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Trip Report The "B" Trip, Part Three, Western Balkans

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This is Part Three of my "B" trip, including Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia (just Dubrovnik), and Bosnia.

I started the trip in Helsinki, back at the end of August: http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/the-b-trip-part-one-baltics.cfm

Then I flew to Serbia, before joining a tour in Bulgaria: http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/the-b-trip-part-two-serbia-and-bulgaria.cfm

For pictures, see my blog: http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/

I started out writing from the road, but that didn't go so well, partly because I caught a bug of some kind in Albania. I'm home now, and starting to feel better.

September 28-29, 2011: Surprised by Skopje

I stared up at the under-belly of the over-sized horse, a good 70 feet above me. Who was the kilted figure I could just make out riding the horse? Silly question. I was standing in the huge, recently renovated Macedonia Square, on the banks of the Vardar, in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Or, as it is officially known, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The rider was, of course, Alexander the Great. Alexander the Macedonian. Unfortunately, to the Greeks Macedonia is their northern province, not this country, and they feel quite strongly about it (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13884844 ).

The central statue, dominating the square from a massive pillar surrounded by warriors, lions and an attractive fountain, was not the only sign of nationalist fervor. The socialist realist statues of the Communist era had been replaced by nationalist realist statues. I confess that my knowledge of local history was insufficient for me to fully appreciate them, and I actually mistook the Roman emperor Justinian (born nearby) for a woman before I got closer. On the other hand, the square had plenty of benches, and plenty of cafes, and I came back in the evenings to watch the pretty interplay of colored lights and water beneath Alexander.

Renovation extended beyond the square itself, and just across the 15th century stone bridge spanning the Vardar I found two brand-new museums in impressive structures. In the more classical building the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire was celebrated, complete with “scenes” with wax figures. Unfortunately, you had to go round with a tour guide, speaking Macedonian, and I was reduced to reading the few English language labels. No doubt it does a good job of increasing local pride, but after the first few rooms I admit I got a bit bored. I had a better time across the street in the more modern building housing the Holocaust Museum, where I learned a lot about the life of the Jewish refugees who settled in the Balkans after Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain. Unfortunately, although the Bulgarians protected their own Jewish population during WWII, once they took charge of Macedonia they instituted punitive measures against non-Bulgarian Jews there, followed by deportation to Treblinka in March 1943.

Skopje has a long but unfortunate history, having been destroyed by Slavs in the 7th century and Austrians in the 17th, and suffering through earthquakes in 518, 1555 and 1963. The 20th century quake destroyed most of the city south of the river, although the Ottoman-era quarter to the north survived. I stayed south and west of the central square, in the pleasant Rose Diplomatique. New buildings were going up around the B&B, and nearby streets were being resurfaced. I’m not sure where the money was coming from, but the construction trades in Skopje were doing well.

I would have liked to stay closer to the center, but one of the people on my Rick Steves' tour of Bulgaria had just come from Skopje and gave me a bad report on the hotel I had chosen. I walked to and from the main square, but needed taxis for the bus station. Although I had enjoyed setting off on my own from Sofia, the bus ride could have gone better. Nothing wrong with the views – lots of good, sparsely-settled, mountain scenery – but we had to wait at the Bulgarian border for one man who was closeted with the guards for half an hour, and just short of the border we had picked up a woman who talked for the entire three hours it took to reach Skopje. She talked to the driver, and she talked to a passenger who boarded in Macedonia, and neither seemed interested, but she kept going regardless. Even with Irish folk-songs playing on my iPod I had trouble drowning her out.

My first full day in Skopje I set off to hit the sights north of the river, only to find both the castle and the Mustafa Pasha mosque closed for renovations. I did get to admire the impressive iconostasis in Sveti Spas, and had a lovely time with the costumes in the Ethnographic Museum. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Ottoman quarter, although the main shopping street, with its plethora of jewelers shops and over-the-top bridal gowns, reminded me a little of the bazaar in Aleppo, except that that it was outdoors.

Neither the Lonely Planet nor the Bradt maps were very helpful for this area and it took me a while to locate the kebab places outside the former caravanserai Kapan An. While I waited for my shopska salad and cevapcici, I was a little surprised to see a tour group show up. The tour guide sounded rather like the tour guide from my 1999 RS Turkey tour, Meli, but she didn’t look quite the same. She seemed harried and a little annoyed and I didn’t interrupt her, but when I checked her web site (http://www.melitour.com/index.php ) later I found that she really had been in Skopje.

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    Well, you have me hooked now Thursdaysd . . .

    I especially like the blog with pictures although I can't quite get used to reading the posts backwards. Thanks for posting & please keep going.

    Ian

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    Ian - I agree about the blog order, although I've finally gotten used to it.

    September 29-30: Skopje and Lake Matka

    It seemed that Lyuba, the Bulgarian tour guide, didn't care too much for Skopje: she thought three nights was overdoing it. Perhaps she hadn't visited since the renovations got under way. I stuck to my three night plan - partly because I wanted to slow down, and partly because I wanted to see Lake Matka. I could easily have spent another day wandering around town, picking up some necessities in the sharp new mall near my B&B, and lingering in a cafe or two. Like Belgrade, Skopje was a full participant in the Balkan's cafe culture, but here I didn't feel that I needed to be a fashion-forward twenty-something to fit in. And missing Lake Matka would have been a big mistake.

    I took a taxi up and a bus back, a fortunate choice. The hotel staff had agreed with the guidebooks about the bus route, so the change must have been recent, but instead of taking me into town, bus number 60 turned its passengers out on the outskirts, and we had to transfer to a number 5. Not a problem going back, but I could have waited a long time for a number 60 going out! My taxi delivered me to the base of the dam at the same time as a coach-load of backpackers, but after we trekked up to the hotel and dock, they took off by boat and peace descended.

    The guidebook writers seem to think you're going to the lake to visit the cave churches up in the hills around the lake. I had thought so too, until I saw the hills. When you consider that before the dam was built the uphill trek would have been even more formidable, you appreciate just how much the hermits who lived in the caves valued solitude. Not only did I not feel like trekking uphill, I was feeling a bit churched-out. I settled for the one by the hotel.

    I did get some exercise, but I took the mostly flat if seldom smooth path running along the lake shore. I learned later that it was nine kilometers long, so it was a good thing I didn't try to reach the end. I turned back after about an hour when I ran out of shade, but I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, stopping often to admire the soaring grey cliffs rising sheer from sparkling green-blue water.

    Despite the warm sunshine it was chilly sitting by the lake, so I consumed an indifferent lunch indoors, but with a view of the water. The season, at least mid-week, was clearly over. I saw just one couple and a pair of fishermen on the path. Only two other tables were occupied for lunch, and the cafe down by the dam was firmly closed. Like the hermits, I value peace and quiet, so I was happy.

    Back in Skopje I rested up in the Rose Diplomatique's pretty garden, with green tea and the internet. Dinner at the oddly named Dal Met Fu (http://www.dalmetfu.com.mk/DalMetFu.html ) wasn't much of an improvement over lunch, but I chose it for the location, not the food, enjoying the view of Alexander's fountain more than a too vinegary chicken liver salad and a tepid "risotto". (The white wine, Tikves Vranec, on the other hand, was good.) The night before I had eaten at Mulino (http://www.vodenicamulino.com.mk/ ), closer to my B&B, where the risotto had been more authentic but the sole a little too buttery. An important personage seemed to be dining there too, with bodyguards in the foyer and "protocol" cars waiting outside.

    Not being an important personage I left Skopje as I had arrived, by bus.

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    Gorgeous pictures on your blog, and your writing is informative and detailed without being too effusive. Thank you once again for posting about this relatively undiscovered part of Europe.

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    October 1-5, 2011: Admiring Ohrid

    Ohrid, perched on the north-east shore of its eponymous lake, one of Europe's deepest and oldest, if not largest, is apparently enormously popular in the summer. I'm sure I would hate it then. Happily, at the beginning of October there were just enough visitors to keep most of the cafes and restaurants open, without swamping the narrow streets of the old town, or blanketing the beaches with bodies. Just as I love Nice in April, I loved Ohrid in October.

    I hadn't bothered to buy a bus ticket ahead of time, although I did arrive unnecessarily early at Skopje's bus station. People were still rushing over to board the bus as it waited for the gate to the station to open. This time I was able to enjoy the mountainous scenery in relative peace, and discovered at the rest stop that it was already pretty chilly up high. I bargained for a taxi at Ohrid's much smaller bus station, and noticed that access to the old town was controlled. Good thing, as there was hardly room for even one car on most of the streets. I was staying at the west end, in a room above a restaurant. (I never saw anyone actually eating in the restaurant, except at breakfast.) After the Rose Diplomatique my room at the Vila Sveti Sofija (http://www.vilasofija.com.mk/ ) was a bit of a comedown, but clean and functional (and cheaper!), although the mattress dipped so much at the head end of the bed, I slept the other way round.

    The lake was beautiful, the town was lovely, the sun shone... True, the food and drink wasn't always up to par, but I quickly found that better food was to be had a block or two inland (notably at the Restoran Sveta Sofija, not to be confused with my hotel). I took one short boat trip along the coast, but while the scenery was fine it mostly served to remind me that I quickly get bored on boats, and to justify my decision not to take the much longer ride to and from Sveti Zaum at the south end of the lake.

    Ohrid occupied all of the flat land along the waterfront, with newer hotels filling the east end, and a shopping street running inland towards the Turkish quarter and the bus station, while the old town occupied a hill, the houses clustered together below the 10th century castle and the Roman theater. Yes, we're talking really old here, Byzantine churches rather than Ottoman mosques, and the place where St. Kliment created the Cyrillic alphabet. I got plenty of exercise trekking up and down to check out the houses and visit the castle and theater (disappointing), the icon museum (angry-looking saints), and the churches. And admire the views, which were definitely worth the climb. For me, the do-not-miss church was Sveti Jovan, just out of town at Kaneo beach. It sits on a cliff above the water and the views are lovely, especially at sunset. You don't even have to climb to admire it, as there's a wooden walkway at sea level, and it looks pretty good from below.

    After I saw Meli's tour group in Skopje and discovered that we would be in Ohrid at the same time, I sent her an email, and we eventually talked on bad cell-phone connections. She invited me to eat dinner with her group, but seemed not to know where they were staying or where they were eating. Finally her fixer left directions with my hotel's front desk. Sadly, it wasn't a great evening. I liked her tour group, almost all from Washington state, and repeat clients, but the meal, at the Belvedere, was awful, and the music and dance show made conversation difficult. I don't think Meli recognized me, although I had spent most of my tour with her hopping around on crutches. And I hardly recognized her, she seemed so much less engaged and enthusiastic than the guide I remembered. A pity, I should have settled for the memories.

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    October 4, 2011: A Glimpse of Bitola

    While I hadn’t taken Lyuba’s advice to shorten my time in Skopje, I did take her advice to go straight through to Ohrid instead of over-nighting in Bitola on the way, planning a day trip instead. But just as I had needed the extra time in Skopje, turned out I could have used more time in Bitola.

    I took a bus over and a shared taxi back, walking to and from Bitola’s bus station through a pleasant, tree-shaded park. The park led to the main pedestrian street, lined with nicely restored buildings and lots of cafes, which in turn led to the Dragor River, hemmed in by busy roads but with a small park and an ancient clock tower on the south bank, and the Ottoman quarter on the north side.

    Between the buildings south of the river, the huge Church of Sveti Dimitrija, a museum and the remains of Roman Heraclea Lyncestis, not to mention lunch, I didn’t have time for the Ottoman quarter. Maybe another time, as I do think Macedonia would be worth a second look.

    The Church of Sveti Dimitrija was a surprise: it claims to be the biggest church in the Balkans, and boasts what may well be the biggest, and certainly the most magnificent, iconostasis. Gave me plenty to look at.

    I really short-changed the Roman ruins, which would have been better visited in the morning, as even in October the afternoon sun was plenty hot. If I had had more time the young man in charge would have given me lots of information about the ancient town, originally founded by Philip II (Alexander’s father), later a stop on the Roman Via Egnatia, and the seat of a bishopric in the early Christian era. I did have time to see the in situ mosaics.

    The museum, at the south end of town, held a surprise. Before Macedonian independence from the Ottomans the building had housed a school for military cadets, and Kemal Attaturk had been one of the students. One room of the museum was dedicated to him, that and the other exhibits were well worth the small admission charge.

    I enjoyed the town, I enjoyed a good pizza (cooked in a wood-fired oven) for lunch, and I enjoyed the scenery on the ride there and back. Turned out the shared taxi made the same trip every day, for not too much more than the bus, and the driver zipped us back to Ohrid with the speed of one well-acquainted with the mountain road. As the only female in the car I got the front seat and the best view.

    (Note: lunch was at the pizzeria at the back of the Hotel Millenium: http://www.milleniumpalace.com.mk/bitolaang.html )

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    October 5, 2011: On to Albania

    Aside from the Finns, all the people of the eleven countries I visited on this trip were cut off from normal contact with the rest of the world from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union. Both Tito in Yugoslavia, and Hoxha in Albania kept their countries outside the Soviet Union proper, but while Yugoslavs enjoyed the freedom to travel in Western Europe, and to farm independently, Albanians were essentially isolated even from their neighbors behind a second Iron Curtain.

    Hoxha was not just a hard-line Stalinist, but seems to have been paranoid as well. Not content with a huge secret police force to keep his own populace cowed, and denied freedom of expression, religion and movement, he littered the countryside with ugly little concrete bunkers intended for defense against invasion.

    Not that anyone bothered to try. The world pretty much forgot Albania, and today I suspect many people still overlook it. Even the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, working his way around the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts on a budget, had to be reminded by his readers that there were more beaches south of Montenegro, and the living would be much cheaper there.

    Some people come on day trips from Corfu to see the Roman ruins at Butrint, although while Corfu has long been a popular destination for Europeans, I’m not sure how many Americans visit it. (I took a package tour there in '73, when I was still living in the UK.) Tirane, the capital, apparently has a nice new airport, but it really makes more sense to visit Albania as part of a longer Balkan trip, and travel there overland.

