A land bound by sea waters on three sides, with an edelweiss-topped northern mountain range that lends its name to the peninsula, the Balkan charms you effortlessly. From Romania and Slovenia in the north to Greece and Turkey in the south, each of the thirteen countries sharing this fascinating region offers its visitors, tales and memories for a lifetime. World traveler and guest columnist Aparna Veer went solo backpacking the Balkans and writes a review with few recommendations.
I have had friends and colleagues from the Balkans and much of my curiosity to explore the region stemmed from hearing stories of their home countries and cultures. Since I am a bit of a phonetics and language enthusiast, I wanted to check out the heritage of Salvic, Greek, and Turkic languages too. Oh, and the history! There’s so much more. As a sample, I am going to share experiences from three countries. But, first things first. Let us see what might make people think long and hard about going to the Balkans: a visitor’s hesitation and the local narratives.
If you are an Indian planning to travel to the Balkans, but worry about potential discrimination, there’s good news. Check out my profile: I look very Indian – brown skin, black hair, body language and all! I have traveled solo to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey. Did I face any racism, prejudice or any other peculiar treatment because of my nationality or color? The answer is NO. In fact, to me, traveling in the Balkans was a soothing experience. In ways, the region reminds me of India. Besides its peninsular-mountainous geography, the people, familiar with diversity, are of a similar emotional make as us.
If you are planning to backpack the Balkans, there’s more good news. Before I went to these places, very many people, including my Balkan friends and colleagues, tried to warn me with things like “well, the capital is safe… but I don’t know about the villages for tourists!”; “you might face some racism because they might take you for a Romani gypsy ..and I don’t want that to happen…We Serbians can be really stupid sometimes!”; “Sarajevo tends to be unstable sometimes, but if you just stick to the tourist areas and not go off the beaten track, it should all be fine I guess” and so on. I wonder what makes them have such an opinion about their own countries! Every country has a past. Although I did see bullet ridden walls and buildings at places, I found the region perfectly fine, and cool to travel. So, please read on.
The Balkan Welcome
I live in Germany, so these weren’t far off countries for me. But they do not come under the Schengen regime, so there is passport control everywhere. And those guys ask, almost always, what you are doing in that country. I always kept a straight face, just like them, and told them my travel plans, till they almost smiled and let me pass with a “welcome!”. Most of these countries allow Schengen visa holders on their territories.
The Warm Balkan Experience
In Zagreb, my host came to pick me up at the bus station. He also had a pizza waiting for me at the apartment I had booked and he was kind enough to drop me to the airport when my departure flight was on a public holiday!
At Belgrade airport, on arrival, all my money cards suddenly stopped working (I had to speak to my banks) and I wasn’t sure how I would pay my host. Since I didn’t have cash, I wasn’t even sure how I’d even reach the city. When a taxi driver came asking if I’d like a ride, I replied I don’t have money! He said, “don’t worry, what’s the problem exactly?”. I told him that my cards are working only on swipe machines in shops but nowhere else, not even at ATMs. He said he could drive to a gas station and fill up fuel which I can pay with my card and he will give me the remaining money back in cash! I was so grateful and relieved, it reminded me of our very own Indian “jugaad techniques”! Thanks to this guy, I wasn’t penniless on my first day in Serbia! My Serbian host gave me a little tour of the city, just to show me around and offer a local perspective!
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sarajevo is a city that surprised me the most with its very raw appeal and middle eastern feel. Besides, I happened to meet many people with an India connection there. Somehow! My host had been to New Delhi for a wedding, had seen the Taj Mahal, and was familiar with our culture. Air Serbia had forgotten to put my bag on the flight to Sarajevo, so my host had to take me to the town, so that I could buy something to sleep in. And lo and behold, I got myself a Kurta and Pyjama from a shop that sold all stuff from India! The retailer was a regular visitor to Delhi and Rajasthan.
Roaming around further in the old town, I came across the most beautiful shop there, which sold traditional carpets and textiles from India and Iran. All the Pashmina and the Shahtoosh and other fancy stuff. I felt warm with pride seeing India makes such elegant stuff, fitting for royalty! Or that the old fashioned prosperity was still defined by “fancy and cultured stuff from India!”
Lasting Balkan Impressions
I met wonderful, welcoming people everywhere in the Balkans. Nobody in Romania, Serbia, or elsewhere thought (or at least passed a remark) that I was a Romani gypsy! The region is rich in natural beauty and on that count, is similar to western European nations. The tourism infrastructure isn’t as good – sometimes your cash cards won’t work on the ATMs, or merchants may not accept card payments. It means you have to carry cash – a lot. Which is just fine. It’s not the only region in the world with such limitations. The region isn’t very expensive and is rich in history and culture. The people are genuine and you won’t see any fake smiles and superficial niceness. They always help when you communicate your problem!
Add Balkans to Your Travel Bucket
I would, any day, go see again the castles of Transylvania, the Rila Monastry in Bulgaria, villages of Slovenia, Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, the old town of Sarajevo or simply the museums of Belgrade! It’s a whole new region that world needs to add on their travel bucket list! This region, one of the least explored regions of Europe, is paradise waiting to be discovered. Go visit, before they start marketing their tourist attractions!
Have you been to the Balkans? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora?
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