Shkoder, Prizren, Skopje, Bansko, Greece, And Istanbul

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We got into Albania mid day and immediately felt a weird vibe. The bus had dropped us off at a gas station and everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at us. We cautiously walked through town and found nothing particularly spectacular but the state's kept coming.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

We found a small restaurant to grab some food and figure out how to get out of Albania. For two pasta dishes and two large beers, we paid  $7 with tip. Unfortunately we couldn't find any bus station in town to take us in to Kosovo. We walked down a street filled with taxis and bartered till we found a good price to get out of there. A nice old man who spoke no English took us three hours to the town of Prizren, Kosovo for $70. It was worth it to be out of Albania. The drive was incredible and weaved through high snow covered mountains.

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Prizren was a breath of fresh air and we headed up to the fortress on top of the hill when we arrived. On our way up we met a couple who ended up helping us plan our route down to Istanbul and couldn't stop mentioning how much the people of Kosovo love Americans (They recently broke away from Serbia with help from the US). The sun was setting behind a nearby mountain as we reached the fortress and the colors were stunning.

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We stashed our packs in some bushes and walked back down to town for a drink. The bartender payed for our beer after hearing where we were from and recommended a cozy bar on the edge of town. There we bought an entire pizza for $1.80 and got another one free. We were amazed at how cheap the place was. We climbed back up to the fortress that night and camped looking over the whole town. It was a cold night high up in the mountains so we were up early to head for the bus. We hopped on heading for Shkopje, Macedonia. On the bus, we started chatting with a man who lived there and he offered for us to stay at his place. We would hang out all day drinking beers, seeing a tiny bit of the city, and eating delicious food his mother made. Before we left she gave me a beautifully crocheted patch to remember her by and we hopped on our next bus. We wished we had seen more of the city but we got a local perspective of life in Macedonia. We crossed the border into Bulgaria and were surprised by how nice and peaceful all of the the town's were. That night we made it to the town of Bansko, a ski town sandwiched in the mountains.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

We loved it right away and knew we wanted to spend a day there. There were even people still skiing on the mountain just outside of town but you could tell that their busy season was coming to a close and that not many people stayed for the summer. The grocery stores were nearly empty and most stores stayed closed. There were a ton of stray dogs and cats and it seemed like all of the females were pregnant. Even with the amount of them, none seemed to be starving although many had battle wounds.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

From there we decided to hitch hike to our next destination in Greece. We got picked up fast and taken all the way to the border in just two rides. We walked through border patrol and were slightly concerned by the lack of cars. We began walking but were lucky enough to get picked up before long. The man who picked us up became our own personal tour guide and showed us a bunch of historical spots along the drive. He took us as far as he could and mentioned that it might not be safe to hitch hike anymore so he called the bus station to see the times and prices. He took us all the way there and we jumped on the bus to our next stop. We reached the town of Kavala on the coast of Greece and stopped to grab dinner. Greece was probably the most expensive place we had been so far. We walked up to a mosque on the hill and saw the most beautiful sunset.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

The town had an ancient aqueduct that cut through old town and beautiful fortress walls that dated back to before the 16th century. We found a small spot near a walkway just above the sea and cowboy camped, listening to the waves crash below.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

We woke up to the most beautiful colors spreading out across the sky and waited for the sun to spring up before packing out things and walking to the station. From there we went to Xanthi, a cute town north of the coast, and spent the afternoon in their town square. We caught another bus that day to Alaxandroupolis back on the coast of Greece. We went out to the beach as the sun was setting and hung out there till we had to catch our bus to Istanbul.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

Unfortunately, the only bus would leave at 2am so we stayed up and headed back to the station. There we met the most talkative man I've ever met at 2am and waited for an hour when the bus didn't arrive on time. We expected the bus to be empty at that time but it was full of old men snoring and children playing games on their phones with the volume turned up. When we got to the border we had to buy visas and held up the entire bus walking around to find someone who could help us. After that we could finally get some sleep. I woke up again around 6 to the bus being about 85 degrees. The heater was pumping out so much hot air that it was hard to breathe. No one else seemed to notice or be bothered by it but I thought I was going to pass out. We jumped off the bus into a sea of can drivers all buying for our business. We were overwhelmed and had almost decided to walk the 10km into town when one guy spoke some English. We agreed on 13 Euros and got in the car. The city was very beautifully maintained and gorgeous flowers grew all along the roads. The streets were cramped and busy in old town so we said we'd get out and walk. That's when the price was now 21 Euros. He was coming up with a bunch of different reasons why and not letting us out of the car so we threw some money at him and jumped out. We vowed to never take a taxi in this city again. We were able to check into our hostel early and we went right to sleep only briefly going out to grab lunch and see a few sites. It was the first place we had seen armored guards everywhere and it reminded me more of Asia than anywhere we had been in Europe. It was also the first place we'd seen women fully covered except for their eyes. Walking around town everyone screams at you to buy their goods or eat at their restaurants which only makes us less likely to do either of those things.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

We toured the grand bazaar in town and found it to be more high end knock offs than authentic Turkish goods so we passed up going further. The Mosques were absolutely stunning and littered the whole city spouting out the loud prayers every few hours.

Photo by Moose  

Photo by Moose  

One morning we woke up to a bunch of rain so we holed up in a coffee shop for the day, planning out the next few weeks. The weather stayed poor for the rest of our time there but we had sporadic boughts of no rain so we could run over to the park and play with the strays. We woke up early to leave the European section and briefly hit the Asian section before hopping on a flight and heading to western Europe.

The Coast of Croatia, Bosnia And Herzegovina, Dubrovnik, And Kotor

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When we reached Rab and hopped off the ferry, we realized that the ferry dock was not a town and that we would have to get a hitch from one of the cars that were getting off the ferry or wait an hour for the next one. We ran to stick our thumbs out as the cars flew by us. Everyone passed us by and as the last car left the ferry, I began to say 'We screwed up.' But before I could utter the last word, the van stopped and started moving stuff over for us to hop in. He spoke very good English and mentioned that his daughter was learning English from Justin Bieber songs. We laughed at the thought of the motivation behind it. He dropped us off in town and we began to walk around. The town was almost deserted. Most shops and restaurants were closed and not many people lined the streets. It was a beautiful old city and we imagined what it would be like when the tourist season hit. Seeing as how the place was empty, we found a patch of grass under an old church tower and set up camp in the middle of old town.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

No one found our stealth spot and we woke up early to get coffee at one of the few cafes that were still open. We waited for the ferry there and tried to do some planning for the next few weeks. In the meantime a man bought us a beer if we would tell him the relationship status of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and promise not to tell his wife. The ferry took us over to the island of Pag where we would try to hitch hike to Zadar. It was already evening by the time we got there but we threw out our thumbs and tried for a ride. An older man who spoke no english picked us up and said he could take us part of the way. After dropping us off in another town we walked back to the road and stuck our our thumbs again. The same guy would pick us up again and take us slightly further. One more hitch would take us to the middle of nowhere just as the sky turned dark.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We found a nearby forest with a flat spot and went to sleep until the next morning. We got picked up quickly by a large, gruff man who could take us all the way to Zadar. He didn't say much so the three of us listened to Justin Bieber all the way in to town. Just before we got out, he mentioned he was a police officer in town. I almost laughed because at first I had thought he could be in the Croatian mob. We walked through the old, beautiful streets of Zadar before catching a bus to Split for the afternoon. It was another ancient, coastal town but we didn't stay long. That evening we caught a bus in to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the town of Mostar which we had heard was a 'little Sarajevo.' When we got off the bus it was dark and I was nervous walking through the streets covered in graffiti. I couldn't help thinking back to our friends in the hut in Croatia who had told us that the Jihad trains in a small town near here. We checked in to our Airbnb and the lovely woman gave us cookies and juice. I felt a bit more at ease as she said goodnight and patted me on the shoulder. We walked around town the next day and saw extreme evidence of the war that had been fought only 23 years ago. Many of the buildings were abandoned and half ruble. There were many women on the streets with their children begging for money. Though the town was in a beautiful area and the parts that had been rebuilt were stunning, it was glaringly obvious that a lot of work still needed to be done.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We did fall in love with the area and apologized to the children that grabbed at our pockets. We left on a bus the next day headed back into Croatia to the town of Dubrovnik and almost felt more at ease in the tourist town. We got into old town and tried to check in to our Airbnb but the host didn't show up or respond to any messages. We found a cafe nearby with great craft beer and scrambled for a new place. Luckily we found one on the coast near the cathedral and checked in before walking around the old town at night. The next day we woke up and walked around a bit before catching a ferry to Lokrum island. The island was infested with peacocks and rabbits with beautiful gardens sweeping the area. We went to the monastery that held the iron throne in the back. For those who don't watch Game of Thrones, it's the iconic throne that all seven kingdoms are struggling for. To our amazement, there was no one in the room with us. We took full advantage of this fact and had our own private photo shoot on the throne before running back down to the ferry and heading back to old town Dubrovnik. We woke up the next morning and caught a bus to Kotor, Montenegro. It was very cloudy out with brief spurts of rain that became constant when we got off the bus.

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A torrential downpour hit just after we checked in to our hostel and we only caught a brief moment of no rain to quickly see a small part of the city. The next morning we woke up and headed straight up the fortress walls. They stemmed from the back of old town and climbed up the steep mountains that surrounded the town. From there, you could see everything; the beautiful water, damage from recurrent earthquakes, and the tiny pathways that curved through the city. Later that day we would discover the ins and outs of those small pathways, getting lost around every turn.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We made good friends with a neighborhood cat and went to pet her every chance we got. When we'd walk into the square, she'd come running and if you sat down she'd curl up in your lap and fall asleep. I wanted to take her home. The next morning we hopped on a bus to Albania. 

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The Via Dinarica

The bus driver dropped us off way past the trail and looked at us like we were crazy for jumping off the bus in the middle of nowhere. It was late afternoon and the sun beat down on us as we trekked back up the road, looking over the Adriatic. We had to walk through a small settlement before making it to the trail and starting to climb. The mountains went straight up from the sea but it gave us spectacular views of the sun setting. It burned orange then faded into a blood red before disappearing into the fog.

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The trail became darker and darker and suddenly we were post holing through snow. We could barely see anything but our feet in our lamps as we pushed up the mountain. My feet froze and the top layer of ice cut them as we'd break through. After hours and hours of climbing in the dark, we saw a light to the hut we were headed to and got another wave of adrenaline. The caretaker saw our lamps and came out to greet us but he had lived in the hut for 40 years and didn't speak a word of English. Even so, we knew what he meant when he looked down at our footwear and shook his head. He made us a pot of tea as my feet painfully regained feeling. He also filled up two shots of flavored vodka to, what I'm assuming he said, 'warm up the inside.' That night we got to snuggle into warm beds in a heated room and recover from our night hike. The next morning, in warmer clothing and slightly better prepared, we strapped on our crampons and left the hut.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

The snow was mostly solid and we had a great time hiking through it. After a while, the other footprints began to disappear and we were on our own to break trail. The sun baked down and loosened up the snow as we pushed on. We sank deeper and deeper. We made it to a small, dilapidated shelter and decided to stay instead of pushing on. Most of the rest of the day we experimented with the best way to turn snow into drinking water without using our fuel.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

That night was cold and I had wished we could start a fire though I knew the temperature would make it easier to walk the next morning. We strapped on our spikes and got moving. It was nice to hike and we had found some snow mobile tracks that compressed the snow. Even so, as the sun came out, we began to post hole. Just as it was getting unbearable we reached a road that was almost snow free. We kicked all the ice out of our shoes and began flying on the road. Besides small icy bits, we were able to move much faster than before.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We reached a hut just as the wind was picking up and found a small open shelter with bunks and a wood stove. The trail from there veered off the road and was covered in soggy snow so we called it a day and began collecting wood for a fire. The small shelter was almost too warm when we got the stove going but we relished in the heat; drying our gear, melting snow, and regaining feeling in our toes.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

When we got moving the next morning we began post holing immediately. We were in for a tough day. It was somewhat warm but the sun couldn't break through the clouds to heat us up after slogging through the snow. We stopped to warm up our feet knowing it wouldn't be long till they were frozen again. We found another trail that took us on a slope that had been shaded and had slightly better luck staying on top of the snow. We rounded a corner and saw that the end of the snow was in sight. A wave of relief washed over me as we slid on our butts down to the dry ground. Then suddenly, after not seeing another human for days, two people popped around the corner and greeted us. When they heard we were tourists they started spewing all of the best things about Croatia. Deep in the mountains with snow covered peaks surrounding us just about the Adriatic sea, we couldn't help but agree. They said we were close to the next hut and that a few people had the stove going for when we got there. It was a much bigger shelter than we had left that morning and a huge group of people surrounded the table in the kitchen. Almost before we said hello they asked if we were hungry and began filling bowls with stew from a giant pot on the stove. We sat down with them and ate a delicious lunch with fresh veggies, meat, and a large loaf of bread. They shared their Rakija with us, which we found out was a strong Croatian liquor made from plums. I mentioned that it warmed us up from the inside and one of them said it was the only reason they drank it as everyone laughed. Their group packed up and left, leaving us at the hut alone. Though not for long. Our friends we had seen from the trail had made their way back and we're stopping in to dry their socks. The four of us chatted for hours as he made a recommended route for us to take from there.

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When they left he offered us everything he had in his pack and gave us his only beer, a real gift in Croatia. We had the hut to ourselves that night and we spent it checking out the incredibly clear night sky reflecting off the Adriatic. We hiked down the next morning on a trail that seemed straight out of Game of Thrones and reached the road near a gas station. There we would try and hitch hike down to our next location along the coast. After being unsuccessful for a couple hours we ran into two other travelers who were coming up from the sea. They were from Spain and were headed to the hut we had just come from for the night. They had come from the islands of Croatia and after sharing with us some shells and pictures, told us we must go there. So we walked down to the town on the coast and hopped on a ferry to the island of Rab.

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Photo by Moose  

Bratislava, Budapest, And Zagreb

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We left Prague on a bus headed for Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. The first thing I noticed was the amount of graffiti covering the walls for as high as arms would reached. When we got dropped off at the bus station we bought our tickets for the next day, early, because we were sure we wouldn't want to spend too much time there. We checked into our Airbnb and even our hosts wondered why we had made the stop there. Thinking there wouldn't be much to see, we started walking towards the downtown area. A few turns down alleyways later, we found ourselves in a quiet corner lined with beautiful buildings. As we stopped to take pictures a man began to play the flute nearby. It was incredibly surreal. We walked slowly through old town making sure to take every turn.

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We popped under the freeway and then started climbing a large staircase. When we turned around we could look over the entire city. We had found our way to the Bratislava castle in the hill. It was much more modern than the castles and cathedrals we had experienced before, only being rebuilt about 70 years ago after a fire in 1811. We took one more stroll through town before calling it a night and getting some sleep before heading to Budapest. We woke up early and hopped on the bus. Budapest was much larger than I expected and covered with bridges crossing the Danube river. On our first night we walked around town to get a bearing on the place. We stumbled into a square with a large cathedral then rounded a corner and saw the most beautiful building I'd ever seen, probably the biggest too.

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It was the Hungarian parliament building and was the second largest parliament building in the world. The detail on the outside was indescribable. The next day we crossed one of the bridges and headed up a cliff to a large statue that was visible from everywhere we went. We were the only knuckleheads that brought our fully packed backpacks but chalked it up as training and kept moving. There was a large network of trails that took us past the statue and up to a castle that had a view of the entire city. We walked all over Budapest for the next couple days seeing all the incredible sights, climbing a thousand stairs to reach the top of the cathedral, and ending it with a beer looking over the city at night.

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I didn't want to leave when we woke up the next morning but we packed up and headed into Croatia. There we would reach the capital city of Zagreb and stay for the night. We got to stay in an attic apartment in the middle of town that looked down on a busy road below. We walked through their crowded town square and up to the town cathedral that had been slowly restored over the last 15 years. It was beautiful. We weaved in and out of the small alleys covered with cafes, and restaurants, and people enjoying the evening. We decided to stay an extra day to see more of the town and we're lucky to find out a friend of Moose' lived in Zagreb and had a few hours to show us around. He had hiked the Te Araroa the same year we had and lived off and on in both New Zealand and Croatia. After ten minutes of walking through town with him, he had convinced us that Zagreb was the best place to live.

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Just a few block from where we met up, we turned and saw all of Zagreb for the first time. Every building had so much history and was adorned with colorful roofs.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We walked past their parliament building before stopping in to the oldest tavern in town and grabbing a beer. There he gave us all the information for the section of the Via Dinarica trail that we were hoping to do. The Via Dinarica is a long distance trail that travels through seven countries along the Adriatic sea and we wanted to get on it for a little bit while in Croatia. He gave us a ton of notes and a heightened passion for Croatia and this area before we said goodbye. The next morning we hopped on a bus to the coast to start hiking the trail.

Vienna, Brno, and Prague

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We flew into Vienna late after a short stop in Moscow to change planes. Not wanting to pay for a hostel, we found a quiet space in the airport and began to lay down for the night.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

A nearby janitor, seeing us set up, came over to sweep the floor and I couldn't help thinking that I liked this place already. After a few hours, we got up and hopped on a bus into downtown Vienna. We got dropped off by the river as it began to rain and started walking. Every building was a masterpiece and the streets were almost empty in the early morning. We curled around the cobblestone streets for hours until they became crowded, stumbling on an incredible cathedral and old Roman village ruins.

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We walked all over town before checking into our hostel for the night. There we met Nick, who happened to be from Connecticut, and Christina, a German girl studying to be a brain surgeon in Vienna. The four of us decided to go out an grab a traditional Austrian schnitzel which is a thin piece of pork, chicken, or more traditionally, veal, fried.

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The one we found was pork and came in portions big enough for four people on one plate. It tasted a lot like chicken strips and the waitress gave us an interesting look as we asked for to-go boxes. Apparently taking away your leftovers is not really a thing here. After, Christina took us on a walking tour of the city just as the sun was going down and the buildings were beginning to light up. It was incredible. She then showed us a local rooftop bar that looked over the center of Vienna. Nick was brave and tried the traditional Austrian drink, the spritzer, which is wine and soda mixed together. The rest of us grabbed beers. Then we left and headed to go play some pool at a local club. There I learned that the Austrians are the best Foosball players I have ever seen.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

They can do tricks and actually pass the ball. Spinning is frowned upon. We spent the whole night there, dancing, and the whole next day recovering. After a good day of resting and eating, we walked around Vienna for the last time. We bought a bunch of nice clothes for about half the price of clothes in the US so we'd no longer look like bums and hoped on a bus to Brno (pronounced brrrrrr-no). We had heard about the place from a British guy who had moved to Vienna and said Brno was a mini Prague. It was in between Vienna and Prague so we decided to stop for a night in between. I was a little nervous when we got there. It was less touristy than Vienna and, at night, seemed less safe. After walking around for a bit we saw a huge castle lit up on the hill and decided to head for it. After a short climb around winding sidewalks, we reached the castle. The inside was closed but we walked around the deserted outskirts, looking over the whole city. From there we could see a huge church lit up down below. We headed back into town and searched for wifi so we could figure out our way back to the hostel. As we crouched near the doorway of a bar, trying to log on, two Czech guys came up and started talking to us. The four of us quickly struck up a friendship and they took us around the corner of the bar to get another good view of the city. When we turned around, we realized we were at the church we had seen from above.

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It was strange to see something so ancient and beautiful around the corner from a bar. Or a McDonald's in a building with vaulted ceilings and gold crown moulding. With our new friends we talked politics, relationships, and hope for the millennial generation. Only when you travel do you realize everyone is the same. We went to grab a beer and ended up dancing until the wee hours of the morning. As the lights turned on, we hugged our new friends goodbye and ventured home. We hoped on a bus the next morning, after walking around the town a bit more, and headed for Prague.

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When we arrived, we walked through town to get to our Airbnb. It was amazing, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I fell in love almost instantly. We walked through the park where tons of people were out to watch the sun set behind the cathedrals of the city and bells rang out from every direction. There was a pungent smell of marijuana everywhere and when we got to our place, the host told us it's legal to smoke in public. She also mentioned it's legal to carry a gram of anything, cocaine, meth, heroin. We were a bit stunned but the whole place was very relaxed. Our host, Sandra, was awesome. A preschool and yoga teacher from France, she knew 7 languages and had one of the cutest cats in the world, Maya.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

She told us everything we needed to know about Prague and equipped us with a map for the next days adventures. We walked towards downtown the next morning in the cold. She only lived a block from our first ancient church sighting of the day.

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All of the buildings were so unique and elaborate. We walked alongside the river before crossing over the Charles bridge and walking up to Prague Castle.

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A brilliant light shone in from the sun through the windows as we crowded into the main building of the castle. Outside was a dark statue of a young boy whose only shiny section was where people had passed by and touched it.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We went to an amazing vegetarian restaurant and then headed back to cuddle with the cat for the night.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

We went out again the next night and we're amazed at how magical everything looked at night. The old buildings were lit up and tons of people filled the streets out for their evening stroll.

Photo by Moose

Photo by Moose

The best thing to do in Prague had been to pick a direction and start walking. We did it again the next morning and found ourselves in front of a crowded clock tower as the old parts suddenly began to move and the tiny figures popped out and began ringing the bells.  We'd find ourselves sitting on a roof overlooking that same clock tower the next afternoon. We also trekked out to another rooftop bar with a whole different view of the city. We walked back across the Charles bridge at night to get some photos and suddenly buckets or rain poured down on us. Within seconds we were soaked to the bone and running through the drenched streets to get back to the hostel. The next morning we woke up early and headed for Slovakia.

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Photo by Moose

Video by Moose