Easter Island – The most Extraordinary place on Earth!

A remote volcanic Polynesian Island, its native name – Rapa Nui. Maybe not the most extraordinary place in the world in everyones opinion, but it certainly is a very special place full of mystery! Famed for archeological sites including almost 900 monumental statues called Moai. The Moai are carved, oversized human heads created by the inhabitants in the 13th – 16th centuries.

Easter Island was formed by 3 separate volcanic eruptions between 3 million and 100,000 years ago. All the volcanoes are now extinct and have been for some time so no concerns while you’re visiting!

The famous and iconic Moai statues

It takes almost 6 hours to fly there from Chile which is almost 4000km away. Rapa Nui definitely feels as remote and isolated as it sounds, on its own in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 14 miles at the longest point. It has an intriguing history and despite its small size there is much to see and do.

In Easter Island the past is the present.

Katherine Routledge

First Impressions!

I’m not usually one to gush emotions so freely but it feels every bit as special and magical as I imagined it! How amazing to visit a place so remote, with so much history and still so traditional, having had so few visitors over the years. I hope it stays this way for years to come and I have a feeling it might. The locals realise how special the place the Island they inhabit is. In addition, its location and the time and expense to get there will hopefully help to keep it unspoilt.

Approximately 100,000 people visit Easter Island a year, increased from around 10,000 visitors a year just ten years ago. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to visit. If you get the chance to come here I thoroughly recommend you take the opportunity!

The first settlers

The first settlers on Easter Island came from another island in Polynesia sometime between 600 and 900 AD. They travelled around 2000 miles bringing with them everything they needed to start a new society on an uninhabited island.

Ancestor worship was popular in Polynesia. The belief was that a persons spiritual power was still effective and influential long after their death. Ancestral carvings were constructed elsewhere in Polynesia, but nowhere did they reach the scale and size of that of Easter Island. A common misconception is that the statues face out to sea to offer protection from intruders. The majority actually faced inwards to watch over and protect their people. The islanders became more proficient in the art of carving and transporting the stone heads, the size increased and the detail improved. You can see the later generation of statues are larger with more style and detail.

Why is it called Easter Island?

The first European, a dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, sighted Easter Island on April 5th 1722. Since it was Easter Sunday the island was named Easter Island. They didn’t fare well with the locals and with poor weather continued on there journey. It was a further 48 years before there were any subsequent visitors to the Island. A Spanish expedition led by Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo from Peru. They claimed the island with little resistance but never came back to follow it up.

Four years later James Cook bought his weary and weak crew into Hanga Roa bay after over 3 months of travel looking for supplies and fresh water but found neither. The condition of the island had deteriorated in the 4 years since the Spanish were there and after a brief visit they were on there way.

Peru abolished slavery in the 1850s and needed cheap labour. They quickly saw the benefit of using Polynesians and putting them to work in agriculture due to their size and strength. They raided the island a number of times forcibly removing some 1500 Rapanui including some of the chiefs and elders who could still read the artistic Rongo Rongo script.

Many died on the journey and only 15 were repatriated back to Easter Island, and they brought small pox back with them. By 1877 the islands population was down to 111, down from around 12,000 during the peak of the Moai period.

In 1883, Chile had defeated Peru and Bolivia and began looking to expand its growing Empire. Easter Island was not immediately sought after, being far away and seen as little worth. After some gentle persuasion from the British – to avoid France claiming it – Chile made their move.

The Moai factory

Hanga Roa

The Islands capital and home to 95% of the population, its the only part of the island with electricity and running water. Its compact and easily covered on foot. It has a couple of banks, a pharmacy, post office, hospital and fire station. As well as restaurants, mini-markets and souvenir shops.

I stayed in Hotel Gomero, a friendly little place not far from Main Street. It’s so small that nowhere is far from anywhere.

Moai

The Moai statues are hugely impressive and still surrounded by some mystery. In general there is a full day tour that covers most of the key sites, finishing at the beach in Anakena. And two half days, one where you go to Orongo – the crater. And the other afternoon I was less impressed with but what you’ll see across the two days is amazing!

There are many sites you’ll visit on a tour, I’ll touch on some of the key ones below. Alternatively you could hire a car and self guide but you won’t get as much informative history and information.

Rano Rakanu

Rano Rakanu is one of the most impressive sites. It’s the quarry or moai factory where they were made and contains 397 moai’s. It still looks like the iconic images you will have seen.

The iconic Moai shot at Rano Rakanu

To make the Moai they were initially carved whilst still in the rock. The face, chest and belly are carved in the mother rock. Then they are taken from the mountain to carve the back. It’s believed they are slid down the mountain side, then stood up in a hole to finish the back, ears, neck and arms. From the hole where they are finished they are transported to their different locations. The scale is immense so it was a really impressive feat!

Tongariki

The best spot for watching the sunrise, the opposite side of the island to Hanga Roa. You can easily pick up a tour in town. Because of the late sunrise you don’t even have to be up ridiculously early to view it. I can’t recommend this enough!

There’s 15 moai at Tongariki and the platform was restored by the Japanese government. The largest moai is 8m 37cm. The older moai are smaller and the 2 different generations of moai are evident.

The platform is 100m, 200m including the terrace.

As for sunrise – Wow. No filter on these photos – none needed on any of my photos on Rapa Nui, even though some of them don’t look real! The colours during sunrise are outstanding. I can’t recommend this enough whilst you’re here. Obviously you may be unlucky with the weather or the cloud cover but it’s worth a go!

Stunning colours at sunrise!

Anakena

Anakena has 7 Moai staring out to sea and a beautiful beach. These statues have more top knots or hats. The sand was gorgeous and the sea was so clear and a beautiful colour. The sea was rough until you were past the brakes the day I visited but once you’re in it it was lovely, and no other land for 1000s of miles!

Tahai

A great spot to watch the sunset is Tahai near Hanga Roa. You can wander down, past the most interesting cemetery I’ve ever seen. Bring a bottle of wine or some beer and sit on the grass watching the sunset over 5 moai along with everyone else. That said whilst busy there weren’t too many people and you can enjoy it and get some decent photos.

Wine at sunset

Orongo

Orongo is a huge crater some 1600m wide from a now extinct volcano. It was the second largest volcano on the island. It has its own microclimate and the lake is good for growing food and water. The water looks black.

Orongo crater

Years ago the locals used to use the pool to get fresh water, this could take all day due to the descent down inside the crater and the difficulty coming back up carrying the water. Once horses came to island this was quicker and easier.

The Birdman Competition

The Birdman competition, also known as Tangata Manu, used to unite the different clans into a single activity. It’s believed it stopped in the mid 1800s due to slavery and there being so few people left on the island. There is a carving near the top of Orongo that demonstrates the winner of competition. The one I saw was pretty faint, and I believe the rest are less accessible so we weren’t able to view them.

All clans would nominate a competitor, usually a teenager, it was a bit of a right of passage to becoming a man.

One of the locals in traditional dress

They would then run 200m up from lowest point of the volcano, 300m down wall of volcano into sea. Followed by a 2km swim to another island. They then had to find an egg of the manutara bird, which may involve staying on the island surviving in caves until a bird laid an egg. Then swim back to the coast, climb up the volcano and give the undamaged egg to The High Priest. The winner would become king of island for one year, and get to choose a wife.

The island the competitors swam to during the Birdman competition

Food and Drink

Those of you that know me know how much I love sushi so I’ve obviously managed to find a couple of sushi restaurants!

One called Ohi Sushi, more of a lunch place – lovely and fresh and I washed it down with a strawberry daiquiri! I got chatting to a really nice local girl called Amanda, her dads American and she was was interesting to talk to.

The other is Kai Sushi, again lovely and fresh, I had dinner there one evening. Both are on Main Street.

Another great restaurant on the beach front that was a recommendation that I will pass forward is La Kaleta. The ceviche was great and really fresh, the pina colada’s were delicious and the view was out of this world!

Delicious fresh ceviche
Pina Colada’s – my favourite cocktail!

It started raining on my first afternoon as I was wandering around, I nipped in a little cafe called Mahute and had a local beer. It was nice and light though they have darker beers too. I chatted to a guy called George from the US who is half Chilean and has been working here for 18 months and travelling for 5 or 6 years.

Both Amanda and George were great to chat to and I picked up lots of local information I wouldn’t have otherwise done. I think being on your own makes you more approachable so may not have spoken to them as much if I wasn’t travelling solo.

Thanks all for your company and special shout out to Deb, Bob and Kunal – thanks for your great company!

I’m not normally a red wine drinker but I shared this one with Bob and it was really smooth and went down easily, so I may be a convert and will definitely look for this one again!

A delicious red – thanks Bob!

Stargazing

The lack of light pollution and clear skies make Easter Island an outstanding place to stargaze. If you’re lucky you’ll see a shooting star – they are said to be seen frequently – though unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to experience one. Again you can pick up excursions in town and they’ll take an amazing shot on a great camera and email it to you all so you can focus on enjoying it!

Apparently the females of the royal family would live in a cave for one year with no exposure to sunlight. They skin would go very pale and there eyes changed having become accustomed to the dark, they became good stargazers. Inside the cave are enormous carvings of astronomy maps of constellations.

The Prison

There is usually no more than a handful of inmates at any one time given the small population of the Island. Education goes as far as High School so if you hear that someone is at ‘University’, it usually means they are spending some time in prison!

