Balkans Backpacking Blog

I’m just back from about a month backpacking solo through the Balkans and nearby countries.  The aim of this blog is to give some hints and information to facilitate making a  trip in the region.

So as so to do, I will state the aims of my trip:

  • To visit at least seven countries
  • To swim in at least one of the seas in the area
  • To see if it is practical to travel using a mobile phone as the sole device – except for a camera and backup documentation, but no books, maps etc.
  • To walk every day for exercise
  • To travel on trains where at all possible, unless impractical
  • To be spontaneous and do what I want at the time
  • To spend more time in smaller towns rather than capital and large cities
  • To make notes on what I do and see
  • To minimise expenses without compromising enjoyment
  • To eat the local food
  • To get into nature a bit
  • To get a few photos of me in each country
  • To talk to people, both locals and travellers
  • Cycle a bit when safe
  • And the plan to travel in autumn, when the temperature is moderate, hotels and transport are not fully booked, and prices are lower.
  • To read books when I have time

Apart from reading, as mostly I didn’t have time, I achieved all of the above to varying extents, with those higher in the above list achieved to a greater extent than those below.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

  • I read the Lonely Planet Southeastern Europe guidebook, which covered all the countries I visited but Moldovo and the Ukraine. A compendium has less detail than a book covering just one country, and this suited me just fine, as it saved reading time. Google Play Books is my favourite eReader, and I uploaded the ePub version on there – the PDF version of books can’t be highlighted. Even so, sometimes you have to play with the app on the mobile and computer to get highlighting to work.  Once you start reading it it downloads also to your device, so you don’t have to be online to read it.  Thus I highlighted the important points on each country to save time when I perused it while travelling.
  • As my aim was to travel by train when possible I read the Seat 61 entries on the countries I was planning to visit.
  • And I downloaded the countries I was planning to visit from Triposo on my device, and browsed through them too.
  • And also a look through Wikivoyage
  • I read the UK Foreign Office advisories, which more or less said to beware of terrorism in every country.
  • And a glance at blogs on travelling in the region
  • And the plan to travel in autumn, when the temperature is moderate, hotels and transport are not fully booked, and prices are lower. So a look at the weather.  Hoping to leave in the first week of September.
  • Checked couchsurfing for hosts and events
  • Checked www.bahn.de/en for some train routes
  • Then I made a rough route plan
  • And got air tickets to suit this plan
  • Set up my mobile with the appropriate apps and put on the appropriate information
  • Got some Euro cash and enough Ringgit for eventualities in Malaysia
  • Notified banks that I may use the ATM / credit cards in the countries I would be visiting
  • Copied all documents twice – once to leave at home, and once to keep separate from documents but carry with me
  • Polished my shoes

ROUTE

routeplan_2016-08-29-19-47-13

This I made up in Google maps, which only allows around 9 stops, but it gives an idea.  My actual route included a few more stops.  Specifically, I flew into Bucharest, caught the local bus to the railway station, and caught the train to Constanza. The next day I caught the train south to Mangalia, and a minibus to Vama Veche. Then I retraced my route to Bucharest and caught the night train to Chisinau, Moldova.  Next day I caught the train via Transnistra to Odessa, Ukraine, and then back again the same day.  Later a bus from Chisinau to Brasov, a train to Siguisaora, then to Sibiu and to Timisaora.  Then a train to Belgrade, then Novi Sad.  And back to Belgrade, and a train to Bar in Montenegro.  From then there were no more trains for the next part of my route. A bus to Ulcinj, a  shared taxi across the border into Albania, and another shared taxi to Tirana, and a bus to Berat.  A bus to Vlora, another to Himara, and then another to Saranda.  A ferry to Corfu, another ferry to Igoumenitsa, and a bus to Thessaloniki.  A bus on to Skopje, and a train to Pristina.  A train back to Skopje, and then on to Bitola.  A bus to Ohrid, and a bus to Skopje, from where I flew out.

