Waking up this morning got to remember that Friday, as is today, was a day when I landed in Bucharest, the place from where I start my backpacking trip trough the Balkans, along with my, still strong till today, love for feta cheese and spinach. Yes, this very own and very great Romanian capital got my traveling feelings on straight away. Also taking an opportunity here to point that it is a good city to start from this part of the Europe. Allowing myself only a three days, I can not admit that Bucharest has been fully discovered and experienced by me. Yet, touched, thought slightly, but satisfying, managing to ticked a great night out, good city seeing around the center, finishing at meeting local friends along with other travelers. Clearly, was a good start, promising a good further travel. And indeed, that was the case. Though, sparing to write what to see, what I saw, what I liked and what not so, just sharing few photos from this Easter European city, from where my trip has begun.
Visiting Shkoder, town in the northern part of Albania, definitely rewarded my time in Tirana, the capital that did not impressed me even a bit. Thought, I’ve met loads of great people there, I sampled a traditional and very tasty food, the architecture left a sour taste in my mouth. Luckily, delight was waiting for me in my next location, in a cute little city called Shkoder, the most historic town in Albania with the oldest wall of the castle that dates back to the 1st millennium bce.
When it comes to the geological side of the area, we can find this beautiful place surrounded by North Albanian Alps. It is lying at the southeast end of Lake Skadar, at a point where the Buenë (Serbian and Croatian: Bojana) River, one of Albania’s two navigable streams, flows out of the lake toward the Adriatic Sea. This is definitely a must see place. The city gives you the opportunity to sample traditional food in one of many restaurants around, to visit mosques or to just have a great night out. On another hand, the outskirt and surrounded landscape creates a perfect bike trials you can enjoy alone, with friends or family. Here is my other blog about cycling paths there. So clearly this place offers a lot, and it just can’t be missed. It’s also a perfect stop once traveling between Albania and Montenegro.
Fact that I visited nine countries during my backpacking trip trough stunning Balkans definitely do allow me to make up my mine on the most magnificent one, I was fortunate to discover. Though, clearly when it comes to judgments like that, we are all aware about strong subjective side of it. Going even further, I wanted to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina for a very long time, especially because I wrote one chapter in my master thesis about the war there. Starting my journey just from knowledge of the spilled blood and history, though still young and fresh, I went trough creation of an image in my head from all kind of sources as documentaries, photos, information, to finally finish seeing, visiting, discovering, meeting people and just simply feel this country myself. I knew before planning my trip that it is going to be my favorite country in Europe. And yet again(!), I wasn’t mistaken. Same like with Bolivia and Nepal…I just felt the chemistry before even visiting. Perhaps difficult to explain, or probably my senses are already directed towards one side and my mind sabotaging my opinion, since I am making one in advance. More or less, here we are in Bosnia and Herzegovina…..the most amazing, at least for me, country in Europe with warm people, absolutely stunning and unique rivers, diverse architecture, rich culture and beautiful mountain range all around. Spearing to write more and just adding my recommendation to visiting this absolutely unique European country, I just want to share some photos I took.
Everyone of us, or at least most, do some itinerary before traveling. Its is always a significant question on the length of stay in each place, especially for a first-time visitors. Capital, as usually the biggest city in the country, is no estrange to that doubt. Many of them in Europe vary from Barcelona, where you can stay for weeks, to smaller ones, where you can discover the place in just even less than few days and feel satisfy. Good internet research always help to plan your trip better. And here I come with my blog post to answer that questions about one capital in Balkans.
So where are we this time? Sophia, a capital of Bulgaria, a magnificent, and massively underrated (!), country with stunning mountain range Vitosha, that is a volcanic mountain massif on the outskirts of the capital, visible literally all around from the city. Vitosha is one of the symbols of this city and the closest site for hiking and skiing. Thought, when it comes to Sofia, and as much as I loved Bulgaria myself, I can not say that capital itself offers a lot. One day is all you need to discover the place. I would even suggest going to see Rila Monastery in the morning and do the sight-seen after. All could be done in one day. All the major attractions are very close by, almost all located on one street. If you are staying in the city center area, you can start your tour from Ancient Complex Serdica, site situated just above the Serdika metro station, that displays the remains of the Roman city.
There is also a History Museum to see. Just 2 mins away you can see a Rotonda st. George, The Church of St George is an Early Christian red brick rotunda that is considered the oldest building in Sofia.
Now heading forward on pl. Knyaz Aleksandar, you can visit Ethnographic Museum (showcasing folk costumes & regional art & artifacts) and Russian Church. A bit further, on a left hand side, you can visit a stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Built in Neo-Byzantine style serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria, and it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of the symbols of the Sofia and a primary tourist attraction. Heading more towards Crystal Palace, you can see on the way a building of a National Assembly.
Close by National Stadium, called Vasil Levski, could be an a attraction too, but to be honest, can be skipped. At the end I would suggest adding a National Palace of Culture, but its located a bit far away. However, can be easily reached by trolley line 1,2,5,8 and 9 just from the Crystal Palace.
This is a main itinerary for Sophia city center. Please keep in your mind that Rila Monastery is a must see place too, so if you want to spend one day around capital, please do add an extra day to see this stunning monastery hidden in a mountains.
The stream of thoughts can probably come to loads of first time “Skopje arriver`s” minds. I guess mine was one of them. This small-sized capital of Macedonia creates an easy and quick access to the city center, so the surrounding architecture does strikes you right away! It can fool you so quickly, maybe even laugh at you a bit, with the mirror reflection you may give it back. The richness of almost overdone governments buildings can make you feel a bit striped off. You may be experiencing thinking that you haven’t seen quiet a capital like this before. What history did not leave, you can always bring back, or can you really? The design of, so called, project Skopje 2014 completely transformed the way Skopje city center looks like today. There are loads of stories, loads of reasons behind this “clearly original” change, saying in plainest language possible. Big money got involved too. And there is that sour question at the end of your tong: who is this really for? Tourists, as in the first place? It’s not a secret that it is one of the fastest, more and more popular, and reachable growing industry. How about the people? How do they find them self around? And yet we still have a government responsible for the project. Yes! A show off, or the way to stand out to bust the tourism. You really have to get to the bottom of all this. The path trough, almost baroque kitsch like drooping richness of, Skopje may leave you with loads of questions. Finding out more about point of view of locals may lead to a general disappointment, of yet again, showcase of a thick unbreakable money/power line between poor and rich.
This, once plain, maze of Europe became a place for many neo-classic buildings and bridges along the river. Perhaps too white, too clean to fake you. Structures may turn out too difficult to help you to get the vibe of travelling in the past. Yet, you can’t really say they are not impressive. Shall we be grateful Macedonia is showing us how newly done acropolis, possibly, looked like for Greeks back in the days? Perhaps. Could be a plus. It can be left only for an individual opinion. But the feeling of fakery is still a bit present. The project has two main aims: to draw in more tourists and to try to reclaim aspects of the country’s history from neighborhood Greece, appealing to the patriotism of many ethnic Macedonians. Walking by the rich bronze statues full of bridges definitely wont make your eye sore. You gladly will take your camera to photograph the things around. You will see, you will capture and then you will start to think. How? I do not see any problem investing in tourism. I do adore Moroccan king for doing so. So do Moroccans, as I spoke with many of them. Yet, the King do it differently. He want to keep the culture present, but just making the country more accessible, safe and inviting. But here we have a bit different situation.
We are discussing a country where 21.5% of the population live below poverty line with minimal wage at 231 Euros. Macedonia is also very vulnerable to economic developments in Europe, with a strong banking and trade ties and dependent on regional integration and progress toward EU membership for continued economic growth. And yet, on another hand we have a government spending loads of public founds. It been known that cost lay somewhere between €200-€500m (depending on who you talk to) and may have resulted in drop in minimal wage. Than we have a beautiful new buildings and statues. Quiet two opposite situations that divided the nations. The project, known as Skopje 2014, instigated by prime minister Nikola Gruevski, is just as questionable and arguably as diverse as it was when first announced.
