More than a war: Europe’s newest country, Kosovo

A cheap flight from London’s Luton Airport can get you a long way with Wizz Air, and this autumn we chose to take the three hour flight east to keep with our theme of countries in the Former Yugoslavia, and visit Europe’s newest country, Kosovo.

Kosovo has a chequered history, mostly involving conflict. From the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, to Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 20th century, the predominantly Albanian-Muslim country seems to have had back luck with its international relations over the centuries.

We began our adventure landing in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina (or Pristina), before immediately heading westwards in our rental car towards the Albanian border. Our first stop, a city called Prizren, was once home to Albanian resistance and retains an old-worldly theme in its cobbled streets and mismatched Ottoman-style buildings.

The drive was everything we had been warned about. A lot is made of Albanian drivers and the aggression and chaos that comes with tackling the country’s roads.Whilst we were told Kosovo doesn’t come close to the likes of Tirana, it took an elbows-out approach to get anywhere on the surprisingly smooth, wide and inconsistently empty, then busy, carriageways.

Don’t forget… A map of the region and the Brandt Travel Guide to Kosovo.

Prizren…

By the time we arrived at our apartment in Prizren, situated on a steep, cobbled road that led to the fortress that overlooked the city, the sun had already begun to set. We took a break before heading down in the evening to see the marketplace and its variety of local restaurants and, to our surprise, a KFC! We chose the classy Restaurant Marashi along the river that served local delicacies and beers, and offered an outstanding service and atmosphere.

An early start the following day saw us walk up to the 11th century medieval fortress, called the Kaljaja or Dusans Fortress that looks down on the city. The path was extremely dusty, steep and unsigned (a theme that came with the country). However, the reward was incredible with a symmetrical view of the city, split by the Bistrica river and with the mountains on the horizon.

Making our way down, we passed an Orthodox church, The Church of the Holy Saviour, originally built in 1330, however was heavily damaged in the riots that gripped the country in 2004. A tinderbox of tensions stemming from the 90s war, a story of Albanian children dying after falling in the river after being chased by Serbs caused an outbreak in violence and destruction that damaged many of the Serbian Orthodox buildings in the country. To this day, tensions are still high with recent stories of gesturing footballers and graffitied trains straining relations, territorial swaps and border issues in the north of the country and NATO and the United Nations still largely policing the country.

We walked down the steep, narrow paths to the market to find a place for breakfast. Feasting on Turkish coffee and a “five cheese omelette”, which turned out to be a cheese omelette with four servings of cheese alongside. Afterwards we lethargically walked up the river to the League of Prizren and Albanian museum. The league of Prizren was originally set up to protect the rights of the ethnic Albanian-Muslims living in Kosovo. Despite finding little in the way of English explanations, the artwork, maps and paraphernalia in an old Ottoman compound was a beautiful set-up, and cost no more than a couple of Euros to enter.

Walking back down, we sought out another Orthodox Church and Prizren’s famous clocktower, neither of which turned out to be open to the public, and despite an awkward exchange via an iPhone language translator, we failed to find out how we went about getting in. None-the-less, we did make friends with one of Prizren, and Kosovo’s, endless offering of street dogs.

With time and daylight running out, we walked a mile or so out of town through streets of shops, windows filled with wedding dresses, to see the NATO monument. A metal structure, symbolising the independence of Kosovo following NATO’s intervention in 1999, it sits as a small park off a busy roundabout, filled with yet more street dogs and locals watching the world go by.

To see the full picture gallery from Prizren, click here.

The next morning we left Prizren and began the beautiful winding drive back towards the capital, Prishtina. The capital wasn’t our first destination though, as we detoured south of the capital to visit Prishtina Bear Sanctuary near Gracanica (you can learn more about the sanctuary by reading here).

Prishtina…

We spent hours at the sanctuary, walking around the (again, very steep) paths that toured the edges of the cages past the friendly bears within. The bears, formerly kept privately by individuals or businesses such as restaurants and cafes to draw in punters, live the rest of their lives in idyllic surroundings, among endless space and trees.

That evening, we set off into Prishtina and its predictably chaotic traffic. After a struggle, we found our apartment and settled in for the night.

To see the full picture gallery from Prishtina Bear Sanctuary, click here.

That morning we set off into the bustling city to find our first stop, the Museum of Kosovo. Just down the road, we were let in past seemingly abandoned military installations and Roman pottery to a new building of exhibits, including a huge mural of Mother Theresa made, incredibly, of staples. Saint Mother Theresa, originally born in Skopje (the capital of modern day FYR Macedonia, but formerly of Kosovo under Ottoman rule), is seen as a national hero of Kosovo. The museum covers an incredible range in two relatively small floors – from Roman and Byzantine exhibits, pottery and currency, to documents of US acknowledgement of independence and guns and weapons from the World Wars and the late 90s war. Strangest of all was a piece of rock, the ‘peace rock’, from Hiroshima, presented as a representation of peace and the end to war.

Leaving the museum, we found a nearby market where we stopped in a small local café for a meal. The heavens had unexpectedly opened, so we took it as an opportunity to dry off, let it pass and fill up on very reasonably priced sausages, fresh baked bread and coffee.

Walking around into the city centre, we went by old Ottoman buildings, the national football stadium and the famous Newborn Monument before arriving at surely what is one of the most out-of-place statues in the world. Off “Bill Klinton Boulevard”, the main road into the city, stands a 6-foot tall statue of the man himself. Along with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton is seen as something of a hero to the people of Kosovo and an important part of its history, as they both preceded over the peace deal and securing the country’s independence in 1999.

A short stop and a photo opportunity and we moved on to the Cathedral of Saint Mother Theresa. An enormous, new cathedral with a bell tower that looks for miles over Prishtina and beyond. The €2 entry fee, a common amount in Kosovo it seemed, got us a lift journey to the top whereby we watched nightfall decent on the city and the bustling traffic jams turn to trails of taillights.

