Belgrade in 2 hours and 45 minutes

Thursday 19 October 2017

The heavy fog around Stansted airport delayed our 6.40am flight by 2.5 hours. We put a brave face on this and used our time to take creative photos around the terminal.

With the flight being 2.5 hours long, and the fact that Serbia’s an hour ahead of the UK, we now had just under three hours of sightseeing.

The bus dropped us off in one of Belgrade’s most important squares. We wasted no time and headed  straight for Belgrade Fortress. The Romans first build a fort on this site in the late first century. The old citadel has been destroyed and re-built many times over the centuries. It overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

By the entrance gate, we were greeted by a dinosaur park (complete with sounds) and left-over tanks and military machinery. These brought to mind Serbia’s troublesome history. Until recently, the country seemed to be continuously at war. On the drive from the airport, Alexander told us how he has never left Belgrade, but has had four different nationalities/passports in his life.

We stayed by the river for a short while, soaking in the warmth of the sun (the temperature a beautiful 25c) before moving on to our next site – the Ružica church. This beautiful Serbian Orthodox church was empty, bar two men hoovering the carpets and the two of us. We took our time exploring the paintings covering the walls and ceiling before moving on to St. Petka, a few steps down.

Immediately, the atmosphere was different. The site was busier with worshippers. The ill come to wash their face at the spring; it is said that washing one’s eyes with the water from the spring helps with many sight-related problems. The healing water is available to drink, and a woman was busy filling up small  plastic bottles for people to take away. Other people come for the hand of St Petka, kept in the chapel. Inside, the walls and ceilings were covered with images made from mosaics. Just of the courtyard, we entered a dark room. The walls were thick with black smoke from the many candles people lit in there. A woman busily looked after the two interconnected ‘Lighting of the Candles’ rooms

Back ‘in town’, we walked down the pedestrianised street lined with restaurants, bars and art galleries. Brutalist architecture sitting side by side with modern buildings and ruined buildings, left as reminders of what Belgrade and Serbia have gone through in recent history (like being at the receiving end of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign during the Kosovo war).

We popped our heads into a couple of gallery and decided it was time for lunch.

We settled on Mayka, a couple of side streets away. This quirky vegetarian restaurant serves slow-food Serbian specialities, and we tucked into a mezzetluk (local cheese, grilled sausages and ajvar (that roasted red pepper sauce we enjoyed in the Balkans this summer, breaded paprika stuffed with cheese with a side of vegan kebabs and a half-litre of Jelen for me (Andy had a dark lager).

Time for one last sight. St. Michael’s Cathedral is one of the most important places of worship in the country. Its icons and paintings are the works of one of Serbia’s most famous painters of the 19th century. The church is also known for its many relics of saints, emperors and despots.

On the way back to the airport, we passed what must be the court of justice, or a similarly imposing building. Large protest messages were displayed on the outside railing. One had at least a hundred photos of people – ‘kidnapped and killed civilians by Albanian terrorists’. I suppose this refers to the Kosovo war. The other side of the story we heard about in Albania and Kosovo this summer.

Of all the random crazy things we’ve ever done, our day trip to Serbia’s got to be up there. It was enough of a teaser, we think it would be a worthwhile destination for a (proper) weekend break.

Red barn door

No sunrise shoot this morning. Clouds and rain meant that we had an extra 30 minutes in bed. Yeah!

Full vegetarian Scottish breakfast and tea. And ready to hit the road. We were against a deadline today – heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon, and we had a few spots we wanted to get to before then.

We drove to the west coast of North Harris. The landscape is stunning in a desolate way. We had the road to ourselves, mostly, but we still had to make use of the passing places every now and then.

We spent a few minutes at a scenic view point. Our second stop had something for everyone – a rusty boat; wild flowers; patterns on rock; sheep and a red barn door. Which I loved. I could have spent all day at that one spot, but too soon it was time to move on.

But that’s okay, because around the corner we came across a herd of Scottish moos. Lovely things they are.

We pressed on, passing through Bunabhainneadar. A tall brick tower on a shore is now all that remain of a whaling station. The road next takes you through a set of gates, and it seems that we were on private grounds… but no, this is the main road, and it passes right in front of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. Quite surreal.

