Monday, June 6, 2016

Checklist for travelling to the countries of Former Yugoslavia

The Checklist

I decided to make a checklist for tourists and travelers who are going to visit the countries of former Yugoslavia; Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and F.Y.R. Macedonia. Checklist consists of 10 sections. Have fun with planning your next trip!


1. Language

One of the main things for you is to understand and to be understood. If you master any of the languages spoken at these countries you'll manage in all of them because people still know how to speak and understand all of the languages. I suggest that you learn at least some of the most important phrases to use in case you are lost and bump into a group of local grandpas playing a chess. Most of them will probably know how to "Deutch" - speak German but English is a rare gem down there among elderly people. Younger generations usually do speak also English and if you are visiting the place during summer I'm sure that in every street cafe is someone who speaks Japanese, Finnish, Turkish, Spanish, French, Swedish or even Russian as their second native language. This means you will not be in trouble. If you still end up in one, just go to the nearest Tourist info, museum or a God's house. Someone will understand and will be pleased to help you! You might even be invited for a cup of coffee to chitchat and to share your life philosophy or your story. The guide line is that the bigger the city the bigger the chance you have to find someone who speaks the same language as you do! If you are just too afraid or don't know how to speak English or German yourself, don't panic. Make sure that someone of your group masters the basics or just keep a piece of paper and a pen together with the dictionary with you and use your body language!

If you travel east from Bosnia-Herzegovina, be prepared to learn how to read Cyrillic alphabet. It is not exactly the same as ones used in Greece and Russian countries so learn also that because Yugoslavia was a country where both alphabets Latin and Cyrillic were used side by side.

2. Where to stay?

This really depends on you, your customs, idea behind your trip and your curiosity.  You have many options to choose from. Go to hotel (Pino Hotel Natur), motel, bed and breakfast spot (Vukov Konak), hostel, camping, spend your night at the cruise ship, rent an apartment, room or a house. Go couch surfing or sleep in your car and if you are lucky enough stay at your friends or family. I recommend staying in places that locals run not just to support locals instead of big international companies but also to experience something unique in every country. I love it when local granny serves you with home made tosca pie and waters the plants every morning while you are having the breakfast outside at the family terrace. It makes you feel like home and makes you feel like you really do taste the place as it is and not as it is made to taste like.

3. Who to support and what not to do or say?

I always recommend people to buy local products, visit local market place, eat at places where locals eat and that they run. I believe that you can't experience the place you are visiting without also tasting it as it is. Don't go to international fast food restaurants or cafes, try local ones instead. If you buy an excursion make sure that it is run by locals and that your guide is really a local. No other guide can truly tell you the story that only locals can deliver nor can they show you the places and tell you about them from their heart and guide you to places where other guides can't go because of their lack of knowledge.

Because the war is still seen in daily bases never raise three fingers to order for example three beers. It is as bad as greeting people in Nazi- style and only fascists living there use that to insult people. It is also really important to have good manners and a sense for humor, especially for black one that you can encounter in Sarajevo.

4.  How to dress?
What ever suits you is fine! Just make sure that you feel comfortable and that what ever you are wearing is suitable for the place you are visiting. Dress properly if you are visiting a good and popular restaurant, have a bikini when being at the beach or a pool and wash and cover yourself properly if you are going to visit cemeteries or God's houses: churches, mosques and synagogues. It is not a good custom to go there if you are not clean. You might also see nuns or women covered up. Usually local muslim women that use scarves are a minority and they do not use dark colours. If you see black burkhas you know that they are not locals but tourists. This dressing code is tightly associated to the history when dark colours were not allowed because they were representing the dark side. Before people were converted to Orthodoxs, Catholics or Balkan Muslims (except for Albanians) people belonged to a Bosnian Church, Bogomils. It was a dualist religion and you still have many Stecaks, tombstones to see all over the Balkans. Most of them, with the number around 60 000, are in current BiH for excample in Radimlja necropolis.

If you are traveling there during the winter, remember that the temperature can be easily something from +20 to -30 degrees of Celsius. Snow is nothing people have not seen nor are the extreme dry and hot seasons during the summer moths when it can even rise up to + 52 degrees of Celsius.

5. Know the history

When going to former Yugoslavian countries make sure that you are accustomed with the local history, especially from the last war that ripped the area apart. It will really help you to open your eyes in a totally different way. If you are interested in history and historical places then, my friend, you have chosen one of the best destinations to feed that hunger. You have so many good museums, fortresses, historical gardens or archeological sites from all eras and they are mostly well preserved. Roman bridges and amphitheatre, pyramids in Visoko, old Ottoman architecture, medieval necropolis and villages, multicultural sites, memorials and important places remembering WW1 and WW2 and the last genocide at Balkans. You also have religious pilgrimage sites such as Medjugorje and famous books, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Let's not forget cities such as Sarajevo, Belgrade, Jajce, Pula, Mostar, Visegrad, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Budva, Split, Stolac and Ljubljana and their beauty and hidden historical gems, such as palaces (such as Diocletians), fortresses (such as ones in Srebrenik, Kotor Vakuf, Klis, Pocitelj, Stolac, Bled, Omis, Jajce, Bobovac, Blagaj, Tesanj, Travnik, ...), old city walls (in Dubrovnik, Split, ...), old towns (Bascarsija in Sarajevo, one in Mostar, Travnik, Hvar, Budva, Kotor, Jajce or Ljubljana, ...), the famous old bridges (Mostar, Visegrad, ...) and a one hidden gem- little village called Lukomir on the top of the Bijelasnica hills. I think I could go on with the list for ages...

