This was one of the best meals I had in the Balkans, at Kravice waterfalls, and so I figured I’d make it the featured image. Vegetarians beware, food choices are limited for you in this part of the world.
Being limited to the Schengen visa-zone means an American like me has to depart for a “less traditional” European country after three months are up. Generally, this means the Balkans or East Europe. A blessing in disguise. After I left Prague this year, I was forced to have a three month interlude into the former Yugoslavia.
The Balkans are the essence of real adventure. I was no stranger to the area, as earlier this year I had spent a month in Dubrovnik. However, this was a chance for me to penetrate much deeper and explore these rugged and beautiful countries completely.
I will now sum up 3 months with a check-list of the places I explored, my perspectives, and a few photos:
Croatia is the first Balkan country which will, sometime in the next year or two, be admitted to the Schengen zone and become a “standard” Eurozone location. However, until that time backpackers can still freely enter Croatia after expiring their European visas.
Among the Balkan countries, Croatia is probably the most expensive, with prices that are similar to West Europe, although probably significantly cheaper outside of the capital and the coastline.
Like many areas in the Balkans, Croatia is magnificently beautiful. One of the most beautiful locations in the world is the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a kind-of “waterfall paradise” that is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the major attractions of Southeast Europe.
The major cities are Split, Dubrovnik (beautiful, medieval coastal cities) and Zagreb, the historic capital.
Zagreb has been a stop-over point for me three times in 2015. In summer, after I left Prague, I spent a full six days there. When I had last visited, it was the middle of winter and the whole city was frozen over like a six month-old popsicle. By summer, it was an entirely different story. When I arrived in late May, the summer festival had begun, which meant street festivals, concerts, girls in traditional outfits (see pic above), and excursions to the verdant green countryside. In this case, I visited a Roman festival just outside of town, where recently unearthed Roman ruins were highlighted by games, ancient Roman food, and other attractions.
Zagreb is a peaceful and friendly city that is also very rustic. Some backpackers, however, may complain that it gets “boring” after a while. It feels a bit more like a small town in big city clothes. I don’t find it boring, however. I could definitely see myself there for an extended period. However, I think it’s best to avoid the wintertime unless you enjoy four foot sheets of ice on the streets.
Bosnia and Sarajevo
I took a bus out of Croatia to begin what would be an excursion in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Maybe it’s just because I was arriving on the day that Pope Francis was visiting, but the border agents did not like me very much. A grungy chain-smoking, scowling officer with a unibrow harassed me for over an hour in a little office, going through every item in my backpack and demanding explanations. (“What is this? What IS IT?!” “It’s a toenail clipper. Surely, you clip your toenails in this country?”). It was like I was in the most mundane episode of “24” ever made.
I won’t lie. I feel like Bosnia is suffering from a lot of poverty and a lot of corruption. Ever after this experience, I never felt that safe in the presence of Bosnian cops. Despite their threats that they wouldn’t let me into the country (no explanation given) they finally decided to stamp my passport. And so, I began my days in Sarajevo in an apartment in the nearby cliffs.
Sarajevo, regardless of the problems of Bosnia, is worth visiting. It’s an historic city, to say the very least. Although a somewhat remote city in the mountains, this was nonetheless where WWI suddenly broke out in 1914. Right near the touristy Old Town there’s a building that used to house a café along the river (it’s now a museum). That’s where Gavrilo Princip was sipping a mocha, lamenting that the earlier assassination attempt on Austro Hungarian Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife had failed. Suddenly, ‘ole Franz drives by and has some engine problems. Gavrilo runs out of the café and fills them with slugs. Days later, the planet is thrown into an apocalyptic world war of unimaginable proportions (the aftermath of which directly led to the subsequent World War 2).
Besides reaping the bad karma of the birthplace of the world wars, Sarajevo has had a troubled history in many other ways. Originally a bastion of the Ottoman Empire, it was later controlled by the Austro-Hungarians, who expanded the city outward from the Ottoman area, creating two distinct sections that are divided by a clear white line. Step in one, and you’re in the baroque streets of Central Europe, and cross to the other and you’re basically in Turkey.
