Breathtaking Balkans – Journey through Albania, Kosovo, FYRO Macedonia and Bulgaria

View of the Šar (Sharr) Mountains and a village mosque from a train traveling through the Kosovo countryside.

The Balkan peninsula is an area of remarkable beauty that also happens to lie at the crossroads of multiple civilizations. This provides for the distinct advantage of enriching the area with trade and knowledge, but also carries the disadvantage of the fact that the area is constantly used as invasion route for numerous armies over the years.  This fact may be one of the main reason why this area of the world does not see much in terms of organized tourism, as fresh memories of wars in the former Yugoslavia, pyramid scheme riots in Albania, and NATO bombings combined with longstanding misconceptions about the area work together to keep away most tourists.

After touring the area with my friends and fellow public speakers Joel Oleson and Paul Swider, I can most definitely say that this lack of interest in the area is a huge mistake…the region is filled with amazing sights, sounds, foods, and a friendly and resilient population.  Like the Northern areas of the Balkans that we visited as part of an earlier trip I covered in a prior blog post, the South Balkans are amazing, inspiring, and highly recommended.  But first, let me begin the story in the country in which it began…Albania.

Albania

National History Museum in Tirana, Albania

Albania is a country whose people count themselves as descendants of the ancient Illyrians, though there is some dispute over this. What is undisputed, however, is that the Albanian national identity is strong, and is readily visible within the country of Albania.

Statue of local Albanian hero George Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu) on a horse in Skanderbeg Square (Sheshi Skënderbej) with the Et'hem Bey Mosque (Xhamia e Et'hem Beut) and the Albanian flag in the background

Our trip started in the capital, Tirana, a relatively new city founded by the Ottomans in 1614 and one that became the capital only as recently as 1920. The city itself is full of communist-era buildings, a throwback to the era when the country was ruled by Enver Hoxha, a Stalinist style ruler who ruled Albania with an iron fist from World War II until his death in 1985.Albanians relaxing in a square in Tirana, Albania

Tirana is a pleasant city, with a great vibe and dynamic population. The people there are friendly and eager to help tourists, and the majority of them that we spoke to spoke English well.

While Tirana was nice, it was a relatively new city, and Joel and Paul decided to head to the second largest city in Albania, the ancient seaport of Durrës.  Durrës has been continuously inhabited for 27 centuries, and includes the ruins of a 15,000 seat Roman amphitheater, an ancient city wall, and a Venetian tower built during the time during the time when the Republic of Venice controlled the city they called ‘”Durazzo” and incorporated it into Venetian Albania.

Old Venetian tower in Durrës, Albania

The port of Durrës is in the process of being remodeled and upgraded to be able to handle modern cruise vessels, and is often referred to as one of the up and coming cruise destinations that will likely see much more traffic in coming years. With the cruise ships comes a huge influx of money, but can also change the character of a place, unfortunately.  Given the beauty and resort qualities of this place, I can imagine that this city will become one of the next ‘it’ destinations for Europeans in coming years.

Sunset at the Port of Durrës, Albania

That evening, we had a beachside meal consisting of freshly caught seafood meal in an Italian restaurant in Durrës. Italian restaurants were the only ones we could find in Durrës, and our attempts at locating Albanian food were met with puzzled expressions, so we went with the flow and enjoyed some great seafood that evening.  After the meal, we journeyed back to Tirana for the night, then departed Albania for Pristina the next day.

Not so long ago, it used to take upwards of seven hours or more to journey between the Albanian capital and the city of Pristina in Kosovo. The old mountain road was recently replaced, however, with a new billion euro motorway known as the Albania-Kosovo Highway.  This road, nearly complete when we rode on it, drops travel times between the two cities to an easy three hours.

Tunnel entrance near Thirra, Albania in the new Albania-Kosovo Highway (A1) from Albania to Kosovo

One last note on Albania…as we drove through the countryside, we kept noticing military style bunkers scattered through the countryside. It turns out that the communist government of Enver Hoxha had a particular obsession with building bunkers to defend the country against imagined invaders.  Over the course of his rule over 700,000 total bunkers were constructed…one for every four inhabitants within the country.  The idea was that the Albanian civilians would man these bunkers, defending the Albanian country one person at a time from an enemy that never came.  Now, however, the bunkers slowly fall apart or are converted to other uses, a bizarre experiment as part of one of the staunchest communist governments of all time.

