Exploring Montenegro and Macedonia
It was always my dream to see the Balkans and I was fortunate that my wish came true a couple of months ago. To be honest, one week wasn’t long enough to see everything I wanted, but it proved just enough time for me to form an opinion on two countries that we barely hear about in the media – Montenegro and FYR Macedonia.
Why Montenegro and Macedonia?
Let’s start from the beginning. I had no idea where to spend my holiday. I’ve seen most of the ‘big’ capitals and the not so famous cities several times already and the rest of Europe seemed so sterile and touristy to me. I wanted something different. Something new and unexplored. Something authentic. And one evening after hours of thinking and trying to decide, I came up Podgorica – the only capital in former Yugoslavia that it’s possible to reach by Ryanair from Stansted. When friends asked ‘why…where?’ my answer was ‘because nobody’s going there…yet’.
Even being on board the flight, I didn’t know where, how and with whom I’d be spending my Balkan holiday. I hadn’t booked any accommodation, hadn’t read any proper information about the country… My only plan was to spend 10 days travelling around Montenegro and some other neighbouring countries.
Getting off the plane, I was greeted by a heat wave. My first challenge was how to find transportation to the city centre. Leaving the terminal, suddenly I felt like I was in Georgia or Turkey where there’s generally chaos outside the airport/bus station terminals with taxi drivers fighting for every single new arrival with the words ‘come on, my friend, taxi to centre, very cheap’.
As it happened, the only way to reach the city centre from Podgorica airport is to take a taxi. If you take a taxi directly from the airport stand, its 12 km and costs around €7, but if you call a taxi as I did, it costs…€3.
The first destination of my trip was the bus station. After checking international bus timetables, I decided to take the closest bus to FYR Macedonia. A one way ticket from Podgorica to Skopje costs around €18.
The bus was departing after dark, so I had nearly 10 hours to explore the capital of Montenegro. As the centre is so close to the bus station, it was easy to reach by foot. Passing the residential neighbourhoods, my mind flashed back to my childhood and my parents watching the news where the main story was always the Balkan war.
Apparently, houses which were destroyed have been renovated, but probably because of lack of money, or patience it’s still possible to see holes in these buildings. I kept walking until thoughts about war became thoughts about food. When I got to Roman Square there was a huge restaurant that seemed to be perfect for lunch. Honestly, I hadn‘t paid much attention to the prices but I was genuinely shocked to pay the equivalent of just €3 for soup, a hot main dish, coffee and a dessert.
After paying the bill, (and dreaming about how I could somehow work in England and live in Montenegro) I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city. I don‘t like using maps – I knew I’d find some sights anyway. And I did!
Sightseeing in Podgorica
First there was Millennium bridge which crosses Moraca river – it’s a symbol of Montenegro’s independence, was built in 2005 and divides the town in two parts. My next goal was to find was Stara Varos which is famous for its Ottoman era roots. On the way to the old town I discovered the famous Herzogovina street full of bars, restaurants and cafés which were selling some of the cheapest coffee I‘ve ever seen. It seemed a sin not to pick up a coffee for 8 cents. I kept walking. On the way to Stara Varos I passed a neglected, abandoned park with a few statues in the middle, before finally arriving at something worth visiting. First of all there was Skaline (the stairs) on the outskirts of the Ribnica river to Morača, with its old Turkish Bridge over the Ribnica river, and the ruins of old Nemanja’s town. Climbing the steps, I found the old remains of an Ottoman fortress, narrow Turkish style streets and a mosque, dating back to the 15th century. Although Stara Varos is really old (the word ‘starii’ in slavic languages means ‘old’) and it’s really not promoted as an attraction, it‘s really worth visiting – climb up the hill, stand by the fortress and enjoy the awesome view. I continued onto the narrow and not so clean old town streets before reaching the main street where there was another interesting sight – a Turkish clock tower, which is one of the few Turkish Ottoman landmarks in Podgorica which wasn’t affected by World War II. As the day drew to a close (and before catching my bus to Skopje) I enjoyed a spectacular sunset along the river bank.
I could write a book about my experiences in FYR Macedonia, after just one week. The beautiful centre, vibrant nightlife, tasty food… but behind the shiny exterior there are streets filled with an authentic soul that hasn’t been influenced by Western Europe.
Apart from Skopje’s tourist information office, my first stop was the Millennium cross which was built in 2000 as a symbol of Christianity in FYR Macedonia. It’s built on the hill and is visible from all over the city. The panoramic views of the capital from here are awesome and you can take the funicular to the hill for less than €1.
Leaving the cross behind, I visited one of the oldest orthodox churches, before reaching Matka canyon which was another place on my ‘must see’ list. Matka in the Macedonian language means womb. Looking at this miracle of nature, you have no doubt as to how this place got its name. This is the perfect place for kayak lovers and generally anyone who likes nature. You can hire a boat, sail around, visit stalactite caves and enjoy the awesome landscape. Although FYR Macedonia doesn’t border any sea, it has the third largest lake in Europe – Ohrid lake which is situated in the town of the same name – Ohrid. The lake is like an invisible border between FYR and Albania. From one side of the lake you can enjoy the view of the mountains on the Albanian side. Ohrid town is also known as the Jerusalem of the Europe because it has 365 churches, one church for every day of the year. This pearl of the Balkans is included on the UNESCO world heritage list and offers a wide range of attractions, from visiting churches to quiet walks along the shore.
My Lasting Impressions of Podgorica and Macedonia
I’ve never seen so many rivers, valleys, canyons, springs or fresh and transparent water. The scenery in FYR is fascinating. The people are so sincere. Everything is so natural, not yet overrun with tourists. If you compare the two neighbouring capitals Skopje and Podgorica it’s like comparing the moon and earth.
I’d highly recommend both of these places for travellers who are looking for new adventures. Skopje and FYR Macedonia are probably two of my favourite destinations now. I found the people to be so generous in both countries. They would give you their last crumb of bread to make you feel happy and welcome. And I don‘t think they gave me this special treatment just because I was a tourist. Both nations suffered a lot in the past. Maybe this is the reason why they are protecting what they have and why they have genuine smiles and seem to know how to enjoy every second of their lives.
Juste is a member of cabin crew at Ryanair’s Bratislava base