It can be a little intimidating, sometimes, setting out for a destination you’ve never been to before. Exciting? That too, but I really didn’t know what I was getting myself in to when Linda and I decided to hostel our way around the Balkans back in 2013.
There’s several ways to decide on what constitutes the Balkans, and we had time constraints to deal with too. So, for us and for this trip, the Balkans consisted of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and northern Greece.
For most of 2013 we combined Couchsurfing and apartment rental with hostelling and a few other stays (like this yoga retreat and the boutique Bulow Residenz). So a month of hostelling was a trip back in time, and the Balkans were a trip into the unknown. We fired up Hostelbookers.com to look at our options, and then emailed to get their advice. They agreed to help sponsor the trip too, and made contact with some hostels on our behalf.
So, what did I learn about hostelling around the Balkans?
1. Small is big
Most of the hostels we stayed in were small: around 12-20 beds small. These intimate environments sometimes made for a family feel as you got to know people who were staying for a few nights. Other times, we were by ourselves for the night – trading full access to all the facilities for someone else to chat to. While large resorts lined the coast, hostels tend to be much more boutique.
2. Integrated services make for easy connections
While Croatia and Greece have long-standing connections with international tourism, Macedonia, Albania and others are only just beginning to attract tourists from Western Europe and beyond. Trains and buses run on erratic schedules if at all, and most tour companies target the top end. Some hostels are making the most of this with their own tour and shuttle operations, and doing it well.
3. Local knowledge beats online reviews
Although I’m connected with hundreds of travel writers and other nomads, I’m much more likely to Google for a place than to ask them. It’s my introvert at work! But with online information so out-of-date, the traveller’s grapevine is vital. Through hostel owners and other travellers we learned what routes were closed, what museums were open, and which ‘great’ restaurants had changed management and were to be avoided.
It didn’t stop us travelling a day to discover the border crossing we planned to use had been shut down: we really should have mentioned that plan to someone!
4. Home is where the hostel is
Most of the hostels we stayed in were managed by their owners, who often lived on site. We were lucky enough to avoid any Fawlty Towers moments with this arrangement — most owners were engaging, if not downright intriguing. The duo at Mi Casa Es Tu Casa in Shkodra springs to mind: sitting with an author and talking about his works always is.
We hosteled through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and northern Greec> – and at the end of it all that I’ve learned that it’s a whole load of fun.