Tuesday 9 April 2024



It’s time I posted a  blog about Fort Myers, a place that has become our winter home away from home. This entry will be long on photos and short on text.

After I retired in 2013, Elva and I looked for a place where we could warm our bones during the worst months of an Island winter. We considered the southern countries in Europe, maybe one of the Caribbean islands, or Mexico somewhere, but each one seemed to have a drawback or two: not warm enough, too expensive, hard to get around without a car, etc. One day, quite by accident, we found out that a relative had spent a few weeks in a condo in Ft. Myers, FL, that belonged to Elva’s second cousin. He rented only to close family and, lucky for us, second cousin was close enough.

I scouted Ft. Myers on the internet and found the link to the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club. The group looked tailor-made to our riding styles so we booked the nice condo at Alta-Mar on Palm Beach Blvd. and headed south in a snowstorm one day in January 2016.

We felt at home as soon as we crossed the threshold of our two-bedroom condo and we spent an enjoyable month there getting to know the area and rolling with fellow riders. We had a nice view of the pool and the Caloosahatchee River from the condo’s balcony.

We soon discovered Ft. Myers’ historic downtown, just a fifteen-minute walk away. Its beautiful older buildings are protected by heritage bylaws, similar to rules in effect in our own city, Charlottetown. Streets are lined with the distinctive and majestic Royal Palms. Downtown has the kind of buzz we like: lots of good places to eat, activities almost every weekend, and a Starbucks on First Street! The city closes down several blocks when hosting a special event, sometimes an art show, sometimes a car show, other times a musical event featuring several bands. A band plays every Saturday evening in Bootleggers’ Alley, another of our favourite haunts. We’ve christened our evening strolls “The Losers’ Walk”, just like the one we take almost every evening back home, because most times we get entertained for free!

Ten years ago, the city commissioned 23 metal statues by Columbian artist Edgardo Carmona. There’s the ribbon dancer, the chess players, the juggler, the man peeing on a post, and many others. They are a great addition to the downtown landscape.

We’ve hosted family and friends in our southern home. Our cycling friends from the Island, Ira and Liz, visited in 2017.

Lana and Bob Waugh live just north of Ft. Myers and we’ve exchanged visits and stories every year we’ve come to Florida.

Jacques, Isabelle and Lucie visited in 2019 and we spent a few days at Disneyworld. I love the look of terror on Elva’s face…

This year, we hosted Réjeanne Arsenault and Richard Goguen who were on their way to Ft. Lauderdale to board a Caribbean cruise.

Ft. Myers Beach is another of our favourite haunts. The beach and the pier were busy places when we first came south in 2016.

The town of Ft. Myers Beach is located on a barrier island, a sandbar basically. Hurricane Ian made landfall there in September 2022, burying everything under a fifteen-foot storm surge. Buildings were swept away and many that remained standing are beyond repair. The once-busy pier, which today looks like a cross between Stonehenge and the Confederation Bridge, has been transformed into the resident pelicans’ preferred perch.

While a few brave entrepreneurs seem determined to rebuild, many property owners have simply walked away. It will be interesting to see what Ft. Myers Beach will look like in ten years. Check out the toilet hanging off the edge of the second floor in the first photo. The second shows all that’s left of a shoreside cottage and a “For Sale” sign advertising lots.

We’ve ridden many miles with the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club and have made friends here. We’ve seen changes since 2016, traffic is much worse than it was and some folks have stopped riding, moved away or, sadly, passed away. Still, there is much to enjoy in the shared effort, the fresh air, the camaderie, and the mandatory post-ride coffee. The first photo was taken several years ago at the halfway point of our Cape Coral ride at the Coral Oaks Golf Club. The second was taken on April 9, 2024, at the same location, the day we enjoyed our last ride of the year with our good friends, Laurie and Brett Lockerbie from Kingston, Ontario.

We’ve booked a place in Poinsettia Park for 2025 and will keep coming back to this part of the world for as long as our health allows, a good many years, hopefully, and enjoy seeing the sun set over the Caloosahatchee River.

“It’s easy to get old.

It’s staying young that’s hard.”

