Kosovo lies landlocked in the centre of the Balkans, With a population under 2 million. It is bordered by Serbia (north and east), North Macedonia (southeast), Albania (southwest), and Montenegro to the west.
Its capital and largest city is Pristina.
In about 1950 the Serbian/Albanian population mix in Kosovo was about 50/50, today it is 5/95. Kosovo is the newest country, having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The day of that declaration it unveiled the newborn monument. At the unveiling the monument was signed by the President and Prime Minister of Kosovo, followed by 150,000 citizens celebrating their independence.
By the time we had arrived the shine and gloss may have worn off the idea of being a sovereign nation for some. Somebody had come in late at night and moved the letters around so that it now read No New BR with the words broken republic printed an the letters.
The earliest historians can trace back evidence of settlement in Kosovo to the stone age. There are indications that cave dwellings might have existed, such as Radivojce Cave (Drin River), Grnčar Cave (near Viti) municipality and the Dema and Karamakaz Caves near Peja.
The strategic position of the nation coupled with the abundant natural resources has made the area favorable for the development of human settlements throughout history. There are hundreds of archaeological sites identified throughout Kosovo.
Pristina is the capital and it is a safe and easy place to travel in and around. There are not a lot of attractions and activities to see and enjoy but the ones they have are ok. The public transportation is frequent, cheap and reliable with majority of buses air conditioned.
As we came in fairly late in the afternoon and there was not too much to see and do in town we decided to cool off in our hotel before heading out to dinner. We picked a local Italian joint nearby. This was our first introduction to just how cheap this place was. I ordered a pasta and a small (22cm) pepperoni pizza while Jill just had a Margarita pizza. And these were washed down by two beers each. Total bill was 13.80 euros which is $23.17 aussie. $23 for two pizzas, 4 beers and a pasta. That is just crazy.
The next morning we were up, breakfasted and on the bus to town to see the sights. The bus fare was 50 cents for a one way or 80 cents for a 24 hour ticket for as many trips as you wanted. We rode the bus getting off on Bill Clinton Boulevard near the statue of Bill Clinton. This was done to thank former U.S. President for his help during their struggle with the government of Yugoslavia.
From here we wandered up the hill towards the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa. It was opened in 2010 on the anniversary of her death. This is about the 4th country in a row that is claiming a great affinity to Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje (hence their claim) of Kosovar/Albanian descent (that’s them covered) but she took off at 18 and was never seen again in this part of the world. So the attempts to claim her throughout the Balkans seems a bit of mystery.
From here, the road was blocked off for a festival leading its way down to the park and the incredibly odd and controversial National Library of Pristina. The current building began in 1982 and consists of a total 99 domes of different sizes and is entirely covered in a metal fishing net. It has been described by many as the ugliest building in the world.
After this you find yourself at a long pedestrian mall, full of the usual shops, businesses, statues, restaurants and cafes. Nothing really to see and tourism hasn’t really kicked in yet. But it is neat and attractive and a pleasant place to stroll.
Following the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and no longer under Serbian rule, Kosovo Albanians in 2001 erected a monument within the centre of Pristina to Skanderbeg. He was a medieval Albanian who fought against Ottoman forces in the 1400’s.
HEROINAT is a statue opposite the Newborn statue that depicts the face of a typical Albanian woman using 20,000 pins.
Each pin represents a woman raped during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999. The pins are at different heights, creating a portrait in relief.
That pretty much did it for Pristina. There were a few mosques around the traps, the odd statue and a church. We did find one local beer and managed to sample another couple of new ones but they were from elsewhere.
Bulgaria is a southern Balkan country bordered by Romania (north), Serbia and North Macedonia (west), Greece and Turkey to the south.
Bulgaria is renowned for its diverse terrain that includes the Black Sea coastline, a mountainous interior and rivers, including the Danube. Based near the European crossroads it has long been a cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences.
Before I get into the exploring, I need to talk about first impressions. This place is fantastic. We got off the plane and onto the Metro for a run into town for our hotel. A slight mishap with the ticket scanning saw me through the barrier and Jill stuck on the other side. Seeing the dilemma some random woman came up and swiped her card, letting Jill through and just wearing the cost.
