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    My Favorite Wildlife Encounters Around the World

    I’ve been truly blessed with some astonishing wildlife encounters over the past eight years in our world travels. This past year has been particularly memorable, and I thought it would be good time to pull together a post about My Favorite Wildlife Encounters Around the World. I hope you enjoy it.

    Leopard Tanzania

    My Favorite Wildlife Encounters Around the World

    When we started the Grand Adventure Travel Life, I didn’t really set out to discover incredible wildlife. It quickly became apparent however, that fascinating, new-to-us wildlife was going to be a big part of our travels. Wildlife in the jungles, forests and savannas. Birds in the air. Fish and mammals in the sea. Even insects, reptiles and crustaceans became a new fascination for these old folks – always ready to learn something new.

    Elephant Family Etosha National Park Namibia

    The wildlife encounters listed below are by no means the only ones…but they are some of my favorites. Some of these moments simply took my breath away. Gave me pause. Held me in rapture at nature in all her glory.

    Australia

    Australia. Oh my God. The land of never ending surprises. Of course there are kangaroos, wallabies and koala. There are also immense collections of bird life, reptiles and bugs. There are so many animals in the wild, and in fact it’s astonishing how many kangaroo get hit by cars. Australia blew our mind – and we are planning to return for our third visit in 2025.

    Stork, Nelson Bay Australia
    Mama Roo and Joey, Booderee National Park, Australia
    Great Barrier Reef, Australia

    Namibia

    When we first started talking about Namibia, I wasn’t even sure where it was (just north of South Africa). Our ten day tour in Namibia is still one of our favorite travel experiences. The elephant image below, is in my mind, the best photo I ever took. It was easy though…so much beauty everywhere we turned.

    Black Rhino Etosha National Park Namibia
    Lion King, Etosha National Park Namibia
    Sunset Elephant, Etosha National Park Namibia

    Uganda

    To celebrate my 60th birthday we splurged on a Mountain Gorilla Trek in Uganda. Life changing. If you can make this happen once in your life, do it.

    Silverback Dominant Male, Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
    One Year Old Gorilla, Uganda
    Happy Birthday to me!

    Philippines

    I’ve told this story before about how when I was a child we had a picture book with a tarsier on the glossy cover. I was terrified of that animal. Seeing it in the wild in Philippines was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Tiny and harmless, I love these animals so much. We also had one of our best snorkel days in the Philippines…swimming with millions of sardines.

    Teeny nocturnal Tarsier, Bohol Philippines
    Snorkleing at Ningaloo Reef Panglao Philippines

    Madagascar

    Our most recent wildlife adventure was a ten-day private tour in Madagascar. I was mostly looking forward to seeing the baobab trees, and was hoping we would see a few lemurs. Oh my goodness. Lemurs and so much more. It was an absolute joy and I am so glad we did this tour.

    Indri – the largest of all the Lemurs in Madagascar
    Fascinating chameleons all over Madagascar
    Sifika Lemur Madagascar

    Botswana

    Botswana was a quick visit while also visiting Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe. But our brief visit afforded us some fabulous wild life encounters including lots of hippopotamus in the Zambezi River.

    Large male elephant, Chobi National Park Botswana
    Curious giraffe, Chobi National Park Botswana
    The hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in the world

    Papua New Guinea

    I did not take this photo (Thank you Canva), but seeing the Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea was a dream come true. In fact, we saw several different species of Bird of Paradise, as well as multiple other very special and beautiful birds. Astounding.

    Raggiana Bird of Paradise Papua New Guinea

    Sri Lanka

    We loved our visit to Sri Lanka, a country many people overlook. We started our three week visit with a six day tour, that included a visit to Yala National Park. Yala is home to a giant population of Asian Elephants. It was the most elephants in one place I had ever seen. We also had a wonderful up close and personal encounter with a beautiful and camouflaged leopard.

    Beautiful leopard
    Asian elephant, Yala National Park Sri Lanka

    Borneo/Malaysia

    I had always wanted to see the Orangutans, and so when we decided to spend a couple of months in Malaysia, I began to research how to spend a few days on the island of Borneo and visit the Sepilok Reserve. We did this four day visit without a tour guide, it was very easy to do. We loved the Sepilok Forest Edge Lodge and the fact we could walk to the Orangatan Reserve. AND seeing the incredible Proboscis Monkeys was an added bonus!

    This orangutan just mosied past me on the walkway!
    Funny looking and beautiful too – Proboscis Monkey
    Mama and baby at the Sepilok Reserve

    Costa Rica

    Our three week visit to Costa Rica with our dear friends was one of the most memorable trips we have made. Not only did we get to see sloths for the first time, the turtles and bird life was spectacular.

    Stand up Paddle Board and Sea Turtle spotting in Mal Pais Costa Rica
    What a beauty, Fortuna Costa Rica
    Sleeping Sloth, Fortuna Costa Rica

    Honduras

    We spent six weeks on the island of Roatan Honduras and I would definitely go back. There are several reserves set up on the island to protect and conserve remaining wildlife. I think our favorite moments though were spotting beautiful Red Macaws right near our condo and the giant and docile iguana

    Macaws are the national bird of Honduras
    The biggest iguana I have ever seen, Roatan Honduras

    Iceland

    We came for the scenery and the midnight sun, and we were not disappointed. Wildlife was a bonus and our favorite things were the wild reindeer and the beautiful puffins. I did not take this puffin photo (Thank you Canva), we were not this close, but Iceland did not disappoint and I encourage everyone to visit that incredible country.

    Wild Reindeer, Iceland
    Puffin (Canva)

    New Zealand

    We loved our seven week visit to New Zealand, although we loved it mostly for the beauty, scenery and hiking. We did not encounter much wildlife on this trip, but at the very end of our visit we stumbled on a biologist tagging Kiwi birds. Kiwi are incredibly shy and are rarely seen by visitors or locals. So to be able to meet this beautiful bird before she was released back into the brush was very special.

    The sweet, shy Kiwi bird, national symbol of New Zealand

    Galapagos/Ecuador

    Although this trip was before we launched the Grand Adventure, our week touring the Galapagos Islands for my fiftieth birthday is one of our favorite memories of our travel life. Teeming with fascinating animals and bird life, it’s a memorable and once in a lifetime destination. Just go.

    Galapagos land Iguana – he smiled at me!
    Underwater delights, Galapagos
    Blue Footed Boobies, Galapagos
    Male Frigate bird showing off, Galapagos

    USA

    Of course, since I am an American, I have had many opportunities to see wildlife in my own big country. Montana is a favorite, Hawaii too, New England as well as my own great state of Washington where I spend my summers.

    Sea Turtles are protected in Hawaii
    Monk Seals are also protected in Hawaii – stay clear
    Young Grizzly, Glacier National Park Montana
    Porcupine in Maine

    There is More

    There is more…but I think these I’ve listed here remain some of my all time favorites. And I’m not done yet…we have lots more travel in our future, as we explore and show reverence to Mother Nature and the fascinating wildlife of our planet.

    Lioness, Nambia

    My Favorite Wildlife Encounters Around the World

    Nature teaches us so much about the fragility of our world, and careful, sustainable travel provides so many opportunities to understand nature better. I have been so incredibly blessed to have had so many amazing up close and personal wildlife experiences – My Favorite Wildlife Encounters Around the World.

    See last week’s post A Day Trip to Bratislava Slovakia.

    We love it when you comment, pin, and share our blog posts. Thanks and talk to you again soon.

    Howler Monkey Costa Rica

    NOTE : With this blog post I end year eight of our Grand Adventure. I will be taking several weeks, possibly a couple months, off from posting new blog material. We have fall travel planned, I’ll be back before that, but in the meantime, I want to be present here in the USA with my family. Thanks for your continued support – I’ll be back…

    Europe Travel

    One Day in Bratislava Slovakia

    Location: Bratislava Slovakia

    The tiny medieval town of Bratislava is often a stop on Danube river cruises. It’s an easy town to wander on your own, or take an organized tour. It’s also a very easy day trip from Vienna – which is how we we visited and spent One Day in Bratislava Slovakia.

