Friday, February 24, 2012

Romford to Central London at night.

When Chris suggested a night ride into London I have to admit I was a little sceptical, I'd never done a night ride before and I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it. I was itching to try out my new fancy pedals so I went for it. I'd bought these new pedals and shoes called SPD's which your feet lock into and are meant to make cycling easier. The man in the cycle shop advised me to practice a lot leaning up against a wall to perfect the unlocking your feet technique. Foolishly, and I can't emphasise that enough after riding up and down my road several times, after managing the technique but coming nowhere close to mastering it, I set off to meet Chris at Romford.

I'm ashamed to admit my first falling off came sooner than I thought- 300 yards from my house at the junction with the main road. I had to stop quickly to allow a van to pass and ended up on the pavement, still very much attached to the pedals much to the amusement of a passing car full of boy racers.
I couldn't even make it to Benfleet station without another pedal mishap, although this one was more annoying and embarrassing than painful. I stopped outside a shop and leaned against the wall, and and just couldn't disconnect from the pedals. It took me a full ten minutes to free my feet.I got to Romford without further incident via Upminster and the 1970's train that runs between the two.
I met up with Chris outside the station and we headed off, south at first via Dagenham and Barking. This was not the prettiest area and roads were quite busy. Somewhere in Barking I had another pedal related accident. Roads were quite busy and we were approaching a set of traffic lights. I forgot to 'clip out' of the pedals and of course the lights abruptly changed to red. I couldn't clip out either foot and with the back of the car in front rapidly approaching I hit the adjacent pavement hard, with my left hand taking the full impact of the fall. It hurt like hell as did my pride, especially when a passing woman stopped to check if I was OK.
After dusting myself down we carried on through the rest of Barking to the Cycle SuperHighways, a Ken Livingstone project designed to aid cycling into the capital. We kept to the vivid blue paths where they existed through Beckton, getting constantly frustrated by the inexplicable disapearance of the blue cycle paths. We stopped at a petrol station in Newham for a mars bar where Chris tried to loosen off my pedals and I noticed some blood seeping through my trousers from a previously unnoticed wound...The Cycle Superhighway thankfully departed the A13 and we headed south, trundling through East India Dock and Canning Town into the start of Canary Wharf and the Docklands area.

We were soon in Wapping and the location where the Only Fools and Horses episode He ain't Heavy He's My Brother was filmed. Suddenly, standing there looking at the now converted Docklands warehouses, everything Uncle Albert said in that episode made sense. You could just imagine workers unloading goods onto the dockside,ships coming and going and the hustle and bustle of a trade belonging to another era. The London docks had to close as the world developed and the shipping trade used bigger ports upriver, but standing here amongst all the trendy multi million pound apartments that the docks were converted into was quite thought provoking.

Then we rolled into Wapping with impressive views of Canary Wharf skyscrapers next to us.

We stopped off at London's oldest Dockside pub, The Prospect of Whitby. It was a charming old pub and we stopped for a quick drink. We sat outside with glorious views of the Thames and enjoyed the unseasonably warm evening weather. I'd never have thought it possible to sit outside anywhere and be comfortable in February.
We then moved on a short way further along into Wapping to a pub Chris knew of that I was looking forward to, The Captain Kidd pub. It was a microbrewery which meant no mass produced beers like Stella or Guiness, only beer produced by the Samuel Smith brewery themselves. Captain Kidd himself of course was a famous pirate, executed near here in 1701.It was a lovely atmospheric old pub and very cheap indeed.

Nearing the end of the ride now we approached St Katherines Dock that I insisted we ride through, Chris had to fend off a potentially inflammatory moment with a large group of Asian youths with an attitude problem, all he did was say " alright" as we passed them at a gate to the Thames Path. It passed without incident but being totally outnumbered.
We stopped off for a some spectacular night shots of Tower Bridge. Chris, having worked in this area for years wasn't as impressed as I was but it has to be said, Tower Bridge at night is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. I can only apologise for spoiling the view below...

Just to do it justice, here's one without a sweaty cyclist in the foreground.

