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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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.

The World is a Circus

I see many strange things when traveling, things I’ve never seen before or never imagined. I had one day on the road that felt like all the people around me were part of a circus set that I had accidentally gotten lost amidst. There was a guy walking around with a (live) bird in a cup, for no apparent reason. There was a huge and hairy transvestite wearing a belly dance costume dancing to hindi music, but not for money (there was no hat), just for fun. Beside him/her were amputees begging, each with a few euro cents in their hat, behind me was a midget making gigantic bubbles with two sticks, some string and a soapy bucket, and a fully covered Muslim woman walked passed without noticing any of this. When I thought I’d seen it all, a 9 year old gypsy kid carrying a drum lit up a cigarette. Before I could remember where I was, I turned to the next ATM to maybe withdraw some money, but a bird had chosen to nest there for the day. Since then, I saw an Oklahoma license plate in Kosovo, and learned that the garbage trucks in Prizren sing songs… just like the ice cream trucks in Canada.

In England a couple weeks ago, I heard people speaking English that I couldn’t understand a single word of. I couchsurfed in Liverpool in an old brick factory warehouse where 10 or 15 people live semi-illegally. I tasted dozens of sour beers at a beer-festival In Manchester, since apparently sour beers are ‘in,’ but it tastes like rotten cider without any sugar and I’m not sure why everyone’s making it. The alternatives weren’t all that better, since the English like warm, flat ales and really dark and heavy stouts, but thankfully there was an actual cider brewer where I could taste something yummy and familiar.

The ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man takes 2 hrs and 45 mins because it can’t sail in a straight line; if it wasn’t for all the windmill farms in the Irish sea, the ferry could avoid its zig-zag course and get there in less than 2 hours. Sailing past gigantic, white posts with rotating blades standing in the middle of an open sea made me feel like I was on another planet.

And beyond all the strange sights is the strange world of money. The cost of things here and there and the exchange rates of currencies from different countries seems like a game of monopoly, or a gambling game that has no explanation. For example, from Reykjavik it’s faster and cheaper to fly to Manchester 1000 miles away than drive to Akureryi 235 miles away. A return ticket on the Liverpool subway is £1.80 but a one way is £1.75. Carlsberg is cheaper than a local beer in England, and Tuborg is cheaper than a local beer in Montenegro, when Carlsberg and Tuborg both come from one of the most expensive countries in the world, Denmark.

In Serbia and around, bottles of wine are more commonly in 1L bottles, and get capped with a beer tap instead of a cork. You can eat a whole meal for €1 but a coca cola might cost you €1.60. In the Balkans, a carton of cigarettes might cost 15 euros on the street, but cost 35 euros taxless in the airport duty-free… ? The taxi ride to a bus station or airport might cost you more than the bus ticket or even the flight, with Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizzair all serving the Balkans with flights starting at £15.

But, without all these idiosyncrasies, traveling wouldn’t be traveling, since it’s the weird and crazy, nonsensical things that make it fun, challenging, and different than sitting at home. So bring on the circus, I’m sure they have space for another clown.

The Ups and Downs of Traveling in the Balkans

yet another beautiful view

yet another beautiful view

Besides the narrow coast line of Croatia, the Balkans are a mountainous region with tons of ups and downs and windy roads. Between the valleys and highland plateaus comes mountain range after range, and without any major highways, the journey time from place to place is slow but breathtaking, and sometimes a little frightening. Add a lot of rain and some flooding, and traveling by bus becomes quite the adventure. On the tops of the mountains between Montenegro and Kosovo, everything was pines and snow, so a bus can even take you from summer to winter in a matter of hours.

This trip started in Zadar, on the norther end of the Dalmatian coast, where I couchsurfed with a dentist named Marko. After a couple days of pouring rain and stormy winds, and a few hours of sunshine, I couldn’t really complain about my broken umbrella or soaking shoes since it was still 20`c. The only regrettable thing was not being able to jump into the crystal blue Adriatic sea, since it looked so inviting and seemed to call my name, but it wasn’t quite beach weather.

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a mini port in Zadar

The road from Croatia into Bosnia & Hercegovina was anything but direct, and we may have gotten lost a few times (I was roadtripping with 3 Croats who entrusted me to read the maps and roadsigns…). A few bus rides later I always seemed to be sitting near the one lady who got car-sick, and having someone puking repeatedly into a bag and listening to her heaving noises (one sat beside me and another time behind me) isn’t easy. When I was walking up the road to Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, a car pulled over to let a woman out to spew throw up directly infront of me. Yum.

I enjoy walking around aimlessly, simply strolling the towns and city centres, but that doesn’t always end up so pleasant. In Sarajevo we nearly got attacked by 10 stray dogs, who seemed to think we had trespassed into their territory when walking past a Muslim cemetery too late at night. There are a lot of not-so-nice stray dogs, but mostly they’re harmless during the day. You’d think the same about people, but one guy tried to offer me a ride to the next town in broad daylight when I was sitting alone waiting for the bus. He was half my size and nearly half my age, so I said yes, only to be offered kisses and condoms and a skinny dipping adventure. No more hitchhiking for me I guess!