We then got to our hotel and were met by the friendliest and most helpful dude that we have come across thus far (and that bar has been set pretty high). This friendliness was genuine and extended the entire time through our stay. So much so that on the morning that we were due to leave he even offered to wait around for us (after his overnight shift) and drive us to the bus station, so that we didn’t have to lug our heavy bags.
Our room had a fridge so we popped out to the shop on the corner and bought 4 large beers (2x500ml and 2×1 litre) and a soft drink each and got change from $12 Aussie for the lot.
I’m really gonna like this place.
Sofia is the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. It’s in the west of the country, below Vitosha Mountain. The city’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet occupation. When doing our early research it looked a bit light on, but on arrival we were happy to see that there was much more on offer than the tourist blurbs suggest.
Hopping off the Metro we landed right on top of one of the listed landmarks, the Lions Bridge.
Well that was easy.
It is a bridge over the Vladaya River that was built 1889–1891 and connects the Central Railway Station with the city centre.
It has 4 very large lion statues on it.
Just around the corner from our hotel, we randomly happened upon the Church of St Paraskeva which is the third largest church in Sofia.
It is a Bulgarian Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Paraskeva,
We were aiming for something else but sure enough this popped up and was pretty cool.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was what we were actually aiming for. It is one of the 50 largest Christian churches in the world taking up an area of 3,170 square metres and being able to hold 5,000 people inside. Construction started in 1882 but most of it was built between 1904 and 1912. The cathedral was created in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 when Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.
Virtually across the road, you find the Saint Sofia Church which is the oldest church in Sofia. The floor of the church is covered with Early Christian flora and fauna-themed mosaics.
Just down the hill a bit and you come across Saint Nikolas Russian Church (Tsurkva Sveta Nikolai).
It was built in 1882 on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed during the Russian liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.
Having ticked those boxes we hunted for dinner but were rejected from the first place (Armenian) as I was dressed like a grotty backpacker. They claimed that they were full but really they didn’t want the likes of us in there. So we went somewhere else, got online and made a reservation for the next night, where we dressed similarly. Having done all of that, their snootiness did not translate into good enough food to justify the price (it was OK) and as a protest, they made sure that their service sucked.
A later check of reviews from other people found many similar experiences.
On our walk back from dinner (the first night) we stumbled upon the Opera House that we had walked right past and completely missed on the way up the hill (it was tucked around a corner).
Also on the walk home, we came across roving packs of teens and 20 somethings in the park looking for things to do. Some were drinking, but for the most part, they were just hanging out and discussing the issues of the day. Not protests as such, just exchanges of ideas.
National Museum of History is Bulgaria’s largest museum and was founded in 1973. Set at the end of a very nice park with some lovely fountains it was worth the short journey to get here.
St. Nedelya Church is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral dating back to the 10th century. It has been destroyed and reconstructed many times through the ages.
The Rotunda Church of Saint George is buried in a courtyard behind other buildings. It dates back to the late 3rd and early 4th centuries.
It was originally built as Roman baths. It is the oldest surviving building in Sofia.
The Regional History Museum is another landmark in the centre of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It was built in the early 20th century near the former Turkish bath and was used as the city’s public baths until 1986.
Almost across the road you will find the Banya Bashi Mosque. This was built in 1566, during Ottoman control of the city. It was built over natural thermal spas and at times you can see the steam rising from vents in the ground near the mosque walls.
The mosque has a 15m diameter large dome and prominent minaret.
The Sofia Synagogue opened in 1909 in the presence of King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. Buried away in a backstreet it is tough to get a good camera angle for better photos, sorry.
And just down the road and around the corner you will find the Gypsy Markets. The description that we got from our hotel dude was it was a bunch of gypsies selling the things they had stolen or found in the trash that day. He also suggested not eating there as the meat was likely to be cat or dog.
We were here on a Saturday and Sunday and for the most part, the place was closed. Shops and restaurants worked normal hours, none of this I must be open the whole time. It was an interesting throwback to when people had lives.
A little inconvenient at times but hey.
