Something we learned very quickly in Albania is that you kind of have to take a leap of faith when it comes to travel. Public transit options are essentially buses, furgons (“minibuses”), and hitchhiking. All fine and good, but trying to find information for your route online is at best horribly frustrating and at worst outdated/outright wrong. Research your options ahead of time, but make sure you verify pickup locations, fares, timetables, etc. in person or with someone local. I found checking recent blog entries which detailed their route fairly helpful (check out here and here to get an idea). Even then, prepare to be flexible as arrival/departure times can be fairly loose and timetables can be outdated. I’ll elaborate a little more below when I speak about our adventure figuring out how to leave Tirana, but for now lets talk furgons.
What are we eating in… The Balkans!
I want to start by saying that we LOVED the food throughout the Balkan region. Think rich soups, stews, grilled meats, and pies flavoured with paprika, garlic, and fresh vegetables. This feels like cheating a little bit because the “Balkans” encompass a large, diverse region of eastern Europe. The Balkan Peninsula is surrounded by the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Marmara, and the Black Seas and more or less encompasses all of southeastern Europe. For simplicity, I’ll be talking more about some of the foods we enjoyed in the core region of the Balkans, namely Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
Top Five of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the back of my mind for a long time before we finally decided to visit. Initially when we were planning our trip we had put it on the back burner, unsure about the state of things, and wanting to focus on other places. I’m so glad that we put it back on the table, because I would definitely put it on my list of favourite countries we have visited. The people were lovely, the food delicious, the natural beauty was more incredible than I’d ever imagined, and just overall it was a fantastic experience. Here are just a few of the highlights of our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina!
On its way to recovery from the Bosnian War, the beauty and mystery of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been revealed to the world. In the Herzegovina region the town of Mostar lives and breathes again as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Balkans. With its fascinating blend of medieval European and Islamic architecture, cobblestone alleys and slate roof tiles, Mostar is a picturesque town settled peacefully on the crystal clear Neretva River.
Our first stop in Bosnia was, of course, Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we had been fortunate enough to find a workaway host with the best view in the city. Perched atop one of hills surrounding Sarajevo, Olywood is a B and B/hostel, high enough to overlook the city lights below and to get a peek at the snow-capped mountains filling the horizon. Despite the natural beauty and charm of Bosnia and Hercegovina, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Bosnian War which once ravaged the country. Sarajevo itself was under siege for 1425 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that prided itself on cultural acceptance, suddenly became the centre of a conflict drawn along ethnic lines.
My Top Five of Serbia
We dashed through Serbia in two quick, but busy bursts before continuing on our journey. The former Yugoslavian countries have a complicated relationship with each other, and it was really interesting (and sometimes a bit worrying) to see how influences of recent history are playing out. Local tensions aside, we had a fun time in Serbia and here’s a glimpse at some of the interesting things we would recommend seeing!
A Polish girl we met in Niš raved about Belgrade being her favourite city in Europe, she just loved it. She was a partier, and Belgrade, the city that never seems to sleep, was definitely the city for her! For Nat and I, we found the fortress more our speed (we’re so predictable, eh?). What I really liked about Belgrade Fortress is they have turned it into a diverse, community space with something for everyone. Restaurants, markets, parks, tank exhibitions, and even a dinosaur exhibit! So much fun, and what a great way to incorporate modern life into a piece of the past!
My Top Five of Montenegro
As I’m sure every visitor has said before, Montenegro is SO beautiful. I would go back again in a heartbeat. There’s something about the fact that there are hikes everywhere but no map to any of them that feels like uncharted territory. While the coastlines are dotted with some pretty ugly hotels, the incredibly blue waters make up for it. Our time in Montenegro was short, but oh so sweet, and here were some of the best parts!
Stari Bar is a romantic, ruin of a town perched above the modern sprawl of today’s Bar. The fortified town has had a tumultuous history, including sieges, explosions, and earthquakes! Today, people can wander through the ruins and learn about the city’s history in the little museum at the entrance. Nathanael and I found modern Bar a bit boring, but Stari Bar was well worth the trip by itself. We loved climbing over the old walls, trying to grab pomegranates sprouting in an overgrown kitchen, and exploring the ivy-strewn alleys. The views of the valley below are beautiful too, in a stomach-clenching, feet-tingling, please-don’t-let-me-fall kind of way. If you’re heading to the coast, check out the enchanting old town of Bar!
