A Balkan Month


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Europe
July 7th 2019
Published: January 13th 2020
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This the second summer of travels together for myself and Seda, my girlfriend, fiancé thanks to this trip J, and now wife. We have plans to go many places around the world but due to Seda’s changes with jobs and living situation we needed to stay close to her home in Turkey. Therefore, we chose to do the Balkans. We went to five of the Balkans, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia in that order. We considered more but for the time we didn’t want to be too rushed. If you are headed to the Balkans we hope to give you some highlights from our experience and possibly tips for your travels. For me, it was a trip of something new and something familiar. I had been to Montenegro (just for one day), Croatia, and Slovenia on prior trips. For Seda all these visits were new. We went by bus everywhere with the exception of a short flight from Zadar to Rovinj (ugh, not planned) and a rental car during out time in Slovenia.



Here was our Itinerary in order of stops:

Skopje, Macedonia (2 nights)

Ohrid, Macedonia (3 nights)

Shkoder, Albania (1 night)

Valbona, Albania (1 night)

Theth, Albania (1 night)

Shkoder, Albania (1 night)

Kotor, Montenegro (2 nights)

Zabljak, Montenegro (3 nights)

Dubrovnik, Croatia (3 nights)

Sobra, Mljet, Croatia (3 nights)

Split, Croatia (1 night)

Zadar, Croatia (3 nights)

Rovinj, Croatia (2 nights)

Ljubljana, Slovenia (4 nights)



Macedonia (5 nights)

We flew in from Turkey to Skopje on Pegasus Airlines. Our first couple hours in Skopje were interesting: a woman selling fish helped to call a guy to let us in to our apartment, we witnessed a major police shakedown in the street below having something to do with a bank robbery, saw hundreds of bizarre statues in the center of the city, and heaps and heaps of trash like no place we had ever been. Welcome to Skopje. We stayed near the center and first came upon the gigantic statue of Alexander the Great upon first entering the main square. We have seen many big statues in Europe but, by any measure, this is still impressive. Next, we walked along the river that is lined with statues everywhere - all complete with hats made of pigeon poop. We were expecting an impressive river walk but the river itself was not well kept.

The Turkish Bazaar on the other side of the river revealed the mix of history here with the Ottoman Empire. I found some great treats, especially the almond sandwich cookies with cream. In general, Seda was surprised to see the similarities between the two countries and also the number of people speaking Turkish around the city.

Our first food experience was at Destan Restaurant, a staple of Macedonians where we had their kabob. The Macedonian kabob is a plate of small links, meat that seems similar to Turkish meatballs. Then, the second morning of our visit I met with a couple locals who are working on one of our grant projects and they took me to Silbo, a very popular bakery with the locals, particularly for burek. This place appeared to be the lifeblood of Macedonians in Skopje. I’m not much in to burek but they had many other options too.

On our second day in Skopje we took the lift from Vodno to the Milenium Cross perched above the city. From there we were hoping to find the trail that goes down the mountain toward Matka Canyon. However, our late start and inability to identify the correct trail ruined that plan. This was our one regret in Macedonia, not getting to visit the canyon. Not many people attempt the hike but if you do plan a little extra time to make sure you find the correct trail as it is not marked. Instead, we met a couple locals at the viewpoint, Emilija and Dmitri, friends who were both nurses and worked together. It was nice to discuss life in Macedonia and their perceptions of life in the Balkans. It will be great to visit them again if we head to Skopje. In general, when visiting the Balkans, you will definitely want to visit with whatever locals you can. They will fill you in on the current living conditions and also the recent history of conflict and each country’s progress in establishing their own identity.