MISTAKES I MADE

  • Not changing money before crossing the border.  I didn’t want to be stuck having to pay for a toilet, or food, and not having any money.  Instead I got stuck with money that the neighbouring country wouldn’t change, either at money changers or at banks.  As I result I have a small amount of Moldovan Lei, and about GBP50 worth or Romanian Lei.  From then on I used all the cash or changed it into Euros before crossing the border.  I was thinking of back before the Euro, when in Western Europe it was easy converting currencies into others in different countries.
  • Needed good walking shoes – I didn’t want to carry the extra weight, but it would have been much better to do so
  • I coped much better with cobbled streets wearing flip-flops, but people looked at me strangely.  A bandage on a toe would have indicated I was injured, and thus legitimised the flip-flops.
  • Not testing all apps before leaving – & ensuring I had log ons and passwords.  I had only done for some.
  • I didn’t remember my couchsurfing or AirBnB passwords and had to try to set them up again.
  • Booking too far in advance.  I had a plan to visit Transnistra, and indeed did travel through it on the train to Odessa, but a traveller I met had visited the previous day and told me not to bother.  I had already paid for accommodation in Chisinau and bought a bus ticket based on plans to visit, so I spent an extra unnecessary day in Chisinau.  On the other hand, I got to rest up, and actually read a little.
  • I wasn’t able to leave as I had hoped in the first week of September as I still had things to do, and then the Haj filled flights, so I wan;t able to leave until September 20th.  As a result it was colder, the swimming season over and some resort hotels already closed, and some museums on more restrictive hours.  I got away with the three week delay, but only just.
  • Just once I couldn’t confirm I had the right train, and I trusted a passenger to confirm it was, rather than a railway employee, as I couldn’t see one. I was on the right platform at the right time for my train, but as usual there is no information on the platform itself, or on the train itself.  The passenger was wrong, and I wasted half a day going to the wrong place and then catching another train, but I still got to my intended destination, although very late at night.
  • I didn’t at first realise that in the case of buses there were sometimes several companies plying the same routes, and thus offering a range of different departure times, quality of bus, and prices.  In Skopje, for example, the information window at the terminal could give you all the departure times available.  But in other places you had to ask at individual offices for their company’s departure times and prices.  I tried to stick to trains, as mentioned.
  • In Western Europe it is usually much cheaper to buy food at markets or in the supermarket and picnic in a park or in your room.  Still, you get very nice food. It often cost more to do this than eat in a restaurant in the Balkans, and you miss out on the local cuisine by picnicking. I gave up picnicking.

MISTAKES IN PACKING

  • I took too many zip lock bags.  Not such a big problem as they don’t weigh much.
  • I needed a sweater and / or a muffler and possibly gloves.  But I managed without, just.
  • I could have survived with one power bank.  Only on one occasion did I use the second.
  • And as I mentioned, walking shoes were necessary.

