Posts Tagged ‘Macedonia’

The lack of direct flights to Montenegro had deterred me from visiting until I saw ‘Gateway City: Dubrovnik’ as a chapter of the Lonely Planet Montenegro guide – I could fly there, hire a car and cross the border in no time; I could even use my BA miles!  Then in the weeks before I left I had a bad feeling about the trip. There had been a lack of clarity from Avis about taking the car out of Croatia so I had visions of being stuck at the airport and since booking the hotel on the basis of one Tripadvisor rave review, a number of very negative ones had turned up……….well, in the end it turned out more than OK; it was a lovely trip.


Not only was there no problem taking the car into Montenegro, but they had the requested automatic and a brand new white Smart 2-seater nonetheless which I became rather fond of. The hotel proved to be excellently situated mid-way between the two nicest towns on Kotor Bay, Perast and Kotor, and very good value-for-money – I’d have paid £30 for the view from my balcony, but they threw in a large suite, free Internet access and breakfast. I was so bowled over by the view that I didn’t go anywhere on the afternoon I arrived; I just sat there looking at it, glass of wine in hand.


Montenegro is my seventh and final FYRO; a small mountainous country of less than 1m people bordering Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.  It was the last to declare independence by divorcing Serbia in 2006 and managed to do so without much protest; maybe Serbia was pre-occupied with Kosovo at the time, or maybe it was too small to bother. Given one of the consequences is that Serbia becomes land-locked, I’d have expected a fight.

Just south of the border with Croatia, a small inlet on the Adriatic coast leads to a bay and another inlet from this bay to another bay called the Bay of Kotor. If this was the rich Faroe Islands, there’d be a tunnel or bridges, but its not so the two narrow straights mean a ferry or 100 km+ drive. Steep rocky mountains fall into the water and the road hugs the waterside, going through or bypassing lots of small villages as it circuits the whole bay. The mountains are often reflected in the water that seems much more than a lake than the sea. It’s idyllic.


The first full day was spent driving the half of Kotor Bay I hadn’t driven to get to my hotel the day before. Perast was the first stop; it’s a delightful sleepy one-street town along the waterfront with two monastery islands off shore. Kotor followed, a walled town at the foot of the mountain on which the wall continues much higher to and from a fortress. Both are great to explore on foot and very different but with the same Venetian feel of much of Croatia. After this I headed to the Adriatic coast to take a look at the unfeasibly beautiful walled private island of Sveti Stefan, currently being reconstructed as a hotel, and Budva – a dreadful over-developed resort town but with a terrific walled old town with a citadel.


Day Two started with an extraordinary drive on a single-track road – ‘the back road’ – with more hairpin bends than I’ve ever encountered, 5000 feet up to the Lovcen National Park. The coastal views were spectacular and the autumnal colours simply beautiful. I climbed the 417 steps the mausoleum of a national hero-poet (yes, POET!), which despite a lovely sculpture wasn’t worth the panting on its own – but the views were even better, so I didn’t regret it. I ended the day in the old royal capital of Cetjine, which was a delightful sleepy and very moochable town.


Sunday started in somewhat surreal fashion with the only other guests having a conference in Italian and English about a chocolate manufacturing process over breakfast. Then as soon as I was on the road I found myself at the tail end of a convoy led by a car with a giant flag hanging out of the window and hazard lights flashing. I haven’t got a clue what it was about but I accepted the waves and blown kisses from onlookers as if I did. It turned a bit scary when we entered a tunnel and someone fired five shots from the window of one of the cars. I hung back and had lost them within a couple of miles. 


The usually reliable Lonely Planet sent me on a 2.5-hour detour to Ulcinj close to the border with Albania – one of their 15 highlights of Montenegro ‘A vibrant slice of Albanian culture beneath a cluster of minarets’. Well it was a premiere league dump! Fortunately, the day picked up significantly with a visit to Lake Skadar National Park and another extraordinary drive with more stunning views – of lakes, rivers and mountains this time, with the autumn colours more yellow and orange contrasting with yesterday’s reds and browns as it was lower and further south. The riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevica was a lovely spot to stop and take in the beauty of it all.


Just when I was wishing I was staying for a few days more, torrential rain arrived on the final morning to make me feel OK about going home. This really was a beautifully scenic country. The roads were dreadful and the standard of driving worse (they really don’t see the point of being able to see the road ahead when they overtake!) but I still loved the journeys. The food was good and the wine drinkable.

I’ve enjoyed all bar one of these FYRO’s (Serbia is the exception) but now I’ve visited them all and experienced their difference, it is so obvious that the break-up of Yugoslavia was inevitable.

There are an awful lot of photos for such a short trip, which tells you something about its beauty. Here they are…..

