Last month, June 2014, I had chance to visit an area of Europe that is faraway, so close!
The mighty Balkan region is next to Italy but we (Italians) know very little about those countries. The communism and the war kept this region closed for long time and it’s still considered a war zone where all the bad folks are coming from.
So I was quite excited to travel around, starting from Kosovo where my good friend Messi invited me for a visit and then Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia and ending up in Italy just in time for my mom birthday 🙂
The first step of the Balkan tour has been… Dusseldorf!
Dusseldorf, like many cities in upper Europe, looks zillions time better in the summer: lots of people in the streets and on the Rhine’s riversides enjoying the local ALT beer and the sun shining.
The highlight of the visit were the shopping malls lurking people into visiting them offering cheap prosecco wine and the huge storm that hit the city in the evening of 9th June 2014:
The signs of the disaster were still very visible the day after: trees fallen over parked cars, closed streets, and non-stop sirens from firemen running up and down the city… kudos to my friend AC and wife for choosing a solid house!
I had no idea of what to expect from Kosovo. I only knew the product of this country, my good friend Messi.
The city ain’t pretty but Kosovo’s capital is a dynamic place: the coffees are full anytime of the day and in the evenings the locals are strolling up & down in the city center, seeing and be seen.
Messi is officially the 1st King of Kosovo and I do thank him a lot for hosting me in his castle for one week and for all the propaganda he made.
The highlights were watching Italy winning against England and visiting the beautiful old city of Prizren, including the visit to the sweet old aunt that showed me her house and the great Albanian hospitality.
If Kosovo was full of Italian signs, Albania still felt like a colony.
For example the World Cup matches were shown on every bar’s flat screen tuned on RAI1, the Italian channel! I found myself translating from Italian to English to my Albanian travel companions Messi and Blarry.
Tirana was a jaw-dropping succession of high maintenance (wannabe?) girls. I regret we stayed there only one night and saw so little of the city, bit I was left with the impression that there are not many fixed points of interest.
The highlight of Albania is the huge amount of seafood we had, thanks to Blarry. There I tried lithophaga lithophaga, the date shells that take 80 years to grow on the rocks and whose collection is illegal in many countries including Italy. They are similar to oysters but worse, so if you ask me they could have lived other 80 years without being bothered!
By now, it was clear that Messi and Blerry planned for me a castle tour: Berat, Kruje, Shkodër… and then Ulcijn, in south Montenegro.
Ulcijn is the place where Kosovar or Kosovan goes to holidays but most noticeable it’s the place where Sabbatai Zevi is buried. Who is he?
Long story short, it was supposed to be the Jewish Messiah and apparently he liked the idea. But then in a twist of faith he turned Muslim and my brother is a big fan of him.
His tomb has a pretty good location, facing the small gulf of this beautiful town and of course we also visited the castle where he died.
The highlight in Ulcijn was the most emotional part of the journey. At the bus station in fact, I had to say good-bye to my companions and continue my Balkan trip all alone.
Going north along the coast I reached Kotor, beautifully located in a secluded part of a long gulf similar to a Scandinavian fjord.
I was missing my companions, so I climbed the hill to visit yet another castle in their memory.
The highlight of Kotor was the fortress, offering a stunning view over the Adriatic sea, remembering me of a giant Como lake.
The more I moved north, the more busy and touristy the places became.
Dubrovnik is a real jewel, with its walls and spectacular old town that survived a 7 months siege during the Croatian War of Independence.
It really deserves the flux of tourists it has…but… too much for me.
I felt like in an assembly line. Not what I was looking for and I realized that continuing north in the coast was a bit boring considering I was traveling alone. I needed a change, I needed a city.
The highlight in Dubrovnik was the walking tour of the city.
From Dubrovnik I made my way to Sarajevo stopping in Mostar, the town with the famous Ottoman bridge that was destroyed during the war and that became a symbol of the conflict itself.
I had a nice welcome from my guest and a three beds room all for myself, so after few days of hopping from one place to the next I choose to spend two nights in Mostar, taking countless pictures of the reconstructed bridge and going crazy over the burek and a variation of meat with yogurt named something like burekiza…
The highlight in Mostar was the stand-up comedy show. I was the only spectator so the comedians took me to watch the football game instead.
It turned out to be a great evening with local people, and one of them started hitting on me but unfortunately he was not my type.
