Lake Ohrid, Albania

We arrived at our hotel, with Tomtom using the bookings.com co-ordinates to take us up a winding road completely in the wrong direction.  Eventually negotiated the dirt road past the construction/quarry and found our digs.  Which were lovely, absolute lakefront on the most beautiful lake.  Millions of years old, flanked by mountains, with a border shared with Macedonia slicing through the middle.  What a delight it was to stay here.  We watched, from our balcony,  a storm sweep across the lake and the sky turn dark purple, as the front hit.    Later that night we had dinner and watched the evening deepen.  There was something mesmerizing about it.  Lake Ohrid is the oldest lake in Europe.

Pogradec was the closest town to our hotel,  and like many towns in Albania, a bit of a patchwork quilt of new buildings, decrepit wrecks and everything in between.   The country emerged only a few years ago from many years of a dictatorship and sealed borders, where music, long hair, cosmetics or anything deemed to have a western influence was banned, and it shows.  The town itself was chaotic, with shops and stalls crowding any footpath, cars and bikes coming from all directions, and clouds of second hand smoke emerging from the prolific cafes, where no one ever eats anything.

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Our mission was  to find some sunglasses, as the Berlin pair had broken.   Stalls lined the streets, and after some negotiation with the stallholder – or possibly some random who was standing nearby, who then pocketed the $$ and ran, we’ll never know – a new pair were installed on Steve’s head.

We headed for the lakeside promenade.  What a contrast – the foreshore parkland hosted numerous groups of men, playing dominoes, with many more looking on.  I guess it’s the Pogradec version of “men’s shed”, they were all engaged with the game and passing the time in good company.    These men would have lived through the days where the country was sealed off, and experienced the massive changes the collapse would have meant.    Imagine North Korea’s citizens having to adapt to a westernised culture…perhaps that drives them to gather together for a simple game, for company and the comfort it brings.

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

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