The Balkans Might Be the Strangest, Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Traveled

Travel in the Balkans

It was a long summer of travel, fraught with a multitude of highs and lows, new cultures, immense growth, and even ill-fated love.

Four months went by—and slowly, it seems. It wasn’t one of those summers that disappears in an instant. No, these four months took their time. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Travel always bestows its lessons.

Traveling in the Middle East was a complete inversion of the world as I knew it, and Greece was stunningly beautiful, but of course not, what I had expected. Then again, travel experiences are always the most compelling when you least expect them.

It was my first foray into Europe, actually. With the exception of a one-week jaunt to London at the age of 15, I have never set foot on European soil before this year. But instead of going to Paris or Rome, I went East.

Traveling in the Balkans was something entirely different, and unlike anything I possibly could have anticipated.

The Balkans Might Be the Strangest, Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Traveled
A quick selfie on a hike high above Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Traveling in The Balkans

“You pay six euro!” the portly man announced in a cold, harsh staccato. “No no!” I shouted back. “We agreed on three, so I’ll give you three.”

I crumpled up the 10 euro note in my palm and frantically foraged in my pockets for exact change. Once I had heard the inflated price, I knew exactly what type of cab ride this was — the type where you get screwed.

He wasn’t having it. The price was to be six euros. He was charging us extra for luggage, only he hadn’t informed us of this in the first place. I scoffed and declared that we absolutely would not be paying that price.

It’s not about the three euros, it’s the principle.

I removed myself from the car, dropped three coins on the front seat, and walked behind the taxi and opened the trunk to remove our luggage.

SLAM.

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

The cold metal door nearly crushed my fingers as the stout man forced the trunk door shut in front of me. He was holding our bags ransom inside his car until we paid the full price.

He began yelling, and I yelled right back. It was late at night and we just had an intense experience with a mob of Syrian refugees. I was not in the mood to get taken advantage of. Not right now.

Church of St. John at Kaneo. Ohrid, Macedonia.
Church of St. John at Kaneo. Ohrid, Macedonia.

After much confrontation, the stocky man agreed to honor our original agreement. He opened the trunk, outstretched his palm, I handed him three euros, and the three of us walked away with our luggage.

It wasn’t until two days later that I realized what had actually happened. Not only had I dropped three euros in his front seat when I got out of the car, but I paid him three more as we retrieved our luggage. We weren’t the winners that we thought we were. He tricked us.

And this was only our first night in Macedonia.

Matka Canyon, Macedonia
Matka Canyon, Macedonia.

The Balkans is a Strange and Beautiful Place

Inland, you’ll find gaping canyons, rugged mountain ranges, and placid lakes. You’ll find bustling cities, dusty roads, and communist architecture. Head to the coast, and you’ll find ancient cobblestone cities and a uniquely lavish coastline.

My friend, Adventurous Kate, visits the Balkans every summer.

One reason is its beauty–both natural and cultural. Not only are the eastern Adriatic and Ionian coastlines some of the most naturally beautiful seascapes in the world, but the locals outdid themselves by building incredible cities and towns beside them.

Walled cities in Croatia with terra cotta roofs like Dubrovnik, pastel-colored old towns like Rovinj, and even inland cities like Mostar, Bosnia, and Bled, Slovenia are brilliantly set against bright teal rivers and lakes.

In no other place in the world does such natural and cultural beauty blend so seamlessly.

Overlooking Saranda, Albania.
Overlooking the Ionian Sea from the coastal town of Saranda, Albania.

Indeed, the landscapes are varied. Not to mention, everywhere you go, you’ll find an intricate labyrinth of culture to navigate.

Traveling the Balkans is not your typical travel experience, and “what should I do there?” is not the question you should be asking. In fact, it’s not so much about what to do, but rather observing the nuances and allowing your experience to just play out for itself.

It’s tough to put a finger on what makes the Balkans so unique. It’s not the largest region in the world, but it could very well be one of the most diverse.

Sunset in Montenegro.
Sunset in Montenegro.

Where Are the Balkans?

The Balkan Peninsula consists of ten-and-a-half countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European part of Turkey.

And that last country, Turkey, which accounts for “half,” might actually be the most historically significant.

The Balkans, today, are predominantly made up of what was once Yugoslavia—a historically fascinating pocket of land that formed after WWII. In the early 1990’s, this republic broke apart due to political upheaval and unrest. The result was the formation of a number of independent countries, which are now exciting travel hotspots, despite their turbulent past.

