Journey through the Balkans

This follow up post to my London one is long overdue, but here it is, finally, now that I’m already enjoying another vacation!! 🤣🤣

Since I was going to be in London, it made sense to extend my trip to the European continent.  Having already been to most of western and southern Europe on previous trips, I narrowed down my choices to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.  I’d been wanting to go to Croatia for some time, after hearing about the beauty of the Dalmatian coast.  My sister had actually just returned from sailing off the Croatian coast a few months earlier.

But it’s not like me to just stick to one or two countries!  Once I had a look at the map of the region, I decided it would be pretty cool to travel around the Balkans.  Other than Croatia, I’d never had any inclination to visit the other countries of the former Yugoslavia.  I wasn’t even sure how many countries Yugoslavia had split up into.  But once I started doing more research, I became increasingly excited about visiting these slightly off-the-beaten-track destinations.

The former Yugoslavia is made up of 6 countries (or 7, if you include Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, although this is not recognized by Serbia).  Slovenia and Croatia, both EU members, are the more well-off ones, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo are much poorer, but also cheaper for tourists.  I’ve read that Serbia is also pretty cheap, although I didn’t go there.

Keep in mind that this is not the “Europe” that most people are used to.  Be prepared to go through border formalities and use different currencies.  Slovenia uses the Euro, but Croatia has its own currency, the Kuna.  Bosnia uses the Mark, Macedonia the Denar, and just to make it more confusing, Kosovo and Montenegro, which are not part of the EU, have adopted the Euro.

I looked into flights to Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade before finally deciding on Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as my first stop.  I have to say Sarajevo was probably one of my favourite places in that region.  It’s certainly off the tourist trail, not a city most people would think of holidaying in.  It was definitely nice to not see so many tourists!  I stayed in an Airbnb accommodation near the famous Latin Bridge, and everyday I would take a short stroll to the charming old section of Baščaršija, past the street corner where Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated (setting off a chain of events that led to World War I).

The famous Latin Bridge in Sarajevo. The “museum” corner on the other side of the bridge was where Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated.

 

Another view of Latin Bridge and buildings along the Miljacka River

 

View of Sarajevo from the Avaz Twist Tower. The yellow building on the right, Hotel Holiday, was the former Holiday Inn, where journalists holed up during the Bosnian War.

I enjoyed walking the narrow streets of Baščaršija, with its many shops, restaurants and cafes.  The region was under Ottoman rule for about 300 years, and Turkish influence is evident everywhere – the mosques, the food (Bosnian coffee, baklava, rahat-lokum), the souvenirs (Turkish coffee pots) and the architecture (like the incredible City Hall)!  I imagined I was in a mini Istanbul (a city that I still haven’t visited but has been on my bucket list for years). 😆😜

The vibrant Baščaršija in Sarajevo

 

Pigeon Square in Baščaršija, Sarajevo, with the Sebilj (wooden fountain)

 

Inside the beautiful Vijećnica (City Hall) in Sarajevo

You can still see evidence of the war which was just a mere 20 some years ago…

Remnants of the war – buildings in Sarajevo riddled with bullet holes and mortar craters

 

Memorial to Murdered Children, 1992-1995

While I was in the History  Museum, this guy approached me and introduced himself as a tour guide and offered to drive me out to see the Tunnel Museum in the suburb of Butmir.   I had already reluctantly decided to skip it since it’s out of the way, so I was actually secretly happy I ran into him.  Of course, even after negotiating the price, I knew I was probably still paying too much, but I really didn’t care at that point!  After a quick visit to the Tito cafe behind the museum and a short discussion about Tito (he told me there are a lot of people these days who still think life was better under Tito), we set off for the Tunnel Museum.

A wall adorned with photos of Marshal Tito at the Tito Cafe in Sarajevo

It’s incredible to see the kinds of contraptions that are devised in times of desperation. During the Siege of Sarajevo (from 1992 to 1996 – the longest siege of a capital city in modern history), the tunnel was used as a means for people to escape the city, and to send humanitarian aid and war supplies into the city.

