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13 Countries in 31 Days

Country 1: Albania

I said goodbye to the other volunteers at Propaganda Hostel in Tirana, the capital city of Albania. I’d been volunteering at the hostel for three weeks, enjoying the ridiculously cheap food and trying to avoid the sweltering temperatures.

With my REI Grand Tour 85L backpack on, I looked at the tapestries of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Enver Hoxha (the Albanian dictator) for the last time and left to find a bus to Kosovo. I later found out that the hostel was sold and remodeled, losing its iconic communistic propaganda and wonderful staff.

Living in Albania had been a godsend to my wallet. In three weeks, I had spent less than $50. Through Workaway.info, I found the hostel to volunteer at and didn’t have to pay for my accommodations while I was there (in exchange for 25 hours a week of work at reception). Meals in Albania are about $2 on average for a good breakfast or lunch, and $3-4 for a big dinner. Transportation costs less than $0.25 for a bus ride, and watching a new blockbuster with Albanian subtitles in a deliciously air-conditioned cinema set me back $2.

Perhaps my favorite part of Albania, aside from the low prices, was how friendly the locals were. Not always with each other, but when it came to meeting or hosting a foreigner, they went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, bring me to their favorite restaurant and show me around the city and parks. They always wanted to know why I would choose to visit Albania. After three weeks in the country, I had plenty of reasons.

Aside from the low cost, meals in Tirana were also enjoyable for their surprisingly high quality. There are several international cuisines in Tirana, and I comment had German sandwiches for breakfast (for $1), French crepes for lunch (for $1.50) and Italian pizzas for dinner (for $3). I was particularly fond of qofte (meatballs) and byrek (meat and veggie pastries similar to a quiche).

As a going-away present, the hostel manager Linda took me out to my final meal in Albania. She chose E Jona, a beautiful hipster restaurant hidden down an alleyway near the hostel that served the full range of Albanian dishes. Catering to my love of lamb, she ordered me the Patëllxhane të Mbushur (lamb stuffed eggplant).

Did I mention that Albanian is one of the most difficult languages in the world?

Despite the impossible-to-pronounce name, the food was delicious. More importantly, it was filling, which is exactly what I needed for my upcoming bus ride. As so many of my Albanian friends insisted on doing before, she covered the cost of the meal (about $3) and we said our final “see you laters.” After all, there are no real goodbyes, and we’ve remained good friends to this day.

My last enjoyable experience in Albania was on the way to the bus. I became lost looking for a store to buy water at and asked a local on the street if she could direct me to a store. She didn’t speak any English but another girl sitting next to me at a café’s terrace jumped up to help me, leaving her unfinished plate on the table. She didn’t just give me directions to the store; she walked with me for two streets to ensure I didn’t get lost again. On my way back to the bus stop, I passed the café and saw her back in her chair finishing her meal.  We gave each other a happy wave as I walked by.

Finding a bus to Kosovo from Albania wasn’t easy. First of all, there is no bus station in Tirana. Instead, buses leave from various streets, depending on where you want to get to, and sometimes those streets change. The bus to Kosovo was supposed to leave from Bulevardi Zogu I sometime around 3 p.m. I arrived an hour early in case I had to search for a different location, and on the not-so-rare chance that the bus decided to leave early.

I was in luck. The shop beside the spot where I had been directed was displaying signs for bus tickets to Kosovo. The price was 1000 Albanian Lek (about $10). Compared to what I’d spent in the past three weeks, it seemed like a fortune.

The route to Prizren from Tirana was 112 miles, a trip that wouldn’t take more than an hour and a half on a good day on a freeway in the US. The winding mountain roads in the Balkans aren’t in the best of shape, and the bus ride took over five hours. We stopped before leaving Albania for some snacks and a chance to stretch our legs. There was a hold-up at the border, but nothing to do with immigration. A herd of cows was walking across the road, and the bus driver had to wait for them to move.

We pulled into the Prizren Bus Station a little before 8 p.m., in time to see the golden sun setting behind the hills surrounding the town. A half-hour walk and I was at the city’s only hostel.

Country 2: Kosovo

Kosovo is one of the world’s newest countries, although not yet on the official UN list (along with Taiwan). It declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia has yet to honor the decision. The country is bordered by Serbia to the north and east. Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia border along the west and south. For the general location, just think somewhere generally north of Greece.

Prizren is the second-largest city in Kosovo after the capital of Prishtina. At the time, there was only one hostel in the town, although that number has since doubled.

City Hostel is a four-story building on the south side of the city near the tourist district. As I walked into the hostel, the two young men offered me a welcome drink they had mixed from the large selection of liquors and spirits on the mantle behind the desk. A sign on the wall proclaimed Prizren to be the second-best city in Europe for nightlife, and naïve me believed it. The town turned out to be quite quiet at night, but the two guys at the hostel did their damnedest to make up for it.