Jean-Paul Arsenault

Saturday 2 December 2023



In terms of area and population, Montenegro is the smallest country we’ll visit on this trip. It’s about twice the size of Prince Edward Island and has a population of 600,000, a little more than Newfoundland and Labrador and a little less than New Brunswick. Montenegro is considered to have an upper-middle-class economy and ranks quite high on the UN’s Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Among the eight countries we’ve visited in this part of Europe, only Slovenia and Croatia rank higher. Montenegro is a member of most of the important international “clubs”, uses the Euro as its currency, and appears well on its way to becoming accepted as a member of the European Union.

Canada ranked first on the Human Development Index through most of the 1990s but has been falling steadily since. Remember Jean Chrétien’s 1996 declaration: “People throughout the world wonder why a province like Québec is not happy to live in the best country of the world!” The Scandinavian countries, Australia, and New Zealand rank higher than we do while the US and the UK are both below us and heading in the wrong direction.

Kotor is a small city of some 13,500 residents and its location at the head of the Bay of Kotor makes it an ideal port of call for cruise ships. We spent a day in Kotor on our very first cruise in the fall of 2013 and will visit two other ports of call from that trip, Dubrovnik and Split. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected because of its restored and well preserved medieval landscape and the walls that surround its hilltop fortress. Our hotel, the Monte Cristo, is the best we’ve stayed in so far in terms of value for money and it certainly deserves its four-star rating.

There was a chill in the air when we left our hotel after breakfast, but the sun soon warmed our bones as we strolled along the bayside promenade. Kotor is the perfect place to explore on foot as there are so many beautiful things to see: the narrow streets, the Bay of Kotor, and the hilltop fortress that soars above the old town’s many churches. A picture = 1,000 words!

Dubrovnik’s main attraction is its fortified old town, one of the most impressive you’ll see in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived after a leisurely three-hour bus ride from Kotor. It was a cold day but, since the forecast for the next day was looking pretty wet, we walked to the old town right after checking into our hotel. Our ship called into Dubrovnik on our fall 2013 cruise and the feature that had struck me as we came through the gate was the shiny marble streets. As you can see from the photo below, they’re as shiny as ever. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be. I was here only ten years ago while walkers’ feet have been polishing them for probably five centuries now.

We wandered through the narrow alleyways and made our way to the marina. There are several museums in the old town but none that interested us as much as the fresh air and a healthy walk. It’s nice to come back to a place you enjoyed and be able to see it properly a second time. After dinner, we had a nice chat with a group of high school students from Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, who were on a ten-day class trip. They were fun to talk to, engaging and enthusiastic.

Alas, the weather gods were against us on our second day in Dubrovnik as we awoke to a driving rainstorm and a strong wind blowing off the Adriatic. We know we’re pushing the envelope travelling at this time of year, but the occasional bad weather day isn’t enough to dampen our spirits. I walked Elva to the shopping mall and that was enough to put a smile on her face!

We had one morning left in Dubrovnik and it dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast, we walked to the old town again and took in the sights and sounds of major preparations for the Christmas season. Crews were installing trees and garlands everywhere and others were setting up kiosks along the main street. We found a quiet spot by the water just outside the massive walls and listened to the water lap against the rocks, sitting there like two old cats warming our bones.

Then, it was off again, this time to Split. We picked up our vehicle, a Citroen C4X, probably the nicest car I’ve ever rented. It’s an eight-speed automatic, AWD, fully loaded, rides like a dream, and it goes like stink. If I could fit it in my suitcase, I’d take it home with me! We thoroughly enjoyed the three-hour ride, the first part along the shore of the Adriatic, featuring scenery that rivals the Cabot Trail and the Gaspé Peninsula.

Split, home to 160,000, is Croatia’s second-largest city. It first became famous in the year 305 when Diocletian, the Roman Emperor, built a palace here. Like Kotor and Dubrovnik, Split has preserved its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited here for a day in 2013 and wanted to take the time needed to see the place again.

Diocletian was a mean SOB who hated Christians. It’s ironic that, a mere twelve years after his death in the year 312, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s preferred religion under Emperor Constantine. Even more ironic is the fact that the main part of Split’s Catholic cathedral, St. Domnius, is Diocletian’s repurposed mausoleum! St. Domnius, completed around the year 600, is the oldest Catholic cathedral still in regular use. Its strange-looking exterior makes it probably the ugliest church I’ve seen, but its unique history makes it a must-see.

