On my quest to visit every country in Europe there was a corner of the Balkans I decided to visit on my own, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. This had me a little anxious, not so much travelling alone, but these places weren’t so high on the backpacker trail so I was a little worried of what to expect and how I would be treated.
Living in Dublin there were no direct flights to Belgrade so my cheapest option was to fly via Budapest on the now defunct Malev airlines, the second flight was a tiny propeller plane with about five of us on board which touched down safely into Belgrade. I decided to get a taxi into town and headed to arrivals to catch one, the guide book suggested this option as there is less chance of being ripped off. The meter ticked over at a fast rate as we drove into town, passed bombed buildings, the American embassy with no windows and into the outskirts of the old town, he dropped me off and pointed me in the direction of my hostel along the pedestrian only laneway. Sharing hostel dorm rooms with everyone’s noise and smelly farts is not so high on my backpacking agenda anymore (I’m a seasoned traveller) I decided to get my own room in the hostel and was pleasantly surprised to walk into the room to find my own kitchen, bathroom, sky tv, a couple of beds to choose from and a great view over the old town all for the bargain price of 15 euros a night – score!
The sun was beating down pretty hot in Belgrade and I worked up a nice tan while taking in the old town and a lovely park which lead to the fort which had a great view to the meeting of the Danube and Sava rivers. I also spent a day walking around the small streets to The Church of Saint Sava the largest Orthodox Church in the world. I figured out the bus system and took a bus to the outskirts of town to visit former Yugoslav President’s Tito grave which also includes an exhibition of many gifts given to him by world leaders.
After a couple of days in Belgrade it was time to head onto Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. I hadn’t met anyone who had been to Kosovo and all the images which had been splashed across the news over the years had me wondering if I should be travelling solo here. I grabbed a bus ticket at the terminal from the one and only person who spoke English and was a lovely help. We boarded an old clapper of a bus and headed off, it was to be a full day’s drive over some beautiful scenery and big mountains, to the smell of salami sandwiches and a random dog on the bus barking. We made one toilet stop half way, I walked into the room and nearly dry reached at the smell of bodily fluids but needed to go so I held my breath and jumped in.
We rolled into Pristina in the late afternoon and discovered there were three other backpackers on the bus. We shared a taxi together to the one and only hostel in town which appeared to be someone’s house and was cashing in on the backpacker trade, nevertheless it was nice and homey. We walked into town together and had a meal and drink which cost us a whopping 2 euro each, yes Kosovo is on the euro and it’s cheap, 40 cent beers!
The next morning I head off on foot to explore the city, I quickly found out Kosovo loves America which is pretty evident by the main street named after Bill Clinton complete with his statue, there is also a street named after President Bush and enough Hot Dog stands around the city to make you feel like you’re in main street USA.
At lunch time I decided to make use of the sunshine (living in Dublin I didn’t see much sun) and grabbed a couple of take away bureks and sat in the park near the library, a building with some very interesting architecture. As I was eating away a local chap came up to me and asked if he could sit with me, sure no problem, he told me he lived outside of Pristina and family life was hard, he was raising an albino son and was under tough times. His one great talent is that he is the self-proclaimed Kosovo Eminem and started rapping out a few tunes. I spent an enjoyable hour or so with him and as we parted company he asked for some money to help is family and I was more than happy to oblige.
In the late afternoon I packed up my backpack and headed out on another old bus headed for Skopje in Macedonia. Everyone in Skopje must head to Pristina for their shopping as the bus was full to the brim, including the aisles full of people standing and everyone’s shopping. It took ages to pass through immigration, the driver made everyone standing to get off the bus and walk themselves through passport control whilst the rest of us sitting had our passports collected and returned to us freshly stamped.
It was dark by the time we reached Skopje and I grabbed a taxi to the hostel, my own room this time consisted of a lumpy double bed which took the whole room up. The next morning I headed off on foot to look around town. Just down from my hostel was a bakery selling delicious Burek’s which I stopped at for lunch and dinner sampling the mince and cheese varieties. Skopje is a city full of statues, they are everywhere, in the water, in the parks, on the sidewalks, peeking around buildings. It started to rain today and I explored the ottoman filled architecture of the old town under my umbrella. Skopje is the birth place of Mother Teresa and there is a lovely chapel and museum dedicated to her in the main street, at the end of the street stands the old railway station which has beautiful big clock which stopped ticking at 5.17 am on 27 July 1963 due to an earthquake and has remained that way since, in now houses a museum of the city. Spending a full day in Skopje was plenty of time so the next morning I walked up to the bus station and got myself a ticket Ohrid.
Wow what a lovely place, this is a holiday destination for Macedonians and I can see why set on Lake Ohrid an old town which stretches from the lake to high onto a mountain complete with a fort overlooking spectacular scenery. My guidebook suggested a modern apartment on the lake complete with balcony for only 20 euros a night, I could stay here for a week! Unfortunately the skies stayed overcast during my stay here but that didn’t stop me from walking around taking everything in the cobbled streets of the town, full of restaurants, museums, churches, markets and souvenir stands.
