As a result of our homeswapping we are owed a week’s accommodation in Berlin (Germany) and a week in Angers (France). We wanted to add some interesting destinations to these, but after our adventurous trip to Ethiopia earlier in the year, we were ready for something fairly easy. We decided to fly Qatar Airways with a couple of nights in Doha, and finally settled on a couple of Intrepid Travel trips as they only have a maximum of twelve on their trips, and are a good compromise between independent travel and a 40-person bus trip.
The first trip was an eight-night basic tour using some public transport, and starting in Bucharest, Romania and finishing in Sofia (Bulgaria). We then had four days before the second tour, a comfort tour of eleven nights starting in Skopje (North Macedonia). This tour finished in Dubrovnik (Croatia). All of these destinations on the two tours, except for Bucharest the starting point, and Dubrovnik, the end point, were new to us.
We were to fly from Dubrovnik to Berlin for a week, then fly from Berlin to Paris, where we’d connect with the TGV to Angers (France), for a week’s homeswap with the use of a car to explore the Loire area. All this will take 45 days, the maximum allowed on our travel insurance.
Thursday, 20 June 2019 Flight Sydney to Doha (Qatar)
We have a pretty relaxed morning cleaning up the unit and working our way through the departure check-list, as our flight is not till 3.45pm. Walk down to the ferry, in beautiful weather, the coldest so far this winter, but clear and crisp, with a light breeze. The now-normal sequence of walk-ferry-train from Circular Quay works seamlessly, and we arrive at check-in early, and are quickly through immigration and security. Get our usual departing Maccas while we wait, then board and away on time.
With a late afternoon Qatar Airlines flight and not much to see out of Sydney we haven’t seen before, we have opted for an aisle seat for Murray in the centre block of four and hope for spare seats beside us. A large man arrives late for the aisle seat on the far side of us, leaving us with a row of three. This is enough for Dianne to establish herself as the owner of the third seat, and after the movie watching has worn thin, she lies on her two seats, with her feet on Murray’s lap, and manages a couple of critical hours sleep. Murray gets some sleep, but manages to watch a stack of movies, none particularly special. We have no complaints, as the flight is smooth, service and food good, seat back screens particularly good, entertainment OK, but a bit light on latest release movie selections to Dianne’s taste. Overall, Qatar holds up to its high rating.
After 13 hours we are feeling pretty shattered, but get a pretty good run through airport formalities, get cash, a real taxi with a real taxi meter which is really working, and after a fast run on good roads through a forest of thick T-shaped light poles which are decorated with what could be Quran verses and are floodlit in changing colours, we finally make it to our five-star accommodation in Doha, Al Najada Hotel by Tivoli, at just after 1 AM, and are well received and shown into a very nice room indeed. Our accommodation is only A$79 a night, because we have a special deal as we are flying Qatar Airlines.
A$1 = 2.5 Riyals
Friday 21st June Doha (Qatar)
We get to sleep about 2 AM. Dianne wakes at four but goes back to sleep till nearly 6 AM, Murray a bit later. Murray takes some morning photos from our balcony, but makes it quick as it is already blazing hot. We are out looking for breakfast at 9 AM, and it is already nearly 40°. As planned, we find the souk right beside us and walk through the narrow streets, keeping to the shade as much as possible. There is a breeze coming from the water, but it feels like it is coming out of an oven.
Our first impression is of a village with narrow, winding streets, rough masonry buildings most of which are commercial. It is only later we find the large buildings full of passage ways, which are part of Souk Wakif. A lot of the buildings have been re-constructed.
As today is Friday the streets and passages are almost deserted, with a lot of merchandise stacked seemingly unprotected in the open. We have been told nothing much will be happening till late afternoon. There are a lot of badly marked steps and ramps and some strange small steps in the otherwise flat tiling and Dianne has a couple of falls – one trip and one full, while looking around while walking instead of stopping. We meet three Australian women from Tasmania on their way to a walking tour in France, including climbing Mont Blanc, and end up having breakfast with them in the restaurant of one of the many boutique hotels in the Souq Al Waqif. We settle for very good grilled haloumi and kibbe plus two sodas for about A$17. In a typical third-world scenario, some of the women order scrambled eggs, but are later told there are no eggs-yet. We suspect a flunky was dispatched to get some, as they did eventually appear. With the women, we walk around to find the real warren of passages of the souk, but leave them to it as they are heading for the northern end of the city by taxi.
We cross a sun-blasted plaza, negotiate crossing a busy highway intersection then head for the Dhow Harbour. There is a strong breeze blowing off the water, but it is stinking hot, so we take some good photos of the large collection of traditional timber dhows, then walk to the far end of the wharf for city view photos, and get a taxi back to hotel at 11:30 AM for 10 Rials (A$4). It is now about 42 degrees C outside!!
We have a rest-and-recover, and are out just before 2 PM to get a taxi for 10 Rials to theNational Museum of Qatar. The flag-fall of the taxis is 10 Rials, and if you make sure the meter is engaged, this is enough to take you to most places in the city. The museum building is relatively new, and about half of it hasn’t been opened to the public. The ambitious design of the building is based on the geometry of intersecting crystals of gypsum in “Desert Roses” which are found in dry, sandy desert country.
The museum is not cheap, at A$20 each admission, but is well worth it with fantastic audio visuals (the best we have seen anywhere in the world), a good selection of well-presented native animals, birds, fish and insects, costumes, and a whole section on the historic pearling industry and the boats used in the Arab maritime tradition.
We are starving by now, and seek out the Desert Rose Cafe we know is on the grounds. The menu is a bit mysterious, but our waiter explains and shows us a photo on his phone. We have one keema (a minced lamb dish with flat bread), and two Cokes for 54 Rials (A$22). In a strange coincidence, the waiter is the first Albanian we have ever met, and we are the first Australians, and probably Westerners, he has met who are going to Albania. After the meal, we look at the historic Royal Palace on the museum grounds, and climb some of the structures for views of the Museum and surrounding areas.
We get another 10 Rial taxi to the Museum of Islamic Art, which we have seen from a distance at the Dhow Harbour. The taxi drives right up the long approach ramp to the front door, where we have a look from inside the entrance foyer, and decide we don’t need to look at Islamic Art for 50 Rials each, when the streets and the mosques are full of it. We take photos inside and from the ramp, then catch the lift down to the park below and spend some time lying on the grass in the shade with all the locals. We decide to walk back home, as it is now about 6 pm and only 30+ degrees. We walk along the edge of the water, past the Pearl and Oyster Fountain we passed this morning. There are lots of people out and about enjoying the afternoon breeze and picnicking on the green grass after Friday prayers. There are hawkers selling cool drinks, lots of tourist dhows pulled up to the corniche with loud music and spruikers, and a generally festive air.
We negotiate, with a few false moves, pedestrian underpasses associated with lifts, escalators and multi-story underground car parks to get to the right side of the main road, and head west towards the Grand Mosque past where there is a yard full of camels. Murray crosses another main road to get to the large grassy knoll below the Grand Mosque and clock tower to get photos. He gets a warning blast from a police car guarding a government building, possibly for walking on the pristine grass, possibly for photographing a Government building. Dianne heads inland looking for the Falcon Souk, `and eventually finds a plaza with several shops with falcon-related signs, but no falcons. Looking through the windows of one we can see tiers of benches facing a number of low posts on which falcons are placed during an auction. There are outdoor tables at a cafe on the plaza and we have a drink, which gives us a chance to have a rest and consider the falcon situation. While walking back toward our hotel we come across a couple of shops with falcons perched on short poles set in sand. We go in and they let us take photos of the birds and the equipment used in falconry, particularly the hoods on the head.
Back at the hotel we rest for a short time then go down for a swim in the dark. The water is reasonably warm for desert conditions, but Murray has only a short swim, finding it pretty chilly out of the water and still wet. We set out for dinner about 8.30pm going to “Paris a sick fuck you” as first written. (Actually was Parisa Souk Wakif Restaurant, but we’re experimenting with dictating parts of the diary, and it sometimes has problems with unusual names).This restaurant, with Persian cuisine, rates highly on Trip Advisor (39 of 1,029). We have an interesting meal, okay, but nothing fancy – one Kashko bademjan (eggplant and walnuts) and Khoresht Fesenjan (chicken stew) and two juices –A$61. However, the restaurant is indeed fancy, decorated by the king of bling. Very elaborate multi-coloured geometric patterns in reflective material, covering the entire two story atrium and continuing onto the ceilings of the upstairs rooms around the atrium. In the centre of the atrium is a large fish pond and fountain, surrounded by a lower level reflective pool. It needs to be seen to be believed – words don’t do it justice. Even if the food was pretty ordinary, the surroundings were definitely worth the visit.
After the meal, we repeat this morning’s walk down to the waterfront. It seems much shorter now it is relatively cool, although at still over 30° it is now just hot rather than life-threatening. We take photos across the water to the Islamic art museum, the high-rise section around the bay, and the Pearl and Oyster fountain before walking back home, hoping we’ll make it we are so tired. We go to bed about 10.30 PM, hoping for a good night sleep.
Saturday, 22 June Doha (Qatar) – Bucharest (Romania)
We go straight to sleep but wake up about midnight when Murray goes to the loo and accidentally turns on all the lights. Back to sleep until woken at 4 am by the alarm. It turns out Murray has set the alarm for 11 AM so we won’t miss our 3.30pm flight to Bucharest, Romania, but unfortunately his phone is on Australian time! Neither of us go back to sleep. We are out about 9 am for breakfast at same place as yesterday, then walk around the souk for a while, looking at lots of interesting alleys and taking photos.
Back at the hotel, Dianne has a quick swim, then we pack and take a taxi to the airport for only 27 Rials this time (almost exactly half of previous fare, possibly due to the flag fall being only the usual inner-city 10 Rials). The down-side of the cheap taxi fare is Dianne leaves one of her brand new pairs of reading glasses (they were two for price of one) behind in the hassle of getting out of the taxi, so she now has no spare ones for the rest of the trip.
We are very pleased with our stopover in Doha. Our 4-5 star hotel was in a great position, right next to the souk, with a great price (A$79) through the Qatar airways special stopover deal. As well, it’s hopefully got us a bit accustomed to the European time change.
Check-in is pretty straight forward, and we have our tags applied and boarding passes organised by staff at the automated stands, but we have to find a seat for Dianne to sort through her main bag for her second pair of reading glasses before we do the bag drop. At security, we still have our bottled water, but are told if we drink half the bottle, we can put less than 100 ml into a plastic bag and take it with us, but we decline. Our departure gate needs a long walk, and a San Francisco style cable-operated shuttle to get to it, and the whole area is pretty deserted when we get there. Dianne sets up near the massive windows looking out on the very hazy desert airport landscape while Murray goes in search of a power supply to run his computer, finding only one in a hundred rows of airport seats. He kills some time looking at the massive steel structures found in modern airport terminal designs.
Boarding starts off before the advised time, and is pretty low-key, with no announcements, but the boarding is actually done by zone. Because this is a relatively short afternoon flight we have chosen window seats on the starboard side of the aircraft. Unfortunately we have forgotten there is a wing, and we are looking right at it. We can see forward at the horizon, and back past the wing, but the arrangement is not all that flash for photos. This is a shame, because the city and coast is laid out right below us on this side of the aircraft, but we still manage some good photos of the ambitious design of two of the coastal suburbs which set out high rise buildings in a circle, with a multi-lane highway around the outside, and a circular waterway inside with marina pontoons radiating inward towards an island. Other photos show extensive port facilities, artificial peninsulas still being developed, stadia under construction, and what looks like a Formula 1 race circuit. Further along the coast we can see coastal cities and harbours laid out, but it is uncertain if they are established or under construction.
The flight takes us up the Persian Gulf as far as Basra, then heads north east over Iran and toward Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. There is a lot of arid mountainous scenery in Iran, but there are also some irrigated green fields, and large lakes near Isfahan. Towards the Turkish border we pass some very high mountains with the remnants of winter snow. We can’t recognise Mt Ararat, or see any Ark-like formations. We cross over Lake Urmia and Lake Van.
Approaching Romania, we can see European style patchwork fields of green and gold, and the extensive Danube River delta system, with multiple rivers. There are some major storm clouds about but we manage to avoid them and have a smooth landing. Migration and customs are remarkably perfunctory, considering this is EU, but maybe non-Schengen. We sort out the luggage collection system, with the belt allocation board lagging the reality, sort out the exchange rate and get three 100 lei bills and ask about the taxi system. We are pointed to an archaic—looking machine which has taxi company names on it, but no way to pay anything. It turns out to be purely a booking system, with a docket indicating the taxi number and number plate number, and a time of arrival. This looks reasonably well organised, but it takes two shots to get a docket, as the cheapest offer doesn’t work.
A$1 = 2.87 Ron (Romanian Lei) (this is rate from bank ATM, Airport private machines have much worse rate)
We walk out to the taxi rank and wait for ours to arrive in three minutes, but after waiting ten minutes and seeing only one taxi with our company logo, a driver from a nearby parked taxi recognises our plight and indicates that taxis sometimes don’t turn up, or are hijacked by urgers, so we might as well go with him. He has a real taxi, with a meter, so we give him a go. The ride into town is pretty exciting, with a fair bit of traffic, a lot of lane changing and plenty of apparent speed, but probably only 80 kmh. We see a few landmarks and grand mansions remembered from our 2012 visit. Our man finds the hotel OK, and has change for a 100 lei note for our 43 lei fare (A$15).
At Hotel Trianon (A$110 per night) we are expected, and are given room 007 on the ground floor. The room is quite large, almost a suite, but is close to reception and has a mostly glass wall along the entrance corridor to the hotel. We have had trouble with noise from rooms like this, so ask for a different one. We are allocated one on the top floor, which hasn’t got the right sort of window, but we take it. It turns out that the room is an attic room, with skylight windows, but is quite acceptable, and is air conditioned. After settling in, we go to reception to ask about possible restaurants in the area, and are told that the only possibility is to walk across the large park to find a possible take-away on the far side. This doesn’t sound too promising, but we have little choice. Out on the street, we notice a corner shop with a group of people around it. The shop has a decent range of food, and we settle on bread, salami, a big bottle of Bitter Lemon, a half kilo of 12 lei per kilo cherries and a couple of nectarines. The front desk bloke looks a bit wary when we return, but doesn’t comment. The meal is pretty good, but leaves a lot of crumbs.
Even though the AC unit is pretty small, and does not face the bed, we have our usual problem with it – too cold to sleep just under a sheet, not cold enough to use the thick doona in the cupboard, and a room still retaining the day’s heat if the AC is switched off altogether. But we manage.
Sunday, 23 June Bucharest (Romania)
We are awake about 6 AM, unable to get back to sleep, so kill time on chores before going down to a good buffet breakfast about 8.30am. We load up the backpack, decide on who carries what, and head out into the nearby Cismigiu Gardens we visited in 2012. Get a fair way into them before realising we have left the backpack behind. Murray goes back for it and remembers to put in a spare camera battery. It is taking a while to get into travelling mode. We don’t go very far beyond the park before we find more familiar territory, including the Dambovita River which mysteriously finishes at the large park and continues on the other side. Can also now see the massive Palace of Parliament building. We divert away from the river, past a Holocaust memorial on the site of the freight terminal where Jews and Roma were loaded into freight wagons on the way to the concentration camps, and uphill to the main tourist areas. After a false start, we find the Rembrandt Hotel we stayed at last time, Caru” cu Bere, the interesting beer hall we visited before, and a couple of the historic churches.
On our way to the iconic caravanserai, Hanul Manuc, we pass through crowds of tourists, some in groups 50 strong, and the strip club, girlie bar, and possible brothel area. We have a look inside the courtyard of the Hanul Manuc, which seems more closed-off than before, possibly because the trees in the courtyard are seven years older, and the structure is not as visible. We get good photos of the stairway to the top floor and the old church complex across the road. We walk down to the main road to look at the central park and the massive commercial building at the end of it, then back into the minor streets where we sneak a photo of the statue of Vlad the Impaler through a hole in the brattice around what is now an archaeological construction site. We make our way uphill to find the notable Victoria Passage, full of bars and restaurants, then along the main road past a historic Army-related building under extensive repair before descending along a street of semi-derelict buildings to the theatre district and back to Cismigiu Park where we reward ourselves with two 4-lei ice creams at a kiosk.
In the afternoon, after a rest and doing some diary, with Murray in his fleece jacket typing at the desk in front of the very breezy AC unit, we head out to do some more sightseeing and look for some food. End up at a park where there is some sort of folkloric festival going on, with dancers, lots of families out enjoying the summer sun, and lots of food stalls with local food. We have a try of a German sausage with some very strange sauerkraut, then head home, filling up with fruit (more cherries) and drink from our local store and a better night’s sleep with the AC running and the doona from the cupboard, which turned out to a better weight than we originally thought.
Monday 24 June Bucharest (Romania)
Our tour starts today at 6pm, and we meet most of the incoming people at breakfast. Our tour connects with one from Budapest to Bucharest, and there were six people on this (all women) and they are all continuing on to our trip, and there are another four people joining, including us.
We eat enough food to keep us going for the day, and plot a course over new ground. The one thing we didn’t do last time we were here, and the only thing we really wanted to do this time, was visit the Palace of Parliament, the infamous 3,000 room building built by Nicolae Ceausescu the former dictator. Dianne researched making a tour booking in advance, only to find it is closed for most of the period 1st January to 30th June as Romania took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for those six months, and meetings will be held there. However after quite a few emails we were told that we are booked on a 2pm tour of the Senate, which is in the same building. Our plotted course has us ending up at the Palace of Parliament, and our first stop takes us to the Opera. To get to the Opera, we pass through the grounds of a University, with groups of students, some in traditional scruffy dress, others fashionable. The buildings are very dated and in poor condition, and the grounds, while having a lot of trees and grassy areas, were very badly maintained.
