Backpacking The Balkans – The Ultimate Guide To Balkans Travel in 2018
What Are the Balkans?
The term the “Balkans” is commonly used to refer to the countries located on or around the Balkan Peninsula of Southeastern Europe. Whilst countries such as Italy and Turkey are partially located within the geographical Balkan peninsula, these countries are not considered Balkan mainly for cultural, historical and linguistic differences.
Rather, the abstract application of the term has come to refer to a group of countries situated partially or completely within the area which share certain historical and cultural traits. The “Balkan countries” are commonly accepted as being as follows;
Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Republic of Macedonia
Until 1990, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia were united as The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to a decade of terrible war and conflict in the area which finally concluded in 1999 when Kosovo broke away from Serbia declaring itself an independent country.
Romania and Bulgaria were spared the horrors and destruction which befell the disintegration of Yugoslavia but did suffer under their own respective, oppressive, communist Dictatorships until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Anybody over the age of 40 will have some memories of and opinions on life under communism making for some very interesting conversations. Do seek them out to talk at any chance you get.
Each Balkan country has its own language. The former Yugoslav countries all speak some form of a Slavic language and are generally able to understand each other pretty well. This may sometimes seem confusing because whilst the spoken languages are very similar, some countries use the Latin (Western) alphabet whereas others use Cryhlic (Russian) characters. This is seemingly dependent upon prevailing political trends with the EU leaning countries preferencing for the western scrawl.
Romanian is derived from Latin and closely related to Italian. Albanian is Turkish influenced (as is Albanian culture) and Macedonian is similar to Greek and uses the alphabet.
However, you will be pleased to know that English is now widely spoken throughout the Balkan’s particularly amongst the younger generations. This makes Balkans travel a hell of a lot easier as getting to grips with 5 or so new languages could take a lot of the fun out of Backpacking Balkans!
Ethnicities & Regions
There are a wide number of ethnicities within the Balkans largely influenced by the historical occupiers of the various Balkan states, provinces, and countries. Ethnic tensions between the ethnic groups situated in the old Yugoslavia led to a long and bloody series of wars throughout the 1990 ’s and sectarianism remains very high in the former Yugoslav states.
Ethnic lines and alliances are often drawn up based on religion. The major religions in the region are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Islam was introduced by the Ottomans and is prominent in Bosnia, Kosovo & Albania.
The Roma “gypsies” can be found across the Balkans but are most populous in Romania. They generally live a semi-nomadic lifestyle on the peripheries of mainstream society.
Few countries have the same currency. Many can only be obtained and exchanged inside the country so it is important to either use up or re-change any excess cash before you leave. I also recommend always carrying some Euro’s with you as you travel in the Balkans; these are favored by exchange bureaus and can sometimes even be used to pay for things if you don’t have access to the local currency.
Albania – Lek $1 = 105
Bosnia & Herzegovina – Bosnian Mark (DM) $1 = 1.59
Bulgaria – Lev – $1 = 1.67
Croatia – Kunar – $1= 6.34
Kosovo – Euro – $1 = 0.86
The Republic of Macedonia – Dinar (DN) $1 = 52.8
Montenegro – Euro – $1 = 0.86
Romania – Lei $1 =3.99
Serbia – Dinar – $1 = 101
Slovenia – Euro – $1 = 0.86
ATM’s are available across the Balkans and most establishments will now accept Debit or Credit Card. Just bear in mind that your bank will charge for any use outside of your own country so it will usually work out cheap to bring cash to exchange or better still, to obtain a specialised travel credit or debit card before you leave. I currently use Monzo which is a pre-paid travel credit card.
EU passport holders do not need a Visa for any Balkan country. This makes Balkans Travel very easy.
Travellers from the USA, Canada, and Australia will require a Schengen Visa or EU passport to enter the EU countries ( (Croatia, Romanian, Bulgaria, Slovenia). The remaining countries will issue a visa stamp on arrival.
