Saturday, 27 August 2011

Day 10 - 27th August 2011 – Ulcinj/Podgorica, Montenegro

Decided to take today fairly easy after yesterday's long day of sightseeing – I was asleep within minutes, which is very unlike me! Since we're getting towards the end of the trip now, and have spent most of the time travelling along the coast, we decided to take a train journey to the capital, Podgorica. It's only an hour away, but involves catching a bus to Bar, then carrying on by train to Podgorica.

The capital itself isn't anything particularly special, and is pretty small for a capital city (quite befitting of a small country). The buildings aren't particularly inspiring since the city has been ravaged various times by war, earthquakes and other things, and as such bears the scars of such a difficult past. The only historic item of note that remains is a clock tower from the days of Turkish occupation, made of stone instead of the dull concrete blocks seen mostly elsewhere.

Despite all this however, Podgorica retains a friendly, welcoming air, even though there isn't much to see or do. There are a few pedestrianised shopping streets with tree-lined walkways, and an attempt has been made to create a central area by installing a fountain and paving off the marked area known nowadays as Trg Replublike (Republic Square). However, the shops simply sell everything needed for everyday life such as clothes and technical items. There are no souvenir shops of any kind, and it seems impossible to find a postcard, despite the fact that there are some nice areas in the city. Still, this kind of added to the charm of the place, knowing that there were no other tourists around, as it's hard to imagine anyone would come here for a holiday. At least we can say we've seen the place, and taken a train ride which was fairly scenic. Tomorrow is the last full day we have here, so we're just going to take one last trip into the centre of Ulcinj and laze around for the day.

Day 9 – 26th August 2011 – Budva/Kotor/Skadarsko Jezero/Sveti Stefan/Kanion Moraca

Today was a very long day of sightseeing. As for the trip to Albania, we were up at 5:50am ready for setting off at 7:00am. Our first stop was Budva, where we had a little time to look around the old town part of the city. There were some very nice streets here with pleasant italian-esque buildings, although it's clearly a little busier and touristy here as the prices are somewhat higher.

After Budva, we continued on to what was probably the highlight of today's sightseeing – we stopped off at Kotor, a medieval walled city that is listed on Unesco's world heritage list and is very beautiful. Lots of tall buildings and narrow streets also in an Italian style, with the possibility of climbing up quite some way to a church or monastery in the mountains. However, we didn't have time to do this and in temperatures of +35 degrees we thought we might well melt if we did! Due to it's attractive nature, mass tourism has caught here on here much more than everywhere else, evident in the number of souvenir shops with higher prices and the number of English people visiting. However, mass tourism here still compares favourably to anywhere else and is not nearly so developed as to be off putting like numerous other tourist cities, such as Prague. Outside the walls of the city there is also a market selling home-made rakija (the local spirit) and honey, as well as cheaper versions of the same souvenirs being sold inside the city walls. I chose a nice metal keyring with the Montenegrin crest on it, as I had wanted something with the crest on for some time.

After Kotor, we continued on to a photo stop of Sveti Stefan, the luxurious island that is now a luxury accommodation complex but one that has still retained it's character. We didn't stop here for sightseeing and so continued on to the Skadarsko Lake, where we had a very pleasant cruise on a boat with our hosts handing out rakija and a local sweet delicacy, as well as water, which was very welcome. In the middle of the lake, some of our fellow travellers got out for a swim – sadly, the water was too deep for me, so I didn't dare get out into the water! Still, it made for some interesting pictures.

After our little cruise we carried on further to see the very impressive Moraca canyon, which is very high and the mountains are very much like Montserrat in Barcelona. The view was extraordinary and we did some pictures here before carrying on a bit further to the monastery here, which is situated idyllically above the canyon. We almost had a nasty accident on the winding mountain road, as another coach on the other side of the road tried to overtake another vehicle when there was no room to do so, and with three cars abreast it only just missed hitting us head on. Luckily it managed to swerve and our driver hit the brakes but it was a pretty nasty shock and could have been very nasty indeed. Luckily we made it back in one piece. At the monastery itself there were some very cute little kittens at the entrance but they scampered as soon as we tried to take their picture.

