Like all athletes do before the final race, we felt like it was compulsory for us to head out before our next big overland exhibition and do a warm up. Having limited time we quickly planned a 2-week trip around the Western Balkans, an area that is becoming more and more a highlight on the tourist map and is worth visiting before massive tourism takes over.
Our first stop was the Pelion Peninsula that lies to the east of the mainland Greece. It’s formed by a dramatic mountain range. The gentler western flank of it coils around the Pagasitikos Gulf. The mountain’s interior is a green wonderland, where trees heavy with fruit mix with wild olive groves and forests of horse chestnut come along side with oak, walnut and eucalyptus trees and ever green scenery that catches the eye. The villages tucked away are characterized by whitewashed houses with balconies, grey slate roofs and old winding footpaths. The largely inaccessible eastern flank of the mountain, our first destination, consists of high cliffs that plunge straight into the sea. Here lies Agios Ioannis, an isolated place that has been recently discovered by international overlanders mainly from Europe but it is well known among the local vacationers. Here many lodgings are traditional arhontika (stone mansions), tastefully converted into reasonably priced pensions. Was that for us? No, we picked the campsite of Papa Nero, right at the edge of the water, for our first night. We picked this place to unwind, relax and enjoy the local specialties of the peninsula. “Fasoladha” (bean soup), “spetzofaï” (stewed pork sausages and peppers) and “tyropsomo” (cheese bread) were our favorite. Next on our list was the World Heritage–listed Meteora , an extraordinary place. The monasteries of Meteora are one of the highlighted sights in mainland Greece. Built into and on top of the massive pinnacles of smooth rock, the earliest monasteries were reached by climbing articulated removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets, a method still in practice for hauling up provisions. Until this day someone can spot the “askitaria” that were occupied until the early 20th century by solitary monks, and they remain a testament to the original spirit of Meteora.
With a quick overnight at the base of Meteora, at Kastraki, we moved to Kastoria were we met up with my sister’s family and spent the night before we headed further north. The city of Kastoria is built on the shore of Lake Orestiada and is fast becoming an extreme sport centre. As we were not there to get our adrenaline fix, we used the city as a centre and visited the twin Prespa Lakes, a breathtaking beauty spot, rich in both wildlife and history. Until this day notable in Kastoria are the fur sellers that still dot along the shore, harking back to Kastoria’s fur trade past. Today the furs are exported.
Megali Prespa and Mikri Prespa, our destination, are the Balkans’ highest tectonic lakes and among Europe’s most ancient, at one million years old. Once a single lake, today they are separated. As we were told, the wildlife is as extraordinary as Prespes’ mountain-backed setting, with brown bears, wolves and wild pigs skulking around the lakes. The region is also a flutter with more than 260 types of bird. A clutch of sleepy villages, each with a distinct character, act as springboards to this majestic wilderness. With only limited time in our itinerary though, we pushed to our next destination, FYROM. Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman history, FYROM has a fascinating past and complex national psyche. Skopje, our overnight stop, may be the Balkans’ most bonkers and unfailingly entertaining capital city, thanks to a government-led building spree of monuments, museums and fountains. What has emerged is a rare mixture where ancient history and buzzing modernity collide.
Driving through the rest of the country tourist, infrastructure is scant but locals are unfailingly helpful. If you want to get off the beaten track in Europe, this is it. Next was Kosovo, Europe’s newest country and a fascinating land at the heart of the Balkans that rewards visitors with welcoming smiles, charming mountain towns, incredible hiking opportunities and 13th-century domed Serbian monasteries just for starters. It’s safe to travel here now, and indeed is one of the last corners of Europe that remains off the beaten track for travelers. So much so that our attempt to visit the Mirusa Falls ended up in a riverside tavern out of the 60’s. As for the falls, they were never found.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and while it has been diplomatically recognized by 110 countries, there are still many nations that do not accept Kosovo’s independence, including Serbia. The country has been the focus of massive aid from the international community, particularly the EU and NATO, who effectively run the entity politically and keep peace between the ethnic Albanian majority and the minority Serbs.
