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‘Be Flexible And Prepared To Get Stuck’ Nomadic Backpacker Traveling In The Balkans During The Pandemic

Travelling during the coronavirus pandemic is a bureaucratic minefield.

Belgrade protests
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Travelling during the Coronavirus pandemic is a bureaucratic minefield. But at least I have options. Many don’t.

I took that evac flight to Belgrade, Serbia via Amsterdam. I chose Serbia as it was one of the few countries that openly declared they were open for business.

Whilst I was there, there were nightly demonstrations which turned riotous. But they were not protesting about the up and coming weekend lockdown as many had thought.

I’ll tell you how it was as I am not known to fabricate a fairly tame story into one how I risked life and limb to bring you my latest post. I was staying a few streets away from the Serbian Parliament. Serbia was not at war, Belgrade was not unsafe, it was very much business as usual except for a few hours each night in the near vicinity of the protests. The 2nd night when things turned ugly, police were chasing the demonstrators down the two streets that intersected near the Parliament: Kralja Milana and Trg Nikole Pašića. My hostel was on a smaller street that linked to the aforementioned streets, 10 minutes walk away. We were on the 5th and 6th floors of the apartment block and tear gas was coming in through the open windows at around 1am. There were no battle scars visible the next morning.

On Wednesday morning the police turned up at my hostel. They had arrested a Russian Israeli and an Ukrainian Israeli who were caught at the riots.

The Russian was a funny guy. Just out of the IDF national service. He was a history buff, and a great source of information. He was waiting on his mate to arrive and then they would go north using some travel hack which told them how to get to Russia without needing passports and Covid checks. His mate arrived and then they checked out, having found somewhere cheaper to lodge.

They had been picked up and had told the police the that they were (still) staying at the hostel where I had met them. This was Wednesday morning. They had checked out on the Monday. Sadly, I don’t have any more news.

Belgrade protests After 2 weeks in Belgrade, I started checking on where I could go. Serbia has borders to Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia.

It was not always easy to find good intel. Many times it was all a bit vague. A built-in deterrent?

Here’s what an official notification said about Romania:

“On 7 July 2020, the Romanian Government issued an updated list of countries for which Covid-19 travel restrictions have been lifted. Travellers from these countries, including the UK, are no longer required to comply with quarantine and isolation rules for 14 days”.

But where to find that list?

Anyways, Serbia had been on the ‘green’ list. Not any more! They got downgraded. In fact, only Croatia, the only country in the Balkans with EU status, remains on the ‘green’ list. Is that a coincidence?

I had checked the bus schedule to Skopje, North Macedonia. There had been a few buses but when I went back later there was only the night bus. The buses to Pristina, Kosovo had been cut to one morning bus, a late afternoon bus, and a night bus.

A Colombian girl turned up. She had Swedish residency. She went to Pristina for two month NGO project and got stuck there as the capital shut down. After weeks of a rather brutal lockdown she had taken a bus to Belgrade, Serbia via North Macedonia, making the journey hours before North Macedonia closed the border coming in from Kosovo, and went straight to the airport for her flight to Sweden where they refused her! She was non-EU despite having papers to live in Sweden.

She tried to get information on how to get in to the EU without flying. She took a 50€ Covid test and got to Zagreb, Croatia though got a lot of hassle at the border. She took a bus the next day to Bratislava and then, eventually, a flight to Stockholm. She had been away almost six months.

She had been a good source of intel. She had liaised with various embassies and had been given quick responses and it seemed borders open and closed without any official declaration that us as foreigners had access to. The border from Skopje to Pristina was open but not vice versa. You need your own wheels as the buses were cancelled, which I found to be true when I got to Pristina. A German lad on a motorbike had just turned up and ‘reported no issues’ but a guy trying to get to Skopje was informed that there were no buses.

From Belgrade I travelled on an almost empty bus to Pristina, by train to Peja, by bus to Prizren. I was in Prizren for one week and this included the EID weekend. There were unconfirmed rumours that everyone arriving back in Kosovo would have to isolate. On Sunday they reported that 22,000 people had crossed the border to Albania. I took an early minivan on the Monday. There were no temperature checks going into Albania. It looked like business as normal going the other way too.

From Albania you could transit through Montenegro, which was closed to tourists, to EU Croatia if you were an EU citizen and, of course, had your own wheels.

Some countries set up restrictions based of the country you were coming from and with some it was based on your nationality, which is just bollocks.

Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ruling as of August 6 is detailed here, which is a lot clearer and better than when I had checked it before, which said that only those from neighbouring countries could enter.

A buddy from Polandwent to Mostar to run a marathon just a week ago. He had done a Covid test and had a ”letter of invitation’ from the race organisers. When leaving he bought a FLIXBUS ticket to Zagreb, Croatia but the bus didn’t turn up. In Serbia they had told me Flixbuses were not running, PERIOD! and here they were selling tickets. He took a local night bus to Zagreb, no checks what so ever, an onward bus to Bratislava, and then to Vienna via Ljubljana and onto Poland. Again, no checks at all.

The border to Greece is closed to all non-residents.

Countries are opening up and shutting down again and the press officers as the embassies can not keep up. Each country has rules but who are implementing them? Each border has different controls, manned by border guards who don’t care anymore?

This is the best example of how simple it can be:

Ukraine, based on info from https://visitukraine.today/:

There is a green list and a red list. If you have spent the last 14 days in a green listed country you can enter. If you have spent the last 14 days in a red listed country you must provide proof of a PCE test and/or quarantine and set up the trace and track app. This is all regardless of your citizenship.

The list is updated every 24hours and does not give information which has become irrelevant, like on the British list. Who gives a shit when such and such country was on the green list and was moved to the red list. What is important is the here and now.

