Monday, November 9, 2009

Europe Part 2


The train from Budapest to Belgrade was really old and not nearly as nice as the one from Salzberg to Budapest. It was an overnight train. The 70 Euro additional cost for a sleeper car seemed expensive, so I didn't purchase it. Luckily I had a whole seat meant for four people to myself so I could sleep a bit. I was woken three times up to check my ticket, to stamp the exit from Hungary and the entrance into Serbia.

I got into Belgrade early in the morning. The sun had just come out to illuminate a horribly depressing place. Belgrade is big and much of it consists of old, rectangular, Soviet-era grey buildings. It also seemed slummy (not sure if that's a word). The first slums I'd seen in Europe. It very much reminded me of the scene in the movie Eurotrip when the gang get's their first taste of Eastern Europe.

Knez Mihailova is a pedestrian-only street in the old part of Belgrade. It is lined with fancy shops and restaurants. This is about as good as Belgrade gets.

Belgrade fortress is pretty much the only tourist site in Belgrade.

It was cold and it rained pretty hard most of my three days in Belgrade. Luckily the hostel I stayed at had a large selection of DVDs, so I spent the majority of my time watching movies and drinking Turkish coffee.

One of the highlights of my time spent in Belgrade was eating at the White Horse restaurant. As the name implies, the specialty of the house was horse meat, with steaks and tar tar seeming to be the most popular. It was an old school European restaurant that was decorated with pictures of horses. They didn't even have an English menu. I had the horse steak. I imagined horse meat being very tough, stringy and gamy. Horses look very lean and muscular and are always running around. I couldn't imagine the meat being any good. Boy was I wrong. It was very tender and juicy and was cooked a perfect medium rare. I was very impressed.

There was a lot of construction going on in Belgrade. They are working to rebuild the city from the wars of the 1990's, but there are still plenty of bombed out buildings. If I see a sight like this in America, I assume that it is from neglect and disuse. In Eastern Europe, it is usually happened as a result of a war.

Bosnia & Herzgovina

On June 23 I took a bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Bosnia, like Serbia was once part of the former country of Yugoslavia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia broke apart into the countries of Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The various factions and ethnic groups basically could not get along and after the iron grip of the Soviet Union dissolved, various treaties and wars led to the map that currently exists today. The war in Bosnia between the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and the Bosniaks, was particularly bloody and the scars are still very much visible. Serbs and the Croats are predominantly Christian and the Bosniaks were predominantly Muslim, but visually they are indistinguishable.

Bosnia is mountainous country, but lacks dramatic, Alp-like peaks. It reminded me a bit of West Virginia. Sarajevo is a long, narrow city nestled between two mountain ranges.

The bus went on one of the mountain ranges on the way in and I got some great views of the city. The bus then kept going about 30 minutes more and I wondered if I was on the right bus. Sarajevo has two international bus stations. One is in the center of town and the other is about 20 minutes out of town. My bus went to the one out of town. There were no ATMs at the bus station (or much of anything else). Not many people milling about spoke English. I finally found someone who spoke a bit of English and he directed to the place where I could get a bus into town. I had no local currency so I held up a five Euro note and asked the bus driver if he took Euros. He shook his head and got off the bus and talked to a guy standing at the stop. He got back on the bus, took back my 5 Euro note and gave me the equivalent of three Euros change in Bosnian Marks. I knew my hostel was near the city center, but other than that I really had no idea where it was or which stop I needed to get off at. I just had a brochure with a small map. An old man on the bus who spoke no English tried to tell me through a series of motions that he knew where my hostel was. I've been around the block before and I know what he's doing, but I went with him anyway. We walked for several blocks and he takes me to a hotel that is not at all my hotel, but on the way in, I noticed a street sign corresponding with a street on my map. I told him goodbye and he tried to get me to go into the other hotel (that will probably pay him a commission for bringing me in). I told him I have a reservation somewhere else. Some kids were playing soccer in the street and he tried to get them to translate. He was easy to loose being that he was old and couldn't walk very fast. This is the first time someone who didn't speak a lick of English tried to scam me. I finally made it to my hostel at the top of a very steep hill overlooking the city.

