My trip around the Balkans exceeded all my expectations in terms of its twists and turns. Right now I am yet again in Belgrade – for the fourth time this summer, never having been here before! I don’t even know where to start describing this complicated web of movements. The previous post was about Skopje, for which I only had half a day due to a bus that broke. I was to leave Skopje early next morning, and when I say early, I mean early. After a sleep of 1.5 hours, at 3.15 am I was waiting in a tunnel next to the bus station for a minibus to the airport. Early flight to Zagreb!
To move abruptly from Skopje to Zagreb is akin to being woken up from a dream. From the crazy dream of the Balkans you jump into the bourgeois coiffed reality of the European Union. As my friend-Balkanologist would say, Croatia is no Balkans at all. Zagreb is a measured city with friendly people. No tourists almost, as all the tourists in Croatia head for the coast. As I was getting out of a tram in Zagreb, an elderly man suddenly and spontaneously grabbed my bag to help me get out. I was shocked – this has never happened to me in any other place in the world. The centre of Zagreb though is already ruled by the European neutral detachment, correct but uninterested service. The prices also correspond to an EU capital.
The spirit and geography of Zagreb reminded me very much of my native Tallinn. It is also composed of two towns, an Upper Town on a hill and a Lower Town down below. Just like in Tallinn, Gradec and Kapitol used to be enemies and now form an indivisible ensemble.
The view from Gradec towards Kapitol and the Cathedral, the undisputed focus of the city space.
Continue reading Zagreb
Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was on my list of must-see places. I headed there from Ohrid on a regular bus. But we are in the Balkans, so on the road the bus broke down, in the afternoon heat we waited for a replacement bus, so instead of three hours as declared the trip took over five. On arrival in Skopje I now had less than half a day to see it. I hastily checked in into a random hostel by the bus station and run to see the city.
The first thing I saw were the bridges over the Vardar river. Each one of them was decorated – I would even say crowded – with incredible number of statues of all kinds of famous and less famous characters.
Мост Око, the Eye Bridge:
Continue reading Macedonian Disneyland
On a sunny early morning in Pristina I took a bus bound for Skopje, or Shkupi, as the Albanians would refer to it. Of course the bus was late to Skopje – which is the rule rather than an exception in the Balkans, hence I had programmed it into my planning. In the fifteen minutes left until the next bus to Ohrid I managed to exchanged money, buy my ticket and even drink some coffee with characteristic Macedonian pastry.
I’ve been told more than once that travelling around the Balkans with a car is madness. Basically I must agree that it’s rather impractical, as your own car does make things an order easier and permits you to visit many out-of-the-way places otherwise too hard to reach. And yet with intelligent planning also the public transportation actually allows you to do quite a bit. My blog is one evidence of that.
I arrived in Ohrid in the afternoon, moved in to a room I’d booked a day before and immediately went for a walk around town. Ohrid is located on the shores of a wonderful lake. Let me start from the views of Ohrid as seen from the Car Samoil Castle. Direction South, the Old City:
Continue reading Wonderful Ohrid
Initially a visit to Kosovo never figured in my Balkan plans. But as it happens, and especially as it happens in the Balkans, the route took on a life of its own. I was researching ways of getting from BiH to Macedonia (the only country I hadn’t yet visited in the Balkans). Gradually it became clear that the only route that made sense had to go through Kosovo. And suddenly I realised that I was simply obliged to stay in Pristina for a day and to see what it’s all about. What is Kosovo anyway?
Apart from the obvious – the war with Serbia – my only association with Kosovo was the presence of a legion of international workers, as well as various horror stories in the press about Kosovo mafia, going all the way to human organ trafficking.
But Pristina met me with tranquility and silence that immediately confounded my stereotypes. On a hot day the main Pristina pedestrian thoroughfare looks like any other broad and empty street anywhere in the world eaten by the scorching sun at a random midday:
A paradox: the main boulevard of a resolutely Muslim country bears the name of a Catholic nun. The favourite game of recent statehoods is fighting for the building blocks of identity. Malaysia fights Singapore and Indonesia for batik and chilli crab. In the Southern Balkans it is Mother Theresa who has become an apple of discord (as if there weren’t apples of discord enough). She was born in Skopje to an Albanian mother and an apparently Aromanian father, himself born in what is now Kosovo. Who owns her? In the Balkans – everybody! And so she gets the main boulevard of Pristina named after her, and her statue graces a tiny park in the middle. Two likenesses of Ibrahim Rugova, considered here the Father of the Nation, flank both ends of the boulevard, lest you forget who really controls the place.
Continue reading One day in Kosovo
Three main reasons the world has heard of Sarajevo are:
1. The murder of Franz Ferdinand which started the First World War;
2. The Winter Olympics of 1984;
3. The epicentre of the war in Bosnia, the site of the infamous siege, which was lifted only after the NATO bombings in 1995.
Sarajevo today appears a peaceful yet exotic place swarming with life. In a word, Sarajevo is unique.
Welcome to the Pigeon Square, the centre of the historical Ottoman area of Baščaršija, where the touristic nerve centre of the city lies:
Continue reading Sarajevo
Having decided that my first rendez-vous with the Balkans on this trip was way too short, the only question to be answered was how to find a cheap and efficient way to get there from Estonia. Generally speaking there is not a wealth of options to get out of Tallinn, but I found a secret exit – an Estonian Air once-a-week flight to Split. I’d been to Croatia before, I’d even been to Split before, but my real destination was different. Bosnia and Herzegovina! And tentatively there was a bus from Split to Mostar.
The road though turned out to be an interminable ordeal. First the bus to Mostar was outrageously late – instead of leaving Split at 10:55, it left at 12:30 – by that time I’d been waiting for it at the Split bus station for 4 hours. The bus station there is ridiculously uncomfortable: too small for the quantity of tourists, no announcements, everybody tries to squeeze by everybody with all of their bags. It’s a nightmare. Luckily I have got my downloaded podcasts and they help me to fill such otherwise useless time with some content. Once we got on the road, a terrible thunder and rain starting falling on our heads (or rather the roof of the bus); I had the impression that the bus turned into a submarine navigating the bottom of the sea. There was an interminable wait on the border to top it off.
But finally after a long slog through the mountains the clouds cleared and suddenly from a mountain ridge we saw Mostar.
The Old Bridge, raison d’être of the town of Mostar. The very name of Mostar comes from the word most – bridge.
Continue reading Mostar: a town from a fairytale