These countries are each imbued with their own distinct culture. This is not just an amorphous blob of former Yugoslav countries and their neighbors—each of these countries is a thriving hub.

A typical scene in the Balkans.
A typical street scene in the Balkans.

The Balkan Wars Weren’t That Long Ago…and It’s Apparent

For six centuries, the Ottoman Empire, a multinational, transcontinental power originating in Turkey, ruled much of Southeast Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia/The Middle East. During its reign, and through many wars and much contention, countries were won and lost, borders changed frequently, and revolutions came and went.

There were so many different powers at play, for so many hundreds of years, I simply cannot attempt to delve into the specifics. It’s too complicated.

In a place that, politically, can only be compared to the Wild West, there are some very interesting dynamics left over in today’s iteration of the Balkan nations.

Boardwalk in Ksamil, Albania.
Boardwalk in Ksamil, Albania.

While hitch-hiking in Albania, I met a man–a local newscaster–who received daily death threats from politicians. But what could he do? He was making his wage, and he was proud to be telling the truth about a country that he loves dearly.

He explained that the Albanians are a proud people because, for centuries, they had no allies, yet they fought for their country (literally) and they persevered.

The Albanians don’t have a lot. Their country is small, and they are the poorest country in all of Europe. But in recent wars, they fought for their land, for their people, for their lives, and they did it alone, with no help from neighboring countries.

They are proud, not for what they have, but for what they STILL have. They are proud, quite literally, because they are here.

Government Officials are Largely Corrupt

Skopje, Macedonia, the capital city of what is also referred to as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), is littered with communist architecture. On seemingly every corner, and in every square, rest bizarre statues of Macedonian heroes and animals representing strength, like horses and lions.

An earthquake flattened much of the city in 1963, and the city is on a road to redevelopment, hence why the city of Skopje is almost always under construction, and why new buildings and statues are always being built. To most, they are regarded as tourist attractions.

But there’s another side to the story, something which is often not spoken of.

Government officials have deals with city-appointed contractors, and they receive a kickback for every job. As an example, contractors will modify the cement-to-water ratio for the sake of using less product, and government money that was budgeted to pay for that extra fraction of cement will instead go directly into the pockets of politicians.

Sneaky, huh?

As you can imagine, the Macedonian people aren’t happy. When we arrived in Skopje, our six-euro taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of a would-be Occupy movement directly in front of Parliament. For months, three hundred people camped on the street to protest the reign of the current leader.

But guess who funded that movement? It was the opposing political party.

There is still a lot of unrest in the Balkans, and that extends far beyond Macedonia (though the National Liberation Army is nothing to sneer at). Not even twenty years ago, in the late 1990’s, NATO bombed then-Yugoslavia, now-Serbia, in an effort to end human rights abuses.

The remains of the bombing still stand today.

Remains of the NATO Bombings in Belgrade, Serbia.
Remains of the NATO bombings in Belgrade, Serbia.

This is What Poverty Looks Like in Europe

Shops on the side of the street are often nothing more than small huts. Some towns remind me of the dusty roads in Laos. Huge cement buildings have fallen and been forsaken; children run through them with abandon, though rusty cables and wires are almost everywhere.

Most people don’t think of Europe as a developing region. I certainly didn’t. When I think of poverty, I think of South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. But some places in the Balkans, and especially Albania, are just as poor, and to see poverty in a European framework is astounding.

Some Balkan countries, like Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece, receive massive amounts of tourism every year, and these tourism dollars heavily stimulate the economy. They’re the most heavily-trafficked countries in the Balkans, and also the most economically elevated (though Greece has obviously had some recent issues).

Get off the tourist route, however, and you’ll see a very different side of things.

Riding the train in Serbia.
Riding the train in Serbia.

I was riding in a car with two mid-twenties Albanians, and they start asking some funny questions.

“What the hell are you doing in Albania!? Do you think it’s beautiful here?”

I stared out at the flat, modest landscape in front of me. “Of course,” I replied.

“How much money do you earn in America?”

I told them that some people earn seven dollars per hour working in a store.

“Seven dollars per hour!?” they exclaimed. “We don’t even make that in a day!”

My modest explanation of American wages blew their minds.

The average wage in the Balkans is somewhere around five to ten euros a day. My newscaster friend told me that he worked for four days just to be able to afford the gas for the five-hour drive to his parents’ house. And one girl I met asked me if I knew anybody who wanted to buy a wife.

Interesting building in Belgrade, Serbia.
An interesting building in Belgrade, Serbia.

