(A few months prior to creating this Itchy Foot Prints blog, I made a whirlwind trip through the Balkans, and attempted a sort of travel blog by making daily Facebook posts throughout my travels. I’ve compiled them here to add them to my travel writing collection)
Being the land mass between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Balkan region has the “oldest” parts of Europe. A lot of old structures – churches, mosques, cobblestone plazas, fortified walls & castles – but mixed with very modern efforts of capitalism and to establish government and border identities that might reverse the historic tide of misfortunes. Everywhere are the remnants of millennia of overlapping empires, and very recent decades of regional factionalism, and war scarred buildings. Most cities had designated pedestrian zones, lively and abundant with outdoor cafes at cheap prices, especially for Europe. Each border crossing required a passport/customs check, and exchanging money; which was easy and rather fun considering most of the rest of Europe has gone with a near border-less union and common currency. I had great weather, except in Sarajevo, where the rain somehow seemed fitting as I stood in the place where an assassin’s bullets sparked the global chaos of the 20th Century, and walked a hillside of untimely graves all placed there just 20 years ago. While Dubrovnik gets the “photography” award, Kotor was a favorite – rustic with both man-made and natural fortifications on the Adriatic. Albania was very fascinating – often chaotic, but charming in its lack of global commercialism; the streets were the markets and the roads often shared by shepherds tending their flocks/herds. Ukraine was the most fashionable and urbane, but lacked a festive or touristy vibe, perhaps due to the ongoing conflict with Russia. I recommend “Triposo” as the travel guide/map App for the ultra-light traveler, and above all, I highly recommend this region. Sure, over-priced Western Europe will always rule the tourist hordes, but go to the Balkans, sooner than later. My route: 11.5 Countries in 13 days. In order: Belgrade, Serbia / Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina / Dubrovnik, Croatia / Kotor, Montenegro / Shkoder, Lake Komani, & Valbona, Albania / Prizren, Kosovo / Skopje, Macadonia / Sogia, Bulgaria / Bucharest, Romania / Chisinau, Moldova / Tiraspol, Transnistria / Odessa & Kiev, Ukraine.
Finished my last spring tour this morning. Now it’s Boston to the Balkans. Clean shaven. Clean Benjamins in my wallet. And a new “no international fee” credit card. Clean clothes in my small backpack. Downloaded guides to 11 countries in my Triposo App. A mostly clean inbox and an almost clean To Do list. Ready to go.
Due to flight delays I did not arrive to Belgrade until 4, jet lagged and very sleepy. But I rejuvenated once my feet hit the street. I can’t imagine a better way and day to experience Serbia’s capital – a sunny Saturday wandering monumental churches and govt buildings. Then watching the sunset transition of Kalemegdan fortress and park overlooking the Danube and Sava confluence while music from a festival played all around. And finally treating myself to a traditional dinner and drink overlooking the city’s most lively drinking and folk singing pedestrian street Skadarlija. A good 8 hours in Belgrade.
Arrived Sarajevo in a downpour but it let up enough to go explore this fascinating city of cultures and religions mixing amid a sad legacy of jockeying external empires and internal purges. This vantage overlooks it all. Where a 1914 assassination sparked the Great War, and Muslim cemetery below holding victims of the 1990’s civil war.
Left Sarajevo on an early morning train to Mostar and its famous Ottoman bridge, then hopped a bus to Croatia’s jewel on the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik. Its walled-in fortified old city is so well preserved and packed with all manner of tourists that it feels like Disneyland. Both worthy of the acclaim and visitation, but overrun. And it’s not even high season yet. I’m pretty sure today will be the most “touristy” day of my Balkan journey.
I took advantage of a clear sky sunrise to jog up to the fort overlooking Dubrovnik and around its city walls before hopping on a last minute bus to Kotor, Montenegro early enough to lunch in this plaza and take it at slower pace which is good because the fast pace caught up with me when climbing the fyord fortress. Not feeling well. NOT joining the other “young” backpackers on their pub crawl tonight. Old man needs rest, but I do really like Kotor!