If you are reading this from a country outside the EU, Australia, US or Canada then please check your countries government website for travel visa requirements for all of the individual Balkan countries you wish to visit.
Please note that Serbia you are required to register with the police within 24 hours of arriving. Your hotel, hostel or Air B n B host will usually take care of this formality but it is up to you to ensure that it does get done and that you retain the registration card as failure to do so could cause you problems upon exiting the country. Also note that there are tensions between Serbia and Kosova and border crossings are closed (see below). If you attempt to enter Serbia with a Kosova stamp on your passport, you may encounter some difficulties.
There are several land borders and crossing points at which to cross from each neighboring state to the next and the crossings are usually relatively painless. If you are crossing by bus, a border control officer will often board the vehicle and collect all passports for inspection and stamping; on many occasions, you will not even need to get off the bus. Random searches are sometimes made although these are seldom particularly thorough. I have heard anecdotal stories of travellers perceived to be of Islamic descent coming in for tougher times upon entering certain countries and of American tourist been subjected to low-level bullying at the hands of Serbian border police.
Note that there are no diplomatic relations between Serbia and Kosovo and a Kosovan passport stamp may cause problems if you later try to re-enter Serbia.
There are a number of sea borders into the Balkans including Dubrovnik in Croatia, Bar in Montenegro and Vlora in Albania from the Western European seaboard. It is easy to find overnight ferries sailing from southern Italy (Bari & Brindisi) to these ports as well as a daily ferry from Corfu to Durres in Albania. If you end up in Durres then check out this guide to the Top Things to Do in Durres.
The Balkans can also be accessed by the Black Sea with border ports at Constanta in Romania and Thedosia in Bulgaria.
Food in the region is fairly diverse but there are some definite staples and similarities across the entire Balkans. Firstly, Balkanites are proud carnivores and vegetarianism really has not taken hold here yet except for some small pockets in the bigger, cosmopolitan cities.
The Ottoman culinary influence looms large and you will find cuts of meat grilling on charcoal throughout the region. Whilst food is flavorsome, none of the fair is particularly rich or spicy.
A breakfast staple in the Balkans is Borek; a fluffy pasty stuffed with either meat, cheese or spinach usually accompanied by a drinkable yogurt. This became a delicious staple of my diet whilst backpacking the Balkans.
In major cities, you will find a much wider variety of cuisine such as Italian and Chinese just like you would in a European or American major city. As a vegetarian, I lived entirely of Mexican Burrito’s when in Belgrade.
Self-caterers and Supermarkets
Most hostels in the Balkans offer a relatively well-equipped kitchen (some don’t so do check before you book) so you can save a lot of money by cooking your own food. Air B n B’s should all come with a kitchen.
Staple goods throughout the Balkans are generally a lot cheaper than they are back in Western Europe with the exception of certain imported items (Italian pesto, non-domestic chocolate, German beer etc) which almost retain their full, Western price.
You will definitely notice that the non-EU countries in the Balkans don’t offer the same variety of goods that you may be used to and may have been expecting to find. For example, vegetables are widely limited to what is locally grown and available only on a seasonal basis; for example, I could not find spinach anywhere in Macedonia and even struggled to find fresh tomatoes one day in Serbia. The EU states are more like what you get back home and many even have French or German supermarkets in them. Having access to the EU single market and it’s customs breaks, their shelves are packed with more consumables than you could consume in 1000 lifetimes.
Having a drink with friendly locals will be a highlight of your Balkans travel. Each country brews its own beer and whilst they are consistently cheap, some are much better than others. My recommendation is the black Sarajevska beer found in Bosnia as well as the Montenegrin Nickisco lager. In Romania, I got sick of drinking the local beer so switched to the wine which is a whole lot better.
Moonshine known as Polenka is also made by most households throughout the region. This is basically some deviation of fruit schnapps. It is often served in plastic soda bottles with an alcoholic concentration ranging from 40% – 60%.
Coffee is widespread and comes in either American and European forms as well as Turkish style.
