Adriatic road trip(Croatia - Montenegro - Albania - Greece)

Karlobag to Dubrovnik

We discovered a new definition for unhappiness yesterday. Unhappiness is walking from your hotel to a bus stop in the pouring rain carrying two backpacks and wheeling two suitcases, only to discover that the bus is half an hour late. Thus we left Karlobag, as the unusual and inconsistent bad weather that has dogged Europe continued.

The Biokovo Mountains meet the Adriatic

When the bus finally came, we climbed on board for our 10 hour trip down the Dalmatian Coast to Dubrovnik. Firstly we retraced our path to Split, the towns we passed through now having a feeling of familiarity, then from Split on to Dubrovnik. About half an hour south of Split my eyes began to perk up. The sun had begun to shine and we found ourselves on a road wedged narrowly between the ruggedly beautiful Biokovo Mountains and the sea. In fact this section of coastline is one of the best coast drives I have ever done, as we followed the route along the edge of these spectacular mountains, with grand vistas down the coast at every headland bend in the road, picturesque villages in the sheltered coves and the blue-grey silhouettes of the off-shore islands. I abandoned my failed efforts to take photos from the moving bus, sat back and just enjoyed it.

Even leaving the Biokovo Range behind, we crossed a fascinating flatland of lakes, canals, reeds and market gardens. The only blotch (or should I say PlotĨe) on this landscape was the grimy port and aluminium terminal at the sea-edge of this flatland. Beyond the flatlands, we entered a region of finger-thin peninsulas and long fiord-like inlets, one 17-km long section of which happened to be Bosnia, where we stopped for a bite of dinner. I'm not sure of the history of this, but it is one for the "been there, done that" records.

We quickly re-entered Croatia and soon reached Dubrovnik, where the rain finally returned to ensure we arrived as we had left, hauling packs and cases through the rain to our little apartment beside the city wall. Such is life on the road ..... occasionally.


A brief stop in Bosnia

The harbour beneath the medieval walls of Dubrovnik

Looking out over the red terracotta rooves of Dubrovnik

The next day, in keeping with the erratic weather patterns, was fine and mainly sunny, a perfect day to explore this tourist mecca of Dubrovnik - considered one of the finest examples of a medieval walled city. It does in fact live up to its hype and the highlight for us was to walk the almost 2km circumference of its walls, taking in the views of its red terracotta rooves (some brand new due to the shelling in 1991-92), spires and towers, sea to the west and mountains to the east.

Seaward wall of the city

View southwards from a wall tower

A lovely bell-tower

A steep side street

Dubrovnik roofscape

View down the northern wall to the fortress

Cliffside walls

Looking out towards the fortress

Early morning in the main street of Dubrovnik

The old water cistern

Looking down the main street from the wall

The walls by night

Dubrovnik is, however, a victim of its popularity - crowds of tourists jostling through the streets, prices 30% higher than anywhere else we have been in Croatia and, for the first time as well, a vibe of indifference from many of the local tourism commercants. It reinforced our preference for the wild places of the world. Dubrovnik was definitely worth visiting, but it is time to get back to the mountains and villages. However, it was nice of them to farewell us with a big display of fireworks at the marina.

Crossing Montenegro to Albania

Leaving Dubrovnik

I looked out our window the following morning to see a giant cruise ship anchoring in the bay and boatloads of new tourists being transferred from it to Dubrovnik marina - it was definitely time to leave. We boarded the bus to continue southward down the spectacular Dalmatian coastline, taking 40 minutes to check out of Croatia and ten minutes to check in to Montenegro (so the prize goes to the Montenegrin border police).

Reaching Dubva, we switched to a smaller bus, which stopped everywhere to pick up and drop off locals until it reached our destination of Ulcinj, with its pretty old town perched on a headland above a grey-sand cove.