Heading back, we passed the bizarre Library building of the University of Kosovo whereby we got our first glimpse of the dangers of Kosovo’s stray dog problem, as a pack of five or six, circled a lady with a pushchair. Fortunately, some stern locals managed to scare them off, but it was a reminder that although they may look harmless, the wild dog mentality is there.

To see the full picture gallery from Prishtina, click here.

North and West Kosovo…

Our final two days in Kosovo were with a tour guide, Vullnet, who was to show us the sights of North Kosovo. Booked through Balkan Adventure, I highly recommend both the tours and Vullnet as a guide. He is a real pleasure to spend time with, has a wonderful sense of humour and his knowledge of the country is incredible, from history and locations, to bizarre facts like how James Blunt was the first NATO soldier to enter Kosovo. Plus he looks a lot like Jeff Goldblum. Some of this knowledge will have come from him growing up in the 90s where Vullnet experienced interrogation by Scottish NATO troops, before he and his family fled to neighbouring Montenegro, returning to find their home had been used as a hospital, and then destroyed, by Serbian soldiers.

Our tour began with a visit to the monument of the first battle of Kosovo in 1389, or Gazimestan, in Kosovo Field, about 6 kilometres south of the potential battlefield. The battle was between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbian Army, where leaders of both armies died on the battlefield, however the Serbian army was eventually defeated and Serbian principalities were annexed by the Ottomans. Serbs gather here every year on Vidovdan (St Vitus Day 28th June) to commemorate the leader of the Serbian army Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic. This was also the site of the infamous ‘Gazimestan Speech‘ in 1989 by then-President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, where he first mentioned the possibility of ‘armed battles’, presaging the collapse of Yugoslavia and the horrific bloodshed that ensued. We then visited the shrine and museum to the ‘benevolent’ Sultan Murad Hüdavendigar, leader of the Ottoman army. This tomb was built by the Sultans son, becoming an area of religious significance for Muslims and the first example of Ottoman architecture in Kosovo. Accounts of the way the Sultan died vary depending on who is telling the story, as is with history where more than one side survived. We were discreetly informed that the shrine which once contained his body, now contains no more than his genitals. We didn’t interrogate further to find out how they know that, or why that would be the case.

Driving north, we visited the divided town of Mitrovica. An extraordinary town, divided by a bridge which is closed to traffic. The south side occupied by Albanians, and the north by Serbs. A deliberate segregation, the north uses a different currency (the Dinar), uses the Serbian language and Cyrillic alphabet and even has Serbian police and council. In the main square, a large statue of Prince Lazar stands imposingly, surrounded by nationalistic street art, index finger outstretched towards the divisive border. Meanwhile, the south abides by the typical Kosovo set up with an Albanian majority, and on the face of it at least, looks much richer for it with modern buildings, and western companies like KFC, whilst the north had small cafes among the tall communist looking Yugoslav tower blocks.

Next, we stopped at the Adem Jashari memorial, museum and graves in Prekaz. Considered the ‘Father of the KLA’ (Kosovo Liberation Army), Adem Jasheri is considered a terrorist to the Serbs, and a hero to the Albanians, in respect of his acts in Kosovo’s fight for independence. His house, standing but mostly destroyed by missile attacks, is where he lived and died at the hands of Yugoslav forces, as he masterminded numerous elements of the rebel movement that ultimately gave the country its freedom from former Yugoslavia. The site is humbling, and somewhat disturbing, not least for the scale of destruction done to his house and family members, the youngest of which was only 7-years old, and how recent the damage appears.

Vullnet treated us to a trip to the Marble Cave, just outside of Pristina in time for sunset. Found by a local who was building a house in the 1950s, the caves are an extraordinary network of marble and bats! We joined a German-speaking tour, with Vullnet showcasing further knowledge acting as a translator from a third language, as we heard about the pipedream plans of extending the caves, possible boat trips and generally putting more on the map. We were given the impression that local politics and financial interests wouldn’t allow this any time soon, but here’s hoping!

We got dropped off back at the hotel, excitedly preparing for another day exploring the less known areas of this lesser known country the next day.

Our final day in Kosovo, and second day of our tour, started with a visit to the beautiful White Drin waterfall. The drive saw us pass eerie abandoned factories, copper mines and hydroelectric plants, remnants from industrial times gone by. The fall wasn’t in full flow due to a lack of recent rain, but the surrounding trees and mountains were in stunning autumnal colours, and its presence put another feather in the cap of this incredibly diverse country.

Next we saw the absolutely incredible Patriarchal Monastery of Peć. This red monastery, sits within a compound, protected by Kosovo Police (an after effect of the 2004 violence). Incredibly detailed, and magically preserved frescos decorate this simply staggering building which still houses a number of nuns to this day. This was followed by a trip to Dejan Monastery which, although not quite as impressive and guarded by Austrian NATO soldiers rather than Kosovo ones, also has incredible frescos and details inside and out.

Lunch saw us take in our umpteenth serving of local sausages, Qebapa and bread (which is incredibly addictive), along with a Turkish drink, Ayan, made from yoghurt, water and salt. An acquired taste.

Our journey back around to Prishtina saw us stop at a number of bridges, including an impressive, although completely impractical for driving over but undoubtedly served a useful defensive tool, Ottoman construction (see below) and a bridge over a valley, famous for divers doing the seemingly Balkan tradition of hurling themselves from great heights into alarmingly shallow waters.

We finished our tour with Vullnet, first with an unsuccessful attempt to see the Archangel Monastery, but then with a successful visit to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Gracanica, lit up spectacularly against the night sky, with echoes of the mass singers surrounding us. One of the few towns in Kosovo that has a Serbian majority still living there, again with separate currency, language and alphabet. After this we went our separate ways, before settling in for the night.

The next morning had us head back through Prishtinia Airport, returning the car before the short flight to Luton, and onto planning our next adventure… Christmas in Estonia!

