Backpacking in the Balkans
In May 2016 I traveled for 2 weeks in the Balkans; a very short time to get to know it, but long enough to fall in love with the region.
I left home (in Vicenza) without knowing my itinerary. All I knew was that I was going by train to Trieste, and from there I would take a bus to Dubrovnik, in Croatia.
In Trieste I had one hour and a half before my bus, so I decided to take a walk to the main square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, which is one of the most beautiful squares I’ve ever seen and it’s only 15 minutes walk from the two stations.
Here is a video I made of that hour in Trieste:
10 minutes to get to the Balkans
Trieste is close to the border with Slovenia, so after 10 minutes on the bus I was already in the Balkans. But it took me 15 hours to get to Dubrovnik. Anyway, just crossing the border and seeing road signs in a different language threw me on a state of euphoria.
It was interesting in the North of Croatia to see many billboards advertising dental clinics. I had recently seen a program on TV describing this new trend of doing “dental” trips to Croatia from Italy to have your teeth fixed: it’s much cheaper (even including travel expenses) and of good quality. There were so many ads, I had the impression even postmen have become dentists in Croatia now.
I left Trieste at 6.30 pm and the following morning, at 9.30 am (one hour after scheduled time) I arrived in Dubrovnik. I went to the hostel to leave my luggage (fortunately my bed was ready) and shower and I went out immediately. I had seen many pictures of Dubrovnik before and dreamt of seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.
The only negative aspect of this beautiful walled town: cruise ships stop here and every day they toss thousands of tourists into its streets.
After Dubrovnik I decided to go to Montenegro. Kotor is only a couple of hours from Dubrovnik. Again, a cruise ships stop, a walled town, and a WOW place. What was nice here is that you can have some nice skewers for a few euro: Montenegrins love their grilled food! Much cheaper than Croatia.
Kotor can be visited in a few hours, so on the second day I took a day trip to the north of Montenegro, organized by a local agency. It only cost me 39 euro and it would have been difficult to get there by myself on public transportation. And what I saw made me really happy I did this trip, although we didn’t stop to take pictures where I wanted.
We visited Salt Lake, the Tara bridge, Durmitor National Park with its Black Lake, and the Ostrog Monastery, carved in a rock.
In these few days traveling I had made a plan to go to Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and from there take a ferry to Italy, but the bus from Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, arrives in Pristina in Kosovo at 5 am. And what was I meant to do in Pristina at that time of the day? I did it in the past, I am not willing to repeat it again; I’m getting old I guess.
So the following day I decided to go to Ulcinj, on the border with Albania, and on the way I stopped in Budva.
Another beautiful walled town by the sea, a holiday destination loved by Montenegrins, Russian and Ukrainians.
After a couple of hours walking along the tiny alleys of Budva, I took a small bus to Ulcinj. There was an accident on the way and we had to wait for about an hour; I basically wasted the whole afternoon for a 2 hours drive. But these things happen when you are backpacking, and it’s no big deal. I actually enjoyed the positive side of it: I studied how Montenegrins react when they are blocked on the road and don’t know why and how long it’s going to take. They get upset and anxious, just like Italians. We are not that different after all. Although I’m not sure I can say for sure they were Montenegrins the people that were on the bus. Apparently in Montenegro live people coming from the whole region, mainly Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.
Ulcinj was part of Albania until a few years ago, and its name is pronounced differently according to whom you are talking to. I knew it was a preview of what I would witness in Albania, and I was very excited. And what did I find here: there were only men at the cafes. There were women walking in the street or in the shops, but only men at the cafes. And me. Quite interesting.
Another walled town, with nudist beaches, nice food and great coffee. Unfortunately because I had little time, I could only stay here one night. The following afternoon I was on my way to Albania.
Albanians don’t have a good reputation in Italy, but while I was living in London and here in Arzignano I have met a few people from Albania and I found them nice and interesting. I really wanted to go and meet them in their natural environment.
The first stop was Shkoder. A beautiful town with Venetian influence in the architecture and the language, a great outdoor-time-spending culture and therefore many cafes (some – mainly sports bar – with only male guests, others with both men and women).
I arrived at about 6.30 pm and went immediately to the hostel. A few hours later I was in love with Albania. It was probably all these people in the pedestrian streets of Shkoder that seduced me (I guess the great food at little price helped too). Very helpful people, ready to help if you were lost, never trying to take advantage of a solo female traveller, curious, enjoying their time socializing face to face.
The next day I crossed the artificial Koman Lake and got to Valbona. The local boat from Koman is built from an old German bus and stops in the middle of nowhere and you see people walking up hidden paths towards hidden houses lost in the rocky mountains whose slopes decline towards the lake.
The idea was to trek from Valbona to Theth, but some people scared me off, saying that a few months earlier a German lady died along the path, so I did some hiking on the hills of Valbona and went back to Shkoder the same way I got there.
I enjoyed Valbona a lot. It’s lost in the mountains. It’s a place of peace and shepherds, of quiet tourism, but with a big potential. I bet it will become a top travel destination soon.
From Valbona I went back to Shkoder and from there to Tirana, 2 hours away. I must say that Tirana was not my favorite destination. All religious buildings were destroyed by communism; the only building that survived was this old mosque.
But one thing I liked in Tirana a lot: all the outdoor cafes, some in beautiful gardens, and again people enjoying their time outside. I’m afraid in Italy we have lost this habit. We do go out for a coffee and meet friends in the street, but not as much as in Albania.
I spent the day walking around Tirana and the following day I was on a bus to Berat.
Berat is also called “the town of the thousand windows”. Its peculiarity are the ottoman houses that have many windows; therefore the name. It’s a Unesco Heritage Site since 2008. Very charming.
After Berat I went to Gjirokaster in the south, near the Greek border. I loved it because despite being a Unesco Heritage Site, it has little tourism. But things are going to change, or so believes (and hopes) William, the Dutch owner of the best hostel I’ve ever been to.
During the communism were built many bunkers in Albania, to protect the Nomenklatura from possible nuclear attacks. In Gjirokaster you can visit one quite big with long tunnels and many rooms. Creepy.
I also went hiking on the hills near Gjirokaster, to see a roman amphitheater and two monasteries abandoned many years ago.
From Gjirokaster I went back to Durres; thanks to the new roads it is now just 3 hours away. From there I took a night ferry to Bari. The ferry was only 30 euro, less than what I had seen on the web.
I arrived in Bari at about 9 am. I decided to take a train back to Vicenza in the afternoon, so that I could walk a bit around Bari. And the old town is amazing. I had seen pictures of Lecce before and I know that Puglia is a beautiful region, but I wasn’t expecting the old town of Bari to be so beautiful.
There was music coming out from every window and people chatting in the streets. But two local elderly people told me to keep an eye on my stuff. I was so relaxed and untroubled in Albania, I had forgotten you need to be careful in Italy. But nothing bad happened, despite the fact that I was walking with one big backpack and one smaller bag on the front. I really enjoyed my 4 hours in Bari.
I have discovered a new beautiful world lived by amazing people just a few hours from home. I wonder why it took me so long to go there and I hope it won’t take too long before I go back. There’s a lot more I want to see in the Balkans!