By Elitza Kavrakova, RBI |
If I would ask around the people in Vienna, what they immediately associate with the Balkans, many would say “cevapcici”, “baklava” and most would probably mention their “Yugoslav” or Turkish neighbour or their last holiday in Croatia. When I ask Dr. Google for quotes related to the Balkans, I see mostly negatively connotated quotes (e.g. Bismarck and Churchill). And if you ask me, I would answer you paraphrasing Mike Leigh, an English writer and director: “When you go to the Balkans, what you experience… is life.”

Dubrovnik

The 1st pitstop of my journey was Dubrovnik. Don’t worry – the distance by car from Vienna to Dubrovnik is manageable, now even better, with the recently opened Peljesac Bridge, which shortens the drive to the Dalmatian pearl (as you don’t have to wait twice at the Croatian-Bosnian border in Neum). Yes, pearls are expensive, but there are affordable private accommodation options. The world of history, culture, and spectacular views that you’ll remember forever while visiting this picturesque medieval city are worth every cent. Walk along the city walls, immerse yourself in the romantic alleyways and have a drink in one of the bars overlooking the sea. And if you have time – enjoy the sunset from Srd Hill, which you can reach by cable car.

The Bay of Kotor and Perast

Next I headed to the gorgeous Bay of Kotor (Boka Bay). One of the must-see places – Perast. It is an absolute highlight of the Boka Bay, is also one of the most beautiful Baroque towns in Montenegro. As a former seafaring centre, it still shines with marvelous buildings, pretty churches and a romantic waterfront. However, the main attractions of Perast, and also the most famous postcard motif of Kotor Bay, are the two offshore church islands, which can be visited on a boat trip – Lady of the Rocks (and the legend behind it) and St. George Island. Where to stay overnight? Definitely at the Hotel Conte. Where to enjoy sunset over dinner? Conte Nautilus (reservation recommended if you want front row seats) or alternatively Bokalibre, especially if you are with kids (the best pizza after the one I had in Napoli 2021).

Montenegro

To enjoy the Montenegrin coast, you have many options for accommodation, there are a lot of good hotels. Unfortunately, the prices have also skyrocketed, but if you have a little more time to search, you are sure to find a suitable place. I stayed in Becici near Budva and from there I explored the old town of Kotor, Budva and on the way to Albania made a stop at the old town of Bar. I highly recommend the restaurant Tri Ribara in Becici – still decent prices for good fish cuisine. The inland of Montenegro also offers numerous excursion possibilities. This time I visited Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro, which is the location of several national institutions, including the official residence of the president of Montenegro. The city rests on a small karst plain surrounded by limestone mountains, including Mount Lovćen, the legendary mountain in Montenegrin historiography. Cetinje was founded in the 15th century and became a cradle of the culture of Montenegro. The oldest – and for a long time the most important – cultural institution in the town is the monastery of Cetinje. What I have saved for the next journey are the Lovcen National Park and the famous Ostrog Monastery, set against an almost vertical background accessible by a breathtaking road – there is certainly little fear of heights recommended. So, Montenegro, I will be back.

Lake Shkodra and Tirana

My car journey continued – along the coastal road towards Lake Shkodra and the Albanian border. Don’t get confused, the road is narrow, and you might think you are lost. Far from it! Lake Shkodra is divided between Montenegro and Albania. If you have time, stay for a coffee, and also visit the town of Shkodra, one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the Balkans. Shkodër (as Albanians write it) was founded under the name Scodra upon the traditional lands of the Illyrian tribes of the Ardiaei and Labeates in the 4th century BCE. A must-see – the Rozafa castle with an amazing view over the town and the surrounding countryside. Our way led us further to the Albanian capital Tirana. Colourful, lively, dynamic. Tirana combines the old and the new in such a wonderful way. I love the central district with its hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants. Excellent Albanian cuisine can be enjoyed, for example, in the Restaurant Tomi (accessible by car only).

