News: The UD Travel Blog

Posted: 11 April 2015

Hidden Europe by Mark Huggins

There is much more to the Western Balkans than the undoubtedly beautiful but now well-trodden trail of the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. As I was to find out, in addition to the sparkling seas of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, this region serves up a mixture of jagged peaks, deep canyons carved by swift moving rivers, a complex and fascinating history, and welcoming locals.

My trip started in the South West of the Balkans in Albania, a country that from the 1940’s until the early1990’s was totally isolated from the outside world under the harsh communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

My first stop with my guide Arthur was the town of Kruja, the birthplace of the Albanian people’s hero, Skanderbeg. He is revered in Albania for his continuous resistance of Ottoman advances in the 15th Century. The castle in Kruja has wonderful panoramic views and the old bazaar is worth exploring. History buffs will want to learn more about Skanderbeg in the excellent museum.

After a short stop in Lezha to see the resting place of Skanderbeg, we moved on to Shkoder, one of the most historic places in Albania and one of the oldest cities in Europe. The locals from this area are known for their wonderful hospitality and wicked sense of humour, something I can attest to as my guide Arthur is from Shkoder and rightly very proud of his home town. Shkoder is situated on a beautiful lake shared with Montenegro and the Rozafa fortress overlooking the town and the lake offers picture perfect views. The traffic free centre of town is also a delight to explore with must see sights including the mosque and the cathedral visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

It was time for my first border crossing (one of many) on the trip and we headed from Albania into Montenegro, a country of only 700,000 inhabitants. I was to find what it lacks in inhabitants it makes up for in outstanding beauty. The first part of the journey here took me to the shimmering Adriatic and to Ulcinj a lovely ancient seaport with a nice beach and a well preserved old town and fortress dating from medieval times. The weather was lovely and Arthur and I took time out for an Espresso to admire the scene.

Continuing from Ulcinj up the jagged coastline affords stunning views, not least when passing the tiny island of Sveti Stefan before our next port of call in the town of Budva. Out of the main tourist season of July and August, wandering the cobbled streets of the old town is a delight. Outside the walls of the ancient part of town it is clear to see that Budva is the absolute hub of tourism in Montenegro but at this time of the year the town still feels sleepy. I took a stroll by night in and around the old town and couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the ancient walls and the shiny luxury yachts moored only a few metres away.

The next morning we made the short trip up the coast to the Bay of Kotor. The coast hugging road zig zagged from one awesome view to the next before we emerged from a mountain tunnel to the majesty of the Bay of Kotor stretching out before us. It is a dramatic scene with Mt Lovcen keeping watch over the old town and its slopes falling steeply into the fjord.

Passing through the gates of the old town was like stepping back in time, one of narrow marbled lanes and concealed piazzas. There were very few tourists at this time of year so I had the place virtually to myself. Losing yourself in the labyrinth of the old town in Kotor has to be a must for any visit to Montenegro.

My appreciation of the natural wonders of this tiny country in the Balkans was only just beginning. We headed inland from the Adriatic through the rugged interior. I was bound for Kosovo and this was to be an epic journey. The wonderful weather we had enjoyed so far on the coast had deserted us. Initially this was no problem as the dark clouds added to the drama of the Moraca Canyon and the nearby mountains of Biogradska. As we climbed higher the rain turned into snow. Before long we were travelling in a Narnia-esque landscape with heavy snow clinging desperately to the burdened branches of fir trees. It was time to get the snow chains on! This proved to be wise as a short time later one could only just see the top of virtually buried road signs. Two Kosovan trucks had to abandon their attempt to reach the border and almost blocked our path. We soldiered on, by now in the darkness of night. We should already have been in Pristina but we had a long way to go! Arthur with typical Albanian determination would not be beaten by the conditions. We eventually made the remote Kosovo/Montenegro border and a cheery Kosovan border official helped us remove the snow chains. At 11.30pm we rolled into Pristina. What a day and an epic journey. Arthur and I joked earlier up the mountain that we would kiss the floor of the hotel on arrival in Pristina but we were too tired to bother.

Kosovo self-declared independence in 2008 after years of ethnic wrangling and violence. The country is one of the poorest in Europe with nearly half of all people unemployed. However Pristina exudes an air of pride and resilience. A walk through the city demonstrated evidence of newly found cosmopolitanism although tempered with reminders of the past, such as photos attached to government buildings of those who were loved and lost and never accounted for in the conflicts.

