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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Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Although I’ve lived in NW England my whole life, and Pendle Hill is famous in this area, and one you can see for miles around, I’ve never actually hiked it until today. Although in this pandemic, the region has the ‘very high’ Tier 3 restrictions, we can still meet in proper outdoor spaces (i.e. not someones back garden) in groups of up to 6. So 5 of us met on a cool but sunny October Sunday morning, for a 2 hour hike with the Bee Sober Manchester hiking group.

Quite a steep ascent, that came as a bit of a shock, and made me wonder if all those squats i’d been doing with my online workouts had actually done any good. But once we approached the summit, it levelled off and the views across Lancashire and over to Yorkshire were stunning. So many more hikes and hills in the distance, gave us all plenty of ideas for future hikes.

Pendle Hill is actually famous in the area for being the place of witch trials in the 1600’s and a couple of months ago, myself and friend booked on a witches walk in the nearby village of Newchurch, which I guess I’ll write up later. But today, our hiking group met up a little further over in Barley, there’s a free carpark (donation box optional), meeting at 10AM we managed to get a parking space, but it must have been 3/4 full at that time already, there are also toilets and a cafe on site, so its a pretty popular meeting spot.

We took the long way round walking towards the Lower Ogden reservoir, before taking a tough ascent across fields, and then joining the path to the summit. We then headed straight down on the paved path, meeting a lot of weary looking hikers making thier way up. Although we complained (or at least I did) how tough our ascent was, it actually looked pretty tame compared to the more direct but steeper ascent that goes up the Pendle Way.

Just over 2 hours later, we were back down, and having lunch and a coffee sat outside at the carpark cafe and I was home mid afternoon, for a rest on the sofa, perfect.

 

New York City, Buffalo and a teeny bit of Canada 🇺🇸

US State No1

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I have been to New York 3 times, once in spring, once in winter and once in summer, I don’t have a trip to the Big Apple in Autumn planned yet, but maybe I should pop it back on my ever growing bucket list.

My last trip to New York was in the summer of 2007, so this blog post will not be an up to date, must do list of New York sites by any means. Ask anyone though and if they haven’t been to New York City themselves, they will probably know someone who has or is going and really, you could just turn up in Times Square and figure it out as you went along. There isn’t anything that hasn’t already been said about this amazing city and it should be on everyone’s travel list.

Although I had been twice before, I used New York as the starting point when I travelled overland solo from NY to LA & onward to Hawaii. As well as being probably the cheapest place to fly from Manchester, UK to the East coast, the flight is relatively short and jet lag isn’t too demanding. As I was familiar with the city, I thought I could use a couple of days in Manhatten to chill, visit a few things I hadn’t seen previously and just get myself mentally in the headspace to take off across the country alone.

Central Park & Times Square

My first time alone in New York, I enjoyed sitting in Central Park with an ice cream and a book, just people watching and soaking up the atmosphere, without needing to race through the city getting all the tourist spots done, especially in the oppressive summer heat. I was staying in a cheap motel with a shared bathroom close to the Natural History Museum and I was able to pencil in an entire morning to roam the corridors and exhibits of the museum and it was wonderful.

A 20 minute walk across Central Park is the Guggenheim,  another space I hadn’t visited on previous trips, I really should have been before. The building is outstanding, an iconic structure with the most amazing spiral ramp inside that you slowly climb up as you view the works of art. The only other thing I really made an effort to do on this trip was to visit an outdoor market, there are loads in and around Manhatten, I was there over a weekend, so on the Sunday, I had a wander around the Green Flea Market and picked up a few items of clothing for the journey ahead and had some delicious inexpensive street food.

But my trip to the state of New York wasn’t over, next stop was to Penn Street Station to board the Amtrak train, and I headed about 8 hours north west to Buffalo, NY. Located on the shore of Lake Erie, this city is actually New York’s second most populous city after NYC and is a great base to use if you want to visit Niagara Falls, the amazing meeting point of 3 waterfalls, that connect the USA & Canada. I stayed at the Hostel Buffalo and as I check back now, it looks like it unfortunately may be closing down *signs petition* It was from here that I got the Greyhound bus to Niagara as it’s another 20 miles to the Falls. It’s a lot cheaper to stay in Buffalo than by the Falls themselves and buses run cheaply and regularly throughout the day Bus Bud.

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Absolutely breathtaking, the sites and sounds of this majestic natural wonder, it can be viewed from both sides of the border. The American side is actually a State Park, so as well as visiting the Falls, there are lots of hiking trails and gardens to explore along with shops, cafes & restaurants too. It was very easy to cross the border into Canada as the two countries are joined by the Rainbow Bridge,  as trivial as it looks, it is an actual bonefide border crossing, so have your documentation ready & be prepared to pay a small fee of $.50 each way if you are walking or biking.

Canadian Passport Stamp!

 

I stayed about an hour or so on the Canadian side, grabbed some lunch and visited the Skylon Tower for amazing views from up high, before paying my $.50 to re-enter the US. (I don’t feel I can cross Canada off my list or count it as a country Ive visited as it’s such a big country and I barely ventured quarter of a mile across the border, so I plan to return!)

To get a real sense of the enormity of the Falls, I wanted to get closer, so despite it being a sunny day, a poncho was still required, as I bought tickets for Cave of the Winds and Maid of the Mist. Cave of the Winds consists of a series of wooden walkways that take you down the rocky waterside and only a few feet away from the gushing torrents, prepare to get wet, windy and metaphorically but not literally blown away. No time to dry off, I then boarded the famous Maid of the Mist for the boat tour, that takes you right up to the white raging water and full of the spray of the overflowing rivers, it was fun, wet and truly memorable. A full day is definitely needed, and I’m so glad I made the effort to get there. After drying off and a good nights sleep, I boarded the train to back to NYC & then onward to Pennsylvania.

Aboard the Maid of the Mist

 

Museum of Natural History – Open daily  (closed just Thanksgiving & Christmas Day)

Guggenheim – closed on Thursdays (pay what you wish on Saturdays 5.45-7.45)

Maid of the Mist– Appears to be closed for tours between Nov & April, and the Cave of the Winds  is closed for restoration every November, so I would always suggest checking the websites before a visit.

Dont Miss –  Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Empire State Building, Times Square, High Line, Ellis Island.