Vlora and Dhermi

I love the sea – it grounds me. That’s why I went to the south of Albania. I’m sure almost everyone knows the famous Italian coastal road Amalfitana. Me too, but guys, there is something more beautiful and better. Namely the coastal road south of Vlora in the direction of Dhermi (since a few weeks there is a bypass of Vlora, which saves a lot of time and nerves if you don’t want to stay in Vlora). The coastal road offers a stunning, monumental and magical backdrop and view over the bays with some excellent Instagram-worthy photo spots. The coast is not yet plastered with hotels, the beaches are clean and beautiful, the water turquoise. What more could you ask for? Having already been to the area in 2019, I’ve only done beach holidays this year. For the Albanian explorers, I recommend visiting the castle of Ali Pasha Telepelena (coastal road south of Saranda) or the fascinating town of Berat (it makes your way from Tirana to Vlora longer, but trust me – Berat is worth every kilometer). I promise, you will not be disappointed.

Lake Koman

At the end of my visit to Albania, I finally fulfilled one of my travel dreams, to explore Lake Koman. High in the north, in the Albanian Alps, you can see this unique, enchanting place. I will keep this short, as it has already been reported in a previous blog entry – calculate more time with your car (if you have booked a fixed time with the ferry), as the last 12 km to the lake is defacto a gravel road. There are several ferries that go from Koman to Fierze, I recommend the Alpin ferry – you have more space and a better view from the deck. A downside – the plastic waste in the lake, it’s a pity that the local authorities and especially the people don’t care about it.

Peje

Next stop – my husband’s hometown, Peje, Kosovo. It has its roots in ancient times and has been built on the remainings of the Roman city Picaria. Over the centuries, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbs, Ottomans and all the others have left a mark that makes the town a unique blend of architectural styles with a great atmosphere. And all this surrounded by the gorgeous mountains and magnificent Rugova Canyon (a dream for those who love trekking and hiking). Definitive must-sees are the few still preserved stone houses (Kula) and the Unesco world heritage Patriarchal Monastery of Peje – to say it is amazing would not be enough. Please have an ID card with you as there is a little checkpoint by the police in front of the main entrance (nothing compared to the guards before though) – the guys were very polite and after short check we were allowed to enter this incredible place. Must drink? The best coffee on planet after Italian – the Kosovar Macchiato. Must eat? Oh my God – a lot 😊. Go to Anes Drinit and deep dive into the excellent homemade food. And do not forget to taste the Trilece (best with the coffee I`ve mentioned).

Sofia

I spent the last few days of my holiday in my home country Bulgaria. If I would continue writing, I would write a book 😊, therefore I will restrict myself to invite you to visit Sofia first, at least for a weekend. The city is built west of the Iskar River and has many mineral springs, such as the Sofia Central Mineral Baths. Being in the centre of the Balkans, it is midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, and closest to the Aegean Sea. Known as Serdica in Antiquity and Sredets in the Middle Ages, Sofia has been an area of human habitation since at least 7000 BC. The recorded history of the city begins with the attestation of the conquest of Serdica by the Roman Republic in 29 BC from the Celtic tribe Serdi. There is no metropolis in Europe with such a rich antique exhibition as we have in Sofia. The city has been described as the “triangle of religious tolerance”. This is due to the fact that three temples of three major world religions – ChristianityIslam and Judaism – are situated close together: the the Bulgarian Orthodox church Sveta NedelyaBanya Bashi Mosque and Sofia Synagogue. This triangle was recently expanded to a “square” and includes the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. Sofia is one of the greenest capitals in Europe with its parks and is situated at the foot of the beautiful Vitosha Mountains (2292 m). The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia University, the Parliament, the Palace, the National Theatre, and much more can be seen and explored on a walk through the city centre. I can’t give you a particular recommendation for food and drink, as you can get good food almost anywhere (one tip: avoid the places on Vitosha Street – too touristy). However, I can recommend a cocktail bar – Bar Me at the back of the Military Club in the city centre (also a building worth seeing!).  
So welcome to the Balkans – a region with amazing, warm-hearted people (true survivors), rich in history and culture, full of life and a paradise to explore, just around the corner.
Elitza Kavrakova

Elitza Kavrakova

is Head of Institutional Clients East at RBI.

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