The best thing about the Balkans is the people. I have yet to meet someone who isn’t incredibly welcoming with a genuine desire to show me the best of their country. In the Balkans, a lot that welcome revolves around sampling “the best beer in the world.” Every country has its own “best beer in the world.” The States beer market is quite large so there may be more debate on what exactly is “the best beer in the world,” (it’s Free State Brewing Yakamaniac IPA). Balkan countries have a smaller beer market, therefore there is usually a pretty strong consensus on the “best beer in the world.” I didn’t expect every Balkan country to have its own beer as the countries histories are all so intertwined. It surprised me that each country has its unique beer, but it didn’t surprise me that every light lager tasted approximately the same.
Kotor is situated on bay in northern Montenegro close to the Croatian border. It reminded me of a mini Dubrovnik. The Old Town was smaller, the walls were shorter, and instead of water as far as the eye can see, there are mountains towering above the city. It’s a small place, but get outside the city and discover miles of hiking trails, breathtaking sights, and friendly locals. I went during the low season, so I missed out on some of the awesome nature-related things Kotor is known for, but I still found plenty to do in this small city.
After the tranquil lakeside days I spent in Ohrid, Tirana was a little overwhelming. It’s a big city packed with crazy drivers. Seriously these drivers will not stop for you unless you are staring them down the entire time you cross the road. While it’s terrifying, it adds to how vibrant and full of life Tirana is. Post-communism, they covered all of the drab buildings in colors and patterns. You can’t walk five feet without seeing some street art. Tirana isn’t packed with “must-see” museums or monuments, it’s more about walking down the street and experiencing the vibrant culture.
Lively lakeside city in the summer, sleepy, laid-back town in the winter, Ohrid is home to Europe’s oldest and deepest lake. In the summer it becomes the place to be for boating, fishing, and swimming. I went during the winter and found that although I couldn’t really experience the lake, the city itself still has a lot to offer.
Officially “born” in February of 2008, Kosovo is still a relatively new country. After the wars in 1999, it was governed under transitional UN leadership until it formally declared independence. It is now recognized by 112 countries including most of its neighbors, but not Serbia. Things are still a bit tense between Kosovo and Serbia, at the border and within the country. Not everyone in Kosovo supported independence and groups of ethnic Serbs still remain in the country. Although tensions remain, all the people I met were friendly, helpful, and excited to have tourists in their country. Kosovo is safe and primed for tourism, as long as know what to expect.
Bulgaria is a gem that remains undiscovered by many Americans. The mountains offer prime skiing conditions and the beaches of the Black Sea are the perfect place to relax. The best part about Bulgaria is that it is still relatively cheap compared to the rest of Europe. I only stopped in the capital city, Sofia, and it left me hungry for more. (Quite literally as the food was incredible).
Skopje also known as the Vegas of the Balkans, not for gambling or partying, but for the larger than life, sometimes gaudy architecture. Walking down the central streets of Skopje you see statue after statue and Greek column after Greek column. You can’t go far on your walk without being greeted by one of the city’s many stray dogs. I wanted to take every dog home with me, but I won’t be home until April and the dogs probably get better care than I could provide. Every dog is tagged, tracked, fixed, and given all the necessary shots. On top of it, they seemed well-fed. It’s a unique city to say the least, and incredibly inexpensive.