Bike Hire and Cycling

Its relatively easy to hire a bike during your stay and you can hire one for the day for around 10 – 15 US dollars. The standard of bikes is ok, obviously be mindful of giving it a once over before you set off with it. I’m gutted I didn’t have time to enjoy this during my stay. A few people told me there’s not much to do on the island other than see the statues. I guess everyones opinion and perspective is different, personally I would have liked an extra day or two. I had two full days of tours which didn’t leave me enough time to explore and enjoy cycling, or shopping as much as I would have liked, or additional time to chill out and take it all in. Something to consider if you visit.

The island has good roads and some relatively flat surfaces making it ideal for cycling. If you want something more challenging then try cycling up to Orongo – a gruelling ride up and a short descent back down!

Getting a Tattoo

Tattooing has existed in Polynesian culture for 1000’s of years and is more than just body art. It was the main method of marking social rank and hierarchy, as well as marking important events in peoples lives.

There are a few International standard tattoo artists who will happily design something unique for you, and are known to have excellent hygiene and safety standards.

Rapa Nui tattoo designs are some of the most unusual in the whole Pacific. Most people recommend Mokomae at the top of Main Street. Maybe not for everyone, but if you like tattoos its the best souvenir and memory of your holiday I can think of!

Shopping

Worth bearing in mind that some places are shut on Sundays. Most of the locals are Catholic so don’t open. Prices are often a little higher than elsewhere but tend to be pretty consistent from shop to shop.

NASA

Apparently Easter Island has one of longest runways at 4km. It was built by NASA I’m case required for emergency landings for shuttles. Initially it was built for The Challenger, which unfortunately was never able to land there as it disintegrated. Shuttles now have more efficient landing methods.

The thatched roof and sign welcoming you into the airport as you land

The Practical Stuff

Easter island uses both Chilean Pesos and US dollars. Tour prices are often quoted in dollars, though you can pay with either. Many shops and restaurants accept credit cards but not everywhere so it’s best to check first.

There is a one-time cash payment of 83 US dollars, or 54,000 Pesos for all non- Chileans which must be paid in cash. You can purchase on arrival at the airport, from a bureau on Main Street or apparently online in advance. This is for your entrance to the national parks. Proof of purchase is required at all sites.

Signs at all the official sites

Tap water is safe to drink, though worth considering that our stomachs are not used to ‘different’ water so its probably easier to stick to bottled water. The water comes from underground freshwater reservoirs which is then purified so its perfectly safe for brushing your teeth or using for ice.

Voltage is 220v and plugs are round 2 pins. Easter Island is always 2 hours behind Chile. It really ought to be 3-4 hours given the distance but is kept nearer to the time in Santiago to facilitate banks and business. Therefore sunrise and sunset are relatively late.

The current population is circa 8000 people with approximately half being Rapanui, people of Polynesian Descent, the remainder are from Chile with approximately 500 resident foreigners. The official language is Spanish, although the Rapanui also speak Rapa Nui – a Polynesian language. English is not widely spoken but some shops and restaurants speak some English.

There is so much more to this place I can’t fit it all into one post. I genuinely think that calling Easter Island the most extraordinary place on Earth is a credible statement, it’s still so full of mystery, I enjoyed my visit immensely! Next stop Rio!

Santiago – Stop 1!

An amazing city for my first stop on my 5 week tour in South America! I have 2 nights, 1 day here – not enough to do the city or the country justice so I will definitely have to return to Chile. From here I head to Easter Island for a few days which I’m unbelievably excited about!

From Easter Island I head back to Rio where I have a couple of days to myself before I join a group tour with Gadventures for 3.5 weeks, touring Brazil and Bolivia. What an amazing experience! I’ll be posting regularly during the trip, though some posts may not get published until I’m back in the UK, depending on time and wifi connections!

Solo Travel

I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time on my own, I believe and have found that travelling alone needn’t be lonely! You meet some interesting people you wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with, it gives you perspective and makes you realise what a small part of the world we occupy.

I’m always really busy in the run up to Christmas with work and it’s such a busy time of year anyway, so now is a perfect time for a decent break starting with a bit of me time to unwind!

That said I left work Thursday with less than 12 hours to go until I needed to head to the airport and all of my packing to do! Then I suddenly had a panic – ‘What was I thinking?!’ ‘What am I doing?!’

I think I suddenly realised that I’m taking 5 weeks out of the routine! A short while later I calmed down and got excited again; back to packing after my moment of panic!

If you think adventure is dangerous try routine, it’s lethal.

Paul Coelho

Anyway, Santiago..

Also known as Santiago de Cuba is the capital of Chile, and translates to St James in Spanish. It’s the largest city in Chile and also one of the largest in the whole of The America’s. It has a population of c. 7 million and sits around 5-600m above sea level.

You get absolutely stunning views from the plane of The Andes mountains as you fly into Santiago.

Stunning view of the mountains from the plane

I picked up a taxi from one of the official desks in the airport and I had the friendliest taxi driver! He spoke very little English and my Spanish is limited, but he wanted to chat. He ended up talking into his phone with the google translate app on, which would then repeat what he was saying in English. He got me to respond the same way. After a while I stopped noticing that he took his eyes off the road every time he wanted to pass the phone back and forth!

We had a great chat, he told me about the local area, politics, was interested in what I do back home and where I was visiting whilst here. It also helped me recall some of the Spanish I do know from when I lived and worked in the Canary Islands years ago. Great first impression of Chile. Well second impression actually, the first was the not so great lengthy immigration queue!

One of the political statements I saw whilst out and about

Hotel Riviera

I’m staying in Hotel Riviera on Miraflores which is really central, its quite small and very basic. It looks tired and rundown, but a great location and near a number of the famous sites! Whilst I’d say come in with low expectations and you won’t be disappointed, the bed and the bathroom were clean. So that and the location mean I would recommend it, despite it being a little tatty looking. Bring earplugs! It’s midnight and I can hear roadworks, political protests and traffic!

The first thing I do when I arrive in the room is close the curtains, only to pull the very dodgy curtain hooks off on the first four hooks on one side. I don’t want the light to wake me up and need to catch up on some sleep. So I stand on the bed in front of the floor to ceiling window, balancing after nearly 24 hours of travelling to get the hooks back in. And they say most accidents happen in the home. Operation successful!

WiFi is generally fine but you have to re-enter the password every time you use it. Breakfast is basic but does the job, and all the staff are friendly and helpful.

Santa Lucia Hill

Santa Lucia Hill

I’d definitely recommend a visit to Santa Lucia Hill if you are in Santiago. Its a beautiful park to take a wander and I’m told one of the nicest green spaces in the city centre. Its a well maintained park, with a number of trails, stairs and terraces – a gorgeous place to stop and take in the view! It feels a bit like a maze or some sort of secret garden. There are a number of interesting buildings scattered around too.

Entrance to Santa Lucia Hill

It’s really peaceful. I grabbed myself a crushed ice drink and sat in the shade for a while people watching – one of my favourite pastimes. The highlight for me is the Neptune Statue, below, it was gorgeous.

Neptune Statue

San Cristobal Hill

View from the top of The Funicular

Known for its amazing views across Santiago and better known as Cerro San Cristobal. At over 700 hectares this is Santiago’s largest green space but still very urban. It feels enormous and the views are fantastic, I had no idea Santiago was so big.

View up the track from the funicular carriage

It has a funicular railway you can get up and a cable car down the other side to help you enjoy the different views, with some outstanding peaks and viewpoints. Get there early to avoid the crowds and queuing for tickets. One way for both the funicular and cable car is about 4400 pesos. Return is 5800. They are both worth it!

View from the cable car

It really is a huge park with plenty to see and do inside, and different areas to wander round. Including the chapel at the top. I enjoy looking at churches when I’m abroad but this one was a bit too holy for me with the music and crosses everywhere. Still worth a look though.

Artistic crosses at the top of San Cristobal

Other key sites

There are a number of other key sites to visit, as I was literally only here for a flying visit I didn’t get chance to see some of them. The two main ones I wanted to see were Santa Lucia, my hotel is literally over the road, and San Cristobal, I walked there, it’s about a mile and a half away.

There was something satisfying about using a paper map instead of following the blue dot! Obviously the map was folded up small with the section I needed in view, then tucked away in my pocket. I was warned about safety in Santiago but as long as you’re sensible it’s fine.

In case its of use some recommended sites are: The Chilean National Library, The Red House, San Agustin Temple, San Francisco Church and The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. They are all very nearby Hotel Riviera. I passed a number of interesting buildings and fountains just wandering round the city.

Wine!

Chilean wine has long been a favourite of mine! The Spanish and French influence throughout history still evident in the taste today. The most popular grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. Chile is now the 5th largest exporter of wine and the 7th largest producer.

The Practical Stuff

The currency is Chilean Peso’s. As usual I recommend a Starling Bank card for ease of use abroad, great rates and the app is brilliant. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Another site someone recently recommended to me (thanks Alex!), is Eater which has 38 recommended places to eat in most major cities. Unfortunately with such a short visit I didn’t get to try any of these, though I will definitely be using this site in future! Here’s the link in case it’s helpful: https://www.eater.com/maps/best-restaurants-santiago-chile-38

I’m here in the middle of summer so its lovely and hot – though a slight shock to the system given I’ve come from the UK in the middle of winter!

Tap water is generally apparently pretty good and normally safe though I’ve avoided it due to the high mineral content as my system might not be used to it just yet! Wine is going down nicely though!

My 2 pin European plug is working fine in this first hotel.

Next stop Easter Island – so exciting!!

Belarus – My first cycling holiday, and a beautiful part of the world!

