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.
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.”
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?
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?
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.