A friend of mine came over for a 16 day visit from Australia and we set out for a whirlwind trip around Western Europe. Below are my seven favourite photos taken from our seven country trip.
If you were to think of Poland as a person it would be your grandmother. Traditional, endearing and with a slight tendency to drink at any time throughout the day Poland is full of history and intent on preserving it for future generations. While often overlooked by travellers in favour of neighbouring countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic, it’s worth scheduling an extra couple of days to explore Poland’s major cities, which are filled with a surprisingly diverse variety of arts, food and live music.
When Warsaw was almost entirely razed by the occupying German forces during World War 2 its citizens had a rare opportunity, the chance to redesign the city centre from scratch and to do it just way they wanted. In true Polish fashion this was done swiftly and using exactly the same city layout as before. Consequently the narrow cobbled streets of the ‘old town’ area are not overly different to that of every other old town you’ve visited, and while it’s worth a visit to the Uprising Museum as well, it is the lesser known destinations, that ones that the locals frequent, that give Warsaw its charm.
Cafeterias, known as ‘Bar Mleczny’ or ‘Milk Bars’, serve piping hot means, some of the cheapest in Europe and with plenty of delicious traditional Polish food on offer. If Russian dumplings aren’t your thing (they’re Polish dumplings in Russia) then consider a visit to Praga instead. While the suburb is notorious for its high crime rate it also houses a large percentage of the cities artists and musicians and their counterculture style makes for an enjoyable experience. The old red-brick building that once housed the Koneser Vodka Distillery has been closed for quite some time now but the building that once dealt in nothing but vodka now houses some the best bars and restaurants in Warsaw, as well as an open air cinema during the warmer months.
Much like the capital Krakow is intent on preserving the past and boasts a surprising amount of history, even by lofty European standards. If time is brief and you’ve only got a couple of hours to go sightseeing then head to Wawel Castle. The thirteenth century stone castle is romantically tucked up next to the Wisla river and even features a former dragons lair, once home to the evil Wawel Dragon who was out witted by a quick thinking cobbler in an amusing fairytale about greed and lateral thinking. In true fairytale style Wawel Castle is also home to the crypts of former Polish Kings, each with their own plaque outlining Polish history during their respective reigns. On top of all that the castle also plays host Wawel Cathedral, an intricate and beautifully designed cathedral that is revered by Poles everywhere, so much so that Pope John Paul II wanted to be buried within the cathedral’s walls until papal tradition decided otherwise.
If you are lucky enough to have a full day for sightseeing in Krakow then rent a bike and spend the day exploring in a more hands on fashion. Krakus mound, one of several mounds in Krakow built by Pagan worshippers for ritual purposes in the early second century, sits adjacent to the Liban quarry, of Schindler’s list fame. The quarry, which acted as a forced work camp for Poles during World War 2, is also the site of the former Plaszow Concentration Camp, although this was dismantled by German soldiers and as such is now an empty area with a small memorial.
Both sites are easily accessible by climbing through the fence next to the Krakus mound and proceeding along the cliff face. You can also, preseumably, take a guided tour if you’re that way inclined. Likewise Lake Zakrzówek is best viewed on foot, follow the walking tracks uphill along the eastern side of the lake and climb through the fence and onto the narrow cliff for a stunning view out across the lake. On exit make sure to follow the track further uphill where you can savour the majestic sights of Krakow from an angle few ever see.
From Krakow hourly trains run to Oswiecim, home of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Suffice to say this an absolute must to visit and is one of the most moving experiences you’ll ever encounter. To see just how big the camp is and the crematoriums where six million people were killed is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Auschwitz, along with the Krakow and Warsaw demonstrate that while Poland might not have the glamour of other Schengen countries it is well worth spending a week or two in one of the most historically rich countries in Europe, just keep an eye out for dragons.
* Spend an evening at the beach: Sitting adjacent to the banks of the Wisla river near the National Stadium is a large beach area where anything goes. Grab a few drinks, take a picnic rug and head down to enjoy an evening with friends.
* Attend a football game: Poland has some of the most passionate active supporters in the world and the crowd is often just as entertaining as the game itself. Make sure you take ID and get there very early, you’ll need to register for a ‘fan card’ as you cannot buy a ticket to a game without one.
* Spend excess money on guided tours: Like most European countries Poland is easy to navigate, even if you don’t speak the local language. Avoid paying upwards of 30 Euro to visit Auschwitz or the Wieliczka salt mines and instead catch the train which will set you back 3 Euro instead.
* Pass on the local cuisine: While the Milk Bars are the go to in Warsaw it’s all about zapiekanki in Krakow. A delicious local dish that can best be described as a cross between a baguette and a pizza, zapiekanki comes with your choice of delicious toppings. It’s warm, tasty and cheap, prices range from 1-3 Euro per zapiekanki.
Sofia to Warsaw is €70 one with buses leaving 2-3 times a week
Beer: €2.5 for a pint of locally brewed ‘import’ beer
Admission to Auschwitz: Free
Accommodation: Ranges from €12-16 per night in a hostel
Travel date: August 2013
What are your thoughts on Poland? Share them in the comments section down below!
The thing about Mumbai is that it is hectic. Not in the same way that New York or Tokyo are hectic, this is something different altogether, a type of busy that can only come from a country with 1.2 billion people. Sure, you get the crowds of people gathered impatiently at the traffic lights New York style, waiting for the lights to go green before they set off as a large mob and navigate their way across the busy streets. You can also witness train platforms crammed so tightly that there’s a stationary queue of people on the stairs leading down to the platform waiting to catch perhaps the second or third train to arrive, much like the Tokyo subway videos you see on the internet. Yet Mumbai sets itself apart in a way that few other places can, with a culture that is unlike any other.
Like a scene from a five-day music festival rows of open air urinals runs alongside the footpaths and are frequently used by the groups of unemployed men and tuk-tuk drivers clustered around street corners and near market stalls. Cats and dogs roam freely about the streets, their malnourished bodies moving slowly as they rifle through open bags of garbage or seek the best spot for warming themselves in the sun. Colonial era buildings are prevalent, mixed with a blend of Gothic, Victorian and Art-Deco styles, creating a unique blend of architectural pornography that serves as both a lesson in Indian history and an enticement for wandering the city without a map in the hopes of discovering more tucked away down the quieter side streets.
After strolling for an hour or two you stumble across the Gateway of India, a large basalt arch standing 26 metres high overlooking the Arabian sea. Throngs of tourists and locals mix in front of the monument as guides shout to ensure they are heard over the noise of boats and people alike. The docking area gives way to water where fishing vessels and tourist shuttle boats sit moored in neat rows like a watery car park, waves lapping gently at their bow. By the waterfront sits the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace, an imposing yet beautiful five-star hotel that once housed British Kings and Queens alike as they visited the far-flung reaches of their expansive empire. The final sight is perhaps the most curious of all, a tiny nondescript park tucked away under the shelter of trees that would have missed the eye altogether had it not been filled with Indian men playing with brightly coloured balloons.
Curious you wander over to take in the spectacle. Two dozen or so men, each with a large bag strapped to their bag, are playing with enormous latex balloons flecked with a variety of different colours. They move about the park selling packets of these balloons to tourists and talking to one another, laughing and chatting animatedly between sales. While pictures usually take precedence over presents and experiences come before souvenirs but for a few rupees the impulse buy is too great to pass up.
Approaching the balloon salesman closest you hang back a little, trying to catch a snippet of the conversation with an Asian tourist to get an idea on price. In your wallet sits just over 400 rupees which, as you overhear, is more than enough to purchase the novelty item. As the tourist leaves clutching a packet of balloons tightly to her chest you approach the man and he notices you in the corner of his eye. Turning he says loudly “Hello there my friend, balloons for you today sir?” You grin at the over the top friendliness towards you that comes with being a white person in India. Even after two weeks it feels odd being referred to as ‘sir’ and ‘friend’ in the same sentence by a man you’ve only just met.
