Wheelchair Friendly Paris

At the end we were all supposed to shake hands and claim something about Jesus. And so I heartily shook the hands of those around me and muttered Jesus a few times before donating 20 EUR to the basket going around.

Paris is a city which I have visited regularly the last couple of years – including the four months I stayed here while writing my thesis in 2012.

I’ve always found it slightly messy and smelly and, though romantic in parts, it is difficult to get through the streets thanks to the cars and scooters everywhere. Parisians have yet to know what the red of the traffic light indicates and the old buildings, narrow pavement and many outdoor serving areas makes it difficult to walk around comfortably. Add to this the more than 15 million tourists who visit the city each year, and Paris can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.

But despite all this we decided to invite my mother in law to Paris, planning a trip which allowed the use of a wheelchair.

Raised water in the Seine
Raised water in the Seine
Accessible Paris

I must admit  that Paris has proven itself an amazing city to visit with a wheelchair user.

There are accessible public toilets all over the city and online it is possible to find a map of their locations.

Place de la Bastille
Place de la Bastille

While the metro system is well developed the stations are complex even for the hardy with loads of stairs and stains. But the bus system in Paris is even better and offers an amazing sightseeing option. No. 95 is my favourite bus as it travels from Montmartre through Louvre to Montparnasse.

While I always favoured the Parisian buses, I never appreciated them as much as doing this visit. All buses have easy wheelchair access apart from at a few stops clearly indicated by a yellow triangle.

And yes, even Monmartre is accessible now after the Montmartrobus, which crosses le butte on its way from Pigalle to Jules Joffrin, has been updated in late 2015.

Place du Tertre
Place du Tertre

We were rather concerned the first time we had to use the buses, but it was easy-peasy and now we are using it with great pleasure. An automatic ramp comes out from the centre door offering an almost straight entrance to the bus. And if the driver closes the door in front of you do not worry. The ramp can only come down with closed doors.

View from La Butte Montmartre
View from La Butte Montmartre
Access to Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame

While nearby Notre Dame draws the large crowds, the smaller and older Sainte-Chapelle is in my eye the true beauty of Île de Cité.

The Vault at Sainte-Chapelle
The Vault at Sainte-Chapelle

It is the chapel of the early royal residence of the French monarchs dating from 1248. Since handicap access was not really a priority in the middle ages, I did not think we would be able to get in with a wheelchair.

The stained glass windows of the Upper Level of Sainte-Capelle
The stained glass windows of the Upper Level of Sainte-Capelle

The narrow stone chairs to the beautiful upper floor do not seem fit for those with limited mobility. But as the upper floor used to be the main entrance from the medieval royal palace there remains a port which opens up to a landing connecting with Palais de Justice which has elevator access.

Palais de Justice
Palais de Justice

Not only did we get in to both floors, but out of the three of us only I had to pay the ticket. It is gratuit for handicapped and their assistant.

After our visit to Sainte-Chapelle we were treated a royal welcome at the corner bistro across from Palais de Justice called Les Deux Palais.

Les Deux Palais
Les Deux Palais

I’d feared that the general prejudice of arrogant French waiters would be a hindrance for us in Paris, but it seems that any arrogance I might have encountered on previous visits or heard tales about from others vanishes when a wheelchair is involved.

The Flower Market on Place Louis Lépine
The Flower Market on Place Louis Lépine

We had a lovely brunch before heading in the direction of Notre Dame, where we bypassed a 200 meter line by accessing the church through the exit. Moreover, neither of us paid the entrance fee this time around.

It was Sunday and inside the church tourists could enjoy the spectacle of a Catholic Sunday mass. While the faithful sat on the many rows of the huge cathedral, tourists walked up and down the long corridors to each side, photographing the mass. Off course if you are a believer, you can always take part no matter if you are local or foreign. But as an atheist, I’ve never felt comfortable pretending.

Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris

But this time around, a professional and sweet woman from the church offered us access to the church and saying yes, we ended up being guided to the front row of the mass, where I had to pretend I knew what was going on.

All the prayers and hymns were in French, and I had no idea when to get up or when to say amen and sit down. Fortunately, an extremely well-dressed middle-aged black man sat beside me. Not only could he sing along and say the prayers, but it also sounded fantastic. So for the next 45 minutes, I listened to him and made my lips sync so that it looked like I knew what I was doing.

Eucharist
Eucharist

At the end we were all supposed to shake hands and claim something about Jesus. And so I heartily shook the hands of those around me and muttered Jesus a few times before donating 20 EUR to the basket going around.

After mass
After mass

Leaving the mass, I had a great wish to re-watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is surprising how well Disney copied the real mass of Notre Dame for their film.

La Taverna du Nil at Île Saint-Louis
La Taverna du Nil at Île Saint-Louis

We spent the rest of the day walking around Marais and shopping till we dropped before taking the bus home.

Jazz-band in Marais
Jazz-band in Marais

After our long weekend in Paris, I feel as if my relationship with this city of light has been renewed and I have come to appreciate a completely different side to the French capital.

Zofka

Looking for the Authentic Amsterdam

It is a favourite pass time to shock tourists who are not taking care when stepping off the walk path. Though they are ten or 15 meters away they will ring. It seems as if their constant ringing with bells has become their silent rebellion against the many tourists filling the streets and pushing out the locals.

I’ve crossed through much of Europe by now, and I even managed a day tour to Maastricht back in 2007. But that cloudy day in the town which named one of Europe’s most famous documents has been my only meeting with the Netherlands. Until now I have not had the pleasure of indulging myself in all those treats for which the country is so famous. The tulips, the Edam and Gouda cheeses and the hashes.

Amsterdams Kaashuis
Amsterdams Kaashuis

I have not really had any great need to visit the country, since it seems so comparable to Denmark. Not that it is in any way, but you start feeling a slight reluctance towards a country when you are constantly compared to or mistaken as them.

Spui Square
Spui Square

Dutch. Danish. What is the difference.

Understandably to the outsider there might not be that much of a difference. We are considered tall and blond, living in flat countries and with a naval history only rivalled by the greater nations and each other. To the untrained ear we speak languages which sound similar and we bike whenever we can.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

To Danes – and I presume Dutch – there is a world of difference. We do not look at all the same, and in both countries the tall and blond are far from the majority. We might both be living in flat countries, but in the Netherlands they have dams to keep out water from overflowing the land, while in Denmark we have islands. As a colonial power the naval history of the Netherlands differs greatly from that of Denmark, where the English made certain in the beginning of the 19th century that our navy became kindling.

House boats
House boats

Most importantly, the languages are miles apart and the sounds not even comparable, and as I’ve realised our biking cultures are very different too. But more about that later.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals
Hands up, who have done a weekend trip to Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is a popular destination and I had read beforehand that the locals where getting increasingly tired of how much the tourist industry dominated the old city.

View from Armbrug in the Red Light District
View from Armbrug in the Red Light District

But I’d decided to gift my boyfriend with a weekend trip to somewhere in Europe, and the flights to Amsterdam were just the better option. So we ended up visiting the Dutch capital this September.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

And I am mighty happy that we went. I can certainly understand why people are drawn to the city though for some the abundance of coffee shops might also factor in.

Looking towards De 9 Straatjes
Looking towards De 9 Straatjes

I was surprised by the city. I had not really imagined the canals to the extent that they encircle the old town. Neither had I been prepared for how many Dutch merchants houses actually made up the inner rings.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam can according to newer excavations trace its history further back than the 12th century, which is considered the birth of a small fishing village on the riverbank of the Amstel River. In this Amsterdam compares to Copenhagen, where metro excavations have revealed very much the same – that the city was inhabited prior to the 12th century.

