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Plans: Balkans 2014

When we were planning our second two-week holiday earlier in the year, my first thought was that I wanted to do something similar to last year, when we visited Croatia and Montenegro. We started researching it but soon ran into the problem that Montenegro is quite a difficult place to get to. The country only has two international passenger airports, both of which have only infrequent flights from UK airports which did not fall on any of the days we wanted to travel. It is possible to fly to Dubrovnik and travel across the border to Kotor by bus as we did last year, but Dubrovnik is an increasingly popular holiday destination in its own right, making the majority of flights there far too expensive for our budget.

We started looking at the Wizzair website, trying to find other airports in the region which might be cheaper, and hit upon the idea of Skopje. The flights were unbelievably cheap, with one-way flights on a weekend in September for £19.99 each, and so it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. A (with the benefit of hindsight) somewhat vague understanding of ex-Yugoslavian geography made us think that getting from Macedonia to Montenegro would be a piece of cake, so we could spend the first part of our holiday exploring a new country and the second part by the sea. The only question remaining to resolve was where to fly back from. Flights from Belgrade were not quite as cheap as Skopje but at £30 each it still seemed like a bargain, and with the added bonus that we would get to see some of Serbia as well.  Sorted.

Except, actually, finalising our exact itinerary turned out to be a much bigger task that I had anticipated. The first step was to acquire a guidebook about Macedonia. This turned out to be a challenge in itself as there is only one English-language guidebook devoted to the country. Luckily for us, it turned out to be a very comprehensive one and we were able to narrow down the places we most wanted to see to Skopje, Bitola and Ohrid. 

Skopje goes without saying; it's the capital city and where we will be flying to. Whilst it's probably not going to win a prize for Europe's most beautiful capital, over the past few years the government has been spending millions on giving the town centre a facelift in a controversial project called 'Skopje 2014'.  The project has involved the construction of numerous new government buildings, as well as the commissioning of enormous monuments of historical figures, so we should come away with some interesting photos at least!

Bitola is Macedonia's second city, although with a population of around 75,000 it's about the same size as Nuneaton, so we're hoping that one day there will be enough to see the main sights. It's located in the south-western part of the country, not far from the border with Greece. There are supposed to be some impressive Roman ruins, although with the guidebook's somewhat imprecise advice of "walk off the edge of this map for 2km", it's anybody's guess as to whether we'll find them!

Ohrid is Macedonia's biggest tourist destination, a picturesque town situated on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Both the lake and the town are World Heritage Sites, and they look absolutely beautiful.

Having got this far with our itinerary the next step was to figure out how to get to Montenegro. Consulting a map revealed that this was actually a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. Between Macedonia and Montenegro are rather large parts of Albania and Kosovo, neither of which feature very highly on our list of desirable holiday destinations. Albania apparently doesn't have a bus station and public transport appears to consist mainly of large vans called furgons which depart from random street corners to no published timetable and sound generally terrifying in every way. Kosovo's public transportation network sounds positively civilised in comparison but political issues mean that if you end up with a Kosovan border stamp in your passport, you may have problems entering Serbia. Having just paid £80 for new passports, the last thing we wanted was to end up with stamps that would restrict our travel activities for the next ten years. Perhaps Montenegro wouldn't be on the agenda after all.

Just when I was about to give up, however, I came across timetables for a Serbian bus company who run buses from the city of Niš in southern Serbia to the town of Bar on the Montenegrin coast. As luck would have it, getting from Skopje to Niš is a pretty straightforward bus journey and so we decided to travel back from Ohrid to Skopje and then onwards to Niš. Niš itself is the third-largest city in Serbia and has the remains of a Turkish fortress, which looks quite impressive. Its other sights include a Nazi concentration camp and a tower made out of human skulls. We may give those a miss.

The journey from Niš to Bar will be a long one, but it will be worth it to get to the seaside. Bar is primarily a port town and not the most scenic place in Montenegro, but we will be staying in a smaller town called Šušanj a few kilometres up the coast which looks quite pretty. Bar is well-connected with public transport and as we are staying for three nights we will hopefully be able to go on excursions to other places in Montenegro.

Bar is also the terminus for the famous Belgrade-Bar railway line. This 296-mile stretch of railway is one of the most scenic in Europe, passing through 254 tunnels and 435 bridges, including the world's highest railway viaduct. The journey takes around 10 hours, and trains are supposed to run both during the day and at night. We decided to catch the daytime train from Bar to Belgrade on 11 September, before finishing our holiday exploring the Serbian capital. We were due to fly home from Belgrade on Sunday 14 September.

It sounded like an excellent plan, but then two things beyond our control went wrong. Firstly, Wizzair sent an unexpected email in April to say that our flight back from Belgrade had been moved from Sunday 14 September to Monday 15 September, meaning that I needed an extra day off work. That may not sound like an absolute catastrophe but I am supposed to request my annual leave 12 months in advance and so there was a possibility that I would be told I couldn't have an extra day, leaving our travel plans in chaos. Thankfully my line manager was very understanding and bent the rules for me, so disaster number one was averted.

Disaster number two took place in May, when the entire Balkan region was subjected to uncharacteristically heavy rainfall. Flooding ensued across large parts of Bosnia and Serbia causing devastation on a huge scale. It also seriously damaged parts of the Belgrade-Bar railway line, leading to all trains being temporarily cancelled.

By summer 2014 a limited timetable was up-and-running again, albeit incorporating a significant diversion and adding several hours onto the original journey time. The diversion means that the day-time trains have been cancelled, with those that remain operational running overnight. We thought about it for quite some time but in the end it just didn't seem worth taking such an impressive train journey in the pitch black darkness.  The nearest we're going to get to enjoying the scenery this year is on 


This left us with rather a dilemma. Should we cut Montenegro out of our itinerary altogether? Was there another way to get from Bar to Belgrade? Alternative options seemed thin on the ground but extensively googling finally revealed a daytime bus from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica to Belgrade. Not only that, but the bus company appeared to have a modern website featuring not only the bus timetable but ticket prices and the option to reserve a seat online. This was unheard of sophistication in our experience of Montenegrin buses and it seemed too good to be true. Lesson learned: if it seems too good to be true then it probably is! Having filled in the reservation form on the website I expected to be presented with an e-ticket to download and print. What I received instead was an automated message telling me that a travel agent would be in touch.  Later that day I missed a phone call from a foreign number and then received an email from a lady in Belgrade saying that she'd been trying to call me to confirm the details of my reservation. The details turned out to be that I need to pay the representative of the bus company in Podgorica for the tickets, so I should call him the day before I travel to confirm and agree how I'm going to pick the tickets up off him. Not quite what I had in mind when the website said it had an online ticketing system!

But that is our itinerary officially finalised. Subject to Internet connections we'll be aiming to update our blog most days and we hope you'll follow our adventures :)

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