Ohrid daytrip

You know me, I love a UNESCO world heritage site and I often research which of the protected sites I fancy seeing when I’m planning a trip abroad, and build my trip around those. There is only one UNESCO in North Macedonia and it was over on the west side of the country on the border with Albania and as I’d seen buses and guides in Albania offer trips to this lake and town of Ohrid when I was there, I knew it must be worth a visit.

Buses leave Skopje main station every hour, starting at 7.30AM with a company called Galeb. and costs just over £10 return. With the journey taking close to 3 1/2hours, it may seem a lot for a day trip, but I knew the likelyhood of me returning to either N Macedonia or Albania any time soon was unlikely, so I knew this could be my only chance to visit, so with music and podcasts loaded on my phone and semi working headphones, I got on board the bus.

It was a pretty uneventful trip across the country with beautiful landscapes and snowcapped mountains in the distance and just as my limbs were starting to seize up, we pulled into the bus station at the town of Ohrid.

It was a short walk straight down to the lakeside, which also forms the border between N Macedonia and Albania, a fact that becomes all the more apparent when my phone suddenly sent me a text message welcoming me to Albania.

The lake itself is glorious, sparkling, clean and vast and has been a thriving lake and ecosystem for 2 – 3 millions years, with over 200 species of plants and animals unique to the lake. Many locals come here just to experience the beauty of the lake itself, and you would think that would be enough, but there is so much more here to discover among the tiny streets of the old town and on the walk up the side of the cliff along the coast, all of which comes under the protective banner of the world heritage site.

After taking in the views from the lake and enjoying the welcome relief of cool, fresh air, as opposed to the stale air con of the bus, I bypassed the lakeside cafes and restaurants and followed the signs towards the old town.

It turns out this ‘old town’ of Ohrid, is actually the site of one of the oldest settlements in Europe, with a number of archeological sites dotted around, and evidence spreading back as far as the Bronze Age.  The majority of buildings and relics of interest are mainly from around the 7th – 19th centuries, and it was from here that Slavic culture first spread across Europe, but with this being one of the last of the Slavic countries in the region I had left to visit, it was pretty cool to see all the heritage, history and culture at its starting point.

My plan was to expore the old town, then along the lakeside boardwalk, up the side of the cliff to visit the church and then continue onward and upward to the Church, Monastery and settlement. Luckily it wasn’t busy, the sun was out and the views were stunning.

The old town has lots of little streets with quaint small houses, shops and cobblestone streets, a really fascinating place, and you can really imagine what it must have been like all those centuries ago. One of the most interesting places I came across here was the Sveta Sofija Cathedral an 11th century church with incredible fresco’s and stone columns, making it a great place to get some shade.

I then turned left and headed back towards the lake. Once I had located the boardwalk, I started gingerly at first, heading along the lake edge, and then upwards along the side of the cliff, ignoring the long drop to one side, and focused on the shimmering blue lake in the distance instead.

It’s absolutely worth it too, the stunning Saint John at Kaneo church awaits you, a church built possibly as early as the 13th century. Overlooking the lake, with its Armenian inspired roof, colourful fresco’s and incredible views, make sure you stop and rest a while here, conserving energy before heading higher up.

It was getting rather warm as I headed up through a woodland path that lead higher up the cliffside and was glad I had packed water and snacks. At the top I was greated by the most magnificant stone church and archeological site, known as the Plaosnik settlement and Saint Clement Church.

Originally the stone building started life as a Byzantine church, dedicated to St Clement of Ohrid, but when he arrived he thought it was too small, so he had another one built in its place and assigned it to Saint Panteleimon instead, charming! Once the Ottoman Turks arrived, they converted it into a Mosque, but later on allowed all old monasteries and churches to be restored, and so once again, it returned to being a church. By the end of the 16th century it was once again converted into a mosque, until the year 2000, when the whole area started to undergo massive excavations and it returned once again to being a church . .  for now.

As well as the church itself, there is a large excavation area to explore, tombs, mosaic floors, and over 2000 Venetian coins have been found, showing evidence of a relationship between this lakeside town and the famous Italian city.

As I headed back down towards the old town, to my surprise, I came across an ancient theatre. A quick check in my guidebook put it at being built in 200BC and from the Hellenistic period, meaning between the time of the death of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Roman Empire and I’m pleased to report its still in use today, hosting concerts, plays and dance performances.

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I also came across a sweet little church, which google later informed me was the Esglesia de Pando, its close by to the ancient theatre and well worth a visit.

I finished my day in Ohrid with an early dinner back by the lakeside, sat out in the sun, tired from all the walking and the fresh air. As I walked back to the bus station, I made plans to take a nap on the long bus back to Skopje, feeling contented that I had made the trek across the country to visit this charming place.

