Mire se vini – welcome to Tirana, Albania. If you think you know Albania, think again. This addictive country has myriad faces. In the rugged north the Alps are so fierce they're deemed 'accursed', while the south enjoys one of Europe’s least known and most beautiful coastlines. If you arrive early, perhaps get your bearings of the city with a walk around town. Tirana is filled with activity, from its traffic to its nightlife, but on its doorstep are mosques, citadels, Ottoman architecture and museums. This is a truly progressive city that's working hard to alleviate the Soviet block feeling that pervaded it for so long. In the evening, perhaps head out for dinner with your new travel companions.
This morning head out on an orientation walk of central Tirana. It’s the capital of Albania and its biggest city, but it's still small and compact, with architectural influences from Italy and Turkey. Visit the Skanderbeg Monument, the mosaic on the National History Museum and the Palace of Culture, which are all located on Skanderbeg Square (Skanderbeg is the national hero of Albania). The main sight in Tirana is the Et'hem Bey Mosque, which sits right on the city's main square. Closed under communist rule, the mosque resumed as a place of worship in 1991 and is seen as a monument to religious freedom in the country. Take a look at the frescoes outside and in the portico that depict trees, waterfalls and bridges – motifs rarely seen in Islamic art. Remember to take your shoes off before entering the inner room. After lunch, take a local bus to Shkoder, one of the oldest cities in Europe and now the main commercial centre and largest town of northern Albania (approximately 2 hours). Upon arrival head out on a short orientation walk along the Pjaca, which is the main pedestrianized street, lined with 19th-century architecture and dominated by Ebu Beker Mosque. Later in the afternoon, why not head north of the city to visit the Venetian era Rozafa Castle, set high on a mountain with panoramic views of a lake and the Albanian countryside, before heading back to your hotel in the evening for dinner.
Take an early morning transfer to Lake Koman (approximately 1.5 hours), where you'll board the ferry for the daily run through a series of connected reservoirs between Koman and Fierza, in the remote north eastern corner of the country (approximately 3 hours). The series of lakes were created when a hydroelectric dam was built at Koman in the 1970s. Locals use the boats here when returning from shopping trips or school in the cities, with the boat drifting to the sides to drop off or pick up passengers waiting on the banks, waving for attention. Along the way, you'll have the opportunity to take in the scenery of sheer cliff walls on both sides of the narrow lake. The mountains that surround the lake and can reach over 1,700 metres in height are almost uninhabited, except for the occasional settlement. You’ll navigate past seemingly impenetrable passes and come across tiny hamlets, with the few families who live on the hillsides relying on the daily supply boat for sustenance. This is simply one of the most beautiful boat rides you will ever take – emerald water merging with the green vegetation dotting the bright white cliffs, and the feeling of slowly drifting back in time. Upon arrival to Fierza you'll be transferred to your guesthouse in Valbona Valley, where a delicious home cooked meal awaits you.
Take an excursion deeper into the remote Valbona Valley. This is a landscape that you might more closely associate with Switzerland – green meadows of traditional houses, farmland, and alpine tress, surrounded by imposing snow dusted mountain peaks. Due to the remoteness of the region and the lack of tourist infrastructure, today's activities will come as a surprise to all of us, including the leader! You may go for a hike in the surrounding mountains, walking through wide valleys, ascending to mountain passes and trekking though thick forest, or you might simply hang out in the village with the locals. One of the best things about Albania is the people, their warmth to strangers is infectious and you're bound to find yourself having a chat and swapping stories over a glass of raki or two. This is a great place to discover the history of Albania from the people who have lived through it, and to learn about the local way of life. Perhaps discover more about the stories of blood feuds, said to be carried out in the name of the Kanun code, the customs that governed all aspects of life in the mountains.
Tiny Kosovo is Europe’s newest (official) country: a handful of landlocked mountains, poppy-dotted meadows and oak forests smack bang in the middle of the Balkans. The shadow of conflict in the late 90s has kept Kosovo off traveller's radars, but go there today and you can feel that shadow lifting. NATO troops may still guard Serbian monasteries, and proper independence is an on-going struggle, but the headlines now are increasingly good ones: an emerging tourist trade, film festivals in Peja, Prishtina’s trendy cafe scene, and world-class walking in the Rugova Mountains. Yep, Europe’s youngest member is definitely making up for lost time. Today you'll cross the border into Kosovo by private vehicle (approximately 2 hours). The first stop in this newly independent country will be the Dečani Monastery, built in 1327, and known as the final resting place of Serbian King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski. Time stands still here, a place of stunning art heritage, but whose symbolic significance as a Serbian Orthodox cultural monument unfortunately makes it vulnerable to destruction. Continue on to Peja (Pec in Serbian), the gateway to the Rugova Mountains and a major agricultural centre (approximately 30 minutes). Visit the beautifully restored Peja Bazaar, dating back to Ottoman times, and Bajrakli Mosque. Having been destroyed twice in the last 80 years, the bazaar has been fully rebuilt after the Kosovo War, according to historical Ottoman architecture, and is one of the many protected monuments in Kosovo.
