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..

Bucketlist in Belize – The Great Blue Hole

Not all those who wander are lost.

– J. R. R Tolkien

From the moment I first saw a photo of The Great Blue Hole in Belize I was intrigued and really wanted to see it. It truly is a stunning natural wonder. Belize is an amazing country with so much to offer. I will focus this post mainly on The Great Blue Hole, though will touch on some of the other features Belize presents. Belize itself is steeped with Mayan history, and very advanced in terms of being eco-friendly. In addition, you’ll see some amazing animals and marine life very close up in their natural habitats.

A bit of geography: The Great Blue hole is a naturally formed giant sinkhole just off the coast of Belize, perfectly circular in shape and an enormous 318m wide, and 124m deep. Its sits inside a shallower body of water, an atoll, which has a coral reef surrounding it; in turn surrounded my much deeper water. It formed many thousands of years ago and is a World Heritage site.

From the Air: In my opinion, the best way to see it is from the air. So, from Caye Caulker, a little island a short boat ride from the mainland, up I went in a small 6-seater plane; sitting next to the pilot he also let me have a little go at flying the plane! Another amazing experience, though slightly stomach churning when I directed us down a little too quickly!

Diving the hole is on many people’s bucket list, you must be an experienced diver to do so. Whilst you would see marine life inside the reef of the atoll inside the hole itself is very dark and would be more for viewing the stalactites than fish or sharks. I was advised by a guy called Chris from Kidderminster who lives in Belize and runs a farm there, that if the weather and sea conditions aren’t right then the boats often don’t make it far enough to see the hole itself. And also that the view from a boat is nowhere near as stunning as seeing the hole from the air. If you want to dive there little agencies everywhere offering Boat Trips. I recommend Black Durgeon Dives. Ask for Cory or Simeon.

How to organise the Flight: Booking the flight seemed harder than it ought to be, so here’s my thoughts and advice for what its worth. I tried calling and emailing in advance, but none of the agents seem interested or reply until you are physically there in person. They need a minimum of 3 people to guarantee a flight. So I recommend that it’s the first thing you do when you get to Caye Caulker. We were staying there for 3 days and I managed to make it happen so ensure you allow yourself a bit of time in case there’s not enough people or bad weather conditions. If there’s a few of you then its fine, but I was on my own so I ended up booking a provisional flight with one of the agents along the main street, she then advertised it to go in a couple of days meaning she had a bit of time to get to the minimum number of people. Fortunately, the next day she got two more so I was in!

In the end 4 of us went up with the pilot. There are plenty of booking agents, it’s a really small place so you’ll come across them regardless which way you walk or where you’re staying. Some just do boat trips but they all know each other so can point you to their friend that offers the flights. I believe you can also take a slightly larger plane if there are more of you. I paid around $150 for my place – thoroughly worth it! It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen! I used the agents just opposite Black Durgeon Dives called Anda De Wata Tours.

#Toptip! Whilst beautiful, Caye Caulker has lots of sand flies that bite your legs and are generally irritating! They don’t like baby oil so take some and cover your legs in it before you go out and it should discourage them!

There are some amazing Snorkelling opportunities from Caye Caulker. I recommend a boat trip out to Hol Chan Marine and Shark Ray Alley. The corals and array of fish you see is outstanding. We saw some turtles and lots of stingrays. If you’re really lucky you might even see a Manatee! Then at Shark ray alley you can jump off the boat into a group of sharks which I thought was amazing but I guess its not for everyone! If not the view of them from the boat is great too.

Photo credit to Louise on this one!

Placencia is a chilled out little area with a beautiful beach. We took a boat trip out to a tiny island which really felt like you were on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere. The snorkelling was good, though there is more to see at Caye Caulker.

Temples: There are so many different Mayan temples to visit whilst in Belize; and also Tikal in Guatemala if you venture a little further. Some of the temples I’d recommend you see whilst visiting Belize: Altun Ha, Lamanai and Xunantunich. Definitely get a guide as they’re so informative and there really is a tremendous amount of history.

Tikal in Guatemala

Wildlife: is plentiful, one of my favourites was a visit to Shane’s place where you could get so close to the Howler Monkeys in their natural surroundings. Also saw some amazing spider monkeys at Tikal in Guatemala. Another good place to go if you get the chance is the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We saw birds, storks, crocodiles and iguana’s during boat trips up and down the river.

Contact details for Shane’s place – definitely recommend to see the Howler monkeys!

Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve: I didn’t see any Jaguars while I was there but did a great hike up to ‘Ben’s Bluff’, which offers incredible views of the forest and Victoria Peak. There are various other trails so you can take your pick of what you prefer.

The ‘other’ Blue hole: is a naturally formed fresh water swimming area. It’s a collapsed limestone cavern. Due to this the water is gorgeous and your skin feels really soft after swimming. It’s a stunning blue colour as well – pictures can’t do it justice. Definitely worth a stop.

Rum is hard to avoid whilst in Belize. My two favourite cocktails were a ‘Panty Ripper’ – Banana rum and pineapple juice, and of course Pina Coladas – of which I sampled many! Of course they make a mean rum punch too!

Cuisine: its all about rice and beans, and beans and rice – there is a difference! I prefer rice and beans! Also fried jacks for breakfast are delicious! Portion sizes are often on the larger side.

The practical stuff: currency is the Belize Dollar, which is pegged to the US dollar at 2BZ$ = 1US$. You can spend either. As ever I recommend a Starling bank card to maximise the exchange rate and minimise costs. I drew cash out once I arrived, and paid for a lot of things on my card.

https://www.starlingbank.com/

There are a lot of different bugs we’re not used to everywhere, especially at some of the Mayan temple sites. Definitely bring bug spray and something like anthisan. And where you can I’d recommend wearing long sleeves and long trousers to avoid getting bitten.

Finally: I went to Belize and Guatemala as part of an Explore trip so it is all organised for you with some optional extras should you choose to. I would recommend the trip, the company and most importantly the country to anyone. Our guide Wilfred Garbutt was brilliant, friendly, knowledgeable and enhanced our experience further. As did Chris the local ground agent. Being with a fabulous bunch of fun people I’d never met before, many with a great sense of humour also helped make this an enjoyable and memorable trip. As did the MANY pina colada’s! The group dynamic was good, everyone got on and we had a lot of laughs – special mention to Louise, Patrick and Hamish for the fantastic company!

Thanks all for the great company and experience!

About Me

Like most people I love to travel. When I was younger I assumed, as most people do, and as we are somewhat conditioned to, that I would meet Mr Right and live happily ever after. I haven’t met Mr Right – and maybe he doesn’t exist. After all nobodies perfect. However, that hasn’t stopped me living happily ever after!

Around 4 years ago I decided to try my first solo trip. For security on my first venture I booked a group tour, and have never looked back since. There was one couple, one single man and several single women. I made some friends for life who I have been on subsequent trips with; and keep looking at where else I want to go and what else I want to do. If I have company great, if I don’t, no problem!

Solo travel doesn’t feel like I’m alone, more independent and confidence boosting! I can’t recommend it enough to anyone considering it and have made some great friends along the way! It also helps with perspective when you come back to work / the real world.

I have a couple of interesting trips coming up including visiting Easter Island which I’m really looking forward to! A friend suggested I write a diary to be able to look back on some of the experiences. So here I am with the modern day version of a diary, and hopefully someone finds it useful or interesting!

I’ll also add some retrospective blogs of places I’ve been, as well as some of the thoughts and experiences that come with it!

Stockholm – Something for everyone

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.

– Oscar Wilde

Just got back from my 4th visit to Stockholm, what a beautiful and amazing city! My friend Alex moved there 3 years ago so having somewhere to stay helps as its not the cheapest of cities. Each trip has been a completely different experience. It’s a great place to visit during the summer and the first two visits I was lucky enough to have glorious weather. It really is a city set up for being outside and enjoying the weather. I love wandering around and taking in the scenery and views. Personally I enjoy looking at architecture and buildings when abroad and Stockholm is a great city for this!

Södermalm: Alex lives in Södermalm so really central, a great and cool location; initially in Hornstull and currently in Mariotorget. What’s unbelievable is the amount of support you get with childcare. She has two young boys and if I had a young family myself or was planning on starting a family soon it would be tempting to move over there. The cost is unbelievable value especially compared to London. Not to mention the amount of time you get for maternity and paternity leave.

Nobel Museum: I visited the Nobel museum in Gamla Stan for the first time and would thoroughly recommend it. Really interesting stories and moving when you look at what some people have achieved and the impact it continues to have on our lives today. An inspirational place and also something that you can only do in Sweden. https://www.nobelprize.org/about/nobel-museum/


Gamla Stan: is a beautiful area and a short walk from Södermalm. A little bit too many tourists on occasion but a beautiful place with some stunning buildings and architecture. Still worth a walk around and plenty of places to stop for coffee and cake. Despite it being a little busy in some parts I think its still one of my favourite places to wander round in Stockholm. Fika is a huge part of Swedish life, basically it means going for a coffee. Swedes believe it is important to make time everyday for friends. Another important word is Tah-k, pronounced ‘Tack’, which means thank you.

