What's Balkan-ier than the Balkans?


Those of you playing along at home know that I’ve long harbored a weirdly tender spot for Serbia. So much so that, for reasons I’ve been unable to articulate, I insisted on including it on our around-the-world roster.

A month.

In Serbia.

Nobody in my family understands this. When people look at us (as they invariably do), with their heads cocked to the side and wonder, “Serbia? Why Serbia?” my family shrugs and points to me and I endeavor to explain.

It’s gotten rote at this point…“I read this book, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, about a guy who bikes the Iron Curtain Trail, and the whole book was filled with places I didn’t want to go. Like ever.

But then the author, Tim Moore, describes arriving in Serbia and the public spaces were filled at night, with people that made Italians look like wallflowers and I thought, this I’ve got to see.”

People grunt and move on to ask me if we’re really doing a DIY safari (short answer: Not sure, but looking that way.)

Consistent lukewarm responses started giving me a chilly feeling about Serbia. I realized: Maybe the fact that nobody goes there isn’t because it’s an undiscovered wonder. Maybe there’s a problem.

I asked on a couple of travel forums. I got two enthusiastic pro-Serbia responses.

From Serbs.

John Ahern, one of the contributors to The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad, the guide I wrote to encourage people to embrace their family travel dreams responded to my itinerary with “Croatia is a must. Serbia is fine.” (he also included a plug for the DIY safari thing. I wish I could meet John, I think he and Keith would get along like crazy… his section of the book is what Keith resonates with, even though it’s about traveling in an RV, which Keith has always insisted is his 9th circle of hell).

The most enthusiastic response I got from a non-Serbian was a reader who said, “Go to Serbia! That way I can say I know someone who’s been to Serbia.” Amusing for sure, though not compelling.

It should come as no surprise that in order to sift through the mists of this confusion I required human interaction. It’s what I learned at the Yelp Event that Changed My Life (that’s how I refer to it now, to the eye roll strain of my children who bristle at my hyperbole even while they complain that chores are the most boring thing ever in the entire world).

Here’s how it went down. I was visiting Johnny and Sandy, friends who used to work for non-profits that took them all over a part of the map I’ve never been to—from Eastern Europe through Russia. We sat down with some wine and Johnny said, “If you don’t mind my asking, why Serbia?”

I gave him my pat response. You know the one.

He said, “Well, I don’t want to throw cold water on your plan…”

At this point, I’m begging for that cold water, I need information! Real information!

And he said, “My work has taken me to the Balkans for years….You might want to travel somewhere a little less… unrepentant about their recent genocide.”

I nodded sagely.

Meanwhile I’m thinking, “Genocide? What genocide?”

He went on to say, “Serbs have a chip on their shoulders. About Sarajevo.”

serbia image balkans

I continue to nod sagely. All I really know about Sarajevo is that Katarina Witt skated for their people at the 1994 winter olympics in Lillehammer. Sarajevo sounds pretty though. Like it’s filled with castles of filigreed gold.

I hazard a question, and say that the book I read made the Serbian people seem super friendly. Johnny asked, “Where is the author from?”

“The UK.”

Johnny nodded sagely, though, unlike me, not because he didn’t want to show his ignorance. “Yes. The chip on their shoulder is towards Americans. Bosnia…you know…”

Ah. Bosnia. Time for more sage nodding.



Undaunted, I went on, “But Tim Moore, the author of that book, he describes the streets filled with people, the piazzas, or whatever the Serbian word for piazzas is…”

Johnny said, “I didn’t know you were interested in nightlife.”

“I’m not. I’m in bed by 9:30. I read for an hour or two and then pop off to sleep.”

He wrinkled his brow.


I get it.

The Belgrade images I’ve seen and read about, the ones of burbling street life, that street life is not grandmothers watching children on their bikes as the sun hovers over the storied streets and people swap ice cream cones. That street life is young people getting their party on.



It also occurred to me that Tim Moore had spent quite some time in barren destinations as he zipped back and forth along the Iron Curtain trail with snow gathering on his handlebars. His idea about charm in that moment may well be different from mine.

Johnny continued, “I don’t mean to put you off, I just want to make sure you are aware. Serbia can be kind of hostile. I worry about you there for a month. Not about your safety… I worry that it’s too much time in a place that doesn’t really fit what you want in your Balkan experience.”



Which of course, begs the question. What do I want in travel in general? I want variety across places, so obviously there aren’t a lot of common threads. But when forced to verbalize those threads to Johnny and Sandy, I thought aloud, “I’d like friendly people. Good food. Rich history. Architecturally different. Beautiful surroundings.”

Sandy put down her wineglass. “Georgia.'“

I admit, at first I thought she meant the US state and figured she’d been sipping too much wine while Johnny had been talking me out of Serbia. I realized my error when Johnny said, “But if they’re spending a month in Turkey…”

I love it when other people debate my itinerary. It can feel a bit scary to propel ourselves through Lonely Planet books with nothing but the internet to prop up our assumptions. Having other people care enough to bandy destinations about with each other makes me feel loved and safe. I also like not having to come up with all the questions. A total plus.



I asked, “Okay, where would you two go? Month in the Balkans.”

Johnny said, “Croatia or Sarajevo.” Those filigreed castles rose in my mind again. Where did they come from?

Sandy said, “Georgia.”

I asked carefully, “But Georgia…that’s not in the Balkans, is it?”

My understanding of the peninsula is quite shaky, so shaky that a month ago I wouldn’t have been able to name 3 Balkan countries, but I was pretty sure Georgia wasn’t one of them. If Georgia was part of the cluster, I would have thought about Viktor Petrenko and his 1994 Artistry on Ice performance as I ran my finger over the map, looking at the countries bordering Serbia. Oh my God, why is all my understanding about the Balkans determined by retired figure skaters?



Sandy shook her head. “It’s not, but it’s arguably more Balkan than the Balkans. It has the rebellious spirit of the Balkans, without the chip on its shoulder.”

There’s a spirit of the Balkans? I had no idea. At this point, the weight of all my sage nodding grew tiresome and I decided, screw it. These people have information. I need that information. Looking stupid be damned. "What would you say is the spirit of the Balkans?”

Sandy gestured with her hands, her eyes wide as she said, “It’s a confluence of east and west, north and south. It’s filled with people who have always craved a national identity and had to fight to get it, since they were so often pawns in the hands of more powerful nations. Sometimes that has led to nationalism and violence, like in Serbia, but it has also celebrated these partisan groups who bravely struggled and fought. It’s a spirited, scrappy collection of countries.”



So how is Georgia Balkan-ier than the Balkans (to coin a phrase, trademark totally coming)? Sandy said Georgia is all the things the Balkans are, but somehow bigger and prettier. Better food, brighter colors, with a bigger sense of life. Like the Balkans, it has a spiritedly independent culture, but unlike the Balkans, Georgia’’s culture is separate from anywhere else. It’s not Russian, it’s not Turkish, it’s not influenced by Austria. It is something completely unique, a culture never seen before.

Johnny conceded the truth of that, adding, “Georgians have a story, probably a variant of one every country has, but this one stuck with me. It goes like this. When God was handing out parcels of land for each country, He gave France to the French and Ireland to the Irish, and He got to the end and started walking away, and the Georgians said, ‘Hey! What about us?’ and God said, ‘I’m so sorry! I forgot! Well, I’ll give you the land I was saving for myself.’”




I looked up photos of Georgia. I can see how this creation myth got going.

I asked Sandy, “What do you love about Georgia?” and she said, “It has everything you described you want. The people are super friendly, they have this rich tradition of toasting. The food is amazing. I’ve loved everyone I’ve ever met from Georgia. And the landscape is, like Johnny said, breathtaking. And while it may have the influence of Turkey and Russia, more than that, it’s what Balkan countries have always aspired to be. It’s own place.” She added that if you go to Bulgaria or Croatia, there are echoes of Ottoman culture, echoes of Austrian culture, a real mix. Whereas Georgia is not just a mix, feels more…exotic. She shivered using the word because she hates it, but it was the best word for the job.

