A surprise spring break in Paradise

In April the students in Kosovo enjoy a week off from school, so many volunteers took the opportunity to travel. I ended up spending the week exploring Albania and Macedonia, and it was a truly breathtaking trip. Trip Map with buses

This is a region of the world that few Americans ever explore, and let me tell you, we’ve been missing out. The coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas possesses a Mediterranean climate and is lined with white, sandy beaches. The dramatic mountain ranges, including the Albanian Alps, allow for magnificent hikes in the warmer months and skiing in the winter. The long and complex history of the region has left it sprinkled with ancient fortresses and castles, Ottoman architecture and bazaars, archaeological sites from the Hellenistic period, and Medieval monasteries and mosques .

Best of all, travel in the Balkans is unbelievably cheap. Even flights to Albania, Macedonia, or Kosovo are half the price of flights to neighboring countries like Greece. So listen to my advice and come explore the Balkans! Your camera and pocketbook will thank me.

Rather than rambling on about why you should visit, let me show you some of the sites from my week-long trip:

Tirana: The capital and largest city in Albania

Bus from Gjakova to Tirana:  $11

Tirana is the most modern city in Albania and is known for its nightlife. I took an early morning bus to meet up with the other travelers who had arrived in Tirana a day prior, so I did not get to experience a night out in Tirana, but they definitely had a good time.

We spent the day exploring the city on foot, tasting olives in the market, and feasting on fresh seafood. My camera was packed away, so I didn’t get the chance to take any pictures. We then boarded a bus to the city of Berat.

Bus from Tirana to Berat: $3.25

Berat –This city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town. It is known as one of the most beautiful towns in the Balkans and is referred to as the “town of a thousand windows.”

We checked into a hostel called Lorenc Guesthouse, which was optimally located in the heart of the old city. It was the most picturesque hostel I have ever stayed in. The owner was so hospitable and offered us free Turkish coffee and tea repeatedly, in addition to giving us samples of his homemade wine and rakia. It was about $10 each and included a delicious hot breakfast.

After spending our first evening walking around the city of Berat and resting at our hostel, we woke up ready to do some hiking. We climbed up to the fortress overlooking the city, called The Kala. It is a castle with origins back to the 4th century BC, but it was mostly built in the 13th century. The hike was a great way to wake up and we were rewarded with stunning views of Berat from above.

Saranda

From Berat we took another bus to the city of Saranda in southern Albania. This city is a major tourist destination in the summer, but for us in April it was extremely quiet. We stayed for two nights so that we could see two of Albania’s most well-known sites: The Blue Eye and Butrint. (We also ate tons of fresh seafood, which we’ve been missing in Kosovo.)

Bus from Berat to Saranda $9.75
Accommodations: SR Backpackers Hostel $11 with free laundry and free breakfast

The Blue Eye

The Blue Eye is a water spring, where clear blue water from the river bubbles up at a rate of 18400 liters per second from an extremely deep pool. The exact depth of the hole is unknown, but divers have descended to fifty meters (164 feet). It is a breathtaking natural phenomenon. The lush trees and purple flowers, combined with the vibrant color of the water, made us feel like we were walking in a fairy-tale. 

Butrint (also known as Buthrotum)- $5 entry fee

Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was an ancient city throughout Greek, Roman, bishopric and Byzantine periods. It was inhabited since prehistoric times, but was finally abandoned during the Middle Ages due to a malaria epidemic caused by the marshes surrounding it.

Despite Butrint being one of the greatest classical cities of the Mediterranean, for some reason it remains largely unknown. The current archaeological site includes an impressive Roman amphitheater, a Roman temple with mosaic floor, and a Byzantine Basilica, which is the largest in the world after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Since 2005 an international archaeological team has been performing excavations at Butrint, and archaeologists estimate that what we can see now is just 15 percent of what lies beneath.

Because we were so close to the border with Greece, we decided to drive to the border and walk into Greece, just for fun. The border guards were very confused about what we were doing. Although we didn’t see much, we can technically say we’ve been to Greece.

The most life-threatening drive of my life: Saranda to Korca $8.00

2016-04-23 (3)
The road is so perilous and winding that you save over 2 hours by driving through Greece, even though it is almost twice the distance.

After our second night in Saranda, we woke up at 4:45 AM to catch a 5:30 AM mini-bus to Macedonia. We knew it would be a 7 or 8 hour trip, but we had no idea that we would be driving on the most dangerous road in the Balkans. The journey takes you high into the mountains, driving along narrow and winding roads, many of which are not paved, and all of which are without guard rails. We were honestly driving along sheer rock faces, bouncing around in the seats and trying not to throw up for 80% of the trip.

If you enjoy living on the edge, take this trip. I wish I had not packed my camera for the drive, because you would not believe how crazy this road is.

From Korca we took a taxi to the border crossing into Macedonia, got our passports stamped, and then hopped in another taxi to the city of Ohrid, just 20 minutes away. The taxis cost us just a few dollars each.

Ohrid

Ohrid is a large town in southwestern Macedonia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to it being one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe. The town is first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 BC.

In addition to its historic significance, Ohrid is known for its astounding beauty, tucked between high mountains and Lake Ohrid, which is over three million years old. It is the deepest lake of the Balkans, with a maximum depth of 288 meters or 940 feet.

Sadly our only day in Ohrid was very rainy, but we still explored the city and visited the ancient castle known as Samuel’s Fortress.

Skopje -Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is located west of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and covers about 5,000 hectares. It is home to several medieval churches, monasteries and remnants of a fortress. There are also dozens of caves to explore, and many visitors enjoy kayaking in the Treska River or on peaceful Lake Matka. We spent all of our time there hiking up to St. Nicholas Monastery, which is located on a cliff and dates back to at least the 1600s.

This place left such an impression that I am making a point to see it again before I leave the Balkans.

My spring break concluded with a short bus ride back to Kosovo. This trip left me in awe of the natural beauty of the Balkans, and I immediately began telling family and friends to come visit for their next vacation.

If you would like to see more travel pictures, check out my Instagram or read about my budget trip to Germany & Austria for Christmas!

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