Stories from 2 months on the Road in the Balkans and Spain
February 26, 2020
We’ve been travelling fast (by our standards) over the last two months since leaving Croatia in early January. It seems so long ago now that we were in Montenegro, then Serbia, then Budapest…before arriving in Spain on February 1st. We’ve now been in Spain over 3 weeks and time seems to be flying.
One of the things about travelling fast is you get more experiences over a shorter period of time. And I don’t care what anyone says – it’s those experiences that over time you remember more than anything.
Just a whole bunch of experiences, observations and tips from the last little while in this post.. I’ve also got a few photos that will make you think less of me.
Our first sight in Alicante: Seeing a Tim Hortons at the train station. Suddenly got pangs for Canada
Living in “Pura Mierda” in Alicante
I recently wrote about getting our bank account and private insurance in Spain. What I didn’t mention is that we spent a full day in Alicante trying to find the proper police station where we could get an NIE number. We went all over city, being told by police officers at each that theirs was not the proper station, that we had to go to XYZ station. They were all friendly and helpful though (by the way, if you don’t speak any Spanish forget about doing it yourself. You’d be up shit’s creek).
Finally we arrived at the Oficina de Extranjeria. The Police officer there was at first a little gruff but when Lissette ordered him to speak D-E-S-P-A-C-I-O he laughed. If you’re used to Latin Spanish you’ll have a hard time with Spanish Spanish where they speak incredibly fast while also cutting their words and somehow managing to do it while also seemingly having a mouth full of marbles. 3 weeks here and I have to admit we’re both feeling a bit lost with the language (including Lissette, a native Spanish speaker).
The officer ended up being our best friend, taking a piece of paper out and writing out all the steps required to get an NIE. Then, with the line growing behind us, he started to ask us personal questions (“as a friend, not a police officer”). We told him we were in Spain for 3 months to find our new potential home. That’s when he started telling us the places in Alicante province where we should live. He wrote on the piece of paper: Benidorm. Elda. Elche. Denia. Alcoy. Torrevieja. He then asked us where we were staying right now.
I told him Alicante North, near the Hospital. He looked at me. “That area is mierda. Not just mierda, but pura mierda” he said with a smile.
It’s true. Lissette and I had found a wonderful apartment at a good price about 20 minutes walk from the center. But it certainly feels a bit like the ghetto…and walking around you feel more like in a neighborhood of Santo Domingo than in a major Spanish city. Still, we’ve got a nice 2 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, a gym 5 minutes away, a large Mercadona grocery store 3 minutes away, and you can take a really spiffy modern tram downtown and get there in less than 10 minutes.
Still, we found it funny having a police officer, with gang tattoos on his fingers, telling us that we live in a neighbourhood that’s “pure shit”*.
*Hosted by a lovely Ukrainian lady from the Donbass region who left 5 years ago when war broke out in the region. We made an instant friend.
By the time we left the line behind us was 15 deep. The police officer didn’t care. He was all smiles and shook our hands and wished us luck in finding a future home in Spain.
Above: Views in Alicante, Spain
Airbnb: Balkans Vs Spain
Travelling fast, with an average 5 days in the places we’ve stayed, we’ve had to be a bit more flexible in the places we stay because costs really add up (the longer you stay in an Airbnb, the cheaper the cost). What people don’t always get: if you’re taking a 2 week vacation you don’t mind paying more for accommodation. You pay for convenience, comfort and location. That’s fine because you’re on vacation. When you travel full-time you have to keep an eye on the cost because you don’t want to be spending $3000/month on accommodation.
In Montenegro and Serbia it was pretty easy keeping costs down, there is a lot of choice and prices are reasonable, especially in January. Between Kotor, Budva, Belgrade and Novi Sad we spent 23 nights, averaging $57.45 Canadian/night (that’s $43 US/night). In Spain we’ve had to work harder at finding good quality accommodation at good prices. We’ve also negotiated discounts at a few places where we found prices too high. Prices in the first few cities we visited were high (Malaga and Granada) but we’ve done better in Alicante, Valencia, and Leon (some of our upcoming bookings). Average Cost $57.91 Canadian/night ($44 US/night).
