"The world today can be a scary place, it's hard to keep your faith in the human race;
We're running out of trees and we're running out of space;
But we'll never run out of good people." - Great Big Sea (Good People)
From the moment I stepped off the plain in Zagreb I knew I was in for a different experience. Let the currency changes, total unfamiliarity, and language barriers begin!
I don't think I could have picked a better starting point than Zagreb. Most people spoke decent English so it was an easier transition to the very first country that posed a true language barrier. The city itself is very beautiful, with a lively cafe culture and vendors roasting chestnuts on every corner. I would have never believed that concrete could be elegant, but the crumbling facades and mock 19th century architecture proved me wrong! Walking around I noticed that people generally kept to themselves and didn't concern themselves with anyone else on the street, but they still carried themselves with a relaxed air... a far cry from the Parisian attitude. The Croatian capital also gave me my first taste of the recent and violent history of the region. Outside the national theatre, I stumbled across what I thought was an art exhibit, but turned out to be so much more. On well-lit boards were photos and stories of survivors whose loved ones had been killed or simply disappeared during the 1990's conflicts. There were 15 photos to represent the 15,000 Croatians who are still missing. For me the most chilling realization that I took away from the display, was that I was learning about a war where my generation were the ones left orphaned and alone. It certainly gave me new perspective when I wasn't thinking about grandfathers, or great grandfathers who would have been fighting. Walking away form the display, I had a hard time not trying to imagine what every person I crossed on the streets here had lived through, but somewhere on that walk I made one of the most important realization that would carry me through my travels here in the Balkans: Life goes on. This was the true meaning behind the cliche. Standing in this vibrant, colourful city, surrounded by warm hospitality, I would have never suspected this regions tumultuous past.This one moment, so early in my time here in Eastern Europe defined much of what I would experience over the next few weeks.
From Zagreb I headed south along the Dalmatian coast to the ancient Roman city of Split. The Croatian coast is known to rival the French Riviera... and I would agree! White marble streets (that are very slippery when wet) and palm trees everywhere. Not to mention great seafood! After a short, but fun stay in Split I moved on to Dubrovnik at the southern-most tip of Croatia. The landscape all along the coast is breathtaking to say the least. Rocky cliffs seemed to spring up from the turquoise blue Adriatic; this made for a very beautiful (6h) bus ride to Dubrovnik. The city itself is similar to Split, if much more touristy. The walk along the ramparts was definitely the high point of my time there. The entire "old city" is surrounded by high ramparts that overlook the sea and the city below, but the most amazing part about this ancient city, is that much of it isn't ancient at all. During the 1990's conflicts the city was heavily bombed and virtually destroyed. Since then many, many stone masons and construction crews have worked to restore the city to its original state. Today, visitors would have difficulty telling the difference between the old and the new!
As I am quickly learning my Canadian spatial sense is doing me no good over here. Distances on road signs are clearly measure "as the crow flies" and travelling between cities seems to take forever... even worse when there's a border involved! So after Dubronik I ventured inland to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (yes, I learned how to spell that... if anyone reading this wants to know how to say it, it's "her-tze-go-vee-na"). Here began my love affair with the tiny, "heart-shaped nation." the countryside is rugged and beautiful, just like the people who live there. Language barriers were nothing to overcome, even if people spoke every language BUT English and French. Walking down the well-lit streets, Mostar has an eerie sense about it; I would pass bombed out buildings that stood next to colourful cafes and rebuilt shops. The sidewalks were in need of a little work, and locals only used them in emergency situations, like when a car would drive down the road. Mostar was also my first taste of the immense Turkish influence in the region, which was under Ottoman control for many centuries.
Next stop was Sarajevo, where I can say with certainty that I indulged in plenty of Bosnian/Balkan specialties and learned how to properly drink Bosnian Coffee. I made (and re-made) some great friends and had many unforgettable moments. My favourite had to be my last night there. I climbed up one of the very steep hills surrounding the city, just to get into the residential areas, but was treated to the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. The sky was glowing orange and pink, and I could see the entire city below me. Just as the sun was dipping below the hills all the minarets started their call to prayer, and almost simultaneously the church bells began to ring. That was when I knew I was in love with this city, and this country as a whole. The only word that will do it justice is... magic.
Belgrade was a sharp contrast to the warmth and charm of Sarejavo. Once the capital of communist Yugoslavia, this sprawling concrete jungle felt more like it belonged in Western Europe than the Eastern half. When most capitals in this region don't top 800,000, Belgrade, with a population of 1.7 million felt immense, and anonymous. Two days was plenty of time for me here.
I continued my adventure south, to Skopje, Macedonia, once again adjusting to a new language and currency... hooray! Great food was easy to come by, and very cheap, my greatest delight was that you could get vegetables... even salads! As a side note you can also get beer in 2L plastic bottles and every hostel owner and their neighbour has their own home-brewed version of the local alcoholic potion- Rakia. My taste of Macedonia was limited, but I can still say that this is one of the most under-developed countries I've seen yet. Not the absolute worst, but still a very simple lifestyle where manual labour is the tool of choice for things like agriculture, and even road building! But if I though Macedonia was rough... a day trip to Kosovo gave me a new perspective. One of the world's newest countries, Kosovo was officially created in 2008, but it still isn't recognized by Serbia as an independent state (... and I had my Kosovo passport stamp crossed out at the Serbia border to prove it). Anything outside the capital of Prishtina is best described as "third-world." Paved roads don't exist and international military installations are common- as is evident by the posted highway speed limits for tanks. The capital city is better developed and is centered around towering EU/UN buildings. This country truly feels like another world entirely.
On my way to Sofia, Bulgaria, I made an unplanned pit stop in Nish, Serbia, where I have enjoyed the scenic views of my hostel dorm room for the last three days thanks to a nasty bug of some sort. Bed rest, chicken noodle soup and tea have done wonders, and I heading off to Sofia tomorrow. From there I'll continue east to Istanbul and into the Middle East. Let the adventure continue!
The Balkans have been an amazing experience., The sights and magnificent, the history is intricate, and the hospitality is the stuff of legends. I can't count the number of times I've been adopted by older women on train/bus trips, despite complete language barriers! This place is truly wonderful and I'm thankful everyday for all the experiences I've had and those yet to come.
As usual... I will have photos up on Facebook shortly so here's the link if you want to go check them out :) This should be a public link, so even if you don't have Facebook you can still see the photos!