The Balkans

The Balkans, also known as the Balkan Peninsula, represent a geographic area in southeastern Europe. The exact spread of the Balkans varies depending on the source you will be consulting, according to Wikipedia. So, just to make things a bit more clear, here are the countries to which I will be referring to in my articles about the Balkans / Balkan Peninsula, in alphabetical order: AlbaniaBulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, MacedoniaMontenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey.

Romania, however, will be treated separately here, as it is my country and I need more room for local advice and travel suggestions. 🙂

The Balkans Road Trip

In the Summer of 2016, I joined two friends on a car trip through the Balkans for a truly awesome vacation. My Balkan road trip of over 2,000 km lasted for 3 weeks, during which I visited 6 countries. Here is what I’ve seen, in chronological order: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and last, but not least, Serbia.

You can follow the amazing Balkan road trip diaries in order starting here or you can discover the countries one by one by scrolling down.

Albania

On my travelling in the Balkans, Albania was one of my favourites. The two places I’ve spent more time in were Tirana and Shkoder.

Tirana is Albania’s very lively and creative capital. Though its traffic and lack of parking spots may make it seem too stressful to approach by car, don’t skip it or you’ll end up feeling sorry.  That’s because it’s amazing to walk on its streets and look at the colourful buildings and strange installations. And where else in Europe do you get to climb on a pyramid? 🙂

One place I really loved when I visited Tirana was this retro-looking place called Radio Bar.  Besides the vintage decor and great atmosphere, it’s got some pretty cool events with live music now and then. Make sure to check them out and try one of their special cocktails!

Interesting fact: Tirana’s buildings were so vividly painted in an attempt to lower the city’s crime rate. And guess what? It worked!

In complete contrast to busy Tirana, Shkoder is a quiet place, probably also because it’s smaller in size. It does get a lot of tourists, though, judging by the number of hostels I saw on the street where I stayed. Speaking of which, I highly recommend you stay at The Wanderers Hostel. It’s the best place to stay in Shkoder, in my opinion. It’s also the reason I chose to spend more time in town instead of going on a hike through Thethi National Park, like my friends.

I did, however, go on the wonderful Komani Lake ferry ride. I spent one day on the water, admiring the green mountains surrounding me and the little charming and isolated households on the shores of Komani Lake.

Also close to Shkoder, you’ll be able to visit Rozafa Castle and go swimming in Lake Skadar. They’re very close to Shkoder’s centre and you can easily get there by bike.

Bulgaria

I have travelled to Bulgaria many times, at first just passing through on the way to Greece, then I discovered its very affordable seaside. However, on the Balkan road trip, it was the first time I actually went deeper, to explore more of its beauties and to eat more Bulgarian food.

Interesting fact: The Shopska salad, though present everywhere in the Balkans, has Bulgarian roots, as its ingredients reflect the colours of the Bulgarian flag.

Sofia is Bulgaria’s blissful capital. I call it that because unlike any other capital city I’ve visited, it seemed the most peaceful, with only a few of the central areas being more crowded and noisy.

Since we’re talking about Sofia’s centre, here are a few things you might want to check out while you’re there: Church Saint George Rotunda (Sofia’s oldest standing building), Church Sveta Petka (medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Church), Alexandar Nevski CathedralYuzhen Park (with Sofia’s Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, which is a dark tourism spot), Kniaz Borisova GradinaZaimov Park, and the pedestrian area.

For eating and drinking, our local friend took us to Raketa Rakia Bar, which was awesome!

Devetashka Cave (or Devetashka Peshtera) is unlike any other cave I’ve been in. First of all, the ceiling is very high up and it has several wide openings in it. Thus, there is lots of light inside the cave, allowing luscious vegetation to grow freely and inviting lots of swallows to build their nests inside. Birds aren’t its only inhabitants, as Devetashka Cave is also the home of a huge bat colony. They keep to themselves, though, don’t worry!

Anyway, just go visit and you’ll feel like you’re on a movie set as soon as you set foot inside it! I loved it, which is why I returned to see it on the first occasion I got.

