I was back in the Balkans for another birthday trip, this time in 2019. It was a two country trip, flying into the capital of North Macedonia for a few days, before catching the bus up to Kosovo and flying home from there.
To make the trip, I had to first travel down to Luton, where I flew with Wizz Air direct to Skopje, the capital of the newly named country of ‘North’ Macedonia. As opposed to its previous name of plain old Macedonia, which was changed due to an argument with Greece, who wanted to ensure it was seperate from its own Macedonia region in the south.
From the airport, its dead easy to get yourself to the city centre of Skopje, with shuttle buses leaving pretty regularly from outside the terminal. A single ticket costs around £2.60 and drops you off right at the international bus station in the centre. From there, at least for me anyway, it was a short walk to my hotel.
I had an early morning flight, so I still had pretty much the entire day left once I arrived and was lucky enough that I was able to dump my bag in my room, despite being far too early for check-in. So fueled on a 20p pastry from a nearby stall, I headed out and up to the fortress, as I felt it would give me a great view of the city as well as being a great introduction to the history of the place.
The highest point of the city, its a great place to get your bearings, from here you can see the impressive River Vardar below with its many ornate bridges, of which I was to explore later on, as well as the main square, which is the biggest in the country. The fortress dates back as early at the 6th century AD, and then modified and extended in the many years afterwards, until an earthquake partly destroyed it in 1963.
Back down below, I meandered through parts of the old bazaar, which I would window shop and lose myself in again and again during my stay and crossed over the famous Stone Bridge to explore the main square. Stretching across the entire area was a local honey market, where you could buy all manner of honey related products, not just jars of the sweet stuff, but body lotions, creams, teas, jewellery and the popular health supplement bee pollen. Overloaded with ideas for presents to take back, I made a mental note of stalls I wanted to return too and headed further into the centre.
Although, I’m not the least bit religious, I love a good visit to a religious building, regardless of the god it is dedicated too. Here in N Macedonia, the majority of the population are Eastern Orthodox Christian, with Islam second, so there are a great selection of churches and mosques to add to any itinerary. The main one I wanted to visit in the capital was Cathedral Church St Clement of Ohrid an amazingly shaped church full of domes and arches. I got there during a service, so with a little time to kill, before I could go and explore, I grabbed a coffee across the street at the aptley named Coffee Time while keeping a keen eye on the front doors for the service to end.
It was well worth the wait, the sun was pouring in through the windows around the large dome in the centre and lit up the golden frescoes of which I have become such a fan of from my travels around the Balkan region. The smell of the musky incense and candles from the newly finished service really added to the atmosphere. Despite being fueled from coffee, it was nice to just sit, pause and reflect on my busy day so far, oblivious to the busy streets just outside the front door.
Next up, it was time to visit the memorial house of Skoje’s most famous daughter, and roman Catholic nun, Mother Teresa. Originally known as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, this Nobel Peace Prize winning Saint, spent her first 18 years in Skopje, before moving to Ireland and then onward to India, where she took her religious vows. I confess, I didnt know much about this famous little lady, other than remembering iconic photos of her walking the streets in her blue and white robes and meeting influencial figures such as Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, so I was keen to visit the house set up as a reminder of her life and learn a little more. Although unsurprisingly the tourist attraction steers clear away from the more controversial aspects of Teresa’s life, its a lovely little museum, in an unsually shaped house with a small chapel, lots of photos of young and older Teresa as she made her way around the globe spreading her message, as well as one of her unmistakable white and blue sari’s on display.
The rest of the day I just wandered, stopping for more coffee and maybe another pastry, I mean at around 20p each, it would be a shame not to take advantage, and I had easily passed 10,000 steps by lunch time already. There is so much to explore around the bizaare that its best just to put your guidebook in your back pocket and lose yourself in the smells, sights and general balkan bustle that you would associate yourself with any large market place.
One wonderful little place I did come across was the Church of the Ascention of Jesus, this small mid 16th century church is pretty hidden close to the fortress and has some amazing icons and wall paintings inside. If I can remember correctly, there was no photos allowed inside in order to preserve the artwork, and as I had the place to myself, it felt like I had discovered a little local secret.
