Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

Travel Diary: The Adventures of Mailing a Postcard in Dublin

This short story is proof that mundane tasks can turn into an adventure with the proper person. Mailing a postcard is not as easy as it sounds. Dublin is the only place where we found a sign that said post, much like the one below, that directed us into a supermarket.

Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.
Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.

We pass a sign that looks like this and peer in. This is a supermarket; that can’t be right. So we’re walking around South Dublin looking for a post office. A real post office, one that would be green with ample harps and lots of other Irish things. We keep seeing oval green mail drops in the street anxious to receive our mail, but as our postcards do not yet have stamps affixed to them, we can not send them on their merry overseas journey.

Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.

After about twenty minutes, we turn around and search again for this tiny sign and go into the supermarket. Everything about this feels odd. We’re in the Donnybrook market, and I see what looks like the beginnings of the warehouse. There are people milling about, so I follow the path all the way to the back of the store. There are those long clear plastic flaps right in front of me, and to the right, I see a two-person queue (that’s a line for my American audiences). Right in this tiny L-shaped, dimly lit area is a post office. There’s two tellers behind bulletproof glass. I go up and ask them for five international stamps, please, which they have to print. She comes back and tells us it’s six euros.

Not a problem, a bargain I think, for such a long journey, and Mark swipes our credit card, which promptly gets declined. The employee sees the error and tells us, debit or cash only. At this point, Mark uses the debit card, and that also gets declined. At this point we didn’t have any cash – so I start to worry. The employee clarifies: “Irish bank cards or cash only.”

Weeeelll, that kind of changes things a bit! We ask where the nearest ATM is, across the street, and walk over only to find out it’s Out of Order. The next ATM is a good ten minutes away, and we have twelve minutes to get our postcards in the mail for the 5:30pm pickup. What a maddening deadline. The next twelve minutes is us running to the ATM, waiting eons to withdraw cash, running back to the post office disguised as a supermarket, waiting in a now very-long queue to pick up our postage stamps that we quickly affix to the postcards and bid them adieu as we drop them promptly at 5:29pm.

Mission. Totally. Accomplished.

Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

It’s Okay! You Can Skip the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

I can’t believe there’s not more blogs promoting this. I really don’t understand why it’s on so many people’s life goals lists (Please tell me in the comments). It’s like millions of people suddenly become devoutly Roman Catholic and suddenly care about the lineages of the popes, what the popes wore, what they did and didn’t do, who they did and didn’t kill, and an even greater number of people pretend to really, really like art.

If you’re not on a pilgrimage to fulfill a religious preoccupation, you can skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for any of the following reasons:

It’s expensive

16 euro if you dare wait in the queue (are you insane?) or 20 per person if you pay online. It’s a 4 euro convenience fee to pay online. You still have to stand in a line to pickup your tickets from the ticket counter. Then you shuffle.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

And sweat, sweat, sweat. This is Italy which means there’s no AC in this building. It’s very old and AC is new. I’m not sure where the 4 euro fee is going, but it’s not going into cooling the building where the average number of visitors is more than 15,000 a day. This isn’t an area with wide walkways or an air current or even somewhere to stand off to the side. Throughout the entire walk through the museum, shuffle shuffle shuffle, which reminds me, I can remember taking exactly six real steps. There’s nowhere to really admire artwork, so actually,

It’s visual overload. 

Every room is ornately painted or carved from baseboards across the ceiling. EVERY. ROOM. You begin walking and trying to take in the beauty and enormity of the artwork, but you can’t because these IDIOT GUIDES and their flock of 20-30 something tourists walk right in front of people that are clearly trying to take a picture or admire artwork. You ask them, mi scusi, a photo? and you get the most disgusted look and a 15% chance of someone actually moving. Two hours later, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are so tired of seeing 16th century art that your eyes kind of glaze over and Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, becomes an actual snoozefest. Speaking of Michelangelo…

The Sistine Chapel is last room of the entire museum. 

And you’re supposed to be silent. All the signs before you enter tell you to 1) cover your shoulders, 2) cover up your super cute mini, AND BE QUIET. “Silence” is universal. But thousands and thousands of morons can’t keep their mouths shut and they keep whispering. So the guards shout SHHHHHHH! across the chapel and people think it’s funny so they keep talking. Again, you shuffle, and the museum guards make you shuffle in a particular direction. If you don’t shuffle that way you’ll be forced that way. Shuffle shuffle. All the sitting room will be taken, so you stand in a crowd of people that are smelly and sweaty and you just stare at the ceiling. No point in taking a photo. The ceiling is so tall you can’t zoom in far enough with any camera to get a fair picture of Adam and God. Speaking of which..