On both accounts you must purchase Covid cover with an insurance company registered in Ukraine, which you can buy from the link provided on the site mentioned above. All so very easy and clear. Your WORLDNOMADS insurance isn’t going to work here. It’s like the mandatory insurance bought on arrival in Minsk, Belarus.

And now, how do you find out where you can go if you want to escape the country you are in by land? Get your ass to the bus station, be a trailblazer.

My plan based on locally gathered intel is that North Macedonia is the only country one can enter from Albania without needing to take a Covid test and/or spend 14 days in quarantine. But I am not ready to leave yet. I am considering going to Durres, then to Shkodra to make the Valbona to Theth hike and then south to Berat and on to Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia, up to Skopje, then back to Serbia. I hope by then that Romania will be fully open, and then on to Ukraine or Moldova. But things change daily.

You just have to be flexible and be prepared to get stuck.

Filed under: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Eastern Europe, Epidemics, Macedonia, Serbia

About the Author:

Long term traveller & content creator. From a small town north of London, England. Earned my travel money as a waiter in Switzerland, as a courier, as a postman (mailman). Former mountain runner and road cyclist. Permanently on the road now, 96 countries and counting. Passion for long haul overland journeys. Blogs at Nomadic Backpacker. has written 7 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Trevor Warman is currently in: Albania

12 comments… add one

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  • Jeffrey August 7, 2020, 11:24 pm

    My Lord, that is complicated.

    Multiple workarounds, as you suggest, seem essential, and of course accepting the fact that none of them may actually work.

    From the article to which you linked:

    But the roots of the mass civil disobedience lie in years of political dissent among Serbians of all walks of life, fed up with the rife corruption, media suppression, neoliberal policies and creeping authoritarianism of the Vucic rule.

    Trevor, can you explain what they mean by “neoliberal policies”? Yes, I understand that here “neoliberal” is used in its European sense, but can you explain how that works in Serbia?

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    • Trevor Warman August 8, 2020, 2:56 am

      Hi Jeffery Thanks for the comment. Yes it’s complicated, bordering on a pain in the ass. Albania just got added to the ‘yellow’ list whereby you need a PCE and Antibody test (30USD here) to enter Montenegro.

      Regarding Neo liberal policies, this is very much out of my league. Am sorry. I had to Google the very meaning just to have a slight understanding. Yay for Wikipedia.

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    • Vagabond Journey August 8, 2020, 3:27 pm

      Neoliberalism in this sense basically means pro-corporate globalization. Serbia has been making major concessions to China and has handed over a portion of downtown Belgrade to an Abu Dhabi company. I did a story about it a few years ago on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2016/12/08/inside-abu-dhabis-bad-joke-the-belgrade-waterfront-project/#1fc997d46c12.

      Trevor, did you happen to go by the waterfront and check this out?

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      • Trevor Warman August 9, 2020, 3:15 am

        Hi @Wade..

        Thats the old train station area.. the part facing the city from the old station entrance, is still very much under construction. Then the part towards the bus station has been sort of finished…. new appartment blocks. Then the area after the bridge, towards the old depot , yeah sort of finished. But everything is very a much a work in progress.

        I will be back in Belgrade at some point, maybe a month from now.. can shoot some photos..

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        • VBJ August 9, 2020, 6:45 pm

          That would be cool! When I wrote that story it was little more than a concept. Would be interesting to see how they’re actually building it.

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  • Sarah BB August 8, 2020, 7:56 am

    Travel is certainly more complicated right now, but it seems like in the midst of the chaos you are having fun navigating the ever changing landscape – it keeps life interesting right! Backpacking appears to be more of an adventure than ever again, with no clear path mapped out. Bit like the old days – maybe that’s why you are handling it well 😉

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    • Trevor Warman August 8, 2020, 9:27 am

      @Sarah

      Exactly. Am good with the way things are. If I was in a hurry it’d be different but am certainly not bothered about getting stuck (Trevor’ed) again.
      Avoiding getting sick is still the name if the game. A bit harder here … :((

      And yes its a blast from the past.. you need to be on the ground, doing the leg work cos gov posts once published are immediately out of date, what was ok last week is suddenly impossible to do.

      Am moving slowly but when i decide to move, check the logistics and dt snooze on the way.

      The worse case scenario is you’ll be refused entry. And its just a short bus ride back.

      Once i get back to Serbia I’ll go and ask for a ticket to Timisoira, Romania. Or Zagreb. Be a trailblazer.

      If Africa gets better am outta here…

      And as a note…. i live on the road and am ok here BUT if anyone out there reading this thinks they’ll be good for a 2 week vacation, i wouldnt recommend leaving the EU if thats where you are. In The Balkans they shut down without warning. None of this On Sunday shit. Its like Bamm closed. Without prior notification. U only find out when it gets put on telly and by that time its too late.

      Cases are climbing across the Balkans. In Albania they dt get masks or any idea of SD. Am waiting for the announcement.. re curfew and or lockdown.

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      • Sarah August 8, 2020, 6:40 pm

        It’s not just the Balkans shutting down with no notice, our govt is getting pretty good at that. Yielding what little international power we have left as a nation. Fun & games hey. Good luck on your onward journeys.

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  • Trevor Warman August 17, 2020, 9:47 am

    For the older ones out there (or maybe for the younger ones too), life before the smart phone.

    https://www.nomadicbackpacker.com/how-we-used-to-travel-in-the-days-before-smart-phones.html

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    • VBJ August 17, 2020, 4:33 pm

      Sweet.

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      • Trevor Warman August 18, 2020, 7:56 am

        Imagine my first post in a while without the C word.

        Proved to be a popular post.

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        • VBJ August 18, 2020, 9:28 am

          Sweet! That’s progress.

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