Day Trips from Kotor Bay, Montenegro

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When we took a chance on booking flights to Tivat, Montenegro earlier this year, we had no idea where it was on the map. A brief google search ensued and we found it made sense to stay a 10 minute taxi ride away, through the other side of the mountain and in the UNESCO world heritage region of Kotor Bay. As I wrote in my blog post about Kotor Bay earlier this year, there is a lot to explore in this ancient walled town, but its position on the Adriatic Coast and its access to regular and inexpensive bus routes, means that its easy and cheap to use Kotor as a base to see more of this young Balkan country and that we did. So where can you go for easy day trips from Kotor . .  read on –

PERAST – Only 15-20 minutes along the main road north towards Croatia, every visitor to Kotor should make the short but scenic trip along the bay to this small town. Blue Line buses leave regularly just outside the old city walls of Kotor, its easy to pick up the bus, even though there is no physical bus stop, just look for the white bus sign painted on the road, close to where the market stalls set up. There will more than likely be people waiting around to board and there are benches close by to sit and wait, buses are regular and cost €1.

IMG_5593 Riding the bus to Perast

Perast itself is a small town with only one main road, but there is a whole heap of history here, including gorgeous interesting buildings, stunning views across the bay and 2 unique small islands a short boat ride away. Its colourful historic past vast outways what appears at the surface just a picturesque coastal town, its position along the Adriatic meant that the town was involved in important wars with the Venetians as well as schooling many Russians sailors in the 18th Century at their aclaimed naval academy. This has allowed a lot of wealth to flow into Perast and is responsible for the many elaborate churches and palaces that stand here to this day.

 

 

 

You can easily explore this little town by foot, the Church of St Nicholas is by the main square and the Tower Museum is located inside the Bujovic Palace. These are popular sights, but many arrive here to visit the two islets situation a short boat ride away. Both are incredibly unique with widely varying histories, despite their close proximity to one another. One islet, Sveti Đorđi or the Island of St George is home to a 12th Century Benedictine Monastery and has been owned by the Venetians, the French and Austrians, before eventually returning to Montenegro. The 2nd Island – Gospa od Skrpjela or Our Lady of the Rocks is actually a man-made island, and was formed with rocks that were left there by the sailors for good luck before a voyage, locals starting dumping rocks too and eventually a small island was formed. A small chapel was then built on the island to which captains passing through would offer a silver gift, all of which are now displayed inside the chapel which has expanded to become a small church and museum. Its a fascinating place and well worth a visit, boats leave regularly for the islands for a small fee, and with us visiting just out of season, we had a boat to ourselves.

 

 

 

There are quite a few places to eat and drink here too, with many offering bayside outdoor seating with spectacular views, we started with a coffee mid morning at Cafe Armonia and ended up returning for a delicious lunch and glass of local wine in the afternoon.

BUDVA. This Adriatic coastal town is well worth the 30 minute trip south, not only is it a busy seaside town with beaches, shops and restaurants, there is also a fascinating well preserved medieval old town that is over 2500 years old! You can easily split your day by eating/walking/shopping around the modern ‘Miami of Montenegro’ as well as steeping yourself in the captivating history and buildings of the old town.

Buses leave regularly from the main bus station in Kotor and Tivat, taking about 45 minutes, with tickets costing between €3-4 euros direct.

 

 

 

 

Located along a peninsula, there is a stunning shoreline of around 17 beaches, glistening blue waters, offshore islands and limestone mountains serving as the backdrop. A great selection of cafes, bars and restaurants line up just back from the beach, where you can order a coffee or glass of wine, sample some local cheeses and soak up the views whilst watching the locals walk their dogs and prepare their boats for the next trip out.

The newer area of Budva is developing into a modern bustling town, with plenty of shops, restaurants, nightclubs and markets. In the summer months it becomes known as the Montenegro party capital, so if Turbo Folk is to your liking, you’ll want to at least stay one night to hit the cocktail bars and clubs.

But if that is most definitely not your thing, don’t be put off, there is a lot more to Budva than just its nightlife and shops. It’s just a short walk to the old walled town, with its enthralling citadel, churches, passageways, sunlit squares and breathtaking views of the terracotta rooftops and Adriatic from up high. Take time to just wander and get lost in the paved alleyways with many shops selling local crafts, making sure to explore inside of the Church of St John, the Church of the Holy Trinity and Church of St Mary in Punta. The City Museum is a charming small museum and really gives context to how important and well preserved Budva is and I was glad we made time to visit that too. In the summer months there are often concerts and exhibitions up here inside the walls, so its worth checking online if there is anything worth seeing before planning your visit.

 

 

 

 

There are a few islands just off shore, with water taxis easily available to take you there or you could hire a canoe and make the journey yourself. We didn’t manage to squeeze that into our itinerary, but its something we would have liked to have done, popular and picturesque islands that are highly recommended by locals include Sveti Stefan, and St Nikola Island.

