Too soon, we’ve reached the end of our Balkans trip, which has been full of new things to see, do, and (perhaps most importantly) eat. At least this week we slowed down a little, and spent time in just three places: Berat, Albania; Pristina, Kosovo; and Skopje, Macedonia.
Monday 21/10: The start of the week found us in the Albanian city of Berat. This hadn’t originally been part of our itinerary; we’d planned to go to Ohrid in Macedonia, but we changed our route after learning that transport connections between our last stop (Tirana) and Ohrid weren’t ideal. We certainly didn’t regret our decision to visit Ohrid: it’s beautiful, with a citadel perched on the hill above the city proper and mountains circling in the distance.
Monday’s always a work day for us, but we found time to climb up to the fortress and enjoy the views out over the town, and of course there’s always time for dinner!
Tuesday 22/10: Our timetable informed us that a bus left Berat for Tirana at 11:30; accordingly, we arrived at the parking lot that doubles as a bus station at 11:20. A young man advertising his bus’s destination as if he were selling fruit told us that he’d be leaving in 15 minutes, so we got on and waited. And waited. Perhaps he actually said 50 minutes, because that’s how long we sat for before the bus launched on its bumpy way. The windows were smeared with whitewash or something, so the views were blurry, but luckily there was drama enough in the bus itself.
An old man boarded and saw a friend in the seat in front of us; his face lit up with joy as he almost bounded down the aisle to greet the other man warmly. The chatted animatedly for an hour or so before the first man had to leave, with many a kiss on the cheek, hand clasp and backward glance as he stepped off the bus.
The trip took so much longer than we expected that we had to rush to buy our tickets for the next leg of the journey, and I was still chewing my lunchtime souvlaki when the bus pulled up. This vehicle was by far the best we’d travelled on so far, and almost empty. Through the (clean) windows I got a great view of the motorway ahead of us, winding through a pass between steep mountains with a steel-grey river alongside. Unfortunately it was dark by the time we left the border controls, and a pause at a truck stop for a kebab and a pee in the squatty toilet made us even later. Eventually, we arrived at the Skopje bus station, where an attendant kindly called a radio taxi for us (we’d been warned not to use the unmarked ones). This taxi driver didn’t know the street our guesthouse was on, and drove in circles while peering at the inadequate Google Maps route that I’d saved on my phone. Eventually we got out and walked along the street we needed, and found the guesthouse Arvisa without a problem.
Wednesday 23/10: Craig had several deadlines to meet, so he holed up in one of our favourite cafés and got a couple of hours’ work done while I explored a little. While admiring the clock tower, the market, and the many mosques, I noticed that while all of the teenage girls I saw were wearing a school-uniform skirt, each had paired it with whatever other items of clothing they fancied. Very few wore socks or stockings; most had jeans or other tight trousers underneath. Their shoes were infinite in their variety, as were their tops. Later, I noticed boys in grey trousers putting on blue shirts as they re-entered school grounds; perhaps their uniform was a little stricter?
Thursday 24/10: Pristina is a small city; after an hour or so of wandering we’d seen most of the notable sights. So we stopped into the Kosovo museum, hoping to learn a little about the history of the country. The downstairs poster gallery was interesting, but the display upstairs, devoted to the 1999 war, was not much help. It was a beautifully laid out, but completely incomprehensible memorial to the emersion of Kosovo as a nation. The only information in English was an entire wall of New York Times cover pages, which at least put the events in a historical context (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar, the Columbine school shootings), but none of the graphic pictures or NATO-adulating displays were captioned. It at least made me curious to look up the history online when we got home.
Friday 25/10: A late start meant that we were among the last to board our bus to Skopje, and the only pair of seats left had a painted-in window. The border crossing was smooth, as was our taxi ride to our hostel (Urban Hostel), where we checked in, looked around, and then promptly went out for a late lunch. Both this and dinner later were spectacular feasts: delicious salads, grilled meats, refreshing beer or interesting wine.
Saturday 26/10: Skopje is currently being redeveloped as part of a project called Skopje 2014 (presumably because they want to finish by then), so there are quite a few half-built buildings around. However, a remarkable amount of work has already been done and the central city is packed full of brand-new statues and architecture. We were particularly impressed with the main square, a large, clean, white space with a large fountain topped by an enormous statue of Alexander the Great, the city’s most-famous son. Memorials to its most-famous daughter, Mother Teresa, are about 500m away, down one of the roads leading off the central square.
As well as admiring a hundred or so statues, we also visited the old bazaar and checked out the goods on offer at the main market before climbing up to one of the few genuinely old buildings in the city, the fortress. Unfortunately Craig was feeling a little unwell, so he headed home while I continued exploring.
Sunday 27/10: An extra hour’s sleep is always welcome, but while we enjoyed that aspect of the daylight savings time change, we weren’t so happy when the sun set at 4.30pm! Before being so rudely surprised by darkness, we caught a bus partway up the hill topped by Skopje’s iconic Millenium Cross, planning to hike the rest of the way. Our usual trick of following the locals didn’t pan out exactly as we’d hoped, as the path we took ended at a completely different summit. A quick back-track took us to another likely trail, which (after a lot of uphill trekking) emerged by the cross itself. Victory! The walk back down was a little less successful, as we took the steepest of the three options available, and slid a fair portion of the way.
We had time for another wander through the ranks of statues before making our way back to the hostel for a quick rest before a delicious meal at our local grill restaurant.