Other highlights of the city were the Art Bridge, featuring statues of noteworthy and famous Macedonians, I took a serene walk along the river, whilst dodging the impressive number of weekend joggers, and explore the area arund the grand Theatre building.
For dinner, I wanted something hearty, warm and traditional, so I went to the well recommended Old City House Restaurant for a bean casserole, lots of bread and a local beer, before I hit the sheets as the full days events caught up with me. For the next day, I was off on a day trip to the breathtaking Lake Ohrid on the border with Albania.
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.
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.
Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’ ‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’
After successful trips to Montenegro and Greece, I’ve started to develop at taste for the region known as the Balkans. Often when travelling into smaller airports, I like to take note of the onward destinations available, places that I wouldn’t normally think of. Whilst in Tivat (Montenegro) I noticed that other than Moscow, the other place you could fly onward too was Belgrade. Before long I had booked a return flight back to Tivat and then with only a 4 hour wait between flights, I booked a connecting ticket to Serbia for country number 46!
Arrivals I live in the North West of England, and so there are no direct flights to Serbia from here, or anywhere in the UK other than London. The direct flights are offered by Wizz Air and Air Serbia, but if London isn’t convenient, you may need to get inventive if you still fancy a trip. Due to a previous trip to Tivat with Easyjet, I knew that Air Serbia made multiple daily flights to Belgrade from Tivat that only took about an hour, I landed mid morning from Manchester and so booked on the afternoon flight to Belgrade, just enough time for a Montenegro lunch.
Otherwise, its worth checking the Belgrade airport website to see which other cities you could fly to Belgrade from, such as Prague or Sofia, so if you can get a cheap flight there, you could then book an onward flight to the Serbian capital. There is always a way!
Buses are a great option too, I couldn’t get a flight from Belgrade that would get me back to Montenegro in time for my return flight to Manchester, so I booked an overnight bus with Get By Bus which allowed me to arrive back in Tivat in plenty of time for my flight home. Just a quick search shows direct buses from Budapest and Zagreb, but im sure there are more. Trains could be an option too, your best bet is to check the best train website there is Seat 61. One word of warning, it’s not particularly recommended to cross the Kosovo – Serbian border, as its unstable and some reports say a Kosovo passport stamp isnt looked on too favourably, so if you are planning to visit many countries in this region, maybe leave Kosovo till near the end.
You can’t get Serbian Dinar from the UK, but don’t worry, there are lots of cash machines at the airport and there are banks and currency exchanges all over the city, so as soon as I passed through immigration I withdrew money with my UK bank card. Getting to the city centre is easy and you have a few options, there is the A1 bus which leaves from downstairs outside the arrivals area, but I took the 72 bus which leaves from upstairs by departures, purely because its final destination was the closest to my hotel. You can buy a ticket beforehand if you can find the kiosk, but I paid about £1 from the bus driver and the journey took about 40 minutes. The main bus and train stations are pretty close to the city centre and so if you arrive this way, it shouldnt be too far to walk to get to where you are staying.
History Bit The origins of the country are somewhat disjointed and confusing for a novice to the region like myself. Descended from the Slavs tribe, they migrated to the region now known as Serbia from at least the 6th century. The current country and its borders within the Yugoslavia region, have only existed since it separated from its neighbour Montenegro in 2006. The whole area has been ravaged by war and internal conflict for many years, most recently when the Yugoslavia communist leader Tito died in 1980 and regions started to split apart. By the mid 1980’s Slobodan Milošević started to gain influence and by 1989 he was the President of Serbia and in 1997 became President of the Republic of Yugoslavia. By the end of the civil war, the only countries left in ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ were Montenegro and Serbia, until they too went their separate ways.
Translated as the ‘white city’, people have been found to inhabit the area known as Belgrade since 7000 BC. It has been an important area especially due to its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers but this has meant its been involved in 115 wars and been destroyed 44 times. It was the capital of Yugoslavia for the entirety of its existence and then retained its role as the capital of Serbia once it became a solo country.
