We’re coming back here…

The highlights of last night were the talk of breakfast. We suffered a couple of small earth tremors – one around midnight and one around 2am. We were awake for the first one, our sun cream and water bottles fell on the floor, it was over in seconds. We slept through the second one.

Okay breakfast in the hotel this morning. We weren’t allowed into the dining room a minute before 8:30. We left for our transport for the day at 9:00 – a boat on Lake Ohrid.

Lake Ohrid was formed about 5m years ago. About 2/3 of it belongs to Macedonia and the rest to Albania; the maximum depth is about 290m.

We started our voyage heading south along the shore, there are lots of hotels and resorts along the lake shore. We’re only 3 hours drive from the capital and it gets very busy at the weekends and in the summer.

After about an hour the boat stopped. This was out first swimming stop of the day. The water’s cool and very clear, very refreshing as the sun started to warm us up.

Next stop is the Museum on the Water; this is a reconstruction of a Bronze Age village of stilt houses. These people appear to have invented the overwater bungalows we enjoyed in French Polynesia. The village has about 20 houses made of mud and reeds; the interiors have typical layouts of the time with looms, ovens and simple cooking and sleeping areas.

Back on the lake, we had another swimming stop. This time at the deepest point of the lake – it’s a strange feeling knowing how much water there is below you.

Next stop was at the Monastery of Saint Naum; the saint was responsible for a number of local miracles. The monastery was constructed by the Bulgarians in 905. The small church in the centre of the complex has three small rooms inside, these are all covered with beautiful frescoes. The iconostasis has a painting of the devil; very unusual in any churches anywhere.

After the Monastery we had lunch in a nearby restaurant – even the touristy places here are good quality and good value. We had a few salads and shared a spinach and feta pie.

There were water snakes swimming and basking around the rocks on edge of the lake, fortunately they only like shallow water.

We had one more swimming stop on the way back to Ohrid. The water was cooler there but the sun was warmer so it was still very refreshing. We were about a mile from the lakeshore; the sound of music from a hotel was loud even there.

I finished my book as we sailed back towards Ohrid – The Successor by Ismail Kadare; The book is a political thriller about the death of the nominated successor to the Communist Party of Albania; the leader is assumed to be Enver Hoxha but never named. Was the successor murdered or did he commit suicide? I highly recommend the book.

We had a quick stop to shower and change before heading out for the evening. We walked into the Old Town again, the history of the town is everywhere. The amphitheatre constructed by the Romans is currently being used as the main venue for the Ohrid festival. I visited the church of Saint Sofia, this large church was constructed almost 1100 years ago. Inside it has three aisles with columns in-between, much more open than the layouts at the monasteries we’ve been to.

We’d arranged to meet a couple of our travelling companions in a bar overlooking the lake for a pre-dinner drink, this quickly turned into three drinks. Florence and I had dinner on our own tonight, we found a nice place right by the water, and we were lucky to get a table with a view of St Jovan Kaneo church. Very nice food a Macedonian Pinot Noir to wash it down.

Tomorrow we return to Albania; we chose this trip primarily for Albania and Kosovo but Macedonia has been a revelation – highly recommended, come here soon!

Feeling Hot Hot Hot!

Leisurely start this morning. The dining room is next to our room, nice buffet breakfast – terrible coffee. 9:00 we took some taxis for the twenty-minute ride to Matka Gorge. There is a bus but it runs every two hours, takes an hour and costs half the taxi fare so not an attractive prospect.

There are some churches and monasteries in the gorge. The oldest was built in 1389. They were once high above the river but the gorge was flooded by the construction of the Matka dam in 1938.

We took a small boat about 20 minutes up the valley to Vrelo caves. There is a huge difference in temperature between the heat of the sun outside and the damp cool air just a few steps inside the cave. The whole system carries on a long way underground; the full extent isn’t yet known but we saw two small lakes within the 70m or so that are accessible. There is a constant background noise of water dripping and the calls and flapping of a colony of bats on the roof. The caves have been used for classical music concerts recently; it must be quite an experience.

The boat trip back was into the breeze and a bit more pleasant. After the boat we had a look in the tiny St Andrew’s Monastery, the interior is only about 15 feet long but at least twice as high as that, it feels like a miniaturized version of the three large monasteries we‘ve seen before. The walls and ceilings are covered with biblical scenes, saints and the builder of the church, Andrijaš, son of a Serbian King. No photography allowed inside.