Our final destination was Huisinish beach. Looking at the water and the sand, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere else altogether. It reminded me of French Polynesia. The main differences would be the landscape around us (mountains and lochs), the fact that we had layers and layers of clothes on, and of course, the temperature of the water. But it was a fun place to spend an hour or so. The red barn (held together with gaffa tape); rusty bits; patterns in the sand; bits of seaweed and wave bubbles. As the wind picked up and the rain started, we headed to a newly community-built shelter for… shelter, and warmth. With large windows facing the beach, this was the perfect place to have our packed lunch.

Back at the hotel for a hot drink, and then the idea was for the group to split in two. One group was going to go back out to photograph the shapes and colours of Luskentyre beach, and the other group was staying put for a photo processing session. But then the rain hit, so everyone attended the processing workshop.

Pre-dinner drinks in the bar, dinner, post-dinner drinks in the bar.

Slàinte mhath!

Stepping into history

Another 7.15 departure. This is civilised sunrise photography.

We revisited the second site we went to on the first day – it was too windy to go on the beach so some perspective seemed like a good idea. The sea was wild and the waves were powerful and certainly the biggest we’ve seen so far.

The group dispersed and then re-grouped as the sun hit the waves. It was mesmerising.

The incessant wind is tiring. Keeping the camera still and composing your image whilst not being blow away demands concentration. It takes a lot out of you, and so back at the hotel, Andy went for the full Scottish vegetarian breakfast. I had gallons of tea.

After breakfast, it was time to hit the road again. We were going to the Isle of Lewis for the day. Lewis is the northern part of Lewis and Harris, the largest island of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides. People talk about Harris or Lewis, but it’s all the same.

And yet, the scenery is immediately different. We crossed a pass through a mountain range.

The scenery is mostly meadows, peat bogs, lochs. The machair at first looking bleak but home to many wild flowers, heather and caterpillars.

Our first stop was at Mangersta – a large stack formation. The sea was lashing. The wind was… windy! We were warned off the edge of the cliff – good advice generally, but with the wind being what it was, this was definitely advice to follow. Wild.

Which brought us back to a discussion we’ve had on and off all week. How hardy you have to be to live here. This is the very beginning of winter. It’s only going to get bleaker from now on.

We stopped at a community owned café in Uig for a hot drink and cake (lime and coconut). Lewis is internationally famous for the Lewis chessmen discovered nearby in 1831. These date back to the twelve century, and – little know fact – they are also known as the Uig chessmen.

We had our pack lunch in a car park near our next photo shoot – Traigh Na Beirghe, a Caribbean-white sand beach with turquoise water. And then add wind, showers, overcast weather.

After an hour, it was time to move on again. Out of the car window, I spotted one of Lewis’s 2000-year-old brochs (Iron Age roundhouses).

We raced against the clock to get to our last stop for the day – the Callanish Stones. The standing stones are arranged in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle. It is thought that they were used for ritual activity during the Bronze Age (late Neolithic era).

Andy let his creative side get the better of him and some of his photographs were simply out there. To be fair, this is not your traditional landscape photographic workshop. We are constantly encouraged to be creative, and to spend time with such a bunch of creative people is rewarding and exhilarating.

The long drive back to the hotel was spent in gentle banter (someone told me I had ruined their life and they wished they’d never met me! To put this into context, I must say that I had merely answered his question about what it’s like to travel to Antarctica).

Another full on day. Feeling slightly weary, we sat down for dinner and chatted about photography, and the trip so far. We’re all loving it!

The Outer Hebrides of Scotland

We left the hotel just before 8:30am and walked the five minutes to the bus station. The airport bus was – again – very efficient.

We checked in and had breakfast and walked to gate 1 for our flight to Stornoway.

The one hour flight was uneventful. We spent most of our time above the clouds to avoid the high wind. But as we started to come down, ready for landing, we saw the weather coming in.

We landed in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and drove 40 minutes or so to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. The rain pouring down. Sheets of it. Coming at us. That was quite spectacular.

We came to Harris last year for a week, in early May, but this is definitely the time of year to come for a landscape photographic workshop.

We’ve only been here a few hours and the weather’s already been very very wild.

Our first outing was to Seilebost beach. A long sandy beach with dunes, and just us. We spent a couple of hours there. I had to give up the macro photography (I came across some really cool patterns in the sand). The wind was blowing wildly, and the sand… the sand decided to come out and play. Sand everywhere – my hair, my eyes (argh), my camera, lenses…

We then went a few minutes up the road. We were higher up so we had a sweeping view of the sea, the mad mad waves and sunset. That was incredibly windy (so much fresh air) and so breathtaking. And somehow, I ended up with a massive rip in my coat. No idea how that happened.

