A bit of context for this trip: we target travel on the weeks of Memorial Day and Labor Day each year for two reasons:
- Traveling during these weeks takes advantage of the holiday, using less of our vacation budget; plus, it’s a short work week, resulting in less work disruptions
- Traveling in the shoulder seasons (on either side of the high-density summer vacation season) is awesome – we get better weather and fewer people than if we headed abroad during the summer.
So, in narrowing down our travel location for the week of Memorial Day, we settled on three areas we hadn’t visited before Morocco, the Baltics, or the Balkans (the real Balkans, not the fully Europeanized Slovenia and Croatia, which we visited in 2008 and thoroughly enjoyed [one of our favorite trips!]). We ruled out Morocco and the Baltics for the following reasons:
- Morocco. Ramadan fell during Memorial Day this year. Considering the role that drinking local beers plays on our trips, overlapping our travel with this Muslim holiday did not bode well. (Although we rejected Morocco as a target for May, we will be heading there the week of Labor Day later this year – stay tuned.)
- The Baltics. We recently came to the realization that we can likely travel in the more developed areas of Europe, including the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), when we’re 80 or 90. Instead, we really need to focus our efforts while we’re still young, dumb, and spry during the next 3 decades on locations that entail more adventure / risk. So, we’ve tabled the Baltics for the time being. We’re not going to wait until we’re 90 – we’re just not prioritizing this region now.
So, we’d be heading to the Balkans! Home to the former Yugoslavia, the NATO air campaign in the 90s, and lots of territory with very few American visitors.
But where? Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo all were options. We’ve already been to Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, so we ruled these out.
After some research, Lake Ohrid, at the border of Albania and Macedonia kept bubbling up as a top destination. We started developing a road trip that included Ohrid and other destinations, but soon realized that renting a car in one Balkan country and returning it in another (a la our Micronations Roadtrip, where we picked up a car in Rome and dropped it off in Barcelona), was problematic, as were many aspects of a week-long roadtrip. Instead, we found a perfect bike trip that featured biking and hiking all over the place in Macedonia, 3 nights in Ohrid, and a segment of riding in Albania. One twist to this was that the bike trip was guided, not self-guided. All eight of our previous bike trips in Europe had been self-guided, and this continues to be our preference. However, this option wasn’t available – the ideal bike (and hike) tour for us was only offered in guided form. We (now obviously) booked it, and had a great experience. We’ll still stick to self-guided biking in the future for reasons we’ll note in a subsequent post, but the private, guided option worked great in the Balkans (and we had a 1:1 ratio of riders to tour staff, which was interesting).
Here’s the itinerary, as the crow flies and based on stopover locations (not actual riding – three nights were spent in the 7:00 position in Ohrid, for example):
A more detailed summary of the itinerary is below – good trip!
Day 1 – Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city:
Day 2 – riding Vodno Mountain, then a boat through Matka Canyon, where we became acquainted with alternating Byzantine (or Orthodox Christian, anyway) and Islamic mosques everywhere:
Day 3 – rain and (planned) riding through villages around Mavrovo Lake, beginning and ending in two amazing, frozen-in-time hamlets:
Day 4 – biking from Vevcani village to Lake Ohrid, visiting some medieval cave churches along the route:
Day 5 – sightseeing in Ohrid, a 2500-year-old city on the lake:
Day 6 ride into Albania where the landscape was characterized by beautify lakeshores and the omnipresent bunkers that serve as Enver Hoxha’s legacy:
Day 7 – ride through Galichica National Park to the hamlet of Dihovo to experience the process of making honey:
Day 8 – hike in the mountains above the tobacco town of Prilep from medieval Marko’s Tower to medieval Treskavec monastery, then the evening at a winery for our final meal with our guide and driver:
And then, um, to Vienna. Thanks to Turkish Airlines’ delightful decision to cancel the one flight out of Skopje on Sunday morning that would get us home the same day, we ended up rebooking on Austrian Airlines and adding a very pleasant afternoon and evening in Vienna to the trip, the unquestioned highlight of which was the incomparable “shovers” of the town’s Wiener Wurstl carts:
There’s a story behind this that we’ll explain in a future post.
Detailed posts on the trip to follow . . .