(Photos from this trip are located here)
If you don’t currently have this region on your travel radar, I urge you to add it NOW! If you’ve been wanting to go but haven’t gotten around to it yet, DON’T WAIT! Prioritize the Balkans now, before it’s on the itinerary of every cruise ship! Now is the perfect time to go – it’s beautiful, the people are warm and welcoming, it’s a relatively inexpensive area, and it’s safe! I’m already looking into when I can go back and what route I will take to explore more of these countries and cultures. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not point out that a big part of our experience on this trip was our fabulous tour guide. As a proud Croatian, he was so knowledgeable about the complicated history of this region and did an amazing job of passionately sharing his knowledge with us (we thank him for answering our countless questions!).
Background and Overview of the route: As those of you who know me know, I usually focus on tours of Italy, France, and Switzerland because I’ve lived there and I speak the languages. And, when I do tours in those countries, I develop and plan them entirely on my own. In this case, since this region is not as familiar to me, I enlisted the expertise of a well-regarded tour company that specializes in very small groups. They allowed me to customize a tour just for my group and micromanage the details, while their regional experts organized the reservations, local guides, transportation, etc. It was the perfect collaboration and I would love to repeat this tour (or other routes) with them. So, if this sounds like a trip you’d enjoy, please reach out to me to check on future trip dates.
The itinerary is detailed below, but as a quick outline, we met up with our tour guide in Croatia – we started in Split and continued on to Dubrovnik. From there, we headed to Albania, passing through Montenegro on the way. The majority of our trip was spent in Albania, which is such a beautiful country. And finally, we finished the tour in Corfu, a Greek island that really deserves more than a 2-night stay – so I’ll need to go back!
Croatia: The very first thing our tour guide taught us was the Croatian concept of “Pomalo”, which comes from Dalmatian dialect. This means to take it easy, relax, no stress, slow down, no worries – it’s rooted in the coastal/island lifestyle of the Dalmatian region (where Split and Dubrovnik are located). Pomalo became the mantra of our trip and I’m thinking of adopting it as my mantra for living from now on.
Split: Our visit in Split was a little clouded by jet lag but we pushed through it and kicked off the initiation to the region with our first taste of Raki, the local “moonshine”. It’s a bit like tasting rubbing alcohol and is along the lines of grappa. It was a recurring menu item throughout our trip and equally avoided by me as much as possible – definitely an acquired taste that our tour guide told us was acquired at birth for Croatians. This drink is even a staple as part of breakfast for locals. One of the highlights of our visit to Split was the walking tour we did with our local guide. She was fantastic at bringing the history to life for us. Split a beautiful coastal town whose streets were once part of a palace!
Dubrovnik: Known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” and definitely a must-see in this region. Our journey from Split to Dubrovnik took us past colorful fruit stands and a rest area set at the edge of a vineyard where we stopped for a glass of very tasty wine. Here in Dubrovnik too, we explored the town guided by a local who gave us the ins and outs of this fascinating walled-in city. In fact, the wall around the city is part of the charm and is the icon here. We happened to be making our way along the wall at sunset which was such a visual treat!
Montenegro: Our itinerary included “passing through” Montenegro to get to Albania. In fact, there’s really no choice – we had to pass through Montenegro to get to Albania. So, since we were passing through anyway, I made the request to do a little stop somewhere on the road so we could get out of the car and touch our feet to the land so we could actually claim that we were there. Well, our guide and driver did even better. They made a detour from our route to the town of Kotor and allowed us to spend about an hour roaming around the town. We were so grateful to have been able to spontaneously add a visit to this town! It’s definitely worth the visit, and it looked like the cruise lines have discovered that as well since there was a ship docked just off shore. Quick warning though, if you’re not a cat lover you may be a bit put off by the local residents. This town is known for its population of cats – they’re plentiful but cute and harmless.
Albania: We were lucky to have had the opportunity to visit 3 very different cities within this diverse country…
Tirana: We learned so much about this country during our visit. One such learning is that Tirana became the capital of Albania in 1920, after the original capital of Durres was attacked. In an effort to make it more difficult to take over the capital city, they moved the capital from the coast to an inland location à Tirana. What an interesting and vibrant city with a great vibe! It has such a fascinating mixture of architecture ranging from the older bland buildings from the communist era to the modern colorful, funky buildings. The other interesting element in this city was the opportunity to enter a few of the bunkers remaining from the 1970’s. The government had originally built over 100k bunkers that were to be used to help protect the country in the event of an invasion. They were never actually needed but you can still see them dotting the countryside as you drive through the country.
