A Travellerspoint blog

Friendliest Locals (and some history)

Belgrade, Serbia

sunny 34 °C

Belgrade was the first city in which I extended my stay to four nights. There are a number of reasons for this decision, with my indecisiveness over my next destination likely leading the pack. But a big part of my sticking around was how friendly and welcoming the city and its people were to me, and most travelers, passing through. Its likely because there are so few of us, a city which has yet to attract a great number of tourists in spite of being such an important city in the region, known for its great night life and to some extent its history at the crossroads of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires. It truly is a great city, and to be honest, having also visited Budapest in the past, a consistently promoted stop on most backpackers' itinerary, there seems little reason for Belgrade to be neglected in favor of it, unless one considers Budapest's proximity to other destinations like Prague and Krakow, and of course, the recent war. But in spite of their combative reputation, and more so, the fact that the United States had bombed the city less than a decade ago under the guise of Nato, I was subject to virtually no hostility, even as their memory and willingness to engage in conversation over the war is quite fresh, high.

When I use the word war though, I don't refer to the conflict over the breakup of Yugoslavia which is remembered so vividly in Bosnia, for that violence never reached Belgrade and resonates little with the young people in Belgrade. It is the Nato bombing which is remembered, the sirens which called for all of the people to head to the bomb shelters, and limitations on electricity, water as a result of it. There are a few buildings still vacant, but only one person - and I say this with all due respect - died during the half year or so of bombing. People are quite willing to speak of the time, but once on the subject it can be difficult to get them to move on from it. As for the earlier breakup, its amusing to hear the bias they have toward Croatia and Bosnia for having left Yugoslavia. Its as if they started the war because they seceded, not because Serbia laid siege to these countries to prevent their becoming indepedent.

As I read this over, seems not so different from the North declaring war on the South in America, but to an extent the motivation for the unification of such disparate people no longer existed. Yugoslavia was created as a counterweight again the Ottoman and Austrian empires, strength in numbers. For most of the communities it was a marriage of convenience, and once stability seemed to have arrived, and Tito had died, they no longer wished to take orders from distant Belgrade. Because of the capital's location Serbia has always held greater control over Yugoslavia's destiny, so when Slovenia, Croatia, and soon after Bosnia declared independence, they sought to keep it intact, or at the very least maintain control over portions of these countries with sizable Serbian minorities. This is the issue in Kosovo, referred to as the cradle of Serbian civilization even though its 90% Albanian today. The conflict here seems not so different from that of Israel, or to an extent Kashmir. Each community has a historical claim on the land, depending on the year chosen, which in some conflicts with the facts on the ground.

There is a sizable portion of the Bosnian state which is governed under what is termed the Republic of Srbska, a region which operates fairly independent of the government in Sarajevo. Serbia sought to incorporate this region into Greater Serbia, as well as some portions of Croatia which had come to be dominated by Serbs. And this is why to travel to Belgrade my only option was to trek 45 minutes from the city center to a small bus station on the tip of town which served this region, and had 8 buses a day to Belgrade as opposed to the 1 bus leaving the main station located in the center before 6am each morning. Quite the political statement, and is by no means unique in the region. Now that I am in Macedonia, travelling to Albania and Greece isn't easy. One can do it, but only by taking a bus to the border, walking across, and hiring a taxi or minibus to take you to the next city of consequence. Even as I sit here typing in Ohrid, Macedonia's second busies town an hour from the Greek border, if I wanted to head to Greece I would have to backtrack several hours to the capital to find good public transport that direction. When coordinating travel routes some days I wonder whether im in Europe.

