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.
Belgrade rests at the former border between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Thanks to its position, it changed hands regularly and is heavily influenced by both empires. Serbia’s history can be divisive and I will admit I still do not fully understand the Yugoslav wars. I did not learn about the wars in school, only through first hand accounts in my travels. History changes based on who is telling it, and I heard many different variations. In Bosnia, the Serbs were making a land grab. In Kosovo they wanted independence. In Serbia, no one talked about anything but the NATO bombing of 1999. Although the history is hard to get a grasp on, the city itself is not. Belgrade is a very welcoming and friendly city despite its tumultuous past. It is one of those cities where you go for the sites and end up staying for the nightlife.
Sarajevo: the city where World War I began, the city where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held, and the city under siege longer than any other capital city. Walking through the streets you can still see every piece of Sarajevo’s history.