Photo: Jake Threadgould

Fiona Raleigh journeys through Eastern Europe on Albanian buses and rickety taxis, as she discovers more about the new Europe

One of the driving forces behind this trip was the desire to experience some of the few European countries that are not yet part of the European Union. Out of the 27 member states, the only one that belonged to Former Yugoslavia is Slovenia.
While some, such as Croatia, have applied for and are well on their way to gaining membership, it is still a long way off for others.
An interesting and enticing aspect of this trip for me was to see the differences between EU and non-EU member states and the effect that membership can have on a country in terms of tourism and day-to-day life.
So, with this in mind, we set off for a two week trip around the Balkans, not knowing what exactly to expect.
After starting our trip off with a few days in Athens, we packed up our bags and headed on to our next destination: Albania. We managed to make the journey in one day and walked across the Albanian border at 8pm.
Albania is a country of stunning natural beauty with impressive mountain ranges and a gorgeous coastline. Our introduction to this wonderful landscape was by way of a rickety, old taxi speeding us through the hairpin turns of the mountains, occasionally stopping to let us take pictures of the sun setting over the mountains. I could feel myself falling in love with this country and it did not go on to disappoint.
The most refreshing thing about Albania was its rawness. There didn’t seem to be many rules or regulations and, if there were, people were not averse to breaking them.
One day, we had to catch a bus to our next destination and found out that there weren’t enough seats on this bus. “No problem”, we were told, and the bus driver produced two small, plastic stools for two of us to sit on. In the middle of the aisle! A nice man next to us pointed to the stools and the bus and said “Albania”. We all laughed and, for the rest of the journey, attempted to communicate with hand gestures and broken English.
After Albania, we ventured on to Montenegro and Croatia. Whilst they are both beautiful countries, all four of us felt that we had ‘Albania Blues’. Some of the people we encountered there weren’t as friendly and tourism had obviously taken its toll.
Interestingly, these are two of the countries that are in the process of becoming EU states. Which begs the question, how much does a country have to change when it joins the EU?
The rawness we found in Albania returned when we visited Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The bullet-hole-ridden buildings were reminder enough of the recent painful history that this country has endured and the tensions it still faces internally and with its neighbours.  Despite the injured exteriors, these cities were places that had a lot to offer and were working hard to mend and repair the damage that has been caused. Sarajevo in particular was a pleasant surprise and is definitely a city worth visiting.
While it seems inevitable that eventually every European country will join the EU, it also seems that a country must change in order to accommodate the influx of tourists that are bound to come along with EU membership. Countries like Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina are a little while from becoming EU member states, but when they do, I hope that they resist the temptation of selling out to tourism too much and maintain what makes them such warm and welcoming countries.

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