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Blog post

Riding off the beaten tourist path in the Balkans

by Tim Walker
We all crave variety. It is, as the saying goes, the spice of life. For motorcyclists, variety means experiencing mountain twisties, scenic and rugged shorelines, picturesque river valleys, lush forests, and sweeping curves winding their way through rolling hills.
Riding off the beaten tourist path in the Balkans

You’ll get that kind of variety on AMT’s 15-day Intriguing Southeast Europe tour, which I took in September 2021. To set the stage for you, this is definitely an off-the-beaten-path type of tour, so riders will get off the main roads and visit places that other tourists zoom right past. Expect to tackle a few challenging roads, though. That’s to be expected when visiting countries somewhat new to tourism.

Intriguing Southeast Europe Tour Map.


A semi-private tour experience

The tour began just as most of the world was emerging from pandemic lockdowns. But covid fears still lingered, and all but two riders who had signed up for this tour dropped out. I credit AMT for operating a tour catering to just me and Jim, the other rider. Many other tour companies would have canceled.

And I strongly recommend a guided tour for this part of Europe, especially for first-timers. That’s because the variety in the region also makes for some hassles: 6 countries (border crossings … ugh!), 4 languages, 3 alphabets, and 4 currencies! 

Our AMT guide was Tomaž, a multi-lingual, native Slovenian with riding experience throughout the region. The three of us gelled together immediately, which was a very good thing as we would be traveling and eating together exclusively for two straight weeks!

We started and ended in the vibrant city of Belgrade, Serbia, and took a clockwise path through North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Unfortunately, Bulgaria closed its borders due to covid just a week before our tour started. The current AMT Intriguing Southeast Europe tour includes 3 riding days and one rest day in Bulgaria.

Author's Tour Party of three in Sept 2021: 2 riders and the guide visiting Roman Ruins in Butrint, Albania.


Start your engines

I rode a new BMW F750 GS, which matched the weight and size of the Honda Transalp I ride at home. 


Our riding skills in curves were tested on our very first day when we rode alongside the wandering Danube River separating Serbia and Romania and through the foothills of the Serbian Carpathian Mountains. Riding in the foothills only whetted our appetite for eventually riding up into higher elevations. Those mountain twisties would come soon, Tomaž said, and there would be plenty of them.

Golubac Fortress, a 14th century Medieval Stone Fortress located East of Belgrade, Serbia.

We had a lunch at a roadside restaurant in the shadow of the massive Golubac Fortress, a strategically positioned military post that controlled access to a narrow portion of the Danube River with steep, fjord-like embankments. The lunch was fabulous and was the first of many more tasty — and varied — dining experiences in our future. The Balkan peoples have borrowed the best flavors from the cuisines of the many invaders who swept through the peninsula throughout history, including the Ottomans, Greeks, and Romans. In addition to being a great motorcycle guide, Tomaž also helped guide us through menus to help us find the tastiest local food and drinks.

Delicious local specialties. Dinners at the local restaurants are included in the tour.

After spending a night in the Serbian town of Zaječar, we fortified ourselves with a lavish breakfast buffet at our upscale hotel (all AMT hotels are at least 3 stars, and all breakfasts are included), and rode through lush valleys and plains until we arrived mid-afternoon in North Macedonia’s capital Skopje. We had time to explore this cosmopolitan city. The standout attraction was the absolutely massive central square and the enormous statue of Alexander the Great dominating it. Except that to make nice with neighboring Greece — which claims Alexander the Great to be exclusively of Hellenic heritage — the statue is officially named “Equestrian Warrior”.


Macedonian wine, Lake Ohrid, Albania


After an energizing rest day in Skopje, we traveled southeast through Macedonia’s wine region, the Demir Kapija gorge, and its gentle hills dotted with vineyards.

Demir Kapija Winery & a boutique hotel.

Fittingly, we stayed the night at a hotel connected to a vineyard where dinner included sampling the many different wine varieties produced in the area. Our hosts told us that Macedonia is the fourth-largest supplier of bulk wine to Germany. Our taste buds told us the Macedonians keep the good stuff for themselves!

The next day, we rode through the long, curving roads of southwestern Macedonia and arrived at Ohrid, a city on beautiful blue-green Lake Ohrid, famous for the Lake Ohrid trout. The fish is a local delicacy tasting like a brown trout crossed with an Atlantic salmon.

