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My May 2022 holiday


  • Introduction
  • Day One: Peja, Decan & Prizren
  • Day Two: Gjakova, Lake Koman & Shkodër
  • Day Three: Berat & Tirana
  • Day Four: Ohrid
  • Day Five: Stobi & Skopje
  • Day Six: Matka Canyon, Gadime, Gracanica & Ulpiana
  • Day Seven: Battle of Kosovo & Pristina
  • Conclusion


    "Oh, we're back in the Balkans again,
    Back to the joy and the pain -
    What if it burns or it blows or it snows?
    We're back in the Balkans again.
    Back where tomorrow the quick may be dead,
    With a hole in his heart or a ball in his head -
    Back where the passions are rapid and red -
    Oh, we're back in the Balkans again!"

    Song of the Balkan Peninsula

    What was originally called on its formation in 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then in 1929 was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in 1946 became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia broke up in the course of three wars in the early 1990s into no less than seven small states.

    On four previous visits to the Balkans, I went to five of these new states – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro – plus a short period in Albania. On my latest holiday, I visited the remaining two new states – Kosovo and North Macedonia – plus a longer spell in Albania.

    This brings the total number of countries that I have visited to 80.

    In preparation for this trip, I read the book “The Yugoslav Wars Of The 1990s” by Catherine Baker [for my review click here].

    In the order in which we visited the three diminutive nations with the travel company Voyages Jules Verne [click here]:


    I am a man who loves his sleep, so it was a tough gig for me to rise at 3.30 am on the departure day of my holiday. This was necessary because of the need to check in by 4.25 am for my flight from Luton Airport. I spent the night at the nearby Ibis Hotel and then walked to the airport in the dark. We flew with the wonderfully-named, Hungarian-owned budget airline Wizz Air – which sounds like something from “Harry Potter” – and the flight in an Airbus A320 took 2 hours 50 minutes. Albanian time is one hour ahead of British time.

    We landed in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in beautiful sunshine (19C) and I quickly linked up with the other members of the group (there were 10 of us, three from Liverpool, two from Scotland) and the tour leader Muamer Sivrikoz known as Miku. Our tour bus was not the greatest, especially if – like me – you are tall, but it was adequate.

    Miku soon told us his story. He is the youngest of eight children and, like most Kosovans, he is ethnically Albanian. He was 17 when Serbian armed forces sought to occupy Kosovo and he became a refugee in Macedonia for three months until NATO bombing forced the Serbian military to withdraw. Some 10,0000 were killed in the conflict and he told us “When you see a war, it changes you”. He explained that there are still small-scale NATO forces in the country in a peacekeeping role.

    Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, making it Europe’s newest country, but – as Miku set out – the situation is still complicated. Dozens of countries – including China, Russia and of course Serbia and Bosnia – do not recognise Kosovo. Four languages are formally recognised: Albanian, Serbian, English and Turkish. To avoid causing offence to any ethnic group, the national flag is not like that of Albania and the national anthem has no words. Although Kosovo is not a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro (as does non-EU Montenegro).

    Although most of the group had had little or no sleep, the tour started straightaway as we headed south for visits to two sites of special importance to the Orthodox Church of the Serbian minority. The first was the 13th century Patriarchate of Peja with stunning wall paintings and iconic images. The second, after a break for some brunch, was the Visoki Dečani Monastery which is the largest medieval church in the Balkans.

    We then headed south-east to our first hotel of the tour: Hotel Kaçinari in Prizren which is the second city of Kosovo and the former capital. After literally 15 minutes to take our cases to our rooms, we were off on a short walking tour of the city. We visited the Sinan Pasha Mosque. Unlike the churches of earlier in the day, we had to remove our shoes but we were allowed to take photographs. Next we took in the iconic view of Prizren: the 16th century Ottoman stone pedestrian bridge as foreground to the coloured roofs and towering minaret of the mosque.

    After a little free time, the group reconvened at the shaděrvan (fountain) in the main square and walked to our evening meal at a traditional food restaurant called “Tiffany”. We were ready for it: soup, dips, ajvar, salads (mixed, shope, Greek), casseroles (elbasan, sarma, mantia, xhyveq), shish (calf, chicken), and baklava.


    Starting at 9 am, the second day of our holiday was different from the first. To start with, we had all had a full night’s sleep. Then, except for a brief look at the Kosovan town of Gjakova, we spent the day over in Albania.

