The best thing about my Scoot flight from Singapore was the 0300 departure, affording a decent sleep before waking to see the snowbound Zagros Mountains of Iran, and landing in Athens just after 0900. The worst thing was the pricing: my £170 ticket was £30 cheaper four months after I booked.
February in Athens is completely different to summer. The Parthenon has a steady trickle of tourists, Plaka is virtually deserted and city walking tours are scarce. Grey skies and single-digit temperatures don't help, but it's a grand feeling being virtually the only person at Mount Lycettabus viewpoint on a cold blustery afternoon, surrounded by the city below.
Graffiti has run amok in Athens. Well-fed stray cats inhabit The Acropolis, Plaka, the National Garden and even Mount Lycettabus.
I stayed at a hostel near the small 10th century church of Kapnikarea, halfway down Ermou Street, which branches off Syntagma Square.
Apart from the historical sites (Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Temple of Zeus, Stadium), museums, touristy old Plaka, the large Government building facing Syntagma Square, with it's silly-walking guards and friendly pigeons, and the pretty bitter-orange trees, Athens is an urban sprawl, and three days was enough. On my last afternoon the sun finally appeared, seemingly accompanied by more tour groups.
I took a €20 overnight bus from near Omonia Square, heading north to Albania.
Gjirokaster is a UNESCO listed town in southern Albania, thanks to it's old town and grand castle. The Ottoman houses and cobbled streets hug the hillside above the modern town, which sits on one side of the wide Drina valley.
The castle dates from before the 11th century, formerly inhabited, containing water cisterns and a prison. The hot dry summers led to the construction of an aqueduct at the start of the 19th century, under the supervision of Ali Pasha, who also added the clock tower, before being recalled to Istanbul and subsequently executed by his Ottoman superiors. The aqueduct supports were demolished in 1932 under orders from King Zog, who had the material used to construct a central prison in the castle, used until the fall of communism.
Gjirokaster is the birthplace of former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, and his former house is now the site of the Ethnographic Museum. His statue was torn down soon after he died in 1985. His legacy, despite restoring Albania from the ruins of WW2, was largely negative, following repression, isolationism and the pointless construction of 173,371 small concrete bunkers, most of which have now been cleared.
There are few tourists in February, but several money-changers line the main street of the new town, offering good rates (£1=143 leke). The views of snow-capped mountains across the valley make Gjirokaster a great place to spend a couple of nights. I was the only guest in "Hani I Fisnikut", a lovely hostel just below the castle, €10 including a tasty breakfast.
Three hours by minibus towards Tirana is another UNESCO town, Berat, with it's white Ottoman houses below the extensive castle. Unlike Gjirokaster, this one is still inhabited, and contains a 15th century church. The two old areas of Mangalem and Gorica are separated by the Osum River.
I first came five years ago. There are now a couple more hostels, a new bus terminal outside the town, and roads have been improved, assisted by EU funding! Albania is getting more visitors these days, and passport control at the borders is no longer a drama. The modern towns are ugly, but there is good mountain scenery away from the urban blight.
Ninety minutes, and 300 leke by minibus, north of Berat is Albania's second city and former capital, Durres, from where ferries sail to Italy. I passed through last time, and so decided to stay, getting a dorm to myself at "Byro Hostel and Cafe".
Durres dates back to pre-Roman times, and there are a few remains, as well as a new archaeological museum. As in Berat, there is an incongruous neo-classical university building.
The promenade north of the port is messy, a mish-mash of Venetian and Roman remains, ugly statues, modern hotels, cheap fairground rides, a seaweed-strewn beach and an unsightly pier. I even found a Hoxha bunker at one end of the beach.
The old amphitheatre looks dilapidated, and frequented by stray cats and dogs in February. A man stumbled his way up the cobbled steps, his water bottle obviously containing raki.
Durres isn't pretty, but the summer crowds still descend en masse to it's beaches, being only an hour from Tirana.
I again took the 1 pm slow train to Shkoder, four hours north and, at 160 leke, possibly the cheapest in southern Europe. The train is barely occupied, as buses are faster, and must be heavily subsidised, my train surely taking less than £50 in ticket sales. Many of the windows are cracked due to stone-throwing youths, but despite that, with blue skies, it makes a pleasant afternoon journey.
Shkoder has a fort on it's outskirts, churches, mosques, and a photographic museum of Albanian history. The central area has been pleasantly pedestrianised, but in winter, the wind whipping off the mountains can make temperatures feel bitterly cold, as it did the day after I arrived.
Friendly ear-tagged stray dogs dot the streets and parks. It makes a good starting or finishing point to an Albanian trip, especially to the northern mountains in more clement weather.
I stayed in the "Bulldog Hostel and Club", two years old and a lovely warm retreat, with good winter dorm rates of five euros per night, including breakfast (croissant, burek - a balkan pastry, coffee and water) in the bar.
A furgon, or minibus, leaves thrice daily for the 40 km trip to the coastal town of Ulcinj, in Montenegro. At 9 am on a crisp, sunny Sunday morning, I was the only passenger for the €5 (or 700 leke) ride. I stayed on the bus at the border whilst the driver presented my passport to both sets of immigration officials, without me showing my face.