“I’d better get a packet” you hear yourself saying, your mind already calculating the bartering that is about to take place. “I’ll give you eighty rupees for them” you say, reaching for the wallet located in your jeans pocket. “No sir, two hundred rupees for big balloons, very big, very cheap.” His response a well trodden one and, as expected, is excessive given he just sold the previous packet to the Asian lady for one hundred and thirty rupees. “One hundred” you say, knocking down the artificial price by half, a standard negotiating manoeuvre. Somewhat surprisingly, he accepts the offer straight away, “Ok, ok one hundred for you sir.” What a bargain, the previous buyer clearly paid a premium for their purchase. You hand over the cash and he hands you a rather small pack of balloons. Before you have a chance to thank him he turns and walks away, his figure melting into the shade of a nearby tree.
You inspect the packet, staring critically as you realise they aren’t nearly big enough to be the same giant balloons these men are playing with. You’ve been sold a smaller packet in the hope you wouldn’t bother to look until the transaction was over and it worked beautifully. No wonder it was so much cheaper to buy them than the previous customers price. Suddenly there’s a tap on your shoulder and, turning around, you’re met by another balloon salesman, this one waving a much larger pack of balloons in your face. “You buy wrong balloons, here these ones much bigger, two hundred rupees.” You analyse the pack carefully this time. You’ve never seen balloons this big before so they seem the right size and they’re enormous compared to the packet of water bombs you’re just purchased. You barter back and forth quickly before settling on a figure of 150 rupees. Handing over the cash you are satisfied with yourself for getting it right the second time.
The joy is short-lived. As you begin stuffing both packets of balloons into your camera bag yet another balloon salesman approaches you, this time enquiring about why you only purchased the two smaller sized balloons and not the large ones they are playing with. Surely you want the big balloons as a souvenir of your trip to India? “I’ve just purchased the big ones, thankyou anyway” you say, showing him the packet of large balloons you’ve purchased. He looks at them before shaking his head and, reaching into his backpack, produces a three pack of enormous balloons, the same colourful balloons he’s been playing with all day.
You look at them, dumbfounded. They’ve just set a trap and you’ve walked right into it, a dopey gullible tourist who’s been sold not one, but two packs of otherwise readily obtainable balloons at a premium price. For someone who prides themself on their ability to steer clear of scams abroad this almost clinical operation has fished two hundred and fifty rupees from your pocket in a completely voluntary manner before you’ve even began negotiating for the balloons you’re after. If it were anyone else you’d laugh, this happens to amateur travellers and idiots, not to someone who spun the globe and is now standing in the country their finger landed on. Still, the opportunity is here now, you’re finally acquiring the notable balloons.
Deflated by your flaccid attempts at purchasing souvenirs you offer the man one hundred but he shirks your offer your offer, insisting on three hundred as these are, after all, a superior product to your previous two purchases. The quick fire exchange of prices takes place as you bargain like a newly divorced couple, neither wanting to cede to the others requests. Settling on a price of two hundred rupees you take out your wallet and count out the cash. One hundred and eighty is all that you have. You’re short. Sheepishly you offer him the cash and explain that’s all you have. He looks at you and then down at your empty wallet. It’s a sincere gesture. “Ok, ok” he says before handing you your coveted prize. It may have just cost you the entire contents of your wallet, equivalent to $7, but you’ve finally got your balloons.
It’s hot in Colombo. Damn hot. Stepping off the train you can feel the sweat dripping from your forehead. It rolls down your cheek onto your chin where it clings for a moment before cutting loose and falling onto the sizzling concrete at your feet. Your shirt, drenched from the stifling humidity and sticky sweat, clings to your back, gripping you tightly as you hoist your rucksack onto your shoulders and clasp the straps together. As your eyes adjust to the brightness of being outside you begin to take in the sights of Colombo train station. Women wearing dresses full of vivid colours that seem to dance as they move, the tiny shacks on the platform that sell newspapers and soft drinks to those awaiting their train and the children walking along the platform begging for food or perhaps a spare rupee.
