Sunday, August 28, 2005

James visits Post War Yugoslavia

(Croatia) Dubrovnik - (Bosnia) Mostar - Sarajevo - (Serbia) Belgrade


Dubrovnik, called the "Jewel of the Adriatic", doesn't have the same crowds and carnival holiday atmosphere of Budvar, nor the long beaches, but it does have a really impressive walled old town overlooking the sea. Huge fortress walls enclose the spanking clean shiny marble pavemented town, where, sloping down from the walls to
the main street in the centre via a maze of narrow picturesque streets lie grand old buildings, arcades and basilicas of renaissance/neoclassical/Italian design, and numerous pizzerias that you tire of very quickly. The beaches were quite disappointingly small but pleasant. Oh, and a useless fact, did you know the Croatians invented the tie?

Bosnia is a beautiful place, yet you are often confronted with the horrors of the past years of war and torment. Travelling through the countryside amongst huge mountains covered with mist reminiscent of Chinese mountains, with turquoise rivers meandering through the valleys dotted with old romantic cottages, now abandoned or a gutted
out version of it's former glorious self - the inhabitants long vanished, perhaps now living abroad, scattered about or killed in the wars. It really is quite tragic.

It is also the more terrible when you meet the locals, who are extremely warm and hospitable, and do not mind talking about the war. It is a shame that in so many countries, people are so friendly and nice, but at the same time detest and loathe other nations. Syrians/Lebanese hate each other, Jews and Palestinians also, Macedonians hate the Greeks, Albanians are hated by the Serbians and Macedonians, Bosnians hate Serbians, Polish hate Germans, the list goes on.

Mostar is a beautiful and fascinating place. Here lies the famous Mostar bridge, a aesthetic bridge of white stone arching gracefully without supports over the beautiful turquoise rivers, the old town of stone houses with grey slate tiled roofs and cobbled ankle twisting streets clinging precariously on the steep rugged banks either side of the bridge. This bridge is a symbol of Croat-Muslim unity, and was actually destroyed by Croat shelling during the fighting between them, but is now rebuilt. Tensions between the Croat and Muslims have died down but things will never quite be the same again. In fact, walking along the front line between the Muslim/Croat areas, you could see the mosques on the Muslim side and churches being built on the Croat side - one church right on the front line with a absurdly tall steeple, probably sending a subtle message to the Muslims I reckon.

What was sad was walking down the front line, where on both sides of the street, especially the weaker Muslim side, bullet and shell holes cover the buildings, many buildings also blown up or on verge of collapse. All around are signs on buildings stating "Dangerous Ruin - do not enter or park here", dangerous not only because it could collapse, but also because of the possible unexploded mines and shells which could cause serious injury or death to those who inadvertently step on them. Landmines is a problem in Bosnia, and the rule of thumb is to keep to asphalt or concrete surfaces, avoiding soft ground or abandoned looking places and suburbs.

If there’s one place that people coming to Europe must see, it is Sarajevo, a place full of history, beauty and tragedy. A beautiful city with a Turkish influenced old town of wooden huts and cobbled streets, surrounded by cascading terracotta roofed houses up to the hills and mountains enclosing the city. Outside the old town it turns into a bleak communist style buildings of grey concrete, many still bearing the scars of the Serbian siege less than 10 years ago. Some buildings and schools are now just husks and burned out shells. On the pavement you would see what is called "Sarajevo Roses", that is, patterned concentric marks on the ground where a mortar shell had hit and exploded.

Walked along Sniper Alley, where Bosnian Serbs shot at innocent civilians all the way to the UN airport, where a secret tunnel had been dug by the locals, a tunnel which saved the city during the 3 year siege by being the only way to the outside world where they could get supplies, since the impotent UNPROFOR had been notoriously
incompetent, in fact they were supplying 50% of their aid to the Bosnian Serbs, the other to the Sarejevians, which meant that things just got drawn out longer than it should have.

The tunnel was difficult to find, at the end of a long muddy road outside of Sarajevo in the middle of nowhere, yet it is one of the most visited museums in the city. The Tunnel is a symbol of the human spirit during times of oppression and is truly an inspiring place to visit.

All around you would see on any patch of grass, numerous cemeteries, transforming fields of green into fields of white marble. It touches the heart seeing so many graves that only existed in the last 10years.

Also saw the bridge that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb, which sparked WW1 and changed this area of the world forever.

After a long dusty rickety bus ride through terrible roads (at one stage we drove through a corn field on a mud track!), I finally made it to Belgrade.

