Serbia, another treasure from the Balkan

Serbia was unexpected and unplanned. Beginning of August I took a break from the Wild Elephants Hostel in Bratislava where I am still volunteering. And I decided to meet up somewhere in Europe with a friend.  So I booked a bus to Sofia where the plan was to stay two weeks and travel around Bulgaria by car. But an event happened (bad or good, we will never know!). And we completely changed our plans. I have to admit this was the most stupid thing that could have happened but I forgot my wallet in Bratislava so I had no money. I mean not really I had 70€ in coins but I figured out that the exchange offices don’t really take coins or they exchange it for a really bad rate! So I found myself without money. Thankfully I was not travelling alone. But this changed our initial plan.

So from Sofia, where we spent two nights and three days, we decided to slowly find our way back to Bratislava. On our way we made a stop to Serbia, somewhere I had always wanted to go but never had the opportunity so far.

Nis, a random stop over which became a highlight
Nisville, where the Jazz festival took place

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop was Nis in Serbia on our way to Belgrade. I think we were crazy this day because we stopped there for 7 hours, at night (our bus was at 2:30 am and we got there by 7 pm) with our backpacks (between 7 and 11kg each!). But I guess that what the excitement of travelling makes you do. So we arrived in this nice little city in the South of Serbia which was a really nice discovery and a highlight of our trip. There was a jazz festival happening and it was settled in the fortress where different events were going on, such as open movies, concerts…

At Nis, we tried Serbian food for the first time and it was delicious, it is really similar to Albanian food, to be honest, but really tasty. We ordered the typical salad (cucumber, tomatoes, onions and a local cheese) with kebab meat, sausages and homemade bread. It was simple but good. We spent 12 euros for two including the drinks. Then we spent the rest of the night hanging around near the river, waiting for the bus. It was a perfect summer holiday night.

A typical Serbian meal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After 3 hours drive,  we finally arrived in Belgrade at 6 am. We stayed in a hostel a bit far from the centre (about 10minutes walk) which was really great because really quiet and away from all the tourists. There, they welcome us with a shot of Rakja (the typical alcohol of the Balkan that the most common on is made of plums), which is quite strong especially in the morning. And also at the hostel, the lady who was working night shift taught us some basics Serbian sentences which were really useful for the rest of the stay :

-Good afternoon: dobre vece;

-thank you: Hvala;

– bye: ciao.

 

A day trip to Novi Sad

During our stay in Belgrade, we did a day trip to Novi Sad. It was really interesting because it is a city very similar to the one you can find in Eastern Europe more than in the Balkan area. Our trip started in a hurry because we almost missed our bus! The thing is that it was a local bus, it stopped in every town. So it took us more than 2hours for a trip that should usually take 1h/1h30. Once in Novi Sad,  I found some similarities with Brno, Krakow or even Bratislava for example. And a day in Novi Sad was enough as the city centre is quite small. Even though it is the second biggest city in Serbia.

 

Belgrade, another capital crossed by the Danube

Concerning Belgrade, we liked walking around, the buildings are very impressive and the atmosphere of the city is really cool. There is also an area with very small streets where you can find all the local restaurants (but quite expensive because all the tourists go there).

 

So as Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, Belgrade is a Capital city where the Danube flows through. Which I think gives another atmosphere to the city. Indeed, the night life becomes more attractive as most of the parties are happening on boats. That change from the typical night clubs and for reasonable entrance fees as well. But also, all those cities are really nice to see at night time. Indeed, it becomes magical where all the enlightening buildings, particularly in Belgrade.

 

 

 

 

 

One thing I really enjoyed in Serbia, as well, is that the fortresses are free of entrance. And you can have a really nice walk inside with a really nice view of the city.  Moreover, Belgrade has kept some memories of the war. Indeed, you can find in some part of the cities, bombed buildings which are been kept destroyed. I found it interesting to see the contrast between the new Belgrade with all the beautiful buildings and those old buildings from the war.

The trip from Belgrade to Budapest

The bus back to Bratislava was also really intense. We took night buses which first went from Belgrade to Budapest and then a second bus from Budapest to Bratislava. So our first bus left on time but after an hour only we got stuck in a traffic jam. It delayed us by 2 hours and then at the border with Hungary. And again, it took us 2:30 hours to go through. Normally I would not mind being delayed but the thing is that we only had a stopover of 3hours in Budapest, so we were running out of time. We even thought we could not make it on time. But miracles happen sometimes. And we arrived in Budapest 10 minutes before the departure time of our bus to Bratislava which was perfect!

Tirana, Albania : a city and a country to visit.

In June 2017, I went to volunteer in a hostel in Tirana, Albania. I did not know anything about it, I just knew the colour and symbol of the flag and its geographical position and that’s all.

The centre of Tirana
A bit of History

So Albania is part of the Balkan as well as Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.  It has borders with four countries: Greece in South, Macedonia at the west, Montenegro and Serbia in the North.

It was a communist country until 1990, so from there a lot of things have changed. For example, Albanians started driving at this time.  That’s why the traffic is a bit chaotic. I had the chance to take a dum-dum ( a car with only 3 wheels, one at the front and two at the back), because we had to carry heavy stuff to the hostel, and it was amazing! First, the vehicle did not have a car radio, only three buttons were on the car board, I don’t even know what they were used for … Second, it’s a bit like in Africa, if you can put more people than the number of seats available it does not seem to be a problem! And third, the traffic is a complete mess, every time, the drivers are about to knock over the pedestrians.