After two nights there it was time to make tracks to Albania. The easiest option for me was to travel to Pogradec an Albanian town on the other side of the lake. With bus options appearing to be non-existent I decided to grab a taxi to the border, my driver was lovely and even made a few stops along the half hour drive to show me some resorts along the way. Pulling up at border control I handed over all my left over Macedonian money which included a hefty tip which immediately beamed a big smile on my drivers face as we parted company.
I completed passport control on the Macedonian side and walked around the bend into Albania where I was stamped in with a friendly smile. I started walking into town which I could see off in the distance, my plan was to walk there, but after a few minutes the humidity was getting to me and I could feel the sweat slide down my back under my big backpack. I heard a car coming up behind me and decided to stick my thumb out, he stopped yay! I put my backpack in the back and after some sign language and pointing at maps we made our way into town and dropped me off outside the ATM and I quickly filled up with Albanian Lek. I asked the police officer standing nearby to point me in the direction of the hotel I had in my guidebook and headed off along the street to everyone in town staring at me to find it. The hotel had a bar underneath and the kind barman took to making me feel very welcome even though he looked a little shocked I had shown up, I guess not many blond haired Australian women visit his pub. I’m not sure they get many visitors at all actually as they scurried around to bring furniture into my room which was a lovely pink room but it had an awesome balcony looking over the lake. There was rolling black outs all through the night which would plunge my room into darkness and made me jump under the covers a few times with all the strange noises outside, but I made it through the night.
The next morning it was time to make my way to the capital Tirana, there is no bus schedules in Albania and I was hoping the mission of finding my way via the private mini vans wouldn’t be too chaotic. As I was walking up to the main street, where all the mini vans assemble with signs displayed in their windscreens of their destination a mini van stopped next to me and I guy in perfect english asked me if I was going to Tirana, hey that was easy, turns out the driver had spent a lot of time in America and had returned home to Albania to help his family and runs his own mini van. The mini vans don’t leave until full, four hours later we were still sitting in the street with a half full van, tick tick tick my day was wasting away, finally the driver decided to leave and would hope to pick up further passengers waiting on the road along the way. It started to lash down with rain, thunder and lightning as we drove over the mountains on a winding small road, the driver was a serial talker on his mobile phone and drove the manual bus at a pretty fast speed over the mountain with one hand on his mobile phone and the other changing gears and steering the wheel, a few moments there I feared for my life. Turns out Albanians are crazy drivers and the roads are not in the best shape, driving in the country is a recent novelty as this was previously only allowed by Government officials and there is no such thing as driving tests.
Anyway we made it into the traffic filled Tirana in the drizzly rain and the driver dropped me near my hostel just off the main square in Tirana. My hostel was run by a lovely enthusiastic bloke called Frank and gave me pointers on what to see around town and I headed off to explore. I quickly discovered it was pointless crossing at pedestrian crossings and waiting for the green man as the cars do not stop on red lights, I would wait until a local was crossing the road and I would run across the road when they did. It looked as though Tirana was undergoing a major face lift with construction happening everywhere including the main square which was all dug up. The city has splashed colour over its grey buildings to bring some life into them. Apart from the traffic it is a pleasant city to walk around but be careful of where you walk as people steal the man hole covers in the footpaths. A street from my hostel was a store run by a lovely old women which I would visit every night to get my burek and beer for dinner.
I decided to head off on a couple of day trips, my first to Durres, a seaside town which is well known for Albanian’s to take their holidays, the bus was full when I boarded and I got the last remaining broken seat which was next to a lovely chap from Kosovo. He chatted to me most of the way about life and what was a girl from Australia doing by herself in Albania. His mate was on the bus as well and they wouldn’t let me head off by myself once we reached Durres and took me to a café for a drink and deciding on an itinerary to keep me entertained for the day. They were pleasant guys but I had my own itinerary for the day and politely said my thanks and good bye to them and headed off to the beach to explore. It was a nice setting but I was there at the wrong time of year and the skies were still overcast.
My second day trip I went to Shkodra with a german girl also staying at the hostel. We walked from town up to the top of hill which had a great fortress offering great views across the green landscape and as Shkodra borders Montenegro we could see the mountainous landscape of this country and the road leading across the border. Shkodra also lays claim to the largest and best-preserved Ottoman bridge in Albania called Mes Bridge built in 1770 which we caught a taxi to, it was a lovely old stone bridge unfortunately under it and along the riverbank was covered in rubbish, a reoccurring scenario I’ve seen right through Albania. The bus was chockers on the way back and the conductor asked two guys on the back seat to stand up for us and we were charged extra for having the privilege of a seat.
The next morning I had an really early flight from Tirana to London with Belle Air airlines which I hadn’t heard of before but on my internet research offered the cheapest option and from there it was a short Ryanair flight to Dublin which I arrived home in time for breakfast.
My fears of backpacking solo around this part of the Balkans was all in vain as I can honestly say this was the one of the best backpacking trips I have undertaken and I would encourage more people to visit this part of the world before the tourists find out what a lovely part of the world it is and start visiting in droves.