An Overnight Bus Ride With Sweaty Macedonian Men

Perhaps one of the most memorable portions of my Balkans Bouncing this summer was the penultimate leg of my trip en route back to Greece. The bus ride between Kotor, Montenegro and Skopje, Macedonia is something between 10 and 13 hours – so long, and one that was filled with an array of bumps, border crossings, interrupted slumbers, and smelly and urky Macedonian men. Yes, urky is a word, you get it.

I was already traveling during the most heightened period of refugee entrance into Europe, capped off with the frontier between Greece and Macedonia shutting its doors sometime while I was bouncing. So tensions were high, and there was no shortage of “be carefuls” coming from afar, as I was a single lady traveling solo via many modes of transport, and not without vigilance by my side. However, I really don’t think any amount of vigilance would have decreased my creeped-out-ness on the journey into Alexander the Great’s (still being debated) Macedonia. I actually think it was the most ON in terms of vigilance that I had to be during my whole three weeks on the road.

I became a pro at maneuvering the internet, bus, and train stations for my desired mode of transport between each point of interest, and my long bus ride was set to depart Kotor a little after 7pm, arriving in Skopje sometime around 8am. Ear plugs, neck pillow, and snacks were packed for easy access.

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When I hopped aboard, I was pleasantly surprised that there were only about 5 or 6 of us on a charter bus. It was glorious and I could definitely get down with all this loungy leg room. That bliss held up for perhaps two or three hours. Two or three hours which consisted of my feet on top of the seat in front of me as I gazed out the window, only to be interrupted by the onslaught of a swarm of sweaty, smelly, mish-mosh teethed Macedonian men. Ugh.

The guy who sat down next to me was balding, round, and snored with deep intensity. And that was in addition to being shouty with his other sweaty friends. Good thing I had my ear plugs within finger’s reach. During the whole bus ride I hugged my purse as I sat or slept, making sure everything was zipped and a part of my bodice. I had never felt like such a good little white American girl in my life.

I eventually got some shut eye, only to be awoken by a tap on the shoulder by my sweaty friend at each border crossing, one after the other. During that sporadic night of shuteye, we traversed four countries, or 3.5 depending on your Kosovo stance. The most memorable was while crossing from Albania into Kosovo, where we were all ordered to disembark the bus, collect our baggage, and line up for a search of our belongings. The immigration officers immediately dismissed me back to the bus when I said I was American; meanwhile my Macedonian companions were searched and patted down multiple times before being cleared. Despite popular belief, being an American abroad tends to have its perks.

Now we were in Kosovo, and I was a little bit excited mixed with a lotta bit on edge and ready to get our, what seemed like the hundredth rest stop, show on the road. It felt like at every rest stop we stayed for at least thirty minutes, so in retrospect our journey probably took well over 12 hours to complete. During my brief trip to Kosovo, while the bus driver and Macedonians ate and smoked, I explored the mini-mart, which was overflowing with packaged drinks and snacks. It looked like they were what I can only imagine military bulk shipments might resemble.

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Enough beverages to start a new country.

At first I was unsure what currency to use to purchase something, since Kosovo is sort of kinda not a country depending who you ask, and there are so many currencies in those parts. Turns out everything was labeled in euros, so euros it was. I bought some candy, and had a good giggle when one of my bus companions asked the guy at checkout what the name of his country was. Hesitantly, the cashier replied “Kosovo” and my homeboy thanked him for his clarification. Twas clearly a touchy subject and awkward interaction I’m thrilled to have bore witness to.

Then I had to pee, so I found the toilet, which of course was a squatter. I have explicitly fond memories of squatters or holes in the ground whilst on other inter-country bus rides, so this was a fun one to add to the list. It warranted a plugged nose, and was topped off with a broken window and a drip dry. I felt safe. Come to think of it, I probably have material to write a book on all the fascinating johns I’ve used.

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This is the best I could get of said window and squatter.

I peed and wandered back to the bus in hopes that we’d be ready to get a move on it. Not so fast. I walked past the restaurant’s kitchen and there was a lot of nothing, except for these two plastic containers filled with something that looked like a concoction of peppers, squid, and salmonella. I wondered what they were all eating.

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Yummy.

We were finally at the home stretch, with only the final cross into Macedonia. When we arrived in Skopje at the crack of dawn, I was pretty much a shell of a human as can be assumed. I met a Chilean guy on my bus and turns out we were walking in the same direction to our hostels. We walked, talked, gaped at the ridiculous statues literally everywhere, and wowed at the piles of trash decorating the ground as the sun began to rise.

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I know, so many beautiful photos in this post!

While I was creeped, urked, and constantly torn from my beauty sleep during this entire bus ride, I can now say I’ve ‘been’ to Kosovo (my passport says so!), and successfully add another weird and humorous international bus journey to the ever-growing list of hilarity that only happens while traversing the developing world.

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Have you ever taken a bus ride that left a weird taste in your mouth, but ended up being a favorite travel story in retrospect? Have you actually eaten real food in Kosovo that didn’t exude food poisoning? Tell me about it in the comments! 

 

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Captivating Kotor

If you’ve read any of those lists circulating lately about the Top 10 destinations you MUST get to this year, then you’ve most certainly heard of Kotor – only you may have no real idea as to where it is, because I surely did not prior to the summer. In continuing along my Balkans Bouncing, Kotor came as one of the most beautiful and invigorating suggestions, and I’m so happy that I went.

