Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mostar, Bosnia

From Sarajevo we took the Swedish-donated Bosnian train (most infrastructure items in Bosnia have been donated) south to Mostar. Yet another highly scenic trainride complete with hairpin turns, switchbacks, mountains and a feeling that you riding in the clouds.

Mostar is most famous for one of its bridges, Old Bridge. The Bridge is suppose to represent peace and unity among the B0snian people.

Throughout the city there are many bridges, as Mostar is situated on yet another too-blue-to-be-real river. Why can't we manage to have any of these in Canada? Like Sarajevo, there is evidence everywhere of the recent war. Bombed out, bullet-ridden buildings are everywhere yet the same as Sarajevo, people remain resiliant. The main floors of destroyed buildings have been turned into cafes or flower shops,

and the old town (stari grad) which was previously destroyed has been almost completely rebuilt. Daniel and I have seen many Stari Grad's in our travels around the Western Balkans and we quickly agreed that Mostar's was the most beautiful. Although we only visited two cities in Bosnia we found the Bosnian people to be so warm, the food to be delicious (though lacking in tangible vegetables!), the country to be beautiful and the cities to be among our favourites. What a beautiful country.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Another scenic ride through North-Western Montenegro and onto the unpaved mountain roads of Bosnia and a few hours later we arrived in the Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo. Daniel and I both agreed after a little time there that it was one of our favourite cities visited thus far. The city has a great energy to it, an interesting mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture,
an evident arts scene and a resilience that we both found to be amazing. Walking the city you were reminded constantly of the recent genocide that befell them. There are spontaneous cemeteries everywhere - in people's backyards, in parks - and bullet holes can be found on most buildings.

Despite this constant reminder of the atrocities they had to endure only 10 or so years ago, the city is alive with people laughing, drinking coffee and getting on with their lives.

Everything's Coming Up Tara - Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

It was quite the feat getting to Durmitor National Park in North-Western Montenegro from Kosovo but after 3 buses and hitching, we finally made it. And believe me, the home of all things Tara (Tara River and Tara Canyon) was well worth it.

We decided to stay in the largest town in Durmitor, Zablyak. The town was situated in the centre of the park amidst snow-capped mountains, rolling hills, alpine lodges and clear-blue lakes. The place was idyllic. We spent four days hiking and relaxing amid the mountains. The highlight of our time there was hiking to a lookout over the Tara Canyon.

Though the Tara Canyon is much lesser known than the Grand Canyon (I had never heard of it before researching Montenegro), it is actually second to it in size and, unlike the Grand, it boasts amazing mountain peaks reaching towards the sky, an abundance of trees and the almost too-blue-to-be-real Tara River running through it. We took many a picture at that lookout but unfortunately, I don't think any of them accurately capture the grandeur of it. It was truly magnificent...kind of like me!!!

Montenegro is a country of astounding natural beauty and Daniel and I swore to each other that we would be back. It is gorgeous here!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Belgrade and Pristina

Really sorry, but the computer I'm using won't let me upload pictures. I'll do it next time I'm online. use your imaginations...

okay, so its been a long time since we last posted. we've been many places since the last one.
First off, the train ride from Bar to Belgrade was really beautiful. I think my mouth was open the whole time we travelled anywhere in Montenegro.
One of the first buildings we saw after getting off the train in Belgrade was the former ministry of defense building. It's been left standing as a bombed out wreck, whether the reason is to remind everyone of what happened or just legal arguments wasn't clear. Nevertheless it was interesting to see what was left of these 2 buildings, the bullet holes in one of the neighbouring ones, and then the 2 very nice classical looking buildings on the opposite sides of the street.
We spent most of our time in Belgrade in Stari Grad (means old town, pretty much every city we've been to recently has an old town), although we also went to see St. Sava's temple, which is the largest Serbian Orthodox Church in the world. it was big, whatever. The old town was nice to stroll around though, especially because a large part of it is pedestrianised. We also enjoyed the many city parks that are scattered around downtown Belgrade. While here we also got into our first conversation about politics and the recent history of the Balkans, which Tara and I only kind of know about, being 10 years old when Yugoslavia started to come apart.
It was interesting to hear a Serb of a similar age to us talk about her point of view. She said she didn't really know what was happening in Croatia and Bosnia, being a kid at the time but also because the people there were being somewhat insulated from all the news.
All in all we enjoyed Belgrade, it was a nice city and the weather was great while we were there, and that always helps.
We then took a bus south-west to Pristina, the Capital of Kosovo. We had originally intended on going here before Belgrade, but Serbia does not recognize the UN stamp you get when you arrive in Kosovo. To them it is still a part of Serbia and thus make it difficult on people going in and out of the area.
We didn't expect big things from Kosovo. In all honesty, we just wanted to see what it was like there and what the people were like. It definitely was not a pretty city like some of the others we've seen, but the people were noticeably warmer. About 80 to 90% of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians, and like I already mentioned, we liked them. Tara commented that the people we'd met there and in Montenegro gave off a warmer vibe than the Serbians, and I agreed. It wasn't a massive difference, but you did see it in the way people interacted. The nicest building in town was the library, which had an interesting design. There are also a bunch of mosques around town, which is a noticeable change from the churches of Serbia and Montenegro. One other thing we noticed about Pristina, is that many of the vehicles you see are white 4x4's with the logos of international organizations on the doors (UN, EU, etc.). We both agreed upon leaving that we liked visiting there and seeing what it was like this soon after being a war zone. One kind of scary thing about Kosovo, as well as the other former Yugoslav countries, is that they were heavily land mined during the 90's. The guidebooks make it clear that you should not wonder off trails when hiking in certain parts or poke around in abandoned buildings. We aren't doing either one of these things, don't worry, but still it's kind of a scary thought.
We took a couple buses from Pristina back into Montenegro, to go to Durmitor National Park. Once again, as soon as we got to the border it was mountainous and beautiful. How do they do it?

Friday, April 13, 2007


So far we've only been here for 4 days, but I think it's safe to say that we both like it a lot. It's incredibly beautiful here, all mountains and a great coastline. We arrived first at Ulcinj, just across the border from Albania. It was a nice small town. We spent our days there walking around the little bit of the town, but mostly enjoyed our hike along the coast. We had excellent views of the water almost the whole time. There wasn't very much sand, it was mainly rocky. The next stop was Kotor, further north. It is famous for it's walled in old town (which most of the coastal towns also have) and because it is situated on Europe's most southern fjord. It was very nice there, as expected, but there was very limited accommodation options, so we had to pay a little more than we had wanted to for a night's stay. Because of this we only spent one night in Kotor, and a day exploring the city and climbing up the mountain to the fortress, before leaving for Budva. It's much nicer here, more low key than Kotor, and has plenty of places to sleep. We took an apartment and have just spent the last couple days relaxing and enjoying having our own space to unwind in. We also walked around the town, but there isn't a ton to see, so it didn't take too long. Tomorrow we are taking a train from Bar (Montenegro) to Belgrade (Serbia). It's supposed to be a very scenic train ride, so we are looking forward to it.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Gjirokastra and Kruja

As I wrote in the last post, we are in Albania now. After walking across the border with Greece, we took a taxi to Gjirokastra, which isn't that far from the border. The town is one of the two cities that was classified as a museum city during the 50 years of communism and was thus spared all the demolition that buildings in other Albanian cities and towns were the victim of. The old town of Gjirokastra was largely built during the time when the Ottomans ruled the area and the architecture is obviously reflective of this. The town is in the mountains, which provide a great backdrop to all the stone houses and cobble stone streets (which were really steep and tiring to walk up) There's also a castle at the top of one of the hills of the town, which we walked around. There is a war museum inside, as well as a prison, which King Zogu (King from early 1900s) and the Nazi's used as a prison.

It was really nice there, and as I said, these were the first Albanian people we met, and they were very nice. Having no idea what to expect from Albania or the people, we have really enjoyed it here. People have actually given more than we have asked for on a couple occasions, which never happened in Greece, and would never happen to anyone in Egypt.

