“Don’t make excuses, make something incredible happen in your life right now.”
– Greg Hickman
I spent 4 weeks in different Balkan countries this summer and loved every minute of it. Nature is unspoiled & beautiful, the people friendly & welcoming, the culture rich & diverse, the history abundant & interesting and the weather sunny & warm. I can almost hear you think: “I should go there myself.”
I think you absolutely should, but before you decide to go: Have a look at my list of 10 reasons why the Balkan may NOT be your favourite holiday destination. To be more precisely, have a look at 10 excuses not to go and decide then that they are actual weak excuses and just go to this incredible part of the world.
You should NOT visit the Balkan if you…
1. DO NOT like smokers
As a family of non-smokers we knew that we would go to smokers’ paradise when visiting the Balkan and we certainly did. On our first evening out we wanted to have dinner in šešir moj, a restaurant in the picturesque street Skadarlija in Belgrad (see photo below). The terrace was packed, but there were still a few tables available inside. I innocently asked if there was a non-smoking area inside the restaurant. The waiter ever so friendly answered: “My dear lady, this is the Balkan and smoking is permitted everywhere!”
He was right in a way. The restaurants are absolutely smokers’ friendly. In the train from Belgrad to Podgorica, there were plenty of non-smoking wagons though and in the busses no one was smoking, apart from some of the drivers (that had probably more to do with the passengers being tourists like us than with some kind of non-smoking policy).
All in all, we did not find the smoking too overwhelming. Most of the time you spend outside anyway, where smoke is not that obtrusive as inside a building, so when you think about visiting the Balkan in summer, I’d say you’ll be fine as a non-smoker.
2. DO NOT eat meat
When you say Balkan, you say meat. Meat is loved and served in abundance (see photo below: meat for 6 people). When you order any meat dish in a restaurant, you will get lots of meat, a few potatoes or fries and probably raw onions as vegetables…
There is something that can beat the meat and that is the fresh fish served closer to the coast, rivers or lakes.
Despite the abundance of meat, we met quite some vegetarians on our trip. They told us it was a challenge, especially in the more mountainous and inland parts, but absolutely do-able to stick to a vegetarian diet!
3. DO NOT like hot summer days
The Balkan can be hot, very hot in summer. I don’t know about you, but visiting a city with temperatures of 40° celsius or more isn’t my idea of fun. Having said that, I have to admit that we did not have too many overly hot summer days. In Belgrade we even did not visit Ada Ciganlija, because the weather was too cloudy and cool for a swim.
Only Podgorica and Mostar were a challenge temperature-wise. In Podgorica we solved this problem by visiting the city in the morning and spending the afternoon on Lake Skadar (see photo above), a great place to canoe and swim.
When you visit Mostar, I’d advice you to do it early in the morning too. You will avoid both the heat and the crowds (look at the famous bridge: no one!).
After your early Mostar sight-seeing, cool off in the most beautiful swimming pool I have ever been too: the Kravica waterfalls.
Many of the Balkan cities are close to water, so there will always be an option to cool off on hot summer days!
4. DO NOT like religious signs
In Belgrad we visited quite some orthodox churches and we were surprised at the devotion we witnessed inside.
In Sarajevo we saw mosque after mosque and many women in a burqa.
In Mostar we were woken by the call for prayer from the mosque and when looking outside the window of our accommodation, we could see a huge white cross on a hill overseeing the city.
Religion is everywhere in the Balkan and it is as diverse as the region itself. We thought it was very enriching, but if you do not like being surrounded by religious signs when on holidays, you should stick to the many amazing national parks the region has to offer.
5. DO NOT like the lack of signposts or good maps
Talking about national parks. When you want to have clear signposts and well marked trails when exploring a national park, the Balkan may be way out of your comfort zone. We are used to the Swiss Alps, so totally spoiled. We have got maps ready to download and signs wherever you want them to be with many marked stones on the trails.
Not so in Tara National Park (the habitat of a large population of brown bears). Not so in Theth.
In Tara National Park there are signs at the beginning of a walk and you can even download the route by using the QR code provided. That didn’t always work out though. There are simply so many small trails and so many junctions with no information at all… Even your downloaded map is not detailed enough. Oh, and when there are signposts, they are sometimes written in Cyrillic (that means the signposts mean nothing to you).
We tackled this challenge by using maps.me, which was great (most of the time at least). The walk to the most beautiful viewpoint of the park, Bansjka Stena, is fortunately a well marked and easy to walk path and very much worth doing.
Theth was another type of challenge. There are marked stones everywhere. You may think that’s good. Well, yes and no. You know that you are on a marked trail, but with hardly any signposts you have no clue what route you are following.
Occasionally there is a signpost indicating a direction, but for the rest you’re supposed to follow your instincts (and phone) to get to this wonderful waterfall, to the route to Valbona or to the Blue Eye.
