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