For most people who travel, the Balkans is an affordable place to go. Hostels are $5-10/night, and in most places a fancy meal won’t cost you more than $10. A rental car in Albania is barely a second thought. This is great for travelers, but it’s important to remember what that actually means for the locals.

At first, I reveled in the fact that the Balkans are so affordable. “Three of everything!” But then I thought about it a little more. These people are struggling. They are scrambling for a better life.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about paying an extra three euros for that cab ride.

Ksamil, Albania.
Ksamil, Albania.

But, Wow. Traveling the Balkans is Worth It.

Traveling in The Balkans is nothing short of an experience. It’s rustic, it’s old school, and in some parts, it’s even a little bit bleak. But it’s beautiful.

Yes, there’s corruption. Yes, there’s war, and yes there’s poverty. Culturally, this place is a goldmine. And the people and their history really bring this region of the world to life. The landscapes are raw and rugged. The coastline is simple yet opulent. And there is so much to uncover that two months in the Balkans just wasn’t enough.

And this article can’t nearly do it justice. It’s something you have to see for yourself.


READ NEXT: How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

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  1. For me it’s the people that make the Balkans. Without wishing to sound to general, I thought the warmth, intensity and passion of the people that I spent time with in Croatia and Serbia made both countries great places to visit.

  2. This is great, especially the part about remembering a local’s lifestyle and perspective and not just seeing a place as a ‘budget’ destination – so many people forget that people actually live in a country and don’t enjoy the same kind of luxury that travellers can afford there. Really well-written as ever – and inspiring us more to finally visit Macedonia after years of planning to!

  3. Hey Tony , reading your comment ,i could assume that your mind doesnt let you understand different culture and having good observation over the region. Easy money are fact and previlage only in the west ,but not in the Balkans. People actually work much more hours for way less money then the most of the rest of the countries in the continent. The lack or the minimum of social help ,that people recieve ,doesnt let them get lazy and as you might know ,those are traditional societies ,where families are important and need to be supported and responsibilities are bigger. I have been living in many places in this world , including northern europe ,the balkans, middle east and south east asia. I understand , that there is not a perfect place ,but also i am really irratated by the brain washed western mind of some people , that think , that there is only one way to be right and usually this way is probably related to wealth or following western model. Easy money means to buy cheap for you flight to a country , to enjoy your 1 euro diner and 5 euro prostitute and to report your narrow minded critical aproach on internet.
    The security that the west is providing might be a good thing ,but might as well lead to a disaster. Statistic shows leading numbers of devorces and depresion in some of the richest countries in the west ,incl USA ,among with the pourest in Africa , leading number of the most dangerous cities in the white world. The job of many goverments is to keep people calm and make them believe ,that they live in the best place in the world. You have to understand also that east and west have been having different devolopments throught their hystory. While the west is been colonizing ,the balkans have been on the other side ,under Ottoman rule. Culture ,tradition and religion is what is been keeping those people alive till now , and still of huge importance , so you can understand the scepticism to foreign idiologies that have been aimed to be imposed.
    I would say next time you decide to travel – do it with open heart and mind, ,because there are beautiful ,fascinating and enriching places ,like this one.

  4. We are currently in Albania and planning to visit other places, including Montenegro, Bosnia Croatia etc I’m stunned at how beautiful Albania is and how friendly and generous Albanians are. We have nothing but high praise for the roads, beaches, people and scenery!! Go see Albania for yourself!!

  5. whoah this weblog is excellent i really like reading your posts.
    Stay up the good work! You realize, a lot of individuals are looking round for this information, you could aid them greatly.

  6. What a beautiful and interesting article! I too started traveling young; however, my destinations never included anywhere east of Rome. Thank you for sharing your experience about the taxi ride, I’ve had some similar rides myself! I found another great blog that discusses the Balkans that you and your readers may enjoy http://www.flyingraconteur.com/blog

  7. I found your post very interesting and informative. I will be in the Balkans in March, I’m a woman in my 50’s and will be traveling with my sister who’s in her 60’s, we are both well traveled and I’ve been to Croatia in the late 90’s, but it wasn’t much of a tourist destination back then. I’m looking forward to our trip and tips will prove handy. Thanks!

  8. Love the post and photos! Planning a longer solo trip to the Balkans this year, as have fallen in love with Montenegro and Serbia over the past couple of years. The people, scenery, food, history and culture make these countries so unique.

    Did you buy a rail pass, or buy tickets as you went?

  9. Just to correct you. Slovenia is not in the Balkans. Culturally, historically or geographically. Slovenia lies in the Central Europe.