There are accommodation options across the Balkans to suit all travelling styles as well as budgets. Hostel culture is alive and well and all major cities now boast at least one hostel. In hubs such as Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Kotor you will be absolutely spoiled for choice. Prices vary from country to the next with Croatia and Montenegro for example steadily creeping towards Western European prices. Serbia and Romanian on the other hand, are still relatively cheap.
The Balkans is a great place for doing Air B n B as well located, modern apartments can often be picked up for $25 per night in counties such as Romania and Serbia.
All of the accommodation I stayed in was of a very high standard.
Backpacking the Balkans is relatively cheap and you will find Western currencies go a lot further than they would back home. As a rule of thumb, backpacking the Balkans is around 30% of the price of travelling in Western Europe.
This does of course vary and popular destinations such as Croatia are starting to follow Western pricing trends. Montenegro is catching up this is exacerbated by their, unofficial but uncontested, usage of the Euro.
On average, I found the cost of Balkans travel, to be something like this;
Beer in a store – $1
Beer in a bar – $2
Hostel dorm bed – $10
Air B n B Apartment – $25
4-hour bus journey – $5
Meal for 2 with drinks – $20
Street food – $1.50
Burek & Yoghurt – $2
Americano Coffee – $2
The most common method of getting around the Balkans is by road. Balkans travel is made a lot easier thanks to the bus service throughout the region. Generally, it is very good with comfortable, cheap and regular buses operating between major cities and major border crossings.
Trains are available but I seldom used them as the infrastructure is less developed and connections less reliable. Many of the Balkan states still use communist era rail infrastructure which has not been modernised in 30 years – this can result in longer journeys than is necessary.
Ride-share apps and sites such are Bla-Bla Car are also available but the concept is not yet as established as in Western Europe.
Hitchhiking is also very popular in the Balkans and you will notice a lot of locals doing this. Many travellers find this a great way to get around as many drivers enjoy picking up tourists.
I do not recommend flying between Balkan states unless perhaps you are going directly from one end of the region to the other. Basically, busses are cheap and reliable and the distances are relatively close together. Using road travel will help both your budget and your carbon footprint.
For me, the Balkan Highlights are the view over Kotor bay, walking tours of Sarajevo, Serbian nightlife and the Transylvanian mountains. I will write a more detailed round-up very soon.
Croatia was the poster boy of Yugoslavian tourism and is now doing very well all on its own. This is definitely the most established and visited of the Balkan countries and attracts a steady stream of “straight” tourists looking for cheap alternatives to Italy and Spain as well as boozy, laddish weekenders. For me, its burgeoning popularity is its own undoing as prices as creeping up and over-crowding commonplace.
The centerpiece has to the old city of Dubrovnik which has found a new fame as “Kings Landing” in Game of Thrones.
In many ways, this is like Croatia’s little brother. Highlights are the beach town of Budva and the stunning bay of Kotor.
The old city of Mostar throngs with tourists Instagramming snaps of its famed old bridge but my personal tip for Bosnia is Sarajevo which mixes old worlde charm with a horrific modern history.
For me, the highlights of Serbia are its party scene. Belgrade stages rave parties 7 nights a week and Novi Sad is renowned for Trance and Techno festivals every summer.
Bulgaria boasts some hilarious communist relics and the black sea resort of Varna is buzzing the summer.
Romania is one of my favorite countries. Head to the Transylvania region and visit the mountains, old cities, and gothic castles. Cluj-Napoca is a lovely, lively and hip student town whereas Brasoz is like an old town hidden neath the Carpathian mountains.
The soon to be renamed Replublic of Macedonia is small but lively. The headline site is the lake town of Ohrid. If you pass through the capital city of Skopje then be sure to check out all the statues! I love them but the citizins were not impressed with the $100 million building costs!
Country Guides and Itineraries
Top Balkan Itineraries and individual country guides coming soon! Do come back!
