Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Timeless Macedonia on video

The Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski, best known for the feature films Before the Rain and Dust, has directed a short promotional video that aims to encourage tourists to visit the Republic of Macedonia. The video will air on CNN and other television channels, and can also be viewed on the Macedonia-Timeless website.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Dubrovnik

Earlier this month Easyjet announced the launch of a new route from London Gatwick to Dubrovnik. Flights will start on 1st May 2009 and will operate four times weekly (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday).

At the time of writing one-way fares of £34 including taxes are available on a variety of dates in May and June. Not surprisingly, cheap fares in July and August are a little harder to come by, but early bookers should still be able to find some reasonable deals.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Train timetable changes in the Balkans - December 2008

Once again we have reached the time of year when railway operators across Europe introduce new timetables. The next round of changes will take effect on 14 December 2008.

According to an announcement on the Serbian Railways website, a second daily train is being introduced on the Belgrade-Skopje-Thessaloniki route. Or rather reintroduced, as this restores the situation prior to December 2007. Any improvement to the poor public transport connections between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece is very welcome.

The IC "Avala", which currently runs from Vienna via Budapest to Belgrade, will now operate on the route Prague-Bratislava-Budapest-Belgrade. There will thus be no direct daytime Vienna-Belgrade service, although it will still be possible to travel between these cities by day with a change in Budapest, and the direct overnight "Beograd" service is retained.

The overnight train from Niš (Serbia) to Podgorica and Bar (Montenegro) will now leave Niš in the morning, at least during the winter - it is not clear what will happen in summer.

These are the only major developments in Southeast Europe that I have noticed so far. There are also numerous minor timing alterations.

Sadly there is no sign of any improvement in the rail links between Italy and Slovenia. Since TrenItalia withdrew their leg of the "Casanova" service earlier this year, the only direct train has been the "Venezia Express" from Venice to Budapest, which passes through Ljubljana at an inconvenient hour of the night. This seems a very strange state of affairs between neighbouring countries within the Schengen zone.

As happens every year, the various online train timetables are struggling to deal with the changeover - apparently this is too great a challenge for the current state of computing technology. So for the next few weeks, care will be required when using online timetables to plan journeys in advance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

It's a long way from Split to Dubrovnik ... if you believe Google Maps

Fellow blogger Stuart Pinfold has drawn my attention to the eccentricities of Google Maps in giving driving directions between certain points in Southeast Europe. In his post on the topic he points out that Google Maps comes up with a slightly overcomplicated route between Dubrovnik and Mostar. Instead of the conventional 150-kilometre drive that less creative mapping software might recommend, Google suggests a more adventurous approach: a ferry to Italy, some driving, another ferry to Greece, and more driving through Greece, the entire length of Albania, Montenegro, and finally Bosnia. At 1541 kilometres it's a mere 10 times longer than the usual route - and so much more interesting. I've always encouraged travellers to venture away from the beaten path and explore less well-known parts of the Balkans, so it's nice to see Google doing the same. Not only that, but it adds a sense of history by persistently referring to Dubrovnik as Ragusa - admittedly not a name that appears very often on Croatian road signs.

I tried a few test routes of my own in Google Maps to see if this was just an aberration. Surely the straightforward coastal drive from Split to Dubrovnik wouldn't cause any problems? Sure enough, Google's answer does involve a drive along the Adriatic Coast - unfortunately it is on the other side of the Adriatic, between Bari and Pescara.

I guessed that the small strip of Bosnian territory between Split and Dubrovnik (the "Neum Corridor") might be causing a problem, so I tried an even simpler request: directions from Split to Zagreb, a route that lies entirely within Croatia. The result was even more surprising: "We could not calculate directions between split, croatia and zagreb, croatia."

So the problem runs deeper than the Neum corridor; there seems to be a more fundamental problem with Google's Croatia database. But maybe it's just Croatia that is flawed and everywhere else in the Balkans is OK? I asked for directions between two neighbouring capitals, Belgrade and Podgorica. At first everything looked fine: as I expected, the results show a blue line heading southwest from Belgrade and continuing along major roads to Podgorica. But wait a minute - what is that thick blue line southeast of Belgrade? Closer inspection of the driving directions reveals the problem: Google wants us to head southeast for 150km, turn around, and drive back to the outskirts of Belgrade on the same road before finally taking the correct road towards Montenegro.

At this point I gave up.

