To be frank, after Italy, we were freaking tired. Three whirlwind months of tourists, monuments, museums and mountains had worn us out. Our plan for the next three months was to go to the far reaches of the Balkans and do absolutely nothing. It has been quite the success.
After 18 hours on a bus, plane and boat (not kidding), our first stop, and exponentially our hottest, was a month in Saranda, Albania. Saranda is a beach town at the bottom of the country, right across the way from Corfu, Greece. For the remainder of July and halfway into August, we lounged by the beach, worked out, and watched tv in our air-conditioned apartment. When I say it was hot, I mean it cleared 100˚ for over half of our month there.
Albania is definitely the poorest country we've been to so far. The people are friendly, but used to their own methods of life. Their drivers, for one, are crazy, but they all seem to operate on an internal system only they understand. Also, getting anywhere would be practically impossible if you weren't Albanian. The transportation in the country is terrible, as nothing is posted anywhere, so you basically just have to know, unless you don't know. Then you're just screwed.
Saranda is a hidden gem, though, because the beaches are stunning. The center of Saranda is quite beach-town-y, heavily populated with tourists (mostly vacationing Albanians and Germans) and neon-lit caffe bars. We, however, were lucky to be staying a little outside the main boardwalk and had a small, unknown-to-tourists beach right in our backyard. Two to three times a week, we would pack up a bag, walk 15 minutes in the opposite direction of town, and laze on two recliners in the hot wind and open sea at the whopping price of 100 lek a chair ($0.88).
After three and half weeks of fierce dedication to sloth-standard living, we did want to be able to say we saw at least one thing outside of the beach. We rented a scooter and made our way to the Blue Eye, a deep hole in a crystal clear spring on the other side of the hills from Saranda. We also visited Butrint, a 800 BC city deftly preserved (thanks UNESCO), complete with a bishopric, amphitheatre, churches, housing, etc. Our "oldest standing structure we've seen" keeps going farther and farther back - whoo!
After Albania, we made our slow, bus-driven trek across the burning hills of Albania (also not kidding), and arrived in Ohrid, Macedonia. Ohrid sits on Lake Ohrid (go figure), and has the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Every. Single. Night. It's incredible.
Macedonia was much closer to the Balkan-style of life that we were used to than in Albania, but you can still tell it's a land-locked area that is used to being passed from country to country. We were slightly more active here than in Albania, to give us credit. The city of Ohrid has beautiful Byzantine churches, an amphitheatre where they still have concerts, and a fortress that sits atop the hill.
We celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary here by going paragliding (and enjoying a nice bottle of Moet & Chandon), and we took a boat across the lake to an old monastery Sveti Naum, and rented a scooter to drive around a little. Funny story: so we've rent scooters in various countries before, and we usually don't have a problem getting around to farther places. This time, however, on a Saturday, we decided to take a 50cc scooter over two mountains in 90˚ heat to Prilep, a town 2.5 hours away. Apparently, no one does that. The scooter might have slightly overheated, and we had to abandon it for a bus back to Ohrid, so the company could tow it back on Monday. Let's just say the rental place guy's final wishes of "Have a good holiday" wasn't filled with enthusiasm.
When leaving Ohrid, on our trek up to the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, we had 24 hours of bus ride ahead of us with a quick, half-day sojourn in Skopje, Macedonia's capital. Skopje is slightly mystifying, to be honest. Unexpectedly, it's filled to the brim with towering statues, huge Grecian-inspired building and elaborate bridges. It's like a Las Vegas for Eastern Europe. Walking around was like an acid trip of monuments and statues. I have no idea, how or when, but it's definitely the weirdest capital I've ever seen. But you have to go!
Upon our arrival to Istria, an upside-down arrowhead-shaped peninsula on the curved border of the Adriatic Sea, across (and actually under) Italy, we promptly sped to the tip for a craft beer festival and exploring Pula, Istria's largest city. First off, ahh, good beer again. So nice. Second, Pula apparently has a surprisingly well-preserved Arena, where they still hold concerts and gladiator-like games, plus a fortress that rings quite similar to St. Augustine's fortress in Florida.
Istria itself is funny little triangle. Part Croatian, part Italian, and wholly filled with delicious wine and truffles. I've always considered truffles as dirty little nuggets that often overhype and under-deliver. Especially since the only real vessel in which to have truffle without taking out a small loan is infusion: cheese with truffle, truffle oil, truffle risotto, gross gross gross. (Also, if you're a fan of Anthony Bourdain: "Truffle oil is not food!") So while here, we were determined to figure out - are we alone, or is truffle really that good?
Now, after having it directly shaved from a freshly sniffed-out-by-a-labrador batch, I can say: Yes. Absolutely. It is that good.
We did lots of exploring in this little V in the sea. We wove our way through the gorgeous Istrian hills for wine tastings (Malvazija, hello! Tehran, yes please!). We scaled little towns like Motovun and Grožnjan and coastal cities like Rovinj; we toppled over waterfalls and dove into caves; we rummaged through an abandoned mountain town; we celebrated both of our birthdays, where we went to our first Michelin-starred restaurant and decadently feasted on seven courses with matching wine pairings.
After the less-than-spectacular food of Albania and Macedonia, Istria has been a glorious refreshment of hedonism and delight. However, I am ready ready ready for a city.
Berlin - here we come!