With only St Katherine's Dock left that I insisted we cycle though, Chris and I went our separate ways at 2245, me to Fenchurch Street and Chris to Liverpool Street. I had enjoyed a thoroughly different ride and let's be honest, it made a change from Kent!

Total milage: 22.

Footnote: An x-ray today showed nothing broken...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Canvey to Kent

Whenever I've gone for a ride around Kent via the Tilbury Gravesend ferry I always get the same response from Chris, " why didn't you ride to Tilbury then?" It was always doubt over
my fitness levels and a desire to keep those twenty miles 'in the tank' to burn south of the water.But yesterday, well the day before actually, when I noticed the weather forecast said it would be a mild 10c and light winds I thought, let's see how tough that twenty mile trek to the Tilbury ferry actually is. The time taken to get to the ferry and my fitness levels woul determine how far I'd cycle on the other side.

On the bridge by Benfleet Station

Decked out in my new Hi Vis cycling gear I acquired from Ebay for a ridiculously cheap amount I set off for Tilbury. My only real decision was how I would get to the old A13 and the way west- the busy and potentially dangerous A130 Canvey Way or the route all the cycle route planning websites recommended and go through Benfleet. I'd ridden Canvey Way before and not only are the cars whizzing past at 50mph without a buffer of a cycle lane it is monotonous and tiring. It was an easy choice, 'Benfleet, A(n) Historical Development' it would be. Just passing onto Benfleet from the bridge is the 'Welcome to Benfleet' sign which has caused a weird grammatical debate. The signwriters and indeed the council believe the correct way to phrase the tagline is ' A Historical Development', however locals believe it should ' AN Historical Development. Cue someone continually adding an 'n' after the 'a' and the council rubbing it off again.

I coasted through Pitsea and and Vange, stopping only to take a photo of a haggard looking old cat.

Crossing Five Bells roundabout I was into Fobbing and on the old Southend Road west, stopping for a a photo by the NCR sign that I seem to spend half my cycling time looking out for.

I continued on through Corringham with the first sign of tiredness creeping into my legs at the 10 mile mark, exactly halfway to Tilbury. At Stanford Le Hope I got a little disorientated and and had to ask the way to Tilbury and I was glad it was the downhill option over the railway tracks via the nice little village of Linford.

Are these self taken photos looking a bit 'samey'?

A welcome very steep downhill stretch at Tilbury saw me hit 32mph and dumped right in on the edge of the town centre, which is a pitiful depressing looking eyesore if ever I saw one. Pretty soon I was at the dock, odometer showing exactly 20 miles, I was proud I'd finally done it. I was also pleasantly surprised, if not overwhelmed, that the ride through some south Essex towns that would hardly be described as salubrious, was actually quite nice.
It was mainly countryside once I was past Five Bells and only the eyesores of Pitsea and Tilbury let it down. I even had a nice view over the river at one point.
I managed to arrive at the docks at the time when the ferry stops running for an hour for the operator's lunchbreak so I just waited, chatting to another passenger.There were plenty of people waiting and it always surprises me how popular this service is.
I didn't have a definite plan on what to do once I'd hit Kent and Chris suggested Meopham, a nice village that claims to have the longest village street in Kent, at 7 miles long. With time running short I decided to give it a go, stopping for an English Breakfast in Gravesend first and thus piling back on all the calories I'd expended up to that point. Couldn't knock it though, £.2.95 for a breakfast that was so big I could barely finish it.

After leaving the suburbs of Gravesend heading south I had to admit the worst, my legs had gone. I hadn't cycled anywhere in a month and I'd hit the wall, just getting my excuses in early! It's quite hilly there as it's the beginning of North Kent Downs and some hills, well most if I'm honest, beat me.

I eventually rolled into Meopham at around five with nothing open apart from a dodgy looking pub called the Railway Tavern. I know of two other pubs called The Railway Tavern, one in Stanford le Hope and the other in Gravesend. Both are the kind of pubs where people stop talking and look at you the moment you walk in. Meopham's own Railway Tavern wasn't quite so unfriendly but not by much. It was definitely a local pub for local people and I'm sure that in past generations sawdust would've been sprinkled on the floor.

