Day trip to Prizren, Kosovo 🇽🇰

The 2nd largest city in the country is over in the West, close to the Albanian border and is said to be the cultural capital. Although the main language here is Albanian, you will also find Serbian and Turkish dotted around too, making it an ethnically rich and vibrant place to visit. Only a 2 hour bus ride from Pristina for €4, I couldn’t resist a visit.

Buses leave the main station in Pristina starting from 07.20 and there’s a new one every 20 minutes, so even if you miss one, you wont have a long wait before the next. Although the bus service may have changed since Covid and quite possibly has been reduced.  You could travel in from N Macedonia, with buses taking around 2hr 20 from Skopje and around 3hrs from the Albanian capital of Tirana as well.

There is definitely enough to do for a day trip here, there is the gorgeous River Lumbardh which divides the city in two, with cafes and shops lining both sides and stone bridges to cross over and explore.

The main square is called Shadervan a stone piazza surrounded by cafes, restaurants and bars, it was here I got my bearings and mentally ticked off a place to return to later for some lunch, as well as picking up a couple of souvenirs and postcards to send back home.

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There is a UNESCO protected monastery here too, the Our Lady of Ljevis. Unfortunately you could only see the outside, as the building was locked and I believe you can only enter as part of a group with advanced bookings needed (because it has been broken into a number of times and many of the ancient artefacts have been stolen). So if you turn up unannounced like I did, this will be the closest you will get to it. Still . . . it’s an attractive, impressive building.

Overlooking the main part of the city, you cannot fail to miss the Mosque of Sinan Pasha which has been designated a monument of cultural importance. Built in 1615, its large dome and minaret are an integral part of the cities skyline, and although weather and time have damaged the building, and there was a call to turn it into a museum, UNESCO donated some money for renovations and to preserve its religious heritage, and so 400+ years later, its still standing proud.

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Another interesting religious building in the area is the Roman Catholic Cathedral known as Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Succourwith an impressive clocktower built by a Croatian monk in the 1870’s. It was open too, and has some cool frescos to explore.

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The highlight for me was the walk up to Prizen Castle and Fortress. You may want to grab lunch first, as its a bit of a steep walk, taking about 15 minutes to get up to the site, but the views are absolutely worth it. It’s really easy to find the path as its well signposted around the city centre, look out for the orthodox church and there will be a road and signpost upwards.

History goes back as far as the 1100 BC up here on the hillside, with records of a fortress being build a little later in the 6th Century. There’s lots to explore with information boards to give you an idea of what it would have been like when it was a thriving fortification. But best of all, the view is spectacular (and a bit windy up top too) you can see across to the Albanian border and the Šar mountains with the city of Prizren and River Lumbardh below.

And that was pretty much my day trip to Prizren, being plant based it was as struggle to find a lunch that suited, so I ordered vegetarian & made a few switches, added a diet coke and I was fully replenished before the bus ride back to the capital.

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EATS – I had a nice meal at Fella’s Coffe and Kitchen and was able to alter one of the vegetarian meals to make it vegan, it had a great menu that should meet anyone’s dietary needs and there is free wife there too.

COFFEE AND CAKE – I can’t actually remember where I got coffee from when I was there as I was only there for the day, but Trip Advisor has some good recommendations. Prince Coffee seems very popular too.

TOP TIP – Just head to the Shadervan area for lots of restaurants and cafes, it’s the main tourist area too, so menus and street signs will more than likely have English translations.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – ‘Përshëndetje‘ – Hello, ‘Faleminderit‘ – Thank You, ‘Ju Lutem‘, Please

On the bus to Pristina, Kosovo 🇽🇰

With regular flights from London to both neighbouring capital cities of Skopje and Pristina, it made total sense to tie them both together in one trip and explore more of the Balkans for my birthday treat. Buses leave the main international bus station of the N Macedonian capital every hour or so and takes around 2 hours. Head to counter 6 to buy your ticket and it costs around £5 for a single journey. I say bus, it was more like a large mini van, but it was clean, left on time and got us there safely, so I’m definitely not complaining. Make sure you have your passport handy too, as you’re likely to need it at the border crossing. Arriving at the bus station, it’s a little bit on the outskirts of this Kosovan capital city, so if you’re walking to your accommodation, head north east, along Bill Clinton Avenue. It takes about 35 minutes to walk to the city centre, if you pass the statue of Bill, you know you’re heading in the right direction, and I think its only tradition to reward yourself with a 30p pastry and coffee or beer on arrival!
I was staying in a little hotel, just north of the main city square, so once unpacked, I headed out for a wander. The city felt quite grey and serious, and of course it’s not famous for being a popular tourist holiday spot, so you have to work a little bit to feel orientated in a city that is busy going about its every day business. It definitely felt like a city in the middle of its transition from a country recovering from a war and developing its own new identity, as well as still experiencing difficulties with its neighbours, most especially Serbia, who still consider Kosovo to be part of their country, whilst Kosovo declared independence back in 2008. There is absolutely enough to do in Prishtina for a couple of days if you just take your time, get creative and if you incorporate some rest time in the many little coffee shops along the way. A great place to start and the perfect photo opportunity is the NEWBORN monument, erected the day the country declared independence and each year it is repainted in a different style to represent another years anniversary. About a 10 minute walk South, takes you to the tall and impressive Mother Teresa Cathedral, still being built and one of the tallest buildings in the capital, it’s easy to spot, just look for the bell tower. There is a lift to the top which costs about €1 and well worth the trip upwards for the great views across the city. Once atop the bell tower, you will easily spot what is said to be one of the ugliest buildings in the world, a place I have wanted to visit out of curiosity for some time. The National Library of Kosovo, from afar and in the photos I had seen, to me looked strange but beautiful in a way that far away unfamiliar places sometimes do, like a collection of boxes filled full of chocolates with bows on top. But up close and personal, I got to say, I did find it rather ugly it turns out, more like concrete squares with chain mail draped over them. That said, I loved the interior!
When its time to refresh, get a coffee fix or hot meal, head back towards Mother Teresa BVLD. All around here are great coffee shops, bars, cafes and restaurants as well as the odd tourist shop if you fancy some postcards or gifts. You know you are back in the heart of the city centre when you see the statue of Zahir Pajaziti, the first commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
A few places I really liked for coffee and snacks whilst I was in Kosovo, all based just off the main boulevard were Green Protein for tasty vegan breakfasts, smoothies and delicious coffee. Cup O’ Tea was a delightful little place, serving all kinds of tea as well as snacks, I rested my feet, read a book and sampled quite a few brews whilst there. You cannot miss Soma Book Station though, a really creative space, serving coffee, food, hosting events, selling records and crafts as well as books, I loved the vibe in there. And of course, if you just want a snack to go, grab pastry for a few pence at the many bakeries found on most street corners! Often when I arrive in a country or city that I am not too familiar with, I like to take a deep dive into the local history museum. With the history of the new country and its recent struggles with war and occupation, coupled with the history of former Yugaslavian region as a whole, this museum does well to try and explain it from its point a view. A short walk from the boulevard, as most things are, its close to the Jashar Pasha Mosque, so head North East towards the minaret. The museum is free and open 7 days a week, divided into 3 parts, the main museum, the Ethnographic museum as well as the Museum of Independence, so I spread my visits over the 2 days. I was the only tourist when I arrived at the Ethnographic museum and was given a lovely solo tour by one of the guides around the fascinating 18th century housing complex.

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 separate from its own Macedonia region in the south.

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From the airport, it’s 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 fuelled 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 aptly 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 fuelled 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 didn’t 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 influential 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 unusually 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 bazaar 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 around 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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Weekend in Mostar 🇧🇦

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Bosnia and Herzegovina or BIH to those in the know,  was a place that I had been curious about ever since I developed an interest in the Balkans. It’s also a place that I associated with terrible news stories of the Bosnian war which appeared on the TV news in my late teens. On my return from Montenegro last year, myself and mum started looking at other countries in the region, and before we knew it, we had booked flights into Croatia and buses onward to this beautiful, mountainous war warn country.
ARRIVALS If you are planning to travel from the UK then you will have to get creative, as there are currently no direct flights into BIH from any airport in the UK. Sarajevo Airport has a number of daily flights from Istanbul, Munich and Vienna among other places, so you could go via there, the smaller but developing Mostar Airport has flights coming in from Dusseldorf and Stuttgart with more destinations being added soon I believe. Most people will travel overland like we did, coming in from the neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The country is set up well for bus travel, with many daily options available from popular places such as Dubrovnik, Kotor and Llubjiana. You will be crossing land borders, so make sure you have some spare change if you want to put your bag in the hold and have your passport ready for the border crossing. I have used Get By Bus a number of times now without any problems and this was no exception. On this trip we based ourselves in Mostar, which is not too far from the Croatian and Montenegro borders, we took the bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar for €16 taking 3 1/2 hours (not including the 2 hour delay on departure) and then went home via Split in Croatia (it left on time!) which took just over 4 hours. Trains are limited in BIH, but it is possible to travel between the capital Sarajevo and Mostar, rail cc website is probably your best bet for further research. Both the train and bus stations are a short 10 minute walk from the old town.