    Bratislava Castle

    Day Trip

    We visited as a day trip from Vienna, where we had spent a week (Visiting Vienna Austria). There are a couple of options for getting to Bratislava. Twin City Liner is a hydrofoil option, you can book direct or go on a guided tour. The full-day tour leaves from Vienna and gives you several hours to wander Bratislava as well as enjoy the beautiful Danube. This service is only in available in the summer.

    Since we were in Vienna in late April, we missed the start of the Twin City Liner season by just a week. So, instead we took a bus. We did Flixbus, with multiple daily round-trip options on a beautiful and comfortable coach for under $20 each. By taking Flixbus, we were on our own in Bratislava to make our own choices. But you can also do a guided tour, leaving from Vienna Opera House using Get Your Guide.

    Bratislava

    The hour and a half bus ride from Vienna to Bratislava was super easy. We arrived in Bratislava refreshed and ready to walk around. The weather was lovely. We had booked a walking tour at noon, but we had more than an hour to get our bearings. First thing we noticed was so many different gelato stands. Well, 10:30 isn’t too early for gelato! Savoring our treat we walked around the tree-lined pedestrian walkway, admiring the Bratislava Old Town Hviezdoslav Square. This gathering place is home to one of the cities most beautiful buildings, The National Theater, and a statue of Poet Pavol Országh – a famous Slovak.

    Gelato at 10:30 in the morning
    Beautiful tree-lined pedestrian streets
    Slovakia National Theatre

    Walking Tour

    Next we wandered through the pedestrian streets lined with shops and restaurants to admire Saint Michael’s Gate. Completed in the 14th century this beautiful medieval gate is the last from the fortified city. Be sure not to miss it.

    Saint Michael’s Gate

    Now it was time for our walking tour. As always, I promote a walking tour in any and every city we visit. Walking with a local, we were guided to some of the hidden spaces of Bratislava. We started learning about history and culture at the meeting point of Fransiscan Square – home to the 13th century Franciscan Church. Our guide was wonderful with a great grasp on both the old and new of Bratislava. We visited Primates Square where the Parliament is and visited the statue of Saint George.

    Franciscan Square
    Primates Square
    Saint George

    On our way to the famous Blue Church (mostly famous just because it’s blue) we passed by a former location of another gate to the old city. Next we heard a very interesting account of the Bratislava 1989 student uprisings that would eventually bring down communism. In 1992 Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state from the Czech Republic. Czeckolslovakia became two independent nations.

    Blue Church
    Tanks vs People in Student Uprising

    Danube

    We finished our interesting walking tour by walking out onto Stary Most bridge, a recently rebuilt bridge across the Danube for pedestrians, cyclists and trams. From the bridge we enjoyed seeing all the river cruise boats in port and the beautiful view of the castle up on the hill.

    River boats passing under Stary Most Bridge
    View from Stary Most Bridge

    Let’s Eat

    The national dish of Slovakia is potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese and bacon. So of course I had to try it. Many places in Bratislava serve traditional dishes, but on the suggestion of our walking tour guide we ended up at Meanto and enjoyed sitting outside on the cobbled street. We had cabbage dumplings as well, fried potatoes and garlic soup. It was a delicious meal.

    Dumplings, dumplings, dumplings
    Potato Pancakes
    Garlic Soup

    Bratislava Castle

    Our final stop on our day in Bratislava was the castle, standing sentry atop the hill overlooking the city.

    There is evidence of a settlement here as far back as the 600-500 BC. Coins have been found from the Moravian Empire but in the 12th century the castle began to change. The towers were added in the 13th century and further renovations occurred in the 15th century. The last large scale reconstruction occurred under the reign of Maria Teresa in the late 1700’s.

    Bratislava Castle
    The Gardens

    But in 1811 a devastating fire took the majority of the ancient building down. It sat in ruins for more than 100 years, until reconstruction began in 1953. Today the castle is home to the Slovak National Museum. The grounds and gardens are a lovely place for families to gather and picnic and it is a must visit when in Bratislava.

    The view of the Danube from the Bratislava Castle

    Back to Vienna

    After a full day trip to Bratislava it was time for our return bus to Vienna. Once again the comfy bus safely returned us, with a very brief stop at the border where a border agent glanced at passports before flagging us on.

    One Day in Bratislava Slovakia

    I definitely recommend One Day in Bratislava Slovakia and you should do a walking tour to get the most of your visit. It was a wonderful way to see a new city and a new country for me.

    Thank you for reading my post One Day in Bratislava Slovakia. Be sure to read last week’s post Mad About Madagascar here. You might also enjoy Visiting Vienna Austria here.

    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    Mad About Madagascar

    Madagascar had long been a bucket list item for me. We had begun researching Madagascar the year before Covid…but of course had to put it on the back burner. I’ve been anxious to get it back in our travel itinerary, and well, let me tell you, it was worth the wait. You may know how much my husband and I love a wildlife and birding adventure. Madagascar really delivered on that front…but in many other ways as well. I am now totally Mad About Madagascar and hope I can impress upon you what an incredible destination it is.

    Ring-Tailed Lemur

    Touring Madagascar

    You can do independent travel in Madagascar, but frankly I wouldn’t recommend it. Infrastructure in Madagascar is poor. Roads are long, bumpy and poorly maintained. Having a driver who can expertly and safely maneuver the roads is important. Secondly, the wildlife. Throughout our ten day visit to Madagascar we had two different regional driver/guides and an additional five other site specific guides. The site specific guides played a very important role in the success of our tour. Their expertise in finding wildlife, birds and plants as well as teaching us about the local history, culture and people was immeasurable. Do a tour. You won’t regret it.

    Chameleon
    Common Brown Lemur

    There are dozens of tour companies…probably hundreds. We used a company called Fosa and booked a private ten day tour and upgraded our hotels. We also upgraded to add a flight between the long distance of Antananarivo and Morondava…saving us from a full 10 hour day of treacherous driving. Do your research to find the best fit for you.

    Mad About Madagascar

    Madagascar was so much better than I expected. After our first two days I thought – well we can go home now, it can’t get any better. And yet…it did. It was unexpected at every turn. So let me tell you the highlights of the things we saw, did and experienced. Let me tell you why I am now Mad About Madagascar.

    Red Ruffed Lemur

    Baobabs

    It’s these amazing trees that I wanted to see in Madagascar. I really wasn’t prepared for all the other astonishing things…so that was a bonus. But these amazing Baobab trees were everything I had hoped for. Avenue of the Baobabs, also called Alley of the Baobabs, is not the only place you can enjoy the Baobabs. They are scattered all over the region between Morondava and Kirindy in the south. We first sighted them from the airplane.

    Adansonia is a genus made up of eight species of medium-to-large deciduous trees known as baobabs(/ˈbaʊbæb/ or /ˈbeɪoʊbæb/) or adansonias. They are placed in the Malvaceae family, subfamily Bombacoideae. They are native to Madagascar, mainland Africa, and Australia.[2] The trees have also been introduced to other regions such as Asia.[3] A genomic and ecological analysis has suggested that the genus is Madagascan in origin. (Wikipedia)

    Baobab at sunset
    Baobabs are protected by the government
    Avenue of the Baobabs

    Baobab trees can grow to enormous sizes and carbon dating indicates that they may live to be 3,000 years old. Baobab trees grow as solitary individuals, and are large and distinctive elements of savanna or scrubland vegetation. They grow from 5–25 meters (16–82 feet) tall. An amazing site to see. I think every tour will take you to The Avenue of the Baobabs.

    Sunset at Avenue of the Baobabs

    Other Flora

    Throughout our tour we enjoyed many other species of plant life. From the giant Baobab to the tiniest of fungus. Because we showed a lot of interest in plants and birds as well as wildlife, all of our guides went to great lengths to point out the beauty of Madagascar underfoot and overhead.

