Friday, September 13, 2013

Traveling around the Balkans

      I spent the last couple of weeks taking a whirlwind tour of several Balkan countries, including Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Needless to say, it was a very interesting, fun, and often exhausting trip.

      We started in Skopje, Macedonia- a lovely city that is undergoing a major beautification process in hopes of attracting more tourists. Mostly, this was manifest in more statues than anyone could count and large ornate fountains that were occasionally synchronized to the classical music being broadcast in the central square. The best way I can describe Skopje's center is to say, "Imagine if Disneyland decided to make a European city center, that is exactly what Skopje looks like." (A side note for those familiar with Chapman and it's many fountains- whoever is in charge of city planning for Skopje could give President Doti a run for his money, they may have even more fountains than we do!) Although the central square was beautiful, my traveling companions and I spent most of our time in the Old "Turkish Corner," an area of the city marked by cobblestone streets, bazaars, and delicious food.

      A fun fact about Skopje: Mother Teresa was born there! It was very neat to visit the museum commemorating her work and to learn more about her birth place. (For me, visiting Mother Teresa's birth place felt like coming full circle. In January, I visited the Mother Teresa house in Kolkata, where she spent the later part of her life.) Coincidentally, we visited the museum on what would have been Mother Teresa's 103rd birthday, which meant that the curator was very excited and even brought candy for all of the museum's visitors.
One of Skopje's bridges (full of statues of Macedonian artists)
A fountain featuring Alexander the Great in the middle of the city center
Fertility fountain at the start of old town Skopje.  Different statues around the fountain depict different stages of motherhood.
Rain, ice cream, flip flops, my bag from Piyali, and Eastern Europe- basically all of my favorite things are captured in this picture! 
      Our next stop, Montenegro, was a mixed bag of very positive experiences and a few unpleasant ones. Although I was unimpressed by my initial impressions of Montenegro (people seemed unwelcoming, which was a sharp contrast to the hospitality we experienced in Skopje), I was very happy to discover that the country had redeemed itself by the end of the week. Some highlights from this part of the trip were cliff jumping in Budva, swimming in the Adriatic at Svt. Stefan, and exploring old town Kotor. 
Cliff jumping in Budva! 
Sunset in Bar, Montenegro
Svt. Stefan


Dinner with some of the other ETAs in old town Kotor 
Exploring old town Kotor! 
Climbing up the old fort in Kotor

We made it to the top just in time for sunset! 

View from the top of the fort

The common area of our hostel in Budva
     In Montenegro, we also had our first exposure to "hostel culture," which is basically an environment in which everyone at the same hostel hangs out together and shares travel stories and tips. We experienced community with near strangers who were all in an unfamiliar setting together and were therefore extremely friendly and open. Most of the places we stayed for the rest of our trip were chosen based on tips we had heard from people we met at hostels. We also ran into many people we had previously met at other hostels we were staying at later on in our trip. It was very fun and comforting to walk around Sarajevo and run into people we had met back in Montenegro.

      Although I was very happy to have the opportunity to visit every country on our itinerary, Bosnia was my favorite by far. It is amazing and inspiring to see how much hope and warmth there is in a country that had been war-torn less than 2 decades ago. We spent 2 nights in Mostar and 3 nights in Sarajevo, I'm glad we were able to visit both, because they have a very different feel from one another. 
Inside the sniper building

      In Mostar, it was impossible to forget that there had recently been war there. Many of the buildings still have bullet holes in the walls and there are several signs around town saying "Never Forget 1993." That being said, Mostar is a lively city in which life goes on, even the the past is never forgotten. I had never before been in a place where youcould turn a corner and go from a bustling cafe to a war cemetery. In many areas of the city, you could feel the pain that has been held in that space, even without knowing exactly what happened or what that pain is. One of the most eerie and powerful things I experienced in Mostar was going to the "Sniper building," which looks a bit like a thrashed parking structure but is really a bombed out building. There are still bullet shells on the ground littered around broken glass. Climbing up the various floors of the building, seeing all the destruction, and imagining snipers using the building was horrifying and left me unsettled for quite some time. In spite of the darker, heavy moments of my time in Mostar, there were also many hopeful and inspiring moments. A particularly inspiring interaction was meeting a young woman working in a shop who is studying to be an engineer so she can be a part of her city's rebuilding process. Hope is alive in Mostar.

The cemetery on the hill in Sarajevo
On the old bridge in Mostar

      My first impression of Sarajevo was that I absolutely loved it. The city has a vibrant lively energy, beautiful old architecture, and a complex history that reaches beyond the collapse of Yugoslavia. One of the first things we saw in Sarajevo was the Latin bridge, which is the sight where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering a series of events that led up to WWI. After dinner,, we walked up the hill to a cemetery that overlooks the city. The city skyline was beautiful at sunset and the cemetery was still and peaceful. While we were there, the evening call to prayer began. Each mosque gives its own call, so for several minutes, we heard various calls to prayer echoing all around the city. It was as if the call was cradling the city, holding it together in spite of all of the brokenness it had experienced. That night, we went to a pub that had live blues music. It was a very interesting experience because from the inside of the pub, we could easily have been at any other pub in the world. In this setting, it was easy to forget that we were in Sarajevo. 

      The more modern areas of Sarajevo are similar to the modern areas of any city. On main streets, it was hard to believe the city had been under siege in the 1990s.  
A Sarajevo Rose.  These "roses" can be found all over the streets of Sarajevo.  They indicate places where three or more people were killed during the war.  
 Although the past continues to shape and make up a large part of the city's identity, it was very hopeful to see the way in which residents promoted other aspects of their city's identity as well such as hospitality, job opportunities and modernization, and the beauty of the architecture. Although the war history is a big part of what draws tourists to Sarajevo, it is by no means the only thing that makes Sarajevo a good city to visit. It was lucky that I had such a good first night in Sarajevo because unfortunately, I spent the rest of our time there sick in our hostel room. It is definitely a city I hope to visit again, hopefully next time it will be in better health!