Themes of the Balkans

summery scene below Knin fortress

summery scene below Knin fortress

Even though every country and each city had its own charm, there are a few reoccurring themes in the Balkans.

  • Stray dogs and cats: They are everywhere, some happy, some miserable, some fed, some not, and even some that have been neutered and then re-released. Some people who have pets and don’t feel like keeping it, or move away, sometimes leave them behind, and other animals are born in the streets, leaving the cutest puppies and kittens to pull on your heart strings and make you wish you could take them all home.
  • Food and mealtime: Breakfast is pretty straight forward, usually a combination of some bread and a yogurt drink, but lunch is the meal you eat after work at 5pm and some just skip dinner altogether. Everyone has a variation of burek/banitza and cevapi, aka kebab as a fast food staple, and cheese and these huge white beans can be added to nearly any hot meal.
  • Turkish influence: all the Balkan countries were once under Ottoman rule, and they’ve still left their mark hundreds of years later. Doner is everywhere, Turkish coffee is as common as espressos, and tea served in small cups with a slice of lemon is called Turkish tea. The markets are often called Bazaars, and a lot of words in their vocabulary are Turkish.
  • Fresh produce and homemade goodies: every market sells goods that follow the seasons, with tomatoes in summer to pomegranate in the fall, chestnut roasters closer to Christmas, and once in a while some Japanese apples. Every village and even each home in the right climate will grow their own grapes, make their own wine and rakia, and others have beehives and make the most delicious honey.
  • Exchange rates: I could only use the euro in, strangely enough, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and everywhere else had their own type of denar/dinar or lei/lev/lek. But none of the rates are that similar, so sometimes you pay in the fives and tens, and sometimes in the tens of thousands.

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

  • Tourist sights: My days have consisted of walking around pedestrian city centers, monasteries in or on top of rocks, and beautifully painted Orthodox churches. The frescoes never get old to stare at, and the places they put some monasteries, hundreds of years ago, makes me wonder how the heck they built them there. There are usually some mosques and fortresses as well, not a bad bonus.
  • Pollution: the cities in the Balkans are some of the most polluted cities in Europe, including Skopje, Sarajevo, Varna and Bucharest. I only really noticed it in the first two, but I definitely noticed my first breath of fresh air I took every time I reached the mountains again.

And there were a lot of mountains to pass to travel overland in the Balkans, and they were always a delight, and I still can’t decide if it was better to see them still in full bloom in October, gold and red when autumn arrived, or snow covered pines in my last week. I guess a mix of all three was the best, so I don’t regret traveling the Balkans now, even though everyone has persuaded me to come back in the spring.

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A Gypsy Summer in Bulgaria

The first nights of frost had come in Skopje, and walking out in the morning onto crunchy green grass was a good reminder of coming winter. But the days were still bright and sunny, and by the time I reached Bulgaria, even the nights started to be warmer. The leaves had nearly all fallen, leaving only a few dots of gold in the now brown forest, but the season had now become a gypsy summer. It’s the time of year when all the branches are bare, the fields turn gold, and snow should start falling, but instead a warm wind brings back summer days of 20`c. People walk around in tshirts, and we share a small look of confusion when the sun starts to go down before 5 and the temperature drops 10 degrees in a matter of minutes.

Summer in Varna

Summer in Varna

There were other unusual things that happened to make Bulgaria more memorable. My first night in Sofia was spent couchsurfing in the office of some international volunteer organization. We visited the underground bar of an art hostel where everyone was higher than a kite and even my sober sense of normality started to feel abnormal. The next day I took a free walking tour, where my guide was more excited about the new subway system than the Roman ruins they destroyed to build it. A traveler I had met first in Albania was randomly on the tour as well.

Clearing out thousands of years of history for a subway

Clearing out thousands of years of history for a subway

My next couchsurf host welcomed me to his place, fed me food and wine, gave me his keys, and over the next 2 days I probably only saw him for these 10 minutes. But he had another couchsurf guest and we hung out the whole time, exploring nearby Rila and Rila monastery, and got ourselves invited to Gabrovo by an actress we met thru other couchsurfers. It was a 2 hour drive to Gabrovo, where her theater was, and then she gave us the keys to her car and apartment for nearly 2 days while she practiced for her play’s debut. We drove to nearby Veliko Tarnovo, a relatively touristic destination, and the Bulgarian hitchhikers were very confused with the role reversal of tourists driving locals. We also visited the most impressive Soviet building ruins I’ve ever seen, the so-called spaceship or UFO monument called Buzludzha which sits on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, with only equally creepy windmills reaching high up into the sky nearby.