So, in January and February we’re paying the same in Spain as we did in Montenegro and Serbia*.
*Although with more work. And of the 3 countries Serbia is easily the least expensive. Our 11 nights there averaged $47 Canadian (ie. $35 US/night).
Above: Novi Sad, Serbia
Serbia: “We’re a serious country”
I’ll be writing about Serbia soon. We really enjoyed our time in both Belgrade and Novi Sad and met some nice people.
We were at a café in Novi Sad and I was paying with my credit card. The owner put the card over the machine and it worked instantly, I didn’t have to enter the PIN. I was surprised and made a comment along the lines of “wow! I think that’s the first time that’s worked in the Balkans”. He looked at me with a little smirk (you could tell he was thinking “stupid American”) and said “Yes. This is a serious country”. We just laughed.
We thought about him a couple of days later when we arrived in Budapest with no Forints (the Hungarian currency) and the hotel clerk asked us to pay the city tax. “Do you accept Serbian Dinars?” I asked him.
He just laughed at me.
We also found it funny to hear a Serbian mentioned that the Croatians are “very nationalistic”. We spent 11 days in Serbia seeing more Serbian flags flying per square meter than anywhere else. People always seem to have very set ideas on other places, particularly their next door neighbors.
Above: Serbian flag and coat of arms
People are going home
One of the interesting things we’ve noticed especially over the last year are people coming home from places like Canada and the US. In Belgrade we met a Canadian-Serbian couple who had moved back to Serbia after many years in Vancouver. They were a bit older, recently retired, and just wanted to live closer to family and have a cheaper cost of living (PS. They told me that Serbia is now a medical destination and has excellent facilities in both dentistry and medicine. It’s become a favorite of many Europeans).
We’ve had similar experiences in Greece and Bulgaria: people who had lived 15 to 20 years in North America but who’ve decided because of a mix of politics, cost of living, or lifestyle to move back home.
Keep your eyes to yourself
Am I the only person who gets looks when sitting down at a restaurant?
4 photos where I get stared at (and these are the ones captured on photo which represent maybe 1% of the times we catch people staring)
I think she likes me (Jaen, Spain)
He’s pissed off because I got a free shot on the house (Nong Khai, Thailand)
I look guilty but it wasn’t me (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Even the dogs stare at me (Granada, Spain)
So what to do when people stare at you?
Maybe something like this.
Above: Can’t remember the place but it had been a long day and I had enough. Probably Poland.
PS. People always ask why aren’t there more photos of Lissette on the blog? The simple answer is that she’s not as photogenic as I am 🙂
The best thing about having a blog…
…are the people we’ve met because of it. That’s particularly been the case with this Spain trip and on working towards Spanish residency.
A reader, our Australian friend Michael living in Belgrade, referred us to Norah, another Australian living in Jaen (Spain). She’s helped us tremendously and she’s (for now) our official address in Spain. Patti, a fellow blogger from One Road at a Time, put us in touch with Donna, an American expat living in Seville. She’s also given us great advice. Donna has invited us to visit her in Seville. Finally there’s Glenn, who I met last year in San Miguel de Allende when he was living in Mexico. He’s now living in Valencia. He’s also given us great advice and we hope to see him on our upcoming visit to Valencia.
All these people, from and living in different parts of the world, we’ve all met because of the blog. While we get encouraging comments about the information we give on the blog, oftentimes we’d never get that information without the help of people we’ve met along the way. Having a blog gives us a sense of being part of a travel community. I think that’s pretty cool.
I’m trying not to think about the Coronavirus but I have to admit it’s increasingly weighed on my mind. I’m wondering about the possibility of borders being closed and/or being stuck in a region in lockdown. And, as I write this, stock markets are down 5% over 2 days.
I try to keep it light in these newsletters but I have to admit it’s all getting worrisome. I’m also wondering how many people are re-evaluating their travel plans right now…
As always, appreciate your thoughts!
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