Seven reasons I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans

From the time my train pulled into Zagreb station at 9pm on 29 September 2014, the Balkans had already made a good impression on me. And not just because I was ever-so-slightly drunk.

My gut feel – despite my gut being full of sangria following an impromptu train party with three fellow passengers – was giving me good vibes. The Balkans felt like a part of the world I was going to get along with.

Over the following four weeks as I headed towards Athens in Greece, my gut feel was proved right; so much so that I’m going back!

In less than three weeks time, I’ll be embarking on a two-and-a-bit week trip; taking in parts of the Croatian coast, Bosnia, and a smidgen of Montenegro.

Here’s why I can’t wait to go back to the Balkans.

1. The Balkans are brilliant for caressing a coffee in a street café

Back to the Balkans - cafes

Cafes line the streets of Zagreb, Croatia. And they’re populated by tall people!

A decent cup of java, sitting outside in a pavement café, and for the equivalent of around a Euro per cup – perfect! I swear to God all of Zagreb seemed to survive on a permanent diet of caffeine and cigarettes. Meanwhile, in Albania I discovered the delights of Turkish coffee. Caffeine and people watching will do the trick for me!

2. I am not a giant in parts of the Balkans!

Being five-foot-ten and with facial features regularly presumed not to be English, I don’t “blend in” in my home country, never mind anywhere else. On my further-flung travels, I tower over most Asians and Latin Americans.

When I arrived in Zagreb though, I had a shock … other people looked like me! I was not the only tall girl in the room, and I started to wonder if my grandmother had had an affair with a Croatian milkman. I’m eager to see if other parts of Croatia also offer me a rare chance to look like a local.

3. I want to see what Bosnia in 2015 has to offer

Like Albania last year, Bosnia a country I know very little about:

  • I know Sarajevo is where ice-dancing duo Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean won gold at the 1984 Olympics with “Bolero.” The entire British nation – including eight-year-old me – was glued to the telly.
  • I gleaned info from the BBC’s coverage of the conflict of the 1990s. A war-torn country, rather than a potential holiday destination, is an image a lot of Brits still seem to have of Bosnia. I’m looking forward to dispelling some myths.
  • When I read “The Cellist of Sarajevo”, set during the 1990s conflict, it moved me to tears.

I also had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Albania last year. As it turned out, everyone (bar from one bus driver) was universally hospitable, raki was regularly offered, and the UNESCO sites and scenery were more than worth the occasional language difficulty (the Albanian for “thank you” has five syllables. Here in Yorkshire we just say “ta!”)

I’m waiting with eager intrepidation to see what Bosnia has to offer!

4. I want to see the love child of Italy and Norway, namely the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

OK, so I’ve not been to Norway, but The Bay of Kotor looks remarkably like a Norwegian fjord to me. Mountains? Check! Deep inlets of water? Check! The exception being the houses, which have that red-roofed Italian look that make you want to go and climb a bell tower just so you can look at them all from on high. I’m hoping it’ll be as idyllic as it sounds.

Back to the Balkans - the bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. Photo by Luca Zanon via Trover.com

5. There are picture-perfect islands galore!

Everyone seems to rave about Hvar, but I’ve never been one for following the crowds. Korčula, Croatia, was a recommendation from a former work colleague of mine during my Zagreb visit last year. And she’s Croatian, so she should know 🙂

Apparently there’s more than a full dose of great outdoors on Korčula to keep me occupied exploring, and it produces some stunning wines. I’m already sold.

6. The Balkans have culture, history AND scenery

The monasteries of Meteora in Greece, perched on rock massifs overlooking the valley; the castle of Gjirokaster in Albania, surrounded by towering mountains; you don’t have to look far in the Balkans for culture, history and landscapes to appear side-by-side.

Back to the Balkans - Gjirokaster

The stupendous outlook from Gjirokaster Castle

On this trip there’ll be the chance to satisfy my inner culture-vulture in Split (Croatia), learn more about the region’s history in Sarajevo (Bosnia), and explore the landscapes of Korčula (Croatia).

The Balkans offer the best of several worlds.

7. I won’t be alone … all the time

I love travelling solo, but I find travel with friends or a partner can be special too. On this trip I’m mixing it up; after the first week-and-a-bit of solo travel, my boyfriend’s joining me on Korčula.

He’s also on a mission to visit 40-countries-by-40 – something I achieved back in July and which we discovered we had in common within the first half hour of meeting. Fortunately neither of us ran off in spooked-out horror, and I’m looking forward to crossing the border to Montenegro with him as he visits his 40th country with a week to spare!

So there you have it, seven reasons why I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans. This time, though, I’ll try to arrive sober.

What makes you want to go, or go back, to the Balkans? Share your snippets in the comments below.

Why my career break makes me a better employee

Wow, what an incredible nine months it’s been. I’ve travelled, volunteered, got to grips with all things digital, and more. It’s a story that can’t be told purely by a list of bullet points, though I’m going to try …

Back in July, I wrote down what I wanted to achieve on my career break. On paper, I’ve succeeded at most. But the overwhelming feeling of what my career break has given me isn’t on that original eight-bullet-list.

Instead, it’s one of an ability to see things with new eyes.

Why my career break makes me a better employee. New eyes at Meteora, Greece.

Gaining a fresh perspective of the Meteora monasteries in Greece, October 2014

To see new opportunities as well as new places.

To adapt my preferred learning style to get the results I wanted.

To see the value in online communities as well as those existing in the “real world.”

To get over my reluctance of “bigging myself up” and proactively shout about my achievements and things I’m proud of … a reluctance I was only ever previously able to put aside for job interviews.

Having new eyes has made me more resourceful, and has pushed my existing creativity up a notch or three.

Here are some of my career break highlights, and why I believe these experiences make me a better employee.

I built a self-hosted website, despite not being “techy”

Am I a tech guru? No.

After more than a few head-fuzz moments through market research, analysis of other websites I liked/didn’t like, picking out features I wanted, researching how to get those features, asking questions and participating in forums, digesting multiple pieces of information, getting my head around SEO, and cursing my computer, The Gap Year Edit and its assorted social media channels were born!

Why this makes me a better employee

In “core skills on my CV” terms, digital marketing is now on there. On the technical side, I certainly don’t claim to know all the answers, but with a little resourcefulness and a healthy application of my Prince2 Project Management principles, I can certainly make it happen!

I travelled solo in developing countries and where English language skills were rare

Despite people’s fears that I was going to become a drug lord’s moll or kidnapped by the mafia (the likelihood of both being grossly exaggerated media hype) I had a wonderful time in both Nicaragua and Albania.

I survived perfectly well without hot water for four consecutive weeks in Nicaragua (although I did revel in a hot shower when I arrived home), and had more than a few pass-the-phrasebook and pidgin German/Italian/French conversations in Albania.

In both I managed to find places to stay, cool locals to talk to, a wealth of sites to see, and good food to eat.

And all without being mugged, trapped by a death-defying volcano, killed by a chicken bus, pickpocketed, or otherwise accosted.

Why my career break makes me a better employee. Volcan Telica.

I survived this smokin’ volcano!

In Nicaragua, I also improved my Spanish language skills – you can read more about that here.

Why this makes me a better employee

I embrace versatility and adaptability, and don’t view people or places that are “different” as being negative.

As a very wise mantra says: a country’s duty is to make its citizens feel comfortable.

This willingness to adapt, and even keep a smile on my face after six hours on a chicken bus, is one that’s very handy for dealing with any number of workplace situations and personalities.

