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Gems of the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans may not necessarily be on your bucket list and some people may not even know where the Western Balkans are, however, I am here to champion this lesser travelled region of Europe that has seen more than its share of warfare, genocide and communism in my lifetime.

Thankfully the region appears to be slowly emerging from that era and tourism is steadily growing as word spreads of the beautiful scenery, fascinating history, wonderful food & drink, friendly people and amazing UNESCO sights.

Go alone just to bear witness to this beautiful azure blue!

I urge you to visit before it gets busier!

So, what is there to see there….

We started off visiting the beautiful Boyana Church & Rila Monastery just outside of Sofia in Bulgaria. Both of these stunning buildings are UNESCO world heritage sites, Rila was built around the 10th Century and frequently extended afterwards and Boyana was built in the 11th Century and underwent an extension in the 13th.

The artwork at both of these sites are some of the best I have ever seen, with fantastic depictions of biblical scenes and important religious leaders and Saints. Unfortunately, you are unable to photograph the inside of Boyana Church and Rila Monastery but the external frescoes at Rila are fair game.

We spent an hour at Boyana church before heading up to Rila where we had a good couple of hours to take it all in before heading to one of the 2 local restaurants for the famous Rila River Trout, which was amazing!

Next to Skopje in Macedonia…..a city which is a bit like marmite really, some people love it, some hate it.  You need to have a firm grasp of history to really comprehend the issues here but basically when Yugoslavia split down into the 7 countries we now know, this part of the world decided to call itself ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FYR Macedonia or FYROM for short.  This has since been contested avidly by their neighbour Greece in which there is already a region called Macedonia which goes way back to the time of Alexander The Great and Phillip of Macedon.

The Macedonian Government went through a bizarre period of replacing all the facades of the buildings in the centre to reflect a more Greek style and ‘borrowed’ Greek Gods, Mythology & History and depicted it as their own in the form of huge statues and sculptures around the city.

The city is also famous for being the birthplace of Mother Teresa, a fact that is celebrated by the numerous statues, roundabouts, a museum & her house and various Mother Teresa paraphernalia available to purchase.

After the gaudiness of Skopje we took a day trip into Kosovo and headed to Prizren, which is a small but lovely town with a penchant for crocheted tree jackets!!!

We didn’t have long to wander the quaint but lively streets but managed to check out the mosques, churches, filigree jewellery workshops and fantastic restaurants serving great local food.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to head to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, but it’s definitely on my list for next time! I am mightily impressed with how friendly, clean and welcoming Kosovo is, especially considering they haven’t long come out of a harrowing war with genocide and total human rights atrocities. The people of Kosovo are so welcoming and friendly and were some of my favourite people I met along the way.

Once back in Macedonia we headed to Lake Ohrid which is an absolutely stunning place and another UNESCO world heritage site deserving of a visit of at least 2 days, there are lovely hotels overlooking the lake, lovely local restaurants selling immense Lake Ohrid Trout, stunning ancient churches, mosques and the most amazing local jewellery shops selling silver filigree jewellery and Lake Ohrid pearls.

We easily whiled away a couple of days hiking around the town taking in the churches and mosques, embarking on a relaxing boat trip around the lake, eating amazing local fish and seafood and just sitting taking in the glorious views of the sun sparkling off the blue lake.

After Macedonia we headed into Albania, which I was very excited about.  The last time I had visited Albania was in 1998 in the middle of a war (accidental warfare tourism!) and to be fair it was a shithole (as expected in the middle of a war).  All I remember of it was being told all the police stations and hotels had been burnt down and transformed to smoldering piles of rubble, the cars all had bullet holes along them, wild dogs were foraging in bins for food and every window have metal bars down them.

What a difference….I have to say out of the countries I visited on this trip, Albania was my absolute favourite. Like anywhere, there are still improvements to be made and it still tarnished as being full of criminals and people traffickers but this isn’t the majority of the people.  The majority of the Albanian people are amazingly friendly who seemed pleased to see us and loved the fact we were there coming to see their country and learn about their history.

Albania has not long come out of a long period of extreme communism which shut them off from the outside world and turned them into somewhat of a European recluse.  This façade has now been removed and what comes from this is the ability for them to showcase their turbulent and painful history off to interested outsiders as well as interested locals.

