Finding my feet in Albania & Kosovo

My journey to become an independent solo traveler didn’t look like an obvious path for me for many years. I was always a very introverted kid, more locked up in my basement with my computer than exploring anything. My parents never really thought I would be courageous or even caring enough to set out to explore far away lands, or that I would quickly regret it from facing the lack of the comforts of the Danish society. Even more so I never set foot in an airplane until age 19 (my first proper foreign country as well), and I didn’t have my first completely solo trip until age 22. It wasn’t really so much for lack of wanting to explore the world, as much as just lacking the means to do so, and being afraid to take the first big step.

This is the story of the first completely solo trip I undertook, at age 22, that put me forth on my current path of traveling the world to a greater extent.

As described in other posts, my first semi-solo trip was to Macedonia in the summer of 2011, at the age of 19. Before that my travel experiences consisted of a high school trip to Portugal and a guy-trip to Malaga, Spain. It was extremely terrifying, especially figuring out the whole airport process on my own, as it was only the third time I was to board a flight. But alas, I was picked up by online friends in the airport in Thessaloniki, Greece and driven to their city in Macedonia, and spent the whole trip staying with them, and being with them at all times. So while I traveled alone, I was greatly supported by my friends throughout the whole trip (it can certainly be argued that setting out to a very foreign land, alone, to meet for the first time with some people you’ve only met online previously, and having no real backup plan for what to do if they actually hadn’t picked me up in the airport, was already a very big adventure).

The same trip happened again the following years, and slowly I became more and more confident, and also craving going further afield and on my own. In 2013 I had the blessing of meeting a great guy called Daren who was a Peacecorps volunteer in Macedonia at the time, and he invited me to stay at his place if I ever came back. As it happened, in the summer of 2014, me now aged 22, I returned to Macedonia once again, and requested to stay with Daren. He wouldn’t be in town during my stay, but kindly offered to have a friend of his give me the apartment keys and let me stay in his flat on my own.

I had already settled on wanting to go to the neighbouring countries of Albania and Kosovo on this trip despite my Macedonian friends warning me that Albania/Kosovo was dangerous places, that I shouldn’t be going to alone – but I knew that this was more balkan-brawling than anything too serious, and their tall tales didn’t scare me off – pretty much the opposite. I wanted to visit these countries both because they’re rich on history, culture but also because both are neighbouring Macedonia and thus easy and cheap to reach. So I settled down in Darens flat for a few days, doing a small half-day trip out to the mountain town of Krushevo, the settlement at the highest elevation in Macedonia, on my own as preparation. It was great, even though I missed the last bus out of Krushevo, but a friendly taxi driver offered to take me to the next big town where the busses were still running, for a cheap price. The world seemed friendly and less scary than one could’ve imagened.

On to Albania

One of the borders to Albania is a few kilometers away from the town of Ohrid, located on the northern shores of the Ohrid lake, which is shared between Macedonia and Albania. It is one of the biggest tourist sites in Macedonia, and as such is extremely well connected with public transport. So from Bitola, I jumped onto a bus that took me to the town of Struga, another big city close to Ohrid, from where the busses to Tirana depart.

My preparations was almost non-existant – I hadn’t actually researched bus-times, and so had no idea how long I would have to wait, or if there was even another bus (to be fair, bus schedules weren’t easy to find online back then). While waiting at the bus station, without having any clarity of the situation, I did start to lose a bit of courage and the nagging thoughts of the warnings from my friends encroached a bit on my mind, but I decided to toughen up a bit, because frankly so far nothing was really threatening in the least, but it will always be scary the first time you jump head first into a new experience, especially when waiting in a tiny bus station in a foreign country without speaking the language.

I had, however, booked a bed at a hostel in Tirana though, so I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the trip to come.

I managed to buy a ticket anyways, but the ticket guy didn’t understand when I asked when the next bus would depart. To my luck, 2 other solo travelers from Asia came in and bought tickets for the same bus, and so there was some moral support.

I believe it didn’t take much more than an hour before the next bus departed. The border crossing into Albania went smoothly, and on we went across epic landscapes, driving up and down mountain roads, having a small smoke stop in a beautiful canyon, and passing cute villages. After a few hours we reached Tirana.

My 2 new Asian friends from Struga turned out to be booked into the same hostel. Together we made our way there, dropping off our luggage and then heading out to have traditional dinner together before exploring town a bit.

Albanian people are very kind and helpful, we were asked multiple times by kind strangers if we needed help navigating, both on the way to the hostel when we were looking rather clueless and lost (the hostel entrance was located out of the way), but also later in the evening when we explored the sights of Tirana.

We saw the main Skenderbeg square, hosting a big statue of the national hero – Skenderbeg. Eventually moving out to “The Pyramid” a big concrete pyramid that is looking terrible from the outside, a leftover from the Enver Hoxha communist years. While it is extremely ugly, it is also very recognisable, and has become a unfortunate kitsch symbol of the city. On the inside, however, is now a great art exhibition. It is definitely worth a visit. You can also climb the outside of the pyramid, and sit enjoying the views of the city.