I’ve found new ways to make money

OK, not exactly enough to retire on (or fund too many pairs of amaaaaazing Kurt Geiger shoes), but still …

I wanted to explore alternative ways to earn part of my income in the future. My blog has earned a (very) small amount over the last couple of months, and I’m set up with a spot of freelance marketing / communications work too. I now have a short- to medium-term plan for future blog developments (e-books and more), and a medium- to long-term plan for property rental.

Why this makes me a better employee

Entrepreneurial skills have got to be a bonus, right? This time away from my “regular work” means my mind’s been opened up to all sorts of creative possibilities, and I’ve worked out ways to achieve them. I mean, who thought I’d ever want to write a book?

I’ve gained experience in new sectors

I’ve helped a National Charity with their press coverage to aid their fundraising, built an on- and off-line network in the travel sector, and done a spot of freelance travel writing.

Why this makes me a better employee

I’ve shown that my marketing and communications skills are transferrable across industries and sectors.

I’ve learnt to say: “look at me!” (sometimes)

Why my career break makes me a better employee

Spotlight on me … at Albania’s Gjirokaster Castle

If you’d asked me to write this post a year ago I’d have run a mile. “Write about myself, in a big-me-up fashion??” I’d have questioned, whilst shiftily scanning the room for the nearest exit and mentally donning my running shoes. Hell, it might’ve been my first ever half-marathon by the time I’d finished running.

It’s been tricky. After 15 years producing marketing and communications materials that reflect companies’ personalities rather than my own, it’s been a slow adjustment to write in my own voice, rather than those of the companies I’ve worked for.

I can tell I’ve cracked it, because my “own voice” musings mean I now get occasional disapproving texts from my mum 😉

Why this makes me a better employee

I’ve not lost my ability to write in a more corporate tone, or in the voice of Exec types; but my habitual writing repertoire now has another notch on the versatility scale.

My next work challenge

If you’re looking for an experienced marketing and communications professional, I’d love to hear from you. You can find out more about me and get in touch via my LinkedIn profile.

I’m looking for Yorkshire-based freelance or fixed-term contract work, although I would consider a permanent role offering a four-day-week.

For opportunities to work with The Gap Year Edit, click here.

For more on career breaks and how to go about planning yours, head on over to the planning pages.

Have you taken a career break? Did it give you a different perspective when you returned to work? How were you perceived by recruiters and recruiting managers? Share your stories in the comments below.

How not to catch a bus from Albania to Greece

Getting the bus from Gjirokastra, Albania, to Kalambaka, Greece, the town nearest the dazzling rock formations of Meteora, was an adventure in itself.

As we wound down around picturesque mountain bends from the town of Ioannina towards Kalambaka at the end of my long journey by bus from Albania to Greece, I held back my neighbour Kara’s hair. The continual swerving motion had caused her upheaval of the local equivalent of cheesy Doritos, a packet of which she’d just shared with me.

The majestic Meteora came into view at the same town as Kalambaka town, and I eagerly awaited the bus to pull into an out-of-town terminal.

I had a long wait.

Rookie error: Check where the bus terminates. NOT in Kalambaka, as I’d thought!

how not to get a bus from Albania to Greece

when you see these, get the bus driver to stop!

Would my bus journey from Albania to Greece be my highway to hell?

By the time I realised any out of town terminal was but a figment of my imagination, I decided to stay put until the next town to avoid being stranded on a highway in the middle of nowhere.

“It will be easy to get a bus back,” I thought.

Great plan.

Sadly the only unhelpful Albanian (the bus driver) in a nation full of super-helpful people dropped me off in a highway layby at least 3 miles out of the next town.

I’d have been ok with that (ish) if the driver hadn’t completely ignored my best attempt to speak Albanian by asking, “where is the bus station, please?” by blanking me, closing his door and driving off. Despite the Albanians I’d befriended on the bus (one of whom spoke some English), trying to help me out by asking him in rather better vocabulary than I was managing.