Rila Monastery is the place to be when you’re dying of heat in your own city, during the canicular summer days. We got there at the end of July and in the evening it was so cold outside we each had to put two blankets on, over the warmest clothes we packed for the Balkan road trip. But it’s nice to stay on the hotel’s terrace, eating grilled trout, just caught from the nearby river. (And I don’t even like fish that much.)

It’s worth to travel to Rila Monastery not only to feast your eyes with the colourful painted details inside the Monastery and all over its courtyard but also to escape the crowds and enjoy some quiet. And take a break from everything, finally able to have some time all to yourself.

Rila Monastery equals Zen to me. It’s a place where time seems to come to a halt.

I believe this is the first place where my parents ever travelled abroad together in their youth if I’m not mistaken. And if it was anything like it is now, I can understand why. It’s a pleasure to wander on the streets of Veliko Tarnovo, getting lost on twisted alleys between nicely coloured buildings, while admiring the ever-present beautiful street art.

You can get a nice view over the town from the Assen Dynasty Monument. Or, better yet, go admire the view of Veliko Tarnovo and its surroundings from Tsaravets Fortress – the best spot is right in front of the  Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Go inside it and take a look at the modern graffiti-like frescoes, too.

If you’re lucky and you’re visiting during Summer, you might even get to see the Veliko Tarnovo International Folklore Festival. It takes place every year in Marno Pole Park and it’s free.

Croatia

So far, I’ve visited Croatia just once, stopping only in Dubrovnik.

With Dubrovnik, I think I’ve started a love-hate relationship. Though I adored its old stone-paved streets, full of stairs and well-kept buildings, and I loved the idea of going on a Game of Thrones walking tour, to see where the famous series was filmed, it also found a lot of downsides.

The local merchants and performing artists were mostly unfriendly, even rude at times because they seem to be used to getting tourists regardless of the quality of their services and behaviour. To top it all, after eating at a central restaurant, I got food poisoning and suffered through the last days of my Balkan road trip.

I congratulate myself on choosing to stay at a hostel outside Dubrovnik’s Old Town, in Komolac. At least there, even though I stayed in a large dormitory, I had enough quiet to sleep and recover before flying out.

And the airport wasn’t too nice, either. Very crowded, with people staying on the floor or sleeping in chairs, and quite dirty, too. Unless I’m travelling with a Game of Thrones fan next time I’m travelling to Croatia, I think I’ll skip Dubrovnik and head out to explore Croatia’s national parks.

Macedonia

Macedonia was yet another place where I could see a lot of contrasts between Skopje, its capital, and the other cities or towns I got to visit. But wherever you’ll go, I’m confident you’ll get to meet very welcoming and warm-hearted locals.

Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, is a place which is constantly changing. It’s like a girl on her wedding day, having something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue!

Despite having some interesting older places to see (like Kale Fortress, the Old Bazaar, plus some historic buildings), you’ll also get a lot of new things, too, especially the statues and the very imposing monuments. Some of the monuments are replicas of famous ones from other countries – when I was visiting I was told they intended to have their own Spanish Steps, for example! And the something blue? That would be the brightly coloured paint some groups of locals have thrown on these decorations, which they don’t appreciate.

Even so, it’s a beautiful city and you should try exploring it through a free Skopje walking tour to learn more about the city and its history. One other cool thing to do is to hike or take the gondola to the Millennium Cross, on the top of Vodno Mountain. After admiring the stunning view, you can even continue to walk through the woods to the village of Gorno Nerezi on the other side.

And if you’re looking for where to eat and drink in Skopje, Kantina Lounge Bar is where you should go!

I travelled to Bitola by bus on a rainy day. I mainly wandered the streets, with no specific plan in mind, but I still got to see some interesting places. The friend I was with was very excited about Bitola’s Old Bazaar, though to me it looked just like the food market close to my home, in Bucharest.

