Slovenia is sometimes considered to be part of the Balkans, but it is increasingly being included in tour packages as part of Central Europe, such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. The same applies only partially to Croatia. Slovenes consider themselves Central European, due to their long ties to Austria.
The Balkan peninsula is, according to some definitions, what lies south of the rivers Sava and Danube from the city of Belgrade. This definition, however, then would rule out part of northern Serbia, known as Vojvodina, a good part of Croatia, Romania and, of course, Slovenia. Historically, all these countries/regions were usually considered to be part of the Balkan countries, as Slovenia, too, was once part of Yugoslavia. It is their recent independence that has allowed for the Slovenes to re-proclaim their desire to be considered Central European.
Lastly, much of Greece also resides upon the Balkan Peninsula; however, the Greeks, like the Slovenes and Croats, also distance themselves from the Balkans, and, as its major travel destinations (apart from Athens) lie upon its islands, it is almost exclusively considered as a part of Southern Europe, anyway.
While lately the very word of Balkans may translate to ethnic strife and civil wars in people's minds due to the headlines in the last decade of 20th century (and unfortunately, there is some truth in this perception), Balkans, with its rich, though often turbulent history and wonderful nature, offers much more than that. Charming multicultural towns, impressive monasteries and citadels dotting the hillsides, mighty mountains sprinkled with a liberal dose of beautiful forests and pleasant lakes, and last but not the least a great folk music tradition—coming off both as much joyful and melancholic as it could be—all survived various wars, if sometimes suffered a bit from the atrocities. With hundreds of kilometres of coastline on both the Adriatic and Black Seas, beachgoers won't be disappointed in this region, either.
Languages on Balkans include:
Before nationalist tension rose in the wake of the Yugoslav Wars, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin were all considered a single language, Serbo-Croatian. And indeed the distinction is purely political, as, except for a few specific words, it is the exact same language with different names. In fact, national languages of most of the countries in the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia) and Bulgaria are members of the South Slavic language group — therefore, due to much commonality between words and language structure, it is possible to communicate verbally between countries if you have a basic understanding of Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian or Bulgarian.
Some other useful languages might be Turkish, which some people in Greece and Bulgaria speak, and Romani may be useful in all of the Balkan states. Most of the people, especially in cities and touristic areas speak English, and sometimes German, Italian, French (in Romania).
There are numerous international airports in the Balkans. The major airports in the region are (by country):
Though three of the Balkan countries (Bulgaria,Romania and Croatia) have joined the European Union with others on the way, no countries in Balkans have implemented the Schengen Treaty yet, which means, unlike most of the rest of Europe, border controls are still a reality in the region—which is rather inconvenient but a joy for the ones who want all those entry and exit stamps on their passports.
Detailed maps of most of the countries in the Western Balkans you can find with torrent downloaders; look for "Topografske karte EX YU" (Topographic maps former-Yugoslavia), a file of approximately 4.13 GB. Note that this does not include Bosnia. To download only the maps you need, see the matrix at the Military Geographical Institute of Serbia.
BalkanViator is a new website that aims to make life easier for anyone travelling by public transport in the Balkans. As many travellers in the region are aware, details of bus routes in the region can be frustratingly difficult to pin down when planning a trip. Websites with bus timetables are often fragmentary and provide limited information (for example departure times but no arrival times, or routes listed by final destination with no indication of intermediate stops). The idea behind BalkanViator is to put an end to all this by making available in a single website the information about bus routes held by the Ministries of Transport of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia - more than 20,000 routes in all. Blog about BalkanViator on Balkanology.com It is, however, far from complete at this point and you might be better off going to the local bus station to inform about arrival/departure times. It is common to pay an additional (cash) fee for any luggage you store in the baggage bays of the bus. Prices are around €0.50 in local currency. It is important to note that this is also the case during transfers. Taking the bus from Sofia to Belgrade, with a transfer in Niš, you will have to pay the bus driver in Niš 50RSD to stow your luggage. Be prepared and bring some currency of the country you are travelling to or through.
Whereas it is generally not safe to openly display gay behaviour in the Balkans (See "stay safe" section below) there are many underground alternatives which are supportive of the LGBT community.
Regional firewater of choice is rakija (spelling varies from country to country; very similar to Turkish raki), a hard liquor (around 40%, and can be higher if home-made) common to all countries in Balkans. Rakija is distilled out of just about any fruit grown in the region, with the most popular varieties being plum, apricot, mulberry, and grape.
Another local drink is boza, a thick and sweet ale made of millet, maze, or wheat with a very low (less than 1%) alcohol content and traditionally drunk in winters.
There are excellent local beers to be had in each country in the region. Wine is also common, the peninsula being dotted by vineyards from one end to another.
Low taxes on alcohol coupled with a laid-back lifestyle and a liberal attitude towards alcohol consumption mean even smaller towns in the region has a considerable nightlife scene. Belgrade in particular is noted as the region's party hotspot.
While the horror stories of 90s are long gone and the likelihood of an armed conflict in the foreseeable future is next to none, unexploded land mines as a legacy of Yugoslav Wars continue to be a safety risk, especially in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia. What is worse about them is that they are where you don't expect them to be at all—they tend to be moved away from their original positions by the abundant rainfall in the region, and therefore riverbanks close to former hotbeds of conflict are especially dangerous. Don't stray too far into wilderness unless you are absolutely sure where you are heading is free of mines.
In most Balkan countries it is not a good idea to display openly gay behavior. Slovenia and Croatia are more liberal exceptions and the situation more similar to Central Europe.
Sex trafficking happens in the Balkan states.
The Balkan countries are surrounded by Greece and Turkey to south, Ukraine to northeast, Central Europe to northwest, and Italy to west across the Adriatic, all of which have greatly influenced the regional culture now and then.