We spent 4 days travelling around Albania and could have easily spent another 4, in that time we visited Berat otherwise known as the town of 1000 windows.  This beautiful town is a UNESCO world heritage site as well and rightly so.

We were lucky enough to enjoy a huge local meal on our evening there with countless local dishes being brought to us as well as countless bottles of local wine.  Both the food and wine were delicious and, now, among my favourite. I can definitely recommend the hot meze style starters such as cheese & peppers, fergese, tarator (Tzatziki) and the baklava.

We climbed up to Berat Castle, which was a punishing 20 minute walk straight up a 40 degree gradient. The views from the top were stunning and well worth the climb.

After Berat we headed to Tirana, the capital, for 2 days.  There is a plethora of cultural attractions in Tirana, all of which focus on the history of Albania from ancient to recent and they are all fascinating in their own right.  We visited the National History Museum, The House of Leaves which is a museum dedicated to espionage based in an old house which was used by the Secret Services to spy on the Albanian people and Bunkart 2 which is supposedly a combination of art gallery and museum based in a Bunker in the town centre.

A great place to head to for a morning from Tirana is Kruja, which was the last stronghold of Albania’s National Hero, Skanderberg. Kruja has a wonderful castle/fortress and museum which depicts the traditional Albanian way of life.  There is also an amazing ottoman style bazaar where the shops compete with each other to sell jewellery, handmade socks, pashminas, traditional clothes and general tourist tat…we all need a Skanderberg snow dome paperweight!

Another great place to head to from Tirana is Shkoder, this is a beautiful green town overlooked by Rozafa Fortress which is high up at the top of a hefty steep climb and wouldn’t go amiss on an episode of Game of Thrones.  Again, the panoramic views of the Albanian countryside were amazing which made the climb up and slippery slide down worthwhile.

If you like stunning panoramic views, history and fortresses Albania is the place!

Sadly, our time in Albania quickly came to an end and we headed to Kotor in Montenegro, which is a lovely walled town next to a beautiful blue lake.  The downside of Kotor is that it is frequently hit by cruise ships which bring with them plagues of day trippers who descend on the small town and lake in droves.

A tip would be to get up early and get out at 7am, when you will pretty much have the walled town to yourselves, apart from the hordes of ‘Kotor Cats’ that share the town with the local humans. Again the local food and wine are a must and rival that of their Balkan neighbours, the fish and sea food farmed and caught from the Lake is well worth a go.

Make sure you take a trip out on the Lake on a boat where you can visit the lovely church, The lady of the Rocks, and have a swim in the azure waters.

We left Montenegro and headed to Dubrovnik.  Unfortunately, it has increased in popularity ten-fold from when I first visited, the combination of plagues of cruise ships and Game of Thrones fans has made this place almost as unbearable as it is picturesque.

I still maintain you must visit Dubrovnik when in Croatia but some tips I would advocate are:-

  • Stay somewhere outside of the centre, Lapad is a hip area which has lovely beaches, a stunning sunset spot, fabulous waterfront fish restaurants and easy access to a bus that will take you directly to the Old Town. We walked most days and it’s an energetic and undulating 50 minute walk but the views when leaving the old town are amazing.

  • Don’t miss walking the walls of the city but do it early. Get down into the old city as early as possible, before 10am, and get up onto the walls. Not only do you benefit from missing the hordes but you don’t roast to death whilst spending an hour or so on top of an elevated stone wall in the open sunshine.

  • Buy a Dubrovnik card which will give you access to the museums and sights all for one price and will also give you a bus ticket to utilise.
  • Go up on the cable car for outstanding views of Dubrovnik and its walls, again get there early as after 11am the queues snake right along the pavement and it can take a good hour to get on the cable car.

If you want to get out of Dubrovnik and away from the cruise ship crew, other fantastic sites include:-

  • Bosnia & Herzegovina….spend a day visiting Medjugorje, the sight of an apparition of the Virgin Mary and now a popular Catholic Pilgrimage site, and Mostar which is famous for its Ottoman style bridge which was destroyed during the war.

  • Split and the UNESCO world heritage site of Diocletian’s Palace

  • The ancient roman ruins of Salona (or Solin), the capital of the roman province of Dalmatia

  • Klis Fortress otherwise known as Meereen from Game of Thrones

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