The Balkans

Stretching from the plains of central Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, via the Adriatic and Aegean, the Balkan Peninsula includes the countries of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and the geographical/political region of European Turkey.

General info

All of the Balkan states are either full EU members, EU Accession countries, or Candidate countries.  Most are members of CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement) and enjoy liberalised trade with the rest of Europe, and citizens enjoy 90-day visa free travel within most of Europe (although not currently in the UK/Eire although this should be remedied soon).

All of the countries on the map have been ruled by at least one of their neighbours for varying periods of time, so the borders were quite fluid and there is a real mixture of language, cuisine, customs, etc.  Bizarrely you can often get a better wi-fi connection on the side of a Bosnian mountain than you can in the English high street. Montenegro uses the Euro, but most venues don’t carry large amounts of currency on site – so don’t bother carrying anything bigger than a 20-euro note for larger venues, most local bars/cafes can break a 10-euro note but tremble at the sight of all their loose change walking out the door. So, keep a decent stock of 5-euro notes and 1 and 2 euro coins with you, and some of those 50-cent coins too – you’ll be glad you did. All major countries have embassy/consular presence here, road quality may vary, but the water is perfectly safe and it’s probably a lot purer than most parts of the world. The Slovenes and western Croats drive perfectly sensibly but in other parts of the Balkans it can be a bit erratic.  If you wouldn’t drive in Paris or Rome, then you probably should not be driving round certain parts of the Balkans either.

Travelers, or potential travelers are reminded that the Balkans are a place of adventure, drama, romance and excitement.  Time works differently here, trying to stay on schedule will just give you a headache. Few things ever go entirely according to plan, and that’s okay.  So, just relax and enjoy the experience.

A potted history

(Brief summary paraphrased courtesy of Lonely Planet)

The region has always been at the centre of European history, civilisations have clashed on the shores, plains, and mountains.  Trade routes from across the known world passed through the region, and the area has seen many great migrations over the millennia.  Whether it was the incoming Celtic tribes and the native Illyrian and Thracian tribes, or the Hellenic tribes from the far south, or the Slavic tribes that arrived from the east.  Far back in the mists of time the ancient greek-speaking independent city states of Sparta, Athens, etc held sway, punctuated by occasional visits from the Persians, and the internecine wars among themselves.  The Macedonian kings put a stop to all that when they conquered the entire peninsular (Alexander the Great and all that), and wind-forward a few hundred years and the Roman empire ruled supreme here.  Even after the fall of the west – the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium continued. In the 5th and 6th Centuries the Roman defences were sufficiently weakened that the Slav tribes were able to move in and settle along the Danube.  Those who moved further west came under the influence of Charlemagne and the Franks, and eventually the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whilst those who remained in the east were influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Byzantines.  The Ottomans arrived in the area in the 14th Century and there are strong Ottoman influences throughout the region, in the language, music, food, and architecture.

As the Ottoman Empire declined, the Austro-Hungarians expanded their territories thus began a land-grab that would sow the seeds of WW1. Even Napoleon was here (he had his headquarters in Kotor in Montenegro) … and of course the Venetians controlled much of the coast for centuries.  Lastly the city state of Ragusa (which is now known as Dubrovnik) is worthy of a book in its own right.  Bosnia was claimed by the Austro-Hungarians, and Serbia Greece and Bulgaria fought over the rest with the great empires manipulating identities and allegiances on the ground to foment dissent … leaving everyone generally unsatisfied and completely vulnerable to the horrors of WW2.  The Balkan region stood directly in the path of two competing ideologies – a position that caused much suffering as half the Balkan states found themselves on opposing sides and everyone attacked everyone else – at the behest of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Add religious differences into the mix alongside the political and nationalist ones – and it was a recipe for disaster that continues to resonate to this day.  Following the Yugoslav civil war, as the Socialist republics broke away from the Communist centre, the various republics are now independent, sovereign states, albeit with varying degrees of economic/infrastructure development, and varying degrees of democratic control.

 

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