And, of course, we had to climb to the top of the bell tower to get a better view of the city. While there, I offered to take a photo of a group of four people. “Where are you from,” I asked one of the men. “Canada, Saskatchewan, actually,” he replied. “I’m from Charlottetown,” I said. “My grandfather was an Aitken from Lower Montague,” he told me! God, it’s a small world!

Of the three cities we’ve visited on the Adriatic, Split is our favourite. Its old town is significantly larger than Kotor’s and is more of a self-contained community than Dubrovnik’s. Here, you can see locals exchanging pleasantries in the fish market, shopping at the supermarket, and generally going about their business without ever having to leave. Split and Ohrid are the two places we’ll come back to if ever we visit this part of the world again.

We made the best of our second full day in Split by taking the advice of a guide we'd met in the Old Town. He'd suggested we take a day trip and visit Salona, Trogir, and Sibenik, so we did. Salona is nothing more than a collection of ruins, Christian on top of Roman, typical of this part of the world, just across the crick from Italy, as it were. We found it boring. Trogir, on the other hand, is a charming medieval town built on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a bridge. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sibenik, further up the coast, has an interesting old town as well, and contains the impressive St. James Cathedral, built in the early 1400s of limestone blocks quarried nearby. A student of architecture would understand the building’s significance and what qualified it for UNESCO designation. What impresses me is how devoted people in Europe are to preserving their built religious heritage, whatever the cost.

And we couldn’t resist one more after-dinner stroll through Old Town Split. It’s the last time we’ll see 20 C for a while.

On our way back to Zagreb, we stopped at Plitvice Lakes National Park. The parking lot was almost empty, as you’d expect on December 2. It started to pour just as we were getting out of the car, so we put on our Helly Hansens, opened the umbrellas, and walked to the edge of the canyon, directly across from the big falls. We walked down the path until we got to the bottom, crossed on the boardwalk, and made our way to the base of the falls. Just before we got there, we heard a distant rumble of thunder and thought we should turn back.

But the majesty of the place got the better of us and we just kept going until, finally, the rain slowed to a drizzle. The wooden path takes you across falls and up cascades that separate each small lake from the one above. It’s an experience unlike anything we’d ever done. We walked for an hour or so until we reached one of the larger lakes, waited there for a boat to take us across to a dock, and rode a shuttle back to near where we’d started on the path. Everything about Plitvice is world class: the setting, the signage, the trails, the boat, the shuttle; just everything!

A few closing comments on this European adventure:

  1. Northern Europe is bordering on too expensive for us. As a matter of fact, the cheapest way to see those countries is from a cruise ship. The eight countries we visited further south are much more affordable and every bit as rich experience-wise.
  2. The seven countries that make up the former Yugoslavia have a combined area about the size of our three Maritime provinces and a population of some 20 million. Only one city, Belgrade, has significantly more residents than Halifax. The other capital cities (we didn’t visit Podgorica, capital of Montenegro) are relatively small, even by Canadian standards, and are in the process of forming their respective identities after barely thirty years as the seats of federal governments.
  3. The countries we visited in Southeast Europe have a bad reputation, mostly due to the 1990s Balkan Wars, Communist régimes, and the fallout therefrom. The federal government’s Travel Smart website says to exercise “A high degree of caution” when visiting Bosnia-Hercegovina, but nothing about Kosovo and Serbia where tensions are greatest between religious and ethnic groups. We felt none of that anywhere we went.
  4. Abandoned and half-finished buildings dot the landscape in this part of Europe, particularly in Albania and those areas affected by the Balkan Wars. Imagining how difficult the transition from a situation where the Communist government owns and controls everything to one where individuals can once again own property and run a business makes my head hurt. How do you decide who gets what under a free market economy? How do you resolve disputes when the courts are not yet functioning and there’s no property title system? One of our guides told us that when disputes over property can’t be resolved, the parties involved simply walk away leaving empty building shells behind.
  5. The lifestyle of people in Slovenia and the northern part of Croatia is more “European” than in the more southern areas we visited. This is no doubt due to their stronger economies. The people are also not as friendly and outgoing as those in the south.
  6. YouTube is a valuable research tool when planning a trip like this. I came across many written travel guides on the web, and we used these on the YouTube search engine to broaden our knowledge. Some of the videos are amateurish, but we eventually found what we were looking for.
  7. We’ve learned that staying a minimum of three nights in one city is the best formula for exploring a country or a region whether we have a vehicle or not. It gives us time to get to know the place and find interesting day trips.
  8. We don’t always have a set plan for every day. We find it’s best to be open-minded about seeing where the path or the road will take us. Sometimes we have a list but, if we don’t see everything on our list or get sidetracked by something more interesting, that’s OK too.
  9. I don’t mind driving a rental but like to mix in bus travel on a trip like this one. A rental gives you more flexibility and makes it easier to plan day trips but mixing it up with aggressive and impatient city drivers can be tiring. And just try buying PL and PD insurance for a rented car; impossible to find with any car rental company and VISA’s car rental insurance doesn’t cover it.
  10. You can travel in this part of Europe for less than $350 per day at this time of year, considerably less than the cost of a cruise. Four-star hotels average $160 per night, with breakfast, and we picked some excellent ones through booking.com. Restaurant meals can be had for under $50 for a three-course dinner (except for Slovenia and Croatia) and most attractions are reasonably priced as well. The only places we needed local currency were toilets and taxis!
  11. Being friendly always helps! Learning a few simple words like “please” and “thank you” will always get you a smile since the locals can spot a tourist from a mile away.
  12. It’s easy to get old. It’s staying young that’s hard. As my mother used to say: “There’s no fool like an old fool!”