We went to the photography museum – Fotografiska – nearest tube stop is Slussen. The collection from war photographer and photo journalist James Nachtwey who’s lost a number of friends in his line of work was impressive and thought provoking. His composition is striking and he focuses on injustice and violence. Some of the images were harrowing and really make you pause to think and regain some perspective on life. Mandy Barker’s ‘Sea of Artifacts’ also interesting and reinforces the impact plastic is having on the environment. On to something lighter and there is a great cafe and cocktail bar on the top floor with beautiful views. Definitely recommend a visit the exhibitions were outstanding. Note the exhibitions are temporary, on until mid September and late August respectively.

https://www.fotografiska.com/


There are so many museums and plenty of places that are good for children as well. Some free to get in and some at a cost. You can purchase a Stockholm pass giving free entry to a number of tours, attractions and museums, depending on how long you are visiting for and what you are interested in seeing and doing whilst visiting.

Boat trips: You can also get a boat to a different island easily from here. I visited Vaxholm on my first trip, beautiful island, easy to walk round, lots to see and plenty of spots to sit out in the sun with a great view. It has regular and frequent boats making it an easy trip. There’s also a 16th century fortress on the island you can visit which is now a museum.

Beaches: There are beaches everywhere and so much water so if going in summer definitely take a swimming costume! The water might be a little chilly but worth getting in for a swim!

Still on the list! I haven’t yet been but the Abba museum and the Vasa museum are two that are still on my list. The Abba museum speaks for itself! The Vasa museum is a preserved 17th century ship so a unique visit.

Skansen: is an outdoor village also great for children. I visited during my winter trip with Alex, her husband and the boys. It has a zoo and an aquarium; and a traditional Swedish village showing the way of life in Sweden before the industrial era. The food in the cafe was pretty good. Much needed for some warmth as it was December!

We made a brief visit to the Museum of Modern Art this time around, located on the island of Skeppsholmen. Some interesting work and as with most of Stockholm, great views. Some of the exhibitions were free to view as well. I was amused by people wandering around with there own fold up seats which are available at the entrance to stop and enjoy the art; and stopping wherever they wanted to view something. In some places they looked like part of the art installation. Jordan Wolfson’s exhibition was a little controversial, the elderly couple watching it were also amusing as the wife picked up her chair telling her husband to move on as she clearly didn’t approve, and he remained seated, laughing and very much enjoying it! https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/

Spa’s: When I went in winter we also visited The Spa – Centralbadet – which I thoroughly recommend. Traditional wooden Swedish style created in 1904, located just off the busy Drottninggatan. Some great steam and sauna rooms, Jacuzzi’s and a beautiful swimming pool in the style of a ship. Looks really grand and reminded me of the Titanic. It also has a sun roof terrace and outdoor gym and yoga area. Though being December we didn’t try these out! Obviously followed up with a glass of bubbles in the garden cafe! https://www.centralbadet.se/english/


I’ve had some lovely food and great drinks and cocktails in various parts of the city. There was a little festival by the water on our walk from Gamla Stan back to Sodermalm and we stopped and had a very nice glass of wine (or two) sitting by the waters edge. Made even better when I posted a picture and everyone told me it was raining back home!


Transport: Stockholm is a very efficient city. Options to get to and from Arlanda airport include the Flygbussarna and the Arlanda Express train. The train is a little dearer but quicker, although it depends which part of the city you are heading for. The tube network is easy to navigate. I’d recommend purchasing an Access card which functions like an Oyster card in London, you simply top up and tap in, no need to tap out. https://www.flygbussarna.se/en/arlanda

The practical stuff: One more really important thing – hardly anywhere takes cash, in fact I’d say don’t bring any! I’ve paid for everything on my last 3 trips by card. I’d advise getting one that doesn’t charge you when abroad. Starling bank is particularly good. Revolut is another good one.

https://www.starlingbank.com/

https://www.revolut.com/

During my visit last Winter I also got a train down to Copenhagen, reasonably priced, easy to do and stunning views on the way. But that’s another post!

Stockholm is an easy place to wander round and navigate and is so full of things to do and see no matter what you are looking for. Alex I’m sure I’ll be back again soon!