About an hour after arriving at Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport I had checked in to my hotel on the river and was out wandering the streets of the old city. Much to my surprise I saw a guy wearing a Buffalo Bills hat. I’m not sure if I was more surprised to find another American in Skopje on a Tuesday in mid-January or that he was willing to admit being a Bills fan. Either way, it gave me the opportunity to talk to someone, if only in passing. I asked what he was doing in town. He pointed to a rather attractive woman he was with and said he was there for her. He then turned the question around and asked why I was there.
Well, it seemed like a good idea when I booked the trip.
It isn’t that I was disappointed by Skopje – it has a rather cute little old town and the waterfront shows signs of possibly being nice once they finish the construction – but coming in after the greater beauty of Ljubljana it was a bit of a let-down. Of the six cities I visited on my EuroHopping adventure I’d rate it at the bottom, but mostly because the others were so great. It was a nice evening/morning and one that I’m happy I got to experience.
As the sun set on a crisp, clear night I had the old city more or less to myself. Most of the businesses were closing up and most of the restaurants were not yet open, either for the evening or the season (I’m really not sure). It left me with some great views and the opportunity to explore without too many touts harassing me to visit their shops. It was great.
The shops in the old city are mostly selling jewelry (lots of gold) and clothing, neither of which is my usual thing, but there were certainly plenty of options if you’re into that stuff.
That evening I chose to dine at one of the cafés on the other side of the river from the old town, on the waterfront near my hotel. Part of my motivation there was that I knew they spoke English. That was a big deal for me; I had sortof forgotten that I was making my way farther and farther from the romantic language base of Western Europe and into a world where the alphabet changes (they use Cyrillic in Macedonia) and the roots aren’t ones I know. I was pretty much helpless. That’s rarely fun.
|Old school shoe shine on the edge of the Old City
I also chose the restaurant because I heard a somewhat raucous cacophony coming from it as I walked by late in the afternoon. Sports were on the television and everyone inside was dressing in similar colors. Turns out that the national handball team was playing and the game was being carried live, so I got to learn a new sport and cheer along with the locals. They lost the match in the final seconds, but it was still a great experience.
|I’m a bit surprised I didn’t see more of these on the streets.
The next morning I was up early to see the rest of the downtown area before it was back to the airport. I got in a solid few hours around town, including seeing many of the relics from the Ottoman empire that are still visible around town. The clock tower was the first built in the empire, allowing for those working in the Bazaar to know when to pray and when the market was closed.
While the old Bazaar is no longer in operation there is still a large market operating on the edge of the old city. I love a good market so it was absolutely on the itinerary. I was actually pretty disappointed as I walked by initially; the market seemed to be a clearinghouse for random imported junk rather than a view into the locally produced goods. Fortunately I stuck it out, walking back through the "Made in China" section and ended up in the middle of a great produce market.
Beyond the old history of town there is also some more recent history celebrated, most notably the work of Mother Theresa. She was born in Skopje and there are a few monuments and markers celebrating her life and work.
After this it was time to head back to the airport, wrapping up yet another whirlwind visit as I wended my way from Stockholm to Istanbul. A great little visit, but not quite as amazing as the other cities I got to see. Such is the way things go some times.
Day number four of my January Euro Hopping trip saw the end of my visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia and another flight, again on Adria Airways, to Skopje Macedonia. Before the flight I actually had a bit of time at the airport and got to visit the observation deck café at Ljubljana’s airport. The views were great, even with the relative lack of activity at the airport.
I also hit up the lounge at LJU for a few minutes before the flight. Nothing special to speak of and the terminal is nice enough, but there is something there with snacks, soup and booze if you want it.
Much like the inbound flight to Ljubljana, the departure was rather uneventful once I wedged myself into the annoyance that is a window seat on the CRJ-200 aircraft. And, once again, I had the seat next to me open, which helped to mitigate the pain a bit. And, much like the flight in, the scenery was top notch throughout the flight.
This flight was also long enough to rate a snack service. It was, ummm, interesting. Neither good nor bad and it had flavors that seemed to match what was printed on the label, but it certainly isn’t something I’d go out of my way to try again.
And then we were on final into Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport. It is a brand new terminal and pretty nice overall. Getting through immigration took about 3 minutes and the agent barely looked at my passport before waving me through.
Another successful trip in the coach cabin, along with arrival at a new (to me) airport and a new (to me) country. No complaints at all.
The route network of Adria Airways is a bit limited, as is their overall fleet (13 planes, 10 of which are CRJ-200/900s), but when Ljubljana is your destination, as it was for me, they’re definitely the carrier of choice. OK, fine, the CRJ-200 is a pretty miserable experience, even with the friendly Adria flight crew, but the flight actually wasn’t bad at all.
Adria actually blocks the front few rows of the CRJ200 as “Business Class” though the offerings aren’t particularly impressive. I was flying in economy and, other than no mini bottle of water prior to departure, I think the service was pretty much the same. I was fortunate to have an empty seat next to me so I was relatively comfortable for the flight.
The trip from Munich to Ljubljana is a quick one, only about 35 minutes in the air, so no service during the flight though I didn’t mind much. I was rather distracted by the beautiful views out the window. I love flying over snow-capped mountains.