Kosovo then. Is it worth the visit? Absolutely. Much like we felt with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer, the whole place is a museum and a catalogue of protected culturally or religiously or historically important monuments, but with a balance of hospitality and affordability. Strangely, despite only being recognised as a country in 2008 (by some at least, and still not by others to this day), it has more of a western feel to it than places like Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even Croatia to an extent. There’s KFC, Domino’s, big complexes, new buildings, modern universities. But it’s affordable, pleasant and has a charming balance of old, new, metropolitan areas and nature. Complications around its status as a country is likely holding it back as a major destination, and will halt major investment in infrastructure for the time being, but when the time comes and the potential is seen, Kosovo will truly be on the map as a place to experience.

Article and photographs by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

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The rain in Spain… would be a welcome break: A warm day in Barcelona

In July 2017, we had a quick break in Spain to see some friends and got to spend a day in the amazing city of Barcelona. It was very much a whistle-stop tour, and not nearly long enough to see everything that this enormous city has to offer, but we did cram in a number of landmarks during the few hours we had.

We arrived by train early in the morning, before 8am, but the Spanish heat was already in full force! Having spent two weeks away from the UK, in Rome and Croatia, we had acclimatised quite well to the 30 plus degree days, however, staying in a room without air condition made this a different challenge altogether.

Our first landmark on our whistle-stop tour of Barcelona was Casta Batllo. Built in the late 19th century, it’s an unorthodox and incredibly colourful and unusual piece of architecture. Pushed for time, and arriving when places were still set up, we weren’t able to go inside but it was great to see such a creative and extrovertive piece of design in the center of a modern city.

We had a number of tickets booked for the day, so began making our way past the famous market, la boqueria las rambla (sadly in the news due to a terrorist attack some weeks later), bands playing music in the streets, and arriving at the Picasso museum. We spent a couple of hours here, seeing the extensive artworks on display. Although we were there on a weekday, it was extremely busy and tickets required a specific time slot so booking in advance is not only advised, but actually essential.

Like the idea of a getaway, but don’t fancy the city life? Why not have a read about our trips to Croatia and Bosnia?

Taking advantage of visiting before the full influx on summer tourists, we decided to visit Barcelona Zoo, which was being renovated. The zoo itself is enormous, and we spent a good couple of hours there without retracing our steps. Whilst the zoo is well stocked, and entry was surprisingly cheap (admittedly discounted because of the work taking place at the time), it’s worth noting that food and drink prices are hiked up significantly inside. Also, whilst the animals are clearly well cared for and the variety ranges from crocodiles and penguins to brown bears and rhinos, the heat and humidity on the day we went meant the majority were sleeping and seeking out shade. Nonetheless, it was a great few hours and a massive recommendation if you have the time to spare.

Leaving the zoo, we set about finding the famous Sagrada Familia. This is an enormous, yet unfinished Catholic church designed by famous architect, Gaudi. Despite work beginning as far back as 1882, with delays, damage from war and nature and the scale of construction, it is not due to be fully completed until 2032. Split by its critics, George Orwell having described it as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”, whilst Salvador Dali said it had, “terrifying and edible beauty”, there is no denying the iconic image of this building among the cityscape of Barcelona.

Despite having prebooked tickets Sagrada Familia is incredibly busy at all open hours, and being able to go inside and up to the observation decks which looks over the city, is incredible, but somewhat hampered by the hundreds of people in every direction. As well as the building itself, there’s a fascinating museum on the way out details the planning, construction and various attempts to hinder and destroy the building over the years.

Leaving the Sagrada Familia, and the extortionately priced Costa Coffee nearby – but then, how do you put a price on an iced latte when it’s 32 degrees – we made our way back towards the metro station. We passed by the surprising Arc di Triomf, not dissimilar to its French namesake, surrounded by buskers performing stunts and acts.

Without a doubt, one day isn’t enough to appreciate all that this city has to offer, but our short visit made us realise just how much there is to see here. In one day we walked at least 12 miles in the heat, including fully exploring the zoo, and with more time we may have split up the attractions to save the time spent walking from one location to another. Would we recommend Barcelona as a place to visit? Absolutely. It makes a wonderful city break, even just a weekend break, but due to the size and how busy it can be, planning how, where and when you visit each attraction is an absolute must.

The full picture gallery from Barcelona and Barcelona Zoo can be seen by clicking here.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Preparing for Bosnia-Herzegovina

During our trip down the Dalmatian Coast to see the sights of Croatia in 2017, we took a brief detour into Bosnia-Herzegovina to see the city of Mostar. In the few hours we were there it left quite an impression, so we made plans return and visit more of this curious country in 2018. At the end of May that’s exactly what we set about doing.

Often defined by its war, the responses we received when we said we were going were a split of “where is Bosnia?” and “is Bosnia safe?”. The UK Government’s travel advice doesn’t do much to contradict this with warnings about landmines and poor infrastructure and news stories referring to stray dog attacks and political unrest.

None-the-less, with no reason to think that we would face any problems so long as we followed advice, we packed our bags on 31st May 2018 and set off!

Preparing for Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the simplest task. One Bosniak we met in Sarajevo said, “only the strong willed visit Bosnia”. True to form, three main issues arose before we had even started.

Firstly, entering the country. Whilst the days of military blockades are long gone, it’s still surprisingly difficult to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina directly by plane, at least from the UK. The airports in Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla are small and the UK lacks direct flights to any for the majority of the year. Therefore, we decided to follow a similar route to our 2017 journey, renting a car in Croatia, this time in Split, and pay to drive across the border.

We booked our car with RideCar, through AutoEurope, for around £110 for the two weeks, with a further €75 cross-border charge. Expecting an economy class car similar to the Suzuki Swift and Volkswagen Up! we had last year, we were treated to an Opel Mokka, a mini SUV complete with satnav, reversing cameras and air conditioning. Luxury! We were a bit suspicious of just how cheap it was, but they were absolutely excellent and didn’t even ask that we had the car cleaned before we returned. We did get warning about leaving the car in the major Bosnian cities due to the risk of crime, and also some thinly veiled warnings that in some parts of the former-Yugoslavia, a number plate from one country may not go down so well in another, but we saw and felt no animosity during our stay.

“Is Bosnia safe?”