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Montenegro 2010
Montenegro 2010
Dec 31, 2001
by Gareth
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FYROM; trips of the tongue, doesn’t it? ‘But where is it’ I hear you ask! Well, it’s the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia which is currently lumbered with this acronym as the Greeks (when they’re not paying themselves too much, dodging taxes and upsetting Germans) don’t want it to be confused with their own province of Macedonia which once upon a time would have been joined with FYROM to constitute the home of Alexander the Great who went on to rule as far as India.
It’s one of seven new republics emerging from the break up of the big Y (as I have decided to rename it lest it offends any Yugos or Slavs who might have designs on the name). Like most of the others (though not Serbia) there is a sense of a new beginning – NATO and EU candidacy, inward investment, the emergence of local entrepreneurs, the return of exiles, and complicated coalitions (or is that somewhere else…..). Like all ‘new nations’, they’ve rediscovered ‘old heros’ like Mother Teresa and Alexander whilst they unceremoniously dump more recent ones like Tito. A land-locked nation of two million people bordered by TGPOM (the Greek Province of Macedonia), Albania, Bulgaria, and three other FYRO’s (Kosovo and Serbia) – mountainous, very green and welcoming.
We started out trip in the capital Skopje where a quarter of the population live. It’s not a particularly nice city, though it does have an old town which benefits from not (yet) having been gentrified. There’s a lot of re-building (some tasteful and some positively dreadful), some quirky modern architecture & street sculpture and some fine Ottoman inns and baths now used as galleries, university art faculties and museums. The more interesting old town is reached from the characterless new town by a pedestrian stone bridge, which was originally built some 1400 years ago.
The nearby ruins of Skupi (old Skopje) would need a lot of imagination and an archaeology degree to appreciate, though the Roman necropolis with tombstones in situ was rather special. The trip started to come alive at the monastery of St Panteleimon where the church frescos, with a palate of blue green and yellow, were simply gorgeous. This was followed by an introduction to Islamic kitsch at the painted mosque in Tetovo – a riot of colour inside and out which was more of a pleasure because it was so over-the-top rather than for its artistic merit – and a lovely walk in the Marka gorge to the church of St Andrew.
En route to our second base at Lake Ohrid, we made a long stop at the archaeological site of Stobi. It was vast and there was much to see, but the highlight to me was seeing c.500 people continue to excavate; their latest a complex site with nine civilisations one upon another. We got to see them piece together statuary heads and draw plans of the mosaics. It was thrilling to be at such an active dig.
Ohrid is a beautiful town on the shores of the lake of the same name that is almost 2000 feet above sea level and separates Macedonia from Albania. It is fed via a spring from Lake Prespa, which is 500 feet higher, and borders Albania plus Greece and in turn stars a new river that flows into the Adriatic. The town is set on three hills overlooking the lake and has city walls, a fortress, cobbled streets, Ottoman houses, an ancient theatre and lots of painted Byzantine churches. I loved it.
Our side trips included St George’s church at Kurbinovo, another painted Byzantine church, and the ruins at Heraklea where there were some truly terrific and possibly unique mosaics. Heraklea was in modern Bitola where we wandered through the town and had one of our very best meals. Along the lakeshore we visited the cave church at Kalista monastery and St Naum monastery, again with superb frescos. Here we were rowed along a lake that covers the spring that feeds Lake Ohrid. The colours were gorgeous and the water so clear you could see the bubbles of the spring on the bed.
Our final day saw us travel from Ohrid on a scenic overland journey through river gorges and alongside lakes and dams back to Skopje for our flight home.  The third day of rainy weather and anticipation of the likely cancellation of our flights due to volcanic dust (and therefore becoming stranded for even longer by the intended BA cabin crew strike beginning the following day) marred it a little, but spirits remained high and our stop at St John Bigorski to see the monastery, and in particular it’s carved iconostasis, lifted them even more. Despite the fact it wasn’t as old as all the others we’d visited, this seemed like a ‘proper’ working monastery and the iconostasis was truly spectacular.
To our surprise and delight we arrived home only 35 minutes late, the ash cloud having moved and the strike cancelled. (though my fallback plan of a second holiday revisiting Budapest had becom rather appealing!).
It was a very good trip, well organised with decent hotels and excellent (and largely healthy) food and wine. Lake Ohrid was my highlight and if it wasn’t three flights (or two and a 4-hour drive) away from London, I’d be recommending you go there for a long weekend PDQ. Watch this space for reports on the next FYR visit in less than four weeks time (volcanic ash and BA cabin crew permitting, of course). In the meantime, here are some photos from this trip:

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Macedonia 2010
Macedonia 2010
May 10, 2010
by Gareth
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