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I just returned from an Intrepid Travel Original trip to the Balkans and here’s what I found

Church of Saint John the Theologian, Ohrid, Macedonia
Church of Saint John the Theologian, Ohrid, Macedonia (credit Margie)

Guest blogger Margie just returned from an Intrepid Travel Original trip to the Balkans and wrote this article on her experiences. Margie is a woman in her 50’s, who has travelled to over 65 countries around the world. She loves off the beaten path adventure travel and we have known each other for over 20 years.

Why did I take this trip?

Last year, I did a sailing charter to the Cycladic islands in Greece and was quite taken by the country. I’d been around the world, just never to Greece. This year as I was considering which adventure trip to take, I decided to pick Intrepid Travel’s “Dubrovnik to Athens” 15-day trip to five countries. Here’s why I picked this trip:

1) The trip visited four countries I had never been to before including Albania, which was high on my list of places I wanted to see.

2) It was rated at a physical level as 2 out of 5. It offered some hiking but there was not too much of it.

3) It offered urban and rural experiences and some local public buses, which I enjoy.

Inside the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Inside the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia (credit Margie)

Arrival in Dubrovnik & pre-trip activities

The tour started in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s most well-known tourist destination and its famed walled city which became even more famous as the setting for “King’s Landing” on the hit TV show, Game of Thrones. I flew from Toronto to Dubrovnik, via Vienna as it was the best connection and allowed me to arrive mid-afternoon. I had read the tour notes in great depth before the trip and knew that the trip didn’t spend much time in Dubrovnik, so I arrived two days before the start of the trip. I also knew from research that there was an airport bus for 9 euros that would drop me off near the port & bus station, very close to the Intrepid Travel hotel. The airport bus was very easy to find and there were other travellers waiting for it. The bus follows the coast towards with city on some very death-defying roads, I learned later that the roads in Croatia were just the start of those kinds of roads. We travelled on many mountainous, windy roads for the whole trip.

On the two days before the trip, I had pre-booked single day trips from local companies I found on the internet – one trip to Mostar and Kravice Falls in Bosnia and Herzegovina (definitely recommended!) and the second to Korcula Island, off the coast of Croatia (very beautiful) and a tasting at a local winery. I also booked a free walking tour in Dubrovnik and picked up some restaurant tips from my guide.

View of Dubrovnik, Croatia
View of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Start of my Intrepid tour

My Intrepid Travel trip began in the evening at our hostel (frankly, it was a hotel, that was recently renovated & was spotlessly clean). The hostel is a meeting point for several Intrepid trips.

On our first evening, we went on a walking tour of Dubrovnik with our group including taking the local public bus from the hotel to the famed walled city. Our hotel was about a 30-minute walk, which I had done the day before, but it involves some hills so it’s walkable for those who enjoy hills.

Dubrovnik is a beautiful city. I highly recommend going for a few days and walking the city’s walls – though definitely take water and a hat! Dubrovnik is on the radar of many travellers so despite being there during the shoulder season, the city was jampacked with people.

Sunset on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Sunset on Lake Ohrid (credit Margie)

On to Montenegro, our first bus and the coast

The next morning we were up early. Our private bus met us for our trip down the coast to Montenegro. As another European Union (EU) country, Montenegro, and Croatia both use the euro as currency and there is no border to cross. Our destination was Kotor, another walled city on the coast. The country is very mountainous and our drive involved windy, but scenic roads down the coast towards Kotor.

After dropping our bags at our hotel for the night, we walked about a kilometre to Kotor to meet our local guide. He walked us through the old town, which was teeming with tourists, many from a small cruise ship that had parked in the bay.

Some from our group decided to hike up the crumbling remains of the city’s walls. They later described the hike as hard. Other people took a scenic boat trip in the fjord.

I love Tirana!
I love Tirana! (credit Margie)

Into Albania, Rozafa Castle and Tirana

Next morning, we got onto our bus and headed for Albania. We crossed the border into the non-EU country and stopped in Shkoder to visit Rozafa Castle. We learned the history of the castle and the legend associated with the name, Rozafa. She was the wife of one of three brothers who sacrificed her life and ensured that the castle walls would be strong enough to withstand marauders. There were some beautiful views from the castle and lots of tricky uneven stones throughout the hilltop.

