Day 1: Join trip in Kruja
Join trip in Kruja and check in to our hotel.
Day 2: Visit Kruja bazaar; drive to Shkodra and visit Rozafa Fortress
The main highlight in Kruja is the citadel, from where Albania's greatest hero, Skanderbeg, led the resistance against the Ottoman domination. He succeeded in ousting the Turks in 1443 and Albania was free for the next 30 years. Today the fortress is a place of pilgrimage and inspiration for Albanians; it enjoys a classic setting high on a ridge staring out to the Adriatic coast, approached via pine clad hills. We will visit the fortress and the bazaar before continuing to Shkodra. Shkodra is the traditional centre of the Gheg cultural region and is one of the oldest cities in Europe. We visit the Rozafa fortress, which enjoys a panoramic views of the town and lake. The afternoon is free to explore.
Day 3: Scenic journey through Kosovo to the Valbona Valley
Today we leave Shkodra and head for the Valbona Valley. Depending on the time of year and the ferry operating schedule we will either take a scenic ferry ride across Lake Koman to Fierza (taking around two and a half hours) or drive on the National Road through the scenic mountain landscape. Your Explore Leader will advise on the day which option we will be taking. We'll then cross the border into Kosovo and continue our drive to Gjakova where we have time for lunch. This afternoon we pass through the small town of Bajram Curri, as we enter the picturesque Valbona Valley. We check-in to a mountain hotel located in the centre of the vale, amidst the jagged peaks of the Accursed Mountains. We enjoy the afternoon exploring the village on foot.
Day 4: Alpine hike in the scenic valley and meet a local shepherd's family
Valbona is one of the most beautiful alpine valleys of Albania. Today we will hike to the side valley of Kukaj, making our way through forest towards alpine pastures that offer breathtaking views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. We will have a picnic lunch and later visit a shepherd’s family to taste a cup of fresh mountain tea. In the afternoon there is time to relax before a traditional dinner of lamb on the spit is served (vegetarian options also available).
Day 5: Enter Kosovo and visit the Decani Monastery on the way to Peja
Today we cross the border into Kosovo where we spend the next five days. Kosovo is the world’s newest country and has been independent only since 2008. Unfortunately, to most people Kosovo is most known for its war. However, it is a fascinating country boasting lots of treasures from past empires including Greek, Roman, Turkish and Ottoman. Driving through the town of Gjakova, we will than stop to visit the ‘kulla’ of Junik (traditional Albanian mountain houses) before arriving at the beautiful Decani Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Monastery was established in 1327 by the Serb King Stefan Uros III Decanski and is a superbly situated showpiece of Orthodox art. Then, we drive to the town of Peja. The afternoon will be spent visiting the town’s attractions on foot.
Day 6: Explore the Peja Highlands and the church complex of Peja Patriarch
Today we will visit the highlands of Peja. As we exit the town we stop to visit the church complex of Peja Patriarch, surrounded by the peaks of the Rugova Bjeshk (highlands), the Kosovo part of the Accursed Mountains and boasting amazing frescoes. Our day will continue with an impressive drive through the dramatic Rugova Gorge to the alpine location of Boga, where we will stop and start a hike to a nearby lake. In the evening, we return to Peja and spend the evening in town.
Day 7: Visit a waterfall, war memorial and monastery en route to Prizren
This morning we leave Peja and our first stop is at the Drini Bardhe Waterfall near to the Montenegro border. Known as White Drin because of the white water that rushes down these 25 metre high falls, it's one of the most picturesque in the area. After time here for photos our drive continues towards the outskirts of Pristina where we visit the Kosovo Battle Memorial. The memorial is devoted to the martyred Serb knights and is located where the Battle of Kosovo took place on 28th June 1389.
Next we visit the splendid Monastery of Gracanica, which is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the country. It was built on the site of a ruined 6th century basilica by the Serbian King, Stefan Milutin, in 1321 and was declared a Monument of Exceptional Cultural Importance in 1990.
We drive the short distance into Pristina, Kosovo's capital, which largely escaped damage during the war. Our Explore leader will take us on an orientation walk of the main sights and we'll have some free time here for lunch. Pristina isn't the most attractive city that we visit on this trip, but it has an energetic atmosphere and a great coffee culture and locals boast that they make the best macchiato in the world. You'll find numerous cafes along the main pedestrianised Nena Tereza Boulevard. In Old Pristina you'll be able to see a 26 metre high clock tower in the central bazaar area, which reminders stall holders and shoppers when it's time for prayer. The city's oldest mosques are found in this area as well. The National Library with its brutalist architecture is definitely eye catching. There are some unusual pieces of Americana in the city too, such as a mini replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of Hotel Victory and a bronze statue of Bill Clinton on the corner of Bill Clinton Boulevard.
We continue our drive to Prizren - a town dominated by Ottoman villas and is perhaps the most authentic town in Kosovo. We'll spend the next two nights here and the rest of this afternoon is free for you to relax and settle in. Prizren is set at the foot of the Sharr Mountains and is Kosovo's second city. It's rich in history and you can see the architectural marks left by both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. You can discover the 14th century UNESCO listed Church of the Virgin of Ljevis and Church of Saint George, which are both Serbian Orthodox in faith. There are a number of traditional handicraft shops to explore and a good selection of restaurants to choose from. Prizren is especially known for its filigree jewellery, which has been handmade locally here since the 15th century. In terms of food barbeque restaurants are very popular and the grilled meats and Sharr cheese are a local speciality. It's also a good spot to try the baklava for dessert.
