The Balkans - 2012

13th May - Dubrovnik

The forecast for Dubrovnik had been good up until today. But a storm was forecast for tonight.

Awful journey. Over running engineering works meant I had to get a rail replacement bus from Reading to Gatwick which meant I arrived just 25 minutes before the departure time. So I rushed through check-in and to find the plane was running two hours late! Which would mean I wouldn't get into Dubrovnik until 11pm.

Landed and it was hot and humid, but dry. But as the bus headed towards the city, the sky got darker and darker and then the storm hit. Thunder, lightening and pouring rain. Luckily the room I booked was only 100 yards from the bus station otherwise I would have been well and truly saturated.

14th May - To Kotor

Storm had cleared and got the 11am bus to Kotor. An hour to the border, the usual 3/4 of an hour for passport control and then another hour around Kotor Fjord with some great views. Past Perast with its two islands which looked especially nice.

But then it really started to piss down again. Proper cats and dogs and the kitchen sink. So when a women touted a room a minute away for 10 Euros I took it. Turned out there was no single room but they could do a double for 15 which was good enough for me. I got inside and waited out the rain.

15th May - Kotor

Better weather so I made the most of it and climbed up the Kotor fortifications. 1350 steps all the way to the top. Quite a climb up a combination of decent steps, rough steps and some bits with no real steps at all. As I walked up the view got better and better, down on the old town and across the fjord. The fortifications are built right into a cliff, when I got to the top I was surprised to see it was a sheer drop the other side too. On the way down I spent an hour sat in the sun, admiring the view and reading my book.

Kotor was more lively today than last night, I think there was a cruise ship or some other tour group in. It actually improved the feel of the place. Sat in the square watching people and eating grilled calimari (well whole squid really), lovely.

16th May - Getting to Tirana

Off again, decided I wan to hit Ohrid for the weekend so I aimed to get as far as possible today towards Tirana. 9:48 bus to Bar went smoothly, more than can be said for the bus' gear changes. Every change was an event in itself. From here a mini-bus to Ulcinj near the Albania border. Then a taxi across the border to Schkoder which was interesting. Me, the Montenegrin taxi driver and an Albanian. Although at the border he had to deny he was a taxi driver as he wasn't allowed to 'work' in Albania. We were also probably the only group who struggled to get an Albanian back into Albania.

As I got to Schkoder by 3pm I decided to go on to Tirana. I got dropped at a petrol station where there were some mini-busses parked after a half an hour wait one took me to Tirana by a round about route for 5Euros. It dropped me half a mile short of the centre but not bad for 5Euros. These journeys really are fun. Not really knowing, where exactly you're going, how long it would take or what exactly you're going to do for the next leg.

17th May - Tirana

Tirana is suprisingly modern. You'd never guess it was the most hardline communist state until recently. Restuarants, bars, shops and a modern feel. You can say many things about dictators but they can sure plan a city. The centre was cleared to create a huge open central area and wide boulavareds. There are a few vanity projects, the pyrimid is amazing. Was once the Hoxta museum, now looks like an ugly communist hangover, but it's now being used as a ...

The Billou was the old communist leader hangout. The usual thing. Everyone's equal, but some were more equal than others. Typical leftie hypocrites. The area is now the main tourist area for restaurants and bars. I ate at Era a few times for the typical Albanian food. Korca Meatballs (in a tomato based sauce) and Fërgesë with veal a sort of feta cheesey, tomato, olive oil thing which went down well with pita bread.

18th May - To Macedonia

Travel day into Macedonia. Reasonably easy, but quite long travel day. 9am bus which went in the wrong direction for the first hour going to Durrësi then heading east towards Macedonia. 3 1/2 hours to the border, an hour to cross the border. Macedonia is obviously very careful when letting in Albanians. Then on to Struga and a taxi to Ohrid.

19th May - Ohrid

Signposts like this mean that I'm now somewhere proper foreign. In general in tourist areas the signs include the English version as well, but with this one I was well and truly buggered.

Ohrid is a large town in southwestern Macedonia on the shore of Lake Ohrid. A town of vast history and heritage, it was made a UNESCO heritage site in 1980. Nestled between high mountains up to 2,800m and Lake Ohrid, it is not only a place of historic significance but also of outstanding natural beauty. Ohrid is the jewel in Macedonia's crown.

20th May - Ohrid

Ohris is beautiful. I can imagine it being packed full of tourists in the middle of Summer but in May it's just perfect. An old town sat on the banks of a large lake with snow topped mountains all around. A touristy main street but not overly so. I guess most tourists here are from Macedonia and Albania. Maybe it is will become more well known in the future but I hope not.

Some great sights around Ohrid. Some 11th, 12th and 13th century churches including the St John Kaneo pictured above. Only a small (13th century) church but sitting on a little headland it looks amazing. The sort of view you could sit and look at for hours. So I did; a book, the sun shining and a spot like this what more could you want from a holiday? From here I walked up to the fortress and back into town via the Hellenistic theatre, which looks like a Roman amphitheatre but pre-dates them by 500 years.