Take a picture of the Sistine Chapel and be prepared to get thrown out.

No one ever said #ShamelessSelfie with Michelangelo is a good idea. Signs have a picture of a camera with a line through it. No photo. And what do these idiots do? Hold their camera up above their head and try to take a picture, then act all surprised when they’re approached by a guard. Are you serious? How daft do you have to be?!

After you finish the Sistine Chapel, you’re guided through the histories of each Pope, what they did wrong and what they did right (all in Italian of course). At this point you’re just ready to leave. You came, you saw, you pretended to be Catholic or you pretended to know who Raphael was, and then you leave.

Want to have a good time at the Vatican? Don’t go. Just don’t. 95% of the people who go there are better off somewhere else.

If you insist on going, here’s my sage advice:

  • Buy the ticket online and deal with the 4 euro/pp convenience fee.
  • Enter the “group with reservations” line.
  • Go through security, put your bag on the line, and go straight to the left where it says tickets.
  • Show the wo/man your phone, get your tickets printed out.
  • GO UP THE RAMP. Do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of smellies on the escalator? No, you don’t.
  • Finally, at least pretend to be interested in something other than the Sistine Chapel, and divert if only for a moment to another room. We enjoyed the “Modern” Gallery right before the SC entrance.

Ciao.

Surviving the Louvre: Getting to, Getting into, and Enjoying Your Visit

It’s no small task to visit the Louvre. Spoiler alert: this is not a leisurely stroll where you can really absorb what you’re reading. Why you ask? Unless one of your languages is French, you won’t be able to read any of the signs for the artwork. I don’t understand why other museums around the world can post signage in two or four languages, but for some reason the Louvre has decided not to do that.

It’s an optic overload. The museum is housed inside of palace and that’s evidenced by the frescoes on the ceiling, the ornate gold on the walls and around the windows, and the sheer size of it.

One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
One of the first rooms of the Sully entrance
Adorned in gold
Adorned in gold
Ornate hall
Ornate hall

Artifacts, paintings, and priceless memoirs of early human existence cover over 600,000 square feet/ 60,000 square meters of space. Three hours of moseying around this grand palace and my tootsies were getting very sore. There are ample places to sit, so they got that right.

Getting to the Louvre

Nearly everyone and their mom arrives via the subway/ metro, which dumps you into an exit where you arrive to the Louvre and you’re in fact surrounded by shops. This is really surreal, at least for me, because I literally uttered WTF while looking at the Apple Store – Thankfully it provides wifi. It’s just under the big glass pyramid.

Inevitably, there will be a long line jutting through the centre near where the two pyramids meet. This is the line to get through security. Note that if you are buying your ticket at the louvre, you must go through security first and then purchase your ticket at one of the counters that say, color me surprised, tickets.

Getting into the Louvre

Ticket machines and tellers are on the perimeter once you go through security. If you get lost look for the information desk, then focus your eyes past that and there’s a ticket area on the other side. Kind of brilliant really. If you have an international bank card that does not require a signature, you can use the ticket machines. Otherwise, you have to queue for a teller. Took me about two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, so not bad.

I picked up my ticket (€15 as of August 2015) and headed to the information desk to pick up a complimentary map of the museum. I thought it would be reassuring to know where galleries are at, but in fact it made me realize that there’s no way I could possibly cover it all.

So, focus on what you like. Do you like looking at marble slabs of rock hard abs carved by Michelangelo? Or would you rather see paintings? Or are you more interested in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman artifacts? (There are rooms dedicated to each). Pin this down before you get started to increase your odds of having a good time.

Then go to those first. I prefer looking at paintings so I can marvel at the texture, color composition, and the expressions on the subjects’ faces rather than Venus de Milo.

Disclaimer: Be honest with yourself. No matter how famous something is…if you’re not interested in that form of art, don’t spend the time, the patience and the energy looking for it and taking a mediocre picture of it. To take a picture and post it of something without knowing who the artist is or the inspiration of the work is a flimsy thing to do.

You don’t have to enjoy or give attention to every type of art. 

Honestly, after about three hours I was “arted” out. And I like art.