Unfortunately, most of the Balkan countries still do not have Uber so taxi drivers are always gouging tourists with double or triple rates for rides. So, beware if you go. We even had one taxi driver in Ljubjlana say it was a law to run charges off the meter and he acted like he was doing us a favor by turning it off early. When we arrived at the hotel the desk staff were shocked that we paid twice what we should. In Skopje, we were trying to get a taxi up to Vodno for the lift and luckily an American citizen who manages a nice heath food restaurant (Markt) in Skopje interceded and took us from that taxi to another that was on the level and saved us from paying a huge fare. Because of these reasons we rarely take taxis but because of our luggage we had no choice on this trip. As an aside Markt was a nice stop for some good healthy food.

Skopje was really an unusual city. Apparently, a number of years ago they received a large sum of European Union funds that they used to place statues around the downtown, hundreds of statues. Instead of cleaning up the city itself they kept adding statues that aren’t even well kept. The city is loaded with graffiti and trash everywhere. It was really sad to see for the locals. However, one interesting site is the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. Teresa was of Albanian descent but grew up in Macedonia. Her life and works are celebrated in this downtown location and it is an interesting stop.

After the Skopje experience I was doubtful about Ohrid living up to its reputation as the place to be in Macedonia. And first impressions were not good. It was raining when we arrived and our first taste of the city was the tourist lined avenue ending at the lake. Again, trash on the shore, cheap souvenir stands, and guys hawking tours. However, we landed an excellent place with Lukanov Apartments with a beautiful view of Lake Ohrid from our balcony in Old Town. We were also fortunate that the Via Sacra Italian restaurant sat right at the base of our apartment.

Once you get off of the main tourist street the Old Town presents its charm and is especially romantic during sunset and after dark. Take a walk along the waterfront cafes leading to the much-photographed St. John Church. We were initially struggling to find good advice on getting out and being active around the lake until we got a recommendation for Misko Taneski by a tour agency. Misko is a great guy and quite a character and made our trip to Ohrid special. He is well known in the area as an outdoor adventurer and has climb some of the continent’s highest peaks all around the world. First, he guided Seda and I up Magaro Peak in the national park just outside of Ohrid. The hike is fairly steep going up for an hour and a half to two hours. From the top you get amazing views of Albania, Greece, and the Macedonian landscape. If you have a car or can arrange with Misko for a tour and this is highly recommended. The next day he went with us as we kayaked the lake and even treated us to ice cream afterwards. It was a great day out on the lake away from the crowds even finding a small beach that we had all to ourselves to swim and watch the fish. We also beached our kayaks and visited the Bay of Bones. This place was very touristy but it was ok to take a look. There is excavation going on under the water and a replica ancient village above water. Misko is enjoyable to spend time with and charges very reasonable rates for guiding so please just Google his name and contact him if you visit Ohrid and you won’t be sorry. I guarantee he will be one of the most interesting and likable characters you will meet on your trip.

Albania (4 nights)

We knew our visit to Albania would be brief and so we had one major objective, to do the hike from Valbona to Theth. Misko shuttled us to the border of Albania where we caught a bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania. Once we arrived it was a bit confusing how to get a connecting bus to Shkoder but after being hawked for taxi rides we eventually found a couple of helpful people who directed us to a gravel lot across the road that was apparently the ‘bus station’ we needed. Not being able to do a lot of research on the hike we had a lot of questions as we arrived at our accommodation for the night, The Red Bricks Hotel. But, not to worry, we in great hands with Jolanda who was working at the desk that day. She patiently answered each question and helped us make plans for transfers, leaving bags, etc. The hotel was right on the round-about at the center of town so it was incredibly convenient and the rooms we so nice! Jolanda and the Red Bricks are very highly rated in our book.

One major find in Shkoder was the Fish Art restaurant. Great fresh fish at very affordable prices. We were missing our sea bass and shrimp dishes from Turkey so this place was quite the welcome surprise. One of our most memorable food stops on the month-long journey.