As far as I know ViaMichelin is more reliable in providing driving directions in the Balkans. Certainly it acquitted itself well on the examples above. However it's possible that similar horrors lurk within the databases of ViaMichelin and other non-Google mapping websites - if you know of any, let me know.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Through the Balkans by motorcycle - a trip report

Not MY trip report, I hasten to add - I haven't suddenly taken up motorcycling. But I thought that readers of this site might be interested in a new travelog by Jayne Cravens about her journey through Eastern Europe, including several Balkan countries, in September 2008. The descriptions of road conditions and campsites should be particularly useful to anyone planning a similar journey, while motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike should enjoy the many stories of the random acts of kindness that add so much to the experience of visiting the region.

Belgrade: the best nightlife in Europe?

Belgrade's reputation for nightlife seems to be growing unstoppably at the moment. An article in the Times this week claims that you can find "Europe's best nightlife in buzzing Belgrade", and points out a selection of highlights from the city's "ever-changing cobweb of clubs and bars".

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New photos of Croatia

Following a recent trip to Croatia, I have significantly expanded the Croatia Photo Galleries. A variety of places that I had not previously visited are included, among them the islands of Korčula, Mljet, Vis, and Šipan. I haven't forgotten about inland Croatia either - there are new photos of Osijek, Imotski, and the Samobor hills.

In the coming months I will be rewriting and expanding the Croatia pages on Balkanology to reflect my most recent experiences there.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bulgarian bus timetables - now in English

The "Avtogari.info" website, a database of interurban bus timetables in Bulgaria, has been around for quite a while. Until recently it was available in Bulgarian only, which made it difficult for many travellers to use - particularly given the difficulties of inputting place names in Cyrillic characters. Things have just got a whole lot easier with the launch of an English language version of the site - very useful for anyone planning to travel around Bulgaria by public transport.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A guide to Montenegro in your hands

For several years Bradt has been the only publisher offering a general-purpose guide to Montenegro in English. While browsing recently in the excellent "Algoritam" bookshop on the main street in Dubrovnik I noticed that they now have some welcome competition. "Montenegro In Your Hands" was published in June 2008 by the same team that brought us "Serbia in Your Hands", and follows a similar format.

Books about Montenegro
Books about Serbia

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bus timetables in Slovenia: help is at hand

Until recently the best place to look for bus timetable information for Slovenia was the website of Ljubljana Bus Station. However this naturally has the drawback of only including routes that pass through Ljubljana. Information about other routes was scattered in the websites of Slovenia's numerous transport companies.

I've recently learned about www.vozni-red.si, an initiative of the Mountain Wilderness organisation to promote public transport. Using data from the Ministry of Transport, the site for the first time brings together the schedules of all domestic bus routes in one place.

You can input any two towns to find bus connections between them. Pay attention to the footnotes beneath the schedules as they often contain important information (vozi = runs, ne vozi = does not run, vsak dan = every day, vozi ob delavnikih razen sobote = runs on working days except Saturdays; for more vocabulary including the days of the week see the site's help page).

A few examples of schedules that previously were quite difficult to find:
Kranjska Gora to Bovec (over the Vršič Pass)
Bovec to Kobarid (in the Soča Valley)
Koper to Piran (along the Adriatic coast)

Veliko Turnovo

Today's Guardian looks at Veliko Turnovo, which it describes as "Bulgaria's best kept secret". I have no argument with most of the content of the article, but I think the "best kept secret" line is misleading and likely to lead to disappointment. I like Veliko Turnovo and often recommend that people visit it, but I would never describe it as a "hidden treasure". It may not attract the mass-market tourism of the Black Sea coast or the ski resorts, but it's still quite a touristy place.

More about Veliko Turnovo on Balkanology

Monday, August 11, 2008

The mountains of Montenegro ... and more

Now that Montenegro airlines fly directly from Gatwick to Tivat, the country has become more accessible for travellers from the UK. Although the spectacular coastline will inevitably be the focus for many visitors, the country's less touristed inland mountains also deserve attention. A recent article in the Times looks at some of those inland attractions, including the primeval forest of Biogradska Gora. (The accompanying photo was apparently taken in Durmitor National Park, which is not mentioned in the text).

Meanwhile in "A touch of the Riviera in Croatia" the Independent looks at the two sides of Croatia's Hvar Island - glitzy Hvar town on the south coast, and the more down-to-earth Stari Grad in the north.

