Impressions of the Balkans

Impressions of the Balkans

We have now truly exited the Balkans. We said goodbye to this wonderful part of the world, but not for forever cause im sure we will be back.

Not only did the many many beehives show me there is a lot to learn here, but also did the very very expensive cars in rural and poorer areas trigger my interest to dive into life in the Balkans a bit deeper. We met the kindest of people here, ate various types of börek and were offered and drank way to many types of raki.

The Balkans are usually characterized as comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia—with all or part of each of those countries located within the peninsula. The word Balkan is Turkish and means “mountain,” and the peninsula is certainly dominated by this type of landform, especially in the west. The Balkan Mountains lie east-west across Bulgaria, the Rhodope Mountains extend along the Greek-Bulgarian border, and the Dinaric range extends down the Adriatic coast to Albania.

While driving around we saw not only many little shrines but also lots of memorial stones of people who passed. However, if we would place a memorial stone of every roadkill, especially hedgehogs and snakes, it would be a memorial guardrail. Luckily we also saw a lot of turtles on the road, alive still. Made us think of the impact we make with our roads and other manmade structures. Even in the Balkans where there is still more nature than tarmac luckily.

Another thing that didn’t escape our eyes were the many police checkpoints. We were only stopped two times, probably because we are foreigners and we cant drive that fast. Many police checkpoints and many different gasoline stations. Lots of different brands, even in tiny towns. Especially in Bayran Curri – North Albania one could choose from the many many gasoline stations.

Ethnic diversity is one of the Balkan region’s most characteristic social and political features. The most numerous of the groups is the South Slavs, who form the majority of the population in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. The Bulgarians, North Macedonians, and Slovenes speak their own Slavic languages, while the Slavs of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro all speak dialects of Serbo-Croatian.

As we are on the road to China, about 10.000kms further, we couldn’t stay for too long in every place. If we had the time we would and I’m sure we would taste every type of wine there is, cause there are many. We would explore more of the incredible mountains and tropical beaches, taste even more types of raki and submerge ourselves into the culture by visiting the smallest villages.

Of course we’ve also seen so much rubbish one can barely see the beauty of the place through it. It transforms nature into a huge ass bin and instead of protecting the last pieces of nature and cleaning it people add their rubbish to it as if it doesnt matter. “Its part of our culture, when we bbq we do not take our rubbish with us, it’s what we do” a girl from Serbia told is giggling. I didn’t find it laughable but that’s me, a privileged woman from Holland who’s parents taught her to pick up her rubbish and dispose of it in the appropriate waste bins.

After a one and a half month in the Balkans one doesn’t understand the Balkans, one hasn’t seen all of the Balkans but one gets an idea. The idea of certainly going back and exploring more of this gem.

We now travel to our last European country on this journey: Greece. A country with an inspired history. From the Gods of old mythology to legends like Alexander the Great (alright he’s Macedonian) and Leonidas. Oh and lets not forget the explorers like Homer (also famous poet) and Herodotos or the philosophers Socrates, Aristotles and Plato.

Lets dive into yet another interesting and beautiful part of the world. For a short while though because Turkey is giving us the (non sexual) glad eye 😉

Love, Milene & Yuri

The Caribbean of Albania

The Caribbean of Albania

Goats crossing the road, deserted gas stations and bee-friendly flowers. Turquoise rivers, rocky roads and green hillsides. High mountains, deep valleys and farming villages. Friendly people, delicious börek pie and raki’s in the morning glory. Lake ferries, white Sandy beaches and snakes everywhere.

Albania has exceeded all our expectations, if we even had any. It’s gorgeous, travellers friendly and too beautiful to ignore. Making a campfire while wild camping and cleaning yourself in one of the many natural springs. That’s what life is about.

I can’t imagine I was once happy sitting behind a desk in The Hague working for a bank. Nor can I imagine that instead of watching the sunset on our beach every night I chose to watch Netflix day in day out. Or that I preferred scrolling through Instagram watching other people living their life’s instead of living my own.

Sleeping on the cliff

In the last post I told you about the difficult but amazing road we took. Well, Albania is full of roads with views that words fail to describe well. After the city of a thousand windows, Berat, we travelled to the coast. Apparently Albania has tropical beaches so of course we were curious. The first night we stayed on a cliff near Vlorë, we even drive on the beach here. 

It was beautiful, although the wind was a bit too much to cook outside unfortunately. Also, the garbage everywhere makes it less idyllic than we thought it would be. Things you don’t see on Instagram unfortunately. 

