The best available option was to take a hopper that left FCO airport outside of Rome at 5AM. It is located 30-40 minutes outside of Rome and transit does not run at 3AM thus we opted to skip getting a hotel and hunkered down in a miserable corner of the FCO airport waiting for our flight. The night gave little sleep but the end result was touching down in beautiful Split.
Split and Stari Grad, Hvar
We decided on one night in Split as we heard it was tourist central. Our time in Split was perfect. We were able to see the beauty of Split’s old town, go swimming and cliff jumping at a nearby beach, and not get bogged down by all the tourists and tourist traps. The old town looks like your quintessential old castle town with cream-colored stones lining the walls and roads. The alleyways seem to have no city planning as they will open up to cute courtyards where you can sit and enjoy a drink while local musicians busk in the streets. However, it seems Croatians (as well as other Balkan countries) tend to be chain smokers so we quickly had to adapt to enjoying our beers with a side of second hand smoke.
Split and Stari Grad, Hvar
Stari Grad on Hvar island was our main destination. It was a short 2 hour ferry ride straight to Stari Grad. We booked a quaint Airbnb overlooking Stari Grad. The owners were a cute old Croatian couple who didn’t speak a word of english so our conversations were purely pantomiming. We discovered pantomiming the need for more toilet paper looks hilarious, as did they. Despite the language barrier, they took us in like we were their own grandchildren.
Our time on Stari Grad was picture perfect. The town of Stari Grad is the lesser of the two major towns and is a hub for rich yacht owners. It is one of the oldest towns on the Dalmatian Coast. There were less tourists in the town since majority of the yacht owners just wanted to hang out on their boats. It was a perfect hub to do day trips and relax for 5 days.
We did a couple of day trips. Dan discovered another climbing commune on the southern side of the island called Cliffbase. The community did not have a bus line that went there so the best option was to rent a scooter. Locals warned us that the tunnel to get to the south side of the island was very dangerous but did not give many details as to why. The tunnel was a converted old aqueduct where they laid concrete down and decided that was enough to be called a tunnel. It wasn’t built to be a tunnel so there were no lights and no ventilation for about 2 miles. It was one lane wide thus the tunnel required a stop light but if you were the last to get through or stuck behind a slow moving vehicle, the cars on the other side won’t know you’re still in there. Yes, the tunnel was not the smartest tunnel to drive through on a 50cc scooter… but we did it anyway. Rach was shaking on the back of the bike, holding on for dear life as she was holding up the phone flashlight to compensate for the low quality bike headlight.
Cliffbase was amazing on all levels. The owner bought the property over 15 years ago and has been slowly building it up on his own. For example, he wanted a wine cellar so he started chipping away at the stone beneath his feet and 5 years later, he has a wine cellar where he makes award winning wines. Cliffbase is all pitched out for lead climbing but we opted to just rent some shoes and do deep water soloing around the property instead.
We visited Hvar town on another day but it was so touristy and full of party hoppers we didn’t stay long. Majority of our time was lazing around on the oceanside concrete slabs (aka Croatian beaches) or walking the streets in Stari Grad. It was exactly the way we wanted to spend our time.
