Finances: Killing the Budget in Albania & Slovenia ±$1330

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As I posted earlier, I took an unexpected detour out of the Balkans and straight into the heart of the EU — where my wallet took a hit, to be sure. Luckily, Albania had been pretty cheap, so the sticker shock of Slovenia wasn’t too troubling. Plus, I know when it comes to paying in Euro, it’s going to cost some pretty serious bank.

Here’s how it breaks down (in USD) for comparison:

Albania

Airport Transport (RT): $5

AirBnB (3 nights): $169

Groceries & Food: $100

Sightseeing & Berat Day Trip: $148

Bus fare (2 trips): 8 cents — yes, I’m serious. Each trip was 40 lek.

Total: $422.08

Slovenia

Airfare: $409 (also includes flight to Skopje, Macedonia)

Airport Transport (RT): $21

Hotel: $287 (used a free Hotels.com night to lower cost)

Groceries & Food: $40 (hotel included awesome full breakfast)

Sightseeing: $46 (castle admissions, urban train)

Rental Car, Parking & Petrol: $107

Total: $910

In the end, I don’t regret a dime I spent. It was totally worth it to see Slovenia — which I highly recommend. Just pack your wallet. It’s not London or Paris expensive, but it isn’t Balkans cheap… that’s for sure.

Slovenia: Best. Detour. Ever.

While I was in Tirana — having difficulty figuring out how to book a bus ticket from Albania to Kosovo, I learned my apartment in Prishtina had flooded. Uh oh. What to do. Well, I took the challenges as a sign, and decided to take a detour — to Slovenia.

I had been bummed that I wouldn’t make it to Slovenia on this trip, but I figured I could pick it up at some point when I went to Switzerland or Liechtenstein. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I threw the budget out the window and went for it.

I’m SO glad I did. Here’s just a taste of what I found:

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More to come on my time in Ljubljana and my road trip through Slovenia soon. An update on the budget too (sigh).

Day Tripping to Berat

When I added Albania to my itinerary, I had no real expectations of what I would encounter. I suspected the logistics of the country would be challenging — no trains in or out, for example — and that a smaller percentage of the population would speak English given the country was largely isolated from the rest of the world until the 1990s. Both of those things turned out to be true. But, what I couldn’t have anticipated was the fascinating history and culture.  I’d read enough about Berat (historically called Antipatreia) to know it was a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I decided to take a day trip.

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On the way to Berat, my tour guide Armando took me to the seaside town of Durres, Albania’s second-largest city, where we stopped and had a coffee on the beach.  The Albanian seaside is gorgeous, definitely could have spent more time there.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing — to me anyway — about the Berat Castle is that people still live within the castle walls. It is like a small village, with homes, guesthouses, cafes and eateries inside the original castle bounds. The castle was burned by the Romans in 200 BC, but later fortified and reconstructed by Justinian in the 5th Century.

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Located off one of the main squares (above) is this absolutely adorable guesthouse. I’d definitely consider a stay there. The garden was amazing.

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From the castle you get a nice view of Berat, with the Old Town on the left and the newer area to the right.

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Inside the castle walls, you will find a number of churches and mosques, like this Orthodox stunner that has classic Byzantine styling.

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All good castles need a cistern, or water source, and this one still has water in it.

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One of the mosques located inside the castle’s wall — the Red Mosque. The other is cleverly named the White Mosque.

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A structure that was taken over by the government during the Communist Era and turned into a community center. It now sits empty.

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The view of “new” Berat from the castle. The ninth-largest city in Albania, Berat has about 33,000 residents.

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Some of the original castle structure that hasn’t been touched by renovations.

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The entrance to the castle, which is lined with little souvenir shops and stalls run by residents selling everything from magnets to intricate lace linens.

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A stone pedestrian bridge across the Osum River, which separates the castle from Old Town.

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Looking across the river, you get a stunning view of the castle, and you can see the bright red Albanian flag waving in the breeze all the way at the top.

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In addition to Old Town, Berat has a very cute pedestrian area lined with cafes and shops that abuts a large green space. It’s perfect for an afternoon drink or a bite to eat.