Sluyswachterhuisje from 1695
Sluyswachterhuisje from 1695

But what makes Amsterdam unique is the layout of the city with the rings of canals surrounding the medieval city. The inner most canals are Singel and the Kloveniersburgwal which surrounds he medieval part of town though not much remains of this period. From here on out extends  massive system of canals which divides Amsterdam into some 90 islands connected by around 1,300 bridges and viaducts.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

The network of canals took form during the Golden Age of the Netherlands, from 1585-1672. The most celebrated of these canals are the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) which create a spiderweb of semicircular rings extending from the centre of the city.

The double houses in fashionable part of Amsterdam
The double houses in fashionable part of Amsterdam

The houses here are not only some of the finest Dutch houses too be found, they are also massively expensive. The most prestigious of them all are found at the Gouden Bocht – the golden bend – on the Herengracht, where the houses are double sized.

Location, location, location.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals
What to do for a weekend in Amsterdam?

1. Feeling queasy from eating a strange muffin at an Amsterdam coffee shop, check!

De Dampkring Coffeehouse
De Dampkring Coffeehouse

2. Gazing through the windows of the Red Light District, check!

Red Light District
Red Light District

3. Seeing an original Rembrandt which might in a few years no longer be a Rembrandt, check!

An original Rembrandt
An original Rembrandt

4. Shopping in Bijendorf, check!

5. Freezing through a canal tour, check!

From the boat
From the boat

6. Tasting some of the cuisines of the old Dutch colonies,check!

Rijsttafel at Restaurant Blauw
Rijsttafel at Restaurant Blauw

7. Walking through most of the inner and outer rings of the city, check!

8. Getting to know Dutch traditional cuisine, check!

Bistro Bij Ons
Bistro Bij Ons

9. Being yelled at by the local cyclists, check!

Dutch cyclists
Dutch cyclists

The only thing we didn’t do was hop on a bike, but being from Copenhagen that is not really anything special. Moreover, I would not feel very comfortable biking around Amsterdam. In Copenhagen, I’d estimate that 30% wear helmets, but in Amsterdam I only ever saw two people wearing helmets. In my opinion not wearing a helmet is bat-shit crazy.

The helmet issue was not the only difference. In Denmark we have small indistinguishable bells which we never really use. The hip guys who like to bike as if they were sprinting past the goal line in Tour de France mostly yell something like ‘move it’ to get the rest of us to notice them. In difference, the Dutch seem to love large colourful bells on their bikes, which they use whenever and wherever they can. Especially when they see a tourist.

Bells - Amsterdam fashion
Bells – Amsterdam fashion

It is a favourite pass time to shock tourists who are not taking care when stepping off the walk path. Though they are ten or 15 meters away they will ring. It seems as if their constant ringing with bells has become their silent rebellion against the many tourists filling the streets and pushing out the locals.

Amstel
Amstel
Mass tourism

I can easily understand that attitude towards tourists, since the entire inner city seems devoted to the tourist industry -be it tulips, cheese, wooden shoes or marijuana. I can only hope that my own Copenhagen will be sparred the mass tourism, which affects Amsterdam.

It seems reasonable that  the government has agreed to a law which states that shops in the centre have to sell products to locals in order to be allowed to remain. They have also made regulations which have put a stop on the conversion of inner city property to hotels as well as made strict rules on the use of AirBnb.

Amsterdam souvenirs
Amsterdam souvenirs

And the problem is in the inner city. If you only step a little beyond the inner rings you will find a much more pleasant Amsterdam to walk around in. We made a few detours out to the more natural and balanced parts of Amsterdam, and should we come again it would be to see other neighbourhoods. With the colonial history of The Netherlands I can imagine that there is a great cultural diversity beyond the inner city.

True, they did not!
True, they did not!

But it will be many years before I plan to return to the Dutch capital. I don’t like being one more reason for Amsterdam to have become what it is. Next time I go to the Netherlands, I want to explore Rotterdam or Leiden or perhaps Utrecht. There are so many options in the Netherlands.

I amsterdam
I amsterdam

And then I wish the Dutch all the best with reforming their city and taking it back, because tourism should never dominate local life.

Zofka

New Skopje and the Copy/Paste Syndrome

We are ending up in a city which looks like the temporarily built setting for an imperial world in the Star Wars universe with large white neo-classical buildings and thousands – and I mean thousands – of statues.

After two weeks we finally made it to Skopje. I visited the Macedonian capital 12 years ago and remember finding particularly the river front a wasteland with derelict concrete buildings from the years of Yugoslavian communism. A run down yet magical place.

The Skopje I once got a taste of no longer exists. The city we spent our last night in is not the city I knew back then.

New Skopje

We started in Dubrovnik, where the Game of Thrones fever had turned the inner city into King’s Landing with GoT merchandise and tour groups analysing the television-series to  the bone.

We are ending up in a city which looks like the temporarily built setting for an imperial world in the Star Wars universe with large white neo-classical buildings and thousands – and I mean thousands –  of statues. While it looks like a setting from Star Wars, it also brings associations to the bombastic and over-the-top architecture and art of the Soviet Union. It seems as if it can’t get big and opulent enough, with the white neo-classical houses and the unknown number of massive statues of people – famous and not so famous.

One of the government’s arguments for this total revamp of Skopje is to rebuilt the city in the light of what it was prior to the massive 1962 earthquake. Sadly, the faux-European style mastodon buildings seem disconnected to reality and one large battle for euro-nationalist trends in a Macedonia which seems to have forgotten the equally central cultural and historical past of its Albanian population.

It is tacky and bad taste and, as so many locals inform us, evidence of the crime and corruption which is running the country. According to Balkan Insight, the so-called Project Skopje 2014 has so far cost 670 million euros. I really do not recognise Skopje at all.

After returning home I have read that a new government which took over in the spring intends to halt the project and restore some of the buildings to before 2010. That is removing columns and statues. There is agreement amongst architects that the government headquarters which was built by famous architect Petar Mulickovski in 1970 and which in 2014 was revamped from its modernist look to a replica of the US White House should be restored to its original look. Hopefully the worst disasters will be undone though again it will cost money.

Days in Skopje

We arrived around midday from Prizren with the good fortune of a front row seat in the bus. Tired but pleased to have made it this far we found our hostel with a detour by a confused taxi driver. Not only did he request 500 dinars and then end up with a meter stating only 86 dinars, he also misread the address after five minutes checking the map on my phone and let us off on the wrong side of the river with the message that the car could go no further and we had to walk. I only paid the meter money for that tour.

After a short break and a shower in yet another well air-conditioned room we ventured out into the streets of Skopje starting with lunch at the lovely Old City House Restaurant only two minutes from our hostel.

After too many days with pizza and biftek as the only options we finally found a place which offered excellent and local food. We started with ‘Dried Plum and Pancetta Kebab’ and ‘Canapes with Pinjur’, whereafter we got the ‘Old House Pot’ and the ‘Smothered Lamb’. All of it was delicious and if we’d had more time in Skopje, we would definitely have returned.

Super Cup

Before our trip to the Balkans, yet unfortunately after we had booked the flights, we’d discovered that this years Super Cup was to be held in the Macedonian capital. This is an event which I have never previously heard about though during our visits we were constantly informed by locals that it was the biggest football event of the year.

Super Cup is the match between the winners of Champions League and the winners of Europa League. This year that meant Real Madrid and Manchester United. The fact that we had to leave on the same day as the match was heart-breaking, because this might have been the only real chance for mortals like us to watch such a match between two of European football’s greatest giants.