Finally, on the way back we stopped off at a wayside 'restaurant' for something to eat after our long day, but the service, such as it was, was abysmal, and they charged us for four pieces of bread when we hadn't specifically ordered any, as it's usually free with the meal in most restaurants in these parts. Definitely wouldn't go back there and really the low part of the day. Still, all in all it was a good day, when we got back the landlord of the place brought us the home made wine he promised us, 1 litre for €6, very reasonable, I just hope I can get it back in one piece! Since it's such a special souvenir, it would be very disappointing for that to break as well. Now, after a very long day, I am going to take a shower and go to bed!

Link to Day 10:

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Day 8 - 25th August 2011 – Ulcinj/Bar, Montenegro

Been to Bar today by bus, another reasonably sized town on the Montenegrin coast. It's only 10 miles away and the bus took about half an hour. Sadly, it doesn't really have much going for it. There's no real central area to speak of and it has very little character, with unexciting modern buildings to look at. The only half-decent part is when you get near the beach which has some nice tropical-looking trees and things, where I had a kiwi icecream which was very refreshing. We also saw our first Montenegrin railway station here, the end of the line for trains from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica and Belgrade in Serbia. I think we'll be returning here later in the week to take a train ride to the capital and see what it has to offer, as it's only an hour away and is apparently a very nice journey.

On the way back to the bus station for the return journey to Ulcinj, we went into the biggest supermarket we had found so far, which had a nice selection of local honey, jams from various fruits and various spirits and wines from the region, all at reasonable prices. I bought a small bottle of Gorki List, a spirit from Slovenia, and a couple of small bottles of local red and rose wine. Also got a bottle of Smirnoff vodka, although not very 'regional' it was vanilla flavour and was considerably cheaper than back home at just over €9. Had a look at Rakija as well, the local spirit here but haven't decided which I would like yet. There was also a wonderful bottle of cherry brandy from Croatia which looked very nice, but was so heavy I'm really not sure I've got room in my luggage. Having returned to the apartment however, I definitely need to get something else now that my bottle of Cognac from Albania has broken! Sadly I won't be able to get another bottle as we won't be going back there, but there's probably something similar available around here, although probably not at the same price! Now we're going out to find something to eat before settling in for an early night before tomorrow's sightseeing adventure around Montenegro with the group.

Link to Day 9:

Day 7 - 24th August 2011 – Shengjin, Albania / Ulcinj, Montenegro

We didn't really do much today, as the area we were in didn't have much to do at all, being somewhere in between Albania and Montenegro. As such, we spent the whole day lounging around the hotel pool under parasols, reading and playing cards, with some swimming every now and then! Luckily, the hotel had some food on offer, so we had a nice ham and cheese pasta before departing around 6pm for our return to Ulcinj.

Stopped on route at the same cafĂ© we stopped at on the way here, only this time we noticed a little souvenir shop at the side which was worth a look. We also saw one of the many bunkers Albania is famous for and stopped for a group photo, which will be a nice memento of the holiday – if not the most scenic, it's certainly a little different and a good reminder! Now it simply remains to be seen what we decide to do tomorrow.

Day 6 – 23rd August 2011 – Ulcinj (Montenegro), Durres/Tirana/Kruje (Albania)

Today we were up at 6am for our planned departure to Albania at 7am. The first place we stopped was Durres on the Albanian coast. First impressions of the city are not great, as everything is very new thanks to an earthquake that levelled the city not so long ago. Albania has a reputation for being untidy and not so clean, with litter quite prominent, although their homes are said to be excellent cared for and very clean, as they take pride in their houses as part of the Muslim religion.

In Durres we saw an old Amphitheatre (or what remained of it) that will be atmospheric when it is finally restored to it's former glory. Entry costs €3 but it's really not worth it as everything worth seeing can be seen from the outside, and a photo from the hill climbing up around the edge of it gives a clear view of the ruins. We also saw some other old Roman ruins that were quite interesting, but again only a small example of their former glory. We ate ice cream going back down towards the bus, which only cost €0.30 a scoop – so I had red bull favour (!!) and straciatella – a creamy flavour with chocolate flavour pieces. Also got a couple of postcards, one giving various views of the more picturesque Albanian places and another with Kruja where we are headed later on today – it looks very picturesque and oriental, with several bazaars in narrow crowded streets. Before getting on the bus, we also get some postcards and have a look in a souvenir shop, where I purchased a traditional looking Albanian glass mug with silver patterning around the edge at the bottom.

