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Balkans

Photo by Kyle Taylor

Balkans destinations

Albania

Balkans

The Balkans – as far from Europe as you can get without leaving Europe! Your airline ticket price and your travel time to get here tell you you’ve not come far, and yet you feel a world away. These are countries where travellers can still feel like explorers, and where hospitality is not a corporate tagword but an ancient honour and obligation.

There are some special places to stay across the region – whether you want innovative hotels (like Hotel Gracanica in Kosovo where a multiethnic Roma, Serbian and Albanian team work in a stunning modernist hotel) or Hotel Sveti Naum in a ninth century monastery on the shores of vast Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, or the iconic Sveti Stefan island hotel in Montenegro which featured in Casino Royale, and recently hosted tennis star Djokovic’s wedding. In Albania you can stay in a fortified stone kulla built to protect families in blood feud.


Enjoy the outdoors Balkans

Despite its borders with familiarly idyllic travel destinations like Italy and Greece, the beauty and drama of the Balkan landscape is often forgotten, but here you can ski (try Kapaonik in Serbia, Brezovica in Kosovo, Jahorina just outside Sarajevo, or Kolašin in Montenegro), hike or bike the mountains (try the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ trail which takes you across the ‘Accursed Mountains’ bordering Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, or the Fruška Gora in Serbia or the Matka Canyon in Macedonia), sail and sunbathe on stunning beaches (along the Albanian riviera or the coast of Montenegro), raft the canyons (Montenegro’s Tara Canyon is the deepest in Europe), or kayak the coast with Outdoor Albania, and enjoy extensive national parks with wetlands and birdwatching (including the chance to see endemic species such as the Dalmatian Pelican in Lake Skadar/ Shkodra between Albania and Montenegro).


Delicious food and drink

A growing network of rural homestays (try Zlatibor in Serbia, Hangjik for unique rural chic or the homes around the castle in Novo Brdo in Kosovo) gives you the chance to experience village life with its calming rhythms, huge meals and terrifying brandy. You can develop your taste for the region’s alcohol with wine tours in both Macedonia and Kosovo. And foodies will love the growing Slow Food movement in Albania (try the eclectic menu of traditional dishes with a creative twist at Mrizi i Zanave restaurant in Fishta or the museum restaurant in Shkodra).


Ottoman and Orthodox legacies

The only two majority Muslim countries in Europe (Kosovo and Albania) and their neighbours that were likewise part of the Empire ruled from Istanbul offer an insight into the Ottoman era. Meanwhile the bazaars (such as those in Sarajevo or Skopje), bridges (like that across the Drina, at Višegrad in Serbia or at Mostar in Bosnia) and places of worship (like the exquisite painted mosques in Tetovo, Macedonia or Tirana, Albania) of this legacy lie among stunning Orthodox monasteries such as the Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kosovo, those of Stari Ras or Studenica in Serbia, Ostrog in Montenegro or the icon-rich churches of Ohrid in Macedonia.


City culture

As for history, you could almost criticize the Balkans for having too much of it – but here you can experience Roman ruins (the star is Butrint, in Albania), historical cities frozen in time (like ‘toytown’ Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro or coastal Kotor, historically a Venetian city, and Lonely Planet’s city destination of the year for 2016, or Skanderbeg’s city of Kruja, Albania, perched on a dramatic escarpment or the Unesco ‘city of a thousand windows’ further south in Berat) and the occasional museum (don’t miss the Nicola Tesla museum in Belgrade or the charming ethnological museum in Prishtina).


Moving on from conflict and Communism

The low tourist footfall in the region is a result, in part, of the conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia and the memories of Albania as a closed and paranoid Communist state which Westerners could only gaze at from Corfu. Although these brutal histories are now almost a generation old, those who are interested in geopolitics will also find much to fascinate at this crossroads of East and West and what has recently been the world’s laboratory for state-building and the testing ground for military intervention and the role of the UN and the EU in Bosnia and Kosovo. The legacy of the wars is still visible in Sarajevo, where you can explore the war tunnel and take a sobering pause in Gallery 11/07/95 commemorating the Srebenica massacre. The art of Albania ’s socialist realist past is on lavish display in Tirana’s national gallery and you can explore the country’s notorious bunkers which pimple the landscape as almost indestructible relics of a paranoid regime.


Nightlife

All this history, ancient and modern, is combined with the vibrancy of modern city nightlife and café culture you would expect from the youngest population in Europe. Whether it’s drinking in Belgrade, shopping in Sarajevo, the Dokufest film festival in Prizren, Kosovo or late-night beach parties along the Albania and Montenegro coasts, you’ll find youth, beauty, creativity and enthusiasm all around.


