We were last in Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 2009. If you really want you could check out my blog post at travelsinat25.blogspot.com. Then even though the Bosnian War had finished in 1995 the country was still very war damaged, bullet holes and mortar shells in buildings, abandoned houses and danger signs about un-exploded mines on the sides of the roads.
Now in 2019, nearly 10 years later there is a definite difference in the look and feel to this country. New building going on is always a good sight.
From 1992 to 1996 Bosnia was the Syria of it’s day. Some 100,000 people died, more than 2 million displaced, in the three way war between the countries communities, it’s Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, it’s Catholic Bosnian Croatians, and it’s Muslims or Bosniaks as they are sometimes referred.
Sarajevo was one of the worst hit cities, with the Serb led Yugoslav army made a near unbroken ring from the hills around the city, thereby laying siege to the Bosnian capital. For close to four years tanks and machine guns shelled major buildings.
On average more than 300 artillery and mortar shells landed in the non Serbian areas and on the worst days, it was 3000 shells. No place was spared, schools, hospitals, markets, playgrounds, libraries and government buildings all were targeted. While years of litter and garbage lay rotting in the streets, snipers positioned in high rises or on the hills and shot civilians dead on their way to work and school.
In 2009 we visited the famous tunnel that was hand dug under the airport runway that was used to take badly injured out and bring in much needed food and water.
Western forces finally stepped in after a particularly bad mortar attack on a marketplace in Sarajevo, resulting in 68 dead and 200 wounded civilian men, woman and children, finally after a series of bombing attacks on Belgrade Serbia, the Serbian troops started to pull back.
The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success, war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. However the political system that was imposed after the peace deal, with believe it or not three Presidents that rotate seats every eight months. That’s one president from each main ethnic group, Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Orthodox Serbs and the Croatians, and three official languages, ten Cantons all with their own local government officials even three separate Police forces, it’s complex and expensive to say the least.
A local we spoke to said “Most countries just have one idiot in charge, but we have three”
But I don’t want you think it’s all doom and gloom here. The countryside is beautiful with lush green hills, deep gorges that flow with ice cold, turquoise coloured snow melt, spectacular waterfalls. There are ancient hill forts, old Ottoman tombs and monasteries to visit, and the ever present, five times a day call to prayer from the mosques spiky minarets, which I particularly like.
Tour buses have found Mostar and it’s lovely bridge, where years ago when we were there it was deserted, now you can barely move. But these tourists all help the economy by hopefully spending money, even if it’s just lunch or an ice cream, it all helps.
You can see and feel the difference as soon as you cross the
border from Albania into Montenegro.
There is the towering mountains which give the country it’s
name – Crna Gora in Montenegrin or Monte Negro in Venetian/Italian, meaning
It doesn’t feel so repressed and it’s people not so downtrodden
looking, homes and gardens are better maintained or perhaps it is that most
Montenegrins actually have a home.
This stunning Balkan country lies on the Adriatic Sea
nestled in between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo.
The landscape is dramatic with high mountains that dip their
toes into the clear azure blue sea, many National Parks for hiking, canyoning, rafting,
climbing etc., and quaint little old seaside fisherman villages. They even have what they call ’Air Resorts’
where you can go and stay in a wood cabin, relax and just breath the fresh
Our first night was in Ulcinj, where we parked high on a
hill, overlooking the harbour and opposite the Stari Grad or old town, that at
night it looked like fairyland sparkling with lights.
We slowly worked our way up the coast via Budva, apparently the ‘party capital’ with beach bars and the Sea Dance music festival in July, right on the beach, which is part of the EXIT festivals.
Too many Kontiki type tour buses there for us so we left the coast to drive over the mountain to Cetinje, the old capital city. The President of Montenegro has his residence there, and I had my hair washed, cut and blow-dried for 7 euro, and I’m really happy with it!
KOTOR was the only place I had heard about in Montenegro,
and the next place we visited.
Wedged dramatically between it’s 1,000m, nearly vertical
cliffs, and at the end of the Bay of Kotor is it’s charming Old Town, with old
city walls that run up the steep mountainside. It’s Middle Ages maze like
cobbled streets once home to fisherman, is now filled with museums, churches, touristic
gift shops, and café strewn squares, it’s bit like a mini Dubrovnik.
Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of touristy stuff every now
and then, but when three massive cruise ships are all taking advantage of the
deep Bay of Kotor on the same day, it makes these tiny towns very busy.
But location wise you have to say it’s pretty impressive, especially when to get there from our previous couple of day’s stop at Cetinje, you have to cross over a mountain range, then descend through the clouds and around thirty odd switchbacks, with most of the road barely wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone 2.3m wide Hermione.
There were a few white-knuckle moments when either us or the on-coming car had to squeeze by, and we always seemed to be on the drop off the mountain side when this happened.
There wasn’t a lot of choice with parking at Kotor, but
eventually we found a space large enough in an overpriced lot, and went for a
wander, got thrown out of the museum grounds for eating our lunch on it’s stone
steps, looked at all the overpriced tourist trash, then drove a few km’s down
the road to the lovely little village of Perast.
Despite having only one main street, the tiny town old of Perast has so much charm. With it’s grand old palazzo’s many of which are now exclusive hotels or beautifully renovated private homes, all with the perfect positioning sitting at the apex of the inner bay, looking straight down the narrow channel leading eventually to the sea.
It’s most famous landmarks aren’t on land at all, but two small islands with equally peculiar histories. I negotiated a great overnight parking spot, on the hilltop overlooking those islands for 10 euro which included a return boat trip each to see Our Lady of the Rock.
Our Lady of the Rock Island, which was artificially created
in 1452 around a rock where the image of the Madonna was found. I quietly joined in with a tour group (Brian
was looking at boats) and listened to the history of the island and in the
church saw an embroidered cloth icon of the Madonna that was made with human
hair, a little creepy. Every year on the
anniversary of the finding of the image, the locals row over with stones to
continue the building task.
The other island, called Sveti Djordje (St George’s Island)
rises from a natural reef. It has a Benedictine monastery and a cemetery that
is said to be cursed. For obvious reasons
we didn’t go there.
The weather is calling for rain for the next week, so now
it’s the big decision to head north into Croatia, or NE to Bosnia and
Herzegovina, you will just have to wait for the next blog post to see where we
You may wonder why we decided to visit Albania, and
truthfully over the past couple of weeks we have often thought the same thing.
Especially the day in Tirana when Brian was verbally and physically assaulted after being accused of being German. Brian was more surprised, and not hurt at all by the push to his shoulder. Later on we saw the same deranged guy with a bloody nose, so he obviously has serious mental or drinking/drug problems.
Albania is poor, very poor and it’s not un-common to see
family’s, Mum, Dad and a couple of children going through the dumpsters looking
for anything they can use or sell. It’s
terribly sad to see.
The Balkans have been inhabited since the 12th
century B.C, originally by the Illyrians, then the Romans, Byzantines and
Turks, and this only brings us to the 15th century A.D.
World Wars 1 and 11 and it saw occupation again, becoming a
battleground for the Germans and the Allied Forces.
But it was the Stalinist regime in the mid 1940’s under which it really struggled. For more than forty years Albania was isolated as the then leader Hoxha, was unable to establish partnerships with the Soviet Union, China or Yugoslavia. Albania was under one of the most repressive communist totalitarian regimes in history. It was nearly impossible to travel to or from Albania. Religion was forbidden, and in 1976 the country officially declared itself agnostic. I think that North Korea probably has more trade partners and diplomacy than Albania did 30 years ago.
Finally, in 1992 it emerged from the shackles of totalitarianism,
and while the country has fought hard to catch up, sadly it still has a fair
way to go.
It is only during the past 10- 15 years that people learnt to drive here, (though I must say they are scary drivers), as under communist rule you needed an official permit to own a car. We were told that in a span of 45 years only two permits were given to non-party members. Because there weren’t many cars the government didn’t see the need for new or better roads, so most are in dismal condition. Poor Hermione has bumped around potholes as big as swimming pools, and over some of the worst roads we have seen since Sicily.
Only the very rich, and or urban mafia have cars, usually German makes, Mercedes, Audi and VW. Many others still use a horse and cart, or a bicycle, some are fortunate to have an old motor bike or scooter to get around.
So, to get around most locals use the Furgons, a small
private people mover about the size of a Ford Transit van, some with windows,
some not. You just stand by the side of
the road and wait until one goes by, and if he has a spare seat he stops, if
not you wait a little longer.
It’s not un-common to see an older man or woman standing in
the nice long grass by the roadside while their milk cow or the family horse or
donkey has a feed. Or the council worker
with his shovel strapped to his bicycle on his way to fill a pothole or tidy
the garbage by the roadside.
FOOD & DRINK
Byrek are my favourite snack/lunch here, they are a meat,
feta and or spinach filled flatbread, but not made with filo pastry like their
Brian tried a couple of local beers, but none took his
fancy. They do make a traditional Raki
from either grapes or a variety of fruit, it’s very strong, and not as good as
Ouzo in my opinion.
THE BIG QUESTION, SHOULD YOU VISIT ALBANIA?
Albania does have natural beauty and that would have to be it’s greatest drawcard.
Rugged mountains, even one mountain range called the ‘Accursed Mountains’ if you dare to hike or climb them. Lakes and rivers, villages where time seems to have stood still, a few archaeological sites, even fewer places to stay in your motorhome.
We stayed in everything from parking garages and lots, to a small campground by a lake, which was really just some extra space in the parking lot of a restaurant.
Tirana, it’s capital has an interesting 3,000 sq metre Cold
War bunker, built under the main square in the 1970’s for the cities political
elite, and with concealed entrances from some it’s government buildings. It remained a secret for much of it’s
existence, and now is a fascinating museum about living under the regime,
torture and spies.
On the hillsides, beaches and sometimes in the middle of a farmers field you will see small concrete domes, often with rectangular slits. Tens of thousands of these bunkers were built from 1950 to 1985, constructed from around 5 tonnes of concrete each and almost possible to destroy, built specifically to withstand a full tank assault and to repel enemy invasion most are still here. Hoxha actually had the architect stand inside the prototype bunker and had a tank fire at it to test the strength and design, the architect emerged with shell shock but no other injuries, so the OK was given to go ahead with the bunkers.
It’s also very inexpensive, a huge loaf of bread costs about .80 cents, and my byrek’s only .50 cents each. A waiter in a café told us his wage for working 8 hrs a day, 6 days a week was less than 1,000 euro a month, or approximately $1500 Australian dollars, a month!. People can barely afford to live, let alone have a vacation.
So probably unless you wanted a direct driving route from Northern Greece to Montenegro, I’d probably say give it few more years, or go through Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Albania is trying hard to catch up, and maybe with help from
the UN or admittance to the EU someday, the way of life here wouldn’t be so
hard for it’s people.
One of the best things about travel is getting to know more
about places you have only heard about.
We knew little about Albania, and now you know a little
more, and we can say we do as well, and we also have a couple of new stamps in
It not often you get to visit a brand new country.
The Republic of North Macedonia was only officially declared a new country in February 2019, after many years of high drama between Greece and Macedonia.
Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman heritage this ‘new country’ has a fascinating and complex history.
It is landlocked between, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Serbia and has been fought over for generations.
After the end of the Balkan War in 1913, Ottoman control was brought to an end and Macedonia was divided between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. Then after WW1 it was incorporated and renamed Yugoslavia. Then WW ll happened and afterwards poor old Macedonia became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and we all know what it means when those words ‘Socialist’ appear. It wasn’t until the USSR was officially dissolved in 1991 that many Eastern European countries were freed from Soviet domination.