Sights I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and was to depart late Tuesday evening, upon realising that most of the museums were closed on Mondays, I planned my Monday daytime around all the free and open sights, leaving museums until the Tuesday.
Kalemegdan Park was an absolute delight on a bright Monday morning as it was full of dog walkers, joggers and friendly stall holders lining entrance at the east end. Situated at the top of the old city, right where the rivers Sava and Danube join together, the park affords great views as you climb upwards toward the fortress that has survived many attempts to be destroyed over the years, but still stands proud toady as an important landmark of the city. There is a lot to discover here within the park, there are fountains, a zoo, restaurants, coffee shops, memorials and one of the most popular tourist sites the Belgrade Fortress . Built into what looks like a cliff looking out across the park, I spent a good hour wandering up and down, peering around the walls, crossing interlinking bridges and getting a selfie with a tank outside the military museum. But the real surprise was accidentally finding the most beautiful little chapel built into the fortress walls close to the Charles VI gate, Saint Petka’s chapel a tranquil little orthodox place of worship, full of beautiful mosaics inside, definitely seek this out when you visit.
Next I headed down to the water’s edge where the rivers Danube and Sava meet. There is a nice promenade you can walk along, and although it was quiet and peaceful on the Monday morning, there were signs of life, like some bars and restaurants and I can imagine at weekends and at the height of summer it’s a really cool place to hang out.
After a break for lunch I decided to visit one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, the Church of Saint Sava. Like most orthodox churches both the inside and outside are spectacular and this one is no different, and make a point to look up high at the glistening dome inside. There are at least 2 other churches that should be on your itinerary St Mark’s Church with incredible fresco paintings and Church of Alexander Nevsky which was once was a hospital and built in honour of Russian soldiers, again its interior is breathtaking.
The remainder of the day and the previous evening was spent exploring the pedestrian area around Knez Mihailova Street, around here you can find souvenir shops, cafes, coffee and cake shops, tourist information, bars, restaurants as well as craft and high street stores.
Up early the next morning, I set off for a nice birthday walk and breakfast in the Dorćol region. It’s the oldest part of town, and a really interesting neighbourhood has developed, with a good choice of cafes, shops and cool street art dotted around every corner. Dont miss Salvador Dali corner, recognisable by the curved street sign, it’s a place where an art collective used to meet, in fact there is lots of art to see around this part of town and if I had more time I would have booked onto an art tour, but you always have to have a reason to return to a place right?
Next up I wanted to explore the green market Zeleni Venac, which is where I had gotten off the bus a couple of days before. It has a great atmosphere, a place where you can mix with the locals for a real taste of Serbia whilst shopping for produce such as nuts, baked goods and fresh juices. Close to here are the main bus stations too, so I did some research and located the platform where my bus was to leave later that evening whilst I was still fresh after my breakfast and coffee.
So as it was Tuesday all the museums in the city were open and there were two that I had set my sights on visiting. It’s a bit far over on the South side, but I really wanted to learn more about the history of this region, so I headed over to the Museum of Yugoslav History. It’s about a 45 minute walk or you can catch trolley bus 40 or 41 for about 90p (€0.75). Located around a park full of statues and great views across the city, there are 3 main areas to visit here, the House of Flowers, the ‘May 25th” museum and the Old Museum, all for the entrance fee of just under £1.50 (€1.69). A large area is dedicated to the memory of Josip Broz also known as Tito, the communist Yugoslavian leader who is buried here and where visitors can pay their respects at his mausoleum, as well as a room full of gifts given to him from dignitaries all over the world. There is an exhibit hall full of artifacts collected from all over this historic region that was once consisted of 6 separate socialist states, it’s really fascinating stuff and it was here were I also learned about the Blue Train, which Tito had built to travel all across the region whilst hosting visits from many important politicians and heads of state from all over the world.
