I wonder if I was lucky to have been able to go on this trip, given the global situation at the moment. Events have moved quickly recently, but my trip at the very end of February was, in general, fine.
After a night at one of the Heathrow Travelodges, a very early morning start was not especially welcome but a necessity given that I would have a day-and-a-half to fit in visiting filming locations for The Great Escape. I will admit to feeling slightly unnerved being on a flight with many Chinese or Japanese tourists, all heavily masked.
I accept that kind readers of these pages may be surprised that it is not, for once, Where Eagles Dare which is featuring in this account, but another famous war film. I must admit that I was narked slightly around two years ago to find that the Bavarian town of Fussen was the general scene for The Great Escape filming locations. I had been there in the 1990s, in the days when the internet admittedly was still comparatively new, and had not realised what I was missing. Ideally, I would have preferred another day there but flight schedules dictated and I was pleased to be able to fly comparatively close to Fussen directly to Macedonia.
After the red-eye to Munich and a couple of trains which took me to Fussen, I found the comfortable and convenient Maurushaus hotel comparatively easily. It is an old building and my room, described beforehand as a small double, was anything but. The owner spent half-an-hour telling me about Fussen and gave me my Fussen Card (essentially paid for by the 2.20 euros daily city tax) which allowed free use of the local buses. Everything was nice about the Maurushaus, including its quiet yet central position.
What I quickly discovered was that the making of The Great Escape differed vastly to Where Eagles Dare due to many of the famous locations being very close to each other which was not often the case with Where Eagles Dare, in general. It took little time in finding the filming locations within this beautiful Bavarian town: the famous "good luck" spot by the bus-stop; the cafe where Germans were enjoying a drink before being killed; the rooftop scene, and others were all within a five-minute walk.
I went on to Speiden, a twenty-five minute bus ride close to the delightful Hopfensee, where one of the film's successful escapees rides a bicycle some way towards freedom. Speiden's church is delightful, as is the whole area. Lakes and mountains make this area of Allgau a most attractive one.
Being a keen reader on more recent history, I am aware of the history of the real Great Escape, and more so now having read three excellent books on the subject. Many of the film's famous moments are remembered for Steve McQueen's motorcycle chase, an event which did not happen in the real-life escape. Hey ho, we are all enjoyed it and the motorcycle stunts went into cinematography history. I took them on the next day. Well, the sites, and by public bus.
Here I must thank Don Whistance for his remarkably well researched website (www.thegreatescapelocations.com) which made it possible for me to visit many of the locations - again, remember, by bus and not car or motorbike, as many do - in one day. With his own photos, and many from the film (including a lot taken during filming) and maps, Don's website is a veritable treasure trove for all of the film's enthusiasts. Alas, despite his endeavours, Don will be unaware of my still completely appalling sense of direction and there were a few obstacles to contend with.
To find the famous hut behind which McQueen hides behind and points his gun, I had found, via Google Maps, that the bus stop of Meilingen Kreisverkehr was my starting point on the Sunday for the locations outside Fussen. Fine, all I needed to do, I assured myself, was to walk back along the road the bus had taken and there I would find the hut (which Google kindly even recognises as the Steve McQueen hut). It would take me eight minutes apparently and would be on the right-hand side of the road. It was, exactly.
Having taken my photos - I assume that curious motorists are aware of the hut's significance and are therefore not surprised at stray tourists taking photos of unpretentious huts - and congratulated myself, my next stop was the spot where McQueen runs into trouble at the armed Swiss border. I knew also that I needed to turn back, go over the roundabout and continue straight ahead along the same road. I would end up close to Pfronten. The first sign of alarm was that I didn't. I ended up in Kreuzegg. It didn't stop me finding this second spot and taking my photos, but curiosity made me wonder whether I had seen the correct hut.
I hadn't. From the bus stop, I could see a further hut in the distance and so, once again, I had had a dress rehearsal before stumbling upon the correct spot. More photos, this time of the correct hut, more relief than congratulation and I was then on another bus to Pfronten-Weissbach where I saw the scene where McQueen, dressed as a German soldier, is stopped by his "own" people. This place is just three minutes bus ride from Meilingen Kreisverkehr.