 

HISTORY BIT Phew, well, its complicated that’s for sure, and I am definitely no expert on the region. Visiting Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia prior to this trip I have learnt many different perspectives on who did what and why regarding the recent wars and I’m still pretty confused even now.  Located along the Balkan peninsula, the Bosnia Herzegovina area has had settlements here since 10,000 BC, its been part of the Roman and then Ottoman Empires with Germanic and Slavic tribes all laying claim at some point. It was in 1929 that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed of which Bosnia and Herzegovina were a part of, and remained until 1991 when the country started to fall apart and the many resulting conflicts started. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992-1995 and from what I can tell speaking to locals and visiting a few museums in the area, the Serbians and Croats both tried to lay claim to the region with the Bosniaks stuck in the middle, a peace agreement was finally agreed and signed in Paris at the end of 1995.

There is still a complicated political structure set up today, and while BIH functions as one country, its kind of divided up into 3 provinces with the 3 presidents rotating duties every 8 months, or at least that is the current situation but elections are due later in 2018, so it could all change again.
SIGHTS The star of the show has to be without question the Stari Most or the Old Bridge, rightfully it has been given UNESCO world heritage status and is the reason for the name of the city as ‘most’ means bridge. Originally built in 1557 this stone bridge took 9 years to build, connecting the two sides of the Neretva river with massive towers or ‘bridge keepers’ flagging either side. An iconic image of the country, in 1993 the Croatians blew up the bridge and it became an even more important landmark once it was rebuilt in 2004, using the traditional Ottoman techniques with local stone. We walked over the bridge many times on our explorations of the town, taking care not to trip over the staircase like steps that are built into the walk way and the views of the valley and surrounding hills are stunning. There are many restaurants and bars that line the side of the river, affording great views of the bridge day and night as well as a great picture and vantage point a short walk south on the west side of the river. We got stopped by an ‘official guide’ on our first morning, who showed us his tour guide laminate, so he must have been official right? He took us to a scenic photo spot, gave us some ‘facts’ about the bridge, took our picture and then promptly wanted about £20 from us, luckily my mum firmly told him no, gave him some change and he reluctantly walked away, next time we should just bring our selfie stick! That was the only time on our trip to BIH that we ever had any issues, everybody else was friendly, welcoming and not trying to make a fast buck. There is also a Museum of the Old Bridge which is spread over 5 floors inside the Tara Tower on the east side of the river, covering the stories of both the original and restored bridges.
The Old Town of Mostar is just a joy to walk around, full of history, beautiful repaired buildings, lots of cafes, restaurants and shops selling lavender, clothes, pottery and gorgeous copper tea sets. I really had to resist my usual restraint of not buying souvenirs, but did weaken to buy a BIH Football shirt, which I am wearing proudly as I write this. There are lots of restaurants and cafes serving inexpensive local dishes and the most amazing thick Bosnian coffee which you can drink right by the river as you take in the breathtaking views and soak up the atmosphere.  Whereas some popular tourist spots rip you off for having the experience of a glass of wine or coffee right in the heart of the action, the cafes and bars along the River Neretva especially those with great views of the bridge were all decently priced and we never felt rushed to finish up and move along. Just wandering along the cobbled streets, drinking coffee and chatting to the local shop keepers was a real highlight of our trip.
You cannot fail to hear the many calls to prayer that calmly ring out across the city 5 times a day from the 30+ mosques in the city.  The most prominent and largest being the Karogoz Bey Mosque which is open to the public, as is the 2nd largest Koskin-Mehmed Pasha with a tower you can climb up for epic views across the city. Although we managed a good look around the grounds, the mosque was closed for prayer when we arrived to climb the tower and we didn’t get time to return, at least on this visit . Both mosques are situated in the old town and easy to get too by foot, just a short walk from the bridge.
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However you enter Mostar, via train, car or bus, one thing that is bound to catch your attention, are the war torn ruins of the many buildings that have either so far failed to be rebuilt or are purposely left as a stark reminder of the war that only finished less than 30 years ago. It makes for a thought provoking walk that’s for sure, there are free walking tours that can take you to many of the important sights, but you only need to walk a few streets away from either side of the river to get a good idea of just how ravaged this beautiful town was not that long ago.
Sniper tower is hard to miss, a former 8 storey bank, this pointed granite building looks out across the city, look for the hole blasted into the wall right at the top, this was the snipers look out point. Across the road from the tower is Spanish Square, now a popular meeting place, it was built in remembrance of the Spanish troops who died in the war, the impressive Moorish gymnasium on the corner of this main street provides some colourful relief from the other burnt out buildings nearby. A few streets back from this busy intersection is Santica Street which was the front line of the Bosnian war, Croatians on one side of the street and the Serbians were on the other, there is evidence everywhere of the full destruction of the past, but it also shows just how far this country and its people have pulled together to rebuild.