Hostel Experience:

The hostel I stayed out was a big part of my experience. The place had opened less than two weeks ago and was still in the process of being set up. Though the girl running the place could at times be a know it all, she and her boyfriend (who lived in the spare room soon to become another dorm) genuinely seemed to be interested in showing the guests a good, and more so authentic, Belgrade experience. My 1st night in town I was their only guest and they took me out on the town to see some of the bars in a nice cobble stone area of town. My second night happened to be her birthday, and we and some other guests who'd arrived stayed up most of the night hanging out with some of her Serbian friends. These included a mafia wannabe with big sunglasses and Kangol hat who promised to get me anything I might want in town half price and a girl DJ studying Arabic who desperately wanted to move to Jamaica. Some real characters, but still people my age who were interesting in talking to me, offering a glimpse of their lives to me. While I'm meeting new, interesting people every day, there are usually fellow backpackers from distant parts of the globe with whom I can swap stories. Rare is there an opportunity to talk with locals for more than fleeting conversations, so really quite unique.

And at last, the City:

As for the city there is plenty to do. It sits at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, at which point there is a great fortress which has been turned into a really cool park with basketball and tennis courts construted between the ramparts of the almost fully intact fortress and plenty of green space and benches for the citys people to enjoy when the sun goes down. Beyond the park, there is plenty of pedestrian only shopping streets with cafes brimming with people at all hours. There is no real old town as the city has been destroyed so many time in its history, but it does not detract from the citys charm and in a way prevents tourists from been quarenteened away from the locals. There are some great museums, some fantastic orthodox churches which are always interesting sites given how rare it is to find one in Western Europe. Tito was buried here as well, with a small museum complex and g The bar scene is quite varied, with cafes which blend into pubs and a slew of house boats along the river which to an extent are the liveliest of the city's club venues. It is a dirty metropolis, but somewhat endearing and pleasant change after so many of the small capitals that I had seen in recent weeks. Its new, and grandiose, and was built up to serve as a capital of a country far bigger than Serbia is today.

Aaron and Tito, Monument within Mausoleum Complex:

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NATO Bombing:

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Fortress at juncture of Sava and Danube River

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Posted by AAY 13:21 Archived in Serbia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rambling on Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia

sunny 38 °C

It seems that the current heat wave in Eastern Europe has undermined my capacity for timely entries. As I mentioned in my previous post, it has hovered at 40 degrees Celsius these past few days, though there was some respite yesterday as it sunk into the low 30s for the most of the day. That said, I'm well aware that this is just another in a long line of excuses for why I am falling behind. Perhaps the truth is that I am sitting patiently in hopes of finding what best to share about Sarajevo, a city which provokes a little more curiosity from the average American and is a little further off the beaten track from the typical backpacker.

To be honest, its no different than most cities, but in many ways far from what I expected. The TV images fed to us in America due the city little justice. I expected to find endless rows of communist style tenement buildings, and while these exist in the suburban sprawl beyond the center, they are not quite the defining mark on the city that many of us would think. In fact, there is a wonderful city center, dominated mostly by the old Islamic quarter and the modern shopping district adjacent to it. The city is about half Muslim, it not more, with Minarets jutting skyward across the hilly landscape. The city sits in a valley, with houses sitting cascaded up each hill on three sides. My last night I trekked up the hill to watch the sunset with amazing views of the entire city below. If you make it to Sarajevo, do this your first night and you will fall in love with the place, I promise you.

While there are signs of the war still evident, one would have to look a little harder than in Mostar to find evidence of a three year long siege occurring just over ten years ago. Many buildings do have bullet holes across their facades, and occasionally one stumbles upon what the locals call velvet roses - red fillings for spots where shells had damaged the sidewalks, but for the most part, few buildings lay in ruin, and there are few daily reminders of the siege. If interested though in learning more about it, the historical museum had a sobering exhibition on life during the siege.

But history here extends beyond the recent war. All of us back home learn about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as the stimulus for World War I, and seeing the spot where this happened really filled out my understanding of the event, how and why it occurred, and why it prompted an entire continent to go to war, one which ended four years later with millions dead and essentially a return to the status quo. There is a little museum, a plaque, but no much else there worth remembering. That said, its cool to stand there and think of the act and its historical significance.

Finally, as I ramble on, my accommodation here might have been the most interesting to date. Looking ahead to my visit, I had reserved what I thought to be a dorm room in a hostel but somehow turned in to a private room upon my arrival. Great news yeah - my own in room in the home of an old Bosnian couple who spoke virtually no english near the center of town. The language barrier brought new fun each day, whether it be me forcing down the local specialty Burek - cheese or meat pastry, or having to be explained that it was ok to use the shower and then basically forced into doing so on the spot. Its really the best way to do so, they really looked out for me almost as a concerned parent might.