On the whole, yes! Sarajevo is considered one of the safest capital cities in the world. Crime is low and tourists aren’t specifically targeted, threat of terrorism is no higher than any other European country, the locals are hospitable and healthcare and communication are not a problem. However, like all places it has its issues, but these are perhaps more unusual than other countries. Wild animals such as bears, boars, wolves and poisonous snakes (including Poskok, the ‘nose-horned viper’, the most poisonous snake found in Europe) live in the countryside and stray street dogs can be found in almost every town. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also the last European country to have a serious issue with landmines. This means that venturing off marked routes or into abandoned buildings is highly discouraged, and hiking into the mountains should only be done on known tracks and with experienced guides.

Secondly, mobile phones. UK phone companies do not work well in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We knew this from the year before where O2 were charging £7.20 per MB of data and EE failed to call out at all. O2 managed to go one better this year by being unable to find it on a map, with one rep asking “is [Bosnia] in Austria?”. Vodafone had looked promising as the country was included in their European tariff, but they changed this for two countries (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania) just weeks prior to us setting off. We therefore planned to take unlocked phones and buy a travel SIM when we arrived, however, due to the surprising amount of WiFi availability, we never got around to doing this and other than needing to make contact with our host in Sarajevo, never really needed our phones.

Finally, money. Throwing a stop in Croatia only complicated this further as we ended up working in four different currencies. British Pounds, Croatian Kuna, Bosnian Convertible Marks and Euros. Kuna and Marks were country specific, so we could not spend one currency in the other, and getting Marks was only possible once in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Also, for the most part, cash is preferred in restaurants, credit and debit cards aren’t a given and tipping is only possible in cash. Toll roads are also dotted around Croatia and north of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, so having the correct cash is useful here too!

“Why does Bosnia-Herzegovina use the old German Deutsche Mark?”

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s and wars that followed, hyperinflation was a serious issue for their then currency, the Yugoslav Dinar. You could get paid your salary on Monday, and by Friday it would be worth next to nothing. To fight against this, three of the countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo have all adopted currencies backed by the European Union, despite not being members. The latter two both use the Euro, but Bosnia-Herzegovina adopted their currency before the Euro was in existence, taking on the German currency at the time. More famous examples of hyperinflation can be seen in countries such as Germany after World War 1 and modern day Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Zimbabwe, for example, has seen hyperinflation of around 98% per day (meaning prices of goods doubled each day), and a high in November 2008 of 79,600,000,000%. By adopting a currency backed by a strong economy, and currently ‘pegged’ to the value of the Euro, the currency in Bosnia-Herzegovina remains relatively stable as do the value of its goods.

We decided to pack relatively light for our trip (you can click any of the links in this section to find the product on Amazon UK). We sourced a few guidebooks, which are surprisingly hard to find for the country, but these included the Bradt Travel Guides and ‘In Your Hands’ Travel Guide for around £15 each. The former of which I would highly recommend. We also relied on our Lonely Planet Croatian Phrasebook & Dictionary (around £4) as most of the former-Yugoslav languages tend to cross over. For the pre-planning we picked up the detailed Freytag & Berndt Map (1:600,000 of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and FYR of Macedonia) (around £10).

In terms of tech items, we tried to keep this to a minimum. We each took our phones, an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 7 Plus. The camera, a Nikon D3300 with a Tamron 70-300mm lens and a laptop to allow us to empty the memory cards if required. For the car, we took a TomTom Start satnav to compensate for not having phone data to use any maps features, which was surprisingly effective and knew the majority of the main roads. Also, we took a cheap Toguard dashcam, something we had used on our Croatian trip. However, with the car only having one USB slot and the satnav not holding charge well, we didn’t use this in the end.

As well as that we packed the essentials. Clothes, travel toiletries including sun cream and bug spray, a bumbag to carry our essentials through the airport without using up hand luggage space, a strong Markfield backpack as well as a fold up waterproof rucksack and our suitcases, money and paperwork.

“Is Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe?”

Europe? Yes. The European Union? No. All of Former Yugoslavia is within the European bloc, though the countries are split on their European Union memberships. Slovenia and Croatia are members. FYR Macedonia has applied for membership, but this is subject to resolving its naming issue with Greece. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have both applied, whilst Serbia sits more aligned with Russia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a number of issues stalling its membership. Firstly, its political structure and the Serbian stance on EU membership, means that any one of its three leaders can veto the decision, and one of its leaders represents Serbian interests. Other issues that are thrown around include political corruption, human rights and freedom of speech, economic issues including unemployment rates of up to 40% and the previously mentioned issue with residual landmines.

None-the-less, Bosnia-Herzegovina has received substantial backing from the EU and its member countries, such as Austria and Hungary, who have given significant amounts of money to repair and restore landmarks destroyed by the war and develop infrastructure.

Part 1: Mostar and the EU border     >> Part 2: The bumpy road to the east     >>> Part 3: The scars of Sarajevo     >>>> Part 4: Hidden gems and humidity

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

A week driving through Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina – Travel Blog (June 2017)

In June 2017 my girlfriend and I decided to take three weeks away to travel to parts of Europe we’ve always wanted to see. This included Rome (the blog for which can be read by clicking here) and Barcelona, but most ambitiously the Croatian coast and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This involved renting a car and driving around 1,000 kilometers across the mountains and coastal roads and into what was unknown to us, leaving the borders of the EU and into regions not yet mapped by Google StreetView.

Day 1: Arriving in Zadar

Our first day in Croatia was uneventful – a late flight from Stansted meant we arrived after 11pm, with a quick lift to our accommodation on the outskirts of the town. The heat was immediately noticeable, a pleasant increase from British summertime to the late 20’s of central Europe.

Zadar Airport sits amongst military bases that, we were told, were used in the 1990’s as part of the Balkan war that gripped and ultimately broke up Yugoslavia. The airport terminal itself is the smallest I’ve ever seen with two gates, one in, one out and felt like the staff were switching the lights off behind us as the only flight in that night.

Our host who took us to the apartment was hospitable and the apartment was spacious and well equipped and a quiet night was had ready for the week ahead.

