The Balkans: Macedonia and Albania 

A four hour bus journey took us through the Greek borders and into Macedonia towards the capital city of Skopje. Built at the foot of the Balkan mountain Vodno, Skopje is surprisingly flat with a busy urban city. From the bus station we walked to find our hostel where the owner Bobby (we later learned that he was named after Bobby Charlton!) was very welcoming and made us feel at home. Settling in and after having a quick power nap, we made our way into the centre of the city to have a wander. Walking through the streets towards the centre Stone Bridge which connects the north and south banks, it was clear that only new buildings existed in the city due to previous earthquakes. Much of the main square was was covered in various statues from Alexander the Great to those dedicated to the poor and Macedonian people, (it looked like Macedonia’s version of Trafalgar Square!)
The next day we woke to Bobby cooking a popular chutney/salsa called Ajvar, he spent the whole day roasting red peppers and aubergines, slow cooking it on a great outdoor fire… returning after walking towards The Cross which stood at the top of Mount Vodno, we were delighted to see that Bobby had saved us a portion of Ajvar on bread and it was absolutely delicious!!! The slow cooking process had paid off, leaving a sweet but slightly tangy and spicy sauce packed with flavour and a smell that would literally make your mouth water and even possibly drool! We devoured it in seconds. Many of the Baltic countries make Ajvar with their pepper produce as well as pickling others and keeping them in a number of jars to preserve and keep for the winter months, (found out that we can also get this is England!! Will definitely be stocking up on this item when we return!)

A quick change and we headed back out, over Stone Bridge and the Vardar River towards the old town of Skopje. As one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the Balkans, this Bazaar has been Skopje’s centre for trade and commerce from the 15th century and you can literally find anything you could possibly need if you couldn’t find it in a normal shop (I guess Skopje’s version of our Woolworths but with a greater variety), we even purchased some pepper spray as an extra precaution whilst travelling. The prices is Macedonia are ridiculously cheap in comparison to what we had been paying in Greece; we met a few German couples who holiday in Macedonia for this reason as well as the beautiful mountains. Walking around we saw many building and monuments splashed with colour but with no explanation why. We later found out that these colourful splashes were a peaceful protest towards the government; the government was spending grant money in trying to bring tourists into the capital rather than help the Macedonian people benefit from the money for hospitals and shelters for the poor. Understandable in their want to protest, it is surprising that this means of colourful paint bombs were used, beautiful to see and definitely more peaceful instead of the violence that’s could have been used.

Later that evening after dinner we continued to walk around the main square and meander our way back to our hostel (walking in the late hours of the evening when not many people are about really gives you a different view to the place you are visiting!)

From Skopje we caught the bus to Ohrid, a charming seaside town on the west coast of Macedonia, famous for its beautiful lake. Surrounded by an atmospheric old town cascading down a graceful hill, crammed full of beautiful churches and open theatres, and topped by the bones of a medieval castle, the charm is evident in its cobbled streets lined with traditional restaurants and lakeside cafes with fantastic views that only adds Ohrid’s attraction.

The waterfront of Lake Ohrid is devastatingly serene, with a lovely beach promenade inviting you to swim into the still warm water. 

Sitting down for dinner in a restaurant hidden on the edge of the hills with a balcony view, it was absolutely breathtaking to watch the colours of the sky and lake, change before our eyes for sunset. A wonderful place to take some time out and just relax.

The next morning we caught the bus to Struga, a stopping point midway to Albania, that also sits further along Lake Ohrid. A quieter town than Ohrid, Struga is still popular with the tourists with the impressive river Crn Drim running through, with views of the crystal clear waters seen whilst walking along the banks.

Back on the bus and this time to Tirana, Albania, the first thing we noticed was how this country was more real, seeing a horse guided by its owner, the farmer using the horse to plough the land. It was incredible to see just how basic the farming was in comparison to Lincolnshire which did everything in mass with machinery. Tirana is lively and colourful, the vibrant capital city culminates the Albanian hopes and dreams with busy traffic, brash consumerism and unadulterated fun. Since the communist slumber in the early 90’s, we could see how Tirana had reformed with an extraordinary transformation of colourful buildings, newly paved public squares, and pedestrian streets which allowed us to wander freely.

The Albanians are really lovely people as well; we had heard so many warnings yet everyone we encountered was really nice. Walking around the city centre, I had never seen so many hair salons and betting shops along just one strip of road, but hardly any places to eat; there was one main area to eat for dinner, straying away to find food elsewhere was impossible (we weren’t too sure where everyone ate unless it was behind closed doors in their own homes). On our daily evening walk through Tirana surrounded by flush boutiques and grand boulevards lined with relics, we stopped in a little cafe (which resembled a French patisserie inside) with amazing cake for our dessert.