We stopped for a leisurely coffee, drink, cake etc, before taking taxis back to town. Four of us went straight to the Museum of Contemporary Art which was closed yesterday – we had better luck today. The collection was started in 1963 following a large earthquake in the city which destroyed a lot of older works. A number of galleries around the world lent or donated works to the gallery including Picasso, Jasper Johns and Barbra Hepworth. Today however none of these works were on show, the whole gallery was taken over by an exhibition of works by Petar Hadzi Boshkov, a Macedonian sculpture and painter who died in 2015. His work is often simple but very graphic and it feels like there are layers below the surface.

After the gallery, we walked back to the restaurant on the central square where we had lunch yesterday. We had another combination of salads which were very good and tried some of their beers too – between four of us we had sour cherry, strawberry and mint pilsners, all very refreshing.

Our lunchtime break prepared us for an afternoon of museums, starting with the Holocaust. The first thing you see is a sculpture consisting of electronic photo frames repeating pictures of Jewish families from Macedonia who were killed. The museum is on three floors, the central space across all floors has an art work consisting of 7,141 threads of beads – one for each Jewish person killed. They are all different but combine into a much greater whole. The exhibition tells the story of the migration of Jews across Europe following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They found it hard to settle in Central Europe but were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire who valued their craftsmanship and commerce skills. One reason for the persecution of Jews in Western Europe postulated by the exhibition was that there was only Christian majority and any outsiders were always suspect. The Ottomans had always been an empire of many races and were therefore naturally more tolerant. After the migration, the upper floor concentrates on the events of World War 2. Macedonia had German forces to the south in Greece, Bulgarians to the east who at the time were sympathetic to the Nazis, and Italians fascists to the west in Albania. The Italians refused to join in the transporting of Jews to death camps in Poland thereby saving many lives.

After the history on the upper floors the ground floor has a number of paintings reacting to the Holocaust and a single Cattle Truck with its doors open, no explanation is given and none is needed, just looking inside to imagine how many people might have been crushed inside on the six day journey to Treblinka was enough.

Across the square is the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence. Lonely Planet had warned us that there was a string degree of propaganda in the museum but we weren’t prepared for quite how much. You can only visit the museum with a guide. A tour had just started but we were allowed to join anyway. The museum couldn’t be better designed to disconcert you – all the rooms were very dark, walls and ceilings were predominately black, everywhere there were waxworks of significant figures from Macedonian history and large scale propaganda paintings. The Greeks, particularly the Clergy, the Bulgarians and the rest of Yugoslavia were all singled out for criticism. We had very little knowledge of the individuals or events being described, this left me feeling a bit underwhelmed by the museum. In a final surreal flourish the balcony above main entrance was filled with recognisable but fairly random figures – we could pick out Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower and Ataturk among many others. Unfortunately neither museum allowed photography inside.

We left the museum and headed for the nearby bazaar. The heat was now unbelievable; we thought it was one building reflecting the sun but it continued. We checked out a restaurant for dinner and had a short walk around the bazaar, retracing our steps from yesterday to the donut stall.

On the way back to the hotel we plotted a route to see a few mores sites – there’s a surprising amount to see here.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, her birthplace is marked by a simple stone plaque in a small garden, the house is no longer there. Skopje has its own Arc de Triomphe. Beyond that is the Monument to Fallen Heroes for Macedonia, this follows the ‘more is more’ style of the rest of the new city centre. North of the central square is a museum about Mother Teresa’s life – we didn’t have time to visit, nor did we have time for the Museum of Skopje, housed in the old railway station that was severely damaged in the 1963 earthquake. Our final stop was a statue of Tito, the man who somehow managed to unify Yugoslavia.

After a short break to cool down five of us headed out for dinner in the Old Bazaar. The restaurant is housed in a 15th Century Caravanserai – the food was traditional Macedonian, the wine was all local, very nice atmosphere, a very pleasant evening.

Skopje is a strange mixture of old and new, it has been fascinating, surprising and absorbing. A few more days here would be worthwhile but tomorrow we must move on.

This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours


We thought we had lots of time in Prizren but there always seems to be one more site to see. We got up early to tick one more off before breakfast. One of our travel companions had discovered a tiny church hidden away near the central square so we went to have a look. From the street there isn’t much to see but there are some steps down to the main entrance. Just as we went in a policeman – who should have been guarding it but was actually having a coffee across the street – arrived to tell us very politely we could take photos but please no Facebook. We could only just fit four of us in at the same time.

