Balkans: practical guide for travelers


Introduction

What is the first thing that someone who wants practical information to travel around the Balkans should read? So many issues come to mind that I don’t know where to start. It seems to me that I cannot start writing about travel budgets, train routes or local foods without first naming the last Balkan war, paradoxical ethnic and religious conflicts, the flickering permanence of borders, the evolution of living conditions, etc. The Balkans are like these themes, as interesting and engaging as impossible to understand and explain in a few words. I better leave the introduction in charge of Misha Glenny’s delicious words:

If neither in Europe nor in Asia, where does the Balkan peninsula lie? […] The Balkans occupy “the center of some sort of imaginative whirlpool”, where “every known superstition in the world is gathered.” For many decades, Westerners gazed on these lands as if on an ill-charted zone separating Europe’s well-ordered civilization from the chaos of the Orient.”

Misha Glenny, The Balkans. Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-2012


The border zone between West and East

Traveling in the Balkans is like neither being here or there. It is immersing yourself in a kind of magical and decadent limbo, which is at the same time, too western to be part of Asia and too eastern to be part of Europe. It is a huge area of ​​transition between two worlds so diametrically opposed: West and East.

I remember our arrival in Zagreb (the first stop of our Balkan trip) and how surprised we were to see people drinking what we knew as Turkish coffee: “Oh, just like in Turkey” I thought. Later I confirmed that this coffee custom was present in all Balkan countries and that actually at some point the Balkans were defined as “Turkey in Europe”…

 
What does this guide include?

What follows from now on is practical data based on our three-month experience traveling through the Balkans, during October, November and December of 2019, in low cost mode.

Important: although in the Balkan Peninsula – as we will see later – there are many issues that transcend borders, it is worth clarifying that we were NOT in ALL Balkan countries, but (only?) In Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bulgaria.


The Balkan Peninsula on the map

In the map that follows I have indicated the locations of the Balkan countries within their surroundings. But beware! This is only one of the many geographical definitions that exist of the Balkans.

It is curious that today the limits of the Balkan peninsula are still not entirely clear. Misha Glenny, in his book The Balkans. Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-2012 says about this: The difficulty in defining the Balkans arises from the fusion of political and geographical descriptions that are themselves problematic. Starting from that base, you will find a wide range of definitions. In some Moldova is included, in others Greece, in others Turkey and so on.

Remember that this is only one possible version of the Balkan map. To facilitate the reading, from now on you will know that whenever I refer to the Balkans, I am talking about the countries that appear on this map.


Some numbers and statistics
of our trip through the Balkans 

During our 88 days of traveling through Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, we spent on average 7 euros per day per person, including absolutely everything. This is not an attempt of breaking any records or winning the prize for the most bum traveler in the universe, I just wanted to share with you what kind of trip we made to reach that value.

We visited 13 destinations that are on the map below:


The 88 days
of our trip were distributed as follows:

 

By the way, this data does not represent in any way the amount of time it takes to “know” this or that place. For starters, I don’t think that destinations can be “known”. In any case they are experienced / lived etc. In addition, the suitable traveling speed for each destination depends on every traveler. In our case, the plans, desires, concerns and opportunities that arose on the way, led us to take this route and distribute our time this way. 


Visas for the Balkan countries

If you travel with an Argentine passport, you will not need a visa for any of the countries of the Balkan Peninsula and when you arrive in each country you will be authorized to stay for 90 days. This is a huge advantage if you are traveling in the long term, because you will have 90 days in each country and as you saw on the map, in the Balkans there are a lot of countries that are relatively close to each other. Therefore, if you wanted to, you could spend a good amount of time on the Balkan Peninsula, moving between different countries.

If you travel with any other passport, you can check if you need a visa to travel to any country of the Balkan Peninsula (and the world) on this website: Do you need a visa


The Schengen area is NOT the same as the European Union

Many of you who travel with an Argentine passport (or with any other with which you have 90 days of Schengen visa), visit the Balkans when you have finished the 90 days of Schengen visa and want to continue being in Europe. It’s a good option for not going too far and easily be able to return to the Schengen area when you have a new 90 day visa available. Now, not all the countries of the Balkan peninsula work in the same way regarding this issue. 


EU members Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria

Are these countries not part of the European Union? Yes, but in terms of circulation this does not matter to non EU citizens. What matters is whether or not the country is a member of the Schengen area. Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are all members of the European Union but NOT (yet) of the Schengen Area, so they serve perfectly as an option to leave the Schengen Area and thus renew the visa staying 90 days outside the Schengen zone.


Watchout with Slovenia

Slovenia is the only country of the Balkans that is part of the Schengen Area. So if you want to visit it, keep in mind that to enter you will have to meet the requirements of the Schengen area and every day you spend in Slovenia will be counted within the Schengen visa days. 


Currencies and prices, is traveling in the Balkans expensive or cheap?

On some issues the Balkans are very unified and the countries have many things in common. Currency is not one of them. Here are the currencies of the countries we visited and the exchange rates with the euro (as of December 2019).

Croatia: kuna (1 euro = 7.50 kuna)
Montenegro and Kosovo: euro
North Macedonia: denar (1 euro = 60 denars)
Bulgaria: leva (1 euro = 1.95 leva)

In general in large cities the use of credit and debit cards is more or less incorporated in places with certain standards (central train or bus stations, bigger restaurants, etc.). But, for example, if you want to eat in a small local place or take a train in a village, you will need cash. My recommendation is to pay with a card whenever possible, but just in case have some cash always with you (better safe than sorry…)

If you have euros or dollars in cash, you will be able to change them in the many exchange houses that exist in the cities and to a lesser extent in smaller towns.

Regarding whether traveling in the Balkans is expensive or cheap, is as always, VERY relative and depends on the type of trip you make, how much or little you move, whether or not you do organized excursions, eat in restaurants etc. For us it was quite cheap because that is our travel style and we try to save as much as possible on the fixed expenses (accommodation, transport and food). Thus living with locals, moving slowly and eating mostly at home, we managed to reduce the costs greatly and we spent on average 7 euros a day per person. I leave it at the discretion of the reader to define if that is expensive or cheap…


Budget


For food

The cheapest option is usually cooking yourself or buying ready-made food in supermarkets and eating at the accommodation. If you don’t like this idea, I’ll tell you a little about the different options for eating out.

Prices vary greatly depending on the type of food you want. If the priority is to save (and at the same time eat something local and delicious), I would suggest opting for street food. Some of my favorite options in the Balkans are:


Börek, burek or borek

The quintessential Balkan classic. It is a type of filo pastry that can have many different fillings and shapes. The most common ones are spinach, white cheese, meat stew and pumpkin. They are sold in all kinds of places: bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants, street stalls, etc. More or less in all Balkan countries you can buy them for 1 or 2 euros.


Döner, shawarma or gyros

The classic Turkish dish with spicy thin slices of lamb, chicken or veal cooked on a vertical grill. Certainly not suitable for vegetarians / vegans. Usually it is wrapped up in a flat pita type of bread with some salads and sauces. You can find them all over the Balkans for 2 or 4 euros… a gift!


Ayran

The drink that usually accompanies… EVERYTHING! Ayran is like water in the Balkans. It is similar to a natural drinkable yogurt, very liquid and a little salty. It comes in different sizes. Prices usually range from 0.50 cents to 1 euro. It is also usually included in combos with the meals I told you above and many others.

Borek, Döner and Ayran, three classics of Balkan gastronomy 

If you prefer to sit down to eat in a restaurant, my recommendation (which applies to anywhere in the world) is to look for places with local people and avoid places with tourists. Prices are usually much cheaper and the atmosphere more authentic, a double win situation. But how to find and recognize those places? Here are some clues:

  • They are usually outside the most touristy areas. For example, in Dubrovnik, the most touristy area is clearly differentiated and is the ancient city, which is inside the walls. So this type of local places to eat will be for sure outside the walls.
  • Most customers are locals, this is THE key and you will easily recognize it because of the language spoken in the place (and because they don’t have cameras around their neck…)
  • Prices usually drop considerably.
  • If the menu is written in several languages, you are in the wrong place. If the menu is in the local language, you are on track. And if there isn’t even a menu, then you are definitely in the right place.

In these cases, the prices start from 5 or 6 euros per person onwards, depending on the country, the restaurant and what you eat (lol).


For accommodation

Now it does not make much sense to tell you accommodation prices, because they vary greatly depending on the country, the season, the type of accommodation you are looking for, etc. Anyway it can be checked super easy in any accommodation search engine. If you opt for Airbnb, here is a super discount for your first reservation:

What I want to tell you at this point is how we solved accommodation on our trip through the Balkans.

From left to right: the houses where we did house-sitting in Kromidovo (Bulgaria) and Pristina (Kosovo) 

As we are traveling with a low budget and with a lot of time, we prefer to find accommodations by exchanging our time for lodging. In addition that it helps our economy a lot, it allows us a much more local and less touristy way of living on the road. In this way, of the 88 days we were in the Balkans, we only paid accommodation for 17 days (20% of the total trip). The remaining 71 days (80% of the trip) we applied different types of exchanges such as house-sitting (taking care of houses and pets), volunteer work (exchange of hours of work for accommodation and food), and couch-surfing (exchange of hospitality with locals). You can see more detailed information in the graph below:

 If you want to learn more about how we travel without paying money for accommodation, do not miss the following post:

 
Languages

Posters in North Macedonia, where the Macedonian language is spoken and the Cyrillic alphabet is used

In the Balkans, many languages are spoken and the famous “if we speak slowly, we all understand each other” -rule applies. The former Yugoslavian countries speak practically the same language just with different names (and maybe alphabets!).

Officially, in Croatia Croatian is spoken, in Montenegro Montenegrin, in Kosovo Serbian and Albanian, in North Macedonia Macedonian, in Bulgaria Bulgarian and so on. Some Balkan countries use the Latin alphabet and others use the Cyrillic script (which was developed in Bulgaria).

Now, maybe you are wondering how easy it is to communicate throughout the Balkans in English or Spanish, so let’s get to that.

In Croatia I was surprised that the vast majority of people spoke fluent English. The general English level subsequently decreased as we entered the Balkan Peninsula towards Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria, on the other hand, it is quite rare for people to speak English, even for those who work in customer service and travel, such as ticket sellers at train stations, bus stations or the like. As an extra confusing factor in Bulgaria, they use the Cyrillic alphabet, that is, the letters do not match! Anyway, it didn’t really matter. We spent 43 days in Bulgaria (using our creativity when communicating beyond the verbal) and survived without major inconvenience.

Spanish is spoken yet much less than English, but this can be a great advantage sometimes. In Bulgaria it happened to us several times, that when we were speaking Spanish between us, some Bulgarian heard us and started a conversation in Spanish. Usually they wanted to practice a little, to welcome us to their country or to ask us if we needed any help. Think that just as it is exotic for us that some Bulgarian speaks Spanish, it is also exotic for them to listen – and recognize – our language. 


Seasons, when is the best time of the year to travel in the Balkans?

The answer is that it depends on the type of trip you want to do and the areas you want to visit. It is not the same to go to the beach, explore historical cities, go hiking in the mountains, visit wineries or go skiing. Choosing the right time and place, in the Balkans you can do all those things and much more!

What I would generally recommend would be to avoid the high seasons. Croatia and – to a lesser extent – Montenegro, have become quite touristic beach destinations. For this reason, I imagine that going there during the summer will be like hell itself. We were in Croatia and Montenegro in October and we still had a spectacular beach climate and at the same time we enjoyed the tranquility of being off season. So I would say that September and October are the best months to visit Croatia and Montenegro. But again, this is very personal. In case you want to experience the busy and energetic high season atmosphere, go in July and / or August.

In October we bathed in this deserted beach on the island of Hvar (Croatia) with spectacular weather

Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bulgaria have relatively very little tourism, so there is not so much risk of running into hordes of tourists there. We visited these countries during November and December and it was quite cold: the temperatures were from -10ºC to 16ºC. For me, a good time to visit these countries would be during spring or autumn. Unless you want to ski and do winter sports, in that case, go in January or February. Especially Bulgaria has great mountain ranges and ski slopes.

In December we ice skated in Plovdiv (Bulgaria) 


Transport, how to move around in the Balkans?


By plane

This option is available between the larger cities and if you travel just with hand luggage,  you can get very good prices. We did not fly, because the distances are quite short and we had big packbags, so it did not suit us (not to mention that we love to travel slowly and avoid flying as much as we can). 


By train

The trains we took in the Balkans were just fine, but don’t imagine that they are like German or French trains. In the Balkans the train is usually the cheapest option, because it’s very slow, outdated and therefore the one the locals least use. Whenever we told someone that we were taking a train (we used them in Croatia and Bulgaria) they asked us why or tried to convince us to take the bus. They did not understand our desire to travel by train.

Traveling by train in the Balkans is recommendable for you if you enjoy trains in general and like to travel slowly. For example: to travel the 400 kilometers that separate Zagreb from Split (Croatia), the train takes 8 hours and the bus 5,5. We obviously opted for the night train and it was spectacular: we had a whole compartment of six people just for us, we slept comfortably all night and arrived in Split fresh as new, just in time for breakfast.

