Our trip was almost thwarted by the threat of rain. But by the end of the week, the forecast had cleared. I’m so glad we decided to go!
The hike to the waterfalls is a few kilometers. Along the way, we saw lots of beautiful wild flowers.
When we reached this stream, we knew we were getting closer …
And here’s the first waterfall!
After that, we hiked up to a second waterfall. The path was steep and rocky, and at several points, we had to climb, using rocks to propel ourselves upward. The journey was totally worth it! We reached a second waterfall, and pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was the perfect spot to stop and eat our picnic lunch.
Visiting Mirusha Waterfalls was one of the most relaxing, enjoyable times I have had in Kosovo.
“I really need to get out more,” is what I keep telling myself. I go to Pristina often, Peja occasionally, and everywhere else … never. Since I am almost halfway through my Peace Corps service (isn’t that crazy?!), I keep telling myself I need to make an effort to see more of Kosovo.
Last Tuesday was a national holiday, “Europe Day,” so we didn’t have school. I decided to take the opportunity to visit a friend in Gračanica, Kosovo, a Serbian village just outside of Pristina.
I talk a lot about Albanian culture on this blog. Albanians are in the majority here in Kosovo, so I have had more exposure to their culture. I was happy to have a chance to visit Gračanica and learn a bit more about Serbian traditions.
Where is Gračanica, Kosovo?
It is south east of Pristina (Kosovo’s capital city).
My friend was a great tour guide, and even provided me with these informational booklets from the municipality. The information I share in quotes comes from these booklets. (They’re awesome — they even have traditional recipes listed. I might share some more info from them in the future.)
Our first stop was Ento Kuka, a restaurant that serves traditional Serbian food. I got chicken and potatoes.
Next, we visited “an archeological site of the Roman and early Byzantine city Ulpiana. It reached its peak development in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.”
I knew that Kosovo had once been under Ottoman rule (which is when much of the country converted to Islam), but I had never given much thought to its prior history. I was so surprised to learn that Kosovo has Roman ruins.
We saw the site of a church, public baths, and a cemetery.
Next, we visited the Gracanica monastery. My friend told me that there is an exact replica of the monastery in Chicago, Illinois. I used to live in Chicago, and did not know this!
Taking photos inside the monastery is not allowed. (It is really beautiful.) Here are pictures of the outside:
Last, we visited the “Missing” sign. It is “the work of the artist Goran Stojcetovic … plastered with photos of missing and kidnapped Serbs from 1998 until 2000. It is a memorial against the crimes of the Serbian people.”
It was a very interesting visit and I am thankful to my friend for giving me a tour!
I visited Hungary for the first time over this past weekend. I certainly wasn’t expecting to go on vacation so soon after going on vacation, but the opportunity arose and I took it. A friend asked if I wanted to meet there, and I said, “Yes,” and then, “Let me talk to Peace Corps.” One vacation request and 84 Euro later, and I was on a plane headed for Budapest.
I’m very close to my grandfather, and his mother was from Hungary. Visiting my great-grandmother’s home country was high on my to-do list while in Europe. I am so glad I got the chance to go!
Budapest (pronounced “Buda-pesht,” I learned), is a much bigger city than I expected. It is everything I thought Berlin would be (but wasn’t) — vibrant and artsy, with an edge to it.
My friend and I spent much of our time walking around the city. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you my favorite things about Budapest.
Tips and Observations About Budapest:
I wasn’t sure what to do my first night in the city, since I arrived before my friend did. After poking around on Google Maps, I discovered the Palace of the Arts was close to where I was staying. I went to a dance performance of Dracula, and really had a great time! Because it was a dance performance, I was able to (loosely) follow the plot, even though the speaking parts were obviously in Hungarian. And the dancers were wearing what I assume were traditional Hungarian costumes, which I got a kick out of seeing. Also, the price was right (only 11 Euro).
There is a little alley tucked into the city that leads to a court with food trucks. I got handmade gnocchi for lunch. 🙂 The food was good, cost about 4 Euro, and the atmosphere was really cute.
I had never heard of a “ruin pub” before my trip. I discovered that a ruin pub is a bar inside an old, rundown building, and that they are very popular in Budapest. My friend and I visited the largest, oldest, and most famous ruin pub — Szimpla Kert. My pictures of it stink because it was so dark inside (check out their website if you want to see more). It was HUGE and PACKED! There were so many rooms, with so many different options … a wine bar, a food bar, different lounges, and an outdoor space. The building was rough and decaying, filled with oddball trinkets and eclectic decor. While loud, busy bars are not my scene, I loved the space.
My friend and I tried to go to Szechenyi thermal bath (another thing for which I didn’t know Budapest is famous). We got there at about 3 in the afternoon. The place was packed. We would’ve had to wait for an hour or more to get in. Instead, we decided to buy a day pass at a local hotel, and use their thermal pool. It wasn’t much of a cultural experience, but we were determined to do something relaxing, and the hotel’s thermal pool was much less crowded.
We decided to have a traditional Hungarian meal on my last night in the city. Based on a local’s recommendation, we ended up at Mester. The food was excellent, and it reminded me of some of the meals my family makes. 🙂 (Nothing beats a hearty beef-and-noodle soup!)
Compared to other place I’ve visited in Europe (which, for the record, are Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Spain, France, England, Italy, and Germany), Hungary had the best crafts and homemade goods made by local artisans. We visited a little craft market, and I could’ve gone nuts buying things (I didn’t). I managed to rein myself in and only buy a few souvenirs for my family.
I loved Budapest, and feel like I could return and have new things to explore the next time around.
After planning to spend the first half of spring break in Rome, I debated what to do for the second half of the week. Before joining the Peace Corps, I hadn’t traveled around Europe much. Looking at the prices of flights from Rome left me feeling dizzy and giddy. I could go anywhere, for less than 100 Euro!
I thought about doing some city-hopping, but that just seemed overwhelming, given the little time I had. I finally settled on Berlin, because:
I had always wanted to go there.
I knew some other volunteer friends would be there, so I wouldn’t be totally alone.
There was a cheap flight directly back to Pristina (rather than having to fly to Skopje or Tirana).
Again, I like to travel with only a loose itinerary. Here’s what I ended up doing in Berlin:
Wednesday: Arrive in Berlin at night
Thursday: Free walking tour through SANDEMAN’S. Best thing I did in Berlin! We hit some big tourist spots: Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Checkpoint Charlie. Dinner with friends at a German restaurant (cannot recall name)
Friday: (only day with okay weather) Walk through Tiergarten Park (behind the Brandenburg Gate), and visit the Berlin Wall. Dinner with friends at an Indian restaurant.
Saturday: Visit Deutsches Historisches Museum. Dinner with friends at Leander.
I’m going to be honest — Berlin is one of my least favorite places I have visited. To be fair, I had just come from a beautiful, Roman spring to cold, rainy Germany. Every day, I would put on as many layers as possible and go out into the wind. I tried to like the city, but I just couldn’t. I had pictured Berlin as this young, hip, vibrant, grungy city. But it is quiet and empty. I learned from our tour guide that Berlin is the only city in Western Europe that has declined in population, from 4 million residents to 3.5 million. Walking its wide streets and long blocks, I got an eerie feeling. Where were all the people?
I know Berlin has a reputation as a big party city. It’s the city of Cabaret! It’s the city of Hedwig and the Angry Inch! I cannot remember the last time I went to a club, so maybe if I had participated in the nightlife scene, I’d have a different opinion of Berlin.
Berlin is a very clean city. (As a friend pointed out, there are no people to mess it up.)
The subway system was extremely easy to navigate. I was able to get around with no problems.
My favorite part of my trip was the free walking tour. I’d definitely recommend it if you plan to visit.
Oh, well. I’m glad I was able to see Berlin, and check it off my list. I am also glad I visited while I am living in Europe. Had I paid a lot of money to fly over from the U.S., I probably would have been more disappointed.
(Thanks to Rachel for allowing me to post some of her photos here.)
I am usually against taking pictures of food. But, my friend Nicole and I had some truly awesome meals while we were in Rome. I wanted to share a few of our best experiences.
