YUGO? I Went!

With the last two weeks of travel I have now visited every one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia. Listed in order of first visit they are:

  • Croatia
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Montenegro
  • Kosovo
  • Macedonia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)

BiH was everything you would expect but also surprised me in one big way. I had it in my head that Sarajevo was a liberal city because of its rebellious spirit. This is far from the truth and resulted in me staying non-consecutive nights with a couchsurfing host.

One picture that says a lot about a city.

One picture that says a lot about a city.

I arrived by bus from Split on my 24th birthday. In fact, a BiH stamp in my passport was my present to myself. After hitting up a Bosnian hip hop show and walking around the old town, my host and I returned to her flat and went to bed. In the morning she was a bit concerned and told me that her father had called and told her that her aunt and uncle would be spending the night in her flat. According to her, her family would be extremely concerned if they know she was hosting strangers, and outright angry if that stranger was a single male. As a result, I offered to stash my stuff in the closet and take my toothbrush to a hostel until they left.

Biggie-sized chess in front of an Orthodox church in Sarajevo.

Biggie-sized chess in front of an Orthodox church in Sarajevo.

I actually passed a very pleasant night in the hostel while splitting some beers with a new British friend and we went on a long walk the following day after learning that everything was closed (Sunday strikes again).

I returned my third night to Dinka’s and left the following morning on an early train to Mostar where I could feel the first flakes of snow on my face.

Classic picture of old bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar.

Classic picture of old bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar.

Bonus fact: As a result of a dry season, water in Sarajevo was turned off between midnight and 5:00 during my stay.

Montenegro (MNE)

Montenegro is postcard perfect. Winding roads, long tunnels, and mountains rising dramatically out of the Adriatic. I spent three nights in the town of Kotor in a famous bay of the same name thanking our good sense that Lindsay and I didn’t attempt to cycle through this country. Without secondary roads between towns nor any shoulders to speak of, Montenegro would likely have been several days of battling hills and stress as all cross-country traffic passed within inches.

Bay of Kotor from the fort.

Bay of Kotor from the fort.

Bonus fact: Montenegro is the only place I have seen “billboards” in the form of spray painting directly on boulders next to the highway. I don’t think it is any coincidence that they were all for tow services.

Kosovo

After three consecutive buses including a border crossing at 3:00 a.m. at 1800 meters, I was in the city of Prizren. This city is about an hour and a half from the capital Priština but has the reputation of being more interesting.

In my one day in the city I think I covered a lot of ground but the most interesting thing was watching a helicopter deliver, one by one, three Christmas trees. It seemed to be about a fifteen minute round trip from delivering one tree, disappearing over the mountain, and returning with the next tree. I watched with great interest from the Ottoman fort while I enjoyed the rare appearance of the sun.

Special delivery.

Special delivery.

Bonus fact 1: Priština has a Bill Clinton Boulevard which intersects George Bush. On maps these are written in Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading things in the Cyrillic alphabet but something about seeing the names of American presidents written in it seemed wrong.

Bonus fact 2: In Kosovo you will see a lot of flags from three different countries. First, and most prevalent, is the Albanian flag. Second is the flag of Kosovo itself and third is the American flag. For the unaware, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is the largest contributing factor to the war there.

Three official languages in Prizren: Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian

Three official languages in Prizren: Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish.

Macedonia (MK)

My first stop in this oft-overlooked country was the capital, Skopje. As I entered the city by bus I was awestruck by numerous examples of grand architecture in great repair and huge statues. I soon learned that everything that had caught my eye had been built within the past three years and would be finished by 2014. For a country of just over 2 million people, they are certainly pouring a lot of money into public institutions and monuments to famous Macedonian (or are they Greek? More on that soon) figures like Alexander the Great. The whole thing is estimated to cost 80 – 500 million euros. It’s also not just the size of the projects, but the density. Walking through the main square is to walk by dozens of figures and an arch that looks suspiciously like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

"Man on a Horse" monument to Alexander the Great.

“Man on a Horse” monument to Alexander the Great.

Bonus fact: The Macedonians have one resolved and one ongoing dispute with Greece. The first relates to their flag. Originally the Macedonians used a yellow Vergina Sun on a red background. The sun, with 16 rays, infuriated the Greeks who imposed economic blockades for more than a year on Macedonia until they agreed to a new flag that had only 8 rays emanating from the sun.