Saturday 25 November 2023


Elva and I commandeered the back seat of the bus just like we did 55 years ago when we first started hanging out and going bowling and to high school hockey games together. Our antique bus drove through picturesque hilly country framed on both sides by snow-capped mountains. After a long four-hour trip, we arrived in Ohrid. Taxis to and from the bus stations in Skopje and Ohrid and the bus ride itself set us back the grand sum of $50!

Oh my God, what a beautiful place! Ohrid is the prettiest location I’ve seen on this trip; more beautiful even than Lake Bled. The city, about the size of Charlottetown, lies on the eastern shore of the lake of the same name, with Albania on the western side.

The old town and the lake are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape (as is Grand-Pré) and Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, built mostly between the sixth and nineteenth centuries. The lake contains 200 species of flora and fauna that are found only there. Ruins of Christian basilicas have been found that date from the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. The streets run along the hillside and are narrow and cobble-stoned, connected vertically by stone stairways. It’s one of those rare places where you feel comfortable walking at any time of day or night, and you can’t wait to see what lies around the next corner.

We checked into our cute, little hotel with a balcony overlooking the lake and took a stroll along the lakeside promenade, thinking it went only a half kilometer or so. And it just kept going… We tried to imagine what Victoria Park would look like if the seawall were built up, the roadway removed, and the boardwalk replaced by something like you see in the photo below: a central promenade with benches and greenery, framed by bike paths on either side. Remember that North Macedonia is a poor country by our standards. We think we’ve got a great thing going with the Charlottetown and Summerside boardwalks, but we could do so much better!

After breakfast, we walked to Samuel’s Fortress, high above the city, to find that it was closed on Mondays. Ah well, many other places to visit, Elva said, so we walked down to the Church of Saints Clement and Pantaleimon. After being pestered by several guides, we wandered around the place and made our way back to where we’d paid our entry fee. I asked the attendant whether the newer buildings surrounding the complex were part of a monastery. “Yes, they are”, he replied, before telling us the whole story of the place without trying to impress us with details we’d never remember anyway.

As with so many other places in Europe, this one has many layers of history, beginning with a massive, football-field-sized early Christian Basilica built there in the late fourth or early fifth century. The ruins were excavated, and large sections of the elaborate floor mosaics have been preserved and are displayed. The Ottomans destroyed everything that looked remotely Christian and built mosques over the ruins in the centuries during which they ruled the area. The young man’s face lit up when we asked what all the new construction was for. “We’re building a university to teach Orthodox Christian theology”. We asked whether he was a student and he told us that he will soon be ordained as a priest, “But first I had to get married!”, he said proudly, flashing his wedding band. What a hell of an idea!

The Church of Saint John the Theologian, a small fifteenth-century Orthodox chapel, is the image you usually see when you Google Ohrid. To get there, we walked past many beautiful houses with panoramic views of the lake. The setting of the church is striking, as it sits high above the lake at the tip of the peninsula. We followed the path that leads from the church, all the way around the base of the hilltop fortress, until we arrived back in the lower town, passing by a Roman-era theatre along the way, beautiful gardens like the one shown below, and the Church of St. Sofija. And, by the way, houses are built right over the streets in the old town. How cool is that?