      1. Most of Slovenia was under the Hungarian, Italian or German (Austrian) rule most of the time. And their language probably is similar to other eastern-southern languages-Slavic but that’s about it. They don’t like being called that they’re from the Balkans as their roots are mostly from Austria, Italy and Hungary. Many immigrants came from Croatia, but they assimilated differently and you can spot one real quickly. Also a short time when Slovenia was a part of Yugoslavia (let me remind you — a short time), Slovenia was the industrial center and had a better economical standard than any other state in Yugoslavia.

        I know most people that live outside Europe think that this is not that important, but believe me, it is quite a big of a deal if you ask a Slovene on whether he or she considers him or herself Balkanian. It is similar when someone makes statement that you’re going to visit England when the truth is you are really going to visit Edinburgh, Scotland which is of course a part of the United Kingdom, and it is on an island called Great Britain.And to call a Scottish guy or gal British, you will be stoned guarantee you. They call themselves Scottish-European and than, maybe… British. Also applies to N-Irish.

        So I kindly advise any traveler out here before you make any statements about Slovenia and the Balkans when you visit Slovenia, think before you speak. It can result in a huge resentment towards you. And Slovenes can be and can get sensitive about this particular thing. Have lots of stories to tell you. Peace out.

  10. I’ve been contemplating a visit to the Balkans. I’ve seen a fair amount of Europe, but aside from Croatia and Slovenia, the Balkan region remains rather unscathed for me so far. In Croatia, I ventured off the tourist route for a short while and the scars of the war were clearly evident so I know exactly what you mean. This article has been a very interesting read and has furthered my interest to visit the region.

  11. This is the kind of place that I would not hesitate to visit every summer. I think I already in the Balkans because of your beautiful snaps, Thanks.

    1. Hahahahah love ’em track suits and Adidas is “the brand”. I was reading all of the comments and about “the facts” i will say my opinion: Albania is not the poorest in Europe,but Belarus to my knowledge.Regarding the economy and income levels,we(the Balkans) are not as poor as the dusty roads of Laos,nor as rich as other EU capitals ($33k per capital,as stated in the above comments,that’s far from the real average).We will fall somewhere in between of these two 🙂 Being Macedonian i’m very thankful to Jeremy for his time spent,experiences gained,stories and amazing photos shared with the rest of the world. Well done boss!

  12. I just started noting down your entire article on Balkans in my diary. What an interesting piece. With colourful and vivid photos, the life of Balkans, their struggle and their patriotice zeal.

  13. Great article. How does one travel around the Balkans from country to country? Is it possible to rent a car in one country and drop it off in another? Athens to Dubrovnik for example?
    Thanks

  14. Hi Jeremy! Great article. It is heartwarming to see how you soak in the essence of the places you visit, along with the stories of the people and the settlements. Do you think it will be safe for an Indian to travel to the Balkans?

  15. Hi Jeremy!

    My name is Jovana and I’m from Serbia. I absolutely love your photos. I was wondering if it would be alright to use them in a presentation about the Balkans which I’m currently making?

    Thank you very much in advance and I hope that you come visit Serbia once again soon! 😀

  16. I’m sorry, there are a few facts written here that aren’t facts, firstly the average across the Balkans isn’t $25-50 a week, the capitals in most of these countries have the same living standards as the rest of the EU, especially in parity earnings, Sofia is $33,000 a year ppp income, Zagreb, Athens, etc the same. The place on average is a lower upper class income region, yes there’s development to go, but it isn’t classed as a developing region. Have you ever been to Africa, South East Asia, Central Asia, Indian Subcontinent, flavellas in Brazil or Mexico etc… The kind of corruption you speak about is all around the world, how often do we hear in the West of politicians using expenses for inappropriate things, or projects that cost far more than reasonable forecasts, or being far more expensive than similiar schemes elsewhere? It’s a sterotype stigma in your head that makes it more obvious in this region to yourself. Also, Albania isn’t the poorest country in Europe, I don’t know where you got that ‘fact’ from. Yes there are some poor areas there, but there are some areas of deprivation in the US or UK too, did you know that 6.5% of the US live in trailor parks? Or that in the US they don’t get universal healthcare on the state that is afforded by these Balkan nations. You seem to have forgotten the areas Byzantium, Thracian, Slavic and Hellenic history too. Other than that a great few pictures, and you’re right, the Balkans are the most beautiful part of the world.

  17. We live over in “that end” of Europe, further north , in Romania. It was certainly a mind expanding experience discovering how stunningly beautiful this part of the world is. Hope to get further south to the areas mentioned above in months to come. Your photos make it all look beautiful.