Day 2: Zadar to Split (Sibiken and Krka National Park and Waterfalls)

That morning, we took the offer of a lift back to the airport to collect our rental car – a silver Suzuki Swift. Year unknown, but well equipped, air conditioned (phew!) and to be our gateway to everywhere and anywhere we wanted to go over the coming week.

Leaving the main roads, we went over the undulating b-roads of Croatia to reach Sibinek, the gateway to Krka National Park. A lot of nerves taking the wheel of a left-hand drive car, driving on the right into the unknown but the well signed, well lit and surprisingly well maintained yet empty roads put our minds at rest and we began to take in the scenery. An incredible mix of wide open wasteland, mountain ranges, farms and the occasional hamlet stretched for miles. The villages with rows of new, sometimes luxury built houses, kept apart by the presumably war damaged rubble of their neighbours. On the same theme, almost every village contained a graveyard that we would consider disproportionately large, with the graves mostly dated from the early 90’s. A stark reminder of the recent scars this beautiful country has.

We arrived in Sibinek and parked off the main road. We walked down to the waterside and had a cheap (a theme that the Balkan countries do very well) beer (another theme that the Balkan countries do very well).

We decided, there and then, to take one of the boat tours to go and see the waterfalls. This cost us somewhere in the region of £10 each for a 30-minute trip across to the heart of the falls, including a return later in the day.

Krka is indeed an incredible place – but, even in June before the summer holidays, the number of tourists is considerable, even across such a large area. Walking around the platforms to see the various falls, the fish through the clear waters and the wildlife among the trees ranging from luminous blue dragonflies to, if you believe the signs, vipers and wildcats.

The day was capped off with ice cream before the return trip to Sibinek and another hour or two in the car to Split. This included a brief, but alarming run in with a lady shepherding through a small village and hairpin turns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a World Rally event.

Arrival at the apartment in Split wasn’t that straightforward. Our host, Frano, had to send his brother out to find us, lost in the surprisingly large, port-side city. Once we finally made it, the apartment was spacious, and had a balcony overlooking the estuary that cuts into the city. A quick shop down the local Tommy supermarket for some pasta, cheese and beer, and we settled down for the night.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 3: Split

For our third day we had decided on not driving, and also to finally have a proper meal out in Croatia. We walked from the apartment down to the large, modern shopping center for a mid-morning coffee before walking further down for a look at the football stadium of Hadjuk Split. On our way around we found a quiet, posh looking restaurant serving fresh fish before cutting into the narrow, stone walls of Split’s city center.

On entering the old town, music and crowds were gathered leading into the square of Diocletian’s Palace, an incredible 1800 year old Roman structure and tower that sits just off the port of Split. A public display of singing and dancing was taking place to celebrate a wedding (or two), before they went into the church itself. A short video of the fanfare can be seen below.

Inside the church and bell tower, the views were incredible. Such a well preserved, Christian monument with exquisite markings, stained glass windows and carvings is rarely seen. The tower itself is not for the faint of heart as the series of stairs lead to the very top and a beautiful panoramic view of the city. Beware on the way down as once the metal stairs end, you are left to clamber down large stone stairs that anyone less than 6 foot will struggle to tackle. Entry to both of these monuments cost less than £10 and backlit with the acapella singing coming from the square, were one of the defining memories of the city.

The walk back was a long one as we went through the Game of Thrones-style (and I’m lead to believe, used) underground souvenir market and out to the port; stopping only to get some street food and to cast an eye over the few square meters of sand beach that has given way to party goers.

Day 4: Island hopping off Split

We started early on our fourth day for the long walk down to the port, this time to catch a boat (a more speedy one this time) to see the Blue Cave and some of the islands off of Split. Unfortunately, the weather (or more specifically, the water) didn’t allow us to visit the caves so instead we were taken across a number of the islands, with lunch and wine tasting. The boat trip itself was incredible, basking in the sun as the captains skimmed across the ocean at 100kmph. Stopping off at the road-linked island of Trogir with its incredible cathedral and old winding streets before moving on to a series of off-the-grid islands with sandy beaches and blue lagoons, lunch on top of a mountain overlooking small enclaves and towns lapped by the clear blue waters and finishing with wine tasting in an entrepreneurial underground cellar. The day was incredible, and although comparatively expensive being in the region of £100 each (food and drinks included), was another memory and series of photo opportunities that will last forever.

On the way back from the port, by this time it was around 7pm, we stopped for a drink and pizza at a restaurant amongst the boats. Sour cream cheese pizza with chicken and bacon, and no tomato or tomato puree to be seen, may not sound Mediterranean or Balkan – and you would be right – but it was a flavour I will forever associate with Split.

The pictures from Split, Trogir and the islands can be found by clicking here.

Day 5: Split to Dubrovnik via Bosnia and Herzegovina (Mostar, Blagaj)

Day five marked what would be the most stressful part of the journey – leaving the city of Split to embark on a circa-300km drive to Dubrovnik via the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For those who don’t know, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the first country outside of the European Union. It is also documented as being the last remaining country in Europe with considerable numbers of residual landmines from the still-recent Balkan War, has problems with stray dogs and the most resent example of a country involved, and the victim of genocide in Europe.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was, until the mid-1990’s, part of Yugoslavia. The break-up of this enormous, multi-cultured and communist country led to various conflicts that involved the death of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Kosovans, and the independence of those countries along with Slovenia and the Former Yugoslavian Republic (FYR) of Macedonia from the larger Yugoslav state. The tensions are still apparent, most recently between Serbia and Kosovo/Albania, but what it is most apparent is the number of graveyards in a country of only 4 million people.

I cannot stress enough how, in the admittedly short time we spent there, we saw no evidence of any hostility and the people were welcoming, hospitable and left us feeling no sense of fear of what might happen, or that we might say the wrong thing.

A few things that should be documented for anyone planning to go … firstly, as Bosnia and Herzegovina sits outside the European Union the EHIC (health card) doesn’t cover, so travel and health insurance is a must. Furthermore, mobile phone providers seem to exclude the country from even the ‘extended’ zones of Europe. My phone provider, o2, charged £6 per MB of data, whilst my girlfriend’s phone on EE was unable to make an outgoing call at all whilst in the country.

