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.

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Escape from the Ash Cloud: Journey Across Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, Spain, and Andorra

Cesta (De la Fratta), the highest of the Three Peaks on Mount Titano in the European microstate of San Marino

In every traveler’s life, there comes a time when things don’t go according to plan. Flight cancellations, lost luggage, and breakdowns in transportation inconvenience thousands of travelers every day. But on one week in April, 2010, the travel plans of millions of travelers in Europe were interrupted simultaneously by a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland, grounding thousands of flights and throwing the entire continent into panic mode. As it happened, this little travel ‘disruption’ caught me and my fellow travelers Joel Oleson and Paul Swider while we were in the Balkans (blog post on that trip here), stranding us on the continent and interrupting our plans to continue on to an event in London.

In the strange world of happenstance, I had actually driven right by this Icelandic volcano earlier in the year, a trip I covered in an earlier post on Iceland. It still seemed oddly coincidental that it decided to erupt a few short months later, but I promise that I didn’t deliberately pour any baking soda into the volcano when I was there to try to make my life more interesting.

In any case, after a fascinating and education trip through the Balkans, Joel, Paul and I had a decision to make. Sit out the ash cloud on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia or try to get home via other methods? Stirring the spirit of adventure in the three of us, we opted for the second option, making the determination that we would make every effort to get out of there as soon as we could. We were able to identify that flights were still leaving from Barcelona, Spain, and it looked likely that we would be able to get home from there, IF we were able to make it there in the first place.

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Remnants of a Hapsburg Empire: Serbia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, Montenegro, and Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Mention of the Hapsburg Empire conjures up images of Mozart, Viennese waltzes, and Austrian Dukes.  But outside of the aristocratic musings in the capital, Vienna, a vast empire was stitched together over the years through various alliances, allegiances, and wars.  While todays map of Europe may make this easy to forget, at one time the Hapsburg Empire controlled vast swaths of Europe, including a large portion of the Balkan peninsula, an area I visited in April, 2010.

On an invitation from a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Joel Oleson, Paul Swider, and I set off for Zagreb to speak at an event there, with the final destination of our trip being a large conference to be held in London a few days later. No Problem! We figured we’d tour the area, then fly from the city of Dubrovnik to London the day before the event was to begin.

As can probably be ascertained simply by reading this blog, I tend to be a fairly methodical logistical planner when it comes to my trips.  All the logistical planning in the world can’t help you, however, if a massive Icelandic volcano spews ash all over Europe, shutting down nearly all flights across the continent over the period of a week.  And as a result of this turn of events, our journey changed from a leisurely trip to London into a frenetic journey across Europe to escape the Ash Cloud.  That, however, is another blog post, as I must first start the story in the Balkans, where it all began.

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