A Balkan Love Letter: The Making of a Tourism Powerhouse
A Travel Forum About Culture and Adventure in Southeastern EuropeArt by Sarah Lawrence Travel Features
Just in case you decide to stop reading this article after the first sentence—I’m not calling you out, I do it all of the time—I want to be sure you get at least one solid inside tip before leaving: Make the Balkan Peninsula the site of your next vacation.
If you feel like you have heard more about the Balkans in recent months, it is no coincidence. This region, tucked between Italy and Turkey and underneath Hungary and Austria, is reaching a tipping point in popularity. Stories about countries here—especially on the peninsula’s western half—are starting to come in waves and from nearly every travel publication. Articles about Croatia and Slovenia are expected. The former has 1,185 islands. The latter sits at the foot of the Alps. But it is the countries just below these holiday stalwarts (see the map above) that are beginning to take the headlines.
In this spirit, I offer the first of my Balkan Love Letters. I live in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the heart of the Southeastern European peninsula. In this series I will provide tips, places to visit, information about outfitters, local insight, and anything I can to make visiting here easier for readers. Consider this an open, but respectful, forum. Feel free to leave comments and questions—below—asking for travel advice. I will do my damnedest to incorporate your questions into upcoming letters.
For years, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia were just names on a geography quiz. Or, worse, they were the answers to questions concerning dictatorial regimes or wars in the 1990s. No longer. Today, these countries represent the next frontier of European travel. The nations of the Western Balkans, presently and collectively, sit on a rare precipice in tourism: They are, for the most part, unsullied; they still cling to old-world traditions; their landscapes are crisscrossed with mountain ranges and rivers; the region hugs the Adriatic Sea; and it is still relatively undiscovered.
The undiscovered part will change … soon.
How do I know? I have been a travel writer the better part of 20 years. Depending on whom you ask, this is either impressive or depressing. Regardless, travel writers—who make a living at it—share one key trait: They can smell the winds of change and adjust to cater to the needs of publications. Today’s editors are looking for stories about the Balkans.
But even throwing all of this insider intel out the window, one can just apply logic to the situation. More than a billion people are traveling the planet at any given moment. The travel industry is predicated on the next “undiscovered” destination. The Western Balkans, for unfounded reasons, has remained a blind spot on many tourism radars. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the region is just a quick train, bus, or ferry ride away from that traditional stopping point for many American tourists in Europe: Italy.
I owe my travel-writing career—for whatever that’s worth—to the Balkan Peninsula. I moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1998. I chose the Balkans, I suppose … but not really. I would have gone anywhere. I was in my 20s. But one life decision tends to roll into another, and for the last 17 years I have lived on a circuit between the States, Sarajevo, and Zagreb, Croatia.
My first real stories for publications of girth were about this peninsula. I was lucky. This was before there was an abundance of interest—or travel writers—in this beautiful, but, at the time, war-torn region. Editors took my stories because I was among the few pitching ideas. I wasn’t ahead of my time; I just happen to be here. Today, to everyone’s benefit, a new cadre of writers has shifted its focus to the Balkans.
But this Love Letter series is not based on a need to give back (though I feel this) or because I owe the Balkans (which I do). It is founded on two basic desires: 1) At the core of any true travel writer is a compulsion to help others travel more successfully; B) The region has been completely misrepresented and mischaracterized for years, decades, and centuries.
Speaking to the first of my desires above, I suppose you’ll just have to trust me. To the second (based on the hoped-for trust from the first), allow me to say that if you only read one more sentence in this piece—bringing the total up to two, including the lead sentence—let it be the next one.
The Balkan Peninsula is completely safe and war-free … and has been for the entire 21st century.
Winston Churchill once said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” This is a fundamentally imperialist proclamation and ignores the fact that history here has been thrust upon the region by empires determined to divide and exploit resources and manpower. The Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Hapsburgs, Ottomans and Nazis all used the Balkans as a frontline. Though it’s true that the region is where European history’s rubber meets the road, the problem is that Balkan residents, largely, haven’t been the ones doing the driving.
What does all this mean for travelers? The Balkan Peninsula does, in fact, possess all the history Mr. Churchill spoke of. That’s a good thing for those seeking culture—but the area is not, by nature, a region filled with war-like people. Full stop.
If you read a travel story that goes on about the war here in the 1990s, dismiss the rest of the article. The writer is writing about the region for the first time and fell in love with the easy and sexy lead. A mature writer mentions the conflict out of due diligence and then gets to the matter at hand: Providing real guidance to would-be travelers.
Hiking the Via Dinarica Trail in Croatia Photo: Alex Crevar
Where does all of this leave you and me … the soon-to-be visitor and the supposed Balkan expert? Well, I hope it leaves you interested. And I hope to be of service.
Over the next weeks and months I will write about the food, the hiking trails, the liquor, the cities and the cultures on this magnificent peninsula. I have trekked through every country throughout the Western Balkans along a mega-trail called the Via Dinarica, which connects countries around the Dinaric Alps range. I have danced on tables in bars in the capital cities. I have had my heart broken and then repaired time and again. I can only hope you will be the first of your friends to spark your own love affair with this European nook that time forgot. As always, if you show up and I’m at the bar, the first round is on me.
Sarajevo-based Alex Crevar is Paste’s travel editor.