MOSTAR, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA - Southeastern Europe, including Hungary and the Balkans, was a part of the world that I, Dustin, knew almost nothing about prior to my solo-adventure. The area and its turbulent history wasn’t covered much during my formal education, so I knew only a few tidbits of information which I caught from world news throughout the years. I was quite interested, then, in making my way through the area and learning and experiencing as much as I could firsthand. There was one caveat, however: I would be experiencing the Balkans during the middle of winter, a time prone to heavy snowfall and biting cold temperatures. I decided that this was an adventure worth taking in spite of the weather, even if all of the locals might say I was crazy for visiting at this time of year! (They did.)
Theresa, on the other hand, had finally thawed out from the Czech Republic and Poland’s below freezing temperatures during our time in France and was ready for winter’s end. Eyeing destinations further south, Turkey was on the top of her list, not only as the natural end-point of the Balkan peninsula but also for its subtropical Mediterranean climate and amazing cuisine. Even more of a draw was the fact that she had found a wonderful opportunity house-sitting for a new friend in the quaint, historic lake-town of Iznik. And so we decided that after having been side-by-side nearly every day of this trip for 14 months that we would each take our own little side trips for a few weeks of self-exploration and solo-adventure.
My trip through Hungary and the Balkans would last for 24 days and take me to 11 stops in 8 different countries. I explored amazing cities, ruins, and nature, learned much about the area’s vast and troubled history, tasted delicious local cuisines and spirits, and even picked up a little bit of the Cyrillic alphabet used in several of these countries. More than anything, I made quite a few new friends on this trip. Their open-mindedness and generosity shaped my trip into something special that I will never forget.
My first stop was also the city that surprised me the most. Budapest is actually comprised of two cities, Buda and Pest, through which the Danube River separates. This was such an absolutely beautiful and interesting place that I could not put my camera away. Around every corner was something amazing to see: stunning Austro-Hungarian architecture such as the Chain Bridge, the Parliament Building, the Opera House as well as the Buda Castle with it’s amazing statues and picturesque vistas. It is impossible not to be awed at the sense of greatness and power that this city held at its peak.
Hungarian food, rich and full of flavor, was quite enjoyable and perfect for the cold-weather traveler. Goulash, thick stews, pasta and many of the other hearty dishes that I tried were spiced with lots of paprika. In fact, the spice is so popular here it gets its own spot on the table right next to the salt and pepper. A couple of interesting desserts I tried included a pastry and a type of sweet pasta, each with a mountainous heap of poppy seeds – a bit too many for my liking, in fact.
Adjacent to the Buda castle were buildings riddled with bullet holes as well as others flattened down to ruins from bombing, noticeable as remnants of the country’s World War II history. I learned even more about this time period at the House of Terror Museum, located in a former Fascist turned Communist secret police building. The museum was informative, captivating and above all unnerving – especially when visiting the underground prisons and interrogation rooms.
An interesting thing to note about this area are the sentiments of many of the locals I spoke with concerning their modern history. They feel as if their country, ever since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has had an excellent record of making the worst decisions, especially regarding their leaders. This in turn has led to their decline as one of the poorest European countries. In fact, compared to their situation today, most everyone I met believes that things were far better during the communist regime. This was echoed many times as I continued my trip through the former communist Yugoslavia, then a world superpower, now broken up into the modern day and much poorer Balkan states.
Making my way south, just over the border into the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia, is the quiet town of Subotica. Once a part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire before post-WWII borders were drawn, the influence still remains in this quiet town’s unique art nouveau architecture. The most impressive examples includes the City Hall, Synagogue and Raichle Palace.
Here, at the emphatic insistence of some new local Serbian friends, was the first time I tried Rakija (pronounced “raw-kee-yaw”), a type of plum, apple or other fruit schnapps. The strong spirit can be bought in stores, but the version distilled by one’s elderly relative in their basement or garage is much preferred. Each country I visited had its own variation on how the beverage was produced and drank. In Subotica I had it straight and also enjoyed a version infused with honey, usually served during the winter months. I also tried Vinjak (pronounced “veen-yak”), an even more potent, carmel-colored spirit made from grapes and similar to French Cognac.
Novi Sad, Serbia:
My next destination in Serbia was Novi Sad, a larger university town also on the Danube River and just outside of Belgrade. A really great local friend showed me all over the city, including destinations such as the main square, the Vojvodina History Museum, and the large Petrovaradin fortress, a former Habsburg strategic military post that overlooks the city from across the river. The fortress is home to the huge Exit music festival, an event that everyone strongly suggested Theresa and I return for.
I wasn’t aware of it before I arrived in Serbia, but in addition to celebrating New Years on December 31st, Serbia also celebrates Orthodox New Years on January 13th. This fell on the dates that I was in Novi Sad and everyone was preparing to ring it in properly – including all my awesome new friends. In our celebrations we spent the following two nights partying and dancing until the early hours of the morning. I think Rakija may have even tangoed with Tequila on those evenings! I’ll let the pictures fill in the rest of the details, but Serbia definitely knows how to have a great time and I was happy to join in.
Belgrade, the capitol and my last stop in Serbia, is a large, bustling city of 1.6 million people. Here, another good friend showed me the local sites including the Belgrade Castle, Knez Mihailova Street, the in-progress Cathedral of Saint Sava, the recently finished Ada Bridge, as well as the Ada Ciganlija Beach, a popular hang for Belgraders during the summer months.
During the Kosovo War of 1999 much of Serbia experienced a bombing campaign by NATO and the United States. During this time Novi Sad lost all three of its bridges as well as its facilities for water, power and communications. All of which have since been rebuilt. In Belgrade, however many former government buildings remain in ruins to this day serving as haunting reminders of this controversial conflict.
Belgrade is also well known for its excellent nightlife. My friends took me out to a club where we saw Miligram, a popular local band with influences of pop and rock music with Turkish style singing. Again, in typical Serbian fashion, the party lasted late into the morning and we all had a great time dancing the night away.
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina:
In Sarajevo, it really began to feel like winter with a blanket of snow covering the beautiful city. I spent the next two days there relaxing and recovering from my time in Serbia, as well as wandering around the old town and surrounding hills taking lots of pictures. Split into Austro-Hungarian & Muslim/Ottoman era sides and architecture, the city is known for it’s historical cultural and religious diversity. Also interesting is that the country has three simultaneous presidents, each representing the members of the three major ethnic groups in the country; Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. However, this type of government was ruled unconstitutional by the European Union and so must change before the country has the ability to join the E.U. in the coming years.
The Latin Bridge of Sarajevo is a historic Ottoman bridge, the oldest in the city. It’s most famous however as the site of the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, the event which effectively kicked off World War I.
Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina:
The weather turned from snow into a rain that didn’t stop for days. Looking back now, this time period was perhaps the worst in which to visit a place as beautiful as Mostar. The lowest point of my entire 24-day trip was when I arrived there and walked all over town in search of lodging; I trudged around in the rain, hungry, coughing, sick with a cold, with wet socks inside wet shoes, all the while carrying my heavy wet pack. None of the hostels were where the maps show them and most of the hotels were closed for the off-season. After almost two hours of walking around in the rain I finally found a place, overpriced, but good enough to call home for the night. I dried off, pulled myself together and spent the last couple hours of daylight taking pictures of the absolutely beautiful old town and bridge in the not-so-photograph-friendly drizzly fog.
I extend a special thanks to all my new friends in Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Miklos and Zsofie, Matija, Aleksander, and Jens: You were each wonderful hosts, made me feel right at home, and in your own way helped show me the best of your wonderful towns. Marija, Maja, Tijana, Tatanja, Silvan, Ana, Jelica, Aleksandra, Milica, and Srna: You showed me the best time and I am really excited to come back to see you all again. All of you are invited to visit us back home in Austin, or wherever Theresa and I land after our trip.
Read the second part of my tale: Adventures in the Balkans: Part II!Posted: January 20th, 2013 | Filed under: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Serbia, Travel Updates | Tags: Balkans, Belgrade, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Budapest, Cyrillic, House of Terror Museum, Hungary, Mostar, Novi Sad, Orthodox New Year, Sarajevo, Serbia, Subotica | 1 Comment »