Our next stop was Tirana, the Albanian capital – even though Durres was somewhat run down and felt like quite a poor area, Tirana is in an even worse state of disrepair. Everywhere you look something new is being built, and even the main square is being relaid and is a building site, so the famous statue of Skanderbeu (the leader of the regime in Albania) can only be viewed astride his horse from afar. The only other interesting point of interest was a Muslim mosque and an interesting looking clock tower, but the city in general has very little atmosphere and is very loud and overwhelming – there really seems nothing to stay here for, so I'm glad we only spent an hour here. Still I'm glad I can say I've seen it as part of the trip.

Upon leaving Tirana, we leave the city and take a long and winding climb up to Kruja, which sits quaintly upon the hills outside of the capital. This was easily the high point of the trip, as Kruja is bursting with character, with market stalls in a Bazaar style nestling on the narrow cliffs that make up this small enclave. The stalls sell traditional Albanian crafts, as well as the national drink Raki and Albanian brandy and cognac – with each of these costing only €2-3 for half a litre or 70cl, a bargain price. Dad bought Mum a handmade silver necklace on a chain, made from the silver crafted in these parts, and when asking if there was a box for it, the stall owner gave us a wonderful porcelain box with an intricate design on it to keep it in. After climbing up towards the castle to even greater views, we headed back down to the starting point and had a coffee for energy in the restaurant on the way back to the bus.

Now we have arrived in the hotel where we will stay for the night before our departure back to Montenegro tomorrow, with dinner at 21:00 and breakfast tomorrow morning at 9:00am. There is a wonderful swimming pool at the back, with rooms at the back overlooking it – unfortunately, ours overlooks the main road, but the view is not so bad, it's just a little noisy. From the balcony we saw the other group who travelled with us from Poland getting ready for their return trip to Montenegro, so had a little catch up with them before returning to the room.

Some time after this went down for dinner which was (I think!) some kind of pork fillet with a cauliflower cheese and tomato salad. I enjoyed it as I was ready for a meal, but Dad only ate the meat not being a fan of good, healthy food! Since there wasn't much to do after this, we retired to bed.

Link to Day 7:

Monday, 22 August 2011

Days 4-5 - 22-23rd August 2011 – Ulcinj, Montenegro

Since we're scheduled to go to Albania tomorrow, we had the whole day free today. As we had already done everything that it's possible to do in the area where we're staying, we decided to take a bus to the centre of Ulcinj to discover the delights of the city. Taking a bus here is not such a simple endeavour as it back home here, however. The Montenegrins here have no real sense of time (who would, if they lived here?) so you simply go to the the established point for being picked up (which every local knows) and wait for a minivan to arrive. Each of these minivans carries 8-10 people, costs €1 per person and doesn't set off until the bus is full. However, the end of the season is approaching now and we were the only two in the bus, so the driver took us to the centre for just €1.50 each, which we thought was very reasonable.

We started our exploration of the city by going down the main street on which we had been dropped off and looked at the connections to other places from the bus station. There are buses from here to other cities in Montenegro (Bar, Budva, Podgorica and so on) and buses to other cities in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and so. Although in theory you could simply jump on any of these buses and pay for the ticket, it's important to think about where you're going in advance and whether you will need more than just a valid passport to be stamped upon arrival. Although things are progressing quite swiftly in the region, some of the countries are still somewhat politically sensitive areas that have not yet fully opened up border access.

After leaving the bus station we headed towards the main part of the city, down the long street leading to the Mala Plaza (Little beach). Along the way are plenty of shops selling holiday essentials, fast food and ice cream, and all at a very reasonable price in comparison to Western European holiday areas. Since we didn't fancy fast food however, helped ourselves to a banana icecream before heading down to the beach front, where a completely packed, but very cosy beach stands in front of us with amazing views. The good thing here is that it's possible to swim safely as in many places the water isn't deep and there are barriers across the water to indicate how far it is safe to swim out, so there are generally no problems.