Many Macedonians are questioning the scheme’s vast public expense – not to mention its aesthetic qualities. We have also this sticky problem of complete ignorance towards a very large Muslim community, religion and culture that, sadly, did not get to participate in the project. I visited Skopje in March 2017. Being around city center area for few days, I witness anti-government demonstrations on a daily base. Thought, peaceful, yet shouting for attention a lot. But there’s no doubting it has put the city on the tourist map.
Foreign visitors used to come to Skopje primarily to wander around the beautiful Old Bazaar district, with its alleys, mosques and old hilltop fort. But now they can go in less than five minutes from drinking a Turkish coffee among people and architecture that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a traditional city of the Middle East, to being surrounded by faux-classical European architecture and imagery. Maybe not a bad thing. Diversity. Something for us.
So where this all bring us, tourist, the recipients of the project? I hope very close to Skopje. You have to remember that it is one of the most amazing countries in Europe, with magnificent landscape, mountain ranges, canyons (Matka Canyon) and lakes. All that comes at a very affordable price. Public transport is good and very cheap. People are very friendly and possible to interact to in English. Food is absolutely a heaven with a kebab to die for! So yes! Weather the project of 2014 worked or not, we will have to leave it for individual opinion. I think even for the one who are not so keen on it, Macedonia will not be disappointing in any single way. I absolutely loved my time in this Balkan country. I’ve met loads of warm people, and I saw a beauty of the landscape. I am satisfy, happy and richer than the newly build Skopje surrounded architecture.
Following the footsteps of our one and only Mother Nature, it’s clearly quiet significant that the Balkans are the quintessence of her arty work in Europe. This area notably stands out with their beautifully turquoise colored rivers, that you just want jump in to, amazing high range of mountains and a clear Adriatic Sea coast. What more would you wish for. The locals surly are aware of the beautiful land, they are very fortunate to live on, mentioning it on every possible occasion. I personally left my heart in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rich culture, spread by the different nations, history and still fresh feel of shadow of the violent war from 90s participate in the way Bosnia and Herzegovina looks like today. Thought most of the cities, like Sarajevo, has been almost fully rebuild, so well that you can hardly notice sights of any fights, the memories are still held in minds of most of the people who got to witness the horror of these dark days. Yet, locals are happy nova days cherishing every moment, enjoying the daily life, sharing a smile. It seems for me that architects had an easy job creating what you can call today’s urban panorama trough all the centuries. Designing anything from houses, town halls, churches to mosques could just possibly not go wrong in such a magnificent environment. It almost feel like the nature already did most of the work here. The history also made Bosnia and Herzegovina very unique. The influence of the different religions could be spot on every street in every town. The “fantasy” medieval castles and fortresses proudly stands next to the Ottoman influenced architecture. It looks like a chest board with the difference that all black and white squares, trough some historical conflicts, became to an acceptance, unity, tolerance and friendship? Is it too early to use the last world? No…..not in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that’s why I love it.
Cities and towns are not to busy, not to crowded, people seems less stressed and rushed than western civilization. Balkans are still very undiscovered and untouched by mass tourism. This fact makes it easy to find a peacefulness literally just around the corner. 10 minutes drive from Sarajevo already can bring you to the stunning river side, lake or forest where’s nobody around, just you and the nature. It gives you also the opportunity to listen to the most noncommercial music in the world….the music of nature. Birds, waters, even wind can enhance your experience around this remarkable landscape.
Thought mentioning the virginity of this part of the Europe, please note that accommodation can be found easily in most of the places in Bosnia. The infrastructure works well too, makes it accessible from every neighborhood country or just between domestic towns. Hostels are cute, nice, very clean and affordable even for a budget backpacker. Eating out, whether it is a traditional meal or just a good old pizza, wont make any difference from own cooking as of taste and price. Merchants are very friendly and not pushy whatsoever, they really don’t try to just make money of you. They will be around to help, but also will leave you in peace, giving you some space. That`s makes the experience of walking in old towns nicer. Yet, there is so many cute things from tea pots, glasses, dishes to cloths, so you will be back to your hotel with a full bag. Why not, if you can, it really is 3 times cheaper than in Western Europe, not even mentioning the uniqueness of the staff there. I personally had to thrown away few pairs of jeans and shoes to make a space for the things I purchased there. Well worth it!
Most of the people speak a very good English, the rest can communicate well too. This fact is very important in making connections with locals. You can hear loads of stories about the war that can give you a very good image if these past years. Though, you can clearly see that people moved on, yet they do well remember those bloody, violent, dark days that took so many lives. People went trough a lot, seen a lot and experienced. Hard to believe that western countries turned their back on. Though past shows very well that less resource less help you can get. History is the worst teacher ever, I got to know.
But what war cannon take is the beauty of the land. Clearly Bosnia and Herzegovina got the most outstanding and most pretty rivers, lakes and hills in this part of the world. What else should I add to convince you to visit this country? I hope nothing. Be happy, appreciate what you have, respect others, travel, if you can, and visit this stunning country that will not disappoint you in any way.
When it comes to such an amazing town, I don’t even know where to start. Trying to write about my experience now brings all amazing images to my head, places I have seen, scenery I did not come across before. I did visit more than 45 countries, thinking that I’ve seen it all, but no, I could not be more wrong about it. Pictures, I am memorising now, make my fingers want to write and write about it. It could be a messy blog without concentrating and thinking, how to shortly introduce Mostar and surrounded area to you all.
Mostar is a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina by Neretva River. Though, it is a must see place on every Balkans backpacker`s map, it does attract all kind of tourists from all over the world. It’s well known for the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge), medieval arched bridge that has been found by Suleiman the Magnificent in 16th century. This Ottoman construction crosses the town river and connects two parts of the city. I was surprised to learn that after the 427 years it was destroyed in 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War and rebuild again in 2004, achieving the title of the UNESCO side. As of 2017, It is one of the most remarkable bridges in Europe and a main point of tourist interest in the whole country. The images of Stari Most come as a first top mach on all internet search engines, associating Bosnia and Herzegovina with it. The simplicity of the design and structure, enriched by two medieval fortified towers along with beautiful and green river running underneath, makes it truly as a worth see place. The very interesting fact is that it is a most crowded place in the whole town, with people standing on it all day long. Crazy local jumpers (for money) probably participate in this fact too. I, myself, was sitting on the wall near by staring at the bridge for hours. I really did not need more. Apart from this outstanding overpass, you can find the medieval spirit in Old Town, on the side of the bridge. Alleys are full of shops and market stalls, and the Museum explores the bridge’s long history.
There is a bad in good in being in Mostar. I mean, it is bad if you have just one day to explore this town. Though, the uniqueness of this city will leave an amazing memories, it would be very unfortunate not to see the things around. So what are they?
Blagaj is a village located just 10 kilometers south-west of Mostar. It can be reached by bus that unluckily does not operate very often, but it is an option.
The morning service leaves at 9.00 and 11.30. It is a yellow one that got few stops in the town, and one is located next to the main bus terminal. I would suggest a perfect option of catching this transport at 9.00 and coming back at 11.30. You will have enough time to look around and be able to plan something for the afternoon. The ticket cost just 4.20 Marks for both ways. The return service from Blagaj is at 11.30, 13.00, and 16.30, but please rechecked with locals, as I’ve been told that some might not run or are known to be late even for one hour. Road to Blagaj is also known as a good bike trial. The whole way is nice and easy, roads are not so busy, and the view of mountains and rivers is outstanding. The third option might be an organised tour from Mostar or a taxi, and that is not as pricey as you may think. Depending on the amount of people in your group and your negotiation skills, it could become a cheap and very convenient option to choose. Once there, the village itself is not really the place you want to see. The point of interest, called Blagaj Tekija, is a Dervish Monastery that’s nearly 600 years old. Situated at the base of a cliff next to the source of the river Buna, creates a very picturesque space. It can be accessible by both sides, and the view from them is impressive. On one side, next to the Monastery by the river, you can find few coffees and restaurant, where you can stop by and rest, eat, and drink or just enjoy this stunning place.
Beautiful waterfalls, called Kravice, are easily reachable from Mostar. The height of the falls is about 25 meters, and the radius of the lake in the base of the waterfall is 120 meters. The distance equal 40 km, so it would make a little bit difficult to cycle there, but can be easily approach by car or taxi. The last one, I mentioned, does not mean an expensive option if you are going in a group of 4, as the price for one way can start from just 50$.
This time I can’t advise you on the bus service, as I don`t think there`s any direct one from Mostar, at least I haven’t heard of it. I have bought a day tour from my hostel, and I would also highly recommend this way of doing so, as you will be able to visit a six different places in one day (including Blagaj and Počitelj). However, during the summer time, I would recommend spending there the whole day. Not only because of the pretty waterfalls. This place makes as a perfect day trip. You can swim there, have a BBQ, sit and enjoy. The area around makes this place as a perfect recreation spot for families, group of friends, or just a single person.
Fortress like village, called Počitelj, is one of the most picture-perfect architectural place in the country and a must see. The main construction dates from two periods – medieval and ottoman, same like Mostar and loads of other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This one, however, just can`t escape your attention with the uniqueness of all the buildings, attached to each other by the tiny stairs in between, that lay on the hill side.
The history of this small village take us back to 1383 year. It is believed that the fortified town, along with its attendant settlements, were built by Bosnia’s King Stjepan Tvrtko I. In the 1562 the construction of the large Hadži Alijina Mosque has been completed, however it got destroyed later on in 1990s. People yet did want to make Počitelj as a magnificent and unique place again, so the mosque got restored. The most dominant residential structure in the village is probably Gavrakanpetanović House, a complex of one large and two smaller buildings, built during the 16th and 17th centuries. Following its destruction in 1993, it was restored in 2003 once again. The Sahat-kula, a silo-shaped fort that towers from the top of the hill above, is another magnificent structure that makes this village so unique. In January 2003, the historic part of town of Počitelj was proclaimed a national monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2007, Počitelj submitted an application for the UNESCO world heritage list and as of today is one of the most popular tourist attraction.
This will be just a quick guide for all backpackers that are going to travel to Kosovo before Serbia, like myself. I will conclude all the information, you can find online, with my very recent experience on the issue (April 2017).
First, and most important, thing is that of course you can travel to Kosovo before heading to Serbia. However, you can not go directly from Kosovo. You have to do it via other country that is recognized by Serbian authorities. I, for example, from Pristina took a direct bus to Skopje in Macedonia (just 2h of journey). They ran very often from the main bus terminal, almost every hour. Mine was at 8.30 am. From Skopje you will catch another direct bus to Nis or Belgrade, or other city in Serbia. My departure to Nis was at 13.10 (4h of journey) from the same station, so Ive had some time to have a lunch.
Ok, so this all seems not so complicated and easy, but there are loads of issues about not being allowed to Serbia with the Kosovo stamps in your passport. Official uk.gov page adds a real drama to it, as it is written there that you can not cross the border, once you got stamped. Well, how can you not believe the official UK government info? No you can’t. I guess its been written to warn travelers that having a stamp might cause some problems, but it really doesn’t in practice. I’ve had a 2 big, fat Kosovo stamps in my passport, and I crossed the border with no drama. Just make sure to ask Macedonian side (or wherever you’re coming from) to stamp you, as they don’t always do so. Serbian border control went through all my stamps with no issues and just put a new Serbian visa in.
I have read that these two governments came to an agreement not to cause any further problem to the travelers, as it`s been known that some were refused to get in in the past. With my confidence, as of April 2017, I can assure you that you can enter Serbia with stamps from Kosovo, but you need to be stamp after in the country you are going via! Much love and good luck xx.