The country is incredibly cheap, and for the most part accepts the Euro (at a fixed exchange rate of 1:2 to their own currency). However, don’t assume you will be able to pay by credit or debit card, and if you need to withdraw money you will withdraw it in Bosnian Marks, which is essentially a German Deutschmark. In the UK, and as I understand it for the rest of the world as well, you cannot get their currency either to exchange or to return, they are only obtainable in the country. For that reason alone, they do make a lovely souvenir, but is worth remembering when you’re at a cash machine!

Speaking of souvenirs, whilst the stalls mostly sold what you would expect in the ways of magnets, snowglobes (in a city that hovered around 38 degrees that week) and flags – a large number focused on the art scene that the city indulges in, with handmade silk scarves, paintings and glasswork abundant. More unusually, was the stall selling Yugoslavian war medals, original postcodes from the communist state and, more incredibly, a tommy gun.

Stari Most, the bridge in the centre of Mostar, is an icon of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and perhaps equally so for the Balkan War. An Ottoman bridge from the 1600’s, destroyed by Croat forces in 1993, was rebuild to the original plans and using original techniques in the early 2000’s. The video of the reconstruction of the bridge can be seen in the city’s museum (entry fee around £2) whilst various original clips of its destruction can be seen on YouTube by clicking here. We took the walk over the bridge, looking out over the blue river and the new bridge on the other side of town, before heading up to the museum for an insight into its history (both distant and recent) and for some incredible panoramic views of our surroundings.

We ate at a hotel restaurant with a waterfall, and had some traditional “Bosnian meat” and coffee. A wonderful experience and a wonderful looking hotel – as well as showing us the traditional way of drinking Bosnian coffee (dunking a sugar cube in a Turkish style cezve) our waiter explained how, despite its appearance as being historic and almost natural to the rest of the city, it like so many other buildings had been completely rebuilt following the war. Whilst there is a lot of evidence of old buildings cordoned off and riddled with bullet holes, it’s incredible to think that this beautiful country was involved in such a destructive conflict within the last three decades.

On our way out we stopped at Blagaj, a small town on the way back down towards the Croatian border. A beautiful, quiet and secluded town with a small waterfall and cave (with a £2 boat trip, for a little insight).

Our drive out back towards Croatia saw more incredible mountains, rivers and animals! Stray dogs on the roads, generations down from those who had been separated from their owners during the conflicts, another reminder that victims of the wars stretched far beyond what you might expect. Wild tortoises crossing the roads were also a first in my driving experience, but no sightings of any alleged bears that are said to be in the region.

Want to read about our trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018? Click here for part 1.

We crossed the border, a surprisingly quick process both in and out of the country, and found ourselves lost in the Jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. Another wonderful apartment – close to the old town, but at the expense of some amenities such as a full kitchen.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 6: Dubrovnik (City walls and Lapad)

Our first day in Dubrovnik, we walked down to the old town – stopping for a coffee along the way. Walking across the bridge and inside the fortified walls was like walking through the set of Game of Thrones – because it is.

We decided straight off, to pay £15 each to walk around the walls of the city, a must-do experience for anyone visiting. That’s not to say it wasn’t exhausting, and the clear sky and 30 degree heat made the beer we had in one of Dubrovnik’s restaurants all the better once we were back down.

The rest of the day we spent around the walls of the city, before going over and up to the fortress, Lovrijeenac, by the waters edge, for further incredible views over the ocean and of the city. Afterwards we walked down to the other end of Dubrovnik and the beach of Lapad, which appears to be under construction. Sitting in the Cave Bar More restaurant, we had an incredible five star meal as the sun set over the water.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 7: Dubrovnik (War museum)

Our second day in Dubrovnik had originally intended to be a drive down to Kotor, the bay of Montenegro. But the distance there, the distance already traveled and the fact we only had 24-hours before our drive back lead us to decide to take a second day in Dubrovnik and mop up the bits we had missed in the first day. We had read before coming that Dubrovnik can be done in a day – and whilst you can see the main landmarks, it’s certainly not true to fully appreciate everything there is to offer.

We stopped off again in the morning, this time for some breakfast which we shared with a friendly gecko – one of many that hides in the foliage of the country. We again set about picking our way around the city, finding the famous Spanish Steps and looking around some of the beautiful churches and buildings that are almost lost in the astounding architecture that dominates the town.

We then took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, Srd, that overlooks the city for some incredible views both over the town, and out towards the mountains and the Bosnian and Montenegrin borders.

A more humbling experience took us next as on top of Srd is the Napoleonic Imperial Fortress which was used a vantage point for the armies battling for control of Dubrovnik in the early 1990’s. It is now the museum for the Yugoslavia conflict and the battle for Dubrovnik, and gives a humbling insight into the scale of the conflict. It’s incredible to see Dubrovnik as it is now, a thriving tourist hotspot that 25 years ago was under siege from those wishing to either take it, or destroy it.

We chose to take the walk down from the fortress rather than take the cable car and whilst it offered incredible views, it was more arduous and uncomfortable than either us had anticipated. Greeted by a wild viper at the bottom, we rewarded our efforts with tea and a drink at the Bosnian restaurant next door to the apartment, ‘Taj Mahal“.

Day 8: Dubrovnik to Zadar

Our day leaving Dubrovnik was dedicated to travelling back to Zadar – a solid 6-hour trip, with a break for lunch, and another 350 kilometers on the car. Although the journey was arduous, an unseasonable and surprisingly heavy downpour dominated the majority of the day and justified our decision to be in the car and do it one go. The journey was met with spectacular views and another brief cut through the quirk of the Bosnian border at Neum. We arrived back at Zadar, in the same apartment we began our adventure to have some lunch and an early night before our final day and flight home.

We left the apartment with the car loaded up and took it down to a multi-story car park on the edge of Zadar and went for a walk around the town. We may not have had enough time to fully do the town justice, but a walk around the beautiful, narrow and winding city streets before visiting the world-famous sea organ more than justified our day.

