Bosnia-Herzegovina definitely seems like a country caught in the middle. They are pretty much landlocked and surrounded by countries progressing rapidly and joining the EU. The ethnic distribution is almost split evenly between Croats, Serbia, and Bosniaks - Sandwiched between Croatia and Serbia, the Muslim Bosniaks seem quite caught in between too. This was especially the case 20 years ago during the breakup of Yugoslavia - Bosnia was completely caught in the center of the conflict. Politics, corruption and disagreements among the main ethnic groups continue to prevent forward movement.
Most of this stays hidden from the casual tourist but it's still hard to miss the Sarajevo roses (concrete mortar explosion scars) and bullet ridden exteriors of nearly all old buildings. We also had the chance to meet up with some old colleagues that gave us some good insight.
My highlight was climbing up into the hills south of Sarajevo and walking down the abandoned bobsled track leftover from the '84 Olympics. We also celebrated Aya's third birthday (on the run), promising to have a proper party with friends when we get back to Canada.
All the images I had in my mind of Bosnia were related to the war of the 90s. It’s hard to move past those pictures, especially when so many buildings still bear scars of the conflict. In Mostar and in Sarajevo, houses and commercial centres alike still have pockmarked exteriors – a testimony to how pervasive the violence was and how long it lasted.
-catching up with a former colleague from Cambodia who now lives in Sarajevo with her family!
-visiting the old Olympic bobsled track – though in all honesty I found it totally creepy, especially the sniper holes cut out of the track itself.
-Delicious waffles hand made by a fellow Canadian in her little waffle house in the old town.
-An absolutely stunning bus ride to the Montenegro border. The road narrowed down to a tiny one lane track that literally clung to the sides of mountains. Bosnia is so hard to access for this reason, but when you do, it’s so rewarding.
When the dust settled after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia was definitely left with the lions share of the scenery - mountains, forests, and 1800kms of beautiful coastline with stunning ancient ports and hundreds of Adriatic islands. We sampled the modern and pleasant capital of Zagreb before taking the train down to the coastal port of Split. From there we boated to a couple islands, finishing off in the stunning port castle of Dubrovnik.
One huge highlight was meeting up with our Kiwi friend, Rebekah, who used to live near us in Phnom Penh for a couple years. Together we boated, trained, bused, dined, hiked, relaxed and took in all that Croatia has to offer.
Although we can't help think about events like the Siege of Dubrovnik in the early 90s, Croatia is further ahead past the events of the Yugoslav war than some of it's Balkan neighbors.
Some quirks - you get charged for ketchup per portion with your fries and you have to pay extra per bag that you put under long distance buses. To their credit, they smoke and graffiti a lot less than their Balkan neighbors.
Croatia is as dramatic looking as its name suggests. Rugged coastal mountains plunging into the clear turquoise of the Adriatic. It is absolutely stunning.
But even more exciting that the natural beauty surrounding us was meeting up with Rebekah who used to live in Cambodia. I couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular place to reconnect over cappuccinos and wine than Diocletian’s palace in Split and the old city of Dubrovnik! Highlights:
-the high-speed train from Zagreb to Split, traversing mountains passes full of snow, tunnels through the hills, and panoramic vistas on our way to the coast.
-an early morning coffee in Diocletian’s palace with Bex followed by an a-cappella group serenading us in one of the ruin’s domes.
-a whirlwhind shopping spree with Bex at a cute little mall in Split
-overnighting in Korcula, a gorgeous island just off the coast from Dubrovnik
-celebrating our ninth anniversary out on the town in Dubrovnik (a serious contender for most-romantic-city-in-the-world) without the kids, thanks to Rebekah.
Serbia is one of those countries on our journey that it is impossible to enter without some reservation. It was not only blacklisted in recent memory by the West but also heavily bombed as a Western enemy. Any fears of this sort fade quite quickly though. Serbia is a lovely country with wonderful people. Of course we made sure not to mention that we might visit Kosovo later in our travels.