You will be spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink among the many beach front cafes and restaurants all offering prime seating with perfect views across the peninsula. We stopped for a coffee at a lovely place on our way to the Old Town and then had a delicious Serbian meal right by the beach at Jadran on our return, before catching a bus back up to Kotor in the evening, watching the sun set as we travelled up the coastline.

IMG_5868 Serbian food and wine with beautiful Budva backdrop.

CETINJE is the old historic royal capital of the country, and high up in the mountains. Taking just over an hour on the bus from Kotor, its what can only be described as a breathtaking, but heart in mouth mountainside bus ride.

 

 

Once you have recovered from the bus journey, and have landed back on terra ferma, there is a lot to explore here, its all well signposted and the centre is a short walk from the main bus station. Although the capital of the country is Podgorica the president actually lives here in Cetinje and its here where many government and cultural events take place.  The town has a really vibrant, busy feel that although it seems on top of the world, doesn’t feel too far removed from it.

A good place to start is the central square where there are lots of little shops and outdoor cafes, once hydrated, walk a short distance North to the Vlaska (Vlah) Church on Baja Pivljanina. This plain looking church is only small, but take a look inside for the most beautiful interior and we found a very helpful elderly volunteer who also gave us mints as we explored inside, check out the guard rail outside aswell, which is made of ottoman rifle barrels.

 

 

We then headed back towards the main square and explored the only pedestrian street in the town, this is where the main restaurants, cafes and shops are to be found, its worth a wander especially for postcards and souvineers and a chance to try some local food and wine.

Probably one of the main tourist sights here in Certinje is the Cetinje Monastery, it was demolished in the late 1600’s by the Venetians but rebuilt with the original stone. Located a short walk from the main square and easily signposted, you can visit the grounds as well as the inside where several relics are to be found, including what is said to be John the Baptist’s hand, which I admit wasnt completely sure about. Where the original monastery stood is now a lovely little church called Church of the Birth of Our Lady which is worth a visit to see the beautiful golden iconostatis from Russia.

 

The Chipur Church is short walk across from the Monastery, but if its locked, just head back over to the Monastery ask around, and you will be given a key to venture inside.

 

 

The National Museum of Montenegro actually comprises of a few small museums dotted around the town, and you can get single or joint discounted tickets depending on what you fancy seeing. We made time to see the Archaeology Museum, the Historical Museum and Art Museum, which are all located close to one another in the Vladin Dom.

 

Before heading back down to Kotor on the bus, we had a bite to eat, I originally didn’t want to try what I would term ‘Italian’ food which seemed to be on the menu everywhere. Soon though, I rather ignorantly realised that pasta and pizza dishes are pretty standard and local here too, with its close history to Italy. So we went for Pizza and beer at Obelisk on the main street sitting outside outside, a lovely end to our day trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing US immigration in Ireland.

Ive just done my first ever US Pre Clearance and it was a revelation! I have been aware of it for a while but only just got round to trying it out and I’m not sure I can ever go back now. Any none US travellers who have visited the United States must have experienced that fun 30-90 minute wait, filling in the white arrival cards and being sternly instructed to GET IN A LINE. Then undergoing 20 questions about where you’re going, who you’re staying with and for how long, whilst being jet-lagged, confused and forgetting the name of your accommodation, then missing your connection to Nashville? No, maybe it’s just me then.

There are actually 6 none US countries from which you can now go through all the immigration and customs checks, before you board your flight when you are still fresh faced and excited for the journey ahead. The particular airports are located in Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Canada and where I boarded, Ireland. Sweden and the Dominican Republic are next to join the list I believe.img_2388

The main reason I believe these pre-clearance centres have been set up is to reduce the risk of terrorism and identify potential criminals before they even board the plane to the US. The other advantages for everyone else, is these airports potentially gets more traffic, it reduces the numbers and waiting times for everyone else at border controls in the US and makes it easier for travellers to leave their destination airport quickly and easily without delays on arrival. Basically a win win!

I travelled to Newark, New Jersey from Manchester, UK via Dublin this month (Nov 2017) with Aer Lingus and it was smooth sailing or should I saw flying, the whole way. I was then heading onward to Philadelphia, so it was refreshing to get straight off the plane and to the train station, potentially catch an earlier train than I would have if i’d had to queue in customs.

On arrival in Dublin there are loads of staff on hand to direct and advise all passengers who are travelling onward to the US, the Pre-Clearance area is easily signposted with a small US flag, making it hard to get lost. Before going through customs though, you end up in the main departure lounge, so unless you immediately need to head to your next flight, stick around here for a while. There are coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and a currency counter, although there are a few places to eat once you pass the pre-clearance area, they are limited. If you are vegetarian there are quite a few options, but the only place I found accommodating vegans was coffee express which had a falafel wrap, all coffee shops did seem to offer soy milk though.

I chatted to a member of staff who said at times the Pre-Clearance area can get busy, so don’t leave it too long to go through, but there were also announcements advising when passengers should clear the customs area for each US flight. When I heard an announcement for a different American flight, I left it 20 minutes and decided to take my chances and go through.

