The Balkans is a region in Europe that has quite a few stereotypes attached to it. Learn about the most common ones from a local.
One of my goals on The Atlas Heart is to break down stereotypes or judgments about places and ideas. Perhaps it could be that destination that everyone warns you not to visit because of how dangerous it is, or maybe you yourself had preconceived notions that were proven wrong once you arrived to where you were going.
My aim is to present a variety of different opinions and experiences through the eyes of other travelers. It’s important to hear travel stories from all different perspectives in life, I call it seeing the world through a kaleidoscope lens.
Without further ado, I’m happy to introduce the next guest poster on this blog – Allison from Eternal Arrival and Sofia Adventures, who is discussing the Balkans and the common misconceptions people might have about this area of the world.
Take it away Allison!
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While in general, much of Europe is pretty well-known to travelers, for many, the Balkans is a big blank slate. Though the Balkans have been gaining serious recognition amongst well-traveled people for the last decade or so as one of the best regions to travel in Europe, for your average traveler, the word “Balkans” brings up memories of wars and conflicts decades’ past.
The Balkans has a complex history, and it’s one that you’ll be forced to confront as you travel there. You simply can’t visit a place like Bosnia and not acknowledge the events that took place in Srebrenica. Nor, can you visit Belgrade and not see that the city is quite literally scarred from the NATO bombings of 1999.
Since my first backpacking trip to the Balkans in 2016, I fell in love with this region, coming back time and again to the point where I just decided to move to Sofia, Bulgaria and make it my home base in 2018.
So, since I’ve spent a lot of time here the past few years, let’s get a few travel misconceptions about the Balkans out of the way, shall we?
The Balkans are Basically Just What Used to be Yugoslavia, Right?
When people think about the Balkans they often think about the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and therefore the countries that were affected by them: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and all the other nations which were born from the piecemeal fracturing of Yugoslavia.
But the origin of the term Balkans is more of a geographical reality, which has taken on a geopolitical meaning. As most people define it, the Balkan peninsula is a landmass which encompasses 12 countries (11 UN countries plus the partially-recognized Kosovo).
Those include, alphabetically, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey. Many people try to rush through as many Balkan countries as possible on a frantic one or two-week Balkans Itinerary – but they’re doing themselves a huge disservice.
While some Balkan countries will try to distance themselves from being called Balkan, due to associations with poverty and war, there’s no denying the reality that these listed countries have a significant portion of their landmass on the Balkan peninsula and have a shared history with many of their neighbors.
Technically speaking, there are portions of Italy, Moldova, and Ukraine which lie on the Balkan peninsula, yet those portions are so small that these countries have never quite fit into the term “Balkan.” Nor, do those countries’ histories overlap with the Balkan countries’ histories in a meaningful way.
It’s not a perfect, neatly-wrapped definition, but then again, how often do you find those?
The Balkans are All About War
This is one of the misconceptions about the Balkans that I think most Balkan people get irritated by. There are plenty of tourists who only want to focus on the war and ruin element, to make themselves seem like trailblazers visiting a war-ravaged landscape – even though that reality is decades old at this point.
There is no denying that the wars that broke out after the breakup of Yugoslavia hit the region hard, and some countries harder than others – Bosnia and Herzegovina, most notably.
Visiting the Balkans, you should educate yourself about the wars, as they were recent enough that they affected anyone 30 and older, and they continue to impact the lives of many people living there today.
But the three-decade-old Yugoslav War history is by no means the only thing you should focus on when you travel there. There’s a rich tapestry of history, as the Balkans were the meeting grounds of many distinct cultures – at the edges of empires, yet fully assimilated by none.
There’s also insane natural beauty, from the Tara Canyon of Montenegro to the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria to the Dinaric Alps which work their way down the Western Balkans. That’s not to mention a thriving urban culture with plenty of new cafés, restaurants, startups, and enterprises opening up in cities all around the Balkans.
Do your World War I tour of Sarajevo and your bunker tour of Albania, but keep your eyes open to the new businesses opening up and the new wave of youth rebuilding their countries to be places they want to live and thrive in.
Driving in the Balkans is a Death Wish
There’s lots of talk about how bad road conditions in the Balkans are. Sure, that was likely true years and years ago, but visiting the Balkans now you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how drivable the countries are. Generally speaking, the roads in the Balkans (especially on main highways and in cities) are up to par with what you’d expect in the US or Western Europe.
I’ve definitely encountered an errant crappy road when taking the road less traveled, but if you don’t think you’ll find yourself, say, on the road between Zaječar and Belogradchik, you’ll likely be fine. No need for a 4-wheel drive, trust me.
Similarly, Balkan drivers are truly not much better or worse than anywhere else in the world (OK, they’re definitely better than Georgian drivers, who are probably the most erratic and terrifying in the world).
The idea that driving in the Balkans is somehow much scarier or worse than anywhere else is pretty much a myth. You’ll encounter the occasional aggressive driver, as you will anywhere.