Belgrade! Not the most beautiful place to visit, in fact it's just a very typical looking city filled with Austrian-Hungarian architecture and occasional NATO bombed buildings, but the secret that is Belgrade is that it has one of the best nightlife in the world! Along the river there are several barges, all nightclubs pounding all kinds of music into the early morning. Also, bars, clubs and cafes in the city, some outside, some hidden in some old unmarked building, are fantastic places to go party. In fact, I haven't really done much in Belgrade, mainly sleeping in the day and going out partying at night. The locals are all extremely friendly and the girls are stunning and very approachable! In fact last night I went out with some staff working at the fast food restaurant near the hostel after they finished work. Belgrade is that kind of relaxed friendly place.

Of course, they also have a different view of what happened with the wars etc. They maintain that it was Bosnian Serbs, not Serbians that were fighting in Bosnia. Secondly, they state it was the Albanian Kosovians that started the conflict because Kosovo is holy ground for the Serbs, with many 11th Century churches and monasteries that were
destroyed by the rioting Kosovos which of course angered the Serbians. Not that the Serbians were justified with their bloody retributions to the thousands of murdered Muslim Albanians as a result. But it does make you always think about what you are being told on the news etc. There is always two sides to a story, and rarely is it not biased.

Anyway, tomorrow I may go to Romania, if I can actually get up and leave this city, which has a way of keeping you here...

Friday, August 12, 2005

Albania and Montenegro

Shkoder - (Montenegro) Budvar - Cetinye - Kotor - Sveti Stefan - Herceg Novi

Dobro den,

So, Albania, a country where power and water cuts are frequent, roads and public transport is terrible, buses refusing to travel after dark due to fears of banditry of times past, and currently in-between governments. Lets also not forget the lack of street names and street numbers (the postman just happens to know what is what, more to
experience and knowing who's who than logic).

Albania is also 70% Muslim, though you wouldn't know it. Being the only atheist country in the world during the communist era, everyone is a non practicing such and such, though this could change now that the country is open to the world and outside religious influence. Though I am told that Albanians would consider blowing oneself up for
God as absurd, and even more absurd would be them giving up alcohol!

Did meet some interesting people. The hostel owner happened to also be a TV anchorman, who I had hilarious discussions on the quirky, amusing (yet also shameful) story of Albanian politics. Also briefly hooked up with a pretty American Jewish girl called Olivia, with Moldavian roots, working in Kosovo, who amongst many things told me about the state of affairs with the UN and Kosovo. The UN apparently should leave Kosovo to rebuild their lives since the UN staff do nothing but seek ways to remain employed rather than solving problems.

I also discovered how friendly the Albanians really are when you are out of the capital city. It's not that people in Tirana are unfriendly, it's just that they are more reserved and shy. The ones who do talk to me always inevitably ask the question "So why are you here?" I guess they cannot perceive their country as being a tourist attraction.

The people are generally good humoured and happy, astonishing considering their past turbulent unhappy years. As with the rest of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, bad politics has ruined what was once such an affluent rich fertile land full of manor houses, country villas and romanticised people into a disorganised broken down state, with bleak communist concrete buildings and war torn ghost towns - where the people had vanished from what was once vibrant towns I wouldn't know. But it's a dreadful shame to know that all these changes had only occurred within the last 50 years.

Finally, I must not forget my tradition of rating the girls in each country I visit. In Albania I could say they are prettier than Macedonians, but can't compete with Bulgarians and Montenegrins. Albanian girls take on all sorts of appearances; it's hard to stereotype their look. Olivia was often mistaken for Albanian, which made it more amusing when shocking the locals when seen with me, an Asian, rarely seen in Albania, holding hands down the street!
Sometimes when you get stared at all the time as I do, you find it's fun to mess with locals heads...

Is a beautiful country. Montenegro, meaning "Black Mountain", is very much that; all over the tiny country are towering mountains burdened with lush green vegetation and little villages all the way to the dramatic coastal beaches and resort towns. Cheaper than Croatia and most of the popular beach resorts of Europe, Montenegro is a local secret (which will probably change in a few years time). You don't really see any foreigners here that do not have Slavic roots. So the staring and "Chinese" whispered in the wind continues...

Is a resort town that I stayed at, the largest and most populated with tourists and vacation beach seekers mainly from the ex-Yugoslavian countries. A plethora of hotels, private apartments, outdoor bars, cafes and clubs as well as street side stalls and a carnival, to create that true "I am on holiday" feeling amongst the huge "almost sandy" pebble beaches, blue water, tiny islands and the reconstructed walled old town fortress with the narrow sandstone coloured buildings and angled streets, on a peninsula overlooking the blue Aegean sea.

At night, the crowds do what Balkan crowds do best - strut their stuff in the promenades in the ritualistic evening stroll, to see and be seen. The girls here are stunning, very tall, and as with most girls I encounter, completely unattainable!

The funniest thing I’ve seen is the flying boats they have here, which is literally a boat with wings flying overhead.