After breakfast, we left Prizren for the capital Prishtina just over an hour away. Not much to see on the journey. The roads were quiet, fortunately, as the driver spent a lot of the trip texting.

We checked into our hotel and popped into the convenience store opposite. It’s another hot day so an ice cream seemed like a good idea – I had a ‘chocolate bumm’!

Our excursion for the day started with a visit to the Field of Blackbirds, the site of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. The Serbian armies were defeated (probably) by the superior forces of the Ottoman army. Although not strategically significant the battle has become very important to the history and identity of Serbia. A number of significant later events took place on the same date, including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in 1914 that precipitated World War One. There’s very little to see at the site other than a memorial erected in the Yugoslav era. We climbed to the top for an overview of the battlefield and the surrounding area.

Next stop was the grave of Sultan Murad or at least parts of him – his organs rest here, the rest of him is in Turkey. He was the Ottoman leader who was killed in the battle. We had a guided tour of the museum. It’s fair to say the guide’s version of the battle and subsequent events didn’t entirely match any other we’d heard.

After the grave, we headed for another old Serbian monastery. This one is in the town of Gračanica, a few miles away from Prishtina. The town is a small Serbian enclave. We passed a sign telling us we were now under video surveillance. Gračanica has the second largest Serbian population in the country behind Mitrovice. Shops take Serbian dinar, salaries are paid by the Serbian government and street names include Yuri Gagarin and Gavrilo Pricip.

The monastery walls are topped with razor wire. The church itself is again very beautiful inside. It’s very tall and has a unique double cross layout. The walls are covered with frescoes as usual. One wall depicts hell with people being eaten by beasts. Along the bottom of that wall are images warning people against specific sins: a miller who used false weights has a millstone around his neck for eternity; a woman who wouldn’t marry is devoured by a serpent and a blacksmith who worked on a Sunday is tortured by a red hot poker.

On the way to lunch we stopped at the best-known site in the city of Prishtina itself – a three-metre statue of Bill Clinton, at a major intersection on Bill Clinton Avenue. Next to it is a dress shop called Hillary, no mention of Monica nearby.

Lunch is on the edge of the city in Germia Country Park, a large park on the edge of the city. On the way we passed a huge swimming pool packed with locals cooling themselves. Lunch was okay but not very interesting food, more generic Italian than Balkan but this is where all city folks not at the swimming pool were today.

We took taxis back into town and had a quick walk around with our guide. Prishtina is a city of few sites – we saw a statue of Ibrahim Rugova (the first president of Kosovo), a Skanderberg statue and the ‘New Born’ letters.

After the group dispersed, we walked to the National Library. Built in 1986, this Brutalist edifice is an usually decorated building, the outside is covered in a decorative metal frame. On the way back to the hotel we tried to visit the Ethnographic museum but it was closed by then and looked like it hadn’t been open for a while. We walked back to the hotel through a local market that was closing up for the day, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

We had a few hours off, time to read and have a shower then joined some of the group for a glass of wine before dinner. We walked through an exhibit based around ideas of unity of all men with particular emphasis on the Balkans.

Dinner was in a cool place with good food, music and books. Soma Book Station is a vegetarian restaurant. It’s an all rounder: it starts the day with breakfast and coffee, moving through lunch and dinner until it becomes a late night club and bar.

One Cloud in the Sky

The day’s sightseeing got off to a bad start; we’d given ourselves time to visit the old railway station – so good the gift shops have fridge magnets of it – and the Ethnographic museum before breakfast. Unfortunately we couldn’t get out of the hotel as the front door was locked and there’s no alternative exit – safe? The breakfast waiter finally arrived and we were released but had to abandon the railway station plan. The museum wasn’t yet open (it’s very secretive about its opening hours). We’d seen mention of 7:00 somewhere; there’s nothing at the museum or on its website; the garage next door thought 8:00 – maybe. It was just after 7:30 so the four of us adjourned to a café next door, very nice coffee. 8:00 came and went with no signs of activity so we returned to the hotel for breakfast and packing.

At 9:30, we left for Prizren, our home for the next two nights.