From Mostar I reached Sarajevo by train, on what’s described as one of the most scenic railways of Europe. I fell asleep after few minutes and got extremely disappointed by the view! 😉
1440 days, that’s 3,5 years under siege. That’s what this city had to endure 20 years ago, together with all the tragedy, violence and pain that that war embodied.
Sarajevo is a magic place. I always heard that Istanbul is the place where West meet East, but now I know that that place is much closer. Mosques, Catolic and Ortodox churches, and Jewish synagogues. It’s a melting pot of cultures, architectures and people.
I stayed three days there soaking in the atmosphere, walking in the old town and indulging in the excellent food.
I did a free walking tour and met the guide the day after for a coffee as I had plenty of questions about the war.
The day after I did the Tunnel Tour (12€) that also proved to be very interesting, showing the 800-something meters tunnel dug under the airport (at that time safe zone under UN control) to connect the besieged city with the free territory of Bosnia in the north.
That tunnel provided food, medicines, gas, electricity and especially cigarettes that were used as local currency. Crazy!
For the rest, I followed the advises of The Girl With The Blueprint and had great cevapcici, dolma, grah and fun.
The highlight of Sarajevo is Sarajevo.
The bus arrived in Zadar earlier than expected, but Big Mama, my host, picked me up from the station to take me to her guest house.
Big Mama was very friendly and very big, she gave me good recommendations that I followed religiously.
Zadar is pretty cool, and after some walking around I took the ferry to Preko, a close by island.
The highlight of Zadar were the sunset (Big Mama said it was voted 3rd best sunset of the World after Key West and some place in Japan) and the sea organ, with the soft tunes played by the waves entering the instrument, a very ingenious idea.
The day after I was on a bus to Rijeka (187 KN, ~25€) that providentially had wi-fi on it.
Rijeka, or Fiume as it’s called in Italian, wasn’t anything special. Actually, there was a negative energy all around and many things went wrong.
The dalmatian pasta with gulash gave me a bit of stomachache, the last burek of my Balkan tour was too hot and it burn my tongue even after waiting 10 minutes.
The hostel (Aston Hostel, 100 KN, ~13€ for a dorm) was a sad place at 5th floor of a decadent palace. The girl working there had such a positive karma that the best nickname I could find for her is Mortimer.
Even the castle of Trsat, reached after an overdose of stairs, was more of a shop than an historic place and the view from there exposed the sadness of Rijeka.
But good things happened in Rijeka, too.
The highlights were the Finnish girl showing her g-string in the dorm room, and the barbershop that gave me an haircut and beard adjustment for just 40 Kuna (~5€). A blessing for a cheapster like me.
Maybe the city wasn’t that bad. The truth is that it felt very much Italianized, due to its unfortunate history, and after being in places so different such as Pristina and Sarajevo, I wasn’t much interested in it. At this stage of the trip I just wanted to get as fast as possible back to my family in Italy.
Waiting in TRIESTE
Trieste, like Dusseldorf, is not in the Balkans but was my last stop before reaching my hometown in Italy.
I reached Trieste in the mid-afternoon after a 2 hours bus ride from Rijeka (65 KN, ~9€) in company of an American couple that was trying to persuade me to invest in Bitcoins and became anarchist.
In Trieste I was supposed to be guest of a friendly Hawaiian girl I met in Kotor but I guess that her Italian boyfriend didn’t like the idea in fact I could not get in contact with her by any means.
To kill the time, I almost kill myself trying the local specialties: aperol spritz, white spritz (that’s just white wine with sparkling water), prosecco, malvasia and vitowska wines. They were the highlights of Trieste.
The only hostel in Trieste is 7km outside the city (that’s Italy!) but luckily I found Madam Sebastiani that rented me a room in her luxurious apartment for 30€, well actually 25€ because she offered a discount as long as I would close one eye about the fiscal receipt.
Of Trieste I remember the majestic Piazza Unitá d’Italia (Unity of Italy Square), and the friendly talk with a just-arrived immigrant from south Italy.
I’m left with the curiosity to go back visiting the rest of the Balkans, especially Serbia.
Yes, because Serbs were “the bad guys” in any place I’ve been and I’m curious to visit there and hear their version of this still recent history.
In Italy we use to say smoking like a Turkish. Last summer I’ve been to Istanbul and, for how much as they were trying hard, they were not even close to the smoking habits of the people in the Balkans countries I’ve visited!
99% of the people were smoking so, if you know someone that doesn’t smoke in the Balkans, do leave a comment to this post 😉