Montenegro’s Coastal Charm

I’m sure by now the incessant photos of stunning mountainscapes and turquoise waters are getting old. But, oh how Montenegro’s seaside impresses!

I took the bus from Podgorica, a largely communist concrete block jungle, and wound up making my way through Budva and Kotor. I hate busses but the views were worth it. Pulling into Kotor is a gorgeous Orthodox Church and cemetery at the base of the mountains.

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Close by is the Kotor fortress with lively water views of Kotor Bay.

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A cruise ship was in port in Kotor so I expected chaos. But to my surprise, they left around noon.

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The Old Town was supremely charming. I highly recommend a visit. Lovely shops selling great gifts and souvenirs and beautiful architecture. To put it bluntly, Kotor took care of my Christmas list.

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Apparently, the cats of Kotor are quite famous. All I know is that they are cute and well cared for. And I’m not a cat person. For those who are, you’ve hit the feline jackpot. Tons of fabulous kitty merch.

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There is no shortage of beautiful stonework in Kotor either so don’t forget to look up at the building edifices.

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Driving into and out of Montenegro’s coastal cities is spectacular, especially if you can take your eyes off the road and leave the steering to someone else.

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The Adriatic is amazing, whether you ar seeing it from the mountains or dipping your toes in it.

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I hung out under this monument at the pier for a long afternoon stretch, soaking up the breeze and the scenery.

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Nearby, Montenegrins were swimming and having their drinks but I might as well have has the whole place to myself. It was THAT serene.

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A Day in Prishtina

When I found out my apartment in Kosovo had been flooded out, I was rather bummed that I had to change my plans. But, after a marvelous few days in Slovenia, all was forgotten. Until, the chance for a day in Kosovo came up while I was in Skopje. So, I boarded a minibus — with no seat belts or AC — for the journey to Prishtina. Two-and-a-half hours later, our bus rolled into town, having made the 100-km trip over the border through the mountains.

I’d heard a lot about what to expect in Kosovo during my Balkan travels — that I would see American flags, that Kosovars are extremely welcoming of U.S. citizens. And straightaway, I could see the influence. One of the main streets in Prishtina is named for President Clinton.

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And there’s a large statute of him at one end of it, near the bus station.

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You can still see the scars of Kosovo’s recent tumult throughout the city, with crumbling buildings still standing and pavement scarred by shelling. But, Prishtina has an optimistic spirit as well. On a Saturday morning, families were out having coffee and children were squealing and playing in the fountain along Bulevardi Nene Tereza, named for Mother Teresa.

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Her influence looms large over this city, with a beautiful cathedral named for her standing at the intersection of Bulevardi Nene Tereza and Bulevardi Bill Klinton.

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Construction began on the large building in 2011, not without some controversy from Muslim Kosovars, who saw it as being unnecessary given the small size of the Catholic population in the city.

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Still, her presence is impossible to escape. A mural, made of thousands of staples, lines the stairwell in the Kosovo Museum. The artist created this stunning masterpiece in 27 days, and it’s an impressive sight amid the many artifacts of Kosovo’s violent past.

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Outside the museum, artillery from the Kosovo War sits as a reminder of the 17-month long battle between Yugoslavia and the Kosovar Albanian rebels known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). NATO eventually intervened, and later investigations would reveal the bodies of nearly 3,000 victims who’d died in the conflict.

8C4ABF46-266D-41E3-B2FF-02E7989879FB A statute of the first commander of the KLA, Zahir Pajaziti, stands in one of the main squares along Bulevardi Nene Tereza. Although he died in 1997, he was declared the Hero of Kosovo in 2008 for his efforts.

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Bulevardi Nene Tereza is the main pedestrian area in Prishtina, and the tree-lined route is a wonderful place to stroll in the morning, have a drink and watch the people pass by. Kosovars love their cafes, and groups of young people were gathered all along the route. The country has the youngest population in Europe with more than a quarter of its citizens under the age of 14.

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At the opposite end of the pedestrian street is this monument, the Memorial to Brotherhood and Unity, sits adjacent to the main government buildings in Kosovo. It pays tribute to those who lost their lives fighting in World War II.