    Wild Orchid
    Bonnet Mushroom
    Poinsettia
    Vermillion Waxcap Mushroom
    Lovers Baobab

    Chameleons

    I wasn’t very familiar with chameleons before arriving in Madagascar, and I have to say, I think they are my new favorite creature. These handsome docile bug eaters just hang out and mind their business in the jungles of Madagascar, all while sporting a beautiful and showy suit. I love them. Madagascar is home to over 150 kinds of chameleons and we saw many of them, both in the wild and at a reserve that is working to conserve the reptiles who are threatened from deforestation. Our wonderful guides with their eagle eyes spotted sleeping chameleons during our night-walks and camouflaged chameleons in the bright day. Additional reptiles we found were frogs, snakes and geckos. What a show they all gave us.

    Just minding my business…
    At the reserve this one matched my headband
    Panther Chameleon
    Sleeping Chameleon
    Golden Mantella Frog
    A BIG snake
    Leaf Tailed Gecko

    Birds

    As loyal followers of this blog well know, travel has turned my husband and I into birders. I used to be pretty ambivalent about birds…but once you travel around the world the presence of birds becomes such an important part of each day. We love birding and our guides were incredible at helping us find more than 20 new-to-us species during our ten day tour. And one beautiful giant moth.

    One thing I want to point out is, for the first time ever, we saw sleeping birds. I never have given much thought to where birds sleep. But on our night walk in Kirindy National Park, with our guide, we saw beautiful birds, sound asleep on low branches. A brand new experience for me.

    Sleeping Bird
    Sleeping Bird
    Malagasy Kingfisher (Merlin)
    Red Fody
    Madagascar Moon Moth

    Lemurs

    Lemurs are probably the biggest attraction for visitors who come to Madagascar. The island is home to more than 50 kinds of Lemurs, a tree dwelling primate. And despite its close proximity to mainland Africa, the lemurs are found only on the island.

    Nocturnal Mouse Lemur
    Common Brown Lemur
    Sifaka Lemur

    We did not see all of the species of lemurs, but we were pretty impressed with how many we did see. I was hoping we would just see one or two but we saw dozens. From the smallest mouse lemur, about 11 inches and nocturnal, to the largest – the Indri. The Indri can weigh up to 9.5 kg (21 lb) and perhaps up to 15 kg (33 lb). We encountered many families of indri in the Analamazoatra national park, and were astonished by the screaming noise they make to mark their familiar territory. Absolutely fascinating.

    Spectacular Indri Lemur

    Most of the lemurs we saw, both during the day on night walk, were regional to the two areas we visited; Kirindy National Park and Analamazoatra National Park. But we also visited a private reserve near Andasibe where we saw many lemurs from other parts of the island, including the ring-tailed lemur the one most people are familiar with.

    Ring Tailed Lemur
    Diademed Sifaka Lemur

    Culture and History

    We had several opportunities during our ten day tour to engage with the local Malagasy people. Everyone we met was kind and welcoming. Tourism makes up 5% of the island economy, and most people work in farming and fishing and live a sustenance life. Everywhere we went people were toiling in some fashion. We particularly enjoyed a canoe ride in Morondava to see the fishing boats. We also waded across a shallow estuary at low tide to visit a small fishing village. Here about 1000 people live with no running water or electricity growing vegetables, fishing and boat building.

    Rice Fields harvest twice a year
    Many people fish
    Walking to the fishing village at low tide
    Sweet children in the fishing village

    We also had the opportunity on our final day to do a walking tour of Antananarivo, called Tana by the locals. Antananarivo is the capital and largest city in Madagascar, home to nearly 4 million people. We visited some historic sites and walked through the very busy daily market swarming with people. This was the only place in our entire visit we were warned to be diligent about pickpockets.

    Looking at the massive market downhill Antananarivo
    Queen’s Palace Antananarivo
    Antananarivo is sprawling and home to 4 million people

    Things to Know

    Logistics

    There are two official languages in Madagascar; French and Malagasy. Malagasy is just one of 18 tribal languages in the country. Most people in the tourism industry speak a bit of English. All of our guides spoke excellent English.

    Don’t expect to use your credit card. We paid cash for all but one transaction over our ten day tour. Even hotels and restaurants operate in the local currency of Ariary. As of this writing the exchange rate is one Ariary = .23 US cents

    Safety

    I felt safe everywhere I went, and I was always with a guide. The only time we were warned to be aware of pickpockets was in the city of Antananarivo – a city of 4 million people. Crime is a problem in the city so be aware. But very little of our time was spent in the city.

    Though not all areas of Madagascar are prone to malaria, we did take malaria medicine while in the country. Discuss it with you doctor.

    Lodging

    We stayed in five different hotels during our tour. All were excellent, clean, had delicious restaurants and friendly English speaking staff. Only one did not have Aircon or wifi due to it’s remoteness.

    In Morondava we had a lovely beach-side hotel
    Our stay Kirindy was the most remote lodging with no WIFI and power only a couple hours a day
    In Andasibe we had a really nice bungalow surrounded by the most beautiful gardens

    Costs

    Our tour for two people with the upgrades I mentioned above cost $5076 for ten days. Our tour included breakfast but not lunch or dinner. We ate all our dinners at the hotels and and few lunches elsewhere. Over the ten days we spent about $400 on food and drinks. We tipped our drivers and guides generously…a total for tips over the ten days was about $250. Our round trip flight from Vienna via Addis Ababa cost $910 per person.

    Mad About Madagascar

    My bucket list of destinations got significantly shorter after this long awaited trip to Madagascar. It was the final destination of an 8 month long journey that started in remarkable Papua New Guinea and ended in magnificent Madagascar. What a life. My Fab Fifties Life.

    Peek-a-Boo

    I highly recommend Madagascar. If you have considered it, ask me questions. I am Mad About Madagascar and am so grateful it turned out even better than I had always imagined.

    Black Heron (Merlin)

    Thank you for reading my post Mad About Madagascar and for your continued interest and support of our travels. Be sure and see last week’s post Visit Vienna Austria. And come back next week for even more of our grand travel adventures.

    We love it when you pin, comment, and share our blog posts. Thank you.

    Europe Travel

    Visiting Vienna Austria

    History, Beauty, Music & Charm

    Location: Vienna Austria

    Vienna. Wein. Wow. Somehow in all my travels Vienna had eluded me. Now that I have been there, I have no doubt I will be back. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – right up there with Budapest and Paris, two of my favorites. But Vienna is not Paris and it’s not Budapest. It is its own unique city with fascinating ancient and recent history and a charm and beauty like no other. Today let’s talk about Visiting Vienna Austria.

    Beautiful gardens at every turn
    Vienna is home to incredible art and antiquities

    UNESCO

    The rich and varied history and significant cultural and archaeological influence of Vienna have made its historic core a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here is what the UNESCO website has to say about the distinctive history of Vienna.

    Vienna, situated on the Danube River in the eastern part of Austria, developed from early Celtic and Roman settlements into a medieval and Baroque city, eventually becoming the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    Schonbrunn Palace summer gazebo

    During the Ottoman conflicts in the 16th and 17th centuries, the medieval town’s walls, which surrounded a much larger area, were rebuilt and provided with bastions. This remained the core of Vienna until the medieval walls were demolished in the second half of the 19th century

    Baroque Architecture

    n 1683, Vienna became the capital of the Habsburg Empire and developed rapidly, becoming an impressive Baroque city. The Baroque character was expressed particularly in the large palace layouts such as the Belvedere Palace and garden ensemble. A growing number of new palaces were built by noble families, many existing medieval buildings, churches, and convents were altered and given Baroque features, and additions were made to representative administrative buildings.

    Interior Schonbrunn Palace

    Several historic Viennese buildings are now associated with the residences of important personalities such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, when the city played an essential role as a leading European center for music. (Source UNESCO)

    Charles II of Spain – Habsburg Monarchy

    Habsburg Dynasty 600 Years

    Charles II of Spain – Born 6 November 1661, Charles was the only surviving son of Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, who were uncle and niece. While European nobility commonly married within the same extended family to retain property, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs were unusual in the extent to which they followed this policy, resulting in poor health and disfigurement as seen here. (Wikipedia)

    The Habsburg Dynasty was in power for more than 600 years.

    Vienna after WWII Bombing

    The Second World War created havoc in the city. Vienna was bombed 52 times during World War II, destroying much of the city. However, today the city is fully restored and more beautiful than ever. (Photo Google Images)

    Visiting Vienna Austria

    We had six days to explore this beautiful city. Prior to arrival we had booked several activities, as well as a room at the Mercure City Center hotel, an easy walk from the main historic center of the city. Our room was comfortable, staff was excellent and the breakfast was well done each morning. Here is how we spent our time Visiting Vienna Austria.

    Stephen’s Cathedral, built in the 12th century, in the historic center

    Arrival

    Our early flight from Belgrade got us to Vienna around 10am. Efficient exit process through Vienna International Airport and to our hotel before 11am. Too early to check in, we dropped our bags, and headed out for a full day.

    Visitors flock to Vienna and carriage rides are popular

    Kunsthistorissche

    We started at the world renowned Kunsthistorissche Museum. We had purchased tickets in advance, but I think in April we could have walked in. But during the busy summer months, you should reserve your tickets. Built in 1891 the museum is home to a vast collection of the Habsburg Imperial Family and considered one of the premier museums in the world. You could easily spend an entire day. We were there for about three hours and barely made a dent. We focused primarily on painting and sculpture. When I return to Vienna I will certainly see this museum again.

    Rembrandt self portrait Kunsthistorissche
    Velasquez at the Kunsthistorissche

    Leopold Museum

    Our next stop was the Leopold Museum, Vienna’s Art Nouveau collection featuring Austrian artists including the incomparable Klimt. The modern art collection of Dr. Rudolph Leopold makes up the majority of the work, including a vast collection of the works of Egon Schiele and many other artists of the Vienna Succession Movement.

    Egon Schiele

    Austrian National Library

    We popped into this beautiful building on our way to the MozartHaus and found a wonderful surprise. Since 2005, the collections have been located within the Baroque structure of the Palais Mollard-Clary. Founded by the Habsburgs, the library was originally called the Imperial Court Library. Stunning architecture as well as antiquities share the space with a vast collection of ancient tomes

    Austrian National Library

    MozartHaus

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived the final ten years of his short life in Vienna with his family. The house he lived in and composed some of his greatest works, is now a museum to his life. Surprisingly ordinary, the house sits on a main street within the historic core. Touring the MozartHaus museum includes a well done audio guide with facts and details about the life of this remarkable talent. However, the movie Amadeus was actually filmed mostly in Prague.

    Mozart

    Griechenbeisl

    It had been a long and productive day and we were starving. Time to visit Vienna’s oldest restaurant Griechenbeisl serving traditional Viennese food for 550 years. We dug into this giant Pork Knuckle with sauerkraut and potatoes and delicious local beer. Perfect end to our first day in Vienna.

    Port Knuckle at the historic Griechenbeisl

    Art & Music

    Guten Morgen Wein – day two. Today we had booked a walking tour through Get Your Guide of the Imperial Palace area, which encompasses most of the historic center of the city. Our tour included an orientation of the area with stops outside the Hofburg Imperial Palace, the Austrian National Library, the Imperial Gardens, many pedestrian streets and the stalls of the Lipizaner Horses (more on that tomorrow). Inside the Hofburg Imperial Palace Additionally we toured Sisi Museum, where numerous personal items that once belonged to Elisabeth (Sisi) illustrate the true personality of the frequently misunderstood Empress. 

    Hofburg Palace
    Empress Elizabeth (Sisi)
    Sisi Museum – look at that waist!!

    Belvedere

    We used Vienna’s easy tram system to head out to the Belvedere Museum, the former summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Today the beautiful Baroque buildings are the heart of the Belvedere collection including 24 paintings by Gustav Klimt with his golden images “The Kiss” and “Judith”. “The Kiss” is probably Austria’s most famous work of art.

    The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
    Judith by Klimt

    In addition to fantastic art collection, the gardens at the Belvedere are exquisite. Be sure to save time for a lovely stroll around the pond to enjoy the gardens on a sunny day.

    The Gardens at the Belvedere

    To Market to Market

    After the Belvedere we hopped back on the tram and headed to the Kutschkermarkt, a neighborhood market outside of the center. Still early in the season, but we enjoyed the beautiful selection of flowers and produce, live music and crafts. Lots of seafood outdoor restaurants here as well, but we opted for a lovely and authentic Italian meal instead.

    Kutschkermarkt
    Italian in Vienna

    Mozart Concert

    After a quick rest and change of clothes back at the hotel, we were back on the tram heading to a Mozart Concert by the Vienna Music Society. The wonderful concert, with orchestra in period costume, was so much fun, and the Golden Hall was exquisite.

    The Musikverein was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1870. The Golden Hall in the Musikverein is known all over the world, not only because of the annual worldwide broadcast of New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonics, but also for being permanent seat of the Vienna Philharmonics and main stage of the Vienna Mozart Orchestra. I highly recommend this when in Vienna.

    The Golden Hall
    The Vienna Music Orchestra preparing to play

    Lipizzaner Stallions

    When I imagined visiting the Lipizzaner Stallions in Vienna, I imagined traveling outside of the city to big green equestrian field, like I might in Kentucky or Maryland. Oh no. These spectacular horses perform right in the heart of Vienna, in their own Baroque chandelier-ed arena built for the Spanish Riding School in 1729.

    The Lipizzaner horse is one of the oldest breeds in Europe. The breed got its start in 1580 when Archduke Charles of the Austro-Hungrian Empire established a stud farm at Lipizza near the Adriatic Sea in modern day Slovenia. This occurred shortly after his brother, Maximilian II, had imported Spanish horses to Austria and founded the court stud at Kladrub. It was from the stud farm at Lipizza that the breed gets its name. Archduke Charles greatly desired to create a horse that was not only suited for war, but also for pulling carriages and performing in the manner of classical riding. Learn more here.

    We booked our tickets in advance to see the morning performance of The Spanish Riding School. Not being a horse person myself, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I loved it. Absolutely astonishing the beauty, grace and athleticism of these magnificent animals. The riders also were amazing. It is highly competitive to be a rider at the school and it takes commitment.

    To undergo training at the Spanish Riding School means a lifelong education, which is always subjected to the needs of the horses. It is tough, takes eight to ten years and requires iron discipline. The handed-down oral tradition of classic equestrian art still applies today and is passed on from generation to generation. The horse takes center stage and determines the duration of the training. Currently, there are three chief riders, eight riders, five assistant riders, as well as five trainees at the school. Learn more. Do not miss a Lipizzaner performance when in Vienna.

    Performance venue for the Lipizzaner Stallions
    Lipizzaner Stallion
    Spectacular

    Weinerschnitzel

    Day three in Vienna and I still hadn’t had any Weinerschnitzel – Vienna’s signature dish. So I had read about a restaurant near to the Lipizzaner Stallions called beim Hofmeister. Their website said serving Weiner Traditional food since 1725. So we not only enjoyed a giant Weinerschnitzel but we ended with delicious Austrian Sachertorte as well.

    Sound of Music in German

    We booked ahead tickets for Rodgers and Hammerstein iconic Sound of Music at the beautiful Volksoper theater. Even though the show was in German, we know the songs and the story well enough to enjoy it nonetheless. It was a great performance, with highly talented cast and great sets. I recommend it when in Vienna.

    Vienna Volksoper (photo Volksoper)

    Bratislava

    I will have a separate blog post coming up about our day trip to Bratislava Slovakia (my 134th country), but let me suggest here what a nice day trip it is. If you have the time, take a day to cross the border and visit this lovely medieval city of Bratislava Slovakia. An easy one and half hour drive on a clean and efficient Flixbus bus system is a perfect way to go for less than $20 round trip. During the summer months you can also enjoy a Danube River cruise from Vienna to Bratislava and back with a six hour stay in the city. Watch for an upcoming blog post with more details about our day four visit to Bratislava.