After breakfast, you'll be transferred to the village of Drelaj, which is deep in the Rugova Valley and close to the Montenegrin border (approximately 30 minutes). The Rugova Mountains are nicknamed ‘the cursed mountains’ and were declared a national park in 2013. Drelaj will be your base to explore the surrounding area on a three-to-four-hour guided hike. The Rugova Valley is often compared to Switzerland in its landscape, and here at the foot of Hjala mountain, be surrounded by tall grass pastures dotted with wildflowers, the sound of cow bells drifting through the valley, and simple wooden shacks and stone houses with smoke drifting up to the granite cliffs above. Afterwards, you'll be able to rest your weary bones with a delicious refuelling lunch at a local family home. Head back to the hotel in the early evening, with your night then free – perhaps try the local Birra Peja, brewed here in town.
Journey to the south of the country on a local bus today to Kosovo's second biggest, and arguably its most beautiful, city – Prizren (approximately 1.5 hours). Located at the foot of the Sar Mountains, this city was first inhabited by the Romans in second century AD, while the Ottomans and the Byzantines also left their mark in the architecture of the cityscape. Luckily it was also spared destruction during the 1999 conflict. On arrival, head out an orientation walk of Prizren, walking alongside the Bistrica river, taking in the cobbled Shadervan square and the Old Stone Bridge, all of which will help you get your bearings of the city and prepare you for a full day of exploration tomorrow. Explore the city’s famous mosques and contrast it with abandoned Serbian Orthodox churches that stand as sombre reminders of the ethnic divisions that still simmer just under the surface. Wander the bazaar or admire some of the traditional jewellery in the many filigree shops, and do some people watching in a restaurant in Shadervan square, before another memorable Balkan sunset and a required glass or raki.
Today is free to explore the city's sights, after venturing out on an included visit to Prizren's sixth century Kalaja Fortress. This sixth century fortress sits proudly on a hilltop above the town and has a 43-step staircase hidden in a tunnel that connects to the river, giving you a great sense of discovery and view over the city. Make sure you visit the House of the Albanian League of Prizren, where in 1878 the Assembly of Prizren gathered to consolidate Albanian leaders to unite and protect the country against foreign threats. If you feel energetic, you may want to consider walking upstream along the Bistrica River, where you might meet locals tending to their flocks of sheep among mountainous scenery. There's plenty to see and do in this exciting city. For many Prizren is the gastronomic heart of Kosovo, and it’s a great place to browse confectionaries, try qebaptore (barbeque) restaurants, and snack on jathë i Sharrit (Shar cheese) and tullumba (syrup soaked filo pastry). If you’re feeling adventurous then maybe try the food in the Old Bazaar and eat the local delicacy of deep fried lamb brains.
Take a day trip to Prishtina and surrounds. The capital of Kosovo is currently reinventing itself as a major commercial centre in the region, and its historical importance makes it an essential stop on any itinerary to Kosovo. First head to Kosovo Polje (Field of Blackbirds), which the country is named after. This flat area outside the capital is the site of the 1389 battle of Kosovo, a skirmish that lead to the Ottoman Empire finally taking control of this area of the Balkans, and a battle that some argue is one of the reasons for the problems that still affect the region. There is a memorial here that commemorates this important historical event. Nearby is the tomb of Sultan Murat, leader of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, who was assassinated just a few hours after the end of the battle. You'll then get to visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gracanica Monastery, one of King Milutin's last monumental endowments. It now plays home to 24 sisters who actively tend to the building which serves an an important spiritual and political centre for Kosovo's Serb community. The afternoon is free to explore the vibrant city of Prishtina and all it has to offer. If you have time, perhaps visit the Prishtina Ethnographic Museum, the Sultan Fatih Mosque or the Kosovo Museum. Check out the Newborn Monument, which was unveiled on the day Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia (17th February 2008). Nearby, on the boulevard in his name, is a brass statue of Bill Clinton – thanks for the President’s role in ending the war. After exploring the city, head back to your accommodation in Prizren for the night.