We found a route that required a ferry ride and connecting bus that would go from Stari Grad on Hvar island all the way to Kotor in Montenegro. The bus ride is hilarious because you cross into Bosnia for 20 minutes, back into Croatia, then into Montenegro. If you look on a map, it looks like Bosnia just wanted a tiny piece of coastline. It was a long day and we had an Airbnb booked in Kotor. Dan was texting back and forth with the host, Zoran, who said he was originally going to pick us up. As time passed, he changed to saying he was going to send a taxi. By the time we arrived, we didn’t have any service and had to use a local’s hotspot. Zoran was off the radar, no responses, no texts, no calls. Dan attempted to contact several times but to no avail. We decided to just hop in a taxi and goto the pin drop listed on the Airbnb. Well, the pindrop was not the correct location. By this time, it was 12:30AM and we had no data, no wifi, and not a lot of people were out on the neighborhood streets. Eventually, Rach flagged down a woman and asked if she knew someone named Zoran. She pointed down a dark driveway about 500 meters from the pin drop and said to knock on the door with the loud dog. Eventually, a young dude with his shirt off wearing Armani swim shorts came out. “Are you Zoran?”, asked Dan. “Yes”, he responded. Didn’t say a word after, let us into the upstairs apartment, gave us the keys, and went back to his apartment. Dan thought the Zoran he was texting was a bit more chatty but we were so exhausted and glad just to get into our Airbnb that we ignored any concerns. The next morning at 6AM, we are awoken to an old dude coming into our room. It was hot in Kotor so we were next to being naked. “Hello?”, Dan said. “How’d you get in here?” said the old man. “Zoran let us in.” … “I’m Zoran”, said the old man. Apparently, the real Zoran was this old drunkard who had too much to drink at the bars the night before, gave the tenant below our keys who didn’t speak any english, and had him let us in while the real Zoran was passed out somewhere. Great way to get introduced to Kotor.
We wandered the old town of Kotor on our first day. Our AirBnb was 3km walk on the waterfront to get to old town but worth the beautiful walk. We happened to pass by a party hostel and noticed they were advertising sunset SUP excursions for 10 EUR. We signed up which gave us the rest of the day to wander the old town. Kotor old town is similar to Split and Stari Grad in Croatia in that the old town is surrounded by old stone walls with stone buildings and cobblestones lining the town. It was a tourist destination so we had to play games of Snake as we ducked and weaved through tourist groups. Still unknown to us, Kotor has a weird cat thing going on in that there are stray cats everywhere that are well taken care of. All of their trinkets and souvenirs have some sort of a cat involved with them and they even have the Cat Museum. For only 1 Euro, we toured the Cat Museum that involved cat memorabilia from different ages in time from all around the world. Best part of the cat museum are the painted victorian murals lining the walls where cat heads are placed on old victorian era models. Best Euro spent in Kotor.
Our paddle on Kotor bay was true beauty. Although we were with a bunch of scantily clad early 20-somethings who looked like they were either getting over a hangover or trying to brew one up, the paddle led to a view of an old church in front of the hillside while the sunset painted the stone red. With the bells tolling, vibrant colors illuminating the stone walls, and the tranquil rocking of Kotor Bay made for a sobering experience. By the time we got back, the kids were already getting the beer pong table out working on erasing the memories they just created.
Instead of climbing the long walls around Kotor to a viewpoint overlooking the bay (typical tourist attraction) we opted to rent bikes for the day and cycle the entire bay on our second day. Kotor old town is located on the northeastern side of the bay and has infrastructure supporting bikes thus we thought the rest of the bay would have a bike path. Majority of the bay had a path however there were some treacherous blind curve moments that involved white knuckling around the corners. The bike path leads through Perast. The iconic town of Perast has a bell tower facing views of an island that was converted into a cathedral covering every square meter of the island. The bike path eventually crosses a small channel by ferry and a short ride back to Kotor.
As always, our time in Kotor was short. We knew it was another touristy destination and we were hungry to escape tourist groups, traps, and party-goers. We boarded a dizzying bus ride to Zabljek; the home of Durmitor National Park.
Zabljek and Durmitor National Park
Before we arrived in Zabljek, we had another Airbnb mishap. Another Montenegran misrepresented the location of their property in Zabljek on Airbnb. What should have been a few blocks from the bus station ended up being 6km from the town. After some difficulty with owner, we contact Airbnb who surprisingly was quick to refund our money and give us $100 credit. Montenegro is cheap and Zabljek is even cheaper. Needless to say our private apartment in the center of town for 4 nights was completely covered by Airbnb’s credit. Sometimes it pays to have your plans go astray.
The town of Zabljek is made for people looking to get outside. In the winter, it’s a ski town and a hiking mecca in the summer. Although Montenegrans seem to be a bit disorganized, they are incredibly kind to each other, to tourists, and to the stray animals that wander the streets. Zabljek was no exception. There were well fed and healthy looking dogs throughout the street who looked happy and active. We originally thought they had to have owners and Montenegrans just didn’t use collars and ID tags but find out later they are all strays. One stray in particular we quickly became attached to.