I’m not sure if this trip was brave or stupid on my part! Maybe a bit of both! I decided I wanted to try a cycling holiday so picked an Explore trip that was only 5 days with 3 days cycling, and graded easy. Between 20 – 40km per day, and fortunately for me relatively flat! At the time I didn’t own a bike – nor had I owned one in about 20 years! In the last year or so before this trip I’d done a half day cycling in Vietnam and a half day in Japan and really enjoyed it, so thought I’d give it a go!

I loved cycling through the Vietnamese paddy fields in Hue, and the mountains in Takayama in Japan. ‘I’ll train in the gym on the exercise bike and it’ll all be fine!’ Cycling on the road – as I now know – is very different to cycling on a static bike! I kept up – just, well almost.. I was very slow compared to the others and am eternally grateful for there patience and pleasant company!

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.

– Confucius

Belarus looked like a really interesting part of the world – and it lived up to expectation! Doing a trip by bike is a nice way to cover a lot of ground with great views along the way! I visited in July 2018 and the weather was generally warm and pleasant, bar one heavy rainfall during our longer cycle where we sheltered in a bus stop!

What I hadn’t anticipated was the large framed German bikes! I’m relatively short – not a problem hiring a bike in Asia, bit more so when they’re German! It was a really heavy hybrid and far too big for me. The guide put the saddle down – but: ‘Tough, this is your bike!’ Once I got used to it cycling wasn’t too bad. It was stopping and starting that was the problem! I learned to brake and jump off the saddle sort of at the same time!

Belarus is a really interesting place. Lots of history and in some ways it felt like going back in time. Minsk (which will always remind me of Friends!) is developed though you can still see the Communist style. We visited a couple of castles, stunning and in great condition. Although some parts have been reconstructed. Our third day cycling was through forests and parks to an eco village and a somewhat eccentric musicians house. Such an interesting part of the world and still very unspoilt from a tourism perspective.

Day 1 – Minsk city tour

There is a cycle path running through through the city with a few places to stop along the way, making this route suitable even for beginners. It’s also a great way to cover a lot of ground and get a different perspective of a city.

One of my favourite stops was in a street filled with art, we stopped for a coffee break and had chance to take it in.

Fantastic Street Art

There are various points of interest to stop on the way. We cycled in the morning and in the afternoon took in a city tour seeing some of the impressive architecture. As well as the war museum, full of artefacts with a beautiful memorial.

Minsk war museum
Memorial at the top of the war museum

We also stopped at a local market. There’s the usual fruit and food stalls at the market though the bra stall was a little bit different..

Visual merchandising could do with some work..
Fresh fruit and veg in the local market

The Soviet feel of the city is still there, and very evident, despite this example being above KFC!

Day 2 – 41km between castles

This was a long day for me and where it became evident that cycling outside is different to static cycling in the gym! The last 10km I found really hard! In fact at one point I thought I was going to die! It’s true what they say about digging deep and pushing on! Having trained this year for a 350 mile charity bike ride, 40km feels like nothing – but it’s all relative!

That said it’s mainly flat in Belarus and once out of the city the cycling is predominately on quieter roads surrounded by pine forests. It’s a really beautiful place to cycle.

Mir Castle

Both Mir and Nesvizh castles are 15th century UNESCO would heritage sites. We started at Mir castle, it was part of Poland until 1939 when the borders changed. We had a thorough tour of the castle with a guide. It’s well maintained with some beautiful furniture.

It’s said that soldiers mounted these metal frames with feathers on to there armour when going into battle. The noise they created when riding on a horse would startle and frighten the enemies horses as they approached, giving an advantage during the battle.

Traditional Armour

Much of the castle still demonstrates original, extravagant decor.

We spent a night in Nesvizh castle, the rooms felt old but grand. Dinner and breakfast were included and both were delicious. Again we had a detailed tour, though by this point I was tired and ready for some food! It was still a gorgeous and again well maintained castle. Nesvizh was part of Poland until 1945, and was regarded as one of the most beautiful castles in the area.

The castle and the courtyard just outside our rooms.

Extravagant decor still in great condition

Day 3 – forests, eco-villages and countryside

On day 3 of cycling we cycled through beautiful forests to Rosy eco-village. Families have moved out of the city and chosen to live a simple, self sufficient life. Each family produces different food and they trade with each other.

The family we visited served us fresh bread, salad and tea, it tasted amazing, and we were surrounded by gorgeous gardens.

Homemade and so fresh!

Ales Los farmhouse is run by a couple who have dedicated there life to music. They are outstanding musicians and play amazing folk music. We were welcomed by them playing us in, then they showed us around and educated us on some traditional instruments.

A somewhat eccentric couple with outstanding musical talent playing traditional folkloric music

We had a great lunch stop in an 18th century lodge run by Vadim and his wife. It was traditional, hearty food and cannot be described as anything other than delicious! Being traditional they fed us wine and liquor too!

We headed back to Minsk for the evening and ate in a traditional restaurant with delicious food and some fantastic flavoured vodkas! Honey vodka was my favourite, it was even good neat over ice.

After dinner and with no cycling to do tomorrow we hung out for a few drinks in our hotel bar which had pool tables and being a Saturday night was full of locals. A round of drinks – 2 vodkas and 2 beers same to £2.50! And some of the locals had clearly had a few!

What made the trip more interesting..

Was the interesting group of people and our Polish guide. On these solo travel trips you meet people from different walks of life and you all have one thing in common – you all love to travel. It feels like a secure way of travelling solo if you don’t want to do it completely alone.

In this group were two couples, and a gentleman who’s wife was at home, all older than me, and our guide who was a fair bit younger. But what a great bunch of people and brilliant company they turned out to be! Age aside we all got on well as travelling companions.

Peter has travelled a lot and lived abroad with work. He spent a lot of time in Japan where I’d just got back from in April, having wanted to go as far back as I can remember. We spent hours talking about Japan and what we loved about it!

John’s Polish father had been captured in 1940 by the Russians, who sent him to a hard labour camp in Siberia. In September 1939 when Russia invaded Poland at the start of WWII, he was farming about 12 miles from Nesvizh. He left his farm, which was on the border of what was then Poland and Russia, never to return. John had a map drawn by his father and the name of the village, so rather than take the second castle tour that day, John jumped in a taxi to try and see where his father once farmed. At dinner that night we eagerly awaited an update on his story! John I hope I’ve recounted this correctly!

What an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had without this trip. And a pleasure to talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Sunset in Minsk

The Practical Stuff

The currency is the Belarusian Ruble. It’s a closed currency, you can exchange before you leave the airport, or withdraw cash. I recommend the latter on a Starling bank card for the best rates. Cards are widely accepted in Minsk but less so in more rural areas. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Drinking tap water is not recommended, you can pick up drinking water cheaply everywhere, almost as cheap as the vodka!

Tourism is still relatively new in Belarus so it still feels unspoilt and untouched, making for an authentic stay. It’s a fascinating place filled with history and outstanding architecture, as well as natural beauty, good food, and of course – great vodka!

An old wine cellar

The cycling trip was a different way to see a place and a great experience. Also a bonus on holiday that you can eat and drink what you like without gaining weight as you’re exercising everyday whilst sightseeing!

Explore is a great company to travel solo with and I’ve done many of there trips now. I also recommend Exodus, slightly dearer and usually nicer accommodation. Flashpack is good for 25-45 year olds. G adventures are good, cheaper and a little more basic. Often, but not always, a younger crowd. Intrepid is another one, similar to g adventures. It’s amazing how many other people travel solo, and I’ve always had a great experience on these group tours. Another one I haven’t tried yet but fully intend to at some point is Grasshopper, who specialise in cycling trips in Asia.

https://www.explore.co.uk/

https://www.exodus.co.uk/

https://www.gadventures.com/

https://www.intrepidtravel.com/uk

https://www.grasshopperadventures.com/

If you get the opportunity to visit, I thoroughly recommend a trip to Belarus!

Macedonia to Kosovo

My final stop on the tour of The Former Yugoslavia is Kosovo. Logically you’d go from Serbia to Kosovo and then on to Macedonia. My understanding is that the border between Serbia and Kosovo was closed hence the slightly longer route and finishing in Pristina, Kosovo.

Kosovo is not always recognised on maps as it is considered past of Serbia. It has been independent since 2006. It is considered to be an independent country by the United Nations, but not all countries see it that way unfortunately.

I have to admit Kosovo seemed very underdeveloped relative to its neighbours with limited things to see. Though it doesn’t have the easiest history. It is going through a period of development. And trying to establish itself within the industry of tourism. The route from Lake Ohrid in Macedonia to Pristina in Kosovo however was stunning!

It’s a lengthy drive through hills and mountains with much to see on the way; including passing through a national park, with outstanding views of the mountains, lakes and streams. Above is a man made lake, stunning and worth a viewing stop.

I recommend a stop at this gorgeous restaurant literally in the middle of nowhere, so peaceful in the middle of the mountains. The toilets were some of the cleanest I’ve come across on this journey through The Balkan’s! We stopped for a coffee before continuing the drive towards Pristina.

Monastery of St John

I also recommend a stop at The Monastery of St John the Baptist where you’ll see practicing monks. Women have to wear a skirt, they provide ones with Velcro you can put over your clothes upon entering. Men’s knees must be covered, and shoulders must be covered too.

There is stunning scenery all around, and the interior is extravagant. No photos are allowed inside as it destroys the frescoes.

Stunning mountain scenery

You can light a candle here and it seems an appropriate and peaceful place to do so.