The hike to Theth warrants its own blog in and of itself. Here, I will give a brief synopsis. Northern Albania contains the Albanian Alps, a beautiful and impressive landscape that is relatively underexplored compared to other similar terrains such as the Italian Dolomites. Our trip included: 1. van transfer from Shkoder to Lake Koman, 2. two hour Ferry across Lake Koman, 3. van transfer to Valbona and overnight stay, 4. approx. 15km hike from Valbona to Theth and overnight stay, 5. van transfer from Theth to Valbona and overnight stay.

The hike itself was beautiful, particularly the middle part as you go up and over a mountain saddle and then down the backside. The gray peaks surrounding you are majestic. I can’t imagine a much better activity than this hike to see the Albanian Alps. The trail is mostly straightforward but poorly marked in the middle before the climb up the saddle where there are red and white markers going multiple directions. We were a bit surprised at the number of people we saw along the hike. It appears this hike is no longer completely under the radar. But, comparatively, it was still much less saturated with people than other places that we visited.

Valbona, our starting point, was a very quirky little place. We arrived and had to just wander around, luckily finding a place to eat. The place we stayed in was an unfinished building without even a front door and the fresh smell of cow manure out front. But, we saw other better options around as we walked. We also saw a lot of the concrete bunkers in this area that former dictator Hoxha had built for defense around the country in this area. Unfortunately, the common theme of seeing a lot of trash in the environment was evident in this beautiful natural environment. Valbona could hardly be called a village, instead more of an area. On the other hand, Theth, our destination, was actually more of a village with a very small market and a few restaurants.

After arriving in Theth we rested for a bit and then explored the village. In the village you can still see a lock-in tower where in the not too distant past an individual would be forced to stay if there was a bounty on his head from the back and forth family blood-feuds. There is also a much photographed traditional church you can visit. As we were walking through the village in the general direction of a waterfall trail we were headed off by a 12-year-old girl, Stella, and her grandmother who stood in our way. They began an epic back and forth argument in Albanian as they were both pitching to be our guide to the waterfall. Stella was the only one of the two who knew English but that didn’t stop grandma from making a valiant effort. This scene was just too good to pass up so we negotiated a price and Stella took off like a rocket leading us on the one hour journey. She nimbly floated across rocks like a mountain goat. FYI, this hike was worth the effort even with tired legs. And having Stella and her grandmother face off vying to be our guide made one of the best experiences of our summer. If you go to Theth we would recommend Shpella for a place to eat. We were very happy with the food and the price was quite reasonable too. It also doubled as an inn and a couple we met who stayed there seemed pleased with it.

We were booked to stay two nights in Theth but left after only one night and we think that was the best decision. The ride out of Theth is a serious rocky climb only suitable for an off-road/all-terrain vehicle. Back in Valbona we stayed again at the Red Bricks Hotel and were surprised when Jolanda offered to take us around the city to show us some of the sights. This was such a great experience and are so happy to have a good friend now in Albania. We would recommend seeing both the castle (great views) and the Mesi bridge. I was so happy when she even brought in some of her aunt’s honey the next morning. Within the past few years I have developed an addiction for seeking out and buying the best honey I can find. And this is one area where the Balkans didn’t disappoint. Various types of honey filled the shelves in each of these countries and we saw loads bee boxes dotting the landscape. So, after another dinner at Fish Art and a night’s stay in a beautiful room that Jolanda hooked us up with we were off to Montengro. Traveling is many times so much about the people you encounter and we were very fortunate meeting Misko and then Jolanda to make our experiences in Macedonia and Albania so much more enjoyable.

Montenegro (5 nights)

We went by bus to Kotor, a historical city on a beautiful Aegean bay and also a city so over-touristed that they are at risk for losing their UNESCO status, according to one guide. Coming from Albania the number of tourists here was quite a shock. However, if you can visit at any point other than peak season the bay itself is beautiful to explore and the old town is great to wander through and learn about its history. I had been here once before but felt that Seda should get out to see nearby Perast and the island just off the coast that was supposedly built rock by rock over many years. There you can also find a quaint but much photographed church. We took a boat tour from one of the main companies on the bay just across from the old town. I would not recommend these tours that are mostly all the same, are overpriced, and offer little information. Instead, consider seeing the Bay by other means. Go on your own to Perast and skip the blue cave that is on the itinerary of all the tours. We made a brief visit there in our boat and it was so crowded with other boats that we had to move out to another cove.

