In the first of this two-part guest blog, geographer and adventurer, Francis Highton, writes about his road trip around Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia.
Tourists aim to escape life. Travellers experience it.
The Balkan region is not yet one of the places many people choose for their Mediterranean escapes. An easter road trip around four of these Eastern European states – Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia – showed me that it should be. They are beautiful, vibrant, cultural places, with complex histories and stunning landscapes. I managed to convince my explorer partner, Dan O’Neill to come along – with the promise of potentially seeing bears and wolves in the wild… It didn’t take much convincing once I told him that!
Red roofs nestled amongst blue seas. Montenegro was the most Mediterranean of the countries on the road trip, but also the most touristy – so it was nice to do this one first and then get out to the quieter places.
Getting lost in the cobbled old town of Kotor and climbing the mountain of Sbiljari to look over the city, felt like wandering into the past, or an expansive film set. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kotor boasts one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the Adriatic. The coast of Montenegro offered much more like this, including the beautiful island town of Sveti Stefan which has a fascinating history. In the 1950’s the Yugoslav government converted it into an exclusive resort and casino, visited by celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas and even Princess Margaret, our late Queen’s sister. However, with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s the resort saw a decline and it only recently reopened in 2009. To be able to walk in the footsteps of these legends was inspiring; although the price for a room on the island was a tad much for our budget…!
Contrasted with the blues and reds of the coastline, inland Montenegro was a vastly different place. Within less than a day of driving, we had gone from the sea to the high mountains of the Durmitor National Park, still buried deep in layers of thick snow. Here we planned to hike to the summit of Bobotov Kuk and having prepared for a long day’s hike up and down, with all our food, water, and warm kit, we set off. It was a beautiful day, and we could see all the way to the top of the mountain. However, it quickly became apparent we had miscalculated the conditions, as the further we climbed, the deeper the snow became and the progress traversing the terrain was slow. Undeterred, we pushed upwards, reaching a small mountain hut. It was here the summit became obscured by clouds and we had to make the unfortunate decision to turn back, for safety, knowing that our slower pace due to the harder conditions would mean we would be unable to complete the trip before nightfall. It is important to always be sensible when making decisions in remote environments – and we will return to Montenegro to complete this challenge in the future!
Having never seen a bear up close, even in a zoo, it was an incredible experience to visit the Four Paws International Bear Sanctuary near Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. Although not close to extinction in many parts of the world, in Europe our largest terrestrial predator, the brown bear, has become increasingly threatened. Alongside other sanctuaries in Bulgaria and Romania, these places are the final refuges for what were known as ‘restaurant bears’. These were bears once kept in cages in many of the towns and cities across the Balkan nations, for the purpose of attracting customers. These semi-wild spaces have given them a respite after being trapped for so long in confined spaces for entertainment, in such appalling conditions they could barely move. For some of the rescued bears, they have never even known the wild. Through rehabilitation and care, they have been able to find a new, safe life here. If you are interested in learning more about this excellent charity and rescue programme, head here.
Our first stop in North Macedonia, Skopje can trace its history back beyond Roman settlement in 28AD. In its long existence, the city has undergone major changes, being part of the Byzantine, Serbian and Ottoman Empires before the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1918, bringing together the modern-day states of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. In the years following the end the Second World War, the Yugoslav government invested heavily in Skopje, but after a serious earthquake decimated the city in 1963, the city became a strange mix of new and old; where castle ruins and the ancient bazaar can be found alongside shining examples of modernist architecture; grand buildings with tall pillars, wide paved streets and giant statues. A wonderfully friendly city, we decided to spend two days here exploring its streets, history and its bars. It was a great welcome, and also a good place to set ourselves up and prepare for the adventure that came next…
Look out for Part 2 – off-grid exploration in the Eastern European wilderness, urban exploring of abandoned luxury hotels and clambering over castle walls!