On our last day in Ohrid, we visited Samuel’s Fortress, so named for Tsar Samoel of Bulgaria who had it built and ruled the area from there in the eleventh century. As with so many other fortifications in this part of the world, it was built atop the ruins of another one, the fortress of Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, the guy on the enormous statue in Skopje’s main square. A nice young couple from Turkiye took our picture on the fortress wall. Later, we dropped into the local museum which is housed in the palatial former home of the Robevci family. Our guide, an archaeologist, gave us a wonderful tour.

We took one last walk out to the peninsula to see St. John the Theologian “under the lights”. We just sat there and took it all in; just the two of us with no one else around.

We could spend more time in Ohrid. It has everything we look for in a place to park for a month or so: character, cleanliness, value for money, magnificent water views, nice people, and a positive vibe. I’ll check for available apartments should we decide to come back here.

Five minutes after crossing the border from North Macedonia, we saw the first ones: a large one overlooking the main road and ten or so smaller ones. The infamous concrete bunkers built during the reign of Enver Hoxha dot the landscape. This nut ruled the country from 1945 until his death in 1985 according to the Soviet Communist model, only more authoritarian and isolationist. Until it freed itself from the Communists, Albania was the European version of North Korea. By the time the last bunker was built in 1983, 175,000 of them were scattered across the countryside. That’s one for every woman, man, and child living on Prince Edward Island! The country is now on a path towards westernization with ambitions to join all the prestigious international clubs, especially the European Union. Still, Albania is Europe’s poorest country and will likely be for some time to come.

This was not technically our first visit to Albania. While on a Mediterranean cruise in 2013, we took a day tour from the island of Korfu in Greece to Butrint, site of a Roman fortress, in the southern part of the country.

Downtown Tirana, the capital city home to 600,000 of Albania’s 2.8 million residents, is a modern, bustling place. Unlike the other cities we’ve visited so far, it’s less friendly to pedestrians; here, cars rule! Still, there are nice restaurants, upscale stores, and malls. We started by visiting the local tourist information office to get our bearings and advice on what to see and do on an afternoon walking tour. The friendly young woman told us to go to Skanderbeg Square and find, you guessed it, “The man on the horse”, to use as our reference point. We got in our 10,000 steps before the worst of the rain, and I just had to pose beside one of the smaller bunkers in a park on the main drag.

There are two “must-dos” in Tirana, the Dajti Express cable car and Bunk’Art. We figured out how to get to the cable car by city bus and knew that Bunk’Art 1 was located nearby. The gondola took us from the base of the Express in the suburbs up to near the top of Mount Dajti in the national park of the same name. The ride up took almost twenty-five minutes, making it the longest cable car ride we’ve taken. It was a beautiful day and the views from the top were spectacular. We could see all the way to the Adriatic Sea, at least 40 kilometers to the west.

What looked like an abandoned hotel or dormitory up the hill from where we got off the Express piqued my curiosity. I guessed from the bas reliefs at each end showing an adolescent young woman and young man that it must have had something to do with the Communist régime. Sure enough, I learned it was there that party officials sent young Communist Pioneers for a bit of fun and brainwashing in the good old days! Not one of those things you’ll find on the “official” list of things to do, but interesting and thought provoking, nonetheless.

From the base of the cable car, we walked to Bunk’Art 1. This otherworldly monstrosity is a five-level underground bunker, built as a protective measure against nuclear fallout during the Communist régime of the paranoid Enver Hoxha. The bunker has a total area of 32,000 square feet and contains 106 rooms, including an assembly hall. The museum covers the history of Albania dating back to the Italian occupation in the 1930s, the Second World War period, and the Communist era that followed. The exhibits include old photographs and various artifacts. We learned that thousands died digging tunnels and building bunkers all around the country.

We explored the passageways, the areas provided for the meetings of the General Staff of the Army in case of war, the rooms where Enver Hoxha and the former Prime Minister would sleep, and the gigantic hall dedicated to the meetings of the Political Bureau. We couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there! The photos below show Hoxha’s sitting room and the assembly hall.

