Sole traveller took a road trip through the Balkans which gave an insight into four small countries, all with their own personality: Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo.
It was September when we flew to Macedonia from Oslo Torp. At Skopje airport we picked up a rental car and started a two-week tour through Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Although these countries are not so big, it was clear to us that two weeks would only be a taste of what these four countries have to offer, in comparison to immersing yourself in one country and getting to know it better. Sometimes it may be an advantage if you really do not like one place. Other times, you find that you just have to go back to see more. We can tell you, these countries have much more to offer.
This is our route. Sometimes we took some detours as the shortest road to our next destination was in too bad condition. Sometimes our detours was due to interesting things to see, recommended by the locals.
In recent history, war raged in this region and we can see in several places that there are still challenges today. Perhaps that’s why many tourists hesitate to travel to these countries (except Montenegro maybe), or perhaps they simply do not think there can be anything to see here? Wrong! There is a long history, amazing food, lovely people and great nature. Not to mention the prices are quite low too.
Lake Ohrid is stunningly beautiful, Albania has a long coastline that attracts increasing numbers of visitors and the capital Tirana is well worth seeing. Montenegro has the jet set and cruise ships. It also has what is said to be Europe’s southernmost fjord. The Dinaric Alps stretch through large parts of the region. It is a quite diverse area of Europe.
There is a long history, amazing food, lovely people and great nature. Not to mention the prices are quite low too.
The roads were pretty reasonable to drive on and the country has some really nice nature. From Skopje we drove south to Bitola. On the way we passed gorges and mountains. There was very little traffic. Driving in the capital Skopje on a Sunday was interesting though. Yes, traffic was quite calm on a Sunday, but traffic lights seemed more advisory than law. Quite often red lights were ignored making us the slow ones stopping for all of them.
There are several roads that may look ok on the map, but turn out to be impassable unless you have a 4×4.
Known for its bad roads, the EU has begun sponsoring road projects, giving Albania several new highways. Still we had to take care on many of the roads, with their bumps and holes and sudden absence of asphalt. In addition, there are several roads that may look ok on the map, but turn out to be impassable unless you have a 4×4.
Driving into Montenegro from Albania we noticed an immediate difference. The roads, the surroundings, everything was clean and tidy.
Reminded us a lot of Albania. The roads were of varied quality.
In addition to road conditions, there are others in traffic, driving or walking, to think about. On the highway from Vlorë, we suddenly saw a lady on a bicycle heading straight towards us! Fortunately, we were the only ones on the road at that time and could avoid her easily. Other times there were horses and carts you had to be aware of or cows grazing on the roadside.
Overtaking is another thing. As you pass someone, it is possible that another motorist will try to overtake you at the same time. The fact that a blind bend is looming doesn’t seem to deter them.
The fact that a blind bend is looming doesn’t seem to deter them.
Roundabouts are a whole other experience. Keep an eye on all four corners of the car while you creep forward. It’s about being first. What’s positive in this traffic is that it’s not really moving fast. With the exception of the highways, the speed limits are quite low. If a collision occurs, whether it’s a cow or another car on the same roundabout, it’s minor.
We were caught in a police speed control! We didn’t mean to drive above the speed limit, we just wanted to get past the van in front of us. It was overloaded and driving very erratically. The policeman was very calm though. We think the foreign car, passports and the thought of the paperwork was too much for him, so he waved us on with a “Piano” (meaning ‘calm’).
Albania: A good thing about driving your own vehicle is the possibility to stop whenever you want to take photos.
Gorgeous Macedonia offers several hiking opportunities.
Montenegro: After several days in the mountains, we were happy to see the ocean again.
We never felt that it was unsafe to leave the car when we went out for our walks. In the cities we consciously booked hotels that had their own parking. It was the thought of other cars bumping into our rental as much as someone breaking into it that was on our minds.
The rental car:
Chevrolet Avio diesel
We paid approximately 200 euro for 14 days, including Insurance for cross border use.
We also have our own extra annual insurance policy for rental cars in Europe.
Number of kilometres: 2100
Diesel: approx. 100 euros.
In Albania and Kosovo there really is no need to worry about finding a gas station, as they are everywhere and have a multitude of different names. One in particular that stands out is ‘Kastrati’. We avoided this one as they may have required more than cash as payment.
We are so spoiled in the EU/EEA with open border crossings, that having to think about documents for the car in addition to our passports is so strange. When we booked the rental car, we stated that we would be taking the car through these four countries. This was not a problem for the rental car company. What we needed were papers showing we had insurance and permission to cross borders in the vehicle. Something important to note: Time is needed for the papers to be prepared in advance. Approximately seven days. Although the head office of the rental car company had confirmed this would be done, Joe’s gut feeling made him contact the local office in Skopje and ask if everything was arranged. It turned out that they had not been notified! We could have risked arriving in Skopje and getting stuck at the airport because we did not have all of the proper paperwork in place. Fortunately, everything worked out ok. It always pays to check.
There were never any problems crossing the borders either. On a couple of occasions, we even received a stamp in our passports!
Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. We stayed in the city of Kotor but we had some relatives staying in Igalo, close to the Croatian border. To drive around the fjord takes about an hour but is worth the drive.
You see other travellers along the way, mostly charter tourists or city hoppers of some kind. In Albania, on the other hand, we saw many campers and 4x4s, as well as bicycling tourists. In these rugged landscapes with such a pleasant climate, it must be great to travel around on two wheels.
We were a bit envious of a couple of Land Rovers that had set up camp on a riverbank south of Berat in Albania, when we arrived in our rental car. In this area there are roads only 4×4 vehicles can access and we saw several similar places in the Balkans surrounded by stunning scenery.
Ah, the Balkans. We ate well, we slept well, we met so many lovely people and the scenery is incredibly beautiful. Good experiences all the way. I guess we’ll see if the neighbouring countries can compare when we one day (hopefully) return to this region.