The Balkans - (Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia)


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Europe » Serbia » West » Belgrade
June 28th 2012
Published: July 4th 2012
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The Balkans is one of the most war torn area of Europe. It is the crossroads of empires and religions. It also has some of the best scenery in Europe as well from the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. My trip though these former Yugoslavcountries were a bit rushed. Mostly the places I stayed were 2 days at a time.

Macedonia:

Skopje - The capital of Macedonia seems to be going though a revitalization. The downtown area is full of cafes and restaurants and feels like half of it is under construction. It's a very relaxing town. I got into the main bus station and walked around a bit before getting my bearings straight. Skopje has a walled fort and many statues of Alexander the Great. It's also the birthplace of Mother Teresa. The bus ride from Sophia was nice and winded through mountains. Everyday there was sunny. To be honest I mostly walked around the town square and sat at cafes. Macedonia is the first country I've entirely used credit to pay for everything. I didn't exchange currency once.

Albania:

Tirana - The next stop was Tirana, the capital of Albania. I was pleasantly surprised by how modern of a city it was. It was also a lot bigger than I expected. To be honest it reminded me of Los Angeles a bit from a geographical point of view - kind of the Pasadena area with the hills. Tirana was another place that was great to walk around. I went to a museum as the only cultural point. There was a long street blocked off that had a bunch of street vendors selling food and ice cream and beer for the Euro 2012 games, along with huge screen TVs. The street was packed for the games. One cool thing I did was go to the top of this hotel that had a revolving restaurant at the top. I think the restaurant wasn't turned on to revolve, but I did have an amazing meal for cheap.

Montenegro:

Budva - I met a guy from San Francisco on the bus to Budva. This guy, Ryan, is doing his Master's in Iowa and had the summer off to travel. He had been working through Eastern Europe for the past few months and we were heading to the same cities over the next week or so. The adventure started with us both catching the bus to the Montenegro border. There isn't a bus that goes directly to Montenegro. We went to this small border town only to find out we missed the next bus to another border town in Montenegro. We ended up taking a taxi to this town and then waiting for 2 hours for the bus to Budva. The bus ride was nice and mostly along the coastline.

We got to Budva and walked to our hostel. It seemed like the people working right on the street our hostel was located had absolutely no idea where the cross street was. It was a bit frustrating, but with the help of Google maps, we made it. Ryan and I headed down to the water to grab dinner and walk around. Budva has the highest per capita for millionaires in Europe - mostly Russians who have bought second homes. It's a great small coastal town.

The next day we headed to Kotor. Kotor has a huge Venetian influence. The walled city has great side streets that reminded me of Venice (minus the canals). At the top of the hill is a huge fort. I made the mistake of wearing flip-flops and ended up doing the climb in them. Surprisingly, I didn't have any blisters. The view at the top was amazing and there were a few cruise ships in the bay. But it was in the 90s and sunny for most of the hike.

We headed back to Budva and were about to head out when we met two Americans and invited them with us to dinner. Budva is great at night. It has a very festive atmosphere and is nice to walk around.

Croatia:

Dubrovnik - Ryan and I were both heading to Dubrovnik next so we took the same bus. Dubrovnik is the first city on my trip that I had been to before so I consider myself having officially circled the globe (thought it took 17 years). Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities I've been to. The streets in the walled city are a smooth white marble. It's very touristy too! I stayed at an apartment/hostel that was really nice and saw that someone had left a Lonely Planet for Europe. The owner said the girl who stayed there the night before left it. Finders keepers! I figured if she didn't come back for it then it was mine. Luckily she didn't. I had just downloaded a newer version for my iPhone but it didn't load properly and I had Apple give me a refund.

When I was in Dubrovnik 17 years earlier I was mesmerized by the Adriatic Sea. It looked so clear and I wanted to jump in. Unfortunately, I was with a tour group so I couldn't go swimming - but promised one day I would return. The first thing I did was throw on my Euro trunks and head to the water. The beaches in Dubrovnik are made of pebbles so walking on them barefoot isn't fun. But, I was glad to be in the clear waters of the Adriatic.

Ryan and I headed to the walled city and walked around a bit. We also walked on top of the wall all the way around the city. The next night we took the cable car to the top of the hill, which gave a great panorama of the city.

Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Mostar - Ryan was heading to Mostar and I decided to not go to Split and head to Mostar instead. I felt like I was a few weeks behind where I wanted to be so I decided to forgo Hvar and Split and see them some other time (as you need to take a boat from Split to get to Hvar anyways). Mostar had a great old town with stone roads. Again, this was another city that pretty much just offers a certain ambiance and is pleasant to just walk around. So far on my trip I had always got my own room and made sure it was equipped with Wi-Fi and air conditioning. This room didn't have A/C and I would say it was one of the worst nights of the trip. I could barely sleep and the blinds on the windows were practically see-through, so the sun blinds you at about 4:00 am onwards.