After a couple nights in Gjirokastra, we got on a bus for Tirana. The roads in Albania aren't the best, and the first part of the trip was through the mountains as well. So the bus was probably going something like 30 km/h for the first few hours of the trip, which was sometimes pretty bouncy. The whole trip took us 7 hours or so, but I don't think we travelled more than 300 km's.

Tirana is nice as well and we have enjoyed what we've seen so far, although we are spending tomorrow exploring the rest of the city. So far we've seen just what was around us while we ran errands or just wandered around. Today we took a day trip to Kruja, which is just north of Tirana, also on the side of the mountains. It was pretty nice there. There is also a castle, which we took a picture of but didn't go inside. There's also a good antique bazaar, with some shops also selling handmade stuff made in the town. We spent a few hours walking around the market before heading back with some souvenirs.

I also put up a picture of 4 Mercedes next to each other. We read in our guide book that in the early 90's, after communism ended here, there was a total free-for-all in the country and a massive amount of stolen Mercedes Benz from Western Europe arrived. Looking around I would say half, if not more, of all the cars in Albania are 1990's edition Mercedes. It's pretty funny.

picture update

Here are pictures I had meant to upload for Meteora, Ikaria and Santorini.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Santorini, Naxos, Ikaria and Meteora

After we last posted, we took the ferry to Santorini, which is probably the most visited of all the Greek islands ( I made that up, but I imagine it to be true, so go with me). We rented a car with the other couple we were travelling with and spent an entire day driving around seeing the island, which turned out to be a great idea because we got to see everything and it didn't cost a whole lot. It is a really beautiful place.

I'm already out of adjectives to use to describe the great stuff we are seeing, so from now on just assume everything is great/cool/amazing/incredible unless I say it's crappy.

Unfortunately, the weather hasn't been the greatest, it was kind of cold in the islands while we were there. It wasn't snowing or anything, but there wasn't tons of sun, and we had to wear long sleeves the whole time. Kind of goes against how you would picture the Greek islands, but I guess everyone has winter.

After Santorini, we went to Naxos, which is the biggest of the Cycladic islands (the group were hopping around). It is extremely mountainous, and all the roads are constantly winding around some mountain, which made for some excellent scenery. Again we spent a whole day just driving around the island, seeing whatever there was to see, but mostly just seeing little villages and enjoying the coastal and mountain views.

We were scheduled to take a midnight ferry to Ikaria, which is a much smaller island to the east of Naxos. After trying to kill a few hours waiting for midnight to come, we stood at the port for 2 hours in the cold because the ferry was very late. We ended up arriving in Ikaria at 7 am, when we were supposed to be there at 3:30. Surprisingly, this was the first time the boats were not on time. After going to sleep for a few more hours, we just wondered around the main town there, enjoying how quiet it is. One guy in town even told us not to tell anyone about the island so that the number of tourists stays as low as it has been. So don't tell anyone, okay?

That night we went and sat in a natural hot spring, which is one of the things Ikaria is famous for, there are many hot springs. The following day we again rented a car and drove around. I think this was probably the best drive I have ever been on. The island is small, has mountains down its spine, and the views from everywhere were great! We stopped in some great little villages as well as doing a short hike to have a picnic lunch on the trails. Beats eating in the PATH any day.

That night we took an overnight ferry back to Athens, where we boarded a train and headed for the north of Greece, a place called Meteora.

It's a beautiful place as well. There are monestaries perched on top of the mountains that overlook the village where we stayed. We hiked through the forest up to the first 2, but as we were eating our lunch it started to rain pretty hard, so we had to go back into town. After walking for an hour and getting pretty damn wet, we found a coffeeshop to take shelter in. The rain kind of ruined our day there, but at least we got to see some of it.
Right now we are in Albania! Finally made it! The people we've met so far have been really nice, so we're happy with that. Unfortunately this internet isn't so fast, so I can't put up too many pictures. Sorry.