Misunderstood but not to be Missed: Discover the Balkans
The Balkans—that southeasterly appendage of Europe that Americans might mistake for the northerly Baltics—are misunderstood. The collection of almost a dozen countries (depending on who’s counting) has a history that’s long, thickly tangled, and often forgotten; they are thought of more in the context of bloody conflict than in that of vacationing; their languages spoken in the region are many, the cultures complex and diverse; and yet, amidst all that strife and confusion, there are people and places that welcome the curious traveler with hospitality and endless adventures. Below is a semi-random collection of destinations that I happen to have visited and cannot recommend highly enough. Hopefully, even if this specific “road trip” doesn’t appeal to you, the descriptions and recommendations that follow whet your appetite for some Balkan adventures.
Some destinations force us to decide between climate and culture: the choice is often either relax on a tranquil beach that’s surrounded by uninteresting resorts, or visit a historical city full of sights, sounds smells and tastes, but without the natural beauty that makes for a soothing vacation. Luckily, the Balkan coast does away with that choice. Take the shores of Croatia and Albania. Their coastlines are peppered with structures and cities that date back to Ancient Greek and Roman times, overlayed with Ottoman, Venetian, Austrian and Yugoslavian remnants; and between these historic sites that still buzz with their unique energies are the Adriatic and Ionian seas and the world-class stone and sand beaches that line them. Further inland, sublimely rugged peaks tower over the towns and cities that lay in the valleys and along the ports.
Consider beginning a West-Balkan excursion at the regional hub of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. After flying into the Zagreb airport, take the 4€ shuttle to the city center. From there, it’s an easy walk or tram ride to Hotel Croatia, where reasonable rates and simple, stylish rooms with private balconies make for accessible and comfortable accommodations. For a bit more glamor, check out the highly rated Esplanade Zagreb—this erstwhile stop for passengers on the Orient Express has been fully updated, and you can often find excellent rooms at prices far lower than what you’d expect for such luxury.
Once settled, be sure to stroll over to Heritage Croatian Food for a bite to eat. There, a knowledgeable staff serves up Croatian classics that emphasize the freshest, most flavorful local ingredients. The small plates menu lets you try everything from flatbread with Croatian smoked pork and truffle spread, to fried pandora-fish sandwiches.
Before leaving Zagreb, don’t miss the ornate botanical gardens right in the heart of the city, which, combined with the palatial government buildings and long Yugoslav-era promenades and boulevards give the whole area a grand, exotic air. Also take a hike up to the massive Zagreb Cathedral, the most splendid Catholic monument east of the Alps.
When you’re ready to move on to some time on the coast, we recommend renting a car. Though the busses are fairly reliable and reasonably priced, they run infrequently and don’t afford the same freedom to explore—though it can be nice to sit back and soak in the scenery in a comfy coach-bus seat.
Whichever mode of transport you choose, head West towards the Adriatic. There, just south of Trieste, the Croatian city of Pula offers roman ruins, trendy bars and cafes, and picturesque waterfronts. Tucked well off the beaten tourist path, Pula feels like a quiet gem perfect for a tranquil few days of swimming and sightseeing. For a real taste of this laid back, welcoming spirit try Backyard Dinner and Breakfast, a sophisticated seafood restaurant that’s literally wedged in the space between two tile-roofed Mediterranean houses.
Of course, there are some destinations that are worth getting on the beaten path for. Head south along the coast from Pula to Dubrovnik—which also happens to be the filming location for “King’s Landing,” of Game of Thrones fame. For rooms, take a look at Berkeley Hotel and Spa. For less than 100€ a night, you can have a balcony with an ocean view, poolside accommodations and a luxurious in-house spa. For those on a tight budget, Hotel Petka is an obvious choice: sea views, solid breakfast, clean and comfortable rooms. I should also mention here that AirBnB often has cost-effective and utterly unique options for your accommodations, and some of the most interesting and helpful locals I met in the Balkans were AirBnB hosts.
Once you’re rested and you are beginning your first day in Dubrovnik, take a lap atop the towering city walls, whose imposing limestone faces have been protecting the coastal city since 600 AD. From there you can get the lay of the land, and locate the next stops on the sightseeing checklist: the Lovrijenac Fort, the St. John Fortress, the Church of St. Blaise—the list goes on. Work your way up to the waterfront on the north side of the city, where Ala Mizerija bar and restaurant offers light sandwiches and tapas-style dishes alongside a wide range of expertly mixed, utterly delicious cocktails.
If you’ve got the time, consider taking a few days to drive from Dubrovnik, along the Montenegrin coast, down to the Albanian Riviera at the countries southern end. For American and European travelers, the costs to stay in Albania can be incredibly affordable. This means stopping for a couple days in the Albanian capital Tirana won’t set you back by much and will let you explore a city rich with history and unique beauty.
To stay near the center of Tirana activity, book a room at the wonderfully offbeat Hotel Boutique Gloria: affordable, well-appointed rooms fill out an almost colonial-style three story building, which sit beneath a rooftop restaurant—luxurious, fruit-heavy breakfasts are included, and the restaurant’s notable dinner menu is recommended. The hotel is a minute’s walk from the central Skanderbeg Square.
For a taste of traditional Albanian cooking, stroll down Kavajës Street to Tek Zgara Restaurant. Here, a platter of grilled meats, qoftas, roasted vegetables and fresh tomato-feta salads that can easily feed three will run you less than $10.
While in town, don’t miss a loop around Tirana’s artificial lake, through the multi-leveled, beautifully designed Grand Park of Tirana that surrounds it. There, watch the swans swim past as you savor gelatos and listen to the thwap of locals playing tennis and volleyball.
Also see the storied Bunkart 1, the former dictator’s labyrinthine bunker turned museum/art exhibit, at the city’s outskirts.
Be sure to check out Part 2 of this article where we visit Gjirokaster and Serandë.