Winter in the Balkans

I passed my exams pretty quickly, so I wanted to use my spare time to go on a vacation. My choices were: a warm exotic place or non-traditional ski destination. Due to super-cheap tickets to the Balkans, I decided to make a skiing trip in an virtually warm exotic destination. Within two weeks, I visited 4 ski resorts in 3 different countries (Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro), I met two friends from those countries, I made new friends, I hitchhiked more than 100 kilometers and had many great experiences (and even some unpleasant experiences).

The plan was as follows. Find a buddy. Get to Bratislava by train. From here take a plane to Skopje. Ski in Mavrovo in Macedonia and try skialping. Then ski in an unspecified order in Brezovica in Kosovo, Kopaonik in Serbia and Kolesnik and Zabljak in Montenegro. At the same time, I wanted to work at least 3 hours a day.

The real course of the trip

Right from the start, I failed at the first point. I didn’t find anyone else crazy enough to make a quick skiing trip to the Balkans for two weeks. Although, I usually prefer to travel alone so it couldn’t discourage me.

Macedonia

The way to Macedonia was absolutely above any expectations. Already at the airport in Bratislava I had a chat with a nice Albanian from Macedonia. He offered me a ride to Mavrovo, because it was only a side trip for him. I didn’t have to spend a night at the airport and get to Mavrovo the next day. Besides the free ride, he paid for my snack at the petrol station. Unfortunately, I lost my Wi-Fi antenna and without it, I couldn’t work.

What a pleasant surprise when I arrived in front of Dimitar’s cabin at half past one in the morning and found out that he got a dog and the wicket is closed. So I shouted, called him, made a noise…but nothing. I noticed that the obviously unoccupied property next to Dimitar’s cabin has slightly open wicket. I came to realize that Dimitar has a terrace on one side of his cabin, where there might be an open door. It was… A wave of relief swept over me. After I connected to WiFi I received a message from Dimitir saying that he went to sleep and that the door is open. But to open the door you must push hard. I didn’t know that. Besides, the dog was the second friendliest watchdog in the world, the first one is my dog.

The second day we went skiing with Dimitar’s friends. I swallowed the overpriced bait when I was at a ski rental. The skis were horrible and on top of that, I rented them for two days, even though I went the other day somewhere else. At the bottom, there wasn’t much snow and at the top were only short cableways. For stretching my body, it was enough.

Ski center of Mavrovo

Ski center of Mavrovo

I found out from Dimitar that even though they offer official skialp tours, they don’t lend the equipment. The next part of the plan was also a failure.

After my experience with ski slopes in Mavrovo I decided to visit a ski center Popova Sapka 50 km away from me. It is much higher and it seemed that it will offer more interesting terrains. Getting from Mavrovo is not that easy. I decided to hitchhike. After a while a third car stopped for me. I chatted with a nice man all the way to Tetovo where he dropped me at the toll gate and then carried on to Skopje. I needed to go through the city and then get to the ski center which was few hundred of metres high. Unfortunately, hitchhiking in the city didn’t work out. I had to take a taxi. Here I finally found out how much I lost out when I rent the skis the previous day. This time I paid half of the first price for even better skis. The terrains were wonderful. But the quality of snow was awful. Even so, I had definitely more fun while skiing than in Mavrovo. After half day of skiing I had to get back home. I hitchhiked down back to Tetovo. Now it took a really long time. Almost every car was filled with people. Eventually, a Macedonian couple from Italy stopped for me and besides the ride they gave me an energy drink (I must have looked horrible). From Tetovo I took a bus to get home.

Ski center Popova Sapka

Ski center Popova Sapka

I was disappointed with the snow and the cancellation of skialp. I decided to take a break and visit a friend in the capital city of Kosovo – Pristina.

Kosovo

Kosovo is the youngest European country. To this day, not every other country acknowledged it’s independence. Immediately after crossing the borders you can see the hard work of Kosovo people to build the country. Dozens of kilometers from borders you can see the road to be a gigantic construction site. They build an enormous highway through the mountains. The whole country is in the state of transformation. Many things are built, many things fall into ruins.

Pristina is the capital city. The only interesting buildings are Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa which was built in a fascinating modern minimalism (allegedly one of the most hideous buildings in the world) and the National Library. Pristina is the city of students. The center of the city consists of many local universities and a pedestrian precinct favoured for its rich nightlife. The prices for food and drinks are also great. Concurrently all of the restaurants look amazing.

The National Library

Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa

Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa

The best thing in all Pristina is my friend from the Erasmus – Martin. Not only he introduced me the whole city but he also accommodated me for free.

The picture of ourselves on the tower of the cathedral

After two nights in quite boring Pristina, I went to the historical city of Prizren. It is on the UNESCO list, thanks to its historical center. The important sights are the fortress, the old stone bridge, the mosque and two churches in the center. It took me two hours to visit all of them.

Historický most

Prizren Fortress

I was the only guest at the very nice hostel Drizza’s House with its great personnel. It took me by surprise how much they use the internet to increase the comfort of the travellers. They offer their own information portal where the traveller can learn all the necessary info about the city before he or she comes.

