The Balkans – Part One

Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo

Adam and I knew very little about the Balkans before we started travelling through them. We had been told by numerous travellers that they were interesting, inexpensive and less touristy than the rest of Europe which made them quite appealing to us. We worked out that we had roughly 26 days before we were allowed back into the Schengen areas of Europe so we decided to squeeze in as much of the Balkans as we could before we made it up to Italy for the start of June.

As we left Istanbul we began to feel nervously excited about exploring new places and travelling more quickly than we were used to.

First up was Bulgaria. This was a great introduction to the Balkans. The capital city of Sofia had an excellent hostel and we fell in love with the city and its people straight away. We also weren’t complaining about the dramatic drop in prices.

We spent our first day enjoying Sofia, seeing the famous cathedral and hanging out with the locals in little cafes we stumbled across. The atmosphere in the city was relaxed and jovial. There seemed to be a lot of young people out and about, students and workers alike. We later found out that it was a long weekend and most people were on vacation.

The Rila Mountains were high on our list to do in Bulgaria and we were not disappointed. The forest and mountains were beautiful if not freezing. We hiked to a little church that used to be an old hermits house. There was a cave there which supposedly cleansed people of their sins if they squeezed through the narrow opening out to the other side. Naturally we had to give it a go.

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The Monastery up there was a highlight. Amazing to think that monks were practising out there in such a remote place for hundreds of years. It was a little more touristy than we would have liked but it was completely worth the trip.

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After only three nights in Bulgaria, we moved onto Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje.

Skopje is obsessed with statues. There are hundreds and hundreds in the main square and surrounding area. Apparently it is a sore point for locals as they constantly battle the government over desperately needed funds spent on beautifying the city instead of other projects. But it was pretty impressive. I stopped count at 30.

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Again, Adam and I were surprised by the young and social locals. Everyone seemed to be eating out or drinking, catching up with friends and strutting the latest fashion in the main square.

I had the most amazing gnocchi I have ever eaten in Skopje of all places after the waiter assured me it was made that afternoon, turns out Macedonian wine isn’t half bad either!

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Lake Ohrid was where we spent the rest of our time in Macedonia. We stayed in a quiet and inexpensive little apartment on the hill overlooking the old town.

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The place was beautiful. There were numerous restaurants and cafes lining the massive lake and cruise boats that would take you out to the Sav Naum monastery that sat on the border of Albania on the other side of the lake. We had to do it and had a ball exploring the monastery and surroundings.

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The lake well and truly lived up to the hype and we even managed to get sunburnt despite the chilly temperatures.

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We weren’t originally planning to visit Kosovo but decided to do a night in the capital, Pristina, on our way to Montenegro. This ended up being a great decision. There wasn’t much to do in the town sightseeing-wise but the cafe scene was awesome – Adam will tell you he got the best coffee he’s ever had in Pristina, Kosovo.

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The hostel we stayed in was having its 1st anniversary since opening party and we had an amazing/drunken/late night talking to locals, expats and other travellers. We felt sorry that we hadn’t allowed more time to explore Kosovo or the rest of the Balkans for that matter but we were having a fantastic time in the places we managed to get to.

Our next stop: Montenegro!