This first (and last) night was otherwise just spent walking around taking in the sights. My new friends would set out to different parts of Albania the next morning, and so we already had our goodbye that night. For me, my plan was to continue on to Kosovo the following afternoon, and just explore Tirana a bit more on my own prior to that.

The following day, I mostly wandered around town, equal parts terrified and amazed at being entirely on my own, in a country that wasn’t particularly well visited by tourists yet, and where I knew nobody at all, didn’t understand the language etc. It was amazing to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but the unknown is always scary at first. Then you find out that the world isn’t all that scary.

In the afternoon I managed to find my way to the bus-pickup place for the busses to Kosovo. That is the thing about 2014 Tirana – no actual bus station! Just random points around town where busses to certain destinations congregated. The hostel helped me find my way to my pickup point.

My first stop in Kosovo would be the lovely city of Prizren, which is located a tiny ways across the border. The trip there was comfortable, in big new busses, cruising along a brand new highway across the mountains of north east Albania.

A few hours later we reached the border. The crossing took a little longer than the crossing from Macedonia into Albania, but it was still problem free.

Facing Prizren

Seeing as the bus was going all the way to the capital, Prishtina, the drop-off point for Prizren was just a little bus-stop near the highway outside town. So there were 2 options from here, either walk the couple kms into town, or find a taxi to drive you there. I opted for the latter option, quickly finding a taxi driver waiting nearby for the potential customers coming from Albania. I had written down the address of my Kosovan hostel in my notebook, and based on that he got me there without issue.

Prizren is an idyllic town that is surrounded by mountains, and it also had a long history of being inhabited, both by christian serbs and muslim albanians. Therefore the town has a good amount of both mosques and churches, although the churches are nowadays more a museum than anything, seeing as how Prizren is deeply inside Kosovan territory. They are still active, but also has armed guards protecting the few congregants.

The city center has a great ottoman vibe, with beautiful old architecture. The Bistrica river runs through the center of town, and the city core is built around it, with huge seating areas and the city’s main mosque (Sinan Pasha) located on the banks of the river, and from here you can also reach all other parts of town.

Up on one of the mountain sides is the ruins of an old castle. Not much is left of the interior these days, but the outer walls facing the cities are still standing, and are lit up. This makes it easily visible from down in the city. I needed to get up there the next day!

Having arrived in Prizren fairly late in the afternoon, and it being even later before I managed to get out into town, meant that I didn’t do much more on this first night, beyond sitting on the seating areas at the city center and soaking up this new experience of being completely on my own in a new place. Scary, yet exhilarating. Something else that made this experience stand out as a little more real, was seeing the KFOR armored vehicles driving around town. KFOR is the NATO peacekeeping force for Kosovo. It was a sharp reminder that this place was and to some degree still is a active battleground. Mind you by 2014 it was basically entirely peaceful, but you still have a little moment of clarity when seeing peacekeeping forces for the first time.

Returning to the hostel in the evening, I enjoyed the views from the rooftop bar, overlooking parts of the city, and taking in the call to prayer, which was also a new experience for me. It felt strangely peaceful and tranquil, in the otherwise silent night.

I would only stay in Prizren for the following day, before going onwards to Prishtina in the late afternoon, so I had to fit in all the sightseeing during that day. So I gout up and out early, starting the day off by strolling down to the river, and the Sinan Pasha mosque. Here I walked into the mosque, which at the time was completely empty. It was the first time I ever visited an active mosque, so I was definitely intrigued and curious. The inside was decorated in beautiful paintings and arabic calligraphy. My first meeting with a mosque was thus one of being impressed, although the lack of other people also made it a very superficial one, in which I didn’t get any deeper insight into the faith.

After having checked out the mosque, I continued across town to the League of Prizren museum, which is an old traditional house turned into a museum for the liberation groups of Kosovo throughout time, but primarily the namesake League of Prizren. Unfortunately, the museum was still closed at this early hour, so I would have to return later on my way back from exploring the other sights.

The next destination would be the before mentioned fortress ruins on the hill above the city. There’s a nice trail heading up there, that is easily found, with lots of signage pointing you in the right direction. It was a warm morning, and the hike was pretty steep and long for my poor cardio back in those days, but the views as you ascent the hillside makes it all entirely worth the effort. The city, as you rise above it, comes to life in all its splendor, with the rolling green landscapes further beyond. Truly stunning. The fortress ruins themselves didn’t catch my attention too much, I was entirely focused on the panorama view of town. Eventually I did make my way up on the ramparts of the fortress, for even better views.

The trip down from the hill was obviously a lot more enjoyable! At this point, it was getting on to noon, and I found a cafe to have a snack and a cold drink in the hot weather. Funnily enough, I suddenly caught someone speaking danish at one of the  other tables. I quickly introduced myself to this couple that turned out to be kosovans living in Denmark, but being on vacation. Quite a coincidence.

After the rest, I visited the main Serbian orthodox cathedral of the town, with its small garden in its grounds. There’s basically no christians in this part of the country anymore, so it is primarily a museum. A stunning little insight into the different faiths of the region.

Finally my final destination would be the League of Prizren museum, which had information available in english and other languages, making the exhibition informative and educational, even without a guide, which is what I opted for. For anyone with an interest in the struggle for Kosovan independence, a visit to this museum is a must.

In the end, I returned to the hostel, packed all my stuff, and headed for the bus stop, where I’d jump on the next bus for Prishtina, which is a trip of about an hour and a half.

Landing in Prishtina

Arriving in Prishtina, I immediately got a big city vibe, as the city is a lot bigger than Prizren, and has a very bustling modern feel to it, with new buildings springing out of the ground everywhere. Very young and hip place! I found my hostel, which unlike the one I had stayed at in Prizren was very crowded with a diverse group of people from all over Europe. I quickly started chatting with people and agreed to go out with some girls from the Netherlands later that night, after having gotten some dinner. I quickly headed out and found a Pizza Hutt (not the be confused with the actual Pizza Hut chain), and had some quick dinner.

I really had not packed at all for going clubbing, and so had to resort to wearing very touristy shorts and tshirt, but the girls didn’t mind – we’re backpackers after all right? Unfortunately, the bouncers at the clubs did care, and I was refused access while the girls were allowed to head inside, and they chose to just dump me then and there. Sucks. Well, what can you do. Instead I strolled around the streets a bit, eventually stumbling into a street party, and drinking some beer with random strangers. I didn’t get too drunk, because I was still a little weary of being out alone.

Eventually I made it back to the hostel alone, and hung out with a group of guys from the UK in the common room, drinking more beers. It was very relaxing.

The next morning, a little hung over, I set out to explore town. The hostel was located very centrally in town, and so everything was in a easy walking distance. My first stop, as recommended by basically everybody, was the serbian cathedral in the downtown, which is still in use, but also has a big clocktower that you can climb with an elevator for amazing views of the city – and I am nothing if not a sucker for nice panorama views! It didn’t disappoint at all.

From the cathedral I headed over to one of the more peculiar buildings in the city, the national library, which has a unique and very brutalist exterior design. It is made up of several blocks thrown together at random, with a outer layer of steel wiring and small plastic cupolas on top, making it look very alien and completely out of place. It sits in this big park, isolated on its own. A visit just to see the actual building is highly recommended – it is very funky.

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Making my way down into the pedestrian zone of the city center, I found myself in front of the big “NEW BORN” monument, big letters spelling out those words, marking the independence of nation. The letters gets decorated in different art every now and then, and at the time I visited, each letter was decorated in the camouflage pattern of the countries that fought with Kosovo in the wars.

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Next to the monument, is the local stadion. And Daren (the peacecorps guy from Macedonia) had instructed me to go to a small restaurant right next to the stadion, that brewed their own craft beer that was supposed to be heavenly. So I settled down for a burger and some beer tasting while enjoying a rest from the burning sun. Daren was right, the beer was wonderful, equally the food.

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After the siesta, took a stroll around the pedestrian area, checking out the shops, bazaar area and various monuments and old buildings that are scattered around the area.

Finally heading back to the hostel in the evening, I made a little detour to visit one more of the quirky sights of the city. The Bill Clinton Avenue! At the end of which is a big full body Bill Clinton statue, and a giant portrait of Bill Clinton. All the honor the man that was key in defending Kosovo during the wars in the 90s. Quite bizarre for sure.

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In the evening, I joined large group from the hostel in going to a british pub, where luckily the dresscode wasn’t a problem for me. We played darts, drank beer and shared stories. A great end to a great trip.

Finally, the next day, after 3 full days in Kosovo, the time had come to return to Macedonia once again. My bus out of the country was leaving very early, and so I had to sneak out of the hostel because everybody was still fast asleep from the party the night before. Luckily it was no problem, and soon I was on my merry way on the bus to Skopje, from where I’d catch yet another bus taking me back to Bitola, to deliver Daren’s key back to him, and hang out with him for a day before having to head back to Skopje to fly home.

All in all, my first solo adventure was quite hectic (something that would continue going forward, rushing through countries in way too few days), but also extremely enjoyable, and building a lot of confidence and trust in the world and the people that inhabit it. Kind people are everywhere, and respect and openness gets you a long way.

This was the first stepping stone in all the journeys that followed, and without it, I would probably never have had the courage to take on more challenging countries later on. I am forever grateful to Daren for giving me this opportunity, and being very supportive and offering a great deal of advice on how to navigate this region, and which places to visit and which to avoid.

If you’re in doubt, just take the step, it will almost always pay off with dividends. The world is amazing, and just waiting to be explored.

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