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Tirana’s Hidden Gems

 

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I knew my time in Albania would go too quickly, but that’s life. To be honest, I nearly always feel like my travels in a place go too quickly, whether it’s been 2 days or 2 weeks. I landed in Albania on Sunday afternoon, and checked into my AirBnB (amazing!) with this equally fabulous view of the New Bazaar Area. It’s basically a public square with cafes, bars, restaurants and a standing farmer’s market. It’s cool during the day, but really comes to life at night, and my balcony overlooked all the action.

I spent my first whole day in Albania taking a trip to Berat, which I will cover in a separate post. I reserved Tuesday for seeing the sights of Tirana. Like many cities in the Balkans, Tirana offers a free, guided walking tour of the city. It is totally worth it. The guides are locals, and the perspective they provide was amazing. It was a mix of history, culture, top sights and really just good conversation with an Albanian.

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The tour starts in Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in Tirana (pictured above). The square was expanded in the past couple years, and it is now a pedestrian-friendly area. The square is bordered by the national opera theater (undergoing renovation), the national bank, the national history museum, a mosque and some other government buildings. You can also see the large Albanian flag, all red with a large, black double-headed eagle. The flag is the family flag of the general for whom the square is named — Skanderbeg, who held off the Ottomans invasion of Albania for 25 years.

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The clocktower, above, was built in the 1820s by wealthy Tirana families. It’s a combination of the Ottoman and western styles, and you can climb the stairs to the top for a small fee.

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Wandering past the square, we encountered a bevy of government buildings done in a very continental style. Tirana’s architecture isn’t terribly historic. Much of the city was constructed after 1912, and large swaths of building are Communist-era concrete blocks.

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In front of the national art gallery is a fairly new public installation art created by an Asian artist and designed to represent clouds — though you can’t see it from this photo. It’s also a venue where they show films and have public talks.

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More of “the clouds” below. Nope, still not seeing it.

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Tucked behind the national art gallery are some interesting old statues. You can see Stalin, below, who was apparently a hero of Albania’s longtime Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941-1985, and he was largely responsible for Albania’s complete isolation from the rest of the world until Communism fell in 1991.

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Despite all of the gorgeous mosques and churches in Tirana, our guide said Albania is a largely secular country. Although the population is — in his estimate — about 40 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox and 20 percent Catholic, he really believes fewer than 10 percent are actively practicing. In part, that is because Hoxha forbid religion in Albania when he took power.

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The city has an amazing outdoor cafe scene, and Tirana doesn’t really come to life until about 7 p.m. or so on these long summer nights.

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The Tirana Castle, below, isn’t nearly as impressive as the Berat Castle, but you can stay inside at one of the guest houses, if that’s your thing.

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Despite being largely secular, the country is constructing a new mosque in the city center. But, it’s being funded by Turkey. We didn’t get into the political reasons as to why Erdogan would want to finance a mosque in Tirana, but you probably have some ideas.

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A walking tour of Tirana wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Cathedral of St. Paul, below, with it’s statute of Mother Teresa outside.

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Mother Teresa is of Balkan descent, being born somewhere between Albania and Macedonia. Interestingly, our tour guide knew nothing of her or her works until after the fall of Communism.

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The stained glass at the cathedral is amazing. I wish we could have seen it in the daylight, with the sun streaming through it.

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One of the many bunkers present in throughout Albania for military use.

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A memorial to Albanians who died in the mines during Communism.

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The dictator, Enver Hoxha, built this villa in one of the wealthiest parts of Tirana, where only diplomats and high-ranking Communist officials were allowed to live. Now, the neighborhood, Blloku, is where the hip restaurants and clubs are located. The best part: There’s a KFC, Albania’s first (and only so far) American chain right across the street!

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Finances: Serbia By the Numbers ±$475

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I left Belgrade a day early to take The Balkan train to Podgorica, Montenegro. But, because my time in Serbia was so cost effective I stayed within budget even with this amazing “day trip” that required some additional planning. So, here’s the tally:

AirBnB: $231

Taxi fare: $16

Food & Drink: $149 (those cocktails were killer!)

