The Balkans Travel Journal
I have wanted to visit the Balkans for almost a decade and finally had the chance this past July. The beautiful mountains, turquoise sea, ancient architecture and dazzling sunshine make this part of Europe a charming and delightful destination to visit.
Spare a few minutes to read this post because we went to quite a few places! I made a map of the route we took, starting in Zagreb, Croatia, going along the coast through Montenegro and Albania and ending in Corfu, Greece - find it at the end of the post.
We decided to visit places along the coast of the Adriatic sea, starting in Split, then going by ferry to the islands of Hvar and Korčula and having a relaxing week in Čavtat from where we visited Dubrovnik.
In Split you can visit the historic city centre with beautiful architecture dating back from Roman times; there you'll find Diocletian's Palace, you can walk inside the city walls to see the Diocletian's cellars - also an opportunity to cool down from the oppressive summer heat- and you can climb the Saint Domnius bell tower from where you'll have a 360° view of the old and new city, the mountains and the port. You could also visit the small town of Trogir by bus or organise a tour to visit the Krka Waterfalls - we didn't visit them but I hear they are beautiful.
After visiting the historical bits of each island, you can go to the beach both in Hvar and Korčula either in the town or in smaller islands nearby. The beaches are stunning but the water is a bit cold; don't forget to take water shoes and beware of sea urchins and nudist beaches! In Hvar you can climb to the fort where you will have a view of the town - the red tiled roofs never get boring-, nearby islands, the port, etc. In Korčula you can climb the town gate for a few kunas to have a view of the landscape. Towards the west outside the city walls you'll find an explosion of flowers along the wall with colours ranging from pale pink to ivory, yellow and magenta; you can see the sunset from here but also from the town gate tower. If you're lucky you'll see the sky painted purple, pink and orange and when the sun is behind the mountains it'll turn a velvety shade of indigo blue.
When visiting Dubrovnik make sure to have plenty of time to walk around the city centre - for the place is massive with lots of little charming streets - as well as on the city walls to have a view of the old town and surrounding landscape. There are lots of little cafes and restaurants as well as bookshops, souvenir shops, etc. There are also historic buildings to see i.e. churches, museums, etc. Simply wandering around the old streets is very pleasant.
The vegetarian options in Croatia are a bit limited - the options were always pasta or gnocchi with grilled vegetables or mushrooms in every restaurant - but nonetheless delicious. I had the aforementioned dishes and also pizza margherita, fiorentina, etc. - We had the most heavenly pizza in Mea Culpa in Dubrovnik.
As it was scorching hot all the time, we had an inordinate amount of Italian gelato, with flavours such as frutti di bosco, strawberry, passion fruit, orange, lemon, etc. For the chocolate lovers, there are a myriad of options to choose from as well as some flavours with no milk for the vegan folks.
Despite being not too far from Cavtat it took us about 3 hours to get to Kotor because the border control was very, very slow. Apart from that, all the way to the city the view was absolutely beautiful, especially in Montenegro because the road goes right next to the mountains as you enter the bay where Kotor is located.
Kotor has a beautifully well preserved old town with architecture similar to that seen in Dubrovnik (but different when you look closer), surrounded by a fortress that goes all the way up the mountain and around the city. The first thing you can do is to walk around the city centre, get lost in the alleys and just enjoy the beauty of the place; you'll find many interesting buildings to visit, quite a few churches, souvenir shops and museums. My favourite museum was the Cat museum where you'll find a big selection of vintage illustrations as well as more contemporary pieces, all cat themed of course. They also had a family of cats and newborn kittens living in one of the windowsills of the museum; hopefully they'll stay to live there to entertain visitors.
Climbing the fortress is a must for 2 reasons: first, the view over the town and mountains is stunning, particularly at sunset when you can see the colours of the landscape changing. Secondly, there are lots of cats and kittens living around the walls ♡ and they are more than happy to be fed and some of them to be petted. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes as the footpath can be slippery and steep.
Another way to enjoy the beauty of Kotor is to take a boat tour around the bay to visit Perast and Our Lady of the Rocks. The boats depart from a small marina not far from the city entrance and the tour costs about €20. It lasts around 3 hours and they give you time to explore and take pictures.
Back in Kotor town you can walk around the fortress that surrounds the lower part of the city and there you'll find restaurant and cafes. We had a refreshing beer in one of those bars and enjoyed the sunset from there.
The food choices in Kotor were exactly the same as in Croatia - Pasta or gnocchi with grilled vegetables, etc. The ice cream however, was a bit disappointing, not because the quality was inferior, but because the scoops were tiny! Like a 1/3 of the scoops we had up north. Baffled by the situation, I didn't take pictures of the ice cream but decided to turn my attention to the scores of kittens we found on the street. Let's look at pictures of them and forget about tiny ice creams.