I made it to Albania today. Apart from hiking up to this hilltop castle overlooking Shkoder, it was a mostly uneventful day. Which is good because I remain sick with what I’m pretty sure is the stomach flu. Here’s hoping for a good nights sleep and better health tomorrow.
For the first time on my trip I’m spending a 2nd night in the same country. Though definitely not in the same place. A full day of travel via shuttle, ferry the length of lake Komani, and more shuttles brought me to Valbona. I had planned to do a lengthier trail run but my lingering stomach bug limited me to an 8 mile hike with the four hours of light I had left. Wish I had better health and more time to explore more of the surrounding rugged beauty.
Even as a self-proclaimed geography nerd, if I were asked to label a map of all the Balkan nations prior to this trip, I would have failed. But “knowing” the political borders does little to explain the demographics within and without. Being the overlapping land between Greece and Rome, Byzantium and Catholicism, Ottoman and Austo-Hungarian Empires, Muslims and Christians, the communist block and the “free” world, this region is like putting Green Life’s and Ryan’s Steakhouse Buffets together in one room and a food fight breaks out. The containers get seized and re-seized mixing all the while. The creation of Yugoslavia in the wake of The Great War hoped to establish an all-inclusive buffet for Slavic people caught in the middle, and though they look the same and largely speak the same language, there were deep nationalistic and religious differences within. Internal pluralism did not win out. Perhaps here in Prizren, is where the complexity of it all is best witnessed. Kosovo is Europe’s newest nation but its independence from Serbia is not universally recognized at the UN. Mostly Orthodox, Serbia has been charged with crimes against humanity against the mostly Albanian Muslim civilians amid the Kosovo War. Retaliatory crimes have since taken place including looting and vandalizing the Christian churches, which are now under official guard and restoration. This all seems surprising walking the streets this Friday afternoon, as these very religious shrines are surrounded by bustling pedestrian lanes full of fashionable young people and cafes with a decidedly cosmopolitan air. This is additionally surprising seeing all the Albanian flags flying. I know there is a lot of ethnic Albanian nationalism here, but my little jaunt through Albania showed me it’s probably the least cosmopolitan nation in Europe (the best reason to go in my opinion). So it seems while the forces of fragmentation in this part of the world have used consolidation and displacement to build successful political and cultural identities from centuries of overlapping food fights, things are still mixed together.
As to my own “constitution” I feel better overall today but my bowels mimic the history. Like 1918, this morning I consoled myself that I had just taken the “poop to end all poops” and peace would surely follow. And it did for a spell, but it set the stage for more advanced and terrible poops. I suppose I should see this as my body’s necessary deployment to rid itself of a power-mad regime or dictator, and call it a “just war”.
Perhaps it was the snub of the neighboring Greeks and the complicit phil-helene international community who forced the newly independent Macedonia to take the awful name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” claiming it was not the legitimate heir to that name and the homeland heritage of Alexander the Great and the spread of Helenistic culture to the benefit of modern civilization. Skopje is a capital city designed to impress, and make a statement. The current government is on a massive unabashed building spree to showcase, to prove, their historic contributions to culture and civilization. The city center is full of modern neo-classical buildings and bridges, many still under construction. And anywhere that it’s possible to put a statue, there’s a statue to some person of note, the most massive one being of Alexander himself. You can’t help but think that they let things get out of hand. It comes off feeling more like Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas – a new disneyesque pretend capital. The verdict still seems to be out for the locals. For such an ambitious project of glorified public space, the surrounding pedestrian lanes and cafes were surprisingly barren for a Saturday afternoon. Recent protest have decried the escalating cost and mismanagement of the project. Maybe when the it’s done, and with time, it will become a happening and appreciated place. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Greeks are humoring themselves that these gaudy measures only prove the republic is unworthy of the “class” in classical. To its credit, the city is the most developed of those I’ve seen on this trip so far. I could see new bike lanes as part of the city overhaul, and snow-capped mountains are in the visible around. It would be nice to visit again in 10 years and see if the city center indeed does become vibrant and proud, as intended. But for today, I’m glad that I kept it to just a 2 hour walk around between buses transferring to Bulgaria, a scenic drive in an uncrowded bus with wifi! Good news, my health, appetite, and energy are restored and I’m feeling good!
I had a full day in Sofia, Bulgaria and had planned to spend it doing “city” things as a nation’s capital deserves, and indeed I did those things – government buildings, monuments, historic churches, parks and pedestrian zones. But I actually ended up spending the majority of the day traveling to the outskirts of town, riding cable cars up the slopes of Mt. Vitosha, and hiking the final few km to the rocky summit with expansive views over Sofia. Very nice to enjoy some nature exploration on my mostly “urban” circuit, the same way I would if I were a local – just wish I had El Guapo with me like so many Bulgarians out with their dog friends. A good day and hopefully a decent restful night – I board an overnight bus to Bucharest tonight.
I arrived to Bucharest on an overnight bus with very little sleep and have had all day to explore. That’s plenty of time for a cursory overview so I took my time and even went on my first “guided” walking tour and went to a museum exhibit for a little more depth. The stories sound similar to the rest of the Balkans – a proud and independent minded people who were pulled between Eastern and Western Empires for centuries, then emerged from two world wars under a repressive Communist block, only to be free from that in the last generation. One ruler who kept the invaders at bay through inhumane public punishment during his short reign (impaling) has been passed on to us as the horror figure Dracula. The legend of his ghastly deeds now draws a lot of tourist dollars to Romania – particularly Transylvania, which I would go to if I had an extra day. Tonight I hope to catch up on sleep on a long overnight sleeper train to Moldova.
While my entire trip has been among the post WWII “communist block” of Eastern Europe, my arrival today into Moldova via overnight train is my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Moldova has the distinction of being Europe’s “least” visited country, which makes me all the more proud to be here, though I’m afraid I can’t brag about what everyone else is missing out on. There’s not much to miss here in the Capital Chisinau. It took me a spell to find a good outside cafe to eat/drink with a decent park or plaza view. These have been quite abundant everywhere else. But I wouldn’t say I’m bored and ready to move on. There’s an authenticity here of busy streets with a bustling market atmosphere of people trying to eek out a living. Without the allure of many “sites” to see, I went to the national museum showcasing remnants of how the larger world left its mark here. They speak Romanian, a Latin language now orphaned from “Rome” when the Slavs occupied the rest of the Balkans, but the people look more Northern European than the other countries I’ve visited. I’ve seen memorials to overcoming German-fascist occupation and Stalinist deportations, but judging by street scene here, I can’t see that capitalism has been all that great either. The churches stay in business here as I witnessed – always open, all generations coming to pray.
Ever heard of the country of Transnistria (Transdneistr)? Me neither prior to this trip. The lack of attention is largely due to the fact that they are the only ones who see themselves as an independent country. When Moldova left the Soviet Union, this eastern part didn’t want to go with them. After a short civil war ending in 1992, we’re left with this little semi-autonomous country the maintains its own border patrol and currency. Statues of Lenin and old Soviet tanks adorn some of the government spaces, such that it’s becoming a “back in time” Soviet side stop between Moldova and Ukraine. I was expecting to see a rather grey and worn city during my two hour stop in the capital Tiraspol, but was surprised to find clean and manicured streets with healthy looking people walking about, the girls looking like sorority girls with the hot summer weather.
I’m now in Ukraine – got hassled some by the police upon arrival, but now enjoying a fancy dinner in the main pedestrian zone of Odessa before boarding an overnight, first class sleeper train to Kiev.
I spent ALL day walking around admiring the Great “Gates and Gaits” of Kiev. A massive city with many beautiful things to see. The old “gates” have little left of them to show for the Kiev-Rus Kingdom that dominated Eastern Europe a 1000 years ago up until the Mongol invasions, but the many orthodox churches and monastery complexes are entered through their own impressive baroque gates. The most eye-catching “gaits” might be all the women walking to and fro. It’s summer and the women are sporting their legs with short skirts and dresses and stilt-like high heels you’d expect to see on a red carpet runway. Apparently that’s an everyday look here. The high fashion sense certainly makes me look shabby walking around in my last semi-clean clothes on the last day of my trip.