After one night we decided to travel to Gjipe beach of which we heard from several sources. The SH8 from Vlorë (the Miami Beach of Albania) to Gjipe is fantastic! On the one side you see huge mountains and on the other side you see the turquoise sea and white sandy beaches. The winding road goes up and down through changing landscapes and tiny towns. It’s wonderful just driving this road. And then there is Gjipe Beach, a gem. Not hidden online but hidden offline as one has to walk down for about 30 minutes to get to the beach. The beach is located at the end of a gorge and looks like paradise. Reminded me of the Turkish Butterfly Valley – which is more remote than Gjipe though. Lots of rock climbers and beach lovers here. You can stay here with a tent or if you dare go down the road with your 4×4. Alexine couldn’t handle the road and if she could my heart couldn’t. 

After Gjipe we travelled more South to Ksamil beach. Well, I suggest all people booking a ticket for a very very long flight to the Caribbean to reconsider. Albania is all you need. Ksamil had it all: white beaches, turquoise coloured sea and islands you could visit. It has nice restaurants and bars with good and not so expensive food. I’m not the one to be hanging around a beach for too long so we had lunch here and left.

The Greek border

We headed towards the Greek border. But, unfortunately it was closed. With closed I mean: big fences and no one in the office. We walked through the border office and only found someone coming out of the shower who just told us to find another border crossing. So we left, not to another border crossing but to the Blue Eye.

The Blue Eye

Too busy and touristy for my taste. Busses with children and adults who catch insects for a selfie. You can imagine my mood changing… But, the great thing is that you can stay here with the van and have the Blue Eye all to yourself after closing hours. 

We were not alone though. Here we met Lucca from Italy and Wolfgang from Germany. They are both travelling full time with their families in these huge machines. That’s like travelling 3.0. With these over landing trucks they’ve travelled to many places of the world. From China, Nepal, Tibet to Mali, Libya and Tunesia. For months they are on the road, homeschooling their kids and exploring every bit of the earth. Lucca is a documentary film maker and works in between travelling, Wolfgang is an electrician and works for about two to three months a year in Germany. They were both very interested in Alexine, of course, and we had a nice chat and night. Learned a lot from their travels. I mean; Lucca travelled through the Sahara in the 90’s with compass and map, we use Google to find our way. It’s so great to meet likeminded people with lots of experience. 

After a nice night and ice cold dip in the Blue Eye we travelled to another Greek border. Whereas the Albanians would want to let us through the Greeks stick to the rules: no tourists can travel from Albania to Greece via land. Meaning; we had to go all the way back to Macedonia and try via Bulgaria. But that means like we’re already near Turkey which is on our route. So, while driving the same way back as we came we debated if Greece was worth it.

Not sure yet though. What do you think?

Love, Milene & Yuri

Roads go ever on and on

Roads go ever on and on

From Ohrid we travelled back to Albania to explore the South. We took the SH75 and oh my is that a beautiful road. Okay, it didn’t start so great, through the outskirts of a small town, slaloming in and out of stalled cars, horses and holes in the road. Then going up a winding road, through a valley and there we were, in small Albanian paradise. Mountains with snow on the top, green lush valleys and shepherds with their sheep crossing the roads. 

For what seems like hours we travelled through the riches of Albania until we reached the border with Greece. But we were not to cross the border, no we haven’t had enough of Albania yet. So we went back up. Still driving this wonderful road, now the green lush valley made place for a river as blue as our van and as clear as a starry night. And at te back of the river we got to enjoy the incredible wall of the Nemercke mountains. 

Thermal baths of Benja

But still we didn’t stop here. Our destination for today is the springs or thermal baths of Benja. Not really hot, nor smelling that good but apparently very healthy and with medicinal powers. If you want to visit the springs make sure to hike through the gorge, there are several springs inside the gorge. We even relaxed inside the river as the water was warmer than the spring itself. We made a campfire, baked some sausages on it and watched a sky full of a thousand stars. Even saw a falling star so of course we made a wish. 

The road from Permet to Berat

The next day we checked out the gorge, spend some time in the thermal baths and were all zen when we started our most advanturous journey up to now. On the internet people warn for the road from Permet to Berat due to the horrible conditions of it. Some sources say one needs a 4×4, others said they turned around after trying and few write one would be crazy to drive it. But none of those sources drive Alexine, a VW T2 with 45 years of experience. So, we headed towards this dangerous road with confidence. Also, we are still in Europe and this might be a good try out for the roads that we will face in countries like Georgia, Turkmenistan and Tadjikistan for example.