The opera building has a big Il Trovatore banner across the top of it, but it doesn’t look all that active. We cross a major road, past a large but neglected monument for some woman, and into an older area of medium sized houses, with some exceptions, including the Mexican Embassy, and emerge onto the major road which circles the massive new Cathedral being built on the hill and the Palace of Parliament. We have read that a whole bohemian district and the hill it stood on had been demolished to make way for the Palace of Parliament, but there is still a lot of it left, and at the west end, there is a large yard with a high retaining wall which looks suspiciously like a bunker. We climb the hill past large government buildings hung with massive 2019 EU banners, the entrance to the construction yard for the Cathedral, the Marriott Hotel, a large road branching off with large, but old commercial buildings, and stop at a small church which will be in the yard of the Cathedral. There is a church service going on, and we get a good photo into the highly decorated church and congregation in national costumes. Cannot understand why anyone would be spending such massive amounts of money on such an enormous new cathedral when there are plenty of other things the country needs much to spend money on. Apparently quite a few of the locals feel the same.
We continue down the wide avenue past the Cathedral, getting photos from across the road, and get to the first gate in the large wall surrounding the Palace of Parliament. Are surprised to see a Senat sign beside the gate, as we were expecting it to be on the left side of the main facade on the east side. Dianne has evidence on her Iphone that we have an invite to see the Senat at 2 PM, so the guard reluctantly allows us to proceed.
At the entrance steps to the building, we see a Senat sign beside double doors, decide to go in, and the door opens automatically. We are indeed in the right place as there are security staff, security screens and X-Ray machines, but we do not have the right authority, and there doesn’t seem to be a “list of names” to justify our entry, even though Dianne talks to a number of the staff, who speak English. A group of school kids are going in, which shows that they are accepting tours, but it is only 1pm, and we don’t feel like waiting around for an hour in the off-chance that a group will mysteriously turn up at 2pm, and have our name on the list. It also worries us that the tour company said they will send our confirmation on when they receive it, but we have never received it. The guard rings the number of the tour company, but no-one answers, so we cop it sweet, and retire to take some photos from inside the grounds before walking downhill to the main facade, and across to the centre of it.
On the east side of the avenue, there is a massive semi-circular car park and twin curved buildings either side. Looking further east, the main avenue, Unririi Boulevarde extends a kilometre, with gardens and fountains in the centre and avenues of trees down each side. All pretty grand. At the far end is the main park, full of fountains and gardens. We take a lot of photos, then walk to the far end where there is a major street with commercial buildings on the far side, and a Golden Arches sign.
We use the loos in Maccas, look at the long queues, and consider our options, but the AC is working, and Dianne has a place to sit and rest while Murray lines up for at least 15 minutes, only to find the Shakes are not available, but we cop it with a Big Mac meal with Coke. We walk back to the fountain park, where we met the tour guide for the free walking tour seven years ago, and take a photo of the clock. Walked back via the river before heading uphill through the mean streets and tourist traps, passing an empty plinth on the steps of the large, many-columned National Museum of Romanian History building where the unloved statue of a naked Emperor Trajan holding the she-wolf used to be, but only the broken pediment remains. Seems like those that hated it got their way. Further up Calle Victoria where it meets the main road, we get more photos of impressive buildings before heading downhill past the theatre district to the main-road frontage of our park, and through it for a second go at the ice cream stall. We are pretty well buggered by the time we get home, at about 3.15 PM, and have a short rest before our 6 PM meeting for the start of our Intrepid Travel “Eastern European Express” Basic 8-night tour (A$1,660 each). Meet everyone – our guide Dani, the six people who are continuing on with him – Lesley and Lorraine from New Zealand, Sandra and Dianne from Sydney, Jan from Melbourne and Angela from USA, and the four new people joining – us, Marguerite from Annandale and Frances from Ireland. Murray is the only male, with nine females! Ages in group are 39, 53, 55, 65, 66, 68 (me) 70, 76 (Murray), 76, 77, so although we’re at the older end of the group, there are others our age, and for once Murray is only the second oldest, and not the oldest.
Out soon after for a 20 minute walk through our end of the park and main roads past a major musical venue to our booking at La Mama Centrul Vechi Restaurant. The restaurant had an extensive menu, Murray settled for a big beer and a traditional goulash, Dianne had a cabbage rolls and Polenta dish, and a couple of miserly glasses of a good Prosecco for about A$35. The group was quite congenial, and we made the return journey in good spirits in light rain. On the return, one of the ladies, Sandra, was lagging behind after we crossed a major road at traffic lights. The light was still green so she made a run for it, only to be crash tackled by a low kerb in the road separating bike lanes from traffic. Her shoes and bag went in all directions, and one of the other women rushed out into the road to help her and hold up the traffic, which looked like proceeding regardless. Sandra was not badly hurt, but we spent a fair bit of time on the way back looking for ice to ease her pain. Just a minute before this incident a white luxury car roared through the same intersection at about 100 kmh.
Back at the hotel, we spent the evening packing, getting to bed about 11pm. About 3am, Murray felt the need to go to the toilet for what ended up as a massive diarrhoea episode. We considered our options, made up hydralite solution, administered charcoal tablets and decided against an early antibiotics intervention. After hourly loo visits total evacuation and more hydralite, we decided on a stopper pill for travel, and got ready to start our tour.
Tuesday, 25 June Bucharest (Romania) to Veliko Tarnova (Bulgaria)
We are due to catch a tram at 10.50am so have time to work out how Murray’s health was holding up. Decide he can handle a walk up the street to a real supermarket, which we find three stories up in a new building with a car park on the ground floor, entrance on the third, exit on the second. The range of goods available is far more extensive than we would have imagined, but we settle on bread, salami and a big bottle of water for the train trip.
We are issued with tram tickets as part of the tour, and have a fairly long wait for the 44 tram, with a false start when the 24 arrives, but all manage to get up the three steps with our baggage and get seats in the almost empty tram. The trip takes us up our street into new territory, dropping us off outside the Nord Gara, and Dani leads us to a central position to wait for our 12.40pm train, showing on the departures board as going to Sofia, Bulgaria but actually carrying on to Istanbul (Turkey). We are going only as far as Veliko Tarnovo today. We are issued with random numbered tickets, but Dianne manages to do a swap to get 44 and 45. When the train is announced on Platform 1, we make haste, having been told we have assigned seats, but may have to fight for them. The train only has a couple of carriages, and there are few passengers so we have no trouble finding our seats, but putting the big bags on the racks is a two-person effort.
Dani has told us that the windows will not stay open without props, and we have the recommended coke can for the job, but the windows actually pull down from the top, and the coke can isn’t quite up to the job. Dani hangs his day pack on the window handle, but it isn’t heavy enough, and it sneaks up and closes. The temperature is in the high thirties, and it’s unbearable in the carriage with no through air. Murray the Engineer, notices the zipper pocket on his pack is accessible and gets out the stretch close lines and manages to tie the window down with multiple turns around the small table/shelf below it. This arrangement works well enough to remove the day pack so we get a better view, but we have to remove it when we get a sharp shower of rain. The design is later upgraded so the clothesline can be slipped off the shelf at a moment’s notice.
Leaving the station, we pass under a giant suspension bridge which doesn’t have a river under it and through industrial suburbs. Because of some sort of flood damage, our route takes us north before swinging west and then south to cross the Danube into Bulgaria. The northern part of the route is the same we took on our first train out of Bucharest 7 years ago. We emerge into flat agricultural country, with harvested grain and a forest of electricity pylons. Later we pass a large power station with cooling towers and more transmission towers. We pass into some broad acre sunflower farming, but it is hard to get a picture to show just how great they look. See a storm with rain falling in the distance. We stop for a passport check a few kilometres short of the Danube and cross the river on an ageing steel truss bridge. There is some river traffic, a small port with wharf cranes on the Romanian side and a large port on an arm of the river on the Bulgarian side. The river is very wide, but we can see it has a fair current running in it. At 3.20 PM we have another immigration stop in Bulgaria, and at 3.45 PM have a prolonged stop in the town of Ruse. The stop is long enough for Dianne to borrow some Bulgarian money from Dani and walk to a nearby shop for a cold drink. The towns we pass through have high rise apartment buildings, both ageing communist style, and more modern. The stations we pass are generally small and run-down, but the staff waving us through have smart uniforms and bright red peaked caps with gold braid on the visors.
We’ve done a quick read up on Bulgarian history, as we don’t know much more than the fact that the Communists were ousted in 1989, though they reformed as the Socialist Party, and were re-elected the following year. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007, but low wages, organized crime and corruption are sources of continual complaint and anguish.
Their distant history started when Thracians moved into the area around 5,000 BC, and Greeks began settling on the Black Sea coast from 7th century BC. By AD100 Bulgaria was part of the Roman Empire. The first Slavs migrated here from the north in the 5th century AD, and the first Bulgarian state was formed in AD681. The Byzantine Empire conquered it in 1014, and it gained independence from Constantinople in 1185, and this second kingdom, based in Veliko Tarnova, lasted until the Ottomans took control in 1396, and they ruled for the next 500 years.
There was an unsuccessful “April Uprising” in 1876, but with the help of the Russians the Turks were defeated in 1878, and Bulgaria regained its independence.
During the Second World War, Bulgaria aligned with Nazi Germany, but towards the end of the war the Communists gained control, and the royal family was exiled. Under Todor Zhivkov, the country’s leader from 1954-1989, Bulgaria became one of the most repressive of the Eastern Bloc regimes, until the Communists were ousted in 1989. We decided it was definitely about time we visited.
The landscape we pass through turns to rolling hills with mixed forest and agriculture, and a lot of sunflowers. It rains on and off, and we have to disable the window ties a number of times. By the time we leave the train at 6.30pm, about 20 kms short of Veliko Tarnovo, the rain has really set in, and we have to hurry to board a full-size public bus for the final leg. The rain increases and floods the inadequately drained road, but the driver doesn’t feel the need to slow down, and we plunge through sheets of water thrown up by opposing traffic. The lady conductor does a good job de-fogging the windscreen with a towel.
Arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, about 7.30pm, we alight to more rain and flooded streets and have to make a decision between carrying the baggage up a flight of steps, or pulling it to a Y intersection and up the steep street toward our Hotel Varusha through rivers of water. The Y intersection gets the nod, but we are surprised by just how much water manages to get inside the bags. After a half-hour break to sort out our wet bags, we go to dinner at an excellent restaurant – Shtastliveca Old Town. Murray doesn’t have much to eat, and is up at 3am with bad diarrhea, and again a couple more times during the early morning, so neither of us get much sleep.
Wednesday 26th of June Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgaria)
Most of the group goes out at 7 am for breakfast. Murray stays behind while Dianne goes to meet them at 7:30am but she goes the wrong way and doesn’t find them. She does find a bakery and buys a small pizza and Coke, and all meet up at 8am on the main road to get money from the ATM and start a walking tour of the town.
A$1 = 1.2 Bulgarian lev (BGN)
We head back the way Dianne has just rushed back from, and get to a purpose-built cantilevered lookout with views around the steep cliffs beside the Yantra River, the river itself, and monuments and historic buildings on the far bank of the river including the reconstructed Tsarevets Fortress which had been settled by the Thracians and Romans, but the Byzantines built the first significant fortress here between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., which was rebuilt and fortified by the Slavs and Bulgars between the 8th and 10th centuries, and again by the Byzantines in the early 12th century. When Tarnovograd became the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital it was magnificent, but was destroyed with the Turkish invasion of 1393.
Up to this moment we weren’t all that impressed with Veliko Tarnovo, not helped by the rain and Murray being sick, but this view changed our mind, and for the first time we saw the town actually had a lot to offer.
From here we set out to visit the Fort. We walked through the main shopping street of the old town to find the road high above the river which passes the Nativity of Virgin Mary Cathedral, the major church of the town, and leads down to the narrow neck at the entrance to the grounds of the Fort. From the road we can see the Fort in the distance, the river and high ground on the far side of the river which was occupied by the wealthy citizens back in the middle ages. Dani organises tickets and we walk through the fortified gateway and follow the walls around clockwise. We get good views back to the fort gateway and the city and keep climbing along the wall until we come to a square tower which forms part of the wall. From the top of the tower we get good views over the main city, the river, the Wealthy Quarter across the river and the lower town and bridges down at the river. By now, Murray is feeling pretty fragile, but manages to get some anti-dehydration fluid in, and keeps it down.
We continue around the wall getting good photos of the fortifications, and, by chance, a remarkable large black, white and orange bug. We continue walking around the walls till we get to the natural overhanging rock on the cliff face from which condemned prisoners were forced to jump. From here we climb towards the Church-like building on the highest point of the fort, passing a stage under construction for a concert, and a very industrial looking steel bell tower. Down below us on this bend in the river are abandoned industrial buildings from the Communist era, including a brewery with a high chimney, and both derelict and operational commercial buildings.
At the church-like structure on the top of the hill, there is a large group of school students making a visit. The reason the Church-like building is not a church is because, during the Communist era, no new churches were allowed to be built where one hadn’t been there before. The “church” interior was painted extensively with religious paintings done in a modernist style, in mainly shades of grey and brown, with highlighted figures in more natural colours to pick out the good from the bad and the ugly. We take photos of the exterior, the interior and the view of the town, and repeat the long walk back to the shopping street, getting back to the hotel at about 10.30am
After a break at the hotel for 10 minutes we are out again to do a free walk of the town which doesn’t finish until nearly 2 pm. The walk starts at the Tourist Bureau, with our first stop at a war memorial obelisk with bronze statues and different dates to those accepted in the West. They have had a lot of wars in the Balkans. The tour continues along the main street, past a major Government building with interesting promotional posters which include views of the town in autumn and winter, and carry on to another obelisk and a viewing platform which looks out over Stambolov Bridge, the monument to the Assen Dynasty and the art gallery. We are a bit taken aback to learn that the platform was built by volunteer students, but it seems to take the weight of the group OK. We carry on to the shopping street which has an interesting caravanserai, unusual in being long and skinny because of being built on a ridge. We continue to the edge of the cliff on the river, take in views of Tsarevets Fort again, and the old Rich Quarter before crossing the ridge back to the main street to see the historic administration centre from when Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria. From here we walk a narrow street across the face of the escarpment which used to be the main street, and get views across the river to the Museum and the major monuments. The tour finishes back at the Tourist Bureau, but we take the option of a steep climb up a rough track to get us more directly back to the hotel for a rest.
At 5 pm we head towards the tourist bureau, but take a steep street which drops towards the river, and the Massive “Russian” hotel built during the Communist era. We are thinking of having a drink there but the cavernous foyer and bar area is deserted except for the disinterested man at reception, and it is pretty dreary, so we decide against it. We are just leaving when the sprinkling rain we have put up with turns into a torrential downpour. We think of going back into the hotel, but settle for the shelter of the communist era curved concrete awning. When the rain eases we cross the Stambolov Bridge to the art gallery and the monument to the Assen Dynasty (known by us as the horse statue). The bridge may have been a vehicle bridge, but it is now for pedestrians only, possibly a nod to the tendency of communist era constructions to deteriorate.
We get a closer look at the monument, which is quite impressive. It depicts the first four Assen rulers – Ivan, Peter, Kaloyan and Assen II. Each Tsar flails a sword on a horse reared up on its hind legs. They circle a huge sword pointing up to the sky. The sword has been placed point up, as the other way would look too much like a Christian Cross.
The Museum is closed, but the kiosk is open and serving customers. We decide against, and Dianne walks around the building clockwise, Murray anticlockwise, and we meet on the run under an awning just as the rain starts to fall heavily. We wait out the heaviest of the rain, and walk back to the hotel under our mini-folding umbrellas in time to get ready for our 7pm dinner at the same restaurant as last night.
The food is excellent again, and this time Murray has a nice baked potato with a tomato sauce, the first food other than dry bread for a couple of days. We go for a drink in a kinky bar afterwards, but Murray heads back to the room with some others, taking the key with him. Dianne and a few others go down to see if a sound and light show is on at fort. There is not a lot happening so three go back to hotel, leaving Dianne and two others to return a bit later, but it turns out the other two are in the annexe, which has a different key, so Dianne doesn’t have a key to the door of the hotel. She has to call out to Murray who is on third floor, asleep. Finally a lady puts her head out a window, and eventually comes down and lets Dianne in, and she gets to bed about 11.30pm
Thursday 27th June Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgaria) – Plovdiv (Bulgaria)
We are awake at 6am and out by 7am to get some breakfast from the recommended bakery, which turns out to be a lot further up the main road than we had expected. At 8am we take a fleet of taxis to the train station which is at least 5 kms down the river from the town. We are getting the 8.32 to Tulovo? and it only waits a few minutes at Tarnovo, so we have to be quick getting on board. We all manage to get seats in empty compartments, and Deni puts the heavy bags up on the overhead racks for us. The compartments are typical old-style, two long benches either side, a small table at the window with a garbage bin under. The windows are the same as the other day, so Murray has no problem using the elastic clothes line to keep it open.
The train travels mainly along a wooded valley, with low mountains either side, and some agriculture on the river flats, then climbs over a pass in higher mountains heavily timbered with deciduous and conifer trees. We pass small villages which show signs of depopulation, including abandoned and derelict houses. There are small stations which are well-kept and have the station master (or mistress) out to meet the train in their colourful uniforms. We exit the mountains onto wide river flats with extensive agriculture, including sunflower and lavender cultivation, and arrive at Tulovo? at 10.53am. For unknown reasons, there is no train connection from here to Plovdiv, and we have been warned we will have to use the “squishy bus” to get to the next train we’re taking. The bus is indeed squishy, but we all fit in, together with a hostess/guide from the railway company, some nursing their large luggage, and set off on a good road through agricultural country which becomes low, wooded mountains as we cross a low pass and back into river flats at Stara Zagora.
The station at Stara Zagora was pretty grand in its day, in the Communist era, but is now pretty tired, with damaged and water-stained ceilings, smoke-stained chandeliers, modern destination boards which don’t work, and obsolete destination boards which are current, but difficult to interpret.