The bus from Albania to Greece … the journey before the “abandonment”

It gave a sour taste to an otherwise entertaining and fun journey, which had included, in no particular order:

  • the lady who sold me my ticket making me Turkish coffee whilst we chatted waiting for the bus to arrive (as bus-ticket-sellers do, obviously!!)
  • playing several rounds of the “find a common language” game to communicate with the 50 Albanians on the bus, most of whom wanted to talk to me
  • having my knickers rummaged through on the Albania-Greece border (in my luggage, not in the fun way!)
  • a natter over a lunchtime beer at a rest-stop with a fellow passenger who turned out to be a former political prisoner
  • the lovely Kara, my cheesy-doritos sharing passenger. Before she was sick, obviously.

See … Albanians (apart from one bus driver) are universally lovely.

Anyway, back to being stranded in a layby somewhere in northern Greece.

I didn’t really fancy the 15-mile walk back to Kalambaka. Funny, that.

Figuring I’d give it an hour to see if a bus passed by before sticking my thumb out, me and my luggage trudged to the opposite side of the main road and dug out my Lonely Planet Greek phrasebook.

The big question: Would there be another bus? #firstworldproblems

how not to get a bus from Albania to Greece

these Saints may not look too cheerful, but it seems there were smiling on me

The Saints of the Meteora monasteries must’ve been smiling on me.

No sooner had I perfected my “yassas”, when a lady appeared. With a suitcase. Heading to “my” layby! I mean, how many people do you normally find hanging out in random highway laybys (in daylight 😉 ?

Even more fortunate – said lady spoke a few works of English. This was definitely handy, as my Greek efforts of “hello”, “bus?” and “Kalambaka?” combined with shrugging shoulders and pointy hand gestures weren’t super-helpful as a conversation-starter.

Better still; a bus appeared! And, the lady encouraged the driver to do a little detour to drop me back in Kalambaka town itself, rather than by-passing it on the highway.

I instantly decided I loved all Greeks.

So, after an 8-hr journey from Gjirokastra, Albania; I arrived safely at a lovely B&B in Kastraki, a village neighbouring Kalambaka, and the closest to the monasteries of Meteora.

The obvious thing to do at this point was to go and buy a bottle of wine, a glass or two of which I enjoyed immensely, accompanied by the hues of a bright pink sunset.

Practicalities – the bus from Albania to Greece (Gjirokastra to Kalambaka)

  • This particular bus from Albania to Greece originates in Tirana (Albania) and goes to Thessaloniki (Greece) via Gjirokastra (also spelt Gjirokaster), Kalambaka and Larissa. It passes Gjirokastra on the highway between 7.30 and 8.00am.
  • A taxi from Gjirokastra old town to the highway is 400 Lek and worth every penny.
  • Your accommodation can call ahead for you to reserve your bus ticket, which you then buy from the little office on the Gjirokastra highway from the Turkish-coffee serving lady. She speaks a FEW words of English and is very friendly, but a phrase book that includes Albanian will be very helpful. You’ll need to show your passport.
  • From Gjirokastra to Kalambaka the fare is €18 (October 2014). You can pay in Euro or Albanian Lek.
  • Count on a fair chunk of time at the Albania-Greece border. Albania isn’t in the EU but Greece is, and as your fellow passengers are likely to be Albanian, everything is checked a gazillion times – you, your passport (at least 3 times), your luggage (in detail), the lot.
  • There are no official currency exchanges on the Albanian side of the border (where you’ll spend some time waiting), but the people at the food/drink/other stalls will unofficially exchange Lek to Euro for you, or find someone who will. Again, lovely Albanians 🙂
  • There are stops for refreshments/food at highway services.

Oh, and don’t forget to get off the bus in Kalambaka 🙂

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Have you taken a bus journey that’s stuck in your memory? Let me know your funny stories! Share your experiences in the comments below.

Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites

If you’re a castle and ruins-aholic like me, then Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites are a dream. An unexpected hive of history; castles peak out over mountain ranges, Greek and Roman-influenced ruins face the Ionian sea.