From 1991-1995, Sarajevo incurred the longest siege in modern history when the fragmented Yugoslavia tried to squash the tide of Balkan independence through the Serbian invasion. Over four years, Sarajevo was reduced nearly to rubble, reminiscent of the modern wars in Syria. Serbian aggressors purposefully targeted woman and children with sniper fire, with the intent to destroy the soul of the Bosnian people most of all. Among the 10,000 dead were 1,000 children, whose corpses would lie rotting on the street for days, guarded round the clock by snipers.
When you live in Sarajevo, you come to find that anybody from their mid-twenties on up has explicit memories of war and even genocide. There’s a dark spirit in Sarajevo. However, despite this unmistakable presence of it’s dark past, the city remains quite pleasant, with plenty to do, amazing food, and a sense of adventure.
The southern province of Bosnia. While much of Bosnia is almost jungle-like in its climate, as you go south it becomes much more pastoral and beautiful. Herzegovina, with its main attraction the city of Mostar, has become part of a must-do backpacker circuit in recent years.
There’s more to Mostar than just the famous bridge (pictured). There’s bazaars, cobblestone lantern-lit streets, hiking opportunities, and of course good (cheap) food.
Just beyond Mostar are locations like the Kravice Waterfalls. A bit similar to the famous Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, this is one of the most beautiful destinations I’ve ever been to in my life. Just look at the pic below to see what I mean. Summer is the ideal time to go because the water is warm enough to swim in. A paradise if I’ve ever encountered one.
There are other interesting sights; like the whirling dervish monastery (picture below) that is built onto a cliff along the river.
Only a sovereign country since 2006 (formerly part of Serbia), Montenegro is definitely more economically solid than neighboring Bosnia, and I immediately noticed an improvement in its infrastructure (better roads, buses, etc.) The road to Montenegro from Bosnia is really beautiful with countless sights of pristine lakes and bright green forests.
The first destination in Montenegro, for me, was the coastal city of Budva. This is the Balkan equivalent of Miami. The town itself is a bit nice (a medieval walled city, although it’s old town is quite small) but the real reason people go is to party in luxury. The bus in from Sarajevo was packed with fashion models, and I quickly realized the whole city was full of really beautiful people, often drinking champagne on yachts in-between photo-shoots. Budva is also a top gambling destination, made famous when James Bond fought the villainous Le Chiffre during a poker duel in 2006’s “Casino Royale” which took place in Budva.
Despite being a luxurious place for clubbing and parties, it’s not THAT expensive for a Westerner, and definitely cheaper than equivalent resort towns in France or Spain.
And if clubs are your thing, then go to Budva. Don’t delay. A giant mountainside outdoor club called “Top Hill” is open every-day in summer, with strobe-lights shooting off the mountain until sunrise. They host every major international DJ you can think of.
If the Budva lifestyle is not your thing, then another popular town on the backpacker circuit is only about 45 minutes away, Kotor. This is a medieval town nestled under a mountain, with a sea inlet which allows boating and swimming excursions. The town itself is quaint but impressive, and most visitors take the long hike to the fortress on the top of the mountain. The town is cheaper than neighboring Budva, and quite a rugged and beautiful destination.
From late August onward, I left Montenegro and I made the remote nation of Macedonia (wedged between Albania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria) my new home, and there are no regrets.
Many barely know that Macedonia exists. It could in part be due to the confusion surrounding the name. Macedonia, the ancient realm made famous by the King Philip and his son Alexander (the Great), used to encompass the current Republic of Macedonia, plus large parts of Bulgaria and Greece. Today, the Greeks consider northern Greece and the city of Thessaloniki to be traditional Macedonia. They do not much care for the people in the Republic of Macedonia, who call themselves Macedonians and who have adopted the Macedonian national pride, symbolism and history. (“They’re Bulgarians, dammit, not Macedonians!” I hear Greeks often say. Word is, Greeks are so sensitive about the naming dispute, they’ll deny you a bus ticket if you ask to go to Macedonia, and even kick you out of the station. After being exposed to both sides of this argument, I know where I stand on it. But I won’t reveal my position lest I piss off the hot-heads.)