Greece also refuses to recognize the name “Republic of Macedonia” since Macedonia is an ancient geographic region which includes part of modern Greece. As a result, Macedonia was only admitted into the UN under the provisional name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The two parties are still trying to reach an agreement. Some suggestions have been the Republic of North Macedonia and Upper Macedonia. The reasons for the dispute are historical and territorial.

Albania

I should have reached Tirana today to meet up with Lindsay but an unexpected snow storm has left me stranded at Lake Ohrid in the south west corner of Macedonia. This morning I paid about $2 CAD for a half hour taxi ride to the bus station in a snowstorm. Not bad really but hopefully the ride tomorrow won’t see me trudging back up a snowy hill to the ironically named “Sunny Lake Hostel”.

Good Morning Ohrid, MK!

Good Morning Ohrid, MK!

Back of the Bus

It’s 10:40 pm in Croatia’s capital and I have just arrived by bus. I have a couchsurfing host to look forward to but unfortunately he is at a concert and won’t meet me until 1:00 am. Until then I will wait under the Golden Arches.

Two weeks ago I wrote from the studio apartment of a Romanian immigrant to Germany. I spent my first full day on my own revisiting Munich having first been there in 2003. It was actually surprising how much I remembered from that trip once I was seeing it again. I went up the same church tower and saw the same store where a bunch of people on the previous school trip bought beer mugs. Munich was a very safe location in all senses of the word to stretch out on my own.

Hill in the Munich Olympic Park area. I ate dinner and shivered as the sun set over the city.

In Prague I had contacted a former German exchange student to Queen’s who was in the climbing club with me. As it turns out he had just returned to Germany and was back in the town of Meersburg, population ~5000, across a big lake from the university town of Konstanz. I arrived by bus in this tiny blip to be welcomed into the home of the family that Richard lives with. Within an hour we were started in on a case of beer and within three we were at a masquerade party with unfortunately high compliance given that I was uninformed.

After all of the border hassle (crossing the street), I made it to Switzerland.

Other than the first late night my time here mostly consisted of sleeping in and playing countless games of Kniffel, also known as Yahtzee in more civilized parts of the world. The exciting exception was walking to Switzerland from Konstanz. From the ferry landing it is about 6 km to the city of Kreuzlingen. Actually I take it back. Exciting is not the right word because the only reason I knew I had crossed was that the license plates changed from one side of the street to the other. Still, things don’t always need to be exciting to be a good use of your time. There was also the incident at the dinner table where I said, “I’ve been there.” when I thought someone was talking, in German, about the nearby town of Überlinger to which Richard and I had cycled. It turns out they had been talking about puberty so I guess I didn’t lie.

Meersburg led to one more night in Munich with Liviu before setting off by rail to Ljubljana. With the depressingly short days most of my travel has taken place in the dark. However, this day trip took place in the glorious daylight and wound through the alps, countless tunnels, and the first snowfall I’ve seen this year. In Ljubljana I had arranged to stay with a young couple, Petra and Rok, and their baby, Vesna, in a block of buildings which typify the communist taste for right angles. We passed the evening sampling Slovenian wine and some fruit brandy made by Petra.

The next day I wandered the tiny capital alone until I met my new hosts in the afternoon.  Aljoša and Kaška were the highlight of my visit to the city as we spent every second of the next two days together. I felt like a spoiled child as they fed me, rented me a bike for a personalized city tour, and took me out with their friends. Kaška had also arranged a ride share to take me to the Škocjan caves which had come recommended by all of my hosts over the more famous Postojna caves nearby.

Bike ride to where the river is artificially split in Ljubljana to help alleviate chronic flooding. A couple of muskrats were swimming around and begging for bread.

Sparrows join me for lunch at the triple bridge in the center of Ljubljana.

The caves are typical of the karst region of Slovenia where porous limestone allows rivers to sink underground for dozens of kilometers. I had never been in a proper cave before and it looks exactly like pictures but they don’t convey the immensity and claustrophobia of actually being inside. To me it was a bit like the rush you get looking over a cliff edge but that might be because we were walking alongside underground cliffs with up to a 45 meter drop to the Reka river below.

