Balkan Cities to Bother and Not to Bother With [Belgrade > Pristina > Skopje > Tirana]

“…That is the question.”
-The late, great estranged son of Billy Shakespeare (Trashton, Ohio)

The odds you had to look up where at least two of those cities were are pretty high. I wouldn’t have known three of them.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but when the hotel staff says that the best thing within walking distance is the playground of the American school across the street, you’ve really gotta question why any travel writers wasted server space telling people what to do when they get there. And to that I say: Don’t bother. Now, by no means am I anti-Balkans, but most of the aforementioned cities are only useful as transit hubs, in my humble opinion.

So the story starts in Serbia. Chris had intel from his Dubai days that Belgrade’s night life was a good time. The investigative journalist that I am not.. took the bait. The source was solid so it seemed worth following up… How could you not trust someone who’s second best tagline is, “We’re dope and we do dope shit.”

Three days seemed to hit the “here for a good time, not a long time” sweet spot. Also that was how many nights my forgotten Hyatt point stash could get us at the Regency downtown. Good thing the hotel was free because the $70 cab from the airport may have bankrupted me otherwise. (It’s not very far… I think we got taken for a ride – pun intended – despite trying to check him.)

We couldn’t all get there until Monday, which gave us the bottom three nights that people are likely to patronize a club. Off to a great start with the investigation! At least we got a ridiculously tasty lunch from Iva New Balkan Cuisine and had our first lead on the case: Bar Central, a prohibition style cocktail bar. The servers and refreshments got five stars from me, so highly recommended!

You can’t see any of the party barges on the river that bisects the city, but they’re there!

Another night we sipped our way over to and from another swanky place by the name of Bitters Bar. I really don’t think the lady selling brandy shots on the side of the rode has an online presence or this would be her hyperlink!

Between COVID and not being able to enter the top party sports – their floating clubs – we don’t have enough evidence to close the case. Despite the trail going cold, the couple classy places we hit (can’t forget Nactionalna Klasa for dinner) have me feeling like this is lead worth persuing should I find myself in the region again.

Belgrade by night! That suspension bridge looks fun all light up and she shakes like tambourine when trains cross it. Seems ready for a party!

I had low hopes leaving Belgrade for a multi-day bus trip down through Kosovo, North Macedonia and ending in Albania. But we won the game of limbo by goin’ even lower, mon!

I personally voted for descending through Bosnia & Herzegovina since I’d heard good things (read: anything) about the country. However, it was on our next destination’s red list; we would have had to wait 14 days from departure to be allowed into Malta and that timeline didn’t work for the friend whose birthday we were planning to celebrate there. (Come to find out Serbia was also red-listed, and our itinerary only included 12 days of buffer. Nothing a little $175 flight change couldn’t fix 🙃 )

Good thing the countryside was beautiful to ride through and our hotels had insane gym + spa combos or I have no clue how we would have survived those days. The only Marriott property in Kosovo was about 15 minutes outside of Prishtina. Since I’m no Monica Lewinsky, the top-rated Bill Clinton statue wasn’t enough of a draw for us to waste our money on the cab rides back into town.

Hiring a driver to get to North Macedonia from there was a money move: $20/person for the comfort of not-a-bus and cut out a cab back into Prishtina to catch one.

We finished the grand tour of downtown Skopje in all of 90 minutes, and since the winery we wanted to visit went millennial and didn’t answer our phone calls, we hosted our own DIY tasting in the otherwise dry Marriott lounge.

Really cuts down on your tour of the city when one of the main things is right outside of your hotel. Meet: statues!

A couple days of thumb twiddling, exercising and an eight hour bus ride later, we arrived in Tirana to… grand disappointment! So much so that after our first dinner, Chris already decided to move up his flight to Poland by two days.

I’m sad to report that our time didn’t include a visit to Mullixhiu, a gem (perhaps the only restaurant that served something other than Italian) I uncovered after we had hatched plans to escape the endless taupe, mauve and other-colors-that-make-your-city-look-depressing aesthetic that Tirana really nailed. Until then, we manufactured our own endorphins at CrossFit 21 since there were none of the exogenous variety to be had in this town.

I’ll be leaving my cynicism at the door of the 90s SUV that carried us away from the fog of oppressions passed, because the next couple days redeemed the Balkans for me!

*Creates suspense for next blog post*

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