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First there is small x-ray security area to pass through with your bags, there was no queue! So I quickly moved on to stage 2, which was the customs machine. Here you answer the questions that are on the white arrival form, it is push button answers so it’s much easier, then you scan your own passport and fingers, again no queue. A clearance form was printed off and it was on to final stage 3, speaking to an official. Third time lucky, there was no queue again, and after a friendly chat, my passport was stamped and I was welcomed to ‘America’, the whole process maybe took a little over 5 minutes.

There is a separate departure lounge for all those who have passed clearance and are travelling on to the US, which like I mentioned has some facilities, a small bar, small restaurant, coffee kiosk, charging points, toilets and free but temperamental wifi, but its not as extensive as the main departure lounge, so just be aware. Once I landed in New Jersey, we exited as though we were on a domestic flight, straight out into arrivals, I had carry on luggage only, so headed straight to the Air-train onward to the main railway station.

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I would definitely consider travelling via Ireland (Dublin or Shannon) again, especially if I had a considerable amount of travelling to do once I had landed. It just means you can get a stress free head start on your onward journey and don’t need to factor in for an unknown wait at customs. In fact, I’m already looking at flights to Boston for next Autumn maybe . . . .

Bratislava and beyond 

Back to Europe for this post and my most recent trip, as I just got back a few days ago. I started visiting Europe more extensively a couple of years back, when I didn’t want to travel too far and for too long with dad being so ill, and so I became interested in the central and eastern regions of Europe, with its rich interconnecting histories, fascinating cultures and breathtaking landscapes. Slovakia is known as the country at the heart of Europe due to its geographical position, it is surrounded by Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Ukraine and Poland, and as I have already visited all of Slovakia’s neighbours, it was about time I paid a visit to the country in the middle connecting them all.

History Bit – The capital of the Slovak Republic is Bratislava but due to the history of the country and the fact that Slovakia only amicably split from Czechoslovakia in 1993, makes Bratislava one of the youngest capitals in Europe, but one with a long and interesting history that goes back beyond the 2nd century BC. This is definitely reflected in the sights dotted around the old town area of the city, that has a distinctly different feel than the rest of the capital.

  

Arrivals. We arrived at Bratislava airport late on a midweek evening, so armed with a telephone number from the hosts of our apartment we rang The Green Taxi company, who arrived quickly and dropped us off in the old town for €10. There are public transport options too and from the airport as well and we used them on our return the following week. Bus number 61 is the airport bus and takes around 20 mins to get to its final stop of the main train station, which is about a 20-25 min walk from the old town, if you don’t fancy the walk with your suitcase from the train station, the no1 tram goes from the train station & stops just outside the periphery of the historic centre. Catching the bus or tram is easy, you purchase a ticket prior to boarding (valid on both buses and trams) from a machine by the stop, and you purchase it according to the duration of trip, ie a 15 minute (0.70€) 30 (0.90€) or maybe a 60 minute trip (1.20€) and just validate the ticket using the machine on board.

Bratislava itself is very close to the Austrian, Hungarian & Czechia borders, and so you could easily travel in by using the extensive Train network that is all around this area. From Budapest a direct train takes about 2hr 40 minutes, from Brno in Czechia it takes just over 90 minutes and from Vienna in Austria around an hour. 

There is plenty to do over a long weekend here, with cathedrals, castles, churches, a clock tower, museums, the Danube river, an observation tower, & some really unique friendly coffee shops and restaurants as well as lots of pubs serving local beer and all the dumplings you can eat.

   Views from top & bottom of St Michaels Gate.

Sights. We stayed in an apartment close to St Michaels Gate, the only remaining gate left of this once heavily fortified city and this made a good base in which to visit the old town, but we were a close enough walk to the sites outside the walls.  As soon as you walk outside the mainly pedestrianised old town, there are lots of signposts helpfully directing you to the other sights and conveniences with lots of available tram and bus stops. Staying close to St Michaels Gate meant that it was one of the first sites we visited, you can visit the inside of the tower and climb to the top, to do so, the main entrance is to be found on the right of the gate from inside the old town.  As well as the not too strenuous climb to the top, there is the Museum of Arms spread over each floor on your way up, once at the top, there is a great view of the old town and a chance to get your bearings. Also, dont miss the zero kilometre plaque underneath the gate showing how many KM it is from Bratislava to other places on the globe.

One of the oldest buildings in Bratislava is the The Old Town Hall located on the largest square in the town, Hlavné Námestie. Inside is the large, informative Bratislava History Museum, which has really unusual artefacts including the shooting targets which are basically oil paintings on wood, and the building itself in which the museum is situated is grand and beautiful, be sure to check out the thick vaulted doors and intricate ceilings as well as climbing to the top of the tower, which provides a great vantage point to look over the square and towards the castle. 

   Looking up at the Old Town Hall on our sunny day and looking back down from the top of the tower on our rainy day.