Meat Pie was a dog who brightened our day at 7am when we started our hike from the center of town. Some medium size Rottweiler mutt trotted along with us for majority of the day, up a steep 10km hiking loop that involved rock scrambling and cliff edges. We named him Meat Pie because about a quarter of the way up the trail we ran into a Russian dude wearing camo pants, a Michael Jordan Bulls Jersey, and eating a Börek which is a traditional Serbian meat pastry. He gave the rest of the pastry to the dog and took off on the trail. We quickly forgot the name Börek so we called the dog ‘Meat Pie’ instead. Meat pie was a champ and stuck with us the entire day. As he grew tired towards the end, however, Dan had to carry him part of the way back, only to find out Meat Pie was faking it for a free ride. Once we got back to the beginning of the hike, Meat Pie was chipper as ever and marched up to the next tourist to see if he could eat some more Börek.
Oh, the hike was great to. It started at the Black Lake that had calm water reflecting the rock monoliths jutting out of the lush deciduous forest surrounding it. Made for a beautiful morning with no tourists and a juxtaposition of selfies and instagrammers during the evening sunsets. The hike quickly strays away from the lake up a steep slope through the forest. As you reach the timberline, the landscape opens up to rolling grass fields with granite boulders and monoliths jutting out. Every now and then we would pass these free shelters made for hikers and shepherds that created a scene similar to one found on the cover of Backpacker Magazine. The hike continued to climb until we reached a rock scramble. We though we lost Meat Pie around this time and were worried we might have done harm by letting this stray follow us only to look above the scramble and see Meat Pie’s cute face looking down at us as we’re climbing up this steep scramble. The path leads to an ice cave tucking into one of the giant rock monoliths. A trecherous fall if trying to go in so we had to peer from afar down into the cave where natural ice stalagmites rise up from the ground. A wild site considering the temperature was a blaze in town. The 10km hike was a loop that led right back to where we began. With a little Meat Pie in Dan’s arms and realization that Durmitor is far bigger than what we saw. We could have easily spent a week just exploring the park alone.
Our Airbnb host connected us to a rafting outfitter on the border of Bosnia. For 60 Euro each we joined a full day rafting trip that included pick up, driving tour of Durmitor and Lake Piva, rafting trip on the Tara river, and 2 meals. It was the off season so the water level was low. We were told class 4 and 5 rapids however the off season we were lucky if we got a class 2. Our boat guide was hilarious in that he only knew 4 words in english; forward, backward, stop, and yes. When we tried sparking a conversation it would go something like this, “So how long have you lived in Montenegro?”, he would reply “Yes” with a flat face. Overall the rafting was below bar but the natural beauty of the trip was amazing. The guides stated the Tara River gorge is the second deepest canyon in the world, however after further Google investigation, Tara River doesn’t even rank. It was time to pack the bags yet again and move on.
Our next destination was Shkoder in Albania however the bus route to Albania was not a clear route. Our Google and Rome2Rio investigations gave contradictory paths while Montengran tourist offices were vague and unhelpful. We decided to piece together a route that involved a bus to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and just hope there was a bus that would hop over the border to Albania. We boarded a 7am bus to Podgorica with no troubles and sure enough, found a bus leaving 3 hours later after arrival to Shkoder. Easy peasy.
Shkoder was a homebase for us before we adventured off to the Albanian Balkan peaks. We didn’t know what to expect with Albania, let alone Shkoder. On one hand, we have family friends who are our sudo superheros when it comes to traveling long term (they’ve been traveling for 15 years and are still on the road) who said Albania was one of the favorite countries in the world and Albanians are some of the kindest people they’ve met. On the other hand, we’ve met several western Europeans who have said Albania is dirty and unpleasant including stereotypes like Albanians are dangerous and they will drug you to steal your kidneys. The two opinions couldn’t be more opposite from each other. We trust our sudo superheros as well as trust our gut as traveling for as long as we have come to understand the majority of people around the world are generally good people, maybe some have had a hard life and act out their hardships externally.
