Top Tips for Travelling the Balkans
Thinking about travelling the Balkans? We’re happy to say we can help you out! Our Balkan trail, as well as some of our other long routes, will take you right through the heart of this stunning and fascinating region – covering the area from Serbia to Montenegro, right up to Slovenia. Overflowing with breathtaking scenery, complex history and charming people, these countries are unmissable but there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about a trip to the Balkans.
The main thing to remember has to be that travelling South Eastern Europe is a different experience from hopping between the classic tourist spots of Paris, Amsterdam or Rome. This is true of transportation systems, language and culture among other factors, so before you head out to discover this beautiful part of Europe, check out our top tips for what to expect in the Balkans!
If you’re used to visiting Western Europe’s capital cities, you’ll be used to the perfect English spoken by most passers by. In the Balkans, while English is spoken widely in touristy areas and larger cities (especially in Croatia), do not assume that everyone will be able to understand you. Use our handy language guides to learn the basics and if you need to speak with someone in English, your hostel or hotel is a great place to start. Failing this most larger cities and tourist attractions will have information points where you can find out more about the area. The good thing is that Western Balkan languages share a lot of similarities – while each country has its own language, most are very similar to one another – so once you’ve learnt a few phrases in one language, the rest should be pretty easy!
Although you’ll never have trouble getting from A to B when you’re booking through Euroventure, it’s worth noting that infrastructure in this region is not on the same level as Western Europe. We’re lucky enough to have high speed trains, metro systems and online timetables at our fingertips, but when travelling the Balkans that’s usually not the case! Please bear in mind when you book with us that we can only book what transport is available, so make sure you know what to expect! In some areas trains can be slow and unreliable, and in most situations it’s not possible to buy tickets online in advance. This means that most of the time when you book a Balkan Trail with us, you’ll be travelling by coach; it’s the quickest, most comfortable and most reliable form of transport for the area. Be aware that journeys can be long due to small roads and mountainous terrain, and most coaches will not have food or toilets available on board. They will usually make a stop on the way, but make sure you bring plenty of food and water if you’ve got a long one ahead of you! In certain locations where public transport is unavailable (or indirect), we will organise door to door transfers for you to get to your next destination. These will generally be organised via your hostel, and will be shared with other travelers.
Unlike in the EU Schengen border-free zone (which does include Slovenia, but not Croatia), when travelling between most Balkan States you’ll need to go through passport controls each time you leave and enter a different country. This can cause delays on public transport as every person’s passport must be checked. While there’s not a lot you can do about your fellow passengers, you can do your bit to avoid delays: have your passport to hand (don’t put it in the luggage hold!!) and make sure that you’re not carrying anything which could land you in trouble, such as large quantities of alcohol or cigarettes.
Public transportation is available to varying degrees within cities across the Balkans – trams and buses are frequent and reliable within the capital cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo, but are less so in smaller and more rural towns such as Kotor. Get into the mindset and relax – allow plenty of time to get where you’d like to go and don’t stress if you’re waiting a while for the bus! If you want to plan excursions, it’s worth asking at your hostel or hotel who will be able to tell you how to reach your destination, and are often able to arrange private transfers for your trips as well.
Culture & history:
Both beautiful and scarred, the varied landscape of the Balkans has long been a meeting point of cultures, peoples and ways of life. Religious views across countries and regions are varied, including Catholicism in Croatia, Orthadox Christianity in Serbia and Islam in Bosnia (you’ll hear the call to prayer ringing out from mosques across Bosnian cities when travelling the Balkans). As a result its history hasn’t always been easy, and after the most recent war (which ended in 1996) lingering tensions remain between regions and ethnic groups. It’s worth trying to understand a little about these before you go as it’ll give you a greater appreciation of each country – people are very friendly in general but understandably they won’t appreciate insensitive comments.
Cultures throughout the region may appear similar on first look, but all the Balkan states are proudly independent and carry their own distinct traditions which it’s important to recognise and celebrate in their own right! People across the region are charming and entrepreneurial – and above all they love to have a chat – especially over coffee. Take the time to talk to them and you’ll be rewarded with fascinating stories and genuine hospitality!
At Euroventure we love travelling the Balkans and are keen to encourage more backpackers to travel to a region which is often overlooked. While it might not be quite as polished as Paris, or as punctual as Switzerland, it’s home to some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery, fascinating cultures and, of course, the cheapest beers! Discover the wilderness of Montenegro, shop in the souks of Sarajevo, swim in the crystal clear waters of the Neretva river in Mostar and eat real Cevapi in Belgrade. As soon as you finish your adventure you’ll want to come back to discover more of Europe’s most underrated cities and landscapes. As we’ve discovered, one visit to the Balkans is never enough.
Words and Images by Catherine Livesley