Back at the hotel, I dropped my coat off in reception to see if it could be fixed. I really hope so… that’s my wind-proof and water-proof for the week!

Dinner was booked for 8pm. And then we retired to the hotel bar… for a whisky, or two.

And the best news? Sunrise isn’t that early in the morning… so that’s almost a lay in!

People Make Glasgow

This slogan is plastered on one of the tall buildings in the centre of town, and it greeted us as we travelled from the airport to the hotel (in the very quick and efficient airport bus).

We flew from London City and got to our hotel just under four hours after leaving home. Our check-in ‘ambassador’ was very friendly and she made a few suggestions of things to do and see whilst we were in Glasgow. We dropped our bags in the room, and went to the bar where we got two 15 year-old Dalwhinnies.

This morning, when Andy went to speak to the ‘ambassador’ on duty (our complimentary in-room mini iPad charger was broken), he got more friendliness and tips! And she kindly offered to book our table for dinner.

We had a leisurely day ahead of us, with plenty of walking… so it made sense to start with a full vegetarian breakfast at Café Gandolfi, where the food is seasonal and locally sourced.

After that, we enjoyed watching a couple of running races from the Great Scottish Run Super Saturday – children and families. A prelude to the main event tomorrow – the Great Scottish Run.

Just outside the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) was the statue of the Duke of Wellington we wanted to see.  Today, he was wearing not one but two traffic cone hats – a tradition that goes back decades. In 2013, the council apparently tried to raise the height of the plinth to discourage this practice but campaigns put stop to this proposal.

We did pop into GoMA. There weren’t a lot of works on show but the exhibition on homelessness was thought-provoking and Gallery 2 had works from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andy Goldsworthy, David Hockney, David Shrigley and Andy Warhol. The gallery is housed in a neoclassical building built in 1778 for William Cunninghame of Lainshaw – a wealthy Glasgow Lord who made his fortune through tobacco and the slave trade.

After a refuelling coffee break, we headed to the Lighthouse. This is not an actual lighthouse but Glasgow’s national centre for design and architecture. We had exactly three minutes to take in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh before racing up the staircase to the top of tower. The sky was clear (apparently this is a rarity in Glasgow) and this afforded us great views over rooftops and high rises. We spotted Parkhead in the distance (Celtic were at home today and we’d briefly considered going to the game).

We wandered for a while, taking in the mishmash of architectural styles – the old Georgian buildings (always so imposing), the art deco ones and the eyesore 60’s monstrosities.

Glasgow Central deserved a few minutes of our time. The station has kept many of its original features and isn’t spoilt by advertising. Andy was thrilled to see a train in plum and spilt milk, a recreation of British Railway’s original livery.

On our way to the Tenement House, we stumbled across a gallery which is currently exhibiting works from Ron Lawson. We came across his works in Edinburgh a few weeks ago. He is currently Scotland’s most successful landscape painter. His style is contemporary and all his own.

The Tenement House museum is now in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland. First we read about the tenements and how when most were demolished, people felt a loss of community spirit. This was like stepping back into history. The flat belonged to Miss Agnes Toward and she lived in it ‘from 1911 until 1965, and preserved her furniture and possessions with love and care. She held on to all sorts of things that most people would have thrown away, and this extensive personal archive is a valuable time capsule for visitors today‘ (source).

Our tired legs were begging for a rest. Time for tea, and there’s only one place to go for tea in Glasgow and that’s Tchai Ovna in Otago Lane. The place comes with two resident cats (the one sitting next to me was very keen on cucumber!) and hundreds of teas from all around the world. We both had pots of chai – mine was Bombay Lemongrass Tchai and Andy’s was Tchai Hel (Persian). Otago Lane is also home to a record shop and Voltaire and Rousseau – the most crazy bookshop ever. Books are piled up, three rows deep and at the top of the shop is a fairly eccentric man.

On the way back to the hotel, we popped into the Thistle Gallery. A silk screen print caught my eye… and as today was the preview, we were offered glasses of wine. Four members of a family were exhibiting together (what a talented family!) and we chatted to a few of them.