After spending a little time on the seafront, we made our way up to the Old Town (Stari Grad), the only part of town not to have been levelled by a 1979 earthquake. The Old Town is a maze of narrow lanes and tall(ish) stone buildings and is in complete contrast to the somewhat run down modern centre of town, which is almost completely devoid of any real character. The Old Town has the feel of somewhere eastern or oriental such as Morocco or somewhere in Turkey, and is very appealing. Since it also stands on a rocky promontory, the views are sensational. Also up here are some of the better restaurants and places to eat. We decided to choose one of the places with a nice view and ordered potatoes and salad and chips and cheese omelette for Dad(!!). Surprisingly, the omelette was very good and had the most wonderful cheese on top and inside – at only €4 this was quite a bargain and I think we'll definitely return for more. The potatoes and salad servings were also more than enough for two people so it's possible to eat and drink plenty for €10-15 per person, even less if you're careful.

On the way back down from the Old Town, we finally bumped into Damian and Ira, the friends we came here with but got separated from on the first day. It turns out they are staying down here at the small beach whilst we are out of town at the big beach. Although this might seem fortunate for them at first, we are in a quiet location in a residential area and have water all day, whilst they told us that theirs turns off at night, so they don't have a constant water supply. This is a problem in some regions of the country, especially in the summer time when the system can be overloaded. Damian told us where he and Ira are staying and invited us over later, but when we called they weren't in so we are just going to meet them tomorrow on the bus to Albania instead.

After this we ate another ice cream for only 50 cents (Chocolate and vanilla for me, kiwi and vanilla for Dad), got a few more essentials from the supermarket in town, which had a bigger choice than the one where we are, and went in search of one of the minivans back to where we're staying. Fortunately, there were quite a few waiting and one was nearly full so we got off in good time. Since it's getting dark I'm not going to get chance for a swim today (again!!) but sure I will try it at least once before going home. Now we're off out to the internet cafe!

Link to Day 6:

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Day 3 – 20th August 2011 – Croatia/Montenegro

Carrying on through Croatia after the passport check, we stopped an hour or so further on with an opportunity for a photo. Sadly, we also pass Dubrovnik on this route with no plans to stop, but we managed to get a shot of it as we passed when the bus slowed down for a split second – I never realised it was on such low-lying land. The photo stop was to be our last before entering Montenegro however, which was easily the most exciting as we were taken on the coach onto a ferry to cross what I think may have been the Bay of Kotor, but I'm not sure. The views here were tremendous and it really is a unique experience crossing on a coach on a ferry! The sensation of moving is extraordinary but strangely soothing.

Finally, two hours later we arrive in Ulcinj, with the feeling that Montenegro lives up to it's name – it's very mountainous country, but with enviably green land and gloriously blue waters. After getting off the coach to temperatures of 35 degrees (made bearable by the pleasant sea breeze) and collecting our baggage, we were taken to our accommodation. We are in a very light and airy room with fridge, kitchenette and two comfortable double beds – we need a fridge in here! We spent the first night just getting comfortable and settling in, having decided to have some pizza in the nearby restaurant and make use of the internet cafe next door (50 cents for half an hour), although we also took a walk to check out the beach. After going to the supermarket to buy more essentials (water, milk, beer etc!) we head back to turn in for the night, as we're not in the centre of Ulcinj so decided to save that for another day.

Day 2 - 19th August 2011 – Poland/Slovakia/Hungary/Croatia/Montenegro

Today we got up early since the departure time of our coach to Montenegro had been changed from 13:00 to 8:45 in the morning – no lie-in for us! Since we had to leave before the designated breakfast time, the breakfast team upstairs very nicely did a little pack-up for us giving us a loaf of bread, some ham and cheese and various spreads and things, which was very nice, and definitely a point in the hostel's favour.

Arriving on Pl. Matejki, the coach pick up point, several coaches are dotted around, none of which appear to be ours. Asking each one in turn where it is going to, we find that one is going to Albania – little did we realise this was our coach. Luckily, I asked the woman who appeared to be standing around with a list of names if she knew anything about a coach to Montenegro. It turned out that was this WAS our coach, but we had to change in Katowice for the onward journey – the tour company had neglected to inform us of this! Luckily we got on, simply relieved that it had waited for us. Once we got to Katowice for the onward bus, we were pleasantly surprised to see Damian and Ira waiting there for us – they were on the same coach as us that had come straight from Poznan.

However, it was to be the start of a very long (not painful, just tedious) 30 hour journey through five different countries. It's hard to complain, since the coach was fairly comfortable, with regular stops (even for photo opportunities) but I think most people would agree it's simply inhuman to sit for 30 hours on a coach! Still, it's all part of the adventure, and the air conditioning was working! 