We stopped for lunch as we continued on our way, it was basic but delicious and fresh. And the views were amazing with mountains behind you and the lake in front.

Hotel

I stayed in the Garden Hotel in Pristina, it’s a lovely 5 star hotel, in fact the nicest hotel of my whole trip! Though choices are limited in Pristina. It was a really nice hotel with modern rooms – except the phone! And a lovely bathroom and shower.

Staircase in the hotel
Telephone in the room

Breakfast was the highlight! So much choice and eggs cooked fresh however you want them! And the honey was delicious!

Fresh honey for breakfast!

Getting into Pristina was interesting! Traffic everywhere beeping, it’s a free for all and no one will give way!

Restaurants

This restaurant was round the corner, it didn’t look much but the food was good. I’ve discovered that just because something is on the menu it doesn’t mean it’s available to eat!

Equally there was no drinks menu and wine comes in small or big! That’s a small bottle or a standard bottle! There’s no prices for the drinks so I think it depends who serves you and what mood they’re in! I found it cheaper to buy 4 small bottles than 1 large one! I drank the same wine I enjoyed in Macedonia, Temjanika, there weren’t any local choices.

The Practical Stuff

It’s not safe to drink the tap water in Kosovo. The currency is the Euro. They aren’t part of the EU, but it was allowed in order to prevent the collapse of the currency. Much of the population is Serbian or Albanian.

Conclusion of The Balkan’s

This really is a beautiful part of the world with so much to see and experience, and so much history. The people are friendly, the food is good and the wine is especially good!

The North seems a little wealthier, there is more variety in the food and it is more established in tourism. It was in part less affected by the recent war than the some of the more southern countries. I found it got cheaper and hotter the further south we went. Whilst the food was still good quality there was less choice available. I enjoyed the local wines throughout.

Ljubljana in Slovenia makes for a great city break. I think Bosnia was my favourite country, it’s beautiful. And Macedonia was the prettiest. I particularly recommend Lake Ohrid.

Read my previous blog posts to find out more on each area.

If you get the opportunity to travel round the area by train I thoroughly recommend it. I’ve had an amazing journey through the Former Yugoslavia and really can’t recommend it highly enough!

I met some fun, interesting and amusing people along the way! Thanks for all the laughs!

My next trip is January when I head to South America! I’ll try and post a retrospective trip between now and then!

Thanks for reading #mysolofootprints

Lake Ohrid and Macedonia

We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.

– Unknown

Skopje

In 1963 Skopje suffered a devastating earthquake which destroyed 80% of the city. A number of architects were hired to help rebuild the city with help being received from many nations, 78 different countries in total. The people of Skopje feel like it is a city of solidarity as they received help from people all over the world.

The earthquake occurred at 5.17am on July 26th 1963. It was a 6.1 magnitude, you wouldn’t usually expect such devastation from this level, however, the earthquake was very shallow and occurred only 4 miles below the surface. Over 1000 people lost there lives, thousands were injured and approximately 200,000 people lost there homes.

The clock mechanism at the train station of Skopje stopped at the time of the earthquake – 5.17am. And remains this way today, with half the building missing. It’s now the Museum of Skopje.

Skopje is the capital of Macedonia and one third of the population live there. In February of this year (2019) the name of the country changed to North Macedonia. Whilst the Government agreed this, the local people are generally unhappy about it and still consider themselves Macedonian.

Skopje was the birthplace of Mother Teresa. Born in 1910, she left Macedonia in 1928 to join the Loreto Sisters in Dublin, and later that year moved to Calcutta, India. She received the Nobel peace prize in 1979, amongst other awards having spent a lifetime helping others. She died in Calcutta aged 89 in 1997. As a token of gratitude, having dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor, the Indian government funded a state funeral.

You can visit the memorial house to Mother Teresa in the centre of Skopje. Her birthplace is marked just off the central square. The corners of where the house stood are highlighted and there’s a plaque dedicated to her.

Just opposite I found this impressive local bookshop! I’ll have the one near the bottom on the second row please..!

Local bookshop!

The modern part of the city is on one side of the bridge and the older more traditional part on the other. The modern side has some beautiful fountains and countless statues of all shapes and sizes.

Across the bridge you head into the bazaar with shops and bars to wander round. You can head up to a medieval fortress from the 6th century where you can walk a significant part of the wall and take in some great views along the way.

The fortress wall
I really love the Macedonian flag
A rare shot of me – walking the wall – thanks Angie!

Restaurants

Forza wine bar and restaurant was exceptional. The owner knows his wine and is happy to give you a tour of his collection. The wine was lovely, the food delicious and I highly rate the service too. Fully recommend this one and would definitely go back! It’s a little bit out of town but I stayed in the Ibis near Londonska Street so was only round the corner from there. A taxi into the centre shouldn’t cost more than 200 denar or around 3 Euro’s.

What a wine selection! 😍

I had the tuna steak which was superb and cooked to perfection. If you don’t like it rare I suggest you tell them when you order. They even had a selection of vegan desserts (well two but it’s the first I’ve seen in The Balkan’s); I had the raw chocolate cake which was also amazing!

Delicious Tuna Steak
Fantastic raw chocolate vegan dessert

Food and Drink

Very important – wine! Macedonia is very proud of its wine, the local drink, more so than beer. My personal favourite if you like a dry white is Temjanika. It’s actually a semi dry, but I personally found it much nicer than the other white recommended which is dry – Traminec. If you prefer red then the recommended is Vranec.

My favourite Macedonian white wine

Heraclea and Bitola

We took an early morning train from Skopje to Bitola and just outside Bitola is Heraclea. Here you’ll find the ruins of an ancient city with mosaics from the 4th century that have been uncovered and are still in good condition.

Uncovered Mosaics in great condition

There is evidence of Roman influence with the use of brick and the way it’s connected. The excavation is still in progress and is worth a visit if you’re passing that way.

Bitola was claimed as capital of the European part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800’s, making it the second most important city after Istanbul. More recently Skopje became the capital of Macedonia as it is closer to Belgrade.

It’s not the most interesting of places I visited in The Balkan’s but is very pretty. It’s famed for a street full of cafes known as ‘Street be seen’. Worth walking right to the end and stopping at the last cafe opposite, to the right of the fountain called B bar, spelt bnh bar. It’s good value and great local food. The specialty is Turkish style bread with meat and cheese.

Statue of Tito in Bitola
An interesting touch to the crossroads!

A few places worth a call out en route to Lake Ohrid

Worth a stay if you get chance is the lovely Hotel Sator, in the foothills of a national park. Modern rooms, limited menu choices and staff who can’t do enough to help!

Hotel Sator
Gorgeous balcony of my room

Galicica National Park is pretty with the chance to see Lynx – although it’s a 1 in 287,000 chance! You may also see brown bears and wolves, though there’s more chance of seeing deer or rabbits!

You’ll drive over the mountain and see outstanding views of Lake Ohrid! It was cold and windy the day I saw it but still stunning – can’t be captured in a photo! You pay an exit fee on leaving the national park.

St Naum Monastery:

The Monastery of St Naum

Naum was a teacher with a reputation for performing miracles. Many people of different religions come to pray in hope they will get their wishes.

It’s 100 Denar to enter and is well worth it, the interior is impressive. No photos allowed as it destroys the frescoes. But beautiful memories! St Naum is also famous for the Albino Peacocks.

Albino peacock – though he wasn’t interested in posing!

It’s 20 Denar to use the toilets near the monastery, so I recommend a coffee stop! I stopped at Ostrovo and the view is lovely, the toilets were also the cleanest I’d seen in a while, with soap and toilet paper!

Coffee stop at St Naum in Ostrovo Restaurant

Beautiful Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is stunning, beautiful water and beautiful views. It’s one of the oldest lakes in the world at over 1 million years old, and the oldest in Europe. At its deepest point it’s 288 metres deep. You can see the beautiful Albanian mountains across the lake. Two thirds of the lake belongs to Macedonia, the remaining third belongs to Albania.

You can get a small boat across the lake to the Old Town – definitely the prettier part of town. It’s worth it for the scenery and a different perspective of the views across the lake and of the mountains. From there you can take a slow walk up to explore.

Ohrid translates to ‘on the hill’ in Macedonian so it’s a fair walk up, but most definitely worth it!

A short boat ride across Lake Ohrid to the old town

The medieval old quarter is dotted with old churches topped with a castle and a university from 893. Apparently the birthplace of the Cyrillic letters at the church of St Clement. Most of these students apparently went to Russia, hence Russia using The Cyrillic alphabet.

Sunset over Lake Ohrid

Restaurants

Ohrid is famous for its fresh trout, in particular red or pink trout – depending on who you speak to. Restaurant Belvedere along the promenade just off the modern shopping street does excellent freshly cooked trout. They had local musicians and singers and traditional dancing too.

The practical stuff

The local currency is Denar, currently – September 2019 – it’s 68 to the pound, and 60 to the Euro. I withdrew from the cash point on my Starling card for great rates. https://www.starlingbank.com/ The hardest thing was getting currency in small denominations. Some places take card. In Skopje in some cases you can pay in Euro’s and get your change in Denar, which helps with getting the smaller notes.

Tap water is safe to drink. It’s often ok to smoke inside restaurants – good or bad depending on your outlook!

From Ohrid came a stunning journey into Kosovo..

Serbia – What do you mean you’ve never seen a poodle on a moped?!

I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list!

