The Travelator Diaries: The Balkans

The Travelator Diaries: The Balkans

We are sharing our personal travel diaries! We started keeping these so our family and friends could keep up with our travels, and get some laughs at our expense. Here is our entry for the Balkans, where we travelled in November 2016.

After spending almost a month cruising through Armenia & Georgia it was time for us to make our way to mainland Europe. We hopped aboard the cheapest (and therefore best) flight we could find and made our way to Bucharest in Romania.

Romania

Our time in mainland Europe started in eastern European country of Romania, more specifically its ‘shabby-chic’ capital of Bucharest. We spent a few days wandering around the streets of Bucharest checking out the beautiful but neglected Soviet-era architecture and admiring how cheap everything was. Just in case anyone ever asks you, the world’s second largest government building is the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest… it’s a real quiz night classic.

Bucharest - The Palace of Parlaiment
The absurdly huge Palace of Parliament in Bucharest

Bulgaria

A few days later we hopped aboard a train and made our way to Sofia, the rather uneventful capital of Bulgaria. The distance between these two cities is a modest 360km, but for some unknown reason it took our train TEN HOURS to cover this distance – with some quick maths you can see our train was travelling at the blistering pace of 36km/h. There wasn’t a whole heap happening in Sofia, so we decided to spend our time doing things such as eating Indian food and checking some culture via the latest Marvel movie, Dr Strange.

Sofia - Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

Once we were finished in Sofia we headed east to the much more interesting city of Plovdiv. We had 3 nights here which afforded us plenty of time to check out the beautiful old town of Plovdiv and really explore the menu at a craft beer restaurant we tracked down. After a few lazy days we also thought it was time to hire a car again and hit the open road. We ventured just outside of Plovdiv to Perperikon, an ancient fortress where Alexander the Great had a few vinos and a prophecy which told him he would conquer the world. Haven’t we all done that before. It was also in Plovdiv that we found out that the USA had for some reason elected Donald Trump to be their next President… good Lord.

Plovdiv - All We Need Is Plovediv
All we need is Plovediv – Plovdiv, Bulgaira

Macedonia

Next up was Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. We were really settling in to the being back on mainland Europe. This pretty much entailed a lot of eating, and a fair bit of drinking. We jumped on a free walking tour and checked out the eclectic capital where found out that Alexander the Great was actually Macedonian and NOT Greek… apparently (quite controversial).

It was also in Skopje that we decided to go clubbing with a group of early 20s Swedes. At the time this sounded like a marvellous idea, a bit of drinking and some dancing never hurt anyone. However, in Europe, clubs don’t open until after midnight, which is at least 4 hours past our bed time. The night can be summarised by two incidents. 12:51am – a slightly intoxicated KG asks Tom, “Why don’t we go clubbing more often?” We get home at 4am and KG announces, “I think I am dying, we are never going clubbing again!”

Skopje - KG in the rain
KG in some cracking weather conditions in Skopje
Skopje - KG inside
KG escaping the Skopje weather

After 2 days of recovering from our clubbing adventure we bussed down to the tiny lakeside of Ohrid. It is no overstatement to say that we did absolutely nothing in Ohrid. It is a beautiful little lakeside town with great restaurants and cafes, where we managed to find ourselves in an amazing little hostel. We did manage to see a few sights around Ohrid but the majority of our time was spent either eating or strolling lazily around the lake. It’s a tough gig at times.

Lake Ohrid - Church of St John at Kaneo
The Church of St John at Kaneo at Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid - St Naum Peacocks
Watch out for those peacocks… they’ll get ya!

Kosovo

There was a lot of deliberation as to where we would go next but we finally settled on Prizren in the tiny and brand new country of Kosovo. Now, some people (including the Australian Government and us) think Kosovo is a legitimate country, others don’t. We won’t go into details. All we will tell you is that it is home to some of the nicest people we have ever met. It is also one of the cheapest countries we have ever visited. We spent 3 nights in Prizren, strolling around the cobble stone lanes, drinking 70c espresso macchiatos and enjoying beers for $1.50 a piece. We also managed to head out on a day trip to check out the local country side and the incredibly serene Patriachate of Pec Monastery.