 

Skopje – city of honey, statues and Mother Teresa.

I was back in the Balkans for another birthday trip, this time in 2019. It was a two country trip, flying into the capital of North Macedonia for a few days, before catching the bus up to Kosovo and flying home from there.

To make the trip, I had to first travel down to Luton, where I flew with Wizz Air direct to Skopje, the capital of the newly named country of ‘North’ Macedonia. As opposed to its previous name of plain old Macedonia, which was changed due to an argument with Greece, who wanted to ensure it was seperate from its own Macedonia region in the south.

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From the airport, its dead easy to get yourself to the city centre of Skopje, with shuttle buses leaving pretty regularly from outside the terminal. A single ticket costs around £2.60 and drops you off right at the international bus station in the centre. From there, at least for me anyway, it was a short walk to my hotel.

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I had an early morning flight, so I still had pretty much the entire day left once I arrived and was lucky enough that I was able to dump my bag in my room, despite being far too early for check-in. So fueled on a 20p pastry from a nearby stall,  I headed out and up to the fortress, as I felt it would give me a great view of the city as well as being a great introduction to the history of the place.

 

The highest point of the city, its a great place to get your bearings, from here you can see the impressive River Vardar below with its many ornate bridges, of which I was to explore later on, as well as the main square, which is the biggest in the country. The fortress dates back as early at the 6th century AD, and then modified and extended in the many years afterwards, until an earthquake partly destroyed it in 1963.

Back down below, I meandered through parts of the old bazaar, which I would window shop and lose myself in again and again during my stay and crossed over the famous Stone Bridge to explore the main square. Stretching across the entire area was a local honey market, where you could buy all manner of honey related products, not just jars of the sweet stuff, but body lotions, creams, teas, jewellery and the popular health supplement bee pollen. Overloaded with ideas for presents to take back, I made a mental note of stalls I wanted to return too and headed further into the centre.

Although, I’m not the least bit religious, I love a good visit to a religious building, regardless of the god it is dedicated too. Here in N Macedonia, the majority of the population are Eastern Orthodox Christian, with Islam second, so there are a great selection of churches and mosques to add to any itinerary. The main one I wanted to visit in the capital was Cathedral Church St Clement of Ohrid an amazingly shaped church full of domes and arches. I got there during a service, so with a little time to kill, before I could go and explore, I grabbed a coffee across the street at the aptley named Coffee Time while keeping a keen eye on the front doors for the service to end.

It was well worth the wait, the sun was pouring in through the windows around the large dome in the centre and lit up the golden frescoes of which I have become such a fan of from my travels around the Balkan region. The smell of the musky incense and candles from the newly finished service really added to the atmosphere. Despite being fueled from coffee, it was nice to just sit, pause and reflect on my busy day so far, oblivious to the busy streets just outside the front door.

Next up, it was time to visit the memorial house of Skoje’s most famous daughter, and roman Catholic nun, Mother Teresa. Originally known as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, this Nobel Peace Prize winning Saint, spent her first 18 years in Skopje, before moving to Ireland and then onward to India, where she took her religious vows. I confess, I didnt know much about this famous little lady, other than remembering iconic photos of her walking the streets in her blue and white robes and meeting influencial figures such as Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, so I was keen to visit the house set up as a reminder of her life and learn a little more. Although unsurprisingly the tourist attraction steers clear away from the more controversial aspects of Teresa’s life, its a lovely little museum, in an unsually shaped house with a small chapel, lots of photos of young and older Teresa as she made her way around the globe spreading her message, as well as one of her unmistakable white and blue sari’s on display.

The rest of the day I just wandered, stopping for more coffee and maybe another pastry, I mean at around 20p each, it would be a shame not to take advantage, and I had easily passed 10,000 steps by lunch time already. There is so much to explore around the bizaare that its best just to put your guidebook in your back pocket and lose yourself in the smells, sights and general balkan bustle that you would associate yourself with any large market place.

One wonderful little place I did come across was the Church of the Ascention of Jesus, this small mid 16th century church is pretty hidden close to the fortress and has some amazing icons and wall paintings inside. If I can remember correctly, there was no photos allowed inside in order to preserve the artwork, and as I had the place to myself, it felt like I had discovered a little local secret.

Other highlights of the city were the Art Bridge, featuring statues of noteworthy and famous Macedonians, I took a serene walk along the river, whilst dodging the impressive number of weekend joggers, and explore the area arund the grand Theatre building.

For dinner, I wanted something hearty, warm and traditional, so I went to the well recommended Old City House Restaurant for a bean casserole, lots of bread and a local beer, before I hit the sheets as the full days events caught up with me. For the next day, I was off on a day trip to the breathtaking Lake Ohrid on the border with Albania.

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Petra to Wadi Rum Roadtrip

 

 

An absolute must for mum and I’s Jordanian adventure was getting ourselves to see the Unesco sights of both Petra and Wadi Rum. We researched and researched looking at various ways to get there, how much time would it take to travel, how much would it cost and of course how much time did we have to squeeze it all in. After much deliberation and playing about with dates, we decided to hire a car, driving to Petra first as thats the closest of the two destinations from Amman where we were staying, then continuing onward to the Wadi Rum late afternoon, where we would stay overnight, spending most of the 2nd day exploring the desert, before driving back that evening.

Getting there – The cheapest way to get to Petra is by public bus, there is just one bus that leaves Amman daily from the Abdali station to Petra. This bus leaves at 6.30 AM costing 11 Jordanian dollars (£12) and takes 3 hours dropping you off right by the entrance. This is great if you just want to visit Petra as the return bus back to Amman is 16.30PM so perfect for a budget day trip.

The problem we faced is that we also wanted to visit the Wadi Rum afterwards, instead of returning back to Amman, and the bus from Petra to Wadi Rum only leaves once a day at 6AM, taking 2 hours. This meant public transport wasnt really a convenient option for us as we didnt want to spend night in Petra, we wanted our overnight to be in the Wadi Rum.

Taxi’s of course will drive you to Petra from Amman, but the average cost seemed to be over £100 each way! So not an option for us budget travellers.

All the tour companies offer trips to Petra as its the most popular sight in the country. The costs are really expensive though, but there are plenty of options available, from day returns, overnights, add on’s to the Wadi Rum, Aqaba or the Dead Sea, but we struggled to find anything within our budget, that included an overnight to the Wadi Rum as well. If you want to squeeze in both together in one day, you are probably looking at a 4AM start, otherwise tours that include an overnight, start at around £400+ for two people minimum.

So we hired a car, and picked an early 8AM pick up time, returning the following evening, costing us a budget friendly £50 plus petrol. We picked up the car from Amman airport, meaning we didnt need to navigate the chaotic roads inside the capital, and from the airport its pretty much one straight road south for about 3 hours to Petra.

 

We didnt even need Sat Nav, we just used the GPS on our i-phones,  there is free wifi in the airport, so I connected to that, and then downloaded the directions before we set off, so I didnt need to use any data.

There’s lots of parking at Petra and its only a short walk to the front entrance, where there are toilets, stalls, an information centre, lots of places to rest and free wifi. We had our Jordan Pass which includes entry to Petra, otherwise it will cost you £54 for a day pass, £60 for a 2 day pass and £65 for a 3 day stay. If you are travelling over from Egypt or the Israel Palestine border, and arent planning to spend an overnight in Jordan you’re looking at close to £100 pounds for entry.  if you travel over from another country and go straight to Petra before staying elsewhere in the country, you pay the 90JD (£98) and then get £43 back the next day.

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Setting off around 8am meant we got to Petra just before lunch and we had already brought snack bars and water, so we could head straight off down the track to see as much of it as possible, keeping a close eye on the time, as we needed to be at the Wadi Rum for sunset.

 

Staying focused and hydrated, with map in hand, we set off to explore this architectural city, which was home to people as far back at 7000BC, incredible! Also known as the Rose City, its a beautiful walk through the pink rock coloured passages, or Siq, until it all opens out and the world famous Treasury stands before you. It really was a trip to be stood right in front of this unmistakable world wonder that I had seen so many times, over so many years in magazines and on TV. Beyond the Treasury, the city opens up even more, and as you walk along the Colonnaded Street you see a huge theatre built into the rock face,  a pool and garden complex. If you have budgeted to spend the best part of the day there, then continue beyond the ‘city centre’ out towards the Monastery complex. We didnt think we would have time to see The Monsatery if we were to make the drive onward to the Wadi Rum, so we slowly took our time walking back to the entrance, making sure we didnt miss a single thing that we may have missed on our way in, as I was quite overwhelmed on arrival, not quite believeing we were actually there!

Driving onward to the Wadi Rum takes about another 2 hours, and we arrived close to sunset at the main carpark, which is housed just outside the desert valley, timing it perfectly to meet our Bedouin host for the next 24 hours.

Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon, and you really do feel like you have been transported to a far away planet as we were  driven across the lunar like desert in a 4×4. Sandy wind in our hair, and the most incredible pink mountains above, orange sand below and a setting sun, we had truely been transported to a different world.

