Away We Go (to the Balkans)

Our last night in Corfu, we basically pulled an all-nighter and had a morning ferry to catch to Albania. I know when these entries are read, traveling seems like a breeze, but in reality getting to and from each city is a stressful process. Getting to Albania was one of the most tiresome, stressful days of my life. When we landed in Sarande (a lovely beach town), it took us forever to find an ATM and the bus station. I remember dripping sweat and thinking I was going to buckle under the weight of my backpack. A trip to a café and a few espressos later, we hopped a bus to Gjirokastra and at some point decided to stay the night there.

The friendliness of the Albanian people was hard to grasp at first, but eventually we got used to it and realized that the random people we kept meeting were genuinely interested in helping us, and were not scam artists. Our cab driver dropped us off at his friend’s house, who luckily had an extra room. He immediately showered us in liquor (I made Chris drink mine because I was still sick from the ferry and bus rides). We walked around Gjirokastra, the town of 1,000 steps, and crashed. The next day was a long, un-air-conditioned bus ride to Tirana, the capital.

Gjirokastra, Albania

Starting with Albania, from here on out the currency would change with each country because we were no longer in the EU. This accounts for the pile of random bills from various countries I still have sitting on my desk at home. My first goal for Tirana was to find the new Harry Potter movie in English, but we failed. We explored so many sides of this city, I feel like we did nothing but walk while there. We went to an authentic market, saw the football stadium, the old Communist district, the Museum of Albanian History. That museum cracked me up because about halfway through, the museum didn’t even bother to put up English placards anymore, as if they assumed that no American would care enough to make it to the third floor. I went to my first mosque in Tirana, we walked in and I forgot to put on a head scarf. The man inside was really friendly and handed me one so I could go in and look at the art work. I wonder if Muslims are intimidated when they enter a Catholic Church, because I was certainly intimidated in that beautiful mosque.

Statue in the heart of Tirana, mosque in the background

After Tirana we were off to Budva, Montenegro, another city we stayed at unintentionally. It turned out to be a huge party city for the Russians and Serbians on their summer vacations. There was a strip of bars and clubs along the water that felt like a bizarro world South Beach. An old lady named Ljubica who was standing outside the bus station offered us her bedroom for a good price, so we stayed with her. She had an amazing collection of coins from all of her worldy guests, and made us feel right at home. The old town of Budva felt like it was from a fairy tale, sitting on the edge of the sea with forested mountains in the background.

Crazy carnival in Budva

We spent an afternoon in Sveti Stefan on the day we departed Budva. Sadly, the island was closed for renovations (crazy, right?) but we were able to walk along the isthmus leading up to it. Apparently movie stars vacationed here in the 30s and 40s before the iron curtain.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

From the carnival like city of Budva, we ended up in Kotor. (Enter jaw-drop here). The old town of Kotor is too beautiful to fathom. Once again, we were in a fairy tale. We spent an hour climbing up the side of the mountain to sit in the fortress overlooking the Bay of Kotor, and it was worth the leg cramps and profuse sweating.

Kotor, Montenegro

After Montenegro, we would have liked to directly to Sarajevo but the bus gods would not allow us. We ended up spending a night in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and thank the bus gods for that one. As soon as we had checked in our hostel and walked into the old town, Chris noticed a poster for the newest Harry Potter movie IN ENGLISH. This might have been the happiest night of my trip. Before catching the movie, we tried black risotto and goulash. The goulash I loved, of course, the risotto… I think you have to grow up on squid ink to truly appreciate it, like the movie Princess Bride.

From Croatia we had two cities left. First stop, Sarajevo. We had high expectations and this city exceeded them. I think the majority of our time was spent in cafes tasting coffee and insanely rich desserts. The coffee shop culture there is perfection. Our hotel was in the Turkish quarters, and for the first time in my travels, I felt like I had left Western Civilization. The Muslim Call to Prayer resonated throughout the city and kept reminding me of the history of Sarajevo.

Turkish Quarters in Sarajevo

Many buildings were covered in bullet marks. Chris and I tried to find the tunnel museum to see the one way in and out of Sarajevo during the war but ended up stranded in a small village on the outskirts of town. Lucky for us, there was an odd dome-shaped water park built on a natural spring. We recuperated and somehow navigated our way back to the city.


Tasty treats in Turkish Quarter in Sarajevo... BAKLAVA!

We took a day trip from Sarajevo to go river rafting the Neretva River in Bosnia. The water was frigid but refreshing, and the boy in charge of our raft was still in training so we almost flipped on every major bump in the river. This made it more fun, in my opinion.


River rafting the Neretva River, Bosnia

Belgrade, Serbia was our last stop on the Eastern European tour (other than a quick afternoon in Sofia, Bulgaria). After an over night bus ride, our cab driver couldn’t find the hotel and left us on a street corner. We stumbled upon the doorstep of the hostel around 6 AM and banged on the door until the poor kid who owned the place let us in and told us to sleep on the bean bag chairs in the basement until our room was ready. Best nap of my life! In Belgrade, we ate a feast at an opera house called Little Bay, indulged in some sushi, went to a club on a barge, and drank beer from 2 liter bottles. Chris and I, while stumbling home late one night, were invited into a Rakia (brandy) Bar by the owner who was closing up with his girlfriend and asked us to join them because we didn't look like serial killers. The fortress of Kalmegdan was right next to our hostel, and after enjoying Belgrade’s chocolatey iced coffee drinks, we sat and looked out at the river.

Center square of Belgrade, Serbia

To save money, we ended our trip by taking an overnight train from Belgrade to Sofia and then catching planes in different directions. I really wish we could have stayed in Sofia longer than an afternoon and with more than one hour of sleep! Chris flew back to Madrid and I flew back to Athens to meet my mom and her friend Christina. Here starts another adventure.

Comments

  1. Maybe I have a peculiar remembrance of things, but what stands out most in my memory of Tirana is 50 cent iced coffees with Baileys. No mention whatsoever? For shame...

    -Chris

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