We have half an hour to wait for the train to Plovdiv, which takes us on dead-flat agricultural land through extensive sunflower fields, stopping for a while in the middle of nowhere because we have lost our slot. The train is similar to the previous one, with similar window arrangements, but in this case, the window is jammed so it doesn’t come down, so it is extremely hot in our compartment, with no circulating air, and it about 34C degrees outside. We arrive in Plovdiv at 2.30pm. We get another fleet of taxis to our Hotel Ego, conveniently located at the edge of the Old Town area and have half an hour before our guided tour of the town, so grab a pizza slice from a nearby street-front fast food place.
Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second city, and one of its oldest, and has a rich cultural heritage, and has a still-functioning Roman theatre. It is 34 degrees so it is a pretty hot and exhausting walk through the old town, taking in the historic streets and houses down on the flat near the river, then climbing through narrower, winding streets with traditional housing, with the upper floors overhanging the ground floor because taxation was based on the ground-floor area. While historic, the houses are not all that impressive, with the local style using painted-on decorative patterns rather than reliefs on the render.
After getting maps at the Tourist Bureau, we continue on past the Street of the Artisans to Nebet Tepe (Sentry or Lookout Hill) with the Ancient Roman Fort. There is little left of the fort, apart from a granite outcrop and some derelict stone walls, but the view is panoramic, and shows us the layout of the old city, with several isolated peaks topped with monuments or other landmarks. Looking the other way, out onto the flat land, there is a large, modern city with wide roads and lots of high rise buildings. The landmark peaks look a long way off, but in our later walks, we reach most of them.
From the Roman Fort, our walk takes us downhill through Hissar Kapiya, an historic arch which was once the city’s fortress gate, then up through an up-market area of historic housing to the hill above the Ancient Roman Theatre, where the cast is rehearsing for a performance of Medea. There are kids drumming on oil drums, which is quite rousing, and convinces some of our group to go to tomorrow night’s concert. From here we descend to the main Mosque and the exposed semicircular end of the Roman Stadium where there is a model of how the stadium originally looked, built by a group of Archaeology students which included our guide. The end of the stadium is now a small outdoor theatre, reached through the original tunnel where contestants entered the stadium. Most of the stadium is now covered by an up-market shopping street, but there are parts of it accessible, with difficulty, from the basements of some of the shops. The tour ends here and we make our way back to the hotel, which is not far, using our newly acquired maps, and maps.me.
We have dinner at 7.30pm across the road at the large outdoor section of the XIX Vek Restaurant. The food is ok, but not nearly up to the standard of our restaurant at VelikoTarnovo. It has been a long day, so we have an early night.
Friday 28th June Plovdiv (Bulgaria)
We have a free day, so it is a good opportunity to catch up on sleep EXCEPT that someone’s alarm goes off at 7am and they let it ring for ages, so we don’t get back to sleep. We have breakfast downstairs then fiddle around most of the morning, doing a bit of washing etc. We go out about 11am and walk through back streets to the river, and upstream to where there is a bridge, originally for vehicles, but now, possibly due to mistrust of Communist Era construction, it is a covered pedestrian bridge with tourist trap shops along either side. We find our way up onto the bridge with some difficulty and walk across, with Murray checking out possible chains for Dianne’s regularly lost glasses, but she shows no interest. There is the (possibly) modern Grand Plovdiv Hotel not far from the river, but we give it a miss and walk back over the bridge and through the lower Old Town to the Roman Stadium, then walk down into the theatre area for a lot of photos, then down the shopping street, to turn off uphill to find the bottom entrance to the Ancient Roman Theatre. The view from here is pretty severely cut off by the structure behind the stage, but we get some photos of the seating, and a mystery four lane traffic tunnel which does not appear on the map, right under the Theatre.
We head for the Tsar Simeon’s Garden, passing through a region of reconstruction and archaeological discovery, with a lot of unearthed Roman walls. The park was established in 1892 and is green with lots of trees and fountains including the Singing Fountain, which is an enormous pool of clear green water with submerged piping presumably for computer controlled nozzles to make the water dance, but the fountain is not dancing when we visit it. We walk back through the park and take a short cut over the toe of one of the peaks in the town, to get back to the Roman Forum and the Mosque. By now Dianne’s toes, damaged by the long walk in Tarnovo in adventure sandals, are telling her to stop walking on cobble stones, so we head back to the hotel, finding the fruit and vegetable market close to our hotel, and buying a kilo of delicious cherries for $3.50.
The weather forecast was for rain about 11 AM, but although it is overcast, the rain hasn’t arrived yet, so we take it easy for the afternoon, with Dianne taking an unusual afternoon sleep. We head out at 3pm for some OK Gyros at our local fast food. It is starting to sprinkle, so we go back to the room to wait out the heavy thunder storm, which passes over by 8.30pm.
Leaving the hotel we have a harder look at the restaurant across the road to see why it looks a lot flasher on Trip Advisor, and find an active water wheel in the gardens and an interior much funkier, and quite different, to the outdoor area we used.
. Most of the people on the tour are going to an outdoors production of Medea in the Roman theatre which starts at 9pm, so we walk back to the top of the theatre to have a look, find the theatre is still filling up, and there is no action on stage. Using the telephoto, Murray surveys the crowd, manages to find our group and takes some photos. We swap across to a different position on the right side of the stage to take photos of the audience still filing in through a narrow stairway from the top, and find a view point from where we can see the stage. By now the performance has started with a woman, presumably Medea high on the stage. a long monologue in a foreign language, no music and not much action, so we decide to take a walk around the high ground at the top of the theatre, then have another look, finding a change in lighting and actors down on the semi-circular lower stage, some drumming but still no music. The storm is on its way back and looks pretty black behind the stage so we take another walk through ill-lit streets in the Old Town and end up down at the Tourist bureau and the historic arch. We decide to find the street of the artisans, but it is all locked up tight and we follow signs back to the Roman Theatre, where there is more action on stage but still no music. Maybe it is a Greek Tragedy rather than an opera. By now the sprinkling rain is starting to get very serious, so we hurry back down the hill to avoid the rush from the Opera, finding shelter on the steps of a shop under a narrow awning.
There is not as big a rush from the Opera as we expected, but there is a steady flow of early leavers, and we find some of our group among them, soaking wet, and walk with them in easing rain back to our hotel. Only a couple of stalwarts stayed to the bitter end.
Saturday 29th June Plovdiv (Bulgaria) – Bansko (Bulgaria)
We are up 7.30am, have breakfast at 8am, and are away by 9am in a chartered bus. We drive across the river and into flat agricultural land where there is harvesting going on. The high mountains on the right hand side are getting closer when we enter the town of Pazardzhik, and go through to a smaller village which has a large monument from Communist times – an extruded hollow concrete red star. Shortly after, we enter a steep-sided gorge with a stream in the bottom of it and the road plus a narrow gauge railway winding through it. The railway parallels Route 84 most of the way to Bansko, and runs a train once a day, but we miss seeing it.
We leave the gorge and reach more open country, with sheep, pastures, sunflower and hop fields, then enter the city of Velingrad, the self-styled Spa Capital of Bulgaria, with a gold statue of a naked lady on a pedestal in a roundabout at the entrance to the city. There are a lot of hotels, and a major landmark of a massive abandoned concrete structure, looking more like a bunker than a hotel, in the centre.
We follow another river and climb to a pass at the village of Yundola, near the top at 1380 metres. The railway is still with us and does some tight loops to reduce the grades. We see several yellow-painted railway stations. The terrain here is thick conifer forest and open pastures. In the distance we can see much higher mountains with patches of residual snow. We descend to another village where we refuel and take a loo break, then continue on to the market town of Yakoruda, arriving at 11.40am, in time to buy our lunch and have a good look at the market. We leave the bus in a public car park off the main road and cross the canalised river to the open market square.
By the standards of European markets, this is a lot more authentic in terms of ordinary people trading goods and services and local produce, although there are some of the typical mobile shops. We walk around the market then through the village, checking out the array of new and second hand goods, the stalls selling roasted meat and fast food, clothing, and fruit and vegetable stalls. In particular we are looking for bread, bananas and fruit for our lunch, but leave our choice until we have checked out the village.
We end up getting bread from the small permanent shop, bananas, cherries, and 3kg of nectarines from the stalls, and find a spot in the shade by the bridge, with our feet hanging over the side, for a well-earned rest as once again it is well in the 30’s. While we lunch we look across the bridge to where a craftsman has set up a display of hand-made wooden hay forks and rakes and artisan made steel hoes with wooden handles. We take a lot of photos of the market, then leave for the town of Belitsa, where we turn off for the Dancing Bears Rehabilitation Park.
The Park is near the crest of a mountain range, up a gravel road through some high pastures where grass for hay has been cut, but not dried. We have a look around, register at the office, and spend some time on the rooftop terrace and viewing platform waiting for the tour to start. There is an interesting contour model of the site showing the double fences to separate bears from bears and people. We watch a promotional video showing us the basis of the park, namely allowing ex-circus or dancing bears to live out their lives in relative comfort without any attempts to return them to the wild, or have them breed. They are, however, trying to teach them to hibernate, as it means less stress during winter.
The guide is a young bloke, possibly from Poland, who speaks good English. Takes us downhill through the centre of the park, with bears on either side, and explains the circumstances of each bear. The ex-dancing bears have damaged noses from rings in them, the circus bears don’t. In most cases the bears are not put in the same enclosure, as they are normally solitary animals, but some tolerate each other. Their feeding place and style is changed to keep them active, making them hunt for their food. The no-breeding policy is to not to stress the older females, and to not produce young who have no-one to teach them survival skills in the wild. We make the long haul back up the hill and take it pretty easy on the way to Bansko, where we arrive at the Hotel Bariakov about 4.30pm.
After settling in, we walk as a group down to the centre of town, which is much more attractive than the suburbs we drove through to get to the hotel. The sun is shining, but the town is basically a ski resort, at altitude, and the temperature is quite cool. The group splits up to look for suitable restaurants. We find ourselves at a very touristy restaurant with outdoor tables in a small park off the main street. The food is OK, but not particularly cheap. During the meal we talk to an Englishman with his Bulgarian wife on an adjacent table. He is quite entertaining in a taking-the-piss English way, but doesn’t show much respect for his Bulgarian wife, and Bulgaria in general.
We walk back to the hotel through the colourful and interesting Old Town, but Murray has to hurry ahead to make sure we get our key back after requesting sheets, towels etc for two people instead of one. Dianne continues on to the local shop for drinks and supplies for our long walk tomorrow.
Sunday 30th June Bansko – Pirin Mountains- Gorno Draglishte
We are up 6.30am for breakfast 7am and away at 8am. The Chair lift we are taking is not from Bansko, even though we can see a large peak with ski runs right up the valley from us. We drive for half an hour, through the village of Dobrinishte, negotiating the narrow streets of the town and climbing the narrow, winding road to the Pirin Mountains chairlift. The two stages of the lift take us about 1/2 hour, taking us from 1480 metres to 2240 metres in two stages. Being basically a ski lift, the chair does not slow down, and you have to be ready for the starting jolt, and the run you have to do after raising the safety bar on dismount. For those past their prime, it is pretty scary, and a couple of the women, who are not very agile, leave the bar down so the whole lift has to stop to let them off.
One person stays back at the hotel, while the other nine go on the chairlift up to a lovely little lake. There is a multi-story lodge at the lake with toilet facilities, and a small kiosk on the edge of the lake which is open for business. Four of us go with Dani up a very steep incline to the highest point (2,300 metres). Murray is not feeling too powerful, and isn’t looking forward to the climb back to this point after the descent on the other side, so decides not to go any further. Dianne, Lesley and Marguerite, with Dani leading, do the whole walk to a big rock with a lovely view of another lake, and a few waterfalls. It is a pretty scary climb up the rock, as although it isn’t very high, it is almost vertical, and there aren’t many footholds, but Dianne manages it (just!).There is a lot of up and down on the walk, some boggy patches, rocks, and it is about 10kms. Murray does enough of the walk to get to a high point from which he can telephoto them till they disappear from sight around the curve of the mountain.
While they are walking, Murray descends to the lake and does some bush-bashing to a line of several small tarns on the east side of the main lake before getting a coffee at the kiosk and taking it easy. From the table by the lake he can see all of the away-team cresting the ridge about a kilometre away on their return. They are pretty exhausted, at 12.30pm, when they get back to the others who stayed at the first lake.
We all go back down the chairlift, getting better views of the mountains on the other side of the valley, and are back at last night’s hotel by 1.45pm, where we have time to have a shower, pack and have lunch (salami sandwich for Dianne, banana for Murray). We then set off to our home stay, Deshka Guesthouse at Gorno Draglishte. Our room is on the first floor, at the top of the external stairs which are used to get everyone and their bags up, and we are pleased to know we can lock our internal door, and the others will use the internal stairs, rather than our room as they have on arrival.
We have half hour to get organised, then all go for walk around the village. We are told there are more bars than houses, and the locals like a drink. There is also a Mafia presence in the village, with one well secured house having a new Mercedes parked outside most weekends. We walk past the administrative centre to the end of the village where there is an unusual wash house, with a conical wooden-stave tub, and an off-centre nozzle fed from the stream producing a rotary washing machine action. This is a village which has lost most of its young people, and the oldies who are left sit on benches in the sun outside in the street. Most of the houses have good kitchen gardens, and some are old farm houses with large yards and sheds. There are also timber mills and peasant industries, and interesting wood-framed horse drawn wagons, tractors and the ubiquitous Russian 4-WD vans seen throughout the old USSR, parked in the street.
We’re really noticing the heat again (in the mid 30’s) after the cool of the mountains. We have a drink at an interesting local bar run by a pretty tough woman, then go back to the home stay at 6.30pm for a rest before dinner at 7.30pm. There is another group of people at dinner who are regulars, but have to stay in town because of us. There is not a lot of interaction between the groups. The meal is pretty good, with soup, sausage, boiled chat potatoes, salad, rice and sauerkraut, a lot better than the compulsory glasses of Arak.
After the meal has been served, the women serving sing some duets of the local folk songs. They are pretty good and harmonise well, more like Pacific Islanders than Bulgarians. They are also real characters! After the meal the other group goes into an annexe off the dining room, and come out dressed in local costume, and do a bit of dancing, and take lots photos, then it is our turn. We manage to avoid the dancing, but get some good character photos in the local folk costumes. We were a bit skeptical about the homestay at first, but it proved to be an excellent way to have a closer look at a small village, and meet some locals on their own turf.
Monday 1st July Gorno Draglishte -Rila Monastery-Sofia
We are up early for an 8am breakfast, take morning photos of the mountains behind Bansko and the local colour, including horse-drawn wagons, and are away by 9am. We drive back almost to Bansko then get onto Route 19 which takes us to the motorway until we turn off on Route 107 to Rila. The road travels through mainly agricultural land, with high, bare or snow clad mountains off to the left. We pass one of the many honey vendors we have seen on the road, then notice massive road works on the far side of the valley, part of the new motorway. We get on the motorway and follow it till we have to get off to take the Route 107 to Rila, which is a small town on the edge of the mountains, and continue up a narrow, rocky valley to the monastery. We’re thinking ho hum, another monastery, but are astounded by how good it is when we go inside. It is UNESCO listed and we have two hours here – all of the group agrees it is one of best church complexes we’ve ever seen. It was first built in 927 and heavily restored in 1469. A fire burnt most of it in 1833, but it was rebuilt. The Nativity Church was built in the 1830’s and contains 1200 magnificent murals. There is some sort of ceremony going on inside the church in the center of the compound. One is not supposed to take photos inside the church, but everyone is doing it, including an official videographer so we reckon it’s OK take a couple of surreptitious ones. We have a good look around the compound, which is basically a continuous complex of four-story buildings forming a roughly triangular central courtyard, with the church in the centre. The buildings have three levels with verandahs supported by multiple arches of white-painted masonry, and a top level with timber posts and beams. The general colour scheme is white with black or red segments on the arches, and in some places there are checker board patterns.
The church structure is alternating layers of white stone blocks and red bricks, and a multiple arched first story gallery of arches decorated in similar fashion to the compound. The inner surfaces of the arches and the underside of the gallery ceiling are densely covered with biblical pictures and saints. To make it even more dramatic, the background is quite a high mountain, with pine trees in the foreground.
Inside the church the floor is patterned black and white marble, the altar piece is all gold, apart from the icon pictures, and the chandelier has a twelve sided gold frame some 5-metres across with twelve “eggs” on it, in typical Orthodox style. The altar piece is the most ornate we have seen since Latin America.
After looking at the church, we walk through to the gate in the far end of the triangular courtyard, descend to pick up the track in the forest, hoping for a good view of the mountains, but the trees don’t oblige. We find a restaurant and an interesting water-powered spit roaster, then walk down to find an open area in a farm by the river. We take mountain photos and go back to the church for a second look, and find what looks like a christening.
On the third time we pass, we see lots of bearded priests in black coming out. They line up for photos, and we get some good ones. Definitely plenty of interesting action at the church today! To kill some time waiting to leave, we look around the car park, look at a plaque with maps and tracks marked on it, and decide to climb a long way up the hill, finding a graveyard, but little else, and no views from above the monastery.
We see Marguerite and she asks if we saw the ossuary, and we haven’t, so go looking for it. By now we only have 20 minutes, and Murray doesn’t think it is enough time, but walks through the courtyard as far as where the map shows the way to the ossuary. A few words are exchanged, and Dianne goes on her own. It is nice down by the river, with a small church and graveyard. The church is locked, and there are no sign of bones (we were expecting to see one of the wonderful ossuaries we’ve seen in other places, such as Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic) so Dianne has to run up the hill to get back with 5 minutes to spare, and she is far from the last to arrive.
