Backpacking the Balkans

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Although a lot of readers seem to have difficulty understanding this, my Nepal blogs aren’t actually happening in real time. I was in Nepal in March of this year.

If you watch the Pieces of Life feed though, you’ve probably seen that I HAVE been traveling. So what was I up to for the past two months? I was backpacking through the Balkan countries!

Let me tell you a bit about my trip through this oft-neglected region of Europe.

Where are the Balkans?

First things first. Where did I even go? And could I point it out on a map?

The Balkans are the small, Eastern European countries between Italy and Turkey. Many of these countries used to be one nation, called Yugoslavia, which means there is a huge amount of cultural blending across the national borders.

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Yugoslavia

The map above shows the current political borders of the Balkans. But 25 years ago, that map looked a lot different. Back in the day, the nations of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia didn’t exist. Neither did Kosovo, which actually isn’t included on the above map, as its existence is still somewhat of a senstive issue in the international community. (Kosovo is located in the southern region of what is marked as Serbia on this map).

All six or seven of those countries were a socialist republic known as Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was ruled by a widely beloved dictator named Tito, who held the ethnically diverse region together through force of will and cult of personality. After Tito died, the ethnic tensions within Yugoslavia tore the people apart, resulting in the destructive series of conflicts known as the Yugoslav Wars.

When traveling through these countries, I heard a common refrain from locals. “This was all the same fucking country. It’s the same shit.”

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Pay attention to the flags in this part of the world. They will tell you a whole lot.

Where Did I Go?

I started my trip in Budapest, Hungary, where my climbing partner now lives with his girlfriend. I spent a month in Budapest—I’ll go into that city in more detail with a later post— and then headed south overland through the Balkans. I traveled through Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria. I also visited France and Spain.

How Did I Get Around?

Bus is the transportation method of choice in these countries. There are some trains, but they’re not as reliable nor as widespread as in Western Europe. Bosnia, for instance, is in such dire economic straits, they can’t afford to keep their train network running. So if you want to travel to Bosnia (and you should, because it’s AWESOME), you’re going to HAVE to take buses.

The region is so compact, it makes much more sense to travel overland than it does to fly.

Why Should I Visit the Balkans?

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Plitvica Lakes National Park in Croatia

Intelligent question! These countries aren’t the most-visited places on Earth, and unless you’re a major geography buff, you probably don’t even know where they are.

They Are Undiscovered

 

Croatia has done alright for itself, with Plitvica Lakes National Park and Dubrovnik serving as major international tourism destinations. Besides that though, these countries aren’t too often visited.

Which, for me, is a major plus!

Finding “hidden gems” and “undiscovered country” is kind of a traveler’s badge of honor. Everyone goes to France and Spain. But whgen you’re sitting around in the hostel, drinking $2 two-liters of beer, the conversation inevitably turns to the crazy, out-of-the-way places everyone’s been to. So that’s one reason to visit the Balkans. Not a lot of people do.

They’re Very Cheap Travel Destinations

I spent $2,500 on two months of travel in this region. That figure’s all-in, including airfare to and from Denver. AND it includes two pricey weekends in Paris and Barcelona.

PLUS, I was traveling at a really fast pace—three to five days in a country, then moving on, usually. If I had traveled at a slower rate, I could have reduced my savings even more.

If I had really wanted to, I could have spent two months in these countries for under $2,000. I know some people who spend that on a week in Miami, or a weekend in Vegas.

Although it lacks some of the classical charm of Western Europe, Eastern Europe has plenty of its own history, and offers a lot of unique ancient and natural sights. The city of Sarajevo quickly ingratiated itself as one of my favorite travel destinations, ever. Montenegro is an amazingly beautiful country, with huge elevation changes seemingly around every corner.

The People Need the Help

I’ve written in the past about how I think tourism can be a negative influence on communities, sometimes.

I didn’t feel this in the Balkans.

Almost all of these countries have severe problems: bad economies, corrupt governments, ethnic tensions, or war-torn pasts. Sometimes, all four at once. “Life is so shit in the Balkans, why not smoke?” a local told me in Sarajevo, with a sarcastic laugh. “I won’t miss the extra years.”

Bringing money and business to this region is a good thing for the people.

When Should You Go?

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The Waterfront in Thessaloniki, Greece

Summer is tourist high season, meaning the weather will be nice and the beaches will be full.

I went in October, November, and December—decidedly off-season. It was cold and dark, but it had its advantages. Hostels were cheaper and emptier, meaning accomodation was never an issue. Tour operators and hostel owners are also more accommodating when there are fewer guests, which can be a big boon.

And somehow it just felt right to be traveling through these grimy countries when it was dark and cold and everyone was closed up.

But ultimately, the best time to travel is whenever you can make it work. As my experience proves: there will always be someone there to help you, no matter when you’re traveling.

What Did It All Mean?

I’ve been kicking this question over in my head now that I’m home. I hope to write some more detailed content exploring this question and the various destinations I visited over the next few months.

Stay tuned!

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29 thoughts on “Backpacking the Balkans

  1. My husband, by nature is not much of a traveler, but he decided that if he did, he would want to first hit the countries and areas least traveled. His first would be Iceland, but after that, the
    and Balkans would be a consideration. Thanks for the tour.

    • Cool! But just so you know, Iceland is super-touristy these days!! They did a really successful tourism campaign after the recession, and Tourists outnumber the Icelanders these days 😞 still a very cool place, but it’s definitely not off the beaten path.

      • Good to know. Thank you! I went there many many years ago, but never got past the airport, yet always wanted to go back, so if I can get him out of this country, I’d be doing good.

      • I agree, somewhere is always better than nowhere!

        I was in Reykjavik in January, and they were doing a major expansion to the airport, because the country has gotten so popular. The tiny existing one couldn’t handle the volume. Looked like they were about doubling the size.

        I wrote two pieces about my time in Iceland, here and here, if you’d like to revisit them.

  2. Pity it had to be a quick trip. There is so much to do in these countries. Rural tourism is taking off in Bosnia, which means you can not only get an authentic experience of the locals and people in villages on mountain tops, but also help sustainable rural development. There are so many amazing things to see and do in the countryside. Near the border with Montenegro, in Foca, you can find some of the best rivers in the world for rafting. The guys at the rafting camps are amazing, and they give you the full Bosnian experience, with locally sourced organic food, campfires, most likely lots of rakija is also available.
    Albania has some fascinating places too, the towns of Berat, Gyrokaster, the sea…it makes for a fantastic Adriatic coast destination, and even for someone who lives in the Balkans, Albania is a very affordable country (you could rent a car for as little as 10 euros a day, or travel from the very North to the South for around 10 euros). Also, the Albanian Highlands are spectacular, but also sadly in danger from so many hydro power plants and dams being built on their beautiful rivers.
    Croatia is becoming less of a budget friendly destination, but the Plitivice Lake Park is definitely a must see. For affordable accommodation and great water sports (also more waterfalls) you can head over the border to BiH (around 14 km) to Una National Park near Bihac.

    • I definitely want to go back! Sarajevo, Bosnia and Albania particularly stole my heart. Fascinating places, nice people, and as you said, VERY affordable. I’ll definitely come back to this comment for ideas on thins to do when I head back! Thanks!!

  3. Hahaha “where are the Balkins.” That’s usually the first question people ask, I suppose. Sometimes they get ‘The Baltics’ confused with ‘The Balkins’. I guess it’s only a few letters off. I haven’t been able to travel there yet….hoping for Montenegro this summer!

  4. I’ve seen that you’ve only mentioned Dubrovnik and Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, don’t know if that’s the only two places you have visited, but in case they are… next time you should definitely visit Zagreb, the capital city, Zadar, Šibenik, Opatija, Hvar, you can also visit National Park Krka, Northern Velebit National Park, and much more 🙂

  5. I love this post! I love going if your posts, actually. But I have really enjoyed this one, as you capture the essence of the Balkan countries. I wife and I were in Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia a couple of months ago, and we fell in love with the region. We went to many of the same places that you did, what a trip! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I dont know if I would consider Romania as part of the Balkans, from a geographic sense. The Carpathian mountains are quite distinct, and despite not being the most tallest of mountain ranges, they provide some very steep inclines, that make for almost New Zeeland-esque scenery.
    I spent a decade in that part of the world, and the major drawback is unless you go as a local, you won’t experience the beauty of the land. So unless you have time to learn the language and culture, make a friend and bring him along. The cabins throughout the mountains are the utter opposite of commercial corporate resorts. Some don’t have electricity or running water. But if you can endure that, you will get to live like peope did centuries ago, even if for a few nights. Guitar, singing, bean iahnie and nature. And no cell phone signal.

  7. I’m really enjoying your posts! I traveled to Yugoslavia as a teenager, when it was still Yugoslavia, ha ha, and going back to that part of the world is high on my list.

  8. I was active duty army during the war in the Balkins, my unit deployed both to Bosnia in late 90s (97/98) and then again to Kosovo in 2000 (we were the 2nd rotation of boots on the ground trying to help bring peace).

    I was just talking with a coworker about this two days ago, another coworker visited Kosovo and Macedonia a couple years ago. I was lucky enough to spend a couple days in Lake Orid. These countries are absolutely breathing taking. I remember a sky so vast and blue….a night sky that was a marvel (I worked in Strpche, Kosovo). I’ve often wondered what it is like now and how different it would feel going back as a civilian and not part of a UN Peace Keeping mission.

    • I had no issues in any of these countries! I would say that they are safe. Belgrade, Serbia felt a bit sketchy outside of the tourist areas, but I didn’t encounter any crime at any point.

  9. The best trip I ever took was backpacking around Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Such cool places–Albania blew me away. Just don’t forget to bring some bribe money for border crossings.

  10. Seems interesting to go to! Wait, do they speak English there too?!
    Hahaha (just in case I need to learn another language…)
    I hope I can go there when I’m financially ready to travel around the globe… =)

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