Flight to Albania: 10,000 Etihad miles + $31 in tax

Train to Podgorica: $30

Ramada Podgorica: Hotels.com free night (worth $80)

Taxi to Podgorica airport: $14

Water in Podgorica airport: $3.5

Total Spend (including The Balkan day trip): $474.50

My next week (split between Albania and Kosovo) will likely top out above $500 given the additional cost of getting to another destination and the lack of solid public transportation in both countries. But, I’m not missing the experience just to save a few pennies.

 

 

Authentic Bucharest Food Experience

While I was in Bucharest, I signed up for a tour through Urban Adventures. It’s a group I’ve used before that hires local tour guides — most often college students or recent graduates — to show visitors around a city. The company prides themselves in small tours with authentic flair. So, I selected the Markets and Mahallas tour.

I lucked out. My tour turned out to be just me and my guide, Andrei, who’d studied philosophy at university and was a Bucharest native. He started by bringing me this amazing bread snack found all over the Balkans. In Romania, it’s called Covrigi, and it reminds me of a pretzel covered with salt and poppy seeds. Delicious!

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During the tour, Andrei took me to some of Budapest’s most interesting mahallas, or neighborhoods. We went to the Jewish neighborhood, the Armenian neighborhood and some of the more traditional markets, where speaking Romanian was a necessity to order. Along the way, we tasted local food and drink and he told me the history of Bucharest and Romania. Lots of the snaps of Bucharest’s architecture that I’ve share previously were taken on this amazing tour.

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When in Romania, drink Romanian beer. Zaganu is a local craft brewery that was started in 2013 by two Romanian entrepreneurs. And, I must say, this blonde was pretty tasty. It is named for a bearded eagle that was hunted to extinction.

D2444475-16E8-49F1-B144-D77A1B40BF02With the beer, we had a traditional mezze-type platter. The bread was delicious as was the prosciutto and salami. It also had sheep’s milk cheese, pickles and a delicious spread called Zacusca that’s made from eggplant, peppers and onions.

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Then we headed into the markets, where the stalls were selling anything you fancied: fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices, nuts. It was amazing. We grabbed some fresh cheeses, tomatoes and berries and headed to the grill area.

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We snacked on the cheeses and wild blueberries while we waited for the sausages to cook. Known as Mici in Romania, the sausages are an uncased mixed of lamb, beef and pork. The style is common throughout the Balkans, and boy are they tasty.

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They are served with toasted bread and mustard. And I added some cheese and tomato alongside to round out my lunch. Little did I know I’d be finishing it off with a traditional Romanian spirit known as Tuica. It’s a plum brandy that packs a real punch.

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No. I didn’t drink the whole bottle. One shot is pretty strong. It usually runs about 60% alcohol by volume. Enough to grow hair on your chest, for sure.  At the grill, we also enjoyed some traditional Romanian music, which reminded me a bit of polka-style. Perhaps the best part was that I was certainly the only non-Romanian experiencing this amazing slice of daily life.

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Uh Oh, You Can’t Get There From Here…

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Next up on my itinerary is Albania. Although Belgrade and Tirana are less than 550 km apart, there’s no easy way to get from one to the other on inexpensive public transit. No trains connect Albania with the outside world. Busses between the two cities, I’ve learned, seem pretty complicated. So, what’s a girl to do when she wants to go from Serbia to Albania if she doesn’t have 116 hours to walk it?

Well, I happened to be reading an article in The Guardian about the magnificent trip on The Balkan Express, which runs from Belgrade to Bar, Montenegro. No, it’s not fast. No, there’s no First Class. But, it’s cheap and beautiful. Lonely Planet calls it “The Ultimate Balkans Train Trip.” Well, since I’ve taken all the other Balkans train trips, how could I pass up one with 435 bridges and 254 tunnels?!