PROBLEMS and their SOLUTIONS

  • I wanted to see if I could use the mobile for many different purposes, which I will cover later.  I then found that the phone battery would last less than two hours!  The phone is 18 months old now, but still, that is ridiculous.  Some trains have power points, and you can usually find power points in coffee shops. Plus I had two power banks, so I found I always had enough power available. One power bank and a charged phone at the beginning of the day was enough for intensive use of the phone, normally.
  • Related to the above is that if the phone got down to 20% charge, in a minute or two it would reduce to zero, and then it would require being connected to power for at least five minutes before it would start again.   If I really need the phone at that time, for example to check on the map (Maps.me app) to see if we’d arrived at my destination, it was very inconvenient.  So I kept the phone normally above 50% charge.
  • At least once a day I wanted to back up my photos to Google Photos.  That meant putting the camera SD card into a reader and connecting an OTG cable to the phone – which uses the same micro USB connection as the charger.  So while uploading to Google Photos, which could be slow depending on the Internet connection,  the phone sometimes crashed as the battery died.  Instead I copied the photos to the phone’s SD card, which had plenty of space,  using the OTG cable, and then connected the phone to the charger or power bank again.  Then I could upload with no power problems.
  • The aforementioned guidebook was often wrong about schedules – so I had to check the station timetable boards, and doublecheck at the information window.  They almost always spoke enough English for me to understand, but I wrote my destination on paper anyway, and they often wrote the times down on my paper.
  • I should have got a local person in each country to write down in their language the question as to if there was a senior discount.
  • Passengers often would ignore the seat assignment on their tickets, if there was actually one.  Usually transport was not crowded, so it didn’t matter, but if you were  boarding where the transport originated, obviously getting there early would help in getting the seat you want.  In all cases but one, if I really did want my seat I could ask saying I wanted to have the window seat to take photos and they understood and would relinquish it.  A passenger in a window seat on a bus will very often pull the blind across to keep light and glare out, and you will not see the view.  So you really do want a window seat.
  • Often there was no tourist information at or near the terminal, and no maps, either on a signboard or printed ones you can get.  I used the Maps.me app on my phone, where I downloaded the country maps in advance so that I didn’t need an Internet connection.  It simply uses GPS.  Sometimes it is not so accurate, or takes a little time to show where you are, so you have to use your judgement, and perhaps ask people to confirm.  Although people are not necessarily correct, either.  The guidebook maps were not detailed enough and couldn’t be magnified enough, and weren’t searchable like Maps.me.
  • Street signs were either non-existent, hiding where you can’t see them, written in a script I couldn’t read, or all of the above.  I could sometimes compare the script with script on a map if it had it.  I just had to use landmarks, and walk a little and see what was happening on the Maps.me display to work out if I was going in the right direction.  Annoyingly Maps.me sometimes used different spellings for street or town names than the guidebook, so searches found nothing.  If I had an Internet connection I could use Google Maps for a search and find it better, sometimes.
  • No Internet when you need it. WiFi and power to charge their phones is what tourists want, and most coffee shops and hotels provide them. I used to ask before I ordered my coffee, but after a while I didn’t bother, and just asked for the WiFi password, as they all had WiFi.  What you want from a coffee shop is those two, and a less disgusting toilet than found on the train, or in terminals.  Some buses and trains have WiFi.
  • When catching a train there was always a toilet on board, but with rare exceptions they were disgusting.  The terminals tended to be better, but still not necessarily very nice.  So the idea is to use the hotel’s, then the terminal if the alternative in the near future will be the train’s, and the train’s as a last resort.  Also, I am a big water drinker.  I would drink a lot in the evening, but drink very little during the morning or until I finished travelling for the day, to minimise the need to use such facilities.  And I would keep warm on transport, but cooler if not.
  • Back to the Internet. At present I use Celcom, which will charge RM38 (USD$9) per day for roaming, with a small data allowance, that is so small in some countries as to be  laughable.  In some countries, about 6 Euros and a small charge for a SIM will give you 5GB of data, and phone calls and texts for a month with Vodaphone, and with good coverage.  I would buy a SIM if I was going to be in a country for at least three days.  Then I wouldnt;t particularly need WiFi. In Moldova, I bought a SIM from Orange and it came with data and cost almost nothing.  It was really helpful having mobile Internet as Maps.me was more accurate with it, and everything else would also be to hand. e.g Google Translate.
  • My phone charger went berserk.  I bought a triple Euro charger so I could then charge the phone and two power banks at the same time.
  • I expected to be able to use Google voice typing when it was quiet , but this is the first paragraph of my notes:”Anthem at 5:30 antonito Co about 20 min to the airport. CIMB preferred Northampton domestic Premier Lounge are used in the international before. Shaking and God bless on. Shawn Thornton my bio en. Sharon Gordon and security and no  problem.”instead of – “At 5:30 the taxi took about 20 minutes to the airport. Both CIMB Preferred and HSBC Premier cards were as not accepted at the lounge. I used a boarding pass on my mobile phone and had no problem at security.”   I finally learnt to swipe properly and it is fast.  If voice is the future, there is work to do.
  • I had wondered if refugees would be a problem, but i didn;t see a single one.

WHAT I DID RIGHT

  • I had power banks for the phone. They weigh 200g each for mine.
  • I had a spare SD card to put in the camera when the first became full
  • I backed up my photos every night to Google Photos
  • I had all the right bits and pieces for the phone and camera for charging in different circumstances – triple adapters, SD reader, OTG cable etc.
  • I could do my planning on the trip to the next destination, so that when I arrived I could find WiFi and call a hotel, or use mobile Internet if I had it.  Or just walk there if it was nearby to see if I wanted to stay there.  The guidebook was pretty accurate in its assessments of hotels and their prices for the season I was there.  In the end I just trusted it and didn’t mind calling and booking while on the way, rather than looking at it first.
  • I used an ATM card to withdraw money, except if I only needed a little, such as in Odessa for half a day, when I changed a few Euro cash.

