My current trip around the Balkan region of Europe is coming to an end. Right now I’m in Skopje, Macedonia but tomorrow I shall take the bus to Sofia, Bulgaria where I’ll spend a night or two before hopping on a bus back to Bucharest.
While I wasn’t able to see everything I wanted on this trip, I did manage to see a decent amount as I traveled from Montenegro to Albania and then to Macedonia. I spent time at the beach, climbed fortresses high above fairy tale-esque towns, wandered around interesting cities, relaxed at picturesque lakes, hiked through canyons and soaked up the atmosphere of ancient villages, among many other things.
So as you might imagine, I am certainly satisfied with how this trip turned out. In fact, I am absolutely thrilled with how this journey turned out.
And yet, despite the places I’ve seen and the activities I’ve participated in over the past month, it was something else that made this trip such a complete success for me, something that, time and time again, has proven to be far more important and rewarding to me than any other aspect of travel.
It’s the people.
When I sit down and think of my time in Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia, I can guarantee you that the people I met in those countries will always be the first thing that enters my mind. And I shall always be smiling when I think of them.
Even right now, when I think of my time in Ulcinj, Montenegro, I think of Mr. and Mrs. Redzepagic, the sweet and generous owners of the amazing apartment that I rented in that town. When I think of my time in Tirana or in Berat, Albania, I think of the people I came across every day, from the staff at the Theranda Hotel to the clocktower watchman to the locals I met at restaurants, on buses and in the streets.
And finally, it will now be impossible for me to ever think of Macedonia without remembering the Manojlovski family, a family that began as friends of a friend, and after welcoming me into their home and community for five days, quickly became good friends of mine.
It was this family who picked me up from the bus station in Skopje, cooked for me incredible amounts of local food, shared with me their home-made wines and rakia, took me all over the city, to museums, to cafes, to the old Turkish quarter, to restaurants, to monuments and more, providing me with a personal tour that I simply could never have experienced on my own.
And it didn’t stop there. My wonderful hosts took me to the top of a local mountain, brought me to a lake and beautiful canyon situated outside Skopje and they even invited, practically insisted, that I tag along with them to the baptism ceremony for their friends’ one-year old son which was to take place inside of an impressively preserved 12th century church.
So I joined them.
Then, immediately upon arrival at this church, everyone I met was so very kind, welcoming me, a complete stranger, as if my presence was expected. In fact, right in the middle of the ceremony itself, the father of the son being baptized was reprimanded by his mother and other guests and was told to be quiet because he started talking to me, asking me questions and just trying to make sure I was comfortable and enjoying myself.
Once the ceremony was over, the group of about fifty people then went into a nearby restaurant, with tables situated next to large open windows that offered perfect views of Skopje down below. And here is where I experienced a Macedonian feast, which had more to do with the conversation, the laughter, the jokes being told, the stories shared and the constant displays of friendship than it did with the endless plates of food and the endless glassfuls of beer and local brandy.
For four hours we all sat there together having such a great time and when the restaurant closed and we all finally had to leave, I absolutely felt as if I had just spent a night with a group of friends I had known for a very long time.
This is why I travel. It is all about the people. It always has been and it always will be. And if I didn’t have such rewarding interactions in most of the places I visit on the planet, I’d certainly have stopped traveling a long, long time ago.
Any experiences to share about meeting new people while traveling? Or is there another aspect of travel that is more important for you?