Leaving the train station you’re met with the noises of Colombo. Tuk-tuks whirr past, honking incessantly as they try to attract your attention. A tourist talks loudly with a local after seeking help to navigate his hotel directions which are written in the local language. “No, we’ve just come from there and we’re trying to get to here” he says, pointing despondently at the map. It will be several minutes before everything is resolved, by talking so loud and interrupting at every available chance our tourist is only confusing the Lankan man even more. As you become accustomed to the sounds your eyes sweep the area, searching for the familiar cluster of yellow cars that signifies a taxi rank. There it is. As you approach the first car the driver looks up from his newspaper and a look of surprise crosses his face. He was not expecting you to be white.
As he exits the vehicle and opens the boot he motions for you to offload your rucksack into the empty space next to the spare tyre. Before you do so there is one very important step to complete, the negotiating. “How much to go to the airport?” you ask cautiously, awaiting a response that could range from 2800 to 8000 rupees. “Four thousand” he says, flashing you his best used car dealer smile. Good, he’s a not trying to rip you off. “Four thousand?” you respond sounding shocked. “But it only cost me two thousand to get here from the airport.” “Two thousand?” Now it is his turn to be feign surprise, nobody charges so little for such a long fair. “No, you must be mistaken, I can do no less than three thousand” he says, flashing the same convincing smile as before. “Three thousand?” you say, as if contemplating the offer. He looks at you for a moment as you weigh up the proposal. “Alright, alright” he says, “for you my friend two thousand eight hundred”. This time you don’t contemplate, two thousand eight hundred is fine. You chuck your rucksack in the boot and take a seat in the front of the car as a little smile crosses your face. You’ve just paid slightly less than what it cost to take the same trip from the airport five days ago.
As the taxi pulls out of the rank and sets off down the street your driver skips the usual chatter about where you’re from, instead informing you that he’ll drop you at a nearby location where his uncle will meet you and take you to the airport instead. It’s an odd proposition but you go along with it, after all you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve as the twice daily train from Kandy arrived at an inconvenient time. He makes a quick call on his phone and five minutes later pulls into a side street next to a park. You exit the vehicle and collect your rucksack, shifting it from one car boot to another as the drivers lean against the waiting taxi and converse in Sinhala. After another couple of minutes the driver of the new cab bids farewell to his nephew and his attention turns back to you.
“Where are you from?” he asks as the indicator light flashes on and off, waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass before the cab can turn onto the main road again. “Australia” you reply, ready to go through the same old routine once again. “Oh, Australia” he says excitedly, “you have good cricket team yes, very good”. His English isn’t as good as some but it’s better than most you’ve encountered so far. “Yeh, it’s a shame you had injury problems throughout the test series, it could have been a lot more competitive otherwise” you offer up as a means of diplomacy. Lankans are incredibly proud people and the fact your country just thrashed their team 3-0 in a test series just a couple of months ago means you have to downplay your teams achievements quite significantly. As you turn off the main road and onto the busy side streets the cricket conversation continues and you find yourself tuning out as your mind begins to turn to the next destination.
Half an hour ticks by and you find yourself looking for signs indicating the airport turnoff is near. It was a brief 45 minute trip from Bandaranaike Airport when you arrived at 9pm the other night and, while the traffic seems quite a bit heavier at the moment, the driver has taken you a quicker way to avoid it, or so he says. The conversation has changed from cricket and you find yourself discussing the local foods which you assure the driver are much better than those you encountered in India. Sure, they might be the same thing, after all the two countries are right next to one another and share the same culinary dishes, but Lankans are proud people and you are a gracious guest. Admittedly the curries weren’t as spicy as in India and for someone with a low tolerance to spicy foods this was a welcome relief.
