Beginning and Ending a Balkan Getaway in Tirana, Albania

Skanderbeg Square (set up for Euro 2024) viewed from
our Tirana International Hotel & Conference Center room

Putting together this Balkan trip: Photos of picturesque Ohrid, North Macedonia, nestled on a gorgeous mountain lake caught my eye and inspired this trip. (This tends to happen to me. I see a photo or read something online or a place mentioned in a book, do a little research, and the next thing I know I’m going there.) July and August are peak season in certain parts of the Balkans, but temperatures can be really hot. So, I wasn’t sure my plan to check out Ohrid in July was my most genius move. Lake Ohrid’s waters are cool and lots of people head to the lake in the summer months, but of course, I wanted to explore the region a little, too. What cities might we fly into or visit before or after our time in Ohrid? Options for direct flights from our home in Paris were limited (“Paris Beauvais” doesn’t count as it’s not really in Paris and a real hassle to get to from the city). Transavia offers direct flights from Paris Orly to Tirana, Albania, a 2.5 hour drive from Ohrid. I looked at some open-jaw itineraries with us flying out of Ohrid or Skopje, North Macedonia, but those required lay-overs that didn’t interest me, so a round-trip to Tirana made the most sense. David and I had been in Shkoder, Albania, a few years back on a short side trip from Montenegro. While we’d enjoyed good food and the picturesque ruins of Rosafa Castle, we were interested in seeing more of Albania. Its capital, Tirana, seemed the perfect place to start. read more

Yerevan, Armenia

The Cascades in Yerevan

Our last three nights in the Caucasus would be in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. After charming boutique hotels in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Tblisi, Georgia, I planned a little big-hotel luxury for the end of our trip. I used Marriott points to book affiliate The Alexander, reputedly the most luxurious hotel in Armenia, with its spa, indoor pool, sauna and steam room. Our driver from Tblisi, Garnik, dropped us off at The Alexander in the early evening. We were greeted warmly and quickly checked into an elegant and spacious room decorated in neutral tones. A welcome note awaited us beside a plate of dried fruit and churchkhela, that popular Georgian sweet made of walnuts and grape paste, a promising start to our time in Yerevan. read more

By car to Tblisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia

Sevanavank (Sevan Monastery and churches) on Lake Sevan

I planned our Caucasus trip with a one-way Azerbaijan Airways flight from Paris (our current home) to Baku, Azerbaijan, with 6 nights in Georgia before a return flight from Yeravan, Armenia, to Paris. We hopped a short Azerbaijan Airways flight from Baku to Tblisi, Georgia. When doing my usual pre-trip research, I quickly decided that combining a transfer by car from Tblisi to Yerevan with a little touring along the way would be a great alternative to the hassle and expense of another flight or a no-frills minibus or private direct transfer. Once again, Viator made finding what I was looking for in the way of Caucasus tours and transfers easy. I connected with Sergey at Private Tours in Armenia and we settled on a Sunday transfer with stops in a couple of monasteries including one at Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in the Caucasus and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia. read more

On Georgia’s Khaketi Wine Route

Khaketi vineyards with the Caucasus Mountains in the distance

Our second day trip out of Tblisi took us through the 1800 meters-above-sea-level Gombori Pass to the Khaketi wine region. Our driver, Mamuka (a/k/a Mamu) turned out to be tons of fun and we had a great day. The sweeping views of the pass gave way to bright green forest as we descended. We stopped to drink from a roadside spring where rows of decorated bottles and snacks were apparently for sale on the honor system. With its abundant springs, water throughout Georgia is of excellent quality.