I’ve spent a few days on the shores of Lake Ohrid, recharging my batteries. The best place to stay is serene Lagadin (in my opinion and that of some locals from other cities on the shores of Lake Ohrid). It’s small, quiet, the beach isn’t too crowded, and you have lots of space to peacefully swim in Lake Ohrid without crossing paths with someone else. You can also go snorkelling, by the way.

Lagadin is within walking distance from Peshtani. You should try walking on the shore at sunset to have dinner in Peshtani at one of the restaurants that are right by the water.

Small Lagadin is also well-connected by bus to other places on Lake Ohrid’s shores, which means you can easily plan half-a-day or one-day trips in the surrounding area. One of those should be to Ohrid Town. There, you can wander the old, narrow, cobble-stoned streets to discover the charming town. Wherever your path may lead you, make sure you also get to the Byzantium Church of Saint Sophia. It’s quite impressive.

Really close to Skopje, you can go visit Matka Canyon. You can rent a canoe or go on a boat ride on the Treska River, to visit another stunning cave of the Balkans: Vrelo Cave. Another option is going on a hike to the Church of St. Nikola.

Whichever you choose, make sure you also bring a bathing suit with you, to go swimming in the river. Treska River even has some areas which are used like water slides.

Montenegro

Montenegro’s seaside is absolutely gorgeous! And quite affordable, too.  Which is also one of the reasons it’s so crowded.

Buljarica Beach is awesome if you’re unsure about where to stay at Montenegro’s seaside. It’s quieter, it has a wide beach with plenty of room to sunbathe on, and it’s not as crowded as many other places I’ve visited on Montenegro’s seaside.

Another advantage is that it’s a short walk through some woods to Petrovac. The latter is a larger town, with fancy hotels, lots of restaurants and plenty of streets to wander on.

From Petrovac, you can also get on a boat ride to Budva. On the way, you’ll also get to admire Sveti Stefan and Sveta Nedelja from a distance. And you’ll also have a stop on the island of Sveti Nikola, to sunbathe on the beach or swim in the Adriatic sea.

Budva is a wonderful city, though full of tourists. That shouldn’t be enough of a good reason to skip it though. Go explore the Old Town and visit Budva’s Citadel. For just a couple of euros, you’ll get to see some stunning views, visit the museum and the lovely library of the Citadela.

Budva’s streets reminded me of the old Italian towns from Tuscany. A must-see!

Kotor is another important highlight of Montenegro’s seaside, which is why the entire golf it’s at is called Kotor Bay.

Kotor’s Old Town is very similar to that of Budva, but you really can’t say that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, in this case. Just climb to the top of San Giovanni Castle in Kotor, take a look at the amazing view of the town and the entire bay, and you’ll see what I mean.

Another great place to admire Kotor Bay from up high is Njegos Mausoleum, on top of Mount Lovcen. At 1,749 m above sea level, it is the highest mausoleum in Europe, by the way.

Besides the imposing structure, at the back of Njegos Mausoleum, there is a terrace. It is said that the view from this spot made George Bernard Shaw exclaim in amazement: Am I in paradise or on the moon?!

If at any point you wish to hide away from the crowded places in Kotor Bay, try to stay for at least one night in tranquil Perast. But keep in mind it’s only calm at night, as during the day there are tens of buses bring people to visit this small jewel of a town. Perast is one of my favourite spots from the Balkans.

While you’re there, you might as well go on a boat ride to the nearby islands, housing the churches of St. George (Sveti Juraj /Sveti Đorđi) and Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Škrpjel).

Serbia

My stop in Serbia was very short, so I’ve only seen a bit of Belgrade until now.

I was in Belgrade for just an afternoon, during a layover in my flight from Dubrovnik to Bucharest. Couchsurfing helped me get in touch with a local who showed me a bit of the sights and took me to a restaurant in Belgrade’s lovely pedestrian area to have a late lunch.

It is a place where they are very proud to be part of the Balkans from what I noticed during my short stay. They have hotels with the Balkans in their names. And they even have a Balkan Street (Ulica Balkanska).

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