In 2015, after I traveled to the Balkans for the first time, I developed a major crush on the region.
By my second trip, I was head over heels in love.
And last year, I moved to the Balkans, so I guess that means we’re married now? Something like that.
There’s one major reason I could not keep getting on a plane and leaving this place for another year and put up with another agonizing wait to see it again.
That reason is the locals—the most selfless, welcoming, excitable locals I have ever met in my life. Every time I traveled to the Balkans, my WhatsApp contacts of people from these countries would keep growing and growing. Before I knew it, I had amassed a list of friends larger than my circle of friends back home and had so many memories of how these people made my trips more fulfilling.
Whether you are traveling in a group, as a couple or solo, you must befriend the locals.
If you need extra reassurance how amazing they are, here are the four reasons why befriending locals will be the best thing to happen to your trip.
Part of the greatness of the Balkans is that it contains so many hidden gems, and your chances of discovering them without the help of a local are slim. Many times, I have been whisked away on a scooter to abandonned fortresses, secluded beaches, ancient ruins deep into the mountains and other secret treasures only the locals know about. Had I not befriended some locals, there would have been no chance that I would have happened upon these epic sights.
Some of my favorites include:
Kotišina Fort, a hidden treasure of the Biokovo mountains that hug the Makarska riveira in Croatia.
I also had the great fortune of being ridden around on a motorbike in Neum, Bosnia and Herzegovina. If not for this stroke of luck, I wouldn't have been able to see this view, where no busses could take me to.
A friend of mine also gave me a ride to Blagaj and Počitelj below when I was in Herzegovina. I was too chicken to rent a car and drive through these mountains, so thank God for my friend.
Locals have have been my hero in so many situations where, due to bad luck or a last minute change of plans, I found myself accommodationless.
Once, when a hostel I booked for Saranda in Albania turned out to be overbooked, a local I met the morning I arrived was able to let me crash in a fully-furnished apartment that his parents rented out--free of charge! And that was only day one of my Albanian beach holiday that ended up seeing its fair share of hiccups, so catching this break was a huge relief for me.
One of the most difficult situations I found myself in was when I traveled to Kosovo in December 2015. Upon arrival, I discovered that my bank account had been hacked and all my money was stolen, and thus I could not pay for the hostel I had booked. After two days of trying to resolve this with my bank, I decided to just ask my parents for money. In the meantime, some kind Kosovar Albanians I met at the bus station when I arrived were absolute sweethearts by letting me crash on their couch for a few days until I received the money from my parents.
But locals coming through for me with last minute accommodations has not been restricted to moments of dire circumstance. Locals have also always been so helpful to me in situations where I have decided to stay in a city for some extra days. The Balkan culture is one where hosting and helping is something that so many are intrinsically inclined to do, and that is why connecting with people in these countries is so easy.
To be completely honest, a huge reason I decided to move to the Balkans (I'm based in Belgrade, Serbia) was for the food alone! The restaurants here have the most fresh and yummy food with a fun mix of Meditterenean, Turkish and traditional Slavic dishes. But believe it or not, it gets even better. There is nothing like a home-cooked Balkan meal and homemade liquors straight from the village.
One of my favorite food experiences was during Serbian slava, a holiday, which like a birthday, is different for everyone as families honor their designated patron saint once a year. I liken Slava to Thanksgiving, where the matriarch of a family usually cooks lots of yummy food for everyone to devour. I was lucky enough to attend a slava in January and it essentially had all the tasty staples of Balkans cuisine, but fresher and larger portions. Who doesn't love larger portions?
Below is another favorite meal memory: an incredible seafood dish prepared for me by my host in the little Croatian town Kobaš.
I have had many more food experiences. Sadly, I don't have them all captured in a photo as salivating as the one above.
The Balkans, as beautiful as it is, is just a section of the world like every other where people wake-up, go to work, come home, go to sleep, and do it all over again the next day.
Sometimes travels can be the most meaningful when you feel integrated with the locals enough to be a part of their everyday reality.
My first introduction to the Balkans was in the winter of 2015 in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. I only planned to stay there for two or three days, but I immediately got very comfortable there because everyone I met treated me like another Macedonian. When my new friends went indoor rock climbing after work, I tagged along. When my new friends went to listen to a blues rock cover band, they forced me to come--even though I'm not a big blues fan. And when my new friends went on their routine late night walks in search of random amusement, I was always asked come along. We were like the Macedonian Saved by the Bell, and this was why I fell in love with this region so quickly. In such a short amount of time, I found myself belonging to a group of friends. Often times throughout my Balkan travels, I found that my days weren't filled with running around to different tourist attractions and taking selfies in front of the ubiquitous man on a horse statues. Instead, my days were simply filled with hanging out with my friends.
I do know that it can be hard to make friends, but luckily with the Balkans, people are so nice that they will often approach you or offer to help you. So even if you are an introvrert, rest assured that you will leave the Balkans with plenty of new friends.