On the bus to Prishtina, Kosovo

With regular flights from London to both neighbouring capital cities of Skopje and Prishtina, 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 definately 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, its a little bit on the outskirts of this Kosovan capital city, so if you’re walking to your accomodation, 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 youself 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 definately 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 thier country, whilst Kosovo declared independance 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 encorporate 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 independance 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, its 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 Independance, 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.

Ohrid daytrip

You know me, I love a UNESCO world heritage site and I often research which of the protected sites I fancy seeing when I’m planning a trip abroad, and build my trip around those. There is only one UNESCO in North Macedonia and it was over on the west side of the country on the border with Albania and as I’d seen buses and guides in Albania offer trips to this lake and town of Ohrid when I was there, I knew it must be worth a visit.

Buses leave Skopje main station every hour, starting at 7.30AM with a company called Galeb. and costs just over £10 return. With the journey taking close to 3 1/2hours, it may seem a lot for a day trip, but I knew the likelyhood of me returning to either N Macedonia or Albania any time soon was unlikely, so I knew this could be my only chance to visit, so with music and podcasts loaded on my phone and semi working headphones, I got on board the bus.

It was a pretty uneventful trip across the country with beautiful landscapes and snowcapped mountains in the distance and just as my limbs were starting to seize up, we pulled into the bus station at the town of Ohrid.

It was a short walk straight down to the lakeside, which also forms the border between N Macedonia and Albania, a fact that becomes all the more apparent when my phone suddenly sent me a text message welcoming me to Albania.

The lake itself is glorious, sparkling, clean and vast and has been a thriving lake and ecosystem for 2 – 3 millions years, with over 200 species of plants and animals unique to the lake. Many locals come here just to experience the beauty of the lake itself, and you would think that would be enough, but there is so much more here to discover among the tiny streets of the old town and on the walk up the side of the cliff along the coast, all of which comes under the protective banner of the world heritage site.

After taking in the views from the lake and enjoying the welcome relief of cool, fresh air, as opposed to the stale air con of the bus, I bypassed the lakeside cafes and restaurants and followed the signs towards the old town.

It turns out this ‘old town’ of Ohrid, is actually the site of one of the oldest settlements in Europe, with a number of archeological sites dotted around, and evidence spreading back as far as the Bronze Age.  The majority of buildings and relics of interest are mainly from around the 7th – 19th centuries, and it was from here that Slavic culture first spread across Europe, but with this being one of the last of the Slavic countries in the region I had left to visit, it was pretty cool to see all the heritage, history and culture at its starting point.

My plan was to expore the old town, then along the lakeside boardwalk, up the side of the cliff to visit the church and then continue onward and upward to the Church, Monastery and settlement. Luckily it wasn’t busy, the sun was out and the views were stunning.

The old town has lots of little streets with quaint small houses, shops and cobblestone streets, a really fascinating place, and you can really imagine what it must have been like all those centuries ago. One of the most interesting places I came across here was the Sveta Sofija Cathedral an 11th century church with incredible fresco’s and stone columns, making it a great place to get some shade.

I then turned left and headed back towards the lake. Once I had located the boardwalk, I started gingerly at first, heading along the lake edge, and then upwards along the side of the cliff, ignoring the long drop to one side, and focused on the shimmering blue lake in the distance instead.

It’s absolutely worth it too, the stunning Saint John at Kaneo church awaits you, a church built possibly as early as the 13th century. Overlooking the lake, with its Armenian inspired roof, colourful fresco’s and incredible views, make sure you stop and rest a while here, conserving energy before heading higher up.

It was getting rather warm as I headed up through a woodland path that lead higher up the cliffside and was glad I had packed water and snacks. At the top I was greated by the most magnificant stone church and archeological site, known as the Plaosnik settlement and Saint Clement Church.

Originally the stone building started life as a Byzantine church, dedicated to St Clement of Ohrid, but when he arrived he thought it was too small, so he had another one built in its place and assigned it to Saint Panteleimon instead, charming! Once the Ottoman Turks arrived, they converted it into a Mosque, but later on allowed all old monasteries and churches to be restored, and so once again, it returned to being a church. By the end of the 16th century it was once again converted into a mosque, until the year 2000, when the whole area started to undergo massive excavations and it returned once again to being a church . .  for now.

As well as the church itself, there is a large excavation area to explore, tombs, mosaic floors, and over 2000 Venetian coins have been found, showing evidence of a relationship between this lakeside town and the famous Italian city.

As I headed back down towards the old town, to my surprise, I came across an ancient theatre. A quick check in my guidebook put it at being built in 200BC and from the Hellenistic period, meaning between the time of the death of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Roman Empire and I’m pleased to report its still in use today, hosting concerts, plays and dance performances.

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I also came across a sweet little church, which google later informed me was the Esglesia de Pando, its close by to the ancient theatre and well worth a visit.

I finished my day in Ohrid with an early dinner back by the lakeside, sat out in the sun, tired from all the walking and the fresh air. As I walked back to the bus station, I made plans to take a nap on the long bus back to Skopje, feeling contented that I had made the trek across the country to visit this charming place.

 

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 seperate from its own Macedonia region in the south.

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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.

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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 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.

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