At the end of each month I am going to send out a summary of the highlights of the month. I will tell you about any travel bargains I’ve found and update you on our plans for upcoming trips and activities. Here is the summary for August 2017.

Eastern Europe Adventures Continue

I CANNOT believe another month has gone by already! I seems like only days ago we were enjoying our time in the executive lounge of the Hilton in Bucharest where we started August. That luxury was short lived though as we experienced our first long distance bus ride in the Balkans.

We have discovered that the buses are a whole other kettle of fish here. There don’t seem to be many bus stations as such, each bus company stops somewhere different, and we were very nearly a victim of this in Bucharest. Luckily we found the right street corner, and hailed the right bus, which dropped us off four hours later in Varna, Bulgaria.

Varna is a beachside resort town, and since we were there in the middle of summer it was bursting with visitors. We were staying in a brilliantly located hostel. It was new, modern, with a very minimalist industrial look to it. You know, polished concrete floors and exposed air conditioner ducts. This hostel only has private rooms, no dorms in sight. The rooms though, are literally as big as the bed! Clean, new, and not a single spare inch!

Varna

Yes, that is the whole room at Central Varna Hostel

It was okay though, because we spent most of our time out exploring or enjoying the beach, or in the common room mingling with others. The temperatures were in the high thirties everyday, so not melting was a priority, and the aircon here was good!

Varna

Sunset over the beach in Varna

The next stop was Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. We had a week here thanks to some sponsored stays at the Best Western Premier Sofia Airport and the Novotel Sofia. We had two nights at each, and in between we had three nights at a hostel. Both hotels were fantastic, but they were located a little way out of the city centre so we spent our time resting and working while there. We explored the city centre while we were staying at the hostel, including doing a free walking tour, and a second free food tour.

Sofia

The beautiful St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

For anyone who hasn’t heard of these free city tours, they are offered in many places and are a fantastic way to have a first look at a city and work out where else you might like to go. Generally the tours don’t go into any museums or attractions, but they often will stop outside them and give you a little information such as costs and opening hours. The tours aren’t entirely free though, they are tip-based. At the end you tip the guide based on what you think they are worth. Sometimes we get ourselves into a bit of a pickle here, because if we have just arrived in a new country, we often haven’t got our head around the currency yet. My tip is to ask at your accommodation what a reasonable amount is – but we seem to forget to do this sometimes too!

The free food tour run by Balkan Bites was a first for us – and apparently theirs was the first free tour anywhere in the world. The food tastes were only a couple of mouthfuls of each, but we went to five places and tried eight different foods/drinks. Look out for a blog post coming soon on the tour.

Sofia Yellow Brick Road

I found it! The Yellow Brick Road is in Sofia!

From Sofia we moved on to Skopje, our first stop in Macedonia (FYROM). This is another one of those cities where tourism is just starting to take off. Mostly we met European/American/Australian backpackers, but everyone was enjoying this quirky city. It is most notable for the statues it has in every conceivable space. We could not walk ten metres without seeing another statue. And they were of the weirdest things. A beggar – sure, lets have a statue! What about the bull that is usually in financial districts in other major cities? No worries, let’s put him right outside a shoe store!

Skopje

One of the crazy Skopje statues

We started our visit with another free walking tour, and learned, amongst other things, that Skopje is actually the birthplace of Mother Teresa! “But she’s Albanian” I hear you say, and yes, she was. Back when she was born the borders were a little – shall we say – fuzzy, but even today there are a lot of people who live within the borders of Macedonia that identify as Albanian.

Skopje

Skopje has some beautiful bridges and buildings like these.

The Skopje main square, with Alexander the Great statue and fountains for summertime fun

We did some short visits out of the city to Matka Canyon and the Millennium Cross, both of which meant negotiating the Skopje public transport system. The system seems to be efficient and well run – but it is really difficult to find information, particularly in English. It is also a requirement to buy a transport card to pay for the trips (you cannot pay on the bus) and that was a whole challenge in itself!

Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon

Millennium Cross

The biggest crossing the world sit’s atop a mountain overlooking Skopje

Skopje

Skopje has double decker buses, just like London.

Next up was Ohrid, a local holiday town on the banks of – funnily enough – Lake Ohrid. The town seems to have a zillion old churches, all of them at the top of big hills! We went to a few of them, but those hills became tiring after a while! It was so nice at the end of the day to enjoy dinner on the lake and watch the stunning sunsets.

Lake Ohrid

Sunset over Lake Ohrid

Ohrid

One of Ohrid’s many churches

Our favourite day was a trip to the Monastery of St Naum. It was a 90 minute boat ride each way, and to start our day well, we accidentally got a free trip. Simon went to pay, and was waved onto the boat and told to pay later. We walked onto the boat right after a tour group, and like them, were handed tickets. During the boat trip our tickets were checked, but again, no money was taken from us. Same on the return journey. We concluded that we probably shouldn’t have been given the tickets when we got on, on the tour group should have got them.

Monastery of St Naum

Approaching the Monastery of St Naum from the lake

A monastery doesn’t sound all that exciting, and on the boat trip over I did wonder why everyone seemed to have towels with them. On arrival we discover not only is it a monastery, but a beach resort too. It was a nice hot day, so I was kicking myself that I hadn’t done some proper research beforehand. Still, we had a relaxing day, even if I did get sunburnt on the boat trip each way. I will also have a blog post about St Naum’s up soon too.

Empty loungers ready and waiting

A crazy 5am bus trip took us into country sixteen of our trip – Albania. We were meant to spend four nights in Tirana, but a little bit of drama as we tried to get to Shkodër meant we ended up staying a fifth night.

Tirana

The Tirana Pyramid

Tirana

The “I Love Tirana” sign

For the first four days we stayed in the luxurious Sheraton. This is the only “brand name” hotel in Tirana, and people like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair have stayed there. The best bit for us though, was the pool! The temperatures were still up in the high thirties. We just weren’t getting any relief, so we spent our afternoons by the pool. We would go out in the morning, come back, relax, then go out again in the evening. Tirana is another up-and-coming tourist city. The Albanian people have suffered a lot in the last century, and they still have some way to go, but the corner is being turned. Right outside the Sheraton they are building a big new stadium, and so many people seem to be optimistic that it’s a sign of better things to come.

Tirana

The pool at the Sheraton in Tirana.

Tirana

The new bazaar area in Tirana is full of colour

Food in Albania is crazy cheap. We have been eating dinner for $10-15AUD for two of us, including a glass of beer and wine. I have discovered another Turkish specialty, Burek, that has spread across the former Ottoman Empire. It’s layers of flaky pastry with meat, cheese, spinach or vegetables inside. One piece is more than I can eat, and costs about $1AUD. Lunch is cheap and easy!

Burek

The street food of the Balkans – Burek

Right now I am writing this in Shkodër, a town in northern Albania not far from the border with Montenegro. As I said, getting here was a bit of a challenge. On our first attempt, we decided to go with the cheap option, a furgon. These minivans run around the countryside any time of the day or night. The basic idea is you find the one going where you want to go and get in. Once it is full, off you go! As we arrived at the furgon station, Simon and I swear the guy yelled out Shkodër. We repeated it back, all was good, so off we went.

It wasn’t too long before I thought, hang on, we should have turned there, but I thought maybe we were doing a detour through the coastal town of Durres. I voiced my doubts to Simon when we had been heading south for about ten minutes without any sign of stopping. This did not seem right. By the time the bus stopped and we could question the driver, we were about 200km away from Shkodër in the wrong direction! The driver of course swore he asked us if we were going to Vlores. Now how we could get that and Shkodër mixed up I am yet to figure out! The driver also was able to suggest accommodation for us in Vlores, and was so sorry there were no buses to Shkodër that day! He was also a little disappointed that we jumped in another furgon and headed straight back to Tirana. Now I couldn’t swear that he purposely mislead us, after all, on further inspection we had gone to the Vlores Furgon Station, where all the cars went to Vlores, but, like I said, how did we mishear Vlores for Shkodër??

We did it all again the next day, and arrived safely in Shkodër by car, with various other passengers jumping in and out along the way. We shared the backseat with a mother and child, all tightly squeezed in to bake for two hour trip. This unofficial transport system can be very efficient, if you can figure out how to work it!

Our last day in Albania and the last day of August was spent looking around Shkodër. We did yet another free walking tour in the morning with an interesting and knowledgable guide. I have to say though, unfortunately there is not a whole lot to see in Shkodër. It has a nice cafe scene, and is also working on it’s tourism offerings. It is notable for having a cycling culture and no ones seems to know how it came about as nowhere else in Albania has as many bicycles.

Shkodër

Shkodër has a big bicycle and cafe culture

We capped off the day with an evening tour to the castle – yes, like all good European towns, Shkodër has a castle on a hill – to watch the sun go down.

Shkodër

From the top of the castle we could see these bushfires burning about 15km away!

Coming Up

Tomorrow we travel to Budva, another beach resort, this time in Montenegro. We plan then to move through, Podgorica, Sarajevo, Mostar, Zadar, Split, Hvar, and finally end up at Dubrovnik at the end of September. We are really looking forward to meeting up with our friends Rob and Tavia who are holidaying in the area.

And finally, after five and a half months, we will be leaving Europe early in October. I originally thought we would only spent around ten weeks, three months at the longest in Europe, but it has been a fun and interesting adventure travelling around the Balkans. We have not been bored for a minute – except maybe during the excruciatingly long train and bus trips – and still leave feeling like there is so much we haven’t seen. We had to draw a line though, or we would still be here when is comes time to go home to Australia. So, on October 3rd, we fly to Istanbul, to start the Middle Eastern part of our journey.

Catching Up

In case you missed them, here are my August blog posts:
July 2017 Summary
Summer in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria
Travel Diaries – Salzburg and Vienna
The State Hall, Vienna’s Beautiful Library
I went to Paris – and didn’t go inside the Louvre
Travel Diaries – Bratislava
Travel Diaries – Brno

Don’t forget to follow along on social media where you will see some content that does not make it onto my blog.
Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/josiewanders
Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/josiewanders
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Pinterest – http://www.pinterest.com/josiewanders

Blogging Wins

Last month I mentioned that I was a month behind with my blog posts, now I am even more behind! We need to find somewhere really boring to hole up for a while and catch up. I just don’t know where that somewhere will be.

We have had a few more sponsored stays this month, with Simon doing the majority of the work on those. It is a nice relief though to get stays at nice four or five star places in between our usual AirBnBs or hostels. Please have a look at the reviews I have linked through this post and check out some of these great hotels.

I was so close – but yet so far – to having my best ever blogging month in terms of page views. Just 10 views short! I would absolutely love it if you would go back and check out any posts that you may be interested in – let’s make September the best month yet! Seriously, if you haven’t read about Brno, have a read. Quirkiest place ever!

Until next month, take care.

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