The beginning was alright. I would describe it as a dirt road but not too difficult, even a Mini Cooper would stand its ground. But then… when we turned left, hunted by dogs guarding, we don’t really know what, the road changed. From dirt road to very big stones in the road. Not sure if you are familiar with the song “Sandy road, Sandy road, grind road, grind road, stony road, stony road, hole in the road”, it’s a Dutch children song/game, but it felt like that. All the types of roads in the song came by. From stones to sand to mud to grind to many many holes in the road. Up, up, up we went and even though my eyes were mostly on the road the views were magnificent. I’m really out of ways to describe the amazing views we witness. We’ve seen so many breathtaking landscapes that my English vocabulary of adverbs isn’t enough. Ok, back to the road and the views. 

So we drove up the mountain and on top of ridges with deep cliffs on both sides. Scary? Not at all! Amazing? Hell yeah! I must say I was happy that only once we had an oncoming car because the road was so narrow and with the abyss on both sides, not a great place to pass another car. We crossed some tiny villages where the locals were cheering us along, coming to say hello, amazed that a woman was driving the van. And while I was driving, Yuri was quite nervous at times. But I think he was also proud, saying that I and Alexine are a good team. Of course we are! 

As I told you my vocabulary isn’t enough to describe the view so here are some images that we were able to make along the road. 

Half way through we were stopped by a lady who told us she had delicious petula with mielt, or baked dough with honey. You say honey and I stop. 

We parked Alexine in the meadow surrounded by five sheep and a horse. Oh and countless of bees! So after the petula with mielt – RECOMMENDED!! the beekeeper asked me for my help. His bees have diarrhoea, a well known disease amongst bees and unfortunately easily transferred between colonies. So we checked it out and I told him what antibiotics he should give the bees. We drank some home made raki together and had a delicious börek (Albanian pizza) for diner. 

In the middle of the night we woke up to check out the Milky Way. It was so incredibly clear, so dark, so quiet. Really feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but nature and the planet how it should be. More animals than people, no pollution from lights, technology or anything human made and the feeling of being alone on the planet. 

The friendly people we stayed with showed us how life should be. Living with not from nature around you, being almost all self-sufficient, knowing all about nature and animals. It gives me the feeling to change my life when we get back to Holland. I’m even thinking of becoming a shepherd and starting beekeeping again. 

But then, there’s also a darker side. Cause, even though the people live like hundred years back there are some things that changed since then. One is the coming of plastics and other types of waste. This waste is not biodegradable but the people do not know how to dispose of it. Thus they throw it all on a big pile near a river or on a slope. There it often gets carried away by wind, rain or snow and at other times get burned thus ends up in the air. On our journey east we’ve seen so much waste thrown in nature, filling river bends and polluting the area. It makes me realise that we are making the same mistake over and over again. One can live so ecological and sustainable as one thinks but as long as we keep producing destructive products like single use plastics we will never be sustainable and we do continue to destroy the planet. I’m not one to talk about this too much because we drive with a not so clean oldtimer to China, but it’s good to reflect on it once in a while. 

On our way to the Osum Gorge

In the morning we got breakfast, checked out the garden flowers, the bees and fed the chickens. Then it was time for us to continue the ‘worst road of Albania’. They told us that people sometimes arrive crying because of the bad conditions of the road but we found that the last part wasn’t that bad, which is probably because we’ve seen worse yesterday or are we already getting used to the road conditions? Power team Alexine and myself were actually having fun and Yuri was sweating a lot less. 

At some point the gravel road ended and made place for asphalt. We were happy and sad at the same time. Alexine made it, easily I must add, without any problems! We now continued the road alongside the Osum gorge and to be honest, that’s not the greatest road. It’s quite boring actually and we were soon wishing we were back on the gravel road again.

Berat, city of a thousand windows

After about 1.5 hours we arrived in Berat. Berat is an old Ottoman settlement and still possess an old castle and the typical Ottoman style houses. It’s also called ‘city of a thousand windows’. Can you imagine why? 

The first thing we did? Not exploring the town, not searching for a place to stay the night but drinking a beer of course! 

At night we had diner at Lily. Truly recommended, not only is the food delicious the host is great as well. We had some small bites we shared and tasted delicious wine made by his father. “Don’t expect Italian or French wine, it’s simple wine” Simple was exactly what we needed. After diner we got raki on the house, made by the same grapes as the wine. Yum! Because we ate a lot we decided to hike up to the castle, a steep climb but very Dutchable. People still live inside the castle and it gives a nice view over town. It’s open 24 hours.

