The thing I love about the Balkans is they’re not for everybody. If you’re looking for cookie-cutter experiences in predictably charming places where every waiter speaks English and all the food is familiar, you’ll have better luck elsewhere. The Balkans are consistently unpredictable. No one can even agree precisely which parts of roughly 13 countries in southeastern Europe the name applies to, and getting a grip on their history is like trying to explain the plot twists in the TV show Lost. However you define them, the Balkans are the hot, new frontier in offbeat travel destinations. When I discovered that a fellow Californian had moved to Kosovo and was running tours of the region’s roads less traveled, I wanted to know more. Larissa Olenicoff, who blogs under the name The Blonde Gypsy, was happy to answer questions about her new home.
Why do you call the Balkans “the most exciting region in Europe?”
It is the wild, wild southeast, with so many spots that have yet to be discovered or touched by mass tourism. Pretty much anything goes in most places in the region, and personally I find that extremely exciting. It’s raw and more authentic than most places I’ve been in Europe. And then there are the incredibly hospitable locals, the mystical natural beauty, tantalizing tastes, intricate history, and dynamic capital cities.
You offer small group tours to travelers seeking authentic, non-touristy experiences. Like what, for instance?
One of the more memorable exchanges one of my groups experienced was an impromptu tour of an abandoned bank/former sniper den in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina given by a homeless man I know named Ljubo — somewhat of a local legend who unfortunately carried with him both physical and emotional scars from the war.
What are some must-see Balkan cities?
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the most magical cities in Europe, encircled by mountains and retaining a very distinct east-meets-west vibe you have to feel to believe. Belgrade, Serbia has the region’s best nightlife. Ohrid, Macedonia sits on the one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe.
Where have you found the most spectacular natural beauty?
I’ve spent the most time outdoors in Bosnia & Herzegovina on the Via Dinarica trail so I’m quite partial to it, but I absolutely adore the mountains in Northern Albania, Southern and Western Kosovo, and Montenegro as well. Macedonia has really beautiful mountains along with several beautiful lakes. Croatia and Albania offer the best beaches in Europe. Let’s just say those fond of the great outdoors will not be disappointed whatsoever.
You write enthusiastically about Georgian food, and I have to agree; it was one of the highlights of my visits to the Republic of Georgia back in the 1990s. What other regional dishes stand out in the Balkans?
Lots of grilled meats, fresh salads (special shout out to the “shopska”), ajvar, burek. While each country has its own specialties as well, you can find all of those things in every country. Wish you wouldn’t have mentioned Georgian food (I miss it so much!).
Your most popular post ever was “15 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Albania.” In fact, it was how my husband first discovered your blog. Many of our friends think we’re nuts to be planning a visit there. How can I convince them otherwise?
Honestly, the more time I spend in Albania, the harder it is for me to understand why people are so skeptical about it. For sure it can be complicated in terms of infrastructure and at times language, but it’s just as safe as every other European country and there is SO MUCH TO SEE there. It really has everything from beaches to mountains to history to amazing food and all at an unbelievably low price.
How do travel costs in the Balkans compare with mainstream Europe?
I'd say 1/2 to 1/3 cheaper (minus Croatia, parts of Montenegro, and Greece if we're including it). A glass of Balkan wine should never be more than two or three euros; just the other day I had one for 50 cents in Macedonia. You can eat a pretty solid meal for five euros and have a full-blown feast for 10 to 15 euros. It’s fantastic.
You have said, “The Balkans are perhaps the final frontier for adventurous train travel in Europe.” Tell me more.
Pros are definitely the scenery and rugged retro-ness; I love the feeling of stepping back into 1962. Biggest con is that trains here can take ages, sometime almost twice the amount of time as buses.
Do you have security advice for visitors?
Well, yes, you should definitely keep a close eye on your kidneys and other valuable organs at all times, never leave them exposed at any moment. JUST KIDDING. I have honestly felt safer traveling around the Balkans by myself than in any other place in Europe. But definitely be sure to fasten your seatbelt. The roads and the drivers can be kind of crazy — particularly in the mountains. Aside from that, just exercise the same caution you would anywhere else on the continent.
Although I’ve lived in Seville for more than a decade, friends and family still ask when I’m coming “home.” Do you get this question?
Yes, I do, though not as much as before. I think they are just so used to me being away now and equally used to the same answer I give them every time: when I'm ready.
To all my readers: Have you visited the Balkans? Tell me about your experiences!
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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