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Nearby, the Heroinat monument commemorates the lives of all the Albanian women who died during the fighting. The memorial is stunning when it catches the sunlight. It’s a beautiful tribute.

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And it sits across from what is likely the most famous landmark in Prishtina, the Newborn monument. Unveiled on February 17, 2008, the day that Kosovo officially declared its independence from Serbia, the Newborn monument attracts crowds and photos from locals and tourists alike.

C4902BBB-610C-4DFD-8D39-E7EF1861E874 Around the city, street art and graffiti serve as reminders of the young nation’s violent history and struggle for independence.

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As I headed back toward the bus station — there’s no rail service in Kosovo and limited air service as well — I stopped at the University of Prishtina. Originally opened in 1969, the Albanian-language university split into two faculties — Albanian and Serbian — in 1999. It was described as “being at the very core of political conflict and the self-esteem of Albanian Kosovars.” Following NATO’s campaign, the Albanian faculty re-took control of the university. Below, you can see its most notable building — the library. Much of the rest of campus, sadly, is in a state of disrepair.

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Oh My, Ohrid!

Everyone that I know who’s been to Macedonia or Albania has mentioned Lake Ohrid, which straddles the borders of the two countries nestled in a gorgeous park. So, I hopped on a bus from Skopje for the three-hour ride to Ohrid, Macedonia.

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It’s a tiny little lakeside town nestled in the hills around the northeast side of the lake, which is one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes. The must-see (or must-do) activity is the ferry ride to the Saint Naum monastery on the Albanian border. So, I boarded the Aleksandrija and embarked on a 2.5-hour boat ride.

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The water was spectacular, and it’s clear that boating is a way of life for Macedonians in the summer. The water was calm until about 11 a.m. Then everyone, it seemed, headed out to enjoy a beautiful summer day.

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In Ohrid, the waterfront is lined with cafes and restaurants. Eating on the terraces is really quite lovely with the breeze.

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And yes, Ohrid has a fortress too. But, I didn’t have time to explore it. I was here for the water, and it was totally worth it.

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When we pulled close to St. Naum, you could see the springs feeding the lake. Oh, and that water … it’s VERY cold.

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Looking out over Lake Ohrid from St. Naum, you can see just how gorgeous the scenery really is. The mountains plunge into the water around nearly the entire lakeshore.

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The Saint Naum monastery was quite a sight, and the grounds were lovely for an afternoon picnic lunch.

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My lunch view from the walls of the monastery.

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And, my lunch date… who jumped up on the wall to join me while I was dining.

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In addition to the monastery, there’s a small Orthodox church named St. Petka.

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Much of Lake Ohrid is dedicated to watersports, and it is clear the Macedonians love their beach time.

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In nearly every flat spot along the water, a resort has sprung up. Luckily, there aren’t many flat spots, so the lake is still pretty serene.

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Coming back into Ohrid’s tiny port, you get a good view of the city spread out along the water, crawling up the hillside. It’s a very charming town. I highly recommend a day or two here if you get to Macedonia.

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And, finally, proof… that I was on a boat!

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Monumental Skopje

Waiting in the Ljubljana Airport on the way to Skopje, I met another professor who had just come from Macedonia. He remarked about the number of statues in the Skopje. Well, I didn’t believe him until I ventured around the city. The monuments are overwhelming.

My first stop was the square near the Mother Theresa Memorial House (more on that later). In the square, a new Orthodox Church was being built in classic Byzantine style. The decoration was just stunning.

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Down the street, you’ll find Skopje’s own Charging Bull statute. Though, it’s not outside the stock market like in most countries. Here, it protects a shoe store.

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Not surprisingly, one of the largest monuments is to Alexander the Great located in Macedonia Square near the Vardar River. Built in 2011, it has a fountain and lights. It was completed to mark the 20th anniversary of Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia.

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You can tour the Mother Teresa Memorial House, which though not located where her childhood home sat, contains a number of artifacts from the house as well as numerous items, like this stained glass, paying tribute to her.

