Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia - Hidden Europe


Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia - Hidden Europe

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 16 days
Type: GroupSmall group tours with a maximum of 12 travellers

Dossier

Tucked away in a little visited corner of Europe lie Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, three charming and delightful countries that few people know much about. For years Albania was a closed society, ruled by the iron fist of Communism, but since the end of the Cold War it has been showing curious travellers its many charms, while as Europe’s newest nation, Kosovo is best known for its terrible war in the last years of the 20th century – not the best image for outsiders to have of it. The location of these countries between some of Europe’s most important empires has left them well endowed with a wealth of attractions from the Greek, Roman and Ottoman eras. The region is home to a wealth of old Turkish architecture which sits side by side with elaborately decorated Orthodox churches and from more recent times the civic buildings of Communist Yugoslavia, as well as impressive Roman ruins and well preserved historic towns. This part of Europe is also blessed with incredible scenery with imposing mountains, pristine lakes and traditional villages tucked away in pretty valleys. But as with many countries it is the people who leave perhaps the most lasting impression – having come through recent strife there is an overwhelming sense of optimism about the people that cannot fail to raise your spirits. Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are some of the last frontiers of Europe, complex and fascinating destinations imbued with history. Discover them for yourself on a tour which takes in the highlights of each.


Tour Rating 

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●● | Wildlife ●○○○○

Tour Pace

Busy 

Tour Highlights

  • Explore the least visited corner of Europe
  • Kosovo, Europe’s newest nation
  • See relics of the Roman, Ottoman, and Greek empires
  • Historic old towns
  • Traditional rural villages and beautiful mountain scenery
  • The wonderful coastline of the Albanian Riviera
  • Splendid Lake Ohrid in Macedonia
  • One of the great boat trips of the world on Koman Lake

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Comfortable hotels and local guesthouses at Valbona
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Tirana
End Point: Tirana
Transport: Minibuses
Countries: Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.

Day 1 – Tirana

Arrive in Tirana and transfer to your hotel. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore the city. Overnight Hotel Kruja or similar  

Tirana

Located on a plain on the site of an old Byzantine fortress, Tirana has been the capital of Albania since 1920, although it was founded much earlier. A mixture of architectural styles it has rather an Italian feel to it – many Italian architects were involved in the modernisation of the city in the early 20th century – and is blessed with many public parks and green spaces where people gather to walk, play board games and share conversations. Tirana has been home to an unusual experiment in which many buildings have been painted in rather bright colours, giving parts of the town a very unique look. Many of the older buildings of the city were demolished during the Communist period but quite a few still remain, notably the Ethem Bey Mosque and the Clock Tower, both of which date back to the early 19th century, and you can still find excellent examples of Ottoman architecture in Tirana’s streets.

Day 2 –Tirana - Kruja – Lezha – Shkoder (2.5 hours travelling time)

Start the day exploring Albania’s capital. We visit Skanderbeg Square, dedicated to Albania’s national hero, the Mosque of Ethem Bey, one of the oldest buildings in Tirana, and the Archaeological Museum among other sites. We then head to Kruja, one of Albania’s most important towns due to the part it played in resistance against the Ottomans. Visit the Skanderbeg Museum and castle as well as the old bazaar. Today lunch will be included and the opportunity to eat some traditional food in Kruja. Later we continue to Lezha in the north west of the country where we visit the mausoleum of Skanderbeg and the castle before heading to Shkoder. Shkoder is one of the oldest cities in the Balkans and was once a capital of the Illyrian state. We visit its old bazaar, cathedral and mosque before heading to Rozafa castle for spectacular views of the city, lake and the surrounding mountains. Overnight Hotel Tradita or similar. (BL)

Kruja and Skanderbeg

Kruja occupies a special place in the heart of Albanians – it is the home town of the national hero Skanderbeg from which the Ottoman invasion was resisted for almost 35 years in the 15th century.  Skanderbeg was sent as a young boy into the Ottoman army, along with three of his brothers but returned to Albania to spearhead the resistance against the Sultan’s forces who were continuing to make devastating inroads into the region. Uniting Albanian forces and building an army he was able to withstand the Ottoman onslaught and inflicted crushing defeats on them until his death in 1468. The army at Kruja managed to hold on for another ten years before finally succumbing to the Sultan and being formally incorporated into the empire.

Shkodra

Perched on the shores of Lake Shkodra, Shkodra is an ancient city with a rich history that many feel is the soul of Albania. It was founded around the 4th century BC and was the capital of the Illyrian state before being conquered by the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later. Shkodra is imbued with Italian influence - as well as having been captured by Rome it was also part of the Venetian Republic for some time. Its most impressive site is Rozafa castle, a fortress dating back to the town earliest beginnings with underground stairways, tunnels and vaults.

Day 3 – Koman Lake – Valbona (2.5 hours be vehicle, 2.5 hours by boat)

Today we journey from Shkoder to Valbona via Koman Lake. The 2 hour trip on Lake Komani was called “One of the Great Boat Trips of the World” by the Bradt Guide, and certainly the scenery is stunning. The Drin River was flooded along part of its most mountainous passage to create the lakes in this region. The journey takes you along glassy clear water, twisting and turning through narrow passes and past silent mountain peaks. After the completion of this memorable leg of the journey we continue to Valbona. Tonight we stay in local guesthouses in Valbona to enjoy the rural life in an authentic local atmosphere. (BD)

Valbona

The name “Valbona” is used to refer to the Valbona Valley and its river with the same name, which in turn flows through the valley bearing its name, and a small village in the valley, as well the general area informally.  It is located in the Tropoja District of Northern Albania.  This district, bordering Kosovo to the northeast and Montenegro to the northwest, in combination with the adjacent district to the west, encompasses a region called the Malësi in Albanian, which translates roughly as “The Highlands.,” A wild, high, mountainous region inhabited by strong and fiercely independent people, the Malësi has for the history of Albania been the region which was never really conquered or subdued by the various waves of invaders during the last 2,000 years of Balkan history.  While the proper name of the mountains around Valbona specifically are the Malësi e Gjakovës (after the town of Gjakova in Kosovo), their name is most often translated in English as “The Accursed Mountains,” based on the name given to them by disgruntled Serbian would-be invaders.

Day 4 – Junik - Gjakova – Prizren (3.5 hours travelling time)

We cross the border into Kosovo and drive to Junik where we visit the famous Kullat e Junikut (Junik Tower). The towers are castle-like houses with a special architecture built in white rock, where Albanians have for centuries sheltered to survive wars and conflicts. Then continue to Gjakova which lies on the banks of the River Erenik. Visit its main sites including the old bazaar and clock tower. We then continue to a local winery where we can tour the cellar and taste some Kosovan wine. Finally we continue on to the city of Prizren, probably the most attractive town in Kosovo with superbly preserved buildings from the Ottoman era. We visit the castle which is one of the oldest in the Balkans (almost 3 millenniums), built to protect the city from attacks, the ornate Bajrakli Mosque and the old Turkish Hammam among other sights. Prizren is an absolute highlight of any visit to Kosovo and to see the old houses of the old town in low light as the sun sets is a delight. Overnight at Hotel Prizren or similar. (B)

Gjakova

A mixture of oriental and modern architecture, Gjakova is a pretty little town which has played an important role in the region. Like many in Kosovo it suffered badly during the war; its market was burnt to the ground but has now been lovingly restored to maintain the character of this old Ottoman town. Gjakova is also home to a number of tekkes (religious buildings) associated with dervish sects who are known for performing pain defying rituals while in a trance.

Prizren

Prizren has around 70,000 inhabitants, and it is a true open air museum, one of the most beautiful towns of Kosovo. It is situated on the slopes of the Sharri Mountains and on the banks of the river Bistrica. Prizren was established as an important trading town, through which passed old roads towards the Adriatic coast and the interior of the Balkan Peninsula. The area of the Prizren valley has been settled by Illyrians since ancient times. The city already existed in Roman times, and in the 2nd century it is mentioned with the name of Theranda and in the 5th century it is mentioned with the name of Petrizên by Procopius of Caesarea. Of all the cities in Kosovo, Prizren has best preserved the architectural heritage of the past.

Rahovec Vinery

Vineyards and Winery “Stone Castle” in Rahovec is the largest producer of wine in Kosovo and among the largest in the Balkans. According to archaeological resources, grapes have been cultivated in the region since the Illyrian times, due to the favourable agro-climatic conditions in the region.

Day 5 – Monastery of Peja Decani (UNESCO) – Peja (2.5 hours travelling today)

First today we visit Decani monastery (UNESCO). The medieval church houses some of the most preserved fresco decoration in the Balkans and the grounds are also a delight. After arrival in to Peja we explore the Ottoman sites of the town including the Haxhi Beut Mosque and the old house of Jashar Pasha as well as the Sheremet Tower and the old bazaar. We then continue to Boge, where we have a short stop at Patriarchana of Peja (13th Century) in the Rugova Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys in the region. On arrival at the hotel you will have the chance to take a walk amidst some of the loveliest scenery in the Balkans. Overnight at Magra Austria Hotel or similar. (B)

Rugova Valley (Boge).

Rugova Valley is one of the most attractive natural areas of the region. It belongs to the Albanian Alps range of mountains situated at the western part of Kosovo. There are 13 villages populated with "Rugovanians" who are famous for their fanatical love of the environment, their specific cultural activities, and practice of folklore. The highest peak of the Rugova valley reaches up to 2560m above sea level, and the area is quite rich with rivers, natural lakes, waterfalls and several natural caves. This region remains well preserved and little visited which is part of its charm. 

Peja

Kosovo’s second city is most famous for being the seat of the Peja patriarchate, and was the seat of the patriarch and archbishop of the Serb Orthodox church in medieval times. Like Pristina, Peja was an important trading town, even more so while the patriarchate was abolished during the Ottoman occupation. Much of the city was destroyed during the war with Serbia, but it is not difficult to get a sense of what it was once like, and many old buildings have been restored.

Day 6 – Pristina (2.5 hours travelling time)

Drive to Pristina. Explore the city visiting its main sites such as the Orthodox Church and the Carshi Mosque, dating back to the early 15th century. We then head to the ruins of Ulpiana, an ancient Roman city that was once one of the most powerful in the Balkans. Later we visit the spectacular Gracanica Monastery, one of Kosovo’s most beautiful sites and containing some impressive frescoes. Overnight Begolli Hotel or similar. (B)

Pristina

Pristina is the capital and the largest city of Kosovo with a total population of over 400,000. It is the administrative, economical, and cultural centre of the country, with a long history; in its vicinity archaeological discoveries have been found which date back to the early Neolithic period. Growing from the ruins of the Roman city of Ulpiana, Pristina is situated at the centre of Balkan trade routes, and became an important city in the region. As part of the former Ottoman Empire it is home to a number of excellent old Turkish buildings including old townhouses and mosques dating back to the time of Sultan Mehmet II in the 15th century. In contrast it also houses some fairly bizarre communist architecture, making this a city with two very distinct personalities. It’s also surprisingly cosmopolitan, with a good number of bars and restaurants making it a great place for exploring in the evening.

Day 7 – Skopje (2 hours travelling)

We continue to Macedonia stopping first at Gadime Cave. We cross the border and head to its capital Skopje. Upon arrival we visit some of the most important parts of the town, including the old Ottoman market, the monastery of Sveti Spas and the ancient Kale Fortress which dates back to Illyrian and Roman times. Overnight Hotel Aristocrat Palace or similar. (B)

Gadime Cave.

The entrance to Gadime Cave was discovered in 1966 by Ahmet Diti, a villager who was cutting stones in his yard and by chance came upon a glowing hole in the ground. Upon closer examination, he was amazed to find that the glow was emanating from a cave full of crystallized stalagmites. The cave was first open to visitors in 1976. Its total length is 1,260 m with a walk way that measures 440 m in length. Stalagmites and stalactites are its main attraction. Their creation over millions of years has made it possible for the formation of various shapes and figures which the locals have since named.

Skopje

Skopje is the capital and the largest city of the Republic of Macedonia. Located on a major north south Balkan route between Belgrade and Athens, Skopje has had a tumultuous past; with the Roman’s, Serbs and Ottoman Turks all occupying the city before it became part of Yugoslavia in 1918. A devastating earthquake then struck Skopje in 1963 when more than 1000 people died and a huge proportion of the city’s buildings were lost, as a result much of Skopje's architecture dates from the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunately Skopje’s entire heritage was not lost, as much of the northern half of the city escaped untouched, leaving many architectural reminders of the city’s past as an important trading town of the Ottoman Empire. As a monument to the loss the earthquake caused the clock at the Old Train Station, is forever stopped at the moment the earthquake struck. Most of central Skopje is a pedestrianised, with the 15th-century Turkish stone bridge over the Vardar River linking the old and new towns. North from the bridge you will find the Daud Pasha Baths which date back to 1466, once the largest Turkish baths in the Balkans they are now home to the City Art Gallery. Skopje’s eclectic past has had an aesthetic impact on the city which is in evidence when visiting the Church of Sveti Spas, which is half buried due to the fact it was constructed in the 17th century (Ottoman Turks' rule), when no church was allowed to be higher than a mosque. Skopje's old Oriental bazaar district is the largest and most colourful of its kind left in Europe, with an abundance of small shops in the narrow streets and numerous cafes serving Turkish-style coffee it is a great place to explore.

Day 8 – Mavrovo National Park – Ohrid (3 hours driving)

After breakfast continue to Mavrovo National Park, the biggest in Macedonia covering 73,000 hectares. We follow the Radika River along the way and stop at monasteries and churches en route. We then drive to the beautiful town of Ohrid (UNESCO). On arrival we will explore its mixture of western and oriental architecture including the Orthodox Cathedral, the 11th Century church of St Sofia and the Roman amphitheatre. Overnight Hotel Villa Sofia or similar (B)

Day 9 – Ohrid (UNESCO)

Today is at leisure for you to enjoy the beautiful town of Ohrid at your own pace or relax before the second half of the tour. Overnight Hotel Villa Sofia or similar (B)

Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is probably the oldest lake in Europe and one of the oldest lakes in the world, as it was formed tectonically between 4 and 10 million years ago. Water is supplied by the unusual means of spring water from numerous surface and underwater springs and the lake is home to a unique aquatic ecosystem with more than 200 endemic species that are of worldwide importance. Known for its beauty, excellent fishing and its several beaches it’s located on the border between Macedonia and the Republic of Albania. The Macedonian section of the lake is beautiful, set amid mountains with stunning views of the water from the beach and hills. The town of Ohrid itself is one of Macedonia’s most popular tourist destinations; with plenty of cultural monuments to keep you occupied, especially in the old town where amongst other highlights you can see part of a Roman amphitheatre.

Day 10 – Sveti Naum Monastery – Voskopoje – Korce (2.5 hours driving)

Before crossing back into Albania we visit Sveti Naum Monastery, a truly beautiful site with impressive views over Lake Ohrid across to Albania.  We then continue to the ancient village of Voskopoja where we explore the village including the Monastery of St. John the Baptist with its original structure from the 15th Century. After lunch we continue to the historic town of Korce and explore the town including the Old Bazaar.

Korce

Korce was originally a trading town but is better known for its role in promoting Albanian culture and fostering a national identity. The first school to use the Albanian language opened there in 1887; its building is now a museum of education. Occupied by the Greeks in 1912, Korce was awarded to Albania in 1920 by the International Boundary Commission, following a four-year French occupation. Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist leader, attended and later taught at the school that the French founded there in 1916. Used as a military base by the Italians for operations against Greece during World War II, the city was occupied by the Greeks in 1940–41 and then by the Germans. Korce was restored to Albania in 1944.

Day 11 – Korce – Gjirokastra (4.5 hours driving today)

Today we take an amazing drive though spectacular scenery to Gjirokastra. The road is bumpy in parts but the views of this remote part of Albania are incredible. At Gjirokastra we visit the local museum, housed in the building in which the former communist dictator Enver Hoxha was born, as well as the pre-Ottoman era citadel which affords spectacular views and houses an impressive range of artillery and also bizarrely a reconnaissance US Air Force plane that was forced to land after losing its way in the 1950’s. Gjirokastra is a pretty town with traditional houses and cobbled streets spilling down the sides of the mountain. Overnight Hotel Gjirokastra or similar (B).

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra is a picturesque town, perched on the side of a mountain above the Drino River and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like many Albanian towns it is home to an impressive citadel, but it is Gjirokastra’s houses that are perhaps the biggest drawcard, dating back 200 years and with a distinct architectural style that make the town an incredibly enchanting place to wander around. The houses are often decorated with elaborate entrance arches and carved wooden doors and all are slightly different from one another. Gjirokastra has been preserved as a museum city by the Albanian government.

Day 12 – Butrint (UNESCO) – Saranda (3 hours driving)

On the way to Saranda we shall enjoy a short stop at Syri i Kalter (Blue Eye National park). Visit the ancient city of Butrint, Albania’s most important archaeological site and given special status by UNESCO. Spend time exploring this impressive site with the added bonus of it being situated in a beautiful natural setting. The walls, basilica, acropolis and theatre at Butrint are truly impressive. We then drive to Saranda on the coast. Overnight Brilant Hotel or similar. (B)

Butrint

Butrint dates from the 7th century BC, later becoming a Roman colony, then falling under the sway of the Venetians and Turks. Virgil claimed that the Trojans settled Butrint, but no evidence of this has yet been found. Within a century of the Greeks arriving, Butrint had become a fortified trading city with its own acropolis, the ruins of which we can still visit. The rediscovered city is a microcosm of almost 3,000 years of Mediterranean history, and its 6th century BC fortification evokes the city's military power and symbolizes the rich culture of the once thriving ancient city.

Saranda

Saranda sits neatly opposite the island of Corfu and is one of the most attractive towns on the Albanian Riviera. An ancient town, it was originally known as Onchesmus and grew wealthy from trade with other parts of the Mediterranean. In the 4th century the town was fortified with walls, inside which have been excavated the remains of dwellings, water cisterns and an early Christian Basilica of the 5th and 6th century, containing a beautiful multicoloured floor mosaic.

Day 13 – Himara – Vlora (3 hours driving)

Head north along a stunning coastline, stopping at Porto Palermo to visit the castle of Ali Pasha on the way. Drive through mountains over the Llogara Pass (1020m above sea level) and continue to Vlora, on the ‘Albanian Riviera’. Tonight you will enjoy a delicious fish dinner at a restaurant on the beach. Overnight Hotel Partner or similar. (BD)

Day 14 – Apollonia – Berat (2.5 hours driving)

Visit the ancient city of Apollonia, dating back to the 6th century BC. We then drive to Berat, one of the oldest inhabited regions of Albania and with a superbly preserved historic centre that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visit its citadel which contains old churches, mosques and museums before heading to a vineyard to sample some of the excellent local wines. Overnight Hotel Osumi or similar. (B)

Apollonia

Founded in 588 BC by Greeks from Corinth, the city quickly grew to 50,000 residents by the 2nd century BC. Apollonia later became a free Roman city after it sided with Julius Caesar during the war against Pompey. It developed into a cultural centre of the arts until the 3rd century AD when an earthquake rerouted a river and led to the city's decline. Austrian archaeologists started excavating the site during W.W.I and the French later continued the work through the 1920s and 30s. While Albanian archaeologists have made some progress over the last few decades, much of this ancient city still remains buried in the hill.

Berat

Berat is renowned for its historic architecture and scenic beauty, and is dominated by its ancient citadel which is still inhabited today. Inside the citadel are eight churches, many of which date back to the 13th century, as well as a 15th century mosque and a superb museum with examples of religious iconography. Outside of the citadel Berat has some excellent examples of traditional architecture – the houses and mosques are so pretty that many areas of the city have been designated as museum zones, albeit living ones. Berat is a lovely place to wander around and it is easy to grasp a sense of the past events of the town when wandering through its charming streets.

Day 15 – Durres – Tirana (2.5 hours driving)

After breakfast drive to Durres. This port city has the largest Roman amphitheatre in the region, dating back to the 2nd century which we will visit. Drive back to Tirana for our final night where you will enjoy a farewell dinner with traditional food. Overnight Hotel Kruja or similar. (BD)

Durres

Founded in the 7th century BC by Greek immigrants, Durres is one of the oldest cities in Europe and is home to a rich cultural heritage incorporating Greek, Roman, Venetian and Byzantine influences among others. Briefly the capital of newly independent Albania in the early 20th century it is most noted for its impressive amphitheatre but also has some good examples of Ottoman architecture as well as the palace of King Zog, Albania’s first ruler.

Day 16 – Tirana

Transfer to the airport for your flight home. (B)

Inclusions:
Arrival and departure transfers
All accommodation
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary

Excluded:
International flights
Travel Insurance
Visas if applicable
Drinks
Items of a personal nature
Tips (discretionary) 


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