However, we survived and at Macedonia Square we got to experience some of the football fever and see the three trophies on display. Or replicas probably. We got to experience how the entire city was full of Man U flags and football fever.

The Copy/Paste Syndrome

On our second day in Skopje and last day of the vacation, we started out with a walking tour of the Macedonian capital, eager to hear more about not only the history of Skopje, but also the massive development of the last decade.

Our tour guide was very accommodating in offering both.

It seems not everyone is happy with the new neo-classical high-rises and our guide was far from the first who had offered his opinion on the underlying corruption and addiction to commission fees. But unlike many of the locals we had quickly chatted with, he was able to give a more fulfilling account of the development of the city and the possible future development.

Project Skopje 2014 was announced in 2010 and at the time consisted of around 40 buildings, monuments, facades and sculptures. Today the number has more than tripled and I imagine that it would be impossible to count the number of statues included in the project.

Our guide was far from pleased with the result and called much of what has been done a symptom of the governments copy-paste syndrome. Why on earth, did he ask, does Skopje need a Triumphal Arc worth 4.4 million euros, when the country has not had a victory in the last 500 years. He particularly feared the rumours of a planned copy of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

He also told us that the massive statue of Alexander the Great, which is called Warrior on a Horse, because Greece seems to think they have patent on the name of a 2300 year old warrior, has cost 8.2 million euros to construct and is 14.5 meters high. Thessaloniki in Greece is apparently constructing one that is even larger.

A game of mine is bigger than yours has been added to this sad animosity between two neighbours who could gain so much from each other and through facing their shared past together rather than fighting over names and historical figures.

However, if there is one historical personality which the Greek cannot claim it is Mother Teresa born 1910 in Skopje. A shop owner told us that the government is currently building the platform for a massive 30 metres high Mother Teresa statue. I wonder what she would be thinking of being immortalised in such an opulent way.

Old Skopje

After walking across the River Vardar and past the massive new statue of Philip II King of Macedonia and Alexander the Great’s father, we entered the old and much more authentic and picturesque old town.

Here we were treated to rakija and cold water at a local restaurant before we entered one of the old towns many cavanserais Kapan Han from the 15th century. Skopje old town is dotted with old Ottoman cavanserais or inns, which were used for people travelling to stay over night.

We’d seen one in Lefkosia in the spring and now this one. I have a particular liking for these cultural and historical buildings, not only because they are always very beautiful, but also because they tell a story of how people have travelled and crossed borders long before our time.

After walking through the old town we took the road to the fortress. It was 42°C and I was boiling like a lobster, but our very competent guide had a spot under a tree at the top ready for us to cool off in the shadow and breeze.

The tour ended after we got down from the fortress and my boyfriend and I found a local bar where we sat down for a drink. I took the chance to shortly visit the Mustafa Pasha Mosque which is one of the most remarkable architectonical and cultural buildings of Skopje and smack in the middle of the old town far from the new building boom.

Just like in Prizren I felt a sincere sense of calm in Mustafa Pasha and enjoyed the fact that a few were still praying.

Afterwards we ventured into the Old Bazaar to window gaze at all the filigree shops. While the Old Bazaar has not undergone new development projects it has definitely seen a restoration process since I was last here. Everything is very neat and tidy and all the shops cater to tourists.

The locals go to the real bazaar. Whether it is old I do not know, but behind the Old Bazaar you will come across a massive indoor market with foods and vegetables, household items and clothes – and most importantly – all the local inhabitants whom are not to be found anywhere near Old Bazaar. This is the authentic Skopje, and a magnificent place to get lost.

It stands as the best part of our Skopje visit, and I sincerely hope the many development projects of the Macedonian government wont destroy it or turn it into something else. We bought a set of tea glasses here for 2 euros which I look forward to using at home.

As our vacation has come to an end, I can only say that I am very happy to have seen Skopje last. The melancholy from seeing how much the city has changed would not have been a great companion earlier on. Both my visits to Dubrovnik and Kotor felt like coming home, but Skopje feels like meeting an old friend who has changed so much that you do not recognise each other at first.

Zofka

 

Finally Kosovo

Here the cheese comes in great buckets of wood or plastic and is cut in circular pieces from the top of the buckets. It has the colour of milk which has been left too long in the fridge – and the consistency too.

12 years ago I had planned to visit Kosovo on my journey through the Balkans, but due to illness, an unforeseen strike and less time than planned I ended up skipping it. Yes, excuses there are enough of and I’ve had a plan to go ever since that summer in 2005. This year I got the chance.

With limited time I had decided for us to skip the capital Pristina and focus on Pejë and Prizren.

Days in Kosovo

We arrived in Kosovo from a disastrous night in Podgorica followed by the worst bus ride of the year where we were confined to the back seats alongside several broad shouldered young men. I think everyone on that row sat with their upper bodies twitched so that all shoulders were able to be there. For three hours!

At the border between Montenegro and Kosovo the number of people on the bus finally thinned out and we were able to catch some slightly more comfortable seats and enjoy as the road slowly made several hairpin turns on its descend into the valley where Pejë was awaiting us.

Pejë

I have chosen the Albanian name for the city rather than the Serbian Peć or English Peja simply because it is the name that offers least confusion when browsing the internet. The Serbian name always brings up information on the Hungarian Pécs.

Pejë is a central city in the ongoing conflict regarding Kosovo’s independence. Only 0.4% are Serbs, a number which has decreased since the 1991 census of 6.11% Serbs. But a short 15 minutes walk from the centre of town lies The Patriarchal Monastery of Peć, which in medieval times was the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church and a main reason why it is so difficult for Serbs to let go of Kosovo. Historically and religiously this is their true homeland.

We off course wanted to see the monastery which in 2006 was added to on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger. But after resting from our uncomfortable bus ride and then enjoying a very late lunch we ended up being 20 minutes late.

We spent the rest of our short day in Pejë walking around and I must admit that I was far from impressed with the city. I know that Pejë is famous for the surrounding Rugova Mountains, but I had prioritised Durmitor and thus we did not have time to explore the excellent nature around Pejë.

And then we saw Peje…

Early in the morning the next day we walked through the Old Bazaar as the shops slowly began to open for the day. This is a lovely part of Pejë. However, being there on a Saturday had the added bonus of the local cheese market.

And if you imagine something charmingly Southern French with lots of different cheeses and other delicacies and old men in berets then well only the old men fits with the exotic and organised chaos that is Pejë Cheese Market.

Here the cheese comes in great buckets of wood or plastic and is cut in circular pieces from the top of the buckets. It has the colour of milk which has been left too long in the fridge – and the consistency too. It is in general a very boring cheese, which in my opinion is best when melted since it lacks in taste. But it is home made and available in the bucket loads at the market where particularly the elder generation haggles over slices.

It was not yet nine in the morning as we continued our way through Pejë running across several smaller markets offering food and wood ware. Several horse-drawn carriages were loaded with wood or hay and the entire town was filled with a charming and welcoming feeling, which we had not caught the day before due to our exhaustion.

I was thrilled that I got the chance to experience why Pejë is unique and well worth the visit.

Patriarchate of Peć Monastery

We had a plan to catch the 10.30 bus to Prizren, but also a great wish to see the Serbian Orthodox Monastery. The hostel arranged for a taxi driver to take us to the monastery and wait around before getting us to the bus station.

It was perfect apart from the fact that the taxi driver circled the hostel for 20 minutes before settling for the idea that the couple with backpacks waiting in front of the gate probably were the ones he needed to get to the bus station.

At this point I was stressed that we might not make the bus with the next leaving at 15.30. I was ready to pay for a taxi to Prizren. But in the end we made it with a 15 minutes stop at the monastery, where the police control allowed our driver to drive all the way in.

