Meet Emma, co-founder of Undiscovered Balkans
Emma Heywood is the co-founder of Undiscovered Balkans

Emma makes up half of the duo behind Undiscovered Balkans with her husband Ben.

When she’s not putting together your awesome adventures or herding children and pets, she can be found doing yoga, watercolour painting or practising her Albanian (having already mastered Serbian/Montenegrin and French).

We caught up with Emma to find out more about her life before and after entering the adventure travel business – and why she fell in love with Montenegro.

Tell us a little bit about your life, work and travels before coming to the Balkans?

I grew up in Norfolk and moved to London to work as a press officer for the British government, taking lots of career breaks to travel the globe.

Some of my favourite travel memories include spending three months in a tent in Zambia surrounded by monkeys and elephants, drinking yak butter tea with monks in a remote Tibetan monastery, and leaping off the Victoria Falls bridge (the world’s second longest bungee jump). I’ve also hitch-hiked across Botswana twice, probably giving my mum a few grey hairs.

What was it about Montenegro that just made you want to stay?

The fact that it’s still so wild. You could mistake parts of Montenegro for Africa or Asia. Lake Skadar especially reminds me of Inle Lake in Myanmar.

What’s unique about the Balkans compared to other parts of Europe?

The Balkans have a really different history. Large tracts were under the Ottoman Empire for centuries so there’s this intoxicating mix of East and West. You can sense it in the food, the music and the culture. Couple that with those decades under communism and there’s real intrigue.

What are three of the biggest myths about the Balkans?

  1. ‘The Balkans are unsafe’ – Honestly, you’re in most danger of getting over-fed! It’s been 30 years of peace in Croatia, and 25 in Kosovo. Times have moved on.
  2. ‘The Balkans are backwards’ – Visit the capital cities like Belgrade and Tirana and you’ll find modern urban centres and big glossy shopping malls with all the usual retail suspects. There’s been a massive transformation since those decades under communism. Of course you can still find that old time feel in rural areas.
  3. ‘Balkan people get angry’ – Balkan people are not angry (at least not usually). They just sound angry – and loud! It’s the way the language comes out. Plus in the Balkans, people talk with lots of hand waving, a bit like Italians, which can be misconstrued.

What’s your favourite activity in the Balkans?

Without a doubt, wild swimming. The brilliant blue rivers fringed by emerald forests never fail to amaze me. They’re teeming with wildlife like turtles, damselflies and kingfishers to spot.

And I do love a rope swing!

If you could only live off one Balkan food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

My friend Tanja’s homemade sarma (fermented cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced mince and covered with a zingy paprika sauce). She slow cooks them in her wood-fired oven, meaning they’re healthy as well as delicious.

If you could live anywhere in the Balkans, where would it be and why?

Like everyone in the Balkans, I’m naturally going to tell you that where I live is already the best place imaginable. And it’s true.

Lake Skadar’s natural beauty is off-the-scale. It’s surrounded by mountains and the Adriatic Sea is close by – the best of both worlds.

What’s this we hear about a nun coming to your rescue in Montenegro?

Ben and I were kayaking with our eldest son when a strong wind blew up and stranded us on Moračnik island on Lake Skadar. There was no way we could paddle back to our car. Luckily, Sister Stefanija was visiting Father Nikolaj at the monastery at the time and offered to take us back in her motor boat. She had the most serene look on her face as her metal vessel leapt in and out of the choppy water and we bounced around like jumping beans (she must’ve been a Formula 1 powerboat driver in another life). We had no life jackets. If I didn’t believe in divine intervention before, I certainly did after that day!

Why is sustainable travel so important to you?

I’m a big nature lover, so making sure our holidays have minimal environmental impact is important. But living in the largest wetland in Southern Europe and seeing the plight of nature made Ben and me want to get more actively involved, so we arrange regular clean-ups, speak out on green issues, and we co-founded the #SaveSkadarLake campaign with local partners.

We also run a Book to Give Back scheme to support community and conservation projects in our destinations.

Do you have any claims to fame?

Well, I did make front page news in Montenegro for giving birth to my twins, the first babies born at the Codra hospital in Podgorica. They reported curious details like playing my favourite tunes and having hubby in the room, all very unusual for Montenegro at the time.

It sounds like you have a real passion for the Balkans, Emma. Thanks for sharing!


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