Feb 282013
 

Not too many details on this part of the trip, so I’ll keep it pretty simple.

We took a late evening taxi to Skopje airport after dinner and coffee, and arrived around 7pm, in plenty of time for our 8:45pm flight to Istanbul where we were planning to overnight. Check-in was quick and efficient, as was passport control and security. The airport was small, but quite modern, and overall quite efficient. There was a shared lounge which we were allowed to use as United Star Alliance Gold members, complete with plenty of beer and wine, and some small snacks – mainly cookies and crackers. Nothing impressive, but it had wifi, drinks, and was quiet so it did the job.

Drama started (see drama cafe reference in previous post) when we got to the gate. We were paged to the podium, and informed that our seats were being changed. We had exit row aisle seats across from each other, and were moved forward a few rows to an aisle and middle. No, there was nothing they could or would do about it, nor would they tell us why. GRRRR. It worked out in the end when after lots of prodding the agent managed to find us a full row in row 21 with the middle seat empty. All’s well that ends well!

Turkish flight 1006
Skopje, FYR Macedonia (SKP) to Istanbuk, Turkey (IST)
Depart 20:45, Arrive 23:05, Flight Time 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration TC-JLV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 21C

Flight was probably 95% full, but since we were proactive we ended up with one of the few empty middle seats in between us. There was a cold snack which was mostly edible, and drinks were free even in economy with one catch – you could have beer, but could not choose what kind. We ended up with one Heineken and one Efes – go figure! Other than that, flight was perfectly on time, and no drama whatsoever.

The same cannot be said for passport control in Istanbul where we’d have a very short overnight. Visa on arrival is available for US citizens, but my friend was traveling on a South African passport which is supposed to receive a free visa on arrival. Catch is, there’s only (apparently) one immigration desk in the whole airport that can issue this, and it’s not really marked. We spent over an hour getting through passport control, complete with a planeful of very rude Ukrainians shoving and pushing in line. There’s something deeply satisfying where when you deny someone the chance to sneak in front of you, and they curse you out in Russian thinking you don’t understand, when you can curse them even stronger right back. Score Jason 1, International Relations 0. Mr Gorbachev may have, in the infamaous words of the Gipper “torn down that wall” but I did my best to put it right back up ūüėČ

Waited another 30 minutes for the aiport hotel shuttle, and it was almost 1am by the time we got to the hotel. With a 620am flight, I was beginning to wonder why we’d even bothered for just over three hours of sleep. The Istanbul Airport Radisson Blu? Well, check-in was efficient, the room was an inferno around 25C in temp, but the beds were ok and we were exhausted so we got three good hours of sleep along with a shower. For that alone, it was worth it.

Off to the airport, check-in and immigration took all of five minutes, leaving us time for Heaven. I mean Starbucks. Same difference – good strong espresso was exactly what I needed, and combined with some turkish coffee in the Turkish Airlines lounge I was ready to go. Oh, about that lounge…in this direction it was not terribly full at all, and they had a huge breakfast spread out! This has to be one of the best business class lounges in the world, at least as far as food goes.

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Boarding was right on time, and business and star gold passengers got their own bus to the plane. ¬†Can’t complain about that! ¬†The load today was only about 50%, so there was plenty of room to spread out.

Lufthansa flight 1775
Istanbuk, Turkey (IST) to Munich, Germany (MUC()
Depart 6:20, Arrive 8:05, Flight Time 2:45
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPH, Manufactured 1989, Seat 12C

Not too much to say – light breakfast served, crew was efficient, and there was plenty of room to spread out. ¬†As far as Lufthansa economy goes, it was a pretty good day. ¬†Except…we were held on the ground in Istanbul for over an hour due to fog in Munich, which I understand is very common at this time of year. ¬†We were looking at a 15 minute connection in Munich at best…this was going to be interesting. ¬†For some reason, it seems every time I connect through Munich I run into this issue.

We made up a bit of time in flight, and we landed 22 minutes before our flight to Newark was bound to leave. ¬†Fortunately, we were already “outside Schengen” for passport control, so that was one less line to deal with. ¬†We actually managed to get a real gate too, so a quick dash through security, and we made it with just minutes to spare.

United flight 969
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 9:20, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time 9:25
Boeing 767-300, Registration N651UA, Manufactured 1992, Seat 6H

This was a former-United three class 767, with a rather surly crew. ¬†There were several empty seats in Business class, and when we moved from window seats to centre seats we got admonished, even though we’d asked one of the flight attendants if it was ok. ¬†Other than that, things were fine – meal was pretty typical for these days, crew was not very friendly and below average, but the comfortable seats allowed us to catch up on sleep so that’s good.

My friend was leaving in Newark, so it was through Global Entry quickly (we actually arrived Terminal B of Newark Рis that common these days?  It was a first for me) and a tram to terminal A for my connecting flight to DC.

United Express (operated by ExpressJet) flight 4372
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 14:37, Arrive 15:47, Flight Time 1:10
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12160, Manufactured 2004, Seat 12A

Only 8 people on this flight – the lightest load I’ve seen on a DC-Newark flight ever. ¬†Not sure the reason – it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, but I wasn’t complaining. ¬†We were almost 20 minutes early on arrival.

Overall it was a great trip. ¬†Nowhere near long enough, but when I’m presented to join a friend on a trip to see new countries I’m never going to turn it down! ¬†I feel like we really maximized our time there, and I’d love to return now and see more of the smaller towns and countryside in the region. ¬†I still have to get to Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia in the region so I definitely have an incentive now to go back for an extended trip!

Feb 262013
 

We arrived at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Skopje, where the front desk agent was a step back in time 20 years to a time when the concept of customer service in this corner of the world just didn’t exist. He got us our room, but that was about it. Upgrade? Forget about it. Benefits as a platinum member? Forget about it. Help finding places to eat, etc? Yeah, you get the picture.

That said, the room was clean, cool, and comfortable so there’s really nothing to complain about, especially since our rate of around 100 euro was completely reasonable. We headed out for a walk, and the first stop was coffee. We found a small coffeeshop on Alexander the Great / Macedonia Square and got some espressos and eventually a few local beers to get us moving again before dinner.

Wandering to dinner, we walked past the National Theatre, which was nicely lit:

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For dinner, we decided to try Old City House which received quite good reviews on TripAdvisor. When we got there, they informed us they were full, but there was a nice room downstairs we could eat in…problem was, we were the ONLY people in this room. ¬†While we ate they sat two more tables so it was a little less odd. ¬†Food was solid, good salads and grilled meats, but nothing overly memorable. ¬†It did the trick though.

The next morning, we decided to just wander the city. ¬†The one thing that struck us about Skopje was all the statues. ¬†Everywhere. ¬†This is just a sampling of all the statue pics we took – it’ll give you a little idea of just how plentiful they are. ¬†I haven’t been able to figure out what’s behind this, but if anyone has an idea I’d love to know!

We’ll start with one from the #WTF or #QDF gallery. ¬†Is this some sort of abortion statement or something?

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Feb 142013
 

Got to our hotel, the Swiss Diamond Hotel Pristina, and check-in was a breeze. Hotel was quite nice, staff were friendly, and the room was quite nicely furnished as well. Overall, very impressed!  The front desk staff pointed us to some major areas to walk and where we might find a bar serving drinks, and overall were quite helpful.  Just a few thoughts on the hotel:

Breakfast was included and was quite comprehensive.  Set up in what looked to be a ballroom or conference room, there were several stations including eggs to order, all sorts of breads and pastries, cold meats and cheese, salads, hot meats, you name it.  Quite a good breakfast, and included in the rate.  The only downside was trying to get coffee, as it was quite hold to find servers.  Overall though, it was quite good.

Our room also had a balcony overlooking the city, with a pretty cool view:

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