  18. They are not an Occupy movement, for heavens’s sake! I think it would be closer to call an old drunk in Berkley “a hippie” or “a fighter for peace”, I mean nowadays, that to call those people Occupy movement. There is an established pattern in the Balkans: you have, like, an anti-west government and, like, the pro-west fighters for human rights. Both want the same: easy money. And it’s always the opposite who’s corrupted, etc etc. You look to me just like another uneducated young Midwesterner with nice soul and good intentions trying to break the stereotypes about yourselves, trying to avoid inevitable return to his or her small town and small bar…

  19. I was blessed with the opportunity to study for the last six months over in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I am well aware now that it fares better than many other ex-Yugoslavic and Balkan states. Still, when I traveled around surrounding areas, the nature and people and history fascinated me. I would love to go back, especially to Albania.

  20. We were in the Balkans for a month in September 2015, covered Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. Ever thought of making a detour to Albania en-route to Montenegro from Macedonia but decided to drop Albania in our first Balkans trip. Just by looking at your pictures on Albania makes us wanting to go there in our next Europe trip. We would say our favourite is Montenegro.

    Come to think of it, we probably might have walked pass you in Macedonia during our September 2015 trip 🙂

    1. Albania is so strange, but that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. I missed some places that I really wanted to see, and I didn’t see as much of Montenegro as I wanted to, so I guess we’ll both have to add a couple of places to our “next time” list.

      I left the Balkans in July so I must have just missed you! Maybe I’ll see you there next summer 😉

    2. oh my god, everyone is like “ï was at the balkans I saw greece macedonia”…What about bulgaria? I mean Bulgaria has once owned both macedonia and serbia and they are basically the same but bulgaria is where it started..and guess what i am not bulgarian i have just been there and i feel it is unfair

      1. I just read the article and I think it is very genuine, indeed. The Balkans are a magical place to me. I’ve been to many of these places and on numerous more in my home country – Bulgaria. I still have so much to explore… But I want to thank you so much, semi, for your knowledge and appreciation for the history of my land and people! I don’t read such words from a foreigner every day. Thank you again!

  21. Dear jeremy,

    I really appreciated your article about your travel throughout the balkans.
    Last summer I travelled in the region, as well. What i was really surprised to find out, was the absolutely friendly behaviour of the people i met and the multietnic character of the cities i visited.
    Please, have a look at my article and leave any comment you want: https://ioviaggioeasy.wordpress.com

    Thank you

    Angelo.

  22. Fabulous post with some eye popping images Jeremy! I recall those dusty roads and Lao towns well. I can envision what some off the beaten spots in the Balkans look like. Thanks for sharing. A must add to my travel list!

    Ryan

  23. Such a fun and honest reading. Makes the Balkans be much more appealing than the regular European countries!
    Thanks for taking the time to inspire us to open our minds to new options in travel.

  24. I’ve wanted to visit many countries in the Balkans, and it was great to have an eye-opener about the history, politics, and culture of the area. Although there’s been turmoil and unrest, I would still be intrigued to explore and see what the Balkans has to offer. It certainly seems like a fascinating area!

  25. Thanks for the shout! Great photos and seems like you had a proper introduction to this wild, strange and beautiful place that I’m now proud to call home. Hope you get a chance to come back soon and see the rest!

  26. I loved Croatia, found Bosnia to be fascinating, and am looking forward to seeing the others.

    Most interesting quote – ” And one girl I met asked me if I knew anybody who wanted to buy a wife.”

    I just came from the Baltics, and the main cities aren’t anywhere near in the same boat.

  27. Great read, and amazing pictures. I’m hoping to make my way to the Balkans next summer. I’ve only visited Croatia so far, but I’ve heard from so many people how amazing they are.

    Also — I definitely understand what you mean about the “principle”. It’s never about the money. A deal is a deal.

  28. Hi Jeremy, wow, fabulous photos and great article. You wonder now how many of the refugees are coming thru Turkey now and if and when this crisis will change the face of Europe. I love all the photos, but especially the one of Church of St. John at Kaneo. Ohrid, Macedonia…
    That is simply amazing. Hoping where ever you are, you are well.
    Hugs from your BC Mom?

    1. Hey Mom! 😉

      I experienced a really intense ride with the refugees when I was on the train from Greece to Macedonia. It was a really sobering and eye-opening moment. Indeed, it will change the face of Europe forever. Pretty crazy.

      Hope you are doing well way up in the north!!

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