The Balkan Circle Part 1: Albania, Montenegro, Croatia « Baltic Travel Company
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Baltic Travel Blog

The Balkan Circle Part 1: Albania, Montenegro, Croatia

Posted on September 10th, 2019.

The Balkans are one of our newest destinations, so for this reason I set off in March earlier this year to find out everything this fascinating region has to offer. My whistle-stop tour took me to 6 of the Balkan countries: Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, & Kosovo.

Albania

My journey started with a British Airways flight from Gatwick to Tirana, the capital of Albania. For a great part of the 20th Century, Albania was cut off from the rest of the world under the rule of the isolationist dictator Enver Hoxha. From the end of the Second World War until his death in 1985, Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist and today his legacy is considered by many to be a black spot on the country’s recent history.

The legacy of this period can be seen throughout the country in the city’s socialist architecture – particularly in Tirana’s most prestigious district “the Block”. During Enver Hoxha’s rule, the Block was a restricted residential district for party officials, however, after the fall of the communist regime, the Block was transformed into a hip and trendy entertainment area with streets lined with a variety of shops, restaurants, bars and cafés.

Another legacy of the communist period are the thousands of bunkers dotted throughout the country which were built during Enver Hoxha’s rule. Constantly paranoid of a foreign invasion, the communist leader ordered the construction of over 170,000 bunkers around the country. This invasion, of course, never occurred and today the majority of the bunkers are left abandoned. Some have been turned into museums such as the Bunk’Art Museum in central Tirana which presents the brutal history of the communist regime. Meanwhile other bunkers have been used simply as storage or stables for local farmers.

My journey in Albania continued with a visit to a number of towns: Kruja, Lezhe and Shkoder, each of which has the ruins of a fortress in varying stages of ruins. The earliest foundations of these fortresses date back to the Bronze Age under the civilisation of the Ancient Illyrians – a people who were contemporaries of the Ancient Greeks. These fortresses continued to serve their military purpose throughout Albania’s classical and medieval history during the rule of the Roman, Byzantine and then finally the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, the city of Kruja played a major role in one of the most celebrated periods of Albanian history. It was here that the Albanians, under the leadership of the national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, made a last stand in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and eventually lifted the siege of the city, causing the retreat of the Ottoman Army. Though Albania would fall into Ottoman hands once again after Skanderbeg’s death, he is now revered as one of the heroes of the nation and his statue stands in the capital city and many other towns across the country.

Later in my journey, I also visited the well-preserved fortified city of Berat, the ruins of the   ancient city of Apollonia and the sandy beaches of Durres, a port city, close to the Albanian capital.

Montenegro

The next stop on my journey was Montenegro, a small mountainous country located on the Adriatic Sea, just north of Albania. Montenegro has been growing in popularity among tourists for a number of years now due to the country’s beautiful coast, stunning mountainous landscape, fantastic weather and relatively low prices.

Our first stop was in Budva, where we spent the night. Budva combines a beautiful old town with a vibrant nightlife. The beach is never to far away and any visitor is guaranteed to enjoy their time here in the city and exploring the coast nearby. Just outside the town, is the exclusive 5-star resort ‘Sveti Stefan’. This luxurious hotel is located on a small island just off the coast and has played host to the rich and famous during Yugoslavia and in modern Montenegro.

The following morning, we continued winding along the Montenegrin coast to the incredibly well-preserved town of Kotor. Walking through the city’s cobbled streets, you really feel as if you have been transported back through time and some of the historic Orthodox churches and other buildings located here are truly stunning. One thing I noticed as I walked through the town is the number of cats who have made this place home. It turns out that these cats have become something of a symbol of the city and Kotor now even has its own Cat Museum! For the truly energetic, there is also a trail of around 1,300 steps leading up the hill behind Kotor to the Church of Saint John and the ruins of the old Kotor Fortress. The view from here is spectacular and if you’re able, it’s definitely worth struggling up all those steps!

Croatia

The same day, we continued driving north along the coast, took a short-cut across the Bay of Kotor by ferry and then crossed the border into Croatia. The views on the next stage of the journey were absolutely stunning – on the right-hand side were dry rocky hills and cliffs, dotted with trees and bushes, and on the left-hand side was the blue Adriatic Sea, shining in the morning sun. It is the kind of view you could never grow tired of!

We arrived in Dubrovnik at around midday and drove to the top of the Srd Hill overlooking the old town. This hill offers one of the best views of the city and it is possible to reach it by taking a cable car from the city itself.

In the early 1990s, the city of Dubrovnik was heavily shelled during a siege by the Yugoslav Armed Forces resulting in many deaths and damage to the historical Old Town. Today, most of the city has been restored but some of the buildings still bear the scars of this recent conflict.

In recent years, Dubrovnik has become an incredibly popular destination for film crews and has featured in a number of films and TV series – most notably HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. It is easy to see why the city is so popular. The city’s medieval walls, red rooftops and narrow cobbled streets make the perfect backdrop – all while being bathed in sunshine for most of the year. For visitors in this region, Dubrovnik is definitely a must-see destination!

Later that day, my journey continued inland, driving up into the mountains of neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. To read more, please see part 2 (coming soon ).

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