The UFO building Buzludzha

The UFO building Buzludzha

I took a food tour in Sofia, where I learned that Bulgarians are very proud of their cuisine, which is very focused on yogurt, and I was lucky not to be lactose intolerant traveling there (but unlucky to not like dill). They have a type of corner store or convenience shop called ‘squat’ shops, which are in the basement of buildings and you must squat down to a window at your feet to see inside and talk to the salesperson. There they fixed shoes, sold books, and even baked pastries. Bulgarians have an equivalent headshake to the Indian booble head, where yes kind of means no and no means yes, so I had to ignore people’s “da da da’s” while they shook their heads from left to right, forgetting body language and focusing on the word I knew meant yes.

On top of the Bulgarian Soviet friendship monument

On top of the Bulgarian Soviet friendship monument

The final cherry on the top came with my last couchsurf host, Juan, who was appointed to me by the sort of couchsurf ambassador in Varna who took me to another Soviet monument in ruins, perched on the top of a hill overlooking the black sea. This one was not as impressive, but just as dark and ominous, since we could climb into it and ontop of the larger-than-life concrete soviet soldiers built into the monuments. My last night was spent eating Turkish food that Juan from Spain cooked, and after I taught him the basics of Argentinian tango… all this in a little Bulgarian city.

Macedonia the Great

Macedonia has a lot of claims to fame. To begin with, Alexander the Great was Macedonian, and gets referred to as Alexander the Macedonian by locals. St. Cyril, the inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century, used it for his missionary work in the Slavic countries and helped spread the Orthodox faith throughout the Balkans. The holy city of Ohrid is a famous tourist and pilgrimage destination with 365 churches. Ohrid also has one of the oldest universities in the world. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was born in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. The city of Skopje also has some infamous moments in history, like the 6.9 richter scale earthquake in 1963 that nearly leveled the whole city, and the infamous claim to fame as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. But neither Skopje nor Macedonia are in the same location as they were historically…. Causing some issues with Greece who believes the real Macedonia is in Greece and they deserve claim to all Macedonian fame and glory.

Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid

Macedonia is also famous for tobacco and wine. The city of Prilep is basically one big tobacco field, and you can buy Macedonian wine in all of the surrounding Balkan countries. Macedonia had a similar history to its neighbours, passing from the Romans to the Ottoman Empire and then Yugoslavia before becoming independent in 1991. It’s people are a mix of Macedonian, Albanian, and Serbain origin, plus a few Turks and Greeks, and a healthy mix of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, plus a minority of Jews that were spared from WWII with the help of Albania. Despite all these curiosities, Macedonia still remains a poor and unkown country to many, and I had no idea what kind of place it would be to travel.

the top of Vodno

the top of Vodno

I couchsurfed with this guy Andrej and his dog, in a house beside the train tracks that shook every time a train rolled by. But many of the train services have been suspended since they’ve become flooded with thousands of refugees passing from Greece through to Serbia. Ive heard that as many as 6,000 per day may be passing through, but they don’t stay long, as they’ve got their eyes set on Germany and northern Europe. I didn’t meet any or see any trace of them, but I also couldn’t use a train to get to the south of Macedonia. Instead I took a bus to Bitola, only 16km from Greece, but still everything seemed as it should be.

Treskavec Monastery

Treskavec Monastery

It’s a landlocked country, full of beautiful lakes and mountains, and the highlights were Mavrovo park, Matka canyon, and Ohrid lake. There was a tiny monastery in the hills near Prilep called Treskavec, which may have been one of the loneliest places I’ve visited. Hiking to the top of Vodno mountain was amazing because we actually walked above the pollution line, seeing miles of mountain tops around us while the city of Skopje lay under a foggy blue mist. The city reminded me of others I’d been so far, the strange mix of decaying communist residential blocks, road works and construction sites, and the new and shiny development projects.

the new bridge

the new bridge

In Skopje they’ve built an entire new city center, of brand new buildings that are meant to look like they’re from another century, and two pedestrian bridges that look like they belong somewhere between Disneyland and Charles Bridge in Prague. They’re lined with the immortal faces of Macedonian musicians and artists and other historical figures, and look miniscule in comparison to the even larger statues of a naked Prometheus, St. Cyril and Methodius, Alexander the Macedonian and other war heroes riding horses. They’ve even cast Mother Theresa into a 30 m bronze statue, so unless they’re planning to build another bridge, they may not have space for any more great Macedonians.