And that was it. Two of the most beautiful roads in a couple of days. From easy asphalt roads to a tad difficult gravel roads, both with the most breathtaking views and through picturesque towns. We met the kindest of people and had a good Alexine try out for the journey ahead. 

Now we are headed to the beaches of Albania. Apparently they are true hidden gems. Let’s find out.

Love, Milene & Yuri 

From the lake ferry to maffia in the valley

From the lake ferry to maffia in the valley

Entering Albania is not a big deal. They do not ask for a PCR test and do not even care if we have a valid car insurance.

Anyway, we have no idea where to go in Albania so we decide to go to the North. From Shkoder we take the worst road we had until now to Koman. Koman is a small village located at a very important dam. It is said that the dam provides 90% of the power of Albania. Not sure if that’s right but it is guarded by many many government officials. 

We get there too late, or way too early depending how you see it. Anyway, the boat will leave at 9 the next day and it’s now 14:00. We don’t mind, we have time to relax and get to know some of the locals.

One is Mario Molla, the CEO of the lake as he calls himself. A very interesting figure with lots of stories. Not the most kind towards the Turks who apparently wanted to invade this area of Albania but never could due to the local resistance. We also get to know our captain and chef for the next day.

Komani lake

It’s more like a river to us but here they call it a lake, Komani lake. A beautiful lake / river that flows from Komani to Fierze. We see incredible cliffs, beautiful green mountains and even some villages. The villages along the lake do everything via the water. There are no roads so they are quite isolated. 

Komani Lake was created as a side effect of a hydroelectric power plant complex which was build in the region. Like I wrote before, the electricity produced by it covers about 90% of the electricity demand in Albania, very impressive. Komani Lake runs between the mountains for 72 kilometres. Because of its length, on the map it looks more like a river. The sun is shining and the view is so beautiful that the 2.5 hours it takes to reach the end are over without noticing. 

Valbone NP

We drive to Bajram Curry for lunch and grocery shopping and continue to Valbone NP. The day before we met two Swiss people and one Austrian man and here in Valbone we happen to meet again at the campsite, what a coincidence. We have diner together and try out some local dishes and wine. The dish is great, the wine not so great. But we have fun. And while we head back we see all these moving satellites that apparently everyone has seen these nights. Not sure what Elon Musk is doing but I hope the satellites turn off their lights quick. Feels a bit like star pollution. 

Back to earth! Valbone is a beautiful valley with impressive mountains surrounding it. Feels like a valley in the Alps. 

Hiking in Valbone

There are some nice hikes in this NP, one goes to Theth. Apparently that’s one of the nicest places of the North. A hike from here to Theth is 12km’s and takes about 7 hours. But winter is long, thus the pathway is closed due to the amount of snow.

Then there are shorter hikes. Like the one to the waterfall which takes about 1-2 hours. We wake up early and together with Roman (from Austria) we hike to the waterfall. It’s a nice hike, through the ice cold water, along the river side and over some fallen trees. The mountain range surrounding the valley are amazing and impressive!

We couldn’t get all the way to the waterfall as there was a lot of snow there so we decided to head back. Here we meet Max, a guy from The Hague. Actually his parents live about 250 meters from our home. What are the odds? 

Max is hitchhiking, hiking and taking local transport to Tokyo. He is on the road now for eight months and has a lot of stories to tell. So we invite him to the campsite and Roman will give him a lift to a city south of here tomorrow. 

Maffia wedding 

When we get back the area isn’t as quiet as we left it in the morning. Many expensive cars have parked everywhere. Lots of Mercedes with license plates from Western European countries. A wedding is being held at a hotel / restaurant and the whole valley seems to be booked. A big family? We walk back to the campsite and everywhere are people with expensive cars, clothing and sunglasses. Could be maffia, of which Albania is known for. Maybe not but it surely feels like it. We see kids driving fast cars, girls in very expensive dresses and the older man acting like Robert de Niro in The Irishman. But, like I wrote before; it’s just a suspicion… 

At the campsite we make a big fire, drink beer, eat cookies and tell a lot of stories. This is why travelling is so much fun. You meet people, hear stories and get to explore amazing places. 

Up to our next adventure. We will go to South Albania but not before visiting my friend in Macedonia! 

Love, Milene & Yuri