The area around the gallery – West End – is mostly residential, with huge houses mostly split into flats now. This is where you find trendy restaurants, delis and cafés.

Dinner was at the tiny Babu Bombay Street Kitchen, just a few minutes from our hotel. We had potato patties, pau vada, egg dipped roti with dhal, Punjabi channa masala, tamarind carrot and a ‘100 clove garlic and red chilli chutney’. Delicious!

And there was only one way to follow that – a visit to The Pot Still where they have over 300 malt whiskies. What followed was a fascinating conversation with (the now legendary) Frank Murphy. We each told him the type of whisky we like, and he picked five choices for each of us, talked us through them and then made us sniff them. Our choices were excellent.

Mr Murphy was one of many people we talked to today. Everyone’s chatty and incredibly patient with us (and yes, we can only ask them to repeat what they’ve said a few times).

We were lucky with the weather today – nippy at times but sunny, and we managed to be indoors whenever the showers struck. Tomorrow’s something else altogether!

The Dunedin of the North

Not surprisingly, following last night’s extravaganza, we had a slow start this morning. We woke up to a sun-filled room. Mugs of tea and breakfast at home, making the most of our welcome basket – eggs and toast with homemade marmalade.

Our AirBnB is so comfortable and homely that we could have spent the morning in – reading and chatting.

We had plenty of walking ahead of us, so eventually we made a start!

Walking all the way up Leith Walk, taking in antique shops, galleries and shops selling Scottish handmade things. We’re both in love with the stunning architecture here and kept prodding each other whenever we came across a gem. We’ve been chatting about the architecture of Edinburgh a lot since we got here yesterday – how preserved it is and the sense of history emanating from it. We’re guessing that the major difference with London is due to how much London was bombed during the Second World War. Edinburgh reminds us of Newcastle – big imposing buildings, with many details.

And obviously, we compared what we saw with Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the South. The man in charge of the building of Dunedin was instructed to follow the characteristics of Edinburgh, complete with street names. The main difference I could see between the two towns was the amount of sunshine we had yesterday!

After the obligatory flat white stop (excellent coffees from Artisan Roast), we walked to Greyfriars Kirkyard. The graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk is incredibly photogenic. Located in the middle of the old town, it is also famous for being the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog that guarded its former master’s grave in the graveyard for 14 years.

From there, we walked to St Giles Cathedral. The cathedral has stunning stained glass windows. We also wanted to check the carved angel playing the bagpipes but sadly the Thistle Chapel was closed and the helpful man at the front desk wasn’t sure when it would open.

We made time for the Shackleton photography exhibition at the National Library of Scotland. The images on display were taken from Frank Hurley’s negatives and they give a real inside into what life was like for these brave men stranded for months and months in the ice.

For a little while after that we walked up and down Royal Mile, and popped in and out of many of the closes – narrow alleys – leading off the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile itself was very busy with tourists. The shops seem to be selling either toot, woollen goods or whisky.

At 2pm, we met our friend outside the National Museum of Scotland and had a great lunch at Tower. We then went up to the roof terrace for spectacular views of the Edinburgh skyline, and especially the castle.

What followed was quite special. We spent approximately 40 minutes in the museum. We had two things on our list to check out – the Lewis Chessmen and the ‘light-filled atrium of the Grand Gallery’. But what made the experience so good was the special tour our friend gave us – insider knowledge! From bringing the Lewis Chessmen to life to pointing out the other highlights of the gallery – Dolly the Sheep; the oldest locomotive ever; some amazing Alexander McQueen shoes (emulating goat hooves) to a Mantua dress, and a Lego replica of the Museum. And finally, a personal introduction to the Galloway Hoard – ‘the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain.’ The Museum is currently fundraising to save the Galloway Hoard for the nation. And that’s a good cause.

Our friend had one more treat for us – the Dovecot Studios, just a few minutes away from the National Museum of Scotland. This incredible fine art tapestry studio is located in a renovated Victorian pool building. You can view the works in progress from a gallery. That was quite special, and I particularly enjoyed the Daughters of Penelope exhibition, and especially the works of Caroline Dear, made of grass from the Isle of Sky.

We walked home – via Grassmarket and the Scottish Parliament. A glass of white wine and some olives… and it was time to set off again.

We walked down to Leith shore. At The Ship on the Shore, we enjoyed terrific cocktails. We were tempted by the Mars bar martini…. No, not really. Andy settled for a Glenmorangie-based cocktail and I had a superb margarita.

Our table at Martin Wishart, just a few minutes walk from The Ship on the Shore, was booked for 8pm. We opted for the vegetarian eight course tasting menu, with the matching flight of wine. As the courses followed each other, we oohed and aahed, and sometimes meh-ed. The food always demanding a strong reaction.

We walked home, and settled in the lounge to talk the day over with a small glass of Bunnahabhain 12 year old.

Another late one!

Stockholm as locals

Saturday 10 June 2017

I can’t remember the last time we got up so late on a Saturday morning. For us. It was after 9am. We slept well in our little cabin. That was an unexpected bonus about us staying away from the city centre.

The other benefit was that when Andy went off to his gig on Friday night, I walked around the lake – taking in the wildlife, enjoying the nature and exchanging greetings with locals – walkers, joggers and families taking a stroll. At one end of the lake, I came across many families sitting on the grass. Children running around; grown-ups chatting with a glass of wine or beer in hands; picnic tables laden with home cook dishes… A whole community coming together. I carried on. The path less trodden. I half expected to find a body in the overgrown grasses near a pond; I think I watch too many Nordic Noir series! I sat on the pontoon for a while and watched the birds, the ducklings and brave swimmers (wearing wetsuits).

Breakfast was simple. Slices of rye bread we got from Fabrique yesterday with butter.

We started our day with a walk to the pontoon. Perched on a bench, we listened to the birds, and relaxed by the water. If we lived there, we’d come in the morning with mugs of coffee.

We got the bus to Brommasplan station, and the metro to town. It’s about thirty minutes door to door.

Flat whites? Oh yes, and very good they were too. Johan & Nystrom is a popular place and the outdoor terrace was busy, but we managed to find a couple of empty seats, next to the knitting ladies.

This is a less touristy area somehow. It has a great neighbourhood feel with plenty of cafes, restaurants and independent shops. This was a surprise to us both as we had dismissed the area the previous day. Just goes to show why exploring further, beyond main thoroughfares, is always worth it!

Lunch was a delicious smashed avocado and black sesame seeds over sourdough at Petrus Bakery. Simple and tasty.

From there, we walked along the waterfront to Fotografiska – the world’s largest photography museum. Each floor had an exhibition, with background information and short films. We enjoyed taking our time, stopping by the images that grabbed us, sitting down to watch the films. The exciting news is that we’ve subsequently found out that Fotografiska will be opening a gallery in London in 2018.

The café, on the top floor, has great views over the old town, We sat for a while with a drink and a cinnamon bun, watching the view and chatting over the various exhibits. Andy’s mind was buzzing with creative ideas.

We spent a couple of happy hours walking around the old town. First following a self-guided walk and then wandering around, walking down side streets which took our fancy. The area is full of old colourful buildings and architectural details. Very graphic. We stopped by the Royal Palace just in time to see the end of the changing of the guards.

Walking away from the palace, we found Rag and Bone, the statue strategically placed to be near the Parliament and the Royal Palace to highlight the discrepancies between the rich and the poor.

Back to Södermalm island. We made our way to Laveau’s Little Quarter for cocktails. The ‘craft‘ cocktails were excellent. It looked to be a trendy place. We were there early and it was still very quiet.

We couldn’t resist popping into the cheese shop opposite. We purchased a lump of Svensk Wrangebacksost Eko cheese to take back to the cabin.

Our feet were full of walking and it was time to head home.

Back at the cabin, we listened to a podcast about Stockholm and Swedish traditions and history. Andy made a start on dinner – a simple salad. And of course, our Swedish cheese and rye bread to follow.

We could be heroes

Saturday 24 June 2017

I don’t think we saw or heard anyone else the whole time we were in the flat. Which was a little un-nerving. Maybe I’ve read too many cold war books. Which reminds me, if you haven’t read Stasiland yet, you should. The book and its author received a frosty reception in what was East Germany in 2004. I digress. But only a little. Things would have happened in this building where we were staying. Listening devices would have been planted in some of the flats.

We left the flat just in time to board the tram towards Mitte and especially Distrikt Coffee. We got there right on opening time (there was a queue!) and got a great breakfast (which for me may have involved a poached egg and avocado) and great coffee. The interior was trendy in a cool relaxed way and the staff was friendly.