It’s been an hour since you first changed cabs on the tiny side street. You ask the driver how much longer to go and he responds that it’s not too far now, reassuring you that you’ll be there in time for your flight. The conversation has dwindled and he seems more focused than before, turning from one side street into another, changing paths to avoid cows, children and washing strung up to dry across the road. You start to wonder just how much further to go, sure the traffic is a bit heavier but you don’t recognise your surroundings at all, where’s the four lane highway that leads to Bandaranaike International Airport? Where’s that ridiculously large two-story furniture store you noticed on your way to the hostel when you arrived? You clarify the intended destination with the driver, just to be sure he’s going to the international airport and not the domestic one instead. “Oh yes, international is close, not far to go now” he says as he leads you deeper into the maze of shanty houses.
As darkness falls you check your phone for the time, you’ve spent an hour and a half in this cab, where the hell are we? None of this looks familiar and your driver has begun making phone calls, seeming uninterested in the journey and instead focused on his conversation with the man at other the end of the line. You interrupt his conversation to ask if he can pull over to check the directions, you’re not sure what’s going on at this point. He seems reluctant to do so and when you ask again he begrudgingly pulls over to the side of the road next to a small woman carrying a basket of vegetables. He asks her something in Sinhala and with her spare arm she points further down the road, the same way we are going. He thanks her and we resume our journey, turning right at the next exit and leaving the road the lady indicated to travel down.
What is going on here, why did we just ignore the old ladie’s advice? You find yourself taking mental notes of landmarks in case you need to find your way back, a chicken coop, the television set sitting outside a shanty house and a small fruit stall that’s closed up for the night. Your driver is still on the phone, sounding more and more serious as he immerses himself in the call. Suddenly he hangs up and looks at you with a smile. “Not long to go now, yes” he says before his gaze wanders back to the road in front of us. This is bad, very bad. Alarm bells should have been going off the moment the first driver offered you a reasonable fare, you’re white, they should always try to charge a premium. Now that you think about it why would you need to change cabs anyway? Why would the first driver turn down an airport fare and pass you off to his nephew for him to reap the lucrative windfall instead? Why is his nephew now spending so much time on the phone and why havent we seen a main road in almost an hour? Your mind is racing and a panic sets in as you realise the gravity of the situation. No one knows where you are, you don’t know where you are and the driver seems intently focused on getting to his destination as quickly as possible. You are being kidnapped.
The driver hurtles down the twisting, winding dirt road and the labyrinth of shanties rushes past you. You’re trying to calm yourself but it’s not working, your chest feels tight and you feel a cold chill tremble down your spine. You have to say something, anything. “Can we pull over and ask someone for directions again?” The driver looks at you while weighing up the proposal before swerving sharply to the left and pulling up next to a middle-aged man reclining on an old and tattered lounge chair. The taxi driver utters a short sentence and the middle-aged man responds with a sentence just as short. It barely seems like a conversation. With that the cab lurches back onto the narrow road and you’re off again. This time the driver doesn’t even fill you in on the conversation, he just wants to get to his destination.
Almost two hours have lapsed since you first got in a cab and you’ve come to the realisation you’re completely helpless. Your rucksack is still in the boot and you cannot leave the vehicle now even if you wanted to as the driver, who has gone very quiet, has found a main road and is going too fast for you to contemplate jumping out of the vehicle and making a break for it. You find yourself thinking about your friends and family back home, what will they say when they hear that you’ve been taken hostage in a country that’s only recently ended its civil war. Why would you even go to a country where kidnappings are commonplace? Even political leaders and businessmen have simply disappeared, it was silly to think that you’d be fine as a solo traveller. Your own stupidity has got you into more trouble than you could imagine.
