Two Weeks in the Balkans
Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro
With their favorable currencies, dazzling vistas, and overall newness, many travelers are extending their trips beyond the traditional Western European destinations, preferring instead to take their journeys further a field into Eastern Europe and down into the Balkan Peninsula. And those who do are being well rewarded, finding a region rich in a quality that many areas of Europe lack: modern history. Unlike, relatively old sites, like, say, the Bastille in France, this region provides sites of much more recent political turmoil. Since the early 1990s, the region has seen the declaration of independence in many of the constituent republics from what was once Yugoslavia, a process which has continued right up until the most recent Montenegrin referendum acquiring that republic’s sovereignty in May of 2006. Add to that a series of horrible ethnic clashes in the new nations, the ruins of which can still be found throughout the region, and you get a much more realistic and more hands-on version of the stories you saw on CNN only a decade ago.
But it is more than just a tangible way to experience recent history. A trip around the Balkans is a unique opportunity to capture a snapshot of a region that is evolving as quickly as anywhere in the world. You will get to experience a part of the world which will surely not be the same five years, or even five months after your visit. And it is a chance to see some of the most astonishing vistas, both natural and constructed, and meet some of the most impressive people you are likely to encounter anywhere, especially when you keep in mind, that everyone here over the age of fifteen was present during the tumultuous struggle for independence and ethnic clashes of the 1990s.
Where to Start
Where you choose to begin your journey will probably depend mostly on the cheapest and easiest access point. All of the capital cities in the region (Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Belgrade) have international airports with flights connecting to hubs in Western Europe and beyond. You can also get ferries from Venice and other Italian costal cities to any of the Adriatic ports that pepper the coast of Slovenia and Croatia, as well as buses and trains from northern Italian cities. There are also major bus and train lines coming out of large cities of Central Europe (Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest) with inexpensive day and overnight trips (my bus from Vienna to Sarajevo cost only EUR29). Similar deals hold true from places further to the east like Sofia, or even Bucharest, but be forewarned that these busses tend to be rather old and clunky and it will probably take a bit longer to get there.
I skipped over Slovenia on my first run through the region for two reasons. First was cost. Slovenia, especially the capital city of Ljubljana, is not the best for someone who is on a strict budget, with food and accommodation prices about as high as would be found in most Western European destinations. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing for the country. The Slovene economy has done tremendously in the past decade and they are making great strides towards EU membership in the coming years. And there are a number of fun and interesting hostels if you have the funds to pay for them (usually around EUR20 per night), and I’ve been told by other travelers that the nightlife is great as well.
The second, and probably most important reason at the time, is purely geographical and the fault of the Eurolines bus company. When I was traveling, the bus from Vienna to Ljubljana was bi-weekly, and it would have required a substantial change in my itinerary. If, however, you are coming from anywhere west of the country, especially from Italy, it would be a great destination. In addition to the capital, slightly unappetizingly named Bled and the Julian Alps in the north make for great outdoor trips in the summer and skiing destinations in winter. And, while I haven’t been there myself, Lake Bled is number one on my list of destinations I’d like to visit once I stop writing travel guides for free and start getting my finances in order.
Sarajevo (Days 1-4)
Neither the overnight bus from Vienna, nor the hours spent lamenting over what wonders of the Slovene countryside I was missing in the darkness counted against our two weeks of travel time. And so we begin our two week journey in Sarajevo, one of the most interesting cities to visit, if for no other reason than the sheer quantity of things you wouldn’t find anywhere else. But before we get to that, make sure to buy yourself a big helping of burek. A Balkan specialty, it’s a pastry (kind of) usually filled with cheese, spinach, or meat, and it’s the best way to start your day of wandering. One usually filled me up until dinner, and the ten minutes it took to eat it were nothing short of Edenic.
