A Travellerspoint blog

July 2015

"If there's no Fen TV, we ain't staying here"

#BalkanBants - Sofia

sunny 30 °C
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After a long trip through the southern Balkans since we left Dubrovnik, we were finally on our way back to the EU, and the last country on our joint trip - Bulgaria. And as we made our way through the Macedonian and Bulgarian mountains the temperature reached new lows - being just a chilly 27C by mid morning!

After sorting out Johan's onward travel to Bucharest at the station, we made our way to our hotel to drop off our bags before heading into the city proper.

Sofia was the biggest city we had visited on our trip since we left Belgrade, but, like Belgrade, from the outset it didn't appear to have that much more to see than anywhere else, and so we scheduled just a long afternoon in the city.

Largo

Largo

We began by walking just around the corner to the Largo - a huge and beautiful example of Socialist Classicism in the heart of the city. After walking past the monument to St. Sofia, we detoured to the Courts of Justice, before walking back through the Largo to the former Royal Palace and National Theatre.

Royal Palace

Royal Palace


National Theatre

National Theatre

After seeing the sights in the city centre we made our way to the icon of the city - the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, taking a cool down inside, before heading past the National Assembly and University to the Knyazheska Garden.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Inside this park is the Monument to the Soviet Army, which we walked past before stopping for an ice cream to cool down. We then made our way through the outskirts of the city centre to the other abandoned statue from the communist era - the monument to the 1300 years of Bulgaria in the NDK Park, alongside it's more popular sibling, the National Palace of Culture.

National Palace of Culture in NDK Park

National Palace of Culture in NDK Park

As we made our way back to the city centre we walked down the main shopping street, stopped off in the central square to get some souvenirs and checked in at the hotel hoping to have the Fen TV channel. Luckily we did, and after avoiding the beggars in McDonalds for dinner we came back to enjoy our last evening listening to trashy Bulgarian #choons as we had done in Macedonia.

Looking back, Sofia was in many ways how Belgrade could be. They were both big cities, with a similar number of attractions. However the location of Sofia's, as well as the easier transportation around the city (the only city on the trip with a Metro), makes Sofia a much more pleasant city to visit.

The city was an interesting one to visit, even though it was relatively small to visit. And after saying goodbye to Johan the following morning, I made the trip to the airport and therefore home where I then suffered the misery of the British summer. After enduring near 40C temperatures for near on two weeks I was headed for the rain and 14C!

The Balkans was an amazing experience. Some absolutely stunning scenery, as well as a lot of heritage, history and culture. I would highly recommend visiting this area, with the stand outs most certainly being Bosnia and Montenegro.

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged city cathedral balkanbants Comments (0)

"Forget Skopje 2014, it's all about Skopje 2015"

#BalkanBants - Skopje

sunny 39 °C
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After some busy days hopping through Greater Albania, Johan and I had arrived for a bit more of a relaxed time in Skopje. Although not being a particularly big city, we gave ourselves two nights here so that we could catch up on some rest before the conclusion of the trip.

Arriving in Skopje and getting to our apartment was a bit of a nightmare due to the lack of communication with our host - although costing just £32 for two nights for a two room apartment we shouldn't complain too much. After getting settled in a slightly different, and larger apartment due to the original requested one having problems with the aircon in the 40C heat, we made our way into the city centre and the first experiences of the Skopje 2014 project became clear.

I had read about the Skopje 2014 project many years previously, and I had found it so fascinating that I had even included it in my exams at University. For those of you who don't know - it's a project by the government of Macedonia to build new Neo-Classical buildings and statues in the city centre dedicated to the history of the Kingdom of Macedonia, with the justification that after the earthquake in 1963 and the Communist rule of the country for decades, Skopje is lacking its historical architecture that other countries hold.

However it is not just the huge cost in a relatively poor and underdeveloped country that has divided opinion, but because the city itself is on the very edges of the Macedonian region (and therefore not really in the heart of the ancient Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, as the project would have you believe), much of what is being built never even existed in the city to start with! Well, you can't beat a good bit of simulacra on a Tuesday!

It's very difficult to explain how this all comes across. I guess the closest thing it's similar to is a theme park. However as this is a city with real life continuing around it all feels very odd and out of place.

Fallen Heroes of Macedonia

Fallen Heroes of Macedonia

The first place we reached was the park opposite the parliament building, which was absolutely littered with statues related to the "Defenders of Macedonia" and the "Fallen Heroes of Macedonia" amongst others, literally metres from each other.

Porta Macedonia

Porta Macedonia

Just a short walk away is the huge Porta Macedonia, a big Arc de Triomphe type gate that cost €4.4m to build and commemorates the struggle for Macedonian independence. This opens up the the pedestrianised central area with the huge "Warrior on a Horse" (and quite obviously Alexander the Great) statue that symbolises the project.

Warrior On A Horse

Warrior On A Horse

As with Albania and Kosovo, dedications to Mother Teresa are everywhere. Despite being an ethnic Albanian of Kosovan origin, she was actually born in Skopje, and therefore there is a memorial house to her located on the site of the church in which she was baptised, containing memorabilia and items from her private collection.

