A capital transformed
Macedonia qualified as another entry on our list of Europe's best-kept secrets. It is not to be confused with the region of Macedonia in northern Greece with which it shares a border, which has forced Macedonia to accept the cumbersome name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.
In this tiny, landlocked nation of less than 2 million, an unbridled spending spree called Skopje 2014 has transformed the capital in faux-classical facades, pedestrian bridges, monumental fountains and statues such as the gargantuan Alexander the Great that lords over the city's central square (Alexander's birthplace is another point of contention with neighboring Greece). Skopje also takes great pride in Mother Teresa, who was born here of Albanian parents in 1910. A modern church/museum marks the place of her baptism.
Construction in the city center continues today, and not everyone is happy about it. Meant to sweep away its post-communist pall, the city's controversial face-lift thankfully left untouched its historic highlights: the old quarter's atmospheric Turkish Bazaar, an important center of trade since the 12th century; three caravansaries; ancient baths; fresco-covered Orthodox churches (which serve 70% of the population) and historical mosques (which serve another 25%); and its venerable 15th century stone bridge.
We drove past some of the mountainous country's 50 lakes on our way to its most legendary, the 21-mile-long Lake Ohrid, on the border with Albania. It is one of Europe's deepest and, arguably, its cleanest.
The city of Ohrid's Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman roots are visible everywhere, and its religious and scholarly legacy is on display in the various churches and monasteries. We visited more than I can remember and stood in awe before dimly lit collections of frescoes, icons and mosaics.
Albania, located directly across the Adriatic from the "heel" of Italy, was the only Balkan country we visited that was not once part of the united Yugoslavia. Its 20th century history sets it apart from the Balkan region in more ways than one.
Having suffocated in the iron grip of the dictator Enver Hoxha from 1944 to 1985, it has made a quantum leap since 1992 when elections ended 47 years of paralyzing communist rule. From being a hermit nation totally cut off from the outside world, it is today openly welcoming tourists who come to enjoy friendly people, gorgeous scenery and low prices in one of Europe's fastest-changing countries.
Albania's lively capital, Tirana, is surprising for its bright and cheery colors and lively designs that camouflage its formerly dismal architecture. Round-the-clock rush hour is the result of the nation's slavish love of cars, a likely backlash to when public-vehicle ownership was banned under Hoxha.
Although unemployment is high and wages are low, we found cafes and restaurants to be full at all hours. Hoxha, paranoid that invasion and nuclear attack were imminent, ordered 750,000 mushroom-domed bunkers be built in the city and littered across the countryside.
Today's government has opened some of them to the public. Although some are small enough for just one or two people, we visited the eerie Bunk'Art Museum, a 3,281-square-foot bunker built to shelter Hoxha and his elite police.
Outside Tirana, a new archaeological museum showcases the importance of Durres and the ancient Via Egnatia, which connected Rome through the Adriatic port of Durres with Constantinople. We were introduced to Skanderbeg, the country's revered national hero, in Kruje, the city where he was born.
An old hilltop castle houses a museum dedicated to the 15th century nobleman and military commander who kept the invading Ottomans at bay. Upon his death, the Ottomans did move in, and they stayed for some 500 years, settling in the important cities such as Berat, Albania's oldest town. It is known as the City of 1,001 Windows for the white-tiered Ottoman houses that rise up against its cliff face and is magical at night.
Albania and each of its Balkan neighbors that we visited were a revelation and a joy. And if travel is an education, then this Balkan odyssey was like a year back at school.
Contributing editor Patricia Schultz is the author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."