Well, that’s a lot to think about. As we cleared up, I asked Sandy and Johnny where they would go in the world, if they could spend a month. Johnny said, “Scotland or France.”



Sandy said, “India or Vietnam.”

Which made me realize, their choice of which Balkan country is likely a reflection of what they value in traveling, and you can intuit what someone values in traveling by asking where they want to spend a month. Johnny, I would hazard, wants a similar enough society so that he can sink in and enjoy a culture that’s somewhat different, but not jarringly so. Amenities like working toilets are probably deal breakers. While Sandy, her tastes trend more to the adventurous. She seems to want to feel like a fish out of water. The explorer streak in her is likely a mile wide. Driving home the point that there are no bests. Travel is so personal.

So whose opinion do I fit? Probably somewhere in the middle. I remember that after Vietnam, I felt energized and exhausted, and missing Italian three hour long lunches. Maybe I like adventure best in small doses? I guess we’ll see…

I went home with my head spinning.

First, I decided to do some real research. Before this, my research veered toward, “Why you should visit Serbia.” Which is probably why I didn’t get any information like what Johnny told me. This time, I went in more critically.


I knew I didn’t want to spend a month in Croatia because money is tight and we need that month to be a cheap month. We need most months to be cheap months to offset destinations like Paris and Tokyo. Croatia is still a bargain for European travel, but not as much as it used to be, and not nearly as wallet-friendly as much as the rest of the Balkans.

Besides—and I’ll no doubt be skewered for saying this—but listening to people talk about Croatia stirs me not at all. Nothing against Croatia, I just don’t get that tingle of wanting to see it for myself (I feel the same about Costa Rica, and people tell me I’m nuts to rule it out, but I’m just not feeling it… nor is anyone in my family, so why should I push through that when there are so many compelling places in the world). Now, it could be as simple as the first person who told me about Croatia added as an afterthought, “The food was terrible” and clearly the first thing I hear about a country impacts all my future understanding (see: “Serbia has great street life”).

I joked on my Facebook Author page that maybe I need to read a book about Croatia to stir my imagination as Tim Moore’s book is clearly what rattled my Serbia saber. Words on a page are impactful. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t do what I do. Sarah, another contributor to The Road Taken suggested I read Running Away to Home. I took this suggestion seriously, and it is an excellent excellent read. It’s not in the slightest convincing me to go to Croatia, as what the author seems to love about Croatia I find to be familiar themes in most expat memoirs, including my own, but the book itself is well-written, evocative, and just plan wonderful. Recommend. And now back to the Balkans—-

As I sifted through places, I realized that, like almost no place else we’ve looked at, history defines the Balkans. I needed to stop nodding sagely and acquire actual knowledge. I tried reading wikipedia and other on-line sources and my eyes turned glassy. Then I had a thought, guidebooks! Guidebooks have digestible histories at the beginning. I checked out a Lonely Planet and supplemented it with website learning and am pleased to present with my pocket-size history of the Balkans.

Now, when I say pocket-sized, I mean it… it’s extremely abbreviated, and put here just to give you the context I now have for understanding why each Balkan country has its own flavor. That said, I understand that any event in history can be perceived in myriad ways, so my laying out of a timeline here in no way should dissuade you from diving into research and your own understanding. In fact, that’s what I realized makes Balkan history so beguiling (spoiler alert!): Each country’s interpretation of what might seem dry and irrefutable facts is stridently different. So take all this with a grain of salt to scratch the lens of innate prejudices.

A Pocket History of the Balkans

Okay, so in the early days, the Balkans were settled by Celts, Greeks, and a tribe found all over the peninsula that the Greeks dubbed “the Illyrians” (the Albanian language has Illyrian roots). Like pretty much everyone with a pulse back then, those groups were conquered by the Roman Empire (resulting in roads, vineyards, constructed towns, and fortresses). That is, until that empire became too unwieldy to manage and split in the 4th century, into the Roman Catholic part in the west and the Byzantine Orthodox in the east. That dividing line ran right through the Balkan peninsula, along the Bosnian-Serbian border.

