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.

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 🙂

[box type=”info”]The Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe features Albania and many other Balkan countries. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

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.

Art in Athens: images from past and present

Famed for the Acropolis and with a history where culture is prized; a creative exuberance seeps from every pore of Athens’s being.

From mafia-influenced graffiti, to the Islamic arts of the Ottoman era, art in Athens is apparent in every step you take.

Street Art in Athens

Street Art is encouraged in Athens. Murals are favoured over graffiti scribblings, and the walk from the Metro station of Monastraki to Kerameikos via Thiseio gives plenty of opportunities to see the work of the artists.

From the trains – permits are granted to artists to decorate them – to the murals by the old bus depot and the neighbourhood around the trendy Gas Works, there’s seemingly a work of art on every vertical space. Look up as well as around to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Some of the street art of Athens has another legacy, that of the 19th century “mafia” scene in Psyrri.

mafia street art in AthensThe “gangsters” (known locally as mangas or koutsavakides) of the era wore a distinctive uniform of decorative shoes, and a one-sleeved suit – they wanted to be ready for a fight! Not to forget a moustache.

One man managed to clean up the influence of the mafia on the streets through some simple tailoring.

He chopped off half of the moustache of any gangsters he captured, along with half of one of their sleeves and part of one shoe. Such was the shame of the gangsters, they couldn’t return to their masters in their state of being disrobed. They instead took the option to clear out.

Their legacy is celebrated in the artworks of Aischylou Street in Psyrri.

 

Also in Psyrri is neighbouring Pittaki Street – decorated with lamps of all shapes and sizes. Go for a wander amongst the chandeliers.

Art in Athens at the Benaki museums

For art of a different kind, the various Benaki museums dotted around the central city neighbourhoods can keep you amused for days.

From contemporary art to Islamic arts through the ages, there’s a museum to suit every taste.

Greece’s status as part of the Ottoman empire from the 15th-19th centuries gives the country a fine legacy in the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. The different eras of the empire are celebrated on the different levels of this regal four-storey building.

Practicalities of seeing Art in Athens

The street art in Athens is free. To get around Athens, a single use Metro ticket (valid for 70 minutes) costs €1.20. A day ticket is €4, a 5-day pass €10. Validate your ticket when you first use it.

The Benaki Museums charge entrance fees of up to €7, depending on which one takes your fancy. For discounts of up to 50%, pick up a free Athens Spotlighted card on your arrival at Central Information Counter at the Airport. The card also gives you discounts to other Athens attractions as well as restaurants.

I was hosted by Alternative Athens on their Tale of Four Cities tour (price €40), whose comprehensive four-hour entertaining and insightful itinerary of the less touristed parts of Athens included the street art mentioned in this post.

I explored the Benaki museums independently.

Have you visited Athens? What gems did you find beyond the Acropolis?

The mountains and monasteries of Meteora, northern Greece

“Suspended in the air”. That’s the meaning of Meteora. These monasteries of northern Greece live up to this translation, perching on rock massifs hundreds of metres above the valley floor, seemingly defying the forces of gravity.

The history of the monasteries

At the height of construction in the 14th & 15th centuries, some 24 monasteries inhabited the peaks.

Their whole ethos was one of remoteness and inaccessibility. The political instability of the era – rather than an overwhelming desire for the solitude of spiritual contemplation – made isolation a necessity at the time.

monasteries of Meteora - isolation

It wasn’t too easy to bob and see your neighbours in 15th century Meteora

The monasteries of Meteora today

monasteries of Meteora - Byzantine artwork

A replica of the intricate artworks that adorn the monastery chapels

Today, only six monasteries – four for men, two for women – remain in working condition. Tourism rather than faith is their economic mainstay.

Each monastery maintains at least a small chapel, adorned with intricate Byzantine paintings. Photography inside the quiet hush of the chapels is forbidden, but a replica painting gives a taste of the level of the dark detail inside their spherical candle-lit domes.

The larger monasteries, such as Melago Meteora (Great Meteora), also house mini museums; with battles and agriculture of eras gone by being the primary themes.

All are incredibly photogenic; the views to neighbouring monasteries or the plains below being the mainstay of many a snapshot.

monasteries of Meteora

vistas like these are round every corner in Meteora

Getting around the monasteries of Meteora

Tour buses plod the winding roads around Meteora, but going under your own steam means you can find some of the peace and solitude that was the essence of early monastic life here.

I explored independently and on foot, taking two days to visit five of the six monasteries from my base in the nearby village of Kastraki.

The roads between the monasteries aren’t crazy distances, and there are also some (unsigned) footpaths if you keep your eyes peeled. I met one other person in two days on these footpaths, so they’re a great way to experience the majesty of Meteora’s isolated setting.

monasteries of Meteora

splendid isolation on one of the footpaths linking the monasteries

My verdict

The most memorable things about Meteora for me: The majestic setting, the wide vistas, the photo opportunities.

However, I felt as though the spiritual essence of this place – its original reason for being – had been lost.

The displays told me nothing of how the monks and nuns – around 10 per monastery – lead their modern-day lives on these sheer cliff faces.