I only saw the first part of Meopham, which apparently is a collection of villages in a collective parish. There wasn't much from what I saw but I'm sure there is more to see. The claim to have Kent's longest village street is a bit tedious to say the least; it is simply the A227 which connects Gravesend at the northernmost point to Tonbridge in the south, passing through Meopham and several other villages on the way.
I had a pint of a local Kent ale and headed back to Gravesend for the ferry home, inadvertently making the last possible connection for the last ferry of the day.
I'd had a good day but my lack of fitness concerned me, I'd ridden further than this but suffered less tiredness. Was glad to get home for a long soak in the bath.

Total Miles for the day, 32*

*probably around 2 of those walked...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Medway Towns, a Nice Surprise and a Failure

I don't want my blog to become a cycling day trips to Kent blog but that's how it appears lately. Think I should arrange a day trip to Belarus or somewhere to redress the balance...

If there was anywhere nicer in Essex I'd ride there but Kent is simply a nicer county. Essex has nothing to compete with the likes of Rochester, Canterbury, Tonbridge Wells, Leeds castle and the town I stumbled across yesterday which I'll write about shortly.

I had to make a ridiculously early start as the last train C2C allows bikes on during the week is the 0559 so I was up at 0500 and on the platform by 0550 looking forward to my day ahead. it was at that point I realised I'd left my cycle route directions print outs at home. It was a lovely refreshing summer's morning, light winds and a perfect day for a pedal.

My plan was to ride from Rochester to Canterbury, a trip of 42 miles. I got to Rochester at 0730 and began the ride via the Medway Towns of Chatham and Gillingham trying to find the annoyingly elusive National Cycle Route signs. I got hopelessly disorientated in Chatham but eventually, after 45 minutes of wasted time made my north up to Gillingham, where disorientation set in again and I had to ask in an estate agent which way a certain street I was looking for. I'd managed to find the route I'd left at home on my phone but it was impractical not mention draining the battery to keep checking it.

I followed several nice cycle paths, after finding the NCR1 going through the Saxon Shore Way but then got hopelessly and completely lost in the middle of beautiful countryside full of cider apple orchards. An elderly local man told me the way to go but it turned out to a bridleway with a gate designed to prevent cyclists. They needn't have bothered; I could never have ridden on the surface on the other side anyway.

I pretty much spent the next few hours trying to find the NCR signs, getting lost and asking a variety of postmen, shop owners and builders for directions. I made my way through Rainham- where some nice person had spun one of the few NCR signs round the wrong way which meant I rode up a long road for two miles only to be met with a sign at the other end telling me to go back from where I had come from. Thanks for that.

Well I plodded on through the villages of Newington, Keycol, Milton Regis ( I think) and onto Sittingbourne. Lots of climbs in this area and I have to admit some beat me.

The ride was taking MUCH longer than I had planned, my habit of getting lost and obsessively trying to find the NCR signs had taken their toll. Despite hours of effort I didn't seem to be getting any nearer to Canterbury. I got to Faversham when I realised that if I were to have any time in Canterbury I'd have to jump on a train for the last bit. I asked in a tourist office which way Canterbury was, no one knew where the cycle route was but they estimated Canterbury was still 13 or so miles away. I was gutted to have missed out on my ultimate goal for the day but there was no point in getting to Canterbury and having to turn straight back again.

I have to mention Faversham though, it's a lovely medieval market town. Stunning in fact. I looked around a few streets in the centre and added it to my list of ' Why haven't I Been Here Before?' places. I didn't have time to hang around though and headed for Canterbury, via the depressing means of a southeastern train. I was feeling a bit queasy too, a rushed sausage roll and snickers for lunch in Teynham wasn't probably a great idea.

The depressing way my bike entered Canterbury, propped up on a train...

High Street, Canterbury

OK, I admit I look a pillock here but it seemed a good idea at the time...