I stopped in the delightful Hopfen am See whose wonderful location alongside, as its name suggests, a lake but also beautiful mountain scenery, made it for me one of the area's most picturesque spots. As well as going inside the splendid St. Peter and Paul Church and having a walk along the lake promenade, I also found the spot - yes, really I did - where McQueen's character, Hilts, makes the trip wire which entangles a German soldier and his bike and allows Hilts to continue on his way towards Switzerland. Well, Fussen is actually very close to Austria.
The last stop was where James Coburn's character, Sedgwick, crosses into Spain. Geographically, this spot is a very pleasant grass area close to the famous Neuschwanstein castles, the preserve of the somewhat mystical King Ludwig II of Bavaria. If my judgement of the filming location was correct, the filming crew did well, despite the natural camouflage of the dense trees, to avoid including Neuschwanstein in the scene. I had a walk to the lower-level Hohenschwangau Castle before taking the bus and whiling away a couple of hours in the nearby Kristall Therme.
I admit on my last day that I rather made a rod for my own back with my parsimony in buying a ticket to reach Memmingen Airport, from where I would fly to Ohrid. Wanting to make good use of the still free buses on my last day, I had tried to buy a ticket at Fussen from Pfronten (or similar) to the airport but was told that it wasn't possible. I had tried to buy a ticket the previous day at Pfronten-Weissbach Station but realised that I was unlikely to find a ticket vending machine. There was barely a platform there. I therefore left early on the Monday and went to Pfronten-Ried Station, saw the place where Sedgwick serenely crosses the railway line on his stolen bicycle and, rather less serenely myself, was driven to bad language when the ticket machine didn't work. Returning later, I was amazed to see that an elderly lady had coaxed it into life and all was well. After much trying, I finally had my ticket and saved myself 5 euros...
It wasn't the simplest journey and the larger Munich Airport would have been preferable but no flights go directly to Ohrid from there. Whatever, I enjoyed a brief visit to the historic centre of Memmingen before taking the bus to the airport. The bus timings were not kind for my flight so it meant a three-hour wait there but nonetheless the time went comparatively quickly before the Wizzair flight.
The landing into Ohrid was amongst the most spectacular I have witnessed. All was fine, I hasten to add, but the descent over beautiful, snow-clad mountains was just the prelude before the pilot descended ever lower over almost the entire length of Lake Ohrid. With the sun setting, it was wonderful. Macedonia thus became my seventy-first country visited.
I stayed at the Villa Milka, who also kindly collected me as buses are rare to and from the airport. The hotel was pleasant and in a pretty good, central location. I read that rates are pretty similar wherever one changes money and expected to see around 61 denar to the euro. The airport offered a woeful 52 so I held on until the following day when other places duly offered over 61. Ample restaurants and shops accepted euros and I had a nice meal in a modern place in the centre.
I also read that Macedonia's most photographed place is the St.John the Theologian Church on its own little promentary jutting into the lake. The city's name might suggest otherwise - the h is pronounced, I might add - but it is anything but how it sounds and my short stay in Macedonia left me pleased that I had travelled to Ohrid.
There are many Orthodox churches in Ohrid, the Greek one of St. John the Theologian being the most well-known. I turned up at the right time as the weather was beautiful, if windy, but it turned later on. The church's peaceful and breathtaking location was memorable and it was possible to walk around the grounds but sadly not to go inside. I may have been too early.
The area in front of Fussen's Schloss appeared in The Great Escape. The cafe used has long gone.
Richard Attenborough's character, Roger Bartlett, tried to escape over the green-roofed house in The Great Escape.
This scene in Speiden, close to Fussen, also appeared in The Great Escape.
Found at my second attempt, this is the hut used in The Great Escape.
McQueen's character, Hilts, eyed up Switzerland from this spot in The Great Escape.
The beautiful scenery at Hopfen am See
Hohenschwangau Castle, near Fussen
The historic part of Memmingen
The mountains signal the descent into Ohrid Airport
Macedonia's most photographed place, the St.John the Theologian Church in Ohrid