    Bratislava

    Two Icons

    There is still much to see in beautiful Vienna, and on day five we hit two iconic Vienna sites. I recommend booking tickets ahead for both the Vienna State Opera House and the Schonbrunn Palace.

    Vienna Opera House

    I have been to several opera performances in my travels, and I’m not personally a connisseur of opera. But you don’t need to love opera to love this tour. We booked ahead and I’m glad we did as the tours were sold out. This backstage tour of how this beautiful theater puts on over 300 performances a year was one of the most interesting things I have ever done. Get your tickets here.

    Vienna State Opera House Theater
    Vienna State Opera House

    Schonbrunn Palace

    Schloss Schonbrunn is not to be missed on a visit to Vienna. It is Vienna’s most visited site so get your tickets ahead. Lots of tour busses full of visitors come here, so be prepared for lines, even if you have advanced tickets.

    Tickets include an audio guide, which was really well done and easy to understand. The wealth and opulence of this summer residence of the Habsburgs is mind-boggling. Reminiscent of Versailles, Schloss Schonbrunn became the glittering focus of court life during the reign of Maria Theresa. From this time on, it played host to the leading statesmen of Europe.

    We arrived an hour before our ticketed entrance time and spent an hour exploring the gardens, forest, labyrinth and walking up the hill to the summer gazebo. Here the view back towards the city, and down to the palace is beautiful.

    We entered the palace at our ticketed time, dropped our backpack and went through security. Picked up our headset and then began the tour. All of that took about half an hour. The tour itself you can take as long as you want going from room to room guided by the audio. We spent about two hours.

    We found the Vienna tram an easy way to get from the city to Schonbrunn Palace, about 5km outside of Vienna.

    Beautiful day at Schloss Schonbrunn
    Palace Gardens
    View from the Gazebo
    Obscenely ornate inside the palace
    Gold, tapestries and crystal everywhere

    Evening Refreshments

    Since it was such a hot and beautiful day, we ended this day five with beers sitting along the river watching the boats go by. Then a simple cold meal of the popular Vienna Brotchen open faced sandwich at Trzesniewski. Delicious.

    Brotchen is a popular Viennes sandwich
    Beers on the river

    Final Day

    There are many more museums in Vienna that we did not see…we will save these for our next visit. We had a late flight on our final day, so we decided to get a late check out at the hotel, and spend the day on the Danube River.

    Along the Danube

    First we enjoyed a walk from the Tram station on the Danube island in the middle of the river. Then we walked along the river front near the river cruise port. Sitting along the river we enjoyed a cold drink before boarding the cruise. We had booked the cruise onboard Blue Danube City Cruise. Our choice was the shorter option of about an hour and half, but a longer three hour cruise with lunch is also available. Although the loud speaker was very difficult to understand when sitting outside, we still learned a lot and enjoyed just seeing the sites from the water on a very beautiful day. Of most interest was passing through the locks.

    Passing through the locks
    Cruising the Danube
    Local wine on a beautiful day

    Lugeck

    We hated to leave beautiful Vienna, but it was time. So we booked at table at the famous Lugeck in the heart of the beautiful historic center. We enjoyed a lovely meal outside under the umbrellas, as we reminisced about this fantastic city and all it has to share.

    Impeccable Asparagus Soup
    Kaiserschmarrn, famous Austrian pancake

    Danke Schön Wein

    What an amazing city and I truly think I could spend a couple of months here. Thank you Vienna. Danke Schon Wein. You are a shining example of preservation and graceful growth in the modern world. I will return. Danke.

    Vienna we will be back.

    Thank you for reading our post Visiting Vienna Austria. See last week’s post Visiting Serbia for the First Time here. Be sure to come back next week for a mega post about my ten days in Madagascar.

    Europe Travel

    Visiting Serbia For the First Time

    One of the first countries we visited when we began the Grand Adventure was the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. We were, and still are, smitten with Bulgaria. It had everything we wanted; beautiful beaches, historic sites, delicious food, friendly people and all at a very inexpensive price. So we have made an effort to visit as many other Balkan countries as we could over the years including Romania, and Albania. This is how we ended up Visiting Serbia For The First Time. We only had a week, so we didn’t see it all, but here is what we saw while Visiting Serbia For The First Time in April.

    Belgrade Church of Saint Sava

    Serbia

    Located in a central part of the Balkans, the region has been an important crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa for thousands of years. Wikipedia says – In 1217 the Kingdom and national church (Serbian Orthodox Church) were established, under the Nemanjić dynasty. Next in 1345 the Serbian Empire was established, spanning most of the Balkan peninsula. Serbia became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1540. Next in 1929 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes adopted the name Yugoslavia. But in 1946, Yugoslavia became a socialist federation of six republics: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia,

    When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1990, the Balkan wars began pitting former allies against each other. Inter-ethnic fighting between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovnia, escalated and included Kosovo and Serbia. The Yugoslav war left economic and political chaos that is still visible today.

    On the Danube looking across at Romania

    Through Our Eyes

    Serbia today, through our eyes, is a progressive country with several beautiful historic cities, UNESCO sites, good roads and infrastructure. It is not advised to drink the water, and EVERYONE smokes, but the traffic is much better than what we experienced in Albania and most people speak a little English. It is very inexpensive. During our six day visit we visited the largest city, Belgrade where we spent one full day. We did a day trip from Belgrade to Golubac. Then we traveled for one night to Novi Sad, two nights to Zlatibor and then back to Belgrade.

    Sunrise in Belgrade

    If you are considering Serbia, do your research to decide what is most important to you. We had read some recommendations that said don’t bother with Belgrade, but we actually enjoyed our time there very much. So depending on what you are looking for, Serbia has great food, nice museums, historic towns, prehistoric sites, beautiful nature and hiking and much more.

    Belgrade

    We arrived at the Nikola Tesla Airport mid afternoon. The airport is actually pretty nice and we found arriving quick and efficient. But then we tried to find the car rental area and that was a bit of a wild goose chase. Signage is tiny and we missed the sign and wandered around for awhile. We finally realized we had to cross a major road, with no cross walk, where we found these container type buildings housing the car rental companies. Both odd and inconvenient as we stood outside in the rain. Eventually we were sorted and in the car heading to downtown Belgrade.

    Our hotel was fantastic. Garni Hotel Bohemia, I highly recommend for several reasons; exceptional service, parking available, laundry available and a great breakfast. On top of that we could walk everywhere we wanted to go from the centrally located property in the beautiful historic cobbled pedestrian street called Skadarlija.

    Garni Hotel Bohemia

    We arrived early evening and we were pretty tired. But we took a walk around our neighborhood getting a feel for the location. Instead of Serbian food (more of that comes later), we took the plunge to have a burger and fries at a highly rated little hole in the wall called Burgos. Definitely a nice change of pace and so delicious.

    Burgos

    Free Walking Tour

    Next morning, after a delicious breakfast at the hotel, we took a nice walk to meet up with a Free Walking Tour Belgrade. I’ve said before how much we enjoy doing these tours, it’s always an excellent introduction to a new city. Our tour provided some interesting historical information about the city, religion, ethnic troubles and culture. We walked a lot… visiting several pedestrian areas, churches and the Belgrade Fortress where we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Danube River.

    Belgrade Fortress

    Following our tour we visited the really amazing National Museum of Serbia enjoying some surprising painting and sculpture as well as some fascinating antiquities from the region. I highly recommend you visit the The National Museum of Serbia when in Belgrade. Leaving the museum we were treated to an unexpected folk dance performance on the Republic Square.

    Republic Square
    National Museum of Serbia

    For dinner we went to the highly rated Tri Sesira restaurant, founded in 1864 and serving the most traditional of Serbian foods. The food was really good, but we thought the service was poor and a bit “uppity”. Many tourists visit this restaurant so their snooty attitude to the customers was a surprise.