Fortified, we walked through the atmospheric Friedhof Sophien II cemetery to the Berlin Wall Memorial. There, at Bernauer Strasse, we found a complete section of the wall still intact – with the no man’s land and one of the three remaining watchtowers. This is where the wall was first erected. In what used to be East Germany, apartment blocks were right against the wall, and early on people used to escape to West Germany through the windows. Some of these buildings were later condemned and demolished. The outdoor exhibition shows some of the successful escapes. It also tells of unsuccessful ones. People who saved their lives; people who saved others; people who took risks. The stakes were high; soldiers were under orders to shoot escapees.

The museum has more stories, some echoed the stories we’d read about the previous days. Some people had made some very difficult decisions – either informing on their friends and neighbours or helped bust escape networks.

Sure, it’s easy to be judgmental now. What would we have done in similar circumstances?

It cannot be as simple as heroes and villains.

I spent a few minutes listening to some of the audio recordings – people who had been interrogated by the Stasi; soldiers who had been told to keep guard along the wall to protect the East from the West (but soon realised that the danger was most likely internal).

There were some more uplifting stories too. Families meeting across the wall when originally the wall was just a small partition, showing off newborns or just waving to each other. Families torn apart, yet trying to keep some sense of normality.

I remember stories from my childhood. Bear with me on this one. My maternal grandmother’s brother was married to a woman. He died. She remarried. She died. Her husband remarried a younger polish woman who had escape Poland just before or just after the iron curtain. She had made the ultimate sacrifice; she’d left her family behind. Over the years, she exchanged many letters with her family – she had no doubt that her letters were censored as the ones she got from her loved ones were heavily censored. A few times, she asked for special permission to go and visit her relatives. Each request was refused. My memory is hazy here, but I think one of her later attempts was successful. She was beyond joy. My maternal grandmother kept in touch with her and her husband and this is how I know that her marriage was a happy one. She led a contented life in France. She and her husband had adopted two siblings. I remember she taught me how to pluck a chicken amongst other things.

These thoughts were circling in my head the whole time we were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. That was intense.

With mixed feelings, and some relief, we made for our next destination. Walking around Mitte was a welcome treat: the architecture is lovely and it has many cool bars, restaurants and boutique shops. Lunch at The Klub Kitchen was followed by a browse in Paper and Tea and a shop selling wrapping paper and stationery goods (a dream!). We picked up some tasty cinnamon buns from Zet fur Brot (another queue!) and returned to our sightseeing.

First on the list was one of the Alexanderplatz’s most well-known sights, the World Time Clock. Constructed in 1969, it weighs 16 tons and is 10 metres tall. The revolving cylinder has 24 time zones with the names of major cities in each zone. And, you can see the current time in each zone. I loved it.

A short walk away, we visited St Marienkirche. Only a small portion of the famous dance macabre fresco was visible, as the western portico is undergoing renovation. Very little is known about it. It’s suggested that local citizens commissioned it and that it aimed to ‘demonstrate the transience of life on earth’.

Not far from the St Marienkirche, we found larger-than-life statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the Communist Manifesto. Another reminder that Berlin was one of the capitals of the communist world.

We took a bus to our next stop, the Room of Silence near the Brandenburg Gate. The room is located in the gate’s northern wing and it offers visitors a place to meditate, reflect and ponder in what is one of Berlin’s most touristy monuments.

We walked as close to the Reichstag as we could – big flags on display, including a huge European one. We hadn’t booked (free) tickets to enter so we made do with the monument to the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag.

Our next memorial was the memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Centered around a pond, it is quite understated yet peaceful.

Not memorialed out just yet, we made for the Holocaust Memorial which commemorates the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is akin to a giant field of stelae. It contains 2,711 sarcophagus-like concrete slabs, which vary in height on undulating ground. It is stunning and poignant… as long as you ignore the kids and young tourists playing hide and seek (seriously, sometimes I don’t get people!).

There was a lot to absorb and discuss, and we did that over a craft beer at Kaschk back in Mitte (all pale ale). The décor is cool, as in Scandi-it-looks-like-you’re-in-a-homemade-shed cool. During the day, they serve coffee and baked goods there.

And then we thought we’d go back to Hops & Barley because the beer is really nice there! We sat outside, and shared our table with friendly locals. Every time a new drink was purchased, a merry round of ‘prost’ rang around.