Ulcinj has a largely ethnic Albanian population, and is popular in summer for it's beaches and rocky coastline. It gets over 200 sunny days per year, and is a pleasant place in February, but with typical out-of-season neglect. The old town dates from pre-Roman times, but has been much modified and rebuilt after wars and the ravages of time, not least the 1979 earthquake.
It can get very windy here, with pine trees bent at strange angles. Low single-digit temperatures were replaced, after two days, with by mid-teens. It's a nice spot to sit and enjoy the scenery.
I took a minibus ninety minutes north-west to Podgorica, staying a night before getting the 10 am train towards Belgrade. Montenegro's capital is not very interesting, but it does have an impressive new, post-Tito, church. Building started in 1993 on the "Cathedral Of The Resurrection Of Christ", consecrated in 2013, and situated, aptly but almost incongruously, in the new town. It's eclectic white stone exterior draws one in to the heavily iconographed interior, with golden backgrounds, marble floors and columns.
Podgorica shall go down as the place where I finally succumbed to the march of technology and downloaded maps.me. It's easier, though much less sociable, following an arrow on a phone.
The train from Podgorica (starting on the coast in Bar) to Uzice (and continuing to Belgrade) passes through the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Montenegro, travelling through dozens of tunnels. The line was built in 1970s Yugoslavia, and given it's light use (two three-carriage trains per day), it's a marvel that it's still open, given the inevitable maintenance costs. My ticket cost €12, plus €3 for an obligatory seat.
More than an hour is added to the trip at the border, the train stopping at three stations: for Montenegran immigration, for Serbian customs, and for Serbian immigration (passport taken away to be stamped).
The full day-time journey leaves Bar at 9 am and arrives in Belgrade at 8 pm. Since Belgrade's main railway station was closed last June, for commercial development, the Bar train now arrives at the tiny Topcider station, four km south-west of the city centre.
Uzice is a pleasant town on the winding Dejinja River. It was the site of one of the first polyphase hydro-electric plants in Europe, opened in 1900, four years after the original at Niagara Falls. There is a small 14th century fortress on a bluff overlooking one end of the town. Uzice makes a good base for exploring the region, or passing through en route to or from Bosnia or Montenegro.
I took a local bus 14 km up to the quirky white Kadinjača Memorial, built on top of a hill, with tremendous views all around, and with still a few patches of snow on the first day of March. It commemorates the 1941 resistance of Uzice partisans against superior German forces. The original pyramid memorial was built in 1952, and the strange white structures added in 1979, inaugurated by Josip Broz Tito less than a year before he died and Yugoslavia slipped inexorably towards implosion.
There are bus stops with rusty seatless shelters that look unchanged since then, but as buses are infrequent on country roads, I thumbed a lift back down into Uzice within five minutes, though few people speak much English.
Most trains from Uzice arrive at "Beograd Centar", a couple of km from the old railway station. It costs 666 RSD (£1 = 133 dinars), half the price of a bus.
I find Belgrade a grey, drab city, despite being cheap and allegedly having some of the best nightlife in Europe.
After two nights I took a bus north to Novi Sad, the train service having been suspended with the rail network re-organisation. Whilst waiting for my bus I popped into the old railway station. It was closed last June, but re-development has barely begun. The tracks and sleepers have gone, but platforms, signs and public access remain. A few hundred metres away cranes and scaffolded new high-rises blight the view. It's a strange feeling, sitting on a platform bench waiting for a train that'll never come.
Novi Sad is a pleasant place to stop for a day or two, with lovely views over the city from the Hapsburg-era Petrovaradin Fortress, across the Danube. In 2019 the city is hosting "Internatiinal Youth Year", whatever that means.
It's hard to imagine that NATO was committing war crimes here twenty years ago, destroying, amongst other things, the city's three Danube bridges, as punishment for Belgrade's intransigence towards Kosovo.
I again stayed at "Varad Inn Hostel", a lovely quiet place with attached cafe, €10 for an empty dorm.
The daily train to Budapest leaves Novi Sad at 10.55 am and costs 1,435 dinars, about €12. The immigration bods leaving Serbia asked what my purpose had been. I was hardly going to say "spy". Likewise their Hungarian counterparts, who also delved into my small pack, supposedly looking for smuggled cigarettes or booze.
We changed train at Kelebia, on the Hungarian border, after waiting an hour for formalities, and finally pulled into Keleti Station in Budapest at 6 pm.
My first lowish-season visit to Budapest found it only moderately heaving with weekend tourists. I stayed four nights in a quiet dorm at "Marco Polo Hostel", good value at €10 including buffet breakfast. It's near the old Jewish Quarter, five minutes walk from Europe's largest synagogue.
From St Stephen Basilica to the Parliament Building; across the Chain Bridge to Fisherman's Bastion, Buda Castle and on to the Citadel and Liberty Statue at Gellert Hill; back across the Danube to the Great Market Hall, and past the National Museum. Budapest has enough history, scenery and culture to intrigue this big-city cynic. The views across the river to Buda come into their own as dusk draws in, lights come on and snappers come out.
All that's left is a good sleep followed by the 900 HUF bus trip from Deak Square, a hundred metres from the Budapest Eye, to Franz Liszt Airport, 45 minutes away. It's time to see if Wizzair lives down to its dire Trustpilot reputation...
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