Hoxha Bunkers in Albania near the Albanian Alps

Kosovo

Giant flag of Kosovo in Idriz Seferi Square, Pristina, Kosovo

Kosovo. Simply uttering the name invites controversy. Depending on who you talk to, Kosovo it either a breakaway republic of Serbia or a full-fledged independent nation. Kosovo declared it’s independence unilaterally from Serbia in 2008 after what came to be known as the Kosovo War in 1999 and the subsequent involvement of a NATO-led international peacekeeping force known as KFOR (Kosovo Force.) KFOR has Kosovo divided into various sectors, a US, British, French, German, and Italian sector, an arrangement strangely reminicent of the division of Berlin after WWII.  While we were there, we also noted several vehicles on the main highway with KFOR emblazoned on them, including this and several other German TPz ‘Fuchs’ armored personnel carriers.

A Kosovo Force (KFOR) German TPz ‘Fuchs’ armored personnel carrier on the road near Pristina, Kosovo

Upon arrival in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, we met up with Betim Drenica, a local Microsoft expert who graciously offered to show us around and also organized a small speaking engagement for us in Pristina.  Upon meeting him, we immediately went to visit the extensive and unique Marble Cave complex (Shpella e Gadimes) near the municipality of Lipljan. This cave was discovered recently, in 1966, and is still mostly unexplored.  What makes this cave complex unique is that it is made of of marble that is formed from the metamorphosis of limestone.  Unfortunately they don’t allow pictures inside, but the features in the cave were amazing, and involved standard stalactites, stalagmites, and a unique type of crystal that looks like it is growing upwards and sideways against the forces of gravity.

Entrance to the Marble cave (Shpella e Gadimes) in Kosovo

After a tour of the marble cave, we went back into Pristina to explore the city itself.  The most significant and identifiable monument in Kosovo is known as the Newborn Monument, and is a large steel monument that was built to mark the declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. Incidentally, what looks like graffiti on the monument is actually the inscribed names of celebrants who scribbled their names into the monument the day it opened.

'Newborn' monument in Pristina, Kosovo

Pristina is a lively city with a dynamic population. Mother Teresa Boulevard (named after the famous Albanian nun,) forms part of a pedestrian boulevard that stretches through a particularly pleasant part of the city. Other interesting street names in the city are Bush Street and Clinton Street, showing the popularity of the US presidents and their role in organizing the NATO bombing and the subsequent declaration of Kosovo independence. Both Bush and Clinton street intersect, incidentally, giving it a bit of an ironic twist.

Pedestrians on Mother Teresea Boulevard in Pristina, Kosovo

While the majority of the population in Kosovo is Albanian, ethic Serbs make up the second highest concentration within the country. While many have fled since the 1999 NATO bombing and the declaration of Kosovo Independence in 2008, there are still several enclaves of Serbs, particularly near the border with Serbia and in the famous divided city of Mitrovica.  Near Pristina, we toured one of the smaller Serb villages, an enclave known as Laplje Selo (Лапље Село.)  There were no current signs of ethnic tensions while we visited, and no visible KFOR presence in the town when we visited, but you could feel a sense of tension in the air in this place.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Laplje Selo (Лапље Село,) a Serb enclave near Prishtina, Kosovo

Our evening in Kosovo ended with a meal in a traditional Albanian restaurant. Of particular note were the vegetables and the cheese…some of the best I’ve tasted.

Albanian dinner in Pristina, Kosovo

Our visit to Kosovo was short, however, and we were due in Skopje the next day for an event to be held there.  Upon advice from Betim, we boarded an old communist-era train from just outside of Pristina to the border.

Preparing to take a train from Pristina, Kosovo to Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

The train itself was run-down and stopped at every small town along the way.  Despite that, however, the scenery along the train corridor was incredibly beautiful, and we had a great time enjoying the view of the snow-capped mountains of the Šar (Sharr) Mountains, picturesque villages, and locals in their daily pursuits.

View of the Šar (Sharr) Mountains from the train that travels between Pristina, Kosovo to the border with FYRO Macedonia

The train ride to the border took around two hours or so, and at that point you board a separate train and then it’s another 30 minutes or so while the border formalities are completed.  From there, it’s another 45 minutes or so to the city of Skopje, our next destination.

View of a minaret and the Šar (Sharr) Mountains from the train that travels between Pristina, Kosovo to the border with FYRO Macedonia

FYRO Macedonia

Stone Bridge over the Vardar river in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

OK, first, let me get this out of the way…the country immediately to the south of Kosovo is officially known by the UN as the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,’ and is often listed as ‘FYRO Macedonia’ on maps and official documentation.  Locally, however, it’s simply referred to as Macedonia or officially the ‘Republic of Macedonia,’ but calling it by this name invites controversy, as the Greeks oppose the use of the term Macedonia in the country name, claiming it creates confusion between the country, the region of Macedonia and the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia that gave rise to Alexander the Great.