A very popular activity in Kotor is to climb up the city walls above the city in the morning for a great view of the bay and city. The city charges 8 euros for this. However, a better much option that I took was to just walk up a trail on the North Gate side of the city where you can get great views and then, if you want, just walk right in the city walls through a hole in the wall (complete with a ladder). From there you can go up the exact same route as the paying customers but for no charge. Hundreds of people were paying 8 euros while just a handful were on the other trail. Down in the Old Town we enjoyed one of the free walking tours, however I would recommend against eating at the overpriced restaurants there. Instead, if you are hungry for meat, we would recommend Tanjga bbq, a popular place for tourists and locals alike – and at an affordable price. Our Airbnb here was down the coast and about a 30 minute walk into Old Town and not particularly recommended.

We made two stops in Montenegro, in Kotor and then in Durmitor National Park. It was off to Zabljak, a few hours north of Kotor by bus, at the edge of the park. Here we stayed in an Airbnb in the center of the village and had about a 25 minute walk into the park. Zabljak is a growing tourist center with numerous housing options and tour companies selling guided trips through the Park and for rafting on the Tara River. We would highly recommend one restaurant, Mali Raj, just next to the bust stop. We ate here all three nights and loved everything we had. It’s not a fancy place but comfortable and popular also with the locals.

I had fairly high expectations for Durmitor upon arrival. Misko, our guide in Ohrid, and others had said it was one of the best natural places in the Balkans. I enjoyed the part of the park that we saw, however I must say that I was a bit let down. Personally, I felt that the Albania Alps were more impressive as were many spots on our Alps loop (taken before this trip). Hiking in the park can be done on your own and there is really no need for a guide. However, a car would be handy if you want to see multiple locations. Some of the companies sell an all-day driving tour around the park but we decided not to do this. Prices here were noticeably higher than in the hiking regions of Macedonia and Albania. For as isolated as this place is it felt quite commercialized.

One day we hiked in the park and the next I, regrettably, took one of the Tara River rafting trips. Seda ended up getting a bit sick and we had already paid for the tour with Durmitor Tours. They refused to provide any discount so I went on my own and ended up in the boat with a group of French tourists. The water at this time of year is really flat and, quite frankly, the tour was very boring. Moreover, a guy showed up late to get me and drove a like a bat out of hell to get me there just as they were floating down the river. The whole organization was quite unprofessional and I found this to be one of the most overrated things we did the whole summer.

As a note, you will see numerous people selling ‘honey’ along the main road in Zabljak in used plastic water bottles. I would completely avoid this as 1) it takes like sugar water, 2) is under no regulations for production, and 3) likely includes other ingredients than honey. You can get honey in so many places in the Balkans so avoid it here.

I had an interesting discussion with one of the tour operators for Durmitor Tours. He was a 20 something guy who gave a unique perspective on what it was like to live there. Unfortunately, many young people from Montenegro leave the country for work. There also appears to be a feeling of helplessness to make a good living given the amount of corruption by a minority. This guy also shared many thoughts that made it apparent that the struggles between groups in the Balkans is far from over.

Croatia (12 nights)

The bus ride from Zabljak to Dubrovnik was very expensive as far as bus tickets go. Then, about everything in Dubrovnik was expensive. Dubrovnik is a beautiful walled city that has retained its structure over hundreds of years with the exception of some damage during the most recent wars. Its beauty plus the its shooting locations for Game of Thrones has made it a crazy tourist hub during high summer season. The city’s tourist numbers and prices have greatly increased since my first visit in 2011. And as some of the only people on the planet not to be watching the Game of Thrones, we were not happy to see the ever-present GOT shops everywhere in the Old Town here and also in Split.