Kotor is an exquisite and still fairly untouched-by-tourists seaside town on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro; nestled between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the west and Albania to the south. Only a hop and an offered day-trip away from Dubrovnik, Kotor is virtually the opposite in terms of what you get. Where Dubrovnik is crazy expensive and crawling with tourists from all over the globe (mostly Game of Thrones fans), Kotor is still mellow and just beginning to get traction from commercial cruise liners. I’ll say it now though, it’s only a matter of time until that bay is jam-packed with Titanics. Once people hear about it the treasure chest will come flying open. So, get there now!

Initially, Kotor was ‘planned’ as a one night stay, which quickly turned into 4 nights worth. During my time there I found out I wasn’t alone in this scenario – which could be attributed to the adorably pushy front desk boy with the big brown eyes telling you to stay so you can check out an abandoned building together, or the straight up relaxation, views, and slow change of pace that are so very welcome when your back is killing from backpacks and cramped bus seats.

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So, if you’re in the market for a treat to your eyes, a little burn for your thighs, and some relaxing vibes, then Kotor is just for you!

EYES

Every angle of Kotor is unbelievable, so your eyes are bound to be in constant wonder. Whether it’s from admiring the walled city from the outside, wandering amidst the old city walls, or climbing up to the top of the UNESCO protected Kotor Fortress, you will not be disappointed. I spent a lot of my time just wandering around all the little Medieval alleyways reminding myself to keep looking up.

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City guard shark

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I also ventured outside the old town to walk along the Adriatic and try my hardest to tackle at least one abandoned building break-in, which unfortunately to my dismay was an unsuccessful feat. There’s just something about a place left in mysterious disarray that really gets me excited, and well, in Kotor there happens to be the old Hotel Fjord. Sometime in the mid-90s the owner had money problems, forcing the prime property to never see the check-in of one single visitor. When I went to try and jump a fence, I soon noticed that there was absolutely no way in, and later found out that along with the surrounding fence, the authorities had set up cameras to prevent squatters from stealing old mattresses. Why that matters is beyond me, but I was quite displeased.

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The closest I got was to the trash-laden pool at the sea’s edge, where people basked just a stone’s throw away.

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THIGHS

Perhaps the biggest must-do in Kotor is the hike to the top of the fortress. While I am by no means an avid hiker, I do enjoy the view from the top, and the feeling of worked out thighs. Typically the hike is supposed to take a couple hours to ascend, and significantly less to get back down, however, my Kotor friend and I took a leisurely five hours to reach the view point – which was worth every single second!

Instead of entering through the designated entrance within the city walls, Michaela had been tipped off my the cute front desk boy that there’s a quicker (and free) way to start the climb from just outside the walls. So we took his tip and got on our way.

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The hike up was excruciatingly hot and picturesque, causing us to stop and disrobe or pose for photos with our magnificent backdrop around nearly every turn. When we got about half way up there was an abandoned church just nestled into the mountainside. The inside was all eroded with time, with colors from old frescos faintly decorating the walls and ceiling.

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It was around here that we reached a fork in the road. To the right was the entrance to the city wall path, and to the left was a suspicious sign saying cold drinks and fresh goat cheese. Initially we thought ‘nahh’ we don’t want to get killed on the side of a massive mountain, but then turned around because why not. And it was the sweetest detour we could have made!

We arrived at the home tucked high on the mountainside where a family has lived for 40 years making their own cheese, selling refreshments on the fortress path to sweltering hikers, and whose children ‘commute’ down the mountain to school everyday. We relaxed, watched the women care for their goats, ate delicious goat cheese from said goats, and enjoyed some of the most spectacular views my eyes have ever been privy to.

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After almost getting stampeded by a gaggle of wild goats and a brief photoshoot, we made it inside the walls and successfully mounted the mountain. Feast your eyes on that Pterodactyl call!

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VIBES

When you’re done feeling the burn, it’s time to max, relax, and chillax; and there’s no better place to do just that if you’re bouncing through the Balkans. While the sea is overrun with cruisers on their daily stop-off, the shore also has this gorgeous Mediterranean vibe that just can’t be messed with. Not to mention, if you’re a beach goer used to riding and diving in waves, and dodging from impending shark attacks, you will not get that here, or really anywhere in these parts. The serene waters are perfect for playing, swimming, wading, and always people watching – which this group of 60s-ish men playing a game of dive & catch really brought home for me.

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When you’ve surely worked up an appetite there is no shortage of fresh fish restaurants littering the old town. After my time in Bosnia and Serbia I seriously meated myself out, arriving in Croatia and Montenegro on a purely fish kick which did not disappoint. I treated myself to a couple fresh fish feasts at one of the oldest fish restaurants in Old Town Kotor, Scala Santa, which also happened to be just across from my amazing hostel. I left with a very happy tummy each night.

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When I wasn’t busy eating or basking, I was wandering (of course). A couple times I happily stumbled on some pop up antique collections, one which was so crazy to me. This guy was selling hundreds or thousands of year old coins and weapons that his father had found in the surrounding areas. It was mind-boggling to me since I have only seen such artifacts in museums; but here I was able to hold them and really examine them with an up close eye. Definitely my kind of enjoyment!

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Kotor is on all those lists for a very good reason, as it’s a little gem craving to be visited. It’s got the perfect temperament for romantic getaway or solo jaunt and anything in between.

Have you visited Kotor or anywhere else in Montenegro? What were your thoughts? Have I persuaded you to add this magical place to your travel bucket list? I hope so!