I generally feel that there is much more order and logic to driving in the Balkans than, say, driving on a six-lane US highway during rush hour. Keep calm and stick to main highways when you can and driving in the Balkans is a breeze.
“G*psies” are a Problem in the Balkans
Living in Bulgaria, I hear a lot of racism directed towards ‘g*psies’, which is actually an ethnic slur for the people who are correctly called the Roma or Romani people (so like, if you have the word ‘g*psy’ in your Instagram bio or on a t-shirt, please don’t. It’s akin to using the n-word).
The term ‘g*psy’ came about centuries ago, when Europeans living in the area mistook the nomadic people who had emigrated from India as Egyptians due to their dark skin – and clearly never cared to educate themselves enough to call the Romani people by their actual name over, say, the last several hundreds of years.
The reality is that the Romani people are some of the poorest and most discriminated people in Europe, and the countries with the highest percentages of Romani people are in the Balkans.
90% of Romani live beneath the poverty line in Europe, and they are discriminated against in terms of employment and housing, not to mention, outright hate speech towards Romani is rather normalized in many Balkan countries.
As a result of cruel and exclusionary political policy and rampant discrimination throughout Europe, you may see impoverished Romani people on your travels through the Balkans, surviving by begging for money or sorting through trash for things of value.
They pose no threat to you; in fact, Romani people are in far more danger themselves, more likely to be victims of police brutality, unsafe living conditions, infant mortality, and hate crimes.
The Only History in the Balkans is Communist History
Another thing that people from the Balkans get rightfully frustrated with is when tourists only want to learn about their country’s Communist history – as if the history of these nations only goes back so far as the 20th century.
Many of the first cities in Europe were in the Balkans. Some of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities are located right here on the Balkan peninsula. Ohrid, North Macedonia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria are two of the region’s oldest cities, with some six to eight millennia of human settlement in these cities.
And beyond that, the Balkans were central to the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires – all of which left historical remnants which are easily visited in cities throughout the Balkans.
Communism is what has the most intrigue to Western tourists, but it’s far from the only history the Balkan region has.
And All Communist History is Bad History
The history of communism in the Balkans has no easy answer. Many Balkan countries were part of Yugoslavia, which was pretty much as permissive and progressive as communism got.
For Serbia, in particular, the communist era marked a period of prosperity, peace, and growth. Josip Broz Tito – a dictator in some eyes – is a beloved national hero in others.
The people who lived during the times of Yugoslavia have a complicated relationship to the times of communism: some look back on it as a time of failure and backwardness, others look back upon it with nostalgia.
But whatever you think of it, the years of Yugoslavia mark a period of relative peace and prosperity for a region who suffered greatly during the 20th and 21st centuries.
For that reason, you simply can’t compare Yugoslav history to the history of people from ex-USSR countries, such as Kazakhs or Ukrainians who were victims of genocide via planned famine at the hands of the Soviet Union.
You can’t even compare Yugoslavia to other communist regimes in the Balkans, such as Albania who suffered one of the most insular and paranoid communist governments in history that would leave the countryside dotted with bunkers. Or, Romania who had to violently overthrow their murderous dictator after nearly 25 years of rule.
The Balkans is not a place where you can issue blanket statements, nor a place where you should go in with your mind made up. Visit with curiosity and openness, and you’ll find it richly rewarding.
The Balkans are Some Sort of Monolithic Region
The way that the word “Balkans” is bandied about is almost as if it signifies a sense of similarity and brotherhood as opposed to a geographical reality. In reality, that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
While many young Balkan people are progressive and want to move past the nationalistic arguments of yore, there are plenty of others who stoke division and have trouble moving past the hostility against their neighbors.
Whether it’s the argument of whether or not Kosovo is an independent country or what side of the great Macedonia name debate you fall on, the dust hasn’t quite settled on the arguments of the past century.
As an outsider, it’s best to listen with an open mind to all sides of the argument and not get involved in the political mire: there’s a whole lot more to the Balkans than just politics, after all.
From the outstanding natural beauty to the revival of the region’s cities to the peaceful small villages untouched by modernization, the Balkans offer something for every kind of traveler.
Interested in learning more about travel misconceptions from around the world? Check out my other posts talking about stereotypes in India, Vietnam, Vanuatu, Moscow, Belgium, Bogota, St. Petersburg, San Juan Del Sur, Mexico City, Detroit, Romania, Gay Travel in Malaysia, Doha, Minsk, Abu Dhabi, and Montevideo.
About the Author
For the past year and a half, she has called Sofia, Bulgaria her home between her adventures. You can often find her attempting to befriend stray dogs and cats, trying to find the best Asian food in the Balkans (or giving up and cooking her own), or sampling local wines and beer from around the region.
PRACTICAL INFO FOR THE BALKANS
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Buy your Balkans Guide here.
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