My Balkan Holidays 2018
Bari (Italy) to Bar (Montenegro)
I guess my Balkan Backpacking trip kind of began in the beautiful, Southern Italian city of Lecce. My cousin got married here so I and my girlfriend attended together. Lecce is a gorgeous little city and was everything I wanted Italy to be with its stunning churches, baroque facades, and amazing food. It was also surprisingly affordable and a fantastic Air B n B apartment cost us $50 a night and a delicious 3-course meal with wine came in at around $60. Think Florence but at a quarter of the price with a tenth of the crowds.
From Lecce, I caught the train up to Bari where I and girlfriend separated. She flew home to Paris and I caught the ferry over to Montenegro; my entry point to the Balkans and the start of the trip in proper. Before the horn blew and the ferry sailed to sadder shores, we did have a few hours to chill out in Bari. Bari also has a very nice little old town, dominated by a mighty cathedral, where elders sit out in the cobbled, winding streets playing backgammon and chatting.
The area around the docks was bustling with Slavic sailors, a gang of Ukrainian bikers and sleazy locals trying to hit on my girlfriend the second I kissed her goodbye (Well I think Italians invented the word lothario…).
The overnight ferry from Bari to Bar sails twice weekly (Tuesday & Saturday) and a seat costs around $60. Cabins are more expensive but may be a good investment if you are travelling as a couple or as a group. As it was, the seat option was perfectly fine, I had plenty of space and I slept much of the 12-hour crossing. Getting from the ferry check-in desk to the actual ferry in Bari was kind of confusing as it meant changing terminals and catching a (free) shuttle bus. My advice is to ensure that you are punctual in order to get from end of the dock to the other lest the ship sails without you (time and tide wait for no man afterall).
If you are thinking about sailing from Italy to the Balkans, the other options are Bari to Dubrovnik and to Durres in Albania.
My first sighting of the Balkans came as the ferry slowly made its way into Bar port where green mountains erupted upwards hanging over the bay. Bar is a pretty, but ultimately unremarkable, town in the south end of Montenegro and generally, travellers disembark the ferry and get straight on a bus up along the coast. However, I decided to stick around for a night to see some “off the beaten track” Montenegro. My morning began drinking strong coffee at the bar in the dock whilst yet more Slavic sailors sank bottles of lager and shots of schnapps (yes at 8 am).
The town of Bar has a few interesting churches and an old palace. I spent the afternoon checking out “Stari Bar” or old Bar which is ruined town built into the mountains that rise up from the bay area. I ended up taking a cab up to the old town after waiting over one hour for a bus that just didn’t come. I offset the splurge though by walking back down – the road don took about 40 minutes and flooded a busy A-road so wasn’t exactly fun.
The people off Bar also struck me as incredibly friendly and helpful and strangers on the street stopped me to say hello and offer directions.
Being a vegetarian I expected to struggle with food in the Balkans and this did prove to be the case. However, in Montenegro I took delight in the huge omelets served with generous helpings of a soft white cheese and most meals were serve with huge, juicy tomatoes drizzled with Olive Oil and herbs. The local Montenegrin beer Nickisco also proved to be very quaffable and best of all came in at under $1.50 even in a restaurant.
Bar to Kotor
After a good nights rest in my $8 hotel, I took the morning bus to Kotor. Montenegro is a very small country and well served by its intercity bus service. Booking in advance is seldom needed and fares are cheap. The 3-hour ride up to Kotor cost well under $10 and the route followed the nations pretty coastline stopping at Budvar and passing the famous Sveti Stefan isle (the poster image of Montenegrin tourism). The ride was extremely pleasant, the bus was comfortable and the view throughout was striking.
Upon arriving at Kotor I was greeted by imposing mountains rising up like giant stone pillars decorated with the remnants of an old defensive wall tearing its way across the rim. I headed towards my hostel in the old town and snaked around the old city walls which were bustling with vegetable sellers. The port at Kotor was rammed with speedboats, yachts and one giant cruise ship which cast its giant shadow over the entity of the little town. The cruise ships were evidently docked in full force today as the entrances to the old town were packed with tour groups of Americans, Russians and Chinese with cameras packing the cafes in the square and jamming the narrow, cobbled streets of the ancient town. Kotor is now quite popular with Balkan holidays and mainstream tourism is fast taking over.