Kosovo - Prizren by night
Prizren by night
Kosovo - The Patriarchate of Pec
The Patriarchate of Pec in Peja, Kosovo
Kosovo - Drini i Bardhe Spring
Us by the waterfall at Drini i Bardhe Spring

Albania

We then headed across the border to Tirana, the capital of Albania. It also happened to be Tom’s 30th birthday while we were there. We threw caution (and our money) into the wind and booked a 4-star hotel for a staggering $80 per night. We also booked into one of Tirana’s nicest restaurants and after 3 courses each, a bottle of wine and a few drinks the bill came to a whopping $60. You get the idea -Tirana was dirt cheap and a great place for Tom to contemplate his upcoming retirement.

The small Albanian town of Shkoder was our next stop. We pulled in for a couple nights, climbed up a massive hill to a huge old fortress, ate some amazing BBQ and played with the two dogs at the hostel.

Albania - Mosque in Shkoder
The Mosque in Shkoder
Albania - Shkoder Fort
This photo took 4 attempts – us atop the Shkoder Fortress

We decided had been working way too hard lately (*cough*) and needed a rest from this hectic stint of our trip. We managed to get ourselves stuck in the amazing little seaside town of Kotor in Montenegro. We lazed around for a few days, exploring the winding cobble stone streets of the old town, went hiking up to the fort a couple times and generally did very little. It also helped that the hostel had a ‘stay 5 nights pay for 3’ deal that was just too good to turn down. We even paid for an extra night and stayed 6.

Slovenia

As we headed further west everything was getting slightly more ‘European’. Our next stop, Slovenia, felt as though we had arrived in Germany, only without the price tag. We spent 3 nights in the capital Ljubljana and it will go down as one of our favourite stops of the trip. We hit the streets on a walking tour, ate some decent Asian food, hiked up to the fort, checked out some street art and even squeezed in a bit of shopping. We then headed out to Bled, home of the aptly named Lake Bled. We decided to go hiking around the nearby Lake Bohinj. Unfortunately KGs new boots gave her some pretty serious blisters and that was that for hiking.

Slovenia - Ljubljana by night
Ljubljana main square by night
Slovenia - Ljubljana Fort
Not sure what happened here – a selfie from the Ljubljana Fortress
Slovenia - Minigolf in Ljubljana
KG playing minigolf in Ljublhana – we’ll let you use your imagination as to whether this went in or not…
Slovenia - Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj near Bled
Slovenia - Bridge at Lake Bohinj
A nice warm day at Lake Bohinj

Italy

After just over a month in the Balkans, we bussed out of Bled. We arrived in Trieste in Italy, home to our good friend Alessandro who we met in Kyrgyzstan. Alessandro took on the role of tour guide, hotel owner and driver over the next few days to show us around the sites of Trieste and his home town of Zugliano. We explore the beautiful seaside town of Trieste, checking out the amazing Miramare Castle, the “little cheese” cathedral and the Trieste fortress.

Trieste - Town Hall
Trieste Town Hall
Trieste - Tom and Alessandro
Tom & Alessandro in the main square of Trieste
Trieste - The Little Cheese
The “little cheese” – also known as the Mariano Temple of Monte Grisa
Trieste - KG and Alessandro
KG & Alessandro hiking up to theTrieste Cathedral

The 3 of us then headed out to Zugliano and stayed at Alessandro’s parent’s house for 2 nights. It was amazing. We ate a stupid amount of food, did an awful job of making gnocchi, drank too much wine and saw the surrounding area. Alessandro took us to Marostica to climb up to the fortress and then to Vincenza to visit the world’s first permanent indoor theatre. On our final day we managed to squeeze in to a quick trip to Verona and had a glance at the balcony where Juliet spoke to Romeo in the amazing story from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 classic Romeo & Juliet. Supposedly the story wasn’t written by Baz himself, which we found hard to believe.

Zugliano - Making gnocchi
Tom & KG doing an awful job of helping Giselle (Alessandro’s Mum) make gnocchi
Zugliano - Tom and Alessando after a big lunch
Tom & Alessandro after another massive Italian lunch
Verona - Juliet's Balcony
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Up next…

We said our goodbyes to Alessandro and jumped aboard a train to Germany. Awaiting for us in Munich were Katherine’s brother Ross and his girlfriend Chelsea. For the next two weeks we would be cruising around Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic together – stay tuned!

Have you visited the Balkans? What did you think? Tell us more in the comments below!

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