Judith Broeker wrote this account of her travels through the Balkans earlier this fall.
Like many who grew up in the American Midwest, where it often takes hours to reach your destination, I love a good road trip. So as program director of Adventures in Preservation, I scheduled our two European workshops to allow time to drive from one to the other, i.e. from Slovenia to Albania. Fortunately, friends I had met at our 2008 workshops were also free to join, and we schemed and planned the best way to explore as many countries as possible in the Western Balkans during those two weeks.
We met in Slovenia to work on the restoration of a 17th century cottage with a group of AiP volunteer vacationers. After a great week, our small group of travelers headed to northern Croatia. Just a note to say that our trip involved quite a bit of driving that required a ‘devil may care’ attitude. Though the quality of driving in the Balkans has greatly improved over the past ten years, driving there can still be an adventure.
Our trip began by driving, rather sedately, down the entire coast of Croatia. I can tell you, everything you may have heard about the Adriatic’s striking color and beauty and the amazing views across islands looking toward Italy, is true. Given we were all passionate about historic preservation and building conservation, we visited a number of remarkable historic towns settled around the 4th century BC and variously ruled by Romans, Gothics, Byzantines, Venetians and so on. The visual remnants of these cultures allowed the amateur photographers among us to go wild. If you ever get the chance to make this trip, you’ll want to remember the names of Šibenik, Trogir, Split (Diocletian’s Palace), Hvar and of course Dubrovnik.
My personal favorite was exploring the old city of Šibenik on a rainy night. Water cascaded down the stone steps as we made our way from the cathedral square up to the castle. There was just enough light to give an eerie glow to the rain-soaked scene. Just as striking was the lavender-scented island of Hvar, where we followed a narrow twisting road high above the coast to access beautiful old towns and deserted stone farmsteads.
A side trip to Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, allowed us to see the Stari Most, the bridge which is a symbol of the town’s incredible resilience through time. We then returned to Croatia, and spent a day in Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is yet another World Heritage site in the region, a remarkable example of a walled city. Much has been written about both towns, so I’ll leave you to those more detailed descriptions. From Dubrovnik, we drove into Montenegro and followed the shoreline of the southern-most fjord in Europe, the Bay of Kotor. This coastal drive vacillates between modern development in the larger cities (which was not much to our liking) to beautiful quaint historic towns.
Our forays into Montenegro’s mountainous back country had our mouths dropping open – both from the beauty of what we saw and from the precarious nature of our travels over the high, narrow roadways. The views of Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest river canyon, and Durmitor National Park were almost not to be believed. Hikers, rafters and cyclist come from around the world for this experience. Our car often teetered close to the edge … and then we’d meet the tour bus! Keep in mind that Stephen, who did much of the driving, is a die-hard Porsche owner, and all his associated skills kept our hearts racing along with the engine.
Our time in Serbia and Kosovo was brief, but the cities in southern Kosovo were alive with crowds of people, energy and excitement in the air, even with a marked lack of electricity in most shops. A small generator was a standard feature outside each entrance. Driving was insane and speed limits addressed both tanks and cars. We passed by Bill Klinton (sic) Blvd. as we headed through Pristina on our way to Skopje, Macedonia.
We arrived in Skopje, which like all of the Balkans is a crazy mix of deteriorated, questionable new, and reconstructed architecture along with the occasional delight of quality restoration or striking new architecture. Regardless of your taste, it makes every outing an eventful exploration. In a single outing we encountered a Roman temple under construction, a petrified cat (you don’t want to know!), historic trades districts now filled with shops displaying shoes or evening gowns, and chance encounters with both the oldest Orthodox church and oldest mosque.
Leaving Skopje, we drove through Macedonia’s wine region and made our way to the edge of the Mariovo region, dotted with deserted stone villages in rugged terrain. The towns we visited were still occupied but nonetheless gave us a glimpse of the region’s quaint, and beautiful, stone architecture, with narrow streets much better suited to walking than driving. We then traveled to Lake Ohrid, staying several days to visit a variety of Byzantine-era churches scattered up the hill and around the lake. The most memorable was a small church built and brightly painted c. 1280. Through its history, it has been cleaned but never restored or repainted and its interior is absolutely gorgeous.
The final days of our trip took us into Albania through steep hills and gorges. We were heading for Tirana to pick up an AiP team member coming from Canada for the Gjirokastra workshop. That day, Camilla, our other fearless driver – always cool and steady – was behind the wheel. Her cool was put to the test, because as the guide book pointed out, crossing the street in Tirana is not for the faint of heart, and for that matter, neither is driving down the street. We circled the city center with hundreds of other darting, honking drivers, through construction and one-ways, in search of our hotel (Hotel California). I finally jumped out and flagged down a taxi driver, who led us to our destination.
We spent a day exploring Tirana, discovering that new development almost completely overwhelms the city’s historic past. To be fair, preservation is extremely difficulty, given the deteriorated condition of buildings – old and new – left without maintenance for many years.
This is the state of architecture in much of Albania, which was confirmed as we headed south through the country. Arriving in Gjirokastra, our group of AiP volunteers joined Cultural Heritage without Borders to deal with this issue by working with the community to save their remarkable heritage. This was a fitting end to the road trip that took us from one end to the other of a region rich in natural and cultural heritage.