After a well-earned break for lunch, I negotiated the ridiculously busy area around Slavija Square, where trolley buses, cars, buses, trams and pedestrians all try to negotiate themselves safely across this huge interesection, centered around a large roundabout and fountain. My afternoon was to be spent learning about Serbia’s favourite son and for whom the city’s airport was named after – Nikola Tesla. The museum opened in his honour is a small but informative place, filled with clothes, letters, drawings and diagrams from the engineer as well as small working models of many of his inventions. Every hour there is a free guided tour in either Serbian or English depending on the visitors, luckily I got an English tour, which includes a short video on the life of Tesla and then live demonstrations of some of his experiments, I was there around 3pm and it was very busy, so get there well before the hour if you want a good view.
I then wandered back slowly towards the centre of town past Manjež Park and the Yugoslav Drama Theatre towards the pretty cool modernist style skyrise known as the Albania Building. This was the first skyscraper to be built in Southeast Europe and it is from this point that all distances are measured within Serbia and interesting fact, a 2 million year old mammoth skeleton was found buried beneath the building, and is now housed in a museum in the city.
I still had time for some birthday cake in one of the many gorgeous cafes back around Knez Mihailova Street and a glass of local wine, before heading to the coach station for my overnight bus across the country and into Montenegro for my flight home. Perfect birthday trip 🙂
** If you are travelling by bus from the main Belgrade bus terminal, you need to get a separate ticket first from the ticket office (as well as your bus ticket) before you are allowed to enter the platform to board your bus.
Coffee and Cake. To start with there is a pretty decent coffee chain called Coffee Dream, they are dotted all over the capital and offer none dairy options as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. Like most places in Serbia you can smoke indoors which felt gross as I sat there with my morning coffee next two a couple puffing away, urgh. It only takes a quick internet search to find many unique independent coffee shops all across this city and for my birthday breakfast in Dorćol I found a cool coffee place called Aviator Coffee. It’s a nice big space, comfy seating, none dairy milk options, and a good selection of teas and pastries, the only downside, smoking indoors again. If you love cake, you’ll love Belgrade, there are some really modern cake shops dotted around the city, on my first evening, I was tempted into the ground floor of the Art Hotel to the Avgustin Waffle and Ice Bar I resisted the hot Belgium waffles though and treated myself to what can only be described as a giant orange pill, which was actually a biscotti mouse cake and was to die for! The other dessert cafe I visited was located not far away from Avgustin and was called Edisan Pastry Shop with its huge windows and tonnes of seating its perfect for people watching across Republik Square, there is free wifi too, which you can cheekily log into even from the outside, which I did on my first afternoon when I needed to use my map to locate my hotel.
Eats There are loads of traditional places to eat in and around the pedestrian area Knez Mihailova Street and Republik Square, but not many options for the vegetarian and vegan travellers. One place I did find one though for lunch and I went to twice in my 3 day visit, was a place called Jazzayoga, an almost vegetarian cafe serving delicious sandwiches, soups, cakes and juices. One visit I had the Tantra sandwich which was pumpkin seed, celery, sunflower seeds, carrots, cabbage, hummus and more, and it was delicious and cost about £1.10. For dinner one night I had a veggie pizza sat out in Republik Square and the 2nd night I made it to the much recommended veggie/vegan place Mayka its got super cosy seating, friendly staff and an inventive menu with many local dishes reinvented meat free. One charm about Belgrade is the many small bakeries dotted around the place selling traditional sweet and savoury fare for as little as 40p, so of course I bought some for snacks on my overnight bus ride and they went down a treat. As it was my birthday I fancied a little treat before I left the city, so spent my final hour in Il Grappolo wine bar, sampling some local Rose wine, I found a window seat with handy USB sockets to charge my devices and savoured my last bit of time in this intriguing, memorable city.
Extras- Serbia’s 2nd city is Novi Sad, it’s about 90-110 minutes on the train from the capital, so totally doable as a day trip. There are lots more museums in Belgrade such as the Ethnographic Museum and the Aviation Museum and if you don’t get seasick head to 22/44 a nightclub situated in the middle of the Sava River.
Always be polite Thank You – Hvala vam Hello – Zdravo Beer – Pivo