Visable from all over the city is the spire of St Michaels Cathedral located in the south west of the old town, next to some of the original wall and across from the castle up on the hill. Quite a simple and gothic interior, it’s nowhere near as colourful or extravagant as some of the other cathedrals I have visited recently,  but it’s simplicity is part of its charm, as long as you time your visit to avoid the crowds arriving from the Danube cruise boats. As well as some impressive alters, you can also head downstairs to the crypt, and don’t forget the memorial to the now demolished synagogue outside in the square. 

 

Opposite the front door of the cathedral was a little alleyway with a sign advertising tea, if you follow the sign up along the historic wall you will find the most delightful outdoor Tea Bar selling hot and cold drinks, including Slovak Tea made with linden flowers. We ordered hot Slovakian tea and sat and watched the world go by for a good half hour here, a definite recommendation for when you need a little pause in your sightseeing, there was even little blankets ready for if the weather turned cold. 

 Hot Slovakian tea with linden flowers (squint and you can see St Martins spire top right)

Another place we stumbled upon whilst just exploring the streets, squares and small alleyways, was what turned out to be the Oldest Souvenir shop in the town with a small museum in the back. Well worth a look in, located just off Františkanske Namestie on Biela, close to the Old Town Hall, keep an eye out for the small sign out front leading you down a small side alley.

     

About a 10 minutes walk east outside the city walls, is the uniquely decorated, bright blue church of St Elizabeth. The walls, the roof, the shiny mosaics are all blue, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it’s curved lines and colours reminded me of Gaudi. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find it was closed and only open for services, so check online when you are there for the worship times, we returned during the Sunday morning service and was pleased to find the interior is just as beautiful and unique as the exterior. 

    

Another place initially closed to visitors when we got there was The Palffy Palace,  although advertised as open, there seemed to be a private function happening which was a shame. The palace is home to the Bratislava City Gallery, but the real reason we wanted to visit was to see the Matej Kren Passage, an art installation comprising of around 15,000 books and looks surreal, we never got chance to return during our stay, but you always have to leave a reason to return right?

Towering up on a hill, looking down upon the capital over in the west of the city is Bratislava Castle, its impossible to miss and is a short but uphill walk from the old town walls and the Danube. The interior of the castle is currently undergoing a huge renovation project, so its not open to tourists, but the Museum of Slovak History is still available to visit, and the impressive grounds of the exterior are open and free and with its elevated position, there are superb views across the whole of the capital and beyond.

    

There is another castle that should be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting Bratislava and that is Devin Castle, which is a short and easy 20 minute bus ride from the Novy Most bus station, which is located under the Most SNP, this is the huge cable bridge with the observation tower on. The bus you need is the 29 (28 also goes there I believe)which when we caught it, left from the main road under the bridge on the old town side and not inside the actual station. This bus takes you straight into Devin and although there is a bus stop right by the castle, when we visited on a Saturday and in October, the bus only stopped on the main road and its then a short walk to the castle, I am presuming in summer when its busier, the bus has an extra stop right by the castle carpark. 

There are two main things to do when visiting this part of town, the castle and the ruins for sure, but there are some really nice and well signposted walking trails along the junction of the Morova and Danube rivers, this section of river also becomes the countries border, with the opposite shore being Austria. We made time to do both, but started with the castle and the museum that is situated inside the castle grounds, the upper part of the castle is closed for extensive renovations, but there was still a lot available to explore. The castle grounds are pretty big and encompass a field with donkeys, an excavation area with archologists hard at work &  leafy footpaths taking you to various medieval ruins along the way, including an amunitions store, a chapel & a workhouse. The castle itself is built high into the surrounding rock and well worth taking time to explore, the views from the top are magnificent and keep a look out for the many caves dotted into the cliff face. There are a few stalls selling souvenirs outside the main entrance, as well as a hotel and a few restaurants should you fancy a meal before heading back to the centre of Bratislava.

     

Eats and Drinks. Restaurants serving local beers, wine and traditional food are plentiful in the old town. We heard about a traditional place just outside the old town walls with great reviews on TripAdvisor called Bratislava Flagship Restaurant as we fancied at least one night sampling some regional dishes. The restaurant is huge, the largest in the capital, but friendly, casual, and suitable for large groups and solo/small groups, housed in a former cinema the building has a great atmosphere and is connected to a monastic brewery, so be sure to try the beer too. The menu covers all bases when it comes to Slovakian food, I had the garlic soup served in a bread bowl and then shared a dumpling platter for two with mum.  The majority of traditional Slovak dishes feature pork, it is possible to get vegetarian options but they will more than likely feature a lot of sheeps cheese, although there were some none traditional places we ate at that had great vegetarian and vegan options on the menu and the food was outstanding.

Enjoy Coffee was an absolute delight, we visited daily and sampled dishes from their breakfast, lunch and dinner menus as well as having coffee to go. The menu was fresh, healthy, with creative dishes such as buckwheat muesli, homemade bread with avocado spread, celery fries and courgette pasta, they had a great selection of coffees, teas and smoothies and served alcohol too. There was outdoor and indoor seating, with a children’s play area towards the back and friendly multilingual staff who always made us feel welcome. 