I decided to stay in my hostel for a few hours and wait out the cruise frenzy; besides that, the sticky humidity of the day was a bit punishing. Around 5 pm, I packed up some water, a cold beer, and my USB speaker and began hiking up the tall mountain towards the fortress atop the hill. The main entrance to the trail is situated in the old town and the entrance is $8. However, by taking an extended diversion through the countryside just outside the old town, it is possible to enter for free via a gap in the wall. On the way up, I passed traditional farmhouses, herds of sheep as well as an old, abandoned little monastery.
The views from the top out over the bay were absolutely stunning and well worth the exertion. I hung around at the top drinking my beer, awaiting the sunset and freaking out the other visitors by pumping Psytrance out from my USB speaker.
Even though it was a Friday night I decided to hit the hey early as I had a bus to catch in the morning.
Kotor to Sarajevo (Bosnia)
I departed my hostel at around 6.30am in order to catch the morning bus to Sarajevo (there are 2 a day during spring/early summer). It was so early, that I struggled to find a bakery for breakfast but at the periphery of Kotor’s old town managed to find one and it was here that I was introduced to Borek; a fluffy crusted pie filled with either meat, cheese or spinach. This is typical breakfast throughout much of the Balkans and is very filling if not exactly healthy. It is generally washed down with a drinkable yogurt. All in all definitely not bad.
We crossed the border without a hitch and began the drive across Bosnia. I was completely unprepared for just how beautiful Bosnia was and the bus ride took us up and down green mountains, alongside pleasant meadows and over babbling brooks. The bus stopped off at Mostar, a beautiful old town famed for its bridge (which was destroyed in the Bosnian war but since been restored) and I regretted not really having the time to make a stop and stay for a few nights.
I arrived in Sarajevo around mid-afternoon and caught an old tram towards my hostel near the re-built, old town. Sarajevo was the centre point of the long & brutal Bosnian war and was under siege for 5 years between 1991 – 1995 making nightly news across the world. Despite this, the Sarajevon’s were very pleasant and I immediately loved the Ottoman meets West vibe as well as the myriad of architectural styles.
You can read a full and detailed account of my time in Sarajevo here.
Sarajevo to Skopje (Macedonia) via Serbia
The next logical stop from Bosnia was Serbia but I was essentially “saving” Serbia as I had an event I wished to attend in a weeks time. The next stop on my itinerary was, therefore, Macedonia but as you can see from the map, there is no direct border with Bosnia.
I , therefore, had to cross Serbia in order to get there. The fastest option was to leave Serbia via Kosovo but this could have caused me problems upon trying to re-enter Serbia. I, therefore, had to pretty much cross the entire length of the country in a single day by taking a bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade, then one to Skopje in Macedonia via Nis. It was a long day spent sitting on busses in which I crossed 4 land borders. I did, however, have a quick chance to stick my head in Belgrade and buy some more Borek. Even from the bus window, I couldn’t help but notice something pretty striking about; Serbia; the women were absolutely stunning!
I arrived into Skopje, Macedonia’s capital at nightfall. All the restaurants and takeaways had closed to so I dined on biscuits and crisps; talk about a wholesome diet.
Skopje to Ohrid
I was headed for an early bus towards Ohrid so all I saw of Skopje was a mall where I picked a Macedonian sim-card. The bus to Ohrid cost $6 and took about 4 hours. The busses run pretty regularly so booking advance is not needed. Simply show up at the main station and you won’t be left waiting long basically. This is however not the case with other, lesser frequented towns in Macedonia such as Bitola.