We leave the monastery at 1.10pm, and continue on the 120kms to Sofia, (Bulgaria’s capital, with a population of nearly 1.3 million) mainly by the motorway. On the way we see an abandoned camping complex from the Communist era, a hydroelectric supply pipe down a steep mountain, lots of agricultural terrain with wooded hills above, a major thermal power station complex, and a very industrial city with what look like steel mills,
Entering the city proper we see an interesting industrial themed restaurant, new-looking blue and yellow trams, the Central Station, the Long Distance Bus Station, and the high rise Central Bus Station. The turnoff to our Hotel Budapest is not far from the bus station, well within walking distance, and the hotel is only a couple of blocks up the side street, so we are pretty well placed again.
The staff are very efficient, well-organised and friendly. The keys are in an envelope with our name and wi-fi code on it, and we get into our rooms straight away. We have a half hour break before we’re out for a couple of hours walk around town. We have to drag ourselves around as it is in the mid-thirties again, and we’re pretty tired from a full day. The walk takes us back to the main street and we turn towards the town, crossing the fancy Lion’s Bridge over the metre-wide “River”. On the right is the “Women’s Market”,and ahead is the way into the city proper, and we can see some major landmarks from here. We are warned that this is probably the dodgiest block in the whole town and should be avoided unless in numbers. The tram is offered as a good way to avoid it.
At the end of this block is the Banya Bashi Mosque on the left, and the fancy “Sofia Central Market” building, which is now just a retail complex. On the left is the striped red and white building which was originally the Central Mineral Baths, but now houses the Regional History Museum. We come to some Roman ruins excavations, and then walk through an underpass with exposed Roman walls, and emerge in the complex of public buildings which include the former Communist Party Headquarters, which has had the star removed from the spire. We stop to watch the 5pm Changing of the Guard with five traditionally uniformed soldiers doing a goose-step march around the forecourt of a Defence Building. We see a medieval church which was not destroyed in the Communist era, but has been placed in a courtyard where it can’t easily be seen, and another which is concealed within the buildings of a private courtyard.
We pass some classic communist era curtain-walled buildings, one the once best hotel in Sofia. The tour is a quick reference to the City and we manage to pass most of the major landmarks before terminating at the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. We are told we can get a tram just around the corner, but a few of us opt for following the map down Ulitsa Georgi Sava Rakovski, which ends in a tee intersection on our hotel’s street. On the way we manage to see the National Opera, and a very large suburban Orthodox church. However we’re all hot and thirsty, so head a bit off-course to a recommended bar. Once seated, they end up not having what we want, and try and rip us off, so we all decamp and go to another bar, where we wait forever for a drink. Back at the hotel we have a short rest before we’re out to Hadjidraganovite Kashti traditional Bulgarian Restaurant (ranked 37 of 1,501 on Trip Advisor) for our farewell dinner. The restaurant is just down where our street meets the main road, and has a very rustic theme, with a horse-drawn cart suspended over the footpath and the buildings are what you would find on a rural farm. Dianne has a Bulgarian (Greek) salad and Murray has the kabob, two feet of skewered meat, both meals big enough for two. It is Marguerite’s birthday, and they produce a massive nut coated creamy cake for her (and us). The restaurant advertises live folklore music, but it doesn’t ring too many bells.
Tuesday 2nd July Sofia (Bulgaria)
The tour finishes after breakfast. We have four nights before our next tour starts in Skopje , North Macedonia, which is about 230kms away. After doing some reading, we decided to spend three extra nights here, and one in Skopje.
We are planning on this being an easy day, and spend the morning taking it easy and doing LOTS of washing in our room after finding nearest laundromat is at least a couple of kms away. In afternoon we go to the nearby International bus station and buy two tickets for A$46 for the Friday 9.30am bus to Skopje as our second tour starts there at 6pm on Saturday. We walk into town in the late afternoon to have look around and meet with the six remaining people in our tour for dinner at Shtastliveca, sister restaurant of our favourite one in Veliko Tarnovo. The menu is identical, but Dianne has made a bad choice for her dinner, as she doesn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as before.
Wednesday 3rd July Sofia (Bulgaria)
We head out fairly early to try and avoid the heat of the day, and walk to Lion metro to buy day passes for public transport at 4 Bulgarian lev each (A$3.30 each). The Metro is modern, and we can’t believe how good their maps and information are, with all the bus, trolley and tram lines shown. We’re going to the Boyana Church, which is about 10kms away, and is 11th century, with frescoes dating back to 1259, and it is UNESCO World Heritage listed. We get off the metro at Vitosha, named after the nearby mountain, then catch the 64 bus for a few kms through suburbia with lots of greenery, and some views over the city as we climb the side of the mountain. We walk up hill to the church after locals on bus stop us getting off one stop too early. The church is in a fenced park area, and we need tickets to get in – a steep 10 lev each (A$10 each). It’s even steeper when we find we’re only allowed 10 minutes inside, and aren’t allowed to take photos. It turns out that is plenty of time, as the church is quite small, and fairly ordinary, and there is not a lot to see, let alone photograph. The only pluses from the whole expedition are that we aren’t left wondering if we’d missed something special, and that they have a good loo, as Murray is feeling a bit desperate by the time we get in. We do the journey in reverse, and get out at the National Palace of Culture, which has an abandoned-looking theater entrance below ground level facing a massive below-ground level area with a fountain. We later read that this Communist-era building opened in 1981 is over half-empty and has become a bit of a white elephant. The park proper has lines of fountains extending towards the city and the start of the Vitosha pedestrian mall. This fountain and garden area is quite pleasant. We walk to the end of the park and along the mall, checking out Holy Nedalya church (no photos allowed ) and various other buildings. We get the tram back to our hotel street and walk to the hotel, once again hot and exhausted. We rest for a couple hours, avoiding the threatened thunderstorm while the temperature drops sharply. We go out again later for a walk around the city, going as far as the Vitosha Mall where we have takeaway kebab and ice-cream, and take some good night photos of the fountains at the National Palace of Culture. It’s amazing how easy it is to walk around in the cool of the evening, versus doing the same in the mid 30’s during the day. We walk back as far as the Mosque, taking more night photos, until it is quite late at night, so we take the advised option of taking the tram to cross the no-mans-land between us and our hotel. Waiting for the tram, we are a bit worried about a group of young men waiting at the same stop. The anxiety doesn’t decrease when they get on the same tram, as it is pretty dark where we will get off, so we leave it till the last minute to get off the tram. Either the ploy works, or the men on the tram have no bad intentions. Home about 11pm.
Thursday 4th July Sofia (Bulgaria)
We have breakfast on our own this morning as all the others have now left. Jan left this morning – the last to leave, and hopefully she will have sorted out several uncertainties on her planned bus trip, and we will catch up with her tomorrow as she’s doing the same tour as us.
Today we are doing the free Balkan Bites food walking tour that Jan and Lorraine took yesterday, and recommended. It starts at 2pm, so we can take it easy in the morning, then do the 1.5km walk up Ulitsa Georgi Sava Rakovski to Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral. On the way have a look at the large local Orthodox Church, the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Sveta Sofia brick medieval church which is open for visiting (and photos). We have a good look around the outside of the Nevski, but not inside, and have a good look at the major buildings in the area including The National Library and Sofia University, which deserve a closer look, so we walk through the park, then towards the National Assembly and the Tsar Osvoboditel equestrian monument. To get a better look at the statue without the sun behind it, we walk back from a corner, where cars are turning from all directions, to a safer spot to cross the road and incur the wrath of a policeman who asks us if we know what a zebra crossing is. We try to explain that crossing right on the corner is not safe, but not sure he got the point, but he let us off with a warning.
We meet the tour in Crystal Park by a large bronze face mask with some serious cuts in it, looking like a chainsaw attack. The victim is Stefan Nikolov Stambolov a Bulgarian politician, journalist, revolutionist, and poet who served as Prime Minister and regent. He is considered one of the most important and popular “Founders of Modern Bulgaria, an historic figure who almost survived an assassination attempt with swords and axes, but died soon after. They knew he wore an armoured vest, which is why they attacked his head.
Everyone arrives for the tour – a few from the USA, two Austrians, four Brit youths, and us. The tour proceeds as follows:
- Bagri restaurant -slow food-seasonal, local
- Garafa (as in carafe) – wine place- reusable bottles, no labels – fairly nice- the wine tried was Vrachanski Misket a local wine
- Skaptoburger – a highly rated hamburger place, where we get sections of a burger.
- Mekitsa and coffee – fried breakfast- dough with icing sugar.
- Hadjidraganov’s cellars (another branch of the restaurant we went to for the farewell dinner)
The tour was excellent, and took us to restaurants that weren’t on the tourist strip – we should have done it on our first day so we could have gone back to the restaurants involved. After paying a tip we only have 20 lev (A$17) for drinks, dinner and supplies for tomorrow’s bus (plus a possible fee for our bags). This trip is reminding us of the bad old days when every country in Europe had a different currency – now it is just every country in the Balkans!
We decide we can’t be bothered going out again tonight, so buy bread, salami and drinking yoghurt on the walk home, and spend the night reading, doing diary, packing and getting ready for our bus to Skopje, North Macedonia, tomorrow.
Friday 5th July Sofia (Bulgaria) to Skopje (North Macedonia) by bus.
Murray is not feeling too powerful, and is back on a limited diet and Gastrostop, so he has a minimal breakfast and we set off for the bus station and are there well before our 9.30am start. We find our ticket office but there is no-one present, so set up where we can watch the office. Murray has to spend some of our dwindling supply of Bulgarian lev to visit the loo and make sure he can handle a couple of hours in a bus. When the bus turns up, we get our allocated seat, not right up the front where we prefer, but at least with a fairly clean window on the right hand side.
In half an hour we are beyond the high rise of the new city and in agricultural country on the lowlands, below wooded hills. Flat land is mainly covered with harvested grain and sunflowers, higher land is mainly wooded. The sunflowers are spectacular, and we fire a lot of photos to get the definitive shot – not easy through the tinted side window of a speeding bus. 40 minutes out we pass a major thermal power station with an overland conveyor to a mine in the hills, then climb into higher, wooded country. We see villages off the main road in the hills, but only manage to pass through one. Go over a low pass to get to a restaurant for a break after 70 minutes on the road, eight kilometres from the border which is almost exactly half way between Sofia and Skopje. The area here looks poor and un-developed, not unusual in border areas. We use this opportunity to use the last of our currency.
The border doesn’t present the difficulties of our last overland bus border crossing (Oman to Dubai) and we don’t have to have our bags inspected. We pass through higher, wooded country, but, in general, the terrain is the same – agriculture on the flat or rolling country, timber on the higher slopes and peaks. We pass through a medium sized town about 20 kms from Skopje, and can see it. Circle left around the town and arrive at the bus station, which is right at the main railway station at about 2.30pm.
Skopje is the capital of North Macedonia, and has a population of just over 500,000, and the whole country has just over two million people. The history of North Macedonia is so complicated it is too hard to explain in a few words – suffice to say there seems to have always been someone fighting over it. In 1992 the Republic of Macedonia declared independence, however this was not the end of their problems, as Greece was very unhappy. There was also a six-month war with the National Liberation Army in early 2001. North Macedonia has acceded to Greek conditions, including changing the country’s name, and is hopeful that they will finally be admitted to the European Union this year.
We thought that we hadn’t been to any of the places on these two tours, but then we remembered that back in 1976 we hitchhiked from near Thessalonika in Greece to almost Belgrade, and we did actually pass through Skopje on a large truck (and that is a story with a few twists!), but we remember very little about it.
A$1 = 37 Macedonian Denar
We get orientated, and decide our Centar Hotel is well within walking distance, so set off down the main road to check with maps.me that we are going the right way, then turn off into the minor streets, and emerge near where we expect our hotel to be, only to find a large swimming pool complex with a parking area in front of it. We see a Hotel Centar sign, and it dawns on us that instead of a hotel with a swimming pool, we are looking for a swimming pool with a hotel. It looks pretty strange from the outside, but is fine once you’re inside. After booking in we see that we have been allocated the closest room to reception, which we know can be noisy, and ask for a change, but are told the place is full. There is a door to the corridor, so it might not be too bad, and we cop it sweet.
We are given directions to the centre of town, which is not too far even though it is very hot, so set off, across a busy road and past a very weird fish/frog/human sculpture to a shopping mall with an extremely long corridor which leads to a street near the main square (Plostad Makedonija).We are very impressed by the scale and quality of the buildings around the square, and particularly by the 20-metre high pedestal and statue of Alexander the Great on a rearing horse. Across the historic 15th century Stone Bridge (Kameni Most) over the strongly flowing river is a facing statue of similar height of Phillip, Alexander’s father, standing, with his fist raised. Since the catastrophic earthquake in 1963, there has been a lot of work done to restore the city to or beyond, its former glory, and the city is littered with statues and monuments. We can’t believe our first impressions of the town. We’d been led to believe that there was nothing much to see here, which is why we only came one day early. After a while we do concede that maybe they’ve gone a LITTLE overboard on the statues, which are EVERYWHERE. Apparently the reason there are so many statues in Skopje goes back to 2008 when the local economy crashed. Much like many countries around the world, they targeted tourism as a major source of income and revenue, and the Government came up with the “Skopje 2014” redevelopment project, expecting the projects to be finished by then, but in fact they are still building. A lot of the locals are far from pleased, as the enormous amount of money spent could have been used for useful infrastructure or helping solve the problems such as 20% unemployment, and massive debts.
We cross the bridge and venture into the Old City, past numerous sculptures, including statues of Alexander at various ages and his ambitious mother in the fountain near the base of the Phillip statue pedestal. We pass the historic hamam, no longer in action, and into narrow and interesting streets in the old town, but don’t venture too far. We take photos of the monuments, the hamam, the Ottoman Fort above the old city, buildings in the square, classical but fairly new major public buildings, the domed Concert Hall, the ultra-modern bunker-like Opera House, and a new multi-arched marble pedestrian bridge lined on either side with LOTS of bronze statues. The whole area is pretty well done, and looks authentic, but a jarring note is added by two square-rigged wooden ships, actually restaurants, permanently placed on concrete plinths in the river by the right bank. The fact that square rigged ships would never have made it into the heart of Bulgaria, a landlocked country on a river with rapids in it, is reinforced by the poor design of the ships. Skopje may not be as over- the-top as Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, but it’s definitely up there.
We return to the hotel at about 4pm, and come back to the city at about 7.30pm with Jan for a meal at one of the touristy restaurants lining the river. The meal is pretty good, and not expensive, Dianne having a large schnitzel with white wine, Murray a chicken Caesar with a half-litre of good local beer. After the meal we walk the streets taking night photo of well-lit buildings and monuments, including major buildings, monuments and statues, the bridges, the Ottoman Fort, the Arc de Triomphe. There is some sort of Defense Force showing-the-flag operation going on, with a lot of uniformed troops and army vehicles. We stay pretty clear, but take photos of them coming through the Arc de Triomphe (what, you may ask – Paris isn’t the only one to get one) and have to walk a fair way through unfamiliar streets, guided by Jan, to get back to the hotel.
Saturday 6th July Skopje (North Macedonia) City Tour
Today is the official start to the tour, but we don’t meet till 6pm, so have planned to take the Free City Tour which meets at 10am near the marble statue in the central square. We walk the now-familiar route through the shopping centre, arriving early, so kill some time looking around and taking the obligatory photo of the monument to Alexander the Great, now re-named “The Warrior” to comply with an EU direction to reduce the friction with the Greeks. For the same reason they now have to call the country North Macedonia, rather than just Macedonia, which pleases neither the Greeks nor the Macedonians.
We meet some of our Intrepid tour members, who are also doing the free tour, and we set off in the streets radiating out from the square. The first stop is the memorial for Mother Theresa, who, though of Albanian ethnicity, was born here in Skopje, and the footprint of the house is shown by bronze inlays in the pavement. Nearby is the Mother Theresa Museum, and the Arc de Triomphe, where the arch is inlaid with four plaques carrying statements from Mother Theresa. Dianne is no fan of Mother Theresa, having read quite a bit about her, and one of the statements got right up her nose. Mother Theresa’s main concern was souls, and never mind the pain and suffering of the bodies. One of the statements was -”The greatest threat to world peace is abortion”. Other statements were – “God doesn’t call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful”, “There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much”, and “It is a kindly act to assist the fallen”. Don’t know if the fallen include women with unwanted pregnancies.
We pass through the Arc, taking photos of the Arc and statues on the far side, then move on to the Parliament Building, which looks pretty ordinary to us, but has apparently been updated after a lot of arguments and money spent. It has a flagpole and an equestrian monument in front. Significant on the tour around the new city are the gold statue of Prometheus in front of the poor man’s Brandenburg gate with a winged Victory on a pedestal behind; a group of statues of servicemen and women; the enormous new Orthodox Cathedral under construction with a golden dome; the old railway station, now the Museum of the City of Skopje with the clock stopped at 5.17am, the time of the earthquake in 1963 which killed 1,066 people and almost demolished the city; new but empty buildings in the classical style; concrete cancer in balconies; random bronze statues including a girl-about-town, (or hooker) and a Wall-street look-alike bull; the masonry and glass Mother Theresa museum.
Back in the square we look at the statues and the bridge and discuss their history, then cross to the Old Town, looking at the caravanserai, now restaurants and a trendy nightclub, then climb up through narrow streets full of shops and restaurants, past the main mosque to visit a church which is hidden in a courtyard and looks more like a house than a church to keep a low profile in Ottoman times.
From here we climb through a park to the low-key entrance to the Fortress, which was originally 6th century AD Byzantine, then later Ottoman. Apart from the walls and bastions, there is not a lot left, a few walls, some foundations, a rounded tower, and a new, steel framed building which will mimic the original garrison. We are able to walk around the walls as far as the tower, but the tower is closed to the public, and we have to walk all the way back to the other end of the wall near the entrance. Around the walls, and bastions, which have been rebuilt, and are in pretty good condition we take photos over the city and of the fort, up the river to the large stadium and the black walls of the American Embassy high on the cliffs beside the river, to the giant cross on the nearby mountain, and the mountains further away in the direction of Kosovo.