Despite being right next to Montenegro and not far from Croatia, Albania is totally different both culturally and architecturally. The buildings here are built in what it seems a more random fashion and painted in lots of different colours and hues. We visited Shkodër, Tirana and Gjirokastër, and far from the tourist crowds we had a relaxing time and made wonderful discoveries.
In Shkodër we visited the Rozafa Castle which is outside the town, located high on a mountain and from where you have a breathtaking view of the mountains in the distance, the blue rivers and the small farms and houses near the town. It's a very peaceful and picturesque place to visit because there aren't many tourists and the grounds of the castle are vast. In the town centre there's a charming pedestrian street with historical rehabilitated buildings painted in pastel colours, where you'll find scores of cafes, restaurants and quaint shops. In Tirana you can walk down the streets lined with massive trees and see the yellow leaves floating and swirling with the wind. In the city centre, there are a few piazzas and parks to visit, there you could wander around or read a book - if it is not too hot! Take the cable car to Mount Dajti to have spectacular views over the city and enjoy the beautiful gardens adorned with flowers of many colours with insects of various shapes and colours buzzing and fluttering around them.
Wandering around the streets of Gjirokastër is the first thing to do when visiting. They are cobbled with grey stones, the houses are white washed with grey tiled roofs and their balconies adorned with black iron rails; some of them have colourful plants hanging from there adding small splashes of colour to the streets, a little bit like confetti. In the city centre you'll find shops selling handmade items unique to Albania - I wish I'd had space in my suitcase for one of those rugs. In the town you'll also find family owned shops and little cafes; we had the most delicious orange cake and tres leches cake with freshly brewed coffee. Visit the Gjirokastër Fortress before the sunset to see the mountains and town washed in golden light and the sky changing from soft cerulian blue to deeper shades.
The most amazing thing about Albania is without a doubt the food. Every single dish we tried was incredibly delicious and tasty, and there were lots of vegetarian options that were mouthwatering. In Shkodër we ate at the Hotel Tradita, were we were also staying. We had the vegetable appetizers, coal potatoes, and suffed peppers. For breakfast we were treated to a selection of olives, goat cheese, and mediterranean sauces to accompany the fresh bread and eggs. In Tirana we ate grilled vegetables, fresh bread and pasta - and for dessert, rice pudding at Era Blloku. The next day we headed to Oda and had stuffed peppers, stuffed aubergine and spinach pastry. In Gjirokastër we dined at Restorant Tradicional Odaja, a family owned restaurant, and had vegetarian musaka, lamb (not me!) and grilled potatoes.
Having visited other places in Greece before, I imagined the architecture in Corfu to be be whitewashed with blue doors and shutters. I was most surprised to discover that I was wrong and that the place looks more like an Italian town than a Greek one; the reason is that Corfu was under Venetian rule for quite a long time.
The island is big and there are quite a few things to do. Obviously the first thing to to is to explore Corfu town, with its pastel painted houses, restaurants, shops and little cafes. Visit the Old Fortress to have a view over the marina and Albanian mountains, from there you can also see gigantic cruise-ships arriving and departing. Just an hour away on bus from Corfu town you can visit the Achilleion Palace. There you'll find beautiful architecture and paintings but the best part is the gardens that has a panoramic view of Corfu and is decorated with Greek statues and colourful flowers.
There are many options to see the beach in Corfu. We chose to visit Paleokastritsa at the north-west. There, you can visite the Monastery and walk around the adjacent gardens from where you have a view over the turquoise sea and Mediterranean landscape. You could also go on a boat tour to see the caves and cliffs - we saw colourful fish and pink corals - and afterwards have lunch at a nearby restaurant on Agios Spyridon Beach.
Mediterranean food is one of my favourite foods in the whole world, so in Corfu, I was in paradise. There were plenty of fat, juicy olives, goat's cheese, freshly baked pitta bread, tomatoes, peppers and so on. My favourite dish was stuffed peppers and tomatoes with rice and vegetables accompanied by a cold refreshing beer at To Dimarchio, next to Town Hall square. We had a beautiful dinner at Pane e Souvlaki with lentils with yogurt, humus, fresh pita bread, grilled potatoes, etc. If you feel like having crepes, head over to Earth Cafe, there we had one with fresh vegetables, one with strawberries and chocolate as well as a fruit smoothy.
And that concludes this trip. I hope you enjoyed the post, and maybe feel inspired to visit these beautiful places. As always, if you have any questions, just post them below.
All images © Gina Maldonado