Where’s the revolution?

Finding that bit of the Berlin wall in Tirana makes for the perfect transition to our recent Berlin weekend break.

Our Berlin stories.

Thursday 22 June 2017

We left home fairly early and made our way to London City Airport – destination Berlin.

Flying from City was on Andy’s list. It is our nearest airport and it seems ridiculous that we never make use of it. Especially when you can be in a place like Berlin in no time (we were in the air for an hour and twenty minutes).

I guess we just needed an excuse!

We landed at Tegel and got the bus TXL to the terminus, Alexander Platz. From there, we got the metro U5 towards Hönow and got off at Frankfurter Tor.

Our airBnB apartment was located minutes from the station, in Friedrichshain. The views from the windows are exceptional, looking out towards the towers of Frankfurter Tor (formerly Stalin-Allee & Karl-Marx Allee). It doesn’t get any more East Germany than this.

The building of the apartment is a historical monument. It was built in the 50s together with the avenue Karl-Marx Allee (in the past called “Stalin Allee”). In the GDR it was a very significant and monumental avenue. The building has a special glamor of spy movies of the Cold War.” (From our host).

We dropped our bags and headed out to lunch.

The neighbourhood’s friendly and just on the right side of trendy. After a tasty lunch at Aunt Benny (a lovely place with delicious coffee, minimalistic interior and friendly service), we shopped for supplies and made our way back home.

And then it rained. Heavy rain.

So we staggered our journey back to the flat, taking regular shelter in doorways. We had checked the weather forecast so often leading up to the weekend, and rain hadn’t really been part of the agenda. Oh well.

Waiting for the rain to ease up, we finalised our itinerary for the forthcoming days. And ventured out again mid-afternoon.

We started with a walk along ‘Karl-Marx Allee’. This boulevard is allegedly 89 metres wide and two kilometres long (we’re not convinced). The style is over the top socialist classicism. The buildings are impressive.

From there, we headed towards the Spree River where we walked along the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall (1.5 kms). And it’s incredible what memory does to you. Straight away, footage from 9 November 1989 came to mind. These were incredible scenes. History in the making, and here we were… at the wall.

The East Side Gallery – as that stretch of the wall is known – is an open-air gallery. Over 100 artists from all over the world were invited to paint a section of it. The most famous section of it all is probably “The kiss of death” with Brezhnev and Honecker kissing.

We walked across the Oberbaumbrücke – the bridge connects Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, two districts formerly divided by the wall. Architecturally, it’s an old interesting bridge, made a lot more interesting for serving as a pedestrian crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. We spent ten minutes or so walking about what was West Berlin, and retreated to the East.

Walking back towards our apartment, we stopped at Hops and Barley for a swift pint of incredible craft beer. ‘We’re coming back here, right?’, asked Andy. Oh yes. Definitely.

Dinner was a quick affair at Il Ritrovo – dead cool waiters and tasty pizzas – before our next date with history.

We made our way to the Olympiastadion, about 40 minutes away. This is very much a modern stadium now; one of the world’s top entertainment venue. But there is some murky history there.

Walking past the Olympic rings, we went in and took our seats (thankfully covered). The sky darkened. There was lightening in the sky followed by thunder. Rain fell hard.

It didn’t matter much… because when Depeche Mode are on stage, little else matters.

Now, I would happily have brought the day to an end here, but Andy asked me to expand on the concert… so here goes. The set was pretty much the same as the one we had on London a few weeks ago with just one different song. The crowd was mental, the way Depeche Mode fans are pretty much everywhere in the world apart from the UK. And consequently, the band had fun.

We got away from the stadium quickly considering how many people were about, and got a couple of metros back home. A few people in our carriage were very soggy. Soaked through. Yet everyone was buzzing.

Protecting the interests of the people

We left Ohrid at 9:30am and crossed the border within an hour. That flight from Luton is most appealing. I can see us coming back to Ohrid – taking our time exploring the back streets and the churches, taking another boat ride…

On the other side, it’s bunkermania – bunker after bunker litter the landscape and a heavy military presence. Other than that, the differences are subtle. Village life in Macedonia is not very different from village life in Albania. Failed businesses; abandoned factories; houses in ruins and many war memorials. And in the middle of all that, huge mansions under construction – from the diaspora and the mafia.

The road twisted and turned as we climbed and then descended offering us a panoramic view.

