Staying Sane While Traveling Solo

Hitting the road by yourself is something that everyone should experience at some point in life. I’ve been on the go for more than four weeks now, and I’m so glad I’m taking this trip solo. But, I’m an introvert. Here’s how to make solo travel tolerable for those of you who aren’t introverts:

  1. Take the free walking tour (available in most cities) as soon as you arrive. Many people on those tours are traveling solo, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation while meandering along on foot. I have really enjoyed meeting travelers from all over the world on these tours, but I also appreciate that I’m won’t be trapped on a bus with them for days at a time.
  2. Stay in a hostel. You don’t necessarily need to share a room or even a bathroom to meet people. Hostels are naturally friendly places, and the people who gravitate toward them are often outgoing and interesting people. Now, for an introvert like me, hostels are the 10th Circle of Hell. But for anyone more socially inclined, it’s a sure way to not feel alone when traveling.
  3. Eat at the community table. Unlike in the U.S., many restaurants in Europe have shared tables. I met a really cool woman traveling solo in Sofia just by sitting at the community table — a table that seats 12 but was full of singles.
  4. Travel by public transit. The train, the bus, the ferry. They all present opportunities to meet people and strike up great conversation. And since you’re going somewhere, you might get some tips on what to do once you arrive. I’ve added to my itinerary several times based on the transport chats.

Traveling solo allows you to get as much — or as little — social interaction as you’d like. If you thrive on meeting new people and it energizes you, your battery can always be at 100 percent. Or, if you’re like me, you can stick to yourself on days you can’t bear the thought of chit-chat.

Lake Bled And Beyond

I knew I wanted to go see Lake Bled in Slovenia since EVERY travel site raves about it. But, day trips were expensive and it wasn’t really that far away. Because of the cost, I decided to rent a car for the day to give me the freedom to explore what I wanted on my schedule. What an amazing idea. I highly recommend it. Slovenia is EXTREMELY drivable, people.

Lake Bled, pictured below, is located in the Julien Alps, only about an hour from Ljubljana. It is know for Blejski Otok, the island with a church in the middle of the lake, as well as its famed turquoise waters.

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To get the best views of Lake Bled, I recommend a trip to Blegski Grad, or the Bled Castle. It’s expensive to enter, and the castle itself isn’t as impressive as others in Europe. But, the views are breathtaking.

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Looking to the southeast from the castle.

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The castle sits high atop a hill on the banks of Lake Bled. It can be seen from nearly any spot along the lake.

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Not surprisingly, Lake Bled is full of watersports and can get overrun with visitors during the summer months. I got a tip from the concierge who told me to keep driving north past Lake Bled, and I’m glad I got past some of the crowds.

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On the way north, I passed a number of country churches. I just can’t get over the scenery. It reminded me of The Sound Music — well, Slovenia does lay claim to being in the Alps.

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North of Lake Bled, I discovered one of Slovenia’s REAL gems: Lake Bohinj. Equally turquoise and majestic, this lake was amazingly quiet and serene. No throngs of young, European backpackers bathing in the water or families with children splashing on the shores. Definitely my kind of place.

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On the banks of Lake Bohinj, I found another gorgeous church.

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After hitting the mountains and lakes, I decided to check out Slovenia’s tiny coastline. In an interesting twist of fate (or perhaps because I was navigating solo), I would up in Italy. Yes, that’s right. I inadvertently found myself in Trieste.

After a quick stop to stretch my legs, I got back on track. Slovenia has less than 50km along the Adriatic sea, but that doesn’t stop Koper from being an up-and-coming port on the cruise circuit. I happened to roll into town while Norwegian had a ship in port.

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All in all, Koper is a sleepy little seaside town with a small market area and a historic square.

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A number of little shops lined its narrow pedestrian alleys.

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And some interesting stone fountains could be found in its various squares.

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Near the port, Koper has a lovely municipal park and harbor area that is lined with restaurants, cafes and shops.

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Slovenia may not have an expansive coastline, but the views along its coast are impressive nonetheless. After leaving Koper, I headed south along the coast road to Izola and Porotoroz.

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Eventually, I stumbled upon my retirement home, perched on the hills above the Adriatic. I could definitely spend some more time in Slovenia.

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Lovely Ljubljana

I must admit that I had no expectation of what to find in the land of Melania Trump. I’ve been to a number of the countries that border Slovenia — Austria, Italy, Croatia. I knew Slovenia was in the EU, used the Euro and didn’t require me to get a visa. So, it sounded easy. And, after four weeks on the road… easy sounded good. I flew into the capital of Ljubljana and met the hotel shuttle at the airport. Easy! I arrived at the Hotel Slon, checked in and then proceeded to wander Old Town on foot. Easy!

In the immediate vicinity of my hotel, I was struck by the gorgeous architecture. I knew I wanted to see the castle, but I had also read the walk along the Ljubljanica River was lovely. Mostly shaded, and lined with cafes, it was a gorgeous introduction to the city.

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I passed a number of interesting bridges and buildings before coming nearly full circle to the main square. As you can see, the area is super lush. It’s lined with trees and gardens.

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In the square, the bright pink Ljubljana Cathedral dominates the view.

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The main square, Krekov Trg, is home to a fabulous Central Market that lines the river and flows into the square. It’s full of produce, clothing, souvenirs and handicrafts.

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Ljublana, like the other cities I’ve visited, is home to amazing street art as well.

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Just off the main square is the funicular to the Ljubjlana Grad — the castle. It’s not the only way to get to the top, but it’s a cool ride. I’d recommend it, for sure. The ride up give you an interesting perspective on the city.

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The Ljubljana city flag flies atop the castle’s clocktower in the interior courtyard.

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The “backside” of the castle faces away from the city, but it’s where you arrive if you walk, drive or take the the tourist train (more on that later) to the castle.

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It’s a bit humorous to me that all the castle rehabs in Slovenia have windows. But, at least they make for interesting photos. This is from the penitentiary looking into the interior courtyard.

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The penitentiary was used as recently as World War I to house prisoners of war. According to the guide, they were mostly Italian.

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After winding my way up a spiral staircase (ingeniously made one-way), I was rewarded with an amazing 360-degree view. This is looking north toward the city.

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The castle also had a chapel, whose dome had been gorgeously restored.

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After I had made the rounds of the castle, I hopped on the Urban Tourist Train, which does a 90-minute drive around the city.

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One of the best spots was the Spica, which is Ljubjlana’s answer to the beach. The waterfront, lined with lounge chairs, cafes and sunbathers (though not in the early morning), also offers opportunities for water sports.

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Also on the route, I passed the John the Baptist church. This photo doesn’t do it justice.

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Near the end of the route, the train passes the last remaining section of the city’s Roman Wall. Around the time of World War I, the expanding city tore down most of the wall. But, this small section remains thanks to a public outcry that prevents its destruction.

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Eventually, the train winds its way back to the Town Hall in the main square. On the flight to Ljubljana, Adria’s in-flight magazine had mentioned a “famous” ice cream shop in the square called Vigo. When I arrived, masses of people were standing around enjoying their treats, but the line had subsided a bit. I popped in for a lemon tiramisu cup. It was definitely worth it.

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Finances: Killing the Budget in Albania & Slovenia ±$1330

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As I posted earlier, I took an unexpected detour out of the Balkans and straight into the heart of the EU — where my wallet took a hit, to be sure. Luckily, Albania had been pretty cheap, so the sticker shock of Slovenia wasn’t too troubling. Plus, I know when it comes to paying in Euro, it’s going to cost some pretty serious bank.

Here’s how it breaks down (in USD) for comparison:

Albania

Airport Transport (RT): $5

AirBnB (3 nights): $169

Groceries & Food: $100

Sightseeing & Berat Day Trip: $148

Bus fare (2 trips): 8 cents — yes, I’m serious. Each trip was 40 lek.

Total: $422.08

Slovenia

Airfare: $409 (also includes flight to Skopje, Macedonia)

Airport Transport (RT): $21

Hotel: $287 (used a free Hotels.com night to lower cost)

Groceries & Food: $40 (hotel included awesome full breakfast)

Sightseeing: $46 (castle admissions, urban train)

Rental Car, Parking & Petrol: $107

Total: $910

In the end, I don’t regret a dime I spent. It was totally worth it to see Slovenia — which I highly recommend. Just pack your wallet. It’s not London or Paris expensive, but it isn’t Balkans cheap… that’s for sure.

Slovenia: Best. Detour. Ever.

While I was in Tirana — having difficulty figuring out how to book a bus ticket from Albania to Kosovo, I learned my apartment in Prishtina had flooded. Uh oh. What to do. Well, I took the challenges as a sign, and decided to take a detour — to Slovenia.

I had been bummed that I wouldn’t make it to Slovenia on this trip, but I figured I could pick it up at some point when I went to Switzerland or Liechtenstein. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I threw the budget out the window and went for it.

I’m SO glad I did. Here’s just a taste of what I found:

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More to come on my time in Ljubljana and my road trip through Slovenia soon. An update on the budget too (sigh).

Day Tripping to Berat

When I added Albania to my itinerary, I had no real expectations of what I would encounter. I suspected the logistics of the country would be challenging — no trains in or out, for example — and that a smaller percentage of the population would speak English given the country was largely isolated from the rest of the world until the 1990s. Both of those things turned out to be true. But, what I couldn’t have anticipated was the fascinating history and culture.  I’d read enough about Berat (historically called Antipatreia) to know it was a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I decided to take a day trip.

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On the way to Berat, my tour guide Armando took me to the seaside town of Durres, Albania’s second-largest city, where we stopped and had a coffee on the beach.  The Albanian seaside is gorgeous, definitely could have spent more time there.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing — to me anyway — about the Berat Castle is that people still live within the castle walls. It is like a small village, with homes, guesthouses, cafes and eateries inside the original castle bounds. The castle was burned by the Romans in 200 BC, but later fortified and reconstructed by Justinian in the 5th Century.

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Located off one of the main squares (above) is this absolutely adorable guesthouse. I’d definitely consider a stay there. The garden was amazing.

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From the castle you get a nice view of Berat, with the Old Town on the left and the newer area to the right.

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Inside the castle walls, you will find a number of churches and mosques, like this Orthodox stunner that has classic Byzantine styling.

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All good castles need a cistern, or water source, and this one still has water in it.

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One of the mosques located inside the castle’s wall — the Red Mosque. The other is cleverly named the White Mosque.

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A structure that was taken over by the government during the Communist Era and turned into a community center. It now sits empty.

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The view of “new” Berat from the castle. The ninth-largest city in Albania, Berat has about 33,000 residents.

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Some of the original castle structure that hasn’t been touched by renovations.

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The entrance to the castle, which is lined with little souvenir shops and stalls run by residents selling everything from magnets to intricate lace linens.

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A stone pedestrian bridge across the Osum River, which separates the castle from Old Town.

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Looking across the river, you get a stunning view of the castle, and you can see the bright red Albanian flag waving in the breeze all the way at the top.

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In addition to Old Town, Berat has a very cute pedestrian area lined with cafes and shops that abuts a large green space. It’s perfect for an afternoon drink or a bite to eat.

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Tirana’s Hidden Gems

 

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I knew my time in Albania would go too quickly, but that’s life. To be honest, I nearly always feel like my travels in a place go too quickly, whether it’s been 2 days or 2 weeks. I landed in Albania on Sunday afternoon, and checked into my AirBnB (amazing!) with this equally fabulous view of the New Bazaar Area. It’s basically a public square with cafes, bars, restaurants and a standing farmer’s market. It’s cool during the day, but really comes to life at night, and my balcony overlooked all the action.

I spent my first whole day in Albania taking a trip to Berat, which I will cover in a separate post. I reserved Tuesday for seeing the sights of Tirana. Like many cities in the Balkans, Tirana offers a free, guided walking tour of the city. It is totally worth it. The guides are locals, and the perspective they provide was amazing. It was a mix of history, culture, top sights and really just good conversation with an Albanian.

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The tour starts in Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in Tirana (pictured above). The square was expanded in the past couple years, and it is now a pedestrian-friendly area. The square is bordered by the national opera theater (undergoing renovation), the national bank, the national history museum, a mosque and some other government buildings. You can also see the large Albanian flag, all red with a large, black double-headed eagle. The flag is the family flag of the general for whom the square is named — Skanderbeg, who held off the Ottomans invasion of Albania for 25 years.

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The clocktower, above, was built in the 1820s by wealthy Tirana families. It’s a combination of the Ottoman and western styles, and you can climb the stairs to the top for a small fee.

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Wandering past the square, we encountered a bevy of government buildings done in a very continental style. Tirana’s architecture isn’t terribly historic. Much of the city was constructed after 1912, and large swaths of building are Communist-era concrete blocks.

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In front of the national art gallery is a fairly new public installation art created by an Asian artist and designed to represent clouds — though you can’t see it from this photo. It’s also a venue where they show films and have public talks.

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More of “the clouds” below. Nope, still not seeing it.

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Tucked behind the national art gallery are some interesting old statues. You can see Stalin, below, who was apparently a hero of Albania’s longtime Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941-1985, and he was largely responsible for Albania’s complete isolation from the rest of the world until Communism fell in 1991.

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Despite all of the gorgeous mosques and churches in Tirana, our guide said Albania is a largely secular country. Although the population is — in his estimate — about 40 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox and 20 percent Catholic, he really believes fewer than 10 percent are actively practicing. In part, that is because Hoxha forbid religion in Albania when he took power.

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The city has an amazing outdoor cafe scene, and Tirana doesn’t really come to life until about 7 p.m. or so on these long summer nights.

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The Tirana Castle, below, isn’t nearly as impressive as the Berat Castle, but you can stay inside at one of the guest houses, if that’s your thing.

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Despite being largely secular, the country is constructing a new mosque in the city center. But, it’s being funded by Turkey. We didn’t get into the political reasons as to why Erdogan would want to finance a mosque in Tirana, but you probably have some ideas.

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A walking tour of Tirana wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Cathedral of St. Paul, below, with it’s statute of Mother Teresa outside.

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Mother Teresa is of Balkan descent, being born somewhere between Albania and Macedonia. Interestingly, our tour guide knew nothing of her or her works until after the fall of Communism.

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The stained glass at the cathedral is amazing. I wish we could have seen it in the daylight, with the sun streaming through it.

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One of the many bunkers present in throughout Albania for military use.

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A memorial to Albanians who died in the mines during Communism.

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The dictator, Enver Hoxha, built this villa in one of the wealthiest parts of Tirana, where only diplomats and high-ranking Communist officials were allowed to live. Now, the neighborhood, Blloku, is where the hip restaurants and clubs are located. The best part: There’s a KFC, Albania’s first (and only so far) American chain right across the street!

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