Chasing leaves and Sunshine in the Balkans

I’ve been traveling for over a month in the Balkans, and I wish I could point on a map or scribble a line across google maps to show you where. I landed in Zadar, Croatia, where fall had hit hard with rain and wind, but the temperature was still above 20`c. Then I went inland to Sarajevo in Bosnia, where the temperature dropped down to the low tens, and I’ve been chasing autumn ever since. Next stop was Mostar, where it was slightly warmer, and then I crossed into Montenegro where the leaves had started to turn. Between Kotor on the coast and Podgorica the capital and south to Lake Skadar, the days were getting cooler but pomegranate was in full bloom and grew like wildflowers. The streets even smelled like pomegranate. The wind in Podgorica reminded me of bad days in Iceland, but the sun made up for it. I alo noticed people were all of a sudden much taller, with an average height 20 or 30 cm taller than their Balkan neighbours, rivaling even Icelanders.

sun set in Prishtina, with the unfinished Mother Theresa cathedral in the background (apparently the biggest cathedral in the balkans, started 2007)

sun set in Prishtina, with the unfinished Mother Theresa cathedral in the background (apparently the biggest cathedral in the balkans, started 2007)

I went further inland to Kosovo next, across a mountain pass where the first snow fall had just arrived. Prishtina was colder than Sarajevo, and the night I arrived daylight savings had kicked in so it started getting dark before 5. The whole city was under construction, with roads ripped up and half-finished churches and old mosques under constant reconstruction. It seemed that absolutely everyone in Prishtina was young and beautiful, especially the men who all had better hair than should be possible. I learned later that they all own a blowdryer (and an assortment of hair products) and spend more time infront of the mirror fixing their hair than the average woman, and then I understood. I’ve never been shown so many glamour pics or selfies of men trying to be sexy or emo, but they loved to share them, as well as an instructional video on how to do your hair if you’ve got a crew cut.

The majority of people living in Kosovo, which is still considered by many as a part of Serbia, are Albanians and there were a lot of similarities between Kosovars and Albanians. The men are super affectionate (also with eachother) yet slightly homophobic. I met mostly self-proclaimed ‘unpracticing’ muslims, and the orthodox monasteries and churches were often guarded by Serbians or Austrian KFOR soldiers. It was a bit scarier to walk around Prishtina and Tirana since drivers rarely stop at pedestrian cross walks, something I missed about Montenegro where a car will always yield to you jaywalking.

the UNESCO town of Berat falls into the shadows before 2pm

the UNESCO town of Berat falls into the shadows before 2pm

In Tirana, Albania, it got slightly warmer again, and I finally started to recognize the Albanian language. Its absolutely nothing like anything else in the Balkans, and it sounds like a confusing mix of Romantic, Slavic and far-east languages. Atleast they don’t write anything in Cyrillic, so it was a lot easier to read. Albanians may live a slightly better life than Kosovars, but even with salaries around €300 or €400 most  people have iphones and impeccable fashion. The biggest difference is their ability to travel, with Albania already an EU candidate with free movement within Schengen and visa-free access to around 90 countries. Kosovo, which isn’t even recognized as a country but its passport is treated differently than Serbias and highly scrutinized against, can only travel visa free to a handful of countries. Every tourist agency in Kosovo focuses its tourist market on getting people out, instead of helping tourists who are visiting. Strangely, Germany was some kind of dream land (or Austria or Switzerland would do), the ultimate destination for a better job or better life or better car. If people couldn’t speak English, they often knew German, and many German or Austrian soldiers work with KFOR.

full-blown autumn trees in Skopje

full-blown autumn trees in Skopje

In Albania, the second language was often Italian or Greek, and both were just a couple of hours away, but soon it was time to head inland again, to a full-blown fall in Macedonia. The windy road to Skopje was nestled in mountains of golden yellow, burnt orange, blood red, rosy pinks and fluorescent greens.  The sun was always partly behind some mountain, so the lit tops seemed to glow in the sunshine while the shaded valleys still screamed in colour. Now there’s frost every night, the frozen dew slowly melting after 6 am when the sun starts to shine an hour earlier than it used to. I’m not a morning person so I must admit I’m looking forward to Bulgaria, where the eastern time zone will bring the days back to 7-6 instead of 6-5 or 4:30, but they’re getting shorter everywhere so Ill just keep chasing the falling leaves and hope for some sunshine.