I have lost count of the number of times I've been asked to name a favourite when I've talked about my little Balkan adventures this summer. My favourite country, place, culture, sight, experience. Each time I've been left scrabbling for an answer, because there simply hasn't been any single aspect I could cite. I have too many favourites.
For a very brief moment as I passed the statue of Skënderbeg on my way back to my hotel yesterday, pondering this question, I considered making this entry rhyme to match the song that inspired it (there's nothing wrong with The Sound of Music). Then I came to the sensible conclusion that such thoughts were probably a sign of impending heat stroke, and dismissed them. I don't do poetry.
So, in no particular order, these are a few of my favourite things...:
Moment: sitting on the hill above Sveti Jovan and watching the sun set over Lake Ohrid.
Museum: Sarajevo's tunnel museum and the insights added by my guide on the journey there and back.
Surprise: discovering what a lovely city Tirana is. I would actually be happy to spend more time here, even though there aren't as many "sights" as other cities.
Mountaintop: the mountains that are home to Kotor's city walls (close contender for favourite moment).
Bus ride: easily the endlessly entertaining furgon trip from Gjirokastër to Berat.
City to recommend: I can't pick one city as my own favourite, but the one I think I'm most inclined to recommend to others would be Belgrade.
Hotel/B&B: the 200-year-old Ottoman house that was my Gjirokastër B&B. I felt like I was staying in an Albanian home, and the owners made me feel as welcome as if I had been.
Border crossing: Croatia to Bosnia narrowly wins over Macedonia to Kosovo, on the grounds that I still can't get over the timewarp effect when we entered Bosnia.
Castle/fortress: the one I most enjoyed exploring was Berat, no doubt because it had the most to see, but still!
Musical moment: the very, very odd American band who were performing on a temporary stage on a Berati street my first night there. Still puzzled by that one.
Tower: for all it terrified me at the time, the one that most makes me smile was climbing up the belfry in Split.
Shower: Sarajevo, best shower ever. Even better after a cold day out in the rain.
Language challenge: my first morning in Zagreb, when my inability to speak even one word got me a smile and a free train ride.
Beach: Sarandë wins here, mostly because it was the only beach where I actually made it into the sea.
Sense of achievement: getting myself to Dubrovnik airport under my own steam: on foot, municipal bus, on foot through the old town, and finally joining the airport shuttle. Not that challenging in the grand scheme of things, but symbolically as my final journey of May's epic trip it felt significant.
Breakfast: you have to love it when you're offered cold pizza and fish fingers for breakfast alongside the boiled eggs and croissants. For this, Hotel Slavija "Lux" in Belgrade trumps all the other contenders.
Flight: I still smile when I remember stepping aboard my Air Serbia flight from Sarajevo to Belgrade, it was so surreal from start to finish.
Bus station: Berat. What's not to like about a purpose-built bus station that has neither timetables nor a ticket office?
Panicked moment: standing alone outside the locked front door of my Zagreb hotel in the middle of the night on day one of my trip and wondering if I would have to sleep on the doorstep.
Food: discovering chocolate sauce filled croissants was pretty life changing. Thank goodness Asda stock them in their "world food" aisle.
Old town: this is the hardest to choose, but Split's took my breath away when I first saw it, so it has to win.
Awkward moment: sitting with the 3 Albanians who took pity on me at Berat bus station.
Sight seen from a window: the spectacular scenery north of Mostar as we followed the river and mountains northwards to Sarajevo.
Park: this might be cheating slightly, because it's also in the castle/fortress category, but Belgrade's Kalemegdan.
People moment: the little boy at Bitola bus station who took his mum's reminder to share his packet of biscuits to heart, and dutifully came round all the waiting passengers to offer us a biscuit.
Evening: hanging out on Pristina's main boulevard watching people playing in the fountains, and just generally people watching.
Navigational success: walking from the airport to my Corfu hotel. It wasn't the most difficult, but I was still chuffed.
Church: Belgrade's St Michael's Cathedral, where I witnessed my first orthodox service.
Mosque: Koski Mehmed Pasa in Mostar, because it gave me the chance to climb a minaret.
Event: witnessing the brave man from Mostar's bridge divers' club making the 60 foot plunge down into the icy river.
Place to hate: I will always remember Skopje as the one place that I was desperate to leave, but then enjoyed passing back through on my way to Kosovo because it meant I knew where to go for lunch! (I don't really hate you, Skopje.)
Place to tell everyone to visit: I loved Bosnia, and I think you would too if you visited. It's the country I most want to return to for more in depth exploration.
Now you know why I end up lost for words when I'm asked to play favourites. How can I condense all of that into a more meaningful soundbite than "oh, but everywhere was so different I couldn't possibly name one place..."?
I have loved exploring a region of Europe that is barely touched upon at school, and about which I knew very little. Places so ridiculously close and accessible, yet seemingly forgotten. I feel like I've learnt so much, even though I have only scratched the surface. I can't wait to come back.
I do seriously intend to try and find a way to visit Slovenia this year, because until I do my experiences of this summer will feel incomplete. So hopefully I will have some new items to add in here in a few months from now...