– Susan Sontag

Bar to Belgrade Line

I arrived in Serbia via the Bar to Belgrade train journey, an amazing experience – more information on my last post on Montenegro. I stayed at Hotel Prag in Belgrade which is a decent hotel and great central location.

Belgrade

Belgrade the capital of Serbia, was liberated on the 20th October 1944 and the Flag of Yugoslavia was raised. It was a targeted city through much of history as it sits on the confluence of two rivers – The Danube and The Sava. The Danube is the second largest river in Europe though probably the most important. It connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea and therefore Asia, very significant for trade though history.

The architecture in Belgrade demonstrates many different influences, Austrian, Turkish and Russian to name a few. In the last century Belgrade has been destroyed 5 times and rebuilt, resulting in the mixture of architecture. A Roman fort was built in the first century and some of it still stands today. Serbia is rich in history though I won’t talk about it too much in this post, I’ll touch on some highlights from my visit.

Republic Square is the main square in Belgrade and home to the statue of Prince Michael who ruled Serbia in the 19th century. His father was responsible for regaining Serbia from the Ottoman Empire. Prince Michael liberated 6 major cities from the Turkish. It was agreed with the Sultan that the Turkish soldiers would leave those 6 cities. He is pointing south to highlight the other cities in the South that still needed to be liberated in Macedonia and Kosovo. His horse is standing on 3 legs meaning he was killed. If the horse of a statue is on its 2 hind legs it represents that the rider died in battle. If on all 4 legs, he died of old age. There is a main pedestrian street off of Republic square, and several smaller back streets.

Republic Square

A local Serbian coffee shop, part of a chain the locals rate highly – ‘Better than Starbucks!’ according to the locals. The building used to be a small department store in 1907, and now the coffee shop covers several floors. It stocks great quality coffee, and there’s a barbers and a toilet downstairs!

Serbia’s favourite coffee house

There are some little electric carts called ‘Sparrow’s’ driving around the city centre. They are free to use and will take you to different parts of the city or your hotel, or the city limits closest to your hotel if you are too far out of there remit. A forward thinking idea and giving something back to people, as well as a bonus for tourists.

One of the highlights of my tour of The Former Yugoslavia was seeing this stylish poodle about town!

Love the shades!

Restaurants

Serbia is famed for it’s Kafana’s, a certain type of local bistro that serves alcohol, coffee and food. They usually have live music or performances.

We had dinner in one of them – Zlatni Bokal – and the quality and volume of food was outstanding! It was a traditional Serbian bbq style meal, pork, beef, chicken, sausages, accompanied with fresh potatoes, salad and bread. More meat than you can possibly eat, and all freshly cooked and tasting delicious!

It’s in a bohemian part of town, one of the oldest restaurants in Belgrade and is over 100 years old. Looking at some of the decor you can tell! It has a quirky, quite cool style! I can’t recommend the restaurant highly enough.

Worth knowing you’re allowed to smoke inside many restaurants. Smoking allowed sign below! The ladies toilets are distinguished from the gentleman’s by the bra on the door!

Smoking allowed!

Opposite the Orthodox Church of St Michael is the oldest restaurant in Belgrade. It doesn’t have a name and is simply called ?. Its the oldest surviving house in Belgrade but being near a church people thought it was impolite to have a Kafana where people could eat, drink and smoke. So it was named ?, and is still called that today. I didn’t get chance to eat there but the food is supposed to be good and many locals recommended it.

Novi Sad

I got the local bus from Belgrade to Novi Sad – a city in the north of Serbia, in the banks of the River Danube. It takes about 1.5 hours from Belgrade, not the easiest thing getting on the right one, but I really enjoyed Novi Sad so it was worth the effort.

Novi Sad has a lot of mixed nationalities – Serbian, Croat, Hungarian, German, Armenian, Austrian, Greek, Macedonian, and many more. I found the people to be friendly, and more placid than those I came across in Belgrade. It’s a nice chilled out place with a really pleasant vibe, a great place to spend some time. Plenty to see and some nice cafe bars to soak up the atmosphere.

Two famous ladies came from Novi Sad, one was a great mathematician and physicist. She moved to Switzerland, and married Albert Einstein! The other is Monica Seles – the famous tennis player! Novi Sad is also famous for another reason – it’s twinned with Norwich!

Petrovaradin Fortress

Petrovaradin fortress dates back to the 17th / 18th century and sits by the Danube River. The location gives good visibility in all directions – great for defence, with an iconic clock tower and a complex network of tunnels. It’s some 240 steps up to the top – but worth it for the spectacular view. Across the river is Stari Grad – the old quarter.

Steps up to the fortress

The hands on the clock are reversed making it really confusing to tell the time! Nicknamed the drunken clock! The intention was to be able to see the time from boats on the river. It’s more important to see the hour so they made the hour hand the larger one. It looks like it 9 ‘o’ clock but it’s nearly midday!

The name Petrovaradin is about unity and broadly means Fortress on the stone, protector of religion. Petra is Greek for stone, Var is fortress in Hungarian and the Turkish word for religion – Din – is also incorporated; to demonstrate that the fortress is about bringing people together regardless of differences.

Synagogue in Novi Sad

I visited the local synagogue which is free to enter – recommended donation of 100 Dinars. I’ve found they are rarely open to the public so took the opportunity to look inside and it was beautiful.

Inside the Synagogue

On April 26th 1944 Jews were deported from the synagogue to Nazi extermination camps.

Pretty stained glass windows inside the synagogue

The practical stuff

Serbia has a closed currency and uses the Serbian dinar. One pound sterling is equivalent to approximately 132 Serbian dinars at time of writing. I recommend exchanging unwanted dinars before you leave Serbia. Credit cards are accepted in most hotels and shops and ATM’s are relatively easy to come by. As always I recommend a Starling bank card to withdraw cash whilst there and maximise rates. https://www.starlingbank.com/

It’s safe to drink the local tap water. Serbia is proud of its natural springs. Of Eurpean cities, only Austria has more natural spring water; you can refill bottles from the fountains around town – another nod to being environmentally friendly.

Next stop Macedonia!

Montenegro – 4 countries in 26 hours!

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.

– Oscar Wilde

An interesting 26 hours, what a day. Left Mostar in Bosnia in the morning, crossed the Bosnian border around 10 or so. Drove down the Dalmatian Coast, stopped in Dubrovnik (details in my Croatia post). Drove through the beautiful Montenegro mountains, stunning scenery. Stopped at the Bay of Kotor, then carried on to Podgorica. Stayed overnight, picked up the famous Bar to Belgrade train line. More magnificent mountain scenery. Crossed the Montenegro / Serbia border around 11-ish. All in a days travelling!

At the Montenegro/ Serbia Border

Crossing the border

The driver got treats for the border police between Bosnia and Montenegro. Not a bribe, ‘treats’. Just to ensure everything went smoothly..

Its a mountainous region so there were some steep and twisty turns in the bus. You are rewarded with some beautiful scenery though, its so lush and green in parts, its gorgeous to take in.

Montenegro

Montenegro gained independence in 2006, and is one of the least developed of all of the former Yugoslavian countries. It still has that unspoilt feeling about it, and has not yet been ruined by being too commercial. Income is mainly from agriculture and tourism. Tourism actually started in the 1920’s, owing to the gorgeous coastline on the Adriatic Sea. It has a striking mountainous coastline.

The language is Montenegrin; very similar to Bosnian and Serbian, more like a different dialect. They are very respectful of the eldest family member, and often live with many generations under one roof. Some 30% of the population claim themselves as Serbians. Religion is pre-dominantly Orthodox and Catholics. Both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet are recognised.

Kotor Bay

Arriving at Kotor Bay

Kotor Bay was part of the Venetian Republic and is listed as a UNESCO heritage site due to the well preserved medieval part of the city. An earthquake in 1979 caused significant damage, though was rebuilt shortly after owing to the UNESCO status. Whilst some of the mainland was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, they never ventured to the coast so Kotor remained under Venetian rule.

The city wall on the mountain side

Kotor has a city wall from the late 14th / early 15th century. It was an impressive feat as the wall goes around the edge of the mountain and down to the bay. Defence of the bay was required to protect the shipping industry they had at the time and defend the area from the Ottoman’s who were inland. It costs 8 Euro’s to walk the wall and is apparently around 25 minutes to walk up – though it looks like it would take much longer, given how steep and high it is!

The Gate to the city centre at Kotor

Above the gate is marked with the date the city was liberated from the Nazi’s. There is a communist star and a quote from Tito – the former Yugoslavian president. In my experience the people of the Balkan countries thought he was a good leader and still hold him in high regard. I’m told the quote is along the lines of this: ‘We don’t want what belongs to others, but we won’t give our belongings.’

Stunning views en route from Kotor Bay to Podgorica

Podgorica

Podgorica is the capital of Montenegro. We stayed in Terminus hotel, a few minutes from the train station. Could be the thing of nightmares if you ever watched The Walking Dead! But the hotel was fine, and very convenient for getting the train the next morning from Podgorica – The second stop on the famous Bar to Belgrade line. Terminus is approximately 25 Euro’s a night.

We went to a little restaurant around the corner which was full of locals. It was really cheap, food was basic but pretty good. I ordered chicken fillet and I got three of them! With chips and a side of bread that looked like a loaf! I ordered a house white wine and it took a few sips before I decided it was tolerable! You definitely had to persevere! But then at 1 Euro for a large glass you can’t complain too much!

