Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Return From Macedonia

Our trip back from Macedonia was even more adventuresome than its predecessor. For starters, we decided to go to Skopia after lunch, and travel home from there. Some of the people in our group have relatives there. So, after lunch (around 2 pm) we board the mini-bus and our host leads us in his car to where we should be able to get the best road toward Skopia-or that's the plan anyway. Sadly, there are some protests going on somewhere further up the road, so now we need to drive 30 km out of the way to get another road to Skopia. Apparently we weren't the only vehicles who chose this detour. We took what was certainly designed to be a one lane road and one car usually had to half pull off the road to let another pass. This picture shows how close we were to a tractor trailer we passed. If I would have opened the window, I wouldn't have had to stick my whole hand out to touch the side.
We eventually made it to the outskirts of Skopia (after about 3 1/2 hours) and because the signs were unclear ended up making a wrong turn and heading back out of the city. It took awhile and some cell phone chatting before we once again found ourselves in the right place. The relatives of our friends told us where to stop, drove to where we were and led us to a mall where you had to pay to park. At the mall we were able to get soveniers, etc. When we went to leave, our driver couldn't find the parking stub, we turned his pockets and the minibus upside-down (well, not literally) but couldn't find it, so had to pay more.
Our return trip took us through Kosovo. It was night by now, and when we got to the border, there was a pit with disinfectant that you were supposed to drive through (I guess Macedonia has germs), our driver didn't know that and went around it. After being sent back through it by the border guards we had to wait at the passport area for awhile, not unusual. The customs official said that if we two Americans planned to go to Serbia, then he couldn't stamp our passports, as a Kosovo stamp would be a slap in the face to Serbia, so he stamped an offical paper of some sort instead (the other people didn't need a stamp anyway). Apparently at this particular border crossing, there was a separate customs stop after the passport control stop, and unknowingly we drove past this. We were sent back, and because we didn't stop and say we had nothing to declare, we all had to get out and run our luggage through the x-ray machine while a guard searched our bus. At least they didn't put us behind bars like this kitty in Bitola :)
Finally we're allowed to go, and so we make our way through Kosovo, Laura slept through most of it, but Steve stayed awake and said he could see it pretty well, even though it was nighttime.
To get to the Kosovo/Montenegro border, we drove up a twisty mountain road reminiscant of Lovćen. There was actually a considerable distance between the two border stations. I'm not sure if it was "no man's land" or what. Once we officially entered Montenegro we still had about 4 hours to go, including a rest stop at a gas station with only one working bathroom, minus seat on toilet, no TP, soap or towels (they don't seem to have intentionally designed rest stops in Europe). A word to the wise, always carry a port-a-pack of tissues and some hand sanitizer when travelling here! We passed through over thirty tunnels (they are named after their number, the first one I noticed was Tunnel 33 and it counted down). We made it to our apartment at 7am, and went to bed right away, even though we hadn't really eaten anything since lunch. We have no immediate travel plans :)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mishaps and Misdirection-Our Trip to Macedonia

It began at 5am on Friday morning when we got to the Albania boarder. We had been travelling for an hour with no major inconveniences so far, only rain. As we gave our passports to the Albanian customs official he said "Montenegro, no problem, America, no problem, Serbia, problem!" Meaning that the 7 people with Montenegrin documents, and the two of us with American ID were okay, but the one person in our group with Serbian papers would be trouble. It took awhile (and potentially some money) to convince the guard that we weren't planning on causing any disturbance in Albania but were just passing through.

A few hours later we had to back track for quite a distance because our driver had been given some incorrect directions. We did pass by Lushnje (where we had been in November), but didn't get to stop there. Once we got on the right road, we climbed steeply into the mountains and came to the boarder of Macedonia. By now it was maybe 1:00 in the afternoon. Those in our group with "new" passports had to pay an "insurance" fee to cross through.
As we approached the city were we would lodge, Bitola, our host met us at a gas station to direct us to his home.
Originally four of us were going to stay in the home of an American couple who were currently in the States. After the first night of our two night stay however, their landlord decided that we should either pay him (as we would a hotel) or move out. So we quickly packed our stuff and moved into the home of our Macedonian host.
Saturday we toured Ohrid, and ancient city, where King Samuel ruled most of the Balkans at one time. We visited his castle, and also the ancient ampitheater. Ohrid (pronounced oak-rid) is also well known for "Ohrid pearls" which aren't actually pearls, but a white pearl-like substance from which they produce beautiful jewelry. Laura got some lovely earrings. We also visited a place where they make handmade paper using centuries old techniques and tools, and have a Gutenburg printing press.
Our return journey was also crazy. I'll post about it tomorrow.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sarajevo Scenery

Ever since the 1984 winter Olympics, I have been interested in Sarajevo. Indeed, it is a city rich with beauty and (often sad) history. To learn more about this first historical incident, click here:

In 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assasinated while crossing a bridge in Sarajevo. This was the catalyst that sparked World War I. In this picture at right, just behind the people you can see a bit of that bridge.

The start of the Bosnian war between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslims also started in Sarajevo, when in 1992 shots were fired from the Holiday Inn which had been built for the Olympics. And in another sad bridge event, an almost Romeo & Juliet story happened on this bridge (at right) when a couple were on opposite sides (one was Muslim the other Orthodox) and in their attempt to escape and be married, they were both shot and killed in the middle of the bridge.

And I needed at least one Olympic shot, so the snowflake pattern on the sidewalk here is my tribute to Olympic design. Laura is standing with our friend Srđan who is from Sarajevo.

Friday, January 16, 2009


After our failed attempt to conquer Lovćen, we decided to wind up the day in Kotor. It has a beautiful "Old Town" which sits nestled under a mountain. On the mountain itself there is a long fortress road that winds its way up to a castle about midway up the mountain. Sorry that we didn't get any pictures of the castle, but from this gate, you go through the narrow path and then there are steep stairs that I presume lead to the road towards the castle.

We stopped at a restaurant in Kotor for pizza and sodas/coffees. Our waitress wore an Orthodox cross necklace in a rather "questionable" spot.
Here is our group on the bridge that leads into the old city. One of the girls in our group, who is only in high school, is actually the #1 high jumper in the entire country. She went to Olympic camp in 2008, and plans on jumping in the 2012 games in London! We just met her. She lives in Cetinje.
One bit of trivia about Kotor, it has the narrowest street in the world. It's called "Let me pass" and two grown men cannot walk side-by-side on it. I don't think we saw this street, but we did see some narrow streets.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not a Winter Destination

A group of our friends invited us along for a visit to Lovćen, where, high atop a mountain (the second highest one in the range) there is a mausoleum to honor Petar Petrović Njegoš, former poet and prince-bishop of Montenegro. The road leading to said building is very long and twisty, and wends its way around several of the mountains in the chain. You can read more about him here:
Originally there was a chapel there, but during communist occupation, that was replaced by the building at right.

There was much snow on the roads, and our mini bus, refused to go, so we put chains on it (the vehicle chains here are very colorful, by the way). While some members of our group took advantage of the stop to have a snowball fight, I made a snowman :). The got us a bit farther, but then we skidded a bit, and got pretty close to going over the edge. So, at this point, we decided to turn around (not very easy) and go down to an area where children were sledding to have lunch, and then go to Kotor. I'll post some pictures of there later. We've decided that Lovćen is really more of a summer destination.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An Interesting Christmas Tradition

When we left our apartment on January 7th (Christmas Eve for the Orthodox), our neighbors had these branches with dead oak leaves on them propped up against the wall beside their door. As we walked through the city, we saw similar branches against other homes, fastened to vehicle grills and tucked under windshield wipers. We were told that the Orthodox tradition is to display these on Christmas Eve, and then to take them to a specific location (such as one of the Orthodox churches) and burn them. This rids one of evil spirits.

So, at about 6:00 pm we made our way to one of the tree burning areas to see for ourselves. We followed a man carrying a tree, and came to the same small chapel we had seen people entering for a wedding several months ago (when we visited the art museum. Sure enough, there were trees being burned. Also, some children were lighting sparklers. And for the more spiritually minded, there was a place for them to take communion and a place they could light a candle.

Some people still have their branches outside their doors or on their cars, I'm not sure why.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beautiful Budva

On January 1st, we went to Budva. This is probably the most touristy area of Montenegro, and according to one of our friends here, most of it belongs to Russians. Unlike Podgorica (which was entirely rebuilt after WWII), there are many ancient buildings and narrow stone paths. This beautiful old church is one example.

Just off of Budva there are several islands. This one to the right is rather pretty, we don't know if there are any inhabitants, or hotels or anything.

However, the isthmus of Sveti Stefan which is mentioned in my last hurried blog is just exclusive hotels. I don't know if they would qualify as luxury, since I've heard that Budva still has issues in providing a constant source of running water. We heard of one group that stayed in a hotel in Budva (not on Sveti Stefan) and out of the two weeks they were there, only had running water two days! This seems rather ridiculous since they are surrounded by the Adriatic sea.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Srećna Nova Godina!

Happy New Year! Sorry that it's been a week since the last post. We've been pretty busy since 2009 rang in.
We met some new friends from America. Since they were only here a few days, on one day we decided to visit some touristy areas. We went to Budva, and Bar. It was dark by the time we got to Bar, so not really any pictures from there, but in a later post, I'll include some pictures from Budva, and maybe a shot of Svet Stefan, an island (or ismus?) that has only an exclusive hotel on it. Sylvester Stalone apparently stayed there once.
Tomorrow night we're going with a friend to Sarajevo, he's Bosnian and needs to renew his passport. We will arrive in the morning, spend most of the day there and head home in the afternoon.
Saturday we plan on going with a group of friends to another touristy area in Montenegro, Lovćen. Tell you about it when we get back.