By Dave Hynes
Fancy travelling around Europe? Who can blame you? Sun, sea, culture (maybe), booze and…. other stuff you can’t do in Scotland. Sounds great, but before you pack your bags you should be aware of what’s hot and what’s not in old Europa at the moment. More precisely, you should be aware that, with the right destination choice, you need never deal with the French again.
With the Euro irritatingly strong at the moment and the pound looking royally screwed the magic answer to getting some real gas for your petrodollar gallon lies in the geography of your choice. The clever little bees amongst you will stealthily avoid the damned Euro zone like Chlamydia and head eastwardsway past the Danube and under the . . . middle bit of Europe. You’ll go to the places that were once deemed shit-tips but are actually now rather nice. In short, you will go to the Balkans.
First up is Montenegro and it’s absolutely beautiful and dirt cheap. How cheap? Well I got a hotel for 5 Euros in Montenegro and I survived to tell the tale (though I’d hate to see what the no-stars hotels are like if this one warranted three). The food is basically Mediterranean in the same way Scottish food is basically western European – it’s slightly stodgier, a little take-awayish and a bit more based on available miscellany rather than traditional recipe. Montenegro (black mountain for you culture vultures) is the definitive place to go for outdoors type’s- rock-climbing, trekking, snow-boarding, skiing; you name it, Montenegro has it and at about a third of the price you’d pay in Chamonix.
Next comes Albania which the tour books assured me is no longer the ‘sick man’ of Europe since most of its gangsters and prostitutes are now working in Britain. Apart from the odd dead dog on the roadside (haggis, neeps and terriers) travelling through the country was a real delight. Albania is one of the most unexplored regions in Europe, still not quite beset with tourists and still refreshingly authentic. The local gypsy’s put on traditional music shows throughout the countryside, serve great wine (an industry which the Balkan region as a whole is beginning to tap into) and bring dose after dose of merriment- all on the cheap. A once war-torn land is now fashionable enough and is beginning to mobilise towards tourism. It’s a perfect choice for those seeking a budget holiday further afield.
Kosovo was also a surprise hit. There is still a huge UN peace-keeping operation going on there but that just adds to the atmosphere of being in unchartered territory. Like in most of the Balkans, English is understood a little but a decent finger-pointing will get you a long way. Kosovo is small and self-contained; it’s a new country, still feeling for its identity. This makes it a novel destination and one where a little money can go a long way.
Sarajevo however is the hidden jewel in the Balkan crown. Having recovered from five years of civil war and Bono’s collaboration with Pavarotti it now booms with partying and culture. The people are surprisingly friendly and keen to emit an impression of coexistence and newfound tranquillity. It is the hilliest place I’ve ever been too and Sarajevo is surrounded by miles of forests and canyons. It is still 85% Muslim, and so the charm of people being called to prayer echoes around the city throughout the day. Great activities include the War Tour, the Olympic Stadium and the Sarajevo Tunnel. Bosnia is secular though and beers came in at about £1.50. On that point; beer is still cheap in these countries; not as dirt cheap as it once was but still pretty cheap.
Indeed, the Balkans is already maturing as a destination in the way Prague probably was fifteen years ago. It will only get pricier and pricier and ever-safer too. I didn’t meet any stag parties but it is surely only a matter of time. Get your skates on before Frau Merkel ends up initiating it into the dreaded Euro zone.
A word of warning however; the less said of Balkan transport the better, (think Scottish rail in a Siberian blizzard). But then I guess it would be more expensive if they had proper train tracks. The advantages of going to these cheap and beautiful places far outweigh the costs of getting to them. Once there, you almost forget you are in Europe. These are second-world countries, safe and cheap but still excluded from the hordes of Yanks. The Balkans are, in truth, a student paradise.
There are plenty of companies out there for students too. STA Travel, Student Universe and Travelosophy all cater for student trips abroad; they are price-conscious, full of contacts and uniformly above board. There are also the lovely Balkan touts who meet you in their hordes outside the train stations but these probably require a subsequent Embassy visit when your passport has been forged and might be best ignoring.
Travelling as a student doesn’t necessarily mean being absolutely skint whilst you’re abroad. Nor does it condemn you to the cheapest of cheap accommodation and the most budget of budget airlines. It’s all a matter of where you go.