Panoramas of Sarajevo:

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Spot of Ferdinand Assassination - in car, along river, at junction of this bridge - Started World War I:

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Muslim quarter, early morning:

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Im leaving Belgrade tonight for Macedonia. I hope to write about this city soon upon my arrival, as it has proven the most interesting to date relative to meeting locals and has for some reason been the place that I have spent the most nights. It is a really cool city...

Posted by AAY 08:58 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Heat Wave

Belgrade, Serbia

sunny 43 °C

Belgrade feels like a cauldron these past few days with temperatures hovering north of 40 degress C in most of the Eastern Balkans, particularly Romania - my next destination. It thankfully hasn't held me back too much, just longer more frequent breaks from sightseeing. Belgrade is a great city, potentially - and I say this with all due respect to Ljubliana - my favorite so far on my journey. It really is quite a metropolis, much more vibrant than many of the smaller capitals I have visited of late. The people are great as well, as I have had the opportunity to interact with many locals through my hostel and the girl who runs it. Im going to write more tomorrow about here, and Sarajevo, but wanted to pass along a short message to say how cool it is here, and more so, cool enough that I am extending my stay to a fourth night. Part of this though is my inability to determine where to next, either south to Montenegro, Albania, and the FYR Macedonia or more likely, to Romania and specifically Timisoaria which is just over the border from serbia maybe four hours or so. Anyway, too hot for me to think clearly right now but will be in touch soon.

Posted by AAY 09:40 Archived in Serbia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Fresh Wounds

Mostar, Bosnia

38 °C

Leaving Dalmatia and heading inland to Bosnia was a great decision. Though I enjoyed my time on the coast, the holiday seeking tourists I shared space with there to some extent derailed my effort to get to know the Balkans - though perhaps it should be thought of as part of that same experience, to seek an understanding of the tourist industry that alone supports most of the regions economy. That said, it seems prepackaged, and ultimately a bit less real for those seeking a grittier exposure to what stands today of the former Yugoslavia. It is a great place to visit, but I suggest doing so at a different time of the year bc in the high season you are bound to grow jaded in no time. Thankfully, there is a healthy dose of reality but a short drive away in Bosnia which experienced the brunt of the violence in the war that took place here in the early 90s. Not to say that the other republics did not experience the same degree of tragedy, but greater percentage of the fighting occurred here, and in one day I saw more of the scars of war than I had previously in two plus weeks in Croatia and Slovenia. It is quite telling that fifteen years later there remain upwards of twenty thousand land mines still in the ground, and as all the guidebooks warn, one should step off the pavement at your own peril.

Mostar feels like an open wound which, fifteen years later, shows few signs of fully healing. Its the 2nd largest city in Bosnia, and home to the iconic I mentioned in the previous post. There is a Muslim majority here, with minarets dotted across the city landscape, though the city still retains a significant Croat - Catholic - minority; each inhabits their designated side of the city and mixes only as needed, it seems. The old town resembles a mini Turkish bazaar, though it caters more to the tourist and their interest in trinkets and other distinctive flare then the average local consumer. It is quite small, linked by the old bridge, but has a bunch of great little restaurants terraced along the beautiful river and its clear water with greenish tint. Extending out from the old town is a jumble of modern buildings extended along the river toward the bus station.