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Fountains and statutes mark nearly every bridge in Skopje. This is on the Bridge of Civilizations looking toward the old Stone Bridge. As you can see, the street dogs in Macedonia have no shortage of water (or fun). This guy was tagged, which means he was neutered and current on vaccinations. He was also well-fed and quite sociable.

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The Stone Bridge in Skopje dates back to 1469 under Sultan Mehmed II.

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But, given that Macedonia is an earthquake-prone country, much of it has been reconstructed. As for earthquakes, I experienced a small one while in the city. Earthquake Track lists a magnitude-5.1 quake in Burrel, Albania, that we felt in Skopje.

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Once you cross the (unimpressive) Vardar River, you are in the Old Bazaar area of Skopje. The area is still full of sculptures, including the giant Olympius Monument pictured below.

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The Old Bazaar area is the best place to try local cuisine and drink, and the prices are insanely cheap. I tried the Macedonian version of Rakija, a fruit-based spirit, which is less strong than its Albanian counterpart. Most shops serve homemade Rakija because it is far cheaper than commercially produced.

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After downing a shot or two — any more would put hair on your chest and make you weak in the knees — I headed to the fortress. I must admit, having seen a number of fortresses and castles on this trip, that Skopje’s was perhaps the least impressive. But, it gets points for being the most accessible because the hike up was minimal.

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Along the Vardar River, you can find many impressive looking buildings. However most are quite new in their construction. A major earthquake in 1963 (magnitude-6.1), destroyed more than 80 percent of the city’s buildings and killed more than 1,000 people.

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The fountain at the bottom of the Alexander the Great monument contrasts nicely with the Coca-Cola and other signs in the square, which is home to Skopje’s fanciest hotels (and not where I stayed while visiting).

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Skopje even has its own triumphal arch, known as Porta Macedonia. Built in 2012, it cost nearly 4.5 million Euros. Not surprisingly, in a country with economic struggles, residents are often less than enthused about all the money spent on these monuments.

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Near Porta Macedonia is a lovely park full of monuments. But, this one — Monument of the Woman Freedom Fighter — struck me the most. A60C167A-391B-4D1A-B28D-4A28C38A7DA9

Skopje is a fabulous city — overwhelming at times because of all the sculpture. But, its residents are warm and welcoming. The food is delicious, and the history is rich.

Finances: A Week in Montenegro ±$540*

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Packed up and headed to the last stop on my grand tour of the Balkans. Wow, the time (and budget, in some instances) has flown. I kept this week in Montenegro pretty low-key. I’m starting to feel the effects of being on the road for so long, and it helps bring the budget back in check. So here goes (in USD as always):

Airfare to Podgorica: 10,000 Etihad miles + $31 tax

Airport transport: $17

AirBnB: $320

Food & Groceries: $132

Sightseeing (includes bus tickets, entries and meals): $35

Souvenirs: $85 (Christmas/birthday presents for others that I’d have bought anyway)

Hotel: 21,000 points and $1 (Not bad for one night in a suite at the Hilton Podgorica)

Grand Total: $621

*Pretty happy with that spending. Particularly if you consider that I’m under $540 when you subtract out gifts I would have bought anyway. And, Montenegro is on the Euro. Like Slovenia, the prices reflected that EU influence many places, especially Kotor — a popular cruise port.

Travel Cheaply Without Short-Changing Your Experience

When I tell people about 7 weeks traveling solo in the Balkans, I get one of two very different reactions. Either, they can’t fathom how I could afford to travel for so long or they think I am staying in the sketchiest of places and only eating Cup ‘O Noodles. In reality, it is easy to travel on the cheap if you follow a few guidelines:

  1. Travel slowly. Why? Because transportation costs money, especially if you have to get in an airplane. Going to and from airports, train stations or bus depots costs money. Housing costs money, and you can often get discounts to stay places longer.
  2. Avoid hotels, especially Western ones. You can almost always get a much better deal at an AirBnB, hostel (even private rooms), pension or guesthouse.Often, if you stay a week or longer, owners will knock 10-20% off the nightly price. Here in Podgorica, I’m one block from the Hilton. My week in a lovely AirBnB cost the same as 2 nights at the Hilton.
  3. Keep thyself out of taxis at all costs. I’m a big fan of Uber, Lyft and other rideshare options that reduce the possibility of fare manipulation. But, in many countries where it’s cheap to travel, taxi drivers are the best scam artists. Taxis often don’t have meters. You may not know your way around. The driver may decide to hold your luggage hostage in his trunk until you pay him the amount he demands. For all these reasons and more, I would rather walk or use public transit.
  4. Self-cater. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try local cuisine. By all means, have lunch at the local cafe or grab a pastry at the local bakery. But, trust me, self-catering can save you tons. And once you’ve been on the road for a stretch, the comforts of a yogurt for breakfast or whatever you’d regularly eat can’t be discounted. So, find a grocery store and use that kitchen in your AirBnB. You can still experience local food — instead of your typical beer, try the local brew. Check out local produce and enjoy local baked goods and cheeses. Even better, hit up a farmer’s market.
  5. Take the free walking tour. Many cities offer a free walking tour. Go — as soon as you get in town. Led by locals, these are great places to find out how to eat and explore on the cheap — all while seeing the sights. Your guide will have loads of tips about where to get a real sense of the city. Just remember to tip your guide afterward to express your appreciation.
  6. Eschew Viator and other large-scale tour operators. They ratchet up the price of trips that you can get for a fraction of the cost once in country. Again, hit up the free walking tour to find out who the reliable operators are and then go pay in local currency. I’ve stumbled into several private tours for a fraction of what a Viator “big bus” group tour would have set me back. And, often these local operators will let you customize your trip.
  7. Learn a few key words and phrases. In 7 weeks, I’ve been to 8 different countries that speak 8 different languages. Each time, I’ve taken about 30 minutes to learn how to say a few key phrases: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no and excuse me. As a result, I’ve been treated with extreme courtesy and respect throughout my trip. And, I’ve gotten some great local insight and enjoyed some pleasant conversations because of it. One woman said to me in disbelief: “You can’t be American. They never try to speak our language.”
  8. Find the street food. If you really want to eat the local cuisine, you have to go where the locals are. Chances are, the menu may not be in English. Again, this is where your local guides come in handy. They can tell you the place, the dishes and what they are called. Befriend them. Heck — offer to bring them along and cover their meals. It will still be cheaper than the meal you would have eaten by yourself, and I’d wager a bet it will be a lot tastier.
  9. Check prices carefully. In many places, prices fluctuate dramatically depending on whether you are in an area aimed at tourists or locals. Here in Macedonia, the bodega around the corner from my apartment (near the Hilton) sells 1L bottles of sparkling water for 1.5EUR. A 5-minute walk away, the same bottle of water costs one-third the price. Those increased costs add up quickly.
  10. Collect memories, not knick-knacks. One of the great things about semi-minimalist travel is that I don’t have room for souvenirs. So instead of spending my money on things, I’m putting it toward experiences and collecting memories. Sure, I’m purchasing local candies and other consumables. But, they are being consumed at my location. Instead of buying another ashtray (does anyone buy those anymore?), put that money toward a local coffee, soft drink, sweet treat or something else you can’t experience in your home country.

Finances: A Week In Macedonia ±$510

With my week in Macedonia behind me, it’s time to tally up the expenses. After a pricy (but extremely worthwhile) detour to Slovenia, I am hoping to keep the costs down in the final legs of my trip. As always, everything is converted to USD for ease of comparison.

Flight to Skopje: included in last week’s budget overruns (thank goodness)

AirBnB: $273 (includes an extra unplanned night due to flight issues)

Airport transport: $39 (not having access to reliable public transit to the airport hurts)

Food & Groceries: $111

Overnight trip to Lake Ohrid: $65 (includes hotel and ferry tour)

Day trip to Pristina, Kosovo: $22

Skopje sightseeing & local transport: $15

Grand Total: $510

I’m glad to see I got back on track with my spending. I’ll keep an eye on things for the next two weeks as well, but I’m not going to cut corners in the final hours of the trip just to save a few bucks here or there if it means missing out on something spectacular.