We then moved to Bosnia Herzegovina, a difficult name that Rochelle is still not able to pronounce. This craggily beautiful land retains some lingering scars from the heartbreaking civil war in the 1990s. But today visitors will more likely remember Bosnia Herzegovina for the reincarnated antique centers of Sarajevo and Mostar, where rebuilt historical buildings counterpoint fashionable bars and wi-fi–equipped cafes. Elsewhere Socialist-era architectural monstrosities are surprisingly rare blots on predominantly rural landscapes. Many Bosnian towns are lovably small, wrapped around medieval castles and surrounded by mountain ridges or cascading river canyons. The countries tourist flagship, the city of Mostar, was unfortunately a quick stop over for us but every minute there was definitely worth it. The Balkans’ most celebrated bridge forms a majestic stone arc between reincarnated medieval towers. It’s an enchanting scene. Our advice, try to stay into the evening to see it without the summer hoards of day trippers. The next border crossing was the Croatian and the Adriatic coast. Our final destination was Dubrovnik .Regardless of whether you are visiting this city for the first time or the hundredth, the sense when you set eyes on the beauty of the old town is astonishing. Indeed it’s hard to imagine anyone not becoming jaded by the city’s marble streets, baroque buildings and the endless shimmer of the Adriatic, or failing to be inspired by a walk along the ancient city walls that protected a civilized, sophisticated republic for centuries.
Although the bomb shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991 horrified the world, the city has bounced back with large numbers of visitors floating the old city. Among the highlights we enjoyed was exhausting ourselves climbing up and down the narrow lanes, then plunge into the cold azure sea that surrounded our campsite.
Moving further south was the small republic of Montenegro bursting with majestic mountains, breathtaking beaches and larger-than-life locals. Montenegro proves once and for all that good things do indeed come in small packages. Of all the stupefying sights along the Adriatic shoreline, Sveti Stefan is the coast’s money shot. A fortified island village connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, its photogenic jumble of 15th century stone villas overlook an impeccable pink-stone beach and tempting turquoise waters. Sveti Stefan has unsurprisingly been named as Montenegro’s most-photographed site.
With Montenegro done we crossed into Albania. Unfortunately we were running out of time so we rushed through this small country. As most people would agree, this small republic has a lot of remarkable attractions but they are still well hidden and it takes an effort to explore them. Someone may still wonder why it’s taken 20 years for the country to take off as a tourist destination. So backward was Albania when it emerged blinking into the bright light of freedom that it needed two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe. Albania nowadays has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans. But hurry there, as word is well and truly out.
As we entered back in my home country, we explored energetic Ioannina, that packs in a wonderfully variegated history and a lakeshore serenity into one thoroughly enjoyable city. The skyline boasts a stately fortress, jutting minarets and Byzantine arches, all backed by brooding mountains. Ioannina hugs the western shore of shimmering Lake Pamvotida, whose sleepy island has a cluster of monasteries and historic sites. As an end to this trip we picked the island of Lefkada, a yachter backwater site with electric blue water and wild olive groves. Despite being connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, it feels in places distinctly untamed by the tourism footprint, whose developed enclaves tend to be on the east coast.
In the wild centre of the island you’ll find wandering old crones in traditional dress and shepherds benignly tending sheep; on the western side there are a couple of the best beaches in the world. Try to come out of season so you can have them to yourselves.
Time goes by quickly when you are on the road and we were no exception to the rule. Our trip was rushed and we definitely wished we had stayed in some of these places much longer. We promise you though that we will be back in the near future as we enjoyed every minute of our warm up. We now feel ready to take the next step. This is no other than the bigger plan I have mentioned in previous posts. Our overland tour, “the 11th North to 55th South”, is well in a preparation stage. Our odyssey through South America is scheduled to begin at the end of December. STAY TUNED…