The problem with travelling solo is that there are no single rooms at all in Montenegro, because they couldn't imagine anyone travelling on their own, especially here. Which makes things a little lonely for me, since I rarely find English speakers, and everyone has company. Sigh.

Was a little disappointing, the bus trip there and back was beautiful though high up on the mountains overlooking the towns by the sea. Anyway, I did check out the Monastery which contains a piece of the True cross, and also the brown mummified Hand of John the Baptist which was used to baptise Jesus. Lovely. Apart from that though, just a series of old buildings used as embassies, and many outdoor cafes.

Kotor is one of those places I fell in love with immediately upon arrival. Situated on the deepest fjord in southern Europe, the Italian influenced walled old town sits at the edge of a beautiful bay of glass, perfectly reflecting the surrounding grey mountains covered with forests and, in the case of Kotor, a solemn ruined fortress, which is a heck of a climb up, but worth the dramatic views. The town itself, consisting of narrow streets, piazzas and plenty of places to sit, have a coffee and watch people walk by. Indeed, Kotor would be on my favourite towns list, and I could see myself easily retiring here one day..

Is a small island fortress of terracotta roofed stone houses and buildings, accessed through a causeway from the mainland. Although you don't bother going into the place as it is just a hotel complex, the beaches around are quite nice, with the picturesque view of the island in front of you.

Stupid thing about Montenegro is it is not very logical. You would think there would be several buses going to touristy Dubrovnik from Budvar, which is really not that far away. But of course there is only 1 morning bus, which was booked out, so I thought I’d make my way to the border town of Herceg Novi, for surely there'd be heaps of buses going to the Croatian town. Of course, upon arrival (at 10am), I’m told "Nope, this is Montenegro, you have to wait till 4pm for the next bus!" This being annoying because I wanted to arrive early to find cheap accom. So, stuck in Herceg Novi, I thought I’d make the best of a bad situation and explore the steep hilly town (with my big backpack
mind you). But it is worth it, the town doesn't get a good mention in the Lonely Planet guidebooks, but it is a beautiful Italian inspired old town worth a look.

It is here that I am writing this, waiting for the bus to Dubrovnik...

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Sofia, Ohrid and Albania

(BULGARIA) Sofia - Rila Monastery - (MACEDONIA) Ohrid - Sveti Naum - Sveti Petrov - (ALBANIA) Tirana - Kruje - Durres


Last time I left you I was stuck in Sofia for a week waiting for the Romanian Embassy to open (when it did it took only an afternoon to process. Sucks how Aussies have to get a 40USD visa at the embassy whilst almost everyone else can get a free one at the border!) Being misinformed and waking up late due to late night partying meant I stayed in Sofia rather than go anywhere else and come back when it opened. Although there is not much to see in Sofia (I saw all the sights the first afternoon I arrived), I became rather fond of the little city, the friendly locals, the multitude of cafes, restaurants and bars/clubs! I also became quite fond of the family run hostel staff, where I preoccupied myself with causing fun and mischief to drive Toni, the receptionist, insane.

Did go on a day trip however to Rila Monastery, a stunning monastery south of Sofia, decorated in red and black candy cane stripes and magnificent Byzantine frescos covering every wall and pillar, second to the Vatican itself in it's artistic majesty. This of course being contained in a courtyard surrounded by an enclosure four stories high
containing monk cells and arched balconies. And, as with most devout monasteries, situated in a remote valley of lush vegetation and mountains.

I must say that Bulgaria, with it's food, the people, the little picturesque villages and nature, has tied with Portugal as my favourite country so far to date.

After sadly farewelling the hostel staff in Sofia after a week of hilariarty and fun spent with them, I left for Ohrid in Macedonia. Though upon reaching the border I was informed by the border guard that despite what Lonely Planet says, Visas for Aussies are not free, you must pay 25USD to get into Macedonia. Not sure if I was scammed or
not, but what can you do? So, having entered Macedonia 25USD lighter and not impressed, I arrive in Ohrid at 4am.

I was planning to stay at a house in the old city, but as fate turned out it was lucky I didn't, since I would have been walking a long distance up a steep hill in the dark to find it. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to ask a group of young people walking past if they knew any hostels or cheap rooms.

Such friendly people! They spoke English, and told me that indeed one of them has a cousin who lets out rooms in the residential area north of the center. So they drove me to the house where I was immediately served coffee and cigarettes. (Thing about Macedonians is that they smoke and drink coffee ALL THE TIME!!!! I've never had so much
nicotine and caffeine in my life (I don't usually smoke but only accept cigarettes because I feel disrespectful or out of place if I don't))

The mother who owned the house and her son Sasha did not speak any English, yet they were incredibly hospitable and did everything to make me feel welcome. The mother even cooked me dinner every night and called other cousins to come and take me around Ohrid and also to see the nightlife. Me and Sasha became close friends even though the extent of our conversation mainly centred around the words "Ubavo" (beautiful - in reference to nice girls walking past), and "Dobro" (good) for everything else.

Speaking of which, Macedonians like telling me that the girls are stunning in the country. Personally I think they are ok, the Bulgarian girls are way more hotter!

Luckily Macedonian is similar to Bulgarian as I was able to get the gist of many things being said by the frequent guests in the house (seems like everyone goes to everyone’s open houses at all hours to talk, drink coffee and smoke - I love it!)

Anyway, Ohrid is a beautiful place, the old town up a rocky hilly peninsula where a fortress citadel sits on top, 365 churches (for 10,000 people!), a roman amphitheatre, and the usual traditional old houses on cobbled streets. The peninsula ends with a rocky cliff where locals would dive into the deep blue crystal clear lake itself (265m at its deepest).

The nightlife was pretty disappointing however, as the clubs were all overcrowded that you couldn't move, and full of smoke.

Did a day trip via ferry across the lake to Svet Naum, a 10th Century monetary on the other side of the lake. Georgian in it's style, with many soot covered frescos. Also a beautiful tranquil pool of water that becomes a rapid stream flowing icy water into the lake, the flow you can actually see in the lake itself being a greenish colour to the
surrounding blue lake. Nearby, people bathe and soak in the sun on the small beach, and here I also met many families from Melbourne (particularly from Epping), who were there like many other Macedonian families around the world, for a holiday back in their homeland.

I'm also starting to get locals staring at me and saying "Chinese" or "Jackie Chan". Not again! Same thing happened when I was in Morocco! Though they mean well, they also say "Hello" and "Welcome to Ohrid". I usually have to remind myself that they are not being racist, only curious, but it's a struggle sometimes. I wonder if less touristed
Albania would see an increase in this sort of behaviour...

I arrived back to the house on my last day to receive a surprise from my "cousins", who took me to another monetary at night up a hill illuminated with a huge cross. As it turned out, almost everyone else in the town went to this monetary that night, because it was apparently the saint day of St Petro (Macedonians are devoutly religious folk). So, was taken through the throng of people past the stalls selling icons, toys and fairy floss in the monetary grounds, into the monastery itself, where they lit candles and made many prayers at different areas of the monastery; me, the spectator, overwhelmed by the immaculate frescos, the one of the Last Judgement especially intrigued me (why is hell always depicted as a large monster with flames coming out of it's mouth swallowing the damned in this part of the world?).

And then we went to a nightclub.

After being sadly farewelled by my friends in Ohrid at the bus stop, I got on the bus and wondered what Albania had in store for me...

First, I had difficulty getting across the border because they only accept Euros for the entry tax and I only had US dollars. After some haggling they finally relented. Then, what was apparently meant to be a 3 hour trip turned out to be 6 hours, since we stopped for lunch at a restaurant for an hour, and we took the long way around, stopping at
towns around Tirana before actually going in to the capital itself.

Then, after finally arriving, I had to worry about finding an ATM that would accept my MasterCard. After trying a dozen ATMS, I finally found one that would (at least it's a far cry from 3 years ago where only one ATM existed in the whole country!).

And then I had to find the backpacker hostel (which had only opened last month, and is not yet registered. Was lucky to discover it's existence via a web forum otherwise I would have to find a hotel room which are expensive in otherwise cheap Albania).

After wandering around with a dodgy map along streets with no street signs or numbers, and asking locals who didn't even know what a hostel was let alone knew of the existence of one nearby, I finally stumble across it - a house with a large iron gate with the number 85 on it. Phew!

Anyway, Tirana is actually quite a nice looking city, due to the way they had painted all the communist era megalithic concrete block apartments and buildings with bright cheerful colours like pink, yellow and orange. It actually does work too! Apart from being pretty though, there is not really much to do.

The language is very difficult. Like the Bulgarians, they shake their head for yes and nod for no. Their language resembles nothing else on Earth. "Hello" is "Tungjajeti", "Thankyou" is "Yu falem nderit", and so on...

A pleasant little town, typically Albanian with the old houses scattered down mountain side, with imposing fortress on top and stunning views around. The little bazaar consisting of old wooden houses and cabins along rickety cobbled streets was the highlight, though they all seem to sell only souvenirs as opposed to anything practical...

Is extremely disappointing (but that's what happens when you go to the closest beach instead of the famed steep cliffed beautiful Albanian Riviera (which would have taken 8hrs and 3buses and 1hr walk to get to). The buildings were decrepit, and the water was putrid and polluted. The upside with Durres at least is that the people are alot
more friendly than in Tirana.

Well, off to Montenegro tomorrow morning!