Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Kosovo: Pristina

Europe's newborn nation, Kosovo
Tuesday 28 May: Taking the afternoon train to the Kosovo border I change trains and soon arrive in this new country's capital city, Pristina. With all the feel of a provincial town only the train driver and I disembark at the deserted station and there's not even a taxi in sight. I ask at the empty station bar, it's only a short walk to the centre of town.
Friday 31: Nine-foot tall lettering decorated with the flags of all the nations who accept Kosovo's legitimacy is Pristina's only monument, not a statue in sight. The Serbs gutted the city's museum before withdrawing so all it now houses is a sad assortment of small arms from the conflict.
I'm staying at Guesthouse Velania where an American UN worker befriends me. He's showing me to a good local restaurant when we bump into one of his Kosovan friends, Bujar Berisha, who in typical Muslim hospitality style insists that we eat at his home. I say yes but only if I can bring some beer as a gift. He reluctantly agrees as he has plenty of beer at home and I am a guest in his new hard fought-for country. The Berisha family live in a large comfortable apartment where his two loving kids are keen to practice their English. His wife is out so Bujar makes us a starter of olives and dried beef followed by a simple pasta dish and more beer. Bujar is the charismatic lead singer and front man of the region's most popular heavy metal band, Troja. Later his wife returns and the boys adjourn to the band's recording studios on the other side of town. Another band, Jericho, are there when we arrive, via a liquor store, with more beers. We talk of music and how challenging it was for young musicians in Tito's Yugoslavia to hear western bands - Beatles, Stones and Noel Redding (of the Hendrix Experience fame). There's much drinking, smoking and music until around midnight when Bujar drives us to his favourite bar. It's the one at the station, but now it's heaving. Everyone knows Bujar and beers come our way from all directions. At around 3:00am he drives us back to the guesthouse and gives me a Troja CD to remember him by, good evening, great Albanian Muslim guy.
Saturday 1 June: Bus to Tirana.
Slideshow of Pristina and videos of Troja playing Amaneti i Clownit and Mretnesha Kohe.

Sunday, 4 August 2013


Flying the flag over Ohrid Castle
Thursday 23 May: We have a bedroom each with shared kitchen in the clean but somewhat rundown Apartments Costa. It's next to the lake and centrally located in the old town of  Macedonia's favourite lakeside resort, Ohrid. Hiking around the lake shore and up the hill we soon find ourselves in the enthusiastically restored, 10th century, Car Samoil Castle with great views over the lake and town.
In the evening Tony reminds me of a lighthearted quiz game of Trivial Pursuits we played some years ago while on holiday in Etretat on the Normandy coast of France. It was the boys v. the girls and the dialogue went something like this:
Girls (reading the question): "What is the second most intelligent animal to man?"
Boys (in unison): "Woman."
Girls (laughing): "No, no you are not having that! It's Dolphins."
Tony (the quickest boy to respond): "That must make women third then!"
Saturday 25: Today we take a boat trip the monastery of Sveti Naum, with it's tiny Orthodox church, on the far side of the lake close to the Albanian border. In the evening I entertain Tony by playing six-nation rugby matches on my laptop. They are all England v. Scotland Calcutta cup tests at Murryfield and I don't seem to have downloaded any that England win. This is a pity as Tony is a keen England fan educated at Rugby school in the heart of England . . . "Come on Rory!".
Sunday 26: Following a rainy day-trip to the nearby town of Bitola where the Roman ruins hide an impressive mosaic we decide to dine at Sveti Sofia restaurant where we have enjoyed good food and great house red wine previously. However, our meal is interrupted when black limousines pull-up outside and large serious-looking men in black suits jump out and invade the restaurant. All with earpieces and jackets bulging with firearms they bustle a man to the rear and then sit down at the table next to two slightly alarmed Brits, us.
When we leave Tony, somewhat bravely, asks the waiter who he is. It's Tomislav Nikolić, Head of State and President of the Republic of Serbia. Good restaurant (no photos).
Slideshow of Ohrid.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Macedonia: Skopje

All new statues and an old bridge
Monday 20 May: Handy for the railway station and the city centre I've booked a twin room in tiny Motel Le Village which has just six rooms set around a grassy courtyard garden.
Tuesday 21: Today I take the shuttle bus to the airport to meet one of my old muckers, Tony, who is joining me for a short holiday. First we head along the Vardar River to the city centre then across the old stone bridge to Kale Fortress and the Gallery of Modern Art. This city has more statues than anywhere else I can think of, mostly of Macedonia's famous son, Alexander the Great. We stop for a beer (the first alcohol I've tasted in a month) then for a good messes lunch at Stara Gradska Kuca restaurant before strolling around town for more statue and people watching (well, mostly girl's bottom watching). It's great to see Tony again, I've not enjoyed good English speaking company for a while, even if it does come with a slight Brummy twang.
Monday 27: Returning from a few days in Ohrid we lunch, once again, at the Stara Gradska Kuca. Unfortunately it's fully booked in the evening and we end up drinking far too much Alexander the Great red wine elsewhere. How Tony manages to catch the 3:00am bus to the airport I'll never know.
Tuesday 28: The old copper-domed Ottoman hammam or Turkish baths now houses the National Gallery and I have a quick look around the fantastic interior before, once again, catching the train north.
Slideshow of Skopje.

Friday, 2 August 2013


Thessaloniki's trendy promanade
Friday 17 May: Another early train northwards, this time to the modern port and transport hub of Thessaloniki.
Saturday 18: I take time to look around the White Tower before taking the 5:00pm bus northwards over the border and into another new country - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Slideshow of Thessaloniki.