Saturday, November 18, 2017

Skopje Part 2

Skopje, Macedonia

19 -20 Sept 2017

For our Balkan trip, we booked a return flight from KUL-SKP, so after finishing our 12 days trip throughout parts of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, we returned back to Macedonia to spend another day in Skopje before going back to Malaysia the next day. We had spent 1 day in Skopje on arrival day, covering the city centre and Old Bazaar area. We haven't decided yet what we would be doing this time around.

We arrived in Skopje from Zagreb around 11pm, taking the Croatian airlines flight. We did not have to pay for check in luggage, but that's because we didn't check in our backpacks and we were served drinks and a packet of snack. Since we arrived late at night, there was no one manning the taxi counter at the airport, nor was there anymore airport bus service, so we had to take the taxi touts who offered the same rate as the taxis (EUR 20) to Skopje city. It wasn't really that far, took us about 20 minutes only to reach our apartment Aloha Luxury (EUR 35 per night, Booking.com).

Since our apartment had some problems to secure our booking through credit card, we had to stay at the second apartment building, which is about 5 minutes away from the main reception building. We would switch to the main building only the next day. Since we were tired and sleepy, we just agreed. Our host today was George who did offer to fetch us from the airport for EUR 18, but we declined the offer, thinking we could get a better rate the airport. It turned out it wasn't.


our apartment at the second building


The next day around 9am, we checked out from our unit and walked to the main building, waited a bit for our room to be ready. This room is better than last night's, and the main building had a verandah, swimming pool (small one though) and gym (but we didn't use it). After we got our new room, we decided to go to Matka canyon, just a 30 minute drive away from Skopje.


our studio room at the main building

the main building of Aloha Luxury apartment

We planned to take Bus no 60 from the bus station to Matka canyon which would cost MKD 75, but we missed the 10.30 bus, and the next one is at 12.10, so we decided to take the taxi. The taxi driver at the bus station quoted us MKD 800. We just agreed on the price quoted, then made our way to Matka. We arrived in Matka around 11.30am. The taxi driver promised to wait for us for 1.5 hours without charging the waiting time. The ride back would cost another MKD 800. Since we were short of Macedonian denar, we paid for the first half in EUR for EUR 15 (at the time EUR 1 = 60 MKD). So the remaining EUR 11 will be paid in MKD, which is MKD 660. The taxi driver agreed.

Matka canyon is great for hiking, one can also hike from Vodno mountain at the Millenium Cross to Matka. The Matka dam was consturcted in 1938 on the river Treska which resulted in the artificial lake of Matka. The dam is still in use for electricity production. Now, the lake hosts activities such as kayaking and boat rides. Since we were short for time, we couldn't take any boat rides or kayak, although the price is really cheap (MKD 200 for 30 minutes). We just walked along the route by the lake taking pictures, then stopped for a drink at a cafe there while enjoying the view.


Matka dam

Matka lake kayaking

Matka canyon

Matka lake

green waters of Matka lake

river Treska downstream

a monastery at Matka


At 1pm, it was time to go back. Lo and behold, a different taxi driver was waiting for us, he told us he was the friend of our original driver. We showed him the picture of our original taxi and driver, and the friend said yes. So we hopped in, expecting everything was fine. We asked to drop us at the city centre, and when we were about to pay the remaining MKD 660, he refused. He demanded MKD 800 from us, but we tried to explain to him that we had paid in excess already to his friend and he should get the money from him. He refused again, so we tried to settle with MKD 700, luckily he agreed, so we left the taxi as quickly as possible in case he changed his mind. This was the first time we had been scammed in our Balkan trip. On hindsight, from the Tripadvisor forum, a taxi from Skopje to Matka would only cost MKD 550 (EUR 9), but this was in 2012. But then again, the price could have not possibly hiked to MKD 800 in 5 years right? So possibly the MKD 800 price was already on the high side.

the first taxi driver


Anyway, we then made our way to the Old Bazaar again to have lunch, this time at the Old Balkan restaurant, then continued with our last souvenir shopping before returning to Malaysia tomorrow. Ah, how time flies! It was already 10 days into our trip, and surely it wasn't enough! Our flight back to KUL tomorrow would be at 12.15 noon, so there was no time to go anywhere, just straight to the airport. This time we got the service of our host George for airport transfer for EUR 18.

cevapi again!

meat with rice- traditional dish. didn't get the name though

Porta Macedonia arch

the red double decker bus of Skopje, no trams here

our host George

traditional chilli paste - Ajvar
 
prayer room at Skopje airport


Goodbye Balkan, thank you for the beautiful memories and great experience! Overall, we were free of scams, except on the last day, and we didn't face any major hiccups, just a few delayed buses and different bus schedule from our plan. The bus schedule information on the internet may not be updated, so do expect some schedule to deviate from your planning. If you have enough budget, or have no problems in driving left hand side, then renting a car and self drive is highly recommended. In our case, we were not really confident to drive on the opposite side, and renting a car with only 2 persons may not be the most economical choice as the fuel price is high in the Balkan countries. 

