Most people thought I was crazy to travel to the Balkans by myself. I was lectured on safety, on health, on everything imaginable. But I had been curious about the region for years, not least because the only thing I really knew about it related to the conflicts in the 1990’s. There was surely more to the Balkans than that, and I couldn’t wait to discover it.
Visiting 11 cities in 8 countries in 15 days was quite an adventure. The trip was a quick one, but I learned a lot about the region and gained some valuable insights into travel in the Balkans.
First, I learned that bus schedules change more frequently than Lady Gaga’s outrageous costumes. Several of my hotels had bus schedules that were presumably up to date, but upon calling the station to confirm, I learned that the schedule had changed that morning and the bus I was planning to take was no longer an option. From those experiences I learned the lesson to always call in advance and confirm all times and prices.
When I boarded the buses, I learned a few more lessons. First, starting in Sarajevo, I learned that in all places except for Ohrid, people completely disregarded the seat assignments printed on their tickets.
Second, I discovered that for the most part, everything I had read about buses in the Balkans not having air conditioning was false. Every bus I took had A/C except for the one from Skopje to Pristina and the one from Skopje to Sofia. It was great to have the cool air going while the temperatures outside were so hot.
Once I got off the buses, I learned the difficult lesson that street signs in the Balkans are often few and far between. I spent an entire hour lost in Mostar because not a single street—from major avenues to minor roads—was signed. My map was worthless in the face of such an absence.
And speaking of maps, I had issues there as well. I had assumed that every hotel and tourist information office in the Balkans would have city maps, as is the case in most other places I have traveled. Not so in the Balkans, though. From Budva to Ohrid, the tourist offices were devoid of all maps whatsoever, and my hotels in Skopje and Tirana were clean out of city maps as well. My hotels in Sofia and Belgrade, however, had some high quality maps.
I had a few maps in my guidebook, but they were generally tiny and not very detailed. Even if they had been, it might not have mattered. Half the streets had changed names between the time the guidebook was published and the present day, rendering the already unhelpful maps even more useless.
Thankfully people on the street and in hotels and restaurants were very helpful in giving me directions, and most of the cities were small enough that I never got lost for long. In places like Dubrovnik, Kotor, and Budva, getting lost in the maze of streets in the walled cities was half the fun anyway.
Above all, I learned that any concerns about safety in the Balkans were overblown. Not only did I feel completely safe as a solo female traveler, but also I felt like most of the places I visited were far safer than London.
I felt this particularly strongly one night in Skopje when I walked past a city park at night. Despite the fact that it wasn’t lit, there was a mother walking around with her young son, and several elderly couples sitting on benches.
I wouldn’t dare walk through most city parks in London after dark, let alone stop for a rest. And yet very few visitors to London worry about safety, and very many visitors balk at the Balkans for the same reason.
Overall my trip to the Balkans was a great one. Despite there being a few informational gaps, I managed to make my way around the region safely and without a hitch. The people I met along the way—both locals and other travelers—were friendly and helpful. The landscapes were beautiful. The cities were rich with history and culture.
Above all, the fact that most places I visited weren’t on the tourist trail made the trip all that much more of an adventure. I’m sure it won’t take long for the low-cost airlines, massive cruise ships, and big tour buses to arrive, though, so if you want to travel in the Balkans before everyone else does, I recommend planning your trip now!