Waves of Slavic invaders from Ukraine made their way down the peninsula. These invaders wound up succumbing to the charms of Christianity as the ninth century monks not only evangelized the Slavs but also set to creating the Cyrillic alphabet (named for the monk Cyril and based on Byzantine Greek letters).

Word must have spread about the sweet picking in the Balkans, because more invaders arrived, this time the Franks took over what is now Slovenia and Croatia, mainlining their Western European culture to the region.

This Venn diagram of Balkan ownership is getting blurry isn’t it? But in the midst of all this, Serbia rose to collect itself and declare itself a stable kingdom, with Kosovo as its capital. “We’re our own thing!” The Serbs cried, and the pope was cool with that, even though Serbia still honored its religious ties to the Eastern Orthodox church. Like all self-respecting fledgling nations, Serbia set out to conquer some peeps of its own.

The Ottomans thought that was adorable. They invaded in the fourteenth century and took over the peninsula by way of a battle in Kosovo. Thus began five centuries of Muslim influence, primarily in the southern Balkan region, with Venetians maintaining rule in some coastal towns.

About half of the southern peninsula (Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo) converted to Islam by the 1900’s, the other half remained Orthodox Christian. There are other leftovers of Turkish rule in the Balkans, namely architecture, cuisine, and coffee.

As great empires do, the Ottoman Empire did a lot of sitting around, resting on its ex-Roman laurels. It weakened, leaving it vulnerable to Austrians who knew a good deal when it saw one. They conquered Croatia and Slovenia and looked to flex on the rest of the Balkans.

The Ottoman empire scrambled, but by this time they were too fractured, depending on corrupt fiefdoms to do the troubling work of ruling themselves while still demanding financial tribute to fund their opulent harem lifestyles. To keep up with their Joneses, the sultans took out giant loans, which Britain and France obligingly offered. With high interest rates. They were no fools.

The Turkish banks inevitably collapsed and this, coupled with some bad harvests and well timed Christian revolts, led to a crippling of the Ottoman Empire. Russia swooped in for the final onslaught, beating back the Ottomans and savoring which pieces of the Balkans it wanted for itself. Bulgaria looked pretty good. The rest of the peninsula was carved up by Germany into munchable morsels, offering up Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus ignoring the language and cultural divides that had been created over the centuries.

Those morsels bristled and thought it better to combine themselves their own way, which gave rise to pan-Slavism, a movement to unite the Balkan countries under one flag. In this time of roiling unrest, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. The Serbian government didn’t order the hit, rather it was a Bosnian-Serb nationalist, desperate to unite the Balkans. Austria invaded Serbia anyway, and thus begins World War I. As the Balkan countries didn’t all ally themselves with the same side, the end of the war found that though there was a united pan-slavic nation, Yugoslavia, it was a weakened collection of Balkan countries. Feelings were tender, but the countries that made up Yugoslavia felt they would be stronger together than apart, and seriously they were done with foreign invaders.

The whole region was so tentative it was ripe for the plucking. At least that’s how the Nazis saw it. The various Balkan nations had to make a choice—join the Nazis or side with Russia to help buffer themselves against the Nazi invasion. Again, the Balkan countries didn’t agree on alliances, which led to virulent side picking. In Croatia, the nazi-backed party began a campaign of such brutality towards Serbs that that it engendered the term “ethnic cleansing” as hundreds of thousands of Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia died in concentration camps, along with Jews and Roma.

Thanks to Brit and Soviet backing, an anti-Nazi group led by Tito eventually got the upper hand. Tito dreamed of a self-determined slavic-state and was the natural leader to bring together the healing countries, since his father was Croatian, his mother was Slovenian, his wife Serbian and his home was in Belgrade. Tito assigned each region of the Balkans its own share of power and independence by establishing six republics— Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Each republic boasted its own distinctive proportion of religious and ethnic majorities and they all were under the pan-slavic umbrella.

Volumes have been written about Tito, so in the interest of pocket-sizing, I’ll say that opinions on him vary depending on where you are in the Balkans. Some see him as a savior, some as ruthless, I suspect the truth is less clear cut than either of these. What is indisputable is that though Tito originally welcomed Russia’s assistance, he eventually got tired of Moscow’s interference. He broke with Stalin, allowing his people to revert to farming for their own sake, and also allowed them freedoms disavowed in other communist states, like travel to other countries.

