We arrived back yesterday morning, exhausted but very excited after taking our first tour throughout the Balkans. Getting a chance to take some time off for Easter, we decided to start exploring the ex-Yugoslavian countries, for which we developed an increasing curiosity, as we have lived for the last half a year in Romania, so right next to them and neither of us had ever visited there before.
Day one – Taxi driver, take me to Serbia!
The adventure started last Friday evening, when after returning from work, burnt out and ready to go to bed, we packed each a small backpack containing just the minimum necessary for the week to come. We hurried then down to the train station and headed towards Timisoara (Romania). After a very uncomfortable and delayed ride, we got to the train station only to find out that we had just missed the morning train towards Belgrade. Left with no alternative and pressured by time, we decided to take a taxi across the border with Serbia to the town of Vrsac.
We got dropped off in front of a deserted bus station. After circling the building a couple of times, we end up in front of the station again where we spotted a bus which was just making its way towards us and a man walking by it. We ask the man for an exchange office to which he replies “euro? no problem!” and opens his fanny pack which was full of cash. It turned out that he handled the ticket situation on the bus as well and the bus was going to Belgrade.
We loved Belgrade, I personally completely fell in love with its layered architecture, little winding streets, chilled out atmosphere, interior courtyards, green neighborhoods and countless cafes & bars. After a fair exploration of the city center and the fortress, we ended up having dinner in the Bohemian Quarter. It was the first time I think I ever saw David not being able to finish his meal; as the waiter was so nice and welcoming, he convinced us to get way more courses than planned. We were even serenaded by a live band – when they heard that I was from Romania they performed a Romanian song, in Serbian (not something you hear every day!).
Day two – Novi Sad, we’re out of cash
For our second day in Serbia we took a day trip to the town of Novi Sad. We found it to be a nice quiet town, we found it very similar to Romania’s Sibiu, a popular local’s getaway destination as it appeared. The only problem was that we miscalculated how much we’d need for the day and so ended up in town with barely enough cash to make it back to Belgrade in the evening. And so we did not sit at any of the nice cafes and we only had a pastry for lunch, we drank lots of water from the fountain in the park and we walked to the fortress which was indeed very nice and gave a great view over the area from its top.
Day three – Is Kosovo safe to travel to?
Kosovo is very safe indeed, although that was not our first impression when we got off the bus in Prishtina. The station looked quite scary and in the evening’s low light, the boulevard that took us to the city center, bordered by gigantic apartment buildings, looked scary too. Someone (me!) forgot to write down the address to the hostel we were staying at, so not having a map either, we spent the next hour or so trying to locate our shelter – frustrating, yes. Once we finally made it there our spirits changed. We were warmly welcomed and as we were staying right in the city center, we got to experience the western oriented atmosphere that governed the city, having by the end of the night a change of heart.
Day four – Prizren, Kosovo’s hidden gem & once again catching a taxi across the border
Arriving to Prizren from Prishtina is easy and affordable. Once we got into this small town located in a valley between beautiful mountains, we were amazed first with the amazing scenery, but we were also very surprised by the vibrant feel of the town, the good atmosphere all around it, the streets packed with people, the cheerfulness all around the main town square. On a Tuesday afternoon, entire families were out enjoying a late lunch or a tea, all in a celebratory mood.
Enjoying ourselves so much, we were not in a hurry to get back and catch an early bus from Prishtina to Skopje, so we decided to go for the 7 o’clock one we had found information online about. Only when we got there – there was no more bus that ran at 7. Last one had left at 6. There were no trains. David ran after the guy from the information booth, who was just locking up and heading home, caught him on his way out. Unfortunately, he did not provide us with a miraculous solution to our situation, but a realistic and expensive one – another across border taxi. We had no other choice so we jumped in the car and, after what I am sure it was the most dangerous car ride of my life, through mountain roads, in the dark, at extreme speed, we arrived in a lit up, statuesque city of Skopje.
As soon as we got off where we figured the center was, while searching for our accommodation on the tourist map, we were approached by a young American guy, suited up and carrying a Bible. Minutes later, he gathered all of his missionary friends who lived in the city, spreading the word of God, and they were so nice as to insist on walking us all the way to our destination.
Day five – Back to the roots, visiting Maloviste
Taking a trip to Maloviste, a small village located next to the southern Macedonian town of Bitola and the only village inside the National Park of Pelister was definitely very up high in the list of priorities for this particular trip. We did not chose this destination randomly or just for its remoteness, but the fact is that my great-grandparent were born here and later on settled down on Romanian land.
The trip there was long and costly, we managed to hire another taxi to drive us up to the mountain and give us some time to walk around before taking us back. But in the end it was more than worth while, remaining definitely the high point of the trip for me, on a sentimental value. I felt a strong connection to the village and felt proud to be able to be stepping on the same stones as my ancestors.
Day six – Skopje is turning into the next tourist destination
Macedonia appears to be pushing a lot its tourism, at the moment putting Skopje through a transformation process directed towards attracting tourists in the area. This process involves the construction, practically overnight of countless monuments and monument-buildings. This gives a strange air to the city center. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t look ugly or kitschy, but a bit overdone. We are glad that we made it just in time, before the seas of tourists will come conquer these lands of mystery and wonder.
For our last stop, we had planned to visit Plovdiv, an ancient Roman settlement in the south of Bulgaria. Unfortunately, once again the information we found online about transportation turned out to be misleading and as we wanted to avoid getting on yet another taxi to make it in time to our destination, we decided to go to Sofia instead. This was a nice ending to our trip – we took a walking tour (one of the best I ever took, definitely recommended!), had a glass of beer/wine and called it a day.
To give a last pinch of flavor to our adventure and to leave on a good note, we were almost convinced by the old lady selling train tickets that the train ride will be dangerous in the sitting area which resulted in a half hour debate weather we should take the seats or just opt instead for a sleeping wagon or even wait till midnight for the bus. We did indeed end up on a very busy train and could not figure out where our seats were. Very confused and a bit suspicious, we rode the whole ride holding on tight to our backpacks.