Dinner in Podgorica

There was also a supermarket conveniently around the corner from the hotel, a couple of doors down from the restaurant. So we could pick up supplies ahead of the long train journey. You can pick up a bottle of local Montenegrin wine in the supermarket for 1.85 Euros. I splashed out on the 3.85 bottle!

I recommend the ‘Builders Sandwich’. It’s basically half a loaf of fresh white bread, with whatever filling you want from the fresh meat and cheese counter. They’ll cut it in half for you – to keep you going on the 11 hour train journey! It was also ridiculously cheap – and enormous! The sandwich plus several snacks came to less than 5 Euros.

Bar to Belgrade train line

The famous Bar to Belgrade line train

It was great to have the opportunity to travel the famous Bar to Belgrade line. Spectacular scenery for most of the journey. Amazing way to travel and take it all in. The route is just over 450 miles yet takes 11 hours! It would take around 3 hours to do that distance by Japanese bullet train!

Views from the train – the Montenegro mountains

Definitely take toilet roll and / or tissues! You’ll also need hand sanitizer. And I recommend food, snacks, water, and most definitely alcohol! Be prepared for some unpleasant toilet visits!

I’d also fully recommend you reserve a seat where possible. Not that local people adhere to it or that they will be marked as reserved – but it should make life a little easier on a long journey once you’re in your seat. The line gets busy and for people getting on later they were sitting in the aisles. Some near the very unpleasant smelling toilets!

At the border our passports got checked by both the Montenegrin and the Serbian border police. Expect to give your passport away and not see it for a while.

This was the first point a local guy with a holdall full of chilled beer and soft drinks got on. They’re relatively cheap around 1.50 Euro’s – but obviously limited choice. He stocked Holsten, Coke or Fanta. At a couple of the later stops, different guys got on with beer holdall’s if you need a top up, or want a chilled drink! Though to be fair the air con in the carriages on our train worked well – you could balance some of your alcohol near the fans to keep it chilled. Priorities!

Monastery at the Montenegro / Serbia border crossing

Sometimes there’s a buffet car – but don’t rely on it! In theory there is a buffet car every other day, on ‘odd’ days but we travelled on the 15th – and no such luck!

Some of the train stations were run down and tiny. Very little by way of health and safety, compared to what we’re used to anyway, people just wander across the tracks.

Credit to Angie for this photo!

Also for most of the train journey’s I’ve taken in The Balkans there’s rarely a lift, so be prepared to carry your bag up and down stairs – pack light! And you often have to heave your bag up and down a few steep steps getting on and off trains.

Beautiful mountainous countryside

The journey wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been. Around hour 9 we discovered that there was works on the track for the last part of the rail journey and we’d be disembarking and getting coaches the rest of the way to Belgrade! Apparently the conductor had counted how many passengers were on board and there would be enough coaches. Fortunately we were ok but it was a complete free for all! All part of the adventure I guess!

Finally arriving in Belgrade! Well almost – this is where we picked up coaches for the remaining part of the journey!

Cycling and Hiking

I didn’t get to spend long in Montenegro as part of my tour of The Former Yugoslavia, I got to admire the gorgeous scenery but didn’t have time for any activities.

The amazing mountains and welcoming blue sea make Montenegro a great destination for cycling. Somewhere to enjoy testing and exciting routes, it’s a thrilling destination – though personally I don’t fancy some of those hill climbs; though I do enjoy a speedy descent!

If you prefer walking there are a number of hiking destinations. Prokletije National Park looks superb!

Budva

The Budva Riviera is the centre of Montenegrin tourism. It’s also known for its well preserved medieval city walls; though is smaller than Kotor. As well as the sandy beaches and diverse nightlife.

Budva is some 2500 years old, making one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic coast. There is evidence of both Greek and Roman influence.

It was noticeably busier than Kotor Bay, Yas beach is the most famous and popular, with gorgeous white sand and beautiful clear blue water. There is a range of accommodation to suit every pocket.

Part of the Casino Royale story apparently happened in Budva, though was actually filmed in The Czech Republic.

The practical stuff

Montenegro is not part of the EU so you’ll get charged data roaming for using your phone. However, it does use the Euro. From 1996 the Deutsche Mark was the de facto currency and was formally adopted in 1999. The Mark was replaced by the Euro in 2002 without any objections from the ECB (European Central Bank).

As usual I recommend a Starling bank card to maximise the exchange rate you get on withdrawing local currency. Remember not to accept the local banks exchange rate as you’ll get less for your money!

https://www.starlingbank.com/

Other good cards I’ve found for using abroad are also Monzo and Revolut. The benefit of Starling is they don’t limit how much you can withdraw from an ATM abroad before they start charging you. With this trip and changing currencies so frequently it was really helpful to be able to keep withdrawing small amounts so you’re not left with too much – especially in some of the countries with a closed currency.

https://monzo.com/i/current-account

https://www.revolut.com/

Local tap water is safe to drink. Thank you is ‘Hvala’ as the other Balkan countries.

Next post Serbia – look out for the poodle on a moped!

Beautiful Bosnia

Where to begin on this very sad yet beautiful country steeped with so much history. I found my visit very emotional, the below quote seems apt for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Sarajevo if you get chance. It has a history with much sorrow, yet is a really beautiful and interesting place, and the people are lovely. I really can’t recommend the city highly enough.

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow

– Anita Desai

One of the many cemetery’s in Sarajevo

Train Journeys

I got the train down from Zagreb, a bus across the Croatia / Bosnia and Herzegovina border then a train to Sarajevo. About a 9 hour journey in total. Be prepared for a slow journey, and a novel take on air conditioning! The scenery is magnificent with beautiful mountains and views of the river. The first train had a 1 hour delay leaving us very tight to get over the border and get the next train in time. The driver really put his foot down!! Whilst having a chat to the person behind him, with some interesting overtaking manoeuvres! But he got us there with a couple of minutes to spare!

‘Air conditioning’ on the train in Bosnia! The driver came round handing out empty plastic bottles to keep the windows open!

As with almost all trains in The Balkans I recommend taking tissues or toilet roll, hand sanitizer, water, snacks and some wine or beer! Wine bottles are often a cork not a screw top so worth carrying a bottle opener too!

Scenic views from the train – my photos really can’t do the beautiful scenery justice.

The local people

I found the people to be open, friendly and chatty, with a good sense of humour. They are pushing to move forward and forget the past, though the scars are clearly still there just beneath the surface.

History

Until the late 1800’s Sarajevo was under Ottoman rule. Then became part of Austro-Hungary until WW1. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Latin Bridge in Sarajevo triggered the start of World War 1. The museum of Sarajevo near the bridge tells the story. There is a memorial on the street where it happened. Sarajevo has such a sad past, yet is such a beautiful place.

Yugoslavia was one country regardless of religion or nationality. A firm believer in unity. Tito is celebrated in countries of the former Yugoslavia as being a good president and leader.

From speaking to local people in Bosnia they believe that when Tito died the problems started. I’ll detail the information I have from chatting to locals and guides, so apologies if anything is mis-represented in any way.

The new president wanted a centralised country with everything run from Belgrade in Serbia, leading to civil unrest as some people disagreed. In 1992 Bosnia chose to be an independent country – the 4th Yugoslavian country to claim independence. More than 60% voted for independence. There was political unrest over whether to be loyal to Serbia or Croatia.

A few months after independence, the attacks on the city started. Serbia tried to take territory near the Serbian border, as well as Sarajevo being the capital. The belief being take the capital and the rest will follow.

The initial spark that started the war is said to be an incident at a wedding of a Bosnian boy and a Serbian girl. They were shot by a sniper whilst crossing Vrbanja bridge. Since said to be the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of Sarajevo. Though the family dislike the term as they allowed and blessed the love of the young couple. Others however were not happy that a Bosnian and a Serb were marrying, the couple tried to flee the city, and on the way out were shot in ‘no mans land’ between the two territories.

The civil war lasted 3 years from 1992 – 1995. Sarajevo was under seige while the conflict continued. Despite being a big Yugoslavian city, there was not enough supplies, food or clean water.

The first buildings to be attacked were those that provided electricity and telecommunications, important buildings for survival, including a maternity hospital. Facilities such as the Olympic stadiums were destroyed to try and break the people’s spirit. Places of worship such as Mosques and Churches were attacked to destroy the multicultural city.

Children were given colouring books in school with shapes of mines so they can recognise them and potentially help save their lives.

Where shells hit the ground have been marked red to remember the people that lost there lives. You’ll see them all over the city. They’re called the Sarajevo Rose. Approximately 300 shells fell per day in 1992.

Sarajevo Rose

The peace agreement was signed in 1995 and put an end to a war that lasted over 3 years. The Government is now made up of 3 presidents one Bosnian representative one Croat Bosnian and one Serb Bosnian. They serve for 4 years, and rotate leading for 8 months each. So little gets done as what can 1 person do in 8 months for one country. Though no one complains or intervenes as it was part of the peace agreement. And no one wants to go back to a time without peace.

Sarajevo

The views of Sarajevo are stunning – again it can’t be fully captured and appreciated in a photo

Sarajevo is once again a multicultural city where people of different backgrounds and religions live together peacefully. There is a Cathedral, a Synagogue, Orthodox Churches and Mosques. It’s a beautiful city with much to offer.

Muslims are around 55% of the population in Bosnia, increasing to 70% in Sarajevo. Catholic is around 15-20% and Orthodox 10-15%. The rest are minority groups.

Mosque entrance in Sarajevo

Jews came to Sarajevo in the 13th century and there is a pretty Jewish quarter. They built the first Synagogue which is now a museum. Before WW2 there was around 14,000 Jews. Many died in the war and the rest fled the city. Muslims and people of other religions helped where they could hiding them in there houses. Jews are a minority now with only around 700 Jewish people living in Sarajevo and 1000 in Bosnia.

Beautiful interior of the Cathedral

The city hall, a beautiful Austro- Hungarian building and more recently a library. Shells went through the roof during the war, damaging the interior and some 2 million books. It’s repair started in 1996 and was completed in 2014. It’s now a museum and used for small concerts and events.

Sarajevo City Hall

On the Ottoman side of the city the streets are named after the crafts the local people used to produce in those streets. For example Blacksmith’s Street (though this is now full of restaurants), Copper Street – still home to small local shops selling copper items.

There were a number of Han’s – equivalent to a small motel in modern terms. They were near the road for traders and people travelling the silk route. There used to be more than 50 in the city. There is one surviving one since the war from the 15th or 16th century. It’s now a Persian carpet shop with lanterns and you can wander in to get a feel of what they used to be like. Upstairs has been converted to offices.

This pretty building below is an indoor food market with meat and cheese counters. You can try with no obligation to buy. Behind is an open market for vegetables.

Below is The Sculpture of the multi-cultural man. Donated by Italy after siege. It’s the only naked sculpture in Sarajevo, and demonstrates trying to connect to the world. Surrounded by doves as a symbol of peace. Behind is the largest Orthodox Church in Sarajevo.

There are so many cemeteries in Sarajevo. Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim. In places the graves are endless. As far as the eye can see. It takes your breath away and is so emotional to see. It’s hard to believe this happened neighbour on neighbour in such recent living history.

Tunnel Museum

A must see whilst visiting Sarajevo. Known as the Tunnel of Hope, the Tunnel of Life or The Tunnel of Rescue. The tunnels were 800m, 25m are left now for the museum. The rest has gone for safety reasons as most of it was under the airport. Initially it was a private museum, it’s now State run but the son of the family who’s house it was still works there.

The digging started from their house as they had a basement; and also from the other side of the airport runway. It had to be kept secret, though it took many people to dig – there photos can be seen in the entrance of the museum. It took 4 months and 4 days of digging.

The Tunnel is 1.6m high, though lower in parts, and 1m wide. On one side they had lots of metal so that side of the tunnel was lined with metal.

People hid in the basement if they had one. If not they might share with a neighbour. Assuming they were still on the same side. Otherwise they would choose one room in the apartment that was the safest. The room became everything to the family including the kitchen area.

There was no electricity, people would make lights out of battery’s and use car engines to make electricity. Small transistor radios were valuable. Bicycles were used to carry water canisters. Cigarettes became currency, money wasn’t worth anything. Windows were covered with tape to try and prevent glass falling in. When they ran out of wood to burn they would use books, trainers or anything they could get there hands on.

Newspaper was used to make cigarette packets and batteries to make lights

Use of the tunnel was for the army initially. It’s use was controlled, but allowed movement of people, ammunition, weapons, food and goats amongst other things. The army checked people for alcohol and petrol which were not allowed, to try and prevent damage and spies.

The lady who lived in the house where the tunnel started used to give people water as they exited the tunnel. Shops opened on the side further from the city so families could cross tunnel to get supplies, or stock up whilst trying to escape the city.

Despite the situation people managed to keep some sense of humour, with signposts in the tunnel ‘Paris this way’.

Winter Olympics

Hard to believe that less then ten years before the civil war Sarajevo was host to the 1984 Winter Olympics; where Torvill and Dean famously won Olympic gold for ice skating to Boléro.

One week before the Olympics started no snow had fallen. The night before they were due to start, one metre of snow fell. Locals hailed the miracle, and welcomed the chance to change opinion, and the image of the city after it was previously known for where WW1 started.

It was the first Olympics held in a socialist state and communist country. The bobsleigh and luge were destroyed during the seige. It is now the most beautiful abandoned area in the city. You can get a cable car up to the top to overlook the city and enjoy the mountains. It’s 10 Euro’s return and you get amazing views from the top.

Food and Drink

Bosnian coffee is very strong and not necessarily enjoyable for Western tastes, more palatable for us if you filter out the sediment when pouring from jug to cup. Bosnian people tend to be big meat eaters so not the easiest country for vegetarians but getting easier and you should still manage to eat ok. I had some delicious fish from a restaurant in the bazaar in Sarajevo. I also had a lovely lunch surrounded by locals in a garden cafe called Kolobara Han, amongst the back streets and shops in Sarajevo. Cuisine was influenced by the Ottoman Empire and paprika is used in most dishes.

Bosnian coffee served with Turkish delight

Mostar

Famed for the bridge and the locals diving from it! Quite a feat given the height is 25m and the depth only 6m! It’s impressive to watch if you’re lucky enough to see someone dive. They collect tips and once they reach 30 Euro’s from onlookers at the bridge they’ll dive. The best spot is looking up at the bridge for a great view of both the bridge itself and the view of a diver go.

Mostar bridge

The bridge and the old town is cobbled and they are polished cobbles so can be really slippy. Wear sensible footwear! It has UNESCO heritage. Apparently it was designed this way so that when women walk with high heels on the cobbles they have to concentrate on walking so can’t get distracted by shopping or flirting with other men.

Be wary of pickpockets especially on the bridge and in the old town. Locals will be dressed as Western tourists and are often young women.

Local market

Across the bridge once you’ve passed all the little tourist shops, is a market with honeys and oils. And some very cheap trainers… There are also a few lovely cafes and restaurants, one has a great view looking back at the bridge and the food was good too.

Graffiti

I’ve seen Graffiti almost everywhere in The Balkans – some of it really impressive. I’ll show a few images here of some seen in Bosnia. What touched me the most was where there are still bullet holes in some of the walls and it looks like they’ve tried to make something positive out of something so sad.

Graffiti over the bullet holes in Mostar
Graffiti in Mostar
Graffiti around the bullet holes

The practical stuff

The currency is Bosnian convertible marks. It’s a closed currency so you can only exchange or withdraw it once you’re in Bosnia and you ideally want it all spent by the time you leave. Currency is almost fixed 1.95 marks and cents to 1 Euro or 2.02 marks to the pound. Some places take cards, though you’ll need cash for markets and smaller shops or purchases.

As usual I recommend a Starling Bank card to withdraw cash once you’re here. Only issue with that is that it’s harder to get smaller denominations out of the ATM; exchanging at a local office might help you with smaller notes and since the currency is relatively fixed this shouldn’t impact the value too much. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Locals drink the tap water but I’d recommend bottled water here. Be careful crossing roads too, evening on crossings.

Thank you is the same as the other Balkan countries I’ve come across so far – Hvala. They use Hvala Vam – thank you to you. Molim, pronounced moll-leem, is please and you’re welcome. Cheers sounds like Jivoli, I thought Tivoli gardens like in Copenhagen to remind me.

Anita’s quote at the beginning of my post is so relevant – my trip to Bosnia will stay with me forever, and I cannot recommend the country highly enough.

Next stop Montenegro, via Dubrovnik in Croatia, next post to follow – ‘4 countries in 26 hours’!

Croatia – Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb and Dubrovnik

Plitvice Lakes national park is absolutely stunning and a true natural wonder.

Live your life by a compass, not a clock

Stephen Covey

Plitvice Lakes National Park

The colours of the water are gorgeous and such vibrant blues and greens. The waterfalls are stunning and it makes you appreciate how powerful nature is. It’s the largest and oldest national park in Croatia. It was granted UNESCO national heritage status in 1979 and its easy to see why. There are 16 lakes with the amazing shades of blue, interconnected by the waterfalls. The highest point is 1280m. If you’re unsure about whether it’s worth a visit, simply look at some of the images available online and it should sway you! I’ll add some of mine to this post too, not that I think they do it justice!

Veliki Slap the highest waterfall is 78m tall. You can wander round the lower pools following the well organised pathways, seeing some falls and lakes along the way. It was originally set out that way and declared a national park in 1949. Impressive organisation back in the day.

Carry on the pathways and you come to a cafe area, the food isn’t great – mainly burgers and chips; I’d brought sandwiches from the bakery in Zagreb. There is a water fountain though they encourage you to buy bottled water. I used the fountain, even though it didn’t look great, it’s safe to drink and lovely fresh water. From here you can get a boat across the lake to the upper pools. They’re less people up there so it feels a bit calmer. As you wander through the woods there is a chance of seeing deers, bears and wolves, though you’re more likely to see a bird or a butterfly!

The entrance cost varies depending on the time of year, during summer it’s between 150-250 Kuna per adult. There are a few hotels right next to the park so it is possible to stay overnight near the falls. I stopped in one of them for a drink after walking and it was lovely.

It really is a beautiful place to walk around and take in with gorgeous sights at every turn.

Zagreb

Zagreb Cathedral

The capital city of Croatia, an interesting city with plenty to see. There’s lots of history and winding alleys to wander round with some beautiful architecture. The Cathedral is stunning. The highlight for me was the roof of St Marks Church. The Church originates from the 13th century, though the roof was redone more recently after an earthquake.

St Marks Church

Around the corner of St Marks is a great viewpoint that provides brilliant views of the city including the cathedral.

View of the city

The old town as in most cities is much prettier than the newer area. I really like the way they’ve tried to keep tradition, in one area a man comes every evening to manually light the gas street lamps.