We stumbled upon Fach by accident as we were wet and cold once we returned from Devin and fancied some soup. This coffee bar, cafe, bakery and restaurant was a real surprise, their menu was really interesting, unique and simple, focussing on 15 seasonal dishes at a time. I ordered carrot soup, but it was actually carrot velouté, fermented ginger and hazelnuts, it was outstanding, it came with the dried, fermented and cooked ingredients in a bowl and then the waitress poured the warm soup on top, and priced at just over £5 it was probably the best soup I have ever tasted. It was only when we investigated afterwards that we realised the main chef trained and worked in Michelin starred restaurants prior to opening Fach, and it truely shows from the decor, the presentation and of course the food, but most of all it was friendly, inviting and perfect for 2 wet sightseers to warm up.

     

The final eating place I will rave about is Mondieu, there are 4 in Bratislava and we visited the bistro situated on Laurinska for our final brunch before heading to the airport. They specialise in coffees and chocolate but also have an extensive breakfast and lunch menu with lots of crepes, salads and sandwiches, I had the beetroot, hummus and avocado open sandwich and mum had the avocado and poached egg open sandwich both were fresh and delicious. They have a huge selection of speciality coffees, I had an espresso with raw cacao and mum had a beautifully presented coffee with chocolate, but the star of our last meal here was the dairy free lavender and blueberry ice cream from their vegan ice cream bar, it was to die for! Our mains cost around £5 each, the ice cream and coffees around £2 each and the staff were helpful and happy to let us sit with our suitcases and not feel in the way. 

   
Hot Tips –  

  • If you have an hour or so to kill with large bags and suitcases, then visit the Old Town Hall Tower and the Bratislava History Museum as there is a free bag store by the ticket desk.
  • Ice cream lovers head to the Laboratorie branch of Mondieu,  located on Laurinska down the road from the bistro, here they have an ice cream bar where you can design your own flavours and toppings.
  • Keep a look out for the many bronze statues dotted around the old town, including the old man peaking out of the drain, the paparazzi statue has been removed though, so dont spend a good hour wandering aroundlookimg for it like we did.
  • If you are into your “metal” there is a Metal Megastore close to Palffy Palace.

Other sights – UFO Observation Tower – Museum of Pharmacy – Museum of Clocks – Slavin War Memorial, a walk along the Danube or river cruise.

Always be polite 🙂 –  Thank you in Slovak is pronounced something like Dakujem (Da Qui Em) 

A weekend in Ukraine – LVIV

I never intended to visit Ukraine, or at least last summer anyways, although it has always been on my list. I had originally planned to travel to Belarus, via Lithuania, but there was an issue with my visa payment and then my passport got lost in the post. So 4 days before my flight to Lithuania with my passport back but no visa, I quickly planned a trip through Poland and into Ukraine overland and then back to Poland where I already had a flight home booked from Warsaw.

Arrivals. I chose to visit Lviv as it was close to the Polish border and on the train line from both Krakow and Warsaw, so it made sense to do a round trip and visit all three. There seemed like there was enough to do for a weekend with it being a UNESCO City and I could get the overnight sleeper from Krakow (and then on to Warsaw) it meant I had two nights of accommodation which I wouldn’t need to budget for. Although you can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Kiev, currently there are no direct flights to Lviv from the UK, so you could fly via Kiev and get an internal flight to Lviv (takes just over an hour) or you can fly to a different European city first and then get another flight on to Lviv. Popular budget airline Wizzair fly to many European destinations from the UK and also fly into Lviv from Berlin and Wroclaw. 

Of course you can enter the Ukraine overland like I did & again there are a few options if you are coming from the direction of Poland. Bordered by  Belarus from the North, you will have to arrange a visa in order to travel through that country, which is where I failed (although check the embassy website, controls are being slackened for short trips), to the East is Russia, another country with strict visa controls and an unstable border around the South East. The Western border stretches along a few countries, so with a bit of planning I’m sure you could drive, bus or train in from Moldova, Hungary or Slovakia, but the closest country and closest foreign cities from Lviv are Poland and either towns Lublin (132 miles) or Krakow (200 miles).

I travelled in from Krakow, as there was a direct overnight sleeper train and as I had never visited Krakow before, I could do the sights there first. 

 At Krakow train station about to board to Ukraine.

Although no visa is needed for EU nationals to visit Ukraine, it isn’t a Schengen area, and so as you cross the border you are rudely awakened by a serious looking female border guard (or at least I was). Half asleep after having a torch shone in my face and passport taken off me, our train continued off in the same direction, I felt that this was a good sign, and 20 minutes later my passport was returned to me with a shiny new stamp and I settled back to sleep.

Border check at 01.01am
New passport stamp!
 

I booked my train tickets online before I left the UK using Polrail and then picked up the tickets from their office close to the station in Krakow on arrival. The overnight from Krakow to Lviv took just under 8 hours and I booked a bed in a shared sleeping compartment for around £47. Polrail were super helpful and sent simple easy instructions via email, but be aware of local spellings when choosing your intended destinations, Lviv is also spelt Lvov and Warsaw is also spelt Warszawa.

I arrived in Lviv early Sunday morning at around 6am, so the city was still waking up, and so was I to be honest. It was about a 40 minute walk to my accommodation the Old City Hostel which cost me around £14 a night, but first I needed money. It is pretty hard to get your hands on any Ukrainian money in the UK, your local Thomas Cook will definately not have any behind their currency exchange counter, but I told my bank of my plans before I left and the first ATM I popped my card into on the main street (Horeodotska St) worked, SUCCESS!

Early morning view of train station
First views of Ukraine

As my hostel wasn’t technically open until later that morning they still kindly let me dump my bag, charge my phone and freshen up, then I headed back outside to find breakfast. Not too much was open early on the Sunday morning, but I was glad of the walk to get my bearings and I stumbled upon a lovely little friendly cafe selling juice, coffee and crossants, I managed to point and smile and successfully order my breakfast at the aptly named Lviv Croissants.

History Bit. People have inhabited Lviv since the 6th century and this region of Ukraine has been part of many different countries/states over the centuries including Poland and Hungary. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Lviv became the centre of a new Ukrainian national movement and so retained its importance when the country became indepedant during WW1, WW2 and then again after Soviet rule in 1991 and is currently the 7th largest city in this compelling country. 

Sights. The unofficial centre of this city is in and around Rynok Sq. Here is where you can find the tourist information centre, so I stocked up on a tourist map and got the opening times of the local sights. You can spend the best part of a day around this Historic Square, and it is the reason for its UNESCO status, so be sure to visit the town hall, which if you have the stamina, climb to the top of the tower inside to admire the views. Also around the square are many other fascinating buildings, including the Black House, which is one of the oldest houses in Lviv, built in sandstone that has blackened over the years hence the name and now is home to the historical museum. 

  

As well as museums and historical architecture, there are 4 fountains – Diana, Neptune, Adonis and Amphitrite, shops, restaurants, bars, as well as a large LVIV sign that always had a small cluster of people waiting for a photo beside it. It was especially busy and bustling the weekend I was there, due to a Jewish food and drink festival taking part in the square and there was a great mix of stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and even Putin toilet paper.

More than once over the weekend, I sat outside one of the bars dotted around the periphery of the square to soak up the atmosphere, listening to the music and watching the locals engage in traditional Jewish dancing, the stress of my visa and passport woes from the previous week eliminated.

 Putin toilet paper for sale  Beer in the Square

It wasn’t just in the main square where there was dancing, stalls and festivals, a short walk opposite my hostel was the City Garden a long expanse of lawn, benches, fountains, statues and walk ways, which was always full of locals morning, noon and night. For the two days I was there, it played host to a strong man competition, a singing competition, traditional dancing and loads more, it was always full of life and perfect for people watching.

    Lviv was certainly full of life!
One of the standouts of Lviv for me, other than just the wonderment of watching the locals take having fun, very seriously whether it was a weekend or work day, was the cathedrals and churches. There are many to visit and all easily walkable, the most impressive I felt was the Armenian Cathedral, only small, but the interior was outstanding and should be a must on any visit to this city. There is also a Latin Cathedral, the Church of Holy Communion, the Bernadine Church and a Carmelite Church just to name a few, but it is by no means a full list of all the places of worship which are all walking distance from the main square. 

 

If you fancy a good walk and getting out in the fresh air, then head east from Rynok square to the well signposted High Castle Hill, an artificial hill built on the summit of the now ruins of  Lviv Castle. Though you could take a taxi half the way up, its only about a 2km walk from the city centre, with lots of vantage points and walking trails to follow, and I really enjoyed just taking my time along with many other locals and their dogs in what is obviously a popular local afternoon out and you are rewarded with great views once you reach the top.

 Hiking to the top

On my way back down, I didn’t head straight back to the centre, but took a road west, initially back towards the train station and then turned right up Vicheva Street, as there was a stretch of interesting buildings along this route. First up is a Benadictine Monastery and church, there are a number of little cute shops, a small square, a museum and two more churches, which made for a great detor on my way back to the old town. 

I spent another good afternoon just seeing where the wind took me, stumbling upon the national opera house, with a rather refreshing fountain, more gardens, more churches, a market and there were lots of dairy free friendly coffee shops as well as people dressed in traditional costume and traditional dancers, the streets were always alive.

Food and Drink. Speak of coffee, as well as the croissant place I found on the first morning, I had some brilliant other finds for coffee, cake and local dishes, all inexpensive and friendly, not all with English translated menus, but that’s all part of the fun isn’t it! Lviv is known as the coffee capital of Ukraine, and you are never too far from somewhere selling you a hot or cold caffeine drink. Some real jems I visited included The coffee shop company with a great selection of cakes, the adorable Mocco Coffee and cheesecake is a must at Brown Tea and Coffee Shop & they all seemed to offer soy milk. As for dumplings and local beer, even eating & drinking on the Square isn’t expensive, as in other European cities that maybe are further west, so take your pick.  I spent time sipping the beer & sampling dumplings at Atlas opposite the LVIV sign and another one that didn’t seem to have an English translation, which was just off the square to the west, but I do remember the borscht was delicious, I even found a vegan restaurant on Brativ Rohatyntsiv St called Green

 This restaurant just off the square had helpful photos of the food on the menu.