Day 8: Wine tasting in Rahovec and visit to a Serbian enclave village
This morning we will stroll down the narrow cobbled streets of Prizren and around the Shadervan area we'll find the city's main Ottoman influences including the Sinan Pasha Mosque and the Old Stone Bridge. We'll also be able to see the outside of the old hammam (Turkish bath) before heading for Prizren Fortress, which dominates the skyline and you can get great views from its hilltop position. On the opposite side of the river to Shadervan we'll visit Prizren League House, which was once the headquarters where a failed uprising began to unite all Albanians within the region into a singular state.
This afternoon we drive through rolling hills until we reach nearby Rahovec - the wine cellar of Kosovo. Wine has been made in this area for over 2000 years and we will visit a few wine makers before making our way to the village of Hoqa e Vjeter - a Serbian enclave village, where we will visit a monastery that also makes wine. Later this afternoon we return to Prizren for a free evening.
Day 9: Walk in Sharr National Park; arrive in Skopje in Macedonia
The day will start with a wonderful drive from Prizren through the forests of the Sharr National Park. A short walk on a forest trail near to Preval will bring us to tranquil meadows where we can taste a picnic lunch made from fresh local produce and enjoy the stunning scenery around us. Our walk will take around two hours and will cover a distance of four kilometres. In the afternoon we will continue to drive on a beautiful forest road along the Kacanik Valley that will lead to the border crossing at ElezHan, where we will say farewell to Kosovo and hello to Macedonia. We'll make a stop in the vast and magnificent Matka Canyon before arriving in the capital city of Skopje.
The historic city of Skopje was rocked by a huge earthquake in 1963 which unfortunately destroyed an estimated 75% of the city's buildings, but it is still rich in culture and Ottoman heritage. Skopje has been used a pawn in many wars, including World War II and many empires have ruled over the city, all having influenced the architecture, religion and traditions. Despite the turbulent and sometimes violent history, Skopje is now a peaceful city where residents are free to practice all religions, the main faiths being Macedonian Orthodox and Islam. It boasts many beautiful churches and mosques, although you'll notice mostly minarets on the skyline due to a historic law that was enforced by the Turks stating Christian buildings could not be taller than mosques.
Day 10: Discover Skopje, Tetovo Mosque and drive to Mavrovo National Park
Today we visit the main attractions of the Macedonian capital including the Kale Fortress, the Sveti Spas Monastery and the Ottoman Bazaar, which is the largest and most well preserved in south-east Europe. The fortress is found on the highest point and gives us great views back over the city and Vardar River below. It is believed to have originally been constructed in the 6th century, but has been reconstructed and expended over the years, as different wars were fought and new empires took over. Sveti Spas Monastery, or the Church of the Holy Saviour as it's also known, is a small and modest building tucked away in the corner of a courtyard, but inside you'll find an elaborately carved wooden iconostasis (screen separating the sanctuary and nave) and a few 16th century frescoes.
A short transfer will then bring us to the town of Tetovo, where we visit its colourful mosque, Sarena Dzamija, meaning decorated mosque. On the banks of the Pena River in the oldest part of the town we'll visit this brightly painted building with its detailed exterior and interior.
After our visit we drive on to the picturesque location of Mavrovo National Park, where we can take a leisurely lakeside walk near our hotel for the night.
Day 11: Explore Lake Ohrid and Saint Naum Monastery; arrive in Pogradec
We leave Mavrovo this morning and take the scenic road towards the Debar region, continuing along the lakes of the Black Drin River that generates most of the hydropower of the country. We stop in Struga to visit the springs of the river and have time for lunch in these scenic surroundings.
In the afternoon a short drive will bring us to Lake Ohrid, which is situated against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Founded over 2400 years ago, Ohrid has a wealth of heritage and is today an important cultural and spiritual centre. To help its protection both the town and lake were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest in the world and allegedly there are some 365 churches, monasteries and other religious sites around the lake. We will visit the city's main attractions as well as Saint Naum Monastery before driving back into Albania and to Pogradec where we spend the night. Saint Naum is an imposing sight on a peninsula on the lake near to the Albanian border. The monastery is surrounded by sandy beaches and inside we find impressive frescoes.
Progradec is a town on the shores of Lake Ohrid and the waterfront is an ideal spot for dining out this evening.
Day 12: Drive to Albania's capital Tirana and take a walking tour
Before starting the climb of the Thana Pass, we will visit the fisherman village of Lin where the ruins of a paleochristian church are found as well as Roman mosaics. We will continue our drive through the valley of Shkumbin and Elbasan town, until we reach Tirana.
Tirana was made the capital of Albania in 1920 in order to provide a power base in the geographical centre of the country. There has been a fortress on the fertile Plain of Tirana since Roman times, although the city only really came into its own in the 18th century. Today it is Albania's largest city. We will take a walking tour of the city's main sights including Skanderberg Square and monument, the Opera House, Albanian National Bank and Et'hem Bey Mosque. This evening you may wish to visit the sky tower with views over the city.
Day 13: Cable car up Mount Dajti and free afternoon in Tirana
This morning we drive the short distance to the base of the Dajti Express cable car, which is the longest cable way in the Balkans. Our 15 minutes journey takes us almost to the top of Mount Daijti at around 1000 metres. From here we'll hike to the summit of Tujani for views over the city below and the surrounding highlands. Our trek will take us around three to four hours and will cover a distance of 4.5 kilometres. Our maximum altitude reached will be 1503 metres. There will be the opportunity to have lunch in a traditional mountain restaurant before taking the cable car back down and returning to the city where you have the afternoon free to explore. The city comes to live in the evening and especially in the animated Blloku district. During the communist regime this area of the city was restricted and only members of the Albanian Politburo (main political party) were permitted to enter and own villas in this upmarket area. We'll enjoy a final dinner in this district this evening in a traditional Albanian restaurant.
Day 14: Trip ends in Tirana
The trip ends in Tirana this morning after breakfast.
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