Suddenly a poorly lit sign emerges on the road ahead ‘Bandaranaike International Airport turn off 500m’. You read it once, twice, three times as those words sink in. Bandaranaike International Airport turn off 500m. You let out something between a laugh and a cry, it’s ok, everything is going to be ok. The driver looks at you and smiles “see, airport!” he says triumphantly. “Traffic was bad, I take the quick way for you.” You can’t help but grin at the man who is completely oblivious to the amount of stress he’s just caused you. As the taxi pulls up out the front of the airport terminal you jump out before it’s come to a complete stop, eager to feel the ground beneath your feet and a sense of freedom once again. Your heart is pounding in relief. It’s the best feeling in the world. The driver gets out and hands you your rucksack from the boot. In exchange you hand him three thousand rupees, slightly more than the negotiated fair. He thanks you and scrawls his name and number on a piece of paper, handing it over to you and explaining that, should you ever find yourself in Sri Lanka again, you should give him a call as he will happily give you a good discount on your next taxi fare. While it’s a generous offer you know that it’s unlikely, perhaps next time you’ll just take the bus instead.
While most of my blog posts will be about countries or events from time to time I’ll post a short story about something that I’ve experienced while travelling. Some of these will anecdotes about certain people I’ve met, some will be told from a second person singular point of view to help immerse you in the moment and others might simply be some of my favourite photos taken abroad.
At some point in our lives we all have to make a pilgrimage of sorts to another land to pay homage to those we worship. For some Mecca is the ultimate destination, others embark on Kumbh Mela seeking to bathe in the river Ganges, while followers of heavy metal make the long trek to Wacken, Germany, seeking to cleanse their soul with healthy doses of ball-tearing riffs and an insurmountable amount of bratwurst.
Much has been done to keep Wacken out of the hands of corporations who would plaster the holy land with advertising and deliver underwhelming lineups to secure those few extra dollars in profit. For the most part the organisers have been true to this, indeed standing atop the Pokerstars™ hall your view of the mighty 20 foot tall inflatable Captain Morgan™ is not obscured by the multitude of Beck’s™ beer tents at all. All joking aside, apart from the main stage area, the corporate dollar was hardly anywhere to be seen, Wacken felt less like an advertisement with music and more like a community, something other festivals, such as V Fest, lack.
With a lineup boasting 135 artists including Motörhead, Rammstein, Anthrax and Alice Cooper it’s hard to pick a favourite performance. Thursday was the first real day and festival goers came out in their droves. Deep Purple, no doubt putting on their biggest performance in quite some time, took us back to the 70′s with bandanas, tie-dye shirts and funky tunes. The fact that four out of five band members will be in their 70′s shortly was no deterrent towards the end of the set as they teasingly delivered ‘Smoke on the Water’ to 50,000 fans who responded in earnest, singing along to one of the most prolific rock songs of the last fifty years.
From one generation to another, headliners and controversial industrial metal band Rammstein made their first appearance at Wacken Festival. As the evening sunlight dwindled and the bull’s head skull separating the two main stages began to shoot flames Rammstein took to the stage, captivating the audience with something closer to a two-hour haunted woods style fairytale than a traditional musical performance . While flames leapt high across the stage rolling drum lines gave way to heavy riffs frontman Till Lindermann, used flame throwers, flaming fire suits and a hand-held firework launcher to tell the story of a band that is obsessed with pushing the boundaries of performance and delivering a show that few are capable of.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wacken was that, despite the tattoos, inverted crosses, deep-throated growling vocals and liberal use of expletives, bands were there to have fun and to let their (often bum length and dirty) hair down and to enjoy their time with fans who have given them so much over the years. Roger Miret, lead singer of Agonistic Front, and possible sometimes Sons of Anarchy extra, delivered one of the festivals highlights, covering ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ whilst excitedly bouncing around looking something out of a Jessica Simpson concert. Alice Cooper covered The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles while Danzig dedicated half a show to the Misfits. Even for the artists themselves this pilgrimage isn’t about performing it’s about paying homage to those they worship.
* Take wellingtons: Fifteen minutes of solid rain is all it takes to turn Wacken Festival into a bog and, at €20 a pair, you don’t want to be buying them at the grounds.
*Camp: Accommodation in Wacken books out well in advance and Frankfurt is an hour away by car, even longer on the first/last day of the festival. Save yourself the trouble and make new friends while you’re at it.