Macedonia’s major highlights are the cities of Ohrid and Skopje. Ohrid, my first destination, is a city perched alongside an ancient lake, in spitting distance of Albania. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site and filled with ancient churches and the ruins of a huge medieval fortress on the mountain-top. Slowly, Ohrid is appearing on the maps of backpackers as a new summertime cheap getaway spot. I was immediately impressed by the friendliness of Macedonians, the good customer service (superior in every way to Bosnia), and the stunning countryside which looks remarkably similar to the pastoral areas of Italy.
Three hours from Ohrid, by bus, is the capital of Skopje. This became my home for over a month as I went between Hostel 42 and Unity Hostel, which were both places that I developed a lot of lasting memories.
Skopje is a bit of an unusual, and certainly remote city. In recent years, this former socialist jewel of Yugoslavia has attempted to greatly reinforce its national identity, namely by building about a million and a half statues. From the giant statue of Alexander the Great on horseback with his cadre of warriors in the center, to a Prague-style bridge lined with Macedonian historical figures. While the city is now very beautiful and is quickly becoming a brand-new European tourist sight, many locals are repulsed by this $400 million-dollar renovation project, given that average salaries in the city are alarmingly low and hospitals and other government-run buildings desperately need assistance, which was seemingly ignored in favor of a “vanity” project. Many locals feel irrational nationalism has overrun their city to the detriment of their way of life. However, there’s also people who are firm supporters, happy for all the tourism revenue the “new” Skopje has brought.
Regardless of how you feel about the renovation, there are many reasons Skopje is a perfect city. Very cheap prices, it’s quite clean, there’s a beautiful and giant city park that is sprinkled with trendy nightclubs, the food is amazing and international (with cheap Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants all over the place), and if you’re an expat you could find an apartment for $200 a month—which is even a bit bitter than Thailand prices! And despite the apparent poverty issues, unlike Sarajevo with it’s packs of wild dogs that patrol the streets and crumbling socialist architecture, I didn’t notice it in Skopje at all, and the city remains quite cosmopolitan and even ritzy in appearance.
There’s also some great scenery. Not far from Skopje is the area of Matka Canyon, which makes an amazing day trip and is included among my list of must-see beautiful nature locations in the Balkans.
Slovakia, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo… Some places I did not have the time to visit, and I will have to next time around. I hear great things about Belgrade, and I would not be surprised if I will spend some time in the future hopping between Belgrade and Skopje.
The Balkans are a bit rougher around the edges. You’ll encounter a fair amount of grizzled locals who never smile and whose veins are filled with vodka. In some of the countries, you’ll also experience a complete lack of customer service, so be prepared if that’s something you’re used to in the West. And, in poorer countries like Bosnia, don’t be surprised if your bus is half falling apart and missing air conditioner in the middle of a scorching summer.
But not every spot in the Balkans is the same. Croatia overall is highly developed and sophisticated. The same goes for Montenegro, and for the most part Skopje and Ohrid felt perfectly comfortable. You’ll also meet a lot of very hospitable people who just want to take you into their homes and feed you. And surprisingly, the cities all feel quite safe. In many ways I feel even safer in Balkan cities than I did in Central and even West Europe.
And best of all, so many young-to-middle-aged people speak English that as an American, I never had any serious communication problems. Not even in Bosnia.
The Balkans are worth checking out during any more “exotic” European expedition. Ignore the warnings of people who think these are all post-war shit-holes. That perception is the result of a serious lack of education about the modernization and reconstruction efforts since the 90s. Today, Balkan cities represent cheaper, often more hospitable alternatives to West and Central European tourist magnets. Not to mention a chance to explore absolutely unique nature preserves and locations fundamental to the shaping of modern history.
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