From the short few days that we visited Serbia, it was difficult to find anything out of place at all with the country. Belgrade is a modern, comfortable, and beautiful city with a European feel like any other capital city in Western Europe. We hit a mid-trip crash from travel weariness and vegged for a couple days, enjoying short walks and a lot of kid parks. We also had the pleasure of heading to the north of the country around Novi Sad and Fruska Gora National Park. The pleasant rolling hills made excellent day hikes and we wished we had time to camp like the rest of the locals were doing on the long (International Worker’s day) weekend.
Any images I had filed away in my mind of Serbia (largely from the news while I was in high school of ethnic cleansing, the exodus of Ethic Albanians from Kosovo and the NATO bombing campaign which followed) had to be set aside as I met the country in real life for the first time last week. I'm not sure what I expected, but it wasn't the modern, energetic and bustling place we encountered.
We were welcomed by gracious and friendly host country. And it was very, very beautiful with its large walking malls in Belgrade hemmed in by stunning architecture, rolling hills and verdant farmland and the lovely Danube in all its glory.
It is the most incredible feeling when you hear your name being called while standing bleary eyed and completely lost in the middle of a foreign intersection, trying desperately to find the right building as noted on the GPS. We'd hiked down from Buzludzha that morning, caught a taxi then a train then another taxi, and were finally dropped off one one of Sofia's thoroughfares.
And then we heard our names! Seeing Rachelle, Asen, Ronin and Royce in their home city was such a thrill! We were spoiled staying in their home, clearing out the fridge, and being surrounded by the familiar faces of family. Oh, and because the kids hit it off so well, we even had times where we could sit and sip coffee and catch up uninterrupted.
Rachelle and Asen, thank you so much for your gracious hospitality!
We made sure to sample both urban and rural of Bulgaria and both left us feeling that this is a laid back, peaceful and pleasant country to visit. All the cities had excellent walking quarters that were vibrant and full of activities (for kids). Best of all was visiting Amie's cousin Rachelle and family in Sofia for a real in-depth local perspective.
Russian adventures in Bulgaria lasted just long enough to leave a quirky edge to both town and countryside and every gloomy urban area was sprayed with colourful graffiti to lighten the mood (maybe not if we could have understand it). The old city of Plovdiv was especially pleasant and we were surprised by even the rural towns of Kazanlak and Enina being much more enjoyable and hospitable than expected.
Communists are known for building some ugly structures. This is surely not the case for the party headquarters atop Buzludzha mountain. The world needs a whole lot more of these. That's why we ventured way off the tourist trail into the forests of backwater Bulgaria, learned the Cyrillic alphabet, and dragged two toddlers up a 1500m peak.
We got dropped off in Shipka pass and after a three hour walk through the frigid morning mist we were rewarded but the first glimpses of the looming communist headquarters. As you approach, it is clear that you have left earth into some sort of sci-fi thriller. The actual site is completely abandoned, barred, pillaged, graffiti'd and left for dead. It's important to walk around the entire structure making careful observation. After all, 6000 workers and 20 leading architects spent 7 years constructing this masterpiece, funded substantially by compulsory donations from Bulgarian citizens. More importantly, it is important to notice that there is still a small hole to squeeze yourself into the interior of the centre and that's where the real magic begins.
After walking up stairs caked with rubble and fallen asbestos, you enter the main auditorium to be greeted by none other than Marx, Engels and Lenin. On the other side there are mosaics of Blagoev, Dimitrov, and Zhivkov (although the latter perhaps unloved has been scratched out). An incredible amount of other well preserved mosaic frescoes encircle the entire building, depicting scenes of Soviet and Bulgarian themes. The whole atmostphere is quite daunting as the leaking roof constantly creaks and flaps in the wind. After mustering a bit of courage, a walk around the outer shell rewards commanding views of the Balkan mountain range.