The only places that were always open were the alcohol and tobacco shops.
As with everywhere, the place had a bunch of statues dotted all over the place. But these ones seemed funkier and edgier than the usual ones that typically haunt big cities.
This is the Eastern Europe that we had been hoping for all along. The place is fantastic, cheap and friendly. The food is good and the sights are worth seeing without being mind-blowing. But mostly it is about the atmosphere. The place feels right. You could happily settle in and spend a month here just soaking up the culture and getting a sense of the place, and importantly you can do so without destroying the budget.
Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. It borders Bulgaria (south), Ukraine (north), Hungary (west), Serbia (southwest), Moldova (east), and the Black Sea (southeast).
Romania is particularly known for the forested region of Transylvania, long associated with the Dracula legend. It is ringed by the Carpathian Mountains and has many well preserved medieval towns and fortified churches and castles.
Human remains found in Romania have been dated back to 40,000 years ago, making them the oldest known homo sapiens in Europe.
We did not get near this one, but I thought that I should at least mention it and provide a few stolen tourist brochure shots. More rightly known as Bran Castle it was built in 1377 and attracts over 700,000 visitors a year.
Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania.
Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that fits Bram Stoker’s description.
The Bram castle website offers the opportunity to get in touch with the creatures of the night through an exhibition entitled ‘A history of dreads in Transylvania’. This provides a history of local myths and fears (their symbols and significance) and the way they were reflected in the historiography of the 15th century. And how they were then discovered and used by Bram Stoker in the 19th century for the creation of Count Dracula.
My relationship with Bucharest is a mixed one. I have both loved and hated it at the same time. My first introduction was magnificent, we hopped off the plane and straight onto a local transfer bus that delivered us (close enough) to our hotel – seamless. Our hotel was one of the best we had seen thus far and was clean and efficient. The room was luxurious with a fully functioning air conditioning unit (it was about 37 degrees) which pleased me nicely.
Bucharest is a big capital city (2.2 million), and it doesn’t really have much to make it stand out apart from the main two or three tourist attractions. While certain aspects of the place are stunning and photogenic, the majority are in a terrible state of disrepair. Billions have been spent on the presidential palace and constitution square etc. but the rest of the place is being left to crumble down upon itself.
Having relaxed and cooled off, we had to find our way to the Bucharest Nord train station to pick up our physical tickets (to Moldova) for the next evening. On the map, it seemed like a simple enough task but this is where the wheels started to fall off.
There are two stations at the Nord, one is for the longer trains while another is for the local trains. We landed at the local one one first of all and it was a dump. Having been redirected to the main one (about 800m away) we walked along the urine soaked, rusting, vandalised and generally dilapidated path that at one time connected the two stations together. Travellators had been smashed and destroyed and at some point had became shelter to the homeless population leaving a very overt stench of urine. These have now been barred off to keep the homeless out.
We eventually got to the main station and after some consternation was able to locate and find our tickets (mainly due to the magnificent website the man in seat 61).
This is actually worth mentioning (www.seat61.com) is a privately run website by a guy called Mark Smith who started it as a hobby.
If you are ever looking to get on a train you need to check this website out. It gives you answers virtually any question that you may have almost everywhere in the world.
Having gotten our tickets (and sweltered in the heat) we (at considerable urging from me) opted to catch the Metro to Old Town. Disappointment number two. Old town Bucharest is almost entirely dilapidated or under repair. The buildings are falling down or are covered in scaffolding (at least they are trying to bring it back to its former glory). Those that are open are nightclubs, strip clubs, brothels, rub-and-tugs and really loud (overpriced) lager-lout bars.
Stavropoleos Monastery is a monastery for nuns and was about the only thing in Old Town still worth looking at.
The building which dates back nearly 300 years has been heavily affected by earthquakes. Only the church still stands from its original state.
Feeling very disillusioned, we caught the bus back to our hotel and had a nice meal in pleasant surroundings… tomorrow would be another day.