The tour finishes at the Fort, and we walk past the mosque and down through the old town, looking for a meal. Settle on the very touristy restaurant outside the caravanserai, for a salad and a very strange, but large grilled, flattened chicken.
Back at the hotel we rest and wait for our 6pm orientation meeting for our second Intrepid Travel tour – 11 nights “Western Balkans Uncovered” for A$2,925 each, starting in Skopje and finishing in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Dianne manages to fit in a swim, after finding out the procedure. We can only swim during off-peak times, and don’t enter through the normal entrance, but a staff member takes you through the hotel, and opens a door which leads you straight into the Olympic-sized pool.
At the 6pm meeting we meet our new guide, Alan, from Croatia, and most of the people. Murray now has another male to keep him company – two men and 10 women, all Australians. People are Jan from our last trip, Linley, Jill and Marg from Darwin, Pete and Sophie from Melbourne, and two mother and daughter couples – Sheila and Elaine, and Ann and Meg. The average age is definitely a lot younger on this trip, with Murray being the oldest, and Dianne the third oldest.
In the evening we go out back to the town centre for a welcome dinner.
Sunday 7th July Skopje (North Macedonia) to Prizren (Kosovo) and return.
This tour has a higher level of comfort than the previous one, so for today’s expedition to Kosovo we have a high roofed Mercedes van, which is waiting for us outside the hotel when we finish breakfast. The driver has decided to bring his wife along for the day trip, which complicates seating in the front, as she takes the front seat, but Murray manages a single seat near the front so he can look out through the windscreen and take photos either out the front, or the side. Our course takes us through the city, and by 8.42am we are passing the Ottoman Fort, and by 8.48am we are out of the city proper with green fields and woods. We stop at a service station where our driver has to do formalities on the manifest sheet we have filled in, then we are off on a medium road towards a gap in the hills, and the Kosovo border, which is not long after we leave the plains around Skopje. The border formalities are minimal and we continue up a valley which gets increasingly deep, crossing the border at Bardovci. There is a fairly large town just over the border, with a large cement works.
We are deliberately using minor roads because they are more colourful, but are sharing the valley with a very fancy new M2 motorway, with a lot of piers supporting the roads well above the valley floor. There are massive cuttings on the mountainside, all very raw, and there is a disused railway running through the valley floor with our A4 road in North Macedonia, E65 in Kosovo. It seems like an incredible amount of money to spend on a road that at present certainly doesn’t have much traffic.
Kosovo’s history, like a lot of the Balkans, has been quite turbulent. In the 12th century Kosovo was the heart of the Serbian empire, until the Turks won the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and the Ottomans ruled for five hundred years. Serbia regained control in the 1912 Balkan War, taking it from
Albania. From then till 2008 when it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, there were a series of conflicts, and attempts at ethnic cleansing, and it was administered by various groups, and at one stage it was a UN-NATO protectorate. However its independence has not been recognized by Serbia or Russia (and there is a good chance anyone having a Kosovo stamp in their passport will get a hard time trying to go to Serbia). The capital of Kosovo is Pristina (but we are not going there today). Kosovo has a population between 1.8 million and 2.4 million, and is the smallest country in the Balkans. According to a census conducted in 2011, 93% of the population were ethnic Muslim Albanians, but this excluded a lot of Serb-majority municipalities in North Kosovo. These figures could help explain why the population doesn’t want to be part of Serbia.
We pass through towns and villages, with no obvious signs of war damage and the terrain flattens out to good farmland. There are no obvious signs of poverty, with plenty of new cars on the road, and no signs of horse-drawn wagons like we saw in northern Romania seven years ago. The construction supplies, whitegoods and furnishings industries seem to be booming. We take a turn off towards Prizren, away from Pristina, from the map via Ferizaj and Stimlje, and towards low mountains which are heavily wooded. There is a very large mountain to the west of us, obviously a major landmark, which we think is “Big Duke” or Mt Ljuboten.
Closer to Prizren, we get back into agricultural country, and approach the city across a wide, flat valley, with a big river flowing through, and the massive, un-named mountain beyond it. The bus drops us at the Post Office, right near the edge of the Old City, and we use the restored 15th century Ottoman bridge over the river to reach it.
We meet our guide (we have to pay 4 euros each for her, a young Moslem university student who gives us a bit more idea about life here, but probably not 48 euros worth of information). Go to the historic Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, where we can’t get in, but can talk to the guides who give us interesting information, including about how it was looted and set on fire by local extremists in 2004. From here we proceed to the Sinan Pasha Mosque, where we are allowed in, after taking off our shoes and are allowed to take photos. Our female guide takes us up a ladder to the small mezzanine area in the corner, where women are allowed to be during prayers, to tell us more about the Mosque and interactions between Christians and Muslims in Kosovo. We walk around the building with a park area behind it. The park has a stream and small fountain, and a row of kiosks selling souvenirs.
From here we proceed to an ethnic restaurant for an upper floor table. It’s Sunday, and the streets and restaurants are full of people out enjoying the holiday. It’s not till we going looking for the ladies that we realise just how many rooms and floors full of people there are at this restaurant. They are obviously used to dealing with crowds, and everything proceeds smoothly, and we have a pretty good feed of Greek salad for Murray, and a stuffed aubergine with a creamy sauce for Dianne. The local flat bread was pretty good. Some of the others ended up with massive plates of food.
After, we decide to head towards the large historic Fortress of Prizren which is a long way up a steep hill. Once again it’s really hot, in the mid-thirties, and we start off, saying we will just go up far enough to take good photos, but with plenty of drink and numerous stops, we make it all the way to the top. It is well worth the climb, with well-preserved fort buildings, a good wall, and spectacular views: out to the city and mountains beyond; down to the rivers, bridges, churches and mosques in the old city; down into the canyon beside the Fort with a river, road and covered swimming pool; and up the canyon to mountains with alpine villages.
Back down in the city, we walk around, killing time, then Dianne decides she needs an ice-cream, but we don’t have any money (the currency here is actually euros). We go for a walk to the other side of the river to find an ATM, but can’t find one, so end up looking at our map, which shows us there is one right beside the ice-cream man, so back to machine and get out money. Our smallest note is 20 Euros, but the ice-cream man doesn’t have change, so he ends up giving us the ice-cream anyway. We still have time to kill, and can’t find a seat in the shade, so decide to cop it sweet, and sit at an outdoor bar prepared to order a drink, but the service is so slow that by the time others of the group turn up, we still haven’t been served.
We return to Skopje on larger roads and motorways, seeing more open farming land, villages and also some large cities and new-looking industrial parks. The villages look very tidy, and could be in any part of Europe. The motorway through the valley is just as spectacular from on it as it was from under it. We pass through a very large town in the middle of a large, flat valley, where we understand, there is Camp Bondsteel, a large US air base not far from Ferizaj. From a relatively secure position on the expressway, we take a photo of the industrial town right on the border.
Back in the outskirts of Skopje, we pass the scar on the mountain, which is the way we are going to Matka Canyon tomorrow.
Back to the hotel for a rest, before going out again for a meal in the Old Town. Have a good meal – our usual one Greek salad and a meat skewer meal, both shared – at a small local place run by a Mum and Dad operation. Use the opportunity to walk around taking a lot of night photos, including the illuminated cross on the hill above the town.
Monday 8th July Skopje to Matka Canyon and return
We’re off to Matka Canyon this morning, which is about 15km away. We’re on the road by 8am, driving through the suburbs in the same general direction as yesterday, but turn off onto a motorway around the north of the mountain behind Skopje then take off on a minor road, stopping briefly on the motorway for an upset tummy for one of the women. The minor road takes us back toward the mountain where we speculate on a large scar on the mountainside. The driver says it is a landslide, but a section of it looks far too straight, and Murray suspects it is a buried pipeline. Closer to the canyon, the sides close in, and the road narrows. By some sort of deal, we are allowed to carry on up a single track road past the bus park, and end up in a small park at the end of the road. Through some unbelievably selfish parking, a couple of men with a tourist stall park their car directly in the escape path for our bus. Our guide, Alan, who is a very tall bloke, tries to help the bus driver sort it out, but we end up leaving the driver to his own resources.
We walk a lovely tree-lined path to get further up the canyon, past the reasonably modern arched concrete dam, and a small park which has some old hydro turbines in it. The river below the dam has posts and wires to carry the markers for a canoe slalom course, but nothing is happening at the moment. We enter the tourist area of restaurants, one hotel, bars and boat hire concessions. We’re taking a boat trip up the canyon to some caves, and there is an opportunity on the way back to be let off on the other side of the canyon to climb a very steep cliff to a monastery at the top. We have time to go to the loo and look before it is time to board the boat. Like all boats built in landlocked countries, the boats are quite strange, metal framed and clad with thin strips of metal riveted together. They seem to keep the water out OK, and have a decent sized 4-stroke outboard, so get along pretty well.
Murray gets a seat near the front, and takes a stack of photos as the canyon and river are pretty picturesque. We have negotiated a slightly higher price with the boat to take us almost up to the next dam of a series, where there is a landing and steps up to the entrance to a limestone cave. There is a larger group of Italians there at the same time, so we need to do some shuffling to keep out of each other’s way. The caves themselves start about 20-metres above the dam level, and go down to a pool at dam level. The caves are well organised and safe, but the coloured lighting is a bit overdone, even though it looks pretty flash in the photos. We walk through, both up and down, but end up down at water level. The caves on show are only about a hundred metres deep, but, like all wet limestone caves, they could go on for kilometres. Having very recently toured the Wombeyan caves in NSW, with their multiple entrances/exits, towering chambers and brilliant natural colours, we are impressed, but not overwhelmed.
Back in the boat we are shown where a strong flow of spring water is welling up from near the shore, reminding us of the massive up-wellings off the coast of Croatia, in limestone country, not all that far away.
Back near the start, we drop the small climbing party off on the far shore at the base of a very steep climb (we, along with most of the group have decided not to go). Leave them with instructions to ring the bell near the bank to get rescued on their return, then we return to the dock. To kill time while we wait for the climbing party to return, we walk the path along the side of the canyon, sometimes cut into the rock, sometimes through woods clinging to steep slopes. It is reminiscent of the Caminito del Rey, near Ronda in Spain, but not nearly as spectacular, but probably has the same origins – flood-free access to hydroelectric developments. Back at the tourist area we have a very expensive, but very good drink while we wait for the climbing party to return. They found it pretty hard going, particularly with the unstable stones underfoot, which makes us pleased we didn’t go. Our overall impression of the gorge is that is a wonderful natural attraction, but has some pretty unsightly infrastructure, which is to be expected as it is a hydro dam.
We make our way back to the bus, but find a different example of parking stupidity, with cars parked in the road not hard up against the walls, and two-way traffic at loggerheads. It takes a LOT of backing and filling by numerous vehicles before we can go. Despite the impression that people from the Balkans thrive on conflict, the situation is resolved without bloodshed, and we make a getaway about 1pm, and are in town at our favorite cheap restaurant by 2.20pm.
After lunch, we have free time which we hoped to spend seeing some museums, but unfortunately our free time corresponds to Monday, when most of the museums are closed. We walk to the Holocaust Museum, which is quite close to the Warrior’s Father Monument beside the river, but it’s closed. It has a rather poignant bronze monument outside of sad looking boy and girl refugees with suitcases and someone’s empty shoes. Confirm that other museums around here are also closed. We walk over the stone bridge and down the river to look at the statues and monuments, then to the Mother Theresa museum, which is open, and has much the same information as the museum we visited in Calcutta. Back to the hotel via the unfinished Orthodox Cathedral, and the Earthquake Museum, which looks for a while that it could be open for business as the door is open, but we are shooed away by a security guy.
There are major civil works going on in what used to be the railway yards at the station, but they are screened off, so Murray, being curious, gets on a concrete block and points the camera over the metal barrier. It turns out there is a giant hole being dug, more like a mine than a construction site. Maybe work on a trainline from Skopje to Sofia?
Tuesday 9th July Skopje to Lake Ohrid, with side trip into the Mountains
Today we are leaving for Lake Ohrid, and we are on the road at 9am in a better bus, a VW, with a separate front seat and a detachable luggage boot the same cross section as the bus and about half a metre thick. Lake Ohrid is about 188 kms away by road, but we’re doing a few things on the way.
The first is we’re taking the funicular to the large illuminated Millennium Cross on the top of the nearest mountain, Mt Vodno, which is about 15kms away. We start off in a different direction which takes us closer to the flank of the mountain, through an interesting local shopping area, then onto a switchback road through the dense forest on the mountain. We climb a fair distance to where the road splits, and we go right, while the road to the left is a serious highway which makes a very noticeable scar on the mountainside. Murray had assumed this would be the way we would depart to save backtracking, but it is closed off by a heap of boulders. We climb further, and end up in a large parking area and a park at the base of the cable car. The cable car is running on a strange schedule, half hour on, half hour off (maybe to let the motor cool?) but we are among the first to take it to the top today. The ride is pretty smooth, and, as it is a cable car, the entry and exit is very slow and not as exciting (better word would be downright dangerous) as the ski lift at Bransko.
Up at the summit there are signs explaining the current project of installing better lights on the towering, 66-metre high, steel lattice-work cross above us. The cross may or may not have had an elevator and it will, but not yet. In actual fact the extra height would make little difference as the sky is, unfortunately, very hazy today, and the photos are not great. We walk around the crest of the mountain, taking photos and looking at familiar details of the city, picking out features clearly with the telephoto in spite of the haze, but determining where we were yesterday in the canyon behind the mountain is impossible, with not even a glimpse of water or the Monastery, even though it is only 8 km away. The “Warrior” monument in the main square of Skopje looks enormous compared with the stone bridge or the buildings. There is a massive concrete communications tower being built a hundred metres from the Cross, and the construction crane towers over it. Before long there will be a symbol showing communications being more important than God.
We leave after about half an hour, as we don’t want to miss out on the operating window of the cable car before the next shutdown. Back in the bus, we go down the mountain the way we came up, then head north once we hit flat land, passing modern high-rise and malls, and some good statues in roundabouts, then cross the river and pick up the same motorway we used to get to the Canyon.
We see the same enigmatic scar on the mountain, and a few kms on, see another similar scar on another mountain. Our route takes us through the town of Tetovo, in fertile valleys between serious wooded mountains. There are fair sized villages off the highway and halfway up the mountains. After Tetovo, we take a right turn at Gostivar and head up into the mountains and Mavrovo National Park. These are serious mountains and winter resorts. We pass through heavily timbered country on winding roads then come to a pretty chapel overlooking Mavrovo Lake, a hydro dam with the major embankment at the top of the watercourse we follow. We stop here (Mavrovi Anovi) for a very good lunch at a small restaurant, and while we are waiting for food, Dianne and Murray walk back to take photos of the little church and the lake below. After lunch we check out the small village, Murray taking photos of the village and the interesting mobile fruit and vegetable vendor, while Dianne buys cherries from a local shop.
After leaving the village we turn away from the lake past the dam embankment and down the steep valley below the dam. There are steep mountains above us with a lot of exposed rock formations protruding from dense forest. After 8 kilometers as the crow flies, we stop at a small village with resort accommodation and a restaurant where we are able to do a tasting of specialty cheeses. The road continues down the narrow valley until it joins a larger river, and we follow this river for about 15 km, under towering cliffs. After half or so we stop at the large St John the Baptist Monastery (St Jovan Bigorski). There has been a monastery here since about 1020 in various incarnations. Most of the old monastery complex was destroyed by fire in 2009, but has now been restored. We go in and walk around, including looking at a room showing all the different ethnic costumes. It is close to 4pm when there is a church service, so we hang round till then. One of the monks goes around the grounds banging a staff on the ground to let everyone know the service is about to begin. There are lots of interesting frescoes outside the church which we can photograph, but no photos inside the church. All the monks arrive for the service, which involves a lot of rigmarole about when and where the priests go, which changes as the service progresses. Was interesting for a while, but certainly wouldn’t want to be going every day, and especially not a number of times a day. Even some of the monks looked a bit bored.
Back in the bus, we continue on, then cross another hydro dam and climb up the slope above a wider section of the dam to the city of Debar, and follow Debar Lake over the top of an 80-metre high dam, and for the next 18 km we have the dam on our left, well below us, but gradually getting closer.
By the time we get to the end of the dam we are getting into the plains around Lake Ohrid, with intense cultivation and small towns leading to the wetlands at the end of the lake. The lake is not all that pretty, with a grey sky over, choppy grey water and a strong wind. We circle round behind a hill on the shore to find the city of Ohrid, passing through the CBD and into the hotel district down by the waterfront. We had never heard of Lake Ohrid before this trip, but all the literature raves about it, but our first glimpse doesn’t impress. We have to sort out some traffic at the waterfront, and find ourselves in the Royal View Hotel, right on the water, with views up and down the lake, and across to the Albanian shore. The Old Town is between us and the top of the headland which sticks out into the lake with the Fortress on the top. We have a nice room on the first floor with a water view. From our balcony we get good photos of the lake, Orthodox priests walking along the waterfront, the old town on the headland, and the fort. Our impression of the town starts to improve.
We have half an hour to get organized, then we set out on an expedition along the lake and into the Old Town, with lots of interesting sights. Stop to have a look at the ancient Church of Saint Sophia, a classic Orthodox Church with the long verandah we have seen on other churches, and a park-like church yard. We then take the high-road up on the side of the headland to go right out to the point where there is another small chapel of Saint John the Theologian at Kaneo. The chapel is quite old and picturesque, and there is a group of young people enjoying the evening, with the wind dropping off, the sky clearing and sun threatening to break through the clouds. We are now convinced that Ohrid is a special place. We stay for photos of the sunset and the sun shining on limestone outcrops on the east side of the lake, and night photos of the lit-up chapel.