Sarajevo tunnel

The most popular traditional foods in Bosnia are probably Ćevapi (or ćevapčići) and burek.  Even though there may be slight variations and different meats used, you will find these foods in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia.  Ćevapi are made of ground meat and spices, shaped into finger-length “sausages” and grilled.  They’re eaten inside a soft, spongy flatbread that looks like a thick pita, known as lepinja, lepinje or somun, along with a soft white cheese (kajmak), raw onions, and ajvar, a condiment made of red peppers.  Burek are filo pastry stuffed with meat or cheese.

Cheese Burek from a bakery

In Bosnia, a predominantly Muslim nation, you won’t find pork on restaurant menus.  I don’t eat beef but I thought there’d be lots of chicken and lamb but this was not the case!  You won’t find seafood either.  The predominant meat is beef, and their ćevapi is made of beef.  I went into restaurants asking for lamb ćevapi and they looked at me like I was crazy (“This is meat….normal meat…” was one reply I got).  So unfortunately, I never tried ćevapi!! 😢 The meat for burek is also typically beef, although I found burek with cheese and also chicken (in Croatia).

Here’s the meatless “ćevapi” I had at Cevabdzinica Hodzic.  The lepinje with kajmak inside was really good though!  In fact, I totally fell in love with the thick, soft and spongy lepinje (I’m now on a quest to find a good, authentic lepinje recipe)!

I stopped by Čajdžinica Džirlo, a cozy little teahouse, which I highly recommend.  I was warmly greeted by the friendly owner, Hussein, who also took the time to explain their menu and the proper way to enjoy the Bosnian coffee that I ordered: alternate between sips of the coffee and the most delicious sherbet (made with sugar, honey, cinnamon and lemon), and then enjoy the rahat-lokum (Turkish Delight) at the very end.

Bosnian Coffee at Čajdžinica Džirlo, Sarajevo

Initially, I had wanted to travel through the region by train, but you won’t find a lot of train service, which surprised me (I thought it would be much like travelling on a Eurail pass)  Buses are the way to go here, unless you want to rent a car (I’d looked into this, but aside from the cost for just one person, it seemed such a hassle crossing borders and all the countries having different rules and laws).  From Sarajevo I travelled to Mostar (when I arrived in Sarajevo, I discovered they had actually just started train service between the 2 cities, but the times didn’t suit me so I took the bus), with my main intention to see the famous Stari Most, a bridge that looks like something out of a fairy tale.  This bridge is actually a replica of the original, which was destroyed by the Croats during the war.  Nevertheless, it’s such a beautiful site, especially when you get a good view of it.  I would recommend going to Urban Grill, where I went for breakfast just so I could capture the best view of the bridge.

Stari Most, bridge over the Neretva River, Mostar

 

View from the bridge

Mostar is a lot more touristy than Sarajevo, and I found prices of souvenirs to be higher.  However, overall, Bosnia is really pretty cheap and good value for money.

My next stop was Split in Croatia, where I was delighted to find a lot more meat options, as well as good, fresh seafood!  The main attraction is, of course, the Diocletian’s Palace, which is very different from most palaces.  There is an actual living, breathing community within the walls of the palace!

Bell Tower of the Cathedral of St. Domnius and the central square, the Peristil, in Diocletian’s Palace

 

Inside Diocletian’s Palace

Pumparela, rated as one of the best gelateria in town, was easy to find – right inside Diocletian’s Palace, near the Peristil central square and Cathedral of St. Domnius.  I had one scoop of the Amarena cherry flavour for 11 kuna (about US$1.83, which is pretty cheap, although in Sarajevo and Skopje, Macedonia, I could’ve gotten almost 3 cones for the same price….just to give you an idea how cheap some of these places still are!).

Delicious amarena gelato in Split

I had a yummy seafood platter at Buffet Zlatna Ribica which was pretty reasonably priced at about US$10.

Mixed Seafood Platter at Buffet Zlatna Ribica

One of the things I was most looking forward to was going down the Dalmatian coast.  The scenery is beautiful, kind of like the Amalfi coast in Italy.  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to take very good photos from the bus.  After about 5 hours, we arrived in Dubrovnik.  It really is incredibly stunning!  I wandered all around inside the Old City, and walked around the city walls.  The crowds of people were the only drawback.  Dubrovnik has become increasingly touristy (thanks in large part to the popularity of Game of Thrones, which was partially filmed there), much to the chagrin of the locals.