After a couple visits to Dubrovnik I would say

· DO the following: take a free walking tour, wander around the back streets going towards the water, go as far up the Lovrijenac Fortress outside the city wall as you can before paying, and take the cable car up above the city to watch sunset.

· DO NOT pay the outrageous prices to walk around the city walls, to rent a kayak for a short paddle in the West Harbor, or for the standard mass-tourist day trip for the Elaphiti Islands.

The most romantic thing you can do is to take the cable car above the city, walk out of the viewpoint building to the hillside overlooking the water, and find a rock to view the sunset. The views of the orange sun dropping over the nearby islands silhouetted in black is outstanding. With regard to the Elaphiti Islands simply pick one you want to visit and take the ferry directly there, stay as long as you want, and catch a return ferry. This makes for a much more enjoyable (and more affordable) day than the popular tours. We chose Lopud and had a wonderful day exploring the village and hanging out at the beach. And we returned on the ferry engaged, but that’s another (wonderful) story.

Our next adventure led us to the island of Mljet. We took a ferry there and then rented a car on the spot at Sobra. Mljet is considered the nature island and has a nature park covering about a third of its area. I was most excited to see the park but really ended up appreciating our time on the rest of the island just as much. There is a 125 kuna entrance fee to the park. There you can bicycle around the lakes and also take a boat out to a monastery on an island. You can also do a hike starting near the entrance up to get a nice view of the area. We had a wonderful Airbnb overlooking the water in Sobra. We had no problem just relaxing on our balcony. One of our favorite stops was the nearby village of Prožura Luka. There is an amazing view from the main road looking down upon the village, there is a nice beach to take a swim, and a great restaurant named Marijina Konoba where we feasted on tender lamb.

Our next stop was a quick 1 night stay in Split. I had never been to split before and was curious to see its highlights. We had enough time to wander the Old Town, take a walking tour with info on Diocletian’s Palace, hike up for views of the city, and to get a couple gelatos. Overall, the city was overrun with people like in Dubrovnik and unfortunately it appears that the city hasn’t done a good a job preserving its buildings and artifacts. On the gelato side we preferred Dan Dino over the very popular Luka’s both for the ice cream and service.

Traveling up the Adriatic coast, our next stop was a 3-night stay in Zadar. Zadar is a nice location for getting to some of the surrounding sites, namely Pltvice National Park. I was hoping to also get to nearby Paklenica National Park for some hiking or to the nearby coastal islands to see Kornati National Park but will have to save those for another visit. Unfortunately, even Zadar had hoards of tourists during our visit. The city does have a nice, walkable Old Town with a long promenade by the sea capped off by its sea organ that produces sounds from the coastal waves. Pltvice is a highlight not only of Croatia but also Europe itself. This was my second visit and, even with the crowds, it is a beautiful destination. You can do a large look of many kilometers around the park ogling the emerald waterfalls and lakes. Boardwalks run through the park at water level and hiking paths that are much less busy can be taken up the sides of the lakes for views. This site is unique for its scale and the dizzying array of beautiful water cascades. I would really like to go during the Fall with less crowds and the changing of the leaves. We had another great place to stay, an apartment from Booking (thanks Iva!), and although it was not near the water it was fully equipped and immaculate. We had about a 15 minute walk to the Old Town.

Our next stop was the one I would like to forget – Rovinj. Seda announced at some point during our travels that someone had posted nice Instagram shots of the city and had given it good reviews. It was very touristy, like all of our other stops in Croatia, but with less sites to see. Moreover, the transportation connections in and out of the city were a nightmare. We ended up taking a flight into the city (ugh!) from Zadar and then went through a huge hassle to get on a bus out of the city. Yes, there are a few nice spots in their Old Town overlooking the water but this is mostly a stop for folks who aren’t very active and are looking for ‘run-of-the-mill’ tourist restaurants, of which Rovinj had plenty to offer. We did take the ferry over to Sveti Andrija one day and this was mildly interesting and gave us a chance to get in the water for a while. The only other saving grace of this town that is literally a tourist trap was a great gelato find on our last day – The Sweet Corner. If you ever end up in Rovinj, try their pie versions (e.g., cherry pie gelato). Unfortunately, I probably won’t get to take this again given no plans to return to Rovinj.

I have loved Croatia on my previous visits. This time I was very happy to move on to Slovenia. The costs are rising quickly in the country and the numbers of tourists will tell you that Croatia is no longer the secret on the Adriatic. However, it is a beautiful country and I would like to enjoy and explore it more on shoulder seasons.

Slovenia (4 nights)

Ahhhh . . . my favorite stop on this trip. Still far too many tourists, as people have now discovered Slovenia, but much more tolerable than Croatia. And we didn’t plan well with only four days here. This was my second visit to Slovenia. I wanted to get back to the beautiful Julian Alps and introduce Seda to their beauty. Lake Bled, now glamorized by social media, along with Lake Bohinj were mobbed by tourists. In fact, we couldn’t even stop at Bohinj going through because it was extremely saturated with tourists. However, the beauty of Slovenia still presented itself in quieter, out of the way, places. It is definitely the one country we want to get back to soon. Also, on this visit I enjoyed Ljubljana much more. We really enjoyed our stay at the Four Points by Sheraton at the edge of the city. From there I was able to get up each morning and head over to the POT trail that encircles the city for a run. It also had a great breakfast. The nature highlights were exploring the Soča River trails to check out the turquoise waters and a leisurely look at Lake Jasna. But there are so many trails and to explore both within Triglav National Park and to the east that we need return trips. We rented a car while in Slovenia, thankful to be free of the constraints and unexpectedly high costs of the buses. Traveling around the country is easy by car so we would highly recommend it. Can’t wait to get back and see more of you Slovenia!

We flew back to Turkey from Ljubljana. 30 nights in the Balkans and we still only saw a fraction of this section of Europe.

Here are a few of our highlights from the trip:

Best Ice Cream

Cocoa – Ljubljana

Eva – Zadar

Dan Dino – Split

The Sweet Corner – Rovinj

Best Restaurants

Mali Raj – Zabljak, Montenegro

Marijina Konoba – Prozurska Luka, Mljet, Croatia

Via Sacra – Ohrid, Macedonia

Spaghetteria Toni – Dubrovnik, Croatia

Best Accommodations

Apriori Apartments, Iva – Zadar, Croatia

Apartments Anica, Jagoda – Sobra, Mljet, Croatia

Sheraton Mons, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Lukanov Apartments, Ohrid, Macedonia

The Red Bricks Hotel, Shkoder, Albania

Best Hikes

Valbona to Theth, Albania

Magaro Peak, Ohrid – John liked more, the scree coming down not a favorite of Seda

Best Views

Pltvice Lakes National Park, at the beginning of Entrance #1

Prožurska Luka from above, Mljet

Best Beach

Sunj Beach, Lopud, Croatia

Most Interesting People

Stella, our young guide in Theth, Albania

Misko, our tour guide, friend, and all-round entertainment specialist in Ohrid, Macedonia

Jolanda, our friend and guide in Shkoder, Albania

The Disappointment List

· Buses were expensive, lacked proper information, and we were frequently met with abrasive or downright rude people selling tickets

· Parking on sidewalks – Montenegro, Croatia

· Trash everywhere in Macedonia and Albania

· Croatia – so expensive and crowded with a singular focus on the $$

· Rovinj

· Overcrowding and overtourism everywhere

· We really needed more time in Slovenia

· St. Naum on Lake Ohrid, very touristy and really doesn’t live up to the hype. Do not eat the pricey restaurants (e.g., Ostrava where we experienced overpriced food and rude wait staff). Even though many, including locals, will say this is an important stop we would disagree.


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