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Russia is just the most amazing place. Part of this for me is just the pure history of the last century, but also it’s just so prominent on the globe. Russia has been so imperial. So majestic. So mysterious. There’s the crazy cold war, and my favorite the space race. Forget about the arms race, although I really do need to visit Chernobyl. I did fly over it on a jet on my way out of Moldova. Can you believe it? The US is now hitching rides with the Russians into space to the international space station. Amazing how the dynamics themselves have definitely changed. At least the space people are collaborating.
When I was growing up I remember looking for places to hide just in case the Russians came. There was the attic, and the potato cellar. Either way Russians were always the enemy, but in church we would talk about when Russia would be open for the preaching of the gospel. The end of the world would come shortly after missionaries entered Russia, or so it would seem. Ronald Regan had that big arms race thing. The “Wall” comes down and shortly Russia would be open for preaching of the gospel. I’d hear of friends who would go there on their missions. There was stories that reached all the way to Idaho about the first McDonalds in Russia and how lines wrapped around the block or worse. Fast forward a few years, and I’m a minority on a Russia majority software company up in Seattle. I find these “refugees” are amazing, and I’m fascinated with their culture. I never hated Russians, just fascinated by their culture and the communist machine. So many stories about how we should be extremely worried about anything that had anything to do with it. Living in Seattle, I’d find a HUGE Leningrad Lenin at a coffee shop. There was even communist magazines and articles in Fremont area in Washington, that made it seem almost cool to be communist, because it was racy. Why do I give you this terse background story? Because going to Russia is a HUGE rush. Most American’s have some weird ideas of what it would be like to go to Russia. How dangerous it might be, what might happen. The crazy Russian Mafia stories.
First thing I had to do as an American was getting the Russian Visa. It was the longest visa form I’ve ever filled out. I started having doubts that they might not admit me. It’s not just asking about my passport details and where I’m going… It gets into my parents and grandparents on both sides. It asks about every country I’ve visited plus dates, that’s a pretty good list that ends up being pretty complex. Despite the complexity and the couple of weeks it took. I get the visa!! I’m on my way to Russia. What’s better I’ve got colleagues in St. Petersburg and I’ve got a SharePoint user group meeting setup in Moscow. So work is paying for hotels, and all I’ve got to do is cover a train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The Nevsky express! Strangely about a week after that train ride that same train would get blown up and derailed by Chechen Rebels. Crazy.
Pictured Above: One of my favorite buildings in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.
I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see. Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response. The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut. Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo. The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?
In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less. I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it. Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind. The travelers looking for secrets in Europe. Here’s a great place to start. It’s the Balkans. Some of my best friends in Europe. There’s something that goes deeper here. Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.
My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.
Remnants of the war are still visible. There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life. There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone. War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real. Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit. This land has a lot of lessons to teach.
When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs. After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military. There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.
Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away. It’s the opposite. In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip. I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.
This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe. I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done. I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions. They really are spectacular. The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around. The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular. Very fun environment. I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia. Good stuff.
When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice. After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience. Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain. At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure. Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian? She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.
The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe. Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe. The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists. Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.
I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana. You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures. The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim. A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day. It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.
Can you tell this city is interested in tourists? This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira! Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge. They sell drinks for crazy high prices. I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist. A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it. Uhhh, no thanks. Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks. Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.
As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport. It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.
I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better. Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive. So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast. After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.