From island life in Greece to the most remote mountain valleys in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. That is what month nine of our trip had to offer. For the first time in our lives we tasted the 'Balkan style'. And to describe this best, we would say 'it's different'. Unfriendly facial expressions cover almost all the very nice and warmhearted people. Streetfood for cheap prices like in Morocco comes back as soon as you cross the border from Greece and also 'market hunts' are a thing again. It is very much different from what we are used to in Europe. It is not like Italy or Spain and also not like Greece. Greece feels even a little misplaced on the map. How do we have such a 'Western European feeling' so far from home? And why are all connected Balkan countries so much different and having fewer tourists than Greece? Questions we asked ourselves this month...
Life goes on
While fully enjoying the beauty of Greece, our trip got interrupted for some days due to a tough message from home. Siebes grandfather passed away. Traveling for a full year means losing the connection from home like you are used to and one year is long enough for things to change. Most of these changes are small or unimportant, but they can be big and drastic as well. Those are the moments when it feels hard to be far away from home. This sad occurrence made month nine of our trip therefore not the easiest. The realization that 'home' won't be the same as nine months ago hit in and made us realize that we aren't only living the dream, but also just living life. And life always goes on. So as soon as we arrived back at Tirana international airport, our trip went on. You have to enjoy life in the now.
From touristy Zakynthos to touristfree Albania
Zakynthos is a tourist place. All the Greece cars driving around are filled with tourists. Germans, Englishmen and a lot of Dutchies. And these latter ones were being highly interested in this yellow car with rooftop tent from their home country. Over 3 hours of flying seems like far from home, but these crazy dutchies came here by car... It took six days for Jack to get a little tired of all the attention, but luckily this was exactly enough to explore the island of Zakynthos with its beautiful coastal scenery and campspots along the high white cliffs. After three weeks of island hopping in the Ionian Sea, we were excited to head back land inwards to the less touristy mountainous inlands of Greece. However, our unplanned trip to the Netherlands made us drive faster to Albania than planned and we only visited the beautiful Vikos Gorge on our way. This natural highlight got us excited enough to say that we will come back to discover the Greek interior one day. This country has so much to offer.
Jack goes Balkan-style
As soon as we left the Vikos Gorge, we crossed the border to Albania to taste from the Balkan vibes for the first time. Our first impressions? Well, the one million gas stations, from which half was abandoned, and the few Albanians that didn't exactly answer our greetings in a way we were used to, didn't make it look very inviting at first. However, soon we felt differently and it didn't take more than one hour to get excited about Albania. We stopped in the UNESCO city of Gjirokastër, famous for having one of Balkan's biggest castles. But it was not this 'tourist center' that interested us most, it was the city's 'real center' where the touringcars didn't stop. Here we found out about the Albanian style of communicating. As soon as you are past the first five seconds of serious or grumpy face expressions, you get a very friendly and open Albanian. Besides that, the center of Gjirokastër was the first place where we found out about the cheap Balkanese streetfood. Maybe it's not the finest, but the local grills, cheese stalls and bakeries had surprisingly interesting and tasty stuff. Before finding out more about the Albanian style, we continued our way to the airport and had a few days off.
We continued our Balkan expedition with a visit to Albania's capital, Tirana. A surprisingly interesting place. Not because of what it has to offer, but more because of the fact that it has nothing much to offer. Tirana is a city without highlights and tourists, but is home to a lot of fancy coffee bars and expensive cars with English number plates. It is probably the weirdest capital we have seen in our entire trip. After stuffing Jack with cheap fruits from the farmer market, we started our streak of pretty campspots. From spots next to fast-flowing creeks to spots on mountain ridges, we got some really great views from our rooftop tent in Albania. A few days filled with hikes and bike rides later, we crossed the border to North Macedonia where we headed to Skopje. As compared to Tirana, Skopje is a winner. It has more to see and also for streetfood you can better pick Macedonia's capital. Sadly, Macedonia gave us a lot of rain. Consecutive gray days made driving in Macedonia feel like driving at the end of the world. The only thing we saw were hills full of trees, trees and more trees. We explored the region of Ohrid and had a stop at the Pesna cave and Matka gorge, but the weather wasn't inviting enough to hike up one of the many peaks the country has to offer.
While looking for better weather we ended up in Kosovo. This little country is getting negative attention in the news these days due to tensions with its Northern neighbors Serbia, but surprised us with its impressive scenery in the Sharr Mountain national park. Since Switzerland we didn't see so much snow. Furthermore, we found out about 'Flija' as the perfect after-hike snack. However, the mountains of Kosovo have one big disadvantage, they are being plagued by trash. The lower alpine valleys are full of it and you have to hike far to enjoy the natural beauty without plastics and cans around. A few days of Kosovo was enough to return to Albania again. From Prizren we drove to Mount Korab, Albania's highest mountain to be climbed by a stunning hike.
Goodbye Albania, goodbye June
We spent the last week of this month between the most impressive and roughest mountains of Albania. After the hike to Mt. Korab, we camped a few days along the Black Drin river. A truly magical place far away from the busy world and reached by driving poor gravel roads for hours. The only noise around was the fast flowing mountain creek. Curious cows, sheep and goats made us wake up with a smile. The shadow of our rooftop tent was often the best they could find. From the Valbona Valley, at the foot of the highest mountains in the Dinaric Alps, we waved June goodbye. We hiked the most famous hiking trails of Albania and almost imagined ourselves back in Zakynthos. Just as we started this month with compatriots around, we ended it as well. This time the Dutchies weren't wearing swimwear, but hiking shoes. Goodbye June and Welcome July! Let's head into our final month...