Last you heard of me I was heading out to hunt for the basic necessities. Well that I did, buying cheap cigarettes and a turnover that promised 'cheese' but was probably lactose intolerant. I walked around a bit and am at a loss for a concise description of this place. People and cars act as if the other didn't exist so every pedestrian who isn't killed accounts for a small miracle.

Shops have a hit and miss approach to stock, so the most unlikely combination of items jostle for space on shelves labelled in Albanian, priced in Euros, and held together by string for the most part. It seems like there are no laws that enforce schooling and children play in the streets quite happily during the morning. The atmosphere is a relatively mild one with no real extremes, maybe similar in a way to North African cities and the Islamic influence can be felt occasionally. There is no religious fervour, no wailing from minarets, no ladies covered in black and no suq selling dubious shisha and silly carpets. Only the satellite dishes stuck to every rooftop and balcony face the Mecca but it is only because free-to-air satellite comes from that direction. Stalls, little shops, tiny shops and holes in between buildings sell an enormous amount of mobile phones, phone cards and cigarettes. Judging by the abundance of these wares one would think that every man and his dog in Kosovo spent eight hours a day sitting around, chatting on his mobile phone while chain-smoking. Curiously enough I saw none of this.

The city has no soul and no centre where all convene. There might have been either, or both of these but it must have been bombed into last century and is having trouble getting back here in a hurry. While shopkeepers wash the floor and pavement fastidiously, this cleanliness is restricted to their own turf, and common areas are most often in an appalling state of disrepair. There is no real sense of discipline, such a lack of it in fact, that the void it leaves is perceptible even to a Maltese person like myself. Parking just happens. Wherever a car can fit, there is bound to be one, parked at an odd angle to the pavement, on the pavement, touching a wall, peeking innocently through Osman's front gate. There is also a curious lack of fat people, especially considering that they eat plenty of fried and grilled meat all the time. They are also lucky to be quite genetically gifted, a privilege that girls tend to display in a truly non-Islamic strutting of wares at all times of day.

Next stop, Bulgaria. Our planned route was to drive out of Kosovo, into East Macedonia, skirt Skopje, then cross the country to leave the car on the West Macedonian border, where we would then take a taxi for the two-hour drive to Bansko, a ski resort in the Bulgarian mountains. We left Kosovo at around lunchtime which warranted a stop for lunch about half an hour out of the city in a Serbian enclave. The difference is that unlike the Albanians, they care about their surroundings and so Serbian enclaves, while not all walled or in any way delineated, can be told by their lovely red brick houses, tidy gardens and clean surroundings. The restaurant was excellent, service polite and cordial and a huge meal for both of us cost around €8. An auspicious start to our trip. Well, more of an epic journey than a trip, but at that point we believed it would be a trip.

We then drove across the border into Macedonia where the customs and border police waved us through at the sight of a big white UN vehicle and the hint of a light-blue UN passport. We then passed south of Skopje and started travelling east along the motorway that eventually leads to Athens but turns off towards Sofia, Bulgaria. The sign that indicated Sofia was missing since a new motorway was being built and signage considered an unnecessary luxury so we cheerfully drove south, stopping several times to ask for directions. It was one of those unhappy situations where the navigator and driver are the same person, who happens to be too proud to buy a map despite the insistence of a totally disoriented passenger. We eventually backtracked for about an hour, drove through a murderously tricky mountain road towards the promise of a Bulgarian border, bought a map, and made it to the border on the southernmost tip of Bulgaria at around 10pm. We were harassed by Macedonian police, allowed to walk into the no-man's-land, only to be harassed once more by their Bulgarian counterparts. We were eventually treated to a stamp and a grunt and begrudgingly waved onto Bulgarian soil. A solitary taxi driver was waiting at the border, chatting with the lonely chef of a restaurant that depends on the occasional maniac who crosses that border and he was talked into driving us to Bansko, a two hour trip deep into the heart of Bulgaria, home to the best ski resort in the region. I cursed the time of year, packed my little bag into the back of his ailing Mercedes, and gripped the edge of my seat for the unexpected nocturnal rollercoaster ride.

We arrived at midnight, and throwing a defiant birdie (not the golfing term) in Baden Powell's general direction, we were spectacularly unprepared, having neglected to take the address of the hotel we were staying at. We finally found the place and I was overjoyed to find out that it was a gorgeous 5 star but somewhat dismayed that a minor detail such as advance booking was missing and that they were overbooked. Although the pavement seemed smooth enough, the chill dissuaded us from pursuing that kind of lodging arrangement so we coerced a sleepy night receptionist into calling another hotel and booking for us. The 5 minute ride to the hotel down the road cost us almost as much as the two hour ride from Macedonia but we gratefully flung our bags into the princely suite that was provided and set out on foot to find a restaurant. Never have a bottle of Merlot and half a pig gone down so well.

Bright and early next morning we woke up and headed out to discover what the town had to offer. We were met by a surprisingly anachronistic blend of top-notch ski shops and horse-drawn carts, 200 year-old wooden houses in pristine condition and designer hotels that look like an Italian furniture catalogue, poncey faggot cafes and communist statues, and cars ranging from the classic Trabant to the latest German Vorsprung durch Teknik.

All around, towering snow caps provided an alpine backdrop to the hundreds of taverns and cobbled streets and the river Glazne noisily rushed through town as if in a terrible hurry to put a large distance between it and the Pirin mountains where it originally came from. I kept looking for a banner that said 'Under Construction' with a silly animated man-and-shovel because hotels and apartment blocks are practically springing up overnight in a flurry of over-zealous capitalising on the sudden metamorphosis that this town has experienced. What was a small agricultural village until a couple of years ago is now host to thousands of tourists from Bulgaria itself and from all over Europe who turn up in drones seeking virtually unspoilt trekking in summer and fresh snow throughout winter.

The food varied from good to excellent and was consistently cheap and generous. The only downside was the difficulty communicating with serving staff who insist on repeating themselves in Bulgarian slowly and loudly hoping that the change in rate and intonation would prove to be of sudden enlightenment. Ordering sparkling water verged on impossible so I found myself describing the product. I ask for "Water." She goes "Voda?". My reply, "Da, voda." Then I twist my fingers around an imaginary bottle cap and say "Tssss", imitating the sound of sparkling water. "Ah, soda!” And my flawless Bulgarian reply, "Da, soda." Sorted.

All this naturally had me in a snap-happy mood, whipping out my camera at every possible occasion to shoot as representative a selection of photos as possible. When I was finally pleased with my little collection of pictures, I tried to review my oeuvre only to be greeted with a large yellow, cheerfully stylised question mark on my camera screen and the cryptic message, "Corrupted data". I am not the type to deal with such calamities with a resigned "Oh, bother." and I cursed the digital entrails of my memory card, wishing it stretched upon an electronic rack until it's hexadecimal sinews ripped asunder, causing whatever pain the bloody things can possibly feel. I was ruthlessly overcharged for a replacement card that unfortunately only had one eighth of the capacity of mine and tried to make up for the lost pictures but as clichè as it sounds, there is nothing that can quite recapture the moment.

On a lazy Sunday morning an open-air market gradually occupies a portion of the pedestrian area. Unlike other markets I've seen, the Bulgarians are in no hurry at all and at ten they're still arriving and unpacking their wares with a slovenly disinterest. They sell shoes, carpets, original Pioner (missing 'e') speakers, more shoes, blood pressure monitors, more carpets, bits of old bicycle, more shoes and live rabbits and chickens. The latter are slaughtered on the spot when you're satisfied with the beast of your choice.

Having had breakfast we decided not to contribute to the homicide and headed back to the border, this time with an ancient grey man in an ancient grey car, sourced by a friend of a friend of an ex-UN lawyer who saw us there with the meticulous caution of cuddling porcupines and charged us more than a taxi would have. Once again we were mercilessly harassed on both borders by obstinate uniforms, that could possibly have contained intelligent bipeds, who were evidently bored and exacted exaggerated vigilance upon their only charge for the day. We reached our forlorn truck that beeped a warm welcome and started tugging our starving bodies back towards Kosovo.

Every mile or so was marked by a noisy rumble from my protesting stomach. Beef, poultry, rabbit and other highly palatable sources of sorely needed nutrition were present in huge abundance but unfortunately were still blessed with the ability to move and I was in no mood to chase any of them. I decided to ignore the fact that I was ravenous and enjoy the surroundings. Driving through Macedonia is very similar to driving through France in many ways. Old furrowed, weathered men stand at crossroads, ready to frown at you and bark directions in a foreign language, refusing to speak English. A good road finds its way through vast, fertile plains that are punctuated by endless vineyards, gentle hills and dark green valleys between dark dreen hills that join forces to gently steer a crystal clear stream towards the rivers that dissect the country. Solitary cows allow a solitary farmer to hang on to the end of a short string and in most cases one wonders which of the couple is taking decisions. As the cow turns to choose a different leaf to nibble, it waits for the farmer to pause his introspective rumination and eventually change direction as well. Men and women of all ages can be seen bent over double at all times of day, their hands buried deep inside the brick red earth, buttocks pointing towards the sky in a backwards nod of gratitude to whatever deity provided this year's bounty. As the sun sets, entire families and their harvest pile onto wooden carts and are slowly hauled back to the village, the dark wooden structures a deadly peril on roads that make up for the lack of lighting by providing a plentiful supply of blind bends and dips.

We made our way past Strumica (pr. Strumitsa), Radovis (pr Radovish) and almost past Stip (pr Shtip) when our collective hunger drove us into the village in search of food. This one-cow town was quite picturesque but only hosted one restaurant that would feed hungry travellers on a Sunday afternoon. I ate a horrible burger that swam in enough oil to keep Siberia warm all winter and some cold and droopy chips. We asked for sparkling water, causing the bubbly owner of the place to run out of the restaurant and return five minutes later, beaming like a celestial floodlight and bearing a bottle of water labelled "Good Water" in large blue letters. It all tasted horrible but was just as welcome as all the other delicious meals we had enjoyed.

A relatively uneventful trip back 'home' to Pristina (that's Prishtina to you) was interrupted for a brief shopping spree at a brand spanking new supermarket that carried absolutely everything you could possibly imagine, possibly to satisfy the needs of all the 'internationals' (ex-pats) that live in Kosovo. It even stocks a huge variety of pirate CDs and DVDs to ensure that wholesome family entertainment is available at a price to suit all pockets.

Photos of the trip would naturally help all this and pick up where I left off in terms of imagery. I'll try to upload these to some free hosting site and post the URL here. Anyone interested in visting Kosovo may feel free to /msg me or send email and I'll be glad to offer any help possible.