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.

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