Left: view of Stradun from the city walls; Top right: Rector’s Palace (Cultural History Museum); Middle right: Harbour in the Old Town; Lower right: Big Onofrio’s Fountain

 

Baroque frescoes of St. Ignatius Church in Dubrovnik

 

Stradun, the main street in the Old City, Dubrovnik

 

view from the walls of the Old City, Dubrovnik

 

Fort Lovrijenac and Fort Bokar

 

Burek in a bakery in Dubrovnik

 

Pork Ražnjići (grilled meat skewers) at Konoba Lanterna

Here’s a slice of a Kolac od Oraha (Vanilla and Walnut) cake I had at Dolce Vita.

Vanilla and Walnut cake at Dolce Vita

From Dubrovnik I headed down the coast to the city of Kotor, situated in Montenegro’s stunning Bay of Kotor.  I had a tiny room in a budget hotel inside the Old Town.  It was the best location – I would step right outside onto winding cobblestone streets and lovely plazas.  The Old Town is a dense maze of churches, museums, restaurants and squares.  In fact, on the first night, I got lost trying to find my way back to the hotel (and I have a pretty good sense of direction!).

Dining area of Hotel Rendez-Vous, where I stayed, right in the Old Town.

 

Kotor’s medieval fortifications leading up to the Fortress (Castle) of San Giovanni

I made my way up to the Castle (Fortress) of San Giovanni.  It’s not a hard climb, but doing it in 35 degree weather with the sun beating down on you definitely makes it more strenuous!

View from the halfway point, at the Church of Our Lady of Remedy

But the views are just amazing….they keep getting better the higher up you go until finally, it’s like WOW….

View from the top!

I also headed out about 20 minutes by bus to the beautiful town of Perast, where I just spent a relaxing afternoon by the water, enjoying the perfect weather.

Perast

Before leaving Kotor and the coast, I filled up on seafood with a delicious meal of Fish Pâté and Fish Soup at Cesarica.

Fish Pâté Appetizer at Cesarica

 

Tasty Fish Soup at Cesarica

I made my way to the Montenegrin capital city of Podgorica, where I connected onto an overnight bus to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo.  At the bus station in Podgorica, a Macedonian man by the name of Bayam struck up a conversation with me.  He was supposedly returning to Skopje via Prishtina and so was going to be on the same bus as me.  Never mind that he hardly spoke English, but he insisted on conversing with me in German (he’d spent some time in Germany during the war), and if I didn’t understand, he figured some Italian would help.  Great, I thought, and we’re going to be on the same bus!  This actually turned out to be a blessing (at least initially) because the bus was full of  aggressive, loud-talking Kosovan migrant workers returning home for Eid al-Adha.  My seatmate wasn’t so bad after all!

Once we arrived in Prishtina, my plan was to hop on another bus to Prizren first, and then return to Prishtina.  I thought Bayam would go on to Skopje, but he followed me to Prizren, and so we spent the day there.

Sinan Pasha mosque in town centre, Prizren

Through all the miscommunication and misunderstandings with Bayam, I didn’t see as much of Prizren as I would’ve liked.  We walked up to yet another fortress, after which we were so hungry we quickly found a restaurant in town and sat down.  I had the best meal and was so stuffed!

view of Prizren from Kalaja Fortress

 

A typical street in Prizren old town

 

Food stores in Prizren old town

 

Top: a butcher shop; Bottom: Grilled meats and peppers are very popular

 

I love visiting bakeries! Top left: I recognized the simit (Turkish “bagels”) which I had eaten in London. Bottom left: Burek

Here’s the amazingly delicious meal I had at Besimi Beska.  I especially loved the Grilled Lamb (Mish Qingji) with fries and pickled vegetables and yogurt-stuffed peppers.  I had to, of course, try Flija, which I had read is an Albanian/Kosovan Albanian specialty, although I can’t say I liked it.  It looks like a plain “cake” made of many crepe-like layers.  I’m not sure if what I ate was considered “good” flija, but it was hard, chewy and tasteless.  I did, however, like the little bit of hard, salted cheese that accompanied it.

Mish Qingji, yogurt-stuffed pepper, flija and Turkish coffee at Besimi Beska

Upon our return to Prishtina, I tried to explain to Bayam that I wanted to look around Prishtina first, before going on to Skopje.  I think he thought I was asking what city we’re in, because he kept saying “Here, Prishtina”!  It was frustrating, to say the least!  But he insisted on accompanying me everywhere!  Finally, he motioned to me to follow him, and we got on to a minibus.  I was wondering, is this some tour of Prishtina we’re taking?  It turned out the bus was headed to Skopje!  NOOO!!!  I demanded the bus driver let me off…. and that was how I got rid of my unwanted travel companion!

Statue of Bill Clinton in Prishtina

 

Love affair with America: streets named after Bill Clinton and George Bush in Prishtina

 

The “Newborn” monument in Prishtina that was first unveiled in February 2008, after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. I thought vandals had knocked down the letters “N” and “W”, and I hadn’t noticed the extra letters painted in white on the ground. Only later when I saw the Facebook page, I realized it says “No Walls” if you view the monument from above!

After Prishtina, I went on to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.  I couldn’t have found a better place to stay – just steps from the immense Macedonia Square.  At first glance, Skopje is beautiful (especially when it’s all lit up at night) and seems to be a very grand city, with majestic buildings and huge statues of historical figures.  That is, until you discover that most of this was built in the last 8 years or so, then you realize that Skopje is really the European capital of kitsch à la Las Vegas.  Officially announced in 2010, the very controversial Skopje 2014 project was an attempt to replace drab Soviet-era architecture with more visually appealing buildings, and also to instill a sense of national pride in its citizens.  However, many Macedonians are unhappy with the amount of money (up to 500 million Euros) spent on this project, in a country where there is high unemployment and corruption within the government.

In trying to foster a sense of identity post-independence, the country has also been accused of “stealing” Greek history.  Indeed, even the name Macedonia is opposed by Greece, since it’s also the name of a region in Greece (officially Macedonia is known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or the acronym, FYROM).

The Archaeological Museum and Bridge of Civilizations at night

 

Alexander the Great fountain on Macedonia Square

 

Top left: Porta Macedonia, completed in 2012, shortly after the 20th anniversary of Macedonia’s independence; Right: Philip of Macedonia statue

 

British-style double decker buses, used in Skopje in the 50’s and 60’s, were re-introduced a few years ago in a bid to increase tourism

 

Memorial House of Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje in 1910

My biggest disappointment was not seeing Skopje’s Old Bazaar (at least not in action).  I’d read that it’s the second largest bazaar after Istanbul’s and was really looking forward to going. However, on the day that I made my way there, the streets of the Old Town were practically empty!  I kept checking my directions,  certain that I was at the right place.  Finally I asked a guy who happened to be a tour guide, and he told me that was the day of Eid al-Adha!  Being one of the biggest Muslim holidays, most of the vendors had taken the day off!  Just my luck….😭  Now I really have to go to Istanbul!

Empty streets in the Old Town and Bazaar on the day of Eid-al-Adha. I did manage to take a peek inside the compound of a former Turkish “han” or caravanserai / roadside inn (bottom left)

I did, however, have a great meal at Destan, one of the few places that was still open on that day.  I ordered chicken kebabs, but the surprising highlight of the meal was Shopska Salad, which I expected to be similar to a greek salad with feta cheese, but this was sooo much better!!  It was so good I made it shortly after I returned home.  Check out my recipe here.

Chicken kebabs and Shopska Salad. Look at the soft and fresh lepinje bread!!

I left Skopje to Thessaloniki, Greece, where I boarded a flight to Athens.  It was my third time in Athens, visiting my friend George, and I was just looking to relax and take a little break (from a break, LOL!).  It had been 10 years since I last visited, so it was definitely a nostalgic trip!

Breakfast as soon as I arrived – my favourite Greek yogurt with honey and Greek coffee

 

George’s mother had prepared moussaka and a simple salad and bread and cheese for lunch on the first day

 

Simit again! Actually, in Greece it’s called Koulouri.

 

I love this stuff! Rose, Mastic and Bergamot flavoured Loukoumi (what we know as Turkish Delight)

 

I fell in love with this Greek fast food (Gyros) when I first visited in 2007. Ever since then, I gotta have at least one every time I’m in Greece!

 

Look at all the gifts George’s mum gave me to take back…including a couple of bottles of homemade liqueur! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take everything 😦

Next up (very soon, I promise!) will be the third and final part of my European travels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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