Belltower and view of Kotor along the St. Giovanni Trail, Kotor, Montenegro. Photo: Tom Till/Alamy Stock Photo
At the southern end of the Adriatic Sea, opposite Italy’s boot heel, three small countries are emerging from the shadows of communism and civil war and enticing travellers with their natural beauty and deep, complex history. A quarter of a century after Albania’s communist regime collapsed, the country is finally emerging as a prime and affordable destination. Its incredibly varied geography ranges from the rugged uplands that cover three-fourths of the country to its long Mediterranean coast. For a capsule view of Albanian history, visit Gjirokastër Castle, set on a rocky bluff high above the city of the same name in the Drino Valley. One of the largest castles in the Balkans, it has roots in the 12th century and was used as a prison by occupation forces during WWII. Today it houses a somewhat spooky collection of armour, communist memorabilia, and even a U.S. Air Force jet.
Neighbouring Montenegro is barely 96 kilometres long, a day’s drive if you’re in a hurry. But that would mean missing a lot, including ancient towns full of ornate Orthodox monasteries and the remains of Roman villas. The country’s coast is as beautiful as Croatia’s but much less crowded. It’s hard to pick the best beach, but Pržno, just south of Radovići, is a definite contender: sapphire water and white sand backed by green olive and pine trees. Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, combines cultures like few other countries: Greek, Roman, and Ottoman history and a modern mix of Slav, Turk, Serb, Bulgarian, and Albanian residents. Its mountains are a Balkan version of the Alps, peppered with traditional villages and medieval monasteries. The best way to explore is on the new 193-kilometre Peaks of the Balkans Trail through Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. The marked trail follows shepherd paths up to 7,500 feet through some of the wildest and remote parts of each country.
How To Get There Fly into Tirana International Airport in Albania, Podgorica Airport in Montenegro, or TAV Skopje Airport in Macedonia, which has recently started seeing more budget airlines. By land, daily long-distance buses connect all three countries with each other and their neighbours, including Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only Macedonia and Montenegro are connected to the Eurail network.
How To Get Around Buses are the most common form of public transport, both large (often newer and air-conditioned) and small. Minibuses go by various names, including furgon in Albania and kombi in Macedonia. Taxis are another surprisingly inexpensive option—these are small countries—but make sure to negotiate fares beforehand.
Where To Stay In the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastër, one of the country’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the family-run Hotel Gjirokastra occupies a 300-year-old house just under the hilltop castle that dominates the town. Rooms have beautiful carved wooden ceilings and huge balconies with sweeping views of the historic city centre, famous for its Ottoman period architecture. There isn’t a formal menu, but the owners are happy to cook up local dishes like lamb meatballs on request. The simple, clean, and friendly Hotel Pana Kotor sits on the waterfront in Dobrota, Montenegro. It’s a good value, and its location on the edge of the Boka Kotorska (Bay of Kotor) offers easy access for swimming and dolphin-spotting in the gorgeously clear water. The owners don’t speak much English, but they can point you toward nearby restaurants and shops that rent bikes and kayaks.
What To Eat Or Drink Macedonia has been known for its vineyards since Roman times. Founded in 1946, Tikveš Winery in Kavadarci is the largest winery in the Balkans, producing 24 different kinds including Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and a famous grape brandy. In Skopje, Stara Kuka is a warm and welcoming eatery in what is said to be the oldest house in the country. The menu is full of traditional Macedonia fare; try one of the pastrmajlija meat pies filled with tuna or cheese. Tirana, Albania’s BrauHaus is a brew pub in the Bavarian tradition. They offer better than average pub fare, heavy on the meat, along with pints of excellent lager and red and wheat beer. It’s a prime spot to catch a football match on a rainy afternoon, and there’s even a kids’ play area.
When To Go Late spring and early summer brings the best combination of good weather and low crowds, especially along the coast of Montenegro and Albania. Head into the hills as the beaches crowd up and the heat rises. In August, the Ohrid Summer Festival brings world-class music to the shores of Macedonia’s centrepiece lake.
Helpful Links www.albania.al, www.exploringmacedonia.com, www.visit-montenegro.com
Currency Albanian lek, Macedonian denar, euro (Montenegro)
Language Albanian, Macedonian, Montenegrin
Don’t Miss Picture Lake Tahoe or Lake Como without the jet-setting celebrities and multimillion-dollar mansions—that’s Lake Ohrid on the Albania-Macedonia border, a stunning blue gem lined with beaches and Byzantine churches. The best beach is just south of the town of Ohrid, where you can shop for lake pearls and munch on roasted chickpeas while you soak in the scenery.
Fun Fact The Dinaric Alps, stretching along the Adriatic Sea from northern Albania to Slovenia, are sprouting a generation of what may be the tallest people on earth. Male adolescents here average just over six-foot-one-inch tall, which, if the trend continues, may be lofty enough to edge out the legendarily gigantic Dutch.
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