Ohrid is a beautiful old own built along the shores of Lake Ohrid; Europe’s largest lake which separates Macedonia from Albania. I spent a few days in Ohrid exploring the old fortress, churches and it’s Roman ruins. It’s a lovely little city and seems destined for a much greater number of tourists. I, therefore, recommend heading to Macedonia to enjoy its charm now before it goes the same was as Dubrovnik.
I was struck by just how many Brits I was meeting in Macedonia and it seemed every hostel was packed full with us. This may be because you can now fly from Luton to Skopje for £20 and so we are taking full advantage. In Ohrid, I met some truly amazing people and had a few late night drinking sessions out in the hostel yard. We were joined by some local friends on the Hostel owner who brought homemade spirits which proved pretty strong. The Macedonian’s proved themselves to be very friendly but political correctness is not exactly in abundance.
As with the rest of the Balkans, Macedonia cuisine is very meat based but happily, they do one national dish, Tavce Gavce. which is essentially a delicious pot of baked beans. I first sampled this in Ohrid and along with a big delicious salad still had change from $5.
Macedonia is not in the EU and most of the produce and food available is locally produced. It is of a high standard and is cheap but I did note the complete absence of many items which I took for granted. Any produce that would need importing was totally unavailable in Ohrid.
Ohrid to Bitola
Before heading back to Skopje I decided to visit another city in Macedonia so picked Bitola upon a recommendation. The hostel owner very kindly dropped me at the bus station which is a first. The bus ride passed through dramatic valleys lined with vineyard and olive groves and I was desperate to jump off the bus and do some trekking.
Busses from Ohrid to Bitola are less frequent than the ones running to the capital so check the schedule before you head for the station to save you waiting around all morning.
The town of Bitola is very pretty and chilled and natives lined the mainsheets sitting at bars and cafes sipping beer or coffee. The town boasts an old Ottoman market, a big clock tower and a 3km walk from the centre took me to an archaeological site which was the ancient Greek city of “Heraclea Lyncentis”. The amphitheater is well preserved as are some of the floor frescos. It’s by no means the best ruin site I’ve visited by still well worth checking out if you are passing through.
I was the only guest in my Hostel which actually provided a decent, needed opportunity to take an early night.
Bitola to Skopje
I left Bitola early and got back to Skopje well before lunchtime. I checked back into the same hostel I had initially arrived at and set about exploring the city. Skopje is seriously cooky and in recent years the government have been on a bit of a spending spree erecting very impressive, mock-classical buildings and commissioning statues to just about any and every notable Macedonian in history. This has attracted the criticism of the Macedonian population who feel that the billions of dollars spent on statues would have been better used in social services.
Like many Balkan cities, it also has an Ottoman old town where the call to prayer still rings out. At the time I visited, Macedonia was very close to resolving a long-running dispute with their neighbour Greece over the counties name. Basically, Greece is claiming name-rights to “Macedonia” and forcing the country to think up something else. There were protests and pieces of graffiti throughout the city concerning this. The issue has since been resolved and Macedonia will soon be called “The Republic of North Macedonia”.
Apparently, between the Macedonian and Serbian border, there is an ancient astrological clock commonly described as being Macedonia’s Stone Henge. As I haven’t even seen Stone Henges Stone Henge I really wanted to track it down but apparently, its a bit of a ball ache without a car and I didn’t really have time to lose so had to skip it (next time though right?).
Whilst Backpacking the Balkans is fine on public transport, having one’s own vehicle would open up a lot more possibility.
Skopje to Nis (Serbia)
Busses from Skopje to Nis run quite regularly from Skopje’s main bus station. The cost is $10 and the journey duration is under 3 hours. On all occasions during this trip, my border crossings were done within 30 minutes.
It was now Saturday and I was truly excited to be heading back to Serbia. The reason I wanted to be in Serbia for this particular date was that there was a Psytrance party in the old fortress in Nis. Serbia is mad about Psytrance and produces some of the very best artists in the genre. I had also been added to the guest list as the organisers were thrilled that somebody was coming the way from England (via Macedonia) to attend.
