A trip through the coastal Balkans is a journey across the red-roofed vistas and stunning landscapes of Croatia, as well as the more gritty yet charismatic Albania, the last country in the region to emerge from Communist rule. Nearly 30 years after the end of Soviet-style rule and war in former Yugoslavia, each country is moving at its own pace towards a more modern future.
Croatia was the quickest to adapt and is currently having its moment in the sun. From the medieval walled cities of Game of Thrones fame in Split and Dubrovnik to dazzling islands with miles of pebble beaches, clear waters, and the fragrant saline air blowing in from the Adriatic, more than 18 million visitors now flock here annually.
Like much of the region, its history is peppered with foreign influence. The Venetians, Hapsburg Empire and later the Austro-Hungarians all ruled the important maritime ports at one point.
In Dubrovnik, spend a day walking high atop the fortress – but do so early before the crowds and temperatures start to rise. For impressive sunset views, take the cable car up to Mount Srd to see the walled city below. Best yet, stroll the polished-stone city, which is a UNESCO Heritage site, boasting a 13th century Franciscan monastery, the 14th century Minčeta Tower offering panoramic views, a 16th century gothic palace, and numerous churches and bell towers.
Just a few hours north, Split is equally as opulent and easy on the eye. The city’s jewel is the ancient Diocletian’s Palace built for the Roman Emperor in the fourth century. Today the palace’s footprint covers about half of the old town and is one of the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture in the world.
Part of the pleasure of a visit to Croatia is the food. With a long fishing tradition and reliance on the land, the residents have been eating locally long before it was a global trend. Like its neighbor Italy, fresh Mediterranean produce like fish, olive oil, savoury truffles and even a few famous cheeses dominate the table. For those that imbibe, the local wine is not to be missed. Only a small portion is exported, meaning if you want to sip vintages made from rare grapes grown on just a few hundred acres of local islands, do it here.
As you follow the sea south to Albania, the coast winds gently, but the culture shifts more abruptly. Only a few hours apart, the countries took dramatically different paths in the 1990s.
After emerging from Communism and the fallout from the Balkans War, Croatia acted quickly to become a member of the European Union, build up tourism, and refine its infrastructure. Albania was not as swift and its borders remained closed to outsiders long after its strict brand of Stalinism fell. More than 20 years later, and after several shaky starts at EU-style democracy, the country is finally on more level ground.
What it lacks in four-star hotels and world-class wine, it makes up for in quirky architecture and a feeling that lucky visitors are the first to experience a country before it lands on all the travel ‘must-visit’ lists.
Like its neighbour to the north, the country saw millennia of influence from the Greek, Romans Ottomans, and Soviet-style rulers before becoming the nation it is today. A visit to capital city, Tirana, is a walk through boulevards chaotic with traffic where Ottoman architecture stands next to stark Communist blocks. In an effort to make the city more vibrant, the once drab concrete buildings are painted in a rainbow of colours across the city.
A visit to Skanderbeg Square, the city’s focal point, represents the country’s unique melting pot. It’s home to the mid-century Opera House, the ornate 18th century Et’hem Bey Mosque, and the Brutalist-style National History Museum. For café culture, head to the Blloku block where the city’s well heeled sip coffee and cocktails amid high-end boutiques. Be sure to leave time to visit the capital’s most unlikely tourist attraction – the pyramid. This abandoned structure was built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s tyrannical dictator, Enver Hoxh, as a museum to her father. It’s currently covered in graffiti and looks like a cross between a modern art installation and giant concrete spaceship rising from the ground.
For a more serene setting, bask in the medieval majesty of Krujë, less than an hour north of Tirana. The village, nestled at the foot of Mount Krujë, boasts a sixth century white castle and fortress, and a bustling Ottoman bazaar.
Throughout the trip, be sure to stop and sip a cup of coffee, whether old-school Turkish style or modern espresso. It’s the best way to sample local hospitality while getting to know the people who will happily explain why the Balkans are the best place in the world.