So now by gaining it’s ‘freedom’ and a new name The Republic of North Macedonia it has joined the UN and is working towards becoming a member of the EU. Maybe they will give them the UK’s place if Brexit happens.
So after your history lesson I will now tell you why we decided to come here. We took the short drive, (about 30kms) from Albania really just to see Lake Ohrid which I had heard about. At 300m deep, 34 kms long and three million years old, Lake Ohrid is among Europe’s deepest and oldest, and is UNESCO World Heritage listed as the most biodiverse lake of it’s size in the world.
The area is not very developed tourism wise which we really like, although yesterday surprisingly we saw a bus load of Japanese tourists. Language is a slight problem with not much English spoken, and to try and say words in Macedonian my tongue gets tied in knots. But when you say you are from Australia their faces light up, and most say ‘friend, uncle, brother’ etc., now lives in Australia.
We have decided to stay a few more days to enjoy this blissfully quiet area, full of walking trails, the beautiful lake that we are camped 20m from, sunsets and cheap beer. What more do you need?
Close to where we stopped for Easter is Fort Roupel, so
always looking for a history lesson we take the short drive to have a look at
The fort, including six kms of underground tunnels, was built in 1914 in Central Macedonia, Greece on it’s northern border with Bulgaria. It became part of the fortifications of the Metaxas Line in the 1930’s and became famous for it’s defence during the German invasion in April 1941.
For three days the fort held off the attacking Germans and
was only abandoned by it’s men after the surrender of the Greek army in
Thessaloniki and Athens.
The soldier giving our tour was very proud to tell us that although the Greek army were heavily outnumbered, and bombed by stukas, they were not conquered, but forced to surrender obeying orders from it’s higher authorities, and rather than leave their weapons for the German army, they threw them into the river.
Every year in May there is a re-enactment of this epic battle. Apparently planes fly overhead and real weapons are used to maximise the feeling of the battle. Georges Gauthier, this may be of interest to you.
The Orthodox Greek Easter based on the Julian calendar is
not at the same time as our Christian Easter, this year it is actually one week
later, and starts on Thursday April 25th.
Easter or Pasha as it’s referred to in Greece is by far the most important feast for Greeks. It’s not only spiritually related, it relates to Spring and nature shedding it’s winter cloak. Bright green new growth on the trees and vines and wildflowers are in bloom everywhere.
On Great Thursday Easter preparations begin with the dyeing
of hard-boiled eggs red and baking a sweet brioche like bread. If someone offers you a red egg, they expect
you to tap it against theirs, and the one holding the last egg to break is said
to have good luck for the following year.
We are in the small village of Prosotani for Good/Great Friday, camped by a river with the only noise being the frogs that croak all night. Around 7.30pm we head into town and while having a glass of wine in the square meet a local couple, Stella and Yanni. They now live and work in Stockholm, as many of the young people of these villages do, work being scarce. Yani and Brian stay in the square while Stella and I go to the church, to light a candle, then follow the procession, which is traditional.
Great Friday has solemn processions of men carrying a symbolic coffin called the Epitaphios that’s decorated with flowers, led by four priests singing/chanting the way. Even the band that led the procession was playing cheerless music.
The church bells rang mournfully all day and well into the night.
Great Saturday is celebrated starting with midnight mass,
the church in darkness to start then candles are lit one by one, until the
whole church is bathed in candlelight.
Then people go back home carrying their candles to eat a traditional
meal of lamb soup called magiritsa and crack some more red eggs.
Easter Sunday is a celebration with families gathering to have
fun. To dance and eat lamb cooked on the spit, roasted potatoes, tzatziki,
Greek salad and plenty of wine, ouzo and tsiporou (a local distilled spirit
like rakia, or grappa).
We have moved onto another village for Easter Sunday called Kerkini, staying alongside a huge lake and in the grounds of a restaurant called Elodia. There is one other couple in their MH here as well, Judit and Ian from the UK that have spent their winter in Southern Greece, and are now on their way north, via Hungary then on home to the Yorkshire Dales.