View of Old Bridge:

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View from Bridge:

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The evidence of the war is everywhere, with innumerable abandoned, roofless buildings across the city, each with untamed weeds growing through the windows/roof. One street, marking the division between the two sides of the city, has little left among the larger administrative buildings and schools that were once situated here. Even more disturbing, most of the green space that the city possessed had been used as makeshift cemeteries, with tightly packed graves haphazardly placed amidst the trees. It is a really surreal experience to find a sea of gravestones - men and women of all ages - all bearing the same year of death. Given these constant reminders, it seems it would be incredibly difficult for the city to get past the events of the war, and for the tension that it provoked to recede. But the city has rallied, and despite a lack of funds needed to address the effects of the war - the buildings will likely remain vacant for a while - it seems to be doing pretty well. There are plenty of new buildings on the landscape, next to or across the street from the remaining stone heaps, and now that the bridge has been reconstructed - finished in 2004 - tourists have returned in droves, though few spend the night as of yet, mostly on day trips. The bridge really seems to be a uniting force, with the community seemingly feeling cleansed by its return. It is these symbol of the city and its difficult to go somewhere that does not promote it.

Gutted Buildings:

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Needless to say its a fascinating place, at a fascinating time. Entering a revival but unable to conceal the scars of its recent war. There seem to be few places in Europe where one can be exposed to such violence - and its not like this is a continent is unfamiliar with war. I guess the rest of Europe received plenty of monetary support from America in the form of the Marshall Plan. Makes one wonder how long it would have taken the evidence of that to disappear if not for us. Anyway, I have moved on to my next city, Sarajevo, another interesting city with its own war story and historical relevance. This entry is arriving a day late because of some issues with the internet. I presume that the same will be the case with my next from here, probably written a day or two from now from Belgrade. It has been an interesting ride here though - and my 6am bus ride, the only to Belgrade on Sunday, should be a good time for me to collect my thoughts on what to share about this place.

Posted by AAY 06:20 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Diocletian´s Palace

Split, Croatia

sunny 35 °C

Split is home to one of the most impressive architectural remnants from Rome, Diocletion's palace. That said, it is not your typical archeological site. Over the centuries it has been adapted to be the old town of the city - using crumbling pieces of the Roman palace complex to create apartment buildings amidst what remains from the original edifice - not a ton, but plenty to recognize what might have stood here in centuries past. The Mausoleum where Diocletian was buried still stands, though like most relics from that age in Christian Europe, has been adapted to a church. One can also pay to go below the streets to see the original basement of the palace, with rooms that mirror that which sat above them. The old town area has plenty of small nooks and crannies, with small little cafes at every turn, and a fair bit of charm if one can look beyond the tourist oriented culture thriving this time of year. Beyond the walls of the palace is a second tier of old town, almost as interesting but without the roman flare. There is just as much life though, and would be in and of itself a cool area to see if not for being overshadowed by what lies directly next door. The rest of the city is typically grimy but vibrant port city with its fair share of intimidating, sparse rocky mountain ranges once moving further inland over an industrialized bay. It reminds a lot of naples, or to a small extent Pula, a fast paced life in a city crawling with people. There are though, way too many tourists - English speaking - who arrive and leave in an instant on the way out to the Islands. It is a shame, but obviously a big part of the local economy.

As you probably can tell, I am really taken by this city, a close second to being my favorite on this trip right behind Ljubliana. It has almost the beauty of Dubrovnik, but more bustle and life to it making it seems a little bit more real, a little bit more alive. And, as found all over Croatia and Slovenia, it teems with some of the most beautiful women I have seen, though my fellow travellers claim I havent seen anything yet, that the further east I travel, the better they get. We shall see. As mentioned yesterday I head inland tomorrow to Mostar, in Bosnia but part of the Hercegovina portion. It is a divided town, with a Muslim and Serb populations living on different sides of the the river which is spanned by what is the quintessential Balkan picture, the Mostar bridge. Any book or travel guide on the region uses it as their cover photo, and though only three years old - this iteration, it had been blown up in the most recent war - its said to be a pretty amazing spectacle in person. They used many of the same pieces to rebuild it after some Croat hooligans destroyed it back in 93 despite UNESCO protection. I think this is to be a really interesting place to spend two nights, given the Muslim influence and latent tension. It is a city that even 4 years ago the state department didnt want us to go, but now its cool, dont worry.

Ok, two in a row, feeling good about it. Hope you are all well. It is too hot - high 30s - and am going to spend the afternoon at the beach.

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Also, nearby in Sibenek:

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Posted by AAY 05:52 Archived in Croatia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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