The time of year had come to plan for another worldwide adventure. My friend Robyn and I had heard a lot about Croatia as a popular destination, leading us to research the region. The U.S. Dollar was also strong against the Euro and most European currencies, so it was a perfect time to travel to Europe. Our past experiences, as you might know, had been to Latin American countries, so it was time to switch it up.
We of course wanted to hit up Croatia, but we researched the region and were fascinated by the recent history of the breakup of Yugoslavia. After much research of several of the Balkan countries and looking at flight schedules and cities, we landed on Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. For those wondering where these countries are on a map, they are just to the east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea and north of Greece. SIX countries in ONE trip? Yes, if you look at a map, it’s almost the equivalent of driving from Chicago to Kentucky, so it wasn’t that bad. The terrain, however, differs quite a bit (I’ll talk about that later). After a couple of days of looking at flight/cost scenarios and learning all the rules and regulations of border crossing between countries, we clicked “book trip” and were set to travel to Southeastern Europe in late October.
Before the Trip
Those friends who we reached out to from the region were SO excited to hear that we were visiting their former homeland, as it’s not popular among Americans for tourism. Most asked, “Why are you going in October? The best time to go is in the summer!” Well, when you live in Chicago, you have to spend summers in the Windy City because the rest of the year is pretty much freezing. Robyn and I also don’t need sun and a beach for traveling, as it’s more about the experience and adventures. I also reached out to my colleagues at the Google Croatia office in Zagreb. They provided me with wonderful recommendations regarding rental car companies, watch-outs, and points of interest.
Robyn and I did quite a bit of research about driving in the Balkans. We had to make sure that the countries we were traveling to allowed entry and exit across borders. We chose Sixt as our rental car company and double-checked pick-up and drop-off locations. We were especially concerned about travel in and out of Kosovo, as it’s still a disputed territory. Also, the region still has some leftover tension from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, ranging from religion, warfare, politics and alliances. While we didn’t receive any criticism as American tourists, we were vigilant that our car had a Macedonian license plate. Keep in mind that we did not travel to Serbia (excluding Kosovo), a big player in the breakup of the former Communist region.
To prepare for the trip, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet, as some of the region uses this in communication, signs, and everyday language (especially Macedonia). For example, here are the translations of the countries using the Cyrillic alphabet:
Macedonia = Македонија
Kosovo = Косово
We knew we would struggle with the language barrier in this region (and we definitely did!).
We also prepared for the continuous change of currencies throughout the region, as most of the countries do not use the Euro: Macedonia (Macedonian Denar), Kosovo (Euro), Albania (Albanian Lek), Montenegro (Euro), Croatia (Croatian Kuna), Bosnia & Herzegovina (Bosnian Marks). Don’t try to use Macedonian Denars, for example, in Montenegro. They will look at you like you are nuts! The currency exchange locations throughout the region were a bit snobbish if you tried exchanging a foreign currency in which they despised.
All of our lodging we booked through Airbnb, a home-sharing site that has become super popular over the past year or so. With this option, we were able to keep prices low while still finding unique and convenient places to stay across the region.
October 22, 2015 – Crossing the Atlantic to Zürich
We left from Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) airport in the evening for an overnight trip to Zürich, Switzerland. The last time I had been on a flight across the Atlantic was my return flight from London in 2011, in which I began to have reflections of the leg room agony of a 6’5″ adult. I sat in the middle of the airplane and quickly connected my headphones as a girl to my right was in full breakdown mode (tears and all); I think one of her relatives/friends was not allowed on the plane because of an expired passport. Whoops. The passengers consisted mostly of German or Swiss-German speakers. I watched the Hunger Games knock-off movie “Divergent” to pass some time before falling asleep. I woke up again when we were flying over France, a quick shot to Zürich from there.
October 23, 2015 – Settling in Skopje (Or at Least Trying to)
By the time you travel eastward across the world as the globe turns in the other direction, you lose pretty much an entire day of your life. Anyways, we arrived in Zürich and transferred to our flight to Skopje, Macedonia. The passenger clientele changed quite a bit from our previous flight; dark features, fashion differences, noticeable religious preferences, and the all-so-obvious language change in-which-I-know-you-are-not-from-a-place-I-am-familiar-with.
The flight took about 2.5 hours from Zürich to Skopje. A few Germans got rowdy in the front of the plane, influenced by the quick downing of European spirits. The flight surprisingly offered “lunch,” which included a brick of bread with chicken pieces and sauce spread in-between. I believe a word related to “schnitzel” was thrown around, but I’m not sure the dish deserved a name.