A roadside spring

When a picturesque monastery perched on a roadside hilltop caught our eye, Mamu pulled in to let us hike up. The 16th century Gremi Monastery surprised us with its little Church of Archangels boasting a wealth of frescoes in varying states of preservation. read more

Day trip from Tblisi: Jvari, Uplistsike, Gori, Mtskheta, Chronicle of Georgia

Rugs, scarves and more for sale outside the walls surrounding
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta

Georgia has so much to offer and I was excited about our first day trip out of Tblisi. I booked a private tour with “Karlo-Georgia” on Viator that offered an interesting mix of sites from differing periods in Georgia’s long history. Our driver turned out to be George (how appropriate!), an independent guide who worked with Karlo. George arrived promptly at 10am across the street from our hotel on Rustaveli Avenue in a spiffy and spacious new SUV. I’d agreed in advance with Karlo on the sites we’d visit, but left it to George to determine the order of our stops as circumstances warranted. It’s impossible to know in advance where we’ll want to linger or move on quickly, how long a lunch break might be, traffic, whether rain will be a factor, etc., so I’m happy to be flexible. read more

Tblisi, Georgia, a city of contrasts

Tblisi viewed from Mtatsminda Park

We arrived in Tblisi on a short Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku. The Tblisi International Airport is not big and we quickly collected our luggage and summoned a Bolt car. We ended up using Bolt several times in Tblisi, always with very reasonable prices and typically short wait times. We knew prior to our arrival in Tblisi that massive protests had been going on in the city over objections to a proposed anti-free-journalism law. I messaged our hotel from the Baku airport to verify that the street our hotel was on (the same avenue on which the Georgian Parliament sits) was still open. Thankfully, the hotel confirmed that it was so I could reassure our Bolt driver who at first told me the road was closed. read more

Azerbaijan: Mud volcanoes, a burning hillside and more

Mud volcanoes on the Absheron Peninsula

Our guide, Hasan, arrived at our Baku hotel promptly at 9am to start a day tour of the Absheron Peninsula on which the Azerbaijani capital sits and the cultural and historic preserve of Gobustan with its prehistoric carvings. We headed southwest out of Baku driving almost a hour to Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape where we joined a cluster of cars and buses awaiting the park’s 10am opening. Skipping the park museum for the time being, we bypassed most of our fellow visitors and went straight to the rock art. read more

Surprising Baku, Azerbaijan

View of the Maiden Tower and Caspian Sea from Xanliq Restaurant in Old Baku

We landed at the Baku airport around 7:30pm local time on Azerbaijan Airlines. We were 30 minutes or so late due to a delay leaving CDG, but the 5h50 flight was pleasant enough with a hot meal served. The sun set just prior to our taxi ride into town which allowed us to enjoy the light show provided by the many high-rise buildings that lined the broad road, the hi-tech display reminiscent of a recent overnight in Doha. In the distance, I finally caught sight of those “flame towers” that so caught my eye in the photograph of Baku that led me to plan this trip. [An overview of this 12-night Caucasus trip is in my previous post.] read more

A Photo of Baku leads to 12 Nights in the Caucasus

This photo is my own, but similar to the one that originally caught my attention.

I can’t say how many times an interesting photo has caught my eye and led me to plan yet another trip, but Baku, Azerbaijan, was definitely one of those times. I don’t even remember where I first saw that intriguing image of a classic Islamic medina (“old town”) with three flame-shaped skyscrapers looming in the background, but I do know I started researching straight away. Baku. Even the name was unfamiliar and intriguing. Azerbaijan I knew nothing about. “The Caucasus” for me was a region usually in the news because of some conflict involving Russia and/or Turkey. I clearly needed to know more. read more

Marrakech

Marrakech from the rooftop bar and terrace of El Fenn hotel
with the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque in the distance

David and I were lucky enough to have the chance to attend five nights in Marrakech celebrating the wedding of American friends’ daughter to a Moroccan-American man. As this was a private event, I won’t write or share photos of that except to say our hosts went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their guests had a fabulous time. (And we did!) Instead, I’ll keep this post to a relatively short travelogue, sharing some photos and a few places we really enjoyed. It wasn’t my first time in Marrakech, but it had been some years and there were new places to discover (and a cautionary tale to share). read more