In Nis, I took an Air B n B which was an absolute bargain at $25 per night. Things got off to a great start when (1) my host agreed to come and pick me up at the bus station! (2) a kind stranger let me hotspot from his phone so I could contact said, host.
Serbian hospitality is, however, a mixed bag and not everybody was quite so friendly. I mentioned earlier that I had been struck by the beauty of the Serbian women but I would learn that their beauty was matched only by their hostility – the supermarket checkout attendant refused to even look at me and a girl at the Trance party refused to let me use her lighter. Apparently, other travellers have also experienced the legendary frostiness of the Serbian women!
Nis is a great little city. It is where the Serbian revolution that led to the overthrow of Milosevic began and has a youthful population hence the thriving Trance scene. There is a “Tower of Skulls” (yep) as well as some grotesquely captivating examples of communist city planning.
After a few local beers in my awesome Air B n B, I headed off to find the trance party. It was somewhat unusual for a trance party as the area around the stage was largely covered with round tables at which groups of Serb’s congregated whilst dexterous waiting staff ducked and dived through the throng of dancing bodies to bring drinks to the tables. The clientele didn’t look particularity “Psytrance” with some very glamorous girls quite a few of the guys wearing white shirts with braces! Whilst being a somewhat “unconventional” trance party (in that it was actually quite conventional and packed with Square Johns) the setting and music was pristine It went on until about 4 am at which point I made my way back along the river to my apartment house. The city of Nis looked beautiful in dawns peaking light as if it has been remade during the night and seemed to glisten with a wry haze – a trance party does strange and marvelous things to our senses of perception though right?
Nis to Belgrade
There are regular busses from Nis to Belgrade (and vice versa) so you can simply rock up to the bus station, buy you Borek and Yoghurt from the bakery across the road and then go get you bus; you won’t be kept waiting long for it.
Belgrade is the capital city of Serbia and of the old Yugoslavia. Its geographical position means that it has been at the centre of various conflict and power struggles across central-eastern Europe for 1000 years and the Ottomans, Russians and latterly Nato have all jostled for influence in the region.
Belgrade is most definitely a very interesting city. Architecturally it’s a mix of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Communist empires who all occupied the city at various points in its history. It’s not uncommon to see a flamboyant, palatial building jostling directly next to a dour functionalist commie housing block – it’s like the city planners had little reverence for “consistency”.
Belgrade is also home to quite a few decent museums including the Nicolai Tesla museum dedicated to the worlds most famous Serb (although ethnically a Serb, he was born in what is now Croatia and did most of his work in the US). In the museum, you can watch a number of experiments replicating Tesla’s pioneering work including one used to great effect by George Lucas in Star Wars to get the light sales to, erm, light up (this was in 1977 when CGI was just a glint in the milkman’s eye). The Tesla museum is rapidly increasing in populate and I had to beg and blag in order to be allowed entry as it was over capacity. I recommend calling ahead to avoid disappointment especially if you are in a group.
The history of Yugoslavia Museum is also worth seeking out if only to pay your respects to the Federal Republics founding Father, Tito who is still celebrated and revered throughout the old Yugoslavia.
Like Nis, Belgrade also has an old fortress which has been turned into a landscaped park. Apparently many Serbian towns have fortress’ dating from the Ottoman era. Serbia vehemently resisted the Ottoman invasion and this defiance is still scorched into the national psyche and does occasionally stray into what we in the west would probably call Islamophobia.
I also got a little glimpse into the mystery of the Serb women after an afternoons conversation with my hostel hostess. As she put it “women are women in Serbia” and feminism has not arrived. As such, women expect to be dominated and taken care off. I left the discussion with the impression that to get the attention you perhaps need to offer them the severed head of a rival for their mating rights and a bottle of Bacardi or something. They are paid less than men, even for doing the same job, but don’t mind as the men treat them well. Although the men apparently treat the women very well well, infidelity is very common and married women routinely need permission to leave the house to see their friends…
Belgrade also has a reputation as a bit of a party city and there are all night-clubs open 7 days a week. Nightlife in Belgrade is also diverse, there are riverboats anchored in pumping out the populist turbo-folk (Serbian folk songs set to trashy Euro-pop beats) or at the more interesting end, there are haunts on the edges of town playing Techno and Psytrance. Check out KPTM which has a “daily rave” generally running from between 5 pm – 12 am.