We couldn’t have been more amazed with the people, the natural beauty, and the cute city of Shkoder. Although we only spent time in the northwestern side of the country, Albania became one of our top 3 favorite countries we visited. We were perplexed by the negative stereotypes we heard about Albanians because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Albanians are humble, kind, generous, and warm people. They love their beer and they love their chain smoking habits as well, however those don’t deter them from their core root of kindness. Our kidneys were safe!
Dan found a hostel that offered free bag storage while we were off in the Balkans. We booked a modest room that included a balcony overlooking the courtyard, kitchen, and AC for 22 Euro/night. Bulldog Hostel claimed itself as a party hostel and it did play techno in the bar into the wee hours of the night but the rooms were surprisingly clean and soundproof-ish. The front desk attendant was an American dude from Nevada wearing a red-ranger shirt from Power Rangers who shared our fascination with Albanian generosity. We felt at home even though the techno and chain smoke lofted up to our balcony.
Shkoder itself is a pretty city. It has similarities to the cities and towns in Croatia and Montenegro in that the pedestrian walkways and buildings were built with the cream-colored stones and dotted with the warm lighting of old hanging street lamps. When we wandered outside of the main tourist zones, the city does have some dirt and grime areas, however they are consolidated. It was unfortunate as well as a first for us in our travels to see a stray horse family eating trash out of a dumpster. Overall, Shkoder was a clean city in comparison to many of the other developing countries and cities we have visited in our travels.
We were in Shkoder only for a night but returned for a second night after our trek in the Balkans. On our return visit, we climbed up to the Rozafa Castle, an old castle dating before 167 BC when the Romans captured it and used it as a stronghold. It overlooked the Drini River as well as Lake Shkodra with peaks lining the lake shore. As the sun settled behind the peaks, it created beautiful sun beams on the lake and the city creating a spectacle of a show from the castle. The castle also had these eerie tunnels and catacombs with no lighting or directions. They continued several levels under the castle and would open up to these hidden rooms and chambers underground. The tunnels would lead to one of these rooms and then continue to another part of the castle and, when coming out of the tunnels, you would pop up in another part of the castle grounds. We didn’t spend much time in the catacombs and tunnels mostly because it smelled like piss and felt a bit vulnerable due to little to no lighting, staff, or signage to where we were.
We packed our trekking bags, stored our luggage, and set off for the Balkans. The Red Ranger from Nevada organized all our transportation that included a shuttle to the ferry, 3 hour ferry ride, and a second shuttle to Valbone, all for 27 Euro. We boarded our shuttle at 6am and set off for a beautiful place we wish we never left.
Trekking from Valbone to Theth
First of all, this was by far the most beautiful ferry ride we have ever been on. It was on this little ferry that only held maybe 10-15 cars and a deck for foot passengers. Lake Koman is a reservoir that has filled high enough to feel like you’re boating through the peaks of the Balkans. The ferry follows the lake and eventually the Drini river that weaves through these gray stoned walls with lush deciduous forests between the peaks. The turquoise water contrasting next to the scaling cliffs and greenery adds to the beauty and tranquility of these untouched mountain sides. We were content spending 3 hours on this loud little ferry.
When we arrived, a large Albanian man next to a transport van waved us over. He spoke little to no english but was great and pantomiming. We showed him our tickets and pantomimed back that we did not have any reservation with a guesthouse. We wedged ourselves in with all the other trekkers in the back and began the third leg of our journey to Valbone. We quickly learned majority of people already had reservations. Luckily, we met an Australian couple who were on the same boat with no reservations. We joined forces and the Albanian driver dropped us off and his friends guesthouse where the four of us settled for the night. Our gentle giant of a driver drove off to drop off the rest of the trekkers but only to return about a half hour later to down beers with the owners of the guesthouse. Just to put this into perspective, the Albanian driver came back around 2pm, cracked open his first beer, and didn’t leave or stop drinking until about 10:30pm. Not to mention the owner and staff of the guesthouse joining him. What was most impressive was none of them seemed intoxicated at all. If we tried to keep up, we’d be in the hospital about half way through their normal binge.
We checked the weather the night before and noticed a thunderstorm rolling in around 11am the day of our trek so we decided to do an early start around 6:30am. The trek began on a road which ended at a dry river bed. The river bed quickly opened up to a cirque of jagged cliff faces with beams of sunlight breaking through the clouds. The dry river bed becomes a trail heading up to the pass to cross the cirque into Theth. The trail reminded us of trekking in Annapurna in that you pass small huts selling coffee and beer as well as sometimes get stuck behind herds of sheep marching their morning routine. As the trees gave way, the views opened up. Each turn and outcrop of rocks led to views over the valley floor behind us. Like a scene from the Lion King, we felt like we reached Pride Rock when we reached the top; a granite stone ledge jutting out overlooking the valley below.
We descended the other side of the pass and stopped at a cafe/bar halfway down to Theth. This cute farm set up a 2 story cafe made completely out of the resources in the forest. The tables and chairs from logs and stumps, wood floor slats for the floor and ceiling, and redirected water tributaries to a hollowed out log to create a cooler for all the beers and soft drinks. It wasn’t a hard decision to take a break and have an 11am beer overlooking Theth in this charming cafe.
Eventually we made it to the valley below. Theth is a bit more built up than Valbone; more guesthouses, cafes and local people wandering around. They have a church in the center and a tourist center right when you enter the town. The roads are still built on gravel but at least they have running water and electricity. We were enjoying our company with the Australians so we joined forces again in search of a guesthouse in Theth. They were a little more prepared in that they looked up a few guesthouses before hand for reviews. We sampled a few on the valley floor next to the river, however ultimately decided to climb up the hills on the other side of the valley. We found paradise! Thethi Paradise Guesthouse was a gem of an accommodation. We negotiated a 4 bed bungalow down to 12 Euro/person that included a deck with views overlooking the valley floor below. The lodge was built next to local farms so there were sheep dogs laying around and young puppies as well as the occasional cow that lost it’s way wandering through the property. What made Paradise the best decision was that all other rooms were completely booked for a special occasion where the owner invites an orphanage to have a celebration every year, we just happened to arrive on that day. The lodge and grounds were full of bright-eyed children playing and dancing. They were very interested in us as we were not Albanian and were curious about where we came from. As the night fell, the lodge turned into a dance floor where the Albanian children, their chaperones and Paradise staff joined in a traditional Albanian dance that seemed to be on repeat for a couple hours. Vallja e Tropojës, in a group, looked similar to a Greek group dance in that everyone was holding hands or linking arms but had more bounce involved. Rach quickly jumped in and learned the steps while Dan was enjoying the company of the owner and some old Albanian doctor who would hiss like a snake at different parts of the music. At the end of the night, Rach made some new friends with the young Albanian girls while Dan was being told he was the brother to old snake-doctor man.
We stayed an extra night while the Australians moved on to their next destination in Kosovo. Our first time parting ways, we wished we met them earlier in our travels as we enjoyed each others’ company. I guess this just gives us another reason to visit Australia. The second day in Theth was a beautiful hike on the valley floor that eventually led to the Blue Eye; a swimming fridged swimming hole tucked in between two cliff walls. After a quick jump in, we say down at a makeshift bar and had a beer with a giant plate of freshly made goat cheese. Apparently, a cheese plate is not common so when we asked for one, they scratched their heads and came back with a mound of cheese and half a loaf of bread. We got back to Paradise just in time to say goodbye to the kids and call it a night. We realized we were experiencing Theth before it gets developed. We heard the difficult gravel road into Theth was in the process of getting paved over to allow more tourists in. The beauty we were looking out over was untarnished. Only a small number of guesthouses poked out on the valley below while the rest of the valley was well preserved in its natural state. What we experienced, what we walked through, and the views won’t be the same once that road is complete. A lesson in impermanence as well as the importance of preserving natural beauty, we understand the need to keep places untouched by humans.