Its main draw is the Palace of Parliament is the heaviest building in the world coming in at just over 4 billion kilograms. This place is huge it is 84m tall with a floor area of 365,000 sqm. It was ordered by Nicolae Ceausescu the president of communist Romania and took 13 years to build. Uranus Hill was levelled, and the Uranus-Izvor neighbourhood was destroyed so the building could be erected. It was finished in 1997.
We came at it from the side (through the park) and were impressed by what we saw, but once you make your way around to the front things go up another level. The palace houses the two branches of the Parliament of Romania, three museums (contemporary art, communist totalitarianism and palace) and an international conference centre. The building has eight underground levels, the deepest housing a nuclear bunker, linked to main state institutions by 20 km (12.4 mi) of tunnels. From the palace, you look out onto Constitution Square.
Bulevardul Unirii (Union Boulevard) the Palace and Constitution Square were designed at the same time as an architectural unit.
It connects the Palace with Alba Iulia Square (Piața Alba Iulia), running through Union Square.
The Romanian Athenaeum is the main concert hall in town and has been since it opened back in 1888. As we arrived almost the entire symphony orchestra was chain smoking at the side door in full tuxedos, not sure what was playing that day, but they were clearly on a break.
Kretzulescu Church is an Eastern Orthodox Church located in one of the corners of Revolution Square.
Arcul de Triumf is a triumphal arch located in the northern part of Bucharest, Romania, on the Kiseleff Road. It was originally hurriedly built of wood in 1878 so that the victorious troops could march under it after Romania gained its independence. The current version was built in 1921–22, renovated in 1935–36, and renovated again starting in 2014. And of course, it is now the home to Instagrammers (who apparently now bring their own chairs with them for their photoshoots).
Having done the long tourist hike, we found ourselves back in the Old Town area again and thought we would give it one more try. Sadly, the CEC Palace, George Enescu Museum, peoples Salvation Cathedral, Coral Jewish Temple and many of the things we came to see were covered in scaffolding and were unable to be seen. The central part still sucked, but if you hunt hard on the fringes you can get glimpses of what it may once have looked like and hopefully what it may once again be.
There isn’t a lot of nature in Bucharest outside a few parks. It is a major city, and like most major cities it doesn’t have tons and tons of green space. However, Romania more broadly is known for its incredible scenery and nature. It is a bit of a shame that you don’t get a taste of that in Bucharest.
Other things that we missed but would like to come back and see include the Transfagarasan Highway this 80+ kilometer highway runs from Wallachia to Transylvania.
Also, the Statue of King Decebalus which is carved into the rock as you sail through the Iron Gates on the Danube River.
This 141-foot-high face of Decebalus honors this last king, who fought for the country’s independence against the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan.
And beyond Brand Castle there are another 309 castles dotted throughout Romania that would be nice to see. They were mostly created between the 14th and 18th centuries and have served as fortresses for armies to defend the country against its many intruders.
Leaving Bucharest we once again headed to the Bucharest Nord train station for our overnight train to Moldova. Having learned our lesson we went straight to the main entrance and managed to avoid the urine soaked mess that we were met with on the first day.
A few days later, we found ourselves back in Romania on our way back from Moldova. Nothing really to report other than the highway robbery that was taking place at the train station and airport. Coffee usually ran to $2 but at the railway station it was $7 and at the airport, it was just over $10. We were going to get some food but even the Hungry Jacks at Bucharest airport was charging $25 Aussie for a small whopper meal. We chose to go without.
As I said up front, my relationship with Bucharest is a mixed one. The bad here is very bad and the normal is only barely passable. But the good is exceptional. On the whole, it was ok and eventually, it probably won me over. I would however like to come back to Romania to see some of the sights that exist a little further outside the capital.
Serbia is a landlocked country in the Balkans. It shares land borders with Hungary (north), Romania (northeast), Bulgaria (southeast), North Macedonia (south), Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (west), and Montenegro (southwest), and Kosovo.
Serbia has about 6.6 million people.
Having loved our (240 km and 8 hour) bus ride into Bosnia and Herzegovina we decided to fly out for a 40 minute puddle jump into Serbia, more specifically Belgrade.
Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. It is located at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers with a population of around 1.6 million. Belgrade is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with the first dated records of habitation going back to the the 3rd century BC.