What does a day as a Greek Orthodox nun or monk look like? What do they do? How often do they pray? Do they still sustain themselves through agriculture? Or are their lives nowadays devoted to the tourists whose income maintains their home? These were questions that remain unanswered.

Should you visit Meteora? Definitely.

But leave any expectations of new-found knowledge of the modern-day monastery inhabitants at home.

This is a place where your photographs will be your memories.

monasteries of Meteora

the Meteora landscape makes for some remarkable memories

Practicalities on visiting the monasteries of Meteora

Entrance fees are €3 per monastery. Expect a lot of rock-hewn steps. In days gone by – according to UNESCO’s website – pilgrims were hoisted vertically up the sheer cliff faces.

Rock climbing is popular here, if you fancy emulating James Bond in the 1981 film, “For Your Eyes Only.”

Leave the shorts and sleeveless tops at your accommodation and dress conservatively. Ladies will need to cover up their legs (below the knee) with one of the long skirts provided at the entrance to each monastery (or wear your own).

The nearest major town to Meteora is Kalambaka, around 5-6 hours north of Athens by bus or train. Buses are more frequent than trains, with a one-way ticket in October 2014 costing €29 via Trikala (where you may need to change).

The pretty village of Kastraki is 2km west of Kalambaka and is the nearest base to the Meteora. There are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and restaurants in both Kastraki and Kalambaka, and English is widely spoken. I stayed at Tsikeli B&B in Kastraki.

Returning home to the UK: reflections

[quote]Here’s to journeys near and far, short and long; to the people we meet on the way, and to those we come home to.[/quote]

I can’t believe it. My month-long trip from Budapest to Athens is at an end.

It’s been awesome. From the hospitality in Albania, to the Greeks who kept trying to overfeed me; from the architecture of Budapest to the “too cool for school” vibe of Zagreb.

As I spend my first 24 hours after returning home to the UK, I’m having a little reflection time – café latte in hand – on what I’ll miss most from my time in SE Europe.

Top 5 things I’ll miss about returning home to the UK

The weather

It’s been a sunny month in SE Europe. Factor 15 has been applied on a regular basis. T-shirts have been worn. I sit writing this wearing a jumper. And it’s not technically even “cold” yet. Boo.

Eating and drinking outside

returning home to the UK

Street-side dining in Athens, Greece

Outdoor coffee culture is alive and kicking across SE Europe – from the streets of Zagreb where seemingly the entire city is on a coffee break, to the wine bars of Ljubljana and the street-side dining in Greece.

Good value

It’s no good something being as cheap as chips if it’s rubbish. The whole SE Europe region was good value, with Meteora and Athens in Greece, and Ljubljana standing out for me.

At no point in my trip did I feel as though I was being ripped off. Example: a 0.75 litre bottle of water at Athens airport was €0.50. Try that in the UK!

Albania was the cheapest destination I visited; and also good value (with the possible exception of bus travel on some journeys – always cheap, just not always cheerful with it!)

Experiencing something new every day

Castles, galleries, new cuisines, the local firewater, meeting new people, learning about history of different places, wandering and getting lost, lakes, the sea, alternative architecture, cool street art. It’s gonna be hard to keep up the same level of wide-eyed wonder back home.

Convivial people

I felt welcome throughout my travels, even where language has been a barrier. It’s not as though us Brits aren’t friendly to people visiting our country, we sometimes just need a little more warming up.

And, for balance …

5 things I’m looking forward to most about returning home to the UK

Café latte

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of good coffee during my month on the road. I’ve tried all the local concoctions: Turkish style in Albania, strong Greek coffee, to the practically inhaled variety that purveys on the streets of Zagreb. I’ve enjoyed them all, though I’ve drawn the line at coffee and a cigarette for breakfast.

Now though, I need lashing of lattes I can linger over a little longer in the British autumn. I’ve been back home less than 24 hours, and I’ve had two already. Bliss.

Cooking a meal

returning home to the UK

I’ve been to my UK equivalent of this place this morning. With fewer sausages.

The simple pleasure of cooking food. The food on my travels has been plentiful in the extreme and tasty to boot, but the freedom of making my own dishes is calling me. I’ve been to my local deli, butcher and greengrocer this morning to stock up.

Going for a run

Steps up to numerous castles in Albania and up the 498 steps of Torre degli Asinelli in Bologna have been good for my fitness, but only in a sporadic kinda way.

Plus I’ve walked everywhere; but … I miss the gym. God, there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write. I’ll be buying pay-as-you-go membership for the couple of months until my next trip.

Speaking the same language

In Albania I reacquainted myself with school-girl German and Italian in an attempt to find a mutual language in which to converse. I got by. Kind of. However, I felt a bit rubbish when I was only able to communicate in basic greetings – which has been the whole month if I’m honest. And knowing the Albanian for car wash hasn’t got me too far.

Catching up with my friends

I’ve missed you 🙂 I have a pub-filled social calendar for the rest of this week, where I’ll be raising a toast or two:

[quote]Here’s to journeys near and far, short and long; to the people we meet on the way, and to those we come home to.[/quote]

Cheers!

What have been your experiences of returning home after a trip? Do you find it easy or difficult to readjust?