Mother Teresa House

Mother Teresa House

Heading back towards Macedonia Square, we crossed over the Vardar River and took a quick look inside the Museum of Archaeology, which had clearly been placed in front of the existing riverside building making it look very imposing over the city.

Macedonia Square

Macedonia Square

One of the bridges over the Vardar

One of the bridges over the Vardar

We then crossed over some of the newer bridges, each of which very grand looking with lights and statues covering the sides, before taking a quick look in the old Ottoman Bazaar area. On the walk back we again passed the river, and noticed some of the metal framed ships being built on the river to be opened as cafés and restaurants. Another perfect example of just how fake this whole project was.

Old Bazaar

Old Bazaar

Going back to the apartment to eat we relaxed as well as cooled down from the high temperatures of the city. However being many days into the trip we had acclimatised quite well - so much so that with the air con being set to 25C, I started getting cold and ended up turning it off and putting a jacket on!

As sunset approached we headed back into the city centre to view it illuminated, again proving us with impressive views, and ended up sitting in a bar on the riverside, opposite the impressive illuminated new buildings, having a few drinks.

Museum of Archaeology by night

Museum of Archaeology by night


View from Mt. Vodno

View from Mt. Vodno

The next morning, after failing to sort out our apartment moving we headed for the cable car to take us to the top of Mount Vodno for views over the city and surrounding area. Heading back down we stopped off at the Museum of Skopje which had some excellent exhibits on the 1963 earthquake, before crossing the river and heading into the bazaar area. After stopping for a bite to eat we headed up to the Kale Fortress for views over the city, where the heat and dryness had killed all the grass, before heading back down and to our apartment for our last night in the apartment and the former Yugoslavia.

Kale Fortress

Kale Fortress

Skopje was a very interesting place to visit as the Skopje 2014 project has completely changed the city with its renovation, even if it is completely out of place and fake. With the project not yet completed, and many plans still to be realised it may be a really interesting place to visit in a few years time. There are also some beautiful scenic places like the Matka Canyon that we didn't visit due to the heat, so this is one city that I'm not yet done with!

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 17:00 Archived in Macedonia Tagged statues hills history fort yugoslavia themepark fake simulacra balkanbants Comments (0)

In the land of HRH Rita Ora

#BalkanBants - Prishtina

sunny 36 °C
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After an afternoon in Albania, the following day we were on our way to Europe's newest country - Kosovo. Luckily the bus was running at 6am instead of 5, meaning we could have an extra hour in bed and therefore not get up until 5 in the morning - the luxuries of taking a holiday!

After taking a five-or-so hour coach journey through the Albanian mountains we arrived on the outskirts of Prishtina city centre, and after dropping our bags off at our hotel, we headed, via the Bill Clinton statue to the city centre.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

As the country is very much grateful to the Americans for stopping the war in 1999, there are numerous statues and sites named after American leaders, which together with Skanderbeg, Mother Teresa and HRH Rita Ora, make up the majority of things that will be seen in Prishtina.

HRH Rita Ora

HRH Rita Ora

After walking past the National Library and stopping for a bite to eat, we headed for the Newborn monument, erected on my 17th birthday in 2008 to mark Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia. Each year this is repainted but I must say that this year's design looks rather like standard graffiti that litters the city already - not as impressive as the original solid-yellow or flag designs from previous years.

Newborn Monument

Newborn Monument

We then headed up the main street passing the Skanderbeg Monument and Parliament building before walking through the traditional bazaar area. And that is pretty much where Kosovo's attractions end.

Skanderbeg

Skanderbeg

Unfortunately as a small city in a relatively new country ethnically made up of members of a neighbouring country Kosovo itself lacks a very distinct identity. Everywhere you go, Albanian flags are visible, and I was even given an Albanian pen in the souvenir shop. Perhaps once Kosovo gains more international recognition it will merge with its big brother Albania and form a united country, but for now, it's just a bit....well...boring.

Nevertheless, an interesting visit and a nice stepping stone onwards to Skopje.

Posted by kmmk17 17:00 Archived in Kosovo Tagged city independence balkanbants Comments (0)

Bunker Loving in Albania

#BalkanBants - Tirana

sunny 40 °C
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Having originally envisaged a Balkan Tour some time ago visiting all the nations in the area, the biggest sticking point was getting from Montenegro to Albania. It looked as if the only way to undertake the journey was to spend all day on three separate legs making the way from Kotor to Tirana.

Thinking that it may then be best to separate the trip into two week long legs, with the second beginning in Tirana I then accidentally stumbled across the newly set up transfer between the two cities. Saving the whole idea of the trip, I quickly booked the tour before such a transfer may possibly have been cancelled due to low usage.

One of the many unfinished Albanian buildings

One of the many unfinished Albanian buildings

After spending half a week relaxing by the Adriatic, we took a transfer bus for 5 hours from the Bay of Kotor to the Albanian capital, arriving in Tirana around 2pm. As the centre of the city is relatively small, this was plenty of time for us to get to know the city before our onward journey. Driving through Albania is an interesting experience. The roads are a bit basic, and almost every building has foundations ready for upper floors that are yet to be built, whilst on the eastern side there is a beautiful mountain backdrop that runs for the whole length of the country.