21st May - To Skopje

Time for another bus journey. Another mini-adventure. The first problem being finding the right bus stop. I was given half decent directions, sort of down, right the left then across the road and in front of the supermarket. It was near enough and having memorised the Cyrillic for Skopje (above) I was off and running. No borders to cross this time but there was some drama, although I still don't know what it was all about. About 3/4 of the way to Skopje the bus was about to join the toll motorway, but got flagged down by police who walked around, kicked the tires and turned us back. The bus drove back to what looked like a test station where we all got off. The bus then drove off with all our bags. About 20 of us who were on the bus were left standing. Me a couple of New Zealanders and some locals. The locals acted as if this was completely normal and used it as a cigarette break so we didn't panic. We were glad when about half an hour later the bus finally came back, we jumped on and headed on to Skopje!

Time to talk food and drink. As you'd expect, the main drink is beer and by beer I mean lager. Some pretty tasteless, some a bit soapy tasting and some OK. This beer was about the best of them, Skopsko, the most popular beer in Macedonia. And at a pound a pint ...

As for food, some great sea food by the coast and lots of meat in land. Every street seems to have a small window with a large grill plate. Ćevapi or Kebapi, small beefburger type things served with onion and bread lovely. Burek is common everywhere especially for breakfast, seems popular but I'm not keen. Small, often oily flaky pastry pasty type things filled with cheese or sometimes mince and always served luke warm. Guide books rave about them, but not for me. Most meals seem to come with Tavče Gravče, a bean stew which is Macedonia's national dish.

22nd May - Skopje

Macedonia lay claim to two famous people. Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa. Neither of them are really Macedonian or at least not FYRO Macedonian. Alexander the Great is one of the things FYRO Macedonia and Greece argue about, along with the name Macedonia. Most of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia is now in region of Greece called Macedonia. So Alexander was basically Greek. Just to piss the Greeks off they've erected a massive statue of Alexander in the centre of Skopje. Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, but in her own words "By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus." Anyway the Mother Teresa Memorial House is in Skopje too.


Skopje is quite small and a lot of it is currently being rebuilt to return it to its former glory. The rebuilding is partly because of an earthquake which destroyed 75% of the buildings in 1963 and party to replace the previous communist rebuilding. It has a real East West feel, a mixture of Byzantine and Ottoman, Christian and Muslim.

One of the most famous symbols of Skopje is the Stone Bridge which links the old and new towns. Also like a lot of old Eastern Block cities there are loads of statues (many humorous) scattered around like the divers in the picture above.

23rd May - To Sofia

Another day, another bus journey. Across the border and into Bulgaria. Ever local person I've mentioned Bulgaria to has said how horrible Bulgaria is and that I shouldn't bother going there. Time for me to find out for myself.


I found out there was a 'free' walking tour of Sofia which started at 6pm which sounded like a great way to see as much of Sofia as possible in the short time I had there. It was great. There were only 8 of us on the tour which was led by a local student. In a couple of hours we covered loads of sights in a surprisingly beautiful city. Mosques, churches, grand old buildings and above an area with loads of taps pouring out natural spring water.

Free Sofia Tour web-site.

24th May - Sofia

Today I basically retraced the walking tour from last night with a few detours here and there. Sofia really is nice. The city was founded 2,500 years ago and the history is on show everywhere. Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Ottoman, Russian, Communist and all kinds of mixes in between. Everything has been built on a grand scale. The mosque, the synagogue, Russian Orthodox churches. The Ivan Vazov National Theatre looks amazing, everything a theatre should be and more.

One of the most interesting things was a flee market in a square in the middle of Sofia. It was full of stalls selling Communist and Nazi memorabilia. Uniforms, medals, cigarette cases. Lenin and Hitler, the hammer and sickle and the swastika everywhere. And all of it was original; I guess had come out of peoples attics and cellars from the occupations of the last century. Amazing.

Below: The 4th century Rotunda of St. George which is built on top of the Roman settlement. In front are members of the Presidential Guard waiting for the next changing of the guard for Sofia's Presidential Palace.

25th May - Budapest

The final stop on my whistle stop tour of the Balkans is Budapest. It wasn't in my original plans but when I was looking for flights a stop-over in Budapest was the cheapest option. Budapest has always been on my to do list and now I've done it!

I like Budapest but after the places I've already been on this trip it feels too touristy. Too many people, too many shops selling tourist tat. It's a lot more expensive too!

But that said it is easy to see why Budapest is popular. Of course being more accessable helps. Next door to Austria and with plenty of international flights. But the city itself is big, grand and beautifully preserved (rebuilt). And the Danube running through the middle doesn't hurt either.

Again I only had one full day to see as much as possible. Time for another free walking tour, or in this case two. The first did a few important buildings on the Pest side then headed across the Chain Bridge to Castle Hill in Buda.

26th May - Heading Home

Bosnia and Croatia - November 2009