I got to Canterbury and walked through to the beautiful old centre. I'd planned to do the full tourist thing here, but arriving at 1500 and my last train back to Gravesend at 1732 for the ferry meant I didn't have much time at all. I went to the Canterbury Tales museum, where they recreate some of the sounds and smells of medieval times coupled with tales from the era. it was in here, in the cool and dark that tiredness hit me. My legs suddenly felt like jelly and I had to sit on the floor during one exhibition. Think the early start and exertion had caught me up. Think I even dozed off for a minute!

For the rest of my limited time there I just walked around the centre, sent a few postcards and just enjoyed being there, it really is one of my favourite places in the UK, possible anywhere.

I got back to Benfleet with my bike computer showing 43 miles, still a personal best. Whilst riding home I decided I wanted to hit the 50 mile mark, problem is my house is 3 miles from the station. This left me 4 miles to find from somewhere. So with my legs feeling surprisingly good I rode to the Point and back via the seawall and Thorney Bay, anything to keep the wheels spinning until the display ticked over to the magical fifty. I may or may not have put both my arms in the air in a end of Tour de France stage win pose when that happened! I was very happy to reach this mark, would never have thought it possible a few months ago.

I'd had a lovely day, seen some lovely countryside and towns but still disappointed I'd not managed to reach Canterbury under my own steam.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

And Another (longer) Ride Around Kent

I arranged a day out cycling with my mate Chris for yesterday. Our intial plan to ride around the Calais region of Northern France was ruled out due to ridiculous ferry costs so we settled on Northern Kent, which as anyone who knows me knows I absolutely love that area. We met up at the Tilbury ferry and made our way over to Gravesend, accompanied by hordes of grey haired tourists on their way to the Pocahantas ferry cruise on the other side, with Chris refusing to believe an Native American Princess could possibly have links with a gritty Kent port town. But Chris, I am happy to inform you that after marrying an English settler, a Mr John Rolfe on April 5th 1614, she moved to England in 1616 with her husband, settling in Brentford, Middlesex. In 1617 Mr and Mrs Pocahontas decided to move back home to America, however she became seriously ill on board the ship, having only got as far as... Gravesend. She was taken ashore but subsequently died there, thus establishing the unlikely link between an Native American princess and Gravesend.

I have to admit to being a little concerned as to my ability to keep up with Chris over a long ride. For a start Chris is much more experienced than me, fitter and has done many long rides. To put it in perspective, Chris' eighteen mile ride to the ferry from Collier Row was only one mile less than my personal best of nineteen miles which I set a few weeks ago.
We joined the Sustrans route one to Rochester where a problem quickly arose. The pebbly cycle path was fine for my hybrid bike with bigger tyres but it was a nightmare for Chris' road bike with narrow wheels.

We had to take it quite slowly for the length of the path which was around 5 kms. Having got to a proper road we had a lovely downhill stretch where we hit 32mph ( 51kph). However every downhill has it uphill and around the corner this was in the form of a very steep hill near Strood on Ministry of Defence land. Predictably Chris made it up first and took the following photo of me about to explode near the brow of the hill.

Annoyingly immediately at the top of the hill the Sustrans route directed us straight back down again on a different road, I couldn't help but wonder why they couldn't route cyclist around the hill. I felt like one of The Grand Old Duke Of York's 10,000 men...
The route took us through the delightful little village of Upper Upnor, and a more picturesque village you couldn't hope to see. Only two streets with a pub and a church but it was lovely. It's major attraction is Upnor Castle which perches impressively over the River Medway.

We finally got to Rochester after about an hour and 10 minutes with my legs and stamina holding out well so far. I was still mindful of the ride back though. We locked up the bikes to a lamp post in the high street with two locks. We quickly dismissed the Tourist Office bike park as hopelessy useless. I swear the flimsy metal loops could have been cut with a set of nail clippers.
I have never visited the museums here in Rochester so I was happy to go along with Chris' suggestion to go to The Six Poor Travellers House first and then to the Guildhall museum which houses the Prison Hulks Experience; a very lifelike portrayal of life aboard a 17th century prison ship. The Poor Travellers House was founded by a local MP, Richard Watts, to provide shelter for, you've guessed it, poor travellers The bedrooms are exactly as they were and it's a very interesting place to visit.
We had a walk along the High Street and to the Guildhall museum and to the highlight of Rochester's museums. The first part is dedicated to Victorian Life and Charles Dickens and across the street is the Hulk Experience. Complete with sounds and smells it makes for a very authentic experience.

I'd never made it as far as Chatham on my travels around Kent, despite it only being a few miles south of Rochester. It is the complete opposite of Rochester and is where all the chain shops are located. It is a far cry from the charm of Rochester. We cycled down to the High Street where a local driver questioned our rights as cyclists to use the road in somewhat colourful language.
We just breezed through the High Street on our way to the main attraction of Chatham, The Historic Dockyards. Chris had been there before and thought it wasn't worth the £15 admission fee so we just looked at the free bits.

After a surprisingly easy climb back up a hill in Chatham we headed for the Golden Lion pub for their very reasonable burger and a pint for £4.99 deal. Chris somehow got his for £3.99! He did however have an altercation with a Millwall fan in the bar. Chris was wearing his West Ham shirt. For the unitiated, wearing a West Ham shirt south of the River Thames, especially South East of London it's similar to walking into Mecca wearing a Jewish skull cap...

We stopped for a few
photos and
watched the Town Cryer deliver a message and decided to make our way back to Gravesend.

I was feeling the efforts of the ride so far and was a bit apprehensive about the right back, I didn't want to show myself up! Immediately after leaving Strood on the outskirts of Rochester was a very tough climb and this was a real struggle but it was nothing compared to one further along. It was another side of the hill I'd had a problem with earlier and this was very tough. I was struggling to get into my bike's hill climbing gear and once I'd managed it I was at the top. Even Chris admitted he'd found it tough.
Due to the problems with the surface on the cycle path Chris really wanted to find an alternative route back to Gravesend and was convinced another path existed, called the Saxon Way. We found it after riding through a military firing range but it was even worse than what we were trying to avoid. It was just rough off road ground that horses were grazing on and with my tired legs it was impossibly hard going. It was a long distance walkers route completely unsuitable for cyclists. We were cycling right on the southern shore of the River Thames and the views were spectacular but with the ride as tough going as it was we couldn't really enjoy them. We eventually got back to Gravesend and caught the ferry back to Essex. I'd had a great day, pushed my cycling boundaries even further and despite being exhausted I was proud of what I'd achieved.

My total milage for the day was 38, ( 60.8km). I prefer the metric system, sounds much more impressive.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A little bike ride around Kent.

I decided to go for my longest bike ride today, my initial plan was to cycle all the way to Rochester in Kent, however I decided that this was too ambitious for my unfit legs so decided to let the train take strain to Tilbury and jump on the ferry over to Gravesend. So dressed in shorts, t shirt and sunglasses I set off for Benfleet station, the weather was perfect for cycling. Overcast, but not warm and about 16c and not much wind.

There’s something I love about the Tilbury Gravesend ferry. Evidence exists to suggest that a ferry service has been in use between these two points since 1571 and it has been in almost constant use since the advent of the railways in this area in 1852. It’s a ramshackle tired looking old boat that has long since been superseded by bridges and tunnels over and under the Thames but thanks to local subsidies it continues and chugs back and forward on its 8 minute journey over this narrow part of the Thames, dodging huge tanker ships on its way.

First thing that strikes you as you get off the ferry is the comparison between the two sides of the water. On the Essex side is a desolate port area with container yards; as soon as you get off at Gravesend you are met by a lively vibrant town that I think it its own small way is quite nice.

I had pre planned a route to Rochester which used something I’d never heard of before today called Sustrans routes. These are a UK wide cycle network symbol with numbered routes. They have quite distinctive signs of blue backgrounds with a white number in a red circle. I began following Sustran route one when I realised I had my bike lock but no key. So I had to make an emergency dash to a local Halfords to buy a cheap lock.