It was an adventure, and has just whetted my appetite to see some more of this captivating country, sample more of the food and learn more of its history, I hope to return!

LVIV tip – if arriving or departing by train at the main station, there is one ‘foreign language’ kiosk who can advise on trains, correct platforms etc in English, a lifesaver if you don’t understand the Cyrillic notice board like me. Also, for a small fee there is a fancy waiting room with comfy seats and wifi, perfect if you have a long wait for your train.

Always be polite 🙂 The translation for thank you is pronounced something like Dyakuyu 🙂 

Kotor Bay – UNESCO town on the Adriatic

Sometimes I like to load up all my budget airline phone app’s, pick a date and see what’s on offer, which is sort of why we ended up (Mum & I) in Montenegro. I mean sort of, the country of the black mountains was on my radar, especially as over the last year I have been to a few countries in the Balkans, but also EasyJet started their first ever flights from Manchester to Tivat on the Montenegro Adriatic coast in March 17, so we booked on the inaugural flight and then started our research to see just exactly where we were off too. 

Bordered by Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia & Kosovo, it was actually joined with Serbia until 2006, when it then  became an independent country on its own, of course prior to 1992, it was part of Yugoslavia.

Arrivals. There are many ways to get into Montenegro, we flew direct from Manchester (just under 3 hrs), you can also fly direct into Tivat from Gatwick, or if you wanted to fly to the capital Podgorica, then at the moment, I think the only direct flights are also from Gatwick. There are no trains along the Adriatic Coastline, but you can travel via train from Belgrade, Serbia as far as Bar on the southern coast of Montenegro, and buses go direct from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Kotor and take between 2-4 hours. 

History Bit. There is a reason why EasyJet have started flights to Tivat and not the capital Podgorica for us intrepid tourists. The capital has undergone many changes over the past few years, it has been bombed to the ground a number of times, most recently during WWII, and some say its still struggling since the destruction of Yugoslavia and the imposed sanctions. It was rebuilt by the communists after WWII and as people have moved to the capital, it has expanded at a such a great rate that unfortunately the infrastructure needed to support the population has yet to catch up. Although there are churches and parks and museums in the capital, there are far more beautiful and historic sites less damaged by past wars elsewhere in the country, and Tivat and its neighbour the UNESCO Kotor are often recommended as a better place to use as a base, in which to explore this recently independent country.

Kotor Bay itself is a short but breathtaking taxi drive (10 mins) from the Tivat airport via a tunnel through Mount Vrmac and out into the bay. Kotor old town is enclosed by a wall and entirely pedestrianised and it’s here where we stayed, so our taxi driver dropped us off just by the town walls and then walked us the last couple of minutes to our hotel.  

Sights.This walled medieval city is steeped in history, with beautiful old terracotta tiled roofs, a fort up in the foothills of the surrounding mountains as well as a cathedral, churches, museums and tiny narrow streets leading into small square after small square, each one bringing a new discovery. Its not hard to see why its been awarded UNESCO status and why Norwegian, Caribbean and other cruise ships have a stop off here as they tour the Adriatic.  

As well as Kotor Bay itself, there are loads of places easily reachable for day trips, so you could easily pack a full itinerary to fill 5-7 days, but I’ll leave the day trips for another blog post, and stick to Kotor for this one. There are 3 main entrances to Kotor old town, so if you’re exploring from outside I’d just pick any and see where the alleys take you, for ourselves, we were staying already inside the walls, but used Sea Gate, the North Gate and South Gate as good landmarks so we always knew roughly where we were and which way our hotel was, the other main landmark we used was the Cathedral of St Tryphon.

Beautiful alleyways & the Cathedral 

The cathedral was built in 1166, damaged and then rebuilt during a massive earthquake, its worth visiting especially for the spectacular interior, with the detailed pieces of frescoes and a gold altarpiece inside. There are several other churches in the old town, St Luke, St Mary, St Clare and St Michael’s, you will more than likely stumble upon them as you navigate round the alley ways and squares and they are all worth a peak inside. 
The many squares dotted around are all connected by the alleyways which all have unusual names, such as, the Square of Milk and Square of Flour each one houses say a church or museum, some restaurants, and some shops, so it’s worth taking your time to wander and explore, its not chaotic as say the passageways of Marrakesh, so you wont get lost, promise!

The main square, Square of Weapons, is located at the entrance of the Sea Gate, not surprisingly there are lots of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating here, as its the entrance that most tourists enter through. This gate is by the main road, a bus stop and it is where the cruise ships are moored, with that in mind, we felt that the restaurants were a bit more expensive here, so ate elsewhere.