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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia

17 - 18 Sep 2017

We took the 2.45pm bus from Plitvice Lakes to Zagreb today, and arrived in Zagreb at 5.15pm. From the bus station, we walked to our apartment - Cute Apartment For You (EUR 35 per night, Booking.com) about 11 min away. Our host, Milena was waiting for us and she explained on the places of interest and recommended places to eat around Zagreb.  As per the name suggested, the apartment is cute indeed!
 
our host Milena
bedroom
kitchen

That night we wanted to eat at Sofra, a Bosnian restaurant to try the elusive klepe, but apparently the restaurant closed early on Sunday. We actually walked from our apartment to the restaurant only to find it closed. We then walked to the bus station and bought the vegetarian pizza from the bakery for our dinner, with the last packet of our instant noodles brought from Malaysia. We had dinner back at our cute apartment.

The next morning, we left our backpacks at Milena's parents in law's, just above our apartment before venturing out to Zagreb town. We would collect back our backpacks in the evening, then catch our flight back to Skopje at 9.15pm

We took the tram from Drziceva to Trg Bana J Jelacica station, at the city centre. We bought the tram ticket from the driver and had it validated on the machine inside the tram. The tram ticket cost HRK 4. At the Ban Jelacic square are buildings from the 18th century. Josip Jelacic, whom the statue was erected for in 1866, was an army general who led the 1848 revolution for independence from the Austrian empire.

Ban Jelacic statue


From Ban Jelacic square, we walked to Zagreb cathedral, an early 12th century neo Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral. It is also the tallest building in Croatia. We didn't enter the cathedral though, just viewing it from outside.

Zagreb cathedral

Mary column outside Zagreb cathedral

Next we went to Dolac market, not too far from the cathedral, which is an open farmer's market selling fruits, vegetable, crafts and souvenirs. We bought some souvenirs and grapes hare. The souvenirs at the market is slightly cheaper than the ones in shops.


Dolac market selling fruits

Dolac market selling souvenirs

the Zagreb red heart is a trademark of the city



We then continued to walk along Opatovina street and Ivana Tkalcica street, then climbed up the narrow alley of Male stube, reaching the uphill Radiceva street, then finding ourselves passing through the Stone Gate, a medieval gate with a Virgin Mary shrine, taking pictures of the sights along the way. The next discovery was yet another unique one - St Mark's Church - with its distinctive tiled roof, which was originally built in the 13th century.

Male stube

Radiceva street

Stone Gate


St Mark's church


We continued to walk along Cirilometodska until the end of the street, where the Zagreb furnicular operates. The furnicular was built in 1890 and its track is only 66 meters. You get a view of Zagreb city from up here, although it is not really a vantage point, as you can only see the tall buildings from here. You can also climb up here from Ban Jelacic square walking the stairs of Zakmardijeve stube. Next to the furnicular is Strossmayer promenade, named after the Bishop of Djakovo, Slavonia, political party leader and founder of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

view of Zagreb city from the furnicular station



Strossmayer promenade


Walking along Strossmayer promenade, then down Zakmardijeve stube, we reached back Ivana Tkalcica street, then walked to Skalinska street to get our fix our strukli, a traditional Croatian dough with filling at La Struk cafe, as recommended by Milena. We ordered the cooked salty cheese and gratinated sweet cheese strukli. It was really filling and the portion is big. We should have ordered only 1 dish actually, but we managed to finish it. The cooked strukli tasted better, in our opinion.


Zakmardijeve stube


cooked strukli

gratinated strukli

After the late breakfast of strukli (La Struk only opens at 11am) and a bit more souvenir shopping at Dolac market, we made our way to the Zagreb mosque, taking the tram from Trg Bana J Jelacica to Borojve station, then walked to the mosque. The mosque was opened in 1987 and is the largest mosque in Croatia. After performing our prayers there, we walked to Sofra restaurant nearby (this is a different branch from last night's), and to our delight, the klepe dish is available here. So we ordered klepe and the last round of Sogan dolma. Sofra is a Bosnian restaurant though.We met a retired Malaysian couple here, who was also travelling the Balkans on their own, taking buses and trains. Much respect to them!
 
Zagreb mosque
inside Zagreb mosque

Sofra near Zagreb mosque

klepe - cheesy dumpling

Sogan dolma

After a filling lunch, we made our way back to Milena's to take our backpacks and proceed to the airport. It was still early at 5pm, but we didn't want to take any chances of missed flights. We took the airport bus from the bus station and arrived at the airport around 5.40pm. The airport bus station is just next to the intercity / international bus station. The bus ticket costs HRK30 per person. You could also take the tram to the airport, which is cheaper, but it would be a hassle with the packed crowd in the tram.


Zagreb airport bus terminal

Our flight back to Skopje arrived as per schedule and we arrived at Skopje around 11pm. We took a taxi (not really a taxi, but more like a tout) for EUR 20, which is the same price as the taxi rate displayed at the airport, to our Aloha apartment (EUR 35.10 per night, Booking.com). Tomorrow we would be spending another day in Skopje before our flight back to Malaysia the day after. Again, we didn't want to risk our night flight from Zagreb being delayed to the next day and missing the connecting flight the next day, so we'd rather spend another day again Skopje.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

16 - 17 September 2017

We started our journey early today taking the 7.30am bus from Sarajevo to Bihac (KM 20 per person, KM 2 per luggage). From Bihac, we would be taking a bus or taxi to Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. At this point, we didn't know if there is any connecting buses going to the national park.