Our guide added in an unscheduled stop at Gjakova on the way. This town, like many others was badly bombed during the war. Since then however they have been luckier than most – they have a Harvard educated female mayor who has done a huge amount to regenerate the town and restore the tolerance it was historically known for. She regularly wins ‘Mayor of the Year’ awards – based on measures such as transparency and good governance. The town was famous for its Grand Bazaar, some of this has been rebuilt with a lot of wooden single storey shops. The main street is lined with cafes and bars; it’s very pleasant. The town is known for its craftsmen, one street is dedicated to making wooden cradles, another one saddles. The highlight is the Hadumi mosque, built in 1594. We’re allowed in for five minutes only as it’s Friday. Inside is quite plain but with some attractive paintings on the inside of the domed roof. When are five minutes are up, we move on to a café across the street, more very good coffee for me, and some laid back music to go with it – it would be nice to stay here much longer.

It’s another 45 minutes to Prizren. On the way we cross a new bridge adjacent to very old stone construction. The original Terzijski bridge was built at the end of the 15th Century. Unusually the top of the bridge follows the rise and fall of each of the 11 arches.

Prizren is said to be Kosovo’s most attractive town. The compact centre spreads along the banks of the Prizren Bistrica river and has some Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. The town is noticeably more eastern than others we have visited. There are 35 mosques, although not many more women wear headdresses and shawls and there is a stronger Turkish influence.

After checking into out hotel, we walked to the central square to Besimi restaurant, known for traditional dishes. We had a mix of salads, grilled peppers, an immense piece of fresh flat bread and some haloumi like djathë I Sharrit cheese – all very tasty, Florence followed this with a Tullumba – a desert soaked in honey. After lunch, we wandered aimlessly around the square, through some back streets and across the river to see what caught our eye then back to the hotel for a rest – it feels like one of the hottest days of the trip so far.

We left for a guided walk around the town at 6:00. We saw the thank you messages on the town hall to a variety of countries who supported the independence of Kosovo. A few blocks back, we saw the outside of the beautiful 14th Century church of the Virgin of Ljeviš that hasn’t been fully renovated since the war, it’s Serbian orthodox and protected rather incongruously by razor wire. Our guide gave us a brief overview of the significance of Prizren to Albanian history – more tomorrow – beginning with the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Dinner was a bit disappointing after our lovely lunch – the only options for us were pasta and pizza. The group spilt after dinner, half went to a music festival in the fort above the town, the techno and Balkan didn’t appeal to everybody so the rest of us had a few more drinks before bedtime, sitting on a terrace watching Prizren go by.

A Walk in the Accursed Mountains

We had another leisurely start today. 8:00 breakfast and 9:00 departure, probably a good thing as a fair amount of wine and raki was consumed at dinner last night – not by us you understand.

We started with the Patriachate of Pec convent, best to go early so we were the only visitors there. The convent was originally built in 1233. There are ruins of a couple of old churches on the site but the main building is still well preserved.

From the 13th Century until about one hundred years ago this was the seat of the heads of the Serbian Orthodox church so it has a great historical and political significance. There is still a local police presence here as well. It’s an unusual arrangement of three churches side by side with a long covered entrance along the front of all three.

We were given audio guides to tell us about the history and some details of the frescoes but these were in very dry, quite technical ‘Google Translate’ English and not always easy to follow. The tour first takes you around the outside of the main church – at the back is a graveyard for the nuns, the top of the building has a number of domes. The inside is overwhelming: every section of wall and ceiling is covered in frescoes showing the history of the church, significant figures from the churches’ history, biblical scenes and a large representation of Christ’s family tree. Each of the three churches has its own character having been painted and restored at different times throughout their history, they are all stunning and as always we don’t have nearly enough time to do them justice. After the church there’s time for a brief visit to the gift shop to pick up some souvenirs – walnut liqueur made by the nuns. They also offered a small glass of raki.

After the convent, we headed into the hills for our second activity of the day – a hike in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains. The road follows the Rugovska Klisura gorge, a blue river tumbles down the rocky valley. It’s very narrow, the road has been cut into the side of the sheer cliffs, tunnelling through the rocks in places. At the top of the gorge, we turn off onto a small road to Shqiponja guesthouse which is the starting point of our walk and later our place for lunch.

The walk starts off with a steep climb out of the village, past a small local mosque. All the buildings here look new, most of the old ones were destroyed with napalm grenades by Serbian solders during the fighting for Kosovan independence. The scenery is again very alpine – steep green meadows with low wooden buildings and cows with tinkling cowbells.

There are many explanations of where the mountains got their name from; curses from mothers who lost their sons, malicious fairies or linguistic confusions – who knows? We stopped regularly for shade and drinks, the air temperature was around 30 but the sun was strong making it feel much warmer.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at a farmer’s house for tea and coffee, the view from the garden was huge – a deep green valley to our left, men working on a farm across the valley and above us on the right the 2,800m high ridges that mark the border with Montenegro.

