ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Before departing Bosnia and Herzegovina I realized that my passport was quickly running out of free space for new stamps. After spending a bit of time researching and communicating with Theresa back in Turkey, we decided to book an appointment at the American embassy in Istanbul in order to have more pages inserted into both of our booklets. This process is advertised as taking up to two weeks, so I created an itinerary for the last half of my Balkans trip that would ensure I arrived in Istanbul with sufficient time. My new plan was to visit one destination in each of the five countries left on my list: Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Excited to start the last half of my trip, I jumped on the next bus headed towards the Dalmatian Coast.
Over the years I had heard many times of Dubrovnik’s charm. My father, for example, touts the city as one of the most beautiful places he has ever visited. Upon arriving I could definitely understand what he had seen in the picturesque coastal town. He and I aren’t the only ones to have discovered it, however; over a million cruise ship passengers stop in Dubrovnik’s port every year. This fact made me quite happy to be walking its desolate marble streets during the overcast off-season.
With a reputation for its Adriatic beauty, Dubrovnik was much more expensive in comparison to other cities I had visited in the Balkans. The least expensive lodging option, for example, was more than double what I had paid elsewhere and this was during a time when I was one of the only travelers in the entire city. Once the rain subsided I was finally able to step outside from the room I had rented to head into old town for a bit of photography.
The history of Croatia is just as tumultuous and scarred as other countries that I had already visited on this solo-adventure. The gorgeous historic center basically laid in ruins in the early 1990s during the breakdown of Yugoslavia with almost 70% of the buildings destroyed by shelling and fire. Unlike much of the Balkans, however, there are not many signs left detailing the country’s war torn history. The Croatian government spent over ten million U.S. dollars to rebuild every building and street back to its former glory.
I woke early the following morning to hike up the hills surrounding Dubrovnik before my departure for Montenegro. Shooting photos from above the bay clearly demonstrates the reasons for the its popularity: perfect stone and marbled medieval walls, neatly arranged ceramic tile roofs and the backdrop of an incredible azure bay.
Kotor is located just a few hours down the coast from Dubrovnik, inside the secluded Gulf of Kotor. I was immediately struck by the clear, panoramic bay as well as the impressive surrounding mountains. It was the ancient walls and fortress extending up into the mountains behind the old town, however, that felt most special to me. Though I had initially planned on climbing just a little ways up the hill to get a better view of Kotor’s old town, the further I climbed up the winding steps the better the light became and so I continued to ascend the winding steps to their peak. The combination of clearer skies, crisp temperatures and beautiful views was a perfect departure from the prior days of continuous rain and dreary weather.
The lack of other visitors, as well as any noticeable signs designating paths or displaying information for tourists, left me feeling as if I had just happened upon these amazing medieval ruins. It was quite a magical experience exploring the fortifications, peeking over dangerous edges of the mountain and taking in the sunset vista around me. Kotor instantly left me in awe, solidifying itself as the most naturally beautiful place I had been to in the Balkans, as well as the place that I most wanted to bring Theresa back to.
I spent that evening sharing local Montenegrin beers and swapping travel stories with other travelers and the owner of the Old Town Hostel, where I was staying for the night. All in all, I couldn’t have imagined a better single day experiencing Kotor, Montenegro.
The following day I headed across the snowy border between Montenegro and Kosovo, on a bus winding up and down the mountainous road towards my next destination, Pristina. Due to the Kosovo War and the controversial role that the United States played in the country’s liberation from Serbia the Kosovars now view Americans as a type of savior. This was demonstrated by the people’s extreme friendliness towards me as I roamed the city and spoke with locals. Remnants of our involvement in the conflict can also be seen throughout, including an enormous statue of Bill Clinton and American flags hanging right alongside Kosovo flags.
The little I saw of Pristina seemed very poor with many of its buildings covered in awful graffiti, under construction, falling apart or left half finished. While it has its charms, I can’t imagine anyone saying Pristina is a beautiful city. Also, through my research I have now found that not only is Kosovo the poorest country in the Balkans, but that it was also ranked as the 9th poorest country in the world according to 2012′s Misery Index.
From Kosovo I traveled to Skopje, Macedonia, which would turn out to be perhaps the most bizarre town I have ever been to in my life. Within the past few years construction began on new buildings each with incredibly odd and inconsistent architecture. The government also began placing statues in ever corner of town depicting an enormous range of scenes, historical figures and animals. These statues are very much the cause for the confusing city scape; they seem to be haphazardly scattered in every direction. It seemed to me, as well as many of the locals with whom I spoke, as if Skopje is attempting to form a new identity and personality however that it is quite confused as to what direction it should take.
For two days I hung out with local friends and meandered through the extremely odd city, exploring the old town, markets, castle exterior and the more modern center. I bought the first of a few gifts for Theresa: a jar of ajvar (pronounced “eye-var”), a delicious homemade roasted red pepper spread that I’ve eaten across the Balkans and knew she would enjoy.
After two days in Skopje I headed towards the last stop of my solo-trip, Sofia, a city with a blend of both European and Communist style architecture. Many beautiful Orthodox churches dot the town, the largest and most famous of which is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
The timeframe in which I was in Sofia was tinted by political trouble and a few events that were quite interesting to experience firsthand. To begin with, there was an odd assassination attempt against the leader of Bulgaria’s Turkish ethnic party just days prior to my arrival as well protests covering several streets during my visit. Also, the very same day that I visited the courthouse there had been another assassination attempt in the same spot, this time against a mob boss that was heading into court. Before I had a chance to research the events that day, I had actually walked by a smattering of blood and a crime scene outside the courthouse, wondering what had been the cause of its existence.
The food in Bulgaria was one of the most delightful aspects of the country’s culture. Each and every meal I had was delicious, including a red wine beef stew, banitsa and kiopoolu, always served alongside locally made red wine or a glass of rakija. I was excited to take a bottle of the plum brandy to Turkey with me so that I could demonstrate to Theresa my new skills of making vruca rakija, a warm cocktail made with carmelized sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
After two days of exploring Sofia, and 24 total days alone on the road, I was ready to begin my final journey southeast towards Istanbul. I was feeling exhausted, had traveled over 1,000 miles and shot just under 3,000 photos. Mostly, I was excited to be reunited with Theresa, to share the many stories of my adventure and to hear about her time alone in Turkey. I feel that I have just scratched the surface of what the Balkans has to offer and very much look forward to returning one day soon to share with Theresa this incredible area.
A final special thanks to all my new friends in Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria: Kris, Emily, Giovanni, Jason, Yasin, Iskra, and Gezem. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without you and I look forward to seeing you all again one day soon.
Read the first part of my tale: Adventures in Hungary and The Balkans: Part I!Posted: January 29th, 2013 | Filed under: Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Travel Updates | Tags: Adriatic Sea, ajvar, Balkans, Bill Clinton, Bulgaria, Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Dubrovnik, fortress, Kosovo, Kosovo War, Kotor, Macedonia, Misery Index, Montenegro, Newborn, Pristina, Skopje, Sofia, Yugoslavia | 2 Comments »