Our second pair of months in Europe were a joy, mostly because we have slowly become well-oiled travel machines. We know our limits, what we want to do, what we're willing to put up with and how to strike a good balance of relaxation, work and play. Despite drastically slowing down our pace, we still managed to spend 14 days in Greece, 8 days in Albania, 6 in Montenegro, 8 in Croatia, 8 in Slovenia, and finished it off with 10 more days in Germany. A worthy tour of Greece and everything north of it along the Adriatic Coast, we've had more wine, sausage and cheese than I ever dreamed possible. There was so much to do and see and I feel like I have already forgotten half of it, so before I forget more here are some of my main highlights:
Cafe: Pekara "Non-Stop", Makarska, Croatia
We stopped by MANY Pekaras during our time in the Balkans, usually feasting on a delicious pastry called burek. No matter where you went, you could find burek within 500m, it would fill you up, and it would only cost about $1.50. The pastry itself can be found in many different forms all over the world, but in the Balkans it is made from layers of pastry dough, alternating layers with a filling like cheese or minced meat. No burek quite hit the spot like the one we bought from Pekara "Non-Stop", right next to the bus station in Makarska. The baker thankfully cut us off an enormous piece, sliced it in half, and wrapped it up for us to take with us on our journey to Split. I wish we had stumbled upon this cafe earlier or we would have stopped by every morning!
Beach: Sarandë, Albania
You would not expect Albania to have gorgeous beaches, especially compared to the likes of Croatia and Montenegro, but our boat excursion in Sarandë took us out to one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. You can only reach it by boat as it is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and no more than a dozen people are ever really there at one time. One lone shack supplies beer, coffee and olives, serviced by the same man who helps bring your boat in. Being able to soak in that kind of beauty with not a soul around is something that is quite rare nowadays, I am so happy we were able to find it in Albania.
Restaurant: Home-Made Food Lili, Berat, Albania
You may have been surprised to see Albania top the best beach list, but I'm even more flabbergasted that we actually had our best meal in Albania, too. Home-Made Food Lili is a backyard operation, run by a family (husband, wife and daughter) who make delicious home cooked meals for a few lucky tables each night. While their dog played in the grass next to us, we drank wine made by Lili's grandfather and gorged ourselves on all types of meats, veggies and spreads. The food is so outstanding, Lili and his family are so charming, if I could have eaten there 5 more nights in a row I would without hesitation.
Hostel: Hostel Mangalem, Berat, Albania
Starting to feel a bit like this list is the Best of Albania, but once again our favorite hostel on this leg of the trip was Hostel Mangalem in Berat. There is no place we have stayed, over our lifetimes and in the entire world, that has felt as wonderfully welcoming as Hostel Mangalem. The owner, Bertie, is the nicest guy and will go out of his way to ensure that his house is your house. Once he even walked us half a mile to his favorite restaurant and translated/ordered for us since nobody there spoke any English. His parents also both live at the hostel and they treated me like I was their own grandson, always making sure I was well-fed, washing my clothes and giving me huge hugs. Sure, we have stayed at places with way more conveniences and in more beautiful locations, but I have never felt so at home as I did at Hostel Mangalem.
This feels a bit like cheating because I already knew how much I loved Greek food from having it a lot in the states, but wew lad I LOVE Greek food. You consider some of my favorite foods and you can see why: cheese, sausage, potatoes, pita. Pretty much everything I ate in Greece at least had one of those things. And the tzatziki, lordy the tzatziki. I had it with nearly every meal for 2 straight weeks. We went into Greece looking quite pale and thin, we came out tan and fat. I don't know how anybody who lives in Greece year round manages to keep their weight down, such fantastic cuisine and food that I never really tire of.
Wine: Plavac Mali, Croatia
For the most part we were unimpressed with Croatia; we felt it was lacking in areas that other Balkan countries were strong in. The food isn't very good, yet is far more expensive, and the entire coast line is overpopulated with tourists. One thing Croatia really nails is the wine. I had heard wine enthusiasts rave about Croatian wine and was excited to try it, thinking it might be the best wine region we will really stop at on this whole trip. I'm happy to report that it absolutely was and each night we had some of the best bold reds I've ever had. The Plavac Mali grape in particular is used in some incredibly rich and flavorful wines and I would highly recommend doing a full tasting of just wines with that grape alone. I hope I can find somewhere that we can buy it when we're back home, otherwise we might be looking at some hefty shipping costs.
