What I’ve Learnt on My Travels Through the Balkans

What I’ve Learnt on My Travels Through the Balkans

Despite being a travel blogger, two and a half weeks is the longest I’ve travelled for. Most of my travel involves long weekends to a new city, and I’m happy with that! I love working hard and then taking a couple of days off to explore somewhere new whilst eating all of the food and drinking all of the wine. I’ve worked full time since University, and although I wanted to take a gap year straight after uni, my mental health didn’t really allow for that at the time. Some people might find themselves or heal themselves by stepping out of their comfort zone and travelling the world, but I needed to focus on routines, habits and a steady recovery at home from anxiety and depression at the time.

This means that my seventeen day trip from Istanbul to Venice through the Balkans was a rather long and exotic trip for me, and therefore full of both memories and learnings. Not just learnings about the individual destinations that I visited, but also about my travel style and how I want to shape my travel going forward. So in a bit of a brain-dump style blog post, here’s what I learnt on my trip through the Balkans.

In the mean time, if you’d like to read about what this trip entailed, you can read the itinerary here.

I Don’t Want to Pack Up My Life For Long Term Travel

I’ve always had the urge to quit school/my job/my life to go travelling for a year. I don’t know why a year, but that’s just what I’ve always had in my head. However, seventeen days has felt long enough! I’ve enjoyed every second of it and woken up feeling excited every single day, but towards the end I started to miss my sofa, my skin has started to suffer and I’ve wondered whether I can actually eat another bite of food or drink another sip of wine.

If I wanted to travel long term I would have to change my travel style to make it sustainable which would mean not eating out three meals a day and drinking wine ALL THE TIME, and these are the things that I love to do abroad. So instead of dropping everything for that ‘round the world trip, I’ll be sticking to lots of shorter breaks and seeing the world the way in my own little way.

Nell holding a glass of wine and smiling at the camera. She's wearing sunglasses and the sun is on her face - balkan travel

I’m Not That Interested in Solo Travel

As well as wanting to travel long term, I’ve always wanted to travel solo. I’ve taken a couple of short breaks on my own (Devon and Trento) which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve always thought that solo travel would leave me feeling free and allow me to be completely spontaneous.

However, I was accompanied on my trip through the Balkans by my boyfriend, Billy, and I loved sharing every experience with him – we laughed, we got lost, we tried as much food as we could possibly manage (made easier and cheaper by splitting dishes) and we grew closer together. It’s so cheesy but we’ve been even more in love since this trip, and I can’t imagine having done it without him. My desire to travel alone has been replaced by the desire to share my travel experiences whether that’s with Billy, friends or family.

A couple holiday a glass of rose sparkling wine up and smiling at the camera

You Don’t Need to See Everything to Experience a Place

When you don’t have much time in a destination, there can be a temptation to rush from one ‘must-see’ to the next without taking much notice of everything in between. When I began this trip in Istanbul, I wondered how I was going to see everything I wanted to in just two days: I wanted to see the Blue Mosque, the Haiga Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the colourful neighbourhoods of Balat and Arnavutkoy, the Prince Islands, the Grand Bazaar and the spice markets…. and the list goes on.

I realised very quickly that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Istanbul rushing around so I made the conscious decision to remove any pressure to see these places and focus instead on really enjoying the things that I did see. I didn’t queue for any tourist attractions but I fully immersed myself in the sights, sounds, smells and, of course, the tastes of Istanbul. You can read about what I ended up doing here. This became my way of experiencing almost every destination on the trip and became most true in Venice where we ended up missing almost every bucket list tourist attraction but had one of the best days of our trip.

Nell on an electric scooter in Sofia. She's smiling at the camera and wearing a flowing red, floral dress
Most of our time in Sofia was spent whizzing around on scooters!

It’s OK to Have a Night Off

About half way through the trip, I started to feel burnt out. Full days of exploring followed by late nights and endless eating and drinking were taking their toll and I felt guilty telling Billy at 6pm one day that I needed to return to our hostel to lie down – we should be making the most of every minute right?! But he didn’t mind, and having an evening in bed watching Netflix was exactly what we both needed to rejuvenate and be able to enjoy the rest of our trip. It wasn’t the last time we had an early night or a lie in on this trip and that was perfectly ok… after all it was supposed to be a holiday, not a challenge!

I’m Happy Not Planning Every Detail

Ahead of setting off to Istanbul at the start of our trip we had booked our return flights, accommodation for all but one night (we hadn’t decided whether to spend an extra day in Croatia or Slovenia) and one bus ticket (Sofia to Belgrade). Our lack of bookings for transport between destinations was mainly because we knew we could do it on the go or because they simply couldn’t be booked in advance, but it worked out amazingly well for us!

Our original plan of getting one bus and trains the rest of the time turned into us only getting one train the entire trip (not counting the train to the airport at the end) and using buses instead. The buses turned out to be easier, quicker, often cheaper and offered more options. For example, we had planned to get the train from Belgrade to Zagreb which would have taken 8 hours and used an entire day of our holiday as it departed at 10.35am. Instead we took a 5 hour bus at 5pm and spent our bonus time sunbathing by the river, but could have chosen to leave much earlier or later if we’d wanted to.

Girl stood outside Istanbul to Sofia night train wearing a backpack, she is smiling at the camera - balkan travel
The one train we did get – the overnight train from Istanbul to Venice

We pretty much stuck to our original plan in terms of how many days we spent in each destination, but having the flexibility to change this if we wanted was great, and it was so refreshing turning up in a new city without having every minute of our day planned out.

I Really Like Truffles

This is a bit of a silly one, but one of my biggest learnings on this trip was that I am OBSESSED with truffles. I thought I wouldn’t like them because I don’t like mushrooms, but by the end of the trip I was eating them at every opportunity – in pasta dishes, in steak sauces, on gnocchi… anything I could get my hands on! I even brought home a jar of truffle butter with me, wrapped in multiple pairs of socks to avoid and truffle related accidents in my bag.

UPDATE: The truffle butter leaked in my bag and I had to wash my clothes three times to get rid of the smell (the aforementioned socks four times), but it was completely and utterly worth it.

Nell xx

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