Tuesday, 14 October 2014

THE BALKANS. EUROPE´S FORGOTTEN CORNER BUT IS IT REALLY?


One more classic in the Balkans....not the foot of course
The Balkan Peninsula has always been a crossroads of cultures. It is still so hard for some people to grasp, the unusual mix of ethnicity, nationality and religion in this part of the world.  Lots of people only relate the region to the Yugoslavian war in 90s or to Kosturica’s films and gypsy life. There is so much more than that! 

My route around the Balkans in less than 3 months
Born and raised in Bulgaria, I was too busy exploring much more remote and “exotic” countries to pay attention to what was happening in my homeland.  And somehow I´ve never been anywhere in the Balkans. 
It is pretty funny, I went 3 times to New Zealand (18 000km from Bulgaria) but have never been even to Greece (200km). I’ve been hearing stories from many travellers how amazing the Balkans are.. and that aroused both curiosity and shame in me.  It was time to see my part of the world, to see something similar to home, something Balkanic. It was decided: summer 2014 was going to be dedicated to the Balkans. Almost 3 months of backpacking, hitch hiking, couchsurfing; 10 countries, including my own one; Plenty of incredible stories, heaps of people to remember!
Valjovo, Serbia.                                       Zagreb, Croatia                                           Prizren, Kosovo
Three different religions but in Bosnia you can see all three of them within 200 meters
Gjipe Beach and canyon in South Albania. 
Today there are 12 counties in the Balkans, including Turkey. And Turkey is the only one I had travelled properly, excluding short trips to Skopje, Macedonia and Bucharest, Romania. So different but so similar at the same time. While Croatia and Slovenia have already become pretty popular amongst travellers over the past couple of years, the other countries in the region deserve just as much attention, if not more. My absolute favourite was Albania together with Bosnia

Despite all the differences in religion, ethnicity and country, I felt at home everywhere! I´m sure not everyone would agree with my next statement but if I (we, people from the Balkans), have to belong to any culture, it is definitely the Balkanic one. So many countries but we are all so similar. We even look the same! I could easily be mistaken for Serbian, Slovenian, Albanian, Greek, or Turkish…Food and drinks which are such a big part of the culture, are almost the same just under different name in every country..and of course, we all think we invented them :). 
The music rhythms are also similar. I remember I was at a house party in Uzice, Serbia and the hosts showed me videos of a song that had its version in all the countries in the Balkans. Same song, same melody, only the language changes.

CITIES
Rovinj, Croatia
Itis Europe´s forgotten corner but not that forgotten anymore. The summer was at its height and hostels were fully booked  almost everywhere. You have to book in advance if you wanna be sure you have a bed. Something I hate because it makes me less flexible so I took my chances which not always turned out to be the best.

I´m not a city person but there are no real big cities in the Balkans so it wasn´t very painful going to the big ones. Sarajevo is without a doubt my favourite one. It has this strange mix of sadness and beauty which makes you stay longer,  ask lots of questions (even though the locals don´t like talking about the war) and roam the Baščaršija´s narrow streets and cozy cafes. Maybe that´s why I liked Prizren (Kosovo) that much, looked like a little Sarajevo to me. Balkan cities have it all: rapidly changing they have all the comfort  that a western city could offer, concerts and festivals, party going on every night of the week, but also lots of museums, galleries and history, you will not be at a loss for cultural things to see and do.
Belgrade, Serbia
Pula arena in Croatia - 6th largest Roman Amphitheater in the world.
Drvengrad (Wooden town) in Mokra gora, Serbia built by Kosturica for his film "Life is a miracle"
Andricgrad or known also as Kamengrad (Stonetown) also built by Emir Kosturica in Visegrad, Bosnia
SARAJEVO. My favourite city in the Balkans
Ohrid, Macedonia
Prizren from the fortress. Kosovo
The famous "Most" (bridge) in Mostar. Herzegovina 
Kotor, Montenegro
Ljubljana, Slovenia
Zagreb, Croatia
Sarajevo
Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

THE SCARS OF THE WAR
Self-explanatory. Pristina, Kosovo.
They are everywhere in the countries of ex Yugoslavia. Everywhere you look. Buildings, people, signs, museums...
During the war in the 90s, I was still very young to care and the media wasn´t that powerful as it is today. So I would not exaggerate at all if I say I had no idea about anything that happened in ex Yugoslavia before visiting. I think most people didn´t. And it is so sad that just next door, in Srebrenica in July 1995 more than 8 000 Bosniaks were killed, known as Srebrenica massacre – the last genocide in Europe. What happened there is beyond any description and beyond the scope of this post. Unfortunately it didn´t start or stop there, whole Bosnia was in blood. And not only Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo also gave its victims. What happened in the war, who fought who, Serbia fought Croatia fought Bosnia (or whichever way around you would want to phrase it) can´t be explained even by the people who lived through it. 
I was, to put it mildly “shocked” by all the stories I heard along the road. Since I was only hitchhiking, sometimes to get from one place to another I would get 10 different rides which means 10 different stories. Especially in Bosnia - no matter the religion or the ethnic of the person who picked me up, they all lost someone and something during the war.
Everyone there seems to have a slightly different version of events and history, and mildly plausible conspiracy theories run rampant. I´ve heard all three of the sides — Muslim, Serb, and Croat and got mixed feelings about it but the “Bosniaks” are the ones who suffered the most without a doubt and the ones who got my sympathy and respect.  . 
20 years later and huge craters and bullets holes are still present
Another absurd in Bosnia: At the end of Sarajevo...it´s not anywhere near the border with Serbia :(
In the center of Belgrade. After the NATO bombing. No victims
Photographs of Kosovo´s missing. Almost 2000 disappeared in Kosovo during the war