The road back to Shkodra was bumpy to say the least. 3 hours of single lane switchbacks up steep barrierless cliff edges with the driver chainsmoking driving 50 mph around every turn made for an adventure all in of its own. We made it back to Shkoder in one piece with enough time to tour the city a bit more. We found a route that led back to Croatia as we reach our final destination in Dubrovnik.
A bus ride that should have been only 5 hours, took close to 10 due to the Croatian border crossing. For some reason, our bus got flagged for a full inspection and baggage sweep. Every seat was full and every passenger had to have their bags inspected inside and out. Worse than TSA, they would open each bag, take everything out and then when the bag was cleared, would just leave everything out on the table while the owner would have to quickly repack the mess the border agents made. With all of the places we have been around the world, Dan picked up a bubble pack of a sleeping aid for long haul bus rides and flights, however he completely forgot he had it. With all the hot a humid climates we went to in Asia, Dan used duct tape to reseal the melted glue on the bubble packs. An over the counter sleep aid looked like a suspicious party drug for distribution. Not only was the luggage inspection tedious and long, Dan’s passport was now confiscated as the border agents decided what to do next. Dan was shitting bricks by this point and was rehearsing different scenarios with Rachael just in case the border agents decided he was a drug mule. After an hour and a half of waiting outside with no information as to what’s going on, an agent came out and gave Dan his passport and simply said, “You go now”. No detainment, no fine, no penalty. Of course, they confiscated the OTC med but the equivalent of melatonin was an ok med to let go.
Dubrovnik couldn’t have come sooner. We used some of our built up frequent flyer miles to reserve an apartment overlooking the Adriatic sea 20 minutes outside of the old town. While on the bus ride, Rach must have caught something as she was coming down with a cold thus we were grateful to have a comfortable apartment to post up for 3 nights. With her being sick, we took it easy the first day and relaxed on the beach all day. Dubrovnik is in Croatia so we were back to rocky beaches, if we’re lucky, and concrete slabs to lay out on.
For those who don’t waste their time watching Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik is one of the main filming spots for the series. Dubrovnik is also another UNESCO heritage site, however the site’s UNESCO status is currently compromised as the Game of Thrones fans swarm the city stupidly reenacting “Shame! Shame!” and humming the theme song down the alleyways. The more GoT tour companies and the less history tour companies there are, the UNESCO designation becomes compromised. A true shame indeed. Other than fat smelly white people wandering the streets of old town Dubrovnik, the old town has quite a charm attached to it. Again with cream-colored stone walkways and buildings, castle walls that stretch 4 stories high, and the cute cafes tucked down alleys made for a pleasant day to simply walk around. Every historic and filming site cost money to enter and our broke bank accounts made our walk a bit more confined however we stumbled upon a swimming hole attached to a bar. The bar didn’t own the swimming hole so we could lay out on the concrete slab and dive in for free. What made this location unique was it was on the other side of the high castle walls facing the Adriatic sea. You have sneak through and take turns through this tight tunnel to the other side to get to the area. The view from the water is the open ocean on one side and towering castle walls on the other. A unique swimming hole to say the least.
Our last European flight
We packed our bags and boarded a plane to Prague, Czech Republic. The Dalmatian coast, the Bay of Kotor, Durmitor National Park, and the Balkan peaks of Albania are our favorite part of Europe we visited on this trip. Looking back, we wish we spent more time wandering the Balkan countries. Not only was it a bit more conducive to saving money, we found the scenery diverse and wild, the people kind and generous, and less tourists. Most of all, the surprise we had with Albania lead us to believe the area will become more touristy as more people discover what we discovered. We find ourselves lucky to not only be on this trip but also experience areas that have yet to become high tourist destinations. Albania is definitely one of them. If you’ve made it this far in reading this long post, we leave you this piece of advice. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, visit Albania soon if you can. You won’t be disappointed.
Congratulations! You’ve finished our longest post ever! We will reward you with a little token at the bottom. Check out Dan’s video on the Balkans!
~Dan and Rach (and Meat Pie)