1. One night, Nicole wanted to check out Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. I did a Google search for the best restaurants in Trastevere, and came across La Prosciutteria. I was all, “Look at the pictuuuuures! Please can we go thereeeeee?” And Nicole said yes. 🙂 So, we went.
It was a fun experience. The restaurant is small and busy. We managed to find a table in the basement. The food came quickly, because there isn’t anything to cook. Also, it was a reasonably priced meal. We each had a glass of wine, and we still paid less than 20 Euro per person.
2. Nicole and I got a million suggestions on places to eat/things to do in Rome. A friend of mine had suggested visiting Costanza, which is a restaurant in an old cave where the gladiators used to practice. We went for lunch, and I am so glad we did. The food was outstanding. And the ambiance was great — a quiet place, prompt and friendly service, and did I mention its a cave?
3. On our last night in Rome, we were tired from so much walking. We decided to check out a restaurant in the neighborhood (Pigneto) where we were staying. Nicole found Qui Se Magna.
My family will tell you I am capable of eating my own weight in spaghetti. While Qui Se Magna was a small, neighborhood restaurant, the food was outstanding. I loved my spaghetti!
If you are planning a trip to Rome, I would highly recommend these three restaurants.
Hi, Everyone! I am back in Kosovo and so happy to be blogging again! I missed writing while I was away. This week, I’m going to be sharing photos and experiences from my recent trip to Rome and Berlin.
I spent the first half of the week exploring Rome with Nicole, my friend from Boston. We had a loose idea of what we wanted to do while we were in Rome, but mostly, we played things by ear. Below is what we ended up doing.
Saturday: Arrive, have appetizers at Necci, meet our airbnb host, and settle in. Eat dinner in our neighborhood.
Sunday: A walk around Rome, including all the major tourist spots — the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, and the Roman Forum. Eat dinner on our patio.
Monday: the Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica. Eat dinner in the Trastevere neighborhood.
Tuesday: reading/snack at Piazza Navona, lunch at Costanza, a long walk through the Villa Borghese. Eat dinner in our neighborhood.
Wednesday: Quick brunch in our neighborhood and then, goodbye, Rome! 😦
Tips and Observations about Rome
We downloaded the Rick Steves’ free walking tour app for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. It provided a context for what we were seeing, and despite the cheese factor, both tours were informative.
We went to the Colosseum first thing in the morning, and planned to visit the Roman Forum right after that. But, the line was very long and didn’t appear to be moving. I suggested we hit all the other major tourist spots and return to the Forum in the evening. When we came back, there was no line at all, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
I learned taking photos of the Sistine Chapel is not allowed. 😦 But, I saw it! 🙂
Rome is dirty, compared to other major cities I have visited.
I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that all of this was real, and not some American, Chuck-E-Cheese approximation of history. As Rick Steves pointed out in his tour of the Roman Forum, “You are walking on stones Julius Caesar walked on.” WOW.
I loved the trees in Rome as much as anything else, and learned (from Rick Steves) that they are called “umbrella pines.” They remind me of a child’s rendering of a tree — long, bare trunks with a mass of squiggles at the top.
Stay tuned! I’ll be posting about food in Rome, Berlin, and thoughts/tips on travel this week!
A while back, I asked my friends and family members to send me questions to answer on the blog. My Dad asked about sports and the outdoors in Kosovo. Since I’m not exactly Sporty Spice, I decided to outsource his questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. My friend Andrew has participated in a lot of outdoor fun since he moved to Kosovo. Without further adieu … –April
Përshëndetje! I am excited and honored to be taking over April’s blog this week. Apparently I have gained a bit of a reputation for loving the outdoors, especially in Kosovo. In fact, the nature here is so beautiful that I started documenting it, which led me to discover another passion of mine, photography.
Back in the U.S., I was just getting into hiking and kayaking before I moved to Kosovo for my service. I am from Atlanta, so it was quite common for my friends and I to flee the city for the weekend for some fresh air on the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect once I found out I was moving to Kosovo. I had read that Kosovo was mountainous and forested, so I knew there was potential, but I wasn’t sure how accessible outdoor activities would be.