6. Be curious

All I can say is this. Be open minded and ready to absorb the atmosphere. Try something new you haven't done ever before and make good memories. Attitude and mood are your biggest traveling companions- make sure that they are boosting and not dragging you down! Don't be afraid to experience. Have that inner child with you where ever you go.

7. You have a map but you don't know where to go?

The places I mentioned in the History section are all worth visiting. However this area has even more to offer both on land and on the sees, rivers and its lakes. It is depending on you and your own activity level. You can go sailing, island hopping, climbing, rafting, fishing, hiking, trekking, skiing, horse riding, biking, diving or even just chill out at the many of the local national parks or other nature parks. Great places are for example Sutjeska, Krka, Plitvice lakes, Biokovo, Kornati, Hutovo blato, Tara, Lastovo, Brijuni, Una, Kozara, Blidinje, Triglav, Sar planina, Kopaonik, Durmitor, Skadarsko, Biogradske gore and so on but also rivers like Cetinje, Tara, Neretva and Una are great to see and good spots for rafting and lakes such as Ohrid, Jablanica, Boracko and Bohinj great to just have a picnic or renting a cottage. Enter the caves, such as Vjetrenica, Bijambare, Postojna or Skocjan. In addition to all fun in nature, you can enjoy amazing sites in different cities and enjoy everything from shopping, to spotting wild horses (Prenj), driving around the beautiful cost line and enjoying good bars, restaurants, museums, galleries, parks and cafes. 

ps. Always have a map with you just in case your battery dies and you get lost or just book a tour with great local tour guides, such as Highlander Adventures!

8. Check for the timetables, routes and special days in advance

It is really important to keep in mind that time tables can change! Make sure to buy any tickets you wish to have _in advance_ a day or two before and double check the dates and deporting times once a week before planning to go and next time when buying the tickets. Make sure you have the taxi number if you are hurrying to the airport or to the train or bus. Sometimes it is cheaper to pay a taxi to give you a lift than to rent a car or taking an old train that is almost always a bit late. During the summer months all of these transportation options are crowded so make sure you are not left behind just because of poor planning.

9. Live like a local

Learn how to ćejf and experience all the beauty, possible pain and a mystical breeze of Balkans. One of the best things is that people here are not feeling that pressure of rush. Yes they have at least the same amount of duties as you do, but they chill and live in a moment. Absorb the current, talk, enjoy the silence, know how to see good things in everything. It is that magic that ćejfing is all about. Living in a moment, happily, analyzing it from inside and out, not being too stressed about anything because that moment deserves to be enjoyed about. You must taste traditional food in the right places. There is no sense to order cevapcici, lamb, pljeskavica, trahana, lepina or somun, tufahije, boza, hurmasice or pita, such as burek or tikvenica nowhere else than in area in BiH and black risotto or sea food at the cost line, dried ham at Istra and local cheese products such as Trapista. One thing I do recommend and it really is that you eat local food. It is really special and unique as are the local drinks such as rakija, boza and locally produced beer and wine.

10. Anything else to be concerned about?

I would say that no special vaccines are needed that you do not need in the rest of the Europe. I have not got any special ones (such as hepatitis A & B vaccinations) and I have never been infected by anything but the basic flue. I do drink tap water where it can be drank and eat locally produced berries, fruits and meat or sea food. Hygiene is really important thing to be practiced if you are concerned about getting sick. Of course basic flues are slightly different in different parts of Europe and even within the countries so even if you have had the seasonal flue this year it doesn't mean that you are immune to it's variation elsewhere. Luckily, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina was found to be the most hygienic nation in a study conducted this year (reference here).
The condition of roads is good but during the summer months they can be a bit crowded. You might have problems with your stomach when driving in the mountains or via the cost line but you should really be awake! Never sleep while driving because the views are amazing! Make sure also that you are not driving during the night because it is not the safest time for that.

You don't have to be concerned about the land mines. All the areas where they are not yet cleaned are marked with signs. Make sure you don't walk there and you have nothing to be worried about. If you go hiking don't invent your own trails. Use the marked ones or travel with a local guide. If you need a doctor or to make an emergency call, use international or national numbers. Make always sure that you know where the nearest hospital is and have your passport and contact your insurance company. If you are traveling via a traveling agency contact them first. Traveling agencies and hotel receptionists will always help you to find the information you need also if you are not their customer.
Preserve he nature. Don't trash, do not molest any animals you encounter and never ever eat or touch something you are not familiar with. There are many preserved or toxic plants, berries and fish in the nature. Leave them alone. Do not buy anything suspicious. Tipping is based on volunteering and not a custom usually, at least not from locals.

- Herminica

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