On our second full day in Tirana, we joined an organized tour. I’d planned to rent a car for the days we were here but thought better of it after reading how hard it is to drive in the city. Having witnessed the chaos with my own eyes, I’m damn glad I did. Our young and fearless guide and driver got us to our destinations and back home in one piece.

The countryside south of Tirana is a scenic patchwork of lakes, olive groves, vineyards, greenhouses, pasture, tilled land, and small farm holdings. It looks far more prosperous than the eastern part of the country we travelled through on our way from Ohrid to Tirana and has a Mediterranean feel to it.

We made a couple of stops during the day but the most interesting one, by far, was Berat Castle, a fortified town that is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Our guide walked us through the town, still inhabited today by a couple of hundred people, and we stopped for a visit to the Iconographic Museum of Onufri. Icons are religious images painted on wood. The collection we saw dates from the mid-1500s and is impressively displayed in the Orthodox Christian Church of Saint Mary. A fellow passenger took this photo of us standing on the castle wall and the second is of a scene in the fortified town of Berat.

Albania is a country just now emerging from a very dark period. We asked the young concierge at our hotel how many years it’s been since his parents, both near sixty, have felt free. “Since the late 1990s”, he replied. Twenty-five years is not long to get a country back on its feet and, there’s no question, they have a very long way to go. Tirana is a city on the move, but it has many challenges to overcome, traffic congestion being one of the main ones.

Elva and I have developed a very simple yardstick for measuring a country’s state of development. We look at three things: garbage, graffiti, and public transit. The first two are everywhere in the countries we’ve visited with the notable exceptions of Slovenia, parts of Croatia, and the city of Ohrid. And it’s ironic that the poorest country, Albania, has the biggest car congestion problem in its capital city and a very poor public transit system. It was the same story in Sarajevo. We’re hoping these places will look and feel better in another generation and can only hope that these good people will enjoy the stable government needed to get them there.

A travel day is a travel day. We boarded our bus in Tirana at 8:00 and left for Kotor, Montenegro, expecting a smooth six-hour ride. After leaving Podgorica, we climbed into the mountains and started meeting cars with snow on them. “Oh shit”, I thought. The further we drove the worse it got. By the time we reached the highest point, the traffic had slowed to a standstill, cars were in the ditch and splayed across the road, and big trucks were spinning on the spot, unable to move. It was obvious that our bus driver had driven through such conditions before. He was calm, patient, and very careful.

We were relieved to finally drive out of the snow and into the rain as we came down the other side of the mountain and approached the Adriatic Sea. We’d called into Kotor in the fall of 2013 on our very first cruise and loved the place. We checked into our hotel, the Monte Cristo, in the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and saw this when we looked out our window!

Saturday 18 November 2023



After we’d settled into our comfortable hotel in midtown Belgrade, the very friendly staff at the reception desk gave us a map and detailed instructions on what to see and where to eat. Although I was tired from the long drive from Sarajevo and the struggles of finding the car rental drop-off at Nicola Tesla Airport, we set out on foot for the old town which lies close to the mouth of the Sava River where it empties into the Danube. As with every other city we’ve visited on this European adventure, it’s a pedestrian-only zone. Hint! Hint! Charlottetown! The morning rain had stopped by the time we got there, and the place was abuzz with young people and Saturday shoppers.

Serbia has a population of 7 million and Belgrade is its largest city at 1.3 million. It ranks 67th among the 192 countries listed by the International Monetary Fund in terms of GDP, slightly below Montenegro but significantly higher than Bosnia-Hercegovina. Its economy is growing at a steady pace and the country should be accepted for European Union membership by 2030 if it can keep peace within its borders and get over its obsession with regaining the lost territory of Kosovo. Serbia has a history of trying to gain control over areas where Serbs live, regardless of national borders, and eliminating all non-Serbs who happen to live there. It’s a dangerous obsession and one that will surely exclude them from membership in many of the desirable international “clubs”.

Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia, a country that existed from 1918 to 1992, first as a monarchy, then, from 1945 onwards, as a Communist state. Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia (now called North Macedonia) were the first of the former Yugoslav republics to declare their independence in 1991. Bosnia-Hercegovina followed in 1992. Serbia and Montenegro formed an alliance in 1992 but, in 2006, Montenegro became an independent nation. Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008 and, while it is not yet a member of the United Nations, it is recognized as a sovereign state by most European countries as well as Canada and the United States. C’est compliqué!

We walked, city map in hand, past several of Belgrade’s attractions on our first full day there on a beautiful sunny morning, beginning with the National Assembly and the Old Palace, residence of the Emperor in the days of the monarchy. The farther we walked, the better we liked this city. It has beautifully manicured parks, wide open spaces, and broad sidewalks. But whether using an old-fashioned map or Google Maps on my iPhone, the challenge was the same. Not only did I not understand the language, but the alphabet is Cyrillic and not Roman.

We saw the St. Sava Temple long before we reached it. It’s massive, and one of the biggest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world. Unlike many religious buildings we’ve visited, this one is rather new, having been completed only in 2004. The interior is as beautiful as any we’ve seen.

From St. Sava, we wandered down toward the lower part of Belgrade in the direction of the Sava River. We soon picked up a stray dog, one of many in the city, who walked beside us for at least twenty minutes. We’re still not sure whether he was following us or whether we were following him. He finally gave up on us at the bus station. As is often the case, it’s the little things that make a day interesting.

The waterfront promenade is a relatively new addition to Belgrade and, as with others we’ve seen, it has become very popular. From there, we wandered up to the park that surrounds the Belgrade Fortress and booked a sunset river cruise. The pedestrian zone was packed with Sunday strollers, may of them young families out to take in the fresh air. The cruise itself was lovely. We started by sailing to the mouth of the Sava River, then turned into the Danube for a short distance before cruising up the Sava past New Belgrade, an impressive residential and commercial development begun in 1948 and dominated by the soon-to-be-completed Belgrade Tower seen in the photo below. The sun sets early here, at 4:15, so we got a nice view of the cityscape from the boat.

We liked almost everything about Belgrade, except what is shown in the middle of almost every table in every restaurant we visited. People smoke here. A lot!! And it takes some getting used to…

We took the early bus from Belgrade to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, the most southerly of the former Yugoslav republics. The country remained at peace during the wars of the 1990s and its only significant dispute in recent years has been with Greece over, of all things, its name. Greece considers that the name “Macedonia” should refer only to the northern part of its territory but, in 2019, it finally accepted that its neighbour to the north be called “The Republic of North Macedonia”. North Macedonia is a stable country politically and, although it contains two main ethnic groups, Macedonians (Eastern Orthodox Christian) and Albanians (Muslim), they seem to have found a way to live together in peace.

It was a long bus journey, but I was content to have someone else at the wheel. Even with Google Maps as a guide, getting in and out of cities in this part of the world can be quite a challenge. Drivers are impatient and aggressive, and streets are narrow and winding. We’d planned to use Skopje as a break in our trip, time to rest and, for me, to get some work done. Also, rather than attempt a long return train trip and an overnight stay overnight in Kosovo, we arranged a day trip there from Skopje.

Skopje has a population of about 600,000 and straddles the Vardar River. The 1963 earthquake destroyed 60% of the city and it was rebuilt in a modernist style. The new urban project, Skopje 2014, was adopted by the municipal authorities to give the city a more monumental and historical aspect, and to transform it into a proper national capital. Several neoclassical buildings destroyed in the 1963 earthquake were rebuilt, including the national theatre, and streets and squares were refurbished. Many other elements were also built, including fountains, statues, hotels, government buildings, and bridges.

We began our four-day visit by walking through Macedonia Square. It features a massive statue of the national hero, Alexander the Great, another man on a horse responsible for much death and destruction. Everywhere you look, there are statues. They might or might not have been important people. It’s hard to tell since all the inscriptions are in Cyrillic! 

The city center is quite compact, and everything is within easy walking distance. There seems to be a nice photo wherever you look. Skopje is the capital city of a developing nation. Some things they’ve done to heighten the city’s profile have worked and others are, well, let’s just say, works in progress. Wander away from the highlights and you soon come across dark alleyways, garbage, and traffic chaos. But it’s not fair to judge a place that’s only been at peace for thirty years, and it’s clear from all the new construction that investors and developers believe there’s a bright future here.

The bazaar is across the river from the main square and is typical of what you see in predominately Muslim communities. It’s much nicer than many we’ve seen. The fortress that overlooks the city is rather neglected; a nice place to walk around, but not much to see.

