old stone bridge, a large new town square, and an old Turkish bazaar. We also saw the site were the saint Mother Theresa as born and a nearby museum commemorating her life.

The three Balkan countries I visited preserve a tremendous amount of antiquity and ancient history, as they all have very rich heritages. We also enjoyed some of the most savory and tasteful cuisine I have ever eaten, with several huge courses and servings, emphasizing local vegetables and products. For dessert I once had mushroom cheesecake.

The countries do have evidence of economic problems. In Greece, in particular, I noticed closed factories, stores and car dealers. I saw a local KIA dealer with a large parking lot containing only 4 cars. The countries have overcome years of oppression from the centuries of Ottoman occupation to WW II and the Communist dictatorship, but the people remain resilient, friendly and fully engaged in their pursuits.

The area is very worthy of visiting.

This is my last article I will write for the Sun Times, which is ceasing publication, and I hope readers have enjoyed learning about places known and unknown, and have gained an understanding about unique and varied cultures that can be discovered around the world.

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