The approach into Ljubljana was similarly beautiful, particularly with the mountains off to the side behind the airport. It makes for quite a first impression getting off the plane.
The flight was quick and pleasant. No service to speak of but really not an issue for 30 minutes in the air. And given their awesome connectivity in the region I can see flying Adria more often if in the area again. And, given how beautiful Ljubljana is, I hope to be back in the region sooner than not.
As part of my planning for a day in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I read many, many stories, guides and suggestions for what to see and what to do while in town. I’m quite certain that none of the people writing those guides were ever in Ljubljana in the winter. Suggestions like “enjoy the evening breeze of the river at one of the many outdoor café/bars” doesn’t work nearly as well, for example, when it is below freezing outside. Putting aside those flaws in the reference material I had available (as well as perhaps the flaws in my brain for believing January was a good time to visit), I managed to still have quite a good time.
Ljubljana was the second stop on my multi-day “direct” trip from Stockholm to Istanbul. My flights were timed such that I had about 22 hours on the ground, plenty of time to see what the center of town had to offer. I was also somewhat fortunate that the show started even before getting into town as the views of the mountains surrounding the airport were stunning.
I booked into a small hotel right in the heart of the old town which was incredibly convenient and very reasonably priced. I was just a block off the river, giving me easy access to the bulk of the sights.
And, despite my rant above, the cafes were mostly open, though also very sparsely populated. There were some die-hards out under the heat lamps enjoying their afternoon or evening, but nothing like what I’m sure the party scene is once the weather warms up.
The old city area contains a number of landmark architectural structures, as well as a few bridges crossing the river. It is a pedestrian zone so there are no cars to dodge as you wander the streets and alleys. The lack of cars also makes it quite pleasantly quiet. And, as the sun went down the river and the adjacent buildings lit up, creating a wonderfully beautiful scene.
Dinner was uneventful and not particularly good and, as noted above, there weren’t too many folks out enjoying the nightlife on a winter Monday. That let me turn in somewhat early and catch up on sleep. It also meant I was up pretty early the following morning. I had hoped this early rising would leave me well positioned to explore the market and the castle before heading back out to the airport. I also wanted to go for a ride on the funicular that makes the run between the market and the castle. Alas, I was too early.
Most of town doesn’t really start up until 10am it would seem. Normally I wouldn’t complain about that and just sleep in but my timing for this trip didn’t give me a lot of wiggle room. I missed the funicular ride and didn’t have time to tour the interior of the castle. That said, my timing did force me to walk the trails up the side of the hill on which the castle is perched, resulting in some beautiful views of town.
By the time I made it down the hill from the castle the market was mostly up and running. There are a few indoor shops, mostly selling breads and cheeses, while the outdoor stalls are all about vegetables (and one row on the end for “made in China” bits).
I grabbed a couple snack bits from various stalls to tide me over as breakfast and then, once again, my time was up. It was back to the airport and back on a plane. Skopje was just a short flight away, and it was time to make that move for the next 22 hours of the trip.
Ljubljana was beautiful and certainly worth a visit. I just hope that next time it is a bit warmer and there are more folks out enjoying the city. The quiet night along the river was pretty, but also rather slow.
There are lots of different ways to maximize the value of award redemptions. Some folks look only at the cash value of the ticket were it purchased directly. Others look at the cabin of travel. Or the total distance covered. Or the number of points required.
I’ve used all of those metrics at one point or another, but my most recent redemption doesn’t hit on any of them. The goal of this particular redemption was to maximize the number of cities I could visit on a single one-way redemption. Officially the rules say a one-way award can have only a starting point and an ending point. I’ll be visiting four different cities on my current schedule.
I’m taking full advantage of the fact that a connection on an international itinerary is defined as anything less than 24 hours in the same city. Combine that with the relatively short travel distances in Europe and it turns out that there are a lot of ways to hop scotch across the continent without paying all that much extra. Here’s what my trip looks like:
Flying from Stockholm to Istanbul is a hair under 1400 miles; my routing is 1855. Not all that much longer in total travel distance but I’ll be spreading my travel out over 4 days rather than just a few hours. Stops are currently scheduled in Berlin (20 hours), Ljubljana (22), Skopje (23) and Istanbul (destination). Only one of the hops requires a connection – 30 minutes in Munich. I also get to fly some fun aircraft types and a new (to me) airline, along with new airports and countries. Not too shabby for only 12,500 points plus about $100 in taxes.
Building the award was surprisingly easy. I started by looking at flight timetables and route networks for the various Star Alliance carriers in Europe. The goal was to find mid-day flights that would allow me to get between cities while there was still a bit of daylight but also to be able to wake up each morning at a reasonable hour rather than silly early. Avoiding the early morning flights also makes it easier to actually keep the 23ish hour connections alive as the earlier flights make it harder and harder to stack the flights.
Once I had a framework for the trip I searched out the award inventory directly using ANA‘s website. Every single flight I wanted had award inventory available. With the specific flights in hand I called the reservations line at Continental. I fed the flights to the agent one at a time and when she pressed the magic "go" button it priced correctly automatically. No need to go through manual pricing or anything else for this one; we were both quite surprised at that. But it is booked and confirmed.
Now I just need to get my flight to Stockholm and home from Istanbul booked. But that should be easy, right??