Stopping for a coffee is very popular in Zagreb. There are coffee bars everywhere. There’s also a street over 1km long that’s lined all the way with cafes and restaurants. Apparently on a Saturday evening it can be hard to find a table despite the volume. There are also a number of lovely bakeries with delicious fresh sandwiches and pastries.

Food and Drink

My favourite white wine in Croatia was Grasevina. Sipun was also good, the Croatian version of Sipon that I had in Slovenia – mentioned in my previous blog.

Museums

Another point of interest – for some – is the Museum of Broken Relationships! It’s the most popular and visited of all the museums in Zagreb! Apparently the exhibits get changed regularly, some examples being things people have given back once a relationship ends. Due to such success a few additional museums have opened in other countries. Entrance at time of writing is 40 Kuna.

Dubrovnik

For me having watched Game of Thrones this was all about walking the wall. The cost is 200 Kuna and you can pay by cash or card. It’s worth it as the views are exceptional. Each corner you turn offering a view better than the last. You’ll end up with so many photos! Save the best until last, the view from the top is amazing looking down over all the red rooftops into the Adriatic Sea. For Game of Thrones fans it really does feel like you’re in Kings Landing! For those who aren’t, it’s beautiful, pretty and still worth a visit.

View from the wall

The narrow streets of Dubrovnik, originally designed for horses, are busy and it’s also relatively expensive. It’s had a massive increase in demand since Game of Thrones, though of course was already a UNESCO site. I only stopped for a couple of hours in the afternoon to walk the wall, which for me was the highlight of Dubrovnik. The wall was actually quieter than wandering the streets. There were still a lot of people but generally you’re able to get all the photos you want and take in the impressive views.

I stopped on the way to Montenegro for a couple of hours coming from Slovenia, via Bosnia then down the Dalmatian Coast. Bosnia and Montenegro will be in posts to follow shortly!

View looking down on Dubrovnik

There were 3 cruise ships pulled in at the time so a lot of people in a small place. I guess the evenings and early mornings must be much quieter if you want to avoid the crowds. For me a couple of hours was enough time to see Dubrovnik but there is plenty to offer if you want to stay for longer.

Of course a Game of Thrones tour if that’s your thing. There’s the Franciscan Church and one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, which is now a museum. The Rectors Palace is good too, and there are a number of other museums and sites. The funicular railway to get great views over the city. The sea of course is lovely, though the Adriatic has a high salt content. And there’s kayaks and boats for hire too.

Historically with the coastline Dubrovnik has always had a strong trading income as well as salt mining.

The Practical Stuff

The currency is Kuna, even though Croatia is part of the EU. The exchange rate at time of writing is just over 8 Kuna to the Pound. A number of places take cards and it’s easy to find ATM’s and exchange offices. As usual I recommend a Starling bank card for the great rates at the cash point with no fees. You also get 0.5% interest for any positive balance up to £2000.

https://www.starlingbank.com/

Tap water is safe to drink. There are plenty of fountains around town where you can fill up your water bottle with fresh water. The Croatian’s encourage it now to be environmentally friendly and are also keen to share that they have such great natural water and springs in Croatia.

For comparison, a sandwich in a bakery in Zagreb costs around 15 Kuna, the same sandwich in Dubrovnik is around 35 Kuna.

Thank you is Hvala Vam, very similar to Slovenia, it means thank you to you. Molim is you’re welcome.

Next country – Bosnia!

Slovenia – The only country in the world with love in the name!

To travel is to live

– Hans Christian Andersen

Ljubljana – The capital city is a small and beautiful little place. Ljubljana also translates to mean loved, and the people are friendly and passionate! I visited in September, it was rainy and cool for a couple of days with the sun coming out on the last day. A couple of weeks of 20-25 degrees was due to follow though so I think I was just unlucky with the weather.

History: Slovenia is obviously still a very new country, being independent since 1991, having previously being part of the former Yugoslavia. A number of locals I spoke to were born in Yugoslavia and remember the war. They feel like a small country, who needs the help of others as they used to be part of something larger. Though are aware that they should be more proud as they have a beautiful country that is worthy of their appreciation, and to be fair, I think the appreciation of others too.

The impact of War was not as long in comparison to some of the other countries in the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia was the first country to ask for its independence. Shortly after it was granted war broke out. The local people are grateful it ‘only’ lasted ten days. They recognise it as a distressing time yet empathise with there neighbours who experienced some much longer periods of unrest.

View from Lake Bled up to the castle

City Tours: There are many walking tours of the city and whilst it’s easy enough to get around on your own you get much more local history and insight from the guides than you would get from a guidebook or online, I would definitely recommend booking one.

I would also recommend spending more time on the traditional, Medieval side all of the city. It is obviously the area with more history and prettier architecture than the newer side of town, which could be anywhere with its chain stores. It’s also much livelier and in my opinion more vibrant than the modern side of town which is over the bridges.

Sure it would look better with a blue sky but still very pretty!

A River boat tour is another way to see the city from a different perspective. It’s 10 Euro’s for a tour which is a little under an hour. They leave from a few different points throughout the city. I started mine and bought tickets from butchers’ bridge. The scenery was beautiful and you go out a little beyond the city. The captain was also very knowledgeable and shared some interesting information about Ljubljana.

The sun came out for my river tour!

There are three Bridges which cross the Ljubljanica river. Dragon bridge translates to zmajski most – the dragon is the protector of the city. There is also Butchers’ bridge and Cobblers’ bridge, where people used to sell meat and shoes. Traders used to use the bridges to avoid paying taxes.

Dragon Bridge

The castle in Ljubljana is a walk up a fairly steep switch back path, or you can get the funicular railway. It’s worth the walk for the view at the top. It’s free to enter the courtyard, with a charge if you want to go up to the tower and inside the museum. Personally this isn’t the most impressive castle I’ve seen. They’ve added in an ultra modern cafe with a floor to ceiling glass windows. It looks too modern and out of place and I think it spoils the original feel of the castle. The castle at Bled is much more impressive, in my opinion, though I believe it’s still worth the walk up.

The cathedral officially called St. Nicholas’s cathedral is beautiful and worth the 2 Euro’s charge to enter. The doors are extravagant and designed to look like they are as old as the cathedral itself, however, they were added in 1996.

Inside the Cathedral

Lake Bled: The number one attraction while in Slovenia! My time in Lake Bled was unfortunately rainy, foggy and a bit cold. It was still beautiful but the lake didn’t glisten in the sun with a clear view of the island as I’d hoped. That said, despite the weather it was still worth the visit. The lake looks so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s not man-made. I also loved the castle. It’s beautiful and well maintained, an interesting place to walk around.

Foggy Lake Bled

From Ljubljana everywhere charges around 70 Euro’s per person for a half day tour. This includes the drive there and back which is about an hour each way; entrance to the castle with just over an hour to wander around it, and of course the famous view of the lake. Then a couple of hours to walk around the lake, go for a coffee and try the famous cream cake – Kremsnita. You also get a great view up to the castle from the lake. It’s possible to get a boat out to the island, but you would need a longer tour to do this.

Kremsnita – local cream cake – a must try whilst visiting Lake Bled!

Food and drink: without exception all my meals were delicious. Portion sizes are generous. My favourite meal was in a restaurant called Kolovratu, on the traditional side of the city near the cathedral. The food was so fresh and the manager really knows his wine and what will compliment each dish. As well as his after dinner liqueurs! A lot of fun and delicious food!

Fresh Calamari

Another good restaurant nearby is called Gujzina. Again great food and a good choice of wine. Whilst the portion sizes for food tend to be on the generous side they’re anything but for wine, with a standard glass being 100ml. They aren’t expensive though. A delicious good quality meal, with a few glasses of wine costs around 25 Euro’s.

There’s a really good wine shop selling local Slovenian wine and liqueurs in the traditional part of the city. Not too far from the cathedral or the two restaurants I mentioned. They let you try with no obligation and are very knowledgeable if you have any questions about the local wines.

Local Slovenian Wine and Liqueur shop

Slovenia is famous for honey and wine and choices are plentiful. If you like white wine I recommend Sipon. It’s dry and a local Slovenian wine. If you prefer red, Epoca Ferdinand is lovely. The honey liqueur is also really nice, I much preferred to the local blueberry schnapps.

Eating local: Slovenian people are keen on eating local produce. Previously they used to export locally produced milk from farmers to Germany and France. Whilst they imported cheaper alternatives from Hungary and Poland as the growth of supermarkets hit. Now that people are aware that this was happening, They are angry and want to purchase Slovenian rather than exporting their great quality food and drink. They are prepared to pay a little more for local produce. And are also very proud of the quality of their home produced groceries, trying to keep as much in house as possible. Tap water is also safe to drink.

Vending machine for local milk

The practical stuff: the currency is Euro’s. I rarely used cash as a lot of places seemed to accept a card. Good to have a little in smaller denominations though to cover lower cost things or for places that don’t take cards. ATM’s weren’t everywhere but easy enough to find. As usual I recommend a Starling bank card for the great exchange rates and minimum cost.

https://www.starlingbank.com/

I don’t know the correct spelling or pronunciation for thank you, however, it sounds very similar to ‘koala’, though actually pronounced with the ‘hv’ sound – hvala. Locals appreciated the effort so it can’t have sounded too far from the correct term! Prosim – pronounced pros-seem doubles as thank you and also you’re welcome. Two words that go a long way.

Kremsnita – cream cake stall

Slovenia is a lovely country and Ljubljana is a great place for a city break. Definitely worth a visit, great architecture, friendly people, good food and plenty of wine! Next stop Zagreb in Croatia – approximately 3 hours by train..