    From Ohrid I wanted to go south via Korca and Gjirokastra to Saranda and Butrint. I also wanted to visit Sveti Naum at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, if I wanted to take public transport I needed to go round the north end of the lake. The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested that I could walk across the southern border from Sveti Naum and pick up a taxi, but posts on Thorntree made it clear that this was a dicey proposition even in season. I reluctantly concluded I needed a car and driver.

    Meli’s fixer gave me a quote of 100 euros, which I pretty much rejected out of hand. Lyuba’s contact didn’t have a driver available. Instead I used a travel agency in town (Elida), and their driver also acted as informal tour guide at the “Bay of the Bones” – a reconstruction of a Stone Age settlement on a platform built on piles out in the lake. (The remains of the original are underwater.)

    The monastery of Sveti Naum occupied a desirable site where the Crn Drim river flows into the lake. While I enjoyed the views I thought the buildings themselves didn’t quite live up to their hype, and was devoutly thankful to be visiting in the off season, when most of the souvenir stands lining the access path were closed.

    I snacked on bread and cheese (chunks of bread with a scattering of grated cheese) at one of the empty cafes, before setting off for the border just up the road. My driver had to give “tobacco money” to the Albanian guard, but I had no trouble. On the Albanian side a man who might, or might not, have been a taxi driver, was washing his car windows, but otherwise the border was deserted.

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    October 5-6, 2011: More Donkeys Than Cars

    Korca was a disappointment. True, I was mostly there to make the reportedly scenic drive to Gjirokastra, but I had had some hopes for Korca itself. I was taken aback by how quiet and poor it seemed, such a contrast to the Macedonian towns just across the border.

    I'm used to visiting poor places in Asia, but there the poverty is tempered by vibrant street life. In Korca even the lively cafe culture I found elsewhere in the Balkans seemed to be in short supply. My visit started badly: after a hot drive across treeless countryside, my first choice hotel claimed to be full (rooms had been showing as available on the internet, perhaps it was empty and wanted to stay that way), and my second choice, a former government hotel, was on the gloomy side. Then I had trouble finding somewhere to eat lunch, and later, when I finally located the Museum of Albanian Medieval Art in a maze of unpaved side streets, it was closed.

    On a more positive note, I did admire the aggressively new cathedral, with its traditional-style frescoes and elaborate wooden chandelier, and I had a nice chat with a retired Tasmanian school-teacher who was making the Balkan circuit in the other direction. He assured me that the scenery would be worthwhile. But I didn't feel very welcome in Korca.

    I was able to arrange a car and driver, although the fixer, who spoke no English, absolutely refused to bargain. After an exchange mediated by the phrases in my Bradt guidebook and pen and paper for the numbers, we shook hands on the route and price. Not entirely satisfied, he borrowed a young English-speaking woman from a nearby bank to make sure we were in agreement.

    After breakfast the next morning (no coffee!), I learned that my fixer had sent someone else to drive me. When I walked out of the hotel a young man hurried over and took charge of my bag. But as we reached his car an older man intercepted us. Since he had the slip of paper I had given the fixer with my name and hotel, he was clearly my driver. I still don't know whether the young man was waiting for someone else, or was poaching.

    Gjirokastra is a fair distance from Korca, maybe 55 miles or so in a straight line, but the road doesn't go anything like straight. First we headed south practically to the Greek border, winding up and down and across moorland, and over the more forested Grammoz mountains to the Barmash Pass. Then we turned northwest up the Vjosa River valley to the small town of Permet, where we ate lunch, before a final swing back south on a better road following the Drinos River. According to Lonely Planet the bus takes six or seven hours. It took us about five and a half, with a coffee stop at a lonely hotel an hour or so south of Korca as well as lunch. My driver spoke hardly a word of English, but he was a fine driver (Tel: 06 93 56 08 85, car license KO-417-A).

    Aside from greater comfort and greater speed, I had been willing to pay for private transport so I got a better view, and it was absolutely worth it. I didn't take many photos, because in my experience mountains don't photograph well (at least when I'm taking the pictures), but I can assure you that the scenery was magnificent. And wild. We met a few trucks, and a bus, but barely a handful of cars. Instead, horses and donkeys were in use as beasts of burden.

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    Anyone still reading this?

    October 6, 2011: Old Grey Town

    The guidebook writers – Lonely Planet and Bradt – were enthusiastic about Gjirokastra. I thought a town built of nothing but grey stone was likely to look depressing, but there seemed to be no better place to stop between Korca and Saranda, and perhaps the interiors would be interesting. I planned a two night stay, and booked what sounded like a neat hotel with good views.

    While it’s notable that so many 19th century buildings survived, thanks to the town’s status as the former dictator Hoxha’s birthplace, I lasted just one night. Now it’s possible my less than ecstatic reaction to Gjirokastra was colored by a bad experience with my hotel. Or by the difficulty of walking on the steep streets with their acutely angled, narrow cobblestones, not to mention the difficulty of finding my way around. Or maybe a totally grey town really is depressing.

    Gjirokastra is actually two towns: a Communist era one in a valley, and an old one on a hillside crowned by a castle. The main road runs along a ridge on the edge of the new town. My Korca-based driver had some difficulty finding my hotel, at the far side of the old town, and I was glad I wasn’t trying to drive the narrow winding streets myself.

    When I reached the Hotel Kalemi, and roused someone to let me in, I was surprised to find that my bathroom was across the hall instead of en-suite, and that the rest of the small hotel was full of students. If I’d been traveling with my backpack I might have left, but I didn’t fancy trying to roll my wheeled case over the streets I’d just seen. And I figured the students would have someone keeping order. Wrong. They were still awake, and keeping me awake, at 3:00 am.

    So I spent just one afternoon checking out the town, and not finding a whole lot of interest. True, I didn’t make it up to the castle, or to the one or two house museums, but I did walk most of the streets, take a look at a couple souvenir shops and find a few coffee shops and cafes.

    My hotel wasn’t happy that I was leaving a day early, but as I explained to the young man in charge: if the students wanted to treat the hotel like a dorm, they should reserve the whole place. (And although I had a couple of pleasant chats with the women students, the men didn’t seem at all pleased to have me around.) The hotel did call a taxi to take me to the bus stop on the main road, where I picked up a mini-bus to Saranda. In addition to locals, I shared it with a couple of backpackers, who had enjoyed their stay at the Kotomi B&B just down the hill from my hotel. Next time. Perhaps.

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    Good to know someone's out there!

    @Marija - lot of world still to go, lol! Although I doubt I'll be visiting any Caribbean or Pacific islands.

    @Katyt - there will be Bosnia and southern Hungary (great Art Nouveau!) but I have the full length of Albania and Montenegro to go first...

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    October 7-9, 2011: Ruins and Rain in Saranda

    In Saranda, it dawned on me that I was no longer traveling in shoulder season, I was traveling out of season. While this got me a cut rate at the clean and comfortable Porto Eda (http://www.portoeda.com/new/index.php ), and peace and quiet at Butrint, it also meant that a lot of places had shut down for the season. While the hotel seemed short on hot water (only available in the morning), besides providing a good view from my balcony, it was just across the street from an actually open restaurant, where I ate a lot of pizza. The restaurant/cafe/bar was particularly useful when it rained, which it did a lot.