On the way, we stopped off for a meal at a roadside restaurant in Slovakia – this was much cheaper and with genuine food compared to the service stops on long routes in the UK. We tried a Slovakian favourite – Knedlicki with gulash, which is basically thick slices of bread in a gulash sauce, but it's very filling and goes down very nicely with the tonic water I ordered. Other menu options included traditional Eastern cuisine such as chicken, beef and potatoes along with various other dishes.

Carrying on, we arrived in Hungary around midnight, so didn't get to see much, but we did get to cross the famous bridge across the river, which had an impressive view with it being night time. After this we all tried in vain to get some sleep, before being woken up for a passport check at the Croatian border to tremendous views.

Link to Day 3:

Day 1 - 18th August 2011 - Krakow, Poland

We arrived in Poland in typically on time Ryanair style, and fortunately we didn't have long to wait for the baggage – we were out of the terminal within 10 minutes from stepping off the plane. Took the usual airport train into Krakow Glowny – the main railway station and headed for our hostel. However, since we weren't able to check in until about 1 o'clock, we left our luggage and had a look around the city.

As always, Krakow looks resplendent in the summer sunshine, the temperature is not too hot and the sun is shining. I collected my guidebook about 'Czarnogora' (Montenegro) from Empik, and then we had some lunch in one of the traditional 'Bar mleczny' (Milk bars) where you can get traditional home cooked food in simple surroundings at a very reasonable price. I chose the Bigos (Polish stew) and a strawberry fruit drink, and Dad chose his favourite 'Pierogi z miesem' (Polish dumplings with meat).

Afterwards, we got a drink in one of the little shops off the main street and then headed back to the hostel to check in. The hostel itself is very decent – in a nice old building on a quiet street (Ul. Sw. Krzyza) and we were in a fairly quiet room. After a shower and a freshen up we went out again to the supermarket in the Galeria Krakowska shopping centre to get a few essentials (shampoo, milk, coffee and so on!) and another bite to eat and took them back to the hostel.

Later on we went back to the Galeria to take the 'underground' tram to the Jewish quarter of Krakow to find the atmospheric bar that I went to when I was here on my language course 3 years ago, After alighting from the tram, we were pleasantly surprised to find it was starting to get dark – the bar we chose (Alchemia) is a very dark place with lots of candles and is very atmospheric – here we drank piwo z sokiem (Beer with fruit syrup) before moving on to look for the cellar bar with cheap and different flavours of vodka every night. Having not found it, we settled for the Irish pub where the music seemed to be quite good and had another beer with fruit juice – this time with ginger instead of raspberry. Since it was getting late after this we decided to head back to the hostel and settle in for the night.

Link to Day 2:

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Travelling by train

Yesterday I took a trip with my Dad on the train to Carlisle via Newcastle, and coming back via Leeds on the Settle and Carlisle railway passing through the Yorkshire Dales national park. Although I didn't bring my bike on this trip, I did see some very nice and desolate scenery around Ribbleshead viaduct that I made a point to come back to in future. The more cycling-related part of the journey came upon my arrival to Leeds. Just outside the station there is a new cycle shop called Cycle Point that wasn't open when I last went to Leeds (a few years ago now). Anyway this shop appears to be a one-stop shop for bicycle accessories for commuters, leisure cyclists or anyone simply passing this way on a bicycle. As well as having some 'imperfect' bikes for sale starting at £60, there is also a selection of leaflets and a cycle map of the whole Leeds area to show people the possibilities for other journeys around the area, as in the above example.

As can be seen above, the map shows the route for the journey and a key for whether the route is on-road or off-road. The route above is from Spofforth to Thorpe Arch via Wetherby, which is appealing since it follows a former railway route, yet there is no rail station at any of these places. Having looked on a larger map, it appears the nearest rail station to Wetherby is Knaresborough. Having considered Knaresborough to York as a possible route before, but noting it is via a main road, I decided that Knaresborough to York via the route in the leaflet would be a nice choice whilst avoiding the main road and getting the chance to pass through some country lanes.

So now I have several possible ideas for routes for my next ride, which I am planningto do next week - the possibilities are as follows:

Grantham-Melton Mowbray-Grantham