The controversial 'Warrior on a Horse' statue that looks suspiciously like Alexander the Great of Macedon in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

Putting aside the controversy, the FYRO Macedonia is a beautiful place, and the capital, Skopje, is especially so.  Skopje holds around a third of the total population of the country, and has a long and interesting history. The remains of Neolitic settlements from 4000 BC have been found within the walls of the Skopje (Kale) Fortress that overlooks the center of the city.

Skopje Fortress and Bronze Lion on the Goce Delchev Bridge in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

One interesting note about the FYRO Macedonia is that you will find their very pronounced yellow and red flag all over the place, flying from rooftops and in every major square and building in the city of Skopje. The flag itself was born out of the same naming controversy, as it replaced the original version of the country’s flag which included the Vergina Sun, a symbol of ancient Macedon believed to have been associated with King Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.  The Greeks protested the use of this symbol on the flag, and as part of a compromise that led to diplomatic recognition between the two countries, they changed the flag to its current design, one that is both striking and beautiful.

Self portrait at the Skopje Fortress in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

80% of the buildings in Skopje were destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1963, including much of the previous neo-classical buildings and cultural monuments of the time.  Since then, Skopje has been in the process of re-building and changing the look and feel of the city itself.

Philip II of Macedonia Arena (Арена Филип II Македонски) in Skopje, Macedonia

As part of an effort to reclaim some of cultural monuments lost in the earthquake, the city of Skopje is currently undergoing a transformation to a more monumental capital, a project they refer to as “Skopje 2014.” The end result of this project will be a large number of statues, fountains, bridges, museums, and other new buildings.  There is a bit of controversy about this, as some citizens believe it is turning Skopje into a ‘Disneyish’ version of itself, but I thought most of the monuments and sculptures were interesting and well-placed.

Whimsical statues of women diving into the Vardur River in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

Also recently constructed in the city is the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, who was originally born in Skopje.  It seems everyone in the general area wants to get a piece of Mother Teresa, as we found that Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all have monuments built to honor this amazing woman.

Statue of Mother Teresa at the Memorial House of Mother Teresa in Skopje, FYRO Macedonia

While the center of Skopje was a fascinating place to walk around, the most interesting place for us to visit was the Šuto Orizari municipality, just north of the center of Skopje. What makes Šuto Orizari unique is that is the only municipality in the world where Romani (Gypsies) form a majority of the population.

Residents of Šuto Orizari (Шуто Оризари,) Macedonia - The largest Romani (Gypsy) Community in the world

Paul, Joel and I had always been fascinated by the Romani (Gypsy) people, having run into them many times in our travels across Europe. It was subsequently eye-opening for us to see this place, where thousands of ethnic Roma were working, speaking the Romani language, and just going about their daily lives.

Street scene in Šuto Orizari (Шуто Оризари,) FYRO Macedonia

Despite all of the rumors and stereotypes about the Roma, we never felt threatened or in danger while we were here. On the contrary, we were welcomed by multiple people, and were quite the curiosity while we were wandering about. Of course I’m not sure many tourists make it out here, particularly not to the side streets and back alleyways of the municipality.

Teenagers in Šuto Orizari (Шуто Оризари,) FYRO Macedonia - The largest Romani (Gypsy) Community in the world

The Romani people have a very interesting past…they originated from the Indian subcontinent, and migrated towards the northwest and eventually Europe, arriving in the 1300s.  Over the years, they have unfortunately been abused and mistreated on multiple occasions, a rather insidious form or prejudice known as Antiziganism that can unfortunately still be found in many communities today.

The term ‘Gypsy’ to describe the Romani comes from the Greek word for Egyptian, which was born from a misconception that the Romani were actually from Egypt.  The properly accepted term to use is Romani, though Roma is also used extensively.

Horse and cart in Šuto Orizari (Шуто Оризари,) FYRO Macedonia - The largest Romani (Gypsy) Community in the world

One of the highlights of our time in the municipality was when we ran into a group of Romani children on one of the side streets who were enthralled to have their picture and video taken. The smiles on these children’s faces says it all.

Romani (Gypsy, Roma) Children in Šuto Orizari (Шуто Оризари,) FYRO Macedonia

The event we spoke at in Skopje was well attended and extremely well organized thanks to the efforts of our local friend Darko Milevski. After the event was complete, we had another amazing Balkan meal, then we set off the next morning for the last stop on our trip, the city of Sofia in Bulgaria!  On the three hour drive we enjoyed one last look at the people and sights of this unique and interesting country.

