In the final of this two-part guest blog geographer and adventurer, Francis Highton, writes about his recent travels off the beaten track in the Balkans.
It was time to fully immerse ourselves in nature and get off-grid. There are so many huge national parks in the Balkan region covered in pristine temperate forest and teeming with wildlife. As well as the brown bear, critically endangered Balkan lynx, wolves, boars, otters, chamoix and numerous bird species wander these ancient spaces. These sorts of forests were once widespread across much of central Europe, but have, due to human interference, long since vanished. In North Macedonia, the forests have seen less deforestation, and are therefore better preserved – and ready to be explored.
After Skopje, Dan and I headed to Mavrovo National Park, the largest of North Macedonia’s parks, for a few days of hiking. Characterised by steep mountains and dense forests, we trekked up and down with our huge bags. This was no walk in the park, but each mountain scaled brought a huge sense of achievement, new views, and new experiences. Setting up camp on one night overlooking a stunning hidden river valley, it felt like we were the only people in the world. Dan managed to rustle up some grub for us to eat and we huddled in the tent to keep warm, listening out for any foraging animals. Just before we went to sleep each night, I was reminded about the potential for one particular resident of the woods investigating our camp; the brown bear. Fortunately (or unfortunately for Dan!) no bears found us – or if they did, they were shy! It poured with rain over some of these days, which added another layer of challenge to the adventure such as finding shelter in river ravines under rocky outcrops. On one of the nights, we found the tent freezing and even our sleeping bags couldn’t keep us warm – when we woke up we discovered that we had pitched up just below the frostline! No wonder it was so cold…
Galičica National Park is another breathtaking area that can be found near the famous town of Ohrid. Wolves, bears, and the Balkan lynx can all roam free here. On another cold, frosty morning, Dan and I found ourselves on a high outcrop overlooking one of these wild forest spaces, and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a bear on the other side of the valley as it shuffled its way through the trees – probably looking for its breakfast! I wish we had seen more of this wildlife – this park has camera traps all over it that have caught a couple of lynx in recent years, which could indicate a breeding pair. It would have been incredible to see one of these animals as they are considered critically endangered, but we would have needed far more time, patience, and luck. If only the UK still had some of the same wild places and species – I would always be in them, looking!
On the shores of Lake Prespa, which straddles the border of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, lies the shell of Hotel Europa. It was built after the collapse of the communist system in 1992 as a status symbol for the new Eastern Europe, but was abandoned in the early 2000’s after a huge fire broke out in the kitchen. Now empty, it is open to anyone who likes urban exploration; the stripped rooms a haunting reminder of what was once here. Wandering through the remains of the old ballroom, bowling alley and bedrooms was eerie, imagining the guests and staff who would have once roamed the halls. The most exciting part though, for me, was how nature is slowing encroaching back into the place. The old plant boxes on the balconies are overgrown, the main restaurant balcony has basically turned into a young forest, and the old overgrown gardens are inching ever closer to the buildings. An amazing example of what can happen after humans leave, and nature takes over again.
One of the final stops on our exploration was the town of Berat in Albania. Built on and around a hill for defense, Berat also benefited from the river Osum that winds through the landscape, cutting it off from other regions. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (there were so many on this trip!), it has a unique form of architecture with influences from the many civilisations that have controlled the region during different time periods. Known as the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’, Berat certainly lives up to its name. The Byzantine ruins are well-preserved, which all comes back to how during the Ottoman rule of the area, all buildings had to be constructed in the Byzantine style. This has resulted in one of the most picturesque towns that I have ever visited, with a vibrant culture to match its style. The old stone houses have even become home to several different bird species, in particular swifts, who use the gaps in the castle walls to nest. Can you spot the two in the picture?
Berat has become a tourist honeypot site in recent years as Albania has become more popular, but thankfully for us we were here in the quiet period. For our final night in the Balkans before we headed back to catch our flight in Tirana, we got a couple of cold drinks and sat on the edge of Berat castle walls (something that would NOT fly in the UK!) overlooking the Osum valley. It was the perfect curtain call to a brilliant trip – and much needed respite after the days hiking and camping in the forests.
Vibrant, colourful, friendly, with geography and history on show everywhere – go and explore the Balkan region before it becomes too popular. I can promise that you won’t regret it.
What Francis thought of the Leica V-Lux 5 …
The V-Lux 5 is an incredibly versatile camera and allowed me to capture some great images. The clear, high-resolution provided by the large sensor and zoom lens allowed me to get closer to animals than ever before. Compact, lightweight, and easy to use, I felt very lucky to be able to take this little sidekick on my adventure.
Learn more about the Leica V-Lux 5 here.