    Immediately the terrain changed as we drove on rough roads on tightly-winding routes overlooking picturesque gorges featuring tumbling rivers in turn overlooked by “the accursed mountains” (the title of a book by Robert Carver). At various points, we slowed down for wandering cows or sheep or goats to clear the way.

    The highlight of the day was a ferry ride along most of the artificial Lake Koman in northern Albania. Although the location is called a lake, it is actually a reservoir based on the River Drin which was constructed between 1979 and 1988. The Lake Koman ferry operates daily on the lake from Fierza to Koman in a fabulous journey that takes about two and a half hours.

    The weather was ideal: warm and sunny with a light breeze. The turquoise water and the vertical canyons of craggy rock presented endless breathtaking views that just cried out to be photographed.

    It was late afternoon when, back on dry land, we stopped for some refreshment in the town of Shkodër. Interestingly, I visited this town in 2019 on a day trip from Montenegro which is a short distance to the north.

    We then headed south for the Albanian capital Tirana and, after some challenges, finally rolled up to our accommodation, Hotel Austria, at 8.10 pm, over 11 hours since we left our previous hotel.

    The pace did not slacken. In no time at all, the group walked round to the Oda restaurant for another set-course dinner. This time it was pashaqofte soup, fresh salad, fried cheese and peppers, lima beans, dollma, casserole kosi, and two syrup-based deserts.


    Day three was in Albania where we had a local male guide called Kledi who explained some of the dramatic recent changes in his country. Under the dictatorial rule of Envo Hoxha from 1944-1985, Albania was the most closed and poorest countries in Europe. Following the collapse of communism in 1991, great efforts are being made to accord recognition to the four main religious groups in the country: two Muslim (Sunni and Sufi) and two Christian (Orthodox and Catholic). He told us that, since 1991, the population of Tirana had soared from 200,000 to a million, comprising one-third of the country's people.

    The main visit of the day involved a two-hour coach ride from Tirana to Berat in the south of the country. The town is known for its historic architecture and scenery and is known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows“, due to the many large windows of the old decorated houses overlooking the town which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Our first visit was to a location called the Cathedral of Dormition of St. Mary. The Dormition of the Mother of God is a great feast in the Orthodox tradition. It celebrates the “falling asleep” (death) of Mary the Theotokos (“Mother of God”) and her being taken up into heaven (bodily assumption). The iconostasis of this church is simply magnificent. Inside the church is the National Iconographic Museum "Onufri"(named after two generations of famous painters).

    The second visit was to the National Ethnographic Museum. This opened in 1979 and contains a diversity of everyday objects from throughout the history of Berat. There are photographic reminders of the town’s famous bazaar of over 800 shops which was razed by the communist regime in 1945.

    The weather was glorious and the temperature had now risen to 27C. After a short break for a snack, we were off back to Tirana – another two hours on our small coach. Well, that was the plan.

    I had fallen asleep when I was woken up to find that our coach had broken down in a long tunnel and we were being assailed by hooting and screaming. We had to abandon our vehicle, dodge passing vehicles, and take refuge in a service porch. I had visions of us being there for some time, so I pulled out my bag of fruits & nuts and gave each of the group a carefully measured ration. In fact, the problem was solved in half an hour, we reboarded our coach which had now been cordoned off by cones from an emergency team, and we resumed our return to Tirana. Later it was suggested that the problem had been contaminated petrol.

    In fact, this unfortunate accident meant that, by the time we reached Tirana, the National Museum – next on our tour – was closed. Our local guide came up with an alternative plan: a visit to what was before the collapse of communism the nuclear war bunker for members of the Ministry of the Interior and is now a museum called Bunk'Art explaining the terrible repression of the Hoxha regime. Here we saw exhibits describing 36 forms of torture and listing 5,500 victims of the regime.

    Back at the hotel, one of the group Toby gave a talk on his visits to Albania in 1988 and 2002 which highlighted just how totally the country has changed. Finally, six of the group plus our guide Miku went out for dinner at a lively modern restaurant called "Tartuf Shop" before wandering round the main square which was hosting a very noisy rock concert. This was not the Tirana that any of us had expected: colourful and vibrant.


    Day four and time to move on to the third country of our tour: North Macedonia. It was 8.45 am when we left our hotel in Tirana and headed east. After a refreshment stop, we crossed the border at Qafë Thanë and proceeded into North Macedonia.

    Now most people know Macedonia as the birthplace of Alexander the Great but today three countries lay claim to the name Macedonia: Greece, Bulgaria and what is now called North Macedonia. Like other parts of former Yugoslavia, North Macedonia is ethnically diverse with most of its citizens being Orthodox Christians but almost a third being Muslim.

    At 1.20 pm, we rolled up to the Sky Corner hotel in the town of Ohrid in the south-west of the country. The town is known for once having 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and has been referred to as a “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. The town of Ohrid and Lake Ohrid are respectively UNESCO Cultural and Natural Sites and Ohrid is one of only 28 sites in the world that are Cultural as well as Natural UNESCO sites.

    After barely half an hour to unpack or have a drink, we met our female guide for North Macedonia Anela for our afternoon walking tour of the town. She told something interesting: in November/December 2018 – a full year before China announced an outbreak of Covid-19 – all her family (and many others in the town) suffered flu-like symptoms including loss of smell and taste. The town had many Chinese tourists, so could this have been an early out-break of Covid?

    When we started on our walking tour, the temperature was 26C and all seemed fine. But, quite soon, we heard rumblings of thunder which became ever louder. By the time we reached the remains of Tsar Samuel’s Fortress, there were repeated strikes of fork lightning on the nearby horizon.

    As we approached the Church of Saints Clement & Panteleimon, it started to crash with rain. Like most of the group, I had left my jacket at the hotel and was just wearing a shirt so I was drenched. No problem: we took shelter in a cafe opposite the church - only to find that the lightning had knocked out the electricity.

    It was all part of this adventurous holiday.

    We could not wait for the rain to stop. There were churches to see. So, after a look inside St Clement, we walked on to the most famous church in Ohrid, the Church of St John at Kaneo. This dates back to the 13th century and is so popular, partly because of the beautiful design (lots of red roof tiles) and partly because of the dramatic location (the cliff over Kaneo Beach overlooking Lake Ohrid).

    Finally we took a short boat trip from below this church across Ohrid Lake back to the town where we checked out our third Orthodox church of the afternoon: the 10th century Church of St Sophia with 11th century frescoes.

    We had an hour and a half at the hotel before as usual we ate as a group at a local restaurant called "Sveta Sofia". Tonight’s speciality was delicious trout and again there was a tasty dessert.


    Day five was wholly in North Macedonia but involved a lot of travel on some really poor roads.

    We left Ohrid in the south-east of the country and travelled north-west to the middle of the nation. Here we visited the Stobi archaeological site which was a reminder of the long and rich history of this part of the world. Stobi was a key location at the time of the Roman occupation of Macedonia when Augustus was emperor. For centuries the area sank into oblivion before it was revealed by the French historian Leon Heuzey in 1861. It is still being excavated.

    It was very hot (28C) as we wandered round the site, so we were pleased that, soon after this visit, we stopped for lunch at the Popova Kula Winery at Demir Kapija. In an effort to sell the local wines, we were served with samples of white, rosé and red during the meal. I for one fell asleep on the next stage of our road journey which was to the capital of North Macedonia which is Skopje.

    After no more than three-quarters of an hour, we were off again on a walking tour of the city led by our guide in North Macedonia Anela. The city centre is full of new buildings, mainly government departments and museums. There are two reasons for this transformation.

    First, in 1963, Skopje was devastated by a major earthquake which I remember at the time (I was 15). Second and more significantly, since independence in 1991, they have been creating all the institutions of a nation state together with lots of statues - many of them dark to look old - honouring a mythic past.

    So, for example, in the main Macedonia Square there is a grand equestrian statue of Alexander the Great [for my review of a biography click here]. The area of the old Turkish bazaar retains some of the earlier atmosphere of the city and we stopped here for drinks.


    Day six – the penultimate one – and how did it go? We left our hotel in Skopje at 9 am and arrived at our hotel in Pristina at 6.20 pm and, in the intervening nine or so hours, we visited four locations in two countries in excellent weather (26C).

    Starting the day with some more time in North Macedonia, we went to an artificial lake called Matka Canyon where we spent around an hour on a boat trip which offered stunning views of the turquoise water and karst mountains and included a fun time in a cave where stalactites and stalagmites are v-e-r-y slowly forming down and up respectively.

    Then we crossed the border from North Macedonia back to Kosovo, our third border crossing in five days. It was time to view another Serbian Orthodox Church and this one, although in Muslim Kosovo, is located in a Serbian enclave just miles from the4 capital where they fly the Serbian flag and use the Serbian currency. The Gračanica Monastery was built in 1321 in Byzantine style and it is a splendid construction with five domes and 16th century frescoes.

