There is travel baggage and then there is travel baggage. We both bring our own very old Balkans travel baggage, mine going back 40 and my husband’s 50 years, when we were both here for the first time.
We both explored parts of the Balkans before we met. Seeing that I am originally from Slovenia, the Balkans were practically on my doorstep. Depending how you define the Balkans, they were my doorstep! I have spent many childhood summers on Croatian coast, have been to Bosnia when it didn’t have the notoriety of a war torn country and as a teen backpacked through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
For Mirek, seeing that he had grown up behind the iron curtain of Czechoslovakia, the Balkans were the few allowed places visit outside the fence called Iron Curtain. As a young man he had done a lot of hiking (and drinking with his buddies) in the Balkan mountains. But it was a trip through Yugoslavia that brings the heaviest travel baggage. It was in a way a defining moment of his life. If he had stayed just a day or two longer on the Balkans, his life might have turned out very differently.
You see it was year 1968 and Prague Spring was in full bloom with liberalization of the communist regime. As an engineering student 19 years of age he went on a summer adventure. Hitchhiking through Romania and Bulgaria on his return trip, he arrived to Yugoslavia. First to Macedonia and Kosovo and then along the beautiful Adriatic Coast. Hitchhiking was then a great way to meet and talk to many people and as the tough regime at home started to melt down many warned him that the big Russian brother will not look kindly on the weakening of the communist grip. As he reached the north he had to make a decision: go left and move to the West or to turn right and stay home. Having the last dinner with a professor from the University in Zagreb he declined his kind offer to stay and took a train to Prague.
Two days later the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, and shortly after the Iron Curtain shut down again!
Balkans has a lot of heavy historical baggage with much warring from the beginning of time as tribes and kingdoms and empires and political systems clashed on its territory. But to make your summer blog reading lighter we will concentrate instead on showing you the beauty and hospitality of this still somewhat undiscovered and exotic area.
So what can you expect to find on the Balkans?
A lot of old stone fortresses like this one in Belgrade, the Capital of Serbia. Defended by all kinds of heavy canons. You will also find a lot of new, not necessarily always charming or tasteful. The capitals of newly minted countries want to show off with palatial new buildings, lighted up brightly all night. Macedonian capital Skopje is particularly insane in this aspect. Did you know that it just recently changed its name to North Macedonia? It was the Greeks who insisted on the name change. They also forced the renaming of the Skopje airport. It is not called Alexander the Great anymore. Alexander III of Macedon certainly wasn’t Slavic from Northern Macedonia (the Slavs came in much later) but he also wasn’t Greek Greek. He was of a Macedon tribe with its own language. He studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle in classic Greek. Oops, I said no history lessons!
Everywhere, be it in a big capital or a small town you will find a lot of al fresco restaurants and coffee shops on cobble stone streets, where friends, lovers, families, and tourists sit after the temps drop somewhat in the evenings.
Certainly you won’t go hungry, but it won’t be that easy if you are a vegetarian as meat of all sorts is the main ingredient do most Balkan meals.Besides your typical pork, beef and lamb, you will also find on the menus specialties like tripe, calve’s liver, rabbits, and sheep’s brain. Expect your plate to be overflowing and the your wallet only slightly diminished. Food and alcohol is extremely affordable and generally of great quality. We especially appreciated the ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and the early summer fruits of cherries, apricots and peaches. Much appreciated by all guests!
After food and any other time coffee is taken seriously on the Balkans. But coffee is more than coffee, it is a ritual and an offering of hospitality and friendship. In some places it is also a way of life, especially for older men, who meet in coffee houses killing time until lunch or dinner, prepared at home by their wives, who certainly had invited a neighbor or two for a cup of their own. Interestingly, for the longest time Turkish coffee (thick, mud on the bottom concoction with lots of sugar) was the poison of choice. Nowadays the cappuccinos and the like have become very trendy, especially amongst the younger crowd. In some former Yugoslavian republics you might be surprised to find a certain amount of Yugonostalgia. Compared to Stalin and most other Communist leaders, Tito was seen much more as a benevolent dictator and many people still remember him fondly and come to visit his quite modest marble grave in Belgrade’s House of Flowers . So let’s stay with the former Yugoslavian republics. We skipped a few like Bosnia and Kosovo. (Our car insurance wasn’t valid there, besides there were clashes with Serbs reported yet again). At the beginning of our 6 week trip around the Balkans we drove on the freeways from Ljubljana via Zagreb straight to Belgrade and in quick six hours we were there. That’s were in my mind the Western (Austro Hungarian) and Eastern (Serbian Orthodox and Turkish) worlds come together.
Enormous, new, but still unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.
We have heard enthusiastic reports about Belgrade from friends, but we found it gray, dilapidated and under construction. It is considered the Party Capital of Europe, but being old farts that go to bed early, we did not check out the famous river venues. After a brief and very hot day in Belgrade we hightailed it straight down towards the sea.
We only stopped in a small side valley at the Mileševa Monastery to say a quick hello to a famous White AngelThis beautiful angel fresco has been recognized as a universal symbol of peace. It has been sent as a first ever satellite message from Europe to North America. It has also travelled into space a few times, hoping to convey the peace message to any possible interceptors.
We crossed into Montenegro (=Crna gora=Black mountain) and everything became green! There was an extraordinary wet May and Nature exploded in a riot of leaves, grasses, and flowers. It was particularly spectacular from the high point of the bridge on Tara River.
The bridge saw heavy fighting during WWII, when partisans blew up the middle span to halt the Italian occupying forces. As a kid I remember watching a movie about it and crying over the execution of the bridge engineer who helped the partisans.
Finally we stood at the view point overlooking the Kotor Bay. I remember arriving at the very same spot on the old narrow road for the first time on a local bus with a crazy driver who cut the curves and screeched down the hills with half the bus hanging over the unprotected edges. I was sure I was gonna die.
Today in the comfort of my own car with my most excellent driver, my thought was only that the view was really to die for. No wonder James Bond’s Casino Royal was placed in Montenegro (though, sorry, not a single scene was shot there).
We crossed with the ferry as the sun came down and pulled into the little town of Donje Lastovo, where our home away from home was waiting for us.
We quickly and easily slipped from the Balkan into the Mediterranean mode.