    There didn’t seem to be much to Saranda, aside from hotels and apartments and (mostly closed) cafes, but I had really come to see the Roman ruins at Butrint. I took a very crowded mini-bus south to Butrint, passing a lot of unfinished – often, hardly started – buildings on the way. I lucked out with the weather, as the rain didn’t start again until I was safely ensconced under cover in the garden of the Hotel Livia waiting for the bus back. While lunch there wasn’t memorable, I did enjoy the tame rabbits hopping around the place.

    I also enjoyed Butrint, sprawling over a wooded site by the water. I regretted missing out on the mosaics, covered with sand for protection, but appreciated the Roman theater and Byzantine religious buildings. Even the small museum, locked until I turned up, kept me occupied for a while. My only complaint was that I got bitten! I’d had no problem with insects for so long, I wasn’t even carrying the Cortisone I use to cut the itching.

    Aside from seeing Butrint, I mostly used Saranda as a place to rest and plan the remainder of my trip. I discovered I had a week less than I had thought initially, which simplified matters: I would skip Slovenia and northern Italy and go straight north through Bosnia to Hungary. I also decided, regretfully, to skip the Albanian coast. The reports on the scenery were very tempting, but one young couple I talked to said that their B&B had to open up for them, as it had already closed for the season, and given all the closed cafes in Saranda I was worried about getting fed. Plus, I could raise little enthusiasm for the 5:00 am bus I would have to take. Instead, I’d get up a bit later for the 8:00 am to the capital, Tirana.

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    Did you like the Lion of St Mark on the walls of Butrint? Those Venetians got everywhere. I think I have some pictures of the mosaics which were uncovered when I was there but some tourists had a hard time keeping off them and didn't seem to see why they should.
    It poured when I was in Sarande too, and turned the streets into rivers.
    There were a lot of half-finished hotels which made me wonder if the tourist trade was as flourishing as they hoped. I remember your hotel quite clearly, we had some coffee outside on the esplanade (if that isn't too grand a word).

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    Don't remember a Venetian lion at Butrint, but the Venetians owned that whole coast for a while. Yes, lots of over-building around Saranda. Some of the shells had fallen over, but I think I heard that the police do that when the developers haven't paid their taxes.

    My hotel was fine apart from the water problem, much nicer than the ones in Korca and Gjirokastra. I was on the top floor, too, with the best views.

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    October 10-12, 2011: Tackling Tirana

    Tirana didn’t make it onto my initial itinerary for Albania – I figured I’d arrive on one bus, cross town, and leave on another. This might not have been such a good plan. “Bus station” doesn’t mean quite the same in Albania as it does in other European countries. Even the guide books tell you that the locations they list need to be verified on the ground. And the locations for mini-buses or shared taxis, which might leave at more friendly hours than the buses, are even more fluid.

    Once I gave up on the coast, and decided to spend a couple of days in the capital, I saw a fair amount of the city just checking out bus locations. The dusty and forlorn train station was fairly easy to track down, since it, obviously, had not moved, and I found a couple of bus parking lots nearby, but really the best solution was to use a taxi and rely on the driver’s local knowledge. Although I had arrived by bus (after a long and boring drive only enlivened by conversation with the tour guide seated next to me) it had dropped me on a street south of my hotel that bore no relation to the locations I needed for north-bound transport.

    Tirana largely lived down to my expectations. True, the staff at my hotel were friendly, and it had a reasonable restaurant. True, the views from the revolving bar at the top of the Sky Tower were good. True, the main square, with its statue of Skanderbeg, hero of the 15th century resistance to the Turks, may be impressive when its renovation is complete, but meanwhile it’s a dangerous construction zone, where pedestrians risk a turned ankle or a close encounter with a bulldozer. Otherwise I found the History Museum uninspiring and the architecture mostly unimpressive.

    Following a tip from a backpacking couple I met in Saranda, I spent the morning of my one full day in Tirana out of town at the mountain village of Kruja, Skanderbeg’s birthplace. Unfortunately, I didn’t read my guidebook carefully enough, and wound up taking a bus to Fushe Kruja, at the foot of the mountain, instead. I had a long wait for the minibus to Kruja to leave, and then discovered that if I had walked a couple of blocks into town I could have taken a taxi.

    The location is undeniably scenic, with views as far as the coast, but the village, and especially the re-built one-street bazaar, is remarkably touristy. The most prominent building within the castle walls was put up in 1982 by Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law. At least this museum, unlike the strange pyramid they erected in Tirana, was dedicated to Skanderbeg and not Hoxha, but by this time I felt I had seen enough museums dedicated to battles against the Turks and skipped it. I should probably have skipped the Ethnographic Museum as well, although I was interested in the women’s gallery that allowed them to see what the men were up to, but I did find the small Sufi teke evocative. (The teke is mentioned in Bradt, but not Lonely Planet, and you need someone to alert its guardian to unlock it for you.)

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    October 12-13, 2011: Going Grand in Shkodra

    My taxi had no trouble finding the mini-buses (furgons) to Shkodra, my final stop in Albania. Supposedly they left from a big traffic circle called Zogu i Zi (named after Zog I, a warlord turned king who ruled Albania between the World Wars), but they were actually hidden behind a building, off an alley, off one of the main roads leading away from the circle. I had found them on foot by dint of asking the locals, my driver took a shortcut through side streets to avoid the traffic circle. I could have taken a “proper” bus from a lot near the train station, but that left at 6:00 am. The furgons left when full.

    Albania was certainly cheaper than its neighbors, and I decided to treat myself to a multi-starred hotel for my last nights in the country. I picked the Europa Grand over the Colosseo based on its extra star and the pictures on its web site, but I nearly left when the front desk initially refused to match the website rate. I laughed a little when I saw my room, all black wood and red brocade, heavily trimmed with gold, with a large black and white bathroom featuring a glittery sink. Quite a change from my usual digs. (Later I found a shortage of both light and hot water, that the AC was hopelessly feeble, and that wifi only worked in the lobby.)

    The ride from Tirana had been a bit more interesting than the ride to Tirana, mostly because of the mountains visible to the east, although the foreground remained scruffy. The town itself wasn’t very interesting, though, and I was unable to take the ferry ride I had hoped for on Lake Koman. The young woman in the little T.I kiosk was very helpful – just like the T.I. people in Tirana – but at that time of year there was only one ferry a day. I could travel east, but not get back west.

    I did take a taxi out to the Rozafa fortress, where there were some good views (and a few local couples making out), but photos of a nearby Ottoman-era bridge were marred by construction work and lack of water. My attempt to visit the Marubi Permanent Photo Collection was no more successful than my attempt to visit the Medieval Arts Museum in my first Albanian stop, Korca. However, the two women students I had asked for directions (they were actually as clueless as I was) tried so hard to be helpful that after we finally found the museum entrance (down an alley behind an apartment building) and saw that it was closed, I invited them for coffee. They had very little English and I had no Albanian, but they were fascinated by my phrase book. I did establish that one was a Muslim (no veil) and one a Catholic, and that neither of them would think of having a boyfriend.