We drove back to the airport via a car wash and petrol station to return the car and await out flight back to the UK.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

It’s incredible to see on the map above just how little of both countries we saw, and yet just how much we experienced. There wasn’t a moment of stress in our time there, and despite the complications and possible pitfalls of arranging each element of our journey ourselves, they all fell together beautifully. Everybody we met was courteous and helpful, food and drink was delicious and affordable and we had allowed enough time to enjoy it all.

As mentioned above, there are a few quirks to consider on this kind of journey. The Bosnian border creeping out to sea means that regardless of had we visited Mostar and Blagaj, we would have had to cross into Bosnia briefly and therefore pay the additional cost to the rental company for the green card. Also, whilst it doesn’t pose a problem with some preparation, the switches in currency could potentially have been an issue – Euro seems accepted across almost all of the areas we visited, and most accepted MasterCard but each bank will put its own premium on top of that. Croatian Kuna can be exchanged in the UK, but Bosnian Marks can’t. Furthermore, while mobile phones in Croatia are fine, as part of the European Union, Bosnia suddenly becomes extortionate (around £7 per MB of data – which would mean uploading the picture of the bridge above would cost £18 in itself). We didn’t find a solution to this other than simply not using the phones, but had we been staying for a few days this could have been a problem.

I simply cannot recommend Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina enough as a place to travel – whether you were to do a cruise down the Adriatic coast, drive as we did or simply fly into any of the beautiful cities that litters this part of the world, I don’t doubt that you would have an amazing time.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Christmas markets in Europe

Back in the autumn of 2017 my girlfriend found out she would be working over Christmas and New Year. Not a surprise in her line of work, but given the circumstances and seizing an opportunity, we decided we were going to celebrate early by spending the early part of December back in central Europe to see a very different type of Christmas market. Less of the council cutback lights and overpriced burger vans of the UK, and more atmosphere, culture and, hopefully, snow.

5th December was our departure day, after months of switching plans to amend our original intentions. First off we were all set to fly from Gatwick to Zagreb, stay for seven days, and then fly back to the UK – but with the collapse of Monarch airline, we were left without a suitable and affordable option. Flying a few days earlier, we headed to Ljubljana (instead of Zagreb) in neighbouring Slovenia (instead of Croatia), from Luton airport (instead of Gatwick) for nine days (instead of seven)! Despite all the chaos in reorganising, our hosts, Airbnb and the car rental company were all extremely understanding and reasonable and, ultimately, it ended up costing us slightly less for more time away.

Arriving in Ljubljana, we were immediately greeted with the towering mountains of the Julian Alps and the flat farmlands and freeways of northern Slovenia covered in thick snow – a theme for the next few days. A short flight early in the morning, picking up the rental car and taking the slow drive across the countryside of eastern Slovenia and into western Croatia. Our plan remained that Ljubljana would be at the end of our trip, so day one was mostly driving and getting settled some 100 miles and a border crossing away from where we landed.

The car this time was an extremely reasonably priced Volkswagon Up! Not as plush as our summer car, but needing no more than the minimum space, something economic and a powerful heater, rather than the aircon that kept us alive in the summer, we picked this up for around £25 for the week plus a cross border fee of around £50.

The drive was wonderful, bar a near miss with a local over taking on the footpath, and the border crossing was quick and simple. We arrived in a cold but snow-free Zagreb around lunch time, and met with our hosts and settled down for a quick rest. Soon after, we took an impromptu walk down into the city to find our bearings. We were staying around a 40 minute walk outside of the city centre, mostly downhill, and got into the centre around dusk.

We found one strand of the market after riding the 120 year old funicular, generously running for free during the festivities, to the old town. It had already fallen dark, so our mission was to find food, drink and music rather than any landmarks, though its hard to miss the funicular, the trams, the enormous cathedral and Zagreb 360 skyscraper. All places we would visit over the next few days.

Settling down in the old town, we rewarded our journey with beer, mulled (cooked) wine that warmed the soul, hotdogs made of some familiar meats, and others not so much, and apparently festive fish kebabs. Wondering through the stalls and lights, we found some music playing at one of the highest points overlooking the cathedral and city lights, and danced and laughed the night away before taking a taxi back to the apartment.

Over the next couple of days we ventured down into the city mid-morning, and returned that night by taxi. Zagreb is a truly beautiful city, and whilst busy it never felt overcrowded and there was no concern of any fear or threat of violence, theft or worse. The Christmas market is extremely well planned – not confined to any one part of the city but spread out into clusters across the plentiful space Zagreb has to work with, each decorated beautifully, with different live bands or festive music playing, and even the most adorable performance by local school children.

A somewhat controversial reminder of Croatia’s recent past was the erection of a makeshift and very much live shrine to the late Slobodan Praljak in the main square during the aftermath of his dramatic suicide in court. Seeing a candlelit tribute burning to a man whom the western media and UN council had convicted of heinous war crimes, backlit by a Christmas tree and celebrating families, to us was a somewhat surreal experience. Within a few days however, parts of the shrine had been torn down, highlighting the divided opinion about the man and his death within the city. Leading up to his funeral in Zagreb later that week there were more than a few people proud to justify their point of view, a coward’s way out and an insult to the survivors of his crimes, or a wrongly accused veteran that would rather die than live a life of injustice. Real life is never as black and white as the stories lead us to believe, and this served as a stark wake up call to our fairytale adventure.

The next few days we visited landmarks ranging from the impressive Zagreb 360, a skyscraper that offers unmatched views across the cityscape. At this point we picked up a Zagreb 365 pass – a useful addition to our wallets as it gave us discounts at restaurants and places across the city lasting for the full year. Following the skyscraper, we also went inside the surprisingly new Zagreb Cathedral, rebuilt just over 100 years ago after it was destroyed by an earthquake. St Mark’s Church is another stunning landmark with its decorative roof, near the gate-less Stone Gate and its conflict and time defying picture of the Virgin Mary, said to have survived the fire that destroyed the gate itself.

