Our latest guest blogger is Larissa Olenicoff, founder of one of the web’s latest and greatest travel blogs Blonde-gypsy.com. To keep up to date with her travels, and be amazed at the images she takes with her iPhone, make sure to check out her blog, follow her on Twitter and ‘like’ her page on Facebook.
If you’re looking for alternative places to travel in Europe that are interesting and seriously cheap, think about heading over to the Balkans. While Croatia and Slovenia have become pretty popular amongst travellers over the past couple of years, there are a few other countries in the region that deserve some time in the spotlight. This is due to their mix of stunning beauty, rich culture, and incredibly hospitable locals. Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania are just three examples of amazing Balkan cities, all of which I had the pleasure of travelling through for the first time last November.
Though all three have their fair share of political and economic problems (what country doesn’t?) and are still trying to shake off the stigma of war, their tourism industries appear to be on the rise and it’s only a matter of time before they start seeing a much larger influx of tourists. That means for those of you interested in an adventure and doing something in Europe that hasn’t been done a million times before, there is no better time for you to visit one of them than now. Here’s an introduction to six of the main Balkan cities.
1. Skopje, Macedonia
Skopje is perhaps one of the most underrated cities in the Balkans. With a shiny new airport and growing amount of budget airlines touching down there, it’s a great choice for a cheap weekend break or for kicking off a full-fledged exploration of Macedonia and its surrounding countries, just like I did. There’s a surprising amount to do if you’re interested in history, absurd architecture, Ottoman relics, and great nightlife.
Along with some impressive political buildings (the city had to be almost entirely rebuilt after 80% of it was destroyed by a 6.9 earthquake in 1963), Skopje is a still a fantastic mix of Islamic and Christian culture. Mosques, churches, hammans and monuments to saints can all be found in the city centre, not to mention Stara Charshija, the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside Istanbul. A few other points of interest are the newly rebuilt Macedonia Square, the Stone Bridge which dates back to the 6th Century, Kale Fortress (though at present you can’t enter), and a museum dedicated to Mother Teresa, one of Skopje’s most famous natives.
Where to stay: Shanti Hostel and Shanti Hostel 2 truly became my ‘home away from home’ in Skopje. The two are literally around the corner from one another in a very convenient location. Rooms were very clean and they have all the amenities one would need – free breakfast, strong WiFi, laundry, comfy common areas, and awesome patios to chill. The owners and staff were all out of this world and not only made sure everyone was comfortable, but also that we were all having a really great time in Skopje.
2. Ohrid, Macedonia
Macedonia’s most popular resort town, Ohrid, is about three and a half hours away from Skopje on the banks of Lake Ohrid (I know, hard to believe). Though its natural beauty can be enjoyed year-round, summertime is prime time for tourism here and when it’s is generally crowded.
Although it was too cold to swim or hang out the beach, I enjoyed having the place mostly to myself in November. Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe and home to the oldest Slav monastery (St Pantelejmon) in the world. Not surprisingly, both it and Lake Ohrid have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Supposedly there were once 365 churches surrounding the lake, one for every day of the year, which is the reason people often refer to it as Jerusalem. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s hard to deny that the lake is a spiritual one.
Where to stay: Antonio Guesthouse is the top-rated guesthouse on Hostelworld and a good place to stay if you’re looking for some peace and quiet. It’s a short walk from the Old Town and very close to where buses are leaving for Struga or Skopje. All rooms have a refrigerator and cable TV.
3. Bitola, Macedonia
Bitola is the second largest city in Macedonia yet largely overlooked in comparison to Ohrid. That should be changing soon as more and more people start finding out about it. But for now it remains relatively vacant of foreign visitors.
Domestic visitors are another story. This place gets completely crazy on the weekends, especially on Sirok Sokak, the main pedestrian street that runs through the centre. If you need a break from all the commotion or crowded streets just aren’t your scene, head over to the Old Bazaar on the other side of the river or to the ruins of the ancient city of Heraclea Lyncestis.
Where to stay: Shanti Hostel Bitola was recently opened by the same owners of the Shanti Hostels in Skopje. It’s spread out between two floors of a completely renovated building that’s just around the corner from the city’s famous Clock Tower and the top of Sirok Sokak. One of its best features has to be the balconies in every room that give you an awesome view of the nearby mountains. Breakfast is also included.
4. Pristina, Kosovo
When I first told people I was headed to Kosovo alone, I was met with a ton of scepticism and worry. Sure, the country is notorious for corruption and trafficking, but in the end, all that worrying turned out to be a waste of energy. Kosovo is actually a really cool country and I felt completely safe the entire time I was there.
Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, is the best place to start. It’s not the most aesthetically appealing of the Balkan cities, but it’s an interesting place to spend some time as it’s the second youngest country in the world (at least according to those who recognise it). With only a handful of conventional tourist atrractions ‘Pristina experience’ is about feeling the vibe of the city more than anything else. It’s got some pretty pumping nightlife and a large expat community which means most restaurants, bars and clubs are well prepared for new foreign visitors.
Where to stay: Hostel Han is a new hostel directly in the centre of Pristina. You really couldn’t ask for a better location or friendlier staff to welcome you (all the guys working there are great!). It’s a converted three-bedroom apartment – two rooms for guests and the other room belongs to the owners. There is also a common room with small kitchen attached which proved useful.
5. Prizren, Kosovo
Two hours from Pristina is Prizren, Kosovo’s cultural capital and prettiest city. During August this place gets packed for Dokufest, a nine-day international documentary and short film festival that is ranked one of the top in the world and by far the biggest event of its kind in the Balkans. By all accounts the city centre turns into one massive party for the duration of the festival so expect much more than just documentary screenings and film exhibitions.
Though far smaller than Pristina, you’d probably want to spend more of your time here if you enjoy being surrounded by beautiful scenery and the idea of hanging in place of great historical importance. Prizren was a prominent city under the Ottoman Empire which is why you can find so much Ottoman architecture and Turkish is still widely spoken and understood. A climb up to the ancient Prizren Fortress is mandatory as it’s there where you will find the most beautiful view of the city.
Where to stay: City Hostel Prizren is the only hostel in Prizren, and a fine one at that. It reminded me much more of a small, budget hotel, only with a way more fun and relaxed atmosphere. Rooms and bathrooms are kept very clean and breakfast is included. If you’re lucky you will meet Galdim, the hostel’s owner and all-round good guy. I even heard about his hospitality through other travellers long before I arrived.
6. Tirana, Albania
Tirana is intense to say the least, but once you get familiar with the streets and realise no car or bus will ever stop for you EVER, you may find yourself liking it a lot. In some weird way it’s cosy and way more colourful than one would imagine a city to be after nearly fifty years of isolation from the rest of the world. Aside from being colourful, it’s also surprisingly green around the very centre where you can catch striking views of the nearby mountains on a clear day.
Nightlife there is convenient as it’s pretty much all situated in one place – Blloku. This ironically was the neighbourhood where all the government officials lived during communist times and was completely off limits to the general public. Now it’s a capitalist’s dream, filled with all kinds of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs where you can spend all of your money and find a party any night of the week.
Where to stay: Freddy’s is another so-called ‘hostel’ that’s actually more of a small family-run hotel. As you might have guessed, Freddy is the one who runs the show and is always more than willing to help with whatever you need. There is not one bunk bed in there – just singles and doubles, and most rooms have an en suite bathroom and cable TV. Freddy can also promise you an excellent location – 5 minutes from Skanderberg Square and 10 minutes from Blloku.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments…