The Western Balkans is a region on the Balkan Peninsula facing the Adriatic Sea. While some countries in this region, like Croatia, are well-known to tourists, others, like Albania, stay vastly unknown. Today we interview Mark, a freelance writer from Great Britain who loves traveling. We have already interviewed him about his experience in Colombia. He now lives in Czechia and travels mostly in Europe. Recently he undertook a 3-week long trip across the Balkans for his honeymoon, and it’s not the first time he’s explored this region, claiming it’s his favorite. We talk to him today about his trip and why he loves the Balkans so much.
Hi Mark! I guess my first question will be why are you such a big fan of the Balkans? What’s so special about this region?
The best thing about the Balkans is its constantly changing landscape. Imagine enjoying the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, while only a 90-minute drive inland will bring you to the Swiss-looking mountain peaks of Bosnia. One day you can be in the middle of the dusty and dry Albanian scenery, and the very next day enjoying the lush green of Slovenia’s national parks.
Culturally, the Balkans have an aura of romance and adventure to them. The cool thing is that Islam is the prevailing religion in a number of countries here, which is a unique situation in Europe. The Balkans are also extremely cheap – it’s not the main reason why I like traveling there, but it’s pretty important. The overall friendliness of people, especially in Slovenia and Albania, also adds to the charm.
As a vegetarian, I must note how easy it is to find vegetarian food in the region. We never had any problem eating out, as in a lot of places restaurant owners made a point of adapting local cuisine for vegetarians.
How did you prepare for your extensive honeymoon trip in the Balkans? What was the plan?
The plan was to go without a plan! We’ve always dreamt of seeing as much of the Balkans as possible. We’ve visited Makedonia, Albania, and Slovenia before, but we wanted to get a better feel for the region by using trains and buses and experiencing how life changes behind the windows as you move between countries.
So you didn’t book anything in advance?
We did book the first 2 nights in Graz and Maribor. First, we wanted something fancier for the start of the honeymoon, and second, we didn’t want to get into the embarrassing situation of having to immediately go back home. For the rest of the trip, we usually booked accommodation 24 to 3 hours in advance and we never had any problems with that. Just one time, in Kotor in Montenegro everything was booked in the city except for one rather posh hotel. The rest of the time there were always options.
As for transportation, almost always there were free places on a bus if you simply show up at the station just before departure. For a couple of busy routes, we booked tickets two days in advance, but it was not necessary in most cases.
We really enjoyed the flexibility of this way of traveling – we could always do what we wanted! For example, Sarajevo was not on our initial to-do list, but we were so close that it just made sense to go there, and we’re so glad we did! We also spent more time in Albania than we planned, because we loved it there too much to leave in a hurry. The only drawback was that we didn’t have enough time for Greece in the end, but well, it’s just another reason to make a separate dedicated trip there!
So what was your route and how long did you stay in each city?
Here’s an outline of our trip (also see the maps):
- Austria: Graz (1 night)
- Slovenia: Maribor (1) – Ljubljana (2)
- Croatia: Zadar (2) – Šibenik (2) – Trogir (2) – day trip to Split
- Bosnia: Mostar (1) – Sarajevo (3)
- Croatia: Dubrovnik (2)
- Montenegro: Kotor (2) – Stari Bar (1)
- Albania: Tirana (2) – Gjirokastër (1) – day trip to Sarandë
- Greece: Corfu (2)
All the transfers were by buses except for the train between Brno and Graz, and a ferry to Corfu. We mostly used Regiojet and Flixbus, which were both wonderful, and Croatia Bus, which was slightly less so. Croatia Tours was diabolically bad, no other way to put it. We used this company for an 8-hour transfer from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, and you can imagine how horrible 8 hours without AC or WC can be.
In Montenegro and Albania, we mostly used unlicensed taxis. The way to find them is just to ask around for where they stop. There’s a lot of complaints online about how difficult it is to get around Albania, but this is simply not true. You just have to stop trusting the Internet for everything and talk to people around you!
All in all, what are your favorite cities in this region and why are they awesome?
My absolute fave is Ljubljana! Its architecture is beyond fantastic. Most of the buildings were designed by the architect Plečnik – the triple bridge and cathedrals, the university, the cemetery – and are an impressive mixture of modernism and fantasy. The layout of the city is very picturesque – if you stay on top of the castle hill in the middle of the city, especially when a dramatic storm is coming, it feels intensely romantic. Ljubljana looks vulnerable under the darkening sky, and you feel almost like some Byronic hero. On a less dramatic note, people have an incredibly sarcastic sense of humor in Slovenia, which I enjoy a lot, and also the nightlife is bustling but at the same time you can still find quiet, cozy spots.
Šibenik in Croatia is another under-appreciated city. It lies between Zadar and Split and not a huge number of people go there, much less than too crowded Dubrovnik, Zadar, or Split. The Lonely Planet guide suggests Šibenik is not worth visiting, but it’s just more proof that you should not always listen to your guidebook. Šibenik is a beautiful Venetian town on the slope of a hill, its narrow streets winding up, the color of the bleached stone. You can easily and happily get lost there among the streets filled with cafes where locals still go. As for sights, Šibenik boasts a UNESCO-listed cathedral. It’s decorated with 78 gargoyles with human faces and one of them looks exactly like Benedict Cumberbatch!
Trogir is an odd little town next to Split. It mostly consists of old houses along a single road, but its old town, although tiny, is amazing! It’s unbelievable how so much can be crammed in such a small space. We did myths and legends of Trogir tour there – it’s run by a local girl who is very into history and Goth imagery. The tour is done by the light of a lantern, which gives it a strange and spooky air, and the stories – an unusual romantic edge.
Tirana is a close second after Ljublana in my personal list of favorite cities in the world. This ranking might seem odd because on first glance Tirana looks like a horrible sprawling cluster of shacks. However, the newly modernized center is great. There are huge graffiti and awesome modern art, which gives the city an artsy and vibrant edge. The people in Tirana are extremely friendly – friendlier than even in Colombia or Bosnia. The food scene is amazing for vegetarians and “slow food” adepts – about 40% of traditional cuisine consists of amazing vegetarian dishes from fresh vegetables. I was especially amazed by the huge meaty fresh tomatoes, cheeses, and oils.
Speaking of oils, the oldest olive tree in Europe can be found in Stari Bar in Montenegro. It’s over 2000 years old and everybody is super excited if English speaking tourists come to see their tree. Besides, wild tortoises live around the tree, and they are the cutest things ever!