BALKAN STYLE. THE CLASSICS

In Prizren, Kosovo
There are so many things that are typical Balkanic. And you see them everywhere – no matter if you are in Bulgaria, Croatia or Kosovo…they vary a bit but the idea is the same. 
The food…I guess we´ll never know who invented the “moussaka”, “shopska salad” or “burek” but they are present everywhere. Same as the rakija (rakia), in every hostel they would welcome you with a shot of it, pretty strong for the delicate ones but you grow up with it in the Balkans.  The gypsies, the electric wire swinging around the houses, hanging laundry from the windows, death notices, old communist style buildings...limitless hospitality. All that made me fall in love with the region I grew up but I never explored.
A modern version of the traditional carriages but some things never change: the whole family fits in it!
Pretty common view in the streets of the Balkans 
More laundry. Kotor, Montenegro
Another classic - electric wires all around

Also typical - buildings are falling apart, covered in graffiti and street art  ...even in Greece
Death notices. On the trees, electric polls, street signs, doors, buildings. Different if you are Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.


Monasteries are all over the Balkans. St Naum monastery in Macedonia. 
The classic Ćevapčići. They say the best one is in Sarajevo but you can find it all over the Balkans. With yogurt drink of course (ayran)
Tea! In a cosy cafe in Baščaršija, Sarajevo
Zastava. Made in Serbia
The beer is never missing, choices change from country to country but it is widely spread and good. Montenegro & Kosovo

             Serbia                                                                              Greece. The tiniest beer bottle
BEACHES

Fishermen at Ohrid lake
Most people would think of the famous Greek and Croatian beaches but there is so much more. Of course they are beautiful but way too crowded and expensive in summer. In Montenegro you can still find some hidden from the tourist spots but Albania was another story…Not as touristic as its neigbours and not as developed (big advantage in my opinion – no shiny hotels and resorts on the beach),  it has plenty of unbelievable beaches a bit far from the regular crowds, tucked away among the rocks.

No name beach between Kotor and Budva. Took a while but we found it!
My beach. Lake Ohrid. Macedonian side.
In terms of beautiful beaches-less people Albania is a winner in my opinion! 
Drymades beach, Albania
North of Stari Grad, Croatia
If you go away from the crowds you see that!
Mirtiotissa beach. Corfu island, Greece
Rock carving in Halkidiki, Greece
Sunset over the sand dunes at Isus beach, Greece
Not all the beaches are that idyllic! Ulcinj in Montenegro. One of the busiest beaches I´ve been to. Ever! Not happy!
MOUNTAINS
Meteora. Even Greece is not about beaches only!
The Balkans are mountainous, heavily wooded states with beautiful mountain ranges (highest peak Musala in Bulgaria 2925m above the sea), plenty of lakes and rivers to swim and fish,  lush valleys, gorgeous canyons and stunning caves. There are many national parks and heaps of hikes for those who are willing to go on adventure. Some are very easy and well marked and others impossible to follow without a guide. Unfortunately I didn´t have my camping gear with me so didn´t do much of hiking. There is a positive side to it though: my backpack was no more than 10 kg, I was so proud of myself!
Piva canyon, Montenegro. Montenegro must be a winner in Europe for number of tunnels in such a small area
Crno Jezero. Durmitor National park, Montenegro
Jaice, Bosnia. Less touristic than Kravice but not less beautiful
Tara bridge. Over the longest canyon in Europe
Komani lake, North Albania
Shala rivere. North Albania

HITCH HIKING, SAFETY & HOSPITALITY
A woman in a flower shop in Slovenia writing my sign to Ljubljana
I travelled everywhere hitch hiking. The only bus I took was from Sofia to Belgrade. The best decision ever! So many great people, so many amazing stories, so much hospitality... Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovars, Macedonians, Greeks, Montenegrins, Slovenians, Bulgarians…They all had something to add to my amazing Balkan experience and to make it even more amazing. Luckily, I speak the language (well, changing the words and expressions a bit), so communicating with locals was not an issue. Only Albania was a bit tricky because Albanian is not a Slavic language but there I managed with Spanish/Italian. Never waited more than 2 minutes, never had a bad experience! People would go out of their way just to help me and to make sure I am safe, fed and content.
Pretty often people who picked me up invited me to their houses or wanted to show me some hidden places that are not in any book or guides or meet their family over a cup of tea or lunch. Young and old, Muslim or Christian, men and women…everyone wanted to help!

Is it safe??? Can´t be safer…Albania was supposed to be very dodgy and dangerous but it turns out it is the friendliest out of all the countries in the Balkans.

Is it fast? Much faster than buses…Proved since I had a bet with a group of guys who I met In Ohrid and we all were going to Berat, Albania. They took the bus and I hitch hiked. I left 4 hours after them (I love sleeping) and still made it first, won by 5 minutes but still won! Beers and dinner on them J! From that moment on, everyone started hitchhiking. Buses in countries like Albania are so slow because of the roads and usually there are bad connection between little towns so you waste time waiting for the next bus. And hitch hiking spare you that plus it is much more exciting and interesting!

Walking down to a beach in Albania
Are you interested now? If you have never visited the Balkans, go before it gets spoiled. The region is changing so fast that in a few years it won´t be the same! It is too late for some countries already but the amount of tourist doubles and triples every year so soon they could be just like any country in Western Europe. I can tell that by looking back at Bulgaria 10 years ago, the coastline was like Albanian one today...and now it so built up with hotels and resorts, everyone is trying to sell you something and the amount of rubbish that goes into the sea is unbelievable. But there are still some hidden spots that only the locals know about and hopefully will stay the same. 

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