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.

 

Petra to Wadi Rum Roadtrip

 

 

An absolute must for mum and I’s Jordanian adventure was getting ourselves to see the Unesco sights of both Petra and Wadi Rum. We researched and researched looking at various ways to get there, how much time would it take to travel, how much would it cost and of course how much time did we have to squeeze it all in. After much deliberation and playing about with dates, we decided to hire a car, driving to Petra first as thats the closest of the two destinations from Amman where we were staying, then continuing onward to the Wadi Rum late afternoon, where we would stay overnight, spending most of the 2nd day exploring the desert, before driving back that evening.

Getting there – The cheapest way to get to Petra is by public bus, there is just one bus that leaves Amman daily from the Abdali station to Petra. This bus leaves at 6.30 AM costing 11 Jordanian dollars (£12) and takes 3 hours dropping you off right by the entrance. This is great if you just want to visit Petra as the return bus back to Amman is 16.30PM so perfect for a budget day trip.

The problem we faced is that we also wanted to visit the Wadi Rum afterwards, instead of returning back to Amman, and the bus from Petra to Wadi Rum only leaves once a day at 6AM, taking 2 hours. This meant public transport wasnt really a convenient option for us as we didnt want to spend night in Petra, we wanted our overnight to be in the Wadi Rum.

Taxi’s of course will drive you to Petra from Amman, but the average cost seemed to be over £100 each way! So not an option for us budget travellers.

All the tour companies offer trips to Petra as its the most popular sight in the country. The costs are really expensive though, but there are plenty of options available, from day returns, overnights, add on’s to the Wadi Rum, Aqaba or the Dead Sea, but we struggled to find anything within our budget, that included an overnight to the Wadi Rum as well. If you want to squeeze in both together in one day, you are probably looking at a 4AM start, otherwise tours that include an overnight, start at around £400+ for two people minimum.

So we hired a car, and picked an early 8AM pick up time, returning the following evening, costing us a budget friendly £50 plus petrol. We picked up the car from Amman airport, meaning we didnt need to navigate the chaotic roads inside the capital, and from the airport its pretty much one straight road south for about 3 hours to Petra.

 

We didnt even need Sat Nav, we just used the GPS on our i-phones,  there is free wifi in the airport, so I connected to that, and then downloaded the directions before we set off, so I didnt need to use any data.

There’s lots of parking at Petra and its only a short walk to the front entrance, where there are toilets, stalls, an information centre, lots of places to rest and free wifi. We had our Jordan Pass which includes entry to Petra, otherwise it will cost you £54 for a day pass, £60 for a 2 day pass and £65 for a 3 day stay. If you are travelling over from Egypt or the Israel Palestine border, and arent planning to spend an overnight in Jordan you’re looking at close to £100 pounds for entry.  if you travel over from another country and go straight to Petra before staying elsewhere in the country, you pay the 90JD (£98) and then get £43 back the next day.

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Setting off around 8am meant we got to Petra just before lunch and we had already brought snack bars and water, so we could head straight off down the track to see as much of it as possible, keeping a close eye on the time, as we needed to be at the Wadi Rum for sunset.

 

Staying focused and hydrated, with map in hand, we set off to explore this architectural city, which was home to people as far back at 7000BC, incredible! Also known as the Rose City, its a beautiful walk through the pink rock coloured passages, or Siq, until it all opens out and the world famous Treasury stands before you. It really was a trip to be stood right in front of this unmistakable world wonder that I had seen so many times, over so many years in magazines and on TV. Beyond the Treasury, the city opens up even more, and as you walk along the Colonnaded Street you see a huge theatre built into the rock face,  a pool and garden complex. If you have budgeted to spend the best part of the day there, then continue beyond the ‘city centre’ out towards the Monastery complex. We didnt think we would have time to see The Monsatery if we were to make the drive onward to the Wadi Rum, so we slowly took our time walking back to the entrance, making sure we didnt miss a single thing that we may have missed on our way in, as I was quite overwhelmed on arrival, not quite believeing we were actually there!

Driving onward to the Wadi Rum takes about another 2 hours, and we arrived close to sunset at the main carpark, which is housed just outside the desert valley, timing it perfectly to meet our Bedouin host for the next 24 hours.

Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon, and you really do feel like you have been transported to a far away planet as we were  driven across the lunar like desert in a 4×4. Sandy wind in our hair, and the most incredible pink mountains above, orange sand below and a setting sun, we had truely been transported to a different world.

 

As it was getting dark and cold, our guide with Wadi Rum Nature Tours took us straight to our tent where our evening meal was already being prepared, and we settled in to enjoy an incredible 3 course meal of flat breads, dips, casserole and sugery sweet pastries, and lots of hot Bedouin tea with sage. We had planned to enjoy the dark desert skies to do some star gazing (I had even downloaded a star map app), but the night was lit up with the most magnificent full moon, which although impressive in its own right, it made finding other stars and the milky way pretty impossible to spot. Then it was off for a deep sleep with extra blankets in our tradional tent.

The next morning after a hot shower and more hot tea we were off with our guide for a full days drive across the desert, with a lunch stop and plenty of tea stops of course. So taken with the local Bedouin tea was I, that I ended up buying lots to take home, and it still tasted as good once I got back.

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On the day trip we took there were many highlights, from famous rocks, sand dunes, scenes from famous films and lots of popular selfie spots, but for me, it was the entire experience. You can only travel across the desert with a guide, by foot or camel, so there are no cars, or roads or massive groups of people, which means you really feel like you have left modern civilisation behind, it was like being in some incredible sparcely populated landscape that only you and a few others know about, like some epic secret, that you want to keep for youself.

 

Of course the Wadi Rum is famous in the west for it being the place where the 1962 film Laurence of Arabia was filmed (which I watched on the flight over actually) and the more modern film, Martian from 2015 as well as the recent Star Wars sequels. So tours will inevitably stop at Laurence’s Spring,  the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Laurence’s House. But dont worry if you’re not a fan or have no interest in any of the films made here, there is so much more. There are rock bridges, ancient carvings inscribed into the rock faces, you can hike sand dunes while spotting the camels walking down below, and the incredible endless views of desert from the 4×4, there were many tent stops along the way to buy local produce, and ample opportunities to just to sit and drink tea with your guide.

I was felt truly happy and settled here and was not quite ready to get back into the car to drive the 4 hours up north to the loud, busy capital. But once dusk started to appear it was time to head back to the village just on the inside of the protected area to collect our car. I could quite easily have had a 2nd night here and then carried on south to the Saudi border, which was only a short drive away, so if I ever return thats going to be on my agenda, but for now, I have lots of amazing memories, many many pictures and a few bags of local sage tea.

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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’