Medjugorje - When I was 16 my mom and I took a trip to Medjugorje where it had been alleged that the Blessed Virgin Mary had been appearing to 6 people since the early 80s. It was my first time to Europe and an eye-opening experience. Since I was in Mostar I thought I would take a day trip to see how things had changed. I took the local bus 20 km down the road and got off at the main bus station. I didn't recall the bus station but I did remember the post office. It looked like it had been expanded a bit. I walked down the street and thought I recognized the guesthouse we stayed at. It too looked like it had been expanded. I went to the main door and a girl came out to great me. I asked if this was the home of Dragon and Maria. I knew I would never forget that name - Dragon. What a cool name for a guy. She said that she was their daughter and invited me in. After talking for a bit Maria came in to say hi. I told her that I had stayed there 17 years ago and what I remembered. We chatted for a bit and then they asked if I wanted lunch. I remember they always had the best bread too. I happily obliged. After lunch I saw Dragon. He looked different then I remembered. His hair was grey and longer and he didn't have a beard. He had put on about 25 pounds too. I guess the Blessed Virgin had been good to them. They had doubled their guesthouse to 60 rooms and employed about 10 people. Praise the Lord!

After lunch I walked to St. James church. Originally, I wanted to go to the pizza shop I used to go to. I'm glad I ate earlier because I couldn't find it. There were a lot of newer bars on the main street and more souvenir shops than I remembered. There were also some clothing stores too.

I went into the church and walked around it a bit. There were quite a bit of tourists. Most of the tourists seemed to be Italian. It felt like Italian and the Euro were a second language and currency. The prices of things were inflated compared to Mostar as well. I had a few hours to kill still so in the middle of the afternoon I decided to hike up Mt. Krizevac. I had done this by myself when I was 16. This time it was in the middle of summer. The entire walk up is on rocks that have been worn down from so many pilgrims. It's quite a hike - especially in the heat! I made it up ok but go lost for a bit on the way down thinking I remembered a short cut. I think I remembered it ok, but it lead into a parking lot that had been dug out of the side of the hill and the trail had been blocked off.

With the last hour or so I headed back to the area where the church was. I noticed something interesting though - the vendors selling religious souvenirs were also selling fake Ray-Bans, Dior, and Gucci sunglasses. I asked the sales girls if she thought there was a conflict of interest selling fake goods beside statues of the Blessed Virgin, crosses, and rosaries. She just shook her shoulders. Now I know how Christ felt when he overturned the tables in the temple and cast out the vendors at calling it a "den of thieves".

Sarajevo - The last stop in Bosnia was Sarajevo. I was really looking forward to seeing Sarajevo because I'm a huge WWI buff. I got to see the museum and spot where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand happened. Sarajevo has a small river that goes through it and the old town with a lot of cool shops, restaurants, and cafes.

The next day Ryan, me, and two other people we met headed to the Olympic park where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. Most of the infrastructure is crumbling in the Olympic park. I walked out to the speed skating track, which is now just crumbling concrete. On my way down I stepped on a on some wood that covered a piece of concrete that was blown out. My foot went right through the plank. If you ever go there I'm sure you'll see a plank sticking straight up - that was me. The main stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies were held was pretty easy to get into without permission. The four of us walked around the track on the field in the middle, which is now a soccer field.

After the stadium we headed to the underground tunnel by the airport that the Bosnians used to move supplies while it was under siege for almost 4 years. The Serbs didn't invade Sarajevo, they just stayed in the hills randomly bombing and using snipers to scare the people. Though most of the city has been rebuilt, bullet holes are very noticeable still.

Ryan headed off the Belgrade and I decided to stay an extra day in Sarajevo. I really like walking around the old town and I felt I had been moving too fast through the Balkans. I needed a day to recoup.

Serbia:

Belgrade - In 1999 I was on a train to Budapest. Sitting beside me was a woman and her kids heading home to Belgrade. NATO had just bombed Serbia for their attacks on Albanians living in Kosovo and it appeared that Belgrade took a huge pounding. This woman was heading home to see if there was anything left of her life. Her husband had stayed to fight. I thought to myself, "wow - here we are on this train and this woman was going home to find her life destroyed and I'm going to be going to the opera in Vienna in 3 days." Belgrade isn't far from Budapest. I had been following the events happening in Serbia because I had been to the region, and because Slobodan Milosevic had threatened to ruin my study abroad in Rome by threatening to bomb the Vatican if NATO got involved - just a mile or so down the road from where I was living at the time.

Belgrade was a lot bigger than I expected. It has a huge metro area compared to Sarajevo. On my way to the Kalemegdan I walked through the Knez Mihajlova street, one of the most popular pedestrian only streets in Belgrade. The Kalemegdan is a huge fort/park that sits on the river. I also checked out the military museum on the grounds. Later that day I met up with the two American girls I had met in Budva, Montenegro. I got completely lost trying to find the restaurant they were eating at. Luckily I was able to get there just as they were finishing. We ended up going to a bar that had traditional Serbian music being played live.

Next stop - Romania!


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23rd September 2012

Croatia is not the Balkans !!!

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