I didn't waste any time in Sarajevo. The next day Harris, the hostel owner took a group of us on a trip to Srebencia about two hours from Sarajevo on a very curvy road. Srebencia was the sight of a particularly brutal part of the war. Bosnian Serb forces had surrounded the town, which was a UN protected safe haven for the Bosniaks. People were evacuated from their homes and sent to shelters in nearby factories. The Bosnian Serbs entered Srebencia, ignoring a UN mandate and the Dutch peacekeeping soldiers. The men were sent to the hills and many were slaughtered. This was the bloodiest battle in Europe since World War 2.

I spent most of the next day on a tour of the city of Sarajevo.

A tunnel system was dug to transport supplies and people through the Bosnian Serb controlled areas. The main tunnel went under the city's airport.

Many, many buildings are still completely pockmarked with bullet holes.

It's so hard to imagine how such a long and brutal war could happen in the city that hosted the Winter Olympics less than ten years prior. We toured the stadium and the bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Much of the Bosnian countryside is off limits due to land mines. Clearing land mines is a painstakingly slow process and only a small percentage of the countryside has been cleared.

Old Town Sarajevo.

The spot in downtown where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire was assassinated, which is considered to be the start of World War I.

The Sarajevo Holiday Inn.

Other shots in and around the city.

Although the war ended almost 15 years ago and the fighting has ceased, there is still a great deal of tension in the country between the factions. Cities are divided along ethnicities. On a hill overlooking Mostar sits a large cross built by the Bosnian Croats. To an outsider, it would seem to be no big deal, but to the Bosniaks, who are muslim, it might as well be a huge middle finger. Even beer has been politicized. A bar in Bosnia is either a Bosnian bar or a Bosnian Serb/Croat bar, with each serving brands of beer specific to that ethnic group. If a foreigner goes into a bar and asks for the wrong kind of beer, it will probably slide. But if a local goes into a bar and asks for the wrong brand of beer, well, that would get your ass kicked.

Also, a car bomb went off a few blocks from where I was staying.

On July 26 I left Sarajevo for Mostar, a picturesque town with a bridge. The bridge is famous and dare devils will jump off the bridge (after collecting money from the crowd). The bridge was built in the 16th century and was destroyed during the war in 1993 and was later rebuilt.

On June 17 I went on Bada's tour. Bada was the brother of Majda, the hostel owner. Bada had a van with a disco ball. He was really high energy, like he'd been drinking about five energy drinks (whatever the Bosnian version of Red Bull is). There were about 9 people on the tour, including Tomas from Sweden, Aleksandra from Switzerland, and Simon from Australia, all of whom I met in Sarajevo and traveled to Mostar with. The tour started out with a tour of an old fortified city on a hill.

The next stop was some waterfalls.

At the waterfalls area, there was some kind of biker event going on. This could easily have been in Kentucky.
The next stop was the town of Medugorje. In 1981, six children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby woods. The apparition has not been officially endorsed by the Catholic Church, but that doesn't stop thousands of Christian pilgrim from visiting the site every year. The town was quite small and considered a backwater, but is pretty built up now from tourism.

A large church in the center of town.

On the church grounds sits a bronze statue of Jesus known as the Weeping Christ. Water trickles from a spot on the side of the knee. Pilgrims buy special tissues to wipe the statue and capture a bit of the water.

The town is quite built up now, with many stores near the church in the main square selling souvenirs to the visiting pilgrims.

The last stop was at a Dervish Monastery. This monastery sits at the foot of a mountain that is the source for the Buna River.

I think there were some other stops, but I can't remember exactly what they were and I dont have any pictures. The tour was great, but it was a little long (about 12 hours) and I had had my fill of Bada by the end of the day.


On June 28, I took a bus to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Dubrovnik sits between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains and has a very beautiful, well-preserved old town. Dubrovnik is probably the most tourist visited city in the former Yugoslavia and is a popular port of call spot for Cruise ships. It was packed with tourists during the day.

I spent about three days in Dubrovnik. Aside from exploring the old town and walking the city walls, I spent most of my time relaxing at the beach. Dubrovnik was a great spot for that after several days of heavy touring in Bosnia.


On July 1, I took a bus from Dubrovnik to Budva, Montenegro. Montenegro split off from Serbia in 2006. Leaving Serbia a land locked country and the Serbian Navy wondering what they were going to do.

Lots of people ask me how the hostels were. As with hotels, and guest houses, there was quite a bit of variation, but overall they were clean, well-kept, a bit noisy, but very social. They weren't at all scary. The scariest thing I saw in a hostel was coming back to my bed and finding a cat nursing two kittens, like I did in Budva.

We took the kittens downstairs and outside the building. The mother was soon to follow. They changed by bedsheets and all was right. Until the cat brought her kittens back. I'm not sure what it was about my particular bed that the cat found so inviting. After another change of linens, all was right once again.

Budva is like a smaller Dubrovnik. It is on the Adriatic sea, perched between the sea and mountains, and has a well preserved old town. Budva, like Dubrovnik, has a rocky beach. It is kind of a party town, with loads of visiting Italians and Russians taking advantage of the warm climate and (relatively) low prices.

Dinner at the Disney pizzeria in Budva. I don't think it was licensed by the Disney company.

I took a side trip to Kotor, about 30 minutes away by bus. It looked a lot like Budva. It was on the Adriatic sea and had an old town.
I spent July 4th Weekend in Budva. We had a Forth of July cookout at the hostel, despite the fact that I was the only American there. Some things are pretty universal. If you charge four guys with starting a grill, there will be four separate opinions about how to light the fire and how to cook the meat. This is universal and crosses all cultures. Myself, an Australian, a Brit, and a Lebanese took turns trying to get a fire to start and arguing over the best method to do it (being as there was no lighter fluid).

One thing that annoyed me a bit about Budva was people parking cars on the sidewalk. In order to get around, you have to walk out in the street.

Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia - Three depressing countries in three days.

Looking ahead, I had booked a ticket on Easy Jet to fly from Bucharest, Romania to Madrid Spain on July 22. I wanted to see Bulgaria and that was my next destination. I could have taken one bus from Budva all the way to Sofia, but it would have been about 20 hours, and judging by the quality of the buses I taken previously, I wasn't very interested in doing that. I could have taken the train, but the former Yugoslavia is not served well by trains and I would have had to go really far out of the way to get there. So, in the interest of breaking up my trip, I would go to Tirana, Pristina, Macedonia, and then Sofia. I tried to avoid just going to a country for a day just to say I'd been and get a stamp on my passport, but this seemed like a good way to break up the trip. Also, if I got somewhere and wanted to stay longer, I could have (I didn't).

On July 5, I took a bus from Budva to Tirana, the capital city of Albania. Albania is probably the most behind of all the Eastern European countries that I visited. In order to get to Tirana, I had to first take a bus to Ulcinj to catch another bus to Shkodra. From Shkodra, I had to take yet another bus to Tirana. Shkodra didn't have a bus station. The bus from Ulcinj stopped in the middle of town. There wasn't much English spoken in Shokdra, but from the directions I'd received in Budva, mini-buses, or furgons, would be circling the main square and I would ask which one went to Tirana. That is exactly what happened. In the span of about five minutes, numerous furgons pulled up. The side door would slide open and a guy would announce where the bus was going. I was told there were lots of furgons going to Tirana, as it is the largest city in Albania. Sure enough the third furgon that pulled by was going to Tirana. It seemed a bit shady, but it worked.

The window on the bus to Ulcinj. Obviously Michael Sembello has fans all over.

After six hours, two buses, and one furgon, I'd made it to Tirana. At first glance, I didn't see anything in Tirana that would make me want to stay there.

Mother Theresa Square.

Many things in Albania seemed just a little off. There were no McDonald's in Tirana (that I saw), but there were Kolonats. It sort of looked like a McDonald's, and the food was sort of similar to McDonald's, but it wasn't close enough to be an outright ripoff.

Albania was a Communist country until 1992, but it had no ties with the former Soviet Union after 1961. The Blloku district was once home to the Communist party leaders and non-Communists were not allowed in. After the Communists were ousted in the 1992 elections, Albanians were curious to see this neighborhood that had been such a mystery. Many imagined posh mansions. It was actually quite meager living. They must have been really disappointed. The district now hosts many restaurants and nightclubs and is the trendy (for Albania) part of the city.

The Blloku district.

Albania is a poor country. Budding entrepreneurs rent mini-four-wheelers to local kids.

Skanderberg Square

I don't know what programs are offered at UFO University, and I was afraid to ask.

Tirana has more than it's share of Soviet era buildings. They have done a decent job of making them more presentable by painting them in wild pastel colors.

Locals call Albania Shqiperia and call Croatia Hrvatska. I don't know how these English names came about. Usually it's fairly easy to figure out the English names for places. Italy (Italia), Venice (Venezia), and Florence (Firenze) were pretty easy. These were a little confusing.