Initially the route followed Gravesend riverside and was quite nice but shortly the route entered an ugly industrial estate. The printed itinerary I had wasn’t proving much use as the new directions seem to be every 100 yards or so and I was stopping every 5 minutes to check, and when I did they didn’t always seem to match up with what I was seeing. I just decided to follow the Sustran signs and not use the itinerary too much. I passed a sign which said Rochester 11 miles and joined a lovely purpose built cycle path through the gorgeous Kent countryside. I had views over the water to Essex to my left and rolling fields of corn to my right. Occasionally rabbits darted on the path in front of me.

I trying to pace myself, I had no need to rush although I did find some of the climbs approaching Strood a little tough. Although with every climb comes a lovely downhill part and on one I’m sure I must have come close to 30mph. I eventually got to Rochester after about an hour and a bit. I was quite tired but glad I had finished my modest but longest ever ride. Have to build up my range gradually!

I have been to Rochester quite a few times but I always enjoy it there. It really is a charming town, one of the most beautiful in England I would say. Its High Street is quite unique in the sense that aside from banks there are no chain shops that blight every other High Street in this country. Just quaint old shops such as antique shops, book shops and sweet shops. It’s like stepping back in time going there. The Roman castle is one of the best preserved in the country and has been there since 1127. Right next door is Rochester Cathedral, which is equally splendid. It’s even older than the castle and dates back to 676.

I had lunch in a pub and just walked along the high street. I had noticed a few clouds gathering earlier and now they were almost overhead. Within minutes the rain was absolutely torrential and I had no waterproofs. I checked in a few charity shops but no one had any. I took the disappointing decision to take a train back to Gravesend from Strood. I walked over to the castle to get a photo. I didn’t quite trust the guy sitting under a tree clutching a can of Tennants Super so I asked a lady in a snack kiosk to take a photo. Think she was quite bemused to see a man in a red t shirt and shorts and very wet asking for a photo. Disappointed I took a train back, paying a ridiculous £4.20 to go one stop.

I had a lovely day out; it really is quite liberating and rewarding to cycle to places instead of driving. You see places you’d never see otherwise and probably enjoy your destination more with the satisfaction of having gotten there under your own steam. I intend to extend my cycling ambitions further.

* Total milage for the day, a mere 19 miles. It felt like more. Wasn't gonna include it here as this constitutes a warm up for some of my advanced cycling friends...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

24 hours in Ohrid

With nothing keeping me in Pristina I decided to leave on the first bus at 0630 back to Skopje and connect on to the first bus to Ohrid, the supposedly jewel of Macedonia and self styled Macedonian Riviera. I really was disappointed with Pristina but the sensible thing to do was to move on and make the most of the short time I had left.

The connection in Skopje went well and I arrived in Ohrid 3 hours later. Thanks to a good tip from a lady behind me on the bus I got off a stop earlier which was nearer the town and saved me a taxi ride from the out of town bus station. The heat was searing, I dodged the room touts and walked into town looking for the Sunny lake Hostel, a difficult task which proved very difficult and tiring.

After the drab concrete of Pristina and the disappointment of Skopje I was very impressed with Ohrid as I walked down the sun drenched streets of the Old Town. There was a vibrant laidback atmosphere that you would come to expect of a country’s premier holiday town. The views when I got to the banks of Lake Ohrid on which Ohrid sits took my break away. Crystal blue waters flanked by mountains on all sides with the sun glistening off the waves. Looking away from the water the red roofed houses clinging to the hillside added to the picturesque scene. It was easy to see why the town was made a UNESCO heritage site. I didn’t do much for the rest of the day, just walked around the town and along the lake enjoying the ambience and of being in somewhere that was aesthetically pleasing. I sent off a few postcards and committed the holiday error of buying a hat that I will never probably wear again back at home; it was a large wide brimmed thing, not too dissimilar to Indiana Jones! I wore it around town with surprisingly few odd looks. Personally I thought I pulled it off! I visited the St John Kaneo church which sits high on a cliff top overlooking the town and harbour where the views were spectacular. I actually found it by mistake as I was looking for the fortress but took a wrong turn.

