Travel in the Balkans: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece

Knowing that this trip would be an expense we weren’t expecting, I gathered my confidence to tell my partner that I decided to go. “I just have to go to this conference in Athens,” I told him. “Yes. You definitely need to go, and I’m going with you,” he said. Fast forward 30 minutes. I text my brother Daryl, “We’re going to Greece. There is a conference I need to attend.” His reply without questions: “I’m coming too!”

And that’s how it started.

Related: Tips for Traveling in the Balkans

It turns out roundtrip flights were cheaper into Sofia, Bulgaria than Athens, so we decided to make a trip out of it and hit up the rest of the Balkan countries as well. Our trip would include Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece over the course of about 16 days.

This was our plan:

Balkans Itinerary

While there isn’t a whole lot of information about transportation in the Balkans (mostly blogs), we had read that travel in the Balkans is a bit underdeveloped and that renting a car was a bad idea. First of all, whoever said that is completely wrong, because it would have made our lives so much easier, and probably cheaper, had we rented a car. I think that someone was frustrated with the “bad infrastructure” and probably just hadn’t traveled much, while in reality the infrastructure itself is what makes it more convenient to have your own car. Keep that in mind if you are heading to the Balkans any time soon, especially with 3 or more people.

Related: Renting a Car in Europe: 3 Things You Need to Know

Bulgaria

Sofia is a fascinating city with an interesting history. We stayed at Hostel Mostel, which I would definitely recommend for the wandering backpacker, although it was a bit hard to find as the signage is tiny and the directions on hostelworld.com seem out of date. I highly recommend a private room over the packed dorms. The hostel had an amazing spread at its free breakfast and they offer several tours for their guests, including a free walking tour of Sofia. The beauty of free walking tours is that you can see much of the city on foot while learning about its special sites and events throughout history.

Sofia Mosque

This mosque is the only remaining mosque after city officials (and this is the legend) destroyed the rest of them, wanting the city to look more “European.” Did you know that Bulgaria was one of only 3 European countries to save their Jewish people during WWII? Boris III, king at the time, kept procrastinating on “sending them to Hitler” until it no longer mattered. Crazy! Of all the countries I’ve been to on the eastern block, none were able to save their Jews.

Bulgaria was cheap compared to many parts of Europe and they use their own Leva, not the Euro. The bus to Skopje, Macedonia from Sofia ($20 pp) was about 5 hours through pretty countryside. You can’t use Leva in Macedonia, nor can you use Macedonian Denar in Bulgaria, so be sure to get money from the ATM in each place.

Related: Accessing Money Overseas: 4 Easy Options

Macedonia

Also known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

As a disclaimer, I’m not getting political with the name of this beautiful country, nor will I approve comments with political opinions about it. (That’s not why we’re here!)

I had a feeling this one would be my favorite. I read a helpful article from the Blonde Gypsy about traveling in Macedonia before our trip and took some good tips away from it. Skopje is a bustling city with many faces. In an attempt to be a modern European destination, they are remodeling the entire downtown area with huge white buildings and elaborate statues, which do incorporate the country’s history, but it all seemed like overkill to me, not to mention the controversy about how much money is being spent on it while nearly a third of the population lives in poverty.

Skopje Buildings

Just across the river from the magnificent downtown is the old fortress, from which there is a wonderful viewpoint over the entire city. Next to the fortress is the Old Bazaar and the Muslim area, which I loved. It reminded me of a little Istanbul and we heard the muezzins twice as we explored it. For lunch we had a traditional kebab with beans in tomato sauce and local beers, fun to feel like we were almost in Turkey again. Skopje is also the birthplace of Mother Theresa, so you can see where her house used to be and visit a museum dedicated to her and her nuns if you’d like.

Lunch in Skopje

After two nights and one free walking tour in Skopje (one night is probably plenty), we began the journey to a little corner of the country called Lake Ohrid. We had booked just one night at Apartments Smakoski (my review) and ended up staying for three. If you are going to Ohrid, get on booking.com and book your stay with the Smakoski family at Apartments Smakoski, you may be greeted with Rakia (homemade Macedonia liquor), hugs, food, stories, and new friendships. Not to mention a lake front property within comfortable walking distance to the center and beautiful views of the surrounding area. For $25-30 a night for our own apartment, complete with balcony, bathroom, and kitchenette, we couldn’t have asked for more. Spending an evening with this family was one of the highlights of this trip for me.