The train that took us from Plovdiv to Burgas (Bulgaria) on a trip that we wished to take longer 

Tickets can be purchased online or in person at the stations. If you travel off season there is usually a lot of availability and you can buy them a couple of hours before the train leaves. If you want to check the routes and schedules, here are the national train websites:

Slovenia: https://www.slo-zeleznice.si/en/
Croatia: http://www.hzpp.hr/en
Bosnia and Herzegovina: https://www.zfbh.ba/en/
Montenegro: http://www.zicg.me/
Serbia: http://serbianrailways.com/
Kosovo: http://www.trainkos.com/?lang=en
Albania: https://hsh.com.al/
Romania: https://www.cfrcalatori.ro/en/
North Macedonia: https://mzt.mk/?lang=mk (in Macedonian and Albanian)
Bulgaria: http://www.bdz.bg/en/


By bus

Perhaps the most used option to move around in the Balkans.

When looking for bus tickets do not be alarmed if you cannot purchase them online. Most commonly you buy them directly at the stations and, in general, the same day of the trip (at least out of season). We did not buy any bus tickets in advance or online, we always bought them at the stations the same day of departure and we never had a problem.

Nor should you be alarmed if you see that the bus route to a neighbouring country passes trough a third one. This happens a lot in the Balkans, either because of the very few highways that exist – or not, because of political border issues or because of the mountainous geography that conditions the roadways.

In these cases you may have to get off the bus at the border to stamp your passport (it happened to us at the Slovenia-Croatia and Croatia-Montenegro borders). Or a migration officer may enter the bus to ask for everyones passports and take them for a few minutes (this happened to us on the North Macedonia-Bulgaria border). In some cases, the countries have free movement agreements between them, so you won’t even notice that you are crossing a border (it happened to us at the Montenegro-Albania and Albania-Kosovo borders).

Important tip: It helped me a lot to check schedules, routes, etc., in online search engines. The web page I used the most was Rome2rio


Hitchhiking

For adventure lovers and budget travelers, this is a great option. We hitchhiked in Montenegro (from Buljarica to Kotor, 43 km) and Bulgaria (from Burgas to Sofia, 382 km) and had very good experiences.

Important tip: if you are going to use a sign, in most Balkan countries people in general don’t speak English, so I suggest writing the sign in the local language of the country where you are and also in English. So you can raise the odds and can get a ride with both locals and foreigners. Another option is to travel without a sign. We tried both and both worked well.

The signs in Bulgarian and English that we prepared with great dedication and used to get from Burgas to Sofia (Bulgaria)

Important tip: to have a successful hitchhiking experience it is FUNDAMENTAL to choose a good starting place. We use the Hitchwiki website. It’s a guide for hitchhikers with very valuable information covering the whole world. There you can find suggestions on how to hitchhike according to your traveling plans and testimonials from other travelers with data of their journeys, times of wait, etc. Highly recommended!


Rent
a car

We don’t usually rent cars on our travels, but we did it in Croatia, when Omar’s father came to visit us and we made a more “conventional” trip than we usually do. Obviously it is a very comfortable option, it allows you to move very freely and to stop in places inaccessible by public transport. Of course, it can be a bit more expensive than other ways of transport, but that’s your decision. What I can tell you from this experience is that the roads and highways – at least in Croatia – were really in very good shape.

Thanks to the car we were able to know places as incredible as inaccessible with public transport, including this one, on the island of Hvar (Croatia)


Bonus: urban transport

In general, in the Balkan capitals and large cities you will find urban buses, subways, trams and taxis to move within the city. The good thing is that in most of those cities public transport is very easy to use because it’s all on Google maps. In Bulgaria, as we were in several large cities, it was where we used urban public transport the most and it was very easy for us. One of them was Sofia, where tickets for buses and trams are bought in specific kiosks located in different parts of the city. Others were Plovdiv and Burgas, where they are bought directly on the bus and the person selling them is paid in cash. Tickets are usually very cheap (between 0.5 and 0.8 euros).

The tram and tickets, all very vintage in Sofia (Bulgaria)


Security, is it safe to travel in the Balkans?

Let’s say it, many of the countries of the Balkan Peninsula have a very bad reputation in this regard. Either because, in the Balkans, the newest countries in Europe are grouped together, because people do not live with as high standards as in other countries of the same continent or because it is impossible to name “Kosovo” without thinking of war, chaos and destruction. 

Even if all this is – to a greater or lesser extent – true, I have to say that in our experience as travelers on these lands we did not feel in danger nor were we afraid at any time. So if you are interested in exploring this region of Europe – yet – quite unexplored, I have no more to say, go ahead!


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