* Buy food and alcohol inside the festival: Get out and support the town instead. Wacken is buzzing 24/7 throughout the festival, go explore the town, buy some cases of beer and visit one of the many food stalls run by the locals.
* Buy your merchandise at Wacken: The queues are ridiculously long for the first couple of days and they may run out of your size. Buy your merchandise in advance on the Wacken website and wear it to the festival instead!
Wacken Open Air ticket: €140
Pint: €4.5 at Wacken or €15+ for a case in town
Food: Prices starting €4+ at Wacken or €2.5 in town for wurst
Accommodation: Access to the campgrounds is included in the ticket price!
Travel date: July 2013
The largest theme park in the world is absolutely free. You’re welcome to stroll up to the gates outside the complex, show the guard your valid ticket and he’ll let you in without a second glance. Take the bus to the nearby station and take a short walk to the centre of the theme park. It’s all relatively new, construction began in 2010 and while white marble covers every available surface including the footpath, water features and buildings, two things grab your immediate attention, a desire to start counting the number of statues in visible eyesight and the low-frequency mosquito sound designed to ward off teenagers. Sure Skopje may not have any rides, performers or soul but the city of statues has its own quirky charm that only a city that is only now rebuilding its fortress forty years after it was partially destroyed by earthquake can have.
For a country that most would struggle to find on a map Macedonia has quite an interesting and somewhat comedic recent history. It’s original flag design, used between 1991 and 1995, was vetoed by Greece as it featured the Vergina Sun, a Greek national symbol. While that may seem like water under the bridge now, Macedonia again antagonised the Greeks in 2011 by erecting a large monument that is definitely not Alexander the Great. After the government ceased referring to the ‘Warrior on a horse’ as Alexander the Great it was left to the tourist pamphlets, tour guides and locals to remind everyone that the while the statute, which cost 7.5 million Euro, might bare quite a striking resemblance to the Macedonian born leader of Greece it is most certainly a nondescript statue that could be anyone, really.
While it’s easy to poke fun at a country sorely lacking in national identity Macedonia also has one of the most beautiful places on Earth and, much like Dubioza Kolektiv, it is relatively unknown to people who reside outside the Balkans. Lake Ohrid, with its picturesque views and chilled beach vibe, is one of those places that you feel you could quite readily spend an entire summer living and working in such a picturesque, surviving on a diet consisting of no more than home-made Rakia and incredibly cheap watermelon. As you sit on the edge of a cliff overlooking the crystal clear lake and watch the sun set behind the Albanian mountain ranges you find yourself resolving to retire to a place like this one day, where the rest of the world doesn’t matter and your only concern is missing the opportunity to see the sunrise in the morning. Just try not to get caught up in the happenings of the theme park up the road.
* Rent a boat for the day in Ohrid: Grab some friends or acquaintances and head out to along to a quiet patch along Lake Ohrid’s shoreline. There is no better feeling than seemingly having the lake to yourself.
*Visit the New Orleans Jazz Bar in Skopje: A tremendously fun bar with live music every night and the right mixture of locals, expats and travellers.
* Forget to change currency before leaving: It’s near impossible to change denar outside of Macedonia so make sure you do it at the bus station in Skopje before hand. The currency exchange centre in between the ticket windows has an excellent rate of exchange.
* Book accommodation in advance for Ohrid. There is an abundance of villas, apartments, hostels and spare rooms available in the town and, depending on the time of year, a private room in an apartment can cost only a fraction more than a bed in a six bed hostel room.
Pristina to Skopje €5 with buses leaving every 30-45 minutes
Beer: €3 for a 3 litre bottle of Skopsko from the supermarket
Admission to Kale Fortress: Free. Ignore the sign out the front saying it’s closed to visitors.
Accommodation: Skopje – Shanti Hostel €12 per night and highly recommended
Lake Ohrid – Sunny Lake Hostel €14 per night (take a taxi from the bus station, it costs €2 and saves a lot of hassle as the hostel is quite hard to find)
Travel date: July 2013
What are your thoughts on Macedonia? Share them in the comments section down below!