We walk along the shoreline on the way back, where there are beach front restaurants with beach beds. With the lake still choppy from the earlier wind, it doesn’t look too inviting, but looks like it could be good on a nice day. Beyond the restaurants there are high cliffs dropping right into the water, and the path takes to the water, with a wooden path on wooden piles. It is pretty dark, and there are no handrails, but we manage OK, and make it back to dry land. We walk back to the main road from the city, and head inland, looking for a fast or take-away meal, but don’t find much to our taste, but do find some sort of folk festival and a large outdoor restaurant. Like most resort towns, there are two sides to them, and this area seems to cater to mass tourism. We settle for a street front fast food with a dining room, which delivers a hamburger, which involves getting a very large meat patty, and a separate large bun, with a salad on the side. Looks “interesting”, but tastes pretty good, particularly as it looks like our last chance to avoid going to bed hungry.
Wednesday 10th July Ohrid – day cruise on the lake
Our guide has booked a cruise on the lake, and it looks like a day more like what we have seen in the promotional photos, with the sky and the lake blue, and a light breeze pattern on the water. The air is clear enough to see villages and hills on the Albanian side of the lake. Alan has negotiated an extra to the cruise to get us to a monastery almost all the way down the lake to the Albania border. There was an original plan to have Alan and one of the tour go on the bus as far as the monastery because of numbers restriction on the boat, but with a change of plans involving a maritime (?) authority warning for all small craft to be off the water by 2pm because of a predicted storm, he can fit on the boat.
Our boatman is a 60ish local with a shock of grey hair and a twinkle in his eye. He could definitely be a player in the right circumstances, and he starts the tone of the day with a particularly savage round of grappa.
We start the tour going to the north, with a close pass by the Old City and headland, getting good photos of the town, the fortress, the board walk past the cliffs, and the chapel on the point – all the highlights of the town. We swing south and follow the shore line past a seven story high-rise hotel development with a beach and lined-up beach lounges in front of it. The shore becomes rocky cliffs south of the hotel, and there are buildings and pine trees up high and small beaches and boating facilities down on the waterfront. The complex used to be Tito’s holiday house, now still in the Government’s hands, and probably used for junkets.
Further along, the shore has enough flat land to support wetlands, villages and private resort developments, with water parks and beach lounges. Behind the shore flatlands the mountains rise steeply above the tree line to high green pastures between limestone rock outcrops, but the telephoto can’t locate any livestock. Out on the lake we see a mother grebe with a large clutch of grebettes (?) and a seagull with a brown head. To the south we are getting close enough to the end of the lake to pick out the buildings of an Albanian town.
We come in close to a typical camping area with RV’s and tents on a headland and a small beach, pass a man fishing out of a small rubber ducky, and round the point to pull up at the wharf in the Bay of Bones. In prehistoric times Lake Ohrid was home to a settlement of pile dwellers who lived literally on top of the water, on a platform supported by up to 10,000 wooden piles anchored to the lake bed. The remains of the settlement were discovered at this spot and pile stumps and animal bones were gradually excavated by an underwater team between 1997 and 2005; the museum is an elaborate reconstruction of the settlement as archaeologists think it would have looked between 1200 and 600 BC.
We pay admission into the museum and look inside the museum building for background on the site, which was located out over the water for protection against animal and human attack. Apart from the lines of pile stumps, set in the lake bed when the lake level was a lot lower, there is not a lot of credible evidence as to exactly how the platforms, houses and furnishings were arranged, other than extrapolating dating, and early accounts by Roman travelers. Either way, the presentation is well done, and quite photogenic. While we are at the village, it starts to rain, not heavily, but enough to remind us a storm is on its way, and we have a last look and get back on the boat.
From the Bay of Bones, we can see the monastery we were planning to visit, and there looks to be a lot of smoke coming from it, but study through the telephoto indicates it is not on fire.
It is time to head back. On the way back, the captain stops the boat and the brave, including Dianne, get in for a swim in the clear water. We take photos of villages up on the mountain slopes, and the storm building up across the lake to the northwest, and get back before the storm at about 1.30pm.
We walk inland through the tourist streets, looking for lunch and holding umbrellas against the sprinkling rain. The rain gets heavier and we look seriously for a restaurant. Find one with outdoor tables under cover, but the menu isn’t particularly exciting, and the service just doesn’t happen, so we transfer to a smaller adjacent restaurant which seemed to have better attention, but we had to wait for a long time and move tables to keep out of the rain, only to find the waitress had forgotten our order. An apologetic waiter fixed us up, and we ended up with a pretty good meal.
The rain looked like it was clearing, so we took back streets up the hill toward the fort, past derelict houses, to the main gate into Tsar Samuil’s Fortress compound. There is a strange notice on the old stone gateway about restricted to residents, but assumed it was for motorists, and we carried on. We take photos of the fortifications and walk up to the historic Saint Archangel Michael church overlooking the town, which has good views down the lake.
Decide to go down through the narrow streets to find the Hellenistic Amphitheatre dating from 200 BC. There is a modern concert stage with roadies running around setting up lights and sound gear for a concert, so we keep walking downhill looking for historic locations without luck till we get down on the flat and after a lot of asking, find the National Workshop for Handmade Paper, which is a combined shop and museum, and where they have one of only two Gutenberg presses in the world. We’re given a demonstration of how it works, then head back to the hotel about 4.15pm to get ready to go out for a group meal in one of the fancy restaurants on the seafront round at the headland, but at 6.30pm the sky is pretty black and starting to rain, so most of us decide the restaurant in the hotel will be good enough. The rain comes and goes, and some go out in a break in the rain, and are lucky enough to come back in another break before the rain really sets in. We are leaving for Albania tomorrow, so pack our gear and have an early night.
Thursday 11th July Ohrid (North Macedonia) to Berat (Albania)
In the morning the storm has cleared, and from our balcony the lake is looking very picturesque in two shades of blue even though the breeze is up, darkening the water and promising to be stronger later in the day. We can see Albania clearly across the lake.
In the bus, Murray has the front seat and can take good shots out of the front until we pick up too many bugs, when the camera focuses on the windscreen and not the view. Our route takes us back through the town and round the north end of the lake, where there is a lot of road construction going on, but not on our road. We cross several of the rivers which run into the lake, and pass through villages, but are surprised how far we go to get to the border crossing, climbing the escarpment by the lake. We have no dramas at the border and carry on to the top of the escarpment where we stop for a break at a servo.
We’ve been keen to go to Albania ever since we took an overnight boat from Igoumenitsa in Greece to Dubrovnik in Croatia in 1987, and during that time only saw one light. After that, we did a bit of reading on the country and its problems.
In 1946 the People’s Republic of Albania was proclaimed, with Enver Hoxha as president and “Supreme Comrade”. It broke off relations with Yugoslavia, and allied itself with Stalin’s USSR till 1961, when it reoriented itself with China, and five years later had a Chinese-style cultural revolution. In 1968 it left the Warsaw pact, and embarked on a self-reliant defence policy, which involved building igloo-shaped concrete bunkers. The people lived in fear of the Sigurimi (secret police) and were not permitted to leave the country. In 1978 they broke with China, and the country was left isolated and without allies, and the economy was devastated and food shortages became more common. Hoxha died in 1985, and restrictions were loosened (tourists could visit in an organized group) but with less controls people stopped working on the collective farms and there were food shortages, and industries began to fail, and country people moved to the city. The March 1992 election ended 47 years of communist rule, but during this time smuggling rackets of both stolen goods and illegal immigrants sprang up. Since then there has been a lot of development, though organized crime is still a problem.
It’s taken us a while to get here since the country settled down, but we’re here now and keen to see it for ourselves. We get our first opportunity to see the cold-war concrete bunkers facing the border, as we’ve been told there will be a number of them on the hill behind the servo. We can see the concrete domes, but they are a fair way up the hill, so it takes a while for the more intrepid members to set off for a better look, and to hell with the land mines. Up close, they are pretty basic, with an earth floor, concrete walls a viewing and weapons port at the front and a narrow entrance/exit doorway at the rear. Over the top is a reinforced concrete dome. The structure including the dome is made in pre-cast sections, with lifting lugs cast in, and probably has overlapping reinforcing where the individual sections are grouted together. The weapons port has a steel frame with serrated metal at the sides to make sure bullets which hit the sides either bounce out or are stopped. The bunkers here come in several sizes, with the design altered to suit different purposes and to limit the weight of precast sections. There were reputedly 125,000 of these built and deployed, and 757,000 planned, not unlike the make-work schemes in the more recent GFC. It is unsure who the enemy at the time was. Possibly everybody, communists included.
We carry on downhill away from the lake, down a winding route which gives us good views into a wide, flat well-cultivated valley with a small lake and a fair-sized town. The houses and farms do not look significantly different from those in North Macedonia, so there is little of the poverty and lack of development we are expecting. In the town we see the first of many Kastrati Service Stations, the choice of name causing Murray endless amusement (later find Shefqet Kastrati is the third-richest person in Albania). The town has an abandoned mine site with concrete conveyor structures and two towers which are covered with what look like tiles with red spots but on closer inspection look like oversized ladybirds. The road continues to descend along a winding watercourse, and we run parallel to an abandoned railway line with a lot of high bridges with concrete pillars and rotting concrete spans.
The road continues downhill past a large collection of colourful bee-hives, a large quarry or mine and more railway bridges, and by the time we reach the river at the bottom, we are surrounded by very high mountains. We have seen a lot of rivers on our way through the Balkans, and most of them have been clean, even sparkling. This one is the colour and texture of a strong chocolate milkshake.
Just after we reach the river, we pass through a large town, Librazhd with a road bridge and a rail bridge. The town is quite attractive, with a lot of trees, and some high-rise. Interestingly, the Google Earth photo of the town and river shows the river a clear green, so something dramatic has happened since the 2019 image. Through the town, we follow the river, which is getting larger and more colourful, a reddish brown, which brings to mind the name Rio Tinto, and is probably due to uncontrolled mining or agriculture upstream.
The valley narrows into a gorge, with bare rock down near the river and wooded mountains above. There are rapids in the river here. We climb away from the river, into a wider valley, with agriculture below, and wooded mountains with large rocky outcrops near the top. Back on the river we pass a resort called Hotel Balkans and see a long, multi-span suspension bridge with a Bailey type truss deck, 10-metres above the water and gravel bed. There is a car crossing it, and we wish him luck.
We come to the large town of Elbasan, with highway sign reading 61 to Tirana, 81 to Durres (on the coast), and Korce 130. We cross the river, which is now very wide, and not nearly as brown, and circle left around the edge of the flood plain, looking across at the large buildings and chimneys of a major industrial city. We take a turnoff at the city of Cerrik and head for the town with the interesting name of Belsh. This detour is not on our itinerary, but our driver is very friendly and helpful, and proud of his country, and he says it is one of the most beautiful cities in Albania, and wants to show it to us, and they do have ATM’s, and it is almost lunchtime, so we all agree. The drive is through very pretty agricultural terrain, with maize on the flats, and lots of olive trees on the hills. There are mosques, horse-drawn wagons, the exclusively Albanian unsupported concrete spiral staircases, and the massive free-standing mountain, Mt Tommor (Baba Tomorr), with cloud on it and residual snow dominating the landscape.
We climb a hill and look down into Belsh, which is situated in a valley with a large, probably artificial, lake. The town is obviously some sort of showcase, as there is a tiled broad walk around the lake with sculptures and a large modernist installation of large diameter pipes painted white. The shopping centre has a lot of flash, new buildings. The ATM works, but the pickings are pretty slim, so we wait till we get to Berat for lunch.
A$1 = 75 Albanian Lek
Leaving Belsh, the terrain has a lot of lakes, and also sink-holes, depressions which should be lakes, but are connected to limestone caves, and don’t hold water. Agriculture seems to be mainly maize and olives, and the 2400 metre peak of Baba Tomorr continues to dominate the landscape. We pass through an oilfield area within a town with a lot of rusty steel derricks some 15-metres high which are still in place beside archaic “nodding donkey” style of well pumps, all pretty primitive and rusty, but operating. It is hard to see why all the derricks are still in place, but maybe the nature of the product and the pumps requires frequent servicing of the down-hole equipment. We also see small oil storage tanks which are presumably emptied on a regular basis by mobile tankers. Twenty minutes later we are in the town of Berat, beside a large river flowing between steep hills, looking for our Osumi Hotel, and especially, lunch.
After settling in, we repair to a small cafe, just around the corner for a surprisingly good and very cheap meal. After lunch we walk around the river area, crossing the suspension bridge to the far side for better views up and down the river, and up the hill where Ottoman houses with characteristic white walls and black trimmed windows cling to the steep slopes leading to the castle. These helped the town get a UNESCO World Heritage listing, and we are suitably impressed. Up the river is a large, domed building, which looks like a seat of government, but is actually an American University.
At 4.30pm, we gather again for a tour of the city by a paid guide. The walk takes us up a narrow street near our hotel and onto a long, straight unrelenting climb on a narrow cobbled road all the way up to the “Castle of Berat” on the crest of the mountain over Berat. We pass through an outer gateway into a courtyard which has another gateway leading to the castle proper. While we are waiting, we can look down onto the more prosperous part of the city, with large houses and long, gated driveways. Alan pays for our tickets and we proceed into the inner courtyard of the castle, where there is a complete village of occupied historic houses and public buildings.
Although it is always hard to tell, particularly in earthquake-prone countries, the walls and buildings of the fort look pretty authentic. The historic houses of the village also look good, with a couple of different styles, with the walls of post-earthquake houses having horizontal timber reinforcing every meter or so. The buildings generally follow the white walls/dark window trim theme of the city below.
From the walls we get good photos of the city, the river, the mountain on the other side of the river, and down the river to the plains. We walk further around the walls and come to an open area with dry-stone walls and a large sculpture of the head of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, as in Constantinople. The building above looks like an ordinary house, but this was to disguise a church in Ottoman times. The door is padlocked, but the guide, either officially or unofficially, has a way into the building and we are able to take photos of religious paintings and icons on the interior walls. There is a plaque claiming the church was built in the sixteenth century, and describing the paintings which remain.
We also visit the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae (named after the famous church in Constantinople) which dates from the sixth century, but was rebuilt in the 16th. It has frescoes by the same painter, Nicholas Onufri in 1598, and a cistern from an early date under the floor.
We walk more of the walls then climb up to a more substantial and complex Orthodox Church where we get good photos over the lower bridge on the river and the newer city downstream. We continue to climb to the stronghold of the castle, which has substantial stone walls, some residual arches and a tower, but not much in the way of complete buildings. From the top, we get views of snow on top of the isolated mountain, Baba Tomorr and walk further, past the stump of a minaret to the southeast corner of the wall, where we get even better views of the mountain and the foothills.
Nearby is the original cistern for the castle which is still intact, and holding water, but the steps down into it are without handrails, so we take indistinct photos of the walls and arched roof supports from openings at the top of the walls.
From breaks in the outer wall here we take more photos of the city and the mountain beyond then walk back to where there is a remarkable arch with only the face stones of the arch intact to form the arch. No-one is too keen to stand below it.
After this we go to a salient point directly above the river for more river and city photos, then call it a day and take the long, straight, steep street back to the hotel, all exhausted after what was a very taxing climb. We continue past the hotel for another look at the bridges, the river and the lower town, and are out again at 7.30pm for a traditional Balkan meal, paid for by the tour, at a local restaurant. During the meal, we are entertained by the sight of a shepherd bringing his flock of sheep and goats across the knee-deep river, and take some sunset photos soon after. During the meal, Murray has a bottle of the local beer, Korca brand, probably not pronounced corker, but it does feature a red-headed beer-maid and a statement “tradictional bjonde”. After the meal, we take some night shots, and walk along the pedestrian mall with all the locals out strolling, getting back to our room about 10pm. Berat has certainly not been the Albania we were expecting. It’s a very picturesque town, and very interesting to walk around, and could be any Eastern Europe country.
Friday 12th July Berat (Albania) to Tirana (Albania)
We are on the road by 9am, driving back the way we came, beside the river and looking across to the mountain looking for the “NEVER” sign, changed from the original “ENVER” (Hoxha) when he went out of favour . We don’t have much luck following the directions to it on the move, so do a U-turn at a roundabout and come back on a road closer to the river. The sign is not very distinct, made by clearing vegetation and soil from the underlying limestone, but when you know what you are looking for and where, it becomes clearer.
To reinforce the Albanian impression we had before coming here, we take a photo of a man leading a pack-mule. We continue on through agricultural country, with the usual maize on the flats, and olive plantations on the hills. The mountain, Baba Tomorr continues to dominate the landscape behind us for many kilometres. Because it is only about 125kms by road to Tirana, we have plenty of time to get there, so Alan and the driver make an executive decision to go there via the port and recently established tourist resort of Durres. We skirt around the large town of Lushnja, and find ourselves on the motorway behind a farm tractor with an overloaded hay trailer.
Coming into the outskirts of Durres, we pass a large rock outcrop beside the motorway, and turn off to pick up the coast, ending up on the street past the port, a circular historic fort, a large, new Orthodox Church and then the beach, with high-rise hotels and apartment buildings on the land side. We double-park opposite a beachfront fun park, while we cross the road to the park and the wide paved promenade along the beach while the driver goes to look for legal parking There are people on the beach and some are swimming, but the beach is not all that inviting, with the sand looking pretty muddy and too soft to walk to the water in shoes and a lot of it is covered with some brown seaweed. A closer look at the seaweed reveals it is made up of balls of aggregated fibre which don’t look too hygienic. Later research defines these as Poseidon’s Marbles, and they are created by the waves washing backwards and forwards, pelletising loose fibres into ovoid balls up to 8 cm long.
We haven’t been given much time to look at the beach, so we hurry along, past inactive fun rides to an ultra-modern pier and pavilion sticking out into the sea. Closer to the pier, there is a temporary sea wall of monster quarried blocks of pink marble with white veins through it. The pier has one building on the shoreline and another 100-metres out, connected by a faux suspension bridge. Further out there are groups of derelict piles from a past construction. There is nothing much to do or see on the pier, so we walk further along the beach to an artificial low rock headland with a stepped face on the beach side and a rounded profile of very large flat rip-rap facing the sea. Beyond the headland there is a much cleaner beach backed with more boulder rip-rap, and a couple of hundred people enjoying the beach. Dianne checks the water and finds it swim friendly, but we are on a tight schedule.