 

APPS – What I used the phone for:

  • Unsurprisingly, as a phone and for texts
  • GPS – to see where we are now on a map and if the train is about to arrive
  • As a map – Maps.me, Google maps
  • eBook reader – Google Play Books or xozo
  • Exchange rate checker – Xe
  • Web – Dolphin
  • Check flights – web, sky scanner, kayak etc.
  • Communicate via data – Skype and Viber with video,  and Facebook  Messenger, WhatsApp
  • Making notes – OneNote
  • Podcasts-downloading and listening Pocketcasts
  • Camera a little – generic camera app
  • Email – default app
  • Reading news- BBC, Daily Mail apps
  • Translation – Google Translate
  • Music- ES file explorer, VLC
  • File management – ES file explorer
  • Photo editing – Photo Editor
  • Guidebook – Lonely Planet on Google Play Books, Triposo
  • Hotels- Triposo, Trip Advisor
  • Blogger- WordPress
  • Scanner- Office Lens
  • Photo backup – Google Photos
  • Alarm – default clock
  • Entertainment – YouTube
  • Watch – phone display
one of the beaches I swam at - Ulcinj, Montenegro

one of the beaches I swam at – Ulcinj, Montenegro – and as you can see, not many braved the water

 

AND DID I ACHIEVE MY AIMS FOR THE TRIP?  AND OTHER HINTS

  • I visited 10 countries.  Of course, reasonably superficially, but it was fun
  • I swam at Varma Veche in the Black Sea, Ulcinj in the Adriatic Sea, and at Himara, which may be in the Ionian Sea.  And yes, it was cold.
  • It was practical to travel using just the mobile. Although if it failed it would have been a problem. Two people travelling together would have one phone each, and thus a backup.  Had I a tablet or old phone as a backup it would have been safer, but it would have been extra weight.
  • I walked every day – usually quite a lot.  I only caught a taxi about three times.
  • I travelled on trains where at all possible, but caught a bus from Chisinau to Brasov to save a few hours as it was more direct.
  • I was spontaneous and did  what I wanted at the time
  • I spent more time in smaller towns rather than capital and large cities
  • I made notes on what I did and saw
  • I minimised expenses without compromising enjoyment.  However, I found a private room with shared bathroom in a hostel at Berat cost only 3 euros less than a nice hotel with a good breakfast included.  I stayed in the hostel to meet people, which I did, but then later moved to the hotel.
  • I ate the local food when I could find it.  In Pristina I could only find “International” cuisine.
  • I managed to walk a little in the country
  • I got a few photos of me in each country
  • I did talk to locals and other travellers a little, but not as many as I’d to have.  Couchsurfing didn’t work out as there were so few hosts,  and I decided only that day where I would spend the night. The same problem applied to using AirBnB.
  • I cycled a bit in Romania. Generally I didn’t have time, or the weather was bad and I couldn’t, or it didn’t seem safe enough
  • I departed on the trip about three weeks too late for optimum temperature, but on the other hand the autumn leaves were more beautiful than earlier
  • I consulted the guidebook a lot, but didn’t  have time to read much.
  • The guidebook mentioned stray dogs being everywhere and possibly a problem.  There were certainly plenty of stray dogs, but I like dogs and only once was  a little worried.  Near the railway station in Pristina were two very friendly puppies, almost fully grown.  Puppies can bite or scratch when they are playing, and if one happened to have rabies it wouldn’t be good.  So I had to be unfriendly to keep them from playing with me – basically shooing them away.

If I think of anything else that might be useful to travellers I will add it later.

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3 comments

  1. Great Report!! Very envious that you got to enjoy those areas. I would say in general the areas you visited are not at the top of peoples lists when they think about visiting Europe, but I have heard that they are the hidden gems. What made you do a tour of these areas? Drink any good beer? Or wine? Would love to see some more pictures if you plan to upload. Would you consider any of the places you visited to be good spots for an extended stay?

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for your comments. I visited the Balkans simply because it was an area I hadn’t seen, and I was curious. Beer and wine cost about the same as water, so I enjoyed them with my meals.

      Of course, every country is unique, but Macedonia and Albania were highlights, I thought. But I’d like to explore more of Romania, too.

      Naturally, being retired, I considered the idea of an extended stay, but already inland was getting colder in early to mid-autumn, and I heard summer can be very hot, so I think probably on the coast would be better. I am still considering this question.

      It’s easy enough for me to post photos, but being a blog on helping people with living and retiring in Malaysia, I don’t want to overdo it, so I am still mulling over what and how many photos to post.

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