When To Go

How Much Time To Spend

To do justice to all the countries of the Balkans you need at least three weeks, and even then you would miss out on the most important monument of Balkan culture – the element of spontaneity, living in the moment, and a willingness to throw all plans away because someone’s just arrived that you want to have a coffee with.

Whatever timetable you set yourself, embrace the possibility that things will change at the last minute, and look for unanticipated bonuses. Transport systems are not integrated and it may take longer to get to places than you anticipate from a map. You will enjoy your visit more if you plan to do less and allow time for alterations, sudden whims – and cups of coffee.

High and Low Season

Because tourism is still developing in many parts of the Balkans the high season does not necessarily mean that places will be sold out or crowded. The exceptions to this are coastal Montenegro and the Albanian riviera and the most popular sites in Kosovo and Albania, such as the Rugova valley, Valbona or Kruja which become very crowded from June to August and pretty busy in the whole season May to October.

In Kosovo the Dokufest film festival in Prizren fills the town with
visitors, creating a wonderful atmosphere, and an accommodation
nightmare. Book early if you want to be there – 2016 dates are 5 to 13
August and for other years check the website www.dokufest.com.

Members of the Kosovan and Albanian diaspora will return for summer holidays (and the accompanying long, loud, joyful wedding parties) and for New Year. Their presence is noticeable in foreign-registered cars but also means that flights are harder to get at these times.

In observant Muslim areas of Kosovo and Bosnia the month of Ramadan marks a shift of gear as the devout abstain from taking in anything (food, drink, cigarette smoke…) during the hours of daylight. As a result the pace slows, tempers can fray, and concentration slips. The iftar meal which breaks the fast is a great time of celebration each evening and families often stay awake late into the night, while they can eat, contributing to bleariness in daylight hours. In 2016 Ramadan is due to be from 7 June to 7 July.

Weather and Climate

Winters can be bitterly cold and long so the best time to travel is May to mid-October. Summers can be very hot, especially in Macedonia and Albania (where average temperatures for July and August are above 30 degrees celsius/ 86 degrees fahrenheit).

Events and Holidays

At least three religious calendars are used to determine holidays in the Balkans, reflecting Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and Islam. In addition, each country has their national day. The only holidays celebrated by all Balkan countries are the May Day and New Year holidays. Official holidays are included below:

15 Feb: Statehood
Day (Serbia)
16 Feb: Statehood
Day (Serbia)
17 Feb: Independence
Day (Kosovo)
1 Mar: Independence
Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
14 Mar: Summer
Day (Albania)
22 Mar: Nevruz
Day (Albania)
28 Mar: Catholic
Easter Monday (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania)
9 Apr: Constitution
Day Holiday (Kosovo)
29 Apr: Orthodox
Good Friday (Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia)
2 May: May Day/
Orthodox Easter (Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia and Albania)
3 May: May
Day (Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia)
9 May: Europe
Day (Kosovo)
21 May: Independence
Day (Montenegro)
24 May: Saints
Cyril and Methodius Day (Macedonia)
7 June – 7 July: holy month of Ramadan marked by fasting during the hours of daylight by devout Muslims
7 July: Eid
al-Fitr (Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania)
13 July: National
Day (Montenegro)
14 July: National
Day (Montenegro)
2 Aug: Republic
Day (Macedonia)
5-13 Aug: Dokufest* (Kosovo)
12-20 Aug: Sarajevo Film Festival
8 Sep: Independence
Day (Macedonia)
12 Sep: Kurban
Bajram (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania)
11 Oct: Revolution
Day (Macedonia)
19 Oct: Mother
Teresa Beatification Day (Albania)
24 Oct: Day
of the Macedonian Revolutionary Struggle Holiday (Macedonia)
1 Nov: All Saints Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
11 Nov: Armistice
Day (Serbia)
25 Nov: Statehood
Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
28 Nov: Flag
and Independence Day (Albania)
29 Nov: Liberation
Day (Albania)
8 Dec: Saint
Clement of Ohrid Day/ National Youth Day (Macedonia/ Albania)
26 Dec: Christmas
Day Holiday (Albania)

*The Dokufest film festival in Prizren, Kosovo, fills the town with visitors, creating a wonderful atmosphere, and an accommodation nightmare. Book early if you want to be there – 2016 dates are 5 to 13 August and for other years check the website www.dokufest.com

Time Zone

The Balkans are located in the Central European Time zone, 1 hour ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

To check the local time in the Balkans click here.

Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.

What To Pack and Wear

What to pack
All the basics are available to buy in the region so there is no need to bring special supplies of toiletries etc. with you. If there is medication on which you rely then do bring enough with you as substitutes may not be available locally.

The Balkans seems to suffer particularly from a lack of bath plugs. You may find it useful to bring a universal plug with you.

There are also ATM cashpoints widely available so there is no need to bring much cash in advance. Travellers cheques cannot be easily cashed.

Sockets are the standard continental European model so those travelling from beyond will need adaptors for electronic equipment.

A reliable supply of electricity can still be a problem in rural areas so a head torch is a useful backup.

What to wear
In all but the most observant Muslim areas there will be no expectation of particularly modest dress so bare arms/ legs will not draw attention. If you plan to visit monasteries or mosques you will need to cover up so it is sensible to have a shawl or sweater that can be added to cover bare arms, and at least one pair of long trousers/ skirt.

The quality of pavements is poor in many towns, villages, and even large cities in the region so for days when you expect to be doing much sightseeing or strolling, bring comfortable shoes, and preferably footwear that covers and protects your feet.

Ticks can be a problem when hiking in long grass, so for hiking you are recommended to wear long trousers.

As elsewhere in Europe, mountain areas get cold at night even in the height of summer when daytime temperatures are in the twenties (celsius, or 69 to 84 degrees fahrenheit). Bring a sweater and socks to wear in the evenings.

If you’ll be visiting Muslim homes or mosques in the region, bear in mind that you will be expected to take your shoes off before entering. It’s helpful not to have complicated lacings, and to make sure your socks are presentable! If you’ll be staying at a homestay or spending much time with local families you might consider bringing your own slippers.

What it Costs

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’€™t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in €

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
€ =>Tickets less than €15 per person
€€ => Tickets €15- €30 per person
€€€ => Tickets €30 per person

Sleep — Out of town/rural
€=> Rooms less than €60 for a double
€€ => Rooms €60 – €100 for a double
€€€ =>Rooms €100 for a double

Sleep — Large Cities
€ => Rooms less than €100 for a double
€€ => Rooms €100 – €150 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €150 for a double

Eat
€ => €5- €10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€ => €10 – €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€€=> €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop     
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
€ => Tickets less than €25 per person
€€ => Tickets €25 – €50 per person
€€€ => Tickets €50 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle
thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what
happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get
notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when
airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and
boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your
inbox.

Sites like Momondo
also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates
without visiting individual airline sites. That said, there is an
advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of
their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites.
Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook
pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to
their e-mailings. Look for cheap flights from easyJet (to Tivat in Montenegro, for example), Ryanair (who fly to Podgorica in Montenegro), and WizzAir (who fly to Skopje in Macedonia).

Have Car, Will Travel

Car rental is not an easy way to travel the Balkans as there are restrictions and costs for taking cars across borders and driving and road conditions are poor. Unless the fun of self-drive is a part of your enjoyment of your holiday you would be better taking taxis, hiring a car with driver, or using buses or trains.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to (or within) Europe goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical — Travellers within Europe from European Union member states should obtain an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) card which entitles them to healthcare on the same terms as citizens from the country they are visiting. This is a reciprocal agreement which means for example that EEA visitors to the UK will receive free care in NHS hospitals in the same way that UK residents do.  Some countries e.g. France make a charge known as a patient contribution for GP visits or stays in hospital for both their own citizens and visitors from the EEA. Even so, travellers are well advised to have additional medical insurance to cover for example the cost of repatriation, mountain rescue in ski resorts and other emergencies.

For travellers from outside the European Union the cost of health services in Europe, while not as high as in the US for example, can be relatively expensive for the uninsured. For this reason it is essential to consider purchasing medical insurance. If you have a Health Care Plan back home it may cover you for most situations which arise abroad but you need to check this out and in any case additional medical travel insurance will cover you for private health care or other expenses.

Some countries outside the European Union have a reciprocal agreement for healthcare with certain European countries.  For example Switzerland has an agreement with all European Union countries and Australia has agreements with the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and others. It pays to check before leaving home.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travellers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip is expensive it’s essential and even if it isn’t it’s certainly a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Your English or other European language skills are also crucial because insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection.
Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip. Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

In Europe the largest insurers are Allianz, Axa and Zurich but there are many smaller providers such as insureandgo and Direct Line.

Pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition or charge an additional premium related to the condition.