We needed some time to adjust to this different kind of (read: lack of) information, but we managed well and thought it was rather adventurous. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing altogether, so even if you do not like the lack of signposts when hiking, you may just have found a great way of stepping out of your comfort zone and into beautiful nature at the same time!
6. DO NOT want to be confronted with a recent war
When you have read my Sarajevo blogpost, you will realise that you can still see and feel much of the Balkan Wars. That is a history so close in time and place that it makes you shiver. We had a young tour guide tell us that he felt he had to protect his mother when bombs were falling on Belgrade. Another young guide told us about her youth in Sarajevo, how life for a kid was in a city under siege. One of the guests in Theth was from Kosovo and told us they had fled the country because of the war.
These were impressive stories. It is hard to imagine what has taken place and even harder to understand why and how people can commit such crimes against fellow human beings.
In case you feel you cannot handle hearing about or seeing signs from a war “next door”, you can still visit many parts of the Balkan, but there will also be places you’d rather avoid.
7. DO NOT like cats or dogs
It’s certainly not often raining cats and dogs in the Balkan (see point 3), but cats and dogs are everywhere! Some cities and areas are very much dog-oriented, like Shkodra and Tara National Park. Others are specialised in cats, such as Kotor.
We have met many dogs on our trip and all of them super friendly. That’s because most stray dogs are vaccinated and castrated.
In Tara National Park we kind of had a pet for a day. At the beginning of one of our hikes, a cute dog started following us, waiting for us and leading the way. No matter how nice others hikers were to “our” dog, we were the chosen. It was very special.
In Kotor the many cats are real eye-catchers and often get more attention from the tourists than the picturesque buildings, small streets and squares.
Even when you are not a huge fan of cats and dogs, I think you will not be too bothered by their presence. Most of the time they will ignore you, since they are many people around who love showing them some attention.
8. DO NOT like music
Music, like cigarets, coffee and cevapcici, is something you cannot avoid in the Balkan. No matter where you are, you will hear music.
It can be highly modern or very traditional, but music is all around you! Ice-cream is sold in Belgrad with beats as good as the ice-cream itself. Dinner is enjoyed with folk music played by traditionally dressed men at your table in the picturesque street Skadarlija. In the middle of the Albanian alps you will hear traditional music on a ferry bringing you from one very remote place to the next one. And in Sarajevo music is literally around every corner at the weekend, bringing the best out of both highly modern dressed women and very traditional dressed women.
In case you prefer silence, the mountains are a good option, though even remote villages and restaurants will often be filled with music!
9. DO NOT like delays when using public transport
When we told people about our plan to travel through several Balkan countries, using public transport, they would either shake their heads in disbelief, wish us good luck or carefully ask if we knew what we were about to do. We didn’t actually, but we wanted an adventurous holiday and using public transport sounded like adding some extra adventure. Well… not really.
In Belgrad, we took a direct bus to the city centre and the bus driver spontaneously let us get off his bus in front of our hostel in stead of stopping at an official bus stop. That was an extremely good start of using public transport, I can tell you that!
The Montenegro Express arrived and left exactly on time, as did the Komani Ferry.
The ferry we had to take a few times between Dubrovnik and Koločep (an island close to Dubrovnik, where we spent some lovely days) was always on time and we even had to pay less when the skipper realised we had been on his boat before.
In one whole month of travelling by public transport, we only had one minor problem: The bus from Podgorica to Shkodra was overbooked and since we were a larger group, we had to wait for a next one. We had a coffee and one hour later a small bus arrived and we got more than a normal bus ride. Our driver was almost a tour guide, indicating all sorts of interesting sights along the way. I am sure he had tons of interesting information to share too, but with his level of English and our level of Montenegrin, we could only communicate some basics. It was a much more interesting and relaxing drive than the original one would have been.
Maybe we were lucky or maybe the reputation is different than the reality.
I feel I must tell you this one final public transport thing. The Montenegro Express is known as one of the most scenic train routes you can take in Europe and this alone would already be a good reason to use public transport for at least part of your trip!
10. DO NOT like it when you can’t speak English
Many people speak English in the Balkan and many even very well. Only in Albania, deep in the mountains, we were having a few challenges. Our driver from Skodrah to Theth did not speak a word of English, but understood perfectly well what we wanted. He stopped at the last local supermarket so we could stock up and made sure we could make the most beautiful photos on our way to Theth.
In Valbona we stayed in a guesthouse, where we could only communicate with body language and a few words of English. Despite that, the lady of the house made sure we had a packed lunch on the day we’d like to have one and told us which restaurant was the best in town (town is a big word for Valbona). She also arranged a taxi for us to take us to the Komani Ferry (the taxi driver literrally did not speak a single word of English, but took us to the ferry save and on time).
We loved the challenge and thought it added something special to our trip. In case you want to communicate in English during your stay, stick to the bigger cities and the coast and you’ll be fine!
Just do it!
Well, so far the 10 excuses and now it’s time to stop making excuses and to make something incredible happen in your life right now!