Our accommodation saw us perched between the old and new town directly opposite the old main railway station and associated park.
The park is amazing with an incredibly impressive monument to Stefan Nemanja (over 20m high).
He was a medieval Serbian nobleman who together with his son Sava (who the big church is named after) are considered the fathers of the Serbian Orthodox Church).
As it was early enough we dropped off our gear and headed out on a walk to see the sights. We chose to hit the ones that were away from old town, where we would be spending most of our time the following day. So we turned the corner from our hotel and started our way up the hill aiming towards St Sava Temple.
But within two blocks we had already landed upon the railway museum, which was incredibly impressive in its own right.
Half a block up and across the street we came upon the Government of the Republic of Serbia building.
This was built in the 1920s and was the first public building built in Belgrade for the purposes of the public administration of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
Next came the Department of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belgrade city museum, public health department. And they were all housed in amazing soviet era architecturally designed buildings that were incredibly impressive.
Anyway, we did eventually make it to St Sava Temple which again, blew our socks off. The church is dedicated to Saint Sava (son of the dude with the big statue opposite our hotel), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. It was built on the location of St. Sava’s grave.
The next morning we were up and off to the 160 acre Belgrade Fortress. For many centuries the entire town existed within the walls of the fortress. It sits at the meeting of the Sava and Danube rivers.
As with all of Europe, the warring tribes saw this piece of land change hands many times over the millennia. The romans had their turn and according to wiki “in the period between 378 AD and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress)”. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges.
The name Belgrade was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. The fortress kept changing its master as Bulgaria had it then the Byzantines and then Bulgaria again, in the 11th century it was given to the new Serbian state as a wedding gift. In the 15th century it was conquered by the Turks (with short periods of Austrian and Serbian occupation), but it remained under Ottoman Empire rule until 1867, when the Turks withdrew from Belgrade and Serbia.
From the fortress you got a fair view of the Gardoš Tower or Millennium Tower.
It was built and opened in 1896 to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the region.
Within the walls is St Petka’s Chapel which was built in 1417 and was allegedly erected over a sacred spring. At one time it held the holy relics of St Petka. With all of the destruction of the fortress over the years, the exact location of this chapel is not known so a replacement was built on the grounds in the 1930s.
The amazing thing for us was that to visit and walk through the fortress and associated grounds was 100% free.
There was one odd children’s playground area with dinosaurs in it that had a small fee.
But as we did not want to play on the playground, we avoided that cost.
From the fortress, you spill out into the remainder of old town and the main tourist and shopping district of Belgrade. This part of town is full of funky old buildings with tons of character.
As you wander through you come upon the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel or simply St Michael’s Cathedral. This is a Serbian Orthodox church in the centre of the old part of Belgrade. It was built around 1840, on the site of an older church dedicated to Archangel Michael.
The Historical Museum of Serbia is currently in this building but it has been granted the building opposite our hotel (the old main railway station) as its permanent home and will be moving soon.
The Stari Dvor or old palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty (1800’s).
Today it houses the City Assembly of Belgrade.
Novi Dvor or new palace was was a royal residence of the Karađorđević dynasty (late 1700 & 1800’s)
Today it is the seat of the President of Serbia.
House of the National Assembly was built in 1936 and has served as the seat of parliament for the Parliaments of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and since 2006, Serbia.
For the most part, Serbia has been great. The food is good (if not exactly heart smart), the prices are reasonable, the beer is well-priced, and there is plenty to see and do (mostly without charge). I would certainly not hesitate in coming back.
The Golubac Fortress is somewhere that looked amazing but sadly (at about 120km from Belgrade) we could not get to. It was a medieval (fortified) town on the Danube 4 km downstream from the current town of Golubac. The fortress was built during the 14th century and has ten towers. Most of these started square but evolved to get many-sided reinforcements to accommodate modern firearms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Balkan country bordered by Serbia (east) Montenegro (southeast) and Croatia (north and southwest).
It has a small coastline on the Adriatic Sea around the town of Neum.