    Tri Sesira

    Golubac and Lepenski Vir

    Day Two we headed out on a road trip, with no expectations. We had read about two places to the east that were worth a visit. It was a bluebird day and the drive was beautiful with views of the Danube and small towns along the way.

    Golubac Fortress

    Our first site of Golubac Fortress was a great surprise, reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. Originally a Roman settlement, the fortress was built around the 14th century, passing through the hands of the Ottomans, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Austrians before the Serbs secured it once and for all in 1867. Recent renovations of the Fortress have made it more accessible to visitors. It is a beautiful spot for a picnic and lots of tour buses come here, so arrive early in the day if you can.

    Golubac Fortress

    UNESCO

    Just a few miles down the road, with a sign that is easy to miss, you come to Lepenski Vir. I had no idea how incredible this prehistoric site was. Lepenski Vir, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, is an important archaeological site of the Lepenski Vir culture. It includes Mesolithic Iron Gates Hunter-Gatherers period and transition to Early Neolithic Early European Farmers period of the Balkans.

    Lepenski Vir is the oldest planned settlement in Europe and has unique, trapezoidal-shaped houses seen nowhere else. Its culture has yielded not only the earliest discovered portrait sculptures, but also the first sculptures larger than life-size in the history of human art. The site Lepenski Vir is located at the so called “Iron Gates” of the Danube, approximately 150 kilometres east of Belgrade. The excavations conducted by D. Srejovic (1965-69) on a sandy bank terrace, measuring 170X50 m., revealed a settlement which was inhabited between 6600 and 4500 BC. Man I love this stuff. What a great discovery. Don’t miss this.

    Lepenski Vir
    Lepenski Vir

    There is more to do in this region, if you have time, spend another day. But we headed back to our Belgrade hotel and prepared for an early morning departure.

    Novi Sad

    Day three we headed North. Our destination was the city of Novi Sad, but our first stop was the historic Danube city of Sremski Karlovci. We arrived fairly early on a Sunday morning, the village was quiet. So we walked through the pedestrian area admiring the historic buildings and beautiful churches. Then following our Map My City App we wandered up through the hills around the city to a viewpoint. The site appeared to once have been a lovely spot, but now graffiti and vandalism had ruined it. The view though still worth it. We took another route back to the city, enjoying the flora as we headed back to our car. This region is one of Serbia’s wine regions, I recommend if you have some time, to check it out. The wines we had in Serbia were surprisingly delicious!

    Sremski Karlovci
    Petrovaridin Fortress

    Novi Sad

    Our next stop was Novi Sad, only about five miles from Sremski Karlovci. We parked at the bottom of the Petrovaridin Fortress and walked up the steps the way the ancient people would have. But you can also drive and park at the top. The fortress, built in 1692, has a fabulous view of the Danube and is a popular tourist destination. You can walk all around the ramparts and there are a few shops and a restaurant. We almost missed the museum, as the signage was not very good. I am so glad we found it. A fascinating chronological history of the region, the prehistoric people and the fortress. There is also a glimpse into the vast labyrinth that weaves beneath the fortress, most of it still uncharted.

    Petrovaridin Fortress
    Petrovaridin Fortress Museum

    We made a stop to see the Monument to the Victims of the Raid. On the quay that today bears the name Quay of the Raid Victims, occupying Hungarian forces carried out a mass shooting of more than a thousand innocent citizens of Novi Sad in the so-called “January Raid” from January 21 to 23, 1942. The bronze composition “The Family”, 4 meters tall, was erected at that place in 1971. It’s a beautiful sculpture and memorial that includes all the names of the victims. Worth a visit.

    Monument to the Victims of the Raid

    Next we headed to our hotel on the other side of the river. I was not happy with this hotel so I am not going to recommend it. But we really enjoyed walking at sunset around the beautiful historic town and then heading to Fish & Zelenis’– a fabulous seafood restaurant that was one of the best meals we had in all of Serbia.

    Novi Sad main square
    Fish and Zelenis’

    Zlatibor

    Day four we enjoyed a lovely drive heading towards the mountain town of Zlatibor. The rolling green hills and bucolic farmland were a beautiful surprise as we headed to the Gostilje waterfall for a short hike. It was cooler and damper in this forest area but we enjoyed walking through the trees and enjoying the multiple levels of the waterfall. It felt good to get some exercise and breath the fresh air.

    Beautiful green hills
    Gostilje waterfall

    Mountain Town

    After our invigorating hike we headed on to Zlatibor, the mountain ski town at 3000 feet. Wow, it was not what I was expecting. Recent construction has at least tripled the size of the destination. A gondola takes skiers or hikers up the mountain. The town is littered with construction cranes as hotels, retail and restaurants are quickly changing the look of the old town. Our apartment hotel, the Vila Masa, was a nice surprise, brand new and beautiful with an excellent breakfast included.

    The weather was chilly but we walked around the town to see what there was to see. It had been a long day so we enjoyed a room picnic and called it an early night.

    Next morning we were up early and walked to the Gold Gondola about a mile from our hotel. We took some time to explore the market, full of local cheese, wine and salami as well as traditional souvenirs. We headed to the gondola, hoping to get in a hike before the forecast rain began. The gondola ride was fun, about 20 minutes, and provided a great perspective of the sprawling area, former farmland, now being built up with condos and homes.

    Delicious local products at the market
    Top of Gold Gondola

    At the top, it was a bit chilly, but only a few patches of snow was visible. We had hoped to find some great hiking trails, but there wasn’t really as many as we had assumed. But we put in a couple miles, and had just turned to head back when the rains started.

    Zlatabor Mountain Hike

    Back in town we visited a very traditional Serbian restaurant Jezero. Our time in Serbia was coming to an end and I still had not eaten the famous Sarma, (stuffed cabbage). It was so delicious. I am going to make this at home.

    Sarma Serbian Cabbage Rolls

    Back to Belgrade

    Our final day we took a couple of hours to drive back to Belgrade hoping to have plenty of time to visit the Nikola Tesla Museum. The highly rated museum does not take reservations or sell advance tickets. Guided tours are offered a few times a day and we were optimistic. Despite arriving an hour in advance to the museum we were turned away. I’ve heard great things about this museum, but we did not see it. I hope you have better luck.

    Church of Saint Sava

    We took a walk to see the famous Church of Saint Sava, built in the 1930’s, before heading to a hotel at the airport, where we slept just a few hours, our Uber arriving at 4:00am for our 7:00am flight to Vienna. Farewell to Serbia.

    Thank you for reading my post Visiting Serbia for the First Time. See last week’s post A Visit to Lake Ohrid North Macedonia. We love it when you comment and share our posts. Thank you.

    Europe Travel

    A Visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia

    Location: Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia

    What a pleasant surprise. A beautiful spot on a beautiful lake. North Macedonia is not on many American’s radars as a destination. Most of its visitors are coming from Europe. But this emerging destination deserves consideration. Our visit was brief, but I’m so glad we came. Here are my thoughts on A Visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia.

    The Fortress and the Old Town Ohrid

    North Macedonia

    What’s in a name? Well the people of North Macedonia have a lot to say about the name of their country. Macedonia is a regional name for a large region of the Balkans that today makes up northern Greece and the current North Macedonia.

    Since antiquity the name has been used to identify both the region and the people. When today’s North Macedonia broke free of Yugoslavia in 1991 the name dispute reignited with Greece when the new Republic claimed the name The Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Over the next 25 years tensions escalated over the name with Greece insisting on a geographic qualifier. Negotiators from the UN helped to resolve the dispute finally in 2018 and the new name became North Macedonia.

    Dotted line shows “Macedonia”

    Yet today, many local people feel cheated of what they believe to be the true name – Macedonia. But, for the purposes of this blog post, I will use the current official name recognized by the government and the United Nations – North Macedonia.

    Lake Ohrid

    This gorgeous lake is 138 square miles, and is shared between Albania and North Macedonia. The majority of the 300-metre-deep lake however is in North Macedonia. It is considered to be one of the oldest lakes in the world – 3-5 million years. It is fed primarily by underground springs. Learn more about it here.

