I didn’t expect to fall in love with the Balkans. My first trip was to Bulgaria was only because I found a great deal out of Istanbul (I was living in Turkey at that time). On that trip I drove across the border to Macedonia. I loved them both and over the next eighteen months I visited every country in the region, most more than once. And I fell deeper and deeper in love every trip.
Note: The Balkans is an ambiguous term. There are some countries that are always considered the Balkans and others that only make some lists. In my mind, the Balkans include the nations of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria. I am not including Greece, Turkey, or Romania. Partially because their histories are different enough and partially because they are usually considered travel destinations in their own right and don’t have the tumultuous history of the smaller Balkan nations that have been part of empire after empire.
People: Every country has wonderful people. And you can have a great experience everywhere. However, the people in the Balkans, and especially those of Albanian decent (Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia) are some of the friendliest and most helpful I have ever met. In Macedonia, two guys at a gas station spent over 15 minutes trying to give us directions despite the language barrier. Also in Macedonia, a woman walked us to our destination because she was convinced that we didn’t understand her hand gestures and directions. In Kosovo, a gentleman we met outside a museum became our tour guide for the day and remains a friend. These are just a handful of examples.
Culture: The Balkans are at the cross roads of east-west and were the spoils of great empires of past centuries. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire were the two domineering powers. However, you can’t forget the Russian influence on the Serbian & Orthodox populations or the legacy of communist Yugoslavia, WWI, WWII, and wars of the 1990s. The Balkans are also an amazing melting pot of religion (Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim). Coming from Turkey it was amazing to hear both the call to prayer and church bells! The Balkans are full of vibrant and wonderful heroes that dominate their history and folk lore – Count Vlad (aka Dracula), Alexander the Great, and Skenderbeg are some of my favorites. They also have more recent heroes like Mother Teresa (Albanian but born in Macedonia) and Albert Einstein.
Food: Wonderful food! Balkan food enjoys influences from Mediterranean (think Greek or Turkish), Central Europe (pork, meat, potatoes) topped off with regional specialties like Papanasi (cottage cheese donuts with sour cream and jam) and plum brandy. You can also get some of the best wine and Italian food in the world in Albania (who knew?!)
Croatia has it all with beautiful coast line, wonderful national parks (Plitvice is not to be missed), and of course the walled city of Dubrovnik.
Bosnia is fascinating with the bridges of Mostar and the history packed capital of Sarajevo where you can see the corner that changed the world forever with the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand (WWI) and the rose of Sarajevo (red paint reminders on the sidewalks of the mortar shells that fell on the city in the 90s).
Albania –– visit the castles and mosques (different than those in the Middle East, Turkey or Western Europe) of this a fiercely independent and friendly country.
Macedonia – Skopje was my favorite Balkan Capital and a trip to idyllic Lake Ohrid is a must.
Bulgaria had a completely different history and experience under the Ottoman Empire and it can be felt today in its city squares and beautiful Orthodox churches.
Kosovo is one of the planet’s newest countries and you can feel the energy and promise.
Serbia is a must stop to truly understand the diversity and yet hegemony of the Balkans. Additionally, Belgrade is a great city for nightlife, and the country side is wonderful to explore for hiking and outdoor activities.
Montenegro is majestic. This small country has harrowing cliffs and a gorgeous coast line. And Kotor is a must stop for the region. This fairy-tale walled city was a charming discovery.
Additionally, the Balkans are very easy to navigate (we rented a car several times) and remains one of the most affordable places I have ever been!
Books: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is a Balkan classic. Girl at War by Sara Novic. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert Kaplan.