    Nearby, we walked around the Gadime Cave before stopping for a light lunch. Our last visit was to more Roman ruins, this time the remains of Ulpiana. A good deal more could be revealed here but the land is owned by Serbians who would not want it excavated.

    It was 6.20 pm - over nine hours since we left our previous hotel - that we arrived at Hotel Parlament in the centre of Pristina. This evening, there was no group meal but half of us were taken by Miku, who lives in the city, to one of his favourite restaurants called "Shpija e Vjeter" which translates as Old House. Food and conversation were both splendid.


    The last day of our trip (day seven) was the least challenging since it was the shortest and all around or in Pristina.

    The was the Muslim call to prayer about 4.15 am but we all slept on. Setting off at the (to us) late hour of 10 am, it was only a 20 minute drive to the site of the Battle of Kosovo which has been called "the cradle of the Serbian state".

    The battle took place on 15 June 1389 between an army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and an invading army of the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Murad Hüdavendigâr. The battle was fought on the Kosovo field in the territory ruled by Serbian nobleman Vuk Branković. The army under Prince Lazar consisted of his own troops, a contingent led by Branković, and a contingent sent from Bosnia by King Tvrtko I, commanded by Vlatko Vuković.

    The bulk of both armies were wiped out and Serbian leader Lazar and Ottoman leader Murad were both killed. However, Serbian manpower was depleted and had no capacity to field large armies against future Ottoman campaigns which relied on new reserve forces from Anatolia. Consequently, the Serbian principalities that were not already Ottoman vassals became so in the following years.

    In short, the Serbs lost, but so venerate their role in the battle that, as Yugoslavia broke up, they were determined to hold on to Kosovo even though the majority of Kosovans are ethnically Albanian. NATO had other ideas.

    The memorial at the site only dates from 1953, so it was built by the communist regime. It was here on 28 June 1989 that the Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević addressed a reported half a million Serbs in a call to Serb nationalism that is widely seen as the spark that set alight post-Tito Yugoslavia. Since the last of the three conflicts was in Kosovo, Kosovans say that this is where the war started and where the war ended.

    Nearby is a different memorial with a different perspective on the Battle of Kosovo. It is the Tomb of Sultan Murad I. In 2005, Turkish money restored the building and added a small museum.

    Back in Pristina in temperatures eventually reaching 28C, we visited the Cathedral of Mother Teresa (2007), the National Library (1982), the Fatih Mosque (1461), and the Ethnological Museum (18th century buildings). Along the way, we saw statues of national heroes Skanderbeg (1405-1468) and Ibrahim Rugova (1944-2006) and recognition of American presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush plus NATO forces for ensuring that Kosovo did not fall under the brutality of Serbian forces.

    At the unusually early time of 3.45 pm, we returned to the hotel for four hours of downtime – the first such period of the week’s holiday. Before we all went out for dinner, I ran a quiz in which group members had just five minutes to list as many countries as possible with names in the English language ending with the letters 'ia'. Toby won with 28 (there are in fact 40!). We then walked to a wonderful local restaurant called "Liburnia" where the owner proudly showed us a picture of himself with Tony Blair during a visit by the then British Prime Minister.


    This was a challenging holiday: three countries and five hotels in one week with long road journeys and long days. But all the group members were experienced travellers and up for this. The group was a good size (10) and made up of characters who were colourful, informed and uniformly affable. Our guide Muamer was brilliant - immensely knowledgeable and enthusiastic with an impressive command of English - while our driver was accomplished and funny. Even the weather played its part: except for one thunderstorm, it was warm and sunny all the way.

    This part of the Balkans is not as developed as the north - places like Slovenia and Croatia - so that few places accepted credit cards and the hotel wi-fi was slow. But, when one recalls how underdeveloped these countries were under communism, the transformation in so short a time is truly remarkable with lots of new buildings and smart cars and a real sense of enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. The churches, the mosques, the lakes, the historic sites all combined to make a fascinating holiday.

    The more that I travel in former Yugoslavia - and I have now visited all the seven countries that formed the old state's territory - the sadder I am that the country broke up with so much violence, so much loss of life, and so much destruction. It did not have to be like that: Czechoslovakia divided peacefully and most of the USSR fragmented with less violence. Many factors were to blame, but the most personal blame belongs to the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević.

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