Some companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and
restrictions.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Currency

Kosovo and Montenegro both use the euro as their official currency, despite not being in the EU. Albania uses the lek, Macedonia has the Macedonian dinar, Serbia the Serbian dinar and Bosnia and Hercegovina the Bosnian Convertible Mark. Trips across borders therefore require multiple currencies but there are ATMs widely available in all countries including at transport terminals so there is no need to worry about buying currency in advance. Euros are accepted in many places in Albania for larger purchases in tourist locations.

Cash is more widely used – and credit cards less widely accepted – than elsewhere in Europe, so don’t rely on your plastic. Keep hold of small denominations as change is often a challenge in small businesses.

Coins cannot be exchanged, so get rid of them before you leave the country.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

ATMs

If you get money from an ATM machine abroad you will usually incur charges (typically 1.5 or 2% per transaction)

Credit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout Europe.

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.

Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

The good news for travellers in Europe is that you don’t need to get stressed about tipping – you don’t have to do it and when you do it really should reflect good or excellent service rather than be something you are expected to do.

Restaurants

Many restaurants include a ‘service’ charge in the price so check and, if it isn’t mentioned, then a tip of between 5 – 10% is quite enough. Even where it is included but you feel that you’ve had really excellent service then the same amount is adequate but ensure that your server receives this by handing it directly to them.

Taxis

With taxis, 10% is an appropriate tip, but if the driver carries your bags into the hotel or airport a little more would be
appreciated.

Hotels

You may wish to give the porter something for each bag carried but, while it will be appreciated, it is not normally expected. Similarly you may wish to leave a small tip for the housekeeping staff, especially if they have been particularly helpful, but this is completely up to you.

Other costs:

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Budget between €5 and €10 or local equivalent per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, insect repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget.

Local grocery, super/hypermarkets and pharmacies will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

Transportation

Getting There

The hub for flights into the Balkans is Vienna, with many reasonable deals also flying via Istanbul. Albania has excellent connections to Italy through Rome but also most of the other major cities. Look for cheap flights from easyJet (to Tivat in Montenegro, for example), Ryanair (who fly to Podgorica in Montenegro), and WizzAir (who fly to Skopje in Macedonia).

There are good connections into the Balkans by rail with Belgrade and Zagreb as the rail hubs. Use www.seat61.com for information on routes, timetables and pricing.

Getting Around

Getting around by public transport is staggeringly cheap, and driving is staggeringly bad in many parts of the region (Albania wins the prize) so for a stress-free, affordable trip use the buses – or trains where they exist. Buses are surprisingly comfortable (air conditioning, no smoking, even sometimes wifi) and surprisingly reliable (at least with regard to departure times when they usually leave very promptly; arrival times are more unknowable for long-distance journeys, especially if they depend on border crossings, but even if they depend only on the length of the driver’s chosen coffee breaks at roadside cafes). It is, however, very difficult to get information about buses in advance (e.g. online) so you are best going to the bus station yourself for timetables. In general buses leave early in the morning for long-distance journeys, and there are rarely departures, even for inter-city services, after about 5pm.

An alternative to buses is to hire a car and driver/ long distance taxi which takes the stress out of driving while giving you the flexibility to stop where you want, and may also give you an informal guide in the form of your driver (if he – and it is usually a he – shares a language with you and is willing). Prices depend on the country you’re in, on your contacts and your negotiating skills, but examples would be 13 euro per hour (including the driver’s return trip if you’re wanting them one-way) or 50 euro for the driver for a day plus 50 euro for the car for a day plus the cost of fuel (fuel costs are lower than elsewhere in Europe). Especially if you are group of up to four people this can even work out cheaper than a bus.

For transport between cities many countries in the region have formal or informal minivan taxi services. These will set off once they’re full. If you need to leave promptly and are less worried about budget you can always negotiate paying for an empty seat to secure a quicker departure. These minivans are usually cheaper than the larger bus services with regular timetables, though are more cramped, with less air-conditioning and more chickens.

Transportation Hubs

For air travel, the hubs for Balkan travel are Vienna and Istanbul. For rail travel (which is limited), the hub is Belgrade. Zagreb is also a hub for both rail and air transport.

Discounts and Passes

The interrail pass covers Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia offering unlimited train travel from £154. Note that the pass is available (at different pricing structures) for all ages. The more expensive Eurail pass also includes Serbia.

Background

Websites and Maps

For a view of the Via Dinarica walking trail which goes from Slovenia to Albania via Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo see https://vimeo.com/140947966