Craggy mountain backdrops, time-weathered monasteries, stunning lake panoramas, hearty national cuisine – Macedonia has only one missing ingredient from the standard Europe recipe. And happily, that happens to be crowds. Landlocked into relative obscurity in a region worshipped for its coast, Macedonia’s tract of the Balkans is often overlooked. Yet for those looking to venture beyond the Adriatic and Aegean, Macedonia’s rugged interior contains rewards aplenty. Excellent hiking can be had in the mountain forests, Lake Ohrid’s waters rival the clarity of Croatia’s, and 500 years of Ottoman rule can be acutely felt in the capital’s bazaars. And to round it all out, the locals will be delighted to have you. This morning head out early and travel to Skopje, Macedonia's capital city. Upon arrival in Macedonia’s political and cultural centre, take an orientation walk past Byzantine domes, Turkish baths, and also newly built neo-classical buildings and grand monuments (aimed to bolster national pride). In the afternoon, wander past the mosques, innumerable caravanserais and hamams that fill its winding streets – a testament to Skopje’s Ottoman past. Take a step back to those times with a visit to the Daut Pasha Hamam, or journey through the humbling Holocaust Museum to learn how Macedonia suffered during this tragic chapter of history.
Venture out to Matka Canyon, a deep ravine cut into the Suva mountains by the Treska River, 15 kilometres southwest of the city. This area is home to several medieval monasteries, caves, and over 70 species of endemic butterflies. There is the option to explore the canyon's sights by boat. One of the monasteries worth exploring is St Andrew's Monastery, which contains many superb frescoes of great artistic importance. There is also Vrelo cavern, a water-filled cave with incredible stalagmites and unchartered depths – it's speculated to be the deepest underwater cave in the world. Alternatively, you can take one of the many nature walks in the canyon, or up to tracks that hug the ridge high above the valley. In the early afternoon, take a local bus back to Skopje, with the remaining part of the day free for you to continue exploring this exciting city. Perhaps take the Mount Vodno cable car to the giant 66-metre high Millennium Cross, mainly for the views back down across the city. Get lost in the narrow lanes of Caršija, Skopje's most atmospheric neighbourhood, or take in the stone bridge over the river Vardar – an iconic sight that acts as a handy connection between Macedonia Square and the Old Bazaar. Perhaps visit the Museum of the City of Skopje, housed in the old Railway Station, which is itself a unique piece of history. For dinner this evening head to the Old Bazaar, or the restaurants in the Debar Maalo area.
Travel by local bus from Skopje to Ohrid, situated on a lake with the same name (approximately 3 hours). Europe’s oldest lake, and one of the oldest human settlements in the world, Ohrid has a wealth of historic sites and religious monuments to discover. Ohrid is an eternal town, a magical hill whose primordial pulsation links ancient and modern times forever. The town is said to have once been home to 365 churches, one for each day of the year, earning it the nickname “the Macedonian Jerusalem”, while historical excavations date back to Neolithic times. Despite being a World Heritage site for over 30 years, the town remains under the radar of visitors. Get your bearings on an orientation walk around Ohrid, maybe picking up a bargain or two in the vibrant Old Bazaar.
Take to the lake on a cruise on the turquoise waters of Lake Ohrid to take in the views of the town and the surrounding scenery from the water. The rest of the day is free for you to discover the area. There are many churches and monasteries to visit, but one of the most popular is the Macedonian Orthodox Church of Sveti Jovana Kaneo, situated on a rocky outcrop above the town, overlooking the lake. Past the church you can wander around to the back of town, exploring the old walls and fortress, and admiring the views of the lake. The Sveti Naum Monastery is also a great option, lying on the shores of the lake south of town, with well-kept grounds that are home to peacocks. The ancient Tast Samoil’s Fortress stands on the top of Ohrid Hill and looks across the town, while a 2,000-year-old Roman theatre was uncovered near the Upper Gate – in summer it’s again being used for concerts and performances.
Say goodbye to the endless, merging blues of lake and sky as you take a local bus to Struga on the northern end of the lake, where you'll catch another bus across the border into Albania for your journey back to Tirana (approximately 3 hours in total). On arrival, your day is then free to explore and to enjoy the last night of your adventure. Feel the urban energy of this transforming city, where colour splashes enliven drab communist architecture, and if there’s time perhaps take a cable car ride up Dajti Mountain one last breath-taking overview of the city below. If you stay in town longer consider heading out to Kruja, the old capital of Albania. Tonight, perhaps gather together the group for a final farewell dinner as this expedition comes to an end. You could head to Blloku (the Block), once the domain of the Communist party’s inner circle and now home to designer cafes, glizy restaurants, and boutique bars. For something a little more traditional maybe head to an old house restaurant, where the menus are filled with Albanian recipes like eggplants stuffed with onions and garlic and fried rice balls or oven-baked cottage cheese with pepperoni. Raise a raki to this adventure!
There are no activities planned for the final day and you're able to depart the accommodation at any time. If you wish to stay on in Tirana we are able to book additional accommodation for you (subject to availability). Please speak to your travel consultant at the time of booking.