Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans

Things to Know About Traveling The Balkans
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If you’ve been keeping up with my continuous stream of photos on facebook, you would understand why I’ve been rather negligent on updating my blog. I’ve been too busy having adventures to write about them so Richard Burton may be proud but I think it’s time for me to take a step back and summarize some of my experiences, since traveling in this part of the world is different.

“If we stop moving and try to explain everything, we truly die; if we pause, if we take our gaze off the shimmering horizon for an instant, if we abandon the path in order to reflect or to plot our silly course, we go into exile” -Richard Burton

This whole trip evolved into something different than I planned when I booked my flights and I’ve been living one day at a time, planning by path based on what I’ve heard from others and what countries pique my curiosity. Since this trip is probably my last venture before getting my PhD and potentially entering real life, I’ve been moving fast, trying to survey the land in hopes of finding a place that speaks to me. I know you can’t claim to know a city or a place after a few hours, nose buried in a map as you follow the well-trodden tourist pilgrim path. Since I’ve been spending only 1-2 days in each city, that’s kind of what I have been doing. But I’ve also made a point to get lost, meet locals (or at least current residents of a city), sample the street food and most importantly, absorb the energy of a place. It’s amazing how quickly you can get a general feel of a place, and admittedly, first impressions may not be perfectly accurate, but I think they can lead some insights to the spirit of a place that isn’t easily captured in photographs. Since I’m so behind on my writing, I doubt I’ll be able to catch up on entries from everywhere so here’s some of the things that stuck out about each country and followed by commonalities for this area in general.

The route for the first part of my trip

The route for the first part of my trip

I entered the area through Slovenia, the wealthiest country of ex-Yugoslavia who escaped the socialist empire relatively unscathed, both economically and psychologically. Slovenians share a café culture like the rest of the Balkans but you can see a spunk and an intelligent sparkle in their eyes that is largely absent in the faces of countries hit harder by the war. In Serbia and Bosnia, wrinkles create craters in the faces of people whose only source of daily solace and pleasure is found chain-smoking cigarettes and nursing sludgy Turkish coffee. Serbia even created their own trademark caffeinated beverage, a milky espresso, to make drinking coffee occupy a larger portion of the day. In Slovenia, I also didn’t hear any of the catchy but excessively mindless “techno-folk” that entertain Zagreb and Belgrade club goers. Even I found it impossible to resist their bouncy beats but it became a guilty pleasure once my Croatian friend started translating the lyrics, something along the lines of “I don’t want love, I only want money. If you come to my bedroom, bring your wallet…”. He seemed to think these songs accurately expressed the current priorities of society, “Croatian girls are like this. They are just looking for a rich man to save them”. Slovenia didn’t seem to be as stuck in this desperate sense of helplessness as the other countries, probably due to better educated occupants who were more equipped to help themselves.

Central Zagreb, Croatia

Central Zagreb, Croatia

Next I visited Croatia, which tried desperately to emphasize its European-ness and disassociate with its Yugoslavian past. In Zagreb, you’ll find people sipping cappuccinos in Ban Jelacic Square, instead of Turkish coffee. The 19th century architecture, carefully painted in complementary pastels, racial homogeneity (except for its gypsies) and popular opera all serve to exaggerate the more aristocratic air of this place. According to “Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the War”, even during the war, Zagreb largely lacked any evidence of conflict- no sandbagged buildings, no gun emplacements on the roof of commercial buildings or fixed checkpoints. The city’s occupants look rather happy, filling wide pedestrian streets on the weekend with almost every kid munching on cones of popcorn and roasted chestnuts.

Intermission Song of the Moment: Tango– Vatra (a band from Croatia who filmed their music video in Zagreb)

Coastal Croatia near Dubrovnik

Coastal Croatia near Dubrovnik

As you leave the city, the coast is beautiful but there’s not much evidence of industry, prosperity or much going on. Like its occupants whose dreams are expressed in folk-techno songs, I think the country of Croatia itself is wistfully waiting for the world to recognize its beauty and hoping income from tourists can save them.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

From there, I dipped my toe briefly in Bosnia with lunch in coastal Neum before moving to Montenegro. Montenegro was much more developed and expensive than I expected but wasn’t too surprising when I learned the country’s extensive coastline and majestic mountains have attracted multi-million dollar yachts for decades and so tourism isn’t a foreign concept (and that’s probably why they use the Euro). However, its apartments and tourist accommodations that seemed to value quantity over quality so I got a “Jersey Shore”–esque vibe, especially in Budva and some of the other towns on the riveria. I think its easier to escape the over-priced, cheap-tourist feel in the mountains but I didn’t get the chance to explore those areas this trip. Even though I was disappointed with Montenegro in general, the Old City and Port of Kotor should be a must-stop destination on any Balkan itinerary. I strongly prefer the so-called “new Dubrovnik” to its Croatian predecessor… Kotor blends water, mountains and a walled city so perfectly that “once you arrive, you’ll never want to leave”, according to my guidebook and echoed by my experience.

Goods at the Sarajevo Market

Goods at the Sarajevo Market, Bosnia

From Montenegro, I went to Mostar & Sarajevo, Bosnia, an experience I elaborated on during my last post. Bosnia’s less pretentious but beautiful landscape, delicious cuisine and rich cultural heritage made this my favorite country by far. Between the Austro-Hungarian architecture, Ottoman markets, hills and rivers and warm people, despite their small size, these two cities provide rich cultural, culinary and shopping experiences that I believe could appeal to any traveler. However, you need to be prepared to handle seeing the scars of war, since these cities contain a feeling of melancholy that can’t be disguised with houses painted in colors that seem to portray a forced perkiness. The lime, bright purple and orange houses don’t quite disguise the damage and destruction the country has witnessed through the years.

Pedestrian Zone, Belgrade,Serbia

Pedestrian Zone, Belgrade, Serbia

From Bosnia, I headed to Belgrade and Vrsac, Serbia. Serbia lacks the beauty and natural resources of its neighbors who are rich in minerals, water and vegetation. Even though it contains the most evidence of industry and larger-scale farming, its roads are in the worst condition. Apparently selling grey pumpkins isn’t enough to revitalize the region, even though it keeps the chickens fat and healthy. Belgrade is one of the biggest cities in southeastern Europe and it felt like it. Traffic-clogged, grey, loud and, congested, Belgrade reminded me of New York City, suffocating in an inescapable tobacco cloud. I enjoyed exploring it a little more at night, and I enjoyed the café culture, extensive art galleries and parks scattered through the city. However, I was happy to get out. Vrsac is a smaller city on the Romanian border, famous for its wine and possessing one of the country’s few hills. I enjoyed colorful and cute architecture, slower pace of its friendly occupants, hiking to the fortress and sipping its wine at one of the cafes in the spacious center. I won’t recommend going too far out of your way to visit, but I would recommend Vrsac as a worthwhile pit-stop on the way to Romania.
As you can probably tell, the Balkans have a lot of similarities, once united under Yugoslavia and historically occupied by the Ottoman and/or the Austro-Hungarian empire. The influence of these various kingdoms varies from place to place but you can recognize aspects of them throughout these areas. If you’re considering traveling the Balkans, here are a few prominent things to consider:

1) Coffee is No Quick Affair… these countries run on caffeine and cigarettes. It’s impossible to escape and since tourism isn’t super developed in these cities, keep yourself entertained by splitting up sightseeing by spending time people watching in cafes. If you are really sensitive to cigarette smoke, you may not want to visit these countries because you can’t escape second-hand smoke.

2) Bakeries Filled With Ottoman Treats Are Everywhere… it’s not good for your waistline but these countries have some extremely tasty cheap street foods. Your nose will lead you to bakeries on every street corner serving greasy, cheesy, delicious pastries for $0.30-$1. Flaky cheese pies, meat pies (burek), spinach pies (zeljanica), potato pies (krompiruša in Bosnian), nutella-filled croissants… if these tasty treats contained any sort of nutritional value, you’d never want to eat at a restaurant again.  Especially in Bosnia… although all countries have similar dishes, they taste so much better in Bosnia.

3) Cities Are Further Apart Than They Appear… just because most of the Balkan cities are close on a map doesn’t mean you can quickly get from one to another. Although all the roads I traveled were paved (and in surprisingly good condition, except for parts of Serbia), most are one-lane roads through twisty territory so speed limits are kept relatively low. Furthermore, public transportation options are limited… since these countries are poor, people don’t travel between countries often so direct buses or trains don’t really exist. And border crossings further slow things down. So what would have been a 4-hour drive between Mostar and Sarajevo, Bosnia took 7 hours on a bus that only traveled once a day.

Scenery on the drive from Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia

Scenery on the drive from Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia

4) Treasure The Journey… there’s tourism in these countries but it isn’t super-developed so each city probably only provides a few hours of entertainment so road tripping is the optimal way to explore these countries, especially since the views are incredible. Even though transportation was slow between countries, I appreciated traveling during daylight since staring out the window provided infinite entertainment. With the exception of Serbia (which was flat and more industrialized), staring out the window provided endless hours of entertainment: sailboats floating slowly along Croatian coast, the soaring mountains of Montenegro, azure-colored rivers and fall foliage on the tree-covered hills of Bosnia.

5) These Countries Are Still Developing… After recovering from a war twenty years ago and economic struggles, don’t expect the same quality of amenities and accommodations. There’s a refreshing lack of chain restaurants (no Starbucks and I think the only McDonalds I found was in Belgrade) but that means you may need to take your chances with a more mom-and-pop-type places. Even though Montenegro uses the Euro and probably has the best tourism infrastructure, a lot of the hotels (in Budva, especially) are shoddily constructed apartments with no exterior aesthetic appeal. Many of the accommodations, attractions and transportation options slow down or shut down in the off-season… I was already running into issues in early November. The lack of infastructure also means you’ll land in bus stations and train stations with no tourist information, internet and no one who speaks English. Some places were surprisingly equipped; Zagreb had strong wifi in public squares, Montenegro had a great signal in random parking lots and Belgrade, you might get lucky. Be sure to plan ahead and have maps and directions downloaded when you land somewhere.

Song Of The Moment: Ceca- Znam (example of turbo-folk)

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