The settings are as memorable as the remnants of the buildings they’re famous for.

I visited three of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites – Berat, Gjirokaster and the Greek/Roman ruins of Butrint. Here’s a snapshot of all three.

Berat and Berat Castle

Albania's UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Berat

Church at Berat Castle

Berat’s Castle dates from the 4th century, though most of the structure is from the 13th. It’s a schlep up the cobbled hill from the main highway, and the castle is a neighbourhood in itself. The very pleasure is in ambling through the narrow streets, clambering around the walls, and admiring the outlook from 360 viewpoints.

For eats, a homely local restaurant sits on the right just after the castle entrance (turn right after the café umbrellas). You can be plied with local specialities, including raki, for a few Euro. Delicious. And/or intoxicating.

Berat and Gjirokaster share Ottoman-style architecture, featuring white buildings with portrait rectangular windows facing out from the hillside over the valley below.

It’s a pretty picture, and wandering through the town you’ll find examples of the pre-restored versions of these imposing homes.

Practicalities

  • The bus from Tirana to Berat costs 400lek (less than €3) and takes around 3 hours. It’s not a fancy tourist bus, but it does the trick. It stops centrally in Berat.
  • Berat Castle has an entrance fee of 100 lek (about €0.75). Other museums within the castle complex also cost 100 lek. The Ethnography Museum (not on the castle complex) is 200 lek (€1.50).
  • There’s plenty of accommodation to be found in Berat. I stayed at the Hotel Belgrad Mangalem.
  • The helpful folks at Berat Backpackers are a good source of information on onward buses.

Gjirokaster and Gjirokaster Castle

Gjirokaster has similar 17th century Ottoman architecture to Berat, with a setting even more dramatic. I discovered this the hard way, after kidding myself it would be easy to wheel my case a mile. After all, how hard can a mile be??? Up 30 degree incline cobbles – pretty hard! Mind you, the view is worth it (or it was after I’d collapsed in a heap at the top).

Gjirokaster’s accommodation options – unlike those in Berat – sit far nearer the castle, which means that once you’ve lugged your luggage up there (or for the more sensible, got a taxi), it’s not too much further up to visit the castle.

The castle welcomes you with artillery remnants in an arched vault; and follows up with an only marginally less impressive US fighter plane perched overlooking the city.

Practicalities

  • Albania's UNESCO World Heritage sites - Gjirokaster

    Textiles at the Ethnography Museum, Gjirokaster

    The bus from Sarande to Gjirokaster costs 300lek (less than €3). If you catch the one that’s going through to Tirana, it’s coach style and drops you on the highway that bypasses Gjirokaster.

  • Gjirokaster castle costs 200 lek (about €1.50). The Ethnography Museum is the same price. There are other local museums to visit at a similar cost.
  • Gjirokaster is the only place I visited in Albania where the locals asked me if I needed somewhere to stay, so you shouldn’t get stuck for a room. I stayed at Kotoni B&B; they can help with onward bus details.
  • A taxi from the highway to the part of town near the castle is 400 lek. It’s money well spent (as I did on the journey back down the hill).

Butrint ruins

Butrint – situated south of the Albanian Riviera resort of Sarande – has a history that started Greek, went through Roman, and ended with Venetian. The city was abandoned in the late middle ages, but remnants of all its reinventions remain.

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Practicalities

  • The (roughly hourly) bus from Sarande to Butrint costs 100 lek (around €0.75) and takes around 40 minutes.
  • The Butrint entrance fee is 700 lek for foreigners (about €5). It takes a good couple of hours to fully explore the site.
  • There are zillions of accommodation options in Sarande. I stayed at the Flowers Residence.

If you fancy another dose of Castle in Albania, then Shkodra is another option. It’s been added to my wish list!

Have you visited Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites? Is Albania a destination you’ve considered? Spill the beans below.