Vårens og noen av sommerens turer begynner å komme på plass. Jeg elsker tiden før en reise. Planleggingen og forberedelsene. Jeg skal besøke kjente destinasjoner og også besøke land jeg ikke tidligere har besøkt. Det jeg kanskje er mest nysgjerrig på akkurat nå, er en tur til Balkan, nærmere bestemt til Makedonia og Kosovo. I samarbeid med Nordic Nomads har jeg kommet i kontakt med Maja Trajkovska fra Hiking the Balkans. I mai tar jeg derfor turen sørover i Europa for å bli bedre kjent med 2 av landene i Balkan.
Maja er grunnleggeren bak Hiking the Balkans, og jeg har tatt en prat med henne i anledning min tur til dette spennende området. (Intervjuet er på engelsk)
In 2015 you founded a company, Hiking the Balkans. Why?
Hiking for me was always a fun activity that I did with friends or family members, when I was a child, a teenager and a student. Then I started working in London, in the corporate world and for a decade I didn’t do any hiking. There are no mountains in London and I spent all my holidays to see the World, so I didn’t have time for hiking I thought. And I missed it a lot, I realised that my mind wasn’t happy and my body certainly wasn’t happy without hiking, so in 2008 I got back to it. Then I remembered the beautiful sites that I had been to in my childhood, around different Balkan countries and I had a strong urge to revisit them. So I started organising hikes for my friends from London and I started taking them first to Macedonia, where I originate from and then throughout the Balkans. So I would say registering a company called Hiking the Balkans is a natural progression of my desire to share the beauty of the mountains that I got to know as a child.
What are your links to Scandinavia?
Multiple links with Scandinavia, especially with Norway. I have been working for a Norwegian company, called Vizrt in London for the last 12 years and last year they allowed me to take a sabbatical leave which enabled me to research the hiking opportunities in the Balkans and to establish Hiking the Balkans. I will always be grateful for that opportunity.
But my initial links to Scandinavia stem from my work in the UN in the nineties, when there were conflicts in the Balkans. I worked for a UN NORDIC Battalion in Macedonia as an interpreter. We often went to observation points in the mountains on the border with Serbia and Kosovo. I could see that the Scandinavians appreciate the beauty of nature and have respect for it. They also loved the wine and the food produced in the Balkans. We often talked about showing the beauty of the region to hikers one day, but in the early nineties we didn’t know how long it would take for tourists to come to the region which was in the news because of war.
Now the time is right, there is peace and the nature is still stunning, so I want to share that with a Scandinavian audience, because I know they have respect for nature. And in a way, I feel gratitude for their help during the conflicts and also afterwards, because I have seen many projects in the Balkans funded by Norway. So it is good to share beauty and fortune with those who helped you in misfortune.
What were the biggest challenges in setting up this project?
There are three main challenges, two of them come from the people in the region and one from the audience I am addressing.
It was very difficult to convince local people that foreigners would be interested in visiting their villages or small towns. Nobody was visiting for decades and young people were moving out. So it is difficult to say to people: This place is amazing, you stay here and build a B&B and I will try to convince people from other countries to come and visit you. It is difficult because they haven’t seen any tourists outside of the coastal areas. People literally asked: Who would want to come here, in these God forsaken places? It was particularly difficult to convince young people to train and become mountain guides because it is hard work and there are not enough tourists yet. The second challenge was to convince people to share contacts and cooperate across borders. That is still a very big challenge but I am pushing on never the less.
The third challenge is probably the largest one. Out of the eight countries we are covering only two are EU members and they fully understand the power of marketing and invest in it. So most people would have heard and even been to Croatia and Bulgaria. The other six countries don’t spend much money on marketing themselves as tourist destinations, especially not outside of the coastal areas. As a result there are very few people who would have the knowledge how to get to Kosovo, Macedonia or Bosnia. Potential tourists think that it may not be safe to go there, or they simply have no knowledge how to get there. In London there are many adverts about travelling to Turkey or Spain or Greece and perhaps to Croatia. But I have yet to see an advert that invites you to visit Kosovo. What this means in reality is that I have to convince people to follow me. I started with friends, and now I do talks. I am literally convincing people one by one to come and visit. And that is a huge challenge. Fortunately, once they come in one country, they keep on coming to the region, so covering eight countries is great because people come multiple times.
Why do you think people come? What is special about the Balkans?
The first word that comes to mind is authenticity. EU is very standardised, it is a process that happens to every new EU member. The fact that these countries are not EU members means that they still keep the old ways of doing things. You can’t see McDonalds or Starbucks in many places. Instead you have an amazing local grill culture, especially in Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia. And coffee culture that can only be compared to the Italian coffee culture. In a way the Balkans today remind me of the movies about Italy from the sixties. Life is much slower. People are poorer but they are not in a rush, they make food from scratch, they don’t work long hours.
The other nice thing about the Balkans is the weather, there are over 250 sunny days per year, which gives excellent opportunities for outdoor activities.
Also the food, all that sunshine contributes to great taste of fruits and vegetables. Food is very seasonal and sold on farmers markets. It is an experience to just go and visit a farmers market. Also the meat is delicious, because it is produced in smaller quantities. Everyone who comes comments about how tasty the food is.
And most importantly, the nature is stunning. Of course there are beautiful mountains, lakes and seas everywhere around the world. But again good weather makes a difference and the fact that there are not many people in the mountains and there are many mountains which are between 1500 and almost 3000 meters high. Lots of mountain lakes, where hikers can go swimming. Most of the time there is nobody else around, so it feels very exclusive to be there.
And people are extremely hospitable. But you have to come to experience that.
What are you hoping to achieve with Hiking the Balkans?
I hope to make it a gateway for people interested in coming to see the region and a platform for local guides from different Balkan countries to place their ideas for trips. I am also hoping to get more involved in volunteering projects, for clearing up and marking new trails and especially for training new mountain guides. I think it is very important to give the confidence to local young people to become mountain guides. I would like to have more people from the UK and Scandinavia participating in projects like this, because it is good for everyone. I am a big advocate of the “hands on” approach when it comes to doing something.
Kanskje du også syns det frister med en hikingtur til dette området. Følg med utover våren. Jeg reiser ned for å vandre sammen med en engelsk gruppe, og på bloggen skal jeg fortelle deg alt om hvordan jeg opplevde Makedonia og Kosovo. Sjekk ut Hiking the Balkans for flere turer i Balkanlandene.
Les også: Singel, duo eller gruppetur
Foto: Maja Trajkovska, Hiking the Balkans