Although the group has scattered, we all make it back to the bus, which is now legally parked on the sea side of the road. While we are leaving there is an incident with a car and an ambulance which may have been a health issue, as a man is put in the ambulance, and the car is abandoned in the road. We leave on the same road we came in on, passing an interesting Poseidon and the sea serpent fountain, and the circular fort, also an older apartment building which has been tarted up with multi-coloured spots of different sizes in a grid on the white painted walls.
Passing the port we see Italian ferries for the trans-Adriatic trade docked. Leaving Durres on the motorway, there are high mountain ranges in shades of blue in front of us. We follow the motorway all the way into Tirana, passing notable scenes: a massive Palace-like casino; faux-castle restaurant; kilometres of fanciful motorway light poles; an Apple Macbook-pro billboard; a realistic gold-painted Mercedes taxi; a busy second-world minibus terminal; a landmark skyscraper with a wedge shape, thin end down; a large, multi-faceted stainless steel street sculpture, in the form of a point-down skinny pyramid; high mountains behind the city; a bright red apartment block with a stepped facade; and a market building with two long glass gable roofs.
We find our Capital Tirana Hotel OK, down a side street from one of the major squares, and book in without problems. Lord praise elevators! It is now well past lunch time, so we settle into the hotel then go out as a group to a restaurant Alan has used before, just down the street opposite the markets. The food is good, quick and cheap. We settle for the piglet shish kabob -at 150 lek (A$2) it’s pretty good value.
Half an hour later, at 2pm, we are out doing a guided tour around the inner city. We start off in the shadow of the Upside Down Pyramid, walk to the central square which has the Museum of Natural History, with a classic Communist “Rise of the Proletariat” mosaic entitled Albania on the upper facade of the building with a woman carrying a rifle above her head leading an historically diverse collection of warriors, workers, planners and legislators on some sort of victory march. The square itself is interesting as the surface is in the form of a very low pyramid, to drain off water and accommodate a parking station underneath. We walk past a historic clock tower, past brightly painted buildings (done to liven up Communist-era architecture) to the BunkArt2 Bunker Museum, taking photos of the outside, but not venturing in because there is too much to see for an overall tour of the inner city. There has been bit of license taken with the design of the hemispherical concrete above-ground bunker which contains the entrance as the design and finish is a lot different to those seen in the field – the sections of the dome have no lifting lugs and the firing aperture at the front is far simpler than the real thing. The inside of the dome is decorated with the photos of victims of the Hoxha Regime.
Walking on we come to another building bigger on the top than the bottom, and another clock tower. Most of the building is still covered with scaffolding, but it will end up at about 30 stories.
We move on to the National Gallery of Art, which has an installation on the lawn outside consisting of a maze of white painted metal frames in thin square tube, with partitions, discs and shelfs of clear plastic. The artist is Japanese, and the message is nothing if not obscure. Wherever we have seen clear plastic or glass included in art or architecture, the material never gets cleaned and always looks second class. We do not enter the Museum, but walk through the installation to the rear of the museum to where the discarded statues of the Communist era are stored, more-or-less out of sight, out of mind. The bronze statues include; a young woman resistance fighter, with backpack, grenades, ammunition pouches and rifle; a heroic style worker with a gun and a miner’s pick; two statues of Stalin; one statue of Lenin, with no arms; a soldier with exaggerated arms and torso pointing a gun. There is also a marble head and torso of Enver Hoxha with no nose.
We walk on to a section of the original city wall, then to the rather boring modern Roman Catholic Cathedral, with modern stained glass which includes well-known Albanian ethnic, Mother Theresa. We move on to the Communist brutal styled ziggurat called The Pyramid, an obtuse angled concrete multifaceted half-cone which backs onto a rectangular auditorium building. Looking in through the open door below tapered steel framed windows, one can see the bottom of tiered seating and ventilation ducting, but it all looks pretty derelict, with lots of rubbish in it, and is covered in graffiti. There is some talk of fixing it, but it is no vintage gem. On the outside there are kids running up the slope and sliding down.
We move on to a park with a concrete bunker, a section of concrete mine roof support, and a section of the Berlin wall. We walk past Hoxha’s residence, which is not open to the public, but we can see through the gate that it is a two story, quite suburban house, then past some pretty horrendous pink tarted-up Communist era apartments. See a Colonel Sanders knock-off, pass a shopping mall with weird futuristic cured-concrete architecture, and a large fountain. Return to the second top-heavy building with the scaffolding and clock tower, and end up at the modern Orthodox Cathedral. The clock tower is actually in the grounds of the cathedral. Even though new, the cathedral is pretty impressive, with a large dome featuring a painting of Jesus, frescoes on the wall, the traditional giant chandelier. Outside the small chapel is interesting with a roof of three nested golden arches pointing four ways.
We return to the nearby Skanderbeg Square, for photos of the man himself, on horseback with his trademark goat helmet on, before returning to the hotel for a well-earned rest before going out for dinner at one of the best restaurant in Tirana, Artigiano2 (Vila – 12 of 706 on Trip Advisor).
When we get there the street outside is lined with flash cars – Mercedes, Audis, and Maseratis. This is the restaurant of choice for the well-heeled, and probably well connected in Albania. The entry to the restaurant at night is magical, with lots of trees and greenery, all lit with fairy lights. It could be a restaurant in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, with casually dressed men and semi-naked women in their best gear and high heels, and the whole place very “buzzy”. We’re told there are plenty of rich people in Tirana because of the criminal gangs and corruption.
Once again our expectations of Albania have been proved wrong. We’re shown to the roof top terrace, which has a wonderful ambience, with lots of greenery and candles, but Murray, ever the romantic, complains there is not much light to eat by. We don’t remember the food as being anything special, but the whole experience certainly was.
.Saturday 13th July Tirana – Kruja – Tirana
Today we’re going for a half-day trip to Kruja, which is about 30km away, and is famous as the town where the national hero, Skanderbeg, was born, more than 500 years ago. People from the Balkans have very long memories, which has been one of the reasons there have been so many wars here. At a young age Kastriotti, the son of an Albanian prince, was handed over to the Turks as a hostage, and he was converted to Islam and given a military education, and called Skanderbeg by the Turks. In 1443 he abandoned the Ottoman army and rallied his fellow Albanians against the Turks, making Kruja his seat of government between 1443 and 1468. The Turks finally took control of Kruja in 1478, after Skanderbeg’s death.
By 9am we are in the bus and weaving through the back streets of Tirana to get onto the main road and head out the way we entered the city, passing the major buildings and street art, and turning right towards the Airport where we saw the massive Chateau-like casino. We have low mountains to the left of the road, one with a fortress and tower on the top, and high mountains across the valley behind the city.
We pass through industrial and farming land and pass a horse-drawn cart with a cabin for the driver and passengers, ending up right near the airport passenger terminal before exiting into farmland again. We pass an interesting hotel near the airport with the main building in the shape of a very fat aircraft fuselage. We turn toward the mountain, passing a very large greenhouse complex, now in disuse, possible once a commune, and climb into the mountains through pine woods.
Closer to the mountains we pass through the outer suburbs of the town of Kruja, and can see the Castle and associated tourist traps high on the side of the mountain, which is very steep, with high limestone cliffs. Our bus takes us right up to the top of the town, and we get out outside the fancy hotel right near the castle and Old town. The original plan was to have a stop for coffee in one of the bars overlooking the castle, but there is not much interest shown, so we descend to the base of the hotel and assemble under a tree in a park on the edge of the escarpment. The plans of the group are diverse, so we arrange to meet at the end of the market street, where the bus can pick us up, and everyone disperses in many directions, but stay together long enough for Alan to get us tickets into the castle complex and the Ethnological Museum. He has arranged for a guide, but it is pretty busy, so the guide has to swap between tour groups. .
The museum is the residence of the family who once owned the castle, built in 1764, and has been refurbished to demonstrate what life was like in the castle when it was functioning. The other group is quite large and noisy (probably Italian, as Italy is just across the Adriatic) and we sequence our visit to various rooms to avoid them. The displays are quite well done, particularly down on the ground floor where the hard work is done – pressing grapes and olives, blacksmithing, flour milling, leather working, felt making, distilling raki.
Other floors and rooms show typical furnished living rooms, sleeping chambers with moulded stoves for men, walls hung with weapons and implements, typical formal clothes for weddings, a guillotine for cutting tobacco, a gallery for children to watch the adults, and women using churns to make butter. Generally the display was interesting and pretty well presented.
From the Ethnological Museum, we climb to the steps of the relatively new (1980) National Museum “Gjergi Kastrioti (Skenderbeu)” dedicated to the history of the resistance to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, and Skenderbeu, the National Hero. The building is fashioned in the style of an Albanian Tower, and is arranged internally in roughly the chronological order of the resistance. From the entrance we take photos of the remains of earlier buildings, and a sign pole of directions and distances of major cities, with Sydney being 15,746 km away.
Inside the museum there is a good haut relief of Skenderbeu with his goat-horn helmet and his fellow resisters, busts of Queen Teuta and Pirro, of Pyrrhic Victory fame, and very large frescoes of battles between the Albanian and the Ottoman troops. The famous battle, where Skenderbeu prevailed, involved driving herds of goats at night toward the enemy with lights attached to them to convince the enemy they were up against a large army. Hence the goat-horn helmet.
There are also large, more colourful paintings of Skenderbeu working with advisers and supplicants in the normal business of government, and a large bronze bust of him with the goat horn helmet, chain mail and a flowing beard. It is very hard when writing this diary to know what spelling to use – e.g Skenderbeu, Skenderbeg or…… All information, including maps, tourist information and guide books use different names with slight variations, particularly for place names. We have to take pot-lock as to which one to use.
From the top of the tower we get good photos of the Castle, the nearby hotels and shops, the historic village below the castle, and the rugged limestone mountains behind the town. After finishing at the Museum, we wander through the narrow, rock-walled lanes of the village below the castle, having a good look at a small church, but resisting an offer from workmen nearby to open it for a visit. We take more photos of the mountains, the buildings of the Castle complex and the town, but don’t feel the need to climb up to the distinctive square tower above the Skenderbeu Museum. Waiting for the troops to assemble, we check out the souvenir shops but resist buying.
On the way back we manage a photo of two nuns crossing the road in the typical white-with-blue-stripes Mother Theresa habits.
Back in the city, we lunch then head towards the Bunker Museum, passing the tomb of Kaplan Pasha, looking a bit strange set in a large niche in the corner of the podium of the modern upside-down building; acknowledge the Skenderbeu equine statue, and walk past the brightly-painted buildings to the BunkArt2 nuclear bunker museum (A$6.75 ea entry).
The street-level display is pretty ordinary, but, after we descend into the massive concrete bunker below it gets more interesting. This is a real bunker, with steel plate doors on individual rooms, long corridors with power and lighting conduits, even an operational loo. Entry to the corridors has been achieved by diamond drilling multiple connecting holes through a metre of concrete. There is a gap of some 30 cm between inner and outer walls of the bunker, presumably to insulate the inner bunker from soil movement due to close explosions.
Rooms in the bunker contain history of the Border Forces, dedicated to keeping Albanians in Albania and counter-revolutionaries out, and the trouble they went to in keeping dissent under control. Certain rooms are dedicated to photo surveillance, others to audio recording. Big Brother was alive and well in Albania. The experience reminded us of visiting the Checkpoint Charlie museum of such activities back in 1976.
By the time we climb up the exit stairs through another opening cut in one-metre of concrete, it is 6.30pm, so back to the hotel. By the time we go out to dinner, to a local, supposedly cheap restaurant. The restaurant only has a restricted set menu, which doesn’t appeal to us, and isn’t particularly cheap, but the ambience in a tiny restaurant in a back street was interesting. As we arrive, it starts to rain, and continues quite heavily right up to when we have to leave. On our way back to the hotel, we lose Linley, the slowest of the group, who sets off before us, and we have to scout around, finding her on the way to a dead-end we had found previously.
Sunday 14th July Tirana (Albania) – Kotor (Montenegro)
We set off early this morning as we have a border crossing, and are hoping to avoid the holiday traffic. We are loaded and away by 8am. Exit the usual direction through quiet Sunday morning streets, pass the usual landmarks and make the same turn towards Kruja, but keep going past the airport on flat land through cultivated fields, with medium mountains to the west and high mountains to the east. We cross some small creeks coming from the direction of Tirana which are very dark and toxic looking. We cross the Mat, a major river, and stop for fuel and a break at a service station outside Lezhe. While we are there, we take photos of the Fort on a high hill behind the town. We carry on across the flat plain to near where major rivers, one the Bojana/Buna (depending on which country) from Skadar Lake and Montenegro to the north, and the Kir, which joins the Drini from Albania to the south. We cross the first one beside a disused railway bridge onto a peninsula between the two rivers and stop in Shkoder, one of the oldest cities in Europe, where a street leads to the road up the mountain to the Rozafa Fortress. There are mini-buses at the intersection to take visitors a fair way up the mountain, but we opt to walk, a decision we later question when we are 75-metres up the hill on our way to 108-metres at the highest point.
The walls and the gate structure are pretty complete, but although there are a number of buildings on the site, there are only a couple of significant ones, including the remains of a mosque and minaret, and a large building 2 to 3 stories, to which we don’t get access. There are a few good viewing points and impressive views over the lake, the city of Shkoder, a large market on the outskirts of the city, the historic mosque on the plain below, developments along the river, the strange zig-zag structures in the river which are later confirmed as fish traps, and the two winding rivers. The river to the south winds its way across the plains and a weir can be seen at the base of the distant mountains, 15 kms away. We leave without visiting the city of Shkoder, and get a good look at the fish traps which are called daljani, and are barricades made of metal or wooden canes placed at the mouth of a channel between a lake and the sea, channelling the fish as they try to return to the sea from the lake into a trap, from where they are lifted out in a net known in Albanian as a ‘kalimera’. The traps have been used for centuries in Albania, their V-shaped nets catching whole shoals of migrating fish. Under the law, the daljani on the River Bojana, which flows from Lake Skadar to the Adriatic Sea, are open between March 15 and August 31, and closed for the rest of the year, however some say they are used outside that period, and they trap ALL the fish, which is why catches, like elsewhere in the world, are decreasing all the time..
The road follows the river, but is not close enough for views. Very close to the road we see a couple of the now-familiar bunkers, difficult obstacles to widening the road, which gives the impression of being a minor road, but is the only direct access to the border with Montenegro.
We’ve been reading up on Montenegro history, and like all of the Balkans, its complicated. The Ottomans also ruled here for hundreds of years. After Tito’s death in 1980, Montenegro sided with Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic, and in 1992 they voted to remain in Yugoslavia with Serbia, though Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia Hercegovina had opted for independence, but in May 2006 they voted for independence. Since then it has rapidly opened up to the West. For a change, we don’t have to change currency, because they use the Euro.
We have minor delays at the border, but, on the far side of the border, the queue stretches for kilometres, with a lot of the traffic people with EU number plates on holiday. Our route continues inland away from the coast, through a valley which has thick woods between limestone outcrops, and a little farming.
We then head towards the coast, passing through the outskirts of the city of Dobra Voda, and stop at the Konoba “Makina Vucinica” restaurant located high over the coast with magnificent water views, and while we are waiting for lunch we walk along the road to get good telephotos of Dobra Voda and the coastline. The road descends toward the coast and we cross the closely farmed coastal plain, getting good views of the coast and beaches as we enter the outskirts of the city of Bar below us, but do not get to the waterfront. We stopped here briefly in 1987 on a ferry from Igoumenitsa to Dubrovnik, with our kids who were 6 and 8, and considered getting off, but at 5am in the morning, with a single light on the wharf, swirling mist and humorless officials in greatcoats and large hats we decided against it.
We pass through Bar on main roads, getting passing photos of a modern cathedral and major street before taking a road right along the beaches, getting passing photos of strollers in swimwear, beach lounges and umbrellas and some pretty offshore rocky islets. Looking back we can see the port of Bar and the oil storage tanks on the point.
We climb through the city of Sutomore and onto a major road through the mountains, avoiding the motorway and returning to the coast past a very green coastal plain behind a long beach. We pass above the small city of Petrovac, where are more uninhabited offshore islets, and follow the edge of steep cliffs till we stop for picture-perfect photos of Sveti Stefan once an island just offshore, but now connected by a causeway for the exclusive use of the well-heeled residents. The colour of the water here is incredible.
From the lookout we can see further north to the city of Budva, nicely located in a sheltered cove, with steep mountains behind it and a large island offshore. Montenegro sure has a pretty coastline, which is getting heavily developed for the tourist trade. Apparently there is a large Russian presence, as Russian oligarchs have enough money to buy the whole country, if necessary, instead of just the politicians.
We take the E65 through the town and out along the coast, passing through a tunnel and along the steep slope into the sea, seeing a very large camp ground with its own beach, and climbing up through a valley between mountains, becoming mysteriously the E80, then down inland of the city of Tivat, which has the airport for Kotor, and a mega-yacht marina. We are expecting to keep going around the coast, but head inland toward the high limestone mountains, to find a 1.7 km long tunnel which takes us through the mountains and emerges 80-metres up on the mountainside, on the south edge of Kotor, and only 1.4 km from the Old City of Kotor. Pass a beach covered in beach umbrellas and people. We’ve definitely hit mass tourism.
We drive through the centre of Kotor, past the end of the Port, and the walled Old Town, and a couple of kms out to the north to find somewhere to do a U-turn and stop at our Apartment Hotel. We settle into our upstairs apartment, take a couple of photos out of the window, then report to the waterfront (which is just below our apartment, but a fair way down) at 4pm for the 2 km walk into town for the guided tour around the Old Town. The walk is quite pleasant, on the waterfront footpath, where they are boat harbours for small craft, swimming beaches, and quays. On the land side there are houses and occasional restaurants. Closer to the city, there are fairly flash waterfront restaurants and bars. Up above the town are limestone mountains, not exactly cliffs, but too steep to climb without technical climbing gear. Toward the summit we can see an interesting bridge which we think is natural, but could be man-made, part of the ancient fort and mountain pathways. Ahead of us, there is a wall running diagonally up the mountain face to a chapel at the halfway point, and a fort at the top, some 220 metres above the water.