Skanderbeg Square

Skanderbeg Square

After arriving and getting sorted with our onward travel, luckily saving us an hour in bed the following morning, we headed into the city, just a minute or so walk from our hotel, stopping first at the very heart of the city - Skanderbeg Square. The beautifully imposing communist style buildings side by side with traditional mosques, well kept grass, the statue of national hero Skanderbeg, with the modern tower blocks in the background gave this whole square a beautiful feel.

Communist Mosaic

Communist Mosaic

After taking some photos and investigating the communist mosaic adorned over the Museum of History, we headed down the main street, passing the Rinia Park, and the city river. Continuing further down the main street we came across one of the famous bunkers built by communist leader Hoxha, built in case of invasion or attack.

Pretending to be hiding in one of Hoxha's Bunkers

Pretending to be hiding in one of Hoxha's Bunkers

Located at the end of the road, was the Mother Teresa Square, which was surrounded by presidential and university buildings, located at the bottom of a hillside park. Walking up the paths we arrived at one of the 'top sights' in the city - a revolting reservoir that proved to show how little the city has to offer outside the main street.

The 'beautiful' lake

The 'beautiful' lake

Heading back down to the central area we stopped off at the Albanian McDonalds - Kolonat, and attempted to eat a meal in the 40C heat only to find that we had completely lost our appetites. Perhaps the heat was the reason for the city being absolutely dead in the middle of a Sunday afternoon?

The Palace of Congress

The Palace of Congress

Walking back past the Palace of Congress we made our way up to the Piramidia - a pyramid shaped building, that can even be attempted to climb upon, that opened in the late 80s as a museum to the late dictator, and built by his daughter. However after the end of the communist era the building has fallen into disrepair and is now left in a dilapidated state. A real shame, as with a lick of paint and refurbishment this bizarre and unique building could surely find some usage as a tourist attraction at least?

The Piramidia

The Piramidia

Heading back towards our hotel, past the opera house and the mosque we settled back into our hotel for the early coach the following morning to Albania's little sister - Kosovo.

Tirana, despite being a rather long diversion off route was an interesting place to visit. Although lacking a lot of tourist facilities, after some days in Dubrovnik this was quite refreshing, and with its independent history and impressive central buildings it was very interesting to see, with Albania being a very pretty country in general with its mountainous backdrops. Perhaps with a few more years investment, and an opening of infrastructure with airlines this could be Europe's newest hotspot? It's certainly cheap right now!

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 17:00 Archived in Albania Tagged lake city balkanbants Comments (0)

Magnificent Montenegro

#BalkanBants - Kotor

sunny 33 °C
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After a couple of days in Croatia, Johan and I continued our Balkan Tour just down the coast in Montenegro. Although just 37 miles to the south, as the whole of the Bay of Kotor was essentially fjords, it actually took 2 hours to travel the 60 miles by road. Although as there were stunning views of the bay, this wasn't really a problem.

View from the window

View from the window

After arriving in Kotor and settling into our apartment with stunning views overlooking the bay, we went to explore the Old City, taking a look inside the Cat Museum, the churches, and admiring the stunning coastal views of the nearby mountains.

Views over the Bay

Views over the Bay

The following day we took a morning stroll up to the St. John Fort, which gave us some absolutely stunning views of the bay, and after a photoshoot with some epic pictures and guzzling our drinks, we then headed for the bus station to catch a bus to Perast, just up the coast.

By the Bay

By the Bay

From Perast, small boats can be hired for €5 that take you over to the little island in the middle of the bay. The island has a church and a gift shop, as well as stunning views of the fjord all around. On our return back to the mainland, the captain even let us sit on the front of the boat, giving us front row seats as we encircled the island.

From the island

From the island

Whilst the weather was beautiful, the heat and mild humidity contributed to some of the sweatiest experiences of my life, and after waiting for a while for the first bus to take us back to Kotor, we found that it was very very busy. Standing all the way back to Kotor I was literally dripping with sweat, standing over some of the other passengers, as I held on trying not to fall over around the bends of the fjord.

Heading back to our apartment for dinner, we ate as we watched today's cruise ship leave before the sun set over the beautiful mountain view, all the time from the window of our apartment. Our last activity in the area was the head back down into the city to enjoy it lit up at night.

Old City by night

Old City by night

The following day we made our way down back into the Old City for our transfer to the wonderland of Albania.

Kotor was unbelievably beautiful, with stunning views that can only be matched by places such as Norway. However with this being the Balkans, the weather was completely different and meant that views from the tops of the mountains were entirely possible. Unlike Dubrovnik, the area was not so busy, and despite the tourists we were fully able to enjoy its splendour. It is one of my favourite places and I despite its small size, I would highly recommend it.

Posted by kmmk17 17:00 Archived in Montenegro Tagged boat history fjords island hill balkanbants Comments (0)