The other local transport I took was the bus and it is also something really interesting to experience. Indeed, in Albania there are no machines to buy tickets, you buy it directly in the bus from the ticket inspector.

Very nice people

the Albanians are very nice and helpful; I was freshly arrived in Tirana and was looking for my way to the hostel that two Albanians helped me. One of them, a lady, even asked where I was coming from and called a friend of her who was speaking French to help me find the street I was looking for. It was incredible! And this woman, Suzanna, also came with me to the street I needed to go. Moreover, I found that quite a lot of Albanian people, especially the younger, speak and understand English.

A really tasty food

Albanians eat a lot of meat! It’s their favourite food. When you go to a restaurant and you order meat with sides, the sides come first and the meat comes at the end. Or you can also see people ordering only meat! Also, they cook a lot of pasta with the water that is used to cook the meat to give a meat taste to the pasta. At the hostel, for breakfast, we served byrek which is a kind of pastry with cheese inside. But you can also find Byrket with spinach, meat, tomato and onions or even yoghurt.

Byrek with cheese
Mix plate of meat
The Capital itself

One amazing thing about Tirana is that it is surrounded by mountains so the view is always nice. Moreover, it is a really chill place. I was there in June, the weather was really nice maybe a bit too hot for most of the foreigners but the Hostel I volunteered in, had this amazing rooftop with a bit of the wind which made it just perfect.

View from the rooftop

 

 

 

 

And Tirana has also a huge park in which you can find an artificial lake. A lot of people are going there. The athletes run around, while the kids play football or any other games and the elders relax under the sun and play dominos (one of the guests was spending a lot of time playing with them, which I found very cool). Or they even take a bath but it is not really recommended to swim in the lake as the water is quite dirty.

View of the Lake

 

 

 

 

 

What’s more, Tirana is a very colourful city, with flashy colours on some houses or buildings. On some of them, you could find different designs. Those designs are inspired by the Qylym (Albanian word for rag).

Houses with some designs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonus and tips about Tirana

But I would say one of the most intriguing things of Tirana is their habit to have fireworks every time, and when I say every time is not an exaggeration, they do it even during the daytime! If there is a wedding or a birthday there will be fireworks, so one night I saw 5 fireworks! That’s so crazy but when you are on a rooftop it’s amazing!

I will give you the last tip about Tirana, do not come in August! Everything is closed. All the bars and restaurants, they all move to the coast where the weather is a bit more bearable.

And for more information about the life in Tirana, you can read the interview I made with Megi, an Albanian girl I was working with: Click here!

24 hours in Shkoder, Albania

Shkoder is situated in the North of Albania next to the Montenegro’s border. Indeed Podgorica, the capital city is only 1hour drive away from Shkoder.

Map

I benefited of two days off to visit this northern city of Albania. I took a mini bus from Tirana for only 300Lek (about 2,20Euros) for a 2 hours drive. Like in Tirana the city is surrounded by mountains but plus a river and a lake which are the most attractive things to do in addition to the castle: Rozafa castle.

The castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I went there with two guests from the Hostel (Hostel Albania) I was volunteering in Tirana. As my time in Shkoder was quite short we managed to do 3 of the most interesting things about the area.

We first started with the discovering of the lake and to do that we hired bikes from the hostel we were staying at. Indeed, cycling in Shkoder is very popular, everyone has a bike and unlike Tirana, it is way safer to bike there. That’s how we got to the Lake by Bicycle, on our way we had a really nice view of the castle, we passed through a typical Albanian village. We cycled for about an hour and a half (because we needed stops to take pictures!) before reaching a “public beach” where one of us took a bath, apparently the water was really hot! It was a really nice first approach to discover the city and its area.

View of the Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second touristic thing we did was the visit of the castle. To go to the castle you can either go on foot which is around 40minutes or by bus (30Lek =22cents), so we took the second option and I think we did well because once you get out of the bus you have to walk all the way up to the entrance of the castle and when the temperature is over 30degrees, it takes your energy really fast. Then the entrance fee is 200Lek (1,5euros) and it is really worth it! Indeed, the view from the castle is amazing, you have a vision of the city plus the lake, the river and the mountains! The castle in itself is mostly ruins but there are some hidden spots which were used by the people to protect themselves from the enemy. The only thing that was really disappointing was the souvenir shop in the middle of the ruins… We really did not get it. But I guess, this what the world has become everything has to be a source of income to the cost of the authenticity and of the protection of historic sites. But except for this detail, we all really liked the Castle.

Ruins of the castle
View of Shkoder from the castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third and last thing, we did was to go to Mesi Bridge so to go there we took a bus to the terminal station and from there we did hitch-hiking but the first car which stopped was actually one of the shuttles which runs from the city to the surrounding villages. The cost for both types of transport was about 80lek (60cents). I found this place amazing, it might only be an old bridge but standing there with the mountains in the background it is just beautiful. Moreover, as it was during summer time, we could walk on the pebbles which are normally recovered by water, but the heat dries the river during summer so there was no water when we get there.  On our way back we also hitch-hiked and this time was successful (but I think we waited for about 30minutes before getting a ride).  I have to say that hitch-hiking in Albania is something that is done very well. Unfortunately for my, this was the end of my trip in Shkoder and I had to take the bus back to Tirana but I really liked it!

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike Tirana, I found it more touristic but still more authentic as on the road you can see some carts but also some modern carts (without the horses but with a scooter).