The 1990s saw the breakdown of the former country of the Yugoslavia into several smaller territories. But the separation wasn’t peaceful and the Bosnian War raged between 1992 and 1995, leaving this beautiful country in ruins.
Well getting here was quite the experience. We were leaving the EU (by bus) and entering eastern Europe proper. Up until now the borders have been open and easy but leaving Dubrovnik and entering Bosnia and Herzegovina made for some interesting transits.
Our bus ride was 240km and took us well over 8 hours to complete. Leaving Dubrovnik in the morning we headed north and found ourselves at a land border crossing. So we all got out of the bus and were individually processed at the border just outside the town of Neum. What we did not know was that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a 20km stretch of coastline on the Adriatic.
So this meant that after a quick stop in Neum, we reached another border about 25 minutes later and had to all get individually processed out of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Another hour or so on the bus and (guess what) another border to get us back into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everybody out of the bus, queue up and be individually processed back in. Drive a little further and then it was lunchtime for the driver, so we stopped again.
At least at this stop we had some entertainment. We stopped at the town of Jablanica which sits on the banks of the Neretva river and Jablanica Lake. But most importantly it is a common meal stop for those driving. Which means that it caters for large numbers of transiting passengers.
And it seriously caters to large numbers. Our first hint was when we passed a roadside stall that was spit roasting 3 whole sheep. About 100m down the road was another, with about 10 sheep on the spit. And restaurant after restaurant we passed all with 5-10 sheep rotating over fires and embers.
Sarajevo is the capital and largest city (under 300,000) of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is on the Miljacka river. Sarajevo is well-known because it is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated thereby pushing the entire world into conflict (WWI). The Latin Bridge is the site where the murder happened and therefore became a must-see.
Baščaršija is the historic center and old town of Sarajevo. This part of the city was built in the 15th century, and it quickly expanded.
Sebilj, the symbol of Sarajevo, is at the very heart of Baščaršija.
It is a wooden water fountain dating back to the Ottoman era.
There were hundreds of these fountains all over Sarajevo. However, only one remains to this day.
Towering over the city is the Sarajevo Clock Tower. It sits next to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. It is estimated that Sarajevo Clock Tower was built in the 16th century.
It is the only public clock that shows lunar time and is set manually. There used to be more than 20 similar clock towers all around Bosnia and Herzegovina during in the Ottoman Empire.
Gazi Husrev-bey mosque is the main mosque in Sarajevo.
Built in 1531, this mosque is the perfect example of the Early Istanbul Style. It is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the best representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans.
Bezistan is a covered market that was quite common in the Ottoman Empire. Sarajevo has a well-preserved Bezistan, just a short walk away from the Clock Tower. Gazi Husrev Bey built the marketplace in 1540 while he was the governor of Sanjak of Bosnia.
Baščaršija Square is the main area within old town and gives you ready access to the wide array of mosques, bazaars, Jewish temples, cathedrals, cafes, restaurants and bars.
Sarajevo City Hall known as Vijećnica, is in the heart of Baščaršija. Designed in 1891 it was the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo.
One bit that I was not expecting was the heavy Muslim and Turkish influence on everything. This mostly has to do with my lack of knowledge about this part of the world as this is my first time visiting the Balkans (and Eastern Europe more generally). The country is more than half Islamic and the coffee is more along the Turkish lines, strong, rich and with the telltale sludge on the bottom.
Sacred Heart Cathedral is the big catholic church in town. It was built in 1887 in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The two bell towers are 43.2 m high. Above the portal is an octagonal rosette and a statue of the Sacred Heart.
The prices were good and the food was fantastic. We were very pleased to see that the regional love of lamb had also translated to the city. This meant we were able to get beautifully cooked lamb and veal and have eaten more slabs of meat than we had done in almost a year.
The central part of Sarajevo is very nice. But the drive into town reveals a country still trying to rebuild after war and conflict. It is clear that rebuilding efforts are well underway (the tram tracks were ripped up and being fixed all over town when we were here). But there is still much to be done. Almost every building (outside of the tourist heart) looks like it is either being built up or falling down.