Biscevic House is one of many traditional Turkish Ottoman houses of which there are many throughout the region. This particular house is held in high regard in the country and even mentioned in poems and songs.  Dating from the 1600’s this house is now a museum and national monument and open to the public daily, we missed the opening times due to a packed Bosnian schedule, but its on my list if I am lucky enough to return some day.

Crooked Bridge As you wander through the town, look out for the mini Stari Most, which was built as a prototype about 8 years before the main bridge.  Overlooking the Radobolja River, locals set up stalls nearby and there are some nice little bars and cafes alongside it, it’s the perfect place to stop and chill.

If you fancy some more history about this wonderful country, its archeology, costumes and customs, then head to the Museum of Herzegovina open daily until 2pm. I have yet to visit a traditional Hamam (maybe when I finally make it to Turkey?) but if you want to learn more about this Turkish tradition of bathing, then the Hamam Museum is the place to do your research (closed on Mondays).

Coffee and Cake. Our first morning we sat outdoors at the Koski Basta Caffe in the fresh morning light right by the entrance to the Old Bridge as a sign advertising ‘Bosnian Coffee’ caught our eye. Located on the west side of the bridge, we were served the most delicious thick coffee with a small pastry, on a traditional copper serving dish all for about €3. Our second morning in the town we were tempted by the ‘sweet bosnian breakfast’ on the menu of Moon Star Cafe and Pizzeria right by the Hamam Museum. It was delicious, and a little cat came to join us for some of the bread we were eating. It had comfy outdoor seating with great views of the hills in the distance. For cake, on our first night we visited Caffe Amir as it was close to our hotel on the south end of Adema Buca Street. A lovely family run cafe that has been there since 1978, they do a great selection of coffee and teas and an amazing array of cakes with lots of outdoor seating, it was a great introduction to Mostar life.

 

Eats Our first nights choice was given a glowing report by our Herzegovina tour guide who used to work there, so we headed over to Hindin Han. This restaurant is based inside a restored mill, with an outdoor terrace overlooking a little stream. They offer local Mostar beers and wines and a great selection of cheeses served with delicious bread, there is a good selection of traditional dishes and its inexpensive and friendly, it was a good decision. We also visited Restoran Lagero this place has an outdoor terrace looking over the River Neretva with a great view of the Stari Most, we ordered a bottle of Bosnian wine and had home made date cake, although rather rich, it didn’t stop either of us from eating the lot.

Extras If you like an adrenalin rush (so not me then!) you can pay €25 euros to dive off the Stari Most, or if you just prefer watching other people doing daft stuff, then Red Bull hold a bridge diving competition in Mostar every year. Mostar is surrounded by hills, many accessible by road, Hum Hill is easily spotted from all across the town as it’s the one with the large cross on the top and can be hiked if you have the stamina. We were lucky to be driven to the top of Hill Fortica by our Herzegovina tour guide, which I will write more about in my next post, but the views back down to Mostar, the historical significance of the hill top and hair pin bends up the side of the mountainous road where rather unforgettable as was the whole Mostar experience and I can’t wait to return.

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Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’  ‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’