Seven reasons I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans

From the time my train pulled into Zagreb station at 9pm on 29 September 2014, the Balkans had already made a good impression on me. And not just because I was ever-so-slightly drunk.

My gut feel – despite my gut being full of sangria following an impromptu train party with three fellow passengers – was giving me good vibes. The Balkans felt like a part of the world I was going to get along with.

Over the following four weeks as I headed towards Athens in Greece, my gut feel was proved right; so much so that I’m going back!

In less than three weeks time, I’ll be embarking on a two-and-a-bit week trip; taking in parts of the Croatian coast, Bosnia, and a smidgen of Montenegro.

Here’s why I can’t wait to go back to the Balkans.

1. The Balkans are brilliant for caressing a coffee in a street café

Back to the Balkans - cafes

Cafes line the streets of Zagreb, Croatia. And they’re populated by tall people!

A decent cup of java, sitting outside in a pavement café, and for the equivalent of around a Euro per cup – perfect! I swear to God all of Zagreb seemed to survive on a permanent diet of caffeine and cigarettes. Meanwhile, in Albania I discovered the delights of Turkish coffee. Caffeine and people watching will do the trick for me!

2. I am not a giant in parts of the Balkans!

Being five-foot-ten and with facial features regularly presumed not to be English, I don’t “blend in” in my home country, never mind anywhere else. On my further-flung travels, I tower over most Asians and Latin Americans.

When I arrived in Zagreb though, I had a shock … other people looked like me! I was not the only tall girl in the room, and I started to wonder if my grandmother had had an affair with a Croatian milkman. I’m eager to see if other parts of Croatia also offer me a rare chance to look like a local.

3. I want to see what Bosnia in 2015 has to offer

Like Albania last year, Bosnia a country I know very little about:

  • I know Sarajevo is where ice-dancing duo Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean won gold at the 1984 Olympics with “Bolero.” The entire British nation – including eight-year-old me – was glued to the telly.
  • I gleaned info from the BBC’s coverage of the conflict of the 1990s. A war-torn country, rather than a potential holiday destination, is an image a lot of Brits still seem to have of Bosnia. I’m looking forward to dispelling some myths.
  • When I read “The Cellist of Sarajevo”, set during the 1990s conflict, it moved me to tears.

I also had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Albania last year. As it turned out, everyone (bar from one bus driver) was universally hospitable, raki was regularly offered, and the UNESCO sites and scenery were more than worth the occasional language difficulty (the Albanian for “thank you” has five syllables. Here in Yorkshire we just say “ta!”)

I’m waiting with eager intrepidation to see what Bosnia has to offer!

4. I want to see the love child of Italy and Norway, namely the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

OK, so I’ve not been to Norway, but The Bay of Kotor looks remarkably like a Norwegian fjord to me. Mountains? Check! Deep inlets of water? Check! The exception being the houses, which have that red-roofed Italian look that make you want to go and climb a bell tower just so you can look at them all from on high. I’m hoping it’ll be as idyllic as it sounds.

Back to the Balkans - the bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. Photo by Luca Zanon via Trover.com

5. There are picture-perfect islands galore!

Everyone seems to rave about Hvar, but I’ve never been one for following the crowds. Korčula, Croatia, was a recommendation from a former work colleague of mine during my Zagreb visit last year. And she’s Croatian, so she should know 🙂

Apparently there’s more than a full dose of great outdoors on Korčula to keep me occupied exploring, and it produces some stunning wines. I’m already sold.

6. The Balkans have culture, history AND scenery

The monasteries of Meteora in Greece, perched on rock massifs overlooking the valley; the castle of Gjirokaster in Albania, surrounded by towering mountains; you don’t have to look far in the Balkans for culture, history and landscapes to appear side-by-side.

Back to the Balkans - Gjirokaster

The stupendous outlook from Gjirokaster Castle

On this trip there’ll be the chance to satisfy my inner culture-vulture in Split (Croatia), learn more about the region’s history in Sarajevo (Bosnia), and explore the landscapes of Korčula (Croatia).

The Balkans offer the best of several worlds.

7. I won’t be alone … all the time

I love travelling solo, but I find travel with friends or a partner can be special too. On this trip I’m mixing it up; after the first week-and-a-bit of solo travel, my boyfriend’s joining me on Korčula.

He’s also on a mission to visit 40-countries-by-40 – something I achieved back in July and which we discovered we had in common within the first half hour of meeting. Fortunately neither of us ran off in spooked-out horror, and I’m looking forward to crossing the border to Montenegro with him as he visits his 40th country with a week to spare!

So there you have it, seven reasons why I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans. This time, though, I’ll try to arrive sober.

What makes you want to go, or go back, to the Balkans? Share your snippets in the comments below.

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