We cross a bridge over a very short river, only 500-metres long, ending up at a sheer cliff behind the old town, but connected to springs and underground water, as there is a fair outward flow in it. 200 metres further along, there is a larger river, about the same length with the walls of the Old City forming the south bank, and upstream of the current bridge there are the foundations of a historic bridge. We assemble at the front gate of the Old City, opposite the Cruise Ship wharf.
The guide takes us in a loop around the triangular old city, which is taking in the main sights and buildings. The main square has buildings which are mainly three-story, the ones along the front have a gallery along the inside of the square, and a verandah on the outside. The square clock tower has large clock faces, three stories and a pillared top level with a roof, but no walls.
The main church is large, with square four level towers either side of the entrance arch which are similar, but not identical. We don’t get to look inside this one, but we do see inside another, smaller Orthodox church, with the classic twelve lobed chandelier and altar partition of icons and saint paintings. Behind this church is an arch leading to the pathway up the mountain to the Fort, which we may or may not visit. There are lots of narrow laneways connecting the major squares, all paved with marble flagstones. It reminds us of Trogir in Croatia, or a mini-version of Dubrovnik. After the tour a few of us stop at one of the touristy restaurants on the square for drinks, Dianne having a Coke, Murray having the interestingly named Nicsicko beer. Some are staying to look around more, and although it is interesting, authentic, and UNESCO Heritage listed, we are very hot and tired, so head back on the 2km walk to the hotel about 6.30pm. Kotor has definitely impressed us – not only does it have amazing water views and a great old town, it’s setting with the fort and mountains behind it is spectacular.
Later we repair to the Elas Restaurant on the waterfront, recommended by Alan – Dianne ending up with half a sheep having ordered the lamb, but it was pretty good. After the meal, we wait for dark (about 9.30pm) and take night photos of the lights on the harbour, the Fort, the city, and the full moon over the mountains, some photos better than the others.
Monday 15th July Kotor (Montenegro)
One of the recommended things to do in Kotor is a speedboat tour, so we’ve all paid our A$50 each for a trip to the sea caves via the submarine bases, and Island of the Rock. In the morning we take photos of the mountain and the fort out our bedroom window, and are out on the water by 10am, having been picked up at the wharf near our hotel. The boat driver is not the one Alan was expecting, bur he seems to know the boat and the tour, and his English improves as the day wears on. The boat is big enough for all of us, but the bow seating does not allow too many people to look forward, and Murray initially has a lot of trouble twisting around to look forward. Later the driver suggests he sits in the passenger’s seat beside the driver, which works a lot better. Our first stop is at the iconic Lady of the Rock, a church and its grounds built on one of two artificial islands in a shallow spot where probably the two glaciers that cut out the bay met. On the way to the chapel, we see that there is development along the shore anywhere the slope of the land is gentle enough to support it. There are churches down near the water, and monasteries up on the mountain. In other places, the mountains drop straight into the water. We are very lucky with the weather, with brilliant sunshine, no clouds, and little breeze.
At the island, we have to wait for other speedboats, then have 20 minutes to walk around, visit the loo and take photos of the outside of the chapel and the scenery. At the islands the main channel to the sea takes a hard left turn through a strait narrow enough for a chain to be stretched across from one fort to another. Further along there are a number of double-ended vehicular ferries which make a shortcut from Tivat to the Croatian border.
On the northern side of the channel are – an interesting church; tourism developments; wharves with cargo cranes; super yachts; hillside villages. On the southern side are – the deep inlet leading to Tivat; the super yacht marina, complete with super yachts; a very old and rusty naval ship; and further along the first of the German WW2 submarine bases.
The bases are located on a straight shoreline with heavily wooded steep slopes descending to the waterline. The actual tunnels are 15-metres wide at the waterline, 8-metres wide higher up, and the roof is about 15-metres from the water to the top of the arched rough limestone roof, and probably 80-metres deep. There is a concrete deck a metre wide and a metre off the water around three sides. We drive right into one of these tunnels. Turning the boat around without touching the sides is a bit delicate, but our driver manages. One of the more interesting features is the arrangement for concealing the entrance. Sets of twelve swinging arms are mounted on either side and are chained together to act as a unit. The arms carry metal mesh trays on which are stacked limestone rocks, and when they are closed, it looks like a limestone scree slope extending to the water.
All three are similar with two placed about 200-metres apart, the third a lot further and round the corner past a large building site, and near an abandoned monastery or similar, and without the concealing swing arms.
The word on the building site is it is being built with Russian money and no environmental oversight. We are now almost out in the open sea, with a long, skinny headland to the north, an island in the middle, and wooded mountain slopes to the south. There is a substantial fort on the north headland, and a low circular fort with a small courtyard with crenellations attached on the middle island, and another low circular fort on a small island close to the southern shore. There is construction work in progress on the middle island, apparently also financed by Russians.
We carry on along the almost uninhabited southern shore, coming to continuous cliffs dropping into the water. At one point we see a large party of more than twenty swimmers in wetsuits and helmets near what looks like a small sea-cave. It looks like there are a lot of sea-caves along the coast, but the one we are looking for is larger than most, and under some higher cliffs. There are a few boats about when we enter the cave. The light coming in through the water is a brilliant blue/green colour. Because there are too many boats about, the driver doesn’t want to have people swimming inside the cave, which is a bit of a disappointment for Dianne, because this is where the colours were great. She goes in with most of the others when we pass through the cave and out the other side, but there is nothing to see here. They stay in for ten minutes then we head back, retracing our route until we get to where we will be dropping off the mother and daughter team who are going to do a wine tasting. The drop off is at a very flash hotel with a private dock on the north side of the harbour. From here we follow the north side of the harbour to our upmarket lunch spot, Restoran Stari Mlini at Dobrota (7 of 15 on Trip Advisor) which also has its own private dock.
The restaurant is in a fantastic setting on the waterfront, with a creek, flowing from the base of the mountain, passing through the garden and feeding trout ponds. Some curved timber bridges and water wheels add to the ambience, which is wonderful. We all get to sit at a very large round table, which gives room, but makes passing anything pretty difficult. Prices are pretty expensive, and we’re not that hungry, so just have one fish pate and one salad, one beer and a glass of wine, which comes to A$59. We now know why the rating on Trip Advisor wasn’t that high, as neither dish was anywhere near as good as ones we’ve had elsewhere, but the ambience was as good as it gets. Murray feels the need to photograph the Sicko part of the beer label for Facebook use.
Alan organises a fleet of taxis to take us back to the hotel, and the driver has pretty good English, and the price is surprisingly reasonable. After a rest break, we bite the bullet and head into town in the late afternoon to climb up to the fort above the old town. We’ve been told it’s possible to avoid the 8 Euro per person charge if you start off after 8pm, but we have no wish to do the return trip in the dark, and by 6pm, we have paid our A$26 entry fee and started the climb, which is pretty steep – a combination of paths and steps, and in many places a very rough path beside the steps to allow for fast traffic and passing. It is still pretty hot and we take it easy, stopping for rest, drinks and photos. As we get higher, the view gets better, and the compact size of the triangular Old City becomes more obvious. There are a couple of cruise ships in now, and more expected – a good time to be leaving Kotor. By the time we get to the small church, we are feeling fit enough to push on to the top, and look at side trips and points of interest on the way. The wall on the uphill side of the Fort is quite remarkable, probably the steepest we have seen since the Great Wall. Looking over we see terraces and foundations of former buildings, and up higher there are zig-zag paths leading up to a saddle in the mountain.
At the top, there is a lot more detail than we have seen in a lot of forts, with separate rooms, passages, platforms and catwalks. There are at least 20 people at the top, all sizes and ages. We leave the top, heading down at 7pm, and are at the church by 7.20pm, and down at the town by 7.40pm and back at the Elas restaurant near the hotel by 8pm for dinner. We are having an early start tomorrow to beat the congestion at the Croatian border, so pack and have an early night.
Tuesday 16th July Kotor (Montenegro) – Dubrovnik (Croatia)
We are on the road by 7.30am following the road which runs all the way around the edge of the water, and we can trace our route on yesterday’s boat trip. Murray gets another go in the front seat, but the day is pretty overcast, and there is not a lot off light. The views are pretty spectacular, but with no sunlight, it all looks a bit austere today, totally different to yesterday. As we drive along to the north end of the inner harbour, we recognise where we lunched yesterday, and further on, the flash hotel where we offloaded the wine tasters, and the scar across the mountain slope of the R11 route which is the only inland connection from Kotor to the hinterland. Further around, past the narrow passage to the outer harbour, we pass the ferry connection to Tivat at Kamenari and a series of coastal towns which are being developed for the tourist trade. At Meljine, we keep going along the coast, rather than take the main route to Croatia, hoping to get an easier border crossing on the minor road which runs a lot closer to the coast. Here, the Croatian border splits the narrow headland on the north side of the harbour, and claims the entire tip, with the large fort.
The map shows a road running around the peninsula, but there is no border crossing on it, so we continue along the coast past the town of Igalo, and instead of taking Route E80 up a valley to the major border crossing, we take Route D516 around the headland, getting good views of the fort on the long, skinny headland, and find a small border crossing with no-one waiting to cross. The guards look a little surprised and put out by the fact that a bus would dare to interrupt their solitude, and they gave Alan a hard time, and made us fill in a new manifest, but it was probably better than waiting for more traffic at the main crossing.
The road passes through sparsely inhabited woodland on a high ridge close to the coast, but we get no coastal views. There are some farms and orchards, but it is not until we get to the junction with Route E80 (which then becomes E65) that we see continuous fields and farms. The route takes us past Dubrovnik airport at an altitude of 167 metres, and drops down once we pass the end of the runway. From here we can see our first view of Dubrovnik, 15 kms away across a deep bay, with islands in front, and high mountains inland. Getting closer, the view of the mountains inland is dominated by a massive quarry, which is apparently where a lot of the stone used in Dubrovnik came from. We continue on Route E65/D8 around the coast, passing the quarry and along a steep mountain slope with good views over the coast and stop at a pull-off across the road from what looks like an electrical substation built into the mountain, with long flights of steps to a lookout above it.
The climb is a bit of a battle after last night’s 220-metre climb, but it is worth it, with fabulous views back along the coast, out to the islands, and down to the fort and old city of Dubrovnik. Murray climbs a long way up an old stone path, but the view doesn’t change much.
We drive past the Old Town and through the new town, stopping down at the Port while Alan gets a Dubrovnik card for everyone (as part of the tour) which entitles you to free Public transport, entry to the City Walls, and various museums for 24 hours (they are 250 kuna, or A$55 each, though not sure if tour company gets a discount). We then circle around to Lapad on the other side of the Port, where our Dubrovnik Hotel is located quite close to the sea, but not on the waterfront. Because the hotel is located on a pedestrian-only street, the bus has to park in a nearby parking station, and we pull our bags a hundred metres to the hotel reception. It is about 10.30am, and by the time we get local currency at the non-bank ATM, being screwed by an option to have the money in $A, and with a vicious fee, particularly for small amounts it is still a bit early for lunch, so we all gear up for a trip to the Old City.
A$1 = 4.2 Croatian Kuna
The whole group walks up to the bus stop on the main road 300-metres away, and find a crowd of people waiting. Arriving buses are full, some taking some more passengers, others none. We have to consider our options, such as walking back a stop or two, or catching taxis. Eventually a bus not as full arrives, and Alan organises a concerted push to the front, and blocks side runners, and we all manage to get on. It is not very nice, and we feel bad, but no point in hanging back and making things difficult for the rest of the group.
We take the bus all the way to Pile Bus Station, right outside the walls of the Old City, another UNESCO World Heritage site. We were last here in 1987, with the kids. Since then it has been heavily damaged when Serbian-Montenegrin forces bombed it over a period of six months or so in 1991-92. Of the 824 buildings in the Old Town, 68% were struck by shells, and the walls sustained 111 direct hits. We’ve been told that all the damage has been repaired.
Pass through the gates and assemble near the fountain, then present our passes to climb the long staircase and start out walk/climb around the city walls. The city is one of the most impressive walled cities in the world, up here with Rhodes and Jerusalem (both of which we’ve seen) and it is wonderfully placed. There is a lot of reconstruction going on, particularly roofs since the war, but it still looks good. It is a pretty hot, thirsty walk all the way around, but we have a good look at most of it, check out the village idiots diving off the ramparts into the sea, and notice a celebrity from Australian TV. Highlights include: looking down on the open dome and fluted walls of the fountain; the crowds in the main street; the seascape at the detached fort; the topography of the outer walls; the height of the curved outer walls; unoccupied ground with the remains of walls; the marina and the quarantine building beyond; climbing all the way up to the top of the main tower; the panorama from the top of the main tower.
Back on the ground, we meet a woman guide and are taken on a walk around the old city, both on the wide thoroughfares, and through narrow laneways, with all the historic buildings, churches etc pointed out, and various historical stories and facts told. We also see the Walk of Shame (from the Game of Thrones). The locals are not very happy about this, as drunken tourists come and behave badly here, usually in the middle of the night when the locals are trying to sleep.
It’s now nearly 4pm, and we’re too tired to check out any of the museums etc that our card entitles us to, so we catch the bus back to the hotel, and book into our room, then check out the waterfront near our hotel, which is quite touristy with restaurants, bars etc and lots of people on the sandy beach.
We are having a farewell dinner tonight, so catch another bus into town, with no queue waiting this time, and walk down to the small beach between the main city and the outlier fort to the Orhan Restaurant, (145 of 468 on Trip Advisor) with mainly seafood, right on the water, and have a terrace table with fantastic views of the city walls and water. The view is special, particularly with a full moon coming up over the city walls. It is even more special when the moon changes shape in what turns out to be a partial eclipse. Once again the food is nothing special, but it is definitely worth going for the setting.
After the meal we return to the old city to take night photos with all the buildings well-lit, and to absorb the atmosphere of the town which is still crowded. We return to the hotel by bus about 11.30pm, and have more farewells than Nellie Melba, as we continually run into people who we have already farewelled.
Summary of Our Thoughts on the Balkans
There was definitely plenty to see in the Balkans – from Roman ruins, lots of historic churches and other buildings, historic old towns, mountains and great coastal resorts.
There was also plenty to learn about the Balkans. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to understand the various wars in the Balkans. We were surprised how little of the war damage was visible on a cursory look, which was very different to Sarajevo when we were there in 2001.
We were very happy with Intrepid Travel, and particularly Dani our guide on the first trip, who was excellent. We tried to compare them with Explore, who we thought were superb. It’s very hard to compare when we’re travelling in different countries, but we think Explore was about the same price as Intrepid, or maybe a tiny bit more, but they definitely included a lot more meals and guides etc in their price, so overall were probably a bit better value.
Once again there was a good mix of people on both trips, but these destinations seemed to appeal to women on their own rather than couples.
There was plenty to see, but there was nothing that we hadn’t seen before in other places. There are similar Old Towns, architecture, mountains and coast in a lot of other countries we’ve been to, so, although enjoyable, there were very few “wow” moments. The cultures were also reasonably similar to other countries we’ve visited, although Albania was pretty special, not so much for where it is now as for where it has come from – extreme Communist austerity to a modern European state, in a very short time.
In comparison, we were in Ethiopia earlier in the year, and this was definitely different to anything we’ve seen before. However travelling in the Balkans was easier, and definitely safer, both for personal safety and healthwise.
In summary, we would definitely recommend travelling to the Balkans, but don’t expect anything too exotic.
Wednesday 17th July Dubrovnik (Croatia)
Today is our first non-tour day for quite a while, and we are determined to take it easy, so decide not to rush into town to see the museums before our Dubrovnik card expires. We breakfast late, talk to some of the group who have late flights or extra days, plan our moves and don’t make it out of the hotel till 2.30pm. Our plan is to walk right around the Lapad headland to the North of us (and further away from the Old Town) and back to the hotel, having a swim on the way. It is a beautiful day, a bit hot, but there is a pleasant breeze.
Down by the sea, the beach is crowded and the water is clear and blue. The rocky shoreline drops into deep water, and there is a nice natural swimming pool. Further along there is a restaurant and bar with modern terraces and stairways down to the water, and a line of rocky islets a kilometre off shore with a lighthouse. We follow the waterside path as far as we can, through resort developments, onto the road, then through a traffic barrier to a park with a beach below. We walk down to the beach then along to a resort with a gate keeper. We are not allowed to keep walking around the shore line, so have to consult maps.me to find a work-around, which involves walking back up towards the road barrier and taking a set of steps, but this path is closed so we get onto public streets and try again, this time down through the bus terminal area in the hope that the dotted path back to the coast actually exists. We are in luck and the path leads through a park and back down to the coast, past where there are the ruins of an old fort, and along the continuation of our original Setnica Walking Trail, which follows the edge of a 20-metre cliff above narrow beaches and beach clubs. We consider climbing down a steep set of steps to have a drink in a bar but push on to where the cliff is not as high, and get to the water. Dianne is determined to go for a swim, so Murray looks like he might order a drink while Dianne uses the dressing rooms, and then goes for a swim, which cools her down. We continue along the coast, which is lower here, with rock pools and swimming beaches which turn into boat mooring areas with interesting springboard-like jetties over the shallow water. Across to the east is a cruise liner, and down the harbour a string of Optimist dinghies are being towed.
We follow maps.me up the bus route to the top of the hill, find a shop which is open and have a very welcome cold drink, before carrying on back to the hotel.
In the evening we go down to the waterfront and beach, checking out the eating possibilities, settling for a pizza at the bistro, and a good series of sunset photos before going back to the hotel to finalise packing.