Ashleigh and I stepped off the bus into Belgrade’s streets around five in the morning, expecting the city to be asleep. Instead, we were met with a heavy bass thumping from thriving nightclubs, scattered people swaggering with half-drunk bottles in their hands, and a completely smashed sailor who just wouldn’t leave us alone (in a friendly sort of way). Most of Belgrade was still awake from the night before and still rearing to party!
Hello, Montenegro! Time for a last bit of fun in the sun before the winter closes in on us once again!
We arrived in Bar, Montenegro late in the evening after a harrowing bus ride through the mountains. Our driver had been drinking something that looked very suspicious, and the mountain face was literally right next to the road (why bother with any kind of buffer zone in case of falling rocks? Who needs it anyway). Relieved to get out of the bus (and to be alive), we made our way across town to find a place to rest our pretty heads for the night. After walking for an hour, completely lost, we stopped at a convenience mart to ask for directions and grab a snack. They were so nice, they actually called the owner of our guest house and the guy came pick us up! Thank goodness, because driving up a maze of twisting, unlabelled roads made me think we hadn’t stood a chance of finding it on our own in the dark.
We decided to take a bit of a vacation from volunteering to venture through Serbia and get a last taste of summer in Montenegro. First stop: Niš!
Isn’t that the best ice-cream sundae you’ve ever seen? We found this treasure at an adorable cafe decked out in old Tram décor. They had a few other really good ones on the menu. For us it was a toss up between the one above, titled “Adam and Eve,” and one called the “Viking Cup,” which looked like a deluxe sundae with two bananas speared on either side of the glass to look like Viking horns. A little expensive, but the picture alone was worth it.
Ashleigh and I swung back and forth in unison as we wound up the snaking road to the top of Belogradchik, a small village resting on the side of a mountain. The town wasn’t too far from the train station but the taxi ride meandered wildly, taking near 180 degree turns every few minutes, and we struggled to keep our heads on straight as the g-force took its toll. Stepping out into the streets, we were met with a sense of peace and quiet in this sleepy village.
All roads in Bulgaria lead to Sofia, the capital city, so we were bound to cross paths eventually. As it turned out a friend of ours, whom we met in Makvarket, Denmark, was passing through Bulgaria on her travels and so we timed our visit to Sofia to meet up with her. Kat had just finished exploring Istanbul with her companion, Elena, and we were excited to swap stories as well as discover a new place together.
My Top Five of Bulgaria
Want to go somewhere different? With some incredible scenery, friendly people, and wooden monasteries perched on mountains? Look no further than Bulgaria! I loved our time in Bulgaria, and I would say that it has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes that we have seen in Europe so far. Top that off with cheap beer and great vegetable markets, how could you go wrong?
Hiking in the Mountains
The Balkan mountain range is incredibly beautiful. Seriously, it took my breath away (in more ways than one, ugh, so steep). When the sun is shining you can see peak after peak stretching off into the distance, each fading to a lighter shade of blue the further they go on. Hiking along the roughly marked (or more often, unmarked) trails we came across goat herders, meandering herds of horses, and gravity-defying farm fields. We came across this hay field on our way back from a big hike and we couldn’t believe that someone could actually farm the slope. It may not look it in this picture, but I swear the incline was something like 45°! And check out that haystack, it’s so tall!
Two pairs of huge, gooey eyes stared up at me expectantly as I sat on the porch of Little Spring’s Guesthouse, tying up my bootlaces. Even though it was half an hour before their usual walking time, Mečka and Sausage took it upon themselves to wake us up during the early hours with a series of high and low barks accompanied by incessant whining. Wiping the sleep from my eyes and fending off the two energetic dogs, hopping around like giant rabbits, I stumbled down the walkway and opened the gate. Mečka and Sausage took off like a shot with the older (and wiser) black lab, Chester, trailing slowly behind.