We left our apartment at 6.30am, planning to take the tram from Katedrala to the bus station. We waited until it was already 6.50am, there was still no tram no. 1, only tram no. 3 was passing by. So we decided to just walk, which would take us 30 minutes. It was a really good morning exercise! On hindsight, actually we could take the tram no. 3, then alight at Universitet A, then walk 10 minutes to the bus station. We did ask the newspaper kiosk which sells the tram ticket, the vendor did say we could take it, but wasn't sure where we should alight. We reached the bus station around 7.20am, and the bus arrived shortly after.

The journey from Sarajevo to Bihac is equally scenic as well, passing by rivers, valleys, and waterfalls. We agreed that we shall visit this country again to see the other cities such as Travnik, Jajce and Bihac itself, which we stopped by briefly for passengers to get on and off. Along the way we could see fortresses and camping sites by the river. The journey from Sarajevo to Bihac took about 6 hours.


Bosne river along the way


valley

 at Jajce

Veliko Plivsko lake at Jajce

We arrived at Bihac bus station around 1.35pm. Then we went to the ticketing to ask if there is any buses going to Plitvice Lakes. Luckily for us, the there was indeed! And the next bus was scheduled at 2pm which was really good timing! We bought the ticket for KM4 per person. The journey from Bihac to Plitvice Lakes took about just 1 hour with border crossing between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia at Licko Petrovo Selo. We alighted at Entrance 1 of the Plitvice Lakes National Park as our guesthouse Marijan (EUR 50 per night, Booking.com) is located at Rastovaca which is near to Entrance 1. The bus just stopped by the roadside, then we walked to our guesthouse, about 10 minutes away. Rastovaca is a really nice cute little village with guesthouses catering to the hikers to Plitvice Lakes.

our Guesthouse Marijan

our simple room
our simple room

another cute house at Rastovaca

another house in Rastovaca

There was no shops around, so we had our late lunch / early dinner at the Licka Kuca National restaurant, near the Entrance no. 1. We had the grilled trout and vegetable rice which tasted really good.

inside Licka Kuca national restaurant

grilled trout

vegetable rice

After our meal, we went to check out the souvenir shop at Entrance no. 1 Since it was already 6pm, we would only be trekking at Plitvice tomorrow. The park opens at 7am so we planned for an early start tomorrow.

Entrance 1 ticket counter

souvenir shop at Entrance 1

traditional dance show going on at the entrance

Early rise for us today! It was raining this morning, and was still raining at 7am. Since we wanted the whole park to ourselves, rain or shine, we had to start early, before the busloads of tourists come flocking. We rang the bell of our hosts downstairs to deposit our backpacks, which we would collect back around 2pm later. We would be taking the 2.45pm bus to Zagreb today. We bought the tickets for HRK 110 per person, which includes the boat and bus ride in the park. We were perhaps the first visitor at Entrance 1 for today as it was raining quite heavily. We had our raincoats on. This was the first view that welcomed us as we entered. Amazing!

waterfalls of Plitvice


Some facts on Plitvice lakes taken from Wikipedia: The Plitvice Lakes / waterfalls are a result of century-old processes and the sedimentation of chalk, which is abundantly available in the waters of this karst area. The water masses reaching the lakes at the upper or lower part of the system are continuously changing the lakes and the surrounding landscape. They finally exit the lakes as river Korana. New waterfalls are being formed while others run dry. Currently, there are 16 lakes that are a result of the confluence of several small rivers and subterranean karst rivers which are all interconnected.

We took the Route B program which would take about 3 to 4 hours, covering 4km of the park since we would be taking the 2.45pm bus to Zagreb. If we stayed longer, we would have taken the Route C, which would take about 4 to 6 hours, covering 8km of the park.


choose your route

Here are pictures of the Plitvice Lakes and waterfall.

Veliki slap / Big waterfall

Gavanovac lake

Milanovac lake

wooden walkway

boat ride through Kozjak lake

small waterfalls at Kozjak lake

waterfall everywhere

stream along the walkway
 
green lake Gavanovac and Milanovac

These pictures won't do enough justice to such breathtaking and amazing views of the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice. You just have to come experience them yourself! With a heavy feeling, we had to bid goodbye to Plitvice and catch our bus to Zagreb. It is certainly not enough doing a half day trek of the park. Perhaps a full 2 days would be more satisfying, but we didn't have sufficient time for our 2 week Balkan trip. And maybe trek the park at each 4 seasons!

Before leaving for Zagreb, we had lunch at Licka Kuca National restaurant again. For our 2.45pm bus to Zagreb, we bought the ticket from the bus driver which cost HRK 85 per person. We just had to wait at the bus stop at Entrance 1.

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