That afternoon we arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania. We made a quick stop at an ATM to pick up the local currency, Albanian lek, before our tour leader took us on a short walking tour of the main part of the City. What an exciting, vibrant place. Albania is a nascent tourist destination, so we didn’t see many other travellers (unlike Croatia and Montenegro).

Although some places take credit cards, cash is still the preferred payment method. Also, because Albania was closed to tourism until the mid-1990s, it does not have the infrastructure that EU countries have. The roads are good but there are not many of them. They are packed with traffic as Albanians flex their newfound love of driving.

Our hotel in Tirana was small and family-run. Very well-located and spotlessly clean.

Kruja and back to Tirana

The next morning we got up and took a private bus to Kruja, the mountainous stronghold of Skanderberg, an Albanian national hero who withstood Ottoman incursions in the 1400s. Although I enjoyed the museum, Kruja itself was a disappointment. It was important for us to understand the impact that the Ottomans had on Albania, but the fortress itself was not interesting. I enjoyed Rozafa more than I did Kruja.

We had a free afternoon in Tirana, where some of my fellow travellers and I tried to visit the National museum. We were disappointed that it was closed. Instead, we went to Bunk’art 2 in downtown Tirana. This is an optional activity that was not included in our Intrepid trip. Bunk’art2 is a museum that describes the terror of the secret political police, the Sigurimi, who were active for over 80 years and predominant during the communist reign of terror by dictator Enver Hoxha. This museum was a highlight for us however, the video interface didn’t work. All descriptions though were in Albanian and English.

Berat Fort, Albania
Berat Fort, Albania (credit Margie)

Bus ride to Berat

The next morning, we had a thrilling experience taking taxis to the bus station. Buses between cities in Albania are all run by private individuals who own their own smaller buses. They only leave for their destination when the bus is full. There were 13 of us in different taxis navigating brutal traffic to get to the station. Our soon-to-be driver recognized our tour leader and ran off with the bags of one traveller. We didn’t know what was going on, so we all ran after him! He was just keen to get on the road, not trying to steal a bag! Our fellow bus riders were curious about a group of international travellers taking their local bus and we had an enjoyable drive seeing the Albanian countryside.

Berat is known as the city of a thousand windows. The architecture is beautiful, largely Ottoman influenced with lots of lovely dark wood with whitewashed plaster walls. We walked up to the top of the fortress and enjoyed the explanation of the history of the town by our local guide.

The hotel in Berat was wonderful had the best breakfast of our trip. All homemade and delicious.

Crossing the border to Ohrid, Northern Macedonia

The next day we crossed from Albania into Northern Macedonia, another non-EU country with a different currency, history, and culture.

We spent two nights on Lake Ohrid, a highlight of the trip. Stunningly beautiful and no stranger to tourists as it used to be a resort town during the former Yugoslav times. We walked around the town, which was similar in architecture to Berat and enjoyed the lovely patios on the water. This was also the place to buy famous Ohrid pearls and Macedonian rubies.

Rakia, Macedonia

Strange Skopje

We travelled by a typical bus to Skopje, a large modern city with a significant number of sculptures. While the tour of the traditional bazaar was interesting, I found it hard to grasp the city. It is a jumble of styles and cultures. We did enjoy drinking some rakia here though!

Skopje was not my favourite place however, I understand why the tour goes there. Some of us visited two museums not included in the price of the trip -the museum of Macedonian Struggle (there was a lot of struggle) and the Holocaust Museum (almost no survivors from the Holocaust from this part of Macedonia).

