If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this may come as a surprise to you*, but I went to the Balkans for 5 weeks in September and October!! (*Sarcasm.) But as a chronically overlooked part of Europe to visit, I’m just trying to give these crazy, loveable countries the airtime they deserve. And if you decide to visit there, here are some things you will very definitely encounter at some point on your travels…
1. Guys cooking sweetcorn on street stalls
Balkan people just looove cooking sweetcorn on the street. I don’t know why, because I never saw anyone buy or eat one. But they do it anyway. Everywhere.
Islam is the most followed religion in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania, and there’s a significant number of the population in Macedonia that identify as Muslim too. Full burqas are rare, but hijabs are everywhere, in a range of colours and styles.
As you’d expect in former Communist states, statues are everywhere – and none so full of them as Skopje. (Photoblog of Skopje’s statues here.) Unlike everywhere else, though, their statues are brand new as an attempt to rebrand the city.
4. Old Towns
Do you like grand, slightly crumbly old buildings? How about loads of them concentrated into a small area and packed with history? Congratulations, you’re going to LOVE the Balkans, because virtually every city has an ‘old town’!
5. Cigarette smoke
Fact: every single person in the Balkans has a 40-a-day habit. Fact: you will reek of smoke when you get home. Fact: you’ll definitely have your lungs at least half filled with second-hand smoke. When it comes to cigarettes, go hard on the carcinogens or go home.
Many small shacks selling food in the cities will offer their wares in the country’s native language. You won’t be able to read it, but you WILL be able to recognise one thing: burek. Burek is EVERYWHERE. They are obsessed with it.
Genuinely cheaper than water in restaurants. If you love strong coffee, you’re going to be in caffeine heaven.
8. Ruined buildings
Whether picturesque old crumbly ruins or battered, bullet hole-ridden relics from the war, you’re sure to find corpses of buildings wherever you go. (Photoblog of ruined buildings in Mostar here.)
9. Muslim call to prayer
So you’re just chilling in your hostel after walking around whatever city you’re in, and suddenly, a noise like a tuneful rumbling stomach. What could it be?? Oh, it’s just the muezzin giving the call to prayer across the city. It goes on for a while, and you become accustomed to it, even find it soothing and comforting. You’ll miss it when you go home.
10. Excellent hospitality from hostels
In central Europe, hostels are bigger and more ‘professional’. Here, they’re smaller, friendlier and less time-starved, which means they’ll go out of their way to help you out more. Not to mention they’re FAR cheaper. You’ll be paying about £8 a night for a dorm bed in the best hostels in the area for outstanding service where the staff join in with your games, invite you to eat pizza with them and watch the football, and tell you their real thoughts about the city. This is the real bonus of travelling around the Balkans – even if it ruins travelling for you forever because you won’t find cheaper hostels anywhere else on the continent.