I saved the Mona Lisa for the end of my trip becaus I knew once I bore the brunt of the crowds I would be done with the museum. Turns out I know myself pretty well. There is signage everywhere pointing you to the Mona Lisa. It’s on the first floor in, naturally, the halls of the Italian paintings. On very busy days you will see a queue to see the Mona Lisa.

Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.
Entrance to the Mona Lisa. On especially crowded days the line begins back here.

In this case, a Sunday afternoon, I was lucky to have to battle an arc of people about twelve people deep. When I visited the Mona Lisa in 2007, pictures were prohibited. Anyone caught with a camera was escorted out of the gallery. Now pictures are allowed, but no flash is permitted. Great, you’re thinking, except now we live in a world of selfie sticks and people jousting one another to make room for them and their selfie sticks. Not to mention its August, so it’s hot, and people are sweating, and odds are if you visit from March to September it will be smelly. That’s not too pleasant. So there’s people being smelly and being shovey and making  room for their selfie sticks selfishly and I kind of just wanted to hit them with it instead of admire the Mona Lisa.

The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
The arc of people crowding around the Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.
Mona Lisa, taken from the right.

I took my little picture of her cheeky little grin and found my way out quickly as the museum closes at 6pm (9:45pm on Wednesday and Friday).

I thought going a little more toward closing time would mean less of a crowd. Maybe what I experienced was a dwindle compared to what the day saw earlier, but half an hour to closing the place was still packed with people swarming everywhere like the Louvre is a hive. I stayed right until closing time and took the first metro home.

Tips to enjoy your visit:

  • Bring water and something to fan yourself with. The museum map works in a pinch, but in August it’s almost stifling warm.
  • Identify the art you’re most interested in seeing and start there.
  • Connect to the Louvre wifi and download the Louvre app. Plug in headphones. Insta-tour.
  • Carry some snacks to munch on while you’re browsing, because it’s a good ten minute endeavor to get from wherever you are to an exit.

When to go for budget travelers:

  • 18-26 are free on Friday evening regardless of nationally
  • 18-25 from EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are free always (bring ID)
  • Under 18 is always free (bring ID)
  • Regardless of age or nationality, first Sunday of the month from October to March is free

Have you been to the Louvre? Looking to travel to the Louvre? Wanting to score unbelievably cheap flights to your next destination- click here.

Cheers,

Mark and Melody

Hostels No Longer Cheapest Lodging for Travelers

When we talk about  travel, we are nearly always asked if we are staying at hostels. The answer is: out of 32 days so far, we have only stayed at one. Hostels for a long time cornered the market of dirt cheap lodging, but this is no longer the case thanks to…

AirBnb!

Hostels typically charge by bed, regardless of if its a dorm room or a private room. Let’s start with the dorm room. Let’s say you can get a bed in a dorm room for €20 which is pretty cheap in Western Europe. There’s two of us, which means we’re paying €40 for two beds in a mixed bed dorm. That means there’s people of either gender all sleeping in one room. €40 for zero privacy sleeping and a shared bath with any number of people. In some cases, towels cost an extra euro and the showers are the kind you want to wear sandals in.

In a private room, it gets more expensive. Very rarely a private rooms equipped with only two beds. Usually they are four, but sometimes three. Now we have €60 to pay for a private room, on a good day. 

Disclaimer: since we’ve been in Europe we have not found beds in a hostel for less than €20 per night.

Note also that most hostels have minimum day stays, especially through the weekend. That means if we want to stay Thursday through Saturday,we are paying a premium because it’s a weekend and we are confined to a minimum number of days – usually three days.

Enter airbnb.

In Paris, we are staying 15 minutes away from city center for €38 /$40 each night. Private room. Shared bath, if our host is here. When he’s not,  we have our own flat in Paris.  Kitchen to cook in. Metro across the street. Great food nearby. Amazing bed.

In Glasgow, we stayed with the loveliest couple in a brand new house just south of the city. They provided amazing food, company, and advice on travelling the area. Awesome comfortable bed. They provided a washing machine (invaluable if you’re living on 8 days of clothes), towels and bathing essentials. Also less than €40 / $44.

In Brussels, we stayed with a French gentleman right in the city center in that same price bracket.

We’ve not once had to abide by a minimum stay or pay for a towel.

For couples or group travelers, we remain convinced airbnb is the best way to go if you’d rather spend your money on experiences instead of accommodations. 😉

Travelling somewhere new and looking for the best airbnb? Check out this page and learn the best questions to ask your next host.

Cheers and happy travelling!

Mark and Melody

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody