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