Lisa Owen

If you’re looking for a slice of Europe off the beaten path, I found it in the Balkans. The Eastern European countries of Kosovo and Macedonia are easy to transit between and offer up history, views and cheap food but without the crowds. As I country hopped across the Balkans in eastern Europe, I was mostly in awe of the beautiful fortresses that greeted me as I arrived – and the views they offer visitors of the surrounding area. On the highest hill of the Macedonian capital of Skopje sits a fortress that’s impossible to miss as you arrive into the city.

Skopje in Macedonian

The fortress overlooks the Vardar River and straddles Skopje’s Old and New towns. A fortress has existed at this spot since the 6th century. It was damaged by wars and earthquakes over the years, and it was only in 2006 that work started on restoring the fortress. Most of what you see is the restored fortress but it’s still worth the visit.

You can freely wander the restored walls of the fortress and get a great view of Skopje at the same time. It’s easy to find a quiet place to take in the view. Entry to the fortress is free. Next to the fortress is the beautiful City Park and you’ll most likely see locals strolling the promenade as you wander through the park. Skopje is a baffling mix of old and new. Skopje’s city centre underwent a major overhaul in 2014 and is now filled with extravagant buildings, fountains, statues and bridges. 

skopje

As you walk along Skopje’s riverfront you’ll be greeted by music blaring through speakers throughout the centre, and many weird, wonderful and ostentatious structures. While the architecture is often confusing with buildings adorned with graceful statues and then the next minute you’re standing on a bridge topped with goblins – you can’t help but absorb the upbeat vibe of the city – and get a kick out of what you’re going to come across next.

skopje

Cross the river and you’ll suddenly be in the Old Town Bazaar with its cobblestoned streets and array of shops offering everything from clothing to souvenirs spilling out onto the pavement.

old town bazaar

Interesting fact: Skopje is Mother Teresa’s hometown and there is a museum dedicated to her life built on the site of the church where she was born. From Skopje, you can easily visit beautiful Matka Canyon, or head down to the south of the country to Ohrid Lake. The neighboring country of Kosovo also has a beautiful fortress in the town of Prizren – only a three hour bus ride from Skopje. A fortress has existed on the hill above Prizren since the Bronze Age. Kalaja Fortress was expanded over the centuries by the Serbian and Ottoman empires, but was eventually abandoned in 1912. The fortress offers spectacular views over the Dukagjini plain, Pashtrik and Koritnik mountains and Prizren city. In my humble opinion, it offers one of the best views in the Balkans.

kalaja fortress

You can easily reach the fortress on foot from Prizren’s centre. You’ll see clear signage up to the fortress up the hill near the Sinan Pasha mosque. It’s a steep 15 minute walk up to the fortress. The fortress is free to enter. Other must see Prizren landmarks are the Old Stone Bridge and the Sinan Pasha Mosque

old stone bridge in prizren

The Old Stone Bridge over the Bistrica River was built in the early 16th century. The three arched bridge actually was damaged by severe flooding in 1979, but was reconstructed a couple of years later. Prizren’s Sinan Pasha mosque was built by the Ottomans in 1615, and is one of Prizren’s most iconic buildings. 

Prizren’s Sinan Pasha mosque

 Prizren is filled with mosques and you’ll most likely be woken by the dawn prayer and hear it resound across town throughout the day. Wander around town and you’ll come across the many mosques. From Prizren, it’s only a couple of hours to reach Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. The drive to Prishtina is a scenic drive through the mountains – and I highly recommend visiting in autumn to catch the red, orange and gold streaked mountains as the leaves change colour.

Prishtina has a thing for Bill Clinton with a statue of the former US president in the centre, and there is also a street named after him as well as George Bush. The story is that the Kosovo people were so grateful of Bill Clinton’s assistance during the Kosovo War that they built the statue to show their thanks.

bill clinton  statue in prishtina

Things You Should Know:

  • There’s no trains to transit across the Balkans but there are lots of buses and they’re easy to navigate.  From Kosovo, you can reach Skopje in about three hours by bus from Prizren or Prishtina. Buy tickets on the bus. You can also reach Kosovo from Montenegro. Buses depart for Prizren from Kotor or Podgorica daily but it’s an early start. Travel time between Kotor to Prizren is about 10 hours.
  • Moving on from Skopje? No problem. Buses leave regularly to Bulgaria, Kosovo, Turkey and Greece.
  • English is widespread in Macedonia but you may experience some language difficulties in Kosovo as the country is still developing for tourists.
  • The currency is easy to navigate in Kosovo as it uses the Euro. Macedonia uses the Dinar.
  • Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as its own country separate from Serbia. Be aware that you may have problems crossing back into Serbia after visiting Kosovo so it’s best to do Serbia first. Kosovo does stamp your passport at the land border when crossing the Montenegro and Macedonian borders.
  • It may be hard to find Western public toilets in Kosovo so be prepared to squat. And bring toilet paper.
  • Read the reviews for hotels and hostels in Kosovo before you book to make sure there’s no bed bugs.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 60 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.