On July 6 I took the bus from Tirana, Albania to Pristina, Kosovo. The bus left near Skanderberg Square at 6:00pm. There was no bus station, just an area where most of the buses gathered passengers. There were several buses to Tirana and all of them left at 6:00. There was no English spoken and no other tourists except for me. I asked how much the fair was and the guy on the bus pulled out a 10 Euro note and showed it to me. I paid him the 10 Euros. I probably overpaid, but it's hard to haggle with a guy who doesn't speak English.

The bus ride was supposed to take eleven hours, which would have put me in Pristina at 5:00am. Which was fine. I could explore the city and possibly get out that afternoon without having to pay for a room. Well, the bus pulled into Pristina at 12:00 midnight, which seemed like a very inconvenient time for all buses leaving Tirana to arrive. I hate getting into a city late at night with no reservation. I was left in the position of asking a cab driver to recommend a hotel and take me there. I might as well have asked, "Take me to an overpriced hotel in town that pays you a big fat commission". He took me to a place that was actually a room in someone's house. It wasn't too bad and it was only 10 Euros. The owner asked me to give the driver 1 Euro for his commission. It's a racket, but at least they were up front about it. I got up fairly early the next morning and left. I didn't need much time in Pristina.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, but my country does not recognize it as a independent state. They did not stamp my passport when I entered. The process for crossing borders by bus in these countries is that a border guard will get on the bus and collect everyone's passport, take them to the border office, stamp them, and return them to the bus driver, who will then hand them back out. I'm not sure why they didn't stamp my passport. Even though my country's government doesn't recognize Kosovo's independence, I am not forbidden from traveling there. I didn't think too much about it until I left Kosovo and the border guard asked me (I think) where was my stamp. I made stamping motions while shaking my head and saying "To Pristina, No Stamp". They let me leave the quasi-country, which was a relief.

Pristina looks like a lot of cities in Eastern Europe. It had its share of Soviet era buildings and buildings dilapidated by war.

One thing I did find amusing about Pristina was that the two main streets in the city were Mother Theresa Boulevard and Bill Clinton Boulevard. There was a Caesars casino at the intersection of these two streets (which is probably not affiliated with the US Caesars Palace).

I didn't spend too much time in Pristina. There really wasn't much to see. On July 7 I took a bus to Skopje, Macedonia. It was fairly forgettable.

There was an old bridge that crossed the river into the old town.

There was a pedestrian boulevard lined with restaurants and shops.

There was an old church that reminded me of something. I couldn't quite place it.....

Old town.I can't believe Patty Smith, Carlos Santana, and George Benson were this hard up for gigs.

An unusual looking modern church.

It is a small world and just like in Asia, Australia, and other parts of the world, I ran into people I met along the way. Most everyone goes to the same places, so it's not unusual to see people again. When you see someone it's exciting and like seeing a long lost friend, even though you knew this person for only a few days or a few hours. In Skopje, I ran into Josie from Holland who I had met in Sarajevo. In both Budva and Tirana, I ran into Aleksandra from Switzerland, who I hung out with in Sarajevo and Mostar. She probably thought I was stalking her.

I found myself really missing America, and not just my friends, family, favorite restaurants, but also the references. Most people who travel speak English, but they don't usually pick up on all of the cultural references. For example, when I was in Machu Picchu, I saw some llamas and said, "Tina, come get some ham!". If I was with Americans, we would have shared a little laugh. Then there would be about 3-5 minutes of trading lines from Napoleon Dynamite. Germans don't pick up on Napoleon Dynamite references.

I saw two things in Bosnia that made me laugh, but it had to be a quiet laugh by myself. One was this.

The name Blagojevic is synonymous with the disgraced former governor of Illinois and future Celebrity Apprentice contestant Rod Blagojevic. But here it is a pretty common surname.

The other was the man on the 20 Mark note who bore an uncanny resemblance to Ohio congressman and perennial presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

I had less than a month until going home. By now, I was really kind of over the trip. A year is a long time to be away from all the things familiar to me. I had four more countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, and Ireland) to visit before coming home. Any other time I would be as excited as all get-out to visit these places. But I was not very excited. I wasn't hating it, I just didn't really feel anything. I had to keep reminding myself of the great opportunity I was having and remind myself how lucky I was.

On July 8 I took a bus to Sofia, Bulgaria.