So, on Saturday, I will venture to Belgrade’s Topcider station, built in 1884, and embark on the 12-hour journey, hopping off in Podgorica, Montenegro. There, I will spend the night at a hotel — the only night in a hotel on my entire 7-week trip — before boarding a plane for a quick 1-hour flight back to Belgrade the next morning.

Yes, that’s right. I’m taking a 12-hour train ride only to get back on a plane to fly to the city where I boarded the train. From Belgrade, I’ll hop a short 70-minute flight to Tirana. Both flights are on Air Serbia, and I’ve taken advantage of their partnership with Etihad. Using 10,000 Etihad Guest miles (along with 26EUR in taxes), I get to take the train ride of a lifetime (or so I’ve been promised) and fly into Tirana. It wasn’t how I’d originally planned to travel, but isn’t flexibility the point of slow travel?

 

Beautiful Belgrade

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the Balkans is the unpredictable weather. Waking up to a Weather.com forecast that says 100% chance of rain might frustrate the average tourist, but one of the joys of slow travel is that I’m not pressed for time. I can sit at a café and watch it pour – something that never happens in Doha!

But, perhaps the more interesting thing is how many times the forecast here is completely wrong. Take yesterday. I left the apartment near the Nikola Tesla Museum armed with my rain jacket and umbrella because the afternoon looked pretty dicey. I figured I’d walk as far as a I could, exploring the city and then take a taxi back if need be. So I set off on a mission to see as many sights as possible on foot before the rain set in… only to wind up enjoying what turned out to be a lovely day. Classic Balkans, or so I’ve learned.

Walking up Bulevar Krajla Aleksandra, I avoided the McDonald’s and stopped at a local bakery for my morning pastry — this one filled with potato, to my surprise. As I looked across the main thoroughfare, I spotted this amazing site — the Church of St. Mark, an Orthodox church plunked at the edge of the gorgeous Tasmajdan Park.

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St. Mark’s isn’t particularly old, having been rebuilt by two Serbian brothers in the 1940s. But, it’s Serbian-Byzantine styling is pretty breathtaking.

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Throughout the Balkans, the Orthodox churches have had some amazing artwork — most of which is inside, where I’ve not taken photos out of respect to those worshipping. But St. Marks has a gorgeous illuminated fresco over the entryway, as you can see.

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Further along my route, I wandered into another park — one of my favorite pastimes — to find this historical marker, Osmatrachnica sa Kajmakchalana. It represents an observation post made from stones of a nearby mountain and commemorates a Serbian victory over the Bulgarians in World War I. It is located across the street from Serbia’s beautiful National Assembly building.

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Throughout Serbia, you can see reminders of the NATO bombing campaign — including this banner in front of the National Assembly. I remember these events — or at least Western media portrayals of them — pretty vividly. But, being here and seeing the lasting destruction was far more emotional than I expected. I couldn’t help but think that the average Yugoslav wasn’t personally responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo in the same way that the average American isn’t personally responsible for the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their families. Yet, nearly 500 civilians died in the NATO bombings, which weren’t sanctioned by the UN. Hundreds of structures, including bridges, apartments and public buildings, were destroyed. And, around Belgrade, the destruction remains visible — tucked between new buildings that have sprung up and older buildings whose damage has been covered or repaired.

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Water features… if there’s one thing the Balkan countries aren’t lacking, it’s water features. This fountain was located Nikole Pasica square. He was the fourth prime minister of Yugoslavia and lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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I wandered further, into Republic Square, the main gathering spot in the city. Here, a giant statue of Prince Mihailova can be seen marking the start of Belgrade’s largest pedestrian street, which bears his name. The street is lined with shops — including an IKEA — and cafes.

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Knez Mihailova is the perfect place to grab a drink and watch the day-to-day life here in Belgrade. Families are out for a stroll. Business partners are having coffee.

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Along the car-free streets of this part of Belgrade, the architecture is fascinating. From gorgeous older buildings, to modern Communist-era concrete bunkers and intriguing Art Nouveau designs, you can find a mishmash of styles in just one block.