My room was up on the third floor. The building was small, and the rooms were smaller. Three single beds to a room (no bunk beds) and a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. At $13.50 a night, it was average for a European hostel; more expensive than Tirana, Berlin or Edinburgh; cheaper than London, Paris or Stockholm. It was comfortable in a no-frills kind of way, although the rooftop terrace was a great place to hang out.

I hadn’t eaten since my meal with Linda that morning, so I dropped off my bag and went in search of dinner. Operating on a tight budget meant finding the cheapest place in town, but that wasn’t a problem in Kosovo. After walking down a few streets, I ended up at Mr. Pizza behind the famous Sinan Pasha Mosque and ordered a pizza for $3.50. The price was actually 3 Euro, the official currency in Kosovo, even though the country is not part of the Eurozone.

The tourist zone was quite crowded but with locals more than foreigners. There were several clubs set up. As I had seen in Albania, the custom was for the women to show up with several layers of make-up on, order the cheapest drink, take a bunch of selfies, and then stand around looking like models without ever engaging in conversation. It wouldn’t be true to say they weren’t beautiful, but they also had a level of fakeness which made it awkward.

Perhaps I was the one that was awkward, as I never attempted to talk with any of them.

Instead, I spent my time wandering the streets and going down to the small, muddy river which bisected the town. Several bridges spanned the width, including a small footbridge simply called The Old Stone Bridge. Locks on a bridge might have started in Paris but now seems to transcend all cultures. Several dozen were on the wire mesh railing, giving the town a romantic feeling.

Long after dark, I went back to the hostel to turn in for the night. Entering reception, I found quite a large crowd. Seemed the whole hostel had collected downstairs to enjoy drinks on the house with the two managers. They were at the front desk with a blender and mixer cups, making one concoction after another. I accepted a Bailey’s Irish cream, but turned down the rest. Spending my nights drunk or my mornings hung-over was never an ambition of mine in my travels.

The next morning, I was invited out for a hiking tour with a group of British travelers. They planned to find some nearby waterfalls and caves. I opted to stay and explore the town and Prizren Fortress. I got off to a late start, leaving the hostel shortly after 11 a.m.

My first stop of the morning was the market street where I went to search for a bandana to wear on my head and keep from getting my scalp sunburned. I had spent most of my time in Albania searching for one without luck.

Ten minutes away from the hostel, I ran into a shop that only sold large squares of cloth for exactly that purpose. With thousands of patterns to choose from, I was in heaven. I walked out with a black and white patterned cloth, and immediately regretted not stocking up on a couple more. At only $3 each, they were a great investment.

Returning to the hostel to get advice on where to get lunch, the guys at reception directed me to the Besimi-Beska restaurant in the tourist quarter. I was wont to avoid tourist restaurants, preferring to find local spots and dishes, but in Prizren I didn’t have to worry. Besimi-Beska was full of locals, and was rated as one of the top restaurants in town for serving local cuisine. I ordered the sample platter and got to try all the meats they had to offer. For a little more than $6, it was more than I usually spent on a meal, but it was worth it.

The menu was interesting to decipher. While translated into English, the spellings were phonetic. Sousages, peady, vale, beccon and lamp translated to sausages, paddy, veil, bacon and lamb. I’m still not quite sure what they meant by “Shope Salad.”

I followed up lunch with an ice cream. At only $1 for three large scoops in a waffle cone for $1, it was hard to pass up even after the exorbitant meal. Besides, the temperature that day was over 100°F! I made one more purchase at a local store for water and then began the climb up to the fortress.

The Prizren Fortress dates back nearly 1000 years to the Byzantium Empire. It was expanded in the 14th century during the Serbian Empire, and again in 1455 when the Ottoman Empire conquered Prizren. The fortress remained in use until 1912 when Serbia re-conquered the area. Since then it has slowly eroded away.

From the hostel, the fortress is only half a mile away, and the walk takes about 20 minutes. But that’s if you can find the path. Instead of going straight up the hill, the trailhead is down one of the side streets in the tourist district. There are a couple signs, but those are easily missed.

By 4 p.m. I finally made it to the fortress. After a century of neglect, there wasn’t much left beyond eroded walls and a few rooms half buried under sand drifts. I ran along the tops of the walls, took some selfies above the town and started to climb on the roofs above the old rooms to get some better shots until a guy ran out to shout at me. It seemed that he had moved up to claim the fortress as his own, and took it upon himself to keep people safe, or perhaps limit the amount of exposure that his “home” was receiving.

It only took 15 minutes to see the fortress. After all, the footprint (shaped like a guitar pick) is only about 600 by 300 feet. Basically, there wasn’t a lot to see other than the view of the town. And since this is Kosovo, don’t expect to see any safety measures like a guardrail along the fortress wall.

As I descended the hill, I noticed an ornate gate blocking a trail that lead up to a church-like building. Without hesitation, I jumped the gate to explore. It certainly wasn’t the first time I went somewhere that was off limits in my travels, and wouldn’t be the last.

I went around the building, finding it was a church, but a very old and dilapidated one. As I came around the far side, I found an incredibly old and wrinkled man sitting on a chair with his shirt off enjoying the sun. He saw me too, and I got a little worried. I was in a foreign country filled with military and on the other side of a locked gate. I was certainly pushing my luck, but his smile at seeing me laid my fears to rest.

Taking the initiative, I spoke first. “Hello,” I said. “Is this a church?”

His smile widened. He recognized English and the prospect of getting to speak it was better than reprimanding me for trespassing. Apparently he was the guard, but found his job quite boring.

“Yes,” he said. “Church of Savior, 800 years old. Albanians stole art and burned down, but now we get back.” He proceeded to show me around the church, describing in his broken English the older parts of the building, and where the artwork used to be.

I later researched a bit more and found the church had actually been built in 1330 as an Orthodox church. It was damaged in a fire in the 19th century, and again in 2004 when Albanian extremists in Kosovo rioted. There were still a few faded frescoes on the walls, alluding to a very beautiful and colorful past. Hopefully the guard’s story was true and the tapestries were merely stolen. Perhaps someday they will be replaced.

The guard let me out of the gate and I went back into town to explore some more.

As my fifth Balkan country (after Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania), Kovoso didn’t give me as much culture shock as I would have expected. Similar to the other countries, many of the buildings were constructed from brick and concrete. From the fortress above, the city looked like an endless sea of red-tiled houses with mosques dotting the landscape.

The infrastructure was very basic. Old yellow buses gave rides around town, although I didn’t hear about anything worth visiting that wasn’t within walking distance. There were modern stores selling Western products, and souk markets selling cheaper versions of the same Western products. Chain stores like McDonalds and Starbucks are nowhere to be seen.

Stray dogs and cats run about everywhere and restaurant owners chase them away from the terraces. Jeans and counterfeit brand-name t-shirts are the mode. The whole town has a very relaxed feel with no one in a rush.

For dinner, I met up with some other friends at the hostel at a local restaurant for more of the local cuisine, mostly consisting of barbecued meat with a salad on the side. Most of the Balkans share similar dishes (although they tend to spell them slightly differently), but Montenegro had the higher content of meat, which is probably what makes them the tallest people in the world. At least until the Netherlands measures everyone again and reasserts their claim that they are the tallest.

As the rest of the members of the hostel went to look for a run bar to spend the night in, I went back up to the fortress to enjoy the sunset.  A thick haze hung over the valley, similar to what you might find in the Los Angeles basin, and the sun turned a brilliant gold as it slowly dropped behind the far mountains. At the time, I was traveling with a Canon Powershot ELPH 110 point-and-shoot camera which was completely ineffective at taking anything resembling a decent shot of a sunset.

While at the fortress, I ran into another traveler and we quickly became friends, as is quite easy to do between backpackers. As there was only one hostel in town, it was not surprising that she was staying there too. However, it was a little funny that she had checked into the same room that I was in. As solo travel does tend to get boring, we teamed up to continue exploring together. Her name was Asia.

Coming down the hill, we passed through a thicket of bushes. Asia and I both saw the phenomenon at the same time and we gasped as our arms covered in goose bumps.

Around us, dozens of fireflies flittered in and out of the bushes like ephemeral pixies. Neither of us had ever seen them before.

It was magical!

We stood mesmerized for a couple minutes before resuming our walk back into town.

It wasn’t too late in the evening, and Asia had a couple churches and temples she wanted to see. We were both leaving in the morning on the same bus to Skopje, Macedonia (small world) so this was the last time we would see the town.

One of the churches Asia took me to see was Our Lady of Ljevis, one of four medieval monuments comprising Kosovo’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. I hardly knew what the UNESCO list was at the time, and didn’t appreciate the site nearly as much as I should have. To make it worse, the photos in the low light were virtually worthless. Well, that’s what memories are for.

With that, we retired to get a good night sleep before our bus ride to Skopje.

Going to Macedonia wasn’t entirely by choice. As Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent country, their passport stamp isn’t valid. If you enter Serbia from Kosovo and then try to leave Serbia through any other country, you will be held at the border for having entered the country illegally without a Serbian passport stamp. You can go into Serbia from Kosovo as long as you return to Kosovo. Otherwise, you have to get out of Kosovo before entering Serbia.

The bus was around $10 for a journey that lasted less than 4 hours, an hour of which was spent at the border (the usual length of time to get a busload of passengers through immigration). Asia and I picked up sandwiches from the bus depot, and by 9 a.m. we were on our way.

Country 3: Macedonia