Since the war there has been a checkpoint at four Serbian cultural and religious institutions in Kosovo. At first the UN KFOR forces kept watch protecting Serbian cultural heritage from destruction. Today it is the Kosovo police force which checks peoples identification at the entrance to the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery. It was an odd feeling having our passports checked at the drive in to the monastery, but if it keeps the place protected and the peace stable then I’ll gladly show my passport.

In 1219, the later Serbian Orthodox Church became an autocephalous Archbishopric under the Eastern Byzantine Churches, meaning that the church continued in full communion with the later Eastern Orthodox churches while gaining self-rule under a self-appointed archbishop.

It was Arsenije I, the second Archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Church who decided to move the seat of the church to Pejë due to fear of foreign invasions. In Pejë, he began the building of the Monastery of Peć.

With the rise in power of Serbia throughout the following century, the self-proclaimed emperor Stefan Dušan decided to elevate the the autocephalous Serbian Church to the status of patriarchate in 1346 thus establishing the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć. In 1375 the change in status was recognised by Constantinople and today the Serbian Orthodox Church is the seat of one of the nine ecclesiastical patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The monastery is in fact a complex of four churches, three of which are connected. All four churches were built and expanded on in the 13th and 14th century and it is the burial ground for Serbian Patriarchs and Archbishops.

After a short tour and a few minutes gawping at the frescos inside the three connected churches of Holy Apostles, St. Demetrius and Hodegetria, we found our way back to the taxi which took us to the bus station.

We made the bus with fifteen minutes to spare and ended up in the front and far from those tiny seats in the back.

Prizren

While Pejë is best known for its nature, Prizren is a beautiful and historic town known for its beauty and documentary film festival.

We reached Prizren at the very height of DocuFest 2017. The city was smack full of espresso drinking hipsters discussing the art of documentaries.

It was hot as hell and in the middle of an extraordinarily longdrawn heatwave. But Prizren is an absolutely stunning city and no heat nor documentary screening was to get in my way of exploring it.

Since we made the early bus we arrived by midday and after a bit of chaos since the hotel had written down our reservation for the wrong day, we spent the rest of the day we getting ourselves familiarised with the city centre.

In the evening we followed the river making our way through the charming Marash neighbourhood to Restaurant Marashi. Here we were served a wonderful steak on a slate of stone which invigorated us after a long day which started at 7 o’clock at Pejë cheese market.

On the next day after a charming breakfast at the hotel and with a view of Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, we made the strenuous walk up to Prizren Fortress. Our hope was to avoid the worst of the heat while up there. On our way we came by the Orthodox church Our Holy Saviour, which was built around 1330. In 1990, it was declared by Serba as a Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance. But during the 2004 unrest in Kosovo a Kosovo Albanian mob damaged the church leaving it behind as somewhat of a ruin to this day.

As in Pëje this church was under observation, but it seemed more like a group of locals had found a good way to make money by demanding an entrance fee. We were welcomed inside where a sign stated that the visit cost money. But I demanded not to pay the fee since the sign was not outside and I therefore had no knowledge of the fee before entering. They agreed to my argument rather fast either because they didn’t want to create a scene demanding the money or because they understood the argument and simply hadn’t moved the sign outside yet.

When we finally made it to the top, the temperature was already way too high and I was happy that we had brought an umbrella to stay out of the sun. The fortress an be traced back too the Byzantine Empire, but was extended during the 14th century. It is a massive area, which  would haveloved too see more of, if had not been for the heat.

Finally down again we spent yet another day walking the beautiful old streets of Prizren.

I got a peak inside the beautiful Sinan Pasha Mosque and with a wish to explore the backside of the mosque, we found a stunningly beautiful court with a small café where we had a refreshing lemonade and Turkish coffee. We ended up spending at least two hours in this quiet and peaceful courtyard gazing up at the impressive Sinan Pasha Mosque. Sitting there in the shade enjoying a fresh lemonade will be my favourite memory of this stunning city in the heart of Kosovo.

Zofka

Hiking to Planinica

For the next hour to hour and a half we walked through this magnificent landscape where horses were grassing in the distance. Even better it was for the most part somewhat straight with no serious ascends.

I’d had a hard time researching the possible option for two city dwellers hiking in Durmitor and all I’d found apart from the shorter hike around the black lake was a suggestion to hike to Planinica and back. According to the blog it was a rewarding walk which was doable in one day.

At the tourist info centre they were not much help and at one of the many travel agencies in town we were told that we wouldn’t make it in one day. Thus, I was very confused regarding our options when we set out in the early morning for Durmitor National Park.

The girl at the Visitor’s Centre was clear in stating that a trip to Planinica would be six hours. Now that I look back I am not so sure if she meant six hours to and from or one way. She also claimed that the dotted line which on our map clearly stated unmarked trail was marked and possible to follow, meaning that we could take another trail back.

I trusted her because she worked at the Visitor’s Centre, and thus we set out for Planinica on this beautiful summer’s day with lots of water and a map.

Now this shouldn’t sound like a blog on how it all ended in disaster because the trip ended up absolutely amazing and at no point were we in danger of any kind, but I look back on this day wondering how on earth we did it. I’ve even promised my boyfriend never to plan another crazy hike again.

On the trail to Planinica

The hike started out on flat land and for some parts on a road. It was easy peasy and we managed to make a short stop at the lake Zminje Jezero. We’d read on the map that a spring would be available here and thus had filled already emptied a large part of our water. But we never found the spring.

But so far the hike had been easy and we still had two litres left.

After another hike through the pine woods, the road started to go up, but it was manageable and the trees covered us from the sun as we slowly ascended reaching a clearing with a beautiful meadow called Crepulja Poljana. It is a stunning place in the middle of the pine wood forest and encircled by the mountains. I was hooked and despite our ascend I was ready for more.

Those I imagine were my famous last words, because from there it went straight up. At 1716 meters above sea level, we started out on more than a 200 meter ascend in order to reach the entrance to the Ališnica Valley at 1940. I have no idea how I survived, but I imagine that some of the reason was that we were distracted a large part of the way by a butterfly which decided to hitchhike on my boyfriends finger most of the way.

It was strenuous and constantly as we thought we’d made it another climb came into view. as if there was no end to this personal hell. Having to save on water as well and far away from the pleasant pine woods I was close to collapsing.

Ališnica Valley

But after what according to the trail signs was only 45 minutes but to us was close to two hours, we made it to the top of the trail and around a small bend. And this is why we climbed all this way. The Ališnica Valley is a most beautiful piece of this earth and if I’d had any breath left from climbing up there the sight would have taken it away.

For the next hour to hour and a half we walked through this magnificent landscape where horses were grassing in the distance. Even better it was for the most part somewhat straight with no serious ascends.

When we reached a sign midways, it became obvious to us that the unmarked trails which the girl in  the Visitor’s Centre had claimed to be marked were no such thing. Moreover, the trail we had hoped to follow was across a mountain ridge with an ascend of 400 metres. No thank you.

It had become clear that our only option was to take the same trail back, and with near to no water left and the clock closing in on 4 PM we were slightly concerned. But meeting a couple of hikers going the opposite direction, we were told that Planinica was only another 45 minutes away and we decided to keep on walking.

That was just before another heavy ascend began reaching the flat peak of Planinica at 2330 metres. When we’d made it, I was slightly disappointed and close to collapsing. Nothing seemed extraordinary about this place in comparison to the valley we’d left behind. But my boyfriend stuck to the idea that from somewhere we should be able to see the two Skrcko Jezero lakes.

With indication of a trail through some bushes we nearly climbed on our knees searching for a way to the viewpoint indicated on the map. And there behind heavy scrubs we found the actual peak of Planinica – a wide meadow with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and down a small trail we could see directly below us Malo Skrcko Jezero as an emerald nestled between the mountains. What a beautiful place.

Returning

But it was 5 PM and the last thing we needed was to get caught on the mountain by night. Thankfully most of the way was descending, but particularly the climb down from the Ališnica Valley was terrifying with the fear of falling and with the light slowly fading. We were completely robotic at this point only thinking of putting one foot in front of the other dreaming of reaching a place where we might saturate our thirst and find comfort for our feet.

After Crepulja Poljana the descend became easier, but what we had remembered as a short and relatively easy ascend proved a very long trail down through the darkening pine wood. The road seemed to go on for hours and as darkness was falling around us a sign let us know that we had another 1 hour and 30 minutes to Crno Jezero – the black lake. From there it would be 900 meters to the entrance and if we would find no taxis then 3 kilometres into town.

If I’d thought too much about it I would have crumbled up, but all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. At least we’d made it down the mountain and onto the trail that for parts followed a road. My fear of being stuck on the mountain in the night was not realised, thank goodness.

But the best part of the day was when a small red car with a Belgian couple stopped after I threw out my thumb. Before making it to Crno Jezero we got a ride into Žabljak where these amazing and friendly people dropped us off in front of the supermarket.

After a run through the store and a short waiting in line, we sat down at a nearby bench draining each our litre of water before starting on the lemonade and orange juice and another water. Never has a beverage of any kind tasted as great as on that bench in Žabljak.

We ended up eating a pizza at some fancy place in town where the waiters forgot us and the chairs were uncomfortably high. And we agreed that the following day we would spend recuperating.

Was it worth it? Yes, but I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known how hard it would be. I guess ignorance is bliss.

Zofka

Žabljak

Our driver could smoke, text, talk and drink a Red Bull all while he took us up into the Montenegrin inlands past the Bay of Kotor and the mountains behind.

I’d stressed excessively about whether or not we would be able to get tickets for the once-a-day direct bus from Budva to Žabljak. Arriving in Budva we’d bought the tickets but this morning they were nowhere to be found and we ended up having to pay another 30 euros for the bus ride for a new set of tickets.

Donald Sutherland drove us to Durmitor

When the minibus drove into the bus station, it looked like something that had seen the birth of Tito. Our driver at the same time looked like Donald Sutherland.

We were lucky to get the front seats offering proper space in this tiny bus, though also a firtsthand experience with the front window in case of an accident since seatbelts is an exotic commodity in Montenegro.

But our driver was a professional and a multitasker. He could smoke, text, talk and drink a Red Bull all while he took us up into the Montenegrin inlands past the Bay of Kotor and the mountains behind.

While our driver was amazing, the minibus was falling apart. I don’t know if it was overheating or the road increase up the mountainside, but for long parts of the journey the bus moved around 35 to 40 km/h. I felt like I was riding that small train which takes tourists up the hill of Montmartre.

For hours we snaked our way up the mountain side, while other vehicles zoomed past us. We were the annoying tractor on the road I imagine. Our driver, however, took it calmly while lighting one cigarette after the other..

With front seat rows we got to enjoy this bus ride which had become a small adventure all on its own through the mountainous roads of Montenegro, while we could see as the speedometer slowed down to only 20 km/h.

In Nikšić the bus got full and some people had to stand up for the last leg of the journey. I really needn’t have been that worried about getting tickets.

We finally made it to Žabljak, where an unfortunate backpacker was impatient and opened the wrong side of the luggage storage. The bus almost came apart and the driver, the unlucky backpacker and a strong guy amongst the passengers had to fight to close the lid again.

After spending double on our bus ride by buying two sets of tickets we decided to tip our driver. Partly for his battle with strenuous mountain roads and stupid backpackers and partly for allowing us to stay up front all the way.

Žabljak

Žabljak is the regional capital of Žabljak Municipality and according to what I’ve read before coming it is nothing special. However, after spending our afternoon here and figuring out how to see Durmitor National Park in the next two days, I have to say I rather like this quirky place.

Žabljak can boast close to 2000 inhabitants. It is also the highest placed city in the Balkans at an altitude of 1456 metres. Most of the city is new as it was nearly completely destroyed during the Balkan Wars and then burnt to the ground during WW2.

Today the city caters to winter sport as well as mountain activities in the summer as it is the gate way to Durmitor National Park.

All the houses seem to be built in stone, old wood and tin, in various combinations. Most houses have tin roofs which are anything from orange to blue or green. Many are old and rusted giving the city a unique look.

In the centre lies the very beautiful Žabljak Hotel, which stands as a mountain itself. Behind it we found an odd area consisting of two streets with houses which seemed to have burned out some time ago. Derelict and desolate with graffiti and weeds everywhere, this small area close to the centre is a ghost town.

Walking through it we only met an old woman with blue hair and her grandchild a long with a massive cow grassing by one of the houses.

In so many ways Montenegro is developing fast and furiously, and also in Žabljak you find new hotels being built. And then you come across such an odd scene as this and all you can think is that here is proof that we are still in the Balkans.

Žofka

Walking the Budva Riviera

So after taking my shots of this iconic sight I’ve decided to return in 2038 if I am able to and with the hopes that the Montenegrin government wont lease the islet out for another 30 years.

Montenegro is in many ways a land of extremes. It has both coast and mountains, seems small, yet big. But mostly it is extreme in the difference between rich and poor, between the Montenegrins and the rich expats and tourists who are settling in Tivat and on the Adriatic Coast.

On the one side Montenegrins are living with very few means and the buses have not been updated since they left the French bus service in the 1960s. On the other side, there are large amounts of luxury yachts in the marina of Kotor, Tivat and Budva. This is where the elite likes to keep court.

The Budva Riviera offers a hotpot mix of low budget hotels for the average Russian and Ukrainian and high-end resorts where a spot on the beach costs 100€ for the day, and any use without payment will mean immediate police prosecution.

The closer to Sveti Stefan the more upscale it becomes and the closer to Slovenska Obala and Budva the more low cost.

Sveti Stefan

In 2008 Montenegro leased out the picturesque islet and historical resort Sveti Stefan to the international group Aman Resorts for a 30 years period. Thus, access to this number one photographed spot in Montenegro has been limited to the few who have money enough to pay for one of the 58 guest rooms. The rest of us have to stay on land photographing the islet from afar.

Many would argue that it is sad that the rich can close off access to such a cultural pearl and claim it a great failure that the government of Montenegro issued the contract. Principally, I agree. I am not much for exclusive resorts and jet-setter attitudes especially when it limits the open access of the public to historical and beautiful places around the world.

However, I am also one to quickly get frustrated with other tourists and I know that the real beauty of this place is its setting , which is best enjoyed from the coast. If Sveti Stefan was open to the public, the beautiful islet and the road leading up to its gates would be full with tourists and souvenir shops and probably far from as beautifully restored.

So after taking my shots of this iconic sight I’ve decided to return in 2038 if I am able to and with the hopes that the Montenegrin government wont lease the islet out for another 30 years.

The coastal road to Stari Grad

After a bit of food and two spots on the much cheaper public beach we walked along the first stretch of the coastline from Sveti Stefan towards Budva. It is a gorgeous – but in parts overcrowded – first half of the coastline with Przno as the absolute high. Here we took another swimming break and again at Kamenovo where we lounged for a bit.

But after Kamenovo comes a tunnel and past that and some beautiful rocks, which seem to have been thrown into the sea by giants, we came to the least attractive but very lively Rafailovići where all the average people on low-budget charter enjoyed the sun.

