Albania, Culture, Macedonia, Serbia / Updated on

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

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.

[quote]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.[/quote]
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.

Sunset in Montenegro.

Sunset in Montenegro.

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.

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.

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.

Boardwalk in Ksamil, Albania.

Boardwalk in Ksamil, Albania.

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. 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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