    Lake Ohrid

    Lake Ohrid is 139km from Tirana Albania – you could visit on a day trip. We however wanted to stay longer, so we booked an Airbnb in the village of Ohrid. What a great spot…one of the few lodgings directly on the lake.

    Room with a View
    Shared patio

    Things to Do

    We visited in mid April and the “season” had not really started. Busy season is May – September when tourists flock to the beautiful lake to swim, boat, fish and enjoy the sun. During our four day visit we had three perfect weather days, but the final day was raining and stormy. The lake sits at 695 meters above sea level.

    Looking across the lake to Old Town Ohrid with the fortress on top

    Sveti Naum

    We crossed the border from Albania at the south end of the lake. This is a lesser-used border crossing but we had time and wanted to circle the lake. Our first stop after arriving in North Macedonia was the beautiful Sveti Naum, an ancient monastery founded by the Bulgarian Empire in 905. This is a gorgeous spot, with shops and restaurants too. Parking is $1 and entrance to the Monastery is free. Don’t miss this when visiting Lake Ohrid. It is possible to come here by boat from the town of Ohrid. It is an hour and half boat ride.

    Sveti Naum
    Spring water lagoon that feeds Lake Ohrid at Sveti Naum

    Bay of Bones Museum

    Heading north from Sveti Naum it’s a short drive to the Bay of Bones Museum. An authentic reconstruction of a pile dwelling settlement, at the excavation site of Ploca Micov Kamen, near Gradishte and Pestani along the Ohrid coast. We found it to be a bit run down, but the $1 entry fee was acceptable.

    Bay of Bones Museum
    Reconstruction of home
    Reconstruction of ancient over the water village, Ohrid

    A very interesting history dating back between 1200 and 700 BC. The lake was quite shallow around this period, which allowed for a massive wooden structure to be erected above the water, considered by many as one of the largest prehistoric palafittes. Definitely worth a visit despite the current state of repairs. It is also possible to visit Bay of Bones by boat from the town of Ohrid.

    Ohrid

    The town of Ohrid, is both historically significant and the largest city on the lake – the eighth largest city in North Macedonia. The old town is beautiful, rising on a knoll above the lake, while the new town spreads through the valley. Primarily a tourism destination, it is both a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage site, often referred to as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. The lake is one of the most bio-diverse lakes in the world.

    We took a lovely boat ride on the lake on a beautiful day

    Lake-related activities are the big draw, especially in the summer. Multiple boats of all sizes ply the waters. Although it was too cold to swim in April, swimming is a popular summer pastime. The Ohrid Summer Festival, a music festival mid July to mid August draws thousands.

    View of Ohrid from the mountain

    The Fortress of King Samuel

    Sitting like a crown atop the small mountain overlooking the Lake, this imposing fortress makes a spectacular sight. The 10th century fortress was built as the first capital of the Bulgarian Empire. Although it is called King Samuel’s Fortress, recent archaeological discoveries have shown it was constructed into a grand fortress by King Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father.

    Fortress of King Samuel
    Fortress walls

    Church of Saint Sophia

    One of North Macedonia’s most prominent monuments, the 1000 year old church is nestled in the old town, right next to our Airbnb. The beautiful church is considered one of the finest medieval churches in Macedonia. You must visit this gem when in Ohrid.

    Saint Sofia
    Church of Saint Sofia (Canva)

    Church of St. John at Kaneo

    This was my favorite of the many historic sites of Ohrid. A stunning location, Saint John the Theologian is a Macedonian Orthodox church situated on the cliff over Kaneo Beach overlooking Lake Ohrid. The church is dedicated to John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, who has been by some considered to be the same person as John the Apostle. The construction date of the church remains unknown but documents detailing the church property suggest that it was built before the year 1447. Archaeologists believe that the church was constructed some time before the rise of the Ottoman Empire very likely in the 13th century. Restoration work in 1964 led to the discovery of frescoes in its dome.

    What a view
    Church of Saint John at Kaneo
    Wow

    Ohrid Old Town

    The beautiful historic architecture of the old town is worth just wandering about the cobbled streets of the old town. Tumbling down the hillside from the fortress above, the old town is home to many residents, as well as hidden restaurants and lodging.

    Parts of the original wall remains
    Seeing the Old Town from the water is a must

    Ohrid Pedestrian Areas

    The new town has a lovely pedestrian walkway along the shore of the lake. We used this as our morning running route, following the path for more than two miles one way. Additionally a pedestrian shopping area is popular with locals and visitors. Great shops where you can buy the famous Ohrid Pearls, other souvenirs, groceries, and much more. Dozens of restaurants are available in this area serving the traditional Macedonian cuisine of the region as well as other options.

    Along the pedestrian walkway
    Pedestrian shopping area
    So many dining options and my favorite Shopska Salad

    The Hills are Alive

    The beautiful hills and mountains surrounding the lake have options for hiking and enjoying nature. We did an 8 mile round trip up to the tiny village of Ramne. There wasn’t much happening in Ramne but we enjoyed the view. We were fascinated by the flora including the wild lilacs and spotted several new birds.

    Hiking in the mountains around Ohrid
    Great view from the top

    A Visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia

    We loved a perfect, relaxing four days in Ohrid and recommend it. As a stop to other destinations or as a destination on its own, you will enjoy a visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia. Stunning scenery, amazing history, delicious food and friendly locals. It’s time to get to know North Macedonia.

    One of the locals and a very old Yugo

    Thanks for reading my post A Visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia. See last week’s post Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig. We appreciate your support, shares, pins and comments. Thank you.

    Europe Travel

    About Albania – Tirana and Beyond

    Location: Albania

    We had Albania on our itinerary in 2020 when we had to cut our travels short and return home due to the Pandamit. It’s taken four years to get Albania and other Balkan countries back onto our itinerary. We are so glad to finally visit and to learn all About Albania – Tirana and Beyond.

    Cobbled Streets of Berat Albania

    Balkans

    As is true for all the Balkan nations we have visited, the history here is wildly chaotic. And yet the people are steadfast and resilient. A product of oppression and occupation and much more over thousands of years. In all the Balkan countries we have visited, from Bulgaria to Slovenia, Croatia to Romania, we have found wonderfully welcoming people happy to share their homeland.

    Born to Albanian Parents, Mother Teresa is much revered

    History

    History here, well it would take volumes to cover it. As is true through out Central Europe the area known today as Albania was passed from Byzantines to Venetians to Ottomans. The Romans made an appearance, as they always do. But it is the more recent history of the past century that is so fascinating, frightening and frankly it’s a story that needs telling. I knew very little about this tyrannical leader and totalitarian regime of the recent past and I expect most other people are the same. I certainly am no expert, but here is a brief timeline from what I learned;

    Communist era gun bunker in the middle of the city
    Gun bunker entrance

    About Albania – Tirana and Beyond

    1918 -At the end of World War I Italy occupies Albania

    1921 – Yugoslavia invades Albania

    1921 – Ahmet Zogu comes into power and will continue in and out of control of the country for the next 18 years, declaring himself King.

    1939 – Mussolini attacks Albania

    1941 – Albanian Communist Party founded; Enver Hoxha becomes first secretary. He is a staunch Stalinist.

    1946 – Enver Hoxha becomes prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and commander-in-chief.

    1961 – Under Hoxha, Soviet Union breaks diplomatic relations, Albania looks towards China for support.

    1967 – Hoxha regime conducts violent campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania; by year’s end over two thousand religious buildings were closed or converted to other uses. Albania is declared “the world’s first atheist country,” religious leaders are imprisoned and executed.

    1975 – 1991 – Hoxha creates authoritarian state with no roads in or out. A complete closure to the outside world and absolute isolation for Albanian people.

    1985 – Hoxha dies and Ramiz Alia is his successor.

    1991 – Communism falls in Albania.

    1992 – Democratic Party wins election. Former President Alia and eighteen other former communist officials, including Nexhmije Hoxha, wife of late dictator Hoxha, arrested and charged with corruption and other offenses.