Here the hotels are a disaster and the beach becomes very dirty along with the sea. But it was enjoyable to see the many people having fun as the last sunshine of the day warmed us.

I’d like to say that we walked all the way to Stari Grad but at some point we got far too exhausted from the day and uncertain of how to walk any further, so for the last stretch we caught a taxi.

Budva – Stari Grad

The evening we spent in the magical Stari Grad which seems so cute and intimate in comparison to the larger fortified old towns of Dubrovnik and Kotor.

But unlike in Dubrovnik and Kotor, Budva Stari Grad is also very much alive in the evening and all the way to 1 o’clock at night bars and discos are open for the young tourist hoards. I had to try sleeping to the noise of several ultra famous 2017 hits beating away at the next door bar. This was the only minus to our wonderful hotel, but one I fortunately knew had an expiration time. All I could do was wait until the magical hour of 1 o’clock.

I am happy that I got to see Budva and I look forward to returning in 2038 when the Montenegrin government hopefully ends the leasing out of Sveti Stefan.

Cheers

Zofka

Back to Kotor

Finally crossing the border into Montenegro and following the long and winding road at the edge of the water, we made it into Kotor where a small studio apartment with a balcony offering views of the mountains and the bay was awaiting us.

By late afternoon we made our way into Kotor, where our first order of business apart from fawning over the beautiful old town was to arrange a tour to Lovćen and find something to eat.

With the assistance of the tourist info desk just outside the Sea Gate entrance we made it to the north-eastern corner of the old town and the office of Montenegro Golden Bay Tours, booking ourselves on a five hours tour for Lovćen two days hence.

The guy at the office was marvellous and made me feel even more excited about the trip than I’d been before. He also pointed us in the direction of Café Pizzaria Pronto, which there seems to be some consensus on being the best pizza in town. Two slices later I could only agree.

With our hunger sedated and the tour planned, we walked the pretty streets of Kotor. Dubrovnik might be majestic and beautiful with its tall walls, but when inside the old town, I prefer to get lost in the pleasant alleys of Kotor.

The surrounding city-scape beyond the old town offers stark reminders of Montenegro’s recent past with old concrete rises and complexes in between the idyllic bay front houses. This is a place where both the Venetian, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian past as well as the years of Yugoslavian architecture is still achingly alive.

By sunset we found our way to the local beach where we took a swim in the bay and a cold beer before returning home to our bay view balcony.

Day in Perast

Apart from dreaming of a visit to Lovćen National Park and the Mausoleum of Njegoš, I wanted to see Perast and the two islets Lady of the Rocks and St. George . Thus, after a cosy breakfast on the balcony we made it into town where we found a boat tour  departing for Perast and Lady of the Rocks at noon.

With two hours to spare we walked through gradska pijaca, the market to the south of Seagate where we were offered a taste of some of the amazing products Montenegro has to offer. As a Mediterranean country they make brilliant olive oil and cheese and has a relatively big wine and rakija production.

But it is the Njeguški pršut  (ham) which stands out. I was extremely amazed with the ham and cheese I tasted, and I’ve promised myself not to leave Montenegro without some Njeguški pršut. While the cheese reminded me of the Spanish Manchego, Njeguški pršut seems similar to Parma or Serrano.

We passed the southern Gurdić Bastion where we entered the old town. Here we spent the following two hours enjoying the cooling alleys and another pizza slice from Pronto, before making our way to the boat.

Bay of Kotor

It is a magnificent experience to sail on the Bay of Kotor, though also slightly daunting with the imposing mountains rising up in front of you. Out in the middle of the bay, it seemed as if we were cut off from the rest of the world by massive walls of solid rock.

Reaching Lady of the Rocks, we had 30 minutes to make our way around the island. I’d thought that it seemed quite a short amount of time, but as the islet is only around 3030 m2 and offers a small chapel and museum – none of which we had any need to visit, we had time to spare.

Lady of the Rocks is an artificial islets created through the centuries. According the legend two seamen discovered an icon showing Madonna and child under the shallow water in the bay outside of Perast on July 22nd, 1452. They vowed to create a chapel in the spot to honour the Lady Madonna and started to throw rocks into the bay where they had found the icon. This slowly created the articificial islets and a small chapel on top. It became a tradition for sailors of Perast to drop a stone at Lady of the Rocks before heading out to sea. Today, the act is celebrated on 22nd of July at sunset when locals sail to the islet to drop stones.

Perast

Perast is a pretty little bayside village with old stone houses and mansions. It boasts 22 churches and only around 350 inhabitants. We never managed to find a street leading further up to what I imagine will be additional streets, but stayed mainly at the seaside, where people were sunbathing and swimming in the bay.

If only we had been smart enough to bring our swimsuits, we would have been able to cool down from the intensive heat, but instead we found a bayside restaurant and a table in the shade. The food was in no way anything to write home about and the waiter managed to get our order wrong, but who cares when you sit overlooking Kotor Bay and the pretty little islets.

Carpet haggling in Kotor

At 16.30 we were back in Kotor for an evening meal and another walk through this amazing town. During our morning walk through the old town I’d fallen in love with a Kelim carpet in a small shop and by afternoon we returned to haggle. I’m really terrible at this and nearly get a stomach cramp when attempting it. But I am proud to say that despite panicking halfway through I got it for half the price. A sumak kelim from somewhere near Mount Ararat.

The shop was new and the owners Turkish. And if there are a people in this world who have made it a culture to haggle, it is the Turks. We ended up seeing the sellers surgical wounds, hear his life story, discuss the beautiful Italian town Bergamo and drink a coffee from next door. I returned home to our lodgings with my beautiful new carpet and beginning concerns on how I’d ever fit it in my backpack for the remaining part of our backpacking holiday.

Lovćen National Park

The following day we met up with our driver and a few other tourists at Kamelija Shopping Centre for a tour up the old Austro-Hungarian Road and deep into the mountains behind.

The Austro-Hungarian Road behind Kotor is an absolutely beautiful and stunning construction consisting of 26 hairpin turns. As such it is not for the faint-hearted. Despite my fear of heights, I felt quite safe with our local and very competent guide as he navigated up the road.

In the bay below us lay two massive cruise ships. I am by no way a fan of cruise ships and often find they obstruct the view for others. This is particularly the case in Kotor, where the entire old town seems to lie in the shadow of the cruise ships coming in for the day. But as we climbed further up the road adding new hairpins to our journey, the cruise ships became smaller and smaller parts of the magnificent view. They were great indicators for us to grasp just how far up we got and how much more was visible to us from the 25th hairpin turn than the 3rd.

From the view point of the last hairpin turn we drove further into Lovćen National Park. We made a stop at a zipline, where we were given the chance to soar above the cliffs.

Once again my usual fear of heights was nowhere to be seen as I swung my legs straight in front of me and out over the mountain side.

What a rush. Despite going slow the view and the perspective was stunning and the feeling of sliding through the air amazing.

From the zipline we continued through the beautiful mountains on slow and twisted mountain roads until we reached the entrance to Njegoš Mausoleum.

Njegoš Mausoleum is the final resting place of Montenegro’s greatest son Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. It has to be one of the most beautiful resting places in the world. After 467 steps uphill through a tunnel the visitor is met with the beautiful views of the mausoleum standing majestically on the top of the mountain.

While flabbergasted and stunned by the scene it is hard to imagine that the true magic only comes to show once through the mausoleum. Here the visitor will find a large circular observatory deck, which on a good day will offer views of the Italian coast 160 kilometres away. On the day we were visiting, Italy was shrouded in a mist and we had to satisfy ourselves with the stunning view of the mountains of Montenegro as well as views of Croatia and Bosnia to the north and Albania to the south. We could see Lake Skadar and the hazy vision of Shköder, which I’d passed through 12 years ago.

This little slice of heaven is proof that the communists were able to build more than grey and desolete concrete buildings. It was built in 1970 to 1974 in the days of Yugoslavia and is living proof that communists also new how to honour old religious and national heroes.

After enjoying the breath-taking view, we made our way back the 467 steps and onwards to the small, but very famous village of Njeguši. This is the birthplace of Njegoš and the reason for his nickname.

But Njeguši is famous for more than Njegoš. This is where the much celebrated ham from the market the day before Njeguški pršut is made. I’ll dare say it is up there with Serano and Parma – an absolutely perfect slice of heaven.

Our day ended at one of the many farms and smokehouses, where we were served homemade bine, ham, cheese and olive oil in the shade of a green roof of leaves.

It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day through Lovćen National Park and to our stay in Kotor.

Zofka

King’s Landing – Or Was It Dubrovnik?

Dubrovnik has become King’s Landing. It seems forgotten that Dubrovnik in itself is an amazing city due to its history and position in the Adriatic.

The weather forecast claimed rain and thunder while the news spoke of forest fires around Split, Dubrovnik, Herzeg Novi and Kotor. An article two days earlier told of a forest fire near Dubrovnik which had detonated 34 landmines left over from the war. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to look at the positive side of things, I suppose.

When we arrived in Croatia, there was neither clouds nor smoke from fires. It has been an absolutely gorgeous day with a clear blue sky and a fresh breeze keeping the temperature bearable. With a disaster of a Danish summer the thought of experiencing degrees higher than 22°C is exhilarating.

Dubrovnik is as it was in 2005 an absolutely stunning city which truly deserved the nickname Pearl of the Adriatic.

However, the number of tourists has risen exponentially. This is partly because people – as predicted – are realising that the Adriatic coast has so much to offer, and partly because the city since 2012 has held another name: King’s Landing.

HBO decided for good reasons to shoot many of the scenes of their hit series Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik. As such, the city has suddenly become an icon representing not only a massive fantasy success but also a new era in television where TV-series have become bigger than the movies.

But the movies are far from a dead fish, and Disney has been shooting parts of Star Wars Episode IIX in Dubrovnik. I imagine that after the movie comes out in December, the GoT fans will have stark competition from Star Wars geeks.

According to our guide from Dubrovnik Walking Tours yesterday, Disney paid the government and city of Dubrovnik 6 million euros for shooting a day on Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street. In addition, all shop owners received 3000€ to stay closed for the day, while for every window on Stradun the owner got 150€ to keep the shutters closed. To be on the safe side Disney booked every available room on Stradun so no ignorant tourist would open the shutters and complicate filming.

Dubrovnik GoT fever

Dubrovnik has been hit with GoT fever and every resident seems to have been an extra on the show, while Dubrovnik souvenirs feature Aria Stark, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Last year HBO donated an iron throne to Dubrovnik, which now sts at the Visitor Centre on the island of Lokrum. Visits to the island have increased by 300% in the last year.

I like Game of Thrones though I have yet to see beyond the start of season 4. Therefore, we went on a walking tour with information both Dubrovnik and the TV-series. Our guide was very friendly and down to earth, who took us to some of the places used for filming scenes in the series and told us a few good stories about the cultural meeting between HBO and Croatians.

At Pile Gate he told us how Tyrion Lannister’s trial was filmed in the entrance courtyard with 3000 local extras. The director had requested the extras to yell and shout to make the scene feel authentic. But, as the guide told us, you shouldn’t tell a Croat such a thing. before long the 3000 extras were yelling on the top of their lungs obsceneties directed at the government, the economy, each other and competing football teams. An all out lively scene which I now look forward to watching – preferably with subtitles of what the extras are yelling.

I liked our guide and appreciated how he made fun with Croatia and its relationship to GoT. According to him, no Croats see the show since they are too lazy and have sun 300 days a year. I overheard other guides who spent hours analysing the scenes and discussing their favourite characters or telling stories from their time on set.

And that is my main concern. everything seems to be about Game of Thrones and this and that scene from the series. Dubrovnik has become King’s Landing. It seems forgotten that Dubrovnik in itself is an amazing city due to its history and position in the Adriatic. People are more interested in fictional characters and scenes than with the real events of Dubrovnik’s past, such as the Yugoslavian Wars. I suppose real war isn’t as sexy as that of a fantasy novel. I love fantasy, but the creativity of writers will never be able to compete with the real world and the history of mankind.

Most of the old town was built in the 13th century after a fire had destroyed much of the city in 1258. The rebuilding happened during the Venetian rule and the old town has only fractionally changed since then. Also the famous Rector’s Palace is from this period.

For long parts of its existence Dubrovnik was known as Republic of Ragusa, a city state with large independence and relations to the surrounding powers.

This lasted until Napoleon conquered the city in 1806 and since then the city has been under Austro-Hungarian Rule and then later a part of the former Yugoslavia.

When in 1991, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia alongside Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro wanted to separate the city from the independent Republic of Croatia, arguing that it was not historically a part of Croatia. Thus, Dubrovnik saw some of the worst acts of war in Croatia’s war for independence also known as their Homeland War. For nearly ten months the city took heavy artillery and mortar fire. UNESCO estimated in 1994 that 55.9% of buildings in the old town were damaged many of them severe.

Because of the Siege of Dubrovnik the old town which had already been recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1979 was placed on the ‘In danger’ list and a plea for assistance in rebuilding the city was sent out. Thus, throughout the nineties the city rose from the ashes, as it was rebuilt as it once was and it is partly thanks to UNESCO and the international community that Dubrovnik has returned as the Pearl of the Adriatic.

I might be sentimental and all, but with the loss of cultural heritage that we’ve been experiencing in Syria and Iraq these past years, I can’t help hoping that we will one day have a chance to see these treasures again.

Our days in Dubrovnik

We stayed in a studio apartment in the old town just next to Minčeta Tower, which in Game of Thrones terms is the exterior of House of Undying in the town of Qarth. It was a pretty perfect place which offered us free access to the old town.

It was however also the highest point of the old town and demanded a strenuous  walk up several stairs which were taller than average and thus much harder to climb.

Our first order of business after a bit of food at Mamma’s Pot and getting to the apartment was the tour which started at 12.30 PM and gave us an idea of the layout. Our guide took us to the West Harbour, which is beautifully nestled in between the northwestern city wall with Bokar Fortress and Fort Lovrijenac which stands outside the old town. Framed by nature and improved and fortified by man this is an absolutely stunning spot, which we promised ourselves to return to.

Afterwards he took us around the old town showing us some of the best that Dubrovnik has to offer both historically and culturally as well as in relations to GoT.

After our tour we headed for Barba where we got each our fishy green burger. particularly the octopus burger was really great. From Barba we left behind the old town for a tour up Srđ mountain with Dubrovnik Cable Car to the Napoleonic fortress Fort Imperial.

The queue was endless and the sun was beating on us hard., while some group of Germans managed to cheat their way in front of all the rest of us, after which I had to listen to the guy talking loudly all the way up the mountain – they had off course secured the best seats as well.

Yes, I was a bitter old woman, but I really hate people cheating in line.

On the top, we got a pretty view of Dubrovnik and the coast south, but I can’t say it was worth the 140kn per person. Ahh, but as always my boyfriend strayed off the beaten path and past the crumbling fortress we found a magnificent view of the mountains, the sea, islands in the far and Dubrovnik itself.

What was also extremely fascinating was the clear evidence of the front line which ran across the mountain in the winter of 1991 and into the spring of 1992 during the Yugoslav War. At the Siege of Dubrovnik the Yugoslav People’s Army overran the fortress and you can see the trenches, fox holes and gun positions which the Croatians used for keeping the enemy at bay. It might not be dragons who sieged the city, but I find it even more scary that people would engage in such warfare.

We stayed for a while enjoying the magnificent view before getting back in line for the way down. If we had had the time and lots of water, we would have walked down.

Returning to the old town, we made our way to Pile Gate on to Fort Lovrijenac and the West Harbour. Our plan was to visit the fortress for another grand vista of the old town. This, however, also seems the favourite place for guided GoT tours to stop and analyse the show and reminisce over the character development and whatnot. But Fort Lovrijenac is worth a visit despite the many stairs and GoT tour groups.

The rest of the day we walked around the old town which is set as a fishbone network of streets with Stradun running down the middle. Our guide had told us that because of the danger of earthquakes in the region there are no balconies in Dubrovnik, but I counted two on our walk.

The old town is full of narrow streets with lots of stairs and restaurants. There are no large commercial signs for restaurants or shops. Rather all of them show off their names on similar lanterns hanging in front of the places.

There are so many tourists here, but somehow unlike in other places I’ve been the city can handle it. Despite the hoards, it is still a beautiful place to stay. We ended up at Lucin Kantun which offered different tapas such as black risotto from cuttlefish ink, stuffed squid and tuna carpacchio.

After a short walk down Stradun, we made it home to our littleapartment, where we crashed. We’d been up at 4.30 in the morning and after a long day in Dubrovnik we were deadbeat tired.

The City Walls

Today we got up at 7 o’clock with the hope of hiding the city walls as it opened at 8.00 and then to get on a bus at 11.00. I always stress when we have a tight schedule, but this morning it all clapped. We quickly found a supermarket where we bought breakfast and a bakery for coffee. We even ended up with time to spare at Pile Gate and enjoyed our breakfast at the steps of the Onfrio fountain as the city woke up.

The wall was everything I remembered and more. It continues to be one of my favourite places to visit with the view of the blue Adriatic and the cliffs on the one side and the red terracotta roofs on the other. We walked all the way around and up Minčeta Tower where we had a perfect view of the city, the harbour and the sea. I did not make it all the way around last time, so this was a wonderful surprise.

On to Montenegro

After reaching Pile Gate again we collected our luggage and headed for the bus station to catch the 11 o’clock bus to Kotor. The bus, unlike us, was late – probably caught in the line at the Bosnian border. It was close to 12.00 when we finally hid the road. We were supposed to arrive in Kotor at 13.00 but at 14.30 we’ve only reached the border.

The queue for the border was heinous and I am glad that after an hour in fifteen minutes in line we were able to drive in the opposite lane past all the private vehicles. Our driver had walked all the way to the border and got the security control to hold back the cars going into Croatia.

I think everyone in the bus felt the VIP treatment as we drove past several kilometres of cars with frustrated people standing at the side of the road waiting for the line to move another 20 metres.

As we leave behind Croatia I have only great memories of the beautiful city of Dubrovnik and stories of both real and fictional history. My favourite story from the production of Game of Thrones was how HBO, for the shooting of the scene of Jamie Lannister returning to King’s Landing, had the city government shut closed the doors at Pile Gate for the first time since the days of Napolean 200 years past.

Jamie Lannister is played by Nicolaj Coster Waldau and I can’t help laugh a little that all it took was a great Dane for these doors to be shut closed once more.

Zofka

Gilleleje Past and Present

Our stay would end with all the girls lining up with the kindergarten leader Vibeke to get a French braid before we got back on the bus and returned to our parents with all the tales of adventure.

I’ve always loved to travel and to explore new parts of Europe and the world. I enjoy writing long and way too detailed blogs on the places I visit.

Therefore, this May I was surprised that I had never attempted a blog on that little slice of heaven, which I have visited year after year since I was in pre-school.

Childhood memories

I was so insanely lucky to be in a pre-school in central Copenhagen, which offered the parents a reprieve every summer for two weeks and the children some of their happiest childhood memories.

Every summer we would fill up a bus and drive north to the small and lively coastal town Gilleleje. Here we would eat strawberries, bath in the sea, go on treasure hunts and tell secrets in the hidden caves of the rosehip bushes. We would attempt to make perfume from the amazingly scented rose hip flowers and give it a try at finding amber on the beach – though I don’t think I actually ever found any.

Our stay would end with all the girls lining up with the kindergarten leader Vibeke to get a French braid before we got back on the bus and returned to our parents with all the tales of adventure.

Wednesday is a time for shopping

But one part of this trip beat all the rest, because on Wednesday the preschool teachers would take us into the centre of Gilleleje. Here we were each given 30 DKK which our parents had paid before hand, and with these in hand we were let free on the streets of Gilleleje.

It sounds absolutely crazy that a bunch of pre-schoolers should be running around a town on their own with no adults to follow on their tail. To me it was the absolute freedom.

Gilleleje centre is small and the main shopping street Vesterbrogade does not have much traffic. The pre-school teachers would walk around the street enjoying the atmosphere while we would run in and out of shops calculating what we might get for our 30 DKK. I have a feeling when I look back at these summer Wednesdays that every shop in town knew we were coming.

We would make our way to Lilys Legetøj (Lily’s Toys), Mosters Chokolade (Auntie’s Chocolat) and the butcher where we would get a small bag of flæskesvær (pork crackling) which seems a national snack in Denmark. We would stand there looking up at the counter with our coins and calculating whether we would be able to get too more liquorice pipes and still get those cracklings next door or not.

It was in many ways an education into responsible finances. We only had 30 DKK, not a cent more. Yet we were ecstatic at all the treasures we managed to bring back. Never did any candy taste better than that from Moster nor was any toy as fun as the cheap plastic wheel we bought at Lily’s.

Gilleleje

I have been lucky, because I have also had a connection to Gilleleje after kindergarten. Every year apart from a few years in my college days when the world beyond the borders of Denmark seemed to draw my attention more than the Northern Coast of Zealand, I’ve spent at least a few days in Gilleleje.

Moster’s Chokolade is no longer there, nor is Lily’s Legetøj. Today the town is far more touristy as more Copenhageners have opened their eyes to this little slice of heaven. Fancy shops with trinkets for your home fill every corner, and more lifestyle gurus have made their entrance.

But it is okay. As any other place Gilleleje is moving forward. This year a new grand Kulturhavn (Cultural Harbour) opened up with cinema and restaurant offering cultural activities for the true inhabitants and an extra option for the seasonal tourists on the occasional rainy day.

My old haunts have been replaced with new places as my 30 DKK have been exchanged with MobilePay or plastic cards. And while the nostalgia of returning to Gilleleje is always with me, I continue to enjoy the town as it is in the presence.

These years I always visit Lumi – a second hand shop with knick-knacks and books and all kinds of stuff for no money. I have a delicious ice cream with freshly baked cones from Hansens Is (Hansen’s Ice Cream) and I order a fried fillet of plaice with chips and remoulade (a Danish kind of tartar sauce) at Adamsen’s Fisk on the harbour.

And this is Gilleleje’s best feature. The harbour. Not because it is picturesque, which it is, but because it is alive. With fishermen struggling these years and small ships sinking in economy and quota politics, it is wonderful to see the strength of the fishing community in Gilleleje.

To me Gilleleje is summer, it is home and it is some of the best that Denmark has to offer. Should people ever ask me if I feel privileged in life, I will answer yes, because I got to grow up exploring Gilleleje.

Zofka