Balkan road trip

March 23 2011

Before I start the journey back to the US in a few hours, I wanted to start to put words with thoughts around my crazy Balkan country tour this past weekend.

My friend Lewis and I met up in Pristina, Kosovo on Friday, rented a car, and drove through four countries in just over 48 hours. Our way stations along the way were Bar, Montenegro; Tirane, Albania; Ohrid, Macedonia; Skopje, Macedonia; and Pristina, Kosovo. Our motivation was "stamp collecting" -- visiting countries just to say we've been there -- but also to experience a far-less traveled part of Europe.

The trip started with a few minor hiccups - a suitcase of mine didn't make it with me from Turkey (it was found on Monday before leaving), the rental car was a manual and I can't really drive stick (Lewis, obviously, can), the Garmin GPS didn't know squat about Kosovan roads (but Google Maps on my Blackberry did). On balance though, it was just as we planned, and yet eye opening and unanticipated.

A Brit and an American driving around the Balkans in the off-season definitely raised some eyebrows, but almost every human we encountered was friendly and welcoming. The driving was sometimes hard (and worth a future blog post in and of itself), but we only got lost once. We stayed in awesome hotels inexpensively. We ate a few great meals. And we saw things we hadn't seen before.

Our first night in Bar, Montenegro, we didn't manage to arrive until 10 PM, after driving from Kosovo into Albania and then north. The resort we stayed at, Wind Rose or Ruža Vjetrova, had no other guests that night. They had even called me in advance to ask when we would arrive, and when we ran late, I called to let them know. In summer on the Adriatic coast, the resort must be beautiful. They even helped us to find a quick dinner of cevapi and chips, and opened up the kitchen in the morning (chef/assistant/waiter) just to serve us breakfast. I'm not sure how they made any money on our stay but I'm grateful they were open.

On Saturday, we backtracked into Albania, passing the same hundreds of gas stations and Mercedes-Benzes (every 2nd or 3rd car in Albania is a Merc, some of which have conveniently been weight-reduced through removal of VIN codes and the like) en route to Tirana, the capital. There we had a great meal and fascinating walkabout. From Tirane, we took the mountain route to Elbesan and on to Ohrid, Macedonia, where we ate dinner next to a 1000 year-old church in the UNESCO-protected old city and stayed in a small villa (with beautiful rooms, complete with heated floors!) on a charming pedestrian-only street.

Sunday, we toured Ohrid in the morning, drove through fresh snow in the high elevations, had lunch in Skopje, and were in Pristina by 5 PM at Hotel Afa, where US Vice President Biden recently stayed. We took TripAdvisor's advice and went to the #1 (of 20) restaurant in Pristina, Pjata, and saw the Bill Clinton statue nearby.

We had considered also trying to visit Bosnia or Serbia during this same drive, but the distances were too far, and we needed to save some for the next crazy journey. For sure, no regrets from my point of view, it was a fantastic weekend. I could not have done this on my own, it would have quickly become overwhelming (especially Albania, where for only the second time anywhere, I saw roadside shops selling freshly butchered cuts of meat -- hanging from a rope outside. No pictures, but I wish I had). I'm glad we did, though, especially with images like these to last a lifetime (link to full album after these four highlights):
Ancient Theatre of Ohrid   Lake Ohrid  Ohrid, view of Lake Ohrid  Bar, Montenegro

Link: Balkan driving tour, March 2011 full photo album on Flickr >

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