Our Balkan Bayram Adventure
Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
331Trip End Ongoing
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Knowing how long it takes me to actually upload all the photos and write entries, I thought it would be a good idea to type up a quick recap now.
We started our trip in Macedonia, where we spent a mere two and a half days. We flew into Skopje, the capital city, late on Thursday, August 25th and stayed the night and half of the next day.
From there we took a bus to Ohrid, a stunning town set on a border lake with almost more churches than people. While there we walked up and down the town streets, exploring the little chapels and finishing the day on the shores of Lake Ohrid. It was a place we could easily have stayed to enjoy and relax, but our goal was to get through five countries in three weeks, so on Sunday, August 28th we hit the road and headed south. After taking a short detour to check out the monastery at Sveti Naum, we rolled to the Albanian border and made our way into country number two.
We had hemmed and hawed about Albania. While doing the research for the trip, I got quite excited about visiting, but worried about the time it would take to properly see the places we'd want to (and what we would have to cut out from the rest of the trip to do it). We went back and forth on whether to include it in our itinerary or not, and when we first set off for the Balkans, we had scratched it off the list. While in Ohrid, we called an audible and decided to add it, eventually moving things around and gaining five days in the country. We couldn't have made a better decision; Albania was in many ways our favorite of the trip.
Our first destination was Gjirokastra, an old Ottoman town in the southeast of the country. It didn't look terribly far on the map, but with the winding roads and limited transit options, it wasn't a distance we could cover in one day, so we spent the night in a city called Korca. Half of the next day was occupied by a mind-boggling bus ride through the amazing mountains of southeastern Albania. The other half was spent in Gjirokastra, which turned out to be my favorite place in Albania.
After spinning our way through eastern Albania, we cruised across to the coast and spent two days on the beaches of Dhermi and Drymades. The lower half of the western coast is called the "Albanian Riviera." I haven't been to the French Riviera, so I can't compare the actual scenery, but I can definitely tell you that the Albanian version is about 1/100th the price (perhaps more!) and is probably a million times less crowded.
The only blemish on our Albanian adventure was the last leg of our trip. We did our best to get from Dhermi all the way across the border in one day, but missed the last bus and ended up stranded in the border city of Skhodra for the night. There were a lot of reasons we didn't like the city, but the thing I'll always remember is slicing my foot open on a random piece of metal sticking up out of the sidewalk while we walked to the bus. It was a bloody mess, both in the American and British sense, but we were both well over Skhodra and wanted to get out, so we did our best to wrap it up so we could make the bus and get over the border.
We planned to go straight to the coastal town of Budva, but our first destination in Montenegro turned out to be the hospital. Never fear, it wasn't terribly serious, but the foot injury altered our itinerary yet again and eliminated some activities I would have liked to do. Montenegro is a tiny country, but is jam packed with holiday goodness. We only gave ourselves four days there, but would love to go back and do more in the future -- including getting up to Durmitor National Park, a place we had to skip because I couldn't do the hiking with my bum foot.
Instead we spent two days a piece in the coastal towns of Budva and Kotor. Both towns have wonderful walled old towns that I hobbled around, and in Kotor we joined another couple and rented a car and drove around the bay, a place often described as fjordlike.
Croatia (Part One):
Given the short distances between most places in the Balkans, and the relatively high cost of accommodation in Dubrovnik, we decided to just spend an afternoon there, moving quickly onto Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unfortunately, the bus ride from Kotor to Dubrovnik took over four hours instead of the two we anticipated (largely because of the excessively slow border control). As a result, we basically ran through Dubrovnik's old town, trying to squeeze in as much as possible before zooming back to the bus station and crossing into our fifth country of the trip.
While three weeks might sound like a long time, in reality it wasn't, and we had to shortchange a number of countries and be selective about the places we included to get through it all in time. Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of the countries that got the short end of the stick. We only had enough time to include two places, Mostar and Sarajevo, and only spent three days in the country. What we did see we loved, and we'd jump at the chance to go back to see more or to witness Sarajevo in the snow.
Croatia (Part Two):
A night bus ferried us out of Bosnia-Herzegovina and back to Croatia, where we ended up in the coastal city of Split. After trying to sleep in the bus station for a few hours before the sun came up, we checked our bags and walked dazedly through the old town for a few hours before hopping on a ferry to the island of Hvar.
On Hvar our good times came to an end; while there we received the news that Diego had been lost. That will forever taint our impression of Croatia, and of the whole trip. Now that it's months later, I can look back on our time there and be a bit more objective and appreciate Croatia more than I could when it was all fresh. I can now say that there are lots of good things about the country, and that there were moments when we able to enjoy ourselves and the beauty of the islands we visited.
No good news came in about Diego, so after four days on Hvar (only one of which was after we heard the news) we made our way north, trying to get closer to the airport so that we could change our flights and head back to Istanbul early if he remained missing. We stopped off at the island of Rab where we stayed for three nights. It was wild and wonderful, but it was difficult for us to enjoy it to the fullest while Diego was missing. In the end we changed our tickets and flew back to Istanbul a few days early so we could take part in the search (which you can read about in another blog).
It was obviously an awful way to end a trip and a horrible way to start a new school year, but, as I said, in retrospect I'm able to look back on it in a more positive light now. We hit five countries in 22 days, managed to mix beach lazing with more physical activities like hiking, and saw an entirely different and unique part of the world. It's a trip I'm very glad we took, but one that will obviously always be tainted because of "what if"s.