The next day, me and Martin were to meet in 30-kilometer distant ski resort Brezovica. Unfortunately, the googled bus didn’t apparently go there. I decided to hitchhike. But here’s the catch, there were almost no cars and even if so, they didn’t stop for me. I spent 2 hours waiting on a car. In the end, I got there using 3 cars. In the first car, I actually got a fresh circled and sweet-smelling bread.

Now imagine that you go 30 kilometers for 4 hours and the cableway is closed. Almost everyone would fell into despair but we stayed calm and took the two last seats in a local pub. With a hot cup of tea, we began to moan about our pointless journey. They eventually opened one cableway two and a half hours before the official closing of the cableways. So I rented skis and a ski pass. We had to wait another hour in a line and then we took two rides to the top and the bottom. Thanks to half-a-meter fresh snow I finally enjoyed a little bit of freeriding (unlike the locals who can’t ski even on a well-tended ski slope). But it really wasn’t worth it for 24 euros for skis and ski pass. Not to mention the challenging journey. Yet I didn’t know what was waiting for me on my way home.

The ski center Brezovica

The ski center Brezovica

I didn’t have the time or nerves for another 4-hour hitchhiking. I took a bus to the nearest city in direction of Pristina from where the buses went to Prizren. Unfortunately, I arrived 10 minutes after the last bus had left. There was nothing much to do other than spend 20 euros for a taxi. I got home late in the evening physically and psychically exhausted and also short of dozens of euros.

I looked forward to leaving this cursed country so much. To do so I had to wake up the next day before 6 o’clock so I could catch the better one of two buses going to Montenegro. Of course, the better one didn’t arrive so I had to take the other one, which was much slower and came two hours later.

Montenegro

Montenegro has a special place in my heart and I have a lot of experiences which deserve its own article Winter in Montenegro.

Albania

After a day spent near Montenegro’s sea I set off to my last trip – a trip through Albania to Pristina where I had to get on a plane the following day. And because the bus was supposed to go through the city of Shkodra, which seemed pretty interesting, I couldn’t resist to set off several hours earlier so I could explore the city.

I got off the bus at the beginning of the city below the fortress of Rozafe. Rather than a fortress, it is actually only a ruin of the former fortress. But it is still worth visiting. Even though the fortress is not interesting by itself, it has an amazing view. Mainly on the Lake Skadar and the rivers Kir and Buna (the city of Shkodra is situated on their shores).

Fortress of Rozafe

A pretty interesting incident happened during the tour. I offered my help to two beautiful and young Albanian girls and took a picture of them Then they asked me where I am from. When I answered that I am from the Czech Republic one of them burst out laughing and explained that she actually told her friend that I’m on a Czech for sure. Even though she saw me from a distance and didn’t hear me say a word. In the end, her explanation was that her ex was also a Czech and since then she somehow recognizes it. So I don’t know if I should be pleased or offended. As a reward for taking the picture, I got few tips what to visit in Albania in the summer.

Afterwards, I went to the city. It was a whole another world than in previous days in Montenegro and even other Balkan countries. For the first time, I felt in danger and grossed out. Not only it is probably the dirtiest city, where I’ve been to, but even the people seemed absolutely unwelcoming. Suspicious strangers were standing across the streets, from pubs drinkers shouted at me to come to them, I was often questioned without reason where I am from. When I sat down on a bench in a park, so I could relieve my back and eat a meal, I became a target for several children begging for money.

It was interesting that two Italian girls approached me on the street saying that we met in Ulcinj the previous day. But I don’t remember meeting anyone but Japanese tourists in a hotel.

But I don’t want to be all negative. Shkodra offers even some nice things: Parruca and Ebu Beker (mosques), orthodox cathedral, St Stephen’s and Virgin Mary churches. But the most pleasant thing was a pedestrian precinct in the city center lined with beautiful houses. Even in the rest of the town, there are beautiful houses among the shamble. Sometimes it’s hotels or some public buildings.

High school

City hall

Mosque Ebu Beker

Orthodox cathedral

The pedestrian precinct

Cathedral of Virgin Mary

After 3 hours I left the city with a bus to Pristina with relief that I won’t have other travelling problems. I spent a night in Pristina at Martin and was supposed to fly home. But it wouldn’t be me if something wasn’t going to happen.

In the morning, 3 hours before departure, I logged in Facebook and found a message from unknown friend that I left a passport in their bus. At the borders with Albania I put it in the seat in front of me so it would be at close hand. But I left it there. That time it was on it’s way from Montenegro to Kosovo and it was supposed to come 2 hours after my departure. It is possible to travel from Kosovo only with a passport or ID with biometric sample. I was relieved  that I could use my ID (I didn’t know that they don’t make ID with biometric samples in the Czech Republic). I was able to convince people from Wizzair that there are biometric samples on my ID and that they have to rewrite the ticket from passport to my ID. But it wasn’t so easy at the passport control. A talk with a head of customs officers came after. I had to explain why I didn’t manage to report the loss of passport and make a spare travel document. Eventually, they let me go.

Summary

The two weeks were filled with nice things, disappointments, awesome people, horrible traffic, boredom and even adventure…After a long time, I saw my two old friends and made new ones. I accomplished 40% of my winter goals but I got many ideas and inspiration for a summer vacation.

 

Jíja

 

Translated by Dave

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