To get to Zagreb from Škocjan I first visited the sliver of coastline that Slovenia has on the Adriatic sea and then hopped down to Pula on the Istria peninsula of Croatia. Here, again, I was hosted through couchsurfing by Aneta. Suffering from a two-day hangover she suggested taking her dog for a walk and getting a beer along the way. I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen someone use a drink as a hangover cure but she perked up noticeably after her half pint. We went for another long walk with the dog during the day and passed by the fort, market, and about a kilometer of coastline. Due to the imminent rain, the sea was a stormy grey instead of the deep blue typical of the Croatian coast.

Bridge 45 meters above the river in Škocjan caves.

And that is the end of this very play-by-play account of the last couple of weeks. Some whimsical musings The near future points toward some time on the Croatian coast and a longer stint in Sarajevo before finishing off the trip through Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia.

Harbour in Piran, Slovenia.

Lindsay should be back next week to tell more about Berlin, Hamburg, Heidelberg, and wherever she might go next. I don’t even think she knows where that is yet but I think she is embracing that freedom.

Sixth* largest Roman Amphitheater in the world. Pula, Croatia. *Corrected from Third by Aneta.

UPDATE: I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. It was the first time since the day we split that I felt truly sad but it was also therapeutic. It’s well done with a focus on healing rather than dwelling on the past but it is still a collection of items that used to bring happiness and now bring pain to the (former) owners. It’s a must-visit in this city.

Age of Aquarius

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga) at 2827 km. We have had the pleasure (mostly) of riding 60 km of it in Austria, 150 km in Slovakia, 280 km in Hungary, 140 km in Croatia, 380 km in Serbia, and 450 km in Romania. During that time the local name of the river has changed from Donau, then to Dunaj, then to Duna, then to Dunav, and finally to Dunarea. We have also passed through five European capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest).

Pedalling along can be hypnotizing and recently, since the traffic has been light, I find myself daydreaming about the towns that whiz by. Each of them is like a carbon copy of the last in rural Romania but I feel that the number of people in any given town which venture even 10 km in either direction is small. This lead to me wondering about how these locals view the mighty river to the south. Here the river is wide and lazy, very lake-like in its still appearance. There isn’t any indication of the many faces we have seen of this waterway since the start of our journey.

The first of many crossings leaving Vienna.

Leaving Vienna, with our first of 14 crossings of the river so far, and through much of Slovakia the river has artificial banks and is monotonously straight. In Slovakia a huge reservoir is formed downstream of Bratislava before a hydroelectric dam which meets 8% of the country’s power needs. At other times, like in Budapest, the river is the focal point with beautiful buildings and bridges pressed together and Buda hill overlooking the whole scene. At still other points, the river is integral to heavy industry like the steel mills (currently shut-down) in Smederevo or the huge smelting operation in Dunaujvaros. Finally, the Danube gorge. Its sheer cliffs plunge straight down into the water and serve as an intimidating international border as the river winds its way toward two more hydroelectric dams. The gorge may have been even more impressive before the installation of the dams since the reservoir caused a 35 m rise in the river height nearby.

Budapest with the Chain Bridge and Cathedral.

But in small-town Romania the face of the river is as regular and unobtrusive as the endless fields which border it. I started to wonder if the local people ever gave the Danube a second thought or knew what lay beyond the sunset. However, when I realized the enormity of my own ignorance I was knocked off of my high horse. We have seen just half of the river and only from one bank at a time. We neither started at its origin in the Black Forest, nor will we continue to the delta where it empties into the Black Sea. There is always more to see and always more to learn.

Shamelessly stolen picture of the Danube delta we will never reach.

Croatia

Facts

A central European country of fewer than 5 million people. The capital is Zagreb and the currency is the Kuna. It is shaped like a croissant.

 

Route

Eurovelo 6 as describe by the Bikeline guide. This is well-signed as “Ruta Dunav” in Croatia. Mostly on low-traffic roads with variable road surface. Also the first hills but they are not plentiful or extremely long.

Impressions

Croatia is a bit more expensive to travel in than neighbouring Hungary and, really, doesn’t have much infrastructure for it in a lot of towns in the northeast. The town of Vukavor especially still bears many scars from conflicts in the early 1990’s (search for a picture of the Vukavor water tower). We will be returning to Croatia when we visit Dubrovnik in 2 months (Lindsay for a second time).