Our next stop was the Mother Teresa Memorial House located very close to our hotel. She was born in Skopje in 1910 and lived here until she entered a convent at the age of eighteen. The memorial house is built on the site of the former Catholic church where she was baptized and contains cultural exhibits and a photo gallery. Critics have called it a “tactless and tasteless homage to Mother Teresa”. That may be a little harsh and I can understand why some may find the place a bit kitschy. But the fact remains that Mother Teresa is a significant and recognizable figure and one that Skopje has every right to be proud of. Not every city can claim to be the birthplace of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and she certainly is a worthy contrast to all the macho men on horses who carry swords meant to kill people.

Kosovo lies to the north of North Macedonia and is recognized as a sovereign state by 102 of the 193 members of the United Nations. Its population is about 1.8 million and its capital city, Pristina, is home to some 200,000 inhabitants. Most of the population identifies as ethnic Albanian (Muslim) and this helps explain why Kosovo broke away from Serbia (Orthodox Christian) in 2008.

Our Visit Macedonia guide, Sofija, and driver, Stefan, picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 sharp. We crossed the border into Kosovo and drove to our first stop, the Gracanica Monastery in the town of the same name, a Serbian enclave near Pristina. The monastery was built in 1321 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. It contains some of the finest frescos we’ve seen but, since we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, I’ve copied one from the web. Remember that the frescoes are 700 years old!

From Gracanica, it was a short drive to Pristina where we parked and walked around the city center, starting with a view of the National Library, as unusual a building as I’ve seen in my travels, built in 1982 during the Communist régime of Yugoslavia. The roof is made of 99 domes of different sizes and the entire structure is covered in what can only be described as a metal fish net. As with other unusual buildings, you either love it or hate it.

The new part of Pristina is rather dull architecturally, consisting of a few new government buildings and many of the ugly multi-storey concrete residential blocks typical of the Eastern European Communist era. But the pedestrian zone has a nice café-culture style to it. The second photo shows Mother Teresa Boulevard with the tall National Assembly building in the top left.

From Pristina, we drove to Prizren, Kosovo’s second-largest city. Along the way, we drove past impressive residential and commercial developments. When I asked where the cash was coming from, the answer was that Kosovo is an easy place to launder dirty money, and a quick internet search seems to support that explanation. I suppose when you’re a developing country, dirty money is better than no money at all!

The old part of Prizren is very charming. What city isn’t with a river running through its center! We had lunch there and spent a couple of hours just wandering around and people watching. Our guide and driver were both excellent and did two things right: Sofija didn’t spend every minute we were together trying to fill our heads with facts we’ll never remember and, in each place we visited, we were given ample time to wander on our own.

Kosovo turned out to be a pleasant surprise. We’d expected to see a poor country, struggling to come into its own after a messy separation from Serbia and a nasty civil war between the majority Kosovars (Muslim) and their Serbian (Orthodox) neighbours. The visit proved to us yet again that the only way to get to know a country is to go there and draw your own conclusions. And we can’t say enough good things about Stefan and Sofija. Because we visited near the end of the tourist season, we were their only guests and so were treated to a private tour. What a day!

On our last day in Skopje, we rented a car and headed out early into the countryside, looking for the Matka Canyon Trail. The canyon, flooded by a hydroelectric dam, looks more like a fjord. The trail leads from the parking lot to the reservoir above the dam where you can take a boat ride or simply follow the path. It’s rough in places but offers lovely views of the artificial lake and the surrounding mountains, and a good trail walk is a great way to start the day.

From Matka, we drove through several villages in the hills above the city until we arrived at the church and monastery of St. Panteleimon, the patron saint of physicians. The church was built in 1164, making it more than a century and a half older than the Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo. Since the door was open, we walked in and admired the interior structure, including the well-preserved frescoes. No one was there to tell us not to take photos, so we did and the view of the city from the terrace below the church was magnificent.

We had hoped to make it to the Millenium Cross at the top of Mount Vodno but the road and gondola were closed, probably because of high winds. We really enjoyed our visit to Skopje, a relaxing four days that gave us time to recharge our batteries and for me to get some work done and get a haircut. Tomorrow, we’ll take the bus to Ohrid, a city on the lake of the same name that lies three hours to the west.