Venturing further off the beaten path, the Sydney Morning Herald carries an article about Albania. The author is very enthusiastic about quirky Tirana, but apparently not enthusiastic enough to explore Albania beyond the capital. Even so, it's nice to see Albania appearing in the Australian travel pages - a rare, perhaps even unique event.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

British Airways cancels flights to Sarajevo

Less than two years after launching the route, British Airways has announced the suspension of its direct flights from London Gatwick to Sarajevo. This is one of a number of cutbacks made by the airline due to "the difficult trading environment". The last flight to the Bosnian capital will be on October 21.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

More about Mostar and Sarajevo

Over the last few weeks I have expanded and updated the Bosnia section of the site. The Sarajevo page now includes more pointers to outlying sights such as the Jewish Cemetery, Bukovik Mountain, and Bjelasnica. I have also added a note about Stolac to the Mostar page.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Developing the Balkans' Golden Triangle

In today's Independent Sankha Guha reports on an initiative of the United Nations Development Program to encourage cross-border tourism in the former Yugoslavia. The plan is to promote a so-called "Golden Triangle" of World Heritage sites of Dubrovnik (Croatia), Mostar (Bosnia), and Durmitor (Montenegro).

It's questionable whether Dubrovnik needs any more publicity, but presumably the plan is to use it to entice tourists to visit the less well-known inland destinations. As the article makes clear, the people behind the plan have some serious problems to overcome: as if it's not bad enough dealing with the legacy of political tensions, they also have to worry about the impression made on visitors by terrifyingly kitsch Tito-era hotels.




Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Berat and Stari Grad added to World Heritage list

This year's round of additions to the UNESCO World Heritage list includes two locations in Southeast Europe.

The historic centre of Berat (Berati) in Albania has been added to that of Gjirokastra, which has been listed since 2005. UNESCO describe Berat as an example of a well-preserved Ottoman town that "bears witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities down the centuries".

The other addition is the Stari Grad Plain, on the island of Hvar in Croatia, described as "a cultural landscape that has remained practically intact since it was first colonized by Ionian Greeks from Paros in the 4th century BC".

Berati Photo Gallery

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Learn to sail in Croatia

Today's Independent has an article about a family sailing holiday in Lumbarda on the Croatian island of Korčula.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A weekend in Pristina

The Guardian marks the introduction of Kosovo's new consitution by adding an article about Pristina to its "Instant Weekend" city break series.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Southeast Europe is a low-crime region, says the UN

A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) refutes the persistent stereotype of the Balkans as a region of where all kinds of criminals and gangsters run riot. The report says that levels of crime against people and property are lower than in Western Europe, and murder rates have fallen significantly in the last ten years.

Of course it's not all perfect: organised crime and corruption continue to pose significant problems: "victim surveys indicate that, on average, South East Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world". But even in this area the UNODC believes that progress has been made, and is optimistic about further improvements.

Of course none of this is directly related to travel, but it does tend to confirm the anecdotal evidence of most travellers that Southeast Europe is certainly no more dangerous, and possibly safer than Western Europe.

Read more: UNODC Report

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A night in Albania

Following yesterday's article on Montenegro, today's Independent features neighbouring Albania. I was a little disappointed to find that the writer of "The beaches are clean in Albania... and they're almost empty!" spent only one night in the country. It seems a rather slim basis for a travel article, but given the general lack of coverage of Albania I suppose it's better than nothing. On the positive side, it seems the author greatly enjoyed his visit to Saranda and Butrint and left wanting to go back.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Exploring Lake Skadar

An article called "Montenegro: Peace at Last" in today's Independent looks beyond the coastal strip to find a less predictable summer holiday destination. The writer sets off from the village of Virpazar, driving through the isolated villages on the shore of Skadar Lake in search of the Holy Grail: "a beach in Europe that is clean and free from crowds, even in August".

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Montenegro introduces "eco tax" on tourist cars

Montenegro has announced that a tax of 10 euro per car will be collected from motorists entering the country from June 15. The money will supposedly be used for environmental protection. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Tourism is quoted as saying "we hope that tourists will use alternative means of transport, like trains, buses or airplanes". Airplanes? That doesn't sound very eco-friendly. As for buses and trains - the Ministry's own promotional website has hardly any information about public transport, reliable bus timetables are almost impossible to find, and the trains are infamous for delays. If some of the money collected from foreign drivers was invested in tackling those deficiencies, perhaps public transport would become a more attractive alternative.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Balkans in the travel pages - Spring 2008

If you are searching for inspiration for a trip in summer 2008, perhaps one of the articles about the Balkans published recently in the English-language press will help you make a decision.

Albania made one of its rare appearances in the travel pages in March. In an article called "Once and future glories" in the Telegraph, Jeremy Seal focuses on the country's archaeological attractions, from the well-known (by Albanian standards) ruins of Butrint to less visited sites such as Byliss and Hadrianapolis. Albania's infrastructural shortcomings get several mentions, but overall the tone is positive. In "The ups and downs of Albanian tourism" the Southeast European Times also notes that tourism in Albania is being held back by the undeveloped infrastructure. The authorities are making all the right noises about developing a broad range of tourism rather than simply building bigger coastal resorts.

Bosnia, like Albania, sometimes struggles to convince outsiders of its merits as a tourist destination - and especially to persuade visitors to go anywhere other than Sarajevo and Mostar. In "Peace dividend: unspoiled hiking in the Balkans", the New York Times looks at so-called adventure tourism, following a group of American hikers on a guided tour through the Bosnian
mountains. At a price of US$3,000 for a 10 day tour (airfare not included), there doesn't seem to be much danger that these organised trips will lead to the Bosnian landscape being swamped by mass tourism.

Bulgaria doesn't seem to be getting a lot of a attention at the moment, perhaps because its tourism boom has been rather too closely linked to property investments that don't look too appealing in the current economic climate. I've already mentioned the Guardian article "I am starting to love this dirty town" in an earlier post. It's worth keeping an eye on the series "Across the Map of Bulgaria" published by Radio Bulgaria, which often focuses on less well-known aspects of Bulgarian tourism. Recent topics include wine tourism and the monasteries of the Central Balkan mountains.

Croatia continues to feature in many travel articles, many of which are interchangeable and not worth specific mention. The Guardian goes a little way beyond the usual destinations in choosing the "Top 10 Croatian islands" - in fact they go almost half way to Italy in recommending Palagruza as the best island for extreme isolation. Their other choices include Murter for learning to sail, Pag for partying, and Bol for water sports.

Romania is represented by two articles about Transylvania published in different newspapers on the same day. The Times concentrates on the region's Hungarian heritage in "The perfect budget eco break?", concluding that Transylvania is an ideal location for a family holiday. Meanwhile the Guardian looks at the Saxon (German-speaking) influences to be found in "the villages
where time has stood still
". In an earlier post I remarked that it is apparently compulsory for British newspapers to refer to Prince Charles when writing about Transylvania; apparently this decree is still in force, and both articles duly comply. A less rural side of Romania, which I am fairly sure would be less appealing to the Prince of Wales, is featured in the Observer's guide to an "Instant Weekend in Bucharest".

The staging of the 2008 Eurovision song contest in Belgrade prompted a couple of articles about Serbia. The Independent aims for the city break tourist with "48 hours in Belgrade". The Telegraph also concentrates on Belgrade in "Serbia: a side we haven't seen", but ventures out of the city as far as the Vojvodina region. To prove that there is cultural life after
the Eurovision, the TravelConnect website lists a range of musical and theatrical events taking place in Serbia in summer 2008.

Finally, the Independent covers two of Southeast Europe's largest cities, Athens and Istanbul.

Macedonia drops visa requirement for Australian visitors

The Government of the Republic of Macedonia has announced that Australian citizens will no longer require visas to enter the country. This decision means that Australians, like citizens of the EU, the USA, and Canada, can now travel visa-free throughout the Balkans (except in Turkey, where visas are available on entry).

Monday, May 19, 2008

New In Your Pocket guides: Ljubljana and Belgrade

Three new cities in Southeast Europe have recently joined the ever-expanding line-up of In Your Pocket city guides: Belgrade, Ljubljana, and Athens.

In fact one of them is not exactly new: many years ago IYP published a guide to Belgrade, on which I relied during my first visit to the city - at that time it was almost the only source of English-language information about Serbia. That turned out to be a once-off edition at the time, so it's great to see IYP giving Belgrade another go.

The Ljubljana and Athens guides really are brand-new ventures. All three guides are available online as free downloadable PDF files.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

New edition of Albania guidebook

Bradt Guides have just published the third edition of their guide to Albania. Like the first two editions it is written by Gillian Gloyer.

One of my few quibbles with the otherwise excellent earlier editions related to the way the chapters were organised based on the (then reasonable) assumption that travellers to Albania would be visiting on short trips from neighbouring countries. So I'm pleased to see that the new edition has been reorganised, with chapters that will be more coherent for the increasing number of travellers treating Albania as a destination in its own right. Naturally I'm also pleased that several of my photos (the ones shown below) have been included in the colour section!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Easyjet brings Croatia closer to the West Country

Yesterday was the first day of operation for Easyjet's new route from Bristol to Split on the Croatian coast. There will be two flights weekly over the summer period.

Last month also saw Easyjet launch two new routes from London Gatwick to Corfu and Thessaloniki. As well as being of obvious interest to travellers visiting Greece, both towns make good starting points for further exploration of the Balkans. Corfu is just a short ferry ride from Albania's Ionian coast, while Thessaloniki has connections to Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. In particular, given the lack of direct flights from the UK to Skopje, a flight to Thessaloniki follwed by a train trip is a plausible alternative way of getting to the Republic of Macedonia.