Refreshed we continued, crossing meadows of wild flowers, there were butterflies everywhere. Our guide countered this sylvan mood by telling us stories about when he worked for the UN mine-removal teams. In one village, they were tasked with removing cluster bombs that were known to have been dropped there. They talked to some villagers about them and showed them photos of what they were looking for, one man told them the bombs were located on a particular hillside above the village and he also had about twenty at home. This turned out to be true, it was decided the best solution was to explode them where they were and the UN would build him a new house.

We started to head downhill towards our starting point, the ground is very dry and crumbly and probably harder to walk this way than up. We passed a concrete shell of a hotel; the owner had been obtaining money from a UN development fund – this source had dried up and building had stopped leaving a 4 storey white elephant abandoned in the hills. The location was fantastic; hopefully it will be completed one day.

Back at the guesthouse, we were reunited with Florence who had a relaxing time reading about Kosovo and taking in the beautiful surroundings.

Lunch was served, another wonderful meal of local produce, salads, bread, spinach cakes, soups and for us a very slow-cooked vegetable stew with sticky rice. This late lunch was another slow leisurely affair, nothing to rush for, we eventually left about 5pm and made our way back down the gorge to the hotel.

After a rest and clean up, we went out for a walk as the town was coming alive for the evening. We walked along ‘Tony Blair Street’ then found a Kula – an old house that Florence had read about. It had survived the war but had its ceiling removed by ‘irresponsible persons’.

We went back to the same restaurant as last night, not local food but the pizza was very good and the Stone Castle wine from a nearby vineyard was surprisingly good. We walked back through the town centre, which was now packed. Our guide told us that summer everywhere in the Balkans is like this, people work overseas and bring their money back here for a long summer holiday and they are as rich as kings for a month. Everyone is friendly and having a good time, nobody’s really drunk and no hassle anywhere.

Lakes and Mountains

Our alarm over the last three days has been set to 9:30, 7:30 and today 5:30 – not a good trend!

It would have been good to have a bit more time to explore Shkodër and our lovely old hotel but it’s not to be. We need to leave at 6:30 to meet a ferry, which only goes once a day. The hotel provided us with packed breakfasts and staff were on hand at 6:15 to provide coffee. Macchiato is the flat white of Albania – it’s available everywhere and is generally good. This morning’s was no exception. It seemed like most of the hotel’s guests were leaving at the same time as us to catch the same ferry. There is a standard circuit in Albania that lots of tour groups do and this is definitely part of it.

We’re soon out of the city and climbing into the surrounding hills, the road winds around the valleys with long drops on one side or the other. At one point we can see a few miles ahead and there is a strung out convoy of minibuses heading the same way as us. We turned off the ‘main’ road and on to a smaller unmade road –the signpost pointed towards a small town – we’re going to Puke! Despite its size the town seems to have a large budget for regeneration, all of the centre is being rebuilt, repaved or renovated. The road surface improves too as we head onwards into the hills.

There are lots of hydroelectric schemes in the area so many of the lakes are higher than you would expect. We stopped at a viewpoint to look at one, the surface is mirror smooth, the mountains still towering over us are reflected in its surface, it’s quite rugged and austere but still beautiful. After about 30 minutes more, the road plunges into a tunnel through a hillside, as the light appears at the end of the tunnel there appears to be a traffic jam, this turns out to be a car park! There is so little space on the dock that once a minibus has unloaded its passengers it goes back into the tunnel where one lane is used for parking until the return ferry later in the day. As we board we come across some people we shared a table with on our first night on Tirana, again confirming this a part of the tourist circuit.

The ferry crosses Lake Koman, which is really a flooded valley, and feels much more like a river. The journey takes about 3 hours. For most of that we are in a steep valley of grey rocks with sparse vegetation, the tops of the highest mountains are in the clouds, small patches of snow remain around the peaks. 28 years ago, I travelled around the north of the Balkans, then Yugoslavia, this scenery is very similar – the mountains provide a backbone to the whole region.

Towards the end of the journey, there are a few signs of habitation – loose clusters of farmhouses and occasional chapels on the hillsides. There’s a small ferry, which appears to criss-cross the river linking these remote communities together. We spot an old man walking back to his boat with two large bags of vegetables.