But back to the things you can’t find anywhere else. From the charmingly pleasant Turkish market (I guess they have a few of those in Turkey) to the old men playing chess on a 10 meter x 10 meter board with three-foot tall pieces, Sarajevo is a great place to start your Balkan adventure. With the four or five main streets running parallel to each other, on which more or less everything you need is located, it’s difficult to get too lost. And they all come together right around the Turkish market. Unlike the markets in Turkey, however, most of these stands have prices listed, so there is little room to bargain in a language you don’t understand. But you would probably be more than content to stroll around the shops for a few hours looking at the myriad offerings of both authentically hand-made crafts and those things machine-made to look hand-made.
And if you wish to continue your stroll, you can go down by the river and walk across the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, sparking the chain of events which led to World War I. For all the trouble it caused, the assassination’s location goes noticeably unnoticed, with no plaque commemorating the event and people waltzing across the little footbridge as if it bore no further significance than any of the other five around it. You may be left wondering if this could possibly be the bridge where such a monumental action occurred a century ago. I assure you, it is. Unless, of course, you are standing on one of the other five.
Then you can head out to the airport to see the museum commemorating “the tunnel that saved Sarajevo” during the siege of the city, the longest in the history of warfare. Mostly, it’s a pretty cool museum, and you get to walk through a few parts of the tunnel, all of which provide a great echo effect (sometimes up to two second delay) to the annoyance of your fellow visitors. On the way, you’ll pass by the Holiday Inn where Western journalists stayed during the shelling.
Oh, right. Shelling. A lot of Sarajevo has been fixed up since the Bosnian war, but there is still a lot to be done. It seems every other building is ripped with bullet holes, and many that were bombed out completely, even in the city center, have not been rebuilt yet. And throughout the city are somber reminders of the casualties of war. They are called “Sarajevo Roses,” indentations in the pavement left over from exploded ordinances. They are filled with red paint symbolizing the blood of the civilians, and some even bear plaques etched with the names of those who died at that spot.
Mostar (Days 4-5)
Grab yourself a nice hunk of burek and jump on a bus or train down to Mostar, about three hours south of Sarajevo and the unofficial capital of Herzegovina. Mostar is home to the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a structure that is currently in its third identical incarnation (people keep on blowing up the darn thing) and is the main focal point of the city. But what’s more impressive is what stands on opposite sides of the bridge. This city is sharply divided by the river that runs down the middle. On one side stands a substantial Turkish community, similar to the one you will find in Sarajevo. Just across the river live the Croats.
The violent conflict between the two sides, considered by many to have been the worst of the Bosnian War, is over, but much of the city still lies in ruin almost fifteen years later. A walk down the street that was the front line of the shelling (only four blocks from the bus station) is rather unnerving, as it is often eerily deserted and quiet, even in the middle of the day. Literally every building has been destroyed, leaving only piles of concrete and the skeleton of what was once a main thoroughfare. On either side of the bridge, there are also cemeteries commemorating those killed. The number of young men who were died here, many on the same day, is an arrestingly poignant reminder of what happened just a few years ago.
Soon you will stumble upon the main tourist center where everyone seems to have forgotten about the carnage of war, and turned their attention instead to making money off of it. And in the middle stands the bridge, a rather dazzling structure, arching mightily over the river and connecting the two demographics. Frequently, young locals (always testosterone-charged men) who don’t know any better will jump from the bridge into the water below. This is when you, the visitor, are impressed enough either to give him some money for his bravery or a lift to the emergency room for his stupidity.
Dubrovnik (Days 6-8)
About another three hours south of Mostar, on what was probably the most scenic bus ride I have ever taken, is the city that Lord Byron called “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” And while you certainly won’t be the only one visiting this popular coastal town, it’s hard to fault them for it. Dubrovnik is probably as close to paradise as you can get without having to deal with Saint Peter. It even has Pearly Gates! When you arrive into town, you will be greeted by a number of friendly locals offering you accommodation for the night, but, while most of these folks are legit, they usually charge quite a bit more than the places that don’t swarm you at the bus station.
