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.

CEFA8B09-9797-4F7E-8CBA-8958EF56C41E

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.

525A6A43-69EC-4102-AFB0-F931397CE3FA

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.

4FDC6694-A15B-451F-9D1A-A73B74590CF6

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.

3E2B359C-73AA-40A1-A3CE-9811B354FA16

 

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

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.

016DB0A3-294E-412F-8B4D-07626237816B

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.

IMG_7299
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.

440810AC-C008-4E79-B6D8-3DF0C4C7F73E

Highlights of Herzegovina 🇧🇦

fullsizeoutput_703

I rarely book organised tours for a bunch of reasons, usually I am on a tight budget for one and I like to explore places on my own, occasionally joining a free city walking tour if I want to learn more. If I am somewhere a little more off the beaten track or there is a unique experience that I can budget for though, then sign me up.  In the past I have done an organised hike up a glacier in New Zealand, a bike tour down the outside of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii (pre current eruption of course!) and a trip to see the Pandas in Chengdu in China.

With mum and myself only having 48 hours in Bosnia Herzegovina last month (Sept 2018), sandwiched in between Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia, we wanted to get the most out of our stay and see as much of the country as possible. I researched online and kept seeing the same company pop up with really good reviews, a local company operating out of Mostar called Mostar Travel. They offered a range of tours based around Mostar, as well as day trips across the region, so we booked on the Discover Herzegovina in a Day Tour as it seemed like exactly what were looking to experience, at 8 hours in length and about 7 stops on the itinerary, with a 10am pick up time too, it meant we had time for a nice early morning walk and coffee around Stari Most beforehand.

Our guide Vedad picked us up right on time by our hotel in the old town and that’s when we learned we would be the only people on the tour that day, as the others booked in had decided they wanted only to visit the Kravica waterfalls, so Vedad’s brother who started the company was going to take them there instead.

Once casual introductions were over with, Vedad took us for breakfast on the outskirts of Mostar, to a popular restaurant called Dva Fenjera for a massive breakfast burak and coffee. Once refreshed (stuffed!) we all headed back to the car and our trip began following the Neretva River south.

fullsizeoutput_85b

First up, not the most glamorous of sights to start with, but certainly an interesting stop was the Secret Yugoslavian Military Base. Mum and I found it fascinating, regardless of whether you have a historical interest or not, it’s located close to the small Mostar Airport and completely hidden from the main road.  A short walk off the main track though and you realise that tunnels have been carved into the local countryside to house airplanes, equipment and people, its dark, dank and full of rubbish, but was a compelling place to explore thinking of what activities must have happened here less than 30 years ago.

 

 

Back out in the sunshine and on the road, our next stop was supposed to be the town of Blagaj to see the Dervish house. Unfortunately so did 10,000 other people, as it was the one day of the year that a festival hits town, after trying to negotiate our way in to park, along with hundreds of other cars and large tour buses, we decided that even if we made it into the centre of Blagaj, the likelihood of getting to the Dervish house was slim. Although it was somewhere we really wanted to see, we admitted defeat and Vedad promised to take us somewhere else later in the day to make up for it, happy with the compromise, we did a quick ‘U’ turn and continued heading south into the heart of Herzegovina.

So our next stop was Bunski Kanali, a pretty countryside spot where the River Neretva which is the one that flows through Mostar meets up with the River Buna. It was on our way here that I began to notice the large numbers of vineyards everywhere, and made a mental note to research (or sample) some local wine on our return back to Mostar.

 

Once we had got the layout of the land, we continued to head south following the flow of the Neretva river until we arrived at the medieval town of Pocitelj. This fortified complex of houses, a mosque, a fort and a tower have been here since the 1400’s but was severely damaged in the Bosnian war. Since being placed on the list of one of the most endangered cultural heritage sights in the world though, many buildings have been renovated and it’s on the road to recovery. Vedad took us to the top by the tower and then gave us about an hour to explore on our own, we took our time admiring the views across the valley, peered inside the houses and the mosque, carefully negotiating the stone paths and buying fresh pomegranate juice and a bag of cherries from a lovely local lady.

 

Then we were off, back on the main road south, passing even more vineyards and beautiful scenery until we made it to Kravice Waterfalls a popular waterfall and nature area, with places to swim, eat, drink and sunbathe. Although many visitors were being brave and entering the cool but dazzlingly green waters, we decided to stay on dry land, and once Vedad had taken us down to the water’s edge, mum and I headed off along one of the walking paths for a bit of a nature hike. As it was approaching mid day and the sun getting rather hot, we spend our second hour back by the waterfall under the shade of one of the local restaurants, with a lunch and a local beer.

 

Ahead of the normal schedule because we had to miss out on Blagaj, Vedad decided to take us to the Catholic pilgrimage town of Medjugorje close to the Croatian border. The reason that so many people come here and specificially The Lady of Medjugorje Church, is that in 1981 a group of teenagers reported seeing the Virgin Mary in the town and the church ‘our lady’ refers to Mary herself. Since then, there have been a whole lot of other sightings, although none verified and some reported as hoax’s and the Catholic church itself is still undecided about giving it official pilgrimage status as yet. Although that hasn’t stopped the many bus loads of tourists visiting this small town, there isn’t much to see here other than the church and visiting the many many souvenir shops selling prayer beads, candles, key rings, t-shirts and whatever else you can print a picture of Mary and Jesus on.

IMG_0104

Our final stop was a windy drive up the side of Hill Fortica, where we sat and enjoyed the immense views across Mostar as our guide Vedad told us the story of the war and pieced together the story from his perspective.  He was only very young when the war was in progress but it was an event that effected his whole family and it made for a poignant ending to our wonderful day and has only whetted my appetite to visit more of this fascinating country. I must plan a visit to Sarajevo next!