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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.