Ohrid's Old Town has a stunning position on the lake

Pristina's bizarre library

Pristina's beautiful Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa

The old and new churches in the Kurfurstendamm area of Berlin

Berlin's Reichstag building.

Remnants of the Wall in Berlin's Bernauerstrasse.

Another bit of fun was an exploratory skirmish with a local shopkeeper in trying to buy the famous Ohrid pearls. There is an abundance of choice so I tried my luck in one such shop. Having little idea of the price for a necklace for my mother, I was initially told 35 euros but that they would offer a 30% discount. It always bewilders me why they start so high. Anyway, the chap then seemed to forget that he had offered 25 euros and quoted 20. Sensing an opportunity, I offered him 15 which was accepted. As it was, I always need to have a mental conference with myself, expressed interest and cleared off. I bought a set - which Mum likes very much - from a small stall outside the castle for 10 euros.
Samuel's Fortress overlooks the city and commands wonderful views over the lake and mountains. For 1 euro,visitors can walk around the walls and enjoy these views.
A walk along the promenade was bracing but sadly the weather had turned sour so I was pleased to find sanctuary in the hotel.
A good meal with wine - Vranec had taken my fancy on the plane and in the city - cost around 7 euros and shopping was good value too. I found, comparatively easily, the bus stop where the following day I went from Ohrid to Pristina via the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Booking the ticket through Classic Company from Ohrid to Skopje had been simple via the Getbybus website but there was no such luck with the Skopje to Pristina coach.
It was a comfortable minibus which took a handful of us to Skopje. As it happened, there was absolutely no bother in booking the 6 euro coach from Skopje to Pristina at the bus station and I was on my way within an hour. The journey was scheduled to take two hours but crossing over the border into Kosovo, whilst quick, and the traffic in Pristina, meant it arrived half-an-hour late.
I ended up having to haggle - and very unsuccessfully - in German for a taxi but no amount of persuasion would make the driver lower his fare to take me to the Hotel Denis. The taxis are admittedly cheap but let's just say that the return to the same place was half the price. One of my - okay, many - bugbears is the vast number of drivers I encounter everywhere who fail to indicate. Pristina turned out to be a pleasant surprise actually and a comparative exception to what I usually see.
The Denis was wonderful. It took a while to rouse someone to check me in but, once in my vast room with a city view, I was made to feel most comfortable. Breakfast was excellent, as was the same restaurant for the evening meal and the staff were most friendly and welcoming. All for around £25 a night. It was a good choice. It did take a while to walk into the city but everything was pleasant and I had thoroughly nice weather on my full day. It made Kosovo, my seventy-second country visited, look a treat.
Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was a remarkable lady, born in Skopje in 1910. I was privileged to have once been on the same flight as her from Delhi to Calcutta (which may give more of a hint as to her more familiar identity). In this part of the world, many places are named after her: a motorway along which I travelled, but more pertinently Pristina's comparatively new cathedral, started in 2005. Most people will know her as Mother Teresa.
Pristina has some interesting sights but the Saint Mother Teresa Cathedral dominates the city centre. Naturally, it looks new and is not only impressive outside but also within with its high ceiling leading down the long nave to the beautiful chancel. It was the first place on the holiday where I had been able to light a candle.
A building in complete contrast is on the other side of the road. With its barred windows, it might be, I suppose, mistaken for a prison but it is actually a library. I was much taken by it. I returned to the cathedral in the evening and enjoyed the city lit up. Pristina has interesting places to encourage tourists to visit.
Kosovans, I found, don't easily budge with prices as my earlier experience with the taxi did not prove a one-off. I fancied a massage to iron out a few tense neck and back muscles but no-one was going to fall for my usual ruses of having the price lowered. I expected to offer 20 euros, smile sweetly and ask for, say, 40 or 45 minutes instead of the usual hour but not one person gave in. Actually, the Denis offered half-hour massages for 20 euros so, when I saw that the masseuse that evening, I went along. The neck felt better afterwards but I felt completely crippled the following morning when I went down in a bit of a heap picking up my suitcase. I suspect that the bottom of my spine was badly knotted and that the masseuse applied more hand pressure than either I thought her capable of or indeed noticed...
Pristina now offers an hourly bus service to the airport (which had delightful mountain views) and the times suited so my wait for the easyJet flight to Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport was not an especially long one. Indeed, the flight took off early and arrived, as they say, ahead of schedule. This was helpful as I managed to take a mixture of U- and S-Bahn trains to the Kurfurstendamm area of the city where I was putting up. I must say that some of the U-Bahn trains were rather quaint.
I stayed in a hostel. I probably had missed the s in the word and expected to stay in a simple hotel but it was not to be. I am not remotely proud, have been through the boarding school ethic in the 1970s and did at least have a single room here but the sight of bunk beds brought back memories. I did most things wrong. When I picked up the towel later during my stay, I hurriedly put it back when I saw that they charged a euro for its use. I then saw the house rules behind the towel and noticed that I should have not been making a hot drink in the room. I kept on noticing an employee when I was usually returning to my room with a kettle in my hand. Actually, the staff were very helpful, the position was terrific but the sight of grown adults waiting their turn in the queue for the bathroom and to cook their food was, well, an eye-opener even for someone who was used to this at school, albeit forty years ago.
I enjoyed seeing the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche, the famous one which was partially destroyed during World War II, alongside its more modern one on the only evening I had in Berlin. The next morning, after breakfast and, yes, a hot drink in my room, I left early to see what I could in the short time available to me. After buying a day ticket for zones A and B which included all modes of transport (8.60 euros), I did well.
Although the weather was dull, I travelled to the Brandenburger Tor where the famous gate is sited. Many of Berlin's famous sites are in this general area and I managed to see not only the gate but the impressive parliament, the Reichstag, which is close by. I saw the vast area dedicated to the murder of countless Jews before going literally around the corner and finding the notice board which is the only reminder of Hitler's bunker.
In having to check out of the hostel by 11 a.m., I was aware of time catching up on me and made a bit of a mess of reaching Checkpoint Charlie on Kochstrasse. I did reach it eventually but only had time for a few quick photos before rushing back to check out.
Although it wasn't ideal traipsing around Berlin with all my luggage (in the absence of any lockers in the stations I used), I did manage the comparatively long trek to Bernauerstrasse where some of the last remaining remnants of the wall exist. I am impressed by Berlin: in many places including the historical sites and U- and S-Bahn stations, a lot of the history of the city, including the more notorious aspects, are depicted. I have been around five times (including the time I caused havoc on the coach and train in around 1970) and find it a most fascinating city, and a place I am always pleased to visit.
I reached Tegel Airport in good time but mercifully the flight was indeed early in arriving and taking off. The time saved was welcome and I was back home earlier than expected after an interesting, if busy, trip.