Hostelling International has a set up in Dubrovnik that is quite inexpensive, and a lively time when other people are around, with an outdoor patio and room to grill and enjoy the cool ocean breeze while sampling a bit of the local beer. You will probably do a lot of that, as it is one of the favorite pastimes of the thousands of tourists who flock to the city every year. That and sitting on the beach, so make sure you designate at least one day of your visit to lounging around in the sand. Spend another walking on the path at the top of the walls that surround the old city with dazzling vistas looking out over the water. It’s a great place to go to watch a sunset (or sunrise if you are still up) or spy on the other tourists below.
Then descend yourself into the labyrinth of narrow pedestrian streets paved with smooth, shiny stone as white as North Dakota. It seems like there is a never-ending supply of alleyways and nooks and crannies to explore, and it’s a little like being in a big, stone maze, but with more seafood restaurants. Regardless of the number of other tourists, Dubrovnik is about as enchanting as any city in the world, and it will be difficult to pull yourself away from it. So before you succumb to serpent by planting your own roots here in the paradisiacal city that Charles Bernard Shaw called “heaven on earth” (how’s that for an extended metaphor), you should probably get out. But we’re not going too far from paradise just yet.
Kotor (Days 9-10)
No visit to the region would be complete without a few days in the newest country in Europe, nor would it be acceptable to be so close to the largest fjord outside of Scandinavia and not give it a peak. The small town of Kotor, just across the border from Croatia covers both of these, as well as providing the second most scenic bus ride from Dubrovnik that you can find. The hour-long trip gives you more fantastic views of the coastline before turning inland towards magnificent Kotor Fjord. The views out the window are absolutely dazzling, and even the locals will be clamoring from side to side, gawking at the vistas. You will also notice a marked change in economic demographics, especially in comparison to the wealth of Dubrovnik, as many of the houses by the road and climbing the surrounding hillsides are rustic to the point of dilapidation.
Speaking of dilapidation, the bus station at Kotor is certainly not the most aesthetically profound of establishments, and could be confused for a simple gas station if you’re not careful. But it is conveniently located an easy five-minute stroll from the wonders of Old Town, which contains structures that date all the way back to the 1100s. The tangled network of narrow streets and alleys is as charmingly difficult to navigate as those of Dubrovnik, but at least there aren’t any cars to make matters more hectic. You are free to roam, periodically stumbling across large and impressive squares and great restaurants with nice outdoor patios for your dining pleasure. Kotor spent a solid 350 years as a Venetian settlement, a history that is represented in its architecture and attitude.
But my favorite aspect was the fifteenth century wall that climbs the steep hill above the city. With a herd of long-horned sheep accompanying me, I was able to climb up to the top of the fortification, a brief but rather precipitous trek. It is one that was heartily rewarded with the best views of the fjord and surrounding mountains that could be found. What made it so great for me was that I was literally the only person up there (in addition to my quadruped friends, of course) and it was a most invigorating feeling, probably my favorite few hours of the trip. Plus, how many places can you climb around on a structure that is 600 years old without interruption?
Once you climb down from the summit, there are a number of great places within Old Town to get a bite to eat and re-hydrate with a bit of the local brew, which is quite good. If you are feeling up to it, this part of Kotor is also known to have a rather enthusiastic nightlife within its walls, and there are a number for fine pubs and taverns. Many close rather early, allowing you to get a good night’s sleep and prepare for the next day’s journey. Speaking of the journey, I should note that all of the countries I have listed so far use their own local currency with Montenegro using the euro. In addition, all use the Latin alphabet rather than the Cyrillic used in Serbia and its provinces. Montenegro uses both.
PriÅ¡tina (Day 11)
The autonomous province of Kosovo most recently made international news when now-deceased President, Slobodan Milosevic, attempted to “cleanse” the region of its ethnic Albanian population at the end of the 1990s. Currently under the guidance of the UN Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), talks began just this year concerning just what the future will hold for this part of the world. Official talks, that is. There isn’t as much tangible beauty or general tourist destinations within the city, especially in comparison to the areas visited thus far (assuming you are following this guide exactly, as you no doubt are) but there is little question that this is one part of the region that is changing, and doing so quickly.
As the capital of Kosovo, and the city in which the UN force is based – a force of seemingly endless quantity that you can’t help but notice at nearly every street corner – PriÅ¡tina will no doubt be the foundation of whatever is to become of the region in the future. And for that reason, the city has a lot of energy. Conversation and argument is flowing in the various coffee shops and pubs that call PriÅ¡tina home, and even if you can’t understand the points and counter-points, you can’t help but feel inspired to be one of the few Westerners there to hear it. Being here felt like being a moth on the wall at the first Continental Congress. You don’t know what’s going to happen – or even what they are talking about – but you know it’s going to be big.
Belgrade (Days 12-14)
This city is a little like Woody Allen movies: either you love them or you recognize why other people could love them, but secretly spend your every waking moment thinking about ways to escape. I belong to the latter crowd on both counts, but many of the people I met along the way couldn’t say enough about what a great place Belgrade was (no word as to their cinematic preferences) and that they couldn’t wait to return as soon as possible. To each his own. The thing that I didn’t like was the sheer size of the city, with 17 municipalities in a metropolitan area covering no fewer than 32,222 sq. km and a population of over 1.5 million. It’s about five-times the size of Sarajevo with a high-paced, impersonal lifestyle that turned me off. Plus, at one point I saw a Mercedes SUV with California plates driving by (seriously). But you can’t visit the region without spending a day or two in the city which has been the capital of Serbia since 1413 and was the head of Yugoslavia for eighty-five years.
So a city with so much history should have some great museums and monuments and things, right? Right. It probably should. But apparently this one didn’t get the memo. All of the museums, at least the ones I went to, were about one-third finished, and what was there wasn’t all that impressive. And with streets crowded with people hustling to and from work, play, or wherever they were going in such a rush, I spent more time looking at my feet and trying to avoid running into other pedestrians than getting a look at the city itself. What I did see had all the charm of a steel plant, except with neon lighting and a fair amount of soot and grime covering everything.
But, as I descend from my soap box for a moment, I should probably point out that Belgrade is not without its charms, specifically around the castle and in the park surrounding it. There, large busts of men like Lenin and Tito gaze accusingly at passersby, and it’s a nice place to spend a few hours, being very well-situated in the city with marvelous views overlooking the Danube and surrounding areas. And the nightlife is probably about as busy as any city in the world with a seemingly endless quantity of bars and clubs to patronize, assuming that you can pay for them (the most exciting ones aren’t cheap). And if you can find your way around the sub-par public transportation network well enough to make your way to Marshall Tito’s grave in the suburbs, it’s quite a charming shrine to the deceased dictator, and getting to and fro should cover at least an afternoon.
Extending the Trip
Some things to note concerning this loop: first is that, I skipped over a number of great sites beyond Slovenia, especially in Croatia. Zagreb, the capital, is a great city with marvelous museums. There are some more wonderful locations dotting the coastline, as well, especially places like Split and Hvar Island. Also, I didn’t get a chance to visit the beaches of Albania on the tip of the peninsula, nor did I go to more traditional Macedonia because I lacked have the requisite paperwork. So if you have longer than two weeks – or if you just plain don’t like my suggestions – I heartily encourage you to explore those great areas and send me pictures.
Some Things to Know
Each of the countries I mentioned, with the exception of Kosovo, has its own currency, with Serbia’s being the most volatile. When I was there, I couldn’t find anyone to exchange the dinar outside of the country, so try to ration your withdrawals appropriately. All of the major cities and tourist destinations had ATM’s and currency exchange places where you could convert money, which is important because almost everywhere – even many hostels – operated solely on a cash basis. And while they are slowly being extracted, there remain tens of thousands of unexploded landmines on hillsides throughout the Balkan peninsula, so make sure you stick to paved roads and trails with heavy traffic as you explore a part of the world that few people venture to. You won’t be disappointed.