Nightlife: Mykonos, Greece
We really toned down our going-out frequency compared to the first 2 months of the trip, but Mykonos was the one major exception. Not really because it is the end-all, be-all of European nightlife, but because there really isn't much else to do there. With that being said, we still had a great time at Paradise Beach Club, TRU, and Scorpios. The drinks are expensive and the crowd can be a tad nauseating, but in general partying on Mykonos is a great time as long as you can loosen up a bit and just go along for the ride. For me, the major downside was just trying to will myself to go out after spending an entire day at the beach, but once we got ourselves out there it was worth it.
Photography: Bled, Slovenia
Bled is a staggeringly beautiful place, absolutely one of the highlights of Europe. It drizzled almost the entire time we were there, but it didn't stop me from capturing some incredible photos. There are castles, forests, tiny villages, gorges and waterfalls all within walking distance, and since we visited in the middle of September there was almost nobody else around. I feel like had we visited Ireland at this point in the trip, after I had a great deal of practice manually operating a DSLR, those photos could have turned out just as well. Both places have a similar feel, lots of green hills, trees and cliffs. I'm so happy we were able to spend time in such a gorgeous place, I am sure we will be back someday.
Activity: Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany
Okay, so I kind of just made up this category to fit it on the list, but it is incredibly deserving. Oktoberfest is one of a kind, an absolute must-see at some point in your life. The feeling you get, putting on your Lederhosen in the morning and trotting out to the grounds, ready to begin drinking in merriment with people of every nationality, is so special. It feels like a music festival the whole world has been invited to take part in. I did find it incredibly difficult to wake up the morning after and do it again, so I would advise at least giving yourself one recovery day in between visits, but definitely add it to your bucket list.
Beer: Hoptopod IPA, Dogma Brewery, Serbia
When we were in Split, we ate at this tiny hole in the wall Mexican place called To Je Tako 3 separate times in the span of 5 days. Best Mexican food we had in Europe by far, but even better was their selection of craft beer from the Balkans. The Hoptopod IPA was my favorite, a very hoppy beer from Serbia. It tasted much like any sort of craft IPA you'd try in Chicago, and something I have missed dearly since we have been traveling. Janis Hoplin deserves an honorable mention as well, mostly for having an awesome name, but also for being the second best craft beer I also had at To Je Tako.
Hiking: Makarska, Croatia
As mentioned earlier, Croatia wasn't our favorite destination in Europe, but in addition to the wine we managed to find some excellent hiking trails. In Makarska, we spent nearly an entire day slowly ascending to the top of the mountains behind the town. The only thing that kept us going were the incredible views behind us. At the top we stopped and had a picnic, able to see a sliver of Italy and the curvature of the Earth, truly a breathtaking view. I wish we had dedicated some more time to hiking in the mountains like this and less to the national parks, but we know better for next time.
Dessert: Ice Cream, Croatia
We had some fantastic desserts in Greece and Montenegro, but sometimes just basic ice cream really hits the spot. Croatia ice cream shops were out-of-this-world, offering dozens of flavors that I'd never heard of and they all tasted SO GOOD. I'm not even a big ice cream kind of guy, but every time we passed by one I just wanted more. There was one night where we had ice cream, then dinner with ice cream for dessert, and then ice cream afterwards. If I lived there I would have to enact a strict one ice cream a week type policy or I'd weight 500 pounds.
City: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ljubljana is by far the most interesting city we visited in months 3 and 4. At first glance it seems like a large medieval town, giant castle perched on the hill in the center and a canal weaving between buildings all around it. But outside of the beautiful old town, you'll find autonomous social centers, craft breweries, dive bars, squatters, street art, hippies, and the best damn falafel wrap you'll ever have. It is an eclectic mix of so many things and very much has its own personality, I found myself missing it the moment we left. On our last night, we got to watch the Slovenia national basketball team beat Serbia in the Eurobasket final. To be there, right in the capital, watching on a giant screen in the square while pounding down some local brews, it was a magical experience I will really cherish.
Albania was the wildcard of the second leg of our trip. We really had no idea what to expect, yet our 8 days there proved to be some of the most memorable in all of Europe. What threw me off the most was just how different each city was from the last, there is so much to do and see there and each place has their own unique identity. Sarandë was the lazy beach resort town, Berat was the lovely medieval village, Tirana was the diverse urban metropolis, and these stops are just a drop in the bucket! Our last night in Tirana, our waitress actually asked us why we would ever choose to travel to Albania. I don't know if we could have really answered that before we came, but afterwards I know its because the food is outstanding, the people are so friendly, and the country as a whole is so beautiful and different. I'd highly recommend giving Albania a try if you are ever in the neighborhood, one of our trip highlights!