It comes after Cote d’Ivoire and before Cuba

Total km biked: 673
Countries: 4
Stamps in passport: 2! (read it as factorial or excitement, doesn’t matter)

A note before I start: our camera broke and we are waiting until Belgrade to try and fix it so the pictures are not as high quality here.

Budapest
Biking in Budapest is apparently fine based on the sheer number of cyclists on the streets but I certainly found it stressful. The paths are packed with pedestrians and they seem to end and start without any warning. It also doesn’t help that the cracked pavement jars your teeth and it gets worse when your tire blows and you are riding on the rim. However, after biking 103 km to meet our warmshowers host when we had expected to bike 80 km (a theme to be repeated) we could relax.

A note to other aspiring tourers, don’t think sightseeing days on foot are going to help your body recuperate i.e. the days in Budapest were not restful. We did all of the usual things you would expect a tourist to do and one bonus based on a tip from Roya. Szimpla is everything the Foundation wishes it could be. It’s a bar that is multiple floors and is both inside and outside without doors. The walls are painted bright colours and then adorned with all manner of junk and graffitti of the “Chaz wuz here from ‘Murica” type. The different rooms (seating in the form of old kitchen seats or car benches, for example) had somewhat different themes. Our room had a dozen CRTs with psychedelic displays and the guts of computers strewn about. We noticed some buttons on the wall so I convinced Lindsay to press one. Klaxons sounded and “Alert” flashed on all of the screens. Another button brought Gene Simmons with a wagging tongue and appropriate sound effects on-screen. Still another caused a robot dog hanging from the ceiling to bark and wag its tail. Totally worth it when pints are $2 to boot.

Heroes’ Square in Budapest, Hungary

Dunaujvaros
Our next city, formerly Stalinjvaros, is an industrial town south of Budapest on the Danube. To give you an idea of the town, it smelts iron while factories and the colour grey dominate. It was still worth the 12 km penalty to cross the river since we stayed with an amazing married couple through couchsurfing. That 12 km penalty also seems to have magically increased our 60 km day into an 82 km day. I’m starting to question whether I can count any more. Danaujvaros is not a very hip town but our hosts gain some entertainment by stuffing travellers full of Romanian stew, chicken and palinka (a brandy which in our case was made of apricots).

Viktor and Vero in Dunaujvaros

Baja
We arrived in Baja knowing that it had a meat-packing plant that slaughters 300 000 pigs a year. We did not know that it had the best-paved dyke road and a beautiful downtown area that was full of life on a Sunday night.

Here Lindsay flexed her bargaining muscles for the first time. On our way into town someone yelled at me in a language that may have been English. If it was, I said my best guess was, “asdfl HOTEL KAISER sanvoisd”. Soon the town appeared and numerous signs started pointing to a Hotel Kaiser, three stars. We headed there first having not found a host yet. The price was an iffy 40 euro (she quoted in euro instead of the local Forint) so Lindsay asked if the receptionist knew of another hotel that was cheaper. Suddenly the price was 30 euro so we moved in.

Fields of Paprika are ubiquitous in southern Hungary. It is also hung to dry on the sides of houses.

Osiejk
Yesterday we finally left the EU and entered Croatia. The border crossing was uneventful but instantly everything felt just a little bit different. Here we climbed our first hill (I contemplated walking) and were rewarded by a 10% grade downhill on broken cobblestone that required constant braking. Hardly fair. In the town of Batina we were to turn right at the restaurant and we planned to refill our water and get cash (we had the equivalent of $3 when we arrived). In Hungary there is safe running water everywhere and several public taps in many of the towns. In Batina, the restaurant had long since closed and the only safe water was a single public tap. There was also no bank and nowhere to sleep and camping is illegal (see the pictures for the reason). We continued to our planned stopping point (85 km for the day) but decided to press on to the largest city in this part of the country, Osiejk. A quick and contemplative bathroom break on the side of the highway (again, see pictures) was followed by racing the setting sun into town for a total of 116 km, our longest day yet.

See you later European Union

Punishment is swift for those who break the law against camping in the rough.