Macedonia & Albania – A Cultural Tour

Petra Shepherd finds two delightful countries unspoilt by by hordes of tourists

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Blissfully overlooked by mass tourism, Macedonia and Albania are two of the best kept secrets in the Balkans. With winter set to be more of a shock this year after the heatwave summer, I opted for some late summer sun exploring these two fascinating countries, before the chill sets in. My preconceptions were defied at every turn, I discovered churches galore, monasteries and mountain landscapes, historic cities and remote villages, brilliantly blue lakes, surprising food and a charming and friendly people.

For someone whose greatest love is swimming, it feels a little strange to go to a land-locked country but Lake Ohrid is Macedonia’s seaside, it’s number one attraction and with direct flights from London an ideal place to start my tour.  The lake is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest, the mirror calm, crystal clear waters in late September still a balmy 20 degrees, for sheer ambience and beauty easily competing with the likes of Garda and Como but without the crowds.  Ohrid is one of the most authentic cities in the Balkans and Macedonia’s only Unesco World Heritage site.  The city and its lake are counted as both cultural and natural inclusions, one of only 28 sites around the world to be marked as both.  The compact old town with its narrow alley ways and cobbled streets is fun to wonder around but what you’re really here to see are churches.  There are supposedly 365 churches, one for every day of the year with Ohrid often called the Slavic Jerusalem.

Occasionally an image will be so iconic, so striking, that it alone can sell a destination.  For me seeing a photograph of the tiny church of St Jovan Kaneo, standing proudly on the cliff top, the azure waters of Lake Ohrid, beautifully framed by hills and mountains, sparkling in the distance, made me instantly want to discover this picturesque place.  Visiting the church did not disappoint and it is understandably the most-photographed site in Macedonia.   The views are especially good at sunset.

Everywhere is walkable in Ohrid and you won’t need a car.  It’s an excellent mini break destination, I’d suggest a day exploring the city followed by a boat trip on the lake to Sveti Naum Monestry and the Bay of Bones.    The imposing monastery 29 km south of Ohrid and near the Albanian border was built at the beginning of the 900s in honour of the miracle worker St Naum whilst the “Bay of Bones” is actually a museum consisting of a re-constructed pile dwelling settlement from the 12th to 7th Century BC.

Finally, culture vultures can experience some of the world’s top musicians (Ennio Morricone and Jose Carreras have played in the past) at The Ohrid Summer Festival

The Balkans are a compact region but in order to see as many sights as possible without the restrictions of a large tour bus and group and let’s be honest to also have a bit of an adventure and get off the beaten track, I next took a tailor made private tour in a brand new Lada Niva 4 x 4 with Drive Albania.  The latter offer tours with a difference taking travellers to the less visited regions, combing culture with off-roading.

Many of Europe’s more popular cities are currently getting a bad press, jam packed and teaming with tourists, the major sites viewed through a sea of selfie sticks.  Albania’s major sites on the other hard are equally historic and scenic but have yet to become household names and consequently, it feels a real privilege to see and explore them with just a handful others.

Berat is perhaps Albania’s best known attraction, sometimes referred to as the “Town of 1000 Windows”.  Highlights include the old town and 2nd Century BC Fortress.  Korca in the South Eastern part of the country is an enchanting town with the largest Orthodox Church, cobble stoned streets and an excellent Museum of Medieval Art.   However, my undoubted favourite city was Gijirokastra known as “The City of Stone”, perched on a mountain side and defined by its castle and Ottoman era houses.  Gijirokastra is also home to the Albania traditional folk festival, held every five years.  The National Folklore Festival was organised for the first time in Gijorkastra in 1968 and since then it has become the symbol of Albania’s intangible heritage.  This festival, held in the open air at the castle, features the best of the Albanian folk tradition, including music, dancing, folk art and costumes and will next take place next year, so a perfect time to visit.

Away from the towns, we headed off road for villages frozen in time, the villagers obliging gleefully when I asked to take their photograph.  The agricultural life seemingly unchanged for centuries, it was difficult to imagine that this was actually Europe.  Farmer’s driving horse drawn carts or sitting sideways on loveable donkeys, blue, yellow and green beehives littering the hillsides and unsullied panoramas. It was rare, raw and entirely authentic.

One of Albania’s greatest assets, is its gloriously unglitzy coastline with plenty of secluded beaches and coves.  Much of Albania’s Riviera (stretching from Sarande in the south to Vlore in the north) was a military zone during communist times and it’s largely undeveloped.   I avoided the more well-known resorts of Sarande in the South and Durres in the North and headed instead for Dhermi for a final couple of days on the beach.   The season is short with most hotels and restaurants closing down at the end of September and consequently I had the place to myself.

There is plenty more to discover in Albania, the thriving capital Tirana, shedding its slightly rough around the edges persona and home to the highest percentage of coffee shops in the world but no star bucks, The Accursed Mountains in the North and the ancient ruins of Butrint.

Currently very few UK tourists make the journey but I can’t imagine Macedonia and Albania will be off the radar for long.  They’ve got vibrant cities, oodles of natural beauty and are blessedly undiscovered by stag and hen parties.  I didn’t really know what to expect and therefore was very pleasantly surprised.  Macedonia and Albania are special, very special and definitely worthy of a visit.

Information cultural and adventure tours of Albania has information on Macedonia flies direct to Ohrid and Tirana from London Luton

Hotels Located in the centre of Ohrid with beautiful lake views Newly restored boutique hotel in Korca Sleep like a Pasha in Gjirokastra 4 star boutique hotel in the centre of Tirana

Eats Winery near Berat with a long tradition of wine making Slow food from renowned chef Bledar Kola