Albania, which wasn’t part of Yugoslavia, kept their country firmly tied to Russia. The communist party got proper limber in Albania. Religion was banned there and there was a good ol’ Chinese-style cultural revolution.

Meanwhile, the pan-Slavic dream of Yugoslavia began to shatter. At the time of Tito’s death in 1980, the various countries began to bristle at the concentration of power in Serbia. Rebellious riots and repressive violence became commonplace.

Milosevic, of Serbia’s soviet party, came to power and fomented the regional unrest by playing up the disputes between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and making it look like he alone could fix it.

Meanwhile, democracy swept through the rest of Eastern Europe like wildfire, which only stoked the divide between Milosevic and the rest of the Yugoslav republics who wanted some of that freedom. In 1991, Slovenia declared itself independent. Emboldened, Croatia tried to slip out the Yugoslav door, and Serbia bristled, but allowed it, though they hung onto the Serb-dominated mountain region. Macedonia snuck out when nobody was looking. Serbia thought, “I know I left that little country around here somewhere, but now I can’t find it.”

Bosnia took advantage of the moment and put one foot out the door and all hell broke loose. You see, three ethnic communities shared Bosnia—Croats, Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks—and they each had their different allegiances. Serbian factions in Bosnia feared that Bosnian independence would mean they, as a minority group, would be alone. Again.

Milosevic supported the Serbian resistance in Bosnia, and used the enclave as a staging area to begin an ethnic cleansing to clear Croats and Bosniaks out of Bosnia. Milosevic intoned that the genocide was warranted, after the history of violence against Serbs and to protect themselves from further annihilation. For everyone watching, the violence was nothing more or less than an insane reign of terror.

Now, remember, these states are all a mix of different ethnicities. So you can imagine the confusion and horror the genocide spawned. People with mixed ancestry had to choose a side, and hope their siblings chose the same one. Neighbor turned on neighbor, who could people trust? For the first time, it wasn’t big foreign powers coming in to sweep through, or even foreign-backed powers, this chaos was home-grown. And devastating.

After four years of this, the world finally stepped in. In 1995, NATO bombed Bosnian Serbs to convince them to come to the negotiating table. Bosnia was divided into three areas known now as Bosnia in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, inflation decimated the Balkans, and Albania was in a power free-fall after Albanians toppled their own communist regime.

In 1997, Kosovo was again the seat of warring factions. Ethnic Albanians, who made up about 90% of the Kosovo population rebelled against the Serbs. Milosevic ordered yet more ethnic cleansing in his attempt to preserve Kosovo for Serbia. After all, Kosovo is the Serbs ancestral homeland, the source of their creation story, even if it is mostly populated by Albanians.

Tensions have calmed, both within the countries and between them. The economy has strengthened, democracy is on the rise. Many Balkan states are in process of becoming part of the EU.

But the years of strife show. The issues weren’t as simplistic as this pocket history would have you believe, and there are rancorous feelings about how the people were portrayed during their wartime since cause and effect are impossible to untangle. But now, war criminals are no longer being shielded and people are more openly discussing the traumas of the past and the hopes for the future. Corruption and organized crime get in the way, but with the rise of democracy there is also more openness to address these, rather then whistling and looking away.


That was bracing.



Balkan history acquired, I set my sights on attaching possible destinations on my ladder of information. Flipping through guidebooks and forums, I realized I liked the idea of Albania. Lots of gorgeous landscapes, and the Al Jazeera Traveler videos I watched suggested that it has a strong Turkish influence, which, for me, is part of the appeal of the Balkans, the whole east meets west thing. I like that those mountains kept it a bit free of all the hooplah happening elsewhere in the Balkans.

Albania has a strong Muslim presence, but it’s also known for being a place of extraordinary religious acceptance. Like the rest of the Balkans, Albania was constantly fending off invaders from everywhere, and in protecting their homes, they developed a sense that they are Albanians first, whatever religion they are second. In fact, the Al Jazeera video shows a mosque where Christian images are depicted in the frescoes, including a baptism. That sounds pretty cool to me. I’m all about embracing other’s belief structures.

Then I stumbled across this truly wacky and wonderful thing about Albania in boxed text in Lonely Planet. Apparently, perhaps because of the loss of so many men in wars, Albania has this custom called “Sworn Virgins” and it’s not what you think. It’s not a Vestal Virgin situation. Rather, women get to a certain age and they decide to live as men. This isn’t being transsexual or gay, because apparently there’s a thriving LGBT culture in Albania, this is different. Women take on the clothes of a man, work in male-dominated jobs, and are treated as men by other men.

Mind. Blown.

Not a reason to move to a country, of course. But a curious side story.



As I sifted through destinations in the Balkans, I got an email from a reader telling me about Bulgaria. I read the email to Keith and he said, “SIGN ME UP.” He hadn’t had that reaction to my demonstration on the charms of Albania, or even Gabe’s on Lithuania, so why did he love the sound of Bulgaria? Well, the reader described lots of natural beauty, friendly people, no mosquitos, and Keith said he liked that it was an opinion of a real person. Also, he knows I like this reader and probably figured, “Insta-buddies!”

So I researched Bulgaria and got that “Croatia flat” feeling. Despite the fact that Rick Steves seems to love it. I couldn’t really figure out why I didn’t. I decided that maybe Rick is such an advocate because Bulgarian infrastructure is great, so his low-impact travel, buses and such, is much much easier. Not the case with most inexpensive countries.

In retrospect, I wish I’d asked Johnny and Sandy about the Balkan history, so I could fit their opinions into context. I should have been blunt with my lack of knowledge. I learn best through people, it would be worth it to look stupid to learn something. Lesson learned, and important to take with me.

Albanian beach

Albanian beach

But I firmly believe that retrospect can be made spect, so I called up Johnny and Sandy and asked them more questions. Sandy said she thought Albania would be a good destination. A bit weirder and quirkier than the rest of the Balkans. This threw me because my research suggested the same. People in travel forums tended to talk about Albania as having anywhere from “something special” to '"something weird” about it. I pressed the point.

Sandy hesitated to say more. One because she knows first hand how fiercely proud people in that part of the world can be about their country and two because while she once knew the history of the region quite well, that knowledge has softened, collapsed, into what she and I started calling “feeling memories”. So she has a feeling about it, but coudn’t say why.

Listen, my memory is shot. It seems like most of my memories are of this indefinable, fuzzy sort. And yet, my feeling memory of a restaurant in Venice “I’m getting a dark vibe, I feel like it was on some street that suggested violence, backstabbing maybe? Assassins!” and then it turns out the restaurant is on Avenue of the Assassins. Just because we can’t follow the knowledge breadcrumbs to their source, doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Case in point, how neatly Sandy got to the heart of Albania.

Lake in Albania

Lake in Albania

So I told her I’ll happily accept unformed opinions. She thought as she spoke, and told me that Albania was protected from a lot of the strife on the Balkan peninsula because it was’t part of Yugoslavia. While everyone was figuring out who got which land, Albanians just kept speaking their own insular language, behind their wall of mountains. Johnny concurs here, and adds that Albania is like Georgia in this way. Both have distinct languages and dividing mountains, which leads to them being a bit protected and clannish. Sandy adds that not being attached to big conglomerate countries lends countries like Albania a lone-ranger type feel. Her belief is that Albania has a more independent, wilder vibe than the rest of the Balkans.

Because it wasn’t part of Yugoslavia, it missed the trauma of the break-up, but it also missed some of the perks of joined resources. The infrastructure in Albania is historically bad, though reportedly getting better.

Sandy’s suspicions gels with a NYT article I read about Tirana, Albania’s capital. The article says that the people in Albania are so freaking excited to have thrown off the mantle of communism, they are in continual celebration of their freedom. It makes for a dynamic, vibrant spirit, an urge for growth, and a welcoming of outsiders.

Though it should be noted, according to Lonely Planet, BREAKFAST IS NOT A THING IN ALBANIA. Packaged croissants is as good as it gets. But can I really determine itinerary by breakfast, just because I’m using the year to explore how people open the day around the world (click here for the post where I decided on breakfast as a theme)?



I asked Sandy if she had an opinion about Bulgaria. She said that she had a lovely time in Bulgaria, it’s beautiful and smells amazing, like roasting peppers everywhere. and she had a fascinating time hanging out with monks. But she understood why it didn’t inspire sparks for me. She described it as “Russia-lite,” it doesn’t have a sense of being its own place. “It lacks the absurdism of Romania or Albania.” I savored that sentence for some time. Absurdism. Delicious.

I asked her about the Russia thing, because I got the sense that Bulgaria felt its Russian influences strongly, while Albania had more of an Ottoman and Italian vibe. She agreed.

She added that linguistically the two countries are different as well. She’s a bit of a polyglot, my friend Sandy, and she said that she’ll often mistake Bulgarian for Russian (which she speaks). Where if she hears someone speaking a language she can’t place at all, it’s either Albanian, Hungarian, or a Baltic language.

Johnny popped in with some thoughts reiterating that Bosnia, particularly Sarajevo, is multiethnic—a meeting place of empires. It’s friendly, outgoing, lively, with great food.



Well, that sounds pretty good. I looked at guidebooks and found that Bosnia truly embraces their “east-meets-west” history. You can walk down a street in Sarajevo lined with Turkish cafes and turn a corner and be surrounded with Austro-Hungarian architecture. No filigreed castles, but there is a lot to do, and clearly as besotted as I am with Balkan history, Bosnia would be a great place to explore museums dedicated to understanding at least the Bosnian approach to that history. Plus, not only would it make for easy exploration to other Balkan countries, they also have hearty breakfasts.

I’m remembering that Siena’s best friend is currently studying in Bosnia, and home for the summer. I think I need to pounce on her the next time she comes over and ask her some questions.

I’ve now thumbed through more than one guidebook, and I think that, as of now, our Balkan experience will either be in Albania or Bosnia. Croatia seems to be leaning into its “we’re western, not eastern” vibe (city names are also listed in Italian, as as compelling as that is after living in Italy, I kinda want something different), and I really am craving the confluence. Montenegro seems to be gorgeous, the image I’m getting is that it’s making its money via tourism and so trying to draw people to their pretty port cities… it’s more expensive and less authentic? If you know otherwise, let me know. As for Macedonia (the name always makes us smile, as it means fruit salad in Italian), it’s long on natural beauty, but short of bustling cities. It might make a great choice if we decide we’d like the outdoors to be a focus of our Balkans experience. Then again, it seems all the Balkans have that in spades—clear lakes, crystal blue seas, towering alps, mysterious forests.

As for now? I’m left thinking deeply about place. What goes into a country’s creation, what goes into a visitor’s experience there—preconceived notions, biases, values, preferences. One of my preferences is that I like my destinations to have a sense of identity. Not nationalism, definitely not that, just identity. For instance, when we were looking for a place to live for a year, I purposely ruled out border countries. I wanted to live in a town that felt parallel to the country. Thinking about this made me realize why some people don’t like Belgium. I think some people consider it too much of a French and Dutch mix, not really its own thing. I adore Belgium, we’re devoting part of our itinerary to it, but I do see that it takes a bit of effort to feel its Belgium-ness. it doesn’t plop in your lap like Italy plops in your lap or Vietnam plops in your lap, fully formed. it takes no effort to get an understanding of what makes those spaces unique.

Are the Balkan countries, like Sandy suggests, searching for their identity after years of being manhandled? Is Albania more secure in itself, or is that feeling searching for evidential back-up? Is Georgia indeed what the Balkans aspire to be? I know NOTHING about Georgia. Looks like I have more research to do before I figure that part out. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Stay tuned…

PS Incidentally, if you are reading this while you are searching for a destination for an extended stay, you should know that Albania offers year-long tourist visas, rather than the three month offered by most of Europe.

Have you been to the Balkans? Where did you go? What appealed to you and what didn’t? Did you get a sense of the history? Do you think it impacts modern life on the peninsula?