When I mentioned to a European friend of mine that I planned to backpack the Balkans this spring, his response was surprise. “The Balkans! Wow! You won’t meet many travellers.”
He was wrong.
Still relatively undiscovered but becoming more popular every year, now is the time to backpack the Balkans for the following reasons.
1. It’s still cheap
Let’s be honest – everyone’s looking to get the most bang for their buck these days and if you’re backpacking, you’re probably on a budget. Compared to Western Europe, the Balkans are a cheap alternative with beer for less than a Euro, a large meal for less than five and lodging in a hostel for as low as nine. Most hostels offer kitchen facilities to cut your costs even further.
2. The people are friendly and helpful
Struggling to overcome the recent history and effects it’s had on both the reputation and the economy, locals welcome travellers and are quick to offer assistance, directions and a welcoming shot of rakija. Just know that you can’t have just one – you have to have one for each leg!
3. The Balkans have everything to satisfy your personal interests
If you prefer ruins, cathedrals and galleries, you’ll find them in the Balkans. If you want to challenge yourself hiking, mountain biking or climbing, head to Zabliak and Durmitor National Park in Montenegro or the Accursed Mountains in Albania. Prefer the night life and partying till dawn? Belgrade, Serbia is the place to be. Want to lie on a beach? Try the Island of Hvar, Croatia or Varna, Bulgaria. The options are only limited by your imagination and time.
4. The hostels are top notch
Every where I stayed, the hostels catered to the needs of the backpacker. Most have large kitchens, offer laundry service, and encourage socializing. The gem in the region is The Balkan Backpacker program, a group of hostels throughout the Balkans that have been hand-picked for inclusion based on traveller feed-back.
5. The recent history is fascinating
Locals in the tourism industry are open about the recent wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the impacts are still readily visible in the bombed and pitted buildings. You’ll hear a lot about the days of Tito and come away with a completely different perception of communism.
6. It’s not “touristy”
Few destinations have been overtaken by the corporate monsters that have turned many cities into carbon copies of each other. The shops are local, as is the food, and you may have to mime your needs in some more rural locations. But that’s the great part of travel – discovering the local culture, food, and music.
7. It’s easy to get around by bus
The buses are cheap, run frequently and are a better alternative than trains in the region, though they may be slow at times. Expect to spend a Euro or two for your luggage since that’s not included in your ticket. The other benefit is you don’t spend time you could be visiting sites searching on-line for the best price. In many places, there is only one option!
8. You’ll want to go back
A few weeks or even two months is not enough time to truly immerse yourself in all that the Balkan countries have to offer. As you travel, you’ll meet other backpackers who will share the places they’ve visited and your own list of destinations will get longer than the time you have to explore them.