The jetty at the end is a large flat area of gravel; there is a group of minibuses and drivers waiting for us. Our ride is organised already so we don’t need to haggle with this crowd. The driver treats us to some loud Balkan pop music. It seems to have influences from Europop, the Balkans and further East. Shazzam is able to identify most of the tracks and offer us a purchase on iTunes, should we wish to recreate the experience – which we do!

The drive takes us further into the hills into Valbona Valley, an area known for its natural beauty. We follow a river, which runs down the valley over rocks and small waterfalls. It’s a beautiful turquoise blue colour, which is set off by the pale limestone.

Our hotel is on the edge of a small village. It feels very rural and homely. The valley sides tower above us. We have a little while to settle in then lunch is served – it’s all vegetarian, mostly produced in the fields outside. The highlight is the green salad – no really it’s the baked sheep’s cheese, lovely with chunks of bread dunked in it.

After lunch we had a leisurely few hours to relax, read, make a start on the blog, etc. At 5:00, we joined Adonis, a local villager, for a walk around the immediate surroundings of the hotel. We saw the oldest building in the village; it looked like it had been there for hundreds of years, and an old water mill. We continued to James Lake, created by a villager who died five years ago, he dammed a small area, redirected a spring to fill it and filled it with fish. Unfortunately since his death, Albanian tourists from the cities have littered it, taken all the fish and left it looking quite sorry for itself.

Dinner was another hefty feast of local dishes, we had a glass of local red wine with it – probably a mistake, they came out of a 5l flagon. At least they were cheap.

Further Tales of Tirana

A combination of an early start and the heat yesterday wore us out. We had a late alarm just to make sure we didn’t miss breakfast and almost needed it.

Breakfast was included with the room, adequate but not exciting. We took a while to get going and left for the town centre about 11:30am. First stop was Mon Cheri Café. Florence had a strawberry smoothie and I had a coffee. It’s supposed to be the best in town – hmmm. We took a back street route to our lunch stop, this was a bit hard to find but well worth it. Luga e Argjendtë is an organic vegetarian restaurant and deli, their philosophy is that food should be fresh, seasonal and travel as short a distance as possible. We had four small dishes, spinach, chickpeas, cheese and courgette balls.

After lunch, we couldn’t put the sightseeing off any longer. The temperature was in the higher 30s so we decided a museum was a good plan. On the way, I stopped to photograph an interesting looking building. It has an Albanian flag so was presumably a government office. A man approached us and muttered something and pointed at the camera. We assume he didn’t like us photographing there so we moved on.

The National History Museum is a large marble building on the main town square. It has rooms covering most aspects of the country’s history from the stone age to the end of Communism in 1991 – sadly, no photos were allowed inside the building. Both the Romans and Ancient Greeks were here in the period before Christ; the Italians returned in 1939 as an invading force. They were followed by the Germans who were kicked out by Enver Hoxha’s communist forces in 1944. In the early years of his rule, he did a lot to improve the country – eradicating Malaria, increasing literacy rates and developing the countries infrastructure. He initially based his rule on Stalin, later moving onto Mao’s Cultural Revolution model. He died in 1985 and his successor carried on the communist model until its final collapse in 1991. Albania had become the poorest and most isolated county in Europe by then; it’s still recovering from those times.

The museum has many, many exhibits from stone age pottery, through Greek and Roman statues to possessions of victims of the Communist regime. The first section has good captions in English but they seemed to get bored of translating after a while and these become fewer and fewer. The stand out exhibit for me was a paving stone from Hiroshima, a few hundred meters from the centre of the atomic bomb explosion. 188 of these stones were engraved with a figure of a Japanese god and sent to all the countries of the world in the hope that this event would mean that nations could in future live in peace and a similar thing might never happen again.

There were a few fans scattered around the museum and a couple of air-condition units but they were fighting a losing battle and it was probably warmer than outside. By the time we reached the pavilion of the Communist Terror, we were both flagging.

We walked back to the hotel and had half an hour to cool down before meeting our guide and companions for the rest of the trip. They seem like a nice bunch. They’d decided to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. We left them as we wanted to try more dishes from last night’s restaurant. It was just as good as the first time. Again, the waiter warned us off ordering too much – he’s very helpful but not much of a salesman. I had a local beer, Florence was more adventurous and had Raki – a home brewed brandy.

It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling

“No more Customs
Burn the passport
No more packin’
And unpackin’
Light the home fires
Get my slippers
Make a pizza”

~ Frank Sinatra

It’s over. We’re home.