I would happily come back to Bosnia and Herzegovina and spend more time here exploring. The countryside that we drove through was magnificent and there is enough to keep you amused.
Our journey to Split started with an early morning train from Zagreb. What we did not realise was that we were travelling on the 5th of August, which is a national day of celebration and remembrance. On this day in 1995 the town of Knin was liberated from Serbian forces in a combined military and police operation “Storm”.
In the course of the operation several towns liberated and at exactly noon, a twenty-meter Croatian flag was hoisted at the Knin Fortress. After 84 hours, Knin and additional 11,000 square kilometers of occupied territory were freed. The Croatian Army and Police forces liberated area up to the internationally recognized border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
From 1996 till today this day has been marked as a public holiday that is now called Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders.
And we were belting past and briefly stopping on the train. The first sign was a bunch of military uniforms and checkpoints. The next was monster tanks and rocket launchers. A look up the hill showed the fortress and what appeared to be quite a lot of commotion, which at the time we were oblivious to.
We arrived in split mid afternoon and immediately descended into a nightmare. The train station, bus station and tourist docks were all in one very tiny spot of land and there were bodies and vehicles going in every direction. It was bedlam.
Thankfully our hotel was only about half a kilometre away (up the hill) and was near Bacvice Beach (the main tourist beach in town). As it was the national holiday, most of what was available was closed.
Split is the second-largest city of Croatia after the capital Zagreb, the largest city in the region of Dalmatia and the largest city on the Croatian coast. It lies on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea and is spread over a central peninsula.
The most important thing to know is that there are three Splits.
The first is Land Split – which is full of old buildings, castles and palaces along with Game of Thrones (GoT) filming locations.
The second Split is Water Split which takes in stunning water locations such as the blue cave, blue lagoon, shipwrecks.
Unfortunately this also runs into the third Split, Party Split.
A ton of 18-20 somethings are being fed unlimited fixed price drink packages in a sunny and decadent location. This is a recipe for disaster. I’m sure in my 20’s I would have loved it.
Sadly, third Split necessitates the printing and signposting of this photo.
The main show in town is the Diocletian’s Palace. The ruins of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace date back to the late 3rd to early 4th century A.D. This isn’t just a palace or a ruin, rather it has been consumed by and now constitutes the entire old town centre. The ancient walls, gates and columns ring the palace but over the period (1700 years or so) the Renaissance houses, palaces, cobbled streets and squares all grew within the space that was once the palace.
The Cathedral of Saint Domnius was built in the 4th century and is known locally as the Sveti Dujam. Strictly the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the bell tower to Saint Domnius. Together they form the Cathedral of St. Domnius. It was consecrated at the turn of the 7th century AD, is regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure. The structure itself was built in AD 3.
In the Palace is a Game of Thrones Museum that allows fans to step inside Meereen and the GoT more broadly. The museum has some original artifacts, props, costumes, actual size figures, weapons, city dioramas, sets and more.
Froggyland – well, let’s just let the pictures speak for themselves.
About 14 kilometres out of town you can find the Klis Fortress perched in the mountain pass between Mosor and Kozjak. Getting here was a simple 20 minute bus ride on the local transport for the princely sum of three euros.
The fortress has a history going back more than 2000 years, beginning with the Illyrian tribe called Dalmatae that used it as a stronghold before it was taken by the Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the site became a seat for several Croatian kings. And of course, the fortress was used as a GoT film set.
Jill even found herself in her own drama with an overly entitled Instagrammer. We were appalled to hear this whiny nasal voice telling everybody to move as she was trying to take a “real photo”.
As soon as the path cleared a bit another person would step into the shot (it is a pretty popular place) causing another round of whining. I made sure to step in and get my photos and Jill stepped in a short while later to get hers, ensuring to take her time. When the girl tried to pull Jill on, she responded that we had all paid the same amount of money and were all able to get our photographs and that she was not going to pander to her sense of entitlement.
This was met by giggles from those around and prompted a steadily annoying stream of people standing exactly where she was trying to clear. The worst thing about all of this, the whiny, nasal voice was accompanied by an overtly Australian accent. I am hoping that this is not the future touring reputation that Australians will get.
