Touring the Balkans by Bus, Part 2: Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina

I embrace the old adage that it’s more about the trip than the destination, both in life and in travel, relishing the sense of movement from one place to another. An open road. A crossing. A time-lapsed video of mountains growing out of the horizon and falling flat again like black and green waves.

But, sometimes, it really is about the destination. Especially when the travel itself is so wretchedly exhausting. You see the lights of the city growing in the darkness and strive toward them like a shipwreck survivor swimming for the shore.

I’ve already detailed the misery of the actual bus trip in a previous post, so I won’t do that again here. Instead, I’m going to recount the highlights of our second week in the Balkans.

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Tirana, Albania, sometimes gets a bad wrap, often cited as a city that can be skipped on a tour of the Balkans, bland and boring. But, on the contrary, we found it to be quite wonderful!

A central canal directs the shallow Lana River through the heart of the city, with numerous car and pedestrian bridges spanning the banks. Angela and I wandered our way along the river as we explored the city on foot, finding a new view of Tirana with each crossing.

Like many of the Balkan states, Albania has resisted the invasion of corporate fast food chains, leaving an environment where small, local restaurants can thrive. And we found no shortage of excellent dining options, our favorite of which was Salt.

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A trendy, stylish restaurant that boasts a wide selection of cuisine, from tasty burgers to fresh sushi (Tirana is only 20 miles from the Adriatic Sea), we were as impressed with their quality scotch selection as we were with their friendly service. So much so, in fact, that we returned to the restaurant for a second meal on the following day.

If we lived in Tirana, this would be our go-to date place.

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As much as we would have liked to linger in Tirana and enjoy more date nights, we had to board the bus again, this time bound for Podgorica, Montenegro.

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Our route passed along the edges of mountainous national parks around the scenic Lake Skader, known for its water lilies and biodiversity. Yet another place along this journey that I would only see from behind a bus window, making a future return visit mandatory.

If there’s one upside to a bus tour of the Balkan states, it’s the ability to forego a day of travel in favor of a day of rest. With only a few exceptions, the bus routes between major cities run at the same time every day, and we never found a need to pre-book tickets. We would just show up at the bus station about an hour before the scheduled departure and book a couple of seats.

So, in Podgorica, when we just couldn’t bring ourselves to get up the next day, Angela and I decided to sleep in. We had arrived at the lovely, boutique Philia Hotel where the beds were comfortable, the rooms were stylish, and the on-site restaurant was impressive. The owner even had a personal wine collection on display, along with a selection of books available to guests.

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Although we didn’t see much of Montenegro’s capital city, we did get to experience the wonderful Montenegrin hospitality during conversations with locals over drinks. They couldn’t believe we had arrived in Podgorica by bus. “All foreigners come on cruise ships to Kotor,” they said. “The coast is nice, but you have to see Bobotov Kuk and the mountains in the north!” We explained that our bus route to Sarajevo would take us through the foothills of those mountains, and that seemed to satisfy them somewhat.

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And, although we caught glimpses of the landscape when we could, it was all flashing by so quickly that photos don’t do it justice. Yet again, we had to put a pin in the map for northern Montenegro — visited but not truly seen. At least not like it should be: https://goo.gl/58Jo2u.

We rolled into Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, just as the sun was setting. The bus station is located on the outskirts of the city, so we had to hire a cab at the station exit to take us to our hotel in the heart of the old town. As it turns out, the driver wasn’t authorized to drive in the center of town, so he asked me to sit in the front passenger seat and removed his taxi sign just as we crested the hill over the city proper.

Just three friends going for a drive in downtown Sarajevo. Nothing to see here, officer.

Sarajevo is a melting pot of religions and cultures, with mosques sharing the same intersections as churches. Veiled women shopping in the ancient bazaar alongside Orthodox priests and families of visiting Swedes. The call to prayer marking the passage of the day and sharing the air with church bells at noon.

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In those narrow streets we could have been in Tunisia or Russia or New York, the pop and buzz of broken conversations and the assent of comprehension at shared gestures. Angela and I stood transfixed in the middle of that cacophony and counted nations like playing cards, vibrant colors and each one different from the next.

And yet, here, in this shared place, at this shared time.

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And I realized then what our journey through the Balkans had been missing.

Common understanding. And the one quiet moment needed to appreciate it.

Thank you, Sarajevo, for reminding us why we travel.

 

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