    The “Pyramid” originally a shrine to Hoxha is now a school in Tirana
    A piece of the Berlin Wall displayed in one of Tirana’s parks.

    Albania Today

    Thirty-three years after the fall of communism in Albania, it is a much different place. The country continues to find its way out of the decades of oppression. As a visitor however, you will find a vibrant city in Tirana, despite traffic gridlock and some persistent air pollution. Efforts are being made for new roads and infrastructure upgrades, but as of this writing there are way too many cars for the quality of the roads. Both parking and driving etiquette is non-existent. Multiple high-rise buildings are under construction and unique and beautiful architecture abounds.

    View from Kruje

    Albania awaits entry into the European Union, and they have waited for a couple of decades. Government corruption seems to be the stumbling block. Hopefully they can move forward in a positive way.

    Our Six Day Visit

    During our time in Albania we based ourselves in Tirana in an Airbnb. We had a car, although we regretted it on several occasions. Driving here is not for the faint of heart and gas is $8USD a gallon. To get around Tirana however, we parked the car and walked and took the bus. Multiple taxi options are also available. We spent two days in the city of Tirana and we recommend the following.

    As we often do on day one of visiting a new city we signed up for a free walking tour with FREE TOURS. Our guide was excellent, spoke perfect English and had a great grasp of the complicated history of Tirana. During our two hour tour we visited the Skanderbeg Square, which is the heart of the city and named for Albanian National Hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu. Skanderbeg is revered for defending the country against the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century. Our guide described all the new construction in the city and changes being made to attract tourism. We visited the “pyramid”, originally a shrine to Dictator Enver Hoxha but today a school. He also explained the Bunk Art Museums (more on that below) and pointed out several other museums in the city. Finally he shared with us some great restaurant options. A perfect introduction.

    Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu
    National Museum of History

    On Our Own

    Following our tour we headed out to explore more deeply several places in the city. We started at the Et hem Bey Mosque, a beautiful historic mosque right on Skanderbeg square. Throughout all the occupations and historical violence, this mosque was saved partly because of its unique beauty and design. The minaret was broken in WWII but replaced after the war.

    Gorgeous interior of Et hem Bey Mosque
    Unique and beautiful exterior Et hem Bey Mosque

    Next we visited Bunk Art Two. There are two Bunk Art museums, Bunk Art One is further out of town (more on that below) but Bunk Art Two is located right behind Et hem Bey mosque. Both museums are built inside former bunkers, built to protect the communist elite in times of war or nuclear attack. Bunk Art Two is smaller and easily accessible from the city. Learn more here.

    Decompression Chamber Bunk Art Two
    Communications Equipment Bunk Art Two

    PizarirRi New Bazaar – we ended our day strolling through the city’s New Bazaar, a colorful and lively area for locals and visitors alike. Our guide recommended this to us for traditional Albanian foods as well as crafts and people watching. We had an excellent meal at Oda, a old family restaurant serving traditional local food.

    New Bazaar
    Oda Traditional Food
    Local salad always has cucumber and tomato
    Stuffed peppers are a traditional Balkan food

    Day Two in Tirana

    Dajti Express Gondola – we took the bus to the foot of the gondola, and we are so glad we didn’t try to drive in the crazy traffic. The bus was clean and efficient and cost 40 cents USD. We arrived pretty early to the gondola and there was no one there. It was Sunday and we were surprised. We rode the gondola up and admired the views. Slowly more people started to arrive so we headed out to do a hike. We had trouble finding the trail head, because a big fence had been erected. But we eventually scooted around it and did a nice but not too strenuous hike traversing the side of the mountain. The area is a bit run down with tacky tourist tzotskis, but I recommend you do the gondola when in Tirana especially for the views. The Gondola is closed on Tuesdays.

    View of Tirana from the gondola

    Bunk Art One – Located at the foot of the gondola, so a perfect activity to do at the same time. This is the original Bunk Art museum, opened in 2014. Located inside this massive bunker designed to protect the communist elite in case of nuclear or other warfare. It is five stories deep set into the mountain. Be sure to have a light jacket or sweater because it is very chilly. Most of the displays are available in English. It’s a fascinating look into the mindset of the communist leadership of the time. Sad and frightening for those who died and those who lived through the tyrannical leadership of Enver Hoxha.

    Bunk Art One
    Bunk Art One

    Day Trips Outside of Tirana

    With our car we chose to do day trips from Tirana on three days. All of the places listed here can be done with a tour, or a taxi from Tirana. All can also be overnight destinations on their own. But we chose to do them as day trips. Let me reiterate however, driving in this country is not for the faint of heart.

    Seashore

    Duress – a popular summer destination, Duress sits on the Mediterranean Sea about 30 min from Tirana. But, of everything we did in Albania, Duress was my least favorite. The town has a few historic sights including a Roman Amphitheater and Venetian Tower, but the sites and the town overall seemed rundown and in need of some tender loving care. The beach was covered in sea-grass during our early April visit.

    Sea grass and a messy beach in Duress
    Roman Amphitheater Duress

    UNESCO

    Berat – Possibly my favorite place we visited in Albania, the UNESCO World Heritage site offers a beautiful river front location on the Osum River with ancient 2500 year old village and winding cobbled streets. Berat is known for its “one over one” windows and a is showcase of traditional Albanian life. It’s a straight up walk to the fortress above the city (also driveable) but absolutely worth seeing this beautiful Castle of Berat and walled site dating to the 4th century.

    Berat Walled city and cobbled streets
    Osum River and The Arched Bridge of Gorica

    Recreation

    Lake Bovilla – the drive to Lake Bovilla was crazy. We probably would not have done this day trip if we had better understood how rough the road was going to be. But, we made it and were so glad we did. We arrived early and were the only people there. We assumed no one else was dumb enough to tackle the road. But then vans of tourists started to arrive and even taxis. So if you want to come to Bovilla but don’t want to try and drive it, there are multiple transportation options.

    Lake Bovilla is a reservoir built high in the mountains and the crystal clear turquoise water is a sight to see. You pay 100 lek (1 USD) to climb stairs to the look out at the top, and this is what makes the drive worth it. Mind blowing beauty.

    Just a snapshot of what the road was like
    Climbing to the peak
    Oh the view

    Close By

    Kruje – It’s another winding drive to the medieval village of Kruje, but it’s not so far and I’m glad we went. We enjoyed climbing up to the old castle and shopping in the colorful historic bazaar. There are several museums too as well as hotels and restaurants. Kruje is the birthplace of Albania’s National Hero Skanderbeg.

    A beautiful day at the Kruje Castle
    Kruje is famous for it’s colorful and traditional bazaar

    Final Thoughts

    Be sure not to miss the local coffee culture. Albanians spend hours in sidewalk coffee shops. It really is a huge part of the daily social life of nearly everyone. In fact our tour guide, somewhat tongue in cheek, said he thinks all the coffee shops make people lazy…they spend too much time drinking coffee with friends. During our stay we of course tucked in to as many coffee shops as we could. And, we made a visit to Tirana’s only Microbrewery, The Taproom by Pan’s Microbrewry.

    I love good coffee and Albania has it
    Refreshing stop at The Taproom by Pan’s Microbrewery

    About Albania – Worth a Visit

    Lake Bovilla

    Rough around the edges, indeed. But for me, it’s beautiful to see this rising star of a destination working to overcome all of its troubling past. If you love history like I do, unique culture and strong and resilient people, you will love Albania. Come and see why Albania is one of the most anticipated emerging destinations in the world. Come and see what is happening here – About Albania – Tirana and Beyond.

    Coming up in a future post I’ll tell you about our visit to Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia. This could be a day trip from Tirana, but we chose to spend several days. Stay tuned to learn more about this beautiful region of the Balkans.

    More next week about Lake Ohrid

    Thank you for reading my post About Albania – Tirana and Beyond. See last week’s post A Visit to Knossos Palace, Heraklion Crete here. We thank you in advance for commenting on our posts, sharing and pinning. And for being faithful followers of My Fab Fifties Life adventures around the world.