A curious view from the bus (on a Montenegrin ferry)

Here we spent our one and only night in Montenegro in a room overlooking bay and old city. We had enough time left in the day to soak up the sun and views on our balcony, as the plaintive notes of the muezzin's call floated up from the minaret of the bayside mosque. Above on the hill, silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, rose the tower of the Orthodox Catholic Church - a very different Europe and perhaps a model for tolerance. Later on, we explored the cobbled streets of the old town and enjoyed a Montenegrin beer on the old city wall before heading down to the bay for dinner. It was very different from Dubrovnik; the crowds were out, but they were almost all locals, not tourists, out on their evening promenade to see and be seen. This seemed culturally much more the Mediterranean and we liked it.

Evening light over old Ulcinj

The bay at Ulcinj

While being driven from the bus station to our accomodation in Ulcinj, we negotiated with the taxi driver to take us across the border the following day and into Albania and the city of Shkoder. Albeit a bit more expensive than a bus, it was a lot more convenient to be driven from door to door and through the border post. At 10am, he duly showed up and we headed off inland across the vividly green landscape. After a brief wait at the border, we were stamped through and driving through Albania to the lakeside city of Shkoder, where we were left at our hotel, a 17th century traditional Turkish-style building. It had taken a little over an hour and gave us a lot more time to ourselves.

Our 17th century Ottoman-style hotel

The mosque in Shkoder

A pretty park in Shkoder

Part of this time was spent enjoying a lunch of traditional Albanian food in the pleasant garden courtyard of the hotel and part was spent visiting the Rozafa Castle, where battles were fought by Illyrians, Romans, Venetians, Turks and Albanians over the centuries for control of this fertile region. This large fortress perched on a hill above the flat plain of the city also has superb views down the Buda River Valley, over the waters of Lake Shkoder to the north and across to the brooding menace of the cloud-capped Accursed Mountains.

The runs of the minaret at Rozafa and the Accursed Mountains

The rich flats of the Buda River

The beauty of Lake Shkoder

View from the walls of Rozafa Castle

These mountains are Accursed by name and accursed by nature - our reason for being here was to do a trek through them, but the exit road we would need remains blocked by the unseasonally late snow. Hence we are to set out tomorrow to do Plan B, involving some walks in the Valbona Valley and then across to Rrogam near the Kosovo border, a plan which should still give us a good taste of the Northern Albanian mountain landscapes. It has been five days since we were walking in the Velebit Mountains and it is definitely time to put on the walking boots again.

On the road again (5 days later) - Tirana to Berat

After finishing our hiking in the Northern Albanian Alps, we found ourselves in Tirana after a six hour bus trip that involved passing through the newest European state, Kosovo. Here we would join a mini-bus load of people to complete our long trip down the Dalmatian coast. Plans fell into place - we had a pleasant evening wandering the streets of Tirana and the following morning were on the bus with our 11 fellow passengers, all from the Antipodes, who had come down from Dubrovnik.

Leaving Northern Albania

A short detour via Kosovo

The bus headed out of the spreading metropolis of Tirana to cross the flat Albanian plain. We seemed to be entering the spreading metropolis of Durres having barely left Tirana and, on reaching the port, turned left to pass though some heavy resort development (apparently Durres is the favourite place for Kosovars to take a beach holiday). It was time to stop off at a classic tourist beach for the chance to have one last dip in the Adriatic. We opted out - lazing in a lounge chair and taking in the local beach culture instead - it was a pleasant break from the bus.

The beach at Durres

Back on board, we continued our crossing of the fertile Albanian plain, past small towns, full of unfinished buildings, and extensive market gardens. The landscape was becoming drier as we headed south, gradually bearing inland to arrive at Berat, where we headed straight up the hill to visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town.

Old orthodox church (now museum)

The walls and gateway of Berat

Byzantine artwork

Our guide, ???, showed us around the white cobbled streets and white stone houses (bring your sun glasses) to see the ruins of church and mosque, fortress and walls, as well as buildings still inhabited and people selling intricate lacework and the museum, a centuries old orthodox church housing the icons of Onufri, the 16th century Albanian artist - fascinating.

A vine-covered pathway in old Berat

Remains of the Ottoman mosque

Settled for 2600 years with commanding views out over the plain and to the mountains on either side, this towering rocky knob is now occupied by a centuries old citadel, where the art and faith of the Orthodox Church flourished, even under 500 years of Turkish rule.