Hiking in Pelister National Park

After Skopje, we caught a public bus to Bitola in southern Macedonia. Bitola was a nice little city. We all enjoyed it – nice shopping street and lots of outdoor patios for enjoying people-watching. We took taxis up the mountain to Pelister National Park. The hike was rated as “easy” and I suppose once we got up the very large steep beginning part of the trail, it was a flat-ish walk. Beautiful scenery. Reminded me of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

16th century mansion, Kastoria, Greece
16th century mansion, Kastoria, Greece (credit Margie)

Into Greece and Kastoria

After our time in Macedonia, we boarded another private bus that drove us across a tiny little border crossing into Greece and back in the EU. We spent two nights in Kastoria, which for me was a highlight. Stunningly beautiful and the home of the Greek fur-trade in the 1600’s. Incredible traditional architecture which showed off the wealth of the area by the size of the monstrous homes built out of the wood in the area. We took a 2 hour easy walk around the walk and visited a byzantine church. Some of us decided to spend the extra money to see the Kastoria “Cave of the Lakes” along our walk.

Mount Olympus, Greece
Mount Olympus, Greece (credit Margie)

Hiking Mount Olympus

We then drove down through northern Greece to Litochoro, the small town at the foot of Mount Olympus, the home of the God Zeus. We could hear thunder and see gathering of clouds. I finally understand why the ancient Greeks would’ve been worried about thunder here, as apparently it is quite common. Litochoro had many foreign tourists here to do the 2- day summit hike of Mount Olympus. Our trip did not include that but it did include an “easy” hike, which some of our group extended to the “extremely hard” hike. We took taxis up the mountain near to a parking lot and spent 2.5 hours hiking down to the Holy Cave and up to the falls. I would describe that hike as easy to moderate. It was not easy. But the highlight for myself was the Old Monastery of St. Dionysius which was built in the 1500s but destroyed by the Germans in WW2. What a surprise delightful find!

I went back to town with a few other travellers in a taxi while the rest hiked another 3-4 hours down the mountain. Later, they told us that hike was extremely hard. Only for the most fit.

Acropolis, Athens
Acropolis, Athens (credit Margie)

Down to Athens

Our final destination was Athens by train. We took taxis from our guesthouse in Litochoro to the train station in another city. We arrived in Athens mid-day and got situated in our hotels. There were a few mix-ups that Intrepid helped to sort out. For example, I had booked myself in the arrival hotel for 3 days after the end. Intrepid had changed the hotel though so the rest of my group was in a different but close-by hotel. There were several other Intrepid groups at my hotel.

Our tour leader

Flutra is one of the best tour leaders I have ever had. She spoke incredible English and was very attentive to all our interests and issues. In addition to having a fun time dancing to traditional music in Ohrid, we laughed with her many times. We developed an immense respect for her when she shared some truly terrifying moments her family experienced during the Balkan war of the 1990’s.

My fellow travellers

I took this trip knowing that there would be a maximum of 12 travellers. There were nine Australians, one Brit, one American and myself. I was pleasantly surprised that our group ranged in age from 27 to 75, with most people in their 50’s and 60’s. Everyone was well travelled, and many were repeat travellers with Intrepid. We all knew that our trip required a lot of flexibility given multiple border crossings, multiple currencies and many different cultures and languages. Everyone got along, famously so.

My thoughts on the trip

Dubrovnik to Athens was a wonderful trip. It was exactly what I was looking for but it was definitely a go-go-go trip. I give this trip a 4.5/5.

Some key findings:

  • If you’re looking for some occasional easy to moderate hiking, this is the trip for you

  • If you’re looking to see cities, national parks and can handle long 3-4 hour bus trips, this is the right trip for you.

  • Always read the trip notes! Intrepid tells you what to expect and I packed exactly as they recommended and was grateful I did.

  • Check the weather. We travelled in May and it was unexpectedly colder and rainier than normal so make sure you have clothing options for variability.

  • This trip has an extension – Athens to Santorini. A couple of people on our trip were on the extension.

All in all, it was a great experience.

Margie booked her trip through Adventure Coordinators and was not remunerated in any way for this article. This post was not edited by Adventure Coordinators.

You can find more details about the trip on our website.

Matka Canyon, Macedonia
Matka Canyon, Macedonia (credit Margie)


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