The coffee break was most welcome; macchiato of course. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel castle. Immediately, a few of us were drawn to a playful kitten – having the time of its life with a dry leaf. A woman working there brought us two more kittens and we oohed and aahed.

Back on the road, we drove through a valley. The riverbed was mostly dry. We passed vineyards. And of course, more bunkers.

We arrived back in Tirana around 1pm. We popped to the local bakery for some cheese byrek, got our clothes ready for tomorrow, packed our bags and jumped into a taxi to Bunk’Art. We arrived at the site through a 500m single track tunnel carved out of the hillside.

This was the top bunker, for the elite. The space is unbelievable. From private rooms for Hoxha and his top advisers, to a massive assembly room, a bufe, a filter room (to clean the air), a decontamination room. It felt like an underground city. What gets you after a while is how cool it is down there (the temperature is a constant 16c) and the lack of light. The exhibits varied between dry informative (facts, which may mean nothing if you don’t have at least some background to what this was all about and who was who) and fascinating video footage of Hoxha’s funeral and images of the Skanderberg square packed with people for Stalin’s funeral.

With the feeling of only having a few hours to go, we spent just over an hour there and got a taxi to take us to our next destination.

En route, we stopped at the Resurrection Cathedral. This time, we had the place all to ourselves. I was surprised at how Moorish it looked inside, architecturally.

Opposite the cathedral is the House of Leaves, Tirana’s very own museum of secret surveillance. Originally, the building was a medical clinic. It became the headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and then the Sigurimi (Albania’s Communist-era version of the KGB). The equipment on show was both impressive and chilling.The building was used both a listening post and place of torture. The paranoia of the government at the time is incomprehensible – creating ‘enemies’ of the state, spying on people and ensuring that nothing was beyond the reach of the State. One of the roles of Communist propaganda was about cultivating the cult of the leader.

When the right thing to do would have been to walk back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we opted to take a walk in the opposite direction.

Fortune favours the brave.

Walking toward Mother Theresa’s square (which surprisingly doesn’t have a statue of her), we came across a few more bunkers, and… a piece of the Berlin wall. This really tied the whole trip together. Our trip to Berlin a few weeks ago (the notes of which will be coming here soon) and all we did and learnt there fitted so well with so much of what happened to this part of the Balkans.

We walked back go to the hotel, along streets we’re now very familiar with and were lucky to notice that the doors of the Pyramid were opened so we popped our heads in (they have an exhibition on urbanisation). Tirana’s grows on you, very subtly. The sun was out, people were starting to fill the public spaces.

I had read about a restaurant and very much wanted to try it for dinner – new Albania cuisine. I asked Ivan if he knew anything about it, and the next thing I know, he’d booked a table for the whole group. So, at 7pm, we got taxis there (it’s about an hour walk from the hotel).

Part of the Slow Food movement, Mullixhiu wouldn’t look out of place in trendy parts of London. We were welcomed from the taxis by one of the staff, who informed us that the name of the restaurant came from the flour mills they have on sight (which they use to make their own bread0. We got baskets of fresh bread and a fresh cherry juice whilst we perused the menu. We shared a fresh salad (courgette and plums with a vinaigrette), a saffron risotto and pasta with mushroom. These dishes were incredibly tasty (all made from local ingredients). Washed down with a pitcher of house red. The place was packed (trendy Tirana crowd), and when the bill came, we sat in silence and disbelief. It was just under £20 for both of us.

We left the rest of the group (off to explore the bars of Blloku) and got a taxi back to the hotel. We have a taxi to the airport at 2am!

Initially, we both had reservations about this trip. We still have such strong memories of Big Trip. Had we made a mistake? Would we like it? Would we be underwhelmed?

It took us a couple of days to get into it.

Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are fascinating countries with deeply rooted history as well as recent history, and a profound dislike for some of their neighbours.

This relatively undiscovered part of the world worked its magic – from the Ottoman times to its recent turbulent history, from the weather to the delicious food, the wine and the raki and some of its unexpected craziness. Whilst Kosovo may not be for everyone yet – tourism there is still very raw – Albania and definitively Macedonia are appealing destinations.

I still can’t understand why we never hear about Macedonia; I mean… ask yourself, what did you know about the country 10 days ago?

We were lucky to have enlightened and fun travelling companions. This also very much made the trip.