Dhermi: On our way from Tirana, we had the opportunity to stretch our legs with a hike to the Black Cave. Leading up to the trip, we had been debating whether we could do this hike in regular sneakers or if we needed hiking shoes just to be safe. All of those conversations became laughable when, upon reaching the cave after an hour of hiking, two young ladies showed up wearing flip flops. Moral of the story – regular sneakers were fine. It was interesting seeing the bats hanging out in the cave and the hike, itself, was actually a fruit and herb learning experience as we came across blackberries, figs, and sage growing along the path. We then hiked back and continued the drive. Dhermi is one of the hot destinations on the Albanian Riviera. It’s a beautiful coastline and this is obviously the town you hit if you want to see and be seen during the summer in Albania. The beach is littered with beach bars and a thumping bass beat. Thanks to our fantastic guide who put in the research time, we had the best traditional dinners in this town. We went to the same restaurant both nights we were there because it was so good – and we weren’t the only ones! Ironically, if it had been up to me to choose the restaurant, this would have been the last place I tried. It was off the main scene, very unassuming, and didn’t even have a proper sign. But people knew about it and there was a line and it was worth the wait! Other than that memory, we had a free day here during which we decided to take a boat ride around the coast. We visited a few of the caves and were dropped off to spend about an hour on a beach reachable primarily by boat. Definitely a riviera-type of experience in Dhermi!
Gjirokaster: During our drive from Dhermi, we had the opportunity for another leg-stretching walk. This time to the Blue-Eyed Spring, a beautiful body of natural spring water that was crystal clear. The government has tried to keep the water pristine and the ecology intact by prohibiting people from entering the water. Unfortunately, their large signs in Albanian and English requesting people not enter seem to go unnoticed or ignored by many of the tourists we saw swimming and even snorkeling there. We were grateful to get our pictures and admire the beauty and then we were on our way to Gjirokaster. Completely different from the other two Albanian towns we visited, this town felt much more medieval with its narrow winding cobblestone streets and imposing castle at the top of the hill, visible throughout the town. This UNESCO “museum town” is located just one hour from the coastal town of Sarande, which provides convenient access to transportation by ferry to places like Corfu (our next stop!). Our guided tour of the town allowed us to visit the castle which was so interesting and gave us a great view of the surrounding area. Then we were led to a café to, of course, try their local raki (I couldn’t even take a sip – it was all vapor!). This café also roasts and grinds its own coffee beans so we had the opportunity to try manual coffee bean grinding by mortar and pestle – what a labor-intensive process! We happened to be visiting Gjirokaster just as a concert was being set up right in the center of the old town. That evening, the streets were packed with people dancing, singing, and just listening to the music! My FOMO was in full force so I just had to be there to observe the scene – it was so lively and fun!
Greece – Corfu: Our early morning ferry meant we arrived in Corfu with the whole day ahead of us. Corfu really deserves a longer visit than just 2 nights so I would love to be able to spend a bit more time in the future. However, knowing we only had 2 days, the goal was to maximize the time. The old town of Corfu really isn’t big so we were able to explore the cobblestoned alleyways without risk of getting lost (that says a lot for yours truly who needs GPS to get out of my driveway!). I also made a point of visiting the Corfu fortress to get that panoramic eagle-eye view. I loved that our hotel was right in the old town. It’s very lively in the evening so it was a great place to do some people-watching over a glass of wine. On our last day in Corfu and our final day of the trip, I decided to take a bus to the other side of the island because I had heard how beautiful it was. Paleokastritsa did not disappoint! The water was a stunning shade of blue and crystal clear and the coastline was just breathtaking. I took a little boat excursion from the dock that brought us to see some of the caves and beaches only reachable by boat. Well-worth the $4.60 round trip bus fare from my hotel!
One final take away from this trip is that this region has fantastic food and wine! While I love exploring new places, I’m not super-adventurous when it comes to food. As a vegetarian, I can tell you that I was never without a meal here – and the food was SOOO good! And as someone who really appreciates very dry red wine, I was extremely pleasantly surprised at the amazing wines we had in all of these cities! I can’t wait to return to explore and learn more about the Balkans.
If this all sounds like something you would enjoy, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I would be happy to repeat the route, either as is or with adjustments to suit your preferences. Or, as always, if there’s a different route you’d like to try, anywhere in Italy, France and/or Switzerland (or beyond), I would be happy to come up with a custom itinerary! Make sure to check out some of the images from this trip in the website photo gallery!