touring | the southern balkans - the underrated gem of europe
two missed flights, lost luaggage & alot of cherry baklava
the southern balkans region has been in my radar for a long time & while i visited croatia, montenegro in 2017 i never quite made it to the southernmost states. well, 2019 was the year that i finally made it to albania, macedonia & kosovo but not without its initial hiccups.
coming from brno in the czech republic the nearest airport is vienna for flights to the region. we started the journey as normal with a train to vienna from brno but as we boarded one hour later the train decided to come to a standstill & was cancelled as soon as it arrived thanks regiojet, quick thinking ensued as we where running out of time to get to the airport we decided to book the bus to vienna airport online & arrived at the station 20 mins later but to our dismay the bus was totally full we then double-checked the ticket & realised that we had booked it for the next day all busses to vienna where fully booked so we came to the realisation that we would miss the flight.
not deterred we decided to book for the next day & since we where on a standby ticket we waited with bated breath as the last few passengers boarded. we were then told the bad news that the flight was full to pristina, kosovo. as a little panic ensued with my travel partner we once again decided to go into problem-solving mode & luckily two hours later there was a flight to tirana, albania.
my travel partners destination was actually in the west of kosovo so this was not such a big detour & for me as i was flexible so decided to change my route around the region so it all worked out in the end. well that was until we arrived at tirana airport to find that our luggage had been lost. it was truly one of the unluckiest travel experiences of my life but i was not worried that much. we got out bags the next day & all was how it should be.
while tirana may not be on the top of everyone's list of places to visit i decided to make the most of my last min change of plans to see what this place had to offer & to my surprise for a few days it was actually a super cool place, let me explain.
over the years i have learnt that whatever you have heard about countries in a negative light, it's mostly propaganda & this was the same for albania. as soon as i arrived i felt totally safe here it was a city just as any other in europe with cool restaurants, stores & cafe's, here they are a big deal, no starbucks in sight.
i stayed in mosaic home close to the international bus station it's a cool little hostel that has a great courtyard & an even better breakfast. a true hipster designed hostel on a budget.
I set off to make the most of my day here to fit in as many sights as possible skanderberg square is where most tourists head to first you'll find some of the best architecture in the city here but for me the best area was close to the parliament building a historic area with some suer cool authentic shops, bars & restaurants one being dedicated to chocolate cioccolatitiana kalaja. in the early morning take the gondola ride to the top of the nearby mountains for spectacular views before the heat starts to rise its a great place for a photo opportunity. i have to mention a cool little cafe that i found close to the place where i was staying. papa's bakery is a new style cafe/bakery serving up some of the best takeaway savoury & sweet dishes you could imagine. this is the placed where i truly realised how cheap albania is from the freshly squeezed orange juice for (€0.70) to the brownies for less than a (€1) you can eat in tirana like a king for less than (€10) a day.
lake ohrid (macedonia)
i arrived on the only bus going to lake ohrid from tirana. it's (€17) for the ruffly four hour trip but in my case, it was a large mecedes van & it only had me with a french family onboard so was super comfortable & the border crossing was very easy too they didn't even come on board. as the bus meandered through the mountains i finally got my first glimpse of this majestic place, it's one of the oldest & deepest lakes in europe. there are a few towns along the way but i decided that the only place to stay was in the historic area of ohrid town where i happened upon a cool new hostel old town hostel run by natasha & her family. it has to be one of the most community-focused hostels i have ever stayed in. we spent the days & nights chatting away with everyone from the hostel it was a great place for solo travellers to meet up.
i always get a feeling when i arrive at a new place whether i will like it or not & within a few moments of arriving at this small town on the edge fo the lake i knew i could stay here much much longer than my plans permitted. first off the scenery is awesome the lake with the mountains in the background reminds me of swizerland but also the number of people, not too many actually for high season it was quite serene then we come to the ancient architecture from the old orthordox churches to the fort it was once said that there was a church for everyday of the year in ohrid. this is a place where you can spend a week easily whiling away the day at one of the many sunbathing areas, boat trips & hikes into the mountains that straddle the lake.
not only does this place have an abundance of things to do it also has some amazing food. the turkish influence can be found in abundance here from the kebab stores to my favourite place in the turkish area the baklava store where they serve a very special cherry baklava from the region it's a flavour explosion totally unique to any other baklava i have ever tasted. on the main street you will also find a lot of bars & coffee shops most tourists here are from macedonia & like to have a coffee in the morning but my daily dose of happiness came in the form of a fresh fruit protein smoothie & chia pudding from a cool little juice shop all for less than (€4).
my, go-to place to eat & as you know everyone has a place they discover while visiting a new place that they keep going back to as the food was so good & this was a falafel store for me. dr. falafel run by a lovely local lady was a vegan oasis in a meat heavy country. the sandwich with tahini sauce (€1) was delicious it really shows you the diversity of the food in the region from fish to falafel ohrid has you covered from cheap to luxurious.
some of you may know from my past posts that i am somewhat of an adrenaline junkie from skydiving to motorcycle tours around the globe i always seek to experience an activity that truly gets my heart racing & in ohrid that was a 6-hour atv tour into the mountains that straddle the lake with atv adventure ohrid.
my adventure started in the morning where we picked up our huge 500cc atv's then met the others in the group before setting out into the wilderness. the nearby mountains are a national park & as soon as you arrived you can see why the landscape, it's breathtaking. we climbed to over 1500 meters where we seen the paraglider's taking off in the morning light we then made our way over the mountain crest to the valley over some challenging terrain where our skills were put to the test. although challenging at times the ride was generally fun & we had the opportunity to open up the throttle a few times throughout the day.
we made regular stops where our guide would tell us about the local area, plant life & people who come to the mountains on a regularly to pick the wild tea.
i found the whole trip awesome from start to finish i was never bored we got some see some spectacular viewpoints even one where you could see greece, albania and macedonia all in one view it was simply quite stunning.
one last place i have to mention is the gorgeous town of trpejca, they call it the st. tropez of ohrid. set on the edge of the lake with crystal clear blue water it has to be the most beautiful town in the whole country.
i took the only bus from kompas travel that left ohrid to tirana at 7am (€15) before i transferred on to a local bus to gjakova. this was my final destination & where i would meet up again with my travel partner as her family lives here.
my first point of call arriving in the city was the most popular & historic hotel in the whole city. hotel carshia e jupave located in the historic centre is a wonderful place to stay with its large room & amazing breakfast i could not think of another place to stay while in the city.
gjakova was one of the most important trade centres during the ottoman period & while most of the old town was burnt down during the war they have rebuilt the historic elements. one of the best places to while away the day is the old bazaar that is one of the oldest in kosovo. it's a place to grab a coffee at the many cafes, take a seat outdoors & do some people watching.
the next morning on my first full day in kosovo i was picked up by travel partner vesa & her brother alban we also had some other family onboard too it was such a humbling experience the sheer kindness of people here it's definitely what i will remember the most about kosovo anyways we where crossing over the border into valbona national park in albania it's around 2 hour drive to this mountain resort but wow was it worth it this has to be one of the most spectacular mountain areas that i have ever seen it's for sure on par with switzerland.
as we drove through the mountains up the winding roads we stopped off for breakfast at a beautiful spot on the banks of the river. vesa's family had prepared a balkan breakfast of local cheese & bread with some delicious tomatoes & a few other things to it was a great start to the day that i knew was going to be something special.
i mentioned earlier when i arrive to a new place i get a feeling & here it was that exact feeling the sheer grandeur of the surrounding mountains was a landscape photographers dream.
arriving to the main tourist area i distinctly noticed that lack of tourists compared to the alps it has a totally serene vibe which i suppose mountainous areas should but in the alps i have found that so many people visit that you miss it there but here it was something special, a place that i immediately fell in love with & looking back now i would prefer to visit instead of the alps.
we hopped on to an old truck to traverse over a dry river bed for 15mins to the start of the hiking trail. here is where you truly start the journey. there are plenty of hikes to do around the area but we decided to visit one of the waterfalls that were around 2km's from the start point. as we made our way through meadows & forests we came across a river crossing that had one of the most breathtaking views that i have ever seen, with the forests in the foreground & the mountain peaks in the distance i stayed for some time here trying to capture the grandeur of the landscape with my camera.
a further few mins up the trail we made it to our destination. the waterfall even in one of the hottest months was still flowing freely & made for a welcome rest bite from the heat. while the trail can be confusing i would recommend using the maps.me app as they have all the trails you can hike in this area updated periodically.
back down in the valley, we decided to stop off at one of the many restaurants that are in the area. we ordered the local fish that was cooked in a wood-fired oven. i can say that the fish was delicious as in all the places i visited on this trip the food was awesome from cheap eats to fancier places you can be sure you'll love the freshness of the food in this region.
on our way back we decided to visit prizren one of the most impressive cities in kosovo where history takes hold. from the capital of the serbian empire in the medieval times to the ottoman empire, this place is full of history & we arrived just as the sun was setting. this is the time of day where the sun bathes all the building in a bright orange glow & we arrived at the perfect time as i got an amazing shot of the main mosque in the old town centre.
as with gjakova, prizren has an abundance of coffee shops located right on the river bank this is where we situated ourselves with a well-deserved coffee watching as the sun set in the distance.
to sum up...
i am always surprised by the negative propaganda of people who have never been to this region tell others it is truly one of the friendliest parts in europe if not the world. the beauty of the landscape is only surpassed but the kindness & openness of the local people they truly make you feel at home here. for anyone in doubt i never felt in danger once it is extremely safe to visit these countries & not only that you will get to experience the spectacular vistas of the region.
I have to give a huge shout out to vesa & her brother alban without whom this amazing trip would not have been possible it was remarkable how much effort & time they both put into to showing me the beauty of kosovo & valbona national park.
the balkans has to be the cheapest places in europe. from lunch for less than (€2) to coffee in a cafe for less than (€1) you still get extremely good quality for an economical price. accommodation in hostels can be found for less than (€8) a night to hotels or airbnb's for around (€30-50). Most of the transportation is via bus as trains have limited reach. don't worry if you can't find the busses to book online just go to the bus station the day before to buy a ticket from one of the many agents. i never paid more than (€20) anywhere.
⦿ budget (€15-20) a day.
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country travel tips
atm: most banks offer free withdrawals. make sure not to select the on screen conversion.
sim card: vodafone is the best data provider. 10GB is (€10) for 30 days.
transport: local busses are the best way to travel
taxi: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here