    Shkodra seemed well supplied with students: my last night in town a large group took over the rooftop bar for an early evening event. The music reverberated through the hotel, but fortunately ended around 7:00. As I watched the students leave I marveled at the shortness of the girls’ skirts – we could have been back in the 60s, when I wore mini skirts myself….

    I did see a couple of women on the street in full black burkhas, and the two mosques did seem to compete for how long and loud their call to prayer could be, but it’s not clear how much religious observance has recovered from its ruthless supression under Hoxha. Cafe culture, on the other hand, was as popular as in the other Balkan countries.

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    Lovely, still following, and I love the pictures on your blog. I admire you so much for tackling this trip alone, through such relatively 'unexplored' and certainly unvisited and untouristy countries.

    Thank you for posting, and please continue to do so, as it may well encourage those of us too timid to venture there at the present time.

    That said, I am all agog to read about your time in Sarajevo and indeed, Bosnia & Herzegovina as a country, having spent a little time there myself.

    More soon please!

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    October 14, 2011: Back with the tourists at Budva

    Only eight people rode the 20-seat bus from Shkodra to Ulcinj, at the southern tip of diamond-shaped Montenegro. Lonely Planet had advised arriving early, but at this time of year that was a waste of time. My plans were fluid: the room I wanted at the Villa Drago in Sveti Stefan wouldn’t be available until the next day. I could stay in Ulcinj, and move north the next day. I could go as far as Bar, Montenegro’s port. Or I could go past Sveti Stefan to Budva, which sounded the most attractive option. Having seen the museums in the old capital, Cetinje, and been driven over the impressive mountain roads of the interior, on a day trip from Dubrovnik back in 2004, this time I was concentrating on the coast.

    The border crossing went quickly, and Montenegro looked a bit better cared for than Albania, but here in the south still quite empty. I only saw the outskirts of Ulcinj, as a bus was leaving for Budva just 15 minutes after I arrived. Ulcinj looked small and quiet, whereas Bar looked busy and industrial, and I was glad to keep going to Budva, spreading around a pretty bay and up a hillside. I followed the Lonely Planet map from the bus station to the Kangaroo Hotel, where I rejected the first room, with the smelly bathroom I had read about on tripavisor, and settled happily into the second, with a little balcony.

    I spent the afternoon a fair trek from the Kangaroo at Budva’s tourist central, the walled old town. After my time in Albania, where I had encountered a bare handful of independents, plus a couple of bus tours at Butrint, Budva came as a bit of a shock. It might be the tail end of the season, but there were still more tourists than I had seen in a while strolling the narrow marble streets of the old town. Given the number of souvenir shops and the size of some of the cafes, it was clear that in season the place expected to be mobbed.

    I enjoyed the views from the walls, I admired the old buildings, and I had a lovely time in the library in the museum, with its extensive collection of books on the Balkans. After an expensive coffee in one of the cafes on the pebbly beach beyond the walls, I walked around the nearby headland admiring the strata lines. On the way back I met an Austrian woman who said she visited the town every year and was thinking of buying property. I, on the other hand, would prefer to move to Austria…

    With the Austrian I visited the Orthodox church and enjoyed its interesting iconostasis, and then she found the T.I. for me. I had searched for it in vain, and I was glad to be able to pick up the timetable for the bus I would need in the morning. She also recommended a seaside restaurant for dinner, but the weather had turned cold and windy, and I chose to eat at the Kangaroo instead.

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    gertie - yes, although the weather wasn't great. But loads of empty seats in the cafes. Turned out the season was really over here, too. (Can't think why the Austrian lady wanted to move there...)

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    October 15-17, 2011: Stunning Sveti Stefan

    Once upon time, the tiny rocky island of Sveti Stefan was a refuge, home to fishermen and their families. A place to wait out raids by the Turks, and later by pirates. Now it’s still a refuge, although connected to the shore by a narrow causeway, but of a very different kind. The villagers were moved to the mainland by the government some time back, and now the whole island is a hotel (http://www.amanresorts.com/amansvetistefan/home.aspx ). A very, very expensive hotel, for very, very wealthy people seeking privacy. The enemy now are paparazzi, not pirates.

    I had no thoughts of staying on the island itself, I’d stay in the new village on the mainland, and enjoy looking at the forbidden territory offshore. It had occurred to me that I might splurge on a meal there, but fortunately I couldn’t indulge this extravagant impulse as the hotel had closed for the season the weekend before. In fact it seemed that about everywhere in Sveti Stefan aside from the Vila Drago and a tiny village store had closed as well. And the Villa would close the next week.

    I had reserved room five at the Vila (http://viladrago.com/index1.php ), which meant I had two balconies, one looking along the coast towards Budva, and one looking directly at the island. And the island, all grey stone and red tiles, its church spire rising among sentinel cypress trees at the highest point, was drop-dead gorgeous. Just too picturesque. I figured I had better views on the shore looking at the island, than I would have done on the island itself. And as an extra bonus for arriving at the dead end of the season, the beaches were deserted. In season, I heard, you had to pay anything from 50 to 125 euros for a beach chair and umbrella. That’s if the beach in question wasn’t off limits to the hoi polloi altogether.

    It’s true that the weather could have been better, and I could have been feeling better. Even with the sun shining, it was chilly, and the wind made eating outdoors problematic. Plus, I seemed to have caught a cold, and the remedy that had worked in Serbia was of no help here. But this was a great place to sit around admiring the view, and I did manage a hike up the coast to the next village, finding beautiful views round every headland.

    Fortunately, the Vila Drago provided good food as well as good rooms, as I ate all my meals there. Indeed, the daily fish special was far more food than I could eat. I caught the bus back to Budva after two nights very satisfied with my visit, and with absolutely no need to go back.

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    I found Budva (in 2007) quite 'quaint', but felt it was just another old walled town. Bear in mind I was seeing it after spending time in Trogir, Dubrovnik and Kotor, all much nicer (IMHO) old walled towns.

    The harbour at Budva when I was there was filled with yachts and boats belonging to Russian oligarchs, and kind of reminded me of what Puerto Banus (near Marbella, Spain) was like back in the early 80s when the idle rich knew about it, but their hangers-on hadn't quite caught up and 'discovered' it.

    Like you I feel no need to return to Budva.

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    julia_t - plenty of yachts in residence, but not as plutocratic as the ones I saw in Hvar in '04. Might be the time of year. I think the Croatian/Montenegrin coast plus islands is supposed to be the "new" Riviera.

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    thursday's - just a quick thank you for this report (so far). This one's been up in it's own browser tab on my pc for some time so that I could continue reading as time allowed. I've quite enjoyed reading about these less reported places.

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    Clifton - thanks for the encouragement!

    All - hope you're having a good holiday season. Best wishes for lots of travel in 2012.

    October 17-18, 2011: Kotor With a Cold

    Whatever bug I had picked up in Albania didn’t want to leave me. Combined with a very hot bus ride from Budva to Kotor, and a 15 minute schlep round the outside of the old town, I arrived in no mood for extended sight-seeing. My room, at Apartment Tianis, wasn’t an apartment, but had a balcony with a view of the impressive hillside behind the town, and was conveniently located across from a small mall, where I picked up another medication for my cold. Once again, I was reminded that I was traveling all but out of season. Normally breakfast would have been served in the garden of the house, but the owners were getting ready to move out to their winter home, and I picked up supplies from the mini-market in the mall instead.

    I had intended to day-trip by bus to Perast and Risan, and even entertained thoughts of climbing the 1,350 steps that led up along the extended town walls to the fortifications perched nearly 4,000 feet above the harbor. But not with a cough, a runny nose, and no energy. I settled for sipping coffee, either in one of the outdoor cafes in the town, or in the mall, and exploring the maze of streets inside the walls. I got lost a lot, but that was fine. The place was small enough that I didn’t stay lost for long.

    I also spent a little time outside the walls, by the harbor. The bulk of Kotor’s tourists arrive on day trips from Dubrovnik, but some arrive on the smaller cruise ships. A rather grubby looking OAT boat was in the harbor both days, but the beautiful Sea Cloud II, masts rising high above her decks, seemed only to stay a couple of hours before disappearing again.

    Besides the cold, I had a nasty heat rash on both legs. I put this down to the very, very cheap Dove soap I had bought in Albania not being Dove soap at all. Then, as all bad things are supposed to come in threes, I found that the bus I wanted to take to Trebinje in Bosnia only ran on the weekends. It seemed I had no choice but to reach Bosnia via Dubrovnik in Croatia. Since I had visited Dubrovnik in 2004, and all the reports said that it had just gotten more and more touristy since, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about going back. And even then, the buses to Dubrovnik didn’t run every day.

    I cut a day from Kotor, bought a ticket to Dubrovnik, and arranged to stay in a small apartment in the old town.

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    October 19-21: Drenched in Dubrovnik

    If I had been traveling with my well-worn Eagle Creek backpack with the built-in rain cover, I could have trekked down the 68 stone steps from my mini-apartment (http://www.adriatic-home.com/Croatia/Dubrovnik/Old-Town/Apartments-MINERVA-5655 ) to Dubrovnik’s main street, the Stradun, under the shelter of my umbrella. Instead, I had a wheeled bag, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it down the stairs and manage an umbrella at the same time. So we both got wet. Very wet, as the rain was coming down in sheets the day I left. The streets of the old town drained well, but a veritable lake divided me from the taxis outside the walls. Fortunately, the bus stop was on my side of the water and a bus appeared just as I was getting ready to wade the lake.

    My arrival in Dubrovnik had been a lot drier, but not a lot more auspicious. I navigated the bus station easily enough – ATM, money changer, toilet, ticket to Mostar, ticket into town – but then got off the bus one stop too soon. Worse, I arrived at the Pile Gate into the old town at the same time as another flood – this one of people. A rope divided those entering from those leaving, and I actually had to queue to get into town. Eventually I managed to extricate myself from the mob milling around inside the gate and once I’d made it up the stairs past the first two side streets I was on my own.

    Things had indeed grown much worse since my first visit in 2004. Then I had slept out of the old town on the Lapad peninsula, and I had only noticed cruse ship people one lunch-time, when the couple at the next table had wanted to pay with euros. Now, even in October, there are days when 9,000 passengers – 9,000! – descend on the town on the same day. Under this assault, any authenticity that had remained in 2004 has pretty much vanished. All the level ground, and the first two streets up the hill are given over to shops and cafes. Higher up, locals still live, but rent out rooms. You can’t even buy groceries in the old town, the nearest place is a cramped store a short walk away that no-one would visit for serious food shopping.

    It’s true that on my second day, with no cruse ships in port, the emptier streets felt a little eerie, but that was because of the lack of locals. I did appreciate having the walls almost entirely to myself, when I went up late in the afternoon, but I didn’t appreciate the steep price increase since my last visit. I noticed that the whole town had been further prettied up – in 2004 you could still distinguish the houses that had survived the 1991 siege and bombardment by their weathered roofs, but now all were uniformly new.

    The daily influx of visitors who eat only one, or maybe two, meals had had a bad effect on some of the restaurants. One of the most expensive meals of my whole trip, at Wanda, turned out to be one of the worst. The next day I listened to my landlady and ate much better food at the family-run Spaghetteria Toni, even though I’m not that fond of Italian food. My best meal in town, though, was shrimp at a cheap and cheerful little place tucked down a side street opposite the cathedral.

    The town is still, of course, marvelously pretty, and the marble streets a delight to explore. It would be a shame to miss it, and to miss the approach along the coast – my bus ride north from Kotor featured mile after mile of lovely scenery. But do try to avoid the busiest days. The Port Authority publishes a handy list of expected arrivals which should allow land-based visitors to avoid the most crowded days (http://www.portdubrovnik.hr/girica1.php ). As with Venice, though, the only thing that will really help is a limit on the number of passengers per day. But that would affect profits…

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    That sounds like it was 3 years ago when I was there. One day there were 5 cruise ships in and I was lucky to get round the city walls early in the morning before the crowds. Yes, I can see Dubrovnik turning into another Venice without local inhabitants and given over to tourism.
    Did you have to reserve your apartment with some kind of foreign money order? That was one of the big drawbacks for me. Croatia must be the only country still using that system. Very inconvenient. Looks like you found a nice place. I was surprise how relatively expensive Dubrovnik was.

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    I booked my apartment maybe two days ahead, when I found I would have to go via Dubrovnik, no deposit. The apartment was fine but a bit dark - both windows looked over the stairs.

    I'm sure all those cruisers drive the restaurant prices up, and there's only so much space in the old town. If you were planing a longer stay, the Lapad peninsula might be a better bet - the bus system is good. I stayed here in 2004 - http://www.hotels-sumratin.com/index.php?action=zagreb - nice big room and they've added AC since then.

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    October 21-23, 2011: Musings on Mostar

    I suspect that the Balkan department is where Professors of History send their enemies, that they may be driven mad. While I did some rudimentary research on Balkan history (I recommend Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” and Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts“) I don’t pretend to an understanding. The shortest and simplest outline I can manage goes as follows: in the beginning there were Illyrians and Thracians, influenced by the Greeks. The Romans ruled for a while, and after the Empire fell the area was overrun by Slavs from the Caucasus. In the west the Slavs became Croats – coastal and Catholic – and in the east they became Serbs – inland and Orthodox. After the Ottomans took over from the Byzantines, some communities converted to Islam. The descendents of the converts are known as Bosniaks in what is now Bosnia.

    When I was growing up (right after WWII, a shockingly long time ago) the comforting mantra about the Holocaust was “never again”. Yet, just fifty years later, ethnic cleansing was once again disfiguring Europe, along with rape camps, and the almost medieval siege and bombardment of cities like Dubrovnik, and of Mostar and Sarajevo, where I was headed next. Mostar was a particularly sad case. After the Croats and the Bosniaks collaborated to defeat the invading Serbs, the Croats turned on the Bosniaks, bombarding their section of the city and eventually destroying the beautiful and historic bridge that was its symbol. (Not that I want to suggest that any one side was noticeably better-behaved than any other.)

    On my last visit to the Balkans I had seen war damage in Croatia, although not in Slovenia, which was able to leave the Yugoslav federation largely unscathed. This time I had seen none in Macedonia, which had left with no fighting at all, or in Montenegro, which had been responsible for the seige of Dubrovnik, but seemed to have escaped damage itself. Bosnia was another matter. The iconic bridge in Mostar had been rebuilt in as faithful a reconstruction as possible (there’s an excellent museum devoted to the bridge), and buildings along the river front have also been restored. But wander a little away from the river, and damaged buildings and even streets are not hard to find, and the place still feels like a divided city.

    Mostar and its bridge seem to be well-established on the tourist circuit, although while I had to dodge groups near the bridge, at least during the day, I saw no other tourists further afield. Based on a photo on the town’s tourist literature I trekked out to the Partisan Memorial, built during the Communist era to honor WWII guerilla fighters. Good thing I enjoyed the walk, as the memorial was in a horrible state of neglect. It must have been impressive in its day, but instead of the graves and tombstones visible in the photograph I had seen, it was littered with beer bottles and broken glass. I did encounter three young men there, one of whom managed a successful climb up the central relief. That made a better photograph than the memorial.

    I was still fighting my Albanian cold (flu?) and Mostar was a pleasant enough place to wander around, drink coffee by the river or in the rather posh Bristol hotel, and take lots of photographs of the bridge. I walked through souvenir central, cobbled Kujundziluk, several times, but felt no impulse to buy anything. I preferred mosque-lined Brace Fejica, further north. My hotel, the Kriva Cuprija, was well-located along a side stream, but its restaurant was remarkably expensive (partly because of extra charges for bread, potatoes, service, etc) and I didn’t appreciate being constantly reminded to write a tripadvisor review.

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    I'd go along with your comments on Mostar. I managed to get out of the tourist zone too, into the parallel back streets where the war damage was shockingly still in evidence. Likewise the rows and rows of white grave markers in the cemeteries. I too am quite fascinated by Balkan history and would recommend those 2 books; the Rebecca West is a classic. I picked up a couple of lesser known ones in Sarajevo.
    Looks like we also stayed at the same hotel. I quite liked the comfort of it and little nooks and crannies to sit in for a quiet read. Didn't eat in the restaurant and didn't get hassled to write to tripadvisor!
    I left by bus to Dubrovnik and arrived by bus from Sarajevo. Looks like you are going in the opposite direction.

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    thursdaysd, I'm just seeing this for the first time. Thank you for posting so eloquently on this relatively unknown part of the world. We have come to love the Balkans and its people.

    We entered Albania from the north and only got as far as Berat. I have to say I wasn't ready for some of the poverty in Albania - and the dust, dirt and packs of wild dogs - in Tirana, but despite the total language barrier, the Albanian people were wonderful and kind. (It's one of the few places on earth that loves Americans; quite a refreshing change). By the way, I loved the "More Donkeys than Cars" title; so true!

    May I ask...did you consider visiting Kosovo? Like BiH, it suffered terribly as you know during the war and it has struggled, and is still struggling, to come back. Through my work we have developed very close friendships with some Kosovars and have visited it several times, even attending an Albanian wedding in Gjakova two summers ago!

    As an aside, my daughter did an internship in the summer of 2010 in Sarajevo as part of her master's program in int'l human rights, and fell in love with it. She was able to travel into the country and the stories she told were fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking.

    I wish I could talk to you about your travels in the Balkans because we've experienced so many of the same places. Thank you again for this wonderful report.

    Ellen

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    Hi ellen! Yes, I did consider Kosovo, but I didn't go for two reasons. First, the logistics just didn't work out, especially as there seemed to be problems related to entering from Macedonia and subsequently entering Serbia. Second, the guidebooks made it sound really not ready for tourists, and something had to give.

    I liked Sarajevo a lot, too, much more than Mostar. And certainly more than Belgrade...

    I see from your profile that you're in upstate New York. Unfortunately I'm in NC, but if you post a comment at mytimetotravel.wordpress.com I can email you. I also see you're taking the Trans-Siberian next trip. So cool! I did that in 2004, if you're interested see http://wilhelmswords.com/rtw2004/

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    Yes, logistics are something to be reckoned with in the Balkans. I'll never forget planning for our first trip to Kosovo and Dubrovnik. As a fairly seasoned western European traveler, I kept looking for the train schedules and couldn't understand why they weren't appearing! That was just the beginning...not only lack of infrastructure, but political boundaries.

    And you're right, Kosovo is working toward it, but isn't quite ready for prime time yet. My daughter couldn't believe the difference between Prishtina and Sarajevo, the latter being so much more liveable, attractive and tourist-ready.

    I'll have to go back and look at my profile. A trans-Siberian trip is definitely on our list, but this year we've opted for something tamer; London and Iceland. After planning for the Balkans, this has been a piece of cake! I'll look at the site -thanks for giving it to me.

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    October 24-28: Celebrating Sarajevo

    Some cities charm me on arrival, others I never warm to. I loved Lisbon at first sight, but have no desire to revisit Madrid, for instance. (No need to tell me that Madrid is marvelous, just be glad we don't all like the same things.) Of the major cities on this trip, Riga had made my revisit list, and now Sarajevo joined it.

    Of course, getting there had put me in good mood, despite leaving Mostar under gloomy skies and from a cavernous bus station. Although I'm a big train fan, I had passed on the train ride between Mostar and Sarajevo partly because the train left uncomfortably early, and partly because I didn't want tunnels obscuring the views. And the views as we followed the Nereva river valley through the mountains were indeed impressive.

    Then, I got a very warm welcome at my hotel, the Safir, especially when I showed the young woman on the front desk the Fodor's trip report which had led me to choose it - http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/sarajevo-in-the-springtime-juliat-makes-a-return-trip.cfm. (True, I wasn't quite as pleased with the hotel myself, as I explained on tripadvisor - http://tinyurl.com/7rf8pdp. ) But I think I would have fallen for Sarajevo anyway. For all three Sarajevos, that is: the Ottoman quarter with its pedestrian streets and quaint shops, the Austro-Hungarian quarter further west, with its stately buildings, and even the newer section still further west towards the airport and "sniper's alley" where people daily courted death during the siege.

    With the notable exception of the National Library, still being rebuilt, fewer bombed out buildings were in-your-face reminders than in Mostar, and I saw few "Sarajevan roses" - star-shaped shell craters in the streets, painted red - but the war was still very much a presence. Just eight years after the city hosted the Winter Olympics, Serbian regiments of the encircling Yugoslav army attacked the city and started a siege that lasted close to four years. "Siege" is almost too tame a word for the shelling which resulted in over 10,500 deaths and 50,000 injuries, and targeted, besides the irreplacable contents of the National Library, the Winter Olympics' venues and even hospitals.

    I took a tour that included a visit to the 800 meter tunnel under the airport runway that had kept a vital trickle of supplies coming into the city. I spent a sobering hour in the History Museum. I even ate lunch in the Holiday Inn, which was the home of the foreign journalists during the siege, and therefore largely spared attack. And I marveled both at the endurance of the inhabitants, and the viciousness of the attackers, who had so recently been citizens of the same country. I also wondered why it had taken so long for the rest of the world to try to stop it.

    Sarajevo could have been depressing, just one more chapter in the dark history of human warfare. Instead, the spirit of the Sarajevans, their refusal to surrender, was inspiring. Here were people, used to a comfortable, 20th-century, urban life, suddenly back in the Dark Ages, living in the basements of bombed out buildings, risking death every time they ventured out to find food, fuel and water. The museum shows how they improvised and made do, how teachers and doctors and nurses continued their work. The tour shows the odds against them, the damage the town suffered, but also how they kept fighting.

    Near the end of the tour, I asked the guide, a man who spent many nights camped in the winter snow on the one mountainside the Sarajevans held, defending his city, what relations were like today between Serbia and Bosnia. He replied that they weren't fighting. In the Balkans, perhaps that's as good as it gets.

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    Beautifully written. It brings back memories of what my daughter told me when she was there. Did you travel outside of Sarajevo while you were there, into the countryside? I understand that there are still places Americans need to be wary of, and of course one of the sobering realities is the number of unexploded landmines which remain, especially in BiH and Kosovo.

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    thursdaysd--I have enjoyed reading your report and am especially interested in your thoughts about Croatia and BiH, the countries I have visited.

    My husband and I visited a friend in Sarajevo in 2010 and it was one of the most memorable trips we have ever taken. I see you have read julia_t's great trip reports. She and I have traded recommendations about books and movies over the past year or so. The last one I read at her suggestion was The Girl in the Film, a novel by Charlotte Eager, a British journalist who covered the siege of Sarajevo. very powerful.

    Your report has reminded me I still have a copy of Balkan Ghosts by Kaplan to read.

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    Enjoying your report and have a few questions about our June trip.We have a 1 week cycle tour of Istria and then have about 13 days to work our way down the coast to Dubrovnik and then Bosnia and ending in Budapest where we meet our daughters and their families on June 30th.This doesn't seem to give us a lot of time.We plan to rent a car from Istria to Split
    1.We plan to take the bus to Mostar from Dubrovnik and then catch the late afternoon bus to Sarajevo.Do you think this gives us enough time to see the sites in Mostar.
    2.We are thinking 2 days Dubrovnik, 2 days-3 nights Sarajevo would you give more time to Sarajevo
    3.We plan to take the train Sarajevo to Pecs stay overnight and catch an afternoon train to Budapest.I'm hoping that this gives us enough time in Pecs.My husband was there as a school child and is anxious to go back.
    I really appreciate any advice you can give on this portion of our trip



    I

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    Hi Katyt,

    1. Yes, provided you get an early bus, and you really just want to see the bridge and maybe the bridge museum.

    2. I'd give more time to Sarajevo and less to Dubrovnik. Substance over style...

    3. I loved Pecs!!! But the train ride was quite something - wait for the next post but one.

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    October 24-28, 2011: Sarajevo Reborn

    While it's hard to walk the streets of Sarajevo, and look up at its encircling hills, without remembering the war, the city has moved on. Apparently, plenty of money for restoration poured into the city after the siege was lifted (guilty consciences at work, perhaps), and the streets I enjoyed exploring were no longer lined with burned out buildings.

    And I did enjoy myself. Mostly outdoors, although besides the History Museum, dedicated to the siege, I visited the neighboring National Museum, where I paid my respects to the Sarajevo Haggadah - is it blasphemy to say I was less impressed than I expected? I found the Jewish Museum, in the quiet, stone Sephardic Synagogue more evocative. And I visited a couple of house museums, much more to my taste than art galleries.

    Sarajevo was already firmly embedded in 20th century history before the break-up of Yugoslavia, as it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its Latin Bridge that led to the First World War. The bridge was attractive enough, but not particularly impressive, given the weight of history it carried. Several other bridges crossed the Miljecka River, but the water level was low, and the north shore home to a major road, and I mostly walked further north.

    The older, Turkish, section was home to the souvenir shops, and to craftsmen, mostly metal workers. In additional to traditional materials, the casings from the shells that had fallen on the city were now being remade into souvenirs. Further west, in addition to the cathedrals, I found a big square, where even in the rain men played chess on the pavement with over-sized pieces. But mostly I just strolled, admiring the buildings and soaking up the atmosphere, and stopping off for coffee both in the old section, and in a newer, multi-story mall.

    It turned out that I had timed my visit well. My last day I ate lunch in the Holiday Inn and bought a train ticket at the neighboring station. The US embassy used to occupy a house in the center of town, but had just been moved to a purpose built fortress near the Holiday Inn, and when I walked past I noticed one bored looking guard and a line of people sheltering from the rain as they waited to enter the consular section. The next day, a gunman opened fire on the embassy, wounding the guard. It's hard to imagine what he hoped to achieve.

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    Loving this, it's bringing back memories. I like your brief and concise yet informative musings on the conflicts between race and religion. You really have managed to sum up what was a very complicated situation, one that is very confusing for many of us living elsewhere in the world.

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    Why thank you, julia! I started out writing something longer, but round about paragraph three I gave up. First, it was boring, and second, it was providing too many opportunities for me get something wrong. But I did find reciting my "three Cs mantra" - coastal, Catholic, Croat - helpful in keeping things somewhat straight when I was traveling.

    I grew up and went to school in England, so I studied a lot of European history. It is, of course, overloaded with wars, including all the ones officially about religion after the Reformation, but those in the Balkans are more confusing than most, maybe because there are three religions involved, not to mention the intersection of several empires. And I do wonder how much blame the Ottomans carry for identifying people by religion-as-ethnicity.

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    October 28, 2011: Farewell to the Balkans

    No, this is not going to be a piece about how sorry I was to be heading for Hungary. I was actually rather pleased... Not that I regretted visiting the Balkans, which I had found always interesting and sometimes beautiful, but I was ready to rest up a bit.

    This would be the second time I had arrived in Hungary by train, the first being an unfortunate journey from from Zagreb to Budapest back in 2004. The fast train I had expected morphed into a slow train that stopped at every station. The old-style carriages with non-AC compartments, a hot day, and the hours we spent traversing the southern shore of Lake Balaton, a blue vision of coolness out the window, added up to misery.

    My go-to site for all things train is seat61.com, and Mark Smith had nothing much to say about the Sarajevo-Budapest Intercity I would take to Pecs. No doubt all would have been well, except that that the railway workers in the Republika Srpska had gone on strike. Where's that? That's part of Bosnia. Actually, saying it's part of Bosnia is shorthand as the country is properly known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, but almost half of it is the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska, the area ethnically cleansed by the Serbs during the war.

    Thanks to the strike, my direct train journey involved three trains and one bus. When the train from Sarajevo reached the internal border with Republika Srpska, we got off the train and boarded a bus - only one was needed as there were less than twenty of us. A couple of hours later, at the international border with Croatia, we got off the bus at an isolated station, crossed the tracks and boarded a second train. At this point I figured I was set for the rest of the journey, but no. At the Hungarian border the remaining passengers, less than a dozen at this point, were kicked off the train again.

    Turned out we had to wait for the southbound Budapest-Sarajevo train to arrive, and for its passengers to clear immigration, before we able to board the third train of the day. I believe that the people going through to Budapest had to change trains yet again in Pecs, but I was so glad to arrive I didn't hang around to find out. I was too busy tracking down the (helpful) Tourist Information office.

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