I’ve had a sort of Peace Corps bucket list posted on my blog from the beginning, but I’ve spent the last two years forgetting about it.
So sadly, I wasn’t able to convince Beyoncé to come do a tour stop in Skopje, but we saw Enrique this summer, so that’s something right?
Side note: he hasn’t aged a day (or changed his outfit) since 1997 and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of my biggest goals was to visit all of Macedonia’s neighbors: all the countries we share a border with. I finally crossed off the last one, Albania, in October.
It was the last weekend of my service I was allowed to leave the country, as our rules prohibit us from out of country travel for our last three months. My sweet sitemate Iris decided to join me last minute and since we were both pretty short on пари (money), we exchanged 1,000 denars (16 euros) and challenged each other to make it last the weekend.
The bus ride took us on a tour of western Macedonia before finally crossing into Albania. The countryside was beautiful and green, and it was fun to see Lake Ohrid from the other side of the border. It was about eight hours after all the stops, but gave us a nice glimpse of different parts of the country, since we were staying only in the capital, Tirana.
Fun note: there’s not actually a bus station in Tirana, but our driver spoke Macedonian enough to explain that we had to get a return ticket from a small office near where the bus dropped us off. Bonus: there was an overnight bus option home if we wanted. Easy peasy.
As in Kosovo and Greece, it was a little thrilling to be in a country where I didn’t understand any of the local language. (Well, outside of basic greetings and thank you.) I looked up a few key phrases before we left just in case, but we made it okay.
At the burek street stand, the woman showed me the price on her calculator with a smile. At the little cafe near our couchsurfing apartment, the proprietor brought out a parade of items from the small kitchen to make sure we knew what we were ordering. It was all delicious. The people were all kind.
There were similarities in the cuisine, but with a different spin. I didn’t try anything I didn’t enjoy.
In the evening, we wandered in one of the large parks before checking out a local band covering 80s music and classic rock at the Tirana Hard Rock, which I have a feeling isn’t affiliated with the American chain.
The next day, we loved the free walking tour, and learning about the history of the former communist nation from our guide, who has lived through the transition. He remembers the first time his mom saw a banana, something they couldn’t import during his isolated childhood years.
That afternoon we struck out to find the gondola, hoping for a view of the city. We thought there was a direct bus to the start, and there might be, but we never found it. Instead we got off, walked for about 30 minutes, periodically redirecting ourselves with signs, which thankfully included a picture, all the while going uphill.
When we finally arrived at the start, we realized the price was double what we had read online, but decided that even though it would blow our budget challenge, we were already committed. (It was about 400 Macedonian denars, or about $8.)
The view of Tirana at sunset was beautiful and at the top, we met the manager of the restaurant and hotel who kindly gave us a tour of the grounds, including a visit to the roof, which is currently under renovations, but had the best view.
We found all the people kind and welcoming, and enjoyed comparing notes on our respective Balkan homes. (We also randomly met a traveler from New Zealand whose two horses starred in Lord of the Rings!) The forecast for our final day was nothing but rain and gloom, so we ended up catching the night bus home, which surprised us by being an hour shorter than our ride there. Balkan neighbor tour complete!