Banner displaying the Vergina Sun on the road between Skopje, Macedonia and the border with Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgaria, the final stop on this trip, was an absolute joy to visit. To put it this way, it made it to the short list of countries that I would consider moving to if the opportunity arose. Friendly people, good climate, and a language I can almost understand (it’s close enough to Russian, which I speak.)  But most of all, what did it for me was the vegetables. They really have to be the best in the world here, simply amazing. Maybe it’s the soil, or the way its farmed here, but every tomato, carrot, pepper, and cucumber here was simply mouth-watering.

Bulgaria is a country in transition, like many of the countries in the region. It is midway between the old socialist system that was in place for years and the new democracy that was transitioned in starting in 1989.  Bulgaria has made some great strides in recent years, leading up to its inclusion in the European Union in 2007 and continuing into the present day.

Bulgarian horse and cart on the drive from the Macedonian border to Sofia, Bulgaria

The capital city, Sofia, is a stunning city filled with beautiful architecture and a very pedestrian-friendly layout. We left the event center for our own tour of the city, which started at the most significant monument in the town, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Храм-паметник „Свети Александър Невски“.)

Facade of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Храм-паметник „Свети Александър Невски“,) in Sofia, Bulgaria

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1912 and is the second largest cathedral in the Balkans. It was named after the Russian Saint Alexander Nevsky, in tribute to the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 that resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria from the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

Door of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

The cathedral is an impressive monument, and is open to the public. They discourage the use of cameras while inside, but suffice it to say the interior is large and impressive and typical of Eastern Orthodox cathedrals.

Self-portrait near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is relatively new in terms of construction, and especially so compared to its immediate neighbor, the church for whom the city of Sofia was named…the Hagia Sophia Church.  This church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I during the mid-6th century, making it the second oldest church in the city, after the Church of St. George nearby.  It was at least the fifth structure built on the location, a site that previously held several churches and a 2nd century Roman theater.

Hagia Sofia Cathedral (църква „Света София“) in Sofia, Bulgaria

Another beautiful church nearby in Sofia is known as the Russian Church, built as the official church of the Russian Embassy next door.

The Russian Church (Руска църква) in Sofia, Bulgaria

The Russian Church has a distinct Russian flavor to its architecture, particularly when compared to the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, which retains more of a Bulgarian Orthodox style.

Facade of the Russian Church (Руска църква) in Sofia, Bulgaria

A short walk from the Russian Church takes you to the Sofia City Garden, the oldest central garden in Sofia and a place swarming with people playing chess, strolling around, and simply enjoying this fine city.

Chess games in the Sofia City Garden in the center of Sofia, Bulgaria

We wandered through the park, taking in the intense chess playing and the extremely talented street musicians. I still can’t get that song out of my head that the musicians were playing. Immediately adjacent to the City Garden is the famous Ivan Vazov National Theater (Народен театър „Иван Вазов“.) The neoclassical façade of the building is stunning, and extremely photogenic.

Ivan Vazov National Theater (Народен театър „Иван Вазов“) in Sofia, Bulgaria

The city of Sofia is well served by public transport, and it is easy to take a tram or a bus all around the city, which we had a chance to do on our way back later that day. There is even a single line Metro available, though we didn’t get a chance to take that this time unfortunately.

Tram on a street in Sofia, Bulgaria

And, as I mentioned earlier…the best part of Bulgaria has got to be the food. Each meal we had in Bulgaria was amazing, but the prize for the best meal went to a lunch we had at the Restaurant Manastirska Magernitza (Ресторант Манастирска Магерница,) a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. If the vegetables in Bulgaria are great…then these vegetables were transcendental. Every dish we had was amazing, and it was one of the better meals we had on the entire trip, which is really saying something.

Joel and Paul dining in the patio of the Restaurant Manastirska Magernitza (Ресторант Манастирска Магерница) in Sofia, Bulgaria

With heavy heart, Paul and I departed the Balkans the next day, en route to another event in the States that week. Joel did manage to stay around a few more days, however, a topic he wrote about in his blog post on the trip.

Both times I have toured the Balkans I have had a wonderful time, and the two trips rank up there with some of my best experiences overall. It can’t be just a coincidence, instead it really has to do with the fact that this area of the world is simply a phenomenal place to visit and tour.  I heartily recommend you place any prejudgment about the area aside and explore for yourself, you won’t be disappointed!

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