Airlines are good at making a fuss about new destinations but tend to be much less forthcoming about publicising abandoned routes. According to In Your Pocket, May will see the last flights on Easyjet's London-Bucharest route. The route began less than a year ago but apparently has been dropped due to "lack of interest". Or perhaps the inhabitants of Bucharest didn't fancy joining the list of popular Eastern European stag party destinations?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cover star debut

Bradt guides recently published the third edition of their guide to Montenegro. It's good to see that Bradt are continuing to keep their strong line-up of Balkan guides up to date. I also have to admit to a more personal reason for welcoming this edition: it is the first guidebook to feature one of my photos on the front cover.

New editions of the guides to Slovenia and Albania are also due from Bradt in the next few months, and will also include some of my pictures, this time in the inside colour sections.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Southeast Europe, motorbiking paradise?

Travel writers listing their top 10 European destinations often overlook the Balkans. Whether the specific theme is the best hotels, favourite hikes, or top spas, the focus tends to be on Western Europe with a couple of places in Central Europe thrown in to give the appearance of balance. So it's good to see Southeast Europe being given in its due in Mike Carter's article in the Guardian, "Europe's top 10 motorbiking roads". The region account for three of his top 10 - four if you count Asian Turkey.

Mike is sufficiently enthusiastic about Romania's Transfagarasan Highway to cover it in a separate, longer article. He describes the road across the Carpathians from Sibiu to Curtea de Arges as "quite simply, one of the greatest buttock-clenching, white-knuckle biking roads in the world".

Also making the list is the route from Bar on the coast of Montenegro to Sarajevo in Bosnia. This inland route passes through Durmitor National Park, where the road becomes a "gravel track, threading its way across a vast treeless, boulder-strewn plateau".


The final Balkan entry is a road well worth following in a bus or car if you don't have a bike: Albania's Ionian Coast road from Saranda to Vlora. The climax comes with the Llogaraja Pass, "taking you from sea level to over 1,000 metres in just a few ear-popping minutes for the best view of the Ionian you'll ever see".

Ionian Coast roadIonian Coast

Bulgaria's Black Sea in the off season

A recent UK survey named Bulgaria as the best value destination for Britons looking for a cheap break abroad. The Guardian marks the occasion with an article about a visit to the Black Sea coast in the off season. Not surprisingly, a lot of tourist facilities in Varna and the nearby resorts are closed. That does tend to happen in off-season seaside resorts. At least it gives the writer time to rightly appreciate the wonderfully tomato-ey taste of Bulgarian tomatoes.

The article suggests that "with the Euro stronger by the day, the Bulgarian lev looks ever more appealing". As the Bulgarian lev has held its value at about 1.96 to the Euro for many years, this doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Dodgy economics aside, it's true that that basic costs in Bulgaria remain low by European standards.

Cathedral of the Assumption, Varna
Cathedral of the Assumption, Varna

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Not about the Balkans

Those up you who keep up to date with changes to Balkanology (all three of you) may have noticed that things have been rather quiet on the site recently. That's because I've been concentrating on non-Balkan-related travel plans (yes, I do travel to other parts of the world). Today I start a six-week trip around Chile and Argentina; there will be no updates to the site over that period.

The leaders of Kosovo chose to declare independence without the courtesy of asking me if the timing would fit with my plans, so any out-of-date references to Kosovo on the site will just have to stay there until I come home. Please don't write to point them out!

Normal service on Balkanology will resume later in the year.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Croatia in 2008 - and a weekend in Belgrade

The Times Online site has two travel articles about Southeast Europe this week.

The Best of Croatia in 2008 takes an extended look at what the Adriatic country has to offer, including special interests such as sailing, long-distance swimming, gastronomy and accommodation in lighthouses. Meanwhile Instant Weekend: Belgrade advises readers to visit the Serbian capital before the Eurovision Song Contest in April thrusts it into the spotlight.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Adventure and history in Kosovo

It's not difficult to predict that Kosovo will make several appearances in our newspapers over the coming months, as the wrangling over its political future continues. So it's nice to see it appearing in the press for a different reason. Last week USA Today published an article entitled "Kosovo offers unspeakable beauty, history and adventure", looking at the region's attractions for travellers.

The writer scrupulously describes the Serbian as well as Albanian component of Kosovo's heritage, topping and tailing the article with a description of the Orthodox Decani monastery. With sad inevitability, most of the reader's comments on the article display the kind of one-eyed negativity likely to cause prospective travellers to put off visiting Kosovo for, oh, another 20 years or so.