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Later in my walk, I mistakenly took a wrong turn that landed me square between two gorgeous structures, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (an Eastern Orthodox Church) and St. Michael’s Cathedral (a Serbian Orthodox Church).

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The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (above) was built in the 1930s while St. Michael’s (below) was finished in 1840 on the site of a church dating back to the 1500s. Both have stunning gold leaf on the outside that sparkled even on an overcast day.

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Gorgeous old buildings, like the Museum of Contemporary Art (above), are situated adjacent to modern new shopping centers (on the left) containing all of Europe’s top clothing brands. Instead of heading further into the shopping area, I detoured toward Kalmegedan Fortress and Park, where I was told you can get some of the best views of the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.

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Looking over the Sava, toward New Belgrade, you can see the “splavs.” These floating barges are Belgrade’s well-known restaurants and nightclubs, which come to life at night and create quite the after-hours scene.

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Eventually, I made my way to the King’s Gate (above) of the fortress. Dating back to 279 BC and eventually reconstructed by Emperor Justinian I, the fortress marks a key location above the confluence of the rivers (seen below, with the Sava in the foreground and Danube on the right).

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One of the more interesting features of the fortress were its many “drinking” fountains. The grounds were quite impressive, and I could have easily spent an entire afternoon wandering through the fort and park.

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Train Travel 101

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Americans don’t often travel by train, but for young Europeans long-distance travel is almost a rite of passage.  And, after traveling Europe by train (first Northern Europe and now the Balkans), I can see why.

Train travel (in Europe) has lots of benefits:

  1. It’s cheap. Most of my journeys cost under $30 compared to one-way plane tickets at $125+.
  2. It’s scenic. Check out the photos I’ve posted during my travels.
  3. You can get almost anywhere. As long as time isn’t a constraint, I could have taken the train everywhere but Albania.
  4. You meet interesting people. On my trips, I’ve talked to Danes, Kiwis, Norwegians and Belgians so far.
  5. Luggage restrictions are virtually non-existent. On many trains I’ve seen people traveling with bikes and pets.
  6. You can book last-minute. Unlike a plane ticket, my train tickets have mostly been purchased an hour before departure, which gives you amazing flexibility and value.
  7. Trains are often super convenient. The stations are usually in the city center and once you buy a ticket, your board. No TSA groping required.

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A recent companion on one of my journeys

But, for Americans, it can take require some adjustments in your thinking.

  1. It requires patience. If you can’t handle airport delays, then train travel isn’t for you. European trains often stop in lots of small towns. If you’re traveling outside the Schengen, you’ll have passport control checkpoints (but you get stamps!) that eat up time.
  2. It requires preparation. Levels of service vary dramatically, and you have to be ready. Some trains don’t have AC. Some trains don’t have power outlets. Some trains have no food or beverage available.
  3. It requires planning. Not all trains run every day to every city. Not all seats on the train are your friends (think in the sun with no AC or stuck in the smoking carriage). But there are lots of sites out there to help. Man in Seat 61 is a personal favorite. And, if you need to figure out train schedules, the German rail service (Deutsche Bahn) has a wonderful site in nine languages that covers nearly all train service in Europe. Bonus points: It loads well on a mobile interface.

Finances: A Week in Bulgaria ±$500

Packed and ready for the ride to Belgrade, so it’s time to calculate how much I spent for the week in Bulgaria. I’ve converted all expenses to U.S. dollars for ease of comparison throughout my trip.

Train: Second-class (only option) from Bucharest to Sofia: $32.50

AirBnB: $306

Metro (5 rides): $5

Groceries & Food: $105

Health & Medical: $11.40

Souvenirs: $7.20

Plovdiv & Day Trips: $91

GRAND TOTAL: $449.10

My loose goal was basically to spend $500 per week for my trip, bringing my total cost to about $3500. If you remember, I overspent in Romania due to a last-minute AirBnB challenge. But, I’m $50 under my goal for this week.

As I said before, I’m not going to be a slave to cost on this trip. Although I am loving the Balkans, I’ve got too many other countries calling my name to make a return trip anytime soon — at least on my own dime.