During my first year, I went on a lot of hikes with other volunteers and we usually found some great trails on our own through trial and error. The town I live in is pretty flat, so I usually relied on my friends who live in the more rugged areas to ask around and get an idea of where we should go. Unfortunately, unexploded landmines from the war are still a concern, especially in the mountainous border regions. It’s best not to get too adventurous, unless you really know where you are going and that the area has been confirmed to be free of mines. Luckily, there are many public and private organizations in Kosovo that are actively working to rid Kosovo of mines and other unexploded ordnance. There are also a lot of resources available, such as maps and local tour guides, that will allow you to safely enjoy the nature here.
I was talking with a local friend the other day and we were discussing how we have both noticed the recent increase in opportunities to take part in organized outdoor events. It has been amazing to watch Kosovo develop in this way during my nearly two years of living here because I truly believe that Kosovo has an incredible potential for ecotourism. Seeing that potential slowly turn into reality is pretty cool. Every week you can see new tour companies popping up on your newsfeed, advertising organized group hikes, bike rides, rock climbing, cultural tours, etc. These offers are usually at a pretty low price and they include transportation, food, and an expert guide. I recently took advantage of one of these opportunities and I went snowshoeing for the first time. We started in a village called Restelica and walked 10+ km over a mountain to the village of Brod. This was in one of the most remote regions of Kosovo and I never would have felt comfortable to do this without a guide, especially in the snow when visibility is so low and avalanches are such a risk. It was certainly a challenge, my legs are still burning three days after the fact, but it was an amazing experience. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and I was able to learn the basics. My only disappointment is that it is the end of winter and I only just now discovered that I love snowshoeing. Next winter I plan to snowshoe as often as possible. I am also hoping to pick up skiing. I went once when I was in high school, but I would hardly call myself an expert. Kosovo is definitely a great place to learn! Depending on where you are, you can find slopes for beginners, or more challenging ones if you already know what you’re doing. I’ve also seen a lot of snowmobiles during my visits to Brezovica (the main ski resort in Kosovo) and I think it would be awesome to learn how to do that as well. With that said, PCVs aren’t allowed to drive cars or motorcycles, so I assume there is some sort of rule about snowmobiles. If you are currently serving, it’s probably just best to wait until you close your service before you give that a shot.
I think a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kosovo will tell you that winter is tough. My first winter was the most difficult part of my service. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I spent far too much time sitting inside and feeling sorry for myself. My second winter has been the exact opposite. Yes, it was still cold, but I got out as often as possible, enjoyed myself, and stayed busy. Winter was still there, it didn’t change, actually it was colder this winter, but my perspective changed and it made all the difference in the world. My family and friends back home have been shocked to see me enjoying the snow so much. I was never really a winter-type of guy, but I suppose you can count it among the MANY things I have learned to love during my almost two years in Kosovo.
This is the third post in a three-part series I am writing about my recent trip to Tirana, Albania. — April
Monday morning, my friend and I were trying to decide how to spend our last day in Tirana. It was raining, but all of the museums were closed due to it being Independence Day. A man on the street overheard us and stopped. Turns out, he is a tour guide, and he took us on an impromptu tour of the city.
We made several interesting stops along the way, including the Albanian parliament. We were standing outside of the building, talking, when the guards invited us inside.
As I posted yesterday, Albania was under communist rule until 1990. Today, its government consists of two parties, the Socialists and the Democrats.
One thing that really struck me about Tirana (and Albania in general) is the mix of influences you see. Like Kosovo, Albania is largely Islamic (due to influences from the Ottoman Empire) and has a minority Catholic population. Our tour guide told us that under communist rule, religion of any kind was banned. The churches and mosques in the city today are all new.
This pyramid is a famous source of controversy in Tirana. It was built by Albania’s communist ruler, Enver Hoxha, as a tomb for himself. He died in 1985. His body was entombed in the pyramid for only a few months, and was then moved to a cemetery outside the city in order to discourage protests. There has been much debate about whether to tear down the pyramid, or to keep it as a reminder of history. According to our tour guide, Tirana plans to begin restoration on the building sometime next year, and turn it into a museum.
One thing to note, while our tour was interesting, our guide was evasive about the price until the end. My friend and I both feel like he overcharged us. So I would say if you’re a foreigner traveling in Tirana, use extra caution and insist on prices up front!