Back to town to see the remainder of the Palace and old town and then back to our accommodation to prepare for the next leg through to Dubrovnik.
The next day we had hours to kill while we waited for the bus trip that we had been dreading for a while now. The further east you go in Europe, the shittier things get. The organisation and schedule of Germany falls by the wayside and is replaced with increasingly half-assed versions. The trains go from fast, comfortable transports through to old diesel clunkers. And eventually the trains disappear all together and bus transfers are all that is left.
This was the first of the bus transfers. And our dread manifested immediately at the chaos that was the bus station. There were about a thousand (literally) people with luggage waiting and no board available to figure out where/when (if at all) your bus may turn up. Busses turned up and left with little or no explanation and the poor drivers were besieged by confused (and annoyingly needy) tourists.
Ok first things first, the Croatian coastline is stunning. After the debacle that was the bus station, the rest of the trip was perfectly satisfactory. There were some overly chatty (chain-smoking) bus drivers that answered every question (from each other) 4 -5 times. So the bus was filled with second hand smoke and the sounds of da da da da da or ya ya ya ya ya ya. But otherwise, the trip was great and the scenery was incredible.
Zagreb is the cultural, scientific, economic, political and administrative centre of the Republic of Croatia. Zagreb (with a population of just over 800,000), contains almost a quarter of the entire Croatian population. Over the centuries, the city has been inhabited by people from all over Europe.
It is flat and is relatively small compared to other European capitals so walking around is not too taxing.
There are lots of parks and even forests within the city limits.
For us simple tourists it is beautifully laid out in a U shape meaning if you go up one major park, across a bit and back down the other park you have pretty much ticked all the big tourist boxes.
The strict town planning scheme outlined that all streets must be straight and of the same width, and all buildings of the same type and height. The town itself is lovely, but it is a terrible state of disrepair. The main tourist walks are ok but stray just a little off the path and the neglect and graffiti become painfully evident. And they have seriously taken their toll on the city. While it is clear that attempts are being made to pull this back (scaffolding and renovations abound) for now the city looks quite derelict.
For us the obvious place to start our tour of the town was at the top end of the U which was the central railway station. An impressive building (but a rubbish train station) , directly opposite is a huge statue of Kralj Tomislav (former prince and believed ruler dating around the 9th century) on a horse and a park leading towards the Art Pavilion.
Crossing the road from the the Art Pavillion you enter the Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera (a Croatian bishop, theologian, politician, and founder of central Croatian scientific and cultural institutions). The park is another lovely green space making up the straight part of the U but in reality is a park full of old guy statues.
Next on the U is Park Zrinjevac another green space with fountains and a meteorological column at the end that was erected in 1884.
Popping out of here you find yourself in Ban Jelacic Square. This is the main square of Zagreb and is the starting point for exploring the downtown area. The square is huge, with lovely buildings surrounding it on all four sides. The majority of buildings date back to the 19th century and feature different architectural styles: from post-modernism, Art Nouveau, and Biedermeier.
In the square is yet another very impressive statue of a dude on a horse (Count Josip Jelacic – an important Croatian politician of the 19th century). There is a very impressive copper diorama showing the old town area, also a local (Dolac) market and the usual array of retail shops and transport.
Just around the corner is the main church in town (Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed virgin Mary) which has been under permanent renovations for decades. In fact there is not one photo of it in its original form (without scaffolding) for many years. I found one on google images but cannot tell how long ago it looked this way. Our photos are what most people get to see.
Across the U and you find yourself at the bottom of the Lotrščak Tower and the the Grič cannon which fires every day exactly at noon, and has done for over 100 years. The tower was part of the southern gate and town defences against the Turks, built in 1266. The Zagreb Funicular is the shortest funicular in the world but also the oldest and first means of public transportation in Zagreb.
Once up the top you find yourself among a bunch of impressive buildings, museums and galleries along with the impressively roofed St. Marc Church.
Finishing off the bottom of the U you come across the Stone gate (Kamenita Vrata), a very cool horse and dragon statue and into the usual retail and tourist offerings that cannot be avoided.