Belgrade to Timisoara (Romania)
To get from Belgrade to Timisoara I took a private shuttle van which cost 10euro and goes door to door. Whilst this is a pretty good service, we did spend the first hour driving around Belgrade, fighting traffic and collecting the other clients and then spent 2 hours in Timisoara dropping the other patrons off before. Finally, he dropped me at my communist-era housing bloc where my girlfriend was waiting. It would have been much quicker to do the run by public bus, even with the requisite bus change that doing so would have entailed.
You can book the shuttle service at GEA Tours or you can use public bus simply by heading to Belgrade’s central bus station. Most of the staff speak English and will tell which bus to get and where to change fo the onwards bus to Timisoara. Booking in advance for the public bus is not needed but do check times otherwise you may end up hanging around the bus station longer than you would like.
Timisoara is Romanian’s 3rd largest city *(after Cluj and the capital Bucharest). The city is built along the Bega River and its old center is a mix of Orthodox churches, Gothic-esque apartment blocks and with a very heavy Italian influence chucked in. The outskirts date from the communist era and tall, grim, monolithic, homogenous apartment blocks populate the horizon.
I was reuniting with my girlfriend in Timisoara and we had taken an Air B n B in one such grim apartment block. Despite the drab exterior, the apartment was very well maintained inside and is only a 10-minute stroll to the centre, represented amazing value at only $25 per night.
We were in Timisoara for a wedding (the 2nd in a month) so simply spent our time chilling and getting blind drunk on Romanian Polenka; a vicious plum brandy which causes total blackouts and murderous hangovers. Romanian Orthodox weddings are more low key, humble affairs than the ones back west and the service is effectively sung by two chaplains which is rather beautiful and moving. I definitely recommend gate-crashing a Romanian wedding if you ever get the chance!
There was a little jazz festival as well as a beer festival but for me, the most interesting place to socialise is the Museum of Communist Consumer Products where you can drink a cold beer with the cities students.
Timisoara to Cluj-Napoca
Romania is bigger than people realise and because some of the train infrastructures are in need of an update, it took much of the day to get from Timisoara to Cluj. Still, Romania is a gorgeous county and so the journey was a picturesque one passing through green fields, under mountains and passing olde world farmsteads and train stations out in the rural parts of the country.
Cluj-Napoca is Romania’s second city and the biggest in the Transylvania region. It is also a student, creative and hipster hub so boats a youthful, educated and open-minded citizenship. This was my second time in Transylvania and the region remains one of my favourites parts of Europe and I already long to return. Cluj itself was indeed a revelation with a succession of lovely bridges and a cracking array of buildings.
When in Cluj-Napoca check out the Samsara establishments. One is a vegetarian restaurant (with a specialised, side-line in raw vegan) where a meal for two with drinks will set you back under $20. The second is situated just out of town a little bit up the road and is basically a psychedelic, tea house seemingly inspires by the cafes of North India. Patrons sit on the floor smoking shisha, drinking tea/beer and listening to a trip, Psychill music. It’s actually one of my favourite cafe/ bars in the whole world.
Cluj-Napoca – Home
Cluj-Napoca is a pretty well-connected airport and there are now budget flights to much of Europe. My girlfriend found a direct flight to Nantes for around $50 but I had to fly to Berlin and then onwards to Manchester which came to about $80 (but I did have a checked back in with that).
The airport is also petty closer to the city and an Uber will only set you back around $5. Public transport is obviously even cheaper.
I didn’t have time to get down to Bulgaria on this trip which is massive regret as I’ve heard promising things about it. One for next time?