From Pristina we stopped at the nearby Serbian enclave of Gracanica to witness the stunning frescos in the church. This site is heavily guarded, a hint that underlying tensions still exist despite the current calm.

Arthur had arranged for us to stop at a winery near the town of Gjakova set amongst rolling hills and a backdrop of snow-clad peaks. We were invited into a dark cavernous building where the wine is stored in many different sizes of oak barrels; some were huge containing 10,000 litres. We were lucky to be able to taste a crisp Chardonnay and a mellow Cabernet Sauvignon whilst hearing of the history of the winery. Close to the tasting area a picture proudly hangs of the owner clinking glasses with none other than former US president Bill Clinton, who was of course highly involved in the Balkan crisis in the latter part of the last century.

We ventured from the darkness of the winery storage facility into the brilliant blue Kosovan sky and took the short journey to Decani monastery. Guarded by KFOR troops this place is an absolute gem. The church is blessed with some of the finest frescoes to be found anywhere and we were lucky to have a priest tell us the stories behind the frescoes. The grounds of the monastery were picture perfect with the lush green grass of the complex contrasting perfectly against the deep blue sky and the snowy peaks. We were invited for coffee in the monastery to hear more about the history of the place.

Our final stop in Kosovo was Prizren. With the sun going down it was a privilege to see this beautiful old town in the soft light with its houses meandering up the hillside and the impressive fort guarding the town. Locals stop to chat on the old Ottoman bridge as the glittering river rushes down from the Sar Mountains. We wandered the old streets admiring the beautiful buildings not least the Sinan Pasha mosque. I could have stayed in Prizren for hours but it was time to climb back into the mountains and into Macedonia.

The journey from Prizren to Skopje was much less eventful than my last border crossing into Kosovo but this time instead of the treacherous blizzard conditions we were treated to a majestic sunset high up in the snowy Sar Mountains. The colours were mesmerising and as if the scene could not get any better, a perfect full moon rose above the tops.

The next morning started with a stroll in the old bazaar of Skopje. I bought some delicious Baklava for our journey from a traditional Turkish shop. Skopje is a city under construction but still has plenty of interest in the old quarter.

Before long we were once again climbing into the mountains via Tetotov and its wonderful painted mosque. Passing through Mavrovo National Park we were once again treated to snow and stopped for a few minutes to stretch our legs in the soft powder. With light flakes falling the clouds started to clear and a burst of sunshine allowed views of a beautiful lake below us which was previously shrouded in the murk.

We were now on our way to Ohrid, for many the highlight of any trip to Macedonia and even perhaps to the wider Balkans. First we stopped at the traditional Macedonian village of Vevcani whose quirky and fiercely proud locals in 1991 declared an independent republic as Macedonia was declaring independence from Belgrade. They have even created their own flag which proudly flies throughout the village alongside the Macedonian flag.

From the lofty perch of Vevcani one could catch a tantalising glimpse of Lake Ohrid. A short time after we reached the high point of Ohrid next to the dramatic city walls. From here it was a delightful stroll down through the old town past the impressive classic amphitheatre and Sveta Sofija cathedral to the lake edge. The air was crisp and clear and the view across Lake Ohrid stupendous, once again the snowy mountains adding drama. Wonderfully coloured small boats sat on the pebbly beach providing a lovely contrast to the deep blue of the lake.

The next morning I got up early for a brisk lakeside walk. The temperature was close to freezing after a clear night. The rarefied air was a perfect start to the day. After breakfast we drove the Eastern shore of the lake stopping frequently believing that each time the view might be better, but in truth there is no such thing as a bad view around Lake Ohrid.

The final stop in Macedonia was the picturesque Sveti Naum monastery with its unbeatable lakeside location set on a small cliff. The grounds are wonderful with beautiful trees and flowers to admire and peacocks strutting around for company. The church is quite magnificent as are the frescoes inside. As I looked across the lake to Pogradec in Albania it struck me how the people of the town must have suffered more from the dictatorship of the communist regime in being able to see the lights of Ohrid so tantalisingly close. Many tried to swim for freedom and were imprisoned or killed for attempting to flee. As one crosses the border into Albania the virtually indestructible concrete and steel bunkers from the communist regime on the roadside overlooking the lake serve as a solemn reminder of the iron clad fist and the paranoia with which Enver Hoxha ruled.

Next it was time to drive the epic road from Korce to Gjirokastra heading towards the Ionian Sea and the Albanian coast. We had a quick look around Korce which is a pleasant town. My guide informed me that women from Korce are the most beautiful in all Albania! The journey to Gjirokastra is quite outstanding and one of the best road journeys I have ever done. The road is tough. Albania is improving its roads at a good rate but newly laid tarmac is conspicuous by its absence in this region. The vistas are incredible throughout as we cornered hairpin after hairpin. The road traverses mountain passes, navigates through narrow valleys and high above gorges and canyons. It is undiscovered Balkans at its best.

Next we visit the world heritage listed and well preserved Ottoman town of Gjirokastra. It is the birthplace of the communist dictator Hoxha. It is a fine looking town known as the city of a thousand steps and it is easy to see why as the attractive old houses steeple up a mountainside eventually leading to the castle. From the castle one can see the strategic importance of the fortress as the views sweep for miles along the river valley and also one gets a lovely perspective of the old roof work on the houses below. The castle houses some impressive artillery from the communist period as well as an old US air force reconnaissance plane that was forced to land in Tirana in 1957 after losing its way. My guide tells me some funny stories relating to the austere nature of the locals of Gjirokastra as we continue the final leg of our days travelling to the coastal town of Saranda.

My final full day in the Balkans brings moody skies and the threat of rain. Our first stop of the day is the amazing archaeological site and National Park of Butrint. This place has to be seen to be believed. Here you can wander amongst ruins from Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Venetian times. If you are a history buff you will love it and even if you are not you will still love it as the setting is beautiful. Wandering alone just with my guide amongst such history was a privilege and it was not difficult for the imagination to conjure scenes from bygone eras of what this place must have been like in its heyday. Early spring made the place even lovelier with wildflowers dotted in amongst the forest and blossom on the trees. A white tailed sea eagle intermittently appeared above us effortlessly mastering the thermals.

We moved North up the Albanian Riviera stopping for a delicious plate of the freshest seafood risotto right on the beach in Vlora as thunder and lightning crackled out to sea. After stopping at another archaeological gem Apollonia my final main stop of the trip was at the UNESCO heritage listed town of Berat.

Berat is surely a highlight of any trip to Albania. It is a beautifully preserved town and was declared a museum city by the former communist government. The outstanding feature is the collection of perfectly white fronted Ottoman houses clinging to the cliff and climbing all the way up to the castle that protects the town. My time here was short but a lingering stop in Berat is recommended to fully appreciate its treasures.

By now sunset was approaching and my flight home was in the early hours of the morning. It was our aim to pay a fleeting visit to Durres en route back to Tirana. As we headed towards Durres the increased frequency of spectacular lightning strikes were a taste of things to come. Around 15 km’s from Durres rain of biblical proportions started to fall. We entered Durres and the traffic started to back up as the old drainage systems of the city started to struggle to cope with the deluge. Cars started to become partly submerged in the water and locals trudged along knee deep. We decided to park up and take refuge in a café that has views over the city and port. We took the lift up to the top floor and around half way the lift shuddered to a halt due to a city wide blackout. Fortunately we were not stuck for long. The rain did not relent so we decided we would have to head to Tirana. Before we left the city we caught a glimpse through the rain of the impressive 2nd century amphitheatre which in its pomp seated 20,000 people.

My driver expertly navigated the flooded streets of Durres and the Tirana highway to get me to my hotel for a few hours sleep before the journey home. This was a trip full of adventure, staggering scenery, such diverse historical interest and also lovely Balkan hospitality. The highlight for me was Albania. Just how the people have emerged from 50 years of total isolation from the world with such an air of optimism was great to see and the country has made great strides in a short space of time. I left thinking I will definitely return to the Balkans sooner rather than later.

Mark travelled to Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia in April 2015. The optimum time to visit the Balkans is April – October. July and August see the largest influx of tourists and can be fiercely hot. If you like warm conditions then June and September are good months outside of the main tourist season. April and October there are few visitors but the weather can still be pleasant although much cooler. Snow can still be experienced on the mountains.


Undiscovered offer the following small group tours in the Balkans

http://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/albania/ALD/dossier.html

http://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/bosnia-herzegovina/BBE/dossier.html

Private and tailor-made tours can also be arranged on request

Visit our Facebook page for photos from this trip

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