Leaving Zagreb behind, somewhat, and keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, we took the bold decision to visit Plitvice Lakes and National Park (Plitvicka Jezera) on the day that heavy snow was forecast. Learning quickly that Croatian ‘heavy snow’ would be the equivalent of an ice age in the UK, the drive was two hours of heavy concentration, but the reality of driving abroad is that countries like Slovenia and Croatia are extremely well prepared, have snowploughs on standby and a continued effort to ensure the roads are passable. The reward for this was incredible.

Arriving around 9am, we entered the park to see waterfalls and snow on a scale we had never seen before. A walk around the boat, before taking a cold, slow meander across the lake and a hair raising shuttle bus back, was probably the defining moment of the holiday and the one that produced the most eye opening photographs.

Having visited Krka National Park, near Split, back in the heat of summer. The contrasts in colours was staggering, and also the cold temperatures, being out of tourist season and generally fewer tours and more difficult access by roads meant that tourist numbers were significantly reduced.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Plitvice? Click here.

The drive back through Zagreb was eye opening as well. As a city of over one million people, around four times the size of Nottingham, I had my reservations about being able to drive through the city, avoid the devil-may-care attitude to driving that grips that part of the world as well as the trams – before even getting onto the fact that the car was unfamiliar and the steering wheel and roads were on the opposite side to what we’re used to. Despite this, Zagreb is a remarkable accessible city and easy drive. I would doubt that parking in the center is a simple task, but to pass through and find an apartment on the outskirts put the UK cities to shame.

After a number of nights in Zagreb, we said goodbye to our accommodation and took the drive back to Ljubljana for the final few days. The journey back was drama-free, though the border crossings heading west seem to be more stringent and therefore slower. It has been documented that the Slovenian and Croatian governments have had their border control disputes over the past few years, but we saw nothing that caused us any great concern. Passing through, the snow gave us some beautiful views as we took the open, clear roads into Slovenia’s capital.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Zagreb? Click here.

Our apartment was again on the edge of the city, but this time just a 20 minute walk into the centre. Ljubljana is evidently much smaller than Zagreb, and with the exception of the castle overlooking the high streets, much flatter.

On our first day, we explored the Christmas market stalls in the center. Though more modest than Zagreb’s, still extremely extensive and welcoming. Mid-afternoon we left the cold but snow-free streets to stop off in Gostilna Sokol in the center to dine on foal stake and drink a pint or two of beer. When we left an hour later, the snow had come down in force and the city took on a completely different appearance.

We decided to somewhat mimic our Zagreb excursion by going straight to the funicular. This time, being taken up to Ljubljana Castle where we had hot chocolate in the grounds before making our way up the spire for an extraordinary, all-be-it slightly misty 360 degree view of the city’s Christmas lights and falling snow.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Ljubljana? Click here.

The next day we walked out towards Ljubljana Zoo and spent a few hours in the company of the animals. In terms of visitors, it seemed at times that we had the place to ourselves, and seeing the likes of kangaroos and tigers playing in the snow was a new experience. Walking around back into the city, we ate the fastest served pizza we’ve experienced and again took in the lights, and alcohol, of the market stalls.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Ljubljana Zoo? Click here.

Our final two days were spent traveling out from Ljubljana, first to Predjama and Postojna, to visit the caves and castle. This excursion didn’t come cheap, not in comparison to the luxury of affordabilities we had in Zagreb, but for less than 100 Euros we were able to experience everything.

The caves at Postojna are impressive and expansive, with knowledgeable tour guides and a unique train ride to get to and from the heart of the cave. Heavily focused on the dragon that dwells within! A small eyeless salamander, called an Olm, can be seen in tanks in the nearby museum and also in the cave itself.

The castle is in the nearby village of Predjama, a short 10 minute drive further up the road from the caves. In this small enclave there’s a small hunting museum in the cafe and souvenir shop. A pleasant viewing that we were kindly allowed into for free. Its main attraction, though, is the castle in the side of the mountain. Backing onto the mountains and cave networks, the castle is a museum to the defiance of its residents over the hundreds of years it has held strong.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Postojna and Predjama? Click here.

On our final full day, we drove up to the town of Bled, famous for the island on Lake Bled. The weather gave us everything on this day, everything snow related anyway, for our walk around that took roughly five hours with a few stops. For the first hour at least the island and church were completely invisible for falling snow, and whilst this began to clear it gave us some moody and incredible photographs. Also on the way round, we saw swans and robins, seemingly happy to get close, take bread and even pose for pictures. Our final adventure was to climb the winding staircase up to Bled Castle to eat their obligatory Bled Cream Cake and get a panoramic view of the lake and island.
Why not check out our full photo gallery from Bled? Click here.

One final evening in Ljubljana saw us having a couple of drinks and a wonderful meal in a Serbian restaurant in the center. Making the journey back, before flying back out the next morning.

Both cities are incredible and can certainly throw a Christmas market! Plitvice and Lake Bled in particular, also offered up an incredible spectacle in the heavy snowfall. It’s worth remembering that Slovenia, using the Euro, is generally much more expensive than Zagreb, using its own currency, the Kuna. That said, after Rome in the summer – which is only one border crossing to the west of Ljubljana, the value for money everywhere we went was incredible and allowed us to enjoy everything we felt we would enjoy.

For all the heavy snow, not once did it feel unsafe to be driving and the hospitality, food and drink were all absolutely wonderful. Even being greeted by an Italian in Zagreb who corrected us walking past people on the wrong side, before singing a line from “don’t worry, be happy”.

An unforgettable holiday and one we highly recommend that everyone invests in at least once in their lifetime!

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Christmas at Plitvice!

Before Christmas, as part of a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia, we braved the heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures to visit Plitvice Lakes and National Park. Massively different from our journey to Krka National Park back in June 2017, the pictures from which you can see by clicking here, but absolutely incredible and perhaps even more magical! Pictures below.

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The full gallery of images can be seen by clicking here.

You can visit the Plitvice National Park website here and also follow them on Instagram and Facebook.