After dinner I walked back through town to the hostel weaving my way through the hordes of tourists and avoided the very pushy restaurant reps lining the streets, loud music was pumping out of bars and clubs and it really wasn’t my scene so I went back to the hostel.

The following morning, my last few hours in Ohrid I was struck by a thought, my opinion of Ohrid had diminished drastically. From my initial impressions I now felt myself looking at a town that has given itself up to mass tourism and lost many of its old charms. Well not lost exactly but struggling to be noticed above the neon signs, countless restaurants and thousands of tourists. Its cheap bars, loud music and endless rows of tacky souvenir stands really detract from the beauty of the old town. It was impossible to walk along the harbour without being harassed for boat tours and I had quickly grown tired of the place. Last night the old town resembled Bar Street in Faliraki.

I decided to walk up to the fortress, the task I had failed the previous night. Except then it was a comfortable 20c at sunset, now it was midday and 32c. I made it, not without some discomfort and took some nice photos.

When I returned to the hostel I got chatting to some English guests who were booked on the same bus back to Skopje as me and also the same flight back to London that evening so we joined up to save taxi costs, both here and to the airport when back in Skopje.

To sum up Ohrid, yes I was disappointed that the town really is just a tourist Mecca and a pretty over stretched one at that, but you have to separate the stunning views from the negative aspects of the town. They are among the best views anywhere in Europe. But in all honestly, I can’t remember my opinion a of town changing so drastically in such a short period of time, I loved it on arrival but within twenty four hours I was tired of the place and glad to be leaving.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pristina, Kosovo

I kind of knew that yesterday that my trip to Pristina in Kosovo was a bit of a box ticking exercise. I just held hopes that it would be worth a visit in its own right and would justify the effort. I have to be honest and say that aside from the fact I have added another country to my list it didn’t.

I left Skopje on the first bus at 0900, full of optimism and excitement of country number 41 on the horizon. After a hassle free ride I got to the bus station and having decided the guesthouse I had booked was out of walking distance I went over to a taxi company, avoiding the vicious guard dog that was foaming at the mouth and barking furiously in the car park.

I had pre booked the only guesthouse in Pristina, the Velhania which according to Lonely Planet was run by a jovial Professor of Engineering and “perfect for anyone missing the hostel atmosphere or their Granddad”. Intrigued by such a description I was looking forward to it. Even if this place was within walking distance I’d never have found it. I was checked in by two chain smoking middle aged women and shown to my room in another building. I had a triple room to myself in a building seemingly lacking other guests. I was let down on the hostel experience promised and time would prove me to be let down on LP’s other promise; I never did get to meet the Professor during my time there.

After walking into the city centre I soon realised there was very little here of interest, my quest to unearth some hidden gems would be a fruitless one. I went to the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) building and watched with fleeting interest the UN emblazoned cars coming and going but the novelty soon wore thin so I went off in search of a nice Mosque, The Carshi. Honestly, I walked past it twice as with the dirt and smashed windows I assumed it was derelict. The only thing that drew me to explore closer was the National Library, a peculiarly designed building. It looks like a badly designed set from the original Star Trek or a building covered in large eggs encased in wire mesh. Would love to know what the architect was smoking when he thought that was a good idea. Picture is at the start.

There was nothing else in Pristina for me to look for. The Bazaar area mentioned in LP I’d already inadvertently walked through it, I was quite disappointed. I just reminded myself that the main attraction was being in Kosovo itself. In the evening I indulged in some people watched along the main street during the Passagiata along Bulevard Nene Tereze (Mother Therese) and just took in the sense of national pride from the world’s newest nation. Maybe this is just imagined but the Kosovans are a fiercely proud people and it seemed evident to me.

It’s just a shame Pristina isn’t more of a tourist town and during dinner I took the decision to take the first bus back to Skopje and move on to Ohrid. This means an 0630 bus but there was nothing keeping me there a minute longer. Was happy to be there, but definitely not one of Europe’s gems.