Easter Sunday starts early, and Ian has offered to help by starting roasting of the two lambs and two goats at 5am, so they will be ready for lunch. The meat had to be basted with olive oil and lemon juice every ten minutes, so we took our turn as well.
The lunch was delicious, and we will never forget our Greek Easter.
Kavala is our last stop before turning north and inland
towards the Bulgarian border, leaving the coastal route.
Kavala’s history goes back to Palaeolithic times, and has been fought over by the Thracians, Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans and finally given back to Greece in 1912.
All those inhabitants over the generations have not only
left their mark with great fortified castles, amphitheatres, churches and aqueduct’s,
but to this day you can see and feel the ethnical melting pot here.
We spend the night camped next to the UNESCO Ancient Walled City of Philippi. For the most part the area that surrounds the archaeological site has been preserved intact from antiquity to this day, so the structures and finds in the museum are remarkable.
Founded in 360 BC and originally called Krinides. Not long after, in 356 BC King Philip ll (Alexander’s father) conquered the city due to the strategic location, and I’m sure it’s goldmines helped his decision. He then of course renamed the city Philippi, after himself.
42BC on the Philippi plains 200,000 men of the Roman armies faced each other in one of the largest Roman civil wars. The army of Julius Caesar supporters with Mark Anthony and Octavian, Caesar’s successor in command, fought and defeated the Republican army of Cassius and Brutus. The bloody outcome would decide the future of the Roman Empire and finally bring an end to the 500-year-old Roman Republic.
The Apostle Paul visited Philippi in 49 AD, baptising the first European Christians and founding the first Christian church, and event that has impacted the entire continent.
I have to stand a moment and try to imagine the momentous events that took place here. The battles of course with those well-known Roman legions, but also the events that took place in the theatres. Greece was home to great orators, debaters, and logicians like Aristotle who we know had a huge influence on Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, all of whom have been right here at one time.
This was a place of great learning, in fact milestones in the march of modern civilisation, and yet there was no one else here. We spent hours wandering the site, going to the wonderful museum, and had a chance to speak with an archaeologist photographing some of the ruins. This place deserves as much recognition as Delphi, but it’s not in the guide books, but if you ever find yourself in Northern Greece, we would recommend a visit to Philippi.
We are sitting at the top of the Halkidiki Peninsula, in
Thessaloniki, often referred to Poseidon’s Trident because of it’s shape.
It consists of three smaller peninsulas, Kassandra, Sithonia
Kassandra and Sithonia are mostly populated along the
coasts, with hidden coves and quiet sandy beaches that are quiet this time of
the year. The interiors of both being rugged, with thick pine forests.
Mount Athos and the area is considered holy ground, an autonomous republic run by monks and untouched by the passing of time. The whole peninsula is dotted with monasteries, ancient sites and relics with peak after peak named after their saints. Around 2000 monks live on the peninsula, growing their own vegetables and practising their religious beliefs as were done thousands of years ago. Women have been banished since 1060, and it’s only open by prior arrangement for men to visit.
So, we will spend the next couple of weeks on the first two peninsulas, Kassandra and Sithonia, and hopefully weather permitting, take a day cruise from Ouranopouli to see the monasteries.
Classicists and geologists disagree about the origins of Halkidiki. To the former, this is the scene of a battle between earthly giants and Olympian gods, a game of rock tennis that ended badly for the big guys. To the latter, it is the product of a volcanic embrace between geotectonic plates. Take your pick, but I much rather the classicist’s version.
Either way, the result on the west coast is a landscape of rugged red mountains plunging down to sandy coves, heavy with the scent of pine and flowering gorse, with the east coast all white sand beaches and quiet fishing villages.
Nea Poteidaiais where the Greek War of Independence started. It straddles the narrow neck of the Kassandra peninsula and is where we decide to spend the first couple of days. It’s a small village that’s population was totally wiped out during the war and even now has only a small family run supermarket, bakery, taverna, marina and a canal that was cut through the narrow piece of land, likely by the Romans to make access to the east coast easier, and it is that same canal, the harbour marina and the clear blue Aegean Sea we overlook. It’s lovely and quiet with the most action happening at the boat-yard across the canal where we watched one boat launched by a series of mobile sliding ramps and a tractor, and then another came in, the same way but in reverse. It was an exciting afternoon in Nea Poteidaia!