Quickly we landed in Skopje, the first city in our adventure through the Balkans. Luggage arrived <THANK GOD> , check. As previously mentioned, we chose Sixt as our rental car company and received our white Opal Astra from the airport. The attendant was super nice and helpful, but of course had to scan our lives away (passports, driver’s license, paperwork, etc.).
Robyn volunteered to start us out on this trip, and I gracefully let her have the honors since I drove first when we traveled to Costa Rica. Keep in mind that Robyn and I do not have a car or drive in the United States. In the Garmin we punched the address of our first Airbnb reservation, which was located in central Skopje. Despite it being cloudy, the drive from the airport to the city was beautiful, with green mountainous countryside and unfinished homes showing up sporadically alongside the road. The signs, as expected, were headlined in Cyrillic letters but also translated into English.
Once we arrived in the city, traffic was low, but the traffic signals were hard to understand. People would honk even if it was a red light, so we erred on the side of caution and just waited for a green signal. The buildings looked run down with graffiti covering the lower levels of the cityscape. We navigated to where Garmin took us, which was obviously not where we needed to be. We asked some locals for driving directions (who were likely staring at us because of Robyn’s red hair). I contacted the Airbnb host and met her at the Greek Embassy, which was about a block away from our stay. We parked, and she showed us around the apartment. We were on the top of a five-story building and had a great balcony with a view of the city. She was so welcoming and excited to host us.
We walked around the city to make the most of the day we had left. The streets were dark with lots of stray cats. We went to a mall/supermarket to buy some water and snacks and also got some local currency (denars). Robyn and I later purchased some cheap cigarettes, as EVERYONE in the city appeared to be smoking. When in Rome! (Disclaimer: Mom/family/friends – I do not smoke in the U.S., so do not be concerned about the subsequent mention of cigarettes 🙂 ) I took my first selfie with a graffiti backdrop to commemorate arrival in Skopje.
Later on, we ran into the Macedonia Square, a beautiful city center flanked with a Greek-style triumphal arch and statues. Alexander the Great on a Horse stood on top of the city center fountain, lit up with red and yellow colors (from Macedonia’s flag). This area is a recent development in the late 2000’s to commemorate the 20th anniversary of independence from Yugoslavia. At times, the fountain and muffled music would coincide to create a light and water show; this was neat, but also seemed like a desperate attempt to excite tourists. Nearby is the Vardar River that intersects the city, with the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia lit up in the colors of the flag as well. We went down toward the Stone Bridge where we snapped our first “travel buddy” pics.
We ate at a restaurant near the plaza called La Terrazza. I had a stuffed meat Macedonian dish with a Metaxa to drink. The Metaxa (a strong brandy) cleared up the pipes, that’s for sure. As we went to pay, I realized I did not have my driver’s license (cue the panic button). Robyn then questioned hers as well, and realized she didn’t have hers either. CRAP. I knew it had to be at the airport when the attendant was so excited to help us Americans that he accidentally left the DL’s on the copy machine. We called the airport and he denied that he would have left them there. He soon after went to check and found them where we assumed; later that night, they drove them to us from the airport. CRISIS AVERTED.
We walked home with a little pep-in-our-step as the streets were not well-lit and the graffiti-dominant surroundings weren’t the best of backdrops to feel secure. When we arrived back, we went up to our floor and got out the key to open the door. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t get it to open. Robyn then tried. Then I tried. Then PANIC SET IN. Were we being stupid about opening the door? What did we do wrong? We double-checked to make sure we were on the right floor. Yep. We tried a few more times before calling our host who actually lives in the bottom of the same building. The host came to try and couldn’t get it open either! He then had to call a handyman to help out. We were nervous because it was a national holiday that day and it was late (around 11 p.m.). The hosts invited us to their place to wait for a bit; we played with their gigantic house dog and chatted about Skopje and the region. Luckily a large man in a bright red sweater showed up to help open the mystery door. He essentially had to saw off the lock to get us in. Apparently the door has multiple locks the more you turn the key, and one of the locks got stuck. Luckily we made it in but had to sleep with no door lock, which we didn’t even care at that point. What an interesting way to start out the trip! I was, however, excited to be in a new culture, adventure and part of the world.
October 24, 2015 – Anticipating the Unknown in Kosovo & Albania
We got a good night’s rest to catch up after all of the flying and first-day exploring. Luckily, the sun was out and enticed us to explore some more of Skopje before we jumped back in our Opal to the next city.
Robyn had heard about the Old Bazaar in Skopje, a Turkish-styled bazaar on the old stone streets of the city. We woke up early enough to snap some daytime photos of the city on our walk. A lot of the buildings resemble the old Yugoslavia architecture: simple, efficient, non-stylized and practical. The Old Bazaar was close to where we were in the Macedonia Square the night before; we crossed the Stone Bridge and eventually stumbled upon stone pathways to the bazaar. Not many people were out and about yet, so we grabbed a coffee. So, coffee in this area is much much different from what we drink in the U.S. They do not drink cups or mugs of coffee, but rather drink shots of espresso or small servings of coffee (I’ll get more into Bosnian coffee in a later post). We looked around an antique store and eventually the bazaar started to come to life.