Traditional old house

Looking down onto modern Berat from the old citadel

One of many churches in the citadel

Poppies in an ancient drystone wall

Then it was down to the new town of Berat for a very late lunch and hotel check-in, with some free time before assembling to partake of a traditional southern Albanian feast. N.B. if you want to sample an Albanian red wine, Kashmer is a nice drop.

Berat to Saranda

The next day we were up and away early with a 6-hour trip to Saranda ahead of us. The route down the the central Albanian Plain was becoming tedious and dispiriting as we passed the crumbling infrastructure of Communist days - closed factories, ruined army posts and destroyed party buildings. As well the unfinished houses and larger buildings suggest that the new Albania has started with a few hiccups. Perhaps, as they say, things have to get worse before they can get better. Let's hope they do improve.

Passing Vlore, we left the plain and its clutter of agro-industry to climb up into the coastal mountains, winding up through the pine forests to the barren tops with glorious views out over the Ionian Sea to Corfu and a small cluster of Greek Islands. It set the scene for the rest of the trip, as we descended the steep switchbacks from the pass to follow the coast southwards past the much more attractive coastal villages. At Hirande, we stopped for our lunch-break and a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Ionian.

One of the thousands of machine-gun bunkers from the communist era


The crystal clear waters of the Ionian Sea at Hirande

Then it was on to the Butrint Archaeological site south of Saranda, in its tranquil setting on an tree-shaded islet in Butrinti Lagoon. Inhabited since the 2nd century BC, first by the Greeks, then Romans, then Slavs, followed by Venetians and Turks, it houses an impressive collection of ruins from each era. Our guide showed us the more important sites; Greek city walls, Roman amphitheatre, forum and civic buildings, byzantine basilica, Venetian fortress. We were in fact extremely lucky, as an exquisite floor mosaic had just been uncovered by a team of archaeologists to photograph and document and in a few days would be recovered with sand for preservation. Butrint is well worth the visit.

The Butrinti Lagoon

Roman amphitheatre in Butrint

Ruins of the Byzantine basilica

Part of the old Greek city walls

View across the lagoon from Butrint

The newly exposed floor mosaics

Then it was on to Saranda, whose ambience has sadly been ruined by rampant and uncontrolled resort and hotel development - in some ways capitalism has been a backward step, though I am sure that all the new entrepreneurs disagree with that sentiment. The next day we farewelled our travel companions as they headed on to Corfu or the Aegean Islands.

The Venetian fortress

Saranda - capital of the Albanian "Riviera"

We had an extra day in Saranda, a day spent doing pretty much nothing, which was much needed after almost four weeks of constant activity and change. It gave us a chance to better know Saranda and, although it is not our style of holiday place, it was a pleasant day. The nearby Butrinti Lagoon claims to produce the best mussels in all of Albania, a claim we put to the test that evening - I think they are right! It was a good way to finish our time in Albania - tomorrow we would be leaving to cross Greece and continue our walking adventures in Bulgaria.

Saranda to Ioannina

We left Saranda by taxi for the relatively short ride to the Greek border at Kakavi - one last drive up into the mountains of Albania, very different in the south to those in the north. At the border we decided to be a bit extravagant and accept the offer of a Greek-Albanian taxi driver to take us through the border controls and on to Ioannina - a good investment apart from the fact he dropped us at the wrong hotel. Still, it took but another 10 minutes to fix that and we settled in to our boutique courtyard hotel in the city centre.

Storm over Lake Ioannina

The old Ottoman libarary

A street in the old town

The walls of Old Ioannina

Minaret of the 17th century mosque

It was a good place from which to explore the old fortress, with its massive walls, cobbled streets and old houses within and the 17th century mosque built by the Ottomans during their period here. From the mosque we could look out over the broad expanse of Ioannina Lake to the mountains beyond and the dark brooding clouds of the approaching storm front.

We had really only stopped here in Ioannina because of the bus timetables, but it was an enjoyable stay and the courtyard was a nice place to sit and watch the passing thunderstorms in dry comfort. Nonetheless, this marked the end of our Adriatic road trip. The next bus would take us north-east to Bulgaria - it was time to head out on foot once again and explore some more of the Balkan mountains.