There are also more fishing boats anchored here than we have
seen since Portugal. The large trawlers, usually towing a smaller fishing boat,
go out around dusk returning early the next morning, so not sure if they are
catching fish or squid.
Peaks and valleys of the Sithonia peninsula offer us glimpses into the rural life of the locals with goat herds and bee hives around every bend. We are finding the most beautiful places to stop for free as well, quiet beaches with not another soul around, although we did get a visit from the local goat herd, about 100 of them, the big bells on leather collars around the necks of the billy’s announcing their arrival.
Wild heather, broom with it’s bright yellow flowers, gorse
and trees with their fresh spring foliage are everywhere, the colours vibrant.
We discover that this is also the Macedonian wine area so we
also seeing hillsides covered with terraced vineyards. We gave the local wine a try yesterday, and
it wasn’t too bad, well much better than I remember anyway.
It’s my birthday, and we had planned a boat trip around the Athos peninsula to see the monasteries. But instead of the usual sunny day we are used to waking to, it’s cloudy and dull and too windy for our planned boat ride. So instead we find a fantastic seafood restaurant, Ploton, in the little village of Nea Roda on the Sithonian peninsula. We share an appetizer of feta cheese with smoky eggplant, tomatoes and peppers on garlicy toast, then mains of squid stuffed with feta, herbs and roasted vegetables and grilled fresh sardines with lashings of olive oil and lemon. Brian mentioned that it’s my birthday to our waiter, and he bought us complimentary baklavas with a little bottle of sparkling wine. It has been a wonderful birthday in Greece, now I just need a little nap and maybe a shot of Ouzo instead of dinner. We find a great spot for the night about 500m from the restaurant, it’s on top of a hill and next to a beautiful white chapel.
This is my second birthday while we have been away, last year was Vouvray, in the Loire Valley and a visit to Monet’s Garden in France, now this time it’s Greece. We do already have a plan for next years, but I’m not telling you about it just yet.
We wake to a beautiful morning, blue skies with only a slight breeze, so the perfect day for a boat cruise to the holy mountain of Athos. It takes 3 ½ hours to cruise down the island and back, and although the boat isn’t allowed closer than 500m because of us women on board, it does give us the opportunity to see the monasteries.
Athos has no roads and all food not grown, or other supplies must be delivered by boat, and with the no females of any type allowed, human or animal that means even their eggs come by boat. The hills are covered with beautiful chestnut trees, pines and of course olive trees and the steep slopes are dotted by the 20 sometimes large and very ornate Byzantine monasteries.
The Russian Orthodox monastery has onion shaped domes in brilliant colours of turquoise, with apparently icons that perform miracles, and more gold than some countries have in their vaults.
We will take a few more days on what I call Poseidon’s Trident or Halidiki, enjoying this peaceful, un-spoilt and very non touristic area of Greece.
All around the countryside the hillsides are covered with
vineyards and tucked in between the vines are ruins. Like Stagirus where
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was born. Aristotle
was one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history and known as
the ‘Father of Logic’, he also tutored the young Alexander the Great.
The best part is finding the quiet and unspoilt beaches to
stay at, like ‘sculpture beach’, we named because of the giant rocks carved by
the sea into interesting wave like shapes.
Or the tiny fishing ports Aristotelis and Olimpiada to stop at. It’s also where we had the best mezze so far,
calamari, squid, mussels and tiny grilled white-bait like fish, accompanied by
home made dips, and garlicky toast, with Ouzo to wash it all down.
Halidiki has been fantastic place to spend the past three weeks. It’s quiet fishing villages, rugged interior with snow-capped mountains, white sand beaches and friendly locals, has been the highlight of this year so far.