Most of the market included practical things for the locals (shoes, cleaning supplies, sundries, clothes, food, etc.). The few tourist or souvenir shops included the mass-produced Macedonian products that we are not so interested in, however, Robyn did find some unique antique vases that survived wartime Yugoslavia.
We headed back to our car to head off to our next destination, Kosovo. It was of course my turn to drive, but I was ready for the challenge. We were excited, anxious, and uncertain about what to expect in Kosovo. As you might know, Kosovo is a disputed territory just northwest of Macedonia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, however, only about half of the world recognizes Kosovo as its own country; Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its jurisdiction. You might also recall that the U.S. occupied Kosovo during unrest in the 1990’s. With all this history in mind, we were not sure what to expect.
We arrived at our first border crossing. There is an exit “station” for the country you are exiting and an entry station about 50 yards after for the country you are entering. We were given advice to bring money for border crossings as there is a charge, however, we were not asked at all on our whole trip to pay! One has to show his or her car documentation, insurance, and passports when at the border crossings. We did have our International Drivers Permits as well just in case, but we never were asked for them. After we excited Macedonia, Kosovo seemed gloomy and grey. The first thing we saw appeared to be a factory that was polluting the nearby foliage. After about a mile, the grey turned into pure beauty. The colors of red, orange and yellow from the fall trees provided guided access along the road. At points, we would see a dusting of snow alongside the road, bubbling brooks making their way down the mountainside, and beautiful snow-capped mountains.
The drive was a little bit cumbersome, as I drove back and forth down switchbacks on the side of the Šar Mountains. There was a point when Robyn wanted to stop alongside the road to take pictures, so I began to pull over. Out of no where came a man in uniform wearing an assault rifle across his chest. I quickly vetoed her request and kept going, but thought, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! A lot of other countries have police force dressed in such attire and are armed, but we were in Kosovo and didn’t want to take a chance. A few more miles, some trees had fallen into the road, likely from a storm, but thanks to my practice from Costa Rica’s driving adventure, I was able to Mario Kart around the obstacles. The road later included a “cutout” on the right hand side, where it looked like they were placing cables or something. I had to keep close to center, back and forth on the switchbacks.
We eventually made it to our daytime destination, Prizren, Kosovo. It is a beautiful city at the bottom of the mountains with red-roofed buildings and alongside the Bistrica River. First duty: parking. If you look at a map of Prizren, it looks like their urban planner took cooked spaghetti and threw it on a map and said, “Here, these are your streets.” Parking had my blood pressure through the roof, but we found a spot after about 10 minutes. I think Robyn wanted to jump out of the car a few times, but she stuck with me 🙂
We walked down toward the river on the sunny day to find some lunch. There were a lot of people out and about sitting outside for lunch, taking advantage of the beautiful autumn weekend. We found a spot for lunch and took in the bustling atmosphere, my favorite being the call for prayer at one of the city’s mosques, the Sinan Pasha Mosque. Like most cities in the region, an Old Stone Bridge allowed us to cross to the other side of the city, which is called the Shadervan. We walked around and looked at a few tourist shops, most of which boasted the Albanian flag. Ironically, about 80% of the population is Albanian; less than 1% is actually Serbian. Prizren is a really colorful, clean and beautiful city with much life. On our way back to our car, we stopped in a Muslim store, where a guy was really eager to help us. He showed us several religious gifts including the symbol for Muhammad. Soon enough, the guy was trying to sell me black market Armani cologne; he even gave me a sample and was rubbing it on my neck! At least I smelled good for the rest of the day!
It was Robyn’s turn to drive again, and it took us some time to get out of Prizren. The spaghetti-shaped streets also included tiny spaces to drive and multiple cars trying to get through. In the late afternoon, we drove to Albania. The highway to Albania was superb! It seemed recently constructed and allowed a higher speed limit than what we expected. A few of my references said that driving in Albania can get a little wild, but we did not experience too much craziness from other motorists.
Some of the drive through Albania included steep hills, but the beautiful backdrop of the sunset on mountains and rivers made the drive absolutely stunning. The drive also had long covered tunnels that carved out the mountains. The sun started to set, and we were anxious to get to our night’s stay in Kotor, Montenegro, yet another country border crossing. After we traveled through Albania, the drive in Montenegro became interesting/terrifying…
[See my next post to learn more about Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina]