A few reflections from a trip in the Balkans

Old is niceAfter a little over two weeks away it’s nice to get back to posting on 501 Places again. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia provided much for me to ponder and share in the next dozen or so posts; beauty, sadness, the kindness of strangers and the scars of a bitter war are there in abundance in this part of the world and we found plenty of each of these as we dipped briefly into these fascinating countries.

But for now I wanted to start by sharing a few general reflections from our trip. There is probably nothing new here to the experienced traveller, but I find that certain things need a regular exposure for me to remind me about the joys and frustrations of setting off on another trip.

1. It’s great to disconnect for a while. Last time we travelled for a month I had my netbook with me and was online at every place we stayed that had a connection. This time the computer stayed at home and I restricted myself to a one hour session on a hotel PC and a couple of quick mail checks during our 16 days away (being self-employed I thought it was stretching it to avoid seeing my messages for the entire length of the trip). Not having the temptation of logging on was actually a very nice feeling.

2. As a direct consequence of not having a PC, I spent more time enjoying the books that I brought. Two choices made flippantly in Waterstones on the day before we left proved to be very good purchases: Sorrows of the Moon by Iqbal Ahmed (an immigrant’s colourful and intelligent observations of life in London) and the Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing; a collection of short stories by selected travel writers (some were outstanding, others dire, but even the latter type proved entertaining). I was reminded how much I enjoy a good book and how much I neglect this activity when at home.

3. My Lonely Planet Western Balkans guidebook proved both an invaluable friend and a source of much frustration. On the one hand we found some sensational dining spots and a memorable guesthouse thanks to the book’s recommendations. On the other hand we quickly learned that its advice on transport connections, particularly around Albania, was useless at best, and on more than one occasion would have left us missing our connections had we followed the book’s advice. Incidentally, those mourning the imminent demise of the guide book will be reassured to know that almost everyone we met was carrying either a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to the region.

4. The spread of English is truly staggering. From little Albanian villages to roadside stops in the Montenegro mountains, it seems that English truly has conquered the world. Of course in the Croatian tourist hotspots the standard of English is often better than in much of the UK, but to hear so many people able to speak the basic minimum in more remote spots (learned mostly from the TV we were repeatedly told) surprised me even now. As a result my faltering attempts at Slavic speak (mixing my Polish with a few local words) was met with English in all but two cases (one woman replied to me in faltering Polish while a ticket seller at a train station decided I was a Russian).

5. Travelling without a plan is relatively risk-free (as long as you have a bit of cash with you). We made a number of journeys to intermediate towns where we didn’t want to find ourselves stuck for the night and hoped that we would find an onward connection. We didn’t come unstuck (although we did have to change our itinerary one time). And a small town that we ended up having to spend a couple of hours in proved to be a very pleasant stop and home to a ruined castle despite its complete absence from the guide book. And the cash? Where the connections did fail us, a taxi to the nearest town didn’t break the bank.

6. People are generally helpful and honest. Of course we need to be careful and wary of potential scams. But in the vast majority of cases if we ask people for help, I have consistently found wherever we are in the world that people will go out of their way to give that help. The wider world is rarely any more dangerous than our own back yard.

There were many stories, adventures and memorable sights along the way that will be covered in my posts in the coming few weeks. But for now it’s enough to enjoy that feeling of getting home safely with another successful trip safely stored in our memories.

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10 Responses to “A few reflections from a trip in the Balkans”

  1. Sounds like 2 good weeks… especially without being connected. But me & for sure many others missed you on Twitter! But on the other side… there will be many nice articles to come & to read now! :)

    September 9, 2010 at 10:54 am
  2. Hi Andy, thanks for this. Am inter railing through parts of your route soon, Croatia, Bosnia, then through Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. Would like to see Montenegro too, but sadly the train lines are limited there as am sure you know.
    Bit frustrated by the apparent lack of a rough guide covering all of these Balkan countries though. For now I will have to keep an eye on your blog as well as the excellent Balkanology site. Nice to know that English is so widely spoken too, must swot up on my cyrillic alphabet soon though!

    September 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm
  3. Melvin, thanks for the nice welcome message. Yes, lots of posts to come!
    Jools, sounds like a great trip planned. If you want to see some of Montenegro consider doing a bit on the bus. It’s cheap and you can get to most places within a couple of hours of the nearest train stop.
    Yes, reading Cyrillic will be handy for Serbia (and Bulgaria). Even with widespread English you’ll find the ability to read all of the signs an advantage. Look forward to following your travels!

    September 9, 2010 at 2:46 pm
  4. I really enjoy this kind of post. Interesting to hear about your experiences in the Balkans and I look forward to more content!

    September 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm
  5. Really looking forward to reading your posts about the Balkans, Andy. As you know, it’s a subject close to my heart.

    It’s interesting what you say about what guide books leave out. I remember having an old Lonely Planet one to France years ago that neglected to include some major cities (eg Orléans). God knows what criteria they use to include certain destinations.

    I know how hard it is to find the latest information about the Balkans, though, as things are constantly shifting. Unfortunately, people are still peddling old information, even on supposedly up-to-date websites.

    September 10, 2010 at 8:32 am
  6. Thanks for the comments Keith and Mary. It was a great trip and am now enjoying putting my thoughts and memories down while they are still fresh. Very true about the outdated information. It’s easy (and lazy) to repeat what others have written before and assume that nothing has changed. In a place like Albania where things change so regularly you’ll soon get caught out.

    September 10, 2010 at 4:36 pm
  7. Sometimes it catches me off guard as well to hear language spoken in such remote villages. Sounds like a fun trip!

    September 12, 2010 at 7:00 am
  8. I just spent 3 weeks in the Balkans and I had a great time too. Croatia is one of the most amazing countries I have ever visited and I would love to spend more time in Bosnia and Montenegro. The whole region is fascinating and I can’t wait to go back.

    September 21, 2010 at 5:57 pm
  9. Interesting to read that most people speak English in Albania, I heard the opposite. The future will tell =).

    By the way, don’t you meet a lot of tourists when following guide books? I prefer just improvising like your point 5, that gets you into the most interesting situations!

    November 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm
    • Hi there, I would stress that most people DON’T speak English – you heard correctly. I was only saying that in most places we went, even the remote ones, there was someone who was able to speak the language.
      Agree on guidebooks in most parts of the world, although here even with a LP book there weren’t many tourists around.
      Thanks for commenting and I look forward to hearing about your adventures :)

      November 29, 2011 at 10:47 pm