After all 12 of those countries, 137 days travelling and circumnavigating the globe, we’re back home.

The day started enjoying the tasty complimentary food and wine on offer at Changi airport, Singapore.

We boarded and settled in for our 14 hour flight to Heathrow. Florence was torn between watching Ryan Gosling  – La La Land –  or Idris Elba – The Take. I went for Idris, it was okay for a late night flight.

We’d chosen the Indian vegetarian menu option – curry for dinner and breakfast. The food was very good.

Our plan was to stay awake as late as possible to try and get a bit nearer to UK time. This worked up to a point and we both managed about five or six hours of good sleep.

The descent into London was a bit bumpy going through the layers of low cloud. Heathrow wasn’t very busy and we were in our taxi about half an hour after leaving the plane. London felt cold; cold for the time of year and cold after Singapore.

We were home around 10:00am. Jenny and Omar seemed to remember us and demanded lots of attention; this continued all day.

I have a strange combination of feeling we’ve been away for a long time and feeling it was no time at all. I think this will resolve itself over the next few days and weeks as we settle back in.

We’ve done a bit of unpackin, the heating is on, my slippers are still in the loft and there’s pizza for dinner – but no pinot noir.


We both woke early this morning, our bodies are still on NZ time. We had a coffee in bed and made quite a slow start.

Singapore is only 100 miles north of the equator and it feels like it. When we left the hotel the heat was reasonable and the humidity was very high.

Our plan today was to explore the Chinatown area just south of our hotel. We had an online walking tour and a list of sites and cafés to guide us.

We started with breakfast at Tong Ah Eating House. This is quite a basic no frills place that has been open since 1939. It’s one of the few places still serving kaya toast – toast with coconut jam, we ordered coffee but received tea – very stewed tea with condensed milk.

Fortified for our walk, we hit the streets.

The Chinese make up the largest ethnic group in Singapore. There are records of Chinese settlers in the area in 1330. Chinatown itself was created as part of Sir Stamford Raffles’s plan to organize the city in 1820. Most of the development in the area took place between 1830 and 1850. Until the 20th century, Chinatown was on the waterfront but ongoing land reclamation has moved the water at least 500 yards away. Most of the buildings are three stories high with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and accommodation with shuttered windows above. Many are painted in bright colours and patterns; a lot of streets are strung with lanterns. In between the houses are Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques and churches.

The largest is the four storey Buddha’s Tooth Temple. We were lucky enough to arrive when a ceremony was going on. The large prayer room has a huge Buddha statue at the end; the walls are covered with hundreds of other figures. The dominant colours are gold and red; the smell of incense hung in the air along with the sound of drums and chanting. On the upper floors, there is a viewing gallery over the prayer hall, a museum, a rooftop garden and the shrine with the Buddha’s tooth relic.

Across the street, Florence spotted Hawker Chan’s restaurant. She went to investigate. She’d told to me the story of Mr Chan – who was the first street stall vendor to get a Michelin star.

If you haven’t heard of Hawker Chan, read this and watch this.

The restaurant is very unpretentious. We queued for 10 minutes maybe. There were a couple of vegetarian options on the menu. We had Thai tofu, noodles and vegetables – it was really tasty and very cheap. Hawker Chan won his Michelin star in 2016 for his soy sauce chicken served with rice – the only dish he made at the time. The original stall is three minutes away from the restaurant.

We walked down streets named after the activities that used to happen there and the original residents. Many of the brothels were filled with Japanese ladies so the red-light district was centered on Japan Street. In Chinese culture, it’s bad luck for somebody to die in your home so Death Street was created to house those known to be near the end of their lives; there was little comfort or care for them in this arrangement.

We explored the largest of the food halls in the area. This one has hundreds of stalls selling food and drink from all over Asia. Some stalls have long queues, others are deserted.

Next was Telok Ayer Street – the former waterfront street’s name in Malay means ‘bay water’. The street is now overshadowed by the office blocks of the business district. Chinese arriving in here in the 19th century liked to give thanks for their survival as soon as they arrived; the street has a variety of temples, churches and mosques. The walk took us down a number of streets that have become more gentrified in recent years with upmarket cafés, bars and restaurants.

We thought we’d almost finished our walk when we came across The Company of Cats – a cat café. We paid for an hour with the cats; there are ten of them – all rescue cats – sharing a large room. We joined in feeding them their afternoon treats.

Finally, we walked around a few streets we’d seen earlier in the day that weren’t specifically on the walk. We found a very good bookshop and a craft beer bar – more of this later. The sound of drums took us along Duxton Road – outside a sweet shop a number of Chinese dragons were dancing while two figures with large heads of old Chinese men came out of the shop.

The food hall we went to last night had a vegetarian stall that had closed when we arrived so went back to try again. It was open but we had a very confusing conversation with the owner – nothing from the menu was available, only what was left. They may or may not be open tomorrow.

We went back to the hotel for a swim and a cup of tea then went back to last night’s food hall to try some more dishes. We both had a potato dosa, very tasty. The last stop for the evening was the craft beer bar we saw earlier- The New Harbour Café. Archipelago is the only craft beer made in Singapore; they had six brews on offer – we tried four between us, all very good.

Shiok: a Singaporean and Malaysian expression denoting sheer pleasure and enjoyment. It sums up our day.

Auckland: Hour by Hour

00:00 – Midnight alarm to get some tickets for the FA cup semi-final, it took half an hour but we got some. Back to bed!

07:00 – Today was a day run against the clock to try and fit in as much as we could on our last day in Auckland. We started with a flat white each from Shaky Islands then we took a taxi to re-pack our box of stuff that’s going by ship back to the UK; nothing we need to wear soon and as many heavy things as we could fit in.

09:50 – Once that was done, we headed to Ponsonby. We’d heard lots of good things about this place. It’s a couple of miles west of the city centre. It has a reputation for some of the best food, coffee and some of the chicest shopping in the city. We started at Mary’s Café for brunch – we’ve had a lot of breakfasts of combinations of halloumi, eggs, avocado and toast but this was the best of all of them. The ingredients were all fresh and tasty and beautifully cooked. Ponsonby is also Auckland’s hipster central and mid-morning is when the locals businesses come out for their coffees and meetings, while we enjoyed our brunch we heard a lot about ‘value propositions’, ‘product-based content’ and ‘customer led exposure’.

The eating, drinking and shopping places are spread along Ponsonby Road – the main thoroughfare. We walked past a number of tempting looking cafes and restaurants. Florence tried on some clothes but they didn’t work out – which is just as well as the prices were dear. The Open Book, a second-hand bookshop, filled seven rooms of an old house, Florence bought a novel by a New Zealand writer that covers a lot of aspects of Maori and current societies.

11:45 – We went back to the hotel, dropped our bag off and walked down to the waterfront to take a ferry to Devonport.

12:15 – The ferry runs every half an hour to Devonport during the day, more often in rush-hour. It’s only twelve minutes across the water from the city centre. The atmosphere is very different, people seem to have a lot of time (no-one’s rushing), there are lots of cafés, little shops and restaurants. We had planned to base ourselves here when we first arrived in New Zealand but the flight delays leaving Tahiti meant that we missed out on Devonport. We picked up a couple of self-guided walk leaflets from the library – the first one took us along the waterfront past a number of old wooden houses overlooking the harbour, some lava flows from old volcanic eruptions and a monument to some of the earliest Maori landings in the area. The second walk highlighted some of the old buildings on the main street; the most interesting was an old movie theatre.

14:15 – Return ferry, everybody seems to walk faster the moment they are back in the city centre. We headed for the Art Gallery, we’d had brief look inside when we first arrived but didn’t have time to look round properly. We were short on time so we only looked at the permanent exhibits, these include mainly contemporary New Zealand and international work as well as a room of 18th and 19th century European works. The most interesting for me were a couple of paintings that commented on the treaty signed between the British and the Maori in the 19th Century and a mural-sized work that looked like an impressive abstract from a distance but close up had many details covering recent global conflicts, nuclear testing in the Pacific and many other global issues.

16:30 – We returned to the hotel to shower and finish packing.

17:45 – Met up with Tony, a former colleague of Florence’s, for a quick beer. We haven’t seen Tony for many years but it was good to catch up and find out what’d happened in those years.

19:00 – Back to the hotel to collect our bags and check out. We took a taxi to a pub in Mount Eden, a suburb few miles from the centre, to meet two friends – J&S. The pub has a huge selection of beers and is reputed to serve excellent food – an ideal local. It would be a great pub in London!

20:45 – Taxi to Auckland international airport. We spotted a final example of Kiwi humour on a warehouse near the airport: ‘Always give 100%, unless you’re a blood donor’. Our New Zealand adventure is over. Singapore, the last leg of our trip, awaits.