13th century Orthodox Church overlooking Ohrid Lake_Macedonia

After a rest day in Ohrid that included a boat ride, the three of us rode along a pleasant, windy road hugging the lake’s western shore on our way south to Albania. It wasn’t too long after crossing the border that we see a defensive machine-gun bunker, one of more than 750,000 built during Albania’s post-WWII communist regime. Now all abandoned, the concrete bunkers are a symbol of the extreme isolation and paranoia of the Albanian government, which feared armed invasion from the West and even from its communist neighbors.

Defensive bunkers built during Albania's post-WWII communist regime, Albanian Macedonian Border.

I loved riding in Albania because it’s still mostly rustic and less touristy than its neighbors. This also means you will encounter more farm animals on Albanian roads than elsewhere in the Balkans, although this is usually not a problem, but rather an interesting fact and a photo opportunity. 

Sheep on the road in Albania, not a problem :-)

The next day’s ride took us to Gjirocastër through the Gramoz Mountains, where we thoroughly enjoyed climbing to the Barmashi Pass at 1759 m. Yay, and mountain twisties!

On the way to Gjirocaster somewhere in Gramoz Mountains, Albania.

In Gjirocastër, we visited the Cold War Tunnel Museum, a 59-room underground bunker that served as an emergency shelter for Albania’s top communist officials and designed to withstand a nuclear attack. 

Gjirocaster, Albania.

Our next stop was Sarande, a beach resort town on the southern tip of Albania with great swimming and fresh seafood.  We had a planned rest day at Sarande, but we opted to spend it riding south to Butrint, where we strolled among Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins. On a whim, we decided to ride even farther south and cross into Greece, where we had a pleasant seaside lunch in a small fishing village. The deep-fried feta cheese we ordered had a perfect combination of flavor and texture, and it made the hassles of getting through Greek customs entirely worthwhile.

Gramos Mountains in Albania.

The next day’s ride was north towards Albania’s capital city of Tirana, and took us through two distinct landscapes. In the morning, we rode 120 km on a beautiful coastal road, enjoying gentle sweepers with cliffs on one side and the shimmering blue Adriatic Sea on the other.

Coastal Road in Albania.

In the afternoon we went up and over the Llogara Pass (1027 m). This was a challenging ride requiring a rider’s full attention. Thank goodness the road surfaces were new and the wandering animals few.

The Author On the top of Llogara Pass at an elevation of 1.043m (3,422ft) above the sea, Albania.

The incredibly wide central Skanderberg Square in Tirana is something to behold. It’s a busy and vibrant mishmash of architectural styles, crowds, and noise. What a profound change from just a few decades ago when closed-off Albania was called the North Korea of Europe.

Tirana Central Square, the capital of Albania.


Kosovo, Montenegro, and a return to Belgrade

As our tour wrapped up, bittersweet feelings emerged. This was a moderately tough tour that even with three rest days tired me out. So I began to look forward to relaxing at the Belgrade hotel where we started, but not looking forward to losing the camaraderie that developed among the three of us. To get there, we rode for more than 100 km on a brand-new divided motorway with broad, sweeping mountain curves, heading north towards Kosovo. The roadway truly evoked the feeling of being on a German autobahn — but without the traffic. We felt like we were on a private race track!

Historical town of Prizren, Kosovo.

After touring Prizren, Kosovo, and staying there overnight, we crossed into Montenegro for only a short stretch. But that stretch was a pleasant ride on moderate back-to-back curves up to the Kulina Pass, which at 1800 m is one of the highest passes in the Balkans. By this time, both Jim and I had taken our cornering skills up at least a couple of notches, and that’s a great feeling, right?

Traditional countryside, Serbia.

Goodbyes

Upon our return to Belgrade, we didn’t have the traditional AMT champagne toast. We needed rapid covid tests at the airport, and raising a toast in a parking lot there seemed like a bad idea. So we said our goodbyes quickly, as Jim and I had to pack for early flights the next day and Tomaž had to load up the van for an all-night drive to AMT headquarters In Ljubljana.

This was my first tour with AMT, and although it was a bit pricy, it gave me so many fond memories of thrilling riding, tasty cuisines, scenic landscapes, and classic European capital cities — memories that will stay with me forever. And that’s priceless, don’t you agree?


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