Wandering through the park towards a cool structure which looked like an art installation, we sat on the outside and watched people go by. Inside was an area where poetry was read and an indie rock chick band played! Really not what we were expecting from walking around but we stayed to listen and enjoyed the cool arty vibe that was created in this amazing place – a private little room created by the sculpture/installation that inspired flair and creativity through young people’s passion for the arts – a city that is truly never dull, just make sure your belly is full before wandering!

Deciding to see some of the Balkan Peninsula region we caught a bus to Shkodër which we would use as base for a hiking trip. After an evening meal, cooked locally by our hostel owner (made from fresh produce grown in his massive vegetable garden), we woken up early the next morning to catch a minibus to Theth where our walk would begin. A bus journey that should have taken two hours maximum, we left our hostel at seven in the morning and arrived in Theth at 12.30. Sat in the front of the minibus, gave us a great view of the road ahead, at that time of the morning, there was no traffic to contend with at all. The driver, full of life, proceeded to stop along the way picking up as many people as possible on their way towards Theth, picking up and dropping off parcels along the way, as well as stopping off at a builders merchants. At first we thought he was just collecting a man who seemed to be waiting; yet again I was proved wrong by the unpredictability of crazy bus drivers as he spoke animatedly to the merchants, wanting steel reinforcement bar mesh (used with concrete for foundations). Choosing the largest of the sheets available he purchased them and then proceeded to forklift them onto the top of the minibus! Hilariously watching them, whilst slightly anxious for my life as I watched from inside the minibus, the crazy determination of them managed to secure the rebar on and after maybe an hour or so in the merchants yard we left with the extra heavy weight of the steel as our minibus hat!!

Winding firstly up and then down the mountainside roads and dirt tracks, we arrived in thankfully one piece (thanks to the skilful if somewhat questionable driving skills of our crazy driver). The beautiful small village of Theth, set in the mountainous national park remains remote and isolated from the rest of the world, a truly breathtaking and unspoilt landscape!

Autumn colours starting to show in the forest mountains above, we walked along the Theth River showed us the beautiful church, the traditional way of stacking their hay, and the rushing river leading to an incredible canyon.

An early start, we began our hike from Theth to Valbonë, the three hour ascend to the mountain pass took us five hours along an old mule track and mainly through the forest. Interspersed with breaks of eating and resting we took in the magnificent view. Clouds hugged the tops of the panoramic mountains, and once the sun struggled and broke through, rays of sunlight kissed the trees and brought out the beginnings of beautiful autumn. Stopping for a while under the forest canopy, we even saw an inquisitive pine martin entering his home in the mountain trees, fascinated with us as much as we were him! Such a rare thing to see, we watched it for a while until it disappeared into its hole within the trees. Halfway up to the pass we sat at a little cafe entirely crafted from wood, even the seating was made from cut logs.

At the top of the pass we took a moment to appreciate our surroundings – exquisite natural beauty surrounding us from all sides.

Descending down to Valbonë took less time but with even more breathtaking scenery than we thought possible. The rocky peaks from the pass downwards were painted with colours of autumnal vegetation. A steep and zig-zagged trail led us through a forest of rare trees and beautiful rich meadows, and eventually to a gravel river bed road.

That night we stayed with a local family in their guesthouse where they made us the most amazing meal of Greek salad, lamb (from the sheep they were farming) and crushed sweetcorn soup called ‘chorrp’, Albanian sausage, and homemade yoghurt from the cows’ and sheeps’ milk. Simple but delicious, especially after the long day of walk that we had accomplished.

Returning to Shkodër took us a day in travelling back: a minibus to the nearest major town (an hours drive away), a wait of two hours in a cafe before getting another minibus to Fierza. Here we would be getting the local ferry across the Komani Lake to Koman. Before boarding the ferry, (we had a three hour wait before it arrived!), we spotted some communist bunkers in the hills which we spent some time exploring.

The three hour ferry journey over the Komani Lake took us towards the Koman Dam. The ferry boat was dwarfed massively by the sheer walls of the mountain peaks for some stretches of the lake, other times the lake opened out to show magnificent views of the high peaks that the mountains offered.

Disembarking the ferry at Koman Dam, which hosts a hydro-electrical power station, we caught another minibus which dropped us off at our hostel in Shkodër two and a half hours later. Hungry and tired from the long day of travelling, we grabbed a quick dinner before climbing into our bunk beds for a good nights sleep.

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