Lake Ohrid is a romantic, historic, thriving area full of happy Macedonians and the kind of beauty that makes you sit at a lakeside cafe for four hours eating and drinking and soaking it all in.

Lakeside Cafe
Just across the lake lies Albania, and it beckoned us.

Albania

My 40th country. We had to do it, even for just a day. Our original plan wasn’t going to work out, since we had since learned that transportation was especially difficult in Albania and we did have a schedule to keep. In order to make it to Athens in time, we needed a plan that we could trust, which kept us from staying a night in Albania and sent us back out of Ohrid the other way, towards Greece.

Pogradec (pronounced Pogradetz) is only about a 45-minute journey from Ohrid. You can take the bus to Sveti Naum (the monastery on the Macedonian side) and then catch a taxi to the border (we didn’t see a lot of taxis so beware of this option), or you could just grab a taxi from Ohrid to the border, which is what we did. Our taxi actually pulled his sign off the top of his car and ended up driving us all the way to Pogradec, making it very easy and I highly recommend you try to do this if you’re headed this way. The area around the border is a no man’s land, you may end up walking all the way to Pogradec without a taxi.

Albania Border
Albania: my 40th country

Pogradec is nothing to write home about, to be completely honest, but we enjoyed walking the city and observing the lifestyle of the people in a third-world-like European country, which is something we hadn’t experienced before. Since they also don’t accept Macedonian money, we  decided not to pay ATM fees and eat the snacks we brought with us, exchanging a $5 US at a hotel to pay for a taxi back to the border (always bring emergency money).

I’d still like to make it up to Tirana someday, but it wasn’t in the cards for this trip because of our time crunch.

Macedonia Take 2

On the way back to Ohrid from the border, we walked the 3km to Sveti Naum (the monastery). I didn’t understand what the big deal was about “the monastery on the cliff” near the border until I got there. It’s not just a monastery, it’s almost resort-like in that it has several beautiful restaurants, one of them literally on the pond/river (floating decks) that comes from the fresh springs within the monastery borders and empties into the lake. The water was perfectly green with vegetation and the happiest ducks in the world played while we were serenaded by a quartet band over a traditional potato dish.

The views from the monastery were gorgeous, and we stopped to have a coffee while Daryl (my architect brother) sketched one of the towers. Now that I have been, I understand why people say it’s not to be missed, and it isn’t. Make sure you get there. There are buses servicing Ohrid and Sveti Naum, so getting back to town was easy from there.

Greece

Getting to Greece was a logistical challenge, but since we made an effort to get all the way to Meteora in one day, we only spent that one day figuring it all out, and we were able to completely relax by the time we went to bed in Meteora that night. That was worth it.

Related: Getting from Ohrid, Macedonia to Meteora, Greece
We woke up to explore this:

Meteora Greece

Meteora is an area of Northern Greece with massive monolith-type rocks, upon which 14th-century monks decided to build 24 monasteries. To this day, they still use the nets that were once constructed to lower people up and down from the monasteries, but my question is how they were able to transport materials up in the first place. These rocks have straight cliff edges and are crazy high up. Luckily there are stairs on the remaining 6 monasteries open to the public that we can use to access them today. If you happen to be traipsing through Northern Greece, don’t miss Meteora, it’s certainly a sight to see, just be respectful of your friends who are afraid of heights because some parts are challenging.

We spent just as long getting from Meteora to Delphi as we did getting from Ohrid to Meteora, public transportation in this area is not scheduled conveniently for travelers (hence, the rental car). We literally decided to make a layover in Delphi on our way to Athens. It’s not really on the way, but we went out of our way for it.

The result, in my opinion, is that it wasn’t entirely worth it, although the views on the drive up were amazing. If we had one day there it would have been better because the town actually looked really cute, but we spent just a few hours there exploring the old ruins of what was once thought to be the center of the world and batting school children through the museum. If you have time, stay a night and explore the nearby towns as well.

Related: Meteora v Delphi, Greece

For more about Athens and the rest of our trip back up to Bulgaria, see Part II of this post.

Related: Athens to Bulgaria, Travel in the Balkans Part II