 

As it was getting dark and cold, our guide with Wadi Rum Nature Tours took us straight to our tent where our evening meal was already being prepared, and we settled in to enjoy an incredible 3 course meal of flat breads, dips, casserole and sugery sweet pastries, and lots of hot Bedouin tea with sage. We had planned to enjoy the dark desert skies to do some star gazing (I had even downloaded a star map app), but the night was lit up with the most magnificent full moon, which although impressive in its own right, it made finding other stars and the milky way pretty impossible to spot. Then it was off for a deep sleep with extra blankets in our tradional tent.

The next morning after a hot shower and more hot tea we were off with our guide for a full days drive across the desert, with a lunch stop and plenty of tea stops of course. So taken with the local Bedouin tea was I, that I ended up buying lots to take home, and it still tasted as good once I got back.

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On the day trip we took there were many highlights, from famous rocks, sand dunes, scenes from famous films and lots of popular selfie spots, but for me, it was the entire experience. You can only travel across the desert with a guide, by foot or camel, so there are no cars, or roads or massive groups of people, which means you really feel like you have left modern civilisation behind, it was like being in some incredible sparcely populated landscape that only you and a few others know about, like some epic secret, that you want to keep for youself.

 

Of course the Wadi Rum is famous in the west for it being the place where the 1962 film Laurence of Arabia was filmed (which I watched on the flight over actually) and the more modern film, Martian from 2015 as well as the recent Star Wars sequels. So tours will inevitably stop at Laurence’s Spring,  the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Laurence’s House. But dont worry if you’re not a fan or have no interest in any of the films made here, there is so much more. There are rock bridges, ancient carvings inscribed into the rock faces, you can hike sand dunes while spotting the camels walking down below, and the incredible endless views of desert from the 4×4, there were many tent stops along the way to buy local produce, and ample opportunities to just to sit and drink tea with your guide.

I was felt truly happy and settled here and was not quite ready to get back into the car to drive the 4 hours up north to the loud, busy capital. But once dusk started to appear it was time to head back to the village just on the inside of the protected area to collect our car. I could quite easily have had a 2nd night here and then carried on south to the Saudi border, which was only a short drive away, so if I ever return thats going to be on my agenda, but for now, I have lots of amazing memories, many many pictures and a few bags of local sage tea.

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Dovestone Rocks, Oldham

So this hike, organised by the Bee Sober sunday walking group, was advertised as a full day, long walk, but I think that bit went over my head. I just saw the words Peak District Sunday Hike and cleared my diary (who am I kidding we are in the middle of a pandemic, in the worse hit area of the UK, I had no other plans) So slightly unprepared, I turned up to an already busy carpark, at 9.30am on Sunday morning, scrabbling for change for the carpark, which seemed to reject every other 20p I put into it.

I could see the majority of the people parked up were here for a stroll around the Reservoir. Located just to the edge of the Peak District meant on a clear day, the views are superb, but I was well aware, we were walking in a completely different direction, away from said reservoir.

After a slight back and forth, our hike leader (i.e the one who downloaded the route onto his phone) found the correct path, and we headed North up a rather steep hill, it was a bit of a sharp wake up call for still early on a Sunday morning, but I slowly acqlimatised and was able to appreciate the views soon enough, (once I got my breath back).

First spot for a group photo and quick break for snacks was the Pots and Pans war memorial atop Aldermans Hill.

Then, it was back onto the track, across to Dick Hill, full of rocks precariously looking out across the Peak District and down to the reservoir, not a place to hang around if someone has a fear of heights, and so we quickly retreated to lower ground when one of our group turned a rather pale shade of grey.

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Back on lower ground, some of us in the group (the tired ones) looked longingly at the reservoir and the carpark as it came back into view, but not for long, we headed East along the top of the reservoir, then back up a sharp incline, following the path alongside the rather magnificent Dovestones Cascade, that brings the water down. 490A98E2-CEB3-4DE3-804E-3F1695ED6AC3

At the top is Ashway Rocks, and it was here we stopped for lunch, and took in the misty and atmospheric views across the Peak District, which also distracted from my slightly undercooked pasta salad I had brought for lunch. Then, realising we still had a good 2 hours to go to get back to the carpark, we headed back on the trail. This portion of the walk was high up along the top, along Alphins Pike, with views of the reservoir below and Manchester up ahead and I’m sure I could spot my car down in the carpark!

I have to admit, the descent was painful, my underused muscles were not happy, but as soon as we landed back on the track heading for the car, my muscles relaxed again & all was happy.  Until the next morning of course, when I was rudely reminded of just how far we had walked the previous day. It was challenging in parts, but fun, with a great likeminded group of folk, all of us just making the most of the Covid restrictions and joining up to get out and connect with nature. Overall, another succesful hike.

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