We found a lovely group of restaurants around Pjaca Sv, Tripuna Square, they all had comfortable outdoor seating areas, friendly waiters and menus filled with a great selection of local dishes, each one with vegetarian options. We ate at Pescaria Dekaderon and Pizzeria City next door to each other, both places offering local and other Mediterranean dishes with inexpensive beer and wine. 

For coffee and deserts though, we stumbled upon a great little cafe chain called Mamma Mia, there was a small one inside the town walls, and a larger one just outside the North Gate, over two small bridges and turn left towards the shopping mall. Open till late, we came here one night just for the delicious cakes, and returned in the morning for coffee and a selection of the fresh, local, inexpensive burek pastries for breakfast, it was a great find!

sharing cake at Mamma Mia

Probably the highlight of our adventures in Kotor for me, was the hike up to the remains of the medieval St John’s Fort which was built on the side of the mountain to protect the city. There is a path that can be easily walked up, remember to take a hat, good shoes, sun cream and some water though,  but we did see some locals selling a few refreshments along the way if you forget. It takes about 30-40 mins to walk but take your time to enjoy the views and visit the Chapel of Our Lady of Health along the way,  its a church with a dome bell tower which used to house stationed troops. It’s easy to find the start of the walk, its signposted by one of the little alleyways close to the North gate and St Mary’s church. Top Tip – set off early morning before it starts to get hot and before the cruise ship inhabitants get there.  I remember speaking to some tourists from the cruise ship who were just setting off up the path as we were almost back down, they were hot and thirsty and wearing sandals, they didn’t think they had the energy to make it all the way to the fort, which was a shame as the views were stupendous. 

Climbing up to the fort
Looking down

Views from the top.

One feature of Kotor you will not be able to ignore is the amount of cats the old town has. Speaking to the locals, it appears the cats originally arrived here from the many ships all over the world that have moored in the bay. With the old town being free from cars, it has allowed the cats to stay out of harms way, and wandering around you see cats hiding from the sun under the bushes and doorways of the churches, and dotted outside many of the little shops are bowls of cat food, they are most certainly well looked after. They have become a bit of a tourist attraction in themselves, with some shops offering cat themed merchandise and there is even a cat museum, with the entrance fee being used to support the feline community with food and vet bills. We really wanted to visit the museum, but it’s not open all year round and we missed the April opening date by a couple of weeks. 

 Just a few of the cats of Kotor.
It’s also nice to wander outside the old city walls, and for someone who’s never been on a cruise ship, it was a bit of a novelty seeing them up close and watching them manoeuvre themselves in and out of the bay, head just outside the Sea Gate for the best place to see them. Just outside this gate is also a tourist information centre, a cafe/restaurant with lots of perfectly situated seating areas to watch across the bay, as well as a market that stretches along the outside of the walls, with fruit, vegetables, clothes and crafts. It’s also a nice place for a walk in the evening and to watch the sunset across the bay.
 One of many cruise ships in the bay 
       Views across the bay

There is still a lot more to do just in and around Kotor, and it’s only a short walk to the main bus station where you can get buses to neighbouring countries such as Albania, Serbia and Croatia, as well as many other places within Montenegro, including some really interesting places close enough for day trips, which I’ll write up soon.

Other sights. Pima Palace, walk the city walls, and go to the maritime museum, try the Niksicko beer and the local goats cheese and burek pastries for breakfast!

Always be polite. 🙂  Please “Molim”, Thank You “Hvala”, Good Morning “Dobro Jutro”, Hello “Zdravo”

My First Ever Trip Abroad

I believe my first ever trip abroad was to Portugal, in the Algarve region when I was around 5 years old? I have pictures to prove it, honest, but that’s about it. It’s only since I decided that I wanted to write up all my travels as blog, primarily as a nice keepsake for me, but also to keep me focussed on making the switch to travelling more extensively in the future, that I realised, although I have visited Portugal, I don’t really have any memory of it.

I definitely want to reach my goal of visiting 100 countries, but I want memories of each country. I want to stay overnight, to meet the locals, learn at least a couple of polite phrases ‘Ola’, ‘Por Favor’, and ‘Obrigado’ are good places to start and most definitely sample the local food, beer and learn some of the history.  

There are many different guides online as to what counts as visiting a country, the Travellers Century Club has a very extensive list of countries and other territories that they include, and they allow you to tick off a country even if you have just had a plane fuel stop or port of call. They include Turkey twice for example, (the European side and the Asian side), The Isle of Man is down as a separate territory, the Balearic Islands is listed on its own, (although I would just include that under Spain) and Alaska is separate from the US too. So if I went with this list, I would be closer to 50 countries than the 43 that I am currently at.

But its not just about ticking off a list of countries for me, its all about the experiences and the journeys along the way. So with that in mind, although I have definitely ticked off Portugal, starting this blog has made me realise that I could do with visiting it again, and so its just popped back on my hit list, maybe Porto or Lisbon to begin with? . . . . I best get practising my Portuguese.