Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Western Balkan Adventures

One really cool thing about living in Bulgaria is the proximity to so many other fascinating places. Obviously, I love to travel, and I have taken the opportunity to visit most of our neighbors in the Balkans. I still need to add Albania and Kosovo to the list, but we're getting there... Three years ago I spent a month backpacking in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. Last year I visited Macedonia, Greece, Romania and Turkey.

If you're keeping track, you'll notice that I've actually been to every former Yugoslav country (again, not counting Kosovo). For whatever reason, I feel right at home there. I think it has something to do with the breathtaking landscapes, amazing food and kind-hearted people I've met in my travels. As a continuing theme along with my last post, I am going to share with you some highlights from my travels around this exciting and beautiful region.

Stop #1: Lake Bled, Slovenia
This gorgeous mountain lake is close enough to the capital, Ljublijana, to make it a day trip. We rented a paddle boat and ventured across the lake to see the medieval church built on a small island. As you can see, the scenery is gorgeous, with plenty of lush green forests all around. There are also lots of ducks and swans swimming around, and other water sports available to tourists. Ljubliana is probably a more exciting place to stay at night, though.

Stop #2: Split, Croatia
Croatia's Dalmatian coast is full of excellent beaches, charming towns and ancient historical remains. You can find all three around Split, right in the middle of the Adriatic coastline. We explored a Roman emperor's palace, took a ferry to the island of Hvar (with the most beautiful beach I've ever seen), sampled local sea-fare and walked through the botanical gardens (the big green hill, pictured). If you visit the big towns in Croatia, be prepared for lots of crowds, like any major European tourist destination. If I go back, and I hope that I will, I plan to visit some smaller towns and fishing villages in the north, along with the Elaphite islands near Dubrovnik.  

Stop #3: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mostar is a small town in the Herzegovina region, but its central feature- the old bridge- is an important symbol of cultural identity. Like all former Ottoman towns, Mostar's population was divided into separate living quarters but its groups carried out business and maintained friendly relations with one another. In general, the bridge separated the Christians and Muslims who lived on either side of it and served as a connection point between them. It was also an unfortunate casualty of the 1993 war, when it was completely destroyed. International efforts to restore this cultural property began in 2001, and the bridge was reopened in all its former glory in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One tradition that has remained over the years is the diving competition, where young men take the daring plunge into the cold water of the Neretva river below. 

Stop #4: Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro

I have a harrowing tale to go along with this photo. But first, let me begin with the church built into the face of a cliff. This is something I've seen in other parts of the region, namely in Bulgaria and Greece. Under Ottoman rule, many monks lived in remote, mountainous areas and built some impressive dwellings to keep up their hermetic lifestyles. To get there, you have to drive through winding roads and mountain passes, sometimes too narrow for more than one car to pass at a time. My friend Wade and I had rented a car to get there, but I ended up having to drive because it was a manual transmission and he could only drive automatic. I don't love driving, and hadn't expected to on this trip, but it was the only way we were going to get there so, after a few stalls along the way, we made the journey to the monastery. 

About halfway up the steep slope where it's located, I was making a sharp turn and forgot to change gears, which caused the car to stall and slowly creep towards the edge of a very high cliff. Pretty freaked out by now, I pulled the emergency break and then tried to re-position the car so we wouldn't fall to our deaths. At that moment, a group of burly men stepped out of a Jeep to assist us- or, rather, Wade. First asking if we spoke Russian, they interrogated him in broken English about why he, the man, wasn't driving. Sigh. Unfortunately in this case I was acting a bit helpless, but it never feels nice to be patronized. Taking the keys, one of our rescuers managed to turn the car around- facing down the hill. 
- "Wait," we protested, "we want to go up, not down."
- "No more drive like this." was their reply.

Defeated and car-less for the rest of the trek, we hiked the rest of the way up to the monastery, which took about 45 minutes. It was impressive, with sweeping views of the valley below. On the way back, we hopped back into the car and rolled along down the hill and back onto the highway towards our hotel. I really hope I never have to drive stick shift again.

Stop #5: Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade, the grand capital city on two rivers, has plenty to offer in terms of history, cafe culture, nightlife and pristine parks. The old citadel, Kalmegdan, is surrounded by a beautifully manicured park and also houses the national military museum, which has some very interesting exhibits on the Balkan Wars. In the summer there are floating restaurants and bars that open up along the riverbanks where you can spend an evening dining and enjoying great music. 

The most unique part of Belgrade, in my opinion, is the House of Flowers, where the remains of Josip Broz Tito are kept within the grounds of the Museum of Yugoslav History. Just like the mausoleum of Bulgaria's first communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, which used to stand across from the Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia, the House of Flowers commemorates Yugoslavia's founding father who symbolized the ideals of socialism. Tito's tomb today serves either as a shrine for "Yugonostalgists" or simply an important part of recent